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"The Church’s Social Responsibility" in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (Part 4)

Updated on October 23, 2016

Bleak House

George Muller

William Booth

William Wilberforce

Accomplishments of Evangelical and Catholic Missions in the Nineteenth Century

As I pointed out earlier, Dickens spoke vociferously against evangelical foreign missions. However, the novel itself does not unequivocally refer to any evangelicals, or at least those deemed faithful. Thus, I do not believe that the author has told the full story in Bleak House. The fact is that these societies and churches of the nineteenth century were not neglectful of their social responsibility in England. In fact, evangelical social reformers abounded in that country during the nineteenth century; I name only a few.

George Muller (1805-1898) was a member of the Plymouth Brethren who founded a faith orphanage in Bristol, but never solicited contribution for it (49).5 Just one citation from Mr. Muller’s biographer on his remarkable ministry must suffice:

On December 5, 1850, he wrote, It is now sixteen years and nine months this evening since I began the Scriptural Knowledge Institution for Home and Abroad. . . . It is so large that I have not only disbursed since its commencement about fifty thousand pounds sterling, but that also the current expenses . . . amount to above six thousand pounds a year. I did ‘open my mouth wide’ this evening fifteen years ago, and the Lord filled it. The new Orphan House is filled by three hundred orphans. . . . My labor is abundant (Miller 70).

Clearly, Muller is a wonderful example of an evangelical who cared about the English poor.

William Booth (1829-1912) was a Methodist 6 minister who founded the Salvation Army, an organization that met both the spiritual and physical needs of people worldwide, emphasizing those poor who live in the cities (Walton 49). Latourette provides a commentary on Booth’s emphasis in ministry:

Hating the dirt, squalor, and vice of the cities and believing profoundly in the power of the Gospel to transform even the most degraded lives, in 1864 Booth went to London, where the most extensive slums were found, and there, in one of the worst districts, began the Christian Mission [. . .] . It sought to enlist its converts in efforts to win others to the Christian life and to minister physically as well as spiritually to the lowest of the under-privileged (1186).

The Salvation Army continues to work diligently for the cause of the poor worldwide.

Baptists, traditionally fiercely independent and usually “unwilling to participate as a church unit in state affairs,” changed their attitude when they became involved politically in the parliamentary reform issues of 1820’s and 1830’s. A historian of the Yorkshire Association summarized their concern: “. . . But as we approach the year 1830, the Pastors and Messengers show quite another disposition [toward involvement]. Either politics had invaded the Church, or the Church was girding herself, as she ought, to take her share in politics” (Torbet 118). This confession maintains a steady hand in helping to shape Godly politics in many countries.

When we consider the Anglican Church, we must turn to William Wilberforce’s example. Not only did he help found the British and Foreign Bible Society and the Church Missionary Society, organizations which endeavored to meet spiritual needs both in British and overseas, but his work led to the abolition of the slave trade and emancipation of slaves throughout the British Empire (Walton 49).

Latourette notes that an evangelical strain existed within the Church of England. A minority group, they believed in conversion, but were also “self-sacrificing in their gifts to charity, and zealous in promoting social reform.” Although persecuted by others in Anglicanism, they “contributed in large measure to the improvement in the language and morals of the land.” They willingly cooperated with those of like views in other communions and were active in home and foreign missions (1166).

Finally, Catholics experienced greater difficulty in Anglican England, but they, too, expanded their number by “creating and developing the physical and institutional expressions and facilities” (1189). Among these expressions were churches, parochial schools, and places for the poor (1189).

This writer considers it vital to disclose these facts. All of these examples surely prove that Dickens presented a skewed picture of reality regarding the involvement of the Church in her social responsibilities.

What is the Real Mission of the Church?

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Ending Remarks

Was Dickens’s antipathy toward foreign missions fully justified? With all his theological heterodoxy, Dickens does direct legitimate criticism toward the Church. Christians in England needed to heed his call and act as a compassionate presence among those crying and suffering in their midst. But, in addition, they needed to step into the lives of those who existed in a world foreign to them in order to obey the Christian mandate to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15).

England had indeed dug itself into an inescapable hole (humanly speaking). It is this writer’s opinion that Dickens should not have denigrated the efforts of many churches and individuals who accomplished remarkable work both in that country and abroad. They reached out with a Bible and a helping hand, and became involved in the salvation not only of lost “souls,” but of physically oppressed ones, too.

End Notes

1 Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity. Volume II: The Reformation to the Present (New York: Harper & Row, 1975) 754 states “total depravity” means that “man’s will is so impaired that he could do no good works unless assisted by grace, the special grace which God has given to the elect, those whom He has chosen and received through regeneration. Apart from grace every man is under the deserved wrath of God. Man’s salvation is entirely from the initiative of God.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion1536 Edition, ed. Ford Lewis Battles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975) 16 writes, “Consequently all of us born of Adam are ignorant and bereft of God, perverse, corrupt, and lacking every good. Here is a heart especially inclined to all sorts of evil, stuffed with depraved desires, addicted to them, and obstinate toward God (Jer. 17:9). But if we outwardly display anything good, still the mind stays in its inner state of filth and crooked perversity.”

2 Latourette 1180 says, “The Unitarians were chiefly descendants, physically and spiritually, of the Presbyterians, for the latter, thrown out of the church of England by the Stuart Restoration in the seventeenth century, had objected to creedal or confessional tests and under the influence of the rationalism of the eighteenth century had moved increasingly toward a non-Trinitarian faith. In general, the Unitarians were from the upper income classes and highly educated.

3 “The Brotherhood of Humanity” is one of the hallmarks of what would later be termed the “social gospel.”

4 Charles Dickens. Bleak House. Ed. Nicola Bradbury. (London: Penguin Books, 1996) 1020. The editor notes that “the Sisterhood of Medieval Marys was the High Church Anglican revival led by Pusey in Oxford [that] led to the founding in 1845 of the first Anglican Sisterhood. The title of this order satirizes its absurdly anachronistic religiosity” [brackets mine]

5 Latourette 1185. The Plymouth Brethren began as an upper class movement, recruited from those who were dissatisfied with the Church of England. They rejected creeds, and maintained that the Holy Spirit guides true Christians and binds them together in faith and worship. They believed in conversion. Holding that social reform is useless, they taught that the mission of Christians is saving men and women out of the world. The Brethren were zealous missionaries and developed what they called Christian Missions in Many Lands.

6Latourette 1183 writes that Methodism was warmly evangelistic, and adapted well to the rising cities. It instituted mission centers in the low income areas and great “central halls” in strategic locations for preaching and social work. Methodism produced leaders in the early stages of the trades union movement and in inaugurating cooperatives. Its chapels were friendly social centers for colliers and other laboring folk. Ardently missionary, this church multiplied in Asia, Africa, and the islands of the sea.

© 2015 glynch1

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