Written by Vladimir Moss



     The great Russian writers and theologians took a great interest in English religion in the Victorian era. Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow (+1867) conducted negotiations with a high-ranking delegation from the American Episcopalian Church, and was visited by Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland and a High-Church Anglican priest. Both Lev Nikolaievich Tolstoy (+1910) and Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky (+1881) visited London in the 1850s and wrote about their visits. So did the famous Russian Slavophile theologian Alexis Stepanovich Khomiakov (+1860), who was amazed at how silent the streets of London were on a Sunday. And he wrote: “Germany has in reality no religion at all but the idolatry of science; France has no serious longings for truth, and little sincerity; England with its modest science and its serious love of religious truth might give some hopes…”[1] 

     What was the reality that they found there?

     “It would be easy,” writes Robert Tombs, “to present Victorian England as a mass of contradictions. It rang with moral exhortation: listening to sermons was a popular pastime, even on honeymoon. Yet vices were not only secretly indulged but publicly flaunted. Politicians could show off their mistresses: for example, the Marquess of Hartington, Liberal MP and later holder of many ministerial offices, who openly took the well-known courtesan Catherine (‘Skittles’) Walters to the Derby in 1862. Aggressive prostitution made parts of London’s West End no-go areas for respectable women, and the staff of the well-known Trocadero restaurant were so nervous about prostitutes that any unknown unaccompanied woman was shunted off into a corner so that ‘in case of misbehavior we can screen the table off’. Property and convention ruled, but emotion was constantly bursting out as men sobbed and women swooned, sometimes over things that even we would find embarrassingly sentimental: one elderly peer sobbed all night after reading one of Dickens’s death scenes. Modernity was lauded; but some of the most creative cultural impulses came from a reinvention of tradition in architecture, art and music. Religion exerted enormous power over people’s lives. Yet never before had its power been so publicly questioned. Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘Dover Beach’ (1851), with its sonorous description of Faith ebbing with a ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’, is said to be the most widely reprinted poem in the language…”[2]

     With regard to religion, there was a marked change from the early nineteenth century to the mid-century Victorian era. At the beginning of the century, religion was not something that gentlemen practiced or talked about much. Thus, as David Starkey and Katie Greening write, “the Church of England had fallen to a new low earlier in the century. Its buildings were crumbling, and Anglican church services had become not only devoid of ceremony and ritual, but were often badly organized, understaffed and sparsely attended. On Easter Sunday, 1800, only six communicants attended the morning celebration in St. Paul’s Cathedral.”[3]

     William Palmer, looking back in 1883 to England fifty years earlier, wrote: “Allusions to God’s being and providence became distasteful to the English parliament. They were voted ill-bred and superstitious; they were the subjects of ridicule as overmuch righteousness. Men were ashamed any longer to say family prayers, or to invoke the blessing of God upon their partaking of His gifts; the food which He alone had provided. The mention of His name was tabooed in polite circles.”[4]

     And yet only a few decades later, the English could be counted among the more religious nations of Europe. Continental atheism found little response in English hearts. True, Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1816) expressed a fear, not only that science might go off the right path and produce monsters, but that it might reveal that man, like Frankenstein, did not have a soul, but was purely material, so that God did not exist. The rapid growth of science, and the emergence of such atheist theories as Darwinism (Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published in 1859), accentuated these fears. But in the second half of the century, at any rate, the English remained stubbornly “pious”. And if some surprising blasphemies did escape the lips of senior public servants – such as the British consul in Canton’s remark: “Jesus Christ is Free Trade, and Free Trade is Jesus Christ”[5] – this was not common. True, Free Trade was probably the real faith of many in the English governing classes. But officially England was a “most Christian” nation. 

     This was owing in no small part to the movement of religious and moral that we know as Victorianism…[6]


     Francis Fukuyama writes: “The Victorian period in Britain and America may seem to many to be the embodiment of traditional values, but when this era began in the mid-nineteenth century, they were anything but traditional. Victorianism was in fact a radical movement that emerged in reaction to the kinds of social disorder that seemed to be spreading everywhere at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a movement that deliberately sought to create new social rules and instill virtues in populations that were seen as wallowing in degeneracy. The shift toward Victorian values began in Britain but was quickly imported into the United States beginning in the 1830s and 1840s. Many of the institutions that were responsible for its spread were overtly religious in nature, and the changes they brought about occurred with remarkable speed. In the words of Paul E. Johnson: ‘In 1825 a northern businessman dominated his wife and children, worked irregular hours, consumed enormous amounts of alcohol, and seldom voted or went to church. Ten years later the same man went to church twice a week, treated his family with gentleness and love, drank nothing but water, worked steady hours and forced his employees to do the same, campaigned for the Whig Party, and spent his spare time convincing others that if they organized their lives in similar ways, the world would be perfect.’ The nonconformist churches in England and the Protestant sects in the United States, particularly the Wesleyan movement, led the Second Great Awakening in the first decades of the century that followed hard on the rise in disorder and created new norms to keep that order under control. The Sunday school movement grew exponentially in both England and America between 1821 and 1851, as did the YMCA movement, which was transplanted from England to America in the 1850s. According to Richard Hofstadter, U.S. church membership doubled between 1800 and 1850, and there was a gradual increase in the respectability of church membership itself as ecstatic, evangelical denominations became more restrained in their religious observances. At the same time, the temperance movement succeeded in lowering per capita alcohol consumption on the part of Americans back down to a little over two gallons by the middle of the century…

