In England the admission of the new current of thought was apparently impossible. The traditional system of biblical interpretation seemed established on British soil forever. It was knit into the whole fabric of thought and observance; it was protected by the most justly esteemed hierarchy the world has ever seen; it was intrenched behind the bishops' palaces, the cathedral stalls, the professors' chairs, the country parsonages - all these, as a rule, the seats of high endeavour and beautiful culture. The older thought held a controlling voice in the senate of the nation; it was dear to the hearts of all classes; it was superbly endowed; every strong thinker seemed to hold a brief, or to be in receipt of a retaining fee for it. As to preferment in the Church, there was a cynical aphorism current, ``He may hold anything who will hold his tongue.''
Yet, while there was inevitably much alloy of worldly wisdom in the opposition to the new thought, no just thinker can deny far higher motives to many, perhaps to most, of the ecclesiastics who were resolute against it. The evangelical movement incarnate in the Wesleys had not spent its strength; the movement begun by Pusey, Newman, Keble, and their compeers was in full force. The æ sthetic reaction, represented on the Continent by Chateaubriand, Manzoni, and Victor Hugo, and in England by Walter Scott, Pugin, Ruskin, and above all by Wordsworth, came in to give strength to this barrier. Under the magic of the men who led in this reaction, cathedrals and churches, which in the previous century had been regarded by men of culture as mere barbaric masses of stone and mortar, to be masked without by classic colonnades and within by rococo work in stucco and papier mache, became even more beloved than in the thirteenth century. Even men who were repelled by theological disputations were fascinated and made devoted reactionists by the newly revealed beauties of medieval architecture and ritual.
The centre and fortress of this vast system, and of the reaction against the philosophy of the eighteenth century, was the University of Oxford. Orthodoxy was its vaunt, and a special exponent of its spirit and object of its admiration was its member of Parliament, Mr, William Ewart Gladstone, who, having begun his political career by a laboured plea for the union of church and state, ended it by giving that union what is likely to be a death-blow. The mob at the circus of Constantinople in the days of the Byzantine emperors was hardly more wildly orthodox than the mob of students at this foremost seat of learning of the Anglo-Saxon race during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. The Moslem students of El Azhar are hardly more intolerant now than these English students were then. A curious proof of this had been displayed just before the end of that period. The minister of the United States at the court of St. James was then Edward Everett. He was undoubtedly the most accomplished scholar and one of the foremost statesmen that America had produced; his eloquence in early life had made him perhaps the most admired of American preachers; his classical learning had at a later period made him Professor of Greek at Harvard; he had successfully edited the leading American review, and had taken a high place in American literature; he had been ten years a member of Congress; he had been again and again elected Governor of Massachusetts; and in all these posts he had shown amply those qualities which afterward made him President of Harvard, Secretary of State of the United States, and a United States Senator. His character and attainments were of the highest, and, as he was then occupying the foremost place in the diplomatic service of his country, he was invited to receive an appropriate honorary degree at Oxford. But, on his presentation for it in the Sheldonian Theatre, there came a revelation to the people he represented, and indeed to all Christendom: a riot having been carefully prepared beforehand by sundry zealots, he was most grossly and ingeniously insulted by the mob of undergraduates and bachelors of art in the galleries and masters of arts on the floor; and the reason for this was that, though by no means radical in his religious opinions, he was thought to have been in his early life, and to be possibly at that time, below what was then the Oxford fashion in belief, or rather feeling, regarding the mystery of the Trinity.
