Christian History Home > Issue 86 > The Power of Books
The Power of Books
For the Victorians, reading could be the doorway to doubt—or to faith.
Books contain a deadly and secret poison. Many a young man has been destroyed by reading a single volume."
Such was the solemn warning of Joel Hawes in his Lectures to Young Men, on the Formation of Character (1829). It is characteristic of 19th-century Britain that, even when someone wanted to warn against reading, he would do so by publishing a book. Reading was dangerous because it was powerful—and therefore, if the books were edifying, reading could also be a strong weapon for good.
The Victorian age was the great age of reading. In 1815, 58 percent of men and 81 percent of women were illiterate. By the end of the century, however, 95 percent of both men and women were literate. On Sundays the Victorian masses often learned to read through the free schooling provided by local churches. State education was enacted in 1870—pushing literacy rates higher.
Victorians often came to faith by reading. In the past, printed material had been too expensive for the poor. Now, the Religious Tract Society flooded the nation with cheap, edifying literature. Salvation how-to manuals were widely disseminated and highly effective. Newman Hall's Come to Jesus reached a circulation of four million copies. J. A. James, author of The Anxious Inquirer After Salvation Directed and Encouraged, received a letter from one locality where 27 people had been converted through the circulation of a single copy of his book.
New doubts and new doubters
The Victorians also lost their faith through reading. "Infidel" literature was also printed in cheap editions in order to reach the working classes. New fields of learning sometimes seemed to undercut traditional religious beliefs. Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species (1859) sat uneasily with the Christian understanding that human beings were unique creations made in the image of God. The Darwinian scientist T. H. Huxley, invented a whole new category of doubters when he coined the word agnosticism in 1869.
A major corrosive to traditional Christian beliefs was the emerging discipline of biblical criticism. As a young girl, Mary Ann Evans was a devout evangelical Christian. Her religion was so strict that she even disapproved of Handel's Messiah as too worldly. Her faith dissolved, however, upon reading a volume that sought to expose as untenable the miraculous claims of Christianity. She then went on to translate into English the most controversial work of radical biblical criticism then emanating from Germany, D. F. Strauss's The Life of Jesus Critically Examined. Being persuaded by such a book did not come without personal pain. A friend reported of Evans when she was in the midst of her translation: "She said she was Strauss-sick—it made her ill dissecting the beautiful story of the crucifixion."
J. W. Colenso, missionary bishop of Natal, was overcome with doubts when his Zulu assistant asked him whether or not the story of Noah's ark was really true. Colenso went on to write The Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua Critically Examined—an attack on the historical veracity of Scripture that caused a sensation in Britain. And so it went on.
Questioning the old beliefs
Victorians also read their way toward modifications of traditional doctrines. Some Victorians began to find certain Christian dogmas deeply troubling. The humanitarian strain of Romanticism made it harder to accept innocent or extreme suffering as part of God's plan.
For some, substitutionary atonement sounded like an unpleasant, if not positively immoral, idea. Notions of the Atonement become progressively vaguer. Leading Anglicans began to speak of Christianity as "the religion of the Incarnation," and one book allowed this popular doctrine to subsume the category of atonement altogether: D. W. Simon's Reconciliation by Incarnation. The Victorians made the feast of the Incarnation, Christmas, into the dominant cultural event that it has continued to be.
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