     “These attempts to reform British and American society from the 1830s on in what we now label the Victorian era were a monumental success…”[7]

     We can measure the success of Victorianism by the sharp reversal in the trends for crime and illegitimacy, which increased through the first half of the nineteenth century (and especially during the Napoleonic wars), but from about 1845 declined steadily until the end of the century. We find a similar pattern in America, with the peak in crime coming about thirty years later.[8]

     However, in spite of its undoubted success in raising the external morality and efficiency of the Anglo-Saxon nations, Victorianism has had a bad press. It has been seen as the product of pride and hypocrisy. Moreover, it coincided, paradoxically, with a decline in faith in many spheres. 

     “Victorian England,” writes Tombs, “was a highly religious society: this was one of the best and worst things about it. But so had the country been in previous centuries, and so were all contemporary societies. How religious was it? Its favourite books included the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress. But when for the first and only time a census recorded religious practice on Sunday, 30 March, 1851, the statistics shocked many. They showed a relatively high number ‘neglecting’ religious services – estimated at 5.3 million people, 29 percent of the population. However, 7.3 million did attend church – 41 percent of the population, about 70 percent of those able to do so. These levels are similar to those in the United States in the 2000s, though five times higher than the 8 percent attending Sunday worship in Britain in 2000.

     “More than half of 1851 attendances were at Nonconformist chapels, not the Church of England. England had since the seventeenth century been unusually diverse and divided in its beliefs – ‘sixty sects and only one sauce,’ joked a French observer. Yet over the eighteenth century Old Dissent (Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers) legally tolerated in 1689, stagnated, and Anglican dominance seemed unchallengeable. The explosion of ‘New Dissent’ (especially Methodism) from the 1770s to the 1840s marked one of the most dramatic social and cultural changes in the country’s history. English religion no longer consisted of a national Church with a few licensed dissenters, but of some ninety churches and sects. The omnipresent Church of England remained by far the largest – 85 percent of marriage in 1851 were in church, and only 6 percent in chapel. But the 1832 Reform Act had increased the voting power of Nonconformists – about 20 percent of the new electorate. Many of them demanded outright disestablishment, some vehemently denouncing ‘the white-chokered, immoral, wine-spilling, degraded clergy, backed by debauched aristocrats and degraded wives and daughters.’ To understand the continuing importance of the Church, and the vehemence of both its defenders and attackers, we would have to imagine an institution today combining the BBC, the major universities, parts of the Home Office, and much of the welfare, judicial and local-government systems.

     “Anglicanism was both strengthened and weakened by its ancient institutional structures. It was strongest in the Midlands and the south of England, and weak around the edges – the north, the south-west, the Scottish and Welsh borders, and Wales. This was originally for basic material reasons – scattered populations, low incomes and inability to support a resident clergy. But from the 1750s these areas boomed in population and industry. By the time the Church responded – building over 4,000 churches between 1820 and 1870, an effort unique in history – many people had been integrated into Nonconformist sects, especially Methodism: on ‘census Sunday’ its chapels attracted about 2.25 million, over 20 percent of the total, and up to half of those in towns. John Wesley’s flexible and even opportunistic methods (moving on when there was no response and consolidating where converts were made) proved highly successful: Methodism was the only denomination that positively thrived on socio-economic change – including population growth, industrialization, migration and social mobility. So, in its various forms, it became the most powerful catalyst of cultural dissidence in England. Chapels and their Sunday schools, often staffed by self-taught artisans and miners, became a channel of revolt against the squire and the parson, providing an autonomous religious environment affording moral legitimacy, solidarity and self-confidence. In rural society, this might attract farmers who resented paying church rates and tithes, labourers in dispute with their bosses – even poachers. In short, all who detested parsons, who were also often Poor Law guardians or JPs: Radicals never forgot that it was a clerical magistrate who had read the Riot Act at Peterloo [in 1819]. The Primitive Methodists (the ‘Prims’), who doubled their numbers during the conflictual 1830s, remained a sect of the poor, preaching a lively message of ‘the 3 Rs’: ‘ruin, repentance and redemption’; and their preachers provided a constant stream of trade union leaders. Mainstream Methodism attracted the hard-working, respectable and newly prosperous businessmen who now had the vote and became one of the most dynamic forces in English politics.