At the centre of biblical teaching at Oxford sat Pusey, Regius Professor of Hebrew, a scholar who had himself remained for a time at a German university, and who early in life had imbibed just enough of the German spirit to expose him to suspicion and even to attack. One charge against him at that time shows curiously what was then expected of a man perfectly sound in the older Anglican theology. He had ventured to defend holy writ with the argument that there were fishes actually existing which could have swallowed the prophet Jonah. The argument proved unfortunate. He was attacked on the scriptural ground that the fish which swallowed Jonah was created for that express purpose. He, like others, fell back under the charm of the old system: his ideas gave force to the reaction: in the quiet of his study, which, especially after the death of his son, became a hermitage, he relapsed into patristic and medieval conceptions of Christianity, enforcing them from the pulpit and in his published works. He now virtually accepted the famous dictum of Hugo of St. Victor - that one is first to find what is to be believed, and then to search the Scriptures for proofs of it. His devotion to the main features of the older interpretation was seen at its strongest in his utterances regarding the book of Daniel. Just as Cardinal Bellarmine had insisted that the doctrine of the incarnation depends upon the retention of the Ptolemaic astronomy; just as Danzius had insisted that the very continuance of religion depends on the divine origin of the Hebrew punctuation; just as Peter Martyr had made everything sacred depend on the literal acceptance of Genesis; just as Bishop Warburton had insisted that Christianity absolutely depends upon a right interpretation of the prophecies regarding Antichrist; just as John Wesley had insisted that the truth of the Bible depends on the reality of witchcraft; just as, at a later period, Bishop Wilberforce insisted that the doctrine of the Incarnation depends on the ``Mosaic'' statements regarding the origin of man; and just as Canon Liddon insisted that Christianity itself depends on a literal belief in Noah's flood, in the transformation of Lot's wife, and in the sojourn of Jonah in the whale: so did Pusey then virtually insist that Christianity must stand or fall with the early date of the book of Daniel. Happily, though the Ptolemaic astronomy, and witchcraft, and the Genesis creation myths, and the Adam, Noah, Lot, and Jonah legends, and the divine origin of the Hebrew punctuation, and the prophecies regarding Antichrist, and the early date of the book of Daniel have now been relegated to the limbo of ontworn beliefs, Christianity has but come forth the stronger.
Nothing seemed less likely than that such a vast intrenched camp as that of which Oxford was the centre could be carried by an effort proceeding from a few isolated German and Dutch scholars. Yet it was the unexpected which occurred; and it is instructive to note that, even at the period when the champions of the older thought were to all appearance impregnably intrenched in England, a way had been opened into their citadel, and that the most effective agents in preparing it were really the very men in the universities and cathedral chapters who had most distinguished themselves by uncompromising and intolerant orthodoxy.
A rapid survey of the history of general literary criticism at that epoch will reveal this fact fully. During the last decade of the seventeenth century there had taken place the famous controversy over the Letters of Phalaris, in which, against Charles Boyle and his supporters at Oxford, was pitted Richard Bentley at Cambridge, who insisted that the letters were spurious. In the series of battles royal which followed, although Boyle, aided by Atterbury, afterward so noted for his mingled ecclesiastical and political intrigues, had gained a temporary triumph by wit and humour, Bentley's final attack had proved irresistible. Drawing from the stores of his wonderfully wide and minute knowledge, he showed that the letters could not have been written in the time of Phalaris - proving this by an exhibition of their style, which could not then have been in use, of their reference to events which had not then taken place, and of a mass of considerations which no one but a scholar almost miraculously gifted could have marshalled so fully. The controversy had attracted attention not only in England but throughout Europe. With Bentley's reply it had ended. In spite of public applause at Atterbury's wit, scholars throughout the world acknowledged Bentley's victory: he was recognised as the foremost classical scholar of his time; the mastership of Trinity, which he accepted, and the Bristol bishopric, which he rejected, were his formal reward.
Although, in his new position as head of the greatest college in England, he went to extreme lengths on the orthodox side in biblical theology, consenting even to support the doctrine that the Hebrew punctuation was divinely inspired, this was as nothing compared with the influence of the system of criticism which he introduced into English studies of classical literature in preparing the way for the application of a similar system to all literature, whether called sacred or profane.
