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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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7 occurrences of Dictionary_of_the_History_of_Ideas
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6. The Nineteenth Century. A course of curriculum
history which concentrates on governmental affairs and
on the writings of the intellectuals in eighteenth-
century Europe may do less than justice to the ordinary
life of town and country, and the mood of a great part
of society. It is easy to forget the famous hymns which
the eighteenth century produced, the choral music of
Bach, Handel's Messiah, the tremendous momentum
of the Methodist movement, and the way in which
religion itself could even come to terms with the new
outlook. At the same time, human needs, which the
hard, dry thinking of the Age of Reason failed to satisfy,
are to be recognized in the quasi-religious aspirations
of Rousseau and in certain aspects of that romantic
movement which was sometimes associated with the
nostalgias of lapsed Christians—even (particularly in
Germany) lapsed sons of the manse. Almost at the very
time when Napoleon was realizing the political capital
that he might gain within France itself from a Con-
cordat with the papacy, Chateaubriand, in his Génie
du Christianisme
(1802) registered a new mood which
was capable of reviving the power of religion, and his


influence seemed to be increased by the fact that he
gave more place to sentiment than profound reasoning.

At the same time the cataclysms of twenty-five years
were calculated to revive both a religious awe and a
distrust of human systems; and, after 1815, it became
easy (while, for many, it was a matter of high policy)
to preach that the writings of the philosophes had been
responsible for the recent tragedies, and that the
human race cannot afford to turn its back on history.
The new situation helped to increase the significance
of history and—particularly when combined with the
romantic mood—it tended to alter the character of
the historical endeavor, creating a disposition to turn
it into what was much more a study of the past for
its own sake. One result of this was the awakening of
interest in the Middle Ages and a discovery of the
achievement of the medieval Church; and this was
initially the work of Protestant scholars, though it
became a source of considerable stimulus to Roman
Catholicism. After the example had been set in England
by Edmund Burke before the end of the eighteenth
century, the cause of tradition in both the political and
the religious field came to find its expositors amongst
the European intelligentsia, and conservatism itself
acquired a more imposing intellectual support. These
factors help to explain why, in the nineteenth century,
religion again became a power in the world, and why
also the most remarkable features of the story were
the revival of Roman Catholicism and the emergence
in the 1830's of the Oxford movement.

Yet, to a considerable degree, the movement against
Christianity increased in power, and the hostility to
ecclesiastical systems now turned more definitely into
an attack on religion as such. The formidable character
of the secularizing forces helped in fact to provoke
a counter-movement (to alarm the Tractarians in
Oxford, for example) and the conflict between belief
and unbelief became a more profound and serious
affair. It is interesting to see that in France, where the
hostility to Rome and to Christianity itself was still
so strong, the growth and the assertiveness of Catholic
piety became particularly evident; and the very power
which the state acquired over the church in the
Napoleonic settlement drove Catholics to recognize
the papacy as their true support, the old Gallican
prejudices giving way to Ultramontanism.

The century saw the continued enlargement of the
power and the scope of the state—a state now by
necessity increasingly engrossed by secular preoccupa-
tions—and this became irksome at times even to
Protestants, irksome even to sections of that highly
national body, the Church of England. Precisely be-
cause the state was so obviously no longer a “religious
society,” virtually coextensive with a church, Christians
were thrown back on the idea of the Church as a
separate body, functioning for special purposes and
existing by virtue of a divine commission. Something
of the resulting aspiration for autonomy is visible not
only in the Oxford movement but even in Germany,
where princes in the period after 1815 still had great
power over their churches, and were able to bring
about the unification of the Lutheran and Reformed
systems in many regions.

At the same time the natural sciences, and the out-
look that was associated with them, began to present
more serious difficulties. In the 1830's and 1840's geol-
ogy challenged the book of Genesis, though progressive
Christians were able to meet the difficulty by reverting
to more flexible ideas about biblical inspiration—ideas
which had been held before, and the resort to which
was coming to be necessary for other reasons. But the
doctrine of evolution, particularly as developed by
Charles Darwin in the Origin of Species (1859), seemed
to involve a more radical change in one's views about
the nature of man, the character of the universe, and
the potentialities of science. All the while the develop-
ment of biblical study and the application of the his-
torical method in that field—including a closer analysis
of the Gospels—was producing equally disturbing re-
sults, especially in the work of the Tübingen school,
for example the Life of Jesus (1835) by David Friedrich
Strauss. Some people met all this with blind con-
servatism, some left the Church, and from memoirs,
biographies, and fiction we can see how often this was
accompanied by great heart-searching, carried out as
though it were itself a religious act. Some kept the
old belief that in the long run religion would become
compatible with both science and history, and were
driven to think more deeply about the essential nature
of their faith.