     “Smaller older sects, such as the Quakers and Unitarians, became the religion of urban and business elites, at least as much as the Church of England was that of the squirearchy… Some were also influential philanthropists and campaigners: pious Dissenting families regarded their wealth and privilege as imposing a God-given duty to society. Similarly, Evangelicalism, which influence both Church and Dissent, was a call to public and political action in almost every sphere. It created vast numbers of charities and philanthropic lobby groups – many still in existence – largely depending on the voluntary labours of middle-class women. Women as well as men were politically organized and powerful as lobby groups, despite lacking the vote. To their pressure is due much of what is ‘Victorian’ in social and cultural life: anti-slavery, animal protection, Sunday Observance, prison reform, temperance, protection of women, and prosecution of obscenity and illicit sexuality. The so-called Nonconformist conscience was willing to use political action and law enforcement as a means of extending moral behaviour.”

     “A challenge to Anglicanism from the other end of the spectrum was the Oxford Movement, an 1820s High Church dons’ revolt led by the poet John Keble, the Regius Professor of Hebrew Edward Pusey, and the vicar of St. Mary’s, John Henry Newman. The rebels were determined, in Newman’s words, to resist ‘Rationalism’ and ‘Liberalism’ in the Church which led to the subversive conclusion that ‘no theological doctrine is any thing more than an opinion.’ During the 1840s Pusey was banned from preaching and Newman censured.”[9]

      The Movement began with John Keble’s sermon to the Oxford Assize Judges in July, 1833, in which he warned against “the growing indifference, in which men indulge themselves, to other men’s religious sentiments”.

     In his famous Tract 90, John Newman sought to interpret the Anglican 39 Articles in such a way as to make them consistent with Catholic teaching. This led to a backlash, which eventually forced Newman to leave Anglicanism and join the Roman Church, where he became a cardinal. The Oxford Movement then devolved into the Cambridge Camden Society, which explored medieval liturgy, music and architecture, and which was led by Edward Pusey.


     The interest of Alexis Khomiakov was especially aroused by Pusey’s  Branch theory of the Church, according to which Anglicanism, Catholicism and Orthodoxy were three branches of the One Church.[10] Khomiakov hoped that this belated interest of English Protestantism in ecclesiology, the dogma of the Church, would elicit a genuine rapprochement between Anglicans and Orthodox. And indeed, “the whole point of the [Oxford] Movement,” writes Geoffrey Faber, “lay in the assertion – no less passionately made than the Evangelical’s assertion of his private intimacy with God – that men deceive themselves if they seek God otherwise than through the Church. It should be needless to add that in the teachings of Keble, Pusey, Newman, and the Tractarians generally, the relationship of the individual soul to God was just as important as in the teaching of John Wesley. But the importance of that relationship was not to be thought of as transcending the importance of the Church. The Church was the divinely established means of grace. But she was something else and something greater. She was the continuing dwelling place of God’s spirit upon earth, and as such she had owed to her all the honour and glory within the power of men to pay.”[11]

     Encouraged by such sentiments, Khomiakov entered into a long and very interesting correspondence with the Anglican deacon William Palmer, which ended only when Palmer joined the Roman Catholic Church. Not that he agreed with Pusey’s branch theory: his The Church is One is a powerful refutation of the heresy. But England seemed to him, in the midst of her “Babylonian” materialism, as exemplified above all by the 1851 Great Exhibition, to have “higher thoughts”: “England, in my opinion, has never been more worthy of admiration than this year. The Babylonian enterprise of the Exhibition and its Crystal Palace, which shows London to be the true and recognized capital of Universal Industry, would have been sufficient to engross the attention and intellectual powers of any other country; but England stands evidently above its own commercial wonders. Deeper interests agitate her, higher thoughts direct her mental energy…”[12]

      Later, however, as the Oxford movement petered out, and England joined with “insincere” France and infidel Turkey in the Crimean War against Holy Russia, Khomiakov’s admiration turned to disillusion and anger…

     Lev Tolstoy was not yet the anti-Orthodox firebrand of his later years when he visited London in 1861. He noted the sexual hypocrisy of the city with its thousands of prostitutes[13],  but thought they had an important role to play in preserving the institution of the family! “Imagine London without its 80,000 magdalenes – what would happen to families?” he wrote.[14] However, Tombs argues that the “widely repeated estimate of 80,000 or more prostitutes in London should probably be closer to 5,000. A proof of the power of respectable Nonconformity to shape actual behaviour was the rarity of prostitution in the northern towns. We should be skeptical of the idea that hypocrisy was a Victorian hallmark: ‘As a matter of plain fact, sexual hypocrisy in the recorded lives of notable Victorians is rare.’”[15]

     Dostoyevsky was also struck by London’s prostitutes during his visit in 1862.