Up to that period there had really been no adequate criticism of ancient literature. Whatever name had been attached to any ancient writing was usually accepted as the name of the author: what texts should be imputed to an author was settled generally on authority. But with Bentley began a new epoch. His acute intellect and exquisite touch revealed clearly to English scholars the new science of criticism, and familiarized the minds of thinking men with the idea that the texts of ancient literature must be submitted to this science. Henceforward a new spirit reigned among the best classical scholars, prophetic of more and more light in the greater field of sacred literature. Scholars, of whom Porson was chief, followed out this method, and though at times, as in Porson's own case, they were warned off, with much loss and damage, from the application of it to the sacred text, they kept alive the better tradition.
A hundred years after Bentley's main efforts appeared in Germany another epoch-making book - Wolf's Introduction to Homer. In this was broached the theory that the Iliad and Odyssey are not the works of a single great poet, but are made up of ballad literature wrought into unity by more or less skilful editing. In spite of various changes and phases of opinion on this subject since Wolf's day, he dealt a killing blow at the idea that classical works are necessarily to be taken at what may be termed their face value.
More and more clearly it was seen that the ideas of early copyists, and even of early possessors of masterpieces in ancient literature, were entirely different from those to which the modern world is accustomed. It was seen that manipulations and interpolations in the text by copyists and possessors had long been considered not merely venial sins, but matters of right, and that even the issuing of whole books under assumed names had been practised freely.
In 1811 a light akin to that thrown by Bentley and Wolf upon ancient literature was thrown by Niebuhr upon ancient history. In his History of Rome the application of scientific principles to the examination of historical sources was for the first time exhibited largely and brilliantly. Up to that period the time-honoured utterances of ancient authorities had been, as a rule, accepted as final: no breaking away, even from the most absurd of them, was looked upon with favour, and any one presuming to go behind them was regarded as troublesome and even as dangerous.
Through this sacred conventionalism Niebuhr broke fearlessly, and, though at times overcritical, he struck from the early history of Rome a vast mass of accretions, and gave to the world a residue infinitely more valuable than the original amalgam of myth, legend, and chronicle.
His methods were especially brought to bear on students' history by one of the truest men and noblest scholars that the English race has produced - Arnold of Rugby - and, in spite of the inevitable heavy conservatism, were allowed to do their work in the field of ancient history as well as in that of ancient classical literature.
The place of myth in history thus became more and more understood, and historical foundations, at least so far as secular history was concerned, were henceforth dealt with in a scientific spirit. The extension of this new treatment to all ancient literature and history was now simply a matter of time.
Such an extension had already begun; for in 1829 had appeared Milman's History of the Jews. In this work came a further evolution of the truths and methods suggested by Bentley, Wolf, and Niebuhr, and their application to sacred history was made strikingly evident. Milman, though a clergyman, treated the history of the chosen people in the light of modern knowledge of Oriental and especially of Semitic peoples. He exhibited sundry great biblical personages of the wandering days of Israel as sheiks or emirs or Bedouin chieftains; and the tribes of Israel as obedient then to the same general laws, customs, and ideas governing wandering tribes in the same region now. He dealt with conflicting sources somewhat in the spirit of Bentley, and with the mythical, legendary, and miraculous somewhat in the spirit of Niebuhr. This treatment of the history of the Jews, simply as the development of an Oriental tribe, raised great opposition. Such champions of orthodoxy as Bishop Mant and Dr. Faussett straightway took the field, and with such effect that the Family Library, a very valuable series in which Milman's history appeared, was put under the ban, and its further publication stopped. For years Milman, though a man of exquisite literary and lofty historical gifts, as well as of most honourable character, was debarred from preferment and outstripped by ecclesiastics vastly inferior to him in everything save worldly wisdom; for years he was passed in the race for honours by divines who were content either to hold briefs for all the contemporary unreason which happened to be popular, or to keep their mouths shut altogether. This opposition to him extended to his works. For many years they were sneered at, decried, and kept from the public as far as possible.
