Victorian Skeptics on the Road to Damascus
When I was growing up, the most famous atheist in America was Madalyn Murray O'Hair. A test case regarding her son, William Murray, occasioned the 1963 Supreme Court ruling banning prayer in public schools. As an adult, William Murray became the president of the advocacy organization, American Atheists. I was therefore amazed when he converted to Christianity in 1980, going on to become a conservative, ordained Christian minister and evangelist.
Many Christians have been equally stunned by the recent announcement that the eminent British philosopher Antony Flew, sometimes billed as "the world's most famous atheist," has come to affirm the existence of God after a lifetime of publicly arguing against such a belief (although it should be noted that Flew has only converted to Theism, not Christianity).
But I wasn't. Between the conversion of Murray and the change of mind of Flew, I had done research on the history of religious skepticism in Victorian Britain, and this had taught me that intellectually rigorous, militant unbelievers convert to Christianity surprisingly often.
Skeptics in a crisis of doubt
The existing scholarship repeats endlessly a narrative of the "Victorian crisis of faith" and "loss of faith." Such an account is populated with figures who were devout Christians in their youth, but whose reading and intellectual honesty forced them to admit that Christianity was no longer credible. Leslie Stephen is an oft-cited example. although he had received Anglican ordination, Stephen eventually concluded that Christianity had been disproved by modern learning and lost his faith. The move from the resolute evangelicalism of his grandfather, James Stephen, a prominent member of William Wilberforce's "Clapham Sect," to the atheism of his daughter, Virginia Woolf, Modernist novelist and member of the "Bloomsbury Group," is often portrayed as the inevitable by-product of the advance of human knowledge.
There is a whole alternative set of life stories that do not get told, however, which show earnest skeptics and atheists eventually being overwhelmed by the intellectual cogency of Christian orthodoxy. Ironically, many of these people continue to be well known in Victorian studies as typifying the "crisis" and "loss of faith" by their skepticism, while scholars quietly ignore their later conversions as aberrations that signify nothing.
William Hone, for example, is made much of in a 1998 book from the University of Chicago Press as "the Arch Blasphemer." The author considers Hone's biblical and ecclesiastical parodies highly revealing of 19th-century developments but sets aside his subsequent evangelical conversion and life of orthodox faith as inconsequential.
although the story has not been told, the "crisis of doubt" of leading Victorian skeptical thinkers was no less significant a trend than the "crisis of faith" of erstwhile Christians. Indeed, there was a veritable hemorrhage of conversions at the top leadership level of popular, organized free thought. Reading through the Reasoner, the leading journal of Secularists in the mid-Victorian period, it is striking to see how often two or more figures who would later reconvert are mentioned on a single page. When Thomas Cooper converted, the movement put up Joseph Barker to answer him, only to have Barker himself convert some years later! Repeatedly, the Reasoner would attempt to replenish the leadership supply by promoting an impressive, rising leader such as F. R. Young or J. H. Gordon, only to see that person convert.
More concretely, a major, unique Secularist camp meeting was organized in 1860. Edward Royle observes in his book, Victorian Infidels, "This meeting was the greatest single demonstration of Secularist strength." This camp meeting recognized eight national leaders of the Secularist movement: G. J. Holyoake, Joseph Barker, Charles Bradlaugh, Austin Holyoake, John Watts, J. H. Gordon, Robert Cooper, and J. B. Bebbington. Three of these eight—Barker, Gordon, and Bebbington—went on to convert to evangelical Christianity.
Not only is this a startling result in its own terms but, once again, the stories told in the annals of the Victorian loss of faith are not nearly this impressive. A comparable event would be 3 out of 8 members of the executive committee of the Evangelical Alliance, 3 out of 8 preachers at the Keswick convention, or 3 out of 8 of the occupiers of the most prestigious Anglican bishoprics losing their faith. It would capture the attention of historians if 3 out of 8 key leaders of a national political party switched sides. In fact, more leaders of Victorian Secularism converted to Christianity than leaders of the Church of England (such as John Henry Newman) converted to Roman Catholicism.
The resiliency of faith
There were many common features in the mental and spiritual biographies of these converted skeptics. Pious and committed Christians when young, they had then been deeply impressed with the intellectual case against Christianity. Skeptical critics of the Bible and orthodox doctrines whom they read and heard were cleverer than their parents, pastors, and Sunday school teachers. Unbelief was a mark of intellectual maturity for them, just as it is in the standard Victorian "loss of faith" narrative. They went on to become skeptical lecturers, debaters, and writers. Slowly, however, it occurred to them that it was easier to seem clever when tearing down than when building up. Secularism seemed no more intellectually credible than Christianity when it actually tried to answer any of life's important questions, such as the nature and basis of ethical behavior.
Moreover, despite all the best critiques going, the Bible and Jesus himself both slowly emerged as admirably resilient and, literally, indispensable. German biblical criticism might initially account for the composition of the Gospels, but the portrait of Christ that they revealed had a relentless force that would quietly re-assert itself. George Sexton, a leading popular skeptic who converted, put it this way:
Even if the miracles were proved to be false, and the supernatural halo that continually surrounded Him were shown to be mythological accumulation of after ages, or a pure invention of the time, still that would in no sense explain away the life of the Being depicted. The character of Christ is perfect, and that perfection has to be accounted for. To say that it was fictitious in no way gets out of the difficulty; for that is only to shift the ground from the real to the ideal, leaving us in the dark as to how the invention came. For, if Christ be simply an ideal picture, the man who sketched it will be as difficult to account for as the Being himself.
Christians have long had to learn to address philosophical and scientific challenges to faith, but, ironically, they themselves have often underrated the cogency of Christian thought, sheepishly internalizing the assumption that orthodoxy usually loses in an intellectual showdown. The Victorian period reminds us that the intellectual pilgrimages of leading skeptics on fearless quests for knowledge, no matter how unsettling the truth might turn out to be, not infrequently include the road to Damascus.
Timothy Larsen is associate professor of theology at Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL. He is the author, most recently, of Contested Christianity: The Political and Social Contexts of Victorian Theology (Baylor University Press, 2004) and editor of the Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals (InterVarsity Press, 2003).
For further discussion of faith and doubt in Victorian Britain, read Timothy Larsen's article "The Power of Books" from Issue 86: George MacDonald.
More information about Victorian religion and culture can be found at www.victorianweb.org.
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