[This essay originally appeared in The Pre-Raphaelite Review, 1 (1977), 27-33.]
The location of manuscripts cited below will be indicated in the text. I would like to thank the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery for permitting me to inspect and publish manuscripts in its possession, and I would also like to thank the artist's literary heirs, Miss Diana Holman-Hunt and Mrs. Elizabeth Burt Tompkin, for granting me permission to print these materials.
William Holman Hunt's religious belief was as idiosyncratic as his religious painting. although he shared many points of doctrine with the various Evangelical groups, he would certainly have been outraged by the suggestion that he himself was an Evangelical. One explanation for this rather curious state of affairs lies in the fact that he had cast down the gauntlet in challenge to Evangelical missionary endeavors in the Middle East. His experience with Protestant missionaries in Jerusalem during his first visit there convinced him that such attempts to convert the heathen had little or nothing to do with true religion as he understood it. Writing to John Lucas Tupper, an old Pre-Raphaelite associate, from the holy city about 1855, he explained that he kept "aloof from the Missionaries because they write home fine things to publish in The Jewish Intelligencer and yet in fact do very little but make a grand show on horseback every afternoon. They have given me up as an unreformable character and this week I have reached the acme of disgrace through my landlord's announcement to the Bishop that Christianity would never be spread by such means on my authority." His opposition to corrupt missionary practices, moreover, led to what the painter described in a letter of 12 August 1855 to William M. Rossetti as "open warfare" when he undertook to "oppose the course pursued by the Bishop in his Mission work of which they make so great a talk in Exeter Hall" (Huntington Ms.). Several years after his return from the Holy Land this conflict with Evangelical missionary efforts culminated in a sixty-page pamphlet, Jerusalem. Bishop Gobat in re Hanna Hadoub (1858).
Since this pamphlet is not recorded in Fredeman's invaluable bibliographical guide to Pre-Raphaelitism and is apparently unknown to most scholars, it would seem to be worthwhile to describe it here briefly. The British Museum copy (4193.f.54) has the following title: Jerusalem. Bishop Gobat in Re Hanna Hadoub; with Original Documents Detailing the Case. The booklet, which does not bear the artist's name on the title page, was published in London by Joseph Masters, Aldersgate Street and New Bond Street and in Edinburgh by Seaton and Mackenzie. Hunt's name appears at the end of a nineteen page text of approximately 6,000 words, which is dated London, March, 1858, and to this the painter has added a forty-two page appendix running to almost 30,000 words of documents explaining the case. Since many of the letters included are by Hunt himself, this document is, of course, important for anyone interested in assembling a complete correspondence of the artist. In the following pages I shall identify quoted passages by page numbers referring to the British Museum copy. Hunt explains that he
went to Jerusalem early in 1854, and remained till October, 1855. There were then as many as ten or eleven missionaries and teachers engaged in the city, of whom the following are referred to in these pages: Dr. S. Gobat, the Anglican Bishop; the Rev. John Nicolayson, head of the Mission to the Jews, and Dean of the English Church belonging to that Mission; the Rev. Henry Crawford, a clergyman of that Mission; Charles Sandreczki, Esq., Phil. D., who was Secretary of the Church Missionary Society, and, under Bishop Gobat, responsible superintendent of the Church Missionary Society's Mission to the native Christians; Yacoob Mateeh, who was Dragoman to Dr. Sandreczki and the Church Missionary Society, and who also held the posts of Wakeel (agent) and Kogdi Baschi (magistrate) for the native Protestants; and Michael Sweder, the Bishop's Scripture reader to the same community....The congregation attending the Church was composed of converts from Judaism, and from the Greek and Latin Churches; and, with the German Brotherhood, the German Sisterhood, teachers, tradespeople, children, and others, averaged about 150. (5-6)
The artist was soon disillusioned by missionary activities, for as he explained: "The first favourable impression which I received of these missions was weakened by facts with which I daily became acquainted from the different proselytes of the city; and my faith in the judgment and frankness of the missionaries was destroyed by the nature of the reports of Jerusalem affairs published by them in English missionary journals, and by their mutual most childish jealousies" (6). Busy as he was painting The Scapegoat and The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple, Hunt allowed himself to be drawn into these clerical controversies because he perceived that he was one of the few who could risk speaking out:
My experience had enabled me to understand how the humbler amongst the missionaries had to avoid steps of an independent character at any cost, and led me to feel the utter helplessness of the tradespeople in the congregation alone against any measure countenanced by the Bishop....I, who could not suffer by a complaint to the Home Committee, or to the Foreign Office in London, nor yet by a withdrawal of patronage, was the only person who could safely represent to his Lordship the nature of the general accusations against the proselyte, Hanna Hadoub" (6-7).
