Gareth William Atkins
Gareth William Atkins is a fellow and director of studies in history at Magdalene College, Cambridge. His research interests center on religious culture and thought in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Anglophone world, as well as naval history, especially its intersections with belief. Dr. Atkins is engaged in several book projects at present. A work provisionally entitled The Politics of Patronage: Anglican Evangelicals and British Public Life, 1770-1850 is based on his dissertation (Cambridge, 2009), which examined evangelical patronage networks in late-Hanoverian Britain, covering the Church, armed forces, City of London, and the Sierra Leone and East India Companies. His forthcoming edited collection, Making and Remaking Saints in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Manchester University Press, 2016), looks for the first time at the use of saints (both Protestant and Catholic) in nineteenth-century culture wars. A third project extends this work toward the reception of the Bible in the nineteenth century by using King David and his presentation in art, architecture, and literature to examine how changing scholarly understandings of the Bible trickled down into everyday culture.
Atkins’ paper for the Uses of “Religion” Conference, entitled “Thinking with Saints in Nineteenth-Century Britain,” shows how liberal Protestants, freethinkers, and atheists appropriated the conventions of sainthood to advance their own ideas about what constituted “holiness.” In doing so, he challenges the notion that “faith” and “doubt” were sharply demarcated areas, arguing that saints provided ways for progressives to discuss why religion still mattered in an era of unprecedented change. Atkin’s paper will focus on George Eliot, Thomas Carlyle, and Francis William Newman.
Francis William Newman (1805–1897), the younger brother of Cardinal John Henry Newman, was an English scholar and freethinker. In religious persuasion, he moved from his evangelical upbringing to embrace a liberal Protestant outlook before “honest doubt” and “free critical inquiry” eventually led him to eschew biblical authority for a broad moral Theistic approach. He contested Catholic understandings of the “holy,” but espoused the sacred in other ways. Between 1868 and 1897, Robert Braithwaite corresponded regularly with Newman, who served as a confessor and spiritual director for Braithwaite amid various spiritual, intellectual, and behavioral struggles. The Armstrong Browning Library’s holdings include 145 letters from this thirty-year correspondence relationship.
Letter from Francis William Newman to Robert Braithwaite. 25 April 1888.
In this letter Newman applauds Braithwaite’s wife for realizing that the “Catholic Church cannot be esteemed emphatically the home of saints” and goes on to contend for what Protestants see as the individual right of “private judgment” against the Catholic locus of authority in “Corporation” (i.e., the Church and its tradition). Newman encourages a view of direct access to the “Supreme Ruler” while acknowledging the human longing for the confirmation of others—“the fellowship of saints.”
Letter from Francis William Newman to Robert Braithwaite. 8 December 1888.
In another missive to Braithwaite, Newman argues the need for universalizing religion. Views acclaiming “sacredness of a Land” need to be destroyed, for there ought to be “no local element” in religion. That is, holiness in Newman’s outlook is not concentrated in an earthly site or object. As part of his assault against localized religion, Newman begins the letter by proclaiming his contempt for the four gospels, which he sees as “bitter slanderers of the Jews.”
Letter from Francis William Newman to Robert Braithwaite. [First week of February] 1889.
This letter reveals Newman’s skepticism over asserting human immortality. He begins by arguing that we are not in everyday life surrounded by “angels and re-embodied invisible saints” as Swedenborgians and Spiritualists claim. Such spiritualism—“an Entity that exists independent of the Body”—repudiates material science. Ultimately, Newman urges, human beings err when they speculate about a future world.
- Exhibition Text by Ryan Butler