Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

John Richardson Illingworth and Reason's Romance: The Idealist Apology in Late-Victorian England

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

John Richardson Illingworth and Reason's Romance: The Idealist Apology in Late-Victorian England

Article excerpt

Thus we are living in the present day under conditions which, without being visibly irreligious and therefore startling, yet weaken the practical hold of religion upon the majority of men with the result that the elementary truths of natural theology have lost their force in the popular mind.

But these elementary truths are the presuppositions of Christianity.

Reason and Revelation, 1902

St. Mary's, Longworth, Oxfordshire, stands at the end of the village, a "tiny white rabbit of a church" hunkered down in a field of tombstones atop a hill overlooking the distant valley of the Thames.1 Its rector from 1883 to 1915 was John Richardson Illingworth, who observed a self-imposed exile from Oxford common rooms and church committees, partly because he suffered from a kind of agoraphobia. His reticence can be exaggerated. Illingworth was select preacher at Oxford and Cambridge, took retreats for his friends, and made yearly trips to London.2 He was a member with Charles Gore, Scott Holland, E. S. Talbot, the modernist George Tyrell, G. K. Chesterton, and the Oxford philosophers Hastings Rashdall, John Alexander Smith, and C. C. J. Webb of the Synthetic Society, founded by Holland and Talbot in 1896 to encourage discussion of religious topics.3 But Illingworth mostly stayed in the country, with the consequence that he was able to give himself to the vocation of writing gracefully literate and gently reasonable philosophical apologies for the high-Victorian tractarianism he professed.

A child of the Oxford Movement begun in the thirties by John Henry Newman, John Keble, Edward Bouverie Pusey, and a host of dons and country parsons who unabashedly believed in a revealed religion, the philosophy and theology Illingworth propounded, principally in his apologetic writings, but also in his published sermons, his ethics book, and prefaces provided for friends, was offered on behalf of no paper religion. Anglicanism was the missionary faith of a still-triumphalist empire, and if its adherents generally lacked the zeal of nonjurors or recusants, the Church of England before 1914 nevertheless supported an intellectual life, a social program, and (at least among the children of the Oxford Movement) a sacramental faith that made it, despite the depredations of dissent and Rome, to a degree now difficult to imagine, the church of a nation, even among the non-conforming millions who declined participation in its liturgy. The aggressive agnosticism of Leslie Stephen was still not quite fashionable, and although the religionlessness of the eponymous heroes of John Galsworthy's popular Forsyte Saga was more and more in evidence, the contempt of the Bloomsbury literary set left the church-going multitude undisturbed.

Illingworth's apologies, written between 1894 and 1915, represent the pre-1914 flourishing of that national religion, a faith made resplendent by a new architectural and liturgical medievalism, politically relevant by the Christian Social Union (founded by Henry Scott Holland and Charles Gore in 1889) and spiritually effective by men like Edward Bouverie Pusey, Gore, and Illingworth himself. His philosophical apologies, Personality Human and Divine (1894), Divine Immanence: An Essay on the Spiritual Significance of Matter (1898), Reason and Revelation: An Essay in Christian Apology (1902), The Doctrine of the Trinity Apologetically Considered (1907), Divine Transcendence and Its Reflection in Religious Authority (1911), and Gospel Miracles: An Essay with Two Appendices (1915), were books intended not only or even principally for university graduates but also for reading laymen across Britain and its English-speaking dependencies. Uniformly bound in bright blue boards, they established publishing records in their class for Macmillan and were reissued frequently, often in cheap editions, and occasionally translated into Chinese and Japanese.6 Illingworth provided two essays for Lux Mundi, the volume edited by Charles Gore in 1889, intended to provide answers to the critical challenge posed at home by Essays and Reviews, the frankly critical collection of essays edited by Frederick Temple in 1860, and on the continent by the German skeptics D. …

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