The Early 19th Century Social and Religious Milieu

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Two revolutions had a significant effect on life in Britain and the wider Western world in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

A Time of Revolution

Two revolutions had a significant effect on life in Britain and the wider Western world in the 18th and early 19th centuries: the socially disruptive Industrial Revolution and the physically violent French Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution (roughly 1760–1840) was a time of great transformation from a society based on agriculture and craft industries to one based on industrial factory structure and urban living. The population had begun to grow rapidly as a result of increasing life expectancy due to improvements in diet, medical care, sanitation, and housing. Transportation and communication were greatly improved during the period through the building of canals, better roads, bigger ports, and more railway lines. And, of course, it was a time of exciting invention. The Industrial Revolution expanded the middle class and raised the standard of living for most people.1 But more importantly the technological and economic advances elevated science to become the queen of knowledge (over theology and philosophy) and scientists became the new priesthood of society.

The French Revolution of 1789–99 was a violent revolt of the peasants, working class, and middle class against the oppressive rule of the king. Though democracy was not achieved, the Revolution spread democratic ideas of liberty and equality all over Europe, which tended to restrict the power of monarchs. While for some it symbolized the destruction of despotism in the church and state, most Britons saw French atheism as the root cause of much-feared political anarchy and public immorality and so wanted England to remain a Christian nation.2

The Make-up of the British Church

The established Church of England was also beginning to undergo important changes in the first half of the 19th century. It was roughly divided into three sections: the high (or orthodox), the low (or evangelical), and the broad (or liberal) churchmen, though of course there were people whose beliefs bridged the boundaries of these categories. The 18th century evangelical revival was still having a significant effect and evangelicals, motivated by biblical convictions and led by the Clapham Sect, were largely responsible for many of the social and political reforms as they fought to end slavery; improve the working conditions of children; supported Catholic political emancipation; started mission and Bible societies; founded schools, libraries, and savings banks; built churches; and improved prison conditions.3 Up until the mid-1830s at least, the real spiritual force in the church came from the evangelicals and to a lesser extent the high churchmen (strong traditionists in the Anglican Church).4 Although high churchmen were often critical of “enthusiastic” Methodists and other non-conformists (that is, non-Anglicans), as well as evangelical Anglicans, they all shared much in common in terms of their views of Scripture, the gospel, and the spiritual needs of the church and nation. Two of the most able theologians among the high churchmen were Bishop Samuel Horsley (1733–1806) and Bishop William Van Mildert (1765–1836). Though effective evangelical clergy were spread all over the country, two high concentrations of leaders were found in Cambridge, where Charles Simeon was most well-known, and in London at the Clapham Anglican Church, where the anti-slavery member of Parliament William Wilberforce and several other prominent men had their base.5

The Cambridge Network

The broad church or liberal views were also represented and propagated at Cambridge, through (but not exclusively through) what has been called the “Cambridge network.” This was a close-knit group of scientists, historians, university dons and other scholars, and church leaders, which originated in the early 1810s and had the greatest influence in university reform and in the development of science, particularly in the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Astronomical Society, the Geological Society, and the science department of the Royal Society.6 Not all the people in this network of relationships were theological liberals, but many were, and even the orthodox associated with it may have been influenced to some extent by liberal ideas.7

Key men in this network included John Herschel, Charles Babbage, and George Peacock, all undergraduates at Cambridge in the years 1811–13. Herschel soon became one of the world’s greatest astronomers; Babbage excelled in mathematics; and Peacock re-founded the Cambridge Observatory, tutored at Trinity College for a time, and eventually became dean of Ely Cathedral. These men were joined in 1818–19 by William Whewell (who became master of Trinity College in 1841 and the leading historian and philosopher of science in the early 19th century), George Airy (who was later appointed Astronomer Royal), Adam Sedgwick (who in 1818 became Woodwardian professor of geology at Cambridge),8 William Hopkins (prominent physics professor), E.D. Clark (a leading mineralogist), and John Henslow (an important botanist and co-founder with Sedgwick of the Cambridge Philosophical Society).