Fortunately, the progress of events lifted him, before the closing years of his life, above all this opposition. As Dean of St. Paul's he really outranked the contemporary archbishops: he lived to see his main ideas accepted, and his History of Latin Christianity received as certainly one of the most valuable, and no less certainly the most attractive, of all Church histories ever written.
The two great English histories of Greece - that by Thirlwall, which was finished, and that by Grote, which was begun, in the middle years of the nineteenth century - came in to strengthen this new development. By application of the critical method to historical sources, by pointing out more and more fully the inevitable part played by myth and legend in early chronicles, by displaying more and more clearly the ease with which interpolations of texts, falsifications of statements, and attributions to pretended authors were made, they paved the way still further toward a just and fruitful study of sacred literature.
Down to the middle of the nineteenth century the traditionally orthodox side of English scholarship, while it had not been able to maintain any effective quarantine against Continental criticism of classical literature, had been able to keep up barriers fairly strong against Continental discussions of sacred literature. But in the second half of the nineteenth century these barriers were broken at many points, and, the stream of German thought being united with the current of devotion to truth in England, there appeared early in 1860 a modest volume entitled Essays and Reviews. This work discussed sundry of the older theological positions which had been rendered untenable by modern research, and brought to bear upon them the views of the newer school of biblical interpretation. The authors were, as a rule, scholars in the prime of life, holding influential positions in the universities and public schools. They were seven - the first being Dr. Temple, a successor of Arnold at Rugby; and the others, the Rev. Dr. Rowland Williams, Prof. Baden Powell, the Rev. H. B. Wilson, Mr. C. W. Goodwin, the Rev. Mark Pattison, and the Rev. Prof. Jowett - the only one of the seven not in holy orders being Goodwin. All the articles were important, though the first, by Temple, on The Education of the world, and the last, by Jowett, on The Interpretation of Scripture, being the most moderate, served most effectually as entering wedges into the old tradition.
At first no great attention was paid to the book, the only notice being the usual attempts in sundry clerical newspapers to pooh-pooh it. But in October, 1860, appeared in the Westminster Review an article exulting in the work as an evidence that the new critical method had at last penetrated the Church of England. The opportunity for defending the Church was at once seized by no less a personage than Bishop Wilberforce, of Oxford, the same who a few months before had secured a fame more lasting than enviable by his attacks on Darwin and the evolutionary theory. His first onslaught was made in a charge to his clergy. This he followed up with an article in the Quarterly Review, very explosive in its rhetoric, much like that which he had devoted in the same periodical to Darwin. The bishop declared that the work tended ``toward infidelity, if not to atheism''; that the writers had been ``guilty of criminal levity''; that, with the exception of the essay by Dr. Temple, their writings were ``full of sophistries and scepticisms.'' He was especially bitter against Prof. Jowett's dictum, ``Interpret the Scripture like any other book''; he insisted that Mr. Goodwin's treatment of the Mosaic account of the origin of man ``sweeps away the whole basis of inspiration and leaves no place for the Incarnation''; and through the article were scattered such rhetorical adornments as the words ``infidel,'' ``atheistic,'' ``false,'' and ``wanton.'' It at once attracted wide attention, but its most immediate effect was to make the fortune of Essays and Reviews, which was straightway demanded on every hand, went through edition after edition, and became a power in the land. At this a panic began, and with the usual results of panic - much folly and some cruelty. Addresses from clergy and laity, many of them frantic with rage and fear, poured in upon the bishops, begging them to save Christianity and the Church: a storm of abuse arose: the seven essayists were stigmatized as ``the seven extinguishers of the seven lamps of the Apocalypse,'' ``the seven champions not of Christendom.'' As a result of all this pressure, Sumner, Archbishop of Canterbury, one of the last of the old, kindly, bewigged pluralists of the Georgian period, headed a declaration, which was signed by the Archbishop of York and a long list of bishops, expressing pain at the appearance of the book, but doubts as to the possibility of any effective dealing with it. This letter only made matters worse. The orthodox decried it as timid, and the liberals denounced it as irregular. The same influences were exerted in the sister island, and the Protestant archbishops in Ireland issued a joint letter warning the faithful against the ``disingenuousness'' of the book. Everything seemed to increase the ferment. A meeting of clergy and laity having been held at Oxford in the matter of electing a Professor of Sanscrit, the older orthodox party, having made every effort to defeat the eminent scholar Max Miller, and all in vain, found relief after their defeat in new denunciations of Essays and Reviews.
