Gaskell House Blogs

Was Charles Dickens a Unitarian?

14th April 2022
in blog, blogsNnews, People

Looking at one or two Unitarian websites for an entirely different purpose, I came across a quiz of famous Unitarian faces. I was surprised to find there, not Elizabeth Gaskell’s face, but that of Charles Dickens. Until now, I don’t think I had ever fully realised that Dickens was ever a Unitarian in any ‘formal’ sense.

Dickens’ religious beliefs and values as reflected constantly in his published work, must be the subject of extensive, in-depth studies. I cannot attempt even to touch the surface of those commentaries here. However, I think that a small exploration of his relationship with the Unitarian Church and Unitarians goes a little way to further explain why Elizabeth Gaskell maintained her long connection with him. Not only was he generous in his payments to the authors he chose to publish, which Elizabeth appreciated, but they shared many religious, moral and social concerns, common to the Unitarians.

The Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography tells me that although Dickens was baptized and reared in the Church of England and was a nominal Anglican for most of his life, he turned to Unitarianism in the 1840s and associated with Unitarians until the end of his life.

An article from The Church Times from 2017, The Simple Faith of Charles Dickens, describes how Dickens first encountered Unitarians on a trip to Boston, USA in 1842, where he met the influential Unitarian, Dr William Ellery Channing. He was also introduced to a number of Unitarian Harvard University professors, including the poet Longfellow, who became a firm friend, as well as John Forster, his eventual literary executor and biographer, and the social reformer Dr Southwood Smith.

After returning to London, Dickens began attending Unitarian services at Essex Street Chapel in London, where early Unitarian services in England had been held. Just nine months after their meeting in Boston, Dr Channing died. His considerable reputation meant that a memorial service was arranged at Little Portland Street Unitarian Chapel, in London. Eager to pay his respects, Dickens went to the service and was so impressed by the Reverend Tagart’s tribute and sermon that he decided to join the church. From then on for almost two years, he regularly attended this Chapel, which was situated near his Devonshire Terrace home, with his wife and children.

The BBC website entry on Unitarianism says Unitarians think ‘deeds speak louder than words’. They believe religion should make a difference in the world, so they are often active in social justice and community work. The reform work with which Dickens was most personally involved was Urania Cottage, a home for fallen and other homeless women, funded by his friend, the philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts. Burdett-Coutts favoured strict treatment of inmates, but Dickens insisted they be ‘tempted to virtue’ in an environment more like a household than a prison. He had earlier convinced Burdett-Coutts to fund the Field Lane Ragged School, which provided evening classes for the poor.

In 1843, while he was most active at Little Portland Street Chapel, Dickens wrote the first and greatest of his Christmas books, A Christmas Carol, which highlights the effects of poverty in an uncaring society, exemplified by Scrooge. The article from The Church Times quoted earlier says that Dickens was critical of any religion that did not seek to relieve poverty.

Dickens remained friends with the Reverend Edward Tagart at Little Portland Street Chapel until the minister’s death sixteen years later, saying that Tagart had ‘that religion which has sympathy for men of every creed and ventures to pass judgement on none.’ Tagart was succeeded at the Chapel by James Martineau, and although Dickens had moved on by 1844, he returned occasionally to hear Martineau’s sermons.

One of Dickens’ major publishing ventures, important to several Unitarian writers, was his weekly magazine Household Words which ran from 1850 to 1859. As well as publishing his own writing, he included many pieces by Unitarians, including Elizabeth Gaskell, Harriet Martineau and Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The magazine did not serialize novels until 1854, when in an attempt to make it more profitable, Dickens began running his own industrial novel Hard Times. He then also serialized Gaskell’s North and South. Household Words regularly carried articles about children, literacy, sanitation, prisons, and the rights of workers.

On a second tour of the United States in 1867-68, Dickens renewed his ties with American Unitarians. Among these were his American publisher James Fields of Ticknor and Fields, the abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner, poet Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Eliot Norton, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. His long time friend, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, later paid him a return visit at Gad’s Hill Place.

While it would be wrong to characterise Dicken’s involvement with Unitarianism as a passing fancy, it must be acknowledged that his long-term denominational commitment was to the Church of England in which he was raised, although it seemed to fall in and out of favour with him. After 1856, he lived in a country house, Gad’s Hill Place, where he hoped to renew a childhood memory of attending an idyllic village church, as described in a 1860 essay, City of London Churches. first published in his Uncommercial Traveller series. At the same time, however, he accepted Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, was interested in theological criticism, and was offended by Church quarrels. He attended the parish church irregularly and when ‘a dull curate arrived’, he stopped.

After his death, despite his own wish to be buried near his home in Kent, he was buried in Westminster Abbey, at the heart of the established Church. There is much written about Dickens’ death and funeral which makes it seem almost like an episode from one of his novels: the dawn interment, eerily empty Abbey, and excluded ‘other woman’. I was however struck by a short prayer written by Dickens and featured on Westminster Abbey’s own Dickens’ page which seems to summarise his liberal and inclusive Unitarian values , aligned with the more established Church of England acknowledgement of the sanctity of Jesus Christ: ‘Hear our supplications on behalf of the poor, the sick, the destitute, and guilty, and for thy blessing on the diffusion of increased happiness, knowledge, and comfort among the great mass of mankind; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’

Towards the end of her own life, Elizabeth Gaskell’s relationship with Dickens soured. She disapproved of his separation from his wife and his rumoured relationship with the young actress Ellen Ternan. She eventually extricated herself from his new periodical All the Year Round, offering work to Thackeray’s monthly Cornhill magazine. However, I am sure she would have brought her association with Dickens to a close far sooner had she not recognised that many of his actions and written works were motivated by a desire to improve the conditions and opportunities available to the poor. His attitudes were shaped by far more than the Unitarian Church, but in fellow Unitarians he must have found a like-minded, creative, influential and industrious community of people like Elizabeth and William Gaskell.

For more information on Dickens and Unitarianism, read John Forster’s biography, The Life of Charles Dickens, which covers his struggles with religious belief. I also found an article which I haven’t been able to access: Dickens and Unitarianism by John P Frazee in the Dickens Studies Annual 1989 vol 18 pp119-143.

Jane Mathieson – Volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House

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