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"The Church’s Social Responsibility" in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (Part 1)

Updated on October 5, 2016

Charles Dickens


Bleak House surely paints a dreary picture of English society in the 1850’s. Witnessing squalor and poverty prevail in the streets and in homes, Dickens identified and fully excoriated those social institutions that he saw as responsible for these conditions, fingering self-interest as the force that undermined their purpose: “to support and sustain the people” (Jahn 371). Prominent among the bulwarks of society that he attacked was the Church.

In this essay, I intend to survey Dickens’s religious belief system to determine how it influenced his attitudes toward social action both in England and in foreign lands. In light of these results, I will then examine the ministries of six characters in the novel; the first three Dickens made deficient, if not contemptible, but the latter three he portrayed as admirable. Taking the evidence derived from this study and a survey of accomplishments by various Christian groups and individuals, I will answer the question, “Was Dickens’s antipathy toward Protestant and Catholic foreign missions fully justified?” I will argue that the author portrayed the biblical mandate for the Church’s social responsibility in an incomplete, truncated way, because he rejected the supernatural doctrines of the Christian faith and the Church’s commitment to preach the gospel to the whole world, and opted instead to promote his own “social gospel.”

Inspiration for Bleak House

The Social Gospel

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Dickens's Rejection of Evangelical Faith

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Dickens's Faith

Dickens’s religious system emphasized ethics--behave like Christ; love everybody—but he showed a deep antipathy toward evangelicals and their “dogmatic severity” (Jahn 370). Various creedal statements felt Dickens’s ire, among which was the evangelical doctrine of human depravity.1 Understanding this belief as an Old Testament view of humanity, Dickens chose instead to uphold “the New Testament’s faith in human goodness” (370). He replaced a formal statement of faith with an expression of faith through social action, insisting that religion was valid only when put into action (370).

Consequently, Dickens “converted” to Unitarianism,2 because he believed that this group would practice charity and toleration in their attempts to improve humanity (370). Gary Guinn consults Dickens’s biographers who arrive at different conclusions concerning the author’s true faith. One records that Dickens spent only a few years as a Unitarian, and then returned to Anglicanism, while another holds that Dickens became a latitudinarian. Regardless of what confession Dickens finally accepted, Guinn maintains that the author struggled with fundamental Christian doctrines, such as the deity of Christ (120).

Meeting the physical needs of the poor, especially those prevalent in England, stands out as the essence of Dickens’s religion. He may have created his own version of the social gospel, advocating a morality that frees communities through integrity and giving to the indigent, attacking socio-political and economic structures, and espousing “redemption as renewal—both individual and social—through sacrificial death and rebirth” (123-4). Dickens used the finished, sacrificial work of Christ as nothing more than an archetype with none of the eternal benefits attached.

Foreign Missions is of Utmost Importance

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Foreign Missions

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Dickens: Local vs. Foreign Missions

As an Englishman, Dickens rightly understood that his country’s social welfare was of paramount importance. His Niger expedition article summarized his view that “home missions” should take precedence over foreign outreach (Robbins 214). He created Esther Summerson to exemplify one who operated within a “circle of duty,” and extolled her concern for those “at hand.” She, not Mrs. Jellyby the “telescopic philanthropist,” helped Jo, the young lad from the slum Tom All Alone’s, when he was suffering from smallpox. Robbins points out that Bleak House compares favorably with novels that respect the work of “natives” over the “telescopic” efforts of a non-native (215).

Influenced by Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish intellectual who also repudiated accepted Christian doctrines, Dickens argued against foreign missions, positing that providing for one’s own was a far more important task than caring for those overseas. Tarr states, “Although neither Carlyle nor Dickens was opposed to the spirit of charity, each saw the destitute of England suffering under the throes of laissez-faire economics, while foreign missionary societies chose to ignore it all in favor of bringing culture and Christianity to far-distant natives” (275). Later, Tarr expresses this issue even more succinctly, reducing the complexities of missionary work to one basic question: “Why should the poor at home have to live under wretched conditions on the verge of starvation, while virtually unknown natives in distant lands benefited from English generosity?” (278).

Again, given the philosophical position of Carlyle and Dickens, it is not surprising that they should argue in this fashion, for their focus is on physical, not spiritual salvation. From this writer’s perspective, England should have aimed for the true biblical balance: one that neglects neither the domestic nor the foreign aspects of missionary work, yet weights its program more toward the spiritual rather than the physical in both cases. While rightly recognizing that Mrs. Jellyby places no value on home missions, occupying her time with Africa’s concerns rather than with Jo’s, Dickens seems to place no value on the spiritual destiny of those in foreign lands without a knowledge of Christ.

When Dickens makes Jo slump at the doorstep of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, a Protestant mission group begun in 1701 (Latourette 951), he is implying that this society and those of their stripe neglected the crying needs of the vast majority of poor waifs in England (278). In a latter section, I will show that this is not a fair characterization. Foreign missionaries are called to other lands not only to fill the bellies of orphaned children, but especially to win them to a saving knowledge of Christ. This writer contends that the responsibility to meet the needs of the indigent lies not only with the local church, but with everyone in society. Dickens’s condemnation of the evangelicals’ outreach to foreign lands seems extreme and unwarranted; let’s look at three “servants” whose work cries out for negative criticism.

© 2015 glynch1


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