The 400th anniversary of the King James Version has occasioned a slew of books on the impact of this translation and of the Bible more generally, with more still to come before the year is out. It's fitting, then, that 2011 should also mark the publication of Timothy Larsen's A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians (Oxford University Press), an exceptionally rich and nuanced account of how "the Bible loomed uniquely large in Victorian culture in fascinating and unexplored ways." In addition to deepening our understanding of the Victorians—and briskly deflating widely held misconceptions left and right—Larsen's chronicle implicitly prompts us to ask questions about the presence of the Bible in our own place and time.
In his previous book, Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England, Larsen gave us a series of case studies challenging the master-narrative of the Victorian era. This was a time, so we've been told, when it became virtually impossible for a thinking person to sustain any sort of orthodox Christian faith (with the understanding, of course, that this crisis of faith among the elite heralded the inevitable triumph of secular reason and the withering away of religion). But Larsen uncovered the stories of prominent freethinkers, atheists, and allied skeptics who began to lose confidence in the Gospel of Doubt and ultimately converted to or returned to faith.
What makes Crisis of Doubt particularly devastating is an unusual combination of massive erudition and serene good humor. Far from being a tub-thumping exercise in setting the historical record straight, it is loaded with wit, a pervasive sense of irony, and an appreciation for the mysterious ...1