Added to these scientists were several other men in the network who drank deeply from the wells of German philosophy, biblical criticism, and historiography, and passed on their knowledge to others. Julius Hare and Connop Thirlwall were both students at Cambridge in 1812–14 and even then knew more of German scholarship than their professors. Both tutored for a while at Trinity College. Later, Hare was an ineffective rural rector but was a successful mentor for his nephew, Arthur Stanley, who later became a liberal canon of Canterbury. Thirlwall became a leading liberal and influential bishop of St. Davids. Together, Hare and Thirlwall published in 1827 their translation of B.G. Niebuhr’s History of Rome (1811–12), which sold more copies than the German original. This, along with Henry Milman’s History of the Jews (1829), effectively disseminated the ideas of German skeptical scholarship in the United Kingdom.9 A small discussion group within the network in the 1820s was the “Cambridge apostles.” It was led by F.D. Maurice and absorbed and imparted Niebuhr’s “anti-mythical methods to the Bible and to Christian tradition generally.”10 Probably more than any other group, the Cambridge network contributed to the 19th century theological revolution in Britian, which saw the traditional orthodox view of Scripture held by evangelicals and high churchmen dwindle into relative insignificance.

The Oxford Movement

A quite different and opposing movement was centered at Oxford University. In the late 1820s and early 1830s dissenting Protestants (i.e., non-Anglicans) were pushing hard for the disestablishment of the Church of England and several acts of Parliament brought changes improving the position of Protestant dissenters and Roman Catholics. A few leading Oxford professors connected with Oriel College, such as John Keble, Henry Newman, Edward Pusey, and Hurrell Froude, saw this governmental infringement as a threat to the apostolic authority of the Anglican Church and to the stability of the nation. So in 1833 they began to express their opposition publicly in the form of sermons and Tracts for the Times, from which they gained the label “Tractarians.” They spoke out against critical rationalism, skepticism, spiritual lethargy, liberalism, and immorality. They elevated the authority of church tradition over the Scriptures, revived 17th century sacramental attitudes toward nature and the world, and paid careful attention to church furnishings and worship services. Ironically, in spite of the anti-popery of many of these tracts, many in the Oxford movement eventually left the Anglican Church in the mid-1840s and joined the Roman Catholic Church. Those who stayed, such as Pusey, developed the Anglo-Catholic party.11

Though evangelical Anglicans shared the Tractarians’ concern for the continued establishment of the Church of England, they rejected three of their most important beliefs: the supreme authority of tradition (instead of Scripture) for the Church, their Catholic view of justification, and their Catholic views of ministry and the sacraments.12

The Bridgewater Treatises

Another strand of the theological tapestry of those days was the emphasis on natural theology. With the Baconian notion of the “two books” (Scripture and creation) firmly in mind, natural theology began to develop in Britain in the late 17th century. Throughout the next century, science was seen by leading Christian scientists, philosophers, and theologians as a means of demonstrating the existence and providence of God, and so serving as a support for Christian faith. By the time of William Paley’s celebrated Natural Theology in 1802, scientific knowledge of creation was being used in a design argument that not only “proved” the existence of God and His providence in creation, but also demonstrated the attributes of God.13 One of the last expressions of this kind of writing was the collection of eight Bridgewater Treatises, first published in the years 1833 to 1836.14 Seven prominent scientists and one prominent theologian were commissioned (and paid £1000 each15) through the will of the recently deceased Earl of Bridgewater to present from various fields of science the abundant evidence in creation of God’s power, wisdom, and goodness.16 The treatises were full of scientific information which illustrated Paley’s thesis, but they did not defend the legitimacy of the inference from design in nature to a designer God. Though they referred to Scripture occasionally, they generally did not comment on the relation between science and the Bible.17 One of the biggest criticisms of the treatises was their overly optimistic handling of the difficult problem of pain, disease, disaster, and death seen in creation. Generally, they either ignored the problem or dealt with it superficially, attributing the evil in a mysterious way to divine beneficence.18 For this study, the most important treatise was William Buckland’s on geology, for it attracted much criticism from the scriptural geologists.

