Who could tell from my books . . . what has been the course of religious effort and speculation in me? — John Ruskin (35.628)
E HAVE seen that because Ruskin increasingly felt a need to emphasize the role of human, as opposed to divine, elements in his theocentric system of aesthetics, he was unable to maintain his beauty of order. Although he never formulated a second complete theory of beauty, the statements which Ruskin made about the sublime, the picturesque, and the beauty of association in The Seven Lamps of Architecture and the last four volumes of Modern Painters show that, even as he proposed his theory of beauty, he began to allow room in his aesthetic system for the role of subjective reactions. When he made man, rather than God, the focus of his aesthetics, Ruskin was no longer able to accept his classicistic beauty of order, and he consequently placed more importance on individual, subjective emotional reaction in his writings on aesthetics.
As we have seen, the shift of focus in Ruskin's aesthetics was intimately related to the loss of the religion in which he had been raised; and, now, in order to perceive the degree to which the development of Ruskin's aesthetics was representative of the development of his thought and writings about other subjects, we shall examine the nature of his early Evangelical faith, the manner in which he lost his religion, and the effects which this loss had upon the direction of his later work. Before we begin, however, it will be useful to note that the history of Ruskin's religious opinions divides roughly into four periods: in the first years of firm Evangelical belief, which lasted until about 1848, he accepted the religion of his parents; he then experienced ten years of increasingly painful doubts which culminated in his decisive loss of religion in 1858; seventeen years of confused and often bitter agnosticism followed; and finally in 1875 he came to rest in a personal, rather strange version of Christianity, which he continued to accept until the end of his life.
James Northcote, R. A.,
John James Ruskin (left)
and Margaret Ruskin (right).
[Not in print edition; click on
picture for larger image and
From her son's earliest years Margaret Ruskin had zealously inculcated the tenets of a strict, often dour, Evangelical Anglicanism. The seventh chapter of Praeterita tells us that his mother's "unquestioning evangelical faith in the literal truth of the Bible placed me' as soon as I could conceive or think, in the presence of an unseen world" (35.28). From the time he "could conceive or think" the young boy found himself amid the promise and terror of the Evangelical universe. He found himself in a world where Damnation awaited most and Death waited for all, a world penetrated by the gaze of an immanent, punishing God who most graciously, permitted a few, a very few, to escape the pain and horror of hell. Before John Ruskin became fully conscious that he was alive, he learned that he was to die; and before he could know much about depravity, he learned that, like all human beings, he was depraved.
Since the doctrines and attitudes of Evangelical Anglicanism so importantly shaped the Ruskinian world, at this point we would do well to examine them in detail. The Evangelical Anglicans, who became the most influential party in the established church during the first three decades of the nineteenth century, are perhaps best remembered today for their fervent and continuing attempts both to cleanse the moral facade of an immoral England and to bring Gospel Christianity to country parishes and new industrial towns neglected by the less zealous Anglican clergy. Combining the beliefs and methods of Wesley, Whitefield, and the seventeenth-century Puritans with those of the Church of England, the Evangelicals made wide use of itinerant preaching and tracts to send forth the Gospel to the many Englishmen they considered dwelling in darkness. Ruskin, like many another earnest Evangelical, both read and, on occasion, recommended such tracts. Thus, in a letter to J. J. Laing, which the editors of the Library Edition place in 1854, he advised his correspondent that "the pleasantest and most useful reading I know, on nearly all religious questions whatsoever, are Ryle's Tracts" (36.180). John Charles Ryle (1816-1900), perhaps the most important nineteenth-century author of Evangelical tracts — his tracts had a circulation of twelve million — provides us with the example of a prominent Evangelical spokesman who clearly sets forth the points of Ruskin's belief.
