John Stuart Mill

A Secular Life

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Timothy Larsen
Spiritual Lives
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In John Stuart Mill: A Secular Life, a new biography of John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), Timothy Larsen reveals the surprisingly “religious” life of the “saint of rationalism.” Larsen demonstrates that throughout his life, Mill believed it was rational and legitimate to have hope in God’s existence, and even once observed that his reverence for Jesus gave him the right to call himself a Christian (181). While Mill’s religious identity is complicated, his life, as Larsen writes, “was impinged upon by religion at every turn” (viii).

Larsen begins with Mill’s father, James Mill (1773-1836), who, while hostile to religion in later life, had been an ordained minister. As the son of a shoemaker, the senior Mill became painfully aware of his limited social status. Eventually, he was able to secure the support of patrons Jane and John Stuart, who supported a charity whose purpose was the educating of poor but promising boys for the ministry. Upon obtaining a license to preach, however, his sermons were dull, cerebral, and largely incomprehensible to his parishioners. Failing to secure a permanent position, Mill Sr. became embittered and began developing a strong distaste for creeds, oaths, and dogma. Quitting the ministry, he moved to London and attempted a literary life

Thus it was not until his mid-forties that James Mill became a thoroughgoing skeptic, by which time John Stuart Mill was already ten years old. While Mill’s father seemed “constitutionally irritable” around his family, he was a genial and generous friend to acquaintances. One of these was the eccentric utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). As a wealthy bachelor, Bentham supported James Mill’s literary efforts but, as Larsen observes, even this ardent utilitarian secularist often praised the “religion of Jesus” (7). Larsen highlights the fact that each of the Mill’s nine children were baptized in the Church of England, so despite John Stuart Mill’s repeated claim that he grew up “without religious belief, in the ordinary meaning of the term,” the “sea of faith was full and all around” (15).

John Stuart Mill’s early education was dominated by the aggressive personality, philosophy, and educational theories of his father, but he would come to reject that dry, sardonic, and short-tempered approach (26). Larsen illustrates how this early education robbed the younger Mill of a “devotional sense,” what he describes as “a way of fostering one’s own identity and sense of self through one’s loyalty and emotional connection to another entity” (27). But even under the shadow of Benthamism, the young Mill spent much time in theological literature (23).

As a young polemical Benthamite, John Stuart Mill desired to “reform the world” (34) and was seventeen when he began writing for the radical Westminster Review. But then Mill experienced his famous mental crisis, a “dry heavy dejection of the melancholy winter” in which he could find no comfort even in books. As Larsen states, “[h]e was tired of being a sectarian Benthamite” (48). Mill wrote of his de-conversion from Benthamism in the language of loss-of-faith narratives, and soon began developing relationships with a number of prominent Unitarians. He was becoming more moderate in his views, arguing that “the Constitution and Church of England … are not mere frauds, nor sheer nonsense” (49).

His crisis abated, Mill began “fraternizing with the enemy” (56), some of his closest friends being liberal Anglicans. He spoke approvingly of the religious works of F.D. Maurice, Charles Kingsley, Florence Nightingale, Baden Powell, the Quaker John Woolman, and even the Roman Catholic W.G. Ward. Indeed, Mill began to see himself as mediator between opposing ideologies or viewpoints (66). During this period, Mill often reported to others that he had “unbounded reverence” for Jesus Christ (69).

Then Mill met Harriet Taylor, and though the attraction between them was immediate, she was already married to John Taylor. Larsen describes Mill’s deliberate and childish attempts at wedging himself between Harriet and John, becoming a “disruptive force in this family” (75). Eventually, John Taylor would die of cancer, and they would marry two years later. Mill delighted in married life—seeing the relationship in Christian and biblical terms—declaring “[m]y wife and I are one” (123). With Harriet, Mill’s “devotional sense” finally found an outlet (88). However, at the pinnacle of literary fame, Mill’s wife died from an acute attack of bronchitis in Avignon, France. To be close to her grave, Mill purchased a house nearby. “He lived for much of each year there for the last years of his life,” visiting her “grave daily” (125).

In the second half of the text, Larsen examines Mill’s most significant books, revealing how these works illustrate Mill’s religious development. For example, A System of Logic (1843) is surprisingly permeated with religious themes, with Mill referring to God in this textbook on logic over eighty times. Larsen powerfully declares, “I defy anyone to find a modern work on logic being used as a textbook in national universities today that includes a reference to the question of the double or single procession of the Holy Spirit in the Triune Godhead!” (99). Indeed, many Christians were enthralled with Mill’s Logic and assigned it in schools (100-102).

Next, Larsen explores On Liberty (1859), and how it reveals Mill’s maturing attitudes towards organized religion. While much of the book is a “protest against restrictions and limitations arising from the influence of Christian orthodoxy” (132), it was not an attack on religion. In fact, several liberal Protestant thinkers agreed with Mill’s assessment, including Frederick Maurice, Charles Kingsley, and British Prime Minister William E. Gladstone (139-140). Mill’s Utilitarianism (1861) was also influenced by the writings of English clergymen William Paley and Thomas R. Malthus (150-151), and that he even believed utilitarianism was the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth (152).

Larsen then discusses Mill’s posthumously published Three Essays on Religion (1874). From these essays—especially the essay on “Theism”—Mill reveals himself a “probabilist theist” (207). While his disciples fumed that these essays were “profoundly irreconcilable” with “the scientific principles which Mr. Mill inculcated,” Larsen reveals affinities between Mill and the Broad Church, or liberal Anglicanism. Near the end of his life, Mill befriended Reverend Louis Rey, a pastor he knew at Avignon, contributing annual donations to Rey’s Protestant church (225).

Religion was “everywhere” in Mill’s life and he was happy to be thought of as “spiritual” or even “religious.” Like so many his age, Mill was suspicious of and opposed to dogmatic, organized religion. But as Larson convincingly argues, Victorian culture was deeply religious, influencing the thought of believer and unbeliever alike. Mill was aware that he was not an orthodox believer, but this did not mean he was “secular” either. According to Larsen, “Mill actually had quite a stable theological scheme which he maintained from the early 1830s until his death in 1873” (200).

Mill was indeed a religious man—but of a rational kind. With this delightfully absorbing new biography, Larsen joins Harriet Settanni, Linda C. Raeder, Alan P.F. Sell, and other revisionist scholarship on the religious life of John Stuart Mill.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James C. Ungureanu is Honorary Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland.

Date of Review: 
March 6, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois, and an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David.


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