HATEVER Ruskin's complex reasons, we are led to agree with a statement he made in an intended preface to Prosperina (1881) that he knew "no other author of candour who has given so partial, so disproportioned, so steadily reserved a view of his personality. Who could tell from my books, for instance . . . what has been the course of religious effort and speculation in me?" (35.628) It is a fact characteristic of Ruskin that it was not until he had a use for his religious history — not until he believed it would have value for others — that he chose to reveal publicly the story of his "religious effort and speculation," and this he did in two places, Fors Clavigera (1878) and Praeterita (1886). In Praeterita Ruskin tells us that he had already, by the age of fourteen, been unable to accept his mother's faith in the literal truth of the Bible: "It had never entered into my head to doubt a word of the Bible, though I saw well enough already that its words were to be understood otherwise than I had been taught; but the more I believed it, the less it did me any good. It was all very well for Abraham to do what angels bid him, — so would I, if any angels bid me; but none had ever appeared to me that I knew of" (35.189) It soon entered into Ruskin's mind to question the words of the Bible. As with so many other Victorians, geology did much to weaken Ruskin's faith. Geological discoveries were casting doubt on the possibility of a flood, as described in the Old Testament, and Ruskin confided to Henry Acland in 1851 that his beloved science' geology, was destroying his faith and his peace of spirit:
You speak of the Flimsiness of your own faith. Mine, which was never strong, is being beaten into mere gold leaf, and flutters in weak rags from the letter of its old forms; but the only letters it can hold by at all are the old Evangelical formulae. If only the Geologists would let me alone, I could do very well, but those dreadful Hammers! I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses. (36.115)
In 1862, four years after he lost his religion at the church service in Turin, a book appeared which was a great help to Ruskin's peace of mind, for it showed that he was not alone in his questionings, and that a man learned in the study of scripture had also come to the conclusion that the Bible was not historically true. This book was Bishop John William Colenso's The Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua Critically Examined, and of it Ruskin wrote to Sir John Naesmyth:
One great worry is over and settled, and in a ~way which Lady Naesmyth and you will be mightily sorry for. You will soon hear — if you have not heard — of the Bishop of Natal's book. Now for the last four years I've been working in the same direction alone, and was quite unable to tell anyone what I was about. . . . I could not speak of anything, because all things have their root in that. . . . But now the Bishop has spoken, there will be fair war directly, and one must take one's side, and I stand with the Bishop and am at ease, and a wonderful series of things is going to happen — more than any of us know — but the indecision is over. (36.424-25)
Ruskin was correct, for there was to be a battle over Colenso's book, a battle in the course of which an attempt would be made to depose, defrock, and, finally, excommunicate the Bishop. The government would not allow this; and although the Evangelical Anglicans, who provided much of the financial support for his missionary work, withdrew their aid, Colenso retained his see and continued as Bishop to become engaged in other controversies. In later years Ruskin held it against the English clergy that they had resisted truth in ways dishonest and unfair: "The clergy, as a body, have, with what energy and power was in them, repelled the advance both of science and scholarship, so far as either interfered with what they had been accustomed to teach; and connived at every abuse in public and private conduct, with which they felt it would be considered uncivil, and feared it might ultimately prove unsafe, to interfere" (28.364). Of course, here in Fors Clavigera he refers not only to Colenso but also to the matter of Essays and Reviews (1860). Ruskin, like many others, realized that Higher Criticism, geology, and biology were fast overrunning the weakened positions of both the Evangelical and High Church parties, and he would have preferred the Church to beat an honest retreat to surer ground rather than attack those who advocated such a policy. The Evangelicals did not change their positions, because in fact they could not, and as the decades passed the incursions of science and scholarship drove many from their ranks, weakening this once powerful force in the Church. The result was as Matthew Arnold described it in Dissent and Dogma (1870): "The Evangelical clergy no longer recruits itself with success, no longer lays hold on such promising subjects as formerly. It is losing the future and feels that it is losing it. . . . The best of their own younger generation, the soldiers of their own training, are slipping away from them" (ed. R. H. Super, Ann Arbor, 1968, 110). Thus, five years later Ruskin could charge, not only against his own former coreligionists but against all men of the Church, that "in general, any man's becoming a clergyman in these days implies that, at best, his sentiment has overpowered his intellect" (28.239).