In attempting to detail the faith to which Ruskin adhered until 1858 — mdash; the year of his decisive break with Evangelicalism — mdash; we shall also draw upon the sermons of his favorite preacher, Henry Melvill. Melvill (1798-1871), the "Evangelical Chrysostom," whom many, including Gladstone and Ruskin himself, considered the greatest preacher of his age, served as Chaplain to Queen Victoria (1852) and Canon of St. Paul s from 1856 until his death. He was also the minister to whom the Ruskin family sat while they lived at Denmark Hill, and as John Ruskin grew into adulthood he became a friend of this famous preacher to whose sermons he was devoted. Ruskin tells us in Praeterita that Melvill "was the only preacher I ever knew whose sermons were at once sincere, orthodox, and oratorical on Ciceronian principles" (3s.386), and the serious attention he gave to these graceful sermons appears in his diaries, where he occasionally summarizes them, urges himself to commit one to memory, or praises them as "noble," "admirable," and "forcible and clear in the extreme." In addition to attending Melvill's sermons when in London, Ruskin habitually read published versions of them in The Pulpit, a weekly publication entirely devoted to publishing the sermons of eminent Evangelical preachers. In the letters which he wrote to his parents during his 1851-1852 stay in Venice, Ruskin several times mentions Melvill's sermons, thanking his parents for copies they had sent or asking for additional ones. In December 1851, for example, he wrote: "I am very glad to have the sermons of Mr. Melville [sic] for today and next Sunday' if the box with the bath is not yet sent off I wish you could put half a dozen or a dozen into it." Such a remark suggests either that sermons sometimes appeared in print before they were delivered, which, however, does not seem very likely, or that Ruskin had access to Melvill's text.
Sir John Everett Millais Bt PRA (1829-96). John Ruskin. Click on picture for larger image.In August 1853, when he, his wife, and Millais were at Glenfinlas where the painter was doing the famous portrait, he wrote to his father that he was "especially obliged by the Mr Melvill sermon. Would you be so good as to send me some more?" In whatever form and from whatever source Ruskin read particular sermons, we can at least be sure that he frequently attended Melvill's preaching, kept accounts of this preaching in his diaries' and, when out of London, read written or published versions whenever able. The student of Ruskin's thought thus finds himself in a particularly fortunate position to determine the nature of his early belief, for however difficult it is to chart the flux of Ruskin's faith after 1858 one can at least be sure that while he adhered to Evangelicalism, Ryle and Melvill, its prominent spokesmen, clearly set forth that set of attitudes and that body of doctrine in which he was raised and to which at first gave loyal allegiance.
One point, surely, on which all Evangelical Anglicans agreed was the need for uncompromising zeal in spreading the word of God. As Melvill emphasized in a sermon which Ruskin took to heart as bearing on his own condition, "Religion . . . is not a thing for half measures." Ryle, who later became Bishop of Liverpool, emphasized the need for an earnest emotional commitment even more strongly: "Zeal, like John Knox pulling down the Scotch monasteries, may hurt the feelings of the narrow-minded and sleepy Christians. It may offend the prejudices of those old-fashioned religionists who hate everything new, and abhor all change. But Zeal in the end will justify itself. Their zeal, and the fact that they cooperated in missionary ventures with the dissenting sects, led other Anglicans, who stigmatized them as Methodists within the Church, to believe the Evangelicals shared more with the dissenters than with other members of the established Church; and, in truth, they believed that dissenters who shared their main beliefs were closer to God than many nominal Christians in the Anglican communion. Thus, Ryle points out that any Christian who accepted the main tenets of Evangelical faith would be saved whether or not the believer belonged to the Church of England.
According to Ryle, there were "five distinctive doctrinal marks by which the members of the Evangelical body may be discerned":
The first leading feature in Evangelical Religion is the absolute supremacy it assigns to Holy Scripture as the only rule of faith and practice, the only test of truth. . . . The second leading feature in Evangelical Religion is the depth and prominence it assigns to the doctrine of human sinfulness and corruption. . . . [Third] is the paramount importance it attaches to the work and office of our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . An experimental knowledge of Christ crucified and interceding, is the very essence of Christianity. . . . [Fourth] is the high place which it assigns to the inward work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of man. Its theory is that the root and foundation of all vital Christianity in any one, is a work of grace in the heart. . . . [Fifth] is the importance it attaches to the outward and visible work of the Holy Ghost in the life of man.
