George Eliot was Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880), and a famous novelist. She is the subject of David Hempton’s first study in how artists struggle with the evangelical faith ( Evangelical Disenchantment: Nine Portraits of Faith and Doubt
). Eliot’s most famous novels were Adam Bede, Silas Marner, and MIddlemarch.
Hempton focuses on two major writing events in Eliot’s career, one of which is considered “one of the finest pieces of polemical prose in the English language” and is called “Evangelical Teaching: Dr. Cumming” (1855) and the other powerful, positive, sympathetic descriptions of evangelicals in her novels, including the character Dinah Morris in Adam Bede.
I would put Eliot’s problem with evangelicalism like this: she embraced the evangelical gospel and the Bible and then used specific ideas of both evangelicalism and the Bible against the larger picture. So, she deconstructed evangelicalism by appealing to the theme of love and grace and compassion, which she thought countered the form of evangelicalism she knew.
Who has read her novels? Any comments about the books or ideas? Do you think her deconstruction is justifiable?
Eliot’s conversion occurred through her teacher, Maria Lewis, and she was committed to all the evangelical factors: passion for Bible study, devotion to evangelical biography, a morbid introspectiveness, concern for the sick and needy, and refusal to participate in such things as “fiction” (novels!) and theater. Within less than a decade, however, she walked from the faith. Her father said she stopped attending church in 1842.
Her diatribe against Dr Cumming was 13 years later and heaped up her problems with evanagelicalism and they were three-fold: (1) his deficiency of love that showed up in a party spirit and a kind of evangelical tribal loyalty; (2) an obsession with prophecy, including detailed predictions of the end that would occur in 1867 — the man was a huge success in London as the major church of Scottish Calvinists; and (3) the morality of his teaching on eternal punishment, which for her was essentially an image of God that was unloving and unlovable.
Alongside this Eliot famously dived into German higher criticism, translating Strauss, Spinoza (not German), and Feuerbach — and many have anchored her problems with the faith here. But Kempton shows that her problems (above) began earlier.
Eliot’s religion became humanism; she got over her anger and bitterness toward evangelicals and learned to focus on the good, the merciful, and the compassionate. Kempton sums up her faith like this: “For her the essence of religion was neither a set of forensic theological propositions nor an assemblage of apocalyptic aspirations. Rather, true and undefiled religion was a life of inclusive love, devoted service to humankind, and forgiveness” (39-40).