Essays and Reviews: The ‘Greatest Religious Crisis of the Victorian Age’?

One of the best-known controversies in nineteenth-century Britain revolved around the publication of a collection of theological writings in March 1860 titled Essays and Reviews. The book, edited by John William Parker, consisted of seven essays that explored various topics, such as the evidence for Christianity, religious thought in England, and—perhaps most controversially—the interpretation of scripture. The underlying theme behind these essays was theological methodology—namely, the exploration of German-speaking Protestant theological discussions within Anglican theological thought. Essays and Reviews was a cautious, partly implicit acknowledgement of scientific findings and historical–philological methods.

In the 1800s, theologians began to develop a new form of interpretation of scripture. This method was formulated as a specific method in the 1830s, especially at the University of Tübingen. Theologians who employed this approach aimed to comprehend and explain the Old and New Testaments within their original historical contexts. Their goal was to ascertain the meaning of biblical texts at the time of their writing, in the assumption that understandings may have changed since then. Textual criticism, textual analysis, and literary and formal criticism—in other words, the meticulous reconstruction of the presumed genesis of the text—were the central tasks of this new scholarly perspective. Those who opposed this methodology saw it as a danger to Christianity. Treating the Bible as a historical document could potentially relativize it—a position that was interpreted as a direct attack on the Christian faith.

How do Historians in Past and Present Contextualize this Debate?

The articles in Essays and Reviews did not introduce any profoundly new positions or arguments. German biblical criticism had been known in Anglican circles since the early nineteenth century. German publications were reviewed in church journals under the label of ‘Germanism’ and were sometimes translated into English. For instance, the controversial Life of Jesus by German theologian David Friedrich Strauss had already been translated by George Eliot in 1846. The quality of the pieces in Essays and Reviews varied, and the tone was generally moderate. Theologically, historians of religion agree that it was not a radical publication. And yet it provoked a debate that was to last four years, preoccupying both Anglican and Nonconformist theologians and bishops to such a degree that they brought some 400 tracts, numerous reviews, dedicated counter-collections, and several court cases to bear against the authors.

The question is, how did Essays and Reviews trigger the ‘greatest religious crisis of the Victorian age’?1 Historians have thoroughly documented the controversy and analysed both the theological issues raised and the debate itself, which is also covered in biographies of the individuals involved. The approach of many of these works is actor-centred, the analytical framework usually national. From this perspective, the controversy surrounding Essays and Reviews can be understood as an issue of Anglican church politics, particularly English Anglican church politics. Six of the essayists were clergymen of the Church of England, including Frederick Temple, who was then the headmaster of Rugby School and later became archbishop of Canterbury; Rowland Williams, who was a tutor at the University of Cambridge and later became a professor and deputy principal of St David’s College, Lampeter; Baden Powell, a clergyman and professor of geometry at the University of Oxford; Henry Bristow Wilson, a former fellow of St John’s College, Oxford; Mark Pattison, a tutor and later rector of Lincoln College, Oxford; and Benjamin Jowett, a fellow (and later master) of Balliol College and Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford University at that time. The only layman in the group was Charles Goodwin, a former fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, who was an Egyptologist, barrister, and later the deputy judge of the British Supreme Court for China and Japan. Apart from Goodwin, all the authors were clergymen with strong connections to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

As a result, the discussion regarding Essays and Reviews often became highly personalized, targeting individual authors for their prominent positions within the clergy. The primary fear of critics was that the anthology would erode the authority of the Anglican Church.

The controversy surrounding Essays and Reviews was essentially driven by ecclesiastical concerns, and the publication was closely linked to pre-existing conflicts between different factions of the Anglican clergy. The authors of the anthology belonged to the so-called ‘broad church’, a liberal faction with a strong presence in Oxford that had many higher-ranking clergymen associated with it. Conversely, many parish ministers identified as evangelical; their faction was known as the ‘low church’. The University of Oxford in particular developed into a breeding ground for the ‘high church’ faction within the Anglican clergy—a movement to restore liturgical customs that drew heavily on pre-Reformation and contemporary Roman Catholic traditions. High church and low church were united in their rejection of the historical–critical method, which they condemned as ‘German rationalism’.