As he explained, the primary conviction of Evangelical Anglicanism was "that man is required to believe nothing, as necessary to salvation, which is not read in God's Word written, or can be proved thereby. It totally denies that there is any other guide for man's soul, co-equal or co-ordinate with the Bible." Casting away Church tradition as without authority, the Evangelicals relied solely on scripture which they took to be the literal Word of God. Scorning "the old wives' fables of Rabbinical writers and the rubbish of Patristic traditions," Ryle emphasized that "A man must make the Bible his rule of conduct. He must make its leading principles the compass by w11ich he steers his course through life. By the letter or the spirit of the Bible he must test every difficult point and question." To make scripture thus the rule of one's conduct required "a patient, daily, systematic reading of the Book."
Margaret Ruskin engaged her son as soon as he "could conceive or think" in such a course of Bible study, making him read the Testaments, memorize them, and then repeat to her daily the passages he had committed to memory. In addition, for many years he also kept notebooks in which he collated scriptural passages and plumbed the implications of God's word. This early training not only gave him his close knowledge of the Bible and his habit of citing scripture for proof or example, a habit which remained after he had lost the belief in its literal truth, but also did much to shape his early prose style. Equally important was the manner in which Evangelical modes of reading the Bible formed his ways of interpreting secular works of art and literature. For example, there can be no doubt that Ruskin's characteristic attention to the minute details of a painting or a poem, a technique which often produces his most brilliant insights, derives from Evangelical injunctions to read scripture closely, particularly since in Praeterita he credits Melvill with "all sorts of good help in close analysis, but especially, my habit of always looking, in every quotation from the Bible, what goes before it and after" (35.388). When Ruskin discusses and demonstrates that "word-by-word examination of your author which is rightly called 'reading,'" (1875) in Sesame and Lilies (1870), he thus clearly echoes the usual directions of the Evangelical pastor to his flock. Melvill, for example, similarly instructed his listeners: "Read the Bible yourselves, and teach your children to read it, as a book that should be pondered, not hurried over; a book, so to speak, that may be better read by lines than by chapters." Again, Ruskin appears to be following the pattern of the preacher when he instructs his readers that "you must get into the habit of looking intensely at words, and assuring yourself of their meaning syllable by syllable — nay, letter by letter (18.64) Not only his habit of close reading but also his theories and procedures of symbolical interpretation clearly derive from Evangelical practice; and when we examine his debt to Evangelical exegetical methods in the following chapter, we shall observe the manner in which he transferred ways of reading the Word of God to the words of men.
According to Ryle, the second "leading feature" of Evangelical Anglican belief is the major emphasis it places on man's fallen state: "Next to the Bible, as its foundation, it is based on a clear view of original sin." A clear view of original sin requires each true believer both to admit intellectually and feel in his heart that "in consequence of Adam's fall all men are as far as possible gone from original righteousness' and are of their own natures inclined to evil." Indeed, Ryle pronounces the sad but essential fact of human depravity with such enthusiasm that he strays dangerously close to the dark heresy of the Manichee, telling his readers that "we are all rather children of the devil, than children of God." Although Melvill guards his expression more closely, he likewise points out the essential corruption that lies at the heart of each of the sons of Adam: "Man is the same, radically the same, in one state and another; he is capable of the same, the very same, villanies. . .; the polish of civilization may conceal, and the rudeness of barbarianism may bring out, evil tendencies, but those tendencies equally exist." Like Melvill, Ryle, and the seventeenth-century Puritans (whom the Evangelicals regarded as their spiritual ancestors), Ruskin as a young man believed that "there is not any part of our nature . . . uninfluenced or unaffected by the fall" (4.186). With the earnest enthusiasm of a tract the second volume of Modern Painters (1846) describes the "terrible stamp of various degradation" in man's heart, mind, and body:
features seamed by sickness, dimmed by sensuality, convulsed by passion, pinched by poverty, shadowed by sorrow, branded with remorse: bodies consumed with sloth, broke down by labour, tortured by disease, dishonoured in foul uses; intellects without power, hearts without hope, minds earthly and devilish" (4.176).
This description of man, which an 1883 note characterizes as an "Evangelical burst of flame upon the 'corruption of human nature'" (4.177n), reveals an important reason why the second volume of Modern Painters was the most Evangelical of Ruskin's works.
