Religion in Romantic England

An Anthology of Primary Sources

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Editor(s): 
Jeffrey W. Barbeau
Documents of Anglophone Christianity
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , March
     2018.
     506 pages.
     $69.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781481307222.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Religion in Romantic England, Jeffrey Barbeau anthologizes seventy primary sources to document the religious landscape in England from the late 1750s to the early 1830s. His introduction plainly states that it is “Romanticism and religion. The two belong together” (xxix). No rigorous analysis is offered to explain the prominence and interdependence of the two. Instead, the anthology supports the thesis that “religion saturated Romantic society” (xix) by overwhelming readers with primary supporting evidence. Poets, philosophers, and politicians come alongside theologians and ministers to comment on religion as it pertained to their cultural moment, on topics ranging from morality and educational formation to population control and abolition, to debates concerning the nature of Jesus Christ. 

That religion and Romanticism have a symbiotic relationship is a somewhat bold stance for Barbeau to take, if only because the opposite argument can just as easily be made: Romanticism, some have argued, coincides with a decline in orthodoxy and the ascent of unbelief, or atheism. However, Barbeau elides this debate that fascinates postsecular theorists by instead focusing on religion’s enduring presence in people’s public and private lives during this era. Indeed, according to this anthology’s selections from Romantic poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, religion and theology remained positioned to address the questions, doubts, and deep-seated feelings that mysteriously guide the human spirit. 

Barbeau methodically arranges the seventy texts into ten thematic sections (Divinity, Faith, Canon, Doubt, Enthusiasm, Psalms, Morals, Nation, Papacy, and Outsiders) in an attempt to emphasize how religion saturated every facet of English society during the Romantic period. Barbeau chooses an exciting three to four-page selection from each source text, preceded by a one-page author summary that also connects to the respective section’s theme. To help orient readers to the religious landscape of the Romantic period, the anthology’s thorough introduction surveys various denominations and key individuals, examining the ways in which religion intersected with other dimensions of British culture along the way. The focus on primary texts, the helpful author summaries, the neat organization, and the simplified introduction make this anthology a perfect introduction to religion in 18th and 19th-century England. It would work exceptionally well in an undergraduate classroom. 

Barbeau illuminates multiple perspectives that make each thematic section dynamic and contested, always balancing one point of view with its counterpoint, and even offering radical minority positions. In the first section on “Divinity,” for instance, Barbeau weighs William Jones’s trinitarian defense against Joseph Priestley’s unitarian perspective. Yet, in that same section, Barbeau features a portion of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “New Atheism” as a third, radical perspective. Although this anthology does feature a number of clergymen, each section highlights voices outside of the clergy—the likes of Edmund Burke, William Wordsworth, Jeremy Bentham, Robert Malthus, and Thomas Paine. Perhaps we already know these names as paradigmatic Romantic thinkers and writers, yet the readings in this anthology accentuate the extent to which religion is implicated in every facet of this society, from quotidian existence to public policy. 

However, Religion in Romantic England faces two limitations. First, male voices dominate. Of the seventy contributing authors, a mere seven primary sources come from women writers (Sarah Trimmer, Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck, Hannah More, Joanna Southcott, Felicia Hemans, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Anna Letitia Barbauld). To the astute reader, certain trends become apparent while reading these selections, for example, the genre in which religious women writers were usually constrained. Barbeau mentions in each author introduction that Mary Wollstonecraft and Sarah Trimmer began their professional careers writing educational material for children. Notably, pieces by the women writers in this anthology are located in domestic sections like “Morals,” “Psalms,” and “Enthusiasm,” with the exception of the Sarah Trimmer selection, which is located in the “Canon” section. Yet even Trimmer’s text is intended as educational literature for children. Still, the seven selections by women writers are among the most fascinating and pleasurable in the entire anthology. Anna Letitia Barbauld’s fiery, authoritative, and at times sarcastic demeanor catches the reader off guard. Here is an educated woman in 19th-century England lecturing the public on its politics and theology: “Christians! I shudder, lest in the earnestness of my heart I may have sinned, in suffering such impious propositions to escape my lips…Bad actions are made worse by hypocrisy; an unjust war is in itself so bad a thing that there is only one way of making it worse, and that is by mixing religion with it” (375). 

The anthology is also limited by geography. Though I wish Barbeau had extended this anthology’s purview to writers in different corners of the British Empire, he does feature texts that engage with issues beyond England’s borders—matters like slavery and global evangelism. Additionally, the final section of the anthology, entitled “Outsiders,” shares writings on Islam, missionary accounts in India and Africa, and the sole primary source on a non-Christian religion in England: Francis Henry Goldsmid’s Remarks on civil disabilities on the British Jews

The first of its kind, Religion in Romantic England is an excellent resource for students and scholars alike who are interested in the contours of the religious experience in this time and place. There is a healthy mix of predictable selections, like John Wesley’s “The more excellent way,” and unexpected discoveries, like Robert Malthus’s An essay on the principle of population. Barbeau’s anthology does more than scratch the surface of the Romantic-era religious landscape; it excavates the terrain, uncovering both familiar and unfamiliar names and ideas. Equally important (and valuable) are the ways in which these ideas, philosophies, and cultural attitudes have endured and evolved into the 21st century. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eric Bontempo is a graduate student in the Department of English & Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Date of Review: 
August 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jeffrey W. Barbeau is Professor of Theology at Wheaton College.

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