Apart from the ferment of the liberal and democratic
ideas which had come down from revolutionary France
and had been disseminated over Europe through the
victories of Napoleon, the rise of industrialism, the
emergence of vast urban concentrations, and the plight
of the new working classes resulted in an environment
more hostile to religion, more refractory to ecclesias-
tical teaching. For many centuries it had been almost
too easy to be a believing Christian. Now, it was not
so easy, and those who adhered to the faith had to
think more deeply about the nature of it and revise
their notion of the duties that it carried with it.

Roman Catholicism may have gained considerable
strength from the fact that it set itself so consistently
against the very things that were to become the pre-
vailing tendencies of the nineteenth century. It seems
to have acquired internal depth and spiritual intensity
from the fact that it stood so firmly by its ancient


teaching and was so assured in its dogmatic claims.
Its revival had begun before 1815, and it produced a
restoration of religious orders (including the general
reestablishment of the Jesuits in 1814); also an intellec-
tual revival in Germany which made Munich an ex-
hilarating city before the middle of the century. The
creation of an unprecedented number of congregations,
societies, etc., meant that the activity and support of
the laity as well as the clergy were recruited, as never
before, for the care of the distressed, the carrying of
the gospel to neglected areas in the towns, and the
missionary work abroad.

Attempts to reconcile the religion and the authority
of the papacy with a program of modern democratic
ideas were firmly suppressed, however. For a little while
after his elevation in 1846 Pope Pius IX tried to coop-
erate with liberalism in the Papal States; but the drift
to extremism, and the crucial demand that he—a
prince of peace—should turn “nationalist” and help
to drive the Austrians from Italy, showed the impos-
sibility of this. In 1864 his Syllabus of Errors made
clear how Rome had been setting itself against the
encroachments of the state in ecclesiastical matters,
including education; it was also against the views of
liberals on toleration, and against any qualification of
the claim that Roman Catholicism was the single true
religion. There was specific condemnation of any sug-
gestion that the Supreme Pontiff either could or ought
to reconcile himself with “progress, liberalism, and
modern civilization.” If the year 1870 saw the great
humiliation of the pope—his loss of Rome and his
disappearance as a temporal power—it saw also the
Infallibility Decree of the First Vatican Council and
the explicit recognition of his supremacy in the spirit-
ual realm.

All this would have been impossible if he had not
now found in faithful Catholics throughout Europe a
support more reliable than his predecessors had re-
ceived from actual governments, and if there had not
been a widespread resolve to rescue the traditions and
doctrines of the Church from current, fashionable,
intellectual movements. On the theoretical side, the
conservative attitude itself became imposing through
the reassertion and reexposition of the scholastic
teaching of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Before the end of
the century Pope Leo XIII encouraged French Catho-
lics to cooperate with the French Republic, but this
did not prevent the complete separation of Church and
State and further attacks on the religious orders in that
country. In the ten or fifteen years from 1893 an effec-
tive resistance was made to the Catholic “Modernist”
movement, which attempted to take account of
achievements in biblical scholarship and historical
criticism (and in particular to introduce the more
flexible views of biblical inspiration now familiar
amongst the Protestants). Though there were features
in this Modernism which disturbed even enlightened
Protestants, the radical nature of its suppression lent
color to the view of Baron von Hügel that the Curia
was carrying reaction too far.

In England and Germany the Pietistic and Evangel-
ical movements went on increasing their power. In
England the nonconformists had been growing rapidly
in numbers, embracing a quarter of the population at
the beginning of the nineteenth century. Their expan-
sion became still more remarkable from this time,
especially in the newly industrialized regions, and it
was now that “the nonconformist conscience” became
a formidable affair. From 1833, however, when as a
result of the Reform Bill it was less easy than before
to regard Parliament as the lay assembly of the
Anglican Church, and when the Whigs seemed partic-
ularly menacing, the Oxford movement reasserted the
idea of the Church as a separate, divinely constituted
body to be governed by bishops who held authority
as the successors of the Apostles. Still more, they
wished to reassert the Catholic side of the Anglican
tradition, to revive the spiritual life that had been
manifested in the ancient saints and to restore the
beliefs and ceremonies of earlier times. The very epis-
copal authority which they invoked declined on the
whole to tolerate them, and in this predicament some
of their distinguished representatives—men like
Newman and Manning—moved over to Rome. Like
the nonconformists, the Oxford Tractarians had an
influence that extended far beyond their own circle,
and in their case it was an influence out of all propor-
tion to their numbers.