Such Evangelical emphasis on innate human depravity, which he accepted in 1846 so completely, colored his aesthetics and art criticism in important ways. First of all, as we have already observed, Ruskin's belief that the "Adamite curse" (4.184) brought with it an "evil diversity" (4.176) encourages him to support the characteristic romantic demand for particularity and detail in art; for accepting that original sin has destroyed any central form of human ideal beauty that may once have existed, he holds that what ideal beauty still remains is attainable only in portraiture.
Secondly, his emphasis upon the corruptions of the human mind and heart made it impossible for Ruskin, at this stage in the writing of Modern Painters, to allow that subjectivity has a role in beauty. To admit the role of subjectivity when he believed that the subject existed in corruption and diversity would have denied all that Ruskin desired of his aesthetic theories. In one of Melvill's sermons of which Ruskin heartily approved, the preacher mentioned "that utter perversion and alienation of affections, which we inherit as creatures whose moral constitution has been deeply deranged." Men "whose moral constitution has been deeply deranged," and whose emotions have been perverted and alienated, can neither experience beauty properly nor receive from it that religious and moral value Ruskin believed present in the beautiful — unless the beautiful itself was grounded in divine nature. Ruskin's Evangelical emphasis upon man's fallen nature, therefore, demanded that he create a theory of beauty as divine order; for just as the sinner could be saved from his innate depravity only by continuous acts of divine grace, so too the individual's perception of beauty could be saved from trivializing subjectivity only by the continuous presence of God. In other words, the aesthetic theories of the second volume of Modern Painters, like Evangelical conceptions of the role of God in individual salvation, require the presence of an immanent God.
The third effect of this belief in human depravity appears in Ruskin's attitudes toward the nude in art. Whereas Evangelical belief that Adam's fall had much lessened the human mind could support Ruskin's enterprise of demonstrating the moral stature of art and beauty, the belief that the fall rendered the body essentially sinful, on the other hand, creates moral and aesthetic difficulties for Ruskin the critic. Since for him the body has become the very emblem of depravity, he believes that the artist who paints it always risks that "which is luscious and foul" (4.194). Such an attitude did not hinder his appreciation of landscape and, indeed, may even have contributed much to that love of nature which characterizes Ruskin's first volume; but after he decided to expand the scope of the second volume of Modern Painters to include all painting, his puritanical dislike of the human body made it impossible for him to appreciate much of the world's great art.
Throughout the second volume one encounters his intense dislike of things physical and physically pleasurable, and no more so than when he encounters the problem of the nude. Ruskin's essential difficulty is that, unlike men of classical and Renaissance times, he finds the body as body distasteful, discomforting, and even disgusting. In sharp contradistinction to the statements of his friend and drawing master, J. D. Harding, who felt that the human body was the ultimate source of all beautiful line and form, Ruskin feels that the unclothed human form has little beauty not borrowed from color or expression. In addition, he dislikes the presentation of the nude in painting, because he feels that the body and its pleasures are necessarily dangerous because necessarily debasing. Although Ruskin later cast away the theological basis for his dislike of the physical, admitting in later years that he had come to respect the needs of the body, he always maintained his dislike of sexuality. Thus in an 1883 note he restated his early belief that sexuality has no place whatever in art: "The general tendency of modern art, under the guidance of Paris, renders it necessary to explain now to the reader, what I before left him to feel, that the sexual instinct is entirely excluded from consideration throughout the argument of this essay; I take no notice of the feelings of the beautiful, which we share with flies and spiders' (4.63n). His statements almost four decades earlier reveal the extent to which he believed that the artist who painted the body had to deny the physical nature of his subject. First of all, as we have seen, he felt that true human beauty resides in the features, in facial expression, and not in the body itself. Secondly, he believed that the artist who had to portray the naked body must emphasize color, the element of emotion and spirituality, at the expense of qualities which might suggest flesh:
The purity of flesh painting depends, in very considerable measure, on the intensity and warmth of its colour. For if it be opaque, and clay cold, and devoid of all the radiance and life of flesh, the lines of its true beauty, being severe and firm, will become so hard in the loss of the glow and gradation by which nature illustrates them, that the painter will be compelled to sacrifice them for a luscious fulness and roundness, in order to give the conception of flesh; which, being done, destroys ideality of form as of colour, and gives all over to lasciviousness of surface. (4.194-195)
Ruskin's obvious dislike of "luscious fulness and roundness . . . of flesh that suggests sexuality, further appears in his remark that "splendour of colour both bears out a nobler severity of form, and is in itself purifying and cleansing, like fire" (4.195). According to Ruskin, then, flesh must be purified, for it cannot be presented as it is, as soft material of a living body; it must be presented — or as Ruskin says, "redeemed" — "by severity of form and hardness of line" (4.196). In other words, whereas Ruskin's emphasis on expression turns the living body into spirit, his emphasis on color and severe form turns flesh into an object, into a sexually neutral thing.
