There is something provocative in the decision made by Victoria Morgan and Clare Williams to preface this collection of essays with a sermon by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. Given in October of 2002, mere months after Williams was elected Archbishop and before his confirmation, the sermon reflects on the life of William Gladstone by focusing on unity and belief. Gladstone’s interest in unity, Williams argues, came out of both Homer and his experience of living in turbulent Victorian times, and, hence, was shaped by “story and relation” rather than “programme” (xii). Since Gladstone gained notoriety for attempting to preserve unity within the Anglican church during one of its more fractious periods, we can imagine with what degree of seriousness Williams takes Rowan’s closing reminder, in the spirit of his Victorian precursor, that “God does not deliver a set of solutions, but first a net of relations” (xiv). In choosing to frame the collection this way, Morgan and Williams seem to signal that the struggle for unity represents the double challenge facing Shaping Belief
. On the one hand, the contributors narrate, to varying degrees, the challenges that nineteenth-century writers, poets, and even cartoonists faced in seeking to maintain unity and belief “in an age of increasing secularization” (xvi) and “ideological plurality” (xviii). On the other, the collection itself struggles with the challenge of placing these essays into meaningful categories. The three sections that divide Shaping Belief
bear this challenge out, and it should come as no surprise that a collection of essays on the diversity of nineteenth-century belief would refuse easy categorization. This could explain, too, the at-times painful slipperiness that attends use of the term “belief” in Morgan and William’s introduction, which they define broadly as “social, cultural and political phenomena” rather than simply “a specifically religious conviction” (xv). References to John Stuart Mill’s writing on religion—whose compelling and pluralist approach to belief is often overlooked—and the pragmatist William James are welcome additions, and set the tone for much of what follows, even as the editors strive to cast as wide a net as possible. Several of the essays stand out as fine contributions to the current resurgence of interest in religion in both British and American contexts. Some of the most successful take head-on the question of religious belief. In contrast to the experience of most readers today, Andrew Tate’s essay reminds us that “[c]onversion...was not just a part of the grammar of Victorian theology but also an animating presence in the popular imagination” (3). This fact, Tate explains, helps us to understand not only the influence of Evangelical Christianity, with which conversion has been most associated, but also the degree to which the public accounts of John Henry Newman’s defection to Catholicism and Ruskin’s “unconversion” reveal how “Victorian iterations of conversion are no less slippery than those of the pluralist, postmodern era” (16). In a similar vein, Hester Jones’s essay on F.D Maurice, Octavia Hill, and Josephine Butler emphasizes that not all Victorians were as uncongenial toward diversity and pluralism as we often assume. Stressing the dialectical tension between the church and the nation that animated Maurice’s writing, earning much of the animus that was directed towards his thought, Jones points out that what most, including Ruskin, saw as indecision was actually “the kenotic emptying of content” which marked his work (27). Jones connects Maurice’s legacy to the social reforming work of Octavia Hill, who, despite a conservatism regarding gender akin to that of Maurice (whom she warmly admired), is equally elusive in her understanding of “what constitutes ... the ‘home’ sphere” (34-5). In ...
Daniel Wong is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His dissertation examines Victorian literature and religion in relation to secularization and postsecular theory.