It was precisely this weakening of the Church and the strengthening of these hostile attitudes that Colenso had tried to forestall in 1862 by removing points of doctrine which men of the mid-nineteenth century found impossible to believe. For him the entire problem centered on the right of the minister to free thought, a right which, as he wrote in Part II of The Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua Critically Examined (1863), was denied by a law which bound each minister "by law to believe in the historical truth of Noah's Flood. as recorded in the Bible, which the Church believed in some centuries ago, before God had given us the light of modern science" (xxi-xxii). The blows of the geologist's hammer were here decisive. In the preface to the volume which Ruskin had mentioned in his letter to Sir John Naesmyth he would have encountered doubts similar to his own:
My own knowledge of some branches of science, of Geology in particular, had been much increased since I left England; and I now knew for certain, on geological grounds, a fact, of which I had only had misgivings before, viz., that a Universal Deluge, such as the Bible manifestly speaks of, could not possibly have taken place in the way described in the Book of Genesis, not to mention other difficulties which the story contains. I refer especially to the circumstance, well known to all geologists, . . . that volcanic hills exist of immense extent in Auvergne and Languedoc, which must have been formed ages before the Noachian Deluge, and which are covered with light and loose substances, pumice-stone &c., that must have been swept away by a Flood, but do not exhibit the slightest sign of having ever been so disturbed.(vii-viii)
Once the Bishop's doubts had been aroused by the facts of geology and further stimulated by the questions of native assistants Who were aiding his translation of the Bible, he proceeded to examine "the other difficulties the story contains."
After investigating the details, as presented in Exodus, of camp life, of sacrifice, of numbers of men and animals — details all of which, according to contemporary ecclesiastic law, had to be literally true — Bishop Colenso was led to the conviction, painful, he said, both to himself and his reader, that
the Pentateuch, as a whole, cannot personally have been written by Moses, or by anyone acquainted personally with the facts which it professes to describe, and, further, that the (so-called) Mosaic narrative, by whomsoever written, and though imparting to us, as I fully believe it does, revelations of the Divine Will and Character, cannot be regarded as historically true.(8)
To feel the force of these words and to understand the anguish they both caused and relieved, it is necessary to realize how widespread was the view, quoted by Colenso in the preface to Part II, that "The Bible cannot be less than verbally inspired. Every word, every syllable) every letter, is just what it would be, had God spoken from heaven without any human intervention" (xii). In the introductory remarks to the first part of his work, Colenso quotes from Burgon's Inspiration and Interpretation, a standard work for ministerial students:
The BIBLE is none other than the Voice of Him that sitteth upon the Throne — Every book of it — every chapter of it — every verse of it — every word of it — every syllable of it — (where are we to stop?) every letter of it — is the direct utterance of the Most High! The Bible is none other than the word of God — not some part of it more, some part of it less, but all alike, the utterance of Him, who sitteth upon the Throne — absolute — faultless — unerring — supreme. (I, 6)
Colenso adds, "Such was the creed of the School in which I was educated," and such was the school in which Ruskin was educated; and both cast off this creed, choosing to regard the Bible as poetry whose value lay in the fact that it recorded the constancy of man's need for virtue and cognizance of sin" (381).
Ruskin's approval of Colenso's book indicates the cause and course of his doubtings. But, since The Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua Critically Examined appeared four years after Ruskin's decisive loss of faith, its only influence can have been the reconfirmation of an earlier "unconversion," and this is also true of other Broad Church writings, such as Essays and Reviews (1860), with which Ruskin was familiar. One must be careful not to overstress the importance of influences upon Ruskin, for, unless in any particular instance there is evidence to the contrary, I believe we must accept Ruskin's own statement to his father in a letter of 1861: "Mamma has a horror of these people — Carlyle, etc. — because she thinks they 'pervert' me; but I never understand them till I find the thing out for myself" (36.396). Similarly, two years later Ruskin wrote to his father "I wish you could put out of your mind — that either Carlyle, Colenso, or Froude, much less anyone less than they, have had the smallest share in this change. Three years ago, long before Colenso was heard of, I had definitely refused to have anything more to do with the religious teaching in this [Evangelical] school" (36.460). I think we must conclude that however similar Ruskin's later view of biblical historicity was to the Broad Churchmen, he arrived at this view independently.
F. D. Maurice, with whom Ruskin taught at the Workingman's College, provides an example of a churchman whose views Ruskin may have approached but who does not seem a plausible influence upon him. In the first place, as Ruskin tells us in Praeterita (35.486). although he "loved Frederick Maurice, as ever-one did who came near him," yet he "was by nature puzzle-headed, and, though in a beautiful manner, wrong-headed . . . and in his Bible-reading, as insolent as any infidel." Ruskin never seems to have respected Maurice's intellect, particularly as concerned religion.