The roles of Christ and divine grace in man's salvation' the third and fourth points of Evangelical belief, receive a strongly emotional coloring from Ryle and other Evangelical ministers of the Gospel. After pointing out that "nothing whatever is needed between the soul of man the sinner and Christ the Saviour, but simple, childlike faith," Ryle goes on to emphasize that, not a mere belief in Christ, but "an experimental knowledge of Christ crucified and interceding, is the very essence of Christianity." This "experimental knowledge of Christ" — Christ felt, seen, experienced — can come only as the result of grace, and therefore only an emotional experience of Christ can demonstrate true conversion, true openness to God. According to Ryle, the fourth characteristic tenet of Evangelical Anglicanism is the emphasis it places upon "the inward work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of man":
Its theory is that the root and foundation of all vital Christianity in any one, is a work of grace in the heart, and that until there is real experimental business within a man, his religion is a mere husk.... We hold that, as an inward work of the Holy Ghost is a necessary thing to a man's salvation, so it is a thing that must be inwardly felt. . . . And we insist that where there is nothing felt within the heart of a man' there is nothing really possessed.
First of all, the Holy Ghost must enable the recipient of grace to sense the presence of death close at hand. Before one can turn to Christ and appreciate his gift of eternal life, one must first experience the fear of death and damnation, and therefore the preacher, trying to assist the work of grace, emphasizes that all must die. Similarly, in a tract directed at the young' Ryle thus assures his readers: "Young men, it is appointed unto you to die; and however strong and healthy you may be now, the day of your death is perhaps very near. I see young people sick as well as old. I bury youthful corpses as well as aged."
According to William "'s Practical Christianity, one of the most influential of all Evangelical works, such felt experience and conviction of one's own death separates the true believer from "the generality of nominal Christians, who are almost entirely taken up with the concerns of the present world. They know indeed that they are mortal, but they do not feel it." After feeling the closeness of death, one must feel one's guilt' and finally one must experience the presence of Christ in one's life' feeling both what Christ suffered for man and his grace in one's own actions.
This emphasis upon a felt emotional religious experience, so central to Evangelical belief, provided support for the romantic critical theory upon which Ruskin drew in formulating his own views of art and aesthetics. First of all, the Evangelical preacher and the individual worshipper demanded the same qualities of religious experience as did the romantic poet and theorist: both Evangelicalism and romanticism required spontaneous, personal, intense, sincere emotions upon which to found one's life or one's art. This convergence of religion and poetry is understandable in the light of the fact that both drew upon theories of moral perception and the sympathetic imagination. In fact, " gave Adam Smith's Theory of the Moral Sentiments, which presented emotionalist theories of moral perception and sympathy, something very like official party sanction when he cited it frequently in his Practical Christianity. In addition, " devoted large sections of his devotional and proselytizing work to defending the role of the emotions in religion, something about which the High Church party had grave doubts. His chief argument for the role of the emotions sounds much like Ruskin's own statements on human nature, for he argues that religion must appeal to the whole man, to the emotions as well as to the reason.
