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Confronting Secularization: Origins of the London Society for the Study of Religion

  • Lawrence Barmann (a1)


The secularization process in western society, first clearly discernible in the Italian Renaissance, reached a certain plateau at the beginning of the twentieth century. Whatever else might be meant by “the secularization process,” it meant at least, and means in these pages, the gradual deposition of religion from almost every structure and dimension of society except, perhaps, the most private and personal. To thoughtful individuals possessed of mature religious convictions secularization sometimes seemed to portend the end of religion generally: not by law or sword, but simply by social absorption. To meet this challenge, not by denouncing the secularization process nor modernity in general, but simply by sharing their own thoughts on religion and what its role might or should be in the newly secularized western world, a group of prominent London-based men formed in 1904 the London Society for the Study of Religion. The pages which follow are a study of this Society's origins.



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1. The secularization process should not be confused with secularism, and one should recall the distinction made popular by Cox, Harvey in The Secular City (New York, 1965), pp. 2021. Secularization implies an irreversible historical process in which a society and its culture throw off religious control and a closed metaphysical worldview. Secularism is simply another ideology with a new closed worldview which happens to be antireligious. The former is biblical and liberating; the latter merely restrictive and closed.

2. Two classes of English society seem especially to have been lost to organized religion at this time: large segments of the laboring class and a significant part of the intellectuals. Professor Owen Chadwick's Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh of 1973 and 1974 treat this first group for the last half of the nineteenth century: Chadwick, Owen, The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, 1975), esp. pp. 88106; and Paul Thompson treats this same group for the early twentieth century: Thompson, Paul, The Edwardians, The Remaking of British Society (London, 1975), esp. pp. 209214. For a study of this crisis for a select group of six British intellectuals and their own attempted solutions, see Frank, Miller Turner'sBetween Science and Religion: The Reaction to Scientific Naturalism in Late Victorian England (New Haven, Conn., 1974).See also for the intellectuals, Chadwick, Secularization, pp. 143266.

3. Wicksteed, Joseph H. was the son of Wicksteed, Philip Henry (18441927), an effective Unitarian minister and university extension lecturer on Dante and related topics. See Herford, C. H., Philip Henry Wicksteed. His Life and Work (London, 1931). The younger Wicksteed left a record of his early intentions and efforts to form the LSSR in a paper read before the group in 1911. See Wicksteed, Joseph H., “The Society: What We Meant by It; What We Have Found in It; What We Hope for It,” London Society for the Study of Religion: Papers and Abstracts, 1909–1911 (Letchworth, 1911), pp. 3945. For the use of the privately printed and now rare volumes of the LSSR papers the author is indebted for their loan to the late Miles C. Burkitt of Grantchester in Cambridgeshire, son of Francis Crawford Burkitt who was one of the original members of the Society.

4. “It was to Mr. Montefiore, whom in my undergraduate days I had met at Professor Estlin Carpenter's, that I was indebted for an introduction to the Baron.” Wicksteed, , “The Society,” p. 40. Claude Joseph Goldsmid Montefiore (1858–1938) was a Jewish biblical scholar and philanthropist. A graduate of Balliol College, Oxford, in 1881 with a first class degree, he was joint-editor of the Jewish Quarterly Review from 1888 to 1908, and a joint-founder of the Jewish Religious Union for the Advancement of Liberal Judaism and of the Liberal Jewish synagogue in London. He was also president of the Anglo-Jewish Association from 1896 to 1921, and president of University College, Southampton, from 1915 to 1934. Friedrich von Hügel, Baron of the Holy Roman Empire (1952–1925), was the son of an aristocratic Austrian diplomat and a Scottish gentlewoman. Born in Florence and privately educated in Italy and Belgium he settled in England after his father's death in 1870. In 1873 he married Lady Mary Catherine Herbert, daughter of Lord Herbert of Lea, and sister to two successive Earls of Pembroke. Biblical criticism and philosophy of religion were von Hügel's chief life studies, and his reputation in these areas in Europe and America continued to expand from about the turn of the century until his death. He was awarded honorary doctor's degrees by St. Andrews University in Scotland and by Oxford University. In his declining years he was offered the Gifford Lectureship at Edinburgh University, but his health prevented his acceptance.

5. Wicksteed, , “The Society,” p. 39.

6. Friedrich von Hügel, Diaries, 9 11 1903. The forty-three volumes covering the years 1877–1879, 1884–1900, 1902–1924, are in the von Hügel manuscript collection at St. Andrews University Library. They will be referred to here as Diaries, followed by the entry date under which the material referred to can be found.

