I recently posted about The Damnation of Theron Ware, a classic example of a book that was hugely popular and influential for some decades, but is now largely forgotten. Actually, literary history is littered with such cases, and their oblivion is often unfortunate, as some of these texts – like Theron Ware itself – are really excellent pieces in their own right, beyond their value for historians and scholars of religion. Probably the greatest example of this type of book is an English work from 1888, a book that in its day was perhaps the world’s best-known novel, and it also deals centrally with contemporary Christianity. I refer of course to – what else? – Robert Elsmere, by Mary Augusta Ward, or as she signed herself, Mrs. Humphry Ward.
The Impact of Robert
If, by this point, you are saying “Never heard of it!” you would not be alone. I have met academics who specialize in Victorian literature who have never heard of the book, and most of the ones who have haven’t actually read it. In its day, though, and for some decades afterwards, this was a megahit on both sides of the Atlantic, to the point that other novelists will have their own characters say, without further explanation, “Have you been reading Robert?” When Rudyard Kipling interviewed Mark Twain in 1889, of course they discussed Robert. Prime Minster William Gladstone reviewed and rebutted the book at length.
The book reputedly sold a million copies, at a time when that kind of volume was unimaginable. And do recall, this was at a time when the reputation of other Victorian writers who we do remember today was at rock bottom. If a novelist in the late 19th/early 20th century wanted to indicate that a character was a semi-literate fool, he indicated the fact by showing him reading Dickens. Later books by Mrs. Ward – which I won’t even trouble you with here – were the US bestsellers of their respective years, 1903 and 1905. Today, though, Robert Elsmere is not that easy to get hold with: there is an annotated edition, and you can download an original text easily enough.
Modern readers are unlikely to find Robert Elsmere too approachable. It’s long, repetitious, and wordy: characters argue over the latest ideas at inordinate length. The book is also slow to arrive at its central themes – but those themes really do repay the effort. Robert Elsmere is about the Victorian crisis of faith, a phenomenon that had a particular relevance to the author, who was at the heart of England’s intellectual elites. Mrs. Ward was born Mary Augusta Arnold in 1851, to the famous family that produced Matthew Arnold (her uncle). Mary’s sister married into the Huxley clan, and became the mother of Aldous Huxley. Mary herself grew up in a world wrestling with the new insights of Biblical criticism, the impact of Darwin’s Origin of Species, and the discoveries in the realms of geology and astronomy. It was a thrilling time intellectually, but also one that posed real problems for traditional orthodoxy.
Christianity as Myth and Fact
Robert Elsmere offers a case study of one man who has to confront and absorb these various influences, and it offers a wide range of the ideas and intellectual currents of the time. Robert himself is an Anglican clergyman whose faith simply cannot stand up under these repeated blows, especially the impact of Biblical higher criticism and German philosophy. Reluctantly, he comes to share the ideas of those skeptics who refer to “The fairy-tale of Christianity … the origins of Christian Mythology.”
Throughout, Robert Elsmere presents Christian ideas as part of a myth system, an approach that Christians happily applied to other traditions. The proper orthodox response to this would of course be to stress the historical and factual nature of Christian claims, but that Robert finds it increasingly hard to do. One of his friends announces that
‘Well, after all,’ he said at last, very slowly, ‘the difficulty lies in preaching anything. One may as well preach a respectable mythology as anything else.’
‘What do you mean by a mythology?’ cried Robert, hotly.
‘Simply ideas, or experiences, personified,’ said Langham, puffing away. ‘I take it they are the subject-matter of all theologies.’
‘I don’t understand you,’ said Robert, flushing. ‘To the Christian, facts have been the medium by which ideas the world could not otherwise have come at have been communicated to man. Christian theology is a system of ideas indeed, but of ideas realized, made manifest in facts.’
Langham looked at him for a moment, undecided; then that suppressed irritation we have already spoken of broke through. ‘How do you know they are facts?’ he said, dryly.
Robert is often challenged by that question, which involves him in advanced Biblical criticism. Here is Robert discovering the written work of a daring friend who has drunk seep of the higher criticism, and who brought those ideas back to England:
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.
How Robert Loses His Faith
Robert is troubled by all these ideas, but as for so many in real life, it was the evidences for the Resurrection that most engaged his attention – and which ultimately undermined his faith:
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. Robert began to read vaguely at first, then to hurry on through page after page, still standing, seized at once by the bizarre power of the style, the audacity and range of the treatment.