Ruskin's letter to Joan Severn in 1867 tells us of his attitude toward scripture seven years after he finished Modern Painters:
I notice in one of your late letters some notion that I am coming to think the Bible the 'Word of God' because I use it . . . for daily teaching. But I was never farther from thinking, and never can be nearer to thinking, anything of the sort. Nothing could ever persuade me that God writes vulgar Greek. . . . If there is any divine truth at all in the mixed collection of books which we call a Bible, that truth is, that the Word of God comes directly to different people in different ways. (36.538-539)
Again, nine years later, Ruskin warned the working men of England against the notions of the Bible propagated by the Evangelicals within and without the Church: "Don't suppose that the printed thing in your hand, which you call a Bible' is the Word of God, and that the said Word may therefore always be bought at a pious stationer's for eighteen-pence" (28.587). Instead, as Fors Clavigera had stated two years earlier in 1874, the Bible is rather "an ill written, and worse trans-written, human history, and not by any means 'Word of God'; and . . . whatever issues of life, divine or human, there may be in it, for you, can only be got by searching it; and not by chopping it up into small bits and swallowing it like pills" (28.72). In other words, at this point in his life he believed the Bible should be read much like any other human work — studied more attentively and more reverently, possibly, but by no means taken as divine instruction whose every word merits equal reverence. Ever the polemical writer defining his position in contrast to those he opposed, Ruskin now concerns himself with denying Evangelical statements about scripture, and this in part explains the unpleasant sarcasm of his remarks. Once he walked out of the chapel in Turin, Ruskin, I believe, would have agreed with Matthew Arnold's complaint in 1873 that "we have been trained to regard the Bible, not as a book whose parts have varying degrees of value, but as the Jews came to regard their Scriptures, as a sort of talisman given down to us out of Heaven, with all its parts equivalent" (Dissent and Dogma, 159). And like Arnold he felt that "to re-inthrone the Bible as explained by our current theology, whether learned or popular, is absolutely and for ever impossible!" (149) Since Ruskin's religious views underwent several modifications, it is particularly valuable to have his statements about the Bible, for they reveal that although he may have returned to several of his old points of faith in later years, once he rejected the notion of a divinely inspired scripture that his mother had taught him, he never returned to this belief. Indeed, as Fors Clavigera demonstrates, he seems to have become increasingly scornful of the Testaments, despite the fact that their words and phrasing continued to permeate his writing, shape his political economics, and perhaps even haunt his thoughts.
But, as Ruskin had much earlier written to Acland, the letters of his Evangelical belief — an acceptance of the literal accuracy of the Bible — had been the mainstay of his wavering religion. Once he lost his faith in the Bible, another, equally tormenting problem gained importance until it, finally, drove him from the religion of his parents. This other problem was whether or not there was a life after death. Ruskin felt that he could not believe in an afterlife without also believing in damnation, and yet the horror of damnation seemed too cruel, too terrible, to accept. For a long while his intense need to believe in a life after death was enough to maintain an acceptance of damnation. For like the Pastor in Wordsworth's Excursion, that poem which he so loved in his early years, he felt the certain need to hold to
The head and mighty paramount of truths, —
Immortal life, in never-fading worlds,
For mortal creatures, conquered and secured. (Works, V, 188)
In April 1852 Ruskin wrote to his father from Venice of his need to believe:
I cannot understand the make of the minds that can do without a hope of the future: Carlyle for instance is continually enforcing the necessity of being virtuous and enduring all pain and self denial, without any hope of reward. I do not find myself in the least able to do this: I am too mean — or too selfish; and I find that vexations and labours would break me down, unless I could look forward to a "crown of rejoicing." My poor friend Mr George used to talk of death in exactly the same tone that he did of going to bed, as no evil at all, though expressing no hope whatever of rising from that bed. I cannot do this: so far from it that I could no longer look upon the Alps, or the heavens, or the sea, with any pleasure — because I felt that every breath brought the hour nearer when I must leave them all. To believe in a future life is for me, the only way in which I can enjoy this one. (Ruskin's Letters from Venice, 247)
Like Young, a poet whom with Wordsworth, Milton, and Herbert, Ruskin at this time placed among religious writers, he felt completely that
'Tis immortality, 'tis that alone,
Amid life's pains, abasements, emptiness,
The soul can comfort, elevate, and fill.
(The Complaint: or, Night-Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality, Glasgow, 1775, 161)
In fact, when we try to sense the tone of his doubts and beliefs, we must turn to the religious poets he most admired, as well as to Evangelical writings; for part of his agony came from the fact that his favorite poets continued to reinforce the doctrines about which he increasingly felt doubt. Young, for example, emphasized the point Ruskin had been making to his father, that only immortality can make earthly life bearable and morality possible:
Virtue, and vice, are at eternal war.
