Editor-in-chief Trevor Harris
(Literature, Civilization, Cultural Studies, Gender Studies, Linguistics)
GRAAT: Pronounce [greit]
GRAAT: Getting to the bone
A peer-reviewed journal of Anglophone Studies
Stewart J. Brown, Providence and Empire: Religion, Politics and Society in the United Kingdom, 1815-1914 (Edinburgh: Pearson Education Limited, 2008). UK £19.90, 22.18€, 494 pages, ISBN 978-0-582-29960-3—Stéphanie Prévost, Université François Rabelais, Tours.
Providence and Empire is part of a history series edited by Keith Robbins, which seeks to explore the links between religion, politics and society and to shed light on the role religion had in forging the British nation. Here, in a detailed and well-researched study, Stewart J. Brown is trying to shed light on the complex and vexed relationship between religion and empire in the years 1815-1914. In the introduction, Brown defines the scope of his study: religion mostly influenced Victorian politics and society out of a widespread belief that Britain had a divine mission, that of bringing civilisation, commerce and Christianity to the world. He also reminds his readers that Britain’s industrial and imperial hegemony, after the Congress of Vienna, fuelled the feeling that Britain had a providential purpose in the world. In these years, the conviction mostly expressed itself through the surge in missionary activity, especially in India—all the more so after Britain had lost its American colonies—and Africa.
However, Brown’s purpose is not to write a history of missionary activity in Britain’s imperial century—a task which has already been undertaken by many historians: for example, Brian Stanley (The Bible and the Flag, Apollos, 1990), Susan Thorne (Congregational Missions and the Making of an Imperial Culture in Nineteenth-Century England, Stanford University Press, 1999) and more recently, N. Etherington (Missions and Empire, OUP, 2005) and Andrew Porter (Religion versus Empire?, MUP, 2004). Rather, Brown is trying to contribute to the deciphering of Britain’s national history, in the manner of Linda Colley (Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837, Yale University Press, 1992) and John Wolffe (God and Greater Britain: Religion and National Life in Britain and Ireland, 1843-1945, Routledge, 1994). Brown explores Britain’s providential mission as a concept that had an impact on nationhood in nineteenth—and early twentieth-century Britain, especially in the form of a moral and Christian ethic that pervaded British domestic, imperial and foreign policy. He forcefully demonstrates that this ethic was contested by politicians (especially by Disraeli). He also insists that this moral Christian ethic reflected fierce dissensions within established churches, struggles for power between established and non-established churches (dissenting, Roman Catholic and Jewish churches) and debates over the relevance of religion in politics. Besides, by choosing this title, Providence and Empire, Brown goes beyond the obvious: “England’s Mission,” a phrase made popular by Gladstone in an article published in the journal Nineteenth Century in 1878, has given birth to numerous publications, the best known probably being C. C. Eldridge’s England’s Mission: The Imperial Idea in the Age of Gladstone and Disraeli (Macmillan, 1973). But Brown is relocating the idea of mission within a recurrent nineteenth-century providentialist, prophetical and millenarian discourse. Brown shows how such prophetical thinking often saw empire as the sign of Britain’s manifest destiny, a trend which was often discarded by established churches and often frowned upon by politicians, officially at least. And Brown underlines the “uneasy relationship between the millenarian and the imperial” (Eitan Bar-Yosef, “Christian Zionism and Victorian Culture,” Israel Studies, Volume 8 (2), 2003, p. 27) that proved crucial for the construction of British nationhood in the period covered.
