The Science of Religion in Britain, 1860-1915






Publication: Church History
Author: Stone, Jon R
Date published: June 1, 2012

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It is rare when a book is already obsolete at the time of its publication. The saying, what a difference a day makes--or, in this case, nearly a quarter of a century--seems regrettably apt of The Science of Religion in Britain, 1860-1915 by Marjorie Wheeler-Barclay.

Beginning its life as Wheeler-Barclay's doctoral dissertation of the same title (Northwestern, 1987), The Science of Religion in Britain proposes to revise and retell the history of the emergence of a scientific study of religion during the latter half of the Victorian period. That is to say, rather than follow the accepted storyline that pits science against religion, or rehearse the tired thesis that the academic study of religion helped precipitate a crisis of faith among religious leaders and the churchgoing public, Wheeler-Barclay examines instead "the relationship between the cultural upheaval and the creation of a distinct field of discourse dedicated to the scientific study of religious practices and belief systems as human institutions meeting definite social and psychological needs" (1). Relationship , in terms of a give and take conversation, is precisely the dynamic that she relates. For, what she discovers is that, far from creating a crisis of faith in Victorian England, "this new field was both a response to and a reflection of the sense of religious crisis that troubled so many Victorians" (2). As Wheeler-Barclay clearly lays out in the first chapter, the crisis had been brewing long before a science of religion had emerged, hastened largely by Scottish empiricists, French philosophes , and social utopians who began to speculate into the origins of religion as well as compare the beliefs and practices of primitive peoples in regions under European colonial domination. As Wheeler-Barclay deftly shows, Victorians were the inheritors of these earlier researches.

But how is it that this history of the science of religion in Victorian England is only now being told? According to Wheeler-Barclay, one reason why earlier histories had overlooked this relationship has been "the tendency [among historians] to look at the science of religion from this narrow perspective--paying attention only to the threat, actual or potential, that it posed to Christian orthodoxy," which, in turn, "has led to inadequate recognition and understanding of its importance in late-Victorian culture" (4; on this point she cites Eric Sharpe's 1975 edition of Comparative Religion [London: Gerald Duckworth, 1975, 1986; repr. 2003, 2009]). While it is true that their work was at times controversial, and though a few of these Victorian-era scholars took some delight in upending traditional religious assumptions (among them, Wheeler-Barclay names Edward Tylor, James Frazer, and Jane Ellen Harrison), Wheeler-Barclay contends that their work, overall, was not a cause of the religious uneasiness of the times but was, to the contrary, a thoughtful, engaging, if at times unsympathetic, response to it. Thus, as Wheeler-Barclay contends, "their work was intended as a vital contribution to the contemporary debate on Christianity. Their scholarly interests reflected the questions and anxieties generated by the intensity of religious debate that surrounded them" (2).

What follows are six discrete chapters, each an intellectual biography of a key Victorian scholar whose main focus had been on the origin, development, and function of religion as expressed typically in myths and rituals. These six are Max Müller, Edward Tylor, Andrew Lang, William Robertson Smith, James Frazer, and Jane Ellen Harrison. In reviewing their lives and works--taken alone and taken together--Wheeler-Barclay's main aim is to recount the interactions between each scholar and an informed Victorian public that was eager to read their books and attend their lectures. To achieve this aim, Wheeler-Barclay proposes not only to outline the major works of each of these scholars but also to discuss in depth how their works were received by their peers and by the public at large.

However, in reading The Science of Religion in Britain , one finds that, while Wheeler-Barclay's intellectual biographies are well-researched and well-written (albeit overly-long and sometimes repetitious), the ties between each scholar and the public at large are not developed adequately to support her overall thesis. Most, if not all, of the responses that she documents and discusses are between each scholar and his or her colleagues in the Academy, primarily at Oxford and Cambridge. Indeed, her analysis does not penetrate very far beneath the façade of Victorian intellectual or social life to uncover the religious sentiments of Victorians not belonging to the upper-crust of society. What is more, because for most Victorian-era intellectuals, religion was too often synonymous with sacred texts and institutions , almost any crisis of faith would be felt mainly, if not exclusively, by those who read and compared sacred texts and participated in the institutional life of the church, or by those who had the wealth and leisure to reflect upon the religious questions of their day. Perhaps a more interesting question, then, might not be whether Victorian intellectuals were driving or being driven by the nineteenth-century religious crisis, but whether and to what extent that crisis touched Victorian society more generally.

Now, as to the obsolescence of Wheeler-Barclay's book: had her 1987 dissertation been published within a year or two of being completed or had its argument been updated to reflect developments in the field since 1987, Dr. Wheeler-Barclay would have been making a very welcome contribution to the history of the study of religion. But, as those of us in the field who teach and research theories and methods in the study of religion already know, beginning in 1987, a number of histories began to appear in print that also examined the lives and contributions of these same six Victorian theorists and provided the cultural and intellectual contexts for the emergence of a history of the study of religion. Among these one might include: Explaining Religion by J. Samuel Preus (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987); Natural Religion and the Nature of Religion by Peter Byrne (London: Routledge, 1989); Tomoko Masuzawa's In Search of Dreamtime (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993) and The Invention of World Religions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); Seven Theories of Religion by Daniel Pals (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); Theorizing about Myth by Robert Segal (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999); Discovering Religious History in the Modern Age by Hans Kippenberg (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002); and Thinking about Religion: An Historical Introduction to Theories of Religion by Ivan Strenski (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006). Of these, only Kippenberg is referenced by Wheeler-Barclay. In fact, Kippenberg treats all six of Wheeler-Barclay's theorists--with greater economy and expertise.

For historians of the late-Victorian era who do not know the field of Religious Studies, Wheeler-Barclay's book will serve as a useful set of intellectual biographies. But, for those who have kept current with the history of the science of religion, her book will be seen as arriving, lamentably, a quarter century too late.

Author affiliation:

California State University, Long Beach

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