The BAAS and Other Scientific Organizations

As indicated earlier, great technological advancements and more comfortable living, for the middle and upper classes especially, were elevating the importance and influence of science and scientists in society. The British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) also greatly contributed to this. Founded in 1831 in York, it was modeled after the German association, Deutsche Naturforscher Versammlung. The BAAS sought to stimulate friendships among scientists, increase public knowledge and government support of science, coordinate scientific research (especially by what it hoped would be a growing number of amateur scientists), and facilitate intercourse with foreign scientists. As a means of achieving these aims, it held its annual meeting in a different provincial city each year, opened its meetings to the public, and opened membership with lower dues than those of any other philosophical society. Its constitution embraced two Baconian principles for interpreting nature: 1) to focus on intermediate, rather than final, causes, and 2) to avoid dogmatic systems of philosophy by concentrating on the objective gathering of facts. In light of this, the BAAS insisted on broad religious tolerance in order to transcend doctrinal differences and avoid religious controversy. In the early years it faced strong opposition. Charles Dickens, the Times newspaper in London, and others criticized it for the pomp, extravagance, and self-laudation of its annual meetings. More significantly, Tractarians accused it of religious pluralism and deistic science, which they believed was contributing to the de-Christianizing of the universities.19 One scriptural geologist, Reverend William Cockburn, was critical of the BAAS on similar grounds.20

The BAAS annual meetings were not the only means of increasing the understanding and influence of scientific knowledge in society. In the 1820s, mechanics institutes began to form in a number of provincial cities. These were intended to teach artisans and mechanics the scientific information that would be practically useful in their trades. For a number of reasons they failed in this objective, though they did help to encourage young people to pursue scientific studies, and some of the institutes went on to become polytechnics or universities. From an examination of the contents of many of their libraries, it would appear that in the early to mid 1800s little attention was paid to geology and it is unlikely that the writings of scriptural geologists were found in those libraries.21 The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge began about the same time and sought to produce and distribute cheap and useful books, many of which dealt with science. The middle class also had access to scientific knowledge (along with other subjects) through lectures, libraries, and museums of the many literary and philosophical societies that sprang up in major cities in the 1810s to 1830s. Many of these contributed significantly to the study of local geology and collection of fossils. In the following decades, natural history societies and field clubs also provided amateur science students the opportunity to contribute to the growth of knowledge in botany, zoology, and geology.22

The Great Turning Point

Many people in the church today think that “young-earth” creationism is a fairly recent invention, popularized by fundamentalist Christians in the mid-20th century. Is this view correct? Answers in Genesis scholar Dr. Terry Mortenson presents his fascinating original research that documents a different story.

