Normal Evangelicals did not declare themselves exempt from the rules of morality (this would be antinomianism in its strict definition): nor did they, in spite of uttering a lot of language to this effect, deny the existence of moral virtue. They did deny as a fundamental point of belief that anyone outside their sect was capable of it, and they asserted that admiring moral excellence for its own sake, unlinked to their own model of piety, ran counter to religious principle. It was the foundational tenet of their theology that blameless moral character and devotion to “good works” were by themselves, considered in their own right, without religious value. Most generally speaking, they promoted an ideology in which moral excellence was made secondary to “faith” or merely a derivative of it—or even, in more extreme formulations, was portrayed as a menace to religion itself. Now and again they went so far as to assert that the commission of what normally would be regarded as odious crimes would be praiseworthy if performed for religious motives. [2; emphasis added]

Evangelical Gothic, which attacks the received wisdom that Evangelicals had a beneficent effect in Victorian society, will certainly receive a warm welcome on many American university campuses where resentment of Evangelical support for the current President of the United States runs high. Unfortunately, the book’s distortions of the Evangelical influence upon the Victorians will almost certainly be taken as the gospel truth, as it were. (Here’s the appropriate point, I suppose, to state that I am not an Evangelical, or even a Christian, nor have I ever been either. I do believe one shouldn’t distort history to suit one’s own view of the present.)

Evangelical Gothic hammers away powerfully, repeatedly, but not always convincingly at two main points about late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Evangelical Protestantism before relating them to the history of the English novel: first, it argues that we should not, as so many historians have done, credit the Evangelicals for the improved moral tone and actual social improvements of the Victorian age. Second, it claims that the Evangelical emphasis upon faith over good works resulted in attacks on traditional morality that threatened to lower the actual morals of Britons. In fact, “There is nothing therefore on which the anathema of the Methodist/Evangelical preaching falls more heavily — the point cannot be made too often — than the idea that an unconverted person might be able to perform ‘good works’ by his or her own moral initiative, by trying to do good in the world according to the prompting of conscience” (40). Therefore, “Evangelical philanthropy was inhabited at every moment . . . by a powerful scorn for the humanitarian spirit and by an ambivalence that rendered all its manifestations deeply self-contradictory” (60). Herbert then relates these two claims to the history of the novel, arguing, for instance, that “nineteenth-century novelists pilloried Evangelicalism because they saw it as the vehicle of what George Eliot in an 1855 essay called ‘the perverted moral judgment’ inherent in . . . all evangelical believers.”

One can't much argue with Herbert’s valuable claim that “the very constitution of the popular novel took form in part as a repudiation of the Evangelical teaching that seemed to many to be engulfing the British mind and nation” (8; emphasis added), and he offers several convincing, often brilliant, interpretations of individual novels. But many attacks on Evangelicals in fiction had little to do with the question of faith vs. works and the supposedly absolute importance of moral acts. For example, the satirical attack on parson Stiggins in Pickwick Papers, which Herbert doesn’t mention — certainly one of the best known of all novelistic attacks on Evangelicals — criticizes him for exploiting his female parishioners and not for any particular doctrine. It is an interesting and revealing point that when Herbert turns to the idea of criticism of Evangelicals in a novel by Dickens, he chooses Bleak House, in which he convincingly argues that Dickens criticizes lawyers and the legal system by making them analogous to the ideas and structures of evangelical dogma. Nonetheless, to return to his main argument, he himself admits that the Evangelical preacher Chadband is not a really a true Evangelical because he never even mentions what Herbert takes to be the defining point of Evangelicalism — conversion and faith over works. Unlike the popular preacher Charles Spurgeon, Chadband never emphasizes “the incapacity of fallen human beings by any possible meritorious action of their own to placate the wrath of a vengeful God” (26)

Attacking the Evangelicals, Herbert repeatedly employs the rhetorical device of refutation (or refutatio), presenting counter arguments or counter evidence before making his point without actually disproving the importance of his earlier evidence. He tells us, for instance, that

