Contested Christianity: The Political and Social Contexts of Victorian Theology

Article excerpt

TIMOTHY LARSEN. Contested Christianity: The Political and Social Contexts of Victorian Theology. Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2004. Pp. viii + 234, index. $39.95.

This collection of essays from Timothy Larsen offers a variety of glimpses into the world of Victorian Nonconformity, suggesting, as the title implies, that the nineteenth century was an age during which Christian traditions were challenged along several fronts. He aims to argue in the course of this work, however, that historical studies have generally been one-sidedly Anglican and that broader research into nonconformist perspectives and concerns might warrant some revision and reconsideration of the interpretative landscape. Larsen gathers the chapters of his study under three broad headings. The first section, which is perhaps the least cohesive of the book, is titled "The Social Contexts of a Private Faith." (It should be noted that many of the chapters were previously published as journal articles or in edited volumes, and as such, do not always cohere as much as they might if produced with the idea of moving a particular thesis forward.) Here Larsen looks at gender issues through the case of a small Baptist church, the limits of religious respectability as challenged by the divorce of a well-known Congregationalist minister, and spiritual perspectives on the travel of Victorian tourists to the Holy Land.

The second part of the book, "The Social Contexts of a Contested Faith," provides several snapshots of nonconformist responses to biblical criticism and intellectual challenges to orthodox expressions of the faith. Here, Larsen provides insightful studies regarding nonconformists' views on D. F. Strauss and Bishop Colenso. He then considers three critics who offered their own particular challenges to the faith and had some degree of influence at the level of popular opinion: Joseph Barker, Charles Bradlaugh, and Thomas Cooper. The latter is a particularly interesting figure-a Chartist freethinker who spent time in prison (the period of his life usually considered by historians) before becoming a committed apologist for Christian orthodoxy. …