Not a sound in the house. Outside, the tossing, moaning December night; inside, the faintly crackling fire, the standing figure. Suddenly it was to Robert as though a cruel torturing hand were laid upon his inmost being. His breath failed him; the book slipped out of his grasp; he sank down upon his chair, his head in his hands. Oh, what a desolate, intolerable moment! Over the young idealist soul there swept a dry destroying whirlwind of thought. Elements gathered from all sources—from his own historical work, from the Squire’s book, from the secret, half-conscious recesses of the mind—entered into it, and as it passed it seemed to scorch the heart.
It is a classic deconversion experience.
Robert versus Catherine
Robert’s crisis of faith also estranges him from his wife Catherine, and the clash of beliefs between the two gives the basis for a taut scene that demands quoting at some length:
‘I cannot follow all you have been saying,’ she said, almost harshly. ‘I know so little of books, I cannot give them the place you do. You say you have convinced yourself the Gospels are like other books, full of mistakes, and credulous, like the people of the time; and therefore you can’t take what they say as you used to take it. But what does it all quite mean? Oh, I am not clever—I cannot see my way clear from thing to thing as you do. If there are mistakes, does it matter so—so—terribly to you?’ and she faltered. ‘Do you think nothing is true because something may be false? Did not—did not—Jesus still live, and die, and rise again?—can you doubt—do you doubt—that He rose—that He is God—that He is in heaven—that we shall see Him?’
She threw an intensity into every word, which made the short, breathless questions thrill through him, through the nature saturated and steeped as hers was in Christian association, with a bitter accusing force. But he did not flinch from them.
‘I can believe no longer in an Incarnation and Resurrection,’ he said slowly, but with a resolute plainness. ‘Christ is risen in our hearts, in the Christian life of charity. Miracle is a natural product of human feeling and imagination and God was in Jesus—pre-eminently, as He is in all great souls, but not otherwise—not otherwise in kind than He is in me or you.’
His voice dropped to a whisper. She grow paler and paler.
‘So to you,’ she said presently in the same strange altered voice, ‘my father—when I saw that light on his face before he died, when I heard him cry, “Master, I come!” was dying—deceived—deluded. Perhaps even,’ and she trembled, ‘you think it ends here—our life—our love?’
…. ‘Do you, Robert?’ she repeated insistently.’I know nothing,’ he said, his eyes still hidden. ‘I know nothing! But I trust God with all that is clearest to me, with our love, with the soul that is His breath, His work in us!’
The pressure of her despair seemed to be wringing his own faith out of him, forcing into definiteness things and thoughts that had been lying in an accepted, even a welcomed, obscurity.
She tried again to draw her hands away, but he would not let them go. ‘And the end of it all, Robert?’ she said—’the end of it?’
…. ‘The end of it—so far—must be, if I remain an honest man, that I must give up my living, that I must cease to be a minister of the Church of England. What the course of our life after that shall be, is in your hands—absolutely.’
Yet instead of succumbing to atheism or seeking refuge in stricter forms of orthodoxy, he cuts a new path in activist social gospel ministry.
That is a lean summary of a large book, which is a goldmine of information for late nineteenth century culture and religious thought.
The Battle for Faith
Throughout, we witness the impact of the new ideas, and how people cope with them – how they adapt, improvise and overcome – or how that new criticism destroys their faith altogether.
As a rationalist thinker suggests, the New Testament must be studied strictly in its historical context, exactly like any other ancient society:
‘In the first place, I shall find present in the age which saw the birth of Christianity, as in so many other ages, a universal preconception in favor of miracle—that is to say, of deviations from the common norm of experience, governing the work of all men of all schools. Very well, allow for it then. Read the testimony of the period in the light of it. Be prepared for the inevitable differences between it and the testimony of your own day. The witness of the time is not true, nor, in the strict sense, false. It is merely incompetent, half-trained, pre-scientific, but all through perfectly natural. The wonder would have been to have had a life of Christ without miracles. The air teems with them. The East is full of Messiahs. Even a Tacitus is superstitious. Even a Vespasian works miracles. Even a Nero cannot die, but fifty years after his death is still looked for as the inaugurator of a millennium of horror. The Resurrection is partly invented, partly imagined, partly ideally true—in any case wholly intelligible and natural, as a product of the age, when once you have the key of that age.’
