11th January 1903. Dover Beach.

In Matthew Arnold’s, Dover Beach, ‘the Sea of Faith… now I hear its melancholy, long withdrawing roar’, reflected the slow, but sure ebbing of faith, in the Victorian Period when new ideas in science and Biblical criticism were disturbing traditional Christianity.


However the Church of England was still pursuing the ‘noiseless tenor of its way’ when today in 1903, Edward VII wrote to Randall Davidson congratulating him on accepting the Archbishopric of Canterbury, this in the year of the publication of the Principia Ethica’ and the ‘Principle of Mathematics’, and twelve months before the publication of radioactivity. (1)

Davidson was elected at a time of a divided church which was reluctant to face the reality of the sceptical 20th century and the ritualism of the Anglo-Catholics.

Resulting from the revelations of evolutionist Darwin and geologists Smith and Hutton, the 19th century saw desperate attempts to reconcile the Bible with new scientific thinking which was to influence writers as George Eliot in her translation from two German works: Ludwig Feuerbach’s ‘Essence of Christianity’ in 1854 and David Friedrich Strauss’s ‘Life of Christ’ translated in 1845, which attacked the transcendental existence of God and the historical veracity of the Bible.

Then four months after Darwin’s publication, seven Broad Church theologians produced the 1860 ‘Essays and Reviews’ relating to the current German Biblical criticism, the evidence of Christianity, religious thought and Genesis cosmology.

However the writings suffered criticism including condemnation by clergy at Convocation, but by their denial to acknowledge the spirit of the age led inevitably to a weakening influence of the pragmatic Broad Church, Anglican orthodoxy, and a growth in doubt.

Further criticism also came from the Lux Mundi Essays led by Gore, later Bishop of Oxford, a liberal Anglo Catholic who reasonably accepted scientific discoveries, and so presenting a challenge to the more conservative Anglo Catholics, by their critique of Christianity’s historical basis.

By the middle of the 19thc Britain had changed from a predominantly paternalistic rural society to one industrial; attitudes, values and thinking that had shaped the old society changed in line with perceptions of a new reality and this increasingly meant secularisation.

The early zealous 19thc God-fearing evangelism evaporated along with the fear of eternal punishment which went against the grain of the New Testament idea of God’s love, and importantly models of behaviour of the middle and upper classes were increasingly seeing their religiosity as irrelevant and downright hypocritical.

The 1851 census, ‘voluntary religious question’, revealed that over six million, out of a population of c 25 million, attended church or chapel; three million were Church of England, ministered by about 16,000 parsons in 14,000 churches.

In the new millennium, with two and a half times the population, the figure was below 1 million with 9,182 to serve them with the Church relying heavily on non-stipendiary women ministers and lay-readers.

The masses, as now, had little contact with formal religion, typified by the crossing sweeper Jo in Dickens’ Bleak House (1850) who in his dying moment, was prompted by the worthy Mr Woodcourt to say the Lord’s Prayer after him, but expired on the word ‘Hallowed’.

(1) Quote from Thomas Gray’s, Elegy in a Country Churchyard. In 1925 the Davidson could only blame poor preaching and outdated clergy for poor attendances:

Ref: answers ingenesis.org. The early 19thc social and religious milieu. 19thc church.

Ref: The parish system agricultural and urban religion.

Ref: Britain in the 19thc Howard Martin.

Ref: Matthew Arnold. Dover Beach.

Ref: poetryfoundation.org.

Ref: richardjohnbr.blogspot.victorian-faith.


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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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