Virtue's a combat; and who fights for nought?
Or for precarious, or for small reward?
The man immortal, rationally brave,
Dares rush on death — because he cannot die.
The poems of Young, to take but one example from the poets Ruskin had with him in Venice, thus encouraged him to hold fast to the belief in an afterlife.
But despite the support which Ruskin's faith received from these believing poets, he had already begun to move away from Evangelical Anglicanism. A clear sign of his gradual movement away from childhood belief appears in The Stones of Venice, which reveals him casting off narrow sectarian attitudes and trying to grant other religions their just due. In contrast, if we examine The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1848), Ruskin's last major work before writing The Stones of Venice, we observe him self-consciously marching forth under the Evangelical banner, accompanied by zeal and intolerance, as he tries to save the Gothic for low church Protestantism by driving off the claims of Pugin, the Roman Catholics, and men of the High Church. These efforts to rescue the Gothic style for English Protestantism lead him to attack other faiths — both because he believed they persisted in error and because he had to adopt such a manner to attract Evangelicals within and without the Church, who might be suspicious of anyone advocating such Romanist styles of building.
Although Ruskin firmly denied that he had been influenced by Pugin (5.428-429), writers have generally assumed that he was not telling the truth. However one must admit that many of Pugin's ideas were current by the time Ruskin wrote and he may have come upon them in the art periodicals he read without knowing their major source. In addition it is quite likely as Ruskin suggests in his essay on Prout (14.385) that his early love for this artist's style and subject encouraged his defense of Gothic. Carlyle, Rio and Lindsay may also have served as important influences here as well.
Although he occasionally lambasts the Catholics in The Stones of Venice with his usual zeal, he now, a brief three years later, defends them on occasion and also heavily censures the Protestant sects as well. For example, although he writes scornfully of "the debased manufacture of wooden and waxen images which is the support of Romanist idolatry all over the world" (10.130), he adds a long appendix explaining that he does
not intend, in thus applying the word "Idolatry" to certain ceremonies of Romanist worship, to admit the propriety of the ordinary Protestant manner of regarding those ceremonies as distinctively idolatrous, and as separating the Romanist from the Protestant Church by a gulf across which we must not look to our fellow Christians but with utter reprobation and disdain. . . . Idolatry is, both literally and verily, not the mere bowing down before sculptures, but the serving or becoming the slave of any images or imaginations which stand between us and God. (10.450-51)
After thus defining idolatry he then confronts his Protestant readers with the searching question: "Which ot us is not an idolater? Which of us has the right . . . to speak scornfully of any of his brethren, because, in a guiltless ignorance, they have been accustomed to bow their knees before a statue?" (10.451) Obviously rejecting the Evangelical point of view, he excuses the Catholic worshipper, claiming that even when the ignorant in fact worship the saint's statue "we shall oftener find it the consequence of dulness of intellect than of real alienation of heart from God; and I have no manner of doubt that half of the poor and untaught Christians who are this day lying prostrate before crucifixes, Bambinos, and Volto Santos, are finding more acceptance with God than many Protestants who idolise nothing but their own opinions or their own interests" (10.451-452). Two things of importance stand out in this passage: first, Ruskin has rejected the usual Evangelical intolerance toward other faiths, an intolerance which marks the statements of even a learned and humane Evangelical clergyman such as Melvill, who considers the Catholic Church the Whore of Babylon.