It is undoubtedly true that nineteenth-century Evangelicals as a practical matter, in their civic and private relations, commonly acted as though religion and the dictates of morality coincided and reinforced each other. Nor was the highly respectable merchant banker and abolitionist Henry Thornton known for advocacy of child sacrifice or other morally intolerable acts. Yet for him in his role as Evangelical moral philosopher, it is precisely at the moment when faith entirely preempts and overthrows the moral law that it expresses itself in its perfected and most glorious, most praiseworthy form, for this is the moment when the atheistic folly of worshiping morality rather than God is definitively revealed. [53]

Similarly, he points out that

Wilberforce’s great speech to Parliament on May 12, 1789, introducing his bill for the abolition of the slave trade should convince anyone that the motive of humanitarian compassion was by no means absent from at least this greatest of all Evangelical initiatives. Clearly even so, the Evangelical dogma that the cause of all human suffering was personal sin and irreligion—not, say, poverty, inequality, environment, exploitation—could work to stultify not just the will and capacity for effective social reform but the faculty of humanitarian empathy itself. [emphasis added]

Yes, it possibly could, but two questions arise, the first of which is how much did what Herbert takes to be the principal point of Evangelical belief “stultify not just the will and capacity for effective social reform,” particularly when we know of the good works the Evangelicals did accomplish? Second, didn't the Evangelicals who supported the abolition of slavery and improving working conditions in factories see that sin and irreligion caused much of that “poverty, inequality, environment, exploitation,” so that converting those responsible would lead not only to greater social stability (which Herbert chooses to see only as repression) but also to remediating society's basic problems? How likely, how probable, is it that the long list of major historians Evangelical Gothic cites have simply got it all wrong and that Herbert, who insists his study is only an English literary study, got it right?

Clearly, when reading Herbert’s dismissal of dozens of major historians, one has to ask has he understood the historical situation accurately or has he grossly distorted it to make his opposition of Evangelical faith vs works more striking? One cannot deny that opponents of the Evangelicals, such as Isaac Taylor, warned that such emphasis upon conversion and faith created “widespread denaturing of wholesome moral feeling” (23), but was Taylor at all correct in claiming that “defining feature of ‘fantaticism’ is the abolishing of the ‘common principle’ of morality in the name of religious feeling and stoking, at the same time, of dangerous fires of sectarian vindictiveness,” or was that just an attack on the Evangelicals, who certainly often seemed maddeningly smug and self-righteous? As this example suggests, Herbert’s historical claims often seem unconvincing, and this sensitive, imaginative interpreter of literary texts too often becomes replaced by a distorting polemicist who muddles the history of religion and society. For example, Herbert several times mentions that throughout much of the nineteenth century English law made capital crimes of hundreds of offenses, and that is certainly true, but what he doesn’t point out is that judges and juries rarely sentenced the convicted to death. Similarly, although both George Eliot and Thomas Hardy write novels in which unmarried mothers are executed for the death of newborn babies, juries often refused to find such women guilty despite clear evidence and decided the babies had been born dead or died by accident. My point here is that if one is going to set oneself up as an authority on social history, one actually has know that history.

Herbert also never considers the most important factor in connections among Evangelicalism, altruism, and social reform — namely, that all three have their roots in emotionalist moral philosophy of the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries. In response to Locke’s dismissal of innate ideas, Adam Smith and his followers proposed that people acted morally because they imaginatively felt the effects upon others of their own actions. This doctrine of sympathy — today we'd term it empathy — recuperated the feelings, which for the first time in western thought became understood as positive forces. From this fundamental shift in attitudes toward emotion came The Man of Feeling, new emphasis on altruism, and Evangelical Protestantism, which its many enemies considered far too emotional because of its emphasis upon the individual believer’s felt experience of Christ's suffering as part of an emotional conversion.

