Religion in the Victoria Era

The Victorian era is associated in the popular consciousness with “Victorian values,” highly moralistic, rigid, and prudish standards of behavior. One would therefore expect to discover that Victorian society was strongly and universally religious and that Victorians themselves uniformly embraced the ideals espoused by Christianity. However, the nineteenth century was actually a time of philosophical turmoil and re-evaluation of old beliefs. Although a number of prominent theologians, including John Henry Newman and John Keble, emerged from the Victorian era, this period in British history also saw the rise of agnosticism and religious doubt, fueled in part by challenges to conventional religious tenets posed by scientific breakthroughs, such as Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. 

General Sources on Religion in the Victorian Era

The following links provide a general overview of religion and the evolution of religious philosophies and movements during the Victorian Era.

British Religion and Philosophy in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries: A Chronology: This page sets out a timeline of religion and philosophy in Britain beginning in the eighteenth century and extending through the Victorian era. Relevant events on the timeline include the passage of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1828, which restored civil liberties to practicing Roman Catholics in Britain; the Vatican’s declaration of papal infallibility in 1869; and the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species in 1859.

The Warfare of Conscience with Theology in Victorian Britain: This comprehensive article provides a detailed survey of religion in the Victorian era.

Victorian Science and Religion: This article examines the effect of developments in science, such as Darwin’s theory of evolution and geological discoveries about the actual age of the earth, on religious belief and theological philosophies in Victorian Britain.

Religious Movements of the Victorian Era

There was an explosion of religious movements and revivals, both in the high-church and low-church traditions, during the Victorian era. On the one hand, the Evangelical Movement flourished and there were revivals of Puritanism, and Quakerism. On the other hand, proponents of Arminianism challenged the Elizabethan notion of predestination which was key to Anglican philosophy, and members of the Oxford Movement, known as tractarians, sought to restore the Church of England to its pre-reformation high-church status. 

Arminianism: Arminians challenged the traditional tenets of the Church of England by espousing a belief in divine grace over predestination and emphasizing sacraments over proselytizing.

Evangelicals, Anglicans, and Ritualism in Victorian England: This article addresses the deep and shocking effect that the Oxford Movement and the writings of the tractarians had upon religious thought in Victorian Britain.

Timeline of the Church of England During the Victorian Era: This page is one of many resources on a site devoted to Anglicanism and the Church of England that is maintained by the Society of Archbishop Justus, an Anglican charitable organization. The timeline sets out a comprehensive outline of events and publications that were key to the progress of the Church of England in Victorian Britain.

Tractarianism: The Oxford Movement, also known as Tractarianism, sought to reconnect the Church of England to its doctrinal and ritualistic origins in the pre-Reformation Catholic Church.

The Book of Common Prayer in the Victorian Era: This article discusses the history of the Fifth English Prayer Book, the version of the Book of Common Prayer that was in use in the Anglican Church during the Victorian era.

Evangelicalism in the Victorian Era: This page from Victorian Web, a comprehensive web resource on Victorian society, provides a number of links to information about the Evangelical Movement in Victorian England and its effects on Victorian society, religious thought, and the Church of England.

Agnosticism in Victorian England: This page discusses the roots of agnosticism in the Victorian era and its subsequent development as a philosophy. The term “agnosticism” was coined in 1870 by biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, who was a strong supporter of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Huxley believed that it was impossible to answer questions about the existence or nature of God without resort to a body of knowledge that was inaccessible to human reason.

Religious Thinkers and Writers of the Victorian Era

           A number of the most skilled and prolific theological writers in English literature emerged from the Victorian Era. These theologians include John Henry Newman, John Keble, and Edward Bouverie Pusey. All three were prominent leaders of the Oxford Movement, which emphasized the roots of the Church of England in Roman Catholicism. 

John Henry Newman: Newman was educated at Oxford, where he later served as a college tutor, and initially expressed his religiosity by becoming an Anglican priest. However, Newman eventually became a leader of the Oxford Movement, also known as Tractarianism. Newman eventually converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism and achieved the rank of cardinal in the Catholic Church. In response to criticism of his conversion and his embrace of Catholicism, Newman wrote his masterpiece Apologia Pro Vita Sua, a religious autobiography in which he defended his religious philosophy against his detractors.

John Keble: Keble was an Oxford-educated poet and curate who became one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement and authored a number of the religious tracts that expressed the movement’s theological bases. Keble College at Oxford University is named after him. 

Edward Bouverie Pusey: Theologian Edward Bouverie Pusey was one of the most influential writers and thinkers associated with the Oxford Movement. In the 1840s, the Church of England suspended him from preaching for a two-year period because of a sermon he delivered in which he hearkened back to pre-Reformation ideals and practices. As a result of the ensuing scandal, printed copies of Pusey’s offending sermon became a best-seller, attracting many new adherents, including John Henry Newman, to his campaign to restore the link between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church.

While Victorian society witnessed a new resurgence of evangelicalism and a revival of old religious schools, such as Puritanism, it also served as a background for a debate about the doctrines of original sin and eternal punishment, which many intellects of the time found inconsistent with Christian values and even morally repugnant. Beneath the elegant and proper veneer of Victorian middle-class society, this contestation of traditional religious beliefs created a great deal of cultural turbulence. Nonetheless, these religious debates, and the emergence of a number of ideas and philosophies both for and against existing religious institutions signaled a new era of intellectualism and philosophical maturity born out of an awakening freedom of thought.

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