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  1. T.S. Ashton, The Industrial Revolution 1760–1830 (London; New York: Oxford University Press, 1970); Robin M. Reeve, The Industrial Revolution 1750–1850 (London: London University Press, 1971).
  2. Isser Woloch, “French Revolution,” The World Book Encyclopedia (1987), VII:450–52; Vernon J. Puryear, “Napoleon I,” The World Book Encyclopedia (1987), XIV:12–17; J.H. Plumb, England in the Eighteenth Century (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1987), p. 155–162.
    On the widespread fear of French atheism and its effects, see Owen Chadwick, The Victorian Church (1971), p. I:1–2; anonymous review of “The History of Europe During the French Revolution” by Archibald Allison, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Monthly Magazine, vol. XXXIII (1833), p. 889–890; anonymous, “The Life of a Democrat; A Sketch of Horne Tooke. Part II,” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Monthly Magazine, vol. XXXIV (1833), p. 220–221; Ernest M. Howse, Saints in Politics: The “Clapham Sect” and the Growth of Freedom (London: Allen & Unwin, 1976), p. 101 and 127; Paul J. Weindling, “Geological Controversy and Its Historiography: The Prehistory of the Geological Society of London,” in Images of the Earth, p. 256.
  3. Ernest M. Howse, Saints in Politics: The “Clapham Sect” and the Growth of Freedom (1976).
  4. Chadwick says this dominant religious influence extended to the middle of the Victorian period. See Owen Chadwick, The Victorian Church, p. I:5 (1971).
  5. John H. Overton, The English Church in the Nineteenth Century: 1800–33 (1894).
  6. Walter F. Cannon, “Scientists and Broad Churchmen: An Early Victorian Intellectual Network,” Journal of British Studies, vol. IV, no. 1 (1964), p. 65–88; Walter F. Cannon, “The Role of the Cambridge Movement in Early Nineteenth Century Science,” Proceedings of the Tenth International Congress on the History of Science (1964), p. 317–320; Jack Morrell and Arnold Thackray, editors, Gentlemen of Science: Early Years of the BAAS (Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 17–35.
  7. Some evidence of this influence will be presented in the final section of the book.
  8. Paul Marston, in his “Science and Meta-Science in the Work of Adam Sedgwick” (The Open University, Ph.D. thesis, 1984), has shown that Sedgwick held many views in common with evangelicals. Nevertheless, it seems undeniable that Sedgwick also was significantly influenced by the Cambridge Network and shared many of their ideas. As noted in the article on Cole (, the evangelical Christian Observer, which favored acceptance of the idea of an old earth, shared some of Cole’s concerns about Sedgwick’s views as expressed in his Discourse on the University. Other insights into Sedgwick’s views will be gained from the later discussion on Ure and the analysis of the nature of geology as a historical science at the conclusion of this book.
  9. Nigel M. de S. Cameron, Biblical Higher Criticism and the Defense of Infallibilism in Nineteenth Century Britain (Lewiston, NY: E. Mellen Press, 1984), p. 37–38.
  10. Walter F. Cannon, “Scientists and Broad Churchmen: An Early Victorian Intellectual Network,” Journal of British Studies, vol. IV, no. 1 (1964), p. 78.
  11. Owen Chadwick, The Victorian Church, I: p. 60–75, 167–231; Michael Hennell, “The Oxford Movement,” in Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977), edited by Tim Dowley, p. 524–526; D.A. Rausch, “Oxford Movement,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984), edited by Walter A. Elwell, p. 811–812.
  12. Peter Toon, Evangelical Theology 1833–1856: A Response to Tractarianism (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1979). From Toon’s and my own research it appears that no scriptural geologists were significantly involved in writing against tractarianism.
  13. John H. Brooke, “Natural Theology in Britain from Boyle to Paley,” in New Interactions Between Theology and Natural Science (1974), edited by John H. Brooke et al., p. 5–54; John H. Brooke, Science and Religion, p. 192–225.
  14. John M. Robson, “The Fiat and Finger of God: The Bridgewater Treatises,” in Victorian Faith in Crisis (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), edited by Richard J. Helmstadter and Bernard Lightman, p. 71–125; W.H. Brock, “The Selection of the Bridgewater Treatises,” Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, Vol. XXI, No. 2 (1966), p. 162–179; D.W. Gundry, “The Bridgewater Treatises and their Authors,” History, n.s. Vol. XXXI (1946), p. 140–152.
  15. According to Martin J.S. Rudwick, The Great Devonian Controversy (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1985), p. 461, these amounts were “positively princely,” being roughly equivalent in modern terms to £40,000 (or $60,000).
  16. The scientists were John Kidd, William Whewell, Charles Bell, Peter Roget, William Buckland, William Kirby, and William Prout. The theologian was Thomas Chalmers. Buckland, Whewell, and Kirby were also Anglican clergymen.
  17. Among these eight writers, only William Kirby, a distinguished entomologist and a scriptural geologist, attempted to address this issue. See his On the History, Habits and Instincts of Animals (1835), I: p. xvii-lvi.
  18. Kirby and Chalmers were more thorough than others on this issue. Kirby was quite explicit in attributing the evil in creation (including pestiferous insects) to the curse at the fall of man. See Kirby, ibid., I: p. 9–17, 42–43, 324–331. Chalmers linked all human suffering to man’s moral perversity, but did not comment on the fall of man or on death and suffering in the animal world. See Thomas Chalmers, The Adaptation of External Nature to the Moral and Intellectual Constitution of Man (1833), II: p. 97-125.
  19. A.D. Orange, “The Idols of the Theatre: The British Association and Its Early Critics,” Annals of Science, vol. XXXII (1975), p. 277–294; O.J.R. Howarth, The British Association for the Advancement of Science: A Retrospect 1831–1931 (1931); Jack Morrell and Arnold Thackray, editors, Gentlemen of Science: Early Years of the BAAS; Colin Russell, Science and Social Change 1700–1900 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983), p. 186–192.
  20. William Cockburn, A Remonstrance, Address to His Grace the Duke of Northumberland, upon the Dangers of Peripatetic Philosophy (1838).
  21. D.A. Hinton, “Popular Science in England, 1830–1870,” (University of Bath, Ph.D. thesis, 1979), p. 223, 254–256. Hinton said that even Lyell’s Principles of Geology was not commonly stocked and suggested that the avoidance of geological works was probably due to the controversial nature of geology.
  22. For a more detailed discussion of these different organizations, see Russell, Science and Social Change 1700–1900, p. 151–186.


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