Secondly, at this point in Ruskin's career, faith, any faith' becomes worthy of reverence and unworthy of sectarian scorn. He himself had been trying so strenuously to retain his own religious faith that he admires and praises all those who had succeeded. His newly acquired public tolerance of other religions, particularly of Catholicism, appears when, in relating the history of the Church of San Donato on Murano, he advises his English Protestant readers that "The legends of the Romish Church, though generally more insipid and less varied than those of Paganism, deserve audience from us on this ground, if no other, that they have once been sincerely believed by good men, and have had no ineffective agency in the formation of the existent European mind" (10.42). Although he tells his readers, who might be expected to despise Catholic legend, that such information will aid their understanding of cultural history, he more significantly points out that these legends deserve attention because "they have once been sincerely believed by good men." Any belief should be reverenced. Similarly, when he describes Torcello he remarks that "the weeping Madonna in the act of Intercession, may indeed be a matter of sorrow to the Protestant beholder, but ought not to blind him to the earnestness and singleness of the faith" (10.27) of Torcello's founders. For Ruskin the most important fact at this period was not the believer's doctrine but that "The mind of the worshipper was fixed entirely upon two great facts, to him the most precious of all facts, — the present mercy of Christ to His Church, and His future coming to judge the world" (10.27). He praises the medieval figures of the Palazzo Ducale for a faith even more general in its points, for he now directs the reader to observe "their simple expression of two feelings, the consciousness of human frailty, and the dependence upon Divine guidance and protection" (10.364). The degree to which his own sincere yearning for faith led him to reverence any such worship appears even more strikingly in his statement that "there is a wider division of men than that into Christian and Pagan: before we ask what a man worships, we have to ask whether he worships at all" (10.67). He concludes that a far greater difference exists between those who do not believe and those who do — whether in Mary, Athena, or the "Syrian Queen of Heaven" (10.67). We may surely conclude, then, that Ruskin so valued any faith that he reverenced its appearance in any form. What he most desired appears in his praise of the pure and simple — if for him unattainable — faith of the Middle Ages, which, centering on the love of God, "comprehended everything, entered into everything; it was too vast and too spiritual, to be defined; but there was no need of its definition" (10.366). This was the kind of faith for which Ruskin desperately yearned; but this was the kind of faith which both his doctrine and his doubts made most difficult to have or to hold. [I agree with Professor Rosenberg (The Darkening Glass, 55) that Ruskin never approached conversion to Catholicism. For an interesting letter which Ruskin wrote to Mrs. Gray on the subject of his attitudes toward Catholicism see Millais and the Ruskins, 19-21.]
In fact, as early as 1848 when he still wrote as a firm Evangelical, Ruskin had experienced doubts, and he had tried to still them. At this time Ruskin had written to his father, discussing his own thoughts in Pascal's wager [Quoted in E. T. Cook Life of Ruskin, 2 vols, London 1911, I, 227]. And in 1852 he wrote to his father in a time of severer trial that the desire for a belief in a heavenly reward, and the need to quiet his tormented spirit, had encouraged him to elect his own version of Pascal's choice:
I considered that I had now neither pleasure in looking to my past life — nor any hope such as would be any comfort to me on a sickbed, of a future one. And I made up my mind that this would never do. So after thinking a little more about it, I resolved that at any rate I would act as if the Bible were true; that if it were not, at all events I should be no worse off than I was before. (Letter from Venice, 244)
This commitment was sufficient to calm his inquiring mind for a short while, but his doubts continued to mount; and by 1858 when he finally experienced his "unconversion" Ruskin was no longer able to continue this willing suspension of disbelief.
Since Ruskin relates two slightly different versions of those decisive few hours in Turin, it is unlikely that we shall ever know precisely what occurred at the moment of crisis. Upon comparing the version which appeared in the April 1877 Fors Clavigera with the one that Ruskin presented eleven years later in Praeterita, one is struck at once by their markedly different tones and sequences of events. Fors thus describes the moment at which he abandoned his religion in 1858:
I was still in the bonds of my old Evangelical faith; and, in 1858, it was with me, Protestantism or nothing: the crisis of the whole turn of my thoughts being one Sunday morning, at Turin, when, from before Paul Veronese's Queen of Sheba, and under quite overwhelmed sense of his God-given power, I went away to a Waldensian chapel, where a little squeaking idiot was preaching to an audience of seventeen old women and three louts, that they were the only children of God in Turin; and that all the people in Turin outside the chapel, and all the people in the world out of sight of Monte Viso, would be damned. I came out of the chapel, in sum of twenty years of thought, a conclusively un-converted man. (29.89)
Whereas Fors mentions that "a little squeaking idiot was preaching to an audience of seventeen old women and three louts" (29.89), Praeterita forgoes the strident, savagely indignant invective of 1877 and describes the chapel scene with more generosity:
The assembled congregation numbered in all some three or four and twenty, of whom fifteen or sixteen were grey-haired women. Their solitary and clerkless preacher, a somewhat stunted figure in a plain black coat, with a cracked voice, after leading them through the languid forms of prayer which are all that in truth are possible to people whose present life is dull and its terrestrial future unchangeable, put his utmost zeal into a consolatory discourse on the wickedness of the wide world . . . and on the exclusive favour with God, enjoyed by the between nineteen and twenty-four elect members of his congregation. (35.495)
Thus while Fors emphasizes the absurd arrogance of the few who insolently assure themselves of salvation while condemning all other men to eternal torment, Praeterita, which does not even mention damnation, concentrates instead on the bleakness, the dullness, the emptiness of lives which require such cruel consolation. What he earlier attacked Praeterita tried to explain. These radically different attitudes toward the same subject derive both from the inconsistency of Ruskin's emotions and from his different intentions in the works which contains the story of his loss of belief. The polemic version in Fors, which relies on invective, uses his personal experience to provide a cautionary tale that, he hopes, will warn the workingmen of England against the twin dangers of atheism and Evangelical Protestantism. The gentler version in Praeterita, which tries to recapture the past, to recollect and present it in tranquility, seeks understanding rather than victory over an opponent.