Introducing emotions into religion always risks the dangers of an isolating, dividing subjectivity, but the Evangelical preachers assured the faithful that faith itself would insure that their emotion was the influence of grace and not, as Swift had asserted, the product of a less divine afflatus. Similarly, Ruskin sought to assure his audience not only that their deeply felt experiences of art and beauty were themselves earnest, noble, and essential to the spiritual life of man, but that they directly derived from God. In particular, Ruskin's theory of the beautiful, which posits the symbolic presence of God, asserts the religious nature of this mode of aesthetic experience. When we examine his theories of allegory and allegorical imagination in the following chapter, we shall observe other ways that Ruskin's theories try to guarantee the value and truth of aesthetic experience by modeling it upon the life of faith.
Finally, the Evangelical Anglicans believed "that the true grace of God is a thing that will always make itself manifest in the conduct, behaviour, tastes, ways, choices and habits of him who has it," and although they held that good works could in no way earn salvation, which was entirely the gift of God, they placed great value on them as a sign of divine grace in action. Ryle emphasized: "We affirm confidently that 'fruit, is the only certain evidence of a man's spiritual condition." As first evidence of grace the newly converted member of the faith had to exemplify in his own life the beliefs he professed; he had to make his life an emblem of religion in action, a doctrine which Melvill emphasized in a sermon Ruskin liked enough to summarize in his diary: "The believer has to give an exhibition — mdash; a representation of religion; it rests with him to furnish practical evidence of what religion is, and of what religion does." Furthermore, Melvill explains elsewhere: "As the people of God, they must carry religion with them into every business of life, and see to it that all scenes are pervaded by its influence" — mdash; an enterprise continually apparent in Ruskin's aesthetics' art criticism, and economic theory.
Then, while the true believer attempted to make himself a living emblem of his faith, carrying "religion into every business of life," he also had to make others receptive to the words of God. The Evangelical belief in an emotional, felt religion plus this commitment to good works produced that characteristic zeal to aid the spiritual well-being of others. In Melvill's "The Greatness of being Instrumental to Another's Conversion," which Ruskin considered a "fine sermon," the preacher characterized the "true Christian" as "one' who burns with zeal for the glory of God, and who loves his fellow-men, as children of the same Father, and redeemed by the same blood. Show him, then, what he can do to promote God's glory, or to benefit his fellow-men, and you show him what he will eagerly seize upon, as meeting his desires and serving his energies."
Not all Evangelicals spoke with Melvill's gentleness and generosity, for this zealous desire to do good for others produced a characteristic Evangelical arrogance well exemplified by Ryle's statement that "zeal will make a man hate unscriptural teaching, just as he hates sin. It will make him regard religious error as a pestilence which must be checked, whatever may be the cost." The cost in other people's feelings never, it seems, appeared too high a price for zealous Evangelicals to pay, and they willingly, all too willingly, censured others with that freedom born of the heady conviction that God approved the words and deeds of the converted. Ryle himself frankly admitted that although many people "think it uncharitable to say anything which appears to condemn others," he for one could not understand such charity: "It seems to me the charity which would see a neighbour drinking slow poison, but never interfere to stop him." The Evangelicals willingly interfered, knocking from the Englishman's hand such poison cups as the workingman's sabbath amusements.
Although they occasionally accomplished some good, particularly in suppressing the slave trade, they too frequently acted with an arrogant and heavy hand, and after Ruskin had parted from the Evangelicals he disliked them heartily for this proud conviction that they, and only they, possessed the truth. In Fors Clavigera Ruskin satirically characterized the father of Frederick the Great as "an Evangelical divine of the strictest orthodoxy," because he was "entirely resolved to have his own way, supposing, as pure Evangelical people always do, that his own way was God's also" (28.68). Similarly, in a lecture which he delivered at Oxford in 1870, he described not only the Evangelical party but all "modern Protestantism" as that religion, "which consists in an assured belief in the Divine forgiveness of all your sins, and the Divine correctness of all your opinions,'(22.8l).
