obert Elsemere's loss of belief begins when he realizes the implications of two interests, the first of which is the nature of historical evidence and testimony, and the second evolution. As Ward's narrator explains, “Perhaps it was his scientific work, fragmentary as it was that was really quickening and sharpening these historical impressions of his. Evolution—once a mere germ in the mind—was beginning to press, to encroach, to intermeddle with the mind's other furniture” (ch. 22, 304). However, evolution does not lead to his loss of faith in orthodox Christianity as it did in many other Victorian believers. In other words, he did not experience an immediate, devastating realization that the Bible was not literally, historically true. With Elsmere an acceptance of the idea that culture and society have evolved made him realize that what constitutes evidence has also changed. Therefore, valid proofs in the time scripture took form might not seem valid in the age of Victoria.
As it turns out, Squire Wendover, who at Oxford had moved from Tractarianism to the Broad Church liberal protestantism and then to German Higher Criticism, has devoted his life to precisely this issue. As he explains to the young clergyman, who despite himself becomes a kind of disciple, that “the great want of modern scholarship . . . is a History of Evidence, or rather, more strictly, ‘A History of Testimony.’” (ch. 14 314). In answer to Elsmere's question how he conceived this “magnificent subject,” Wendover responds, “Simply from the standpoint of evolution, of development. . . . But few people have any idea in detail of the amount of light which the history of human witness in the world, systematically carried through, throws on the history of the human mind; that is to say, on the history of ideas” (ch24 314). As this point the narrator informs us, that “for Elsmere, that hour and a half, little as he realized it at the time, represented the turning-point of life,” and even though he responded “in words so full of poignancy, in imagery so dramatic,” proving himself “no mean guardian of all that was most sacred to himself and to Catherine,” his period of “unclouded” faith was over.
Fighting a rear-guard action, Elsmere tries to forestall any direct attacks on his faith by telling the squire
I should just like to say once for all, that to me, whatever else is true, the religion of Christ is true. I am a Christian and a Christian minister. Therefore, whenever we come to discuss what may be called Christian evidence, I do it with reserves, which you would not have. I believe in an Incarnation, a Resurrection, a Revelation. If there are literary difficulties, I must want to smooth them away—you may want to make much of them. We come to the matter from different points of view. You will not quarrel with me for wanting to make it clear. It isn't as if we differed slightly. We differ fundamentally—is it not so?' [ch 22 305]
Poor Elsmere believes he had erected a strong outer defence that wil protect his faith from any direct attack, but, as the narrator tells us, “in reality he had but been doing as the child does when it sets up its sand-barrier against the tide” (ch 22 306). Indeed after this crucial conversation the squire thinks to himself: “His religious foundations are gone already, if he did but know it” (ch23 310).
One step or stage in Elsmere's loss of faith comes when he reads Wendover's The Use of the Old Testament in the New, whose dating of the Book of Daniel might seem a minor point to a modern reader. The question comes down to this: was the Book of Daniel written, as it purports to be, in ancient times, or was it a “patriotic fraud” written much later to inspire a Jewish revolt. Ward does not simply present Elsmere's encounter with the problem but rather in a series of paragraphs takes us through the characteristic responses of believers in various denominations [entire passage]. First, we learn the discovery of the actual date the book of Daniel was composed “drove M. Renan out of the Church of Rome.” The next paragraph explains how Evangelicals (such as Elsmere's wife Catherine) would defend their faith, and afterward Ward presents next what a Broad Church Anglican would say.
Then appears the critic, having no interests to serve, no parti pris to defend, and states the matter calmly, dispassionately, as it appears to him. 'No reasonable man,' says the ablest German exponent of the Book of Daniel, 'can doubt that this most interesting piece of writing belongs to the year 169 or 170 B.C. It was written to stir up the courage and patriotism of the Jews, weighed down by the persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes. It had enormous vogue. It inaugurated a new Apocalyptic literature. And clearly the youth of Jesus of Nazareth was vitally influenced by it. It entered into his thought, it helped to shape his career.'
The great problem here, it turns out, is that Christ, the supposed son of God, quotes Daniel as if it were true. But if it is not true, who then is Christ? [Interestingly, Ward does not offer the obvious response that might remove the whole difficulty: if in becoming human, Jesus relinquished divine omniscience, this whole issue of the dating of the Book of Daniel loses much of its importance.] Elsmere, who flings “the book heavily from him,” finds “a whole new mental picture—effacing, pushing out, innumerable older images of thought. It was the image of a purely human Christ—purely human, explicable, yet always wonderful Christianity.” This new conception of Christ “broke his heart but the spell of it was like some dream-country wherein we see all the familiar objects of life in new relations and perspectives” (ch 25 320-21).
This realization prompts Elsmere to visit his Oxford mentor Henry Grey, who has taken the same journey and who knows, “It is hard, it is bitter . . . [for] to him who has once been a Christian of the old sort, the parting with the Christian mythology is the rending asunder of bones and marrow. It means parting with half the confidence, half the joy, of life!.” Rather than preaching despair, Grey tells him to “take heart . . . It is the education of God! Do not imagine it will put you farther from him! He is in criticism, in science, in doubt, so long as the doubt is a pure and honest doubt, as yours is. He is in all life,—in all thought. The thought of man, as it has shaped itself in institutions, in philosophies, in science, in patient critical work, or in the life of charity, is the one continuous revelation of God! [ch. 27, 355-56]
- The Crisis of Faith in Mrs. Humphry Ward's Robert Elsmere
- Robert's new religion — The New Brotherhood of Christ
- “There are drawbacks to having a St. Elizabeth for a sister” — Robert Elsemere's Catherine Leyburn
Ward, Mrs. Humphry. Robert Elsemere. Ed. Clyde de L. Ryals. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967.
Ward, Mrs. Humphry. Robert Elsemere. Boston: DeWolfe, Fiske & Co., n.d. Project Gutenberg E-Book produced by Andrew Templeton and David Widger. Last Updated: February 7, 2013. Web. 20 July 2014.
Last modified 20 July 2014