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« The Chronicles of Barsetshire | Main | Trollope, the Church of England, and the Oxford Movement »
Thursday
Feb102011

Trollope, the Church of England, and the Evangelicals

If the Tractarians were battering the Church of England from the "right" by the time Trollope began to write THE WARDEN in 1855 (see the post below this one), the church was even more beset on the so-called "left flank" by the burgeoning evangelical movement.

Evangelical Protestantism has a long tradition in Great Britain, extending further back than Henry VIII's rupture with the Papacy (1534), back at least into the so-called "High" Middle Ages--that is, the 1300s, with John Wycliffe and his calls to translate the Bible into the "common tongue."

Wycliffe was intent on getting the Bible into as many hands as he could because he believed the individual, guided by the Holy Spirit, had the best chance of interpreting the text on his own (and the gender here is important because very, very few felt women capable of interpreting the Bible on their own, especially after all that Eve business back in the Garden of Eden). You can see that we today might hold to similar beliefs, if not of the Bible, at least in the act of "personal interpretation" for texts. Much of our modern thought sprang from past religious movements and controversies. Yes, some of Wycliffe's thinking was quite magical--as if God's hand guided a person to certain verses. Other bits, however, were far more political, far more within what would eventually become the mainstream--for example, the individual stands on equal footing with the priests, deacons, and even bishops in the church (which was at the time an arm of the state).

Unfortunately, Great Britain also had a long history of persecuting and even martyring evangelical Protestants, even those that four hundred years later began flocking to the itinerant preacher John Wesley.

Considered one of the founders of the Methodists, Wesley believed that the most important moment was when an individual confronted God outside any formal, hierarchical, established structures. This was a moment of what he called "prevenient grace." Today, we know this as the moment of conversion--or of being "born again." Wesley rejected the predestination of the Calvinists and instead believed that a person's free will could alone direct the soul into a confrontation with God--almost always a cathartic moment.

For Wesley, and indeed for almost all evangelicals for centuries, conversion at its heart is not an instance of reason but instead an out-pouring of the emotions. Yes, there have been evangelicals who try to institute reason into the faith--C. S. Lewis, for example. But they have been the minority voices in a movement largely based on conversion-by-tears. The unbeliever is confronted with his or her own past sins, trembles and pleads for redemption, at last accepts Christ's death as a personal sacrificial substitute, and is finally brought to peace by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Thus, evangelical hymns are largely about emotions ("Leaning on the Everlasting Arms"); sermons involve what we now might call "fire and brimstone."

For our purposes, the key thing is the way faith is centered on the emotions--because this outburst of fevered piety is an act of individualism, a personal act, an act outside the formal structures of the church. You can have it without a priest present. You can see why Archdeacon Grantly would be so concerned.

In the early Victorian years, evangelicalism in Great Britain was spearheaded by William Wilburforce, one of the most influential members of Parliament. He left an astonishing legacy of legal accomplishments: the founding of the Society for Suppression of Vice, the creation of the free African colony of Sierra Leone, and the founding of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. But his most lasting legacy, made law only three days before his death, was the abolition of slavery in almost every part of the British Empire.

As in the United States, the evangelicals were the abolitionists. (As you can see, modern political "sides" make little sense in the past.) And thus, that reform spirit that so fills John Bold in THE WARDEN is an inkling of evangelicalism, of individual piety. As his sister, Mary, asks him in chapter 6, "And why are you to do this, John?" To which he replies: "You might ask that same question of anybody else . . . and according to that, the duty of righting these poor men would belong to nobody. If we are to act on that principle, the weak are never to be protected, injustice is never to be opposed, and no one is to struggle for the poor!" As the text goes on to say, "Bold began to comfort himself in the warmth of his own virtue." Note that: the warmth. It's an emotional plea to a social injustice--the very heart of the evangelical project, even among the abolitionists.

After Wilburforce's death, his sons continued their father's crusade, believing that they were to bring evangelicalism to the upper classes in the same way that Wesley had taken it to the lower. Those who practiced such drawing-room proselytizing were often deridingly called "the nosy saints" in mid-Victorian England. However, their nosiness paid off--for what we now think of as the Victorian tendency to be so uptight was in many ways a result of the fantastic growth of evangelicalism in English-speaking countries throughout the nineteenth century.

Indeed, during the twelve years that Trollope was writing his Barset novels, these religious movements on both sides of the Church of England, the leftward evangelicals and the rightward Tractarians, became far more intense. If we get to the next novel in the series, BARCHESTER TOWERS, we'll meet an even more aggressive evangelical, Mr. Slope. Throughout Great Britain, evangelicals began to pick up academics in their ranks; John Newman wielded more influence even after his promotion to cardinal, once he publically questioned the notion of papal inerrancy, a move that endeared him to the British public.

Again, Trollope was not so much concerned with the exact nature of the religious controversy, although these two blog posts provide a bit of background on the movements mentioned in passing in the novel. Rather, he's interested in the ways people negotiate change, the ways they live their lives in the midst of societal friction. Septimus Harding is Trollope's first answer. Others will follow in the six novels of the Barset chronicles.

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