(A172 – eTMA2 – The Essay - John Wheater, Thursday 29/01/04)

Compare and contrast the influence of commerce and religion on mid-Victorian culture.


The ‘Long March of Everyman’[1] from serf to citizen is well established at the start of our period, and is perhaps ‘marking time’ before another big push;  much ground has been covered, and much lies ahead.  In 1850 Church officials and land owners were still exercising power, but that power had been sharply curtailed in the preceding half-century.  However, although the established Church had lost nearly all its direct power, its influence was still strong, and a key ingredient of social cohesion[2].  The succeeding twenty years (to the end of our period) were to see a sharp decline in this influence, driven by scientific advance and working‑class politicisation[3].  This decline runs interestingly parallel to a huge increase in commercial activity[4], and it is the interaction of these cultural components, with their effect on the culture of the time, that forms the matter of this discussion[Liz1] . 


The term ‘culture’ is imprecise, but may perhaps be epitomized by a set of personal qualities  (or ‘attributes’, or ‘attitudes’) shared by much of the population.  Any such set would include, for our period, the following elements:

’Acceptance’ here does not imply either obeying the law or approval of social divisions;  but the sheer power of each institution is (often bitterly) acknowledged.  People display these personal qualities within a social framework of extreme (to modern eyes) inequality and exploitation, and in a political climate of steady pressure for continuing reform.  The violence of the reform movement had been contained by the Reform Act of 1832, which left many abuses in place but did connect (though imperfectly) the reformers to Parliament[Liz2] .


In a church-going society, with most of its people working in manufacturing and commerce, it is clear that religion and commerce together play a huge part in people’s lives.  Thus the influence of these on the culture is in part the influence of each on itself and on the other.  One effect of ‘influence’ is the change caused by the influencing agent, and, though not the only effect, it is one focus of this brief discussion[Liz3] .  In a stable society, this focus would be impossible or boring.  In our period however, fizzing and popping with vigorous development, it is more interesting[Liz4] .


British religious practice developed from the European model of ‘Christendom’.  In the Middle Ages this meant that bishops could lock us up and take our money.  By 1850 however the power of restraint had long been yielded to the secular authorities, and the power to tax was in decline: the hated[5] tithe system had been fatally wounded by radical reform in 1836, though not finally destroyed for another hundred years.  Further, the role of the established Church was being undermined by increasing freedoms granted to dissenting Christians.  Nonetheless, the power of this Church was substantial: its bishops sat in Parliament, and most of the middle and upper classes attended its Sunday ceremonies[Liz5] [6].


Britain [Liz6] was at this time by far the most prosperous country in the world, with per-capita income two and a half times that of Germany[7].  This prosperity was founded on manufacturing and on trade, particularly international trade.  Coal, iron and steam were put to work, and the Royal Navy policed trade routes so that a huge merchant fleet could carry the results of this work to whomever in the world could buy them.


What [Liz7] caused, and what effects flowed from, the decline of the Church?  For decline there certainly was –


“… in the 19th Century, Western Man moved across a rubicon which, if as unseen as the 38th Parallel, seems to have been as definitive as the Styx.” (Jones 1965, p.15).


The same sea-change is perceived by Desmond (p.xiii) when he wonders:


“How did England’s vicarage view of a designed, happy world of 1830 become the cold, … evolutionary vista of 1870.”


Religion itself contained the seeds of its own change;  the fear of conservative clergy, before and after the Reformation, that toleration of dissent would lead to Loss of Faith, was well-founded.  But this inner decay was complemented by a fierce external attack.  Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach, with the famous “slow withdrawing roar” of the “Sea of Faith”, was published in 1867, ten years after the Origin of Species joined the battle whose formal start can perhaps be located in HMS Rattlesnake, when Huxley set off in 1846 on his two-year voyage of scientific endeavour[Liz8] .


The fierceness of this battle is perhaps hard to understand in 2004.  As Trevelyan (p.566) said:


“…that storm has rolled away;  that battle is ended and its dead are buried.  … The materialism of the scientist of the [eighteen] seventies is felt to be as unsatisfactory as the literal truth of all parts of the Bible is felt to be untenable.  Both sides wistfully acknowledge that the whole truth … cannot be discovered in the laboratory or divined by the Church.”


But fierce it was, and lost by the Church.