But although the books' divergent purposes may help us understand why their tones differ, they do not explain why Ruskin reversed the order of his experiences in the chapel and art gallery. Fors tells that the "crisis" of his thought came one Sunday morning "when' from before Paul Veronese's Queen of Sheba, and under quite overwhelmed sense of his God-given power," he went to the Protestant chapel only to hear the preacher assure his Waldensian congregation that they, and only they, would escape the damnation which awaited all others in Turin. "I came out of the chapel, in sum of twenty years of thought, a conclusively un-converted man — converted by this little Piedmontese gentleman" (29.89). Thus, Ruskin told the workingmen of England that after an admiring contemplation of Veronese's painting had convinced him God had entered the work of this irreligious painter, he heard a sermon on damnation, which both denied the validity of his recent experience and condemned the painter to hell. Holding to his own sense of Veronese's "God-given power," Ruskin believed that the painter had more of God than the man who preached damnation, and he left the service an "un-converted man." According to Fors, then, the pastor's statements about damnation, which so opposed Ruskin's sense of the ways of God, finally enabled him to choose between "Protestantism or nothing" (28.86). In contrast, Praeterita states that he first attended the Waldensian chapel and heard the sermon, after which he encountered the painting:
Myself neither cheered nor greatly alarmed by this doctrine, I walked back into the condemned city, and up into the gallery where Paul Veronese's Solomon and the Queen of Sheba glowed in full afternoon light. The gallery windows being open, there came in with the warm air, floating swells and falls of military music, from the courtyard before the palace, which seemed to me more devotional, in their perfect art, tune, and discipline, than anything I remembered of evangelical hymns. And as the perfect colour and sound gradually asserted their power on me, they seemed finally to fasten me in the old article of Jewish faith, that things done delightfully and rightly were always done by the help and in the Spirit of God. (35.495)
According to this second version of his past, Ruskin did not experience revulsion and react strongly against the sermon, breaking sharply with his Evangelical belief before he left the chapel. Instead, feeling the sermon irrelevant, he walked out of the chapel unmoved, and only later did the music and painting convince him that there were better ways than the Evangelical to serve God. When Ruskin inverted the order of events, placing the sermon before his experience in the gallery, he changed the point of his narrative; for whereas Fors explains how a painting convinced him that his Evangelical religion preached a false doctrine of damnation, Praeterita tells how the arts of painting and music taught him how to serve God better than had his earlier belief. In fact, although his autobiography ends the story of this experience with the remark that his "evangelical beliefs were put away, to be debated of no more" (35.496), this later version really emphasizes a new conviction, a new faith in work well done, rather than a loss of religion. Praeterita not only fails to mention, as had Fors, that his decision was between "Protestantism or nothing," thereby lessening the sense of crisis, but it emphasizes affirmation rather than denial. If one tries to decide which version more accurately portrays Ruskin's feelings at this time of crisis, the evidence of his correspondence, at which we shall look, leads one to conclude that the earlier narrative in Fors, which emphasizes his rejection of doctrine, far better describes the event.
However differently Fors Clavigera and Praeterita describe that decisive moment when Ruskin cast away his Evangelical belief, they both record the fact that many years of thought preceded it. During these years many doubts eroded his faith, and although it would be difficult, and perhaps inaccurate, to name a single dominant cause of his final rejection of Evangelicalism, the following nine factors undoubtedly contributed to that decisive act:
1. Ruskin's lack of a personal, felt religious experience;
2. his analytical turn of mind, and particularly his analytical approach to religion;
3. his interest in the discoveries of geology and consequent loss of faith in the truth of scripture;
4. his reaction against Evangelical intolerance of other religions and Evangelical resistance to scientific knowledge;
5. his experience of Roman Catholic culture and art;
6. his reaction against his parents, particularly against his mother's Evangelical narrow-mindedness;
7. his acquaintance with those, like the Broad Churchman Maurice and the Catholic Manning, who were Christians but not Evangelicals, and those, like Carlyle, who did not believe in any orthodox religion;
8. his acquaintance with art created by men, such as Veronese, whom he considered irreligious;
9. and his own fear of damnation and his generous moral distaste for a doctrine which would have cast men he considered admirable into eternal torment.
