regaining faith in the face of ‘progress’

A book that I’ve long (at least 3 years) had on my wish list recently arrived in the mail, and it has not disappointed – I’m not quite finished it, but it has kept me up late for a few nights.

“Crisis of Doubt” gives brief biographies of seven leaders of skepticism/free-thought in the UK during the Victorian era who reconverted to orthodox (traditional – usually evangelical) Christianity before the end of their life. All were Christians as youth or young adults, but became skeptics at some point, rising to prominence in the skeptical community of the time, as debaters, anti-Bible lecturers and the like. One aim of the book is to challenge the popular narrative of the “Victorian crisis of faith”. In contrast to the loss of faith literature, which tends to be centered on middle-to-upper class literary intellectuals (as I understand), this book focuses particularly on people from the working class, often incredibly bright self-taught men who studied after hours. The words “skeptic” or “free thinker” were fairly broad terms at the time – the terms didn’t necessarily mean “atheist”, though most of the seven were atheists at some point, and all denied the divinity of Christ, disparaged most of the Bible, etc. In addition to the seven, there is also an appendix with a range of mini-biographies of a number of other people who had broadly similar life stories or are otherwise of interest for related reasons. One is Charles Southwell, a skeptic important in NZ free-thinking history (the NZARH still annually awards a Charles Southwell prize, I think) – he did not reconvert, though it seems he may have claimed to have done, for the sake of his reputation – the story is somewhat murky but fascinating.

Many who read this may assume that all or most reconversions of intelligent people were spurious – perhaps even made-up deathbed conversions, invented by over-eager Christians. The seven in this book however are all well-documented cases of leading skeptics praised in the free-thinking literature of the time who later wrote works in defense of Christian faith.

Here are quick summaries of two. I hope you enjoy them. If you’d like to borrow the book, I’d be pleased.

Thomas Cooper, born 1805, became an evangelical at the age of 14 through the preaching of Methodists. He became a preacher, but fell out with his denominational leaders. He was then a journalist, becoming increasingly religiously skeptical and politically radical as a Chartist. He was involved, it seems, in physical violence through this political movement. Imprisoned at the age of 38, becoming more anti-religious while there. Free-thinking lecturer 1846-1855 – according to a skeptics’ journal, “the most popular lecturer on Free Inquiry in the metropolis” [London]. Popularised German liberal theological scholarship, particularly Strauss. Began to think that secularism had limitations, particularly in grounding morality. Publicly, in place of a lecture that he was meant to give, declared belief in a moral law-giver in 1856, full acceptance of Christianity in 1857. Gave over 4000 Christian lectures and 2500 sermons as an apologist.

John Henry Gordon, born 1838, was a sunday school teacher at an early age, but lost his faith in his late teens, joining organized unbelief at the age of 19. He was soon contributing to a major secularist newspaper, and then secretary of the Edinburgh Secular Society. At 22 he was picked as one of 8 national secularist leaders invited to speak at a national convention of 5000 people (2 of the others invited also later reconverted – it seems it wasn’t a great time to be a leader in that movement). Lectures he was willing to give included “Why I hate Christianity”. On the particularly abusive side of the skeptical spectrum. He was employed by the Leeds Secular Society as a full-time lecturer – the first ever such (full time lecturer) position for a British secular society. Reconverted in mid 1862, disenchanted with the secularist leadership and after hearing a sermon from the gospel of John. In August 1862 he gave a public lecture to explain why, but was drowned out by angry secularists. Thereafter wrote a number of works of Christian apologetics and became a Baptist minister. Died 1878.

The other five stories are similarly fascinating (to me anyway) pictures of anti-Christian debaters/writers/lecturers who had a change of mind. Faith and doubt and their effects in people’s lives are hard to beat as topics to touch on in a biography.

One remarkable but unintended feature of the book (published 2006) concerns one of the modern skeptics interacted with, who gets 7 mentions (equal or more than any other modern skeptic, as far as I can see), AN Wilson. His book ‘God’s funeral’ is a popular account of the Victorian crisis of faith and subsequent history. His biography of CS Lewis, another one of his books, is apparently particularly unflattering. Wilson, a prominent atheist for 20 years after earlier being a Christian writer, himself reconverted in 2009 – perhaps God is still at work?

There is no inevitability to growth in atheism or decline in Christianity – witness China and Eastern Europe as two other recent examples. We live in interesting times.

crisis of doubt

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