"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known." — Sydney Carton's last words in A Tale of Two Cities [1859]

"I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in Me, shall never die!"

The murmuring of many voices, the upturning of many faces, the pressing on of many footsteps in the outskirts of the crowd, so that it swells forward in a mass, like one great heave of water, all flashes away. [A Tale of Two Cities, Ch. 45]

Christ-like self-sacrifice, implies an almost evangelical cast to Dickens's Christian thought. More often, Dickens focuses on hypocrisy and zealotry in depicting what he feels Christianity is not, as in Stiggins (in The Pickwick Papers), Melchisedek Howler (in Dombey and Son), Chadband (in Bleak House), and Mrs. Clennam (in Little Dorrit). His ultimate role model for the application of an active faith is the gentle blacksmith Joe Gargery (in Great Expectations), but nowhere in the novels does Dickens articulate a personal credo; for that, we must look to the book he wrote exclusively for his own children's Christian education, The Life of Our Lord (1846):

Remember! — It is Christianity To Do Good always — even to those who do evil to us. It is Christianity to love our neighbour as ourself, and to do to all men as we would have them Do to us. It is Christianity to be gentle, merciful, and forgiving, and to keep those qualities quiet in our own hearts, and never make a boast of them, or of our prayers or of our love of God, but always to shew that we love Him by humbly trying to do right in everything. If we do this, and remember the life and lessons of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and try to act up to them, we may confidently hope that God will forgive us our sins and mistakes, and enable us to live and die in Peace. [The Life of Our Lord, Ch. 11, p. 474 of The Everyman Edition]

Broadly Protestant in his upbringing and his personal convictions, Charles Dickens was probably affected as much by Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress as the Bible, and equally disliked radical forms of religion, especially Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism, that inhibited the individual's ability to realise his dreams and reach his potential. The above passage which concludes his account of the tenets of the Christian faith, The Life of Our Lord, was never published in Dickens's lifetime, so intensely personal and private was the book's message of charity; clearly he regards the sympathy and classlessness of the new religion (despite its many misrepresentations by those who would manipulate it for their own selfish ends) as the reason that this particular "Religion gradually became the great religion of the World" (474). He saw Catholicism in Italy as enforcing a dictatorial, establishmentarian, and highly superstitious form of Christianity that consigned the majority of its adherents to poverty, ill-health, and ignorance but privileged a small elite. In the pamphlet "Sunday Under Three Heads" (1836) he attacked he attacked the Church of England on its Sunday closing policy and vigorously opposed sabbatariansim as denying the labouring classes much deserved recreational relief from the daily grind. In The Life of Our Lord, although he refers consistently to Jesus as "Our Saviour" (a Protestant idiom), Dickens seems almost Unitarian in his conception of Christ as a teacher, healer, ethical leader, a New Testament Christ who preached forgiveness and forbearance. Perhaps, then, Dickens should be described as "Liberal" first, then sentimental and rationalist who, as in A Christmas Carol (1843) regarded the social mission of the Christian religion as its chief function since it offered comfort and consolation to the suffering and united a diverse community under common humanitarian and altruistic principles, and excluded none ("God bless us, every one!"). Going to church for Bob Cratchit and his son enables them to participate in a great festival and affords other celebrants as they regard the afflicted boy to remember He who made blind men see and cripples walk; thus, Tiny Tim becomes an artifact of faith and an objective correlative for the essential Christian message of hope.

However, characterize Dickens's Protestantism as latitudinarian would not encompass his aversions to both extreme evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism as he experienced it in Italy. To use The Life of Our Lord as an absolute index of his Christian convictions would be unwise since he intended it as a primer on middle-of-the-road Christianity for his own children, never intended it be published, and emphasized Christ the man (despite resurrection scenes in Chapter 11) rather than Christ the Son of God. Hoewever, Dickens dwells on the miracles, probably because he deemed these of narrative interest to a child audience. As an 1840s "Radical" sympathiser Dickens makes the twelve apostles specifically "poor" (Ch. 3) and suggests that Christ was a sort of "pre-Chartist" in that he chose such disciples so "that the Poor might know — always after that; in all years to come — that Heaven was made for them as well as for the rich, and that God makes no difference between those who wear good clothes and those who go barefoot and in rags" (445, Everyman edition). There was a period in the Hungry Forties when Dickens conceived a violent dislike of the Established Church, and flirted with Unitarianism. In terms of acquiring a university degree (which, of course, he himself did not have), Dickens regarded the necessity of an applicant's having the correct religious background (i. e., Church of England) as a ridiculous impediment towards career advancement for a Nonconformist with the requisite ability:

characteristic of a larger controversy: for much of the nineteenth century the issue of religious education proved to be the key obstacle in developing a pervasive national school system. Dickens developed this idea imaginatively in "A December Vision," which contains a portrait of priests and teachers arguing over — but never agreeing on — what to teach (Household Words 2, 14 December 1850). [Leon Litvack, http://dickens.ucsc.edu/OMF/litvack.html]

Consequently, although like the scientists and engineers whose work was transforming English society Dickens was a "fellow traveller" on the road of Christian principle and material progress, he did not live his faith in the way that mid-nineteenth-century Nonconformists would have since, as Paul Davis notes,

He described himself as a New Testament Christian, rejecting the rigid and negative doctrines of Protestant sects that stressed the Old Testament, as the Calvinistic Mrs. Clennam did. In , his retelling of the Gospels for his children, he stressed his moral teachings and parables in the New Testament. [327]

In later life, his convictions took a decidedly "anti-Establishmentarian" turn, if one may judge from his remarks in the opening Uncommercial Traveller essay (28 January 1860, in All the Year Round) when the persona describes the clergyman who has interred the victims of the shipwreck:

So cheerful of spirit and guiltless of affectation, as true practical Christianity ever is! I read more of the New Testament in the fresh frank face going up the village beside me, in five minutes, than I have read in anathematising discourses (albeit put to press with enormous flourishing of trumpets), in all my life. I heard more of the Sacred Book in the cordial voice that had nothing to say about its owner, than in all the would-be celestial pairs of bellows that have ever blown conceit at me. [Dickens' Journalism, 32]

Consequently, to Dickens Spiritualism was anathema, not merely because it was a distortion of Christian principles but also because it rejected or contradicted the findings of nineteenth-century science as exemplified by the pioneering work of Michael Faraday and Sir David Brewster, as well as the intellectual Christianity of William Paley, author of Evidences of Christianity (1794) and other books that sought to harmonize Christianity and science (see "Rather a Strong Dose," in span class="book">All the Year Round, 21 March 1863).

Additional References

Davis, Paul. "Religion." Charles Dickens A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, 1998. Pp. 337-338.

Dickens, Charles. "The Life of Our Lord." Holiday Romance and Other Writings for Children. Ed. Gillian Avery. Everyman Dickens. London: J. M. Dent, 1995. Pp. 441-474.

Litvack, Leon. "Charles Dickens and Victorian Education." Our Mutual Friend. The Scholarly Pages. Accessed 26 May 2011. http://dickens.ucsc.edu/OMF/litvack.html

Slater, Michael, and John Drew. The Dent Uniform Edition of Dickens' Journalism: 'The Uncommercial Traveller' and Other Papers 1859-1870. London: J. M. Dent, 2000.

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Last modified 9 June 2011