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Overview Of Religion During Victorian Era

No account of British history can be complete without special reference to the dominating role the Church of England played in British politics. Indeed, politics and religion were so interlaced, until the early part of 19th century that sometimes, historians are baffled to differentiate between the two. It was the clergy who were virtual rulers of England and the monarchy was just a vehicle through which they administered their decrees. The huge wealth it possessed, coupled with colossal political influence and a large network, made the Church of England an institutional oppressor. The enormity of the clergy compelled people to live in a miserable environment, which ultimately led to the growth of several dissent groups towards the end of the 19th century.

Although many scholars refer to the Victorian Age as that of Puritanism, the amazing changes that took place during her reign challenged all prevailing beliefs in the fields of religion, spirituality and overall, the supremacy of the Church of England. The era witnessed the awakening of the British society and a revolutionary change in its outlook, which transformed them from an agrarian and puritan culture to a modern society. Amid the multitude of socio- political forces of this great age, few things stand out clearly.

First, the long struggle of the Anglo-Saxons for personal liberty was definitely settled, and democracy became the established order of the day. The king, who appeared in an age of popular weakness and ignorance, and the elites (both religious and political) who enjoyed unlimited clout had been stripped of their powers and influences. The last vestige of personal governance and of the divine rights of rulers disappeared as new sets of bills popularised universal adult suffrage and the English people were given the right to choose men who should represent them in the government.

Second, because it was an age of democracy, it was an age of popular education, of growing brotherhood and of profound social unrest. Several writers tried to put forward alternative views of religion, social and spiritual beliefs through their writings and immediately their books found wide acceptance among the general public who lived in an environment plagued by hypocrisy.

Third, because it was an age of democracy and education, it was an age of growing trade and foreign engagements that lead to the introduction of new concepts such as social equality, free trade, and ideologies like communism and liberalism. These external influences opened the eyes of the people to a great extent.

Fourth, the Victorian age is especially remarkable because of its rapid progress in all the arts and science and in mechanical inventions. The industrial revolution and economic boom were at their peaks during this time. Communication and transport systems improved beyond imagination, inventions such as spinning looms to steamboats, matches to electric lights had influenced people's lives.

All these forces combined together and resulted in the growth of rationalism, communism, materialism and increased criticism of the Bible, during Queen Victoria's reign. Publication of Darwin's famous book "Origin of the Species" and new methods of application to the historical study of the Bible caused huge disagreement, not only among the public but the clergy was also effected by these theories. These concepts challenged the very basis of creation and Biblical study. Many Bishops took up these new findings and studied the Bible from these view points. Bishop John William Colenso "declared that only a small part of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures) was written in the time of Moses, rejected the universal deluge associated with Noah, (and) held that Joshua was a purely mythical character" (LaTourette 296).

Most of the members of the Church rejected these claims as outrageous but these ideas already found their way in the minds of many and the damage was done. By the end of Queen Victoria's reign, the clergy of England was constantly engaged in fighting over the interpretation of different views in light of the bible and struggled to keep up with the wave of new information that spread through the public. As a result two schools of religious thoughts were born- the Anglican Group who believed in the traditional infallibility of the Church of England and the Non-Conformist who were outside the High Church.

At the same time, the Victorian era is also known for producing many distinguished missionaries, theologians and writers who strongly upheld the traditional Christian beliefs. Great evangelist Charles Finney is famous for his sermons, theological treatises and hymns. Missionaries like Amy Carmichael, David Livingstone and Hudson Taylor spread the words of Jesus and his teachings in far flung regions like India and China.

Original Authors: Bishal Chakma
Edit Update Authors: RPN
Updated On: 02/04/2007

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