7. Diaries, 23 Dec. 1903.

8. Alfred Firmin Loisy (1857–1940), a farmer's son from Ambrières who was ordained a priest at twenty-two, went to Paris in 1881 to complete his education. He was strongly influenced by Ernest Renan at the Collège de France and Louis Duchesne at the Institut Catholique. His doctoral dissertation on biblical inspiration resulted in a crisis in 1893, and from that time onward Loisy was in trouble with ecclesiastical authorities for the radical conclusions drawn from his rigorously applied critical methods. In 1908 he was excommunicated by the pope, and he henceforth ceased to consider himself a Christian in the traditional sense. His later writings were increasingly concerned with a philosophy of the religion of humanity. Von Hügel's most significant contribution to the campaign on Loisy's behalf was The Case of the Abbé Loisy,” The Pilot 9:199 (9 01 1904): 3031.

9. The condemnation under the rubric of “indifferentism,” applied to attitudes of openness toward other religions, is characteristic of many documents issued by all the popes from Leo XII whose Ubi primum in 1824 perhaps first used the word in this sense, to Pius X's Pascendi dominici gregis in 1907, and indeed beyond. Gregory XVI's Mirari vos arbitramur in 1832 elaborates on Leo XII's idea, and Pius IX in his famous Syllabus of Errors of 1864 roundly condemns four propositions which expressed the so-called attitude of indifferentism. One of the propositions which Pius IX condemned (#15) states that “Liberum cuique homini est eam amplecti ac profiteri religionem, quam rationis lumine quis ductus veram putaverit” (“Everyone is free to embrace and profess that religion which through the light of his reason he comes to think is true”). And another of the condemned propositions (#18) stated that Protestantismus non ahud est quam diversa verae ejusdem christianae religionis forma, in qua aeque ac in Ecclesia catholica Deo placere datum est” (“Protestantism is nothing other than a different expression of the same true Christian religion in which one can as well please God as in the Catholic church”).

10. Wilfrid Philip Ward (1856–1916) was the son of William George Ward of Oxford Movement notoriety, and the father of the late prolific writer Maisie Ward (Sheed). His greatest talent was as a biographer, and his two-volume study (1912) of Cardinal Newman is yet unsurpassed. In 1906 he became editor of the Dublin Review and held that position until shortly before his death. Although a friend of von Hügel's through the 1890s, the two drifted apart over the modernist controversy within Roman Catholicism. When von Hügel suggested to Ward that he join the LSSR, the latter was only willing to consider it on the condition that a Roman Catholic priest also join as an authoritative articulator of Catholic truth. On the Metaphysical Society see Brown, Alan W., The Metaphysical Society: Victorian Minds in Crisis, 1869–1880 (New York, 1947). John David Root is writing a history of the Synthetic Society. See also Papers Read Before the Synthetic Society, 1896–1908, For private circulation. Presented to the members of the Synthetic Society by the Rt. Hon. Arthur James Balfour Aug. 1909 (London, 1909).

11. Joseph Estlin Carpenter (1844–1927), with an M.A. degree from University College, London, trained for the Unitarian ministry and served at Clifton and in Leeds from 1866 to 1875. He taught ecclesiastical history, comparative religion, and Hebrew at Manchester New College from 1875, becoming vice-principal in 1885, and migrating with the college to Oxford in 1889. From 1906 to 1915 he was principal of the college, and from 1914 to 1924 Wilde Lecturer in comparative religion in the University as well.

12. Von Hügel to Ward, 27 Apr. 1904, MS VII, 143 (141), St. Andrew's University Library.

13. Edmund Bishop (1846–1917) was an English liturgiologist and historian who had become a Roman Catholic in 1867. From 1864 to 1885 he was employed in the Education Office. His historical researches in the British Museum and elsewhere contributed to a volume of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, several volumes in collaboration with Abbot Gasquet of Downside, and a number of volumes and articles of his own. During the last part of his life he was closely associated with Downside Abbey near Bath. See Abercrombie, Nigel, The Life and Work of Edmund Bishop (London, 1959).

14. Von Hügel to Bishop, 7 May 1904, Dublin Review 227:459 (Jan. 1953): 71. The complete corpus of von Hügel's letters to Bishop was published in the four numbers of the Dublin Review for 1953 by Nigel Abercrombie from the manuscript originals at Downside Abbey. That von Hügel was at least partly responsible for the membership being “restricted to men” would seem to be indicated by his negative reaction when it was proposed fifteen years later to admit women to the LSSR. See Diaries, 25 Nov. 1919.

15. Bishop to von Hügel, 8 May 1904, MS. 2210, St. Andrew's University Library. “Pierre Saintyves” was the pseudonym of Emile Nourry, the Parisian publisher of books by Loisy, Houtin, and other French modernists.

