19th century: Challenge
The Roman Catholic Church experienced a turbulent period, from which it emerged revived. Pope Pius IX oversaw the loss of huge areas of Italy over which he was effectively king. At one point he was forced to flee Rome in disguise. When he returned it was to the tiny city-state within the city called the Vatican. Pius opposed practically all modern ideas. He called together the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church across the world to the first Vatican Council. That gathering reemphasised the significance of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in Catholic theology. And it declared the Pope to be above criticism that he might have made a mistake (‘infallible’).
The new strength this gave to the traditions of Roman Catholicism impacted on other churches too. Within the Anglican Church the Oxford Movement became prominent. Its founders were inspired by the courage of the mediaeval church and the beauty of its practices. They emphasised God’s presence in bread and wine and the role of the priest during the ‘eucharist’ services where they were shared. Their worship had many similarities with Catholic worship. One of its leaders, John Henry Newman, became a Catholic and was made a cardinal.
There were many developments in Protestant worship in response. The simple services of the Brethren, in which any man could take a lead, were entirely different from either Anglican or Roman Catholic worship. The Salvation Army was founded by William Booth, driven by a passion to bring practical help as well as spiritual inspiration to the homeless and the destitute. The Church Army was founded by Wilson Carlile to ‘turn the church inside out’ and speak of Jesus in the slums where clergy dared not go. The Baptist leader Charles Spurgeon packed churches with his inspirational preaching. The Scripture Union was founded to help children understand faith in an uncomplicated way, and the Bible Societies made the Bible accessible to new groups of people.
British Christians renewed their energy for missionary work overseas. Medicine and education often featured in their desire to bring improvements to life as well as spiritual understanding. David Livingstone is an example of the spirit of adventure that marked these enterprises, training in Scotland as a doctor so that he could take the Good News to central Africa. For many Christian women the life of a missionary overseas was also appealing because opportunities to serve in a Christian capacity at home were limited.
The energy with which Jesus was made known in Africa and Asia (by Protestants) and Central and South America (by Catholics) was accompanied by cultural change which now seems more controversial. However, the long term impact is that Christianity is today growing vigorously in the countries to which 19th century missionaries went, while it declines in Europe.
The majority of the founding fathers of the United States had been Christians. Many had come from Europe at a time when minority denominations were persecuted. So they had no desire to see any one denomination become the state religion. The result was and is a constitution in which the church and the state are entirely separate. The nation had been divided by a civil war and slaves achieving freedom, and both sides claimed God on their side. A notable American evangelist of the 19th century was Dwight Moody. He held rallies for huge numbers of people. While the music of Ira Sankey moved people’s hearts he invited them to make a commitment there-and-then to Jesus.
All this took place in the context of two massive challenges. The Industrial Revolution had driven huge numbers to the cities, bringing wealth that was shared very unequally. And science advanced radically. The theory of natural selection, popularised by Charles Darwin, caused people to be sceptical about the reliability of parts of the Bible which describe how and why the world came into existence.
A more questioning faith, in which there was room for scepticism and doubt, was the most appropriate response for many believers. Liberal Christianity, which stressed Jesus as the outstanding human of history for his teaching about how to live rather than his miracles, became intellectually persuasive. It made sense of science by interpreting supernatural events in the Bible in a metaphorical way. And it responded to the poverty on the underside of the Industrial Revolution by stressing the parts of Jesus’ teaching which called for sacrificial living and generous compassion.
Continue the story of the Christian faith in the next century here.
What the Bible says about it
An extract from the Bible:
Keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. Be merciful to those who doubt. Save others by snatching them from the fire.
Where to find it:
About these words:
From a short letter, written about 50 years after the life of Jesus and preserved in the New Testament.
And they said...
Thomas Carlyle, Scottish historian, 1795 – 1881:
If Jesus Christ were to come today, people would not crucify him. They would ask him to dinner, and hear what he had to say, and make fun of it.
William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, 1829 – 1912:
While women weep, as they do now, I'll fight. While little children go hungry, as they do now, I'll fight. While men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, I'll fight. While there is a drunkard left, while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, while there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I'll fight. I'll fight to the very end!