Of the two prelates who might have been expected to breast the storm, Tait, Bishop of London, afterward Archbishop of Canterbury, bent to it for a period, though he soon recovered himself and did good service; the other, Thirlwall, Bishop of St. David's, bided his time, and, when the proper moment came, struck most effective blows for truth and justice.
Tait, large-minded and shrewd, one of the most statesmanlike of prelates, at first endeavoured to detach Temple and Jowett from their associates; but, though Temple was broken down with a load of care, and especially by the fact that he had upon his shoulders the school at Rugby, whose patrons had become alarmed at his connection with the book, he showed a most refreshing courage and manliness. A passage from his letters to the Bishop of London runs as follows: ``With regard to my own conduct I can only say that nothing on earth will induce me to do what you propose. I do not judge for others, but in me it would be base and untrue.'' On another occasion Dr. Temple, when pressed in the interest of the institution of learning under his care to detach himself from his associates in writing the book, declared to a meeting of the masters of the school that, if any statements were made to the effect that he disapproved of the other writers in the volume, he should probably find it his duty to contradict them. Another of these letters to the Bishop of London contains sundry passages of great force. One is as follows: ``Many years ago you urged us from the university pulpit to undertake the critical study of the Bible. You said that it was a dangerous study, but indispensable. You described its difficulties, and those who listened must have felt a confidence (as I assuredly did, for I was there) that if they took your advice and entered on the task, you, at any rate, would never join in treating them unjustly if their study had brought with it the difficulties you described. Such a study, so full of difficulties, imperatively demands freedom for its condition. To tell a man to study, and yet bid him, under heavy penalties, come to the same conclusions with those who have not studied, is to mock him. If the conclusions are prescribed, the study is precluded.'' And again, what, as coming from a man who has since held two of the most important bishoprics in the English Church, is of great importance: ``What can be a grosser superstition than the theory of literal inspiration? But because that has a regular footing it is to be treated as a good man's mistake, while the courage to speak the truth about the first chapter of Genesis is a wanton piece of wickedness.''
The storm howled on. In the Convocation of Canterbury it was especially violent. In the Lower House Archdeacon Denison insisted on the greatest severity, as he said, ``for the sake of the young who are tainted, and corrupted, and thrust almost to hell by the action of this book.'' At another time the same eminent churchman declared: ``Of all books in any language which I ever laid my hands on, this is incomparably the worst; it contains all the poison which is to be found in Tom Paine's Age of Reason, while it has the additional disadvantage of having been written by clergymen.''
Hysterical as all this was, the Upper House was little more self-contained. Both Tait and Thirlwall, trying to make some headway against the swelling tide, were for a time beaten back by Wilberforce, who insisted on the duty of the Church to clear itself publicly from complicity with men who, as he said, ``gave up God's Word, Creation, redemption, and the work of the Holy Ghost.''
The matter was brought to a curious issue by two prosecutions - one against the Rev. Dr. Williams by the Bishop of Salisbury, the other against the Rev. Mr. Wilson by one of his clerical brethren. The first result was that both these authors were sentenced to suspension from their offices for a year. At this the two condemned clergymen appealed to the Queen in Council. Upon the judicial committee to try the case in last resort sat the lord chancellor, the two archbishops, and the Bishop of London; and one occurrence now brought into especial relief the power of the older theological reasoning and ecclesiastical zeal to close the minds of the best of men to the simplest principles of right and justice. Among the men of his time most deservedly honoured for lofty character, thorough scholarship, and keen perception of right and justice was Dr. Pusey. No one doubted then, and no one doubts now, that he would have gone to the stake sooner than knowingly countenance wrong or injustice; and yet we find him at this time writing a series of long and earnest letters to the Bishop of London, who, as a judge, was hearing this case, which involved the livelihood and even the good name of the men on trial, pointing out to the bishop the evil consequences which must follow should the authors of Essays and Reviews be acquitted, and virtually beseeching the judges, on grounds of expediency, to convict them. Happily, Bishop Tait was too just a man to be thrown off his bearings by appeals such as this.
