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Victorian Britain. The search for a stable religious frame of mind

Hausarbeit 2009 11 Seiten

Anglistik - Kultur und Landeskunde



1. Introduction

2. The Victorian State of Mind
2.1 General Aspects
2.2 Religious Belief in the Upper Class as a Model of Resistance towards Change
2.3 Scientific Progress and its Effect on the Class System
2.3.1 The Zoo as an Example of Popular Scientific Enquiry

3. External Influences on the Victorian Mind
3.1 The Impact of the French Revolution

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

From today’s point of view the society of 19th century Victorian Britain is either regarded as having been secular or, indeed, very religious. Both claims have their shortcomings and neither conveys the whole and true complexity of Victorian society. The former claim that it must have been a secular society seems to be highly influenced by contemporary – i.e. secular – views on society focussing mainly on scientific progress. The latter claim concerning the religiousness of Victorian society is especially popular among scholars studying that period who often focus strongly on religious aspects. However, the majority accepts the view that it is a combination of both aspects. Yet, it remains unclear or vague and hard to grasp what the people in Victorian Britain thought about their own times. There are quite a few books which deal with the state of mind of certain individuals. However, there are only few books which connect the different notions of the Victorian mind on a broader level. Further research on this specific field of study seems to be necessary.

This paper will focus on the Victorian frame of mind at the beginning of the 19th century and will to answer the question what the Victorian mindset actually looked like. I will examine whether it was in a stable condition or whether it was not and what people were concerned with. Therefore, the paper will mainly deal with questions about religious aspects and its opposites. In doing so, the role of religion, the state, and the industrialisation have to be taken into account as they had the biggest effect on the Victorian mind. I will show how the different classes of British society reacted towards new approaches of critical thinking about the world and whether they embraced or rejected them. Furthermore, I will look at one possible explanation for the emergence of a critical mindset. The French Revolution will serve as an exemplary case which heavily influenced the thinking of British liberal intellectuals. Finally, the conclusion will summarise the major findings on the Victorian state of mind and answer the question of its stability.

2. The Victorian State of Mind

The 19th-century in Britain was an era characterised not only by rapid progress in science, technology, and knowledge in general but also by a revival in faith and belief, respectively. There was, on the one hand, the struggle for the emancipation of the Roman Catholic Church which ultimately led to the ‘Catholic Relief Act’ in 1829. This chapter will enquire the religious state of mind of the different classes in Victorian society.

2.1 General Aspects

Before the Victorian mind is analysed with regard to class membership, a few general aspects on the Victorian state of mind can be ascertained. First, one has to ask if it found itself in a stable condition at all. As Walter Houghton claims, everything was “in constant flux”[1]; everything was changing rapidly from one moment to the other under the influence of different factors which, inevitably, made ‘truths’ appear relative to a certain and specific moment only.[2] This leads to the question whether there was such notion as stability or certainty in the intellectual field in Victorian England. Again, according to Houghton, the only certitude that united the adherents of the different ‘philosophies’ in that age was the belief in the existence of truths which could be discovered by reason or instinct.[3] Consequently, most Victorians did believe in something; either in God or a religion or in science and reason. However, these beliefs were “shaky”[4] and individuals “passed through”[5] them, including the notion of doubt which was unstable itself. The Victorians lived with the constant anxiety of not believing what one believed.[6] Therefore, it is no surprise to find Victorians who were neither religious nor completely secular. A lot of members of this group had been one of either once but changed their views during their lifetimes.[7]

The next logical step is to analyse these notions against the background of Victorian Britain and its institutions. The Victorians regarded themselves as living between the past (i.e. the Middle Ages) and the future.[8] Feudalism was slowly dying and society was moving towards an economic and, crucially, a democratic future. This self-understanding was, of course, fuelled by industrialisation and scientific progress. Due to this movement, religion was in the process of change as well so that the Victorians had plenty of religious options to choose from – theism or atheism, Catholicism or Protestantism, High Church or Broad Church, as well as various scientific approaches towards human life. However, this does not hold true for every class in society. The upper class rejected most forms of progress which will be demonstrated in the following chapter.

2.2 Religious Belief in the Upper Class as a Model of Resistance towards Change

In certain circles of the British establishment or elite, people looked at the rapidly changing world around them with a certain degree of anxiety, if not even with detest. This mood of rejection to ‘modernisation’ and ‘secularisation’ – i.e., the separation of Church and State, especially in education – was based on the traditional view of a God-given order of society on the one hand, and, as John Kent puts it in his essay “The Victorian Resistance”, on the other hand on the view that “the Church [was] meant by God to act as the spirit of the State”[9] which included education, religious life, and moral matters. The upper-class’ ideal way of life was based on rural society whose main religious institution was the “village-cum-parish [church]”.[10] These points of view were, of course, based on the century old perception of the natural partnership between Church[11] and State. For the upper class in Victorian Britain, the progress of the 19th century corrupted the “divinely-established traditional order”.[12]


[1] Walter E. Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870, 7th ed. (New Haven: Yale UP, 1968) 15.

[2] Cf. Houghton 15.

[3] Cf. Houghton 18.

[4] Houghton 21.

[5] Houghton 20.

[6] Cf. Houghton 21.

[7] Frank M. Turner, Contesting Cultural Authority: Essays in Victorian Intellectual Life. (Cambridge: CUP, 1993) 10.

[8] Cf. Houghton 1.

[9] John Kent, “The Victorian Resistance: Comments on Religious Life and Culture, 1840-80,” Victorian Studies 12:2 (December 1968): 145-54, at 146.

[10] Kent 146.

[11] The term ‘Church’ will refer to the institution of the Church of England throughout this paper

[12] Kent 146.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
424 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Ruhr-Universität Bochum – Englisches Seminar
Victorian Britain Victorians Percy Bysshe Shelley French Revolution History of Ideas Religion Charles Darwin Evolution Class



Titel: Victorian Britain. The search for a stable religious frame of mind