By Brenda S. Cox
“We do not much like Mr. Cooper’s new sermons;–they are fuller of Regeneration & Conversion than ever–with the addition of his zeal in the cause of the Bible Society” –Jane Austen, letter to Cassandra Austen, Sept. 8, 1816
Last month we talked about Austen’s first cousins, particularly Edward Cooper, son of Jane’s mother’s sister. He became a clergyman like Jane’s father and Edward’s father. Edward was a strong Evangelical, and he and Jane did not always see eye to eye.
Evangelicals in the Church of England
The Evangelical* movement in the Church of England started early in the 1700s. The Wesley brothers, John and Charles, and George Whitefield, were Anglican (Church of England) clergyman who taught evangelical doctrines. They eventually had to leave the Anglican church, however, as the differences between their movement and the rest of the Church of England got too great. They formed the Methodist denomination.
However, other Anglican clergymen became Evangelical and stayed within the Church of England. (We use a capital “E” for this movement.) In general, Evangelicals stress the centrality of the Bible and of Christ’s death on the cross to redeem sinful people, the need for a personal conversion experience, and Christians’ responsibility to actively lead others toward Christ and do good in the world.
The most famous Evangelical of Austen’s time was William Wilberforce. Wilberforce led the fight against the slave trade, supported campaigns to educate the poor in England, and much more. (While modern evangelicals may be associated with certain political stances, evangelicals in Austen’s England were associated with these issues instead: education for the poor, the campaign against the slave trade and slavery, and others.)
Evangelical preaching generally focused, as Irene Collins says, on “the Ruin, Redemption, and Regeneration of mankind” (“Too Much Zeal,” 21). They taught (and still teach) that people fell from God’s grace in the Garden of Eden. God sent a Savior, Jesus, to redeem the world. Individuals need to accept His sacrifice for them personally. When they do that, they are “regenerated,” reborn as new creations. That’s the message Edward Cooper and other Evangelicals preached.
Cooper’s Sermons and Jane Austen’s Responses
In Jane Austen’s time, many clergymen published their sermons. Sermons were popular reading, as well as providing preaching material for other clergymen. Austen enjoyed reading books of sermons. Cooper published a number of volumes of his sermons. Apparently, though, Jane and Cassandra didn’t like them much. In 1809 (Jan. 17), she commented,
“Miss M. conveys to us a third volume of sermons, from Hamstall, just published, and which we are to like better than the two others; they are professedly practical, and for the use of country congregations.”
This was Edward Cooper’s Practical and Familiar Sermons Designed for Parochial and Domestic Instruction(meaning for reading at home and for preaching to churches), first published in 1809. The earlier volumes were one in 1803 criticizing the practice of the militia drilling on Sundays (a day of rest), and then Sermons, Chiefly Designed to Elucidate Some of the Leading Doctrines of the Gospel (1804).
Where did Jane differ from those “leading doctrines” of Evangelical preaching? Evangelicals taught that people needed a conscious, personal conversion experience, a regeneration or rebirth, to become true Christians. Other Anglicans believed that growth in faith was gradual through life, beginning with a person’s baptism as an infant; this was probably Austen’s belief. Both groups believed that throughout life the person needed to trust in Christ, repent when they sinned, and ask God’s help to live a good life. Edward Cooper’s hymn, “Father of Heaven,” which is still sung today, asks God for His “pardoning love.”
This theological disagreement partly explains Jane’s reaction to a later book which includes two of Edward’s sermons. It’s been speculated that the “we” here might refer to the rest of her family, perhaps to her mother and brother’s opinion more than to her own, but still she does include herself:
“We do not much like Mr. Cooper’s new sermons;–they are fuller of Regeneration & Conversion than ever–with the addition of his zeal in the cause of the Bible Society” (Sept. 8, 1816).
This refers to Two Sermons Preached . . . at Wolverhampton Preparatory to the Establishment of a Bible Institution (1816). I was surprised to find that these sermons do not use the word regeneration, and conversion is used only once (with convert used two further times). However, the concepts are implied.
Cooper does talk about the world’s need for the gospel and for the Bible. Jane Austen did not differ from these goals. In her third prayer, she wrote,
“May thy [God’s] mercy be extended over all Mankind, bringing the Ignorant to the knowledge of thy Truth, awakening the Impenitent, touching the Hardened.”
The SPCK and the Bible Society
However, she and her family supported a different institution that distributed the Bible, the SPCK. In fact, Jane herself contributed half a guinea to this organization in 1813.
The SPCK, or Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, is a Church of England organization that published and sold Christian literature at that time. However, many felt that they were not supplying enough Bibles in different languages (specifically Welsh, at the beginning), and so the British and Foreign Bible Society was formed.
The Bible Society included both Anglicans and Dissenters (people in other denominations). Because of this, they published and distributed only Bibles, with no commentary (which might support one set of doctrines over another). The SPCK produced the Book of Common Prayer and other materials explaining the Bible from an Anglican perspective.
Both societies formed auxiliary groups in various towns and areas to support their work. According to Irene Collins, in 1813, both organizations set up branches in Basingstoke, in the Austens’ part of the country. James Austen, Jane’s brother, organized and spoke at the initial meeting of the SPCK. The Lefroy family, old friends of the Austens’, were leaders of the rival Bible Society auxiliary started at almost the same time.