Nonetheless, however much he may have later criticized the arrogant crusading zeal of the Evangelicals, it left firm imprints on his own thought, reinforcing his conviction both that he knew the truth and that he had to bear it to others. Similarly, Evangelical societies for the prevention of vice and the distribution of Bibles, for the converting of the heathen and the saving of waifs and strays, grew out of the same attitudes one may perceive in Ruskin's statements about the working class. And part of Ruskin's arrogance toward artists came from the fact that, like the Evangelicals in religion, he believed he was the bearer of truth who must do good for others — with or without their aid or even desire. By the time he was nine years old, Ruskin had copied into his notebooks the Evangelical belief that "He that is not for me is against me." and the signs of this attitude continued to mark his life and writings many years after he had abandoned Evangelicalism.
Furthermore, Ruskin shared the Evangelical attitude toward criticism by others. At the same time that this Church party easily dismissed the feelings of "narrowminded" Christians, censuring them at will, they reacted to all criticism of their own group as the clear sign of Satan's work; in fact, they all but cherished such criticism as a martyrdom which the children of God had to bear in an evil, unconverted world. During the first years of the Evangelical movement, which began in the second half of the eighteenth century, many in the Church of England did scorn their indecorous enthusiasm and itinerant preaching. But long after they had attained power within the Church and had become an influence in the nation, the Evangelicals continued to regard themselves, rather incongruously, as a persecuted little sect bravely enduring the jibes of those others who would soon enough find themselves consigned to the flames of hell. Ryle exemplifies the usual martyr complex of the Evangelicals when he warns his readers that "God's true people are still a despised little flock. True Evangelical religion still brings with it reproach and scorn. A real servant of God will still be thought by many a weak enthusiast and a fool." Melvill similarly told his congregation that "The converted member, being secretly disliked, will, under some shape or other, be persecuted by the unconverted."
Ruskin too had this sense that he and those whose causes he advocated were "persecuted by the unconverted, and this attitude toward hostile criticism often colors his statements both in Modern Painters, particularly the first volume, and his later works on political economy. Of course, the fact that he so often espoused unpopular causes — Turner, the Pre-Raphaelites, and Christian socialism come immediately to mind — certainly exposed him to much hostile criticism. And while Ruskin sometimes quietly accepted this criticism to a degree that has not often been realized, he more usually reacted with hostility and sarcasm to any adverse comment, as though, like the Evangelicals in religion, his advocacy of truth had subjected him to martyrdom in the public arena. Although such an attitude surely is largely a matter of individual personality, the religion in which his parents had raised him continually served to reinforce it.
We can also perceive in Ruskin that peculiar ruthlessness associated with the Evangelicals. As one might expect, the Evangelicals, confidence that they possessed the only Right often led them to believe that their great purpose of salvation justified whatever means they, the elect, the men of the second birth, found necessary. Ryle was most characteristic when he stated: "I loathe that squeamishness which refuses to help religious works if there is a blemish about the instrument by which the work is to be carried on." Ford K. Brown's Fathers of the Victorians has shown how remarkably unsqueamish the Evangelicals could, in fact, be. Believing that they had to make vice unpopular and unfashionable before they could drive it from the land, they willingly used many instruments with blemishes about them. For example, Evangelical organizers of societies to save "fallen women" thought nothing amiss in making well-known rakes, if titled, their patrons and honorary presidents, since such action would in the long run, they believed, serve the interests of morality. Thus, we have the grotesque situation in which those who helped women fall, and delighted when they did, presided over movements to stamp out their favorite pleasures. The Evangelicals did not seek to avoid such hypocritical situations, for as Ryle affirmed, "Zeal in the end will be justified by its results."
Similarly, this confidence that he was in possession of the sole Right was surely one reason that Ruskin continued to cite scripture in support of his arguments, knowing well, as he must, that such a style and such a tone suited the tones of the time and the expectations of many in his intended audience. Furthermore, he was well aware of the hostile public reaction that awaited anyone who left the faith. As he wrote in 1859 to Charles Eliot Norton, a close friend: "I don't believe in Evangelicalism — and my Evangelical (once) friends now look upon me with as much horror as on one of the possessed Gennesaret pigs" (36.363). Another reason for Ruskin's reticence, at least after 1862, was that in that year he promised Mrs. La Touche, a close friend, not to make any public statements on his loss of belief for another ten years.
Last modified 25 July 2005