We first encounter Unitarianism — or “ the Unitarian persuasion” as Gladstone calls it in his review of Robert Elsemere — in the sixth chapter of the novel when we learn that Catherine Leyburn's Evangelical father, “a fanatic—as mild as you please, but immovable” (ch 6, 76),
drew the most rigid line between belief and unbelief. He would not have dined at the same table with a Unitarian if he could have helped it. I remember a furious article of his in the "Record" against admitting Unitarians to the Universities or allowing them to sit in Parliament. England is a Christian State, he said; they are not Christians—they have no right in her except on sufferance.' [ch 6, 77]
In the last quarter of the novel when Robert has lost his belief and searches for a way to help the poor, he meets Murray Edwardes, a successful unitarian preacher with a small chapel in the Easy End of London. A wealthy merchant, “one of the chief pillars of London Unitarianism” who owned warehouses “in one of the Eastern riverside districts of the city,” left money to endow a chapel in one of the “densest and most poverty-stricken of London parishes,” but, as Ward's narrator explains, it had so little success that for decades it seemed “one of the idle freaks of religious wealth and nothing more.” Ward follows this remark with what seems a gratuitous attack on a denomination that seems very close to Elsmere's own faith, telling us that “Unitarianism of the old sort is perhaps the most illogical creed that exists, and certainly it has never been the creed of the poor. In old days it required the presence of a certain arid stratum of the middle classes to live and thrive at all” (33, 416). Then, after years during which “the Unitarian minister preached decorously to empty benches, . . . that shaking of the dry bones of religious England which we call the Tractarian movement” and a new young minister unexpectedly made the Unitarian chapel an important East End house of worship. A “powerful church” staffed by followers of Pusey “stirr[ed] up the Protestantism of the British rough,—the said Protestantism being always one of the finest excuses for brickbats of which the modern cockney is master. The parish lapsed into a state of private war—hectic clergy heading exasperated processions or intoning defiant Litanies on the one side,—mobs, rotten eggs, dead cats, and blatant Protestant orators on the other” (ch. 33, 416). After the old Unitarian minister died, Murray Edwardes replaced him and he appealed to a “small party consisting of an aristocracy of the artisans” (ch 33, 417).
He threw himself upon this element, which he rather divined than discovered, and it responded. He preached a simple creed, drove it home by pure and generous living; he lectured, taught, brought down workers from the West End, and before he had been five years in the harness had not only made himself a power in R——, but was beginning to be heard of and watched with no small interest by many outsiders.
This was the man on whom Robert had now stumbled. . . . Murray Edwardes poured out the whole story of his ministry to attentive ears. Robert listened eagerly. Unitarianism was not a familiar subject of thought to him. He had never dreamt of joining the Unitarians, and was indeed long ago convinced that in the beliefs of a Channing no one once fairly started on the critical road could rationally stop. That common thinness and aridity too of the Unitarian temper had weighed with him. But here, in the person of Murray Edwardes, it was as though he saw something old and threadbare revivified. The young man's creed, as he presented it, had grace, persuasiveness even unction: and there was something in his tone of mind which was like a fresh wind blowing over the fevered places of the other's heart. [ch 43, 416-17]
One might have thought that Unitarianism was the natural spiritual home for Elsmere, but he insists on going off on his own and founding a new religion. His actions don't make a great deal of sense to the reader because Ward hasn't made clear why he doesn't join Edwardes in belief as well as in social action. Commenting upon Unitarianism in his review of the novel, Gladstone points out that one might have expected Unitarianism to gain many converts amid the general nineteenth-century loss of belief in the miraculous elements in Christianity, but that did not occur. He then adds drily, “we find Mrs. Ward herself describing the old Unitarian scheme as one wholly destitute of logic; but in what respect she improves upon it I have not yet perceived.”
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