Herbert seems to misunderstand Wesley’s assertion that “salvation comes ‘not by the merit of works, but by works as a condition.’ . . . It’s a finely spun distinction that dos not make much sense (how can works be a condition if they are without merit?)” Well, they can be if one takes Wesley to mean by condition that the individual performing the good act is already saved. In other words, Herbert omits or suppresses the three-part pattern of Evangelical emphasis upon conversion when he states, for example that “the whole enterprise of Evangelical philanthropy was of course on an ambiguous footing from the outset, given the supposed religious insignificance of good works, given that sin was a greater evil than poverty” (58). The problem here is that this history of the central Evangelical narrative omits a major part at the heart of Evangelical belief, which has three stages: First, believers must accept that good works by the unconverted will not save any individual. Second believers must realize their own sinful nature and experience an emotional conversion to Evangelical Christianity. Third, after accepting the Evangelical version of Christ and salvation, they must demonstrate their true religion by carrying out moral acts. Herbert asks, “Is this a moral code or a dictate that by nullifying the principle of moral discrimination, of measuring the degree and weighing the causes and consequences of “sin,” in fact negates morality itself altogether?” Well, actually, no, given that once converted — and these sermons and commentaries were directed almost entirely at the converted — the individual evangelical must act morally and carry out good works as a means of demonstrating his or her conversion and not as an indication of any moral superiority. Of course, any individual Evangelical believer within or without the Church of England might well both fail to act morally or even believe that improving the lot of his fellow, if unconverted, human beings involved repressive political action, but I doubt if the tenets of evangelical belief caused such sinful, immoral conduct, however much it might have tended (as Victorian novelists delighted to showed) to sinful pride and unwarranted belief in one’s superior spirituality.

Since Herbert, despite his frequent qualifications and counter examples, places so much emphasis upon the Evangelicals supposed lack of relation to moral action and social improvement, one has to make two observations. First of all, Evangelical Protestantism was indirectly responsible for altruism and social responsibility because major Victorian figures who abandoned Evangelical beliefs but retained many associated habits of mind — think Carlyle and Ruskin — used them in their writings as Victorian sages as they attempted to reform society. Second, when considering the complex relation between Evangelicals and morality and altruism, we must also might also point out that Newman and many High Church Anglicans had a similarly complex relation to improving the lives of the poor: at the same time that they emphasized sin and lack of true religion rather than poverty or oppression caused most suffering, some of them nonetheless saw their primary role as serving the poorest population in London and other British cities.

Although Herbert makes many brilliant observations about individual works of nineteenth-century fiction, particularly those that take essentially Derridean uncoverings of unresolved and unresolvable conflicts at the heart of major works by Sir Walter Scott and George Eliot, too much of his energy goes into fierce polemic that ends up undercutting his points, such as his mentions of a “morally evacuated Calvinism” (51), which is “insuperably repugnant” (51), or his assertion that “faith entirely preempts and overthrows the moral law” (53) causing an "epochal repudiation of the traditional ethic of charitable benevolence" (60). When Evangelical Gothic turns to literature its readings are often brilliant and almost always convincing. When it turns to the histories of religion and nineteenth-century society, it seems marred by misinterpretation and ignorance of key points in religion. Evangelical Gothic seems at his weakest when working with scriptural interpretation of particular passages — for example he points to “Luke 16:15. the verse probably dearer to the heart of Evangelicals and more often quoted by them than any other: ‘That which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God!’ [Luke 16:15] —a verse regularly taken by Evangelicals to refer in particular to the esteem given by worldly people to those delusive shibboleths, honor and virtuous character” (82). True, Evangelicals did frequently cite this passage from Luke, but reputation and worldly honor, not the complete unimportance of good works, is the emphasis here. Herbert’s discussion of Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac completely distorts Evangelical understandings of this key event form scripture when he concludes, “Child sacrifice is no longer morally objectionable” (53). Yes, obedience to God’s command is essential, but the dual lesson of this biblical episode is first that human sacrifice is against the word of God and, second, that it serves as a type or prefiguration of Christ’s sacrifice.