A copy of James’s speech for the SPCK has been preserved. He said that the SPCK was better than the Bible Society, because along with the Bible it distributed commentaries and the Book of Common Prayer(the “Liturgy”). He explained,
“It [the SPCK] not only puts the Bible in a poor man’s hand, but provides him with the best means of understanding it.”
However, he also said that those supporting the Bible Society did so from “the purest and best of motives,” and encouraged them to support both organizations. He complimented the Bible Society, saying its “exertions” had produced “extreme good.” He called for a spirit of unity in the area and a spirit of “candour”—which meant assuming the best of one another—for all. The speech is gentle and conciliatory.
Jane and the Evangelicals
So, Jane Austen had some disagreements with her Evangelical cousin Edward Cooper, and didn’t much like his sermons. However, Cooper had an Evangelical friend in neighbouring Yoxall, Rev. Thomas Gisborne, whose work Austen did enjoy. In 1805, she told Cassandra,
“I am glad you recommended ‘Gisborne,’ for having begun, I am pleased with it, and I had quite determined not to read it” (Aug. 30, 1805).
The book was likely An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex. Both Cooper and Gisborne were involved with Wilberforce in working for the abolition of the slave trade.
In Austen’s letters, she made two specific mentions of the Evangelicals. On Jan. 24, 1809, she wrote, “I do not like the Evangelicals.” She was telling her sister that she did not want to read a new book by Hannah More, a popular Evangelical author. She went on to say, “Of course I shall be delighted when I read it, like other people,” so she doesn’t seem to be very serious. My guess is that she did not like More’s style, which is didactic, teaching rather than telling a story and letting readers come to their own conclusion, as Austen does.
Later, on Nov. 18, 1814, she had a serious discussion with her niece Fanny Knight about marrying a man who was leaning toward Evangelicalism. She wrote, “I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals, & am at least persuaded that they who are so from Reason and Feeling must be happiest & safest. . . . don’t be frightened by the idea of his acting more strictly up to the precepts of the New Testament than others.” So at that point, though she was not Evangelical herself, she admired them.
Austen’s beloved brother Henry later became an Evangelical preacher himself. But he still wrote about his sister, in the introduction to Northanger Abbey and Persuasion:
“She was thoroughly religious and devout . . . On serious [religious] subjects she was well-instructed, both by reading and meditation, and her opinions accorded strictly with those of our Established Church.”
While some have claimed that he was exaggerating here, it appears to me that this statement fits with what we see of Jane Austen in her letters and novels. She did not always agree with her cousin’s theology or style of writing, but she was serious about her faith, as he was.
James Austen tried hard to preserve unity in his community, and he seems to have succeeded. While he pointed out the strengths of his preferred organization, he also affirmed the right motives and goals of those in a rival organization. How can we today affirm others and be united with them even when we differ?
Brenda S. Cox has written a book called Fashionable Goodness: Faith in Jane Austen’s England, which she hopes will be available by the end of this year.
*Note that “Evangelical” and “evangelism” are two different things, though people sometimes get them confused. Evangelicals, the focus of the article above, were and are groups of Christians with certain common beliefs. Evangelism means people sharing their religious beliefs with other people.
For Further Reading
Edward Cooper, Wolverhampton Sermons, Jan. 1, 1816.
Jocelyn Harris, “Jane Austen and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge,” Persuasions 34: 134-139.
Irene Collins, “’Too Much Zeal for the Bible Society: Jane Austen, Her Family, and the Religious Quarrels of Her Time,” Jane Austen Society Reports, Collected Reports Vol. 6 (2001-2005): 21-38. This article explains the rivalry and cooperation between the Bible Society and the S.P.C.K. in Austen’s community, and Jane’s theological differences with her cousin Edward Cooper.
Gaye King, “Jane Austen’s Staffordshire Cousin: Edward Cooper and His Circle,” Persuasions 1993
Gaye King, “Visiting Edward Cooper,” Persuasions 1987
Donald Greene, “Hamstall Ridware: A Neglected Austen Setting,” Persuasions 1985 (Includes a photo of the rectory where Jane and her family visited Edward and his family)
“Come and Visit Edward Cooper, Jane Austen’s Evangelical Cousin,” Jane Austen House Museum blog, Sept. 17, 2012, Edward’s portrait
Edward Cooper as a hymn writer
Edward Cooper’s letter to Jane April 6, 1817 (article also includes commentary on the lette)
“Jane Austen in the Midlands,” scroll down for a section on Cooper.
“’Cruel Comfort’: A Reading of the Theological Critique in Sense and Sensibility,” Kathleen James-Cavan (springboards from Jane’s comment on Edward Cooper into the ideas in S&S) Persuasions On-Line 32.2 (2012)
Deirdre Le Faye, Jane Austen: A Family Record, 2nd ed. (p. 262 says Henry Austen became an Evangelical clergyman)
Deirdre Le Faye, ed., Jane Austen’s Letters, 4th ed.
Laura Dabundo, Jane Austen: A Companion
Irene Collins, “Displeasing Pictures of Clergymen,” Persuasions 18 (1996): 110.
Irene Collins, Jane Austen and the Clergy