16. Diaries, 16 May 1904. For an account of Hunter see Stannard Hunter, Leslie, John Hunter, D.D., A Life (London, 1921).

17. Diaries, 16 and 17 Feb. 1904. For more on Henry Clemence Corrance (1858–1939) see Vidler, Alec R., A Variety of Catholic Modernists (Cambridge, 1970), pp. 160165.

18. For a succinct account of Alfred Leslie Lilley (1860–1948) and his religious dispositions see Vidler, ibid., pp. 126–133; and for his initial encounters with von Hügel see Barmann, Lawrence, Baron Friedrich von Hügel and the Modernist Crisis in England (Cambridge, 1972), pp. 101102.

19. This printed “Founders' Statement, 1904” is found inserted in the opening pages of the manuscript Minutes book of the LSSR, MS. WL80, OD. 17, Dr. Williams's Library in Gordon Square, London (hereafter Minutes, with appropriate entry date given when assignable).

20. Von, Hügel to Bishop, 27 May 1904, Dublin Review (1953): 7475.

21. Von, Hügel to Bishop, 16 Sept. 1904, Dublin Review (1953): 181. Minutes, 25 Oct. 1904.

22. Caldecott, Alfred, The Philosophy of Religion in England and America (London, 1901).

23. See Norman, and Mackenzie, Jeanne, H. G. Wells (New York, 1973), pp. 216217, 245247. The Mackenzies have pointed out Bland's “systematic philandering which contrasted so strikingly with his moral pretensions” (pp. 174175). On Bland's bohe mian lifestyle see also Norman, and Mackenzie, Jeanne, The Fabians (New York, 1977), pp. 6769.

24. Robert Edward Dell (1865–1940) was primarily a journalist and publicist. See his article “The Crisis in the Catholic Church,” The Fortnightly Review, n. s. 455 (1 Nov. 1904): 846860; and George Tyrrell,” The Cornhill Magazine, n. s. 27:161 (Nov. 1909): 665675. In his obituary in The Times (London), 22 July 1940, p. 6, Dell is described as having “a strong personality and a clear, forcible style. He was a great controversialist; although dashingly polemical he did not give personal offence, and indeed had many personal friends among his political enemies. He was of distinguished appearance and possessed great charm of manner.” The Times writer also notes of Dell that “when he was over 40, he became a convinced agnostic, and remained so until the end.’

25. Thompson's wife and daughter are inaccurate in stating that it was “about 1907” when Thompson joined the LSSR. See Smeal Thompson, Jane and Thompson, Helen G., Silvanus Phillips Thompson. His Life and Letters (London, 1920), p. 330.

26. The list of attendees is found in the Minutes, 25 Oct. 1904. Practically everything known today of the elusive Williams, William J. can be found in Root, John D., “William J. Williams, Newman, and Modernism,” Newman and the Modernists, ed. Jo Weaver, Mary (Lanham, Md., 1985), pp. 6988.

George Trevelyan, speaking in his autobiography of the influence which his history master at Harrow had had on him in his last year there, and then on the “rich academic experience in the Cambridge of Maitland, Cunningham and Acton,” says of himself that “I already knew, at the turn of the century, exactly the sort of thing I wanted to do, and I spent the next forty years (barring war-time) in doing it.” Trevelyan, G. M., An Autobiography and Other Essays (London, 1949), p. 2.

27. Trevelyan to Russell, 17 July 1904, in The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, 1872–1914 (Boston, 1951), p. 296. There seems to be no evidence that Russell was ever in fact invited to join the LSSR!

28. Minutes, 25 Oct. 1904.

29. Minutes, 6 Dec. 1904.

30. “… von Hügel was not exactly a ‘discussion leader’ because he was deaf. The custom was for him to read the paper before and to write his comments. As far as I can remember, he was invariably the first speaker after the reading of a paper and usually took quite a long time. The reason why he figures so much in the minutes is partly because he alone wrote out his contribution.” W. R. Matthews (1881–1973, late dean of St. Paul's cathedral and member of the LSSR from 1918 until shortly before his death) to the author, 28 Jan. 1967.

31. Diaries, 6 Dec. 1904.

32. Hügel, Von to Bishop, 29 Sept. 1905, Dublin Review (1953): 185.

33. Minutes, 7 Feb. 1905.

34. Hügel, Von to Bishop, 29 Sept. 1905, Dublin Review (1953): 185.

35. Ibid.

36. Hügel, Friedrich von, “The Place and Function of the Historical Element in Religion,” Essays and Addresses on the Philosophy of Religion, second series (London, 1926), p. 29.