He decided there could not be damnation because there could not be a future existence, and this decision left him confused and embittered for many years. During the period of Ruskin's agnosticism, which lasted from 1858 until 1875, his letters express bitter contempt for religion in general and Evangelicalism in particular. He wrote to Norton in 1861 that he felt "intense scorn of all I had hitherto done or thought, still intenser scorn of other people's doings and thinkings, especially in religion" (36.356). Furthermore, after he had rejected his religious belief, he looked upon his former coreligionists with special contempt, and in Fors Clavigera (1875) he admitted that "of all sects . . . I most dislike and distrust the so-called Evangelical" (28.366). In particular, Ruskin so disliked the Evangelical emphasis upon damnation that he charged that their unhealthy concentration on the pains of hell — and not, as Protestants liked to believe, the practices of Roman Catholics — were responsible for the contemporary weakness of Christianity: "It is neither Madonna-worship nor saint-worship, but the evangelical self-worship and hell-worship — gloating, with an imagination as unfounded as it is foul, over the torments of the damned, instead of the glories of the blest, — which have in reality degraded the languid powers of Christianity to their present state of shame and reproach" (28.82). The fury with which Fors Clavigera here savages the Evangelicals sixteen years after Ruskin walked out of the chapel in Turin, reveals his continuing hatred for their idea of damnation.
Although one can thus be sure that Ruskin never regained his earlier belief in damnation during these years of agnosticism, one finds it difficult to describe the other aspects of his religious opinions at any one point between 1858 and 1875. Certainly, he had rejected Evangelicalism and never returned to it. Certainly, he no longer believed in divinely inspired scripture, damnation, or any life after this one. But just as certainly, he did not break with Evangelical attitudes as easily as either the savage description of the Turin chapel scene in Fors or the far more gentle one in Praeterita would lead his reader to conclude.
During these years his ideas and attitudes remained in continual flux, for he discovered that after casting off the doubts and fears of the Evangelical believer, he experienced not peace but new anxieties — anxieties due largely to the fear of death inculcated by his former religion. For although he no longer feared death and subsequent damnation, he now feared death and subsequent nothingness. As an Evangelical, he had been taught to experience the fear of death as a way to heaven, and now that heaven no longer existed for him, he still found himself pursued by this fear. He had always believed that life on earth was only a brief part, the merest instant, of that unending duration whose greater portion the soul would experience after death — and now he learned that this brief instant of passage was all. Moreover, he had been born into a life which, he had been taught, was merely a period of pilgrimage — and now he discovered that the pilgrimage had become a journey without purpose. These discoveries made him confused because he found it difficult to refound anew his way of life, his goals, and the message of his works. And he became bitter, particularly at Evangelicalism, because he felt that his former religion not only had previously led him to misspend much of his life but also continued to make a new beginning impossible.
His letters reveal how troubled he was during this time and how continually his attitudes toward his situation changed. He wrote to the Brownings in May 1861, telling of the shock and confusion caused by his loss of belief:
I am stunned — palsied — utterly helpless — under the weight of the finding out the myriad errors that I have been taught about these things; every reed that I have leant on shattering itself joint from joint — I stand, not so much melancholy as amazed — I am not hopeless, but I don't know what to hope for. (36.364)
Although in May 1861 he thus claimed he was "not so much melancholy as amazed"' in February he had written to Norton that he felt "intense scorn of all I had hitherto done or thought, still intenser scorn of other people's doings and thinkings' especially in religion" (36.356). In another letter to Norton written in August 1861, Ruskin reveals how painfully difficult was the adjustment to his new ways of thought: "I looked for another world, and find there is only this, and that is past for me: what message I have given is all wrong: has to be all re-said, in another way, and is, so said, almost too terrible to be serviceable" (36.381). In other words, he had to make himself like Carlyle, like him whom he had been unable to understand, and, as he wrote to Carlyle, also in August 1861, the difficulties were great:
The heaviest depression is upon me [that] I have ever gone through; the great questions about Nature and God and man have come on me in forms so strange and frightful — and it is so new to me to do everything expecting only Death, though I see it is the right way — even to play — and men who are men nearly always do it without talking about it. (36.382)
But now that he had become convinced that one had to "do everything expecting only Death," he, for a time, gained some peace of mind — though he did not stop talking about his religious difficulties. He wrote to his father in October 1861 that he could never return to his former beliefs, and that he might be useful to his fellow men in this state of unbelief:
I have your kind note of the 2nd, saying you would give half of all you have if I were feeling like the Nun at Le Puy. Would you rather, then, have me kept in the ignorance necessary to produce that state of feeling? It might have been, once. Never can be now — once emerged from it, it is gone for ever, like childhood. I know no example in history of men once breaking away from their early beliefs, and returning to them again. The Unbeliever may be taught to believe — but not Julian the Apostate to return. However, if you look at the world — take America — Austria — France — and see what their form of Christianity has done for them — possibly the form that is coming may do more, and I may be more useful, as I always have been, as an iconoclast, than as a conservative. (36.384)
Another letter to his father, written a few months later in December 1861, openly declares his agnosticism:
You know in that matter of universal salvation, there are but three ways of putting it.