Brown covers the subject chronologically in six chapters which are roughly equal in length. Chapter 1 is entitled “Evangelicalism, Empire and the Protestant State” from 1815 to 1829. Here, Brown explains that established churches have a different history in the different parts of the United Kingdom and that Anglicanism was sometimes facing difficulties, as in Ireland, even in the context of the “diocesan revival”  which sought to convert Roman Catholics. Brown highlights two contradictory moves that became characteristic of the State’s position vis-à-vis religion in the years 1815-1914: first, an attempt at converting “heathen[s]” , be they Indians or Irish Catholics, to the dogma of the Protestant state as a means of enforcing obedience to the state and to consolidate the union of 1801; and second, Roman Catholic emancipation in 1829, perceived by established churches as a dangerous step towards disestablishment. Chapter 2 deals with “the Waning of the Church Connection, 1829-1845.” Brown deals with the numerous attacks on the established Churches from non-established and dissenting churches (the “tithe war,” “the voluntary challenge” of the 1830s, an upsurge of emotional Revivalism), but also from within the Church of England with the advent of the Oxford Movement, which was inclined to restore pre-Reformation practices. A powerful example of the decreasing power of the established churches in the face of dissent is the emancipation of slaves throughout British colonies in 1833, which, after the end to the slave trade in 1807, definitively “endowed the imperial state with an enhanced sense of moral purpose” . Brown also touches on the prophetic movement that gathered momentum in the late 1820s (with the emergence of the Plymouth Brethren for instance), highlighting that, although evangelical in origin, it spread to a fringe of the established Churches (with politicians such as William Cowper-Temple, Lord Morpeth or Lord Shaftesbury) and that pre-millenarian evangelicalism “emphasized the confrontation between Protestantism and Catholicism” . Chapter 3 (“Commerce, Christianity and Civilisation, 1840-1863”) traces the development of Disraeli’s “Young England” Conservative political group and its attendant Christian paternalism. Particularly interesting here is the episode of the 1857 National Humiliation day, a day of national repentance after the Indian Mutiny. Brown reminds us how this event shattered Britain: beyond the repentance that was prayed for in National Humiliation Day sermons—because Britain had not done enough to fulfil her Christianising mission in India—some churchmen preached that the India Mutiny was the punishment for Britain’s sins at home (prostitution, destitution, etc.). This event provides a transition to the following chapter (“Revivalism, Ritualism and Authority, 1859-1876”), where Brown discusses the Victorian crisis of faith in the context of increasing non-belief, of Biblical criticism by Broad church theologians and the publication of Essays and Reviews (1860), of evolutionism, of the advent of muscular Christianity, of Christian socialism, and of accrued competition to established Churches. The next chapter—“Overseas Crusades and the New Christian Social Conscience, 1875-1896”—opens with the adoption of “a religious crusade for international righteousness”  by Gladstone, at the time of the Bulgarian atrocities, as an alternative to Disraeli’s “forward imperialism.” Brown puts Gladstone’s crusading idealism back into context: he explains that the Gladstone’s High Church tendencies made him sympathetic to Eastern Christianity, a move the Church of England, in the person of archbishop Tait, frowned upon. Brown follows the development of crusading idealism from the Eastern crisis of 1876 (the Bulgarian atrocities) to that of 1894-6 (the Armenian massacres) and implicitly suggests how this idea, originally relying on the principle of peaceful concert and negotiation in Europe, eventually required the use of armed force —the bombardment of Alexandria in 1882—an event which “changed the nature of Britain’s empire” . Brown links this crusading principle to Gladstone’s defence of Irish liberties and nationalism in the case of the Home Rule bills, but also to the numerous social projects which various religious groups increasingly defended. In other words, the Christian crusade is to be fought overseas, but also at the very heart of the empire, and most notably in the deprived East End of London: a genuine challenge for both established and evangelical churches. In the last chapter (“Religious Diversity, Identities and Conflicts, 1896-1914”), Brown reviews religious manifestations triggered by the “time of unsettlement”  in the 1890s: spiritualism, Theosophy, mysticism, Christian and Jewish Zionism, to name only the most well-known.
absence of a general conclusion to Brown’s argument is regrettable,
since the reader has no other choice than to attempt their own synthesis:
chapters 2, 3, 4 and 6 do have partial conclusions, but the others
do not. Taken together with the very detailed nature of Brown’s
discussion, this can make reading him rather demanding in places—especially
for novices to the complex history of Victorian religious life and
empire. But Brown is extremely methodical and the sections are very
consistent. Further, Brown never loses sight of the imperial perspective
of his study, even if references to the Dominions are fairly sparse.
Brown’s argument that, in the end, “providentialist conceptions
regarding the United Kingdom and its place in the world, which for
many had been revived in the mid-1870s amid the agitation against
the Bulgarian atrocities, began to fade”  perhaps fails
to take account of the fact that there had always been tension between
“the political centre-stage and the religious fringe”
 and the role of millenarian groups largely remained “liminal”
(Eitan Bar-Yosef, “Christian Zionism and Victorian Culture”
23, 25). Brown also appears to overlook that amongst the prophecies
that developed out of the Eastern Question of 1875-1876, there was
British Israelism: a sect which held that Britain equated to the Ten
Lost Tribes and that, thanks to the Eastern Question and its association
with Jews, she would gain control of Palestine. This British Israelite
belief was widely debated and hotly contested by politicians, Gladstone
included, but gradually spread to Britain’s overseas Dominions
of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa and to the United
States of America to eventually give birth to the British-Israel World
Foundation (in 1919). Overall, Brown perhaps underestimates the attempts
made by various millenarian groups to convince politicians of the
righteousness of their prophecies: for example, the link between the
creation of a Protestant bishopric in Jerusalem in 1841 and Lord Shaftesbury’s
restorationist convictions. The absence of any detailed reference
to the 1898 Battle of Omdurman—though Brown does explore the
impact Gordon’s death had on Gladstone’s crusading rhetoric—or
to the Boer War, in the chapter on “Overseas Crusades”,
both seem odd.
© 2009 Stéphanie Prévost & GRAAT
Senior sub-editor: Hélène Tison