CHRISTOPHER LANE’s The Age of Doubt: Tracing the Roots of Our Religious Uncertainty investigates the scientific, literary and intellectual icons of the Victorian era who began challenging faith and the religious orthodoxy of the Church. Here the author gives a fascinating account of the Sunday law, created to prevent freethinkers from discussing and debating the Bible. He discusses how reactions to this law helped prompt a culture of doubt but also an engagement with religious belief that modern polemicists could learn from today.
Article by Christopher Lane
I grew up in London at a time when it was technically illegal for theatres to open on Sundays. Not all of them obeyed the law; “Sunday societies” began flouting it as early as the 1920s, when reforms began to chip away at its broad powers. But I was born in 1966, not the 1920s, and the law responsible for closing most theatres—the amazingly named “Act for Preventing Certain Abuses and Profanations on the Lord’s Day, Called Sunday,” formally adopted in 1781—wasn’t fully repealed until 1972. That year, at long last, the Sunday Entertainment Act blew open the doors of the West End and theatres nationally, expanding a theatre scene that is now justly considered the envy of the world.
Today, it seems incredible to recall that for more than a century-and-a-half, while Britain was industrializing and undergoing numerous democratic reforms, the 1781 Act was responsible for closing each Sunday not only the nation’s theatres, but also its libraries, museums, zoos, public gardens, and of course its shops. In The Literature of the Sabbath Question, Victorian author Robert Cox noted wryly in 1865 that the law was widely perceived as a “barrier” to public learning and relaxation, as well as one that “prevents the admission of the public on Sundays to the Crystal Palace at Sydenham.”
Wryness wasn’t the only Victorian response to the law. In his famous treatise On Liberty (1859), John Stuart Mill noted that zealots were citing the 1781 law in “repeated attempts to stop railway travelling on Sundays.” He called such obstructions a type of “religious bigot[ry]”—a form of harassment against doubters, freethinkers, and unbelievers. Such acts stemmed, he wrote, from “the notion that it is one man’s duty that another should be religious, . . . a belief that God not only abominates the act of the misbeliever, but will not leave us guiltless if we leave him unmolested.” It is, Mill concluded, “the opinions men entertain, and the feelings they cherish, respecting those who disown the beliefs they deem important which makes this country not a place of mental freedom.”
Mill’s line about “repeated attempts to stop railway travelling on Sundays” made me sit up and listen. The concern about fanaticism that lay behind it set me on a path to researching the origins of the 1781 Act, including the motivations of the man who spirited it through Parliament, Bishop Beilby Porteus.
Bishop Porteus was an avid reformer and abolitionist with keen interests also in the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. Before passage of his bill, he was bishop of Chester; after its passage, he was promoted to bishop of London. In 1780, he writes candidly in his memoir, uncovered a few years later, he sought the aid of Parliament to crack down on religious criticism in Britain: “The beginning of the winter of 1780 was distinguished by the rise of a new species of dissipation and profaneness.”
On Sundays, the bishop noted with dismay, groups across London would assemble in public meeting rooms, using names such as “Christian Societies, Religious Societies, [and] Theological Societies.” “The Theological Assemblies were calculated to extinguish every religious principle,” he claimed, and thus “threatened the worst consequences to public morals.” They “gave offence . . . to every man of gravity and seriousness . . . , several of whom I have heard speak of [them] with abhorrence.” Foreigners apparently had been “shocked and scandalized . . . considering it a disgrace to any Christian country to tolerate so gross an insult on all decency and good order.”
Anyone wondering what Bishop Porteus meant by “good order” should recall that, just a few decades earlier, Robert Walpole’s regime had closed theatres it deemed critical of the Crown and Parliament. Nor was it easy to voice even mild doubt about Christianity. A few decades earlier still, an eighteen-year-old university student named Thomas Aikenhead had been tried, convicted, and hanged in Edinburgh for blasphemy. His crime: “denying the Doctrine of the Trinity.”
The bishop’s account of how he persuaded eminent lawyers and magistrates to help him pass the bill makes for compelling, if unsettling, reading. What I hadn’t known before researching the 1781 Act was that it also sparked a powerful rebuttal that year, an anonymous pamphlet called The Doubts of Infidels: Queries Relative to Scriptural Inconsistencies & Contradictions (1781).
Its author called himself “A Weak but Sincere Christian” who was submitting his questions to “The Bench of Bishops for Elucidation.” As a self-described infidel, however, the author captured both the word’s flavour of heresy and its suggestion of infidelity (infidel comes to us via the Old French infidèle). Bristling with anger, he was doubtful of the bishops’ ability to answer pages of well-documented concerns about scriptural inconsistency, which he detailed for them chapter and verse.
The pamphlet has since been attributed to William Nicholson (1753-1815), a renowned London chemist and philosopher, and it begins as brilliantly controlled satire: “An act of parliament is,” he writes, “an excellent engine for producing that kind of uniformity of opinions, which consists in holding the tongue. . . . It is carrying the notion of liberty too far to suppose, because we are free-born Englishmen, that we may choose our own faith and go to heaven our own way!”
Then follows a series of devastating questions: “How can the attributes of God be vindicated, in having performed so great a number of miracles, for a long succession of very distant ages, and so few in latter times?” “Is the account of the creation and fall of man, in the book of Genesis, physical or allegorical?” And so on, for twenty-one more pages.
It is a relentless, rigourously precise list of anomalies and contradictions in the Bible. The experience of reading it is similar, one imagines, to auditing one of the best meetings that the bishop of Chester managed to make illegal: one’s sense of Christian—and British—history is likely to shift dramatically as a result.
In The Age of Doubt, I wanted to make that history accessible to readers perhaps unaware of our fascinating, turbulent past. Unearthing Nicholson’s rare pamphlet helped me piece together how well-stated doubts about the Bible galvanized freethinkers in the 1780s, creating a culture of doubt and unbelief that tempered the worst excesses of Victorian zealotry for decades to come.
What I also learned in writing the book is that the crisis of faith that would affect large numbers of Victorians, partly as a result of pamphlets such as Nicholson’s, generated a far more searching engagement with religious belief than the “new atheism” that has evolved today. More profoundly than any generation before them, the Victorians came to view doubt as inseparable from belief, thought, and debate, as well as a much-needed antidote to fanaticism and unbridled certainty.
Decades later now, in a climate of rising religious extremism in many parts of the world, the arguments and evidence that were debated so vigourously then continue to surface as battlegrounds in classrooms, textbooks, and political forums. According to a Gallup poll last December, an eye-popping four in ten Americans believe in strict creationism. Nor are things substantially better in Britain. In January 2006, BBC News reported that “just under half of Britons accept the theory of evolution as the best description for the development of life.”
For the Victorians, my book argues from extensive archival evidence, the doubt that they discussed, embraced, and turned into an ethical necessity came to represent a central fact of human experience, and it took knowledge, integrity, and understanding to face it. It offered them, as it can offer us, a productive, even hopeful way of reaching hard-won conviction that permits dissent, sharpens insight, and inspires creativity in the place of dogma and rote learning. It is a profoundly humanistic impulse that we need now, more than ever.
The Age of Doubt is available to order now from Yale University Press.
Christopher Lane is the Pearce Miller Research Professor of Literature at Northwestern University and a recent Guggenheim fellow. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, Slate, and many other newspapers and periodicals. He is the author of numerous essays and several books on literature, belief, and psychology, including Shyness, published by Yale University Press.