As he pointed out, the missionaries won and often ruled their converts by financial resources, threatening them with ruin if they disobeyed the wishes of Bishop Gobat. The specific occasion for the controversy was the Bishop's arbitrary decision to allow one Hanna Hadoub, who was reputed to have "lived in part by the prostitution of his mother and sisters, and later by that of his first two wives," to marry a fourteen year old girl against the wishes of her older brother and guardian (7). While members of the native Protestant congregation were presenting Gobat with evidence against Hadoub, he had the couple spirited away and married secretly in Nazareth and he allowed his servants to use threats and other pressures against the witnesses. Shortly after the painter left Palestine, Hadoub was arrested for armed robbery and sentenced to life imprisonment. According to Hunt's informants, the Bishop did nothing to make amends to the young wife, who "bore her husband's subsequent cruelty rather than lend herself to his wicked design....Yet I am informed that she and her mother have suffered very much — even as beggars driven away from the Bishop's door" (15). This cleric's accusation of "Tractarianism" against several devoted men who wished to found a new school finally drove the artist to publish his pamphlet, for as he argued, Gobat's most recent tyrannical act convinced him that he still held to "the unwise, unscrupulous, and uncharitable course he adopted" in the earlier affair (16). Hunt concluded his attack on "the Jerusalem system" with the recognition that
in this day, it may perhaps be impossible to find men of the self-devotedness and zeal of early times in sufficient number to supply all the existing mission-stations. Now, perhaps, the majority of capable men require nearly the same inducements to embark in this vocation as in any other; and 80, to the semi-barbarous people they live among, they must of necessity appear more like consuls or political agents than priests, until, by judicious teaching, the original prejudices of the people they appeal to are overcome. If this be so — which I only suppose from observation limited to Jerusalem — it were surely desirable to engage men known to us by their labours at home as governed by at least that high judgment and principle which other public officials are expected to obey, and which will not abandon them on the unexpected revelation of a disagreeable truth, and leave them in danger of becoming either the conscious or unconscious tools of hungry underlings. (17-18)
As these lines well demonstrate, Holman Hunt's firsthand experience of missionary practices in Jerusalem left him thoroughly disillusioned. Believing that such efforts to convert non-believers were little more than a particularly unchristian fraud, Hunt turned decisively against both the missionaries and the Evangelical sects which were their main support. One may point out in passing that his sharp dislike for missionaries would seem to explain why the painter later changed the title of his "Druids" picture. When first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1850 it bore the title A Converted British Family sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids, but Hunt later replaced Missionary by Priest, crossing out the original word in his own hand in the Ashmolean catalogue which the authorities had submitted to him for his inspection. Even had he not encountered these particular missionary abuses it seems likely that Hunt would have opposed the Evangelical mission on principle. Unlike many devout believers, he allowed that there were many paths to the truth, and he therefore found the pretensions of these purveyors of the Gospel rather annoying. As he informed his friend Jack Tupper during his first visit to Jerusalem, he was "half inclined to make etchings of the scenes amongst the merchants of all religions in this universal depot, just to show that neither Moslem, Jew, Greek, Armenian, Latin or Protestant has the precious gem at all as a monopoly" (Huntington Ms.). During his second stay in Palestine, he admitted accepting an even more generous position. Writing to William Bell Scott, who, like W. M. Rossetti, was an unbeliever, he told him: "I see no difficulty in admitting the possibility of 'supernatural' acts in connection with paganism. believe entirely in the Daemon of Socrates, and I credit, without hesitation, the possibility of a 'revelation,' in a dimmer way, to the Greeks. Egyptians, and Persians" [Autobiographical Notes, ed. William Minto, 2 vols. London, 1892), II, 94-95. Letter of 10 August 1870]. Believing that God reveals his truth to man in many ways, the artist saw nothing anomalous in holding a faith that was Evangelical in its emphasis upon stern morality, typological interpretation of the Bible and the importance of conversion, and yet most un-Evangelical in its broad tolerance for other forms of belief.
This willingness to grant that spiritual truth extends beyond the boundaries of Christianity recalls Ruskin's similar willingness to allow that religious as well as moral truth arises elsewhere than in the Bible. Like his friend, the painter believed the arts had major spiritual value precisely because he assumed that revelation was not limited specifically to the scriptures. Where he differs from Ruskin is that his friend's acceptance of other revelations came at the time he was losing his original Evangelical belief. In contrast, Hunt, who was raised without any religious faith, felt himself able to select those parts of Evangelical Protestantism which he found most congenial while also perceiving there were other roads to the truth. Since he believed that "every man must be guided by his own light," Hunt placed little value on the Church or Church authority [Autobiographical Notes, II, 99. Letter of 20 February]. Thus, when explaining his most intimate beliefs to Scott in a letter of 7 April 1870, he was careful to emphasize that when he said the "highest pretensions" of Christianity were true, he did not "use the phrase in relation to the authority of the Church" [Autobiographical Notes, II, 90]. although he apparently attended services throughout his life, he found nothing of sacramental value there. Indeed, while writing to Tupper on 27 November 1872 about the baptism of his friend's son, Hunt, who was to be the godfather, told him: "I suppose till something better as a service be substituted we must choose to understand the words in our own way — and be glad of it as a sign of friendship to both parents and child. I am glad to say this because I see so many signs that the Church and even Christianity must go to the ground unless some radical changes be made in it" (Huntington MS). Hunt's encounter with the Jerusalem missionaries when he was at work on his own version of missionary endeavor left a lasting mark on the painter's attitude toward the denominations with which he shared so many points of doctrine. William Holman Hunt, individualist in religion as in art, would be guided only by his own light, and he readily granted that others had theirs. His religious belief, like the art which it so frequently shaped, strikes one as something suited to an earlier time: just as Hunt's attempt to fuse matter and spirit with a symbolic realism based upon typology appears a struggle to bring back the art of earlier ages by sheer force of will, so, too, the faith which founded this artistic endeavor often seems more suited to the individualistic Puritanism of the seventeenth century than to the age of Victoria. Hunt was of course fully aware of how unfashionable. how unmodern, his ideas seemed to many, but; confident in his own belief, he was certain that he had arrived at the truth, and he hoped others would join him there.
Last modified 22 December 2001