Portrait of John William Parker, England, by Hullmandel & Walton. Museum of New Zealand/Te Papa Tongarewa, 1992-0035-2104. Artwork in the public domain, provided by Museum of New Zealand/Te Papa Tongarewa.

But how does our understanding of the debate change if we view it as part of a process of negotiation that crossed the borders of states and nations? Essays and Reviews was by no means the last publication to deal with questions concerning the historicity of the Bible. In subsequent years, France and Germany also witnessed similar and possibly even more extensive debates. Soon after Essays and Reviews, two books appeared that were perceived as more radical both theologically and politically. The first was by Ernest Renan, who published his Life of Jesus in 1863, and this was followed swiftly by a revised edition of David Friedrich Strauss’s publication of the same title in 1864. Strauss and Renan both aimed their books at a broad readership. Renan, in particular, emphasized accessibility to various segments of the population, particularly women, in his language, presentation, and layout. He approached the life of Jesus in a comprehensive manner, incorporating both psychological and historical elements into his narration. With the help of a skilful marketing strategy on the part of the publisher, the book achieved a hitherto unimagined popularity for its genre. This accessibility was the real source of the scandal: Renan presented Jesus as a morally upstanding person, with very little emphasis on his divinity or supernatural interventions.

How does our Understanding of this Debate Change if we Contextualize it in a Transnational Setting?

By contextualizing the Essays and Reviews debate in a larger transnational setting, we can identify a significant divergence in how the different European factions envisioned the future of organized religion. In the aftermath of Renan’s Vie de Jésus, Catholic clerical actors and the Catholic press voiced concerns about the growth of atheism and secularism. However, Anglican critics were less worried about the anthology promoting secular tendencies in British society. Their main concern was competition from Dissenters, who belonged to Protestant, sometimes Calvinist, denominations such as the Unitarians, Quakers, or Methodists. These groups constituted nearly half of the Christians in England at the time and had become a genuine threat to the Anglican Church by the mid nineteenth century.

The debates about the historicity of the Bible thus reflected fears associated with the larger ongoing renegotiation of the relationship between state, church, and society within European nation states. Catholic fears of secularism were related to the ‘culture wars’, while Anglican worries about competition from Nonconformists were connected to the possibility of disestablishment, which could potentially break the formal connection between the church and the state that had granted a number of privileges to Anglicans. The controversy over the historicity of the Bible thus cannot be understood without considering the political history of the time. This history, however, was shaped by a broader intellectual shift: theological boundaries were redrawn as the place of religion was renegotiated, with church actors increasingly subject to state restrictions. This process unfolded over a larger time frame, but reached a significant milestone in the debates about the historicity of the Bible.

These issues and debates will form the backdrop to my book project under the working title ‘The Other of Modernity: Historical–Critical Bible Research, Historical Thinking, and the Concept of Modernity, c.1830–1920.’ The project uses the scientific and public debate over the historicity of the Bible as a starting point to examine the transnational differentiation process that historical thinking underwent in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Debating Parker, Renan, and Strauss’s publications meant not only debating the status of organized religion, but also arguing about different ways of thinking about history and the role of God in it.


The featured image shows pages from John William Parker’s Essays and Reviews (1860). Work in the public domain, provided by The Internet Archive.

  1. Josef L. Altholz, Anatomy of a Controversy: The Debate over Essays and Reviews, 1860–1864 (Aldershot, 1994), 1. []

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Almuth Ebke (June 29, 2023). Essays and Reviews: The ‘Greatest Religious Crisis of the Victorian Age’? German Historical Institute London Blog. Retrieved July 19, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/p1r9


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Almuth Ebke

She is a researcher at the Institute of History at the University of Mannheim. Her research interests include the social, political and cultural history of Britain, the history of Anglo-American cultural studies, and the history of secularism and historical thought in the modern era. She is the author of Britishness Die Debatte über nationale Identität in Großbritannien, 1967 bis 2008 ('Britishness: The Debate on National Identity in Britain, 1967 to 2008'), which is based on her Ph.D. thesis submitted to the University of Mannheim in 2016.

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