English 401-Advanced Composition

Victorian Era Crisis of Faith
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The Victorian Era Crisis of Faith


            To thoroughly discuss faith or religion in any time period, one must understand the meaning or definition of the words faith and religion.  Webster’s Dictionary Online defines faith as,

“Belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion; a system of religious belief: the Christian faith; the Jewish faith; the trust in God and in His promises as made through Christ and the Scriptures by which humans are justified or saved;” (Webster Online)

Whereas religion is defined as,

“The practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith or the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices.”  (Webster Online)

            The Victorian Era was one of change and growth, which both helped and hurt society as a whole. The change and growth was seen in railway construction, a boom in factory and industry, a female Queen, scientific discoveries, and higher education for females.  These factors showed advancements in several areas, but these advancements brought about many questions and concerns.  Children as young as nine were working, instead of going to school, to help support their families, regular churchgoers were beginning to question their faith due to Darwinism, and women were leaving their role as caregiver to pursue an education.

The Victorian Era was known as the “age of energy and invention; the age of doubt in faith and industry; the age of reform in politics and social class status, along with the reform of a woman’s role; the age of empire; the age of reading; and the age of self-scrutiny”  (Longman, 1102-1117). But, for the most part, this era was the age of prosperity and economic expansion which caused the Victorians to struggle with many questions and doubts about religion, and life as they once knew it.  This doubt led to the writing of much poetry centering on the faith crisis, including “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold and “God’s Grandeur” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, both of which contemplate religion and science during their era.

Victorian England was extremely religious.  Families during this time period were usually large, hard-working, respectable, and were taught religion at home.  They were frequent church goers and read the Bible regularly.  While church attendance during this era contributed to a family’s social standing, the lower middle and upper working class felt left out because they were not socially accepted at churches with the upper class citizens who formed the Anglican Church or Church of England.  To profess to be Roman Catholic during this era was to proclaim that you were poor and low class. You “were excluded from political office and suffered other penalties” (xxxi). This caused the two lower classes of citizens to form the Methodist and Nonconformist churches that are still prominent in today’s society.  Although Nonconformists and Anglicanism was always an option in religion, many people became Methodists when they left home and branched out on their own.  These new churches were run by Evangelicals and middle-class philanthropists.  They attracted the working-class who were taught to read the Bible, and gave them the opportunity to socialize with the opposite sex, which was largely unheard of at this time.  Although the churches were fuller than before, most middle and working-class people still felt that they were not welcome; therefore, attending church could bring them attention they did not want because they did not have the money to give the church like the upper class did.  Many people today still do not attend church for this same reason.  Certain churches are still considered for the “wealthy only” and those with a poorer background do not feel that they would be welcome.  Religion was considered a middle-class proprietary or luxury, although most were still married in a church and children were still christened there. 

During this time, churches began programs to help provide food, clothing, shelter, monetary assistance, and a copy of their own Bible in an attempt to help the working class rise above their situation.  This is equivalent to the programs now run by, not only churches in this area, but Agape, Good Samaritan and the Jesus Community Center which provides food, shelter, clothing, and financial assistance to the working poor in Logan County.  The down-side to this was the fact that the working poor began to learn how to “work the system” to their advantage because they were felt that they were owed what the churches gave to them.  After working as a church secretary for several years, I realized that those who are still considered the working class or working poor, along with those caught up in the welfare system, still feel that they are owed certain rights from the church and “work the system” to take advantage of things that will benefit them.

Geologists, physicists, and other scientists started delving into religion, questioning the writings of the oldest book known to man, the Bible.  This was very hard on the people of this time because science and religion had once worked hand in hand; making it seem like the world was in harmony.  Now, all that they held near and dear was causing great debate.  Charles Darwin did not make things any better with his work, “The Origin of Species”, better known as the Darwinism theory. Darwinism is a theory of biological evolution stating that, “all species of organisms arise and develop through the natural selection of small, inherited variations that increase the individual's ability to compete, survive, and reproduce.” (Webster Online) This brought about the term ‘survival of the fittest’, or predominance by any one species, from British economist Herbert Spencer, who paralleled his ideas of economics with Charles Darwin's theories of evolution by what Darwin termed natural selection.  Survival of the fittest enhanced the belief that fate knew that people would not be able to handle every little thing that is thrown at them; therefore, for the sake of survival people don’t always say what they want.  People wear masks, observe boundaries, and say some things to some people and other things to other people in order to not reveal too much about themselves.  This theory added to the belief from the Romantic Age that people should not have more children than they can afford to raise on what little money they made.  Darwinism, coupled with the new science discoveries being made, posed serious problems for the church and society, causing people to challenge their religious beliefs and have many doubts.  Although Darwinism has been refuted and proven to be wrong, the speculation and questioning has continued from the nineteenth century, all the way through to the twenty-first century. 