1. Either "people do go to the devil for not believing."
2. Or "they — don't."
3. Or — "We know nothing about it."
Which last is the real Fact, and the sooner it is generally acknowledged to be the Fact, the better, and no more said about Gospel, or Salvation, or Damnation. (36.400)
Upon reading these letters to his father, one finds it hard to decide whether he was trying to spare the older Ruskin the painful doubts he had earlier confessed to Norton and the Brownings, or whether, in fact, he had for a time achieved peace of mind and spirit. At any rate, later correspondence reveals that the fear of death and the need to refound his life continued to trouble Ruskin severely for many years. In 1867, for example, Ruskin is again writing to Norton that "the deadly question with me is — What next? or if anything is next? so that I've no help, but rather increase of wonder and horror from that" (36.534). But two years later, in October 1869, he once again writes to Norton as though, having accepted life without future existence, he has determined to do his best and worry no more: "That I am no more immortal than a gnat, or a bell of heath, all nature, as far as I can read it, teaches me, and on that conviction I have henceforward to lead my gnat's or heath's life" (36.596).
During this same year Ruskin for a while moved from agnosticism to atheism. A few months before writing to Norton about his belief that human existence ends with death, he told William Holman Hunt that he no longer accepted even the existence of God. According to the painter, when they met in Venice during the summer of 1869 Ruskin confessed:
I am led to regard the whole story of divine revelation as a mere wilderness of poetic dreaming, and, since it is proved to be so, it is time that all men of any influence should denounce the superstition which tends to destroy the exercise of reason. Amongst the chaotic mass there are exquisite thoughts, elevating aspirations, and poetic mental nourishment, and it would be a pity that these riches should be lost to the world. I want you, who have done a great deal of harm by your works in sanctifying blind beliefs, to join with me and others to save these beautiful fragments, lest the vulgar, when indignant at the discovery of the superstition, should in their mad fury destroy what is eternally true in the beautiful thoughts with that which is false. The conviction that I have arrived at leads me to conclude that there is no Eternal Father to whom we can look up, that man has no helper but himself. I confess this conclusion brings with it great unhappiness. Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 2 vols. (New York 1905) II, 26)]
Admittedly, this record of Ruskin's words does not sound very much like him, but there seems to be little reason to doubt the truth of Hunt's account, particularly since his other remarks on the course of Ruskin's later religious belief are quite accurate. One can conclude, then, that during these years after Ruskin abandoned his earlier faith his desire for certainty, for rest, led him however briefly to accept atheism.
Nonetheless, whatever were his religious opinions during this time the impress of Evangelicalism remained upon him, and the manner in which Ruskin's rejected belief continued to exercise dominion over his life, influencing his thoughts and acts, appears not only in the fact that he found it difficult to accept life witllout a future existence, but also in his continued reading and citation of scripture, his observance of the sabbath according to Evangelical rule, and his intermittent need to pray and attend church. We have previously observed his continuing use of biblical word and phrase, and as a further instance of the way he continued an Evangelical practice almost against his will, we may note his habitual observance of the sabbath. As he explained in Praeterita, despite the fact that he had long realized that "Christ's first article of teaching was to unbind the yoke of the Sabbath" (35.492), he could not free himself from the old idea of "Sabbath keeping," — "the idea that one was not to seek one's own pleasure on Sunday, nor to do anything useful.... The great passages in the Old Testament regarding its observance held their power over me' nor have ceased to do so" (35.492-93). Similarly, just as he felt the need to keep the sabbath, so too he sometimes felt the need to pray, and in 1863 he confided in his father that "Though I am so much of a heathen, I still pray a little sometimes in pretty places, though I eschew Camden Chapel" (36.428-29). In 1867 he wrote to Joan Agnew (later Severn) of a similar need which had led him to attend church: "Well, I've been to church, and have made up my mind that I shall continue to go. First, you see, the psalms for the day seemed to go straight at what was troubling me. . . . I came away on the whole much helped and taught, and satisfied that . . . I was meant to go to church again" (36.539). As we have already observed, Ruskin broke with Evangelicalism neither as sharply nor as easily as his published statements lead one to believe, and his continuing need for support and solace led him during these years of agnosticism to make his own accommodation with religion.
Last modified 6 May 2019