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A People of One Book

The Bible and the Victorians


Timothy Larsen


Oxford: University Press, 2011

Hardback. 326 p. ISBN 978-0199570096. £34.00


Reviewed by Rémy Bethmont

Université de Picardie Jules Verne (Amiens)



A People of One Book seeks to show how the centrality of the Bible in Victorian culture was made manifest ‘across the whole spectrum of religious and sceptical beliefs’ [298]. Timothy Larsen selected ten figures which he deems representative of various strands of belief in 19th-century Britain, devoting one chapter to each. The book is therefore a series of biographical sketches which focus more particularly on how important the Bible was in these ten people’s lives and writings. Larsen considers Pusey for the Anglo-Catholics, Nicholas Wiseman for the Roman Catholics, Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant for the Atheists, Catherine Booth and William Cooke for the Methodist and Holiness movements (in which Booth’s child, the Salvation Army, is included), Florence Nightingale for the Liberal Anglicans, Mary Carpenter for the Unitarians, Elizabeth Fry for the Quakers, T.H. Huxley for the Agnostics, Josephine Butler for the Evangelical Anglicans and C.H. Spurgeon, who is seen not just as representative of the Baptists but more largely of orthodox Old Dissent, given Spurgeon’s close links to the Congregationalists and ‘the minority of Presbyterians in England that had not adopted Unitarian views’ [248]. Larsen purposefully chose to focus on female figures whenever it was possible to find a woman who was representative enough of a given strand of belief.

According to the reader’s prior knowledge and interest, some chapters will be more interesting than others. This reviewer did not find much novelty in the treatment of the status and use of the Bible in what one may call orthodox Bible-based Christianity (chapters on Booth and Cooke, Butler and Spurgeon). But these chapters are dotted with very interesting remarks, such as those on Josephine Butler’s view that the Bible provided the language that made it possible to speak about unseemly subjects, as she would in her crusade for the protection and rescue of prostitutes: ‘God gives us a phraseology, a pure and chaste holy indignation, which makes it possible for us to go to the bottom of these things without offending the chastest ear’ [238]. Larsen also rightly insists on the fact that a conservative view of the verbal inspiration of Scripture and resistance to biblical criticism did not necessarily go hand in hand with a conservative social agenda or indeed adherence to traditional orthodox doctrines, as Booth and Butler’s biblicist feminism or Butler’s rejection of the belief in hell exemplify.

More interesting for Larsen’s purpose of showing the centrality of the Bible in Victorian culture are the chapters dealing with figures that one does not immediately associate with an interest for Scripture. The chapter on Pusey is a very good study of the biblicism of this very representative figure of Anglo-Catholicism. Larsen makes an outstanding presentation of Pusey’s biblical scholarship, which has largely been ignored in recent academic writing, and usefully puts back in the context of Pusey’s time his engagement with higher criticism.

The fascinating chapter on Cardinal Wiseman shows him defending Catholicism as a more biblical faith than Protestantism. This was not just a strategy to advance the cause of Rome in a country in which one of the main criticisms of Catholicism was that it did not value Scripture. Larsen shows that Wiseman’s interest in the Bible was constant and that he would attempt to prove Catholic doctrine from Scripture, like any good British Protestant. This is a little-known and little-studied side of Wiseman that Larsen attracts our attention to.

The chapter on Florence Nightingale is a useful reminder of the continued importance, indeed centrality, of the use of Scripture even when the status of the Bible had been considerably diminished. Nightingale’s very low view of scriptural authority did not prevent her from constantly reading the Bible in her daily devotions (and prescribing it as one of the necessary ingredients of a nurse’s training) and from seeing her own life as a biblical narrative, identifying more particularly with the Virgin Mary [130-131].

However inimical Bradlaugh, Besant and Huxley may have been to the Church and to the authority of Scripture, Larsen shows how prominent the Bible was in their thoughts and life-journeys. Victorian atheism was primarily an anti-Bible movement and as such, obsessed with Scripture. Bradlaugh’s magnum opus was a commentary of the Pentateuch in which he aimed to discredit the Bible’s authority. And Larsen shows that the Bible informed Besant’s thought and speech. She even expressed her decision to commit herself to being an atheist lecturer by biblical quotations [81]. As for ‘agnosticism’, Larsen suggests that the term coined by Huxley may have been derived from the Unknown God (Agnosto Theo) mentioned by Saint Paul in Athens. In any case Huxley is shown as a Bible lover whose crusade against Christianity and bibliolatry was done in the spirit (and with explicit reference to) the spirit of the Old Testament prophets.

Timothy Larsen’s effort to correct a tendency in modern scholarship to underestimate the importance of biblicism is also evident in his treatment of Unitarianism and Mary Carpenter. Larsen convincingly shows that for most of the Victorian period, Unitarianism had much more in common with biblicist, orthodox Christians than with the supporters of higher criticism and liberal Christianity, however reluctant biblicist, orthodox Christians were to acknowledge this.

The ten biographical sketches constitute a lively account of the Bible’s grip on Victorian life, thought and imagination. The moral impact of Elizabeth Fry’s unadorned reading of the Bible to prisoners, for example, is strikingly described, as is the text-imbued character of Quaker prophecy. Larsen also remarkably well presents the Bible as the common language of Victorian culture and he shows the extent to which the Victorians ‘endeavoured to read their own experience through the lens of the Bible’ [296]. Finally Larsen provides a corrective to what he sees as a tendency in recent scholarship to overemphasise the importance of higher criticism; it hardly penetrated British culture for most of the Victorian era and devotional engagement with Scripture as a ‘richly abundant and life-giving source of spiritual comfort and divine promises’ [298] played a much more vital part in most Victorians’ lives. While the biographical approach enables Larsen to go into lively details and descriptions, it also makes room for a lot of repetition. A thematic treatment might have made the book more incisive. As it is, it reads like a series of articles whose cumulative effect can sometimes be tedious, although it is undoubtedly convincing.


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