     “On the streets,” writes Geir Kjetsaa, Dostoyevsky “saw people wearing beautiful clothes in expensive carriages, side by side with others in filth and rags. The Thames was poisoned, the air polluted; the city seemed marked by joyless drinking and wife abuse. The writer was particularly horrified by child prostitution:

     “’Here in the Haymarket, I saw mothers who brought along their young daughters and taught them their occupation. And these twelve-year-old girls took you by the hand and asked to be accompanied. One evening, in the swarm of people I saw a little girl dressed in rags, dirty, barefoot, emaciated and battered. Through her rags I could see that her body was covered with bloody stripes. She wandered senseless in the crowd… perhaps she was hungry. No one paid her any attention. But what struck me most was her sad expression and the hopelessness of her misery. It was rather unreal and terribly painful to look at the despair and cursed existence of this small creature.’

     “When he visited the London World’s Fair with ‘civilization’s shining triumphs’, Dostoyevsky again found himself possessed by feelings of fear and dejection. Appalled, he recoiled from the hubris that had created the Crystal Palace’s ‘colossal decorations’. Here was something taken to its absolute limit, he maintained, here man’s prideful spirit had erected a temple to an idol of technology: “’This is a Biblical illustration, this speaks of Babylon, in this a prophet of the Apocalypse is come to life. You feel that it would take unbelievable spiritual strength not to succumb to this impression, not to bow before this consummate fact, not to acknowledge this reality as our ideal and mistake Baal for God.’”[16]

     Dostoyevsky saw through the Englishman’s religiosity, seeing it as a kind of humanism. He noted that English thinkers such as Mill were impressed by Auguste Comte’s idea of a “Religion of Humanity”, and in 1876 he wrote: “In their overwhelming majority, the English are extremely religious people; they are thirsting for faith and are continually seeking it. However, instead of religion – notwithstanding the state ‘Anglican’ religion – they are divided into hundreds of sects…. Here, for instance, is what an observer who keeps a keen eye on these things in Europe, told me about the character of certain altogether atheistic doctrines and sects in England: ‘You enter into a church: the service is magnificent, the vestments are expensive; censers; solemnity; silence; reverence among those praying. The Bible is read; everybody comes forth and kisses the Holy Book with tears in his eyes, and with affection. And what do you think this is? This is the church of atheists. Why, then, do they kiss the Bible, reverently listening to the reading from it and shedding tears over it? – This is because, having rejected God, they began to worship ‘Humanity’. Now they believe in Humanity; they deify and adore it. And what, over long centuries, has been more sacred to mankind than this Holy Book? – Now they worship it because of its love of mankind and for the love of it on the part of mankind; it has benefited mankind during so many centuries – just like the sun, it has illuminated it; it has poured out on mankind its force, its life. And “even though its sense is now lost”, yet loving and adoring mankind, they deem it impossible to be ungrateful and to forget the favours bestowed by it upon humanity…’

     “In this there is much that is touching and also much enthusiasm. Here there is actual deification of humankind and a passionate urge to reveal their love. Still, what a thirst for prayer, for worship; what a craving for God and faith among these atheists, and how much despair and sorrow; what a funeral procession in lieu of a live, serene life, with its gushing spring of youth, force and hope! But whether it is a funeral or a new and coming force – to many people this is a question.”[17]

     Dostoyevsky then quotes from his novel, A Raw Youth, from the “dream of a Russian of our times – the Forties – a former landowner, a progressive, a passionate and noble dreamer, side by side with our Great Russian breadth of life in practice. This landowner also has no faith and he, too, adores humanity ‘as it befits a Russian progressive individual.’ He reveals his dream about future mankind when there will vanish from it every conception of God, which, in his judgement, will inevitably happen on earth.

