Jane Austen “would herself have said the Lord’s Prayer about 30,000 times in her life.”—Jane Austen’s Anglicanism, by Laura Mooneyham White
We all know that the world has changed since Jane Austen wrote her books. But while we easily see the surface changes in dress, transportation, houses, manners, social classes, and so forth, it’s more difficult to see deeper changes in values and worldview. Laura Mooneyham White, in Jane Austen’s Anglicanism, has unearthed some of those differences for us, so that we can better understand how Austen and her Anglican contemporaries experienced the world.
While some critics have argued that Austen’s religious faith did not influence her novels, White, along with many others, claims that her faith is central to her work, and that we don’t recognize it because the religious issues of our day are different than those of hers.
The first chapter focuses on the Anglican Church of Austen’s England, with its strengths and weaknesses. The church had a horror of “enthusiasm,” or religious zeal, because of the English Civil War in the 1600s, led by zealous Puritans. This fear helped lead to rejection of the Methodist revival in the 1700s led by the Wesleys, which was considered overly emotional and therefore labeled “enthusiasm.” The church valued stability, moderation, and morality.
The Anglican Church had some serious problems, including indifference, low church attendance, and new urban areas with insufficient churches. Clergy often held multiple livings and did not live among their people; Mansfield Park addresses this issue. In 1812, over a thousand parishes had no clergyman at all. The system of mandatory tithing, where parishioners had to give 10% of their produce to the clergy, meant that clergy were unpopular at times, and that they had to do things like go around and scoop up the tenth egg from each henhouse! Issues of patronage and connections between clergy and gentry are mentioned in several Austen novels.
Anglican Evangelicals sought church reform from within the parish-centered Anglican system, in contrast to the Wesleyans who used itinerant preaching from town to town to spread their message. White says, “Most of the social and religious reforms Anglican Evangelicals promoted can be found as issues in Austen’s 1816 Mansfield Park: non-residency, the abolition of the slave trade, the irreligiosity of urban elites, the importance of family prayers, the distrust of amateur acting, and the call to intense private self-examination” (p. 27). (Personally I’m not convinced that amateur acting was a major issue for the Evangelicals, though the others were important.)
The Anglican Church was and is liturgical, meaning “worship follows strictly laid out scripts of prayers and scripture” (p. 5). The Book of Common Prayer prescribes the prayers and daily passages of Scripture. White claims that Austen’s family not only attended two church services on Sundays (each 2-3 hours long), but also read morning and evening prayers together daily at home; her father’s letter to Frank as he prepared to go to sea urges him to continue this practice. White concludes, “Austen would have heard and herself recited Morning and Evening Prayer countless times in her life; she would have heard most of Old and New Testaments dozens of times, outside of her own private reading, which would have added to the total. By my conservative calculation, she would herself have said the Lord’s Prayer about 30,000 times in her life” (pp. 33-34). This must have strongly affected Austen’s thoughts and language. The prayer book clearly influenced the three prayers that Austen herself wrote, which are considered in chapter two.
Austen’s Religious Practice
Chapter two focuses on the impact of Anglicanism on Austen herself and on her novels. Orthodox Anglicanism was an assumed background for Austen, mostly unmentioned, as the ground beneath her characters’ feet is unmentioned. Her writing was probably influenced by the sermons and other religious books she read regularly, as well as by her practices of prayer, worship, and charity.
While Austen’s family members praised her faith, life, and character, critics have discounted their comments because Austen sometimes made unkind remarks in private letters. Her prayers show that she struggled with the sin of thinking unkindly of others, but she seems to have kept this under control and only shared what she was thinking with her sister. White argues that this struggle with sin did not show Austen was not a Christian, but rather the opposite. Christians have always recognize that believers sin, needing confession and forgiveness. White concludes, “Austen was prone to malice, certainly. She was also clearly committed to a faith that taught her to control and repress that malice” (p. 43). Chapter 4 looks more at Austen’s use of words.
The church at Steventon where Austen grew up would have been whitewashed inside, possibly with the Ten Commandments or other key texts displayed on the wall. A high pew was occupied by the Digweed family who were the squire’s tenants; other pews might be rented by other families, while poorer people sat on mats or hassocks. Some churches had a triple-decker pulpit; the parson preached from the top deck. The congregation probably did not sing hymns, but may have sung metrical Psalms (Psalms made into poetic lines for singing), led by the parish clerk or possibly a local band or choir.
Religion Not for Novels?
Austen doesn’t say much directly about religion in her novels. This was partly because she didn’t want to bore her readers, and partly because she believed that religion was too serious of a subject to talk about in novels. She does, however, treat church-related topics, and refers obliquely to religion by using words with religious connotations such as “serious” and “principle.” (See “faith words” posts.)
The Great Chain and Natural Law
Chapter 3, on “the Anglican Worldview,” explains the widely-accepted concepts of “The Great Chain of Being” and “Natural Law.” Both were based on Greek philosophy, but adapted by Christian philosophers. “The Great Chain of Being” assumes that God created everything in a great “chain.” The chain runs from God to angels, then down to humans, animals, plants, and rocks and minerals. The social order of men was part of this chain, reaching from the king at the top, down to the lowliest servant, each with certain privileges and responsibilities, and each with an equal potential for happiness. The Anglican catechism called for each person to do his duty in the “state of life” God called him to (p. 79). Austen accepted the levels of society, but challenged the assumptions that a person’s position can’t change (for example, Elizabeth Bennet definitely moves “up”) and that high position makes a person somehow “better” than others (as Emma assumes about herself, but finds she is wrong). White believes Austen was influenced by Evangelicals, who preached a more egalitarian Christianity.
The second concept, natural law, teaches that everything has a purpose, and that God created reason so we could understand those purposes. Nature’s wonders prove God’s existence and teach truths about him (See William Paley). God’s providence, his rule over history and individuals, works everything according to his ultimate plan of redemption. Natural law brings about the happy endings in Austen’s novels, particularly for characters who examine themselves and bring their actions in line with God’s will. The selfish and irreligious characters receive the natural results of their own behavior. In Persuasion, for example, Austen says Sir Walter Elliot has been placed by “Providence” in his position of baronet, but his failings may cause him to lose that position. Chapter 5 of White’s book examines how Austen presents moral truths through her stories.
A Changing World
The final “Coda” of the book compares Austen with Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, written eighty years after Emma was published. The common, accepted worldview had totally changed by that time, and Wilde’s play presents irreligious values that would have shocked Austen.
Jane Austen’s Anglicanism provides a fascinating view of Austen’s faith and how it affected her church, her worldview, and her novels. Each chapter includes extensive footnotes which present further helpful information. The biggest drawback of the book, presumably aimed at academic audiences, is its high price. However, I was able to rent the kindle edition for two months from amazon at a reasonable price. If you are seriously interested in Austen’s Anglican faith, and how her language and understanding of the world differ from ours today, I highly recommend Jane Austen’s Anglicanism.
How do you think novels should express Christian faith? Is “religion” appropriate for a novel? Next week I’ll review some Austen variations which more openly combine faith and fiction.
White, Laura Mooneyham. Jane Austen’s Anglicanism. London and New York: Routledge, 2016. Taylor and Francis, Kindle edition.