I recently described the 1888 novel Robert Elsmere, which in its day was a global best-seller, and in itself a major contributor to contemporary debates over faith and skepticism.

For modern readers, the book is a terrific resource as a snapshot of religious thought and debate at that era. The main lesson you learn is how thoroughly standard in 1888 were so many debates and insights that we think of as boldly modern. Remember the old Jesus Seminar? Authors like Robert Funk presented this outrageous myth that Biblical criticism (for instance) was known to experts prior to the 1970s, but they kept it a closely guarded secret from the ignorant masses, until fearless iconoclasts like Funk revealed these truths to an astonished world. Robert Elsmere, in contrast, shows that this material was perfectly familiar many years earlier to anyone willing to pay the price for the latest best-seller – they knew the arguments, even if they did not accept them.

I can offer any number of examples of this kind of material, but two will suffice here.

First, as to Biblical interpretation, here is Robert discovering the work of a daring friend:

“Fresh from the speculative ferment of Germany and the far profaner scepticism of France, he had returned to a society where the first chapter of Genesis and the theory of verbal inspiration were still regarded as valid and important counters on the board of thought. The result had been this book. In it each stronghold of English popular religion had been assailed in turn, at a time when English orthodoxy was a far more formidable thing than it is now. The Pentateuch, the Prophets, the Gospels, St. Paul, Tradition, the Fathers, Protestantism and Justification by Faith, the Eighteenth Century, the Broad Church Movement, Anglican Theology—the Squire had his say about them all. And while the coolness and frankness of the method sent a shook of indignation and horror through the religious public, the subtle and caustic style, and the epigrams with which the book was strewn, forced both the religious and irreligious public to read, whether they would or no. A storm of controversy rose round the volumes, and some of the keenest observers of English life had said at the time, and maintained since, that the publication of the book had made or marked an epoch. Robert had lit on those pages in the Essay on the Gospels where the Squire fell to analyzing the evidence for the Resurrection, following up his analysis by an attempt at reconstructing the conditions out of which the belief in ‘the legend’ arose.”

Or again, what about the death of Christianity? You know the jeremiads in recent years about the collapse of European Christianity, and the idea that the modern world has lost the simple unquestioning piety it knew – oh, thirty or fifty or a hundred years previously? You know we live today  in an age of unprecedented mass secularization? Well here is Robert Elsmere:

“Is it the spectacle of Italy, I wonder—of a country practically without religion—the spectacle in fact of Latin Europe as a whole, and the practical Atheism in which it is engulfed? My dear friend, the problem of the world at this moment is—how to find a religion?—some great conception which shall be once more capable, as the old was capable, of welding societies, and keeping man’s brutish elements in check. Surely Christianity of the traditional sort is failing everywhere—less obviously with us, and in Teutonic Europe generally, but notoriously, in all the Catholic countries. We talk complacently of the decline of Buddhism. But what have we to say of the decline of Christianity? And yet this last is infinitely more striking and more tragic, inasmuch as it affects a more important section of mankind. ….  What does the artisan class, what does the town democracy throughout Europe, care any longer for Christian checks or Christian sanctions as they have been taught to understand them? Superstition, in certain parts of rural Europe, there is in plenty, but wherever you get intelligence and therefore movement, you got at once either indifference to, or a passionate break with Christianity. And consider what it means, what it will mean, this Atheism of the great democracies which are to be our masters! The world has never seen anything like it; such spiritual anarchy and poverty combined with such material power and resource. Every society—Christian and non-Christian—has always till now had its ideal, of greater or less ethical value, its appeal to something beyond man. Has Christianity brought us to this: that the Christian nations are to be the first in the world’s history to try the experiment of a life without faith—that life which you and I, at any rate, are agreed in thinking a life worthy only of the brute?”

That was in 1888.

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  • Hunter Baker

    And we had the French Revolution a century before. Rodney Stark has been arguing for a long time that there never was a golden age of religion.

  • Philip Jenkins

    Of course there was! It was always forty years before the date that the person was writing.

  • Beth Bevis

    Thanks for drawing attention to Robert Elsmere. I’ve been reading it and I too have been struck by its resonance with contemporary religious concerns. Now if only a scholarly edition would be published!