“The Impossibility of the Evangelical Novel” his second chapter, which posits “an unbridgeable gap between Evangelicalism and the novel,” offers an interesting and generally convincing discussion of the relation of this form of Protestantism to contemporary fiction. After explaining the reasons Evangelicals found novel reading dangerous, he admits that “Undoubtedly they were read with enjoyment and valued by many ‘enthusiastic Christians’ at the time who found nothing untoward in their pretensions to moral teaching. It is nonetheless true that no novel can properly—that is, with any semblance of scholarly precision—be identified as “Evangelical” that fails to enforce the all-important lesson of the radical worthlessness of moral goodness apart from faith and that fails to set forth the definitive Evangelical doctrine that faith and grace are the absolute preconditions of virtue” (72). Although many might agree with Herbert’s definition of a truly appropriate, truly Evangelical novel, still that statement is true if, and only if, the subject Herbert proposes is the sole possibility. Yes, “The dogma that ‘good works have nothing to do with salvation’ lies beyond the representational capacities of realistic fiction” (78), and, yes, it's impossible to show someone in a state of grace, but is the moment of conversion the ONLY possible Evangelical subject? I'm not sure.

Nonetheless, Herbert is surely correct when he points out that “The genius and the philosophical raison d’etre of the novel in this period are inseparable from its foundational gift of complication, ambivalence, mixed and suspended judgments, effects of perspective, and negative capability.” But is it true that “no such properties can be tolerated in a genuine Evangelical text, where all judgments must be categorical: one is born again from a state of sin by virtue of “free grace” or one is not. Any suggestion of moral nuance is in effect instantly fatal to the entire system of Evangelical fundamentalism.”

It was not, or not merely, that Evangelicals at the turn of the century and afterward saw popular middle-class fiction as guilty of inculcating moral laxity or even sympathy with vice. Rather, the novel must often have appeared objectionable to them for what amounts to just the opposite reason: for . . . fostering, in Wilberforce’s phrase, “the fatal habit, of considering Christian morals as distinct from Christian doctrines” —the fatal habit, that is, of idealizing those false panaceas “morality and good works” (Whitefield 123) as values unto themselves. Novels threatened neo-Calvinistic principles because of their effectiveness in indoctrinating readers in precisely that ideology of ‘“the intrinsic excellence of virtue,’ and the beauty of actions flowing from it” that Wesley disdainfully condemns. [66-67]

And yet many devout Evangelicals, as Herbert himself points out, did read novels!

However flawed Evangelical Gothic’s opening arguments might be, these weaknesses turn out to have little effect on its readings of individual novels. “‘Ghostly Apparitions”: Spectres of Piety in Hogg and Scott,” the book’s third chapter, convincingly demonstrates the way James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner dramatizes anti-Evangelical attacks on Puritanical religious rage while its discussions of Sir Walter Scott’s Old Mortality, another narrative of the effects of fanaticism, explores the gothic imagery and what Herbert reveals as the novel’s points of instability. After discussing Bleak House in a fourth chapter, the main text concludes with “The Ideology of Faith in the Early Novels of George Eliot,” which convincingly shows another version of the return of the repressed as the novelist “for all her early aversion to the deformities of religious novels, here shrinks from no rhetorical gesture in reinforcing” the idea that “an unshaken religious faith is the supreme criterion of experience” (172). As part of its argument, this chapter claims that in Adam Bede “preaches emphatically . . . the doctrine that human suffering, even at the level of ‘intolerable agony,’ is the prerequisite of elevated moral feeling, and this not an evil but a blessing after all” (195). The “Afterword,” “Fanatical Imagination in Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” convincingly explains that Stoker’s novel is “one of the most religiously saturated popular novels of its time” (211) for unlike its predecessors, Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819) and Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), which make little reference to religion, Dracula “instructs readers to interpret the tale in particular theological terms.” The brilliant discussion of Stoker’s novel, which seems to have been the germ of the entire book, provides a powerful, effective close to Evangelical Gothic’s reading of Victorian fiction.

Related material


Herbert, Christopher. Evangelical Gothic: The English Novel and the War on Virtue from Wesley to Dracula. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019.

Last modified 8 December 2019