Academic journal article Church History

A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians

Academic journal article Church History

A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians

Article excerpt

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In this book, Timothy Larsen seeks to show that the Bible "loomed uniquely large in Victorian culture" (1). His argument focuses on individuals as representative of particular religious traditions (E. B. Pusey, Anglo-Catholic; Nicholas Wiseman, Roman Catholic; Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, atheist; Catherine Booth and William Cooke, Methodist and Holiness; Florence Nightingale, Liberal Anglican; Mary Carpenter, Unitarian; Elizabeth Fry, Quaker; T. H. Huxley, agnostic; Josephine Butler, Evangelical Anglican; C. H. Spurgeon, Old Dissent). Larsen defends his choices well (sometimes at great length); only William Cooke is questionable to this reviewer.

Notable Victorians were blessed with acolytes who quickly published biographies and, often, collections of writings, which sought to (and often did) establish the reputation of their subjects, so the sources are voluminous. Also, the author has done a significant amount of archival research, which is amply footnoted (1,207 for 298 pages of text). The work is well and sometimes amusingly written. Larsen is selective in that his focus, the role of the Bible, leads him to ignore other aspects of his subjects, something he acknowledges (77n28).

Larsen argues that for the English, or at least his group of them, the Bible "was a dominant presence in Victorian thought and culture" (1), which seems like a statement of the obvious, especially when the group studied is heavily weighted with those whose occupation was promoting or attacking Christianity. Whether it was a "Scripture-saturated culture" (6) may depend on where one looks. The 1851 census discovered nearly sixty percent of the English did not attend church. Moreover, to cite some examples, when Parliament was debating topics with religious connections (such as divorce in the 1850s or cremation after 1875), those debates included biblical material but the sciences (social in the first instance, natural in the second) were more important. …

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