Germany, on the other hand, not only saw a
quickening of religious life, but also acquired a re-
markable intellectual leadership in the Protestant
world. The predominance that she had achieved in
philosophy and historical science gave her resources
for adventurous attempts to vindicate the Christian
outlook, and made Lutheranism more creative than it
had been since the days of its founder. The German
thinkers tried to meet the challenge of the age by
examining the bases of religion itself—some grounding
theology on inner experience, some insisting on a
creatureliness and a feeling of dependence in man,
some stressing the direct apprehension of the divine,
some holding that all thinking should start with Christ
and the Gospel. Certain writers raised the question
whether the surrender of Christianity to Greek thought
in the early centuries of the Church had not been a
misfortune. Others carried further than ever before the
study and criticism of the Bible, the examination of
the early Church, and the history of Christian dogma.


Protestantism became more splintered than ever in the
nineteenth century; but even more than Roman
Catholicism it expressed itself in movements to assist
the distressed classes, to reform society, to carry reli-
gion into neglected areas, and to enlarge the missionary
work abroad.

The nineteenth century was important in the history
of religion, partly because it saw advances in thought
on both the Catholic and the Protestant sides, and
partly because the conflict with secularism and unbelief
had become so formidable. In spite of the great seces-
sions that took place, both Catholicism and Protes-
tantism appeared stronger at the end of the century
than at the beginning, besides involving far greater
numbers of their adherents in a clearer act of affirma-
tive decision, and stimulating greater activity in the
laity. In both great sections of the Church, the clergy,
in their combination of earnestness, intelligence, and
training, may have reached a general standard rarely
known in the history of the Church. It would not be
easy for people today to realize the degree to which,
down to 1914, the local church was for most people
the hub of their social life—the place that often pro-
vided the only societies, sporting clubs, festivals and
parties, informative lectures, and musical evenings—
the place where men met their sweethearts and
gathered their circle of friends. A tremendous foreign
missionary endeavor from the 1790's, particularly in
Protestantism (and facilitated to some degree by the
opportunities open to colonialist nations), had far ex-
ceeded all precedents and had carried Christianity into
every quarter of the globe.

In the United States the number of Christians and
the percentage of the population that were church
members, at the beginning of the nineteenth century,
were remarkably low and ecclesiastical systems did not
possess the privileges that they so often enjoyed in the
European states. The material preoccupations of a
pioneer society, and the industrial and urban develop-
ments as the century proceeded, would have seemed
calculated to check the development of religion; yet
a tremendous internal missionary work made the ad-
vance of the churches in the United States more re-
markable than in the Old World. This missionary work
accompanied the westward movement, and the pecu-
liar needs of the frontier and of pioneer conditions
helped to produce “revivalist” methods, camp-
meetings, circuit riders, and travelling evange-
lists—techniques of mass-conversion often supported
by the fervor for “Gospel hymns” and negro “spirit-
uals.” The effect of all this was to alter the balance
of forces and in general to change the physiognomy
of American religion. Victory came to the denomi-
nations that had missionary ardor and the ability to
offer the kind of message that could reach the people.
Within Protestantism it was now the Baptists and
Methodists who multiplied, swamping the Congrega-
tionalists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians, who had
predominated at the beginning of the century.

Roman Catholicism from being one of the smallest
became the largest single religious body in the country,
partly as a result of the great number of immigrantss.
Protestantism now acquired a remarkable “popular”
shape which corresponded to the “popular” side of
Catholicism, though it bore a vastly different character,
which contributed similarly to the cause of intellectual
conservatism in the churches. The whole movement
led to a great splintering of the older denominations
and the founding of new ones, particularly Mormonism
in 1830, the Seventh Day Adventists, organized in
1863, and the Church of Christ Scientist in 1879. In
the nineteenth century and the early decades of the
twentieth there was a vast increase in the percentage
of the population that was actively connected with
some church, and, by the close of that period religion—
with its Social Gospel and its colossal philanthropies—
had done much to shape the American outlook, helping
first to generate the American ideal and then, perhaps,
to fasten Christianity itself within the limits of that