     “’I picture to myself, my dear,’ he began, with a pensive smile, ‘that the battle is over and that the strife has calmed down. After maledictions, lumps of mud and whistles, lull has descended and men have found themselves alone, as they wished it; the former great idea has abandoned them; the great wellspring of energy, that has thus far nourished them, has begun to recede as a lofty, receding Sun, but this, as it were, was mankind’s last day. And suddenly men grasped that they had been left all alone, and forthwith they were seized with a feeling of great orphanhood. My dear boy, never was I able to picture people as having grown ungrateful and stupid. Orphaned men would at once begin to draw themselves together closer and with more affection; they would grasp each other’s hands, realizing that now they alone constituted everything to one another. The grand idea of immortality would also vanish, and it would become necessary to replace it, and all the immense over-abundance of love for Him who, indeed, had been Immortality, would in every man be focused on nature, on the universe, on men, on every particle of matter. They would start loving the earth and life irresistibly, in the measure of the gradual realization of their transiency and fluency, and theirs would now be a different love – not like the one in days gone by. They would discern and discover in nature such phenomena and mysteries as had never heretofore been suspected, since they would behold nature with new eyes, with the look of a lover gazing upon his inamorata. They would be waking up and hastening to embrace one another, hastening to love, comprehending that days are short and that this is all that is left to them…’

     “Isn’t there here, in this fantasy, something akin to that actually existent ‘Atheists’ Church’?”[18]


March 16/29, 2020.

St. Aristoboulos, Apostle of the Seventy, First Bishop of Britain.


[1] Khomiakov, First Letter to William Palmer, in W.J. Birkbeck, Russia and the English Church, London: Rivington, Percival & Co., 1895, p. 6. Cf. the Fourth Letter: “An almost boundless Individualism is the characteristic feature of Germany, and particularly of Prussia. Here in Berlin it would be difficult to find one single point of faith, or even one feeling, which could be considered as a link of true spiritual communion in the Christian meaning of the word. Even the desire for harmony seems to be extinguished, and that predominance of individualism, that spiritual solitude among the ever-busy crowd, sends to the heart a feeling of dreariness and desolation…. Still the earnestness of the German mind in all intellectual researches is not quite so disheartening as the frivolous and self-conceited gaiety of homeless and thoughtless France.” (Birkbeck, op. cit., pp. 77-78).

[2] Tombs, The English and Their History, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014, p. 463.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long withdrawing roar,
Retreating to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

[3] Starkey and Greening, Monarchy & Music, London: BBC Books, 2013, p. 301.

[4]Palmer, in Geoffrey Faber, The Oxford Apostles, London: Penguin, 1954, pp. 319-320.

[5] J.M. Roberts, The Penguin History of Europe, London: Penguin Books, 1997, p. 382.

[6] As in the patriotic and religious revival of the mid-eighteenth century, music played an important part in this movement. The German Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn, with the help of Victoria and Albert, raised the level of church music, and recalled Handel in his composing the oratorios St. Paul (1836) and Elijah (1846) (Starkey and Greening, op. cit., p. 302).

[7]Fukuyama, The Great Disruption, London: Profile Books, 1999, pp. 266-267, 268.

[8]Fukuyama, op. cit., pp. 268-269.

[9] Tombs, op. cit., pp. 465-467.

[10]Dr. Joseph Overbeck, one of the first Western converts to Orthodoxy, wrote about Pusey: "Dr. Pusey is the father of the so-called Anglo-Catholics, sometimes styled Puseyites, though by this by-name are generally understood those High-Churchmen who revel in decorative tom-fooleries and stylish ceremonies. He was, though not the originator, still a mighty support of the Tractarian movement. He quieted the passions of the young hot-brained Tractarians, smoothed down the Romanizing tendencies, and was always an upright friend of the Eastern Church, which he considered to be in unison with his own. Still he remained a Western Churchman, guided by the true idea that both Churches are fully entitled to have their own way and subsistence, only linked by the bond of common Catholic truth and Catholic Constitution. He would be quite right, provided his Church were a true branch of the Western Catholic Church.” 

[11]Faber, The Oxford Apostles, London: Penguin, 1954, p. 325.

[12] Khomiakov, Sixth Letter to William Palmer, in Birkbeck, op. cit., p. 99.

[13]Kate Summerscale, "Divorce, Victorian Style", Seven, April 29, 2012, pp. 12-13.

[14]Tolstoy, in Rosamund Bartlett, Tolstoy: A Russian Life, Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2011, p. 187.

[15] Tombs, op. cit., p. 482.

[16] Kjetsaa, Fyodor Dostoyevsky: A Writer’s Life, London: Macmillan, 1987, p. 145.

[17] Dostoyevsky, The Diary of a Writer, London: Cassell, trans. Boris Brasol, vol. I, pp. 265-266.

[18] Dostoyevsky, The Diary of a Writer, p. 266.

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