April 13, 2010

"Pusey in a Blue Coat" : The religious views of William Gladstone


Gladstone Religion
IN our exploration of Gladstone the Victorian Titan we now turn to perhaps the most important source of his political views- the way in which his religious views shaped the views of the latter Gladstone the “Grand Old Man”.

This was absolutely central to Gladstone’s political thought as is very well shown by Matthew’s work and more generally in Gladstonian scholarship. This can be seen partly as a significant part of the rediscovery of the central role of religion in the Victoria era. IT also reflects the expansion of scholarshi8p on Gladstone-and access to Gladstone’s own papers and Diary. It’s also represents the slow overcoming of the negative legacy of his official biographer.

His official biographer was John Morley one of Gladstone’s closest political allies. IN terms of the role of religion however he was badly chosen. For while Morley’s politics were close to Gladstone’s own his religious views as a “freethinker” (that is an opponent of the claims of organised religion) could scarcely be more different. Unsurprisingly he did not do their central role of the latter in the former justice.

IN order to access the effect of these it is necessary first of all to establish the nature of these views. The mature Gladstone was not an evangelical it needs to be strongly emphasised. He had it is true come from an evangelical background particularly his devout mother. Several of the Gladstone children moved far away from this theology. One Robertson at one point Mayor of Liverpool become I think a Unitariain that is a denier of the Trinity the central doctrine shared by Catholics and Protestants alike . Another the possibly mentally unstable Helen became a Roman Catholic at one point using some works of Anglican divines as toilet paper.

William Gladstone moved less far but still far from his background. HE was an early enthusiast for the “oxford movement” that is the revival of Catholicism within the Church of England. This was to take him far from central evangelical themes such as the sufficiency of scripture and faith alone as the road to salvation. Despite this many seem today under the impression he was an evangelical. The writer had one conversation with a well informed historian (albeit not of this era) who was sure he was a nonconformist (that is a Protestant non Anglican) .

Many commentators have empathised supposed evangelical roots of his character and thought often in the teeth of the evidence in way that’s hard not to ascribe to prejudice or ignorance . One common one is the supposed evangelical roots of his emphasis on moral discipline and mortification. In Fact Gladstone like much of the early Oxford movement (the same was true of John latter Cardinal) Newman was partly attracted to it because he saw evangelicalism particularly with it’s emphasis on salvation through faith and a single moment of decision as insufficiently committed to the development of moral discipline and character.

They thus joined the growing “Catholic” element in the Church of England-one that was less Protestant and closer to the Church of Rome than any salient faction had been in the established churches of the British Isles for centuries the movement initially known as the “oxford movement” ( the university where it had arose in the 1830’s) has often become known as Anglo-Catholicism . IT was to develop into a broad group including those who agreed with the Roman Church doctrine on virtually every issue (even to the extent of denouncing many catholic priests as too Protestant) as well as those who had various problems with “catholic” doctrine whether the traditional Protestant objections or others.

So what was Gladstone’s personal version of Christianity? He was called by John Keble's the movement's founder “Pusey in a blue coat” –Pusey was one of the founders of the Oxford Movement one who left Protestant doctrines behind but remained Clearly distant from the Church of Rome. So for example he donated money (to the furry of some of the “higher” or more Catholic members of the Oxford Movement ) and rejected the official Roman Catholic understanding of Papal authority. This is quite a good way of understanding Gladstone’s theological views which were both Catholic and a long way from Rome.

On the one hand he was very clearly not a traditional Protestant. He believed for example that the communion service had a real effect in causing salvation, he emphasised a Priesthood ordained by bishops as central to the full Christian faith and saw the church in institutional and historic terms marked by these marks. That is in direct contradiction is contrary to the evangelical (and with some ifs and but the more broadly protestant insofar as it was separate) conception of the church as a union of believers. Gladstone’s belief in the Church as an institutional body with different national parts and compositions (and including Roman Catholics) was to be central to his politics. It was also bitterly controversial seen as heretical at a time when such things still mattered for politics. Gladstone was for eighteen years the mp for Oxford University (graduate of the universities had constituencies of their own untill the Atlee government). His deposition as mp for their, was significantly to the candidate of the “low church and anti-Puseyite party”.

On the other hand he was no Roman Catholic. Many Catholic doctrines he opposed even with abhorrence including their beliefs on the Virgin Mary. He was happy with the Book of Common Prayer (The Anglican liturgy) inherited from the Reformation and unlike many “Anglo Catholics” saw no reason to change it. Most significantly of all he saw the Pope as the foremost bishop of Christendom. The declaration of “Papal Infallibility” by the Vatican Council (though a more nuanced doctrine than the name suggests ) in 1870 sparked of a virulent polemic against it from Gladstone. This distance from Rome is perhaps significant though for complex reasons most British Catholic voters inclined overall to the left most English Catholic intellectuals were not on the left- and they certainly were rarely Gladstonian progressives.
Nonetheless it should be noted that Anglo Catholics including those with distance from Rome were rarely “Gladstonian” either, indeed they tended to be strongly conservative (though some were early Socialists). Indeed Gladstone himself when early an Anglo Catholic had been a “stern and unbending” Tory. Lord Salisbury had unsually close theology indeed it's important for the history of the Church of England that two such powerfull politicans were so sympathetic to the "ritualists" whom there was huge popular and lay pressure to expel from the Chruch of England).But Salisbruyt had very different political views from Gladstone So it is to the way he developing a “liberal” politics on the basis of his religious convictions to which we will now turn.

The picture above is of the same Pusey whose theology so closed matched Gladstone's

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