So much, then, for the change in religion.  What of commerce, or trade[Liz9] ?  Already, as we have seen, a prosperous Britain enjoyed a dominant position in world trade;  acquisition of territory in Africa and India increased this dominance throughout our period, and the future industrial strength of the United States was only dimly foreshadowed.  “Trade follows the flag” it was said, and the strength of the armed forces contributed to the tremendous sense of British superiority that perhaps only finally disappeared in the 1960s.  This patriotic self-confidence, this profound influence on the national psyche, or culture, ultimately depended on trading success.


The part played by stupendously successful trade in moulding the culture is clear from the above discussion.  Less clear at first is the general effect of religious change, except, as shown, on religion itself.  However, modern studies (e.g. Roll) have convincingly argued that the absolutely key component enabling prosperity is the democratic rule of law: a person will not invest or work hard if they do not have confidence that their property is safe.  An ineffective or tyrannical government - it is suggested – is a bar to material progress.


The influence of religion now becomes clearer.  Parliament and the law both claim divine guidance (even the hanging judge asks mercy for the condemned), the population still broadly accepts, at least nominally, Christian principles[Liz10] .  The practice of religion is thus a key to the rule of law, which in turn is a key component of material progress.  It may be objected that modern society too is prosperous and law-abiding, without religion.  This is true, and it may be that the religious practice of the 19th Century, essential at the time, was as it were the discarded first stage of the rocket of industrialisation.  The strongest force in human behaviour is perhaps sheer habit – and by the time we discarded religion we had got into the way of good behaviour[Liz11] .


In comparing influences, then, we have seen that religion and commerce are actually determinants of the culture;  and, although very different, they are mutually dependent.  It is less clear that their respective influences are in any way contrasting. 


Many important cultural elements have necessarily been omitted from this brief survey - the number of people reading for pleasure, for instance, increased dramatically (Best, p.225);  and only a hint has been given of the astonishing military events.  But a sense of the importance of the two factors is clear[Liz12] .


In a final image, we may see these two colossi, Religion and Trade, the one in decline and the other vigorously growing, each making its key contribution to one of the most extraordinarily fruitful periods of Britain’s eventful history[Liz13] .


Best, G. (1971) Mid-Victorian Britain 1851-1875, London.

Desmond, A. (1994) Huxley: The Devil’s Disciple, London.

Jones, D. (1965) [1952] The Anathemata, New York: Viking.

Roll, R. and Talbott, J. (2002) Why Many Developing Countries Just Aren’t:

Los Angeles: Anderson School, UCLA.

Trevelyan, G. (1944) [1942] English Social History, London: Longmans[Liz14] .+




[1] Title of BBC series, 1971.

[2] Best, p171.

[3] Desmond, e.g. p 363.

[4] Best, p 3.  (The ‘Gross National Product’ doubled in this period).

[5] Trevelyan, p 514.

[6] Best, pp179-193.

[7] Best, p 26.

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 [Liz1] A very good beginning. You strike the right tone and provide useful orientation for your reader.

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 [Liz2] You need a source reference for the information here.

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 [Liz3] Good thinking here.

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 [Liz4] Nicely put. Your voice is coming through here.

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 [Liz5] Good  -  useful background on the Church but don’t dismiss the dissenters. ‘Religion’ in the question covers more than the established Church.

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 [Liz6] Rather an abrupt transition from religion to commerce here. Could you put in a link/signpost to make it smoother?

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 [Liz7] And now abruptly back to the Church. This section of your essay needs a bit more editing.

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 [Liz8]This reader has lost sight of the question here. Keep pointing out the relevance of your points to the question (Did it ask about science, or the ‘change’ in religion)

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 [Liz9] Good transition here.

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 [Liz10] I’m bothered by the tense change here. Remember to stay ‘academic’ and not get too ‘popular’ in your exposition.

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 [Liz11] An interesting proposition and a challenging one – but is it relevant to the question? You are not asked to compare mid-Victorian culture with the present day.

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 [Liz12] Importance, yes. And relative importance? Can you add any evaluation? Can you say if one area of ‘culture’ was more or less influenced by one or the other of your ‘colossi’?

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 [Liz13] Yes – but your conclusion isn’t quite academic enough. A more measured tone would be more appropriate. (You’d make a great writer of popular history).

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 [Liz14] You set this out well. Remember to include the publisher for all titles. Where are your two sources from the Anthology (you should give the website address for them)?  And where is Section 2, Reflection?