The decision of the court, as finally rendered by the lord chancellor, virtually declared it to be no part of the duty of the tribunal to pronounce any opinion upon the book; that the court only had to do with certain extracts which had been presented. Among these was one adduced in support of a charge against Mr. Wilson - that he denied the doctrine of eternal punishment. On this the court decided that it did ``not find in the formularies of the English Church any such distinct declaration upon the subject as to require it to punish the expression of a hope by a clergyman that even the ultimate pardon of the wicked who are condemned in the day of judgment may be consistent with the will of Almighty God.'' While the archbishops dissented from this judgment, Bishop Tait united in it with the lord chancellor and the lay judges.
And now the panic broke out more severely than ever. Confusion became worse confounded. The earnest-minded insisted that the tribunal had virtually approved Essays and Reviews; the cynical remarked that it had ``dismissed hell with costs.'' An alliance was made at once between the more zealous High and Low Church men, and Oxford became its headquarters: Dr. Pusey and Archdeacon Denison were among the leaders, and an impassioned declaration was posted to every clergyman in England and Ireland, with a letter begging him, ``for the love of God,'' to sign it. Thus it was that in a very short time eleven thousand signatures were obtained. Besides this, deputations claiming to represent one hundred and thirty-seven thousand laymen waited on the archbishops to thank them for dissenting from the judgment. The Convocation of Canterbury also plunged into the fray, Bishop Wilberforce being the champion of the older orthodoxy, and Bishop Tait of the new. Caustic was the speech made by Bishop Thirlwall, in which he declared that he considered the eleven thousand names, headed by that of Pusey, attached to the Oxford declaration ``in the light of a row of figures preceded by a decimal point, so that, however far the series may be advanced, it never can rise to the value of a single unit.''
In spite of all that could be done, the act of condemnation was carried in Convocation.
The last main echo of this whole struggle against the newer mode of interpretation was heard when the chancellor, referring to the matter in the House of Lords, characterized the ecclesiastical act as ``simply a series of well-lubricated terms - a sentence so oily and saponaceous that no one can grasp it; like an eel, it slips through your fingers, and is simply nothing.''
The word ``saponaceous'' necessarily elicited a bitter retort from Bishop Wilberforce; but perhaps the most valuable judgment on the whole matter was rendered by Bishop Tait, who declared, ``These things have so effectually frightened the clergy that I think there is scarcely a bishop on the bench, unless it be the Bishop of St. David's [Thirlwall], that is not useless for the purpose of preventing the widespread alienation of intelligent men.''
During the whole controversy, and for some time afterward, the press was burdened with replies, ponderous and pithy, lurid and vapid, vitriolic and unctuous, but in the main bearing the inevitable characteristics of pleas for inherited opinions stimulated by ample endowments.
The authors of the book seemed for a time likely to be swept out of the Church. One of the least daring but most eminent, finding himself apparently forsaken, seemed, though a man of very tough fibre, about to die of a broken heart; but sturdy English sense at last prevailed. The storm passed, and afterward came the still, small voice. Really sound thinkers throughout England, especially those who held no briefs for conventional orthodoxy, recognised the service rendered by the book. It was found that, after all, there existed even among churchmen a great mass of public opinion in favour of giving a full hearing to the reverent expression of honest thought, and inclined to distrust any cause which subjected fair play to zeal.
The authors of the work not only remained in the Church of England, but some of them have since represented the broader views, though not always with their early courage, in the highest and most influential positions in the Anglican Church.