The Victorian era lives in our imaginations as a time of spiritual repression. But it was also a time of surprising developments, many of which were vital to shaping thought on religion and spirituality in the 20th century. Victorian spirituality continues to influence our worldviews today in ways that we might not readily realize.
Although Victorian England was ruled by strict and all-encompassing social-moral codes to a much greater extent than today’s society, it was also an incubator for very familiar conflicts. Questions of following authority versus following your own heart, of tradition versus rationality, of age-old versus modern ideas of virtue can all be found in spades in the spirituality and religion of the Victorian era.
The history of these questions is older than the Victorian era. In fact, it’s probably as old as history itself–some believe that the very founding of Christianity reflects just such a conflict between the traditional law of the Old Testament and the more modern virtues of love and forgiveness. But origin of Christianity aside, there are some more recent important events to discuss in order to understand Victorian spirituality. The eighteenth century birthed both evangelical Christianity and secular-rationalism as we know them today.
In the year 1720, the First Great Awakening (18th century religious revival pic at left in the public domain under PD-1923) kicked off the first in a series of evangelical Christian revivals that are still going on today. This revival of religious fervor focused both on the importance of a personal relationship with God, and the importance of following Biblical law–each was seen to both require and cause the other. If you truly had a personal relationship with God, you would feel compelled to follow Biblical law and the reason behind the law would be obvious to you. If you followed Biblical law, this would create and strengthen a personal relationship with God.
We still see this attitude in evangelical Christian circles today; if one does not follow Biblical law as interpreted by authority, their relationship with God and therefore their motives and overall moral fiber are suspect. If one does follow Biblical law, on the other hand, one is assumed to have a rich and rewarding personal relationship with God.
So in the end, the First Great Awakening did two things: it revived genuine spiritual experience and passion in a world where, up to that point, religious devotion had largely cooled to the point where religion was “just something that everybody did.” But the form that passion took, as it became a passion for Biblical law, was in fact the source of decidedly un-spiritual social strictures like the Victorian “cult of femininity” where everything a woman did was seen through the lens of her fitness for the God-given tasks of keeping house and raising children.
Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the intellectual-spiritual spectrum, the Age of Enlightenment was bringing secular and scientific thought to levels of popularity and sophistication never before seen in Western European civilization. Spawning, among other things, the American Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, the Age of Enlightenment encouraged morals derived from logic and reason, scientific exploration of the world, and an outright rejection of traditional morality.
Continuing the age-old war between science and religion, the Enlightenment spawned not only indifference to Biblical morality, but outright antagonism toward it; was Benjamin Franklin perhaps the quintessential Enlightenment man for his commitment to both secular-rational governance and scientific discovery. He was also a member of the Hellfire Club, a social club devoted to intellectual discussion, political advancement of logic and reason, and engaging in all manner of Biblical immorality.
It is in this setting that Victorian religion and spirituality developed: on one hand we have a spiritually fervent but morally restrictive Great Awakening of evangelical Christianity, on the other a secular-rational Enlightenment that rejects all trappings of religion.
At the beginning of the Victorian era, these were the two major influences: non-Christian spirituality was nowhere to be found on the scene in Victorian England. Spiritual innovation and non-Christian religious traditions were looked down upon by evangelical Christians and Enlightenment thinkers alike, for very different reasons. To the Christians, any spiritual experience or practice outside of Christianity was demonic; to students of the Enlightenment, it was superstitious, delusional and unnecessary.
But as the Victorian era progressed, a funny thing happened. With the deeply spiritual influence of the Great Awakening and the rational influence of the Enlightenment living side-by-side, new tradition-defying religions began to pop up. The 19th century saw the number of Christian denominations in existence skyrocket, as well as the birth of spiritualism, the Theosophical Society, and even the publication of “Aradia, or The Gospel of Witches.”
Spiritualism is, to me, the most intriguing of these movements, if only because it rose to prominence so quickly and is now largely extinct. This school of thought, born in America in the 1840s, has been characterized variously as a philosophy or a religion. It had its own very specific beliefs and practices, but lacked the all-encompassing theology and liturgy of most organized religions.
Spiritualists deeply believed in the afterlife and the divine. Their practices derived from what they believed to be their personal contact with spirits of the dead, who communicated from the realm of spirits through mediums and seances. Mediums were the propagators and the basic units of spiritualist practices; seances were held by hundreds of these men and women who were able to put on a convincing display of bridging the gap between the physical world of the living and the spiritual world of the dead.
Despite emphasizing the importance on man’s nature as a spiritual being and the literal reality of the supernatural, the spiritualist movement also had decidedly nontraditional sensibilities. For them, the Bible was not the ultimate source of spiritual truth: personal experience with the divine was, and the Bible wasn’t the gateway to making this happen. Likewise, most saw Heaven, Hell, and salvation through Christ were as morally untenable; they held to the Enlightenment-inspired moral sensibility that each person was responsible for his or her own actions.
Because of these moral sensibilities and the rejection of the Biblically-backed Victorian social hierarchy, spiritualism tended to draw social reformers. Spiritualists and their opponents alike saw spiritualism as being in opposition to such concepts as monarchy, a divinely ordained class system, and the God-given hierarchy of the sexes. Many prominent spiritualist writers and mediums were women; Coral Hatch (photograph of her at right is in the public domain under US PD-1923), was a prominent spiritualist speaker who fascinated audiences by being at once smart, articulate, and pretty. This was in blatant contradiction to prevailing Victorian view that women were not made by God to be intellectuals or public speakers.
Another manifestation of the liberal-yet-spiritual environment just beginning to take hold at the end of the Victorian era was the rise of the “New Age.” The term “New Age” originated in a Christian publication in the 1890s, which described the dawning of a “New Age of Christian brotherhood” to be characterized by love and understanding. The non-Christian spiritualities that we think of today when we think of “New Age” also began to emerge in the late 19th century, as spiritual movements that emphasized “union with” and “empowerment by” the divine without the need for Christian trappings like salvation by faith or redemption from Original Sin.
In his book The Varieties of Religious Experience (which is a fascinating, amazing, fantastic book that I recommend to everyone) published in 1901, legendary psychologist and philosopher William James discusses the rise of “positive thought religions.” He calls this “once-born” spirituality, saying that unlike born-again Christians, these followers of these schools of thought don’t feel that they started life inherently flawed and needed the “redemption” of Christ. Rather, the believers felt that a transformative and deeply personal connection with the divine was something always available to humans, if they would just reach out and grasp it.
Sound familiar? All of these Victorian movements profoundly influenced spirituality throughout the 20th century. Evangelical Christianity is still around, as is Enlightenment-style rejection of all religious trappings and supernatural beliefs in the guise of “New Atheism.” The mixing of modern moral sensibilities with revivalist passion for a personal experience of the divine helped open the door to non-Christian religions, birth the New Age movement, and ultimately give rise to the “personal religion” revolution of the 20th century.
I plan to blog more about this “personal religion” revolution later, as I find it both fascinating and socially important. In the meantime, we can only benefit from looking at our history–including the surprises of the Victorian era.