‘In the next place, look for the preconceptions that have a definite historical origin; those, for instance, flowing from the pre-Christian, apocalyptic literature of the Jews, taking the Maccabean legend of Daniel as the centre of inquiry—those flowing from Alexandrian Judaism and the school of Philo—those flowing from the Palestinian schools of exegesis. Examine your synoptic gospels, your Gospel of St. John, your Apocalypse, in the light of these. You have no other chance of understanding them. But so examined, they fall into place, become explicable and rational; such material as science can make full use of. The doctrine of the Divinity of Christ, Christian eschatology, and Christian views of prophecy will also have found their place in a sound historical scheme!’
These arguments utterly convince Robert, and drive his further investigations:
During these three miserable months it cannot be said—poor Elsmere!—that he attempted any systematic study of Christian evidence. His mind was too much torn, his heart too sore. He pounced feverishly on one test point after another, on the Pentateuch, the Prophets, the relation of the New Testament to the thoughts and beliefs of its time, the Gospel of St. John, the evidence as to the Resurrection, the intellectual and moral conditions surrounding the formation of the Canon. His mind swayed hither and thither, driven from each resting-place in turn by the pressure of some new difficulty. And—let it be said again—all through, the only constant element in the whole dismal process was his trained historical sense.
Jesus might have been a very great moral and religious teacher, who inspired fierce loyalty among his followers. But so many of the stories about him were pure myth, especially those that surrounded his death and burial:
‘And in the days and weeks that followed the devout and passionate fancy of a few mourning Galileans begat the exquisite fable of the Resurrection. How natural—and amid all its falseness, how true—is that naïve and contradictory story! The rapidity with which it spread is a measure of many things. It is, above all, a measure of the greatness of Jesus, of the force with which he had drawn to himself the hearts and imaginations of men.’…
Nor (suggests the novel) can people of his era take seriously the arguments presented in defense of Biblical truths, which are designed for an utterly different stage of learning and civilization. “In truth they are the imperfect, half-childish products of the mind of the first century of quite insignificant or indirect value to the historian of fact, of enormous value to the historian of testimony and its varieties.”
Christianity and History
Beyond the truth of the New Testament, Robert is troubled by the failure of historical Christianity to live up to its values, certainly no more than any other great faith:
He thought of Buddhist patience and Buddhist charity; of the long centuries during which Chaldean or Persian or Egyptian lived, suffered, and died, trusting the gods they knew. And how many other generations, nominally children of the Great Hope, had used it as a mere instrument of passion or of hate, cursing in the name of love, destroying in the name of pity! For how much of the world’s pain was not Christianity itself responsible? His thoughts recurred with a kind of anguished perplexity to some of the problems stirred in him of late by his historical reading. The strifes and feuds and violences of the early Church returned to weigh upon him—the hair-splitting superstition, the selfish passion for power. …
O corruptio optimi! That men should have been so little affected by that shining ideal of the New Jerusalem, ‘descended out of Heaven from God,’ into their very midst—that the print of the ‘blessed feet’ along the world’s highway should have been so often buried in the sands of cruelty and fraud!
Not Much New Under the Sun
For modern readers, the book offers 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 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 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. If you want to know how thoughtful Victorians lost their faith, this is the classic case study. It also suggests just what a very large portion of the insights and arguments of contemporary higher criticism was well known to a non-professional audience, and to popular culture broadly defined. In turn, the novel’s wild success drove further discussion and reading.
Histories of nineteenth century culture stress some controversial academic works that disseminated the higher criticism, especially the 1860 collection of Essays and Reviews, and yes, that was very influential indeed. It is often coupled with Darwiun’s Origin of Species for its influence on Victorian religious thought. But we should always include Robert Elsmere in this slim catalog of literary bombshells, for its role in taking critical arguments to a mass public.
From a Christian point of view, Robert Elsmere is a distressing and troubling novel, and it is not hard to understand the controversy it caused. But how does it stand today? How far have we come in understanding or confronting the issues it raises? Are they still relevant? I’ll have more to say about this next time.
I am adapting and substantially expanding two earlier blogs on this topic that I published at this site back in 2012, in the middle Jurassic Era. Timothy Larsen did an excellent review piece on the novel and its influence in Books and Culture (2015).