Although Arnold and Hopkins both try to find some sort of religious truth in their poems by using vivid imagery, setting the tone and discussing their view of religion, both manage to arrive at different conclusions.  Arnold’s poem almost spells doom for the world, whereas Hopkins’ poem gives one a feeling of hope. 

The poem, “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold, is about religion.  It seems to talk about the lack of spiritual values during that the era and the loss of faith due to existentialism, materialism, socialism, and Darwinism caused a downward spiral in the Christian faith.   Arnold uses the sea to demonstrate a promise of eternity, continuity, and stability; his real view of the church, but the crisis comes in the poem when he talks about the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, retreating…” (1662). These lines give a feeling of lost hope, abandoned faith, and a longing to return to the days of old before faith as he knew it is gone forever.   The “…pebbles which the wave draw back, and fling…” (Longman, 1662) symbolizes the people in that, ‘what goes out always come back in’.  People may leave the church, or their religion and faith behind because of the waves of science, but someway and somehow, they are always drawn back to their beliefs for some reason.  Arnold mentions Sophocles and compares Sophocles’ belief that the water is like human emotion as he states, “…the turbid ebb and flow of human misery…” (Longman, 1662), because the sound of the waves is compared to human sorrow, which is a reference to Sophocles’ Antigone.  The sea is also unpredictable, and Darwin’s theory of evolution caused more disillusion to the crisis of religious faith they were already going through.  Dover Beach” tries to show that the world would be a sad place if people stopped believing in the existence of God and took the side of science.  Arnold tried to express, through this poem, that philosophy and religion should be a comfort in a world where there are no guarantees.

Gerard Manley Hopkins also used his poem, “God’s Grandeur”, to talk about the negative turn Victorian people had taken from God and religion, but he offers hope by speaking of how things could get better.  He begins by talking about the world being “…charged with the grandeur of God…shining from shook foil…” (Longman, 1792).  This is a metaphor for God’s light in reference to electricity or flashes of light as in lightning bolts, but the Biblical meaning would include:

“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.”  (NIV, Psalm 119:105)

His next symbol of Biblical meaning, “…the ooze of oil crushed…” means richness, and refers to the sacrament of olives that were used for food, medicine, lamplight, and religious purposes.  This is evident in the following verse:

“…olive oil for the light…” (NIV, Exodus 35:8)

So far, Hopkins’ poem is very light in discussing God’s presence in our world.  He then tells the world to beware as he states, “…Why do men then now not reck his rod?  Generations have trod, have trod, have trod…” (Longman, 1792).  Hopkins reminds us that “…nature is never spent…” (Longman, 1793), which reminds us that there are always things to remind us of the beauty God has put on earth, it is continually renewed each season, and God promised us His grace through rebirth with each season.  Hopkins uses nature, and the abuse of nature from each generation, to lay blame and show us what needs to be changed in order for God to bless His children again. 

Science, industry, and religion all played vital roles in the Victorian Era, but while science and industry were on the rise, religion felt a terrible decline.  Scientists were finding advances in medicine; geologists were finding that the earth was older than previously thought and disputing all Biblical teachings; the theory of Darwinism put further religious doubt into their minds; and industry was moving more toward machines which caused the working class to have to work harder and longer hours.  These factors managed to keep all but the higher social classes out of church.  Although new labor laws, amendments, and acts were introduced, it did very little to diminish the stereotype of the working poor.  With twelve hour workdays for men, women, and children of the lower class, there was often little time left over for religion; and what little faith they did have was diminished by their social status.

Arnold and Hopkins used their poetry to convey to the world, through words, imagery, and symbols, to urge the Victorians to return to the religious ways of the Romantic Era.  They stress that the abuse of previous generations, along with the modernization of science, technology, industry, and the Darwinism theory, are to blame for the deterioration of religion and faith.  All of these factors are still true today.  God continues to have his hand on the world, and His people, but He is slowly withdrawing it due to the moral dilemmas that we face without seeking His guidance.








Danrosch, David. The Longman Anthology of British Literature, The Victorian Age. 3rd Ed. 2B. (New York: Longman Publishers for Pearson Education, 2006).      

Holy Bible. New International Version. Psalm 119:105 and Exodus 35:8. http://www.biblegateway.com

Webster’s Dictionary Online.  http://www.webster.com