37. Minutes, 6 June 1905.

38. Minutes, 20 June 1905.

39. Minutes, 10 Oct. 1905.

40. Barmann, , Baron Friedrich von Hügel, p. 242.

41. Minutes, 19 Jan. 1909. One of the LSSR members who heard Tyrrell that evening was Israel Abrahams. The latter gave Tyrrell a paper to read on Jewish prayer, and Tyrrell's letter of response indicates somewhat the thrust of his remarks on 19 January: “I would hardly call the prayer of petition, with which my paper dealt, ‘religious,’ except in the lowest and most universal sense of the term. It is undoubtedly an appeal to the gods. It implies at least a belief in the invisible; and perhaps some not unworthy sort of trust and confidence. But so far as it uses the gods, it treats them as factors of Nature. Yet as immanent and co-operant with all the forces of Nature, God does put Himself at our service and lets us yoke Him to our car; and I think we might very well allow petitionary prayer to be the application of a natural law—a control exercised by the human will on the Divine Will, not as transcendent but as immanent and identified with Nature viewed as a free and intelligent process; quite analogous to the other controls we exercise over Nature through obedience to her laws.” Tyrrell to Abrahams, 22 Jan. 1909, in George Tyrrell's Letters, ed. Petre, M. D. (London, 1920), p. 153.

42. Minutes, 9 Nov. 1909. Tyrrell had been a guest of von Hügel at a number of LSSR meetings before 1909, and his increasing difficulties with ecclesiastical authorities brought sympathy from many LSSR members. For instance, at the time of his excommunication in 1907 von Hügel told him: “Dessoulavy, Chevalier and I went together to the LSSR Dinner. The Committee unanimously, and after the Dinner the meeting (of 20) especially unanimously, decided to invite you to give us a Paper some time after the beginning of April next; and Wicksteed and I were both requested to express to you the cordial, respectful and profound sympathy and attachment of us all with and to you, in these troubles and trials. It was most satisfactory to note how spontaneous and deep the feeling was; and Coore and Gardner, Caldecott, Newsom, and Thompson, expressed also additional and special thoughts and feelings of the same kind to me, for transmission to you.” Von Hügel to Tyrrell, 6 Nov. 1907, BL, Add. MS 44930.84.

43. In the abstract of his paper Trevelyan indicated that he felt there was little normative value in generalizations about the instinctive beliefs of people in general, but much value in an examination of the instinctive belief of an individual. Thus he would contribute some account of his own variety of religious experience as his only possible contribution to theological discussion. He used George Meredith's poetry as his interpreter because it had been influential in his own religious experience, and he knew both the poetry and Meredith intimately. For an account of his relationship with Meredith see Trevelyan, , Autobiography, pp. 3031.

44. James Drummond (1835–1918), although not an initial member of the LSSR, had been elected into membership in its early years. He was a Unitarian minister and educator, and had preceded Carpenter as principal of Manchester New College in Oxford.

45. Minutes, 2 Nov. 1915.

46. Minutes, 6 Feb. 1917.

47. “After I got ill in France my parents came out to Rouen with the YMCA for 6 weeks, but stayed with the troops for nearly 3 years. So my father had some experience!” Miles C. Burkitt to the author, 27 Apr. 1967.

48. Edwyn Roberts Bevan (1870–1943) was a scholar, historian, and philosopher, deeply committed to Christianity and a recognized authority on the Hellenistic age. His biographers in the DNB note that “those nearest to him speak of the serenity of his faith, which was not disturbed by his full appreciation of the difficulties which make many find it impossible to reconcile such a faith with the outlook of a modern educated man.” Bevan was greatly influenced by von Hügel, and through him was brought into the LSSR. Bevan's Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh in 1933–1934, published in 1938 as Symbolism and Belief, is his best known work.

49. F. C. Burkitt to Bevan, 2 May 1919 (ms. letter attached to the printed abstract of Lacey's paper and inserted in Minutes, 6 May 1919). The relevant fourth paragraph of Lacey's abstract reads: “Are men troubling about their Sins? Exaggeration of the negative aspect of evil. Not lapse, but failure to rise. The influence of the idea of evolution. Optimism from Emerson onward; its spiritual side. Confidence in Will-Power, combined with Determinism.”

50. The Army and Religion. An Enquiry and Its Bearing upon the Religious Life of the Nation (London, 1919), pp. v, ix. See also Diaries, 30 06; 2, 14, 31 07; 2, 3, 10, 11 08 1917; 10 May and 2 July 1918.

51. Wicksteed's work after the war kept him from London most of the time and made LSSR membership impracticable. Von Hügel had missed most of the 1918–1919 session because of illness. He later recovered and attended most of the meetings from late 1919 to the middle of 1923, even delivering his well-known address on “Suffering and God” to the Society in May 1921, before his death in 1925.

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