This was an assignment for British Literature.
|The Effects of a Religious Upbringing|
In this exercise, I am going to attempt to critically examine two authors, Sir Edmund Gosse and Charles Darwin, from a New Historical viewpoint. These two men embodied two mindsets at a time when science and religion would come face to face in an earth shattering cataclysm. While one man was reared in a strictly religious family, the other grew up with less restriction. Fear and superstition ruled the scientific and religious community. And perhaps both men were equally affected by such things.
Edmund Gosse grew up in a devoutly religious home. In his biography, “Father and Son”, he speaks with extreme fondness of his mother. Although her father had hoped her to be a ‘bluestocking’, she loved religion. “I cannot recollect a time that I did not love religion.” Father, mother, son and servant lived a life of almost solitude. Gosse, himself, had few recollections of children or playing. He merely mirrored his parents temperament. Although his childhood seems to have been extremely isolated, the family was content. Gosse’s mother was devoted. “I have made up my mind to give myself to Baby for the winter, and to accept no invitations.”
Although many books were available to him, there was no fiction allowed. Even the childhood fairytales were not available to him. This was due to an incident from his mother’s childhood. She was given to much fantasy and storytelling. “Miss Shore [a Calvinist governess], finding it out, lectured me severely, and told me it was wicked. From that time forth I considered that to invent a story of any kind was a sin. But the desire to do so was too deeply rooted in my affections to be resisted in my own strength... The longing to invent stories grew with violence... Even now [at the age of 29], tho’ watched, prayed and striven against, this is still the sin that most easily besets me. It has hindered my prayers and prevented my improvement, and therefore, has humbled me very much.” Although she died when Gosse was seven, her influence on him would be maintained by a father who was set on assuring that Gosse would be “committed... to God”.
Edmund Gosse did show an inclination towards testing out his parents extreme theology. His ‘experiment’ was to test out the theory that God would punish idolaters. After making sure he clearly understood the extent of and the consequences idolatry, with intent, he took a wooden chair and made purposeful worship of it. “The result of this ridiculous act was not to make me question the existence and power of God; those were forces which I did not dream of ignoring. But what it did was to lessen still further my confidence in my Father’s knowledge of the Divine mind.” When nothing happened, almost disappointedly, Gosse “dismiss(ed) the subject”.
It seems that this disappointment would not let Gosse be. He continued to be reared up “in the nurture and admonition of the Lord,” according to his mother’s dying desire, by his father. In his teens, Gosse would be systematically questioned about his beliefs on God during his weekends and summers at home.
There were three events were key in the formation of Gosse’s spiritual beliefs.
The first was during a visit to London to participate in an Evangelistic conference with his father. Being fifteen, Gosse had just become infatuated and submersed in Shakespeare. “It filled my whole being with music and romance.” During one particular session, the speaker was expounding against the “lukewarmness of professing believers”. “At this very moment, there is a proceeding, unreproved, a blasphemous celebration of the birth of Shakespeare, a lost soul now suffering for his sins in hell!”
Gosse was so extremely disturbed by this announcement that he felt as if he had been struck. “If some person I loved had been grossly insulted in my presence, I could not have felt more powerless in anguish.”
The next event in his life was at age sixteen. Gosse was becoming more acquainted with literature and especially poetry. He purchased a volume of poems by Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe’s Hero and Leander “lifted (him) to a heaven of passion and music”. On returning home, he began reading to his step-mother. Quite disturbed, she took the book from him and would not discuss it with him. That evening, his father “denounced (him), in unmeasured terms, for bringing into the house, for possessing at all or reading, so abominable a book”. Gosse’s father burned the book in a fit of outrage.
The third event, which Gosse would call “the apex of my striving after holiness”, would soon follow the last. Gosse allowed himself to begin to inquire of his father about his narrow beliefs on “Divine Mercy” and how salvation seemed to be reserved for “a little group of Plymouth Brethren” and withheld from millions of sincere and pious followers. “There presently came over me a strong desire to know what doctrine indeed it was that the other Churches taught.” He was, however, afraid of being found out if he attended any of the offending services at the Anglican or Catholic parishes. One summer afternoon, overcome with emotion, “(I) gazed up into the tenderly-coloured sky, and I broke irresistibly into speech. ‘Come now, Lord Jesus... come now and take me to be for ever with Thee in Thy Paradise. I am ready... My heart is purged from sin, there is nothing that keeps me rooted to this wicked world...” He waited. As the tea-bell rang, the spell seemed to break. “The Lord has not come, the Lord will never come”. Although he was able to hide it from him for several years, it was at that point that his father’s faith lost its hold and power over him.
Though not intended to be an autobiography, “Father and Son” tells a story that gives explanation as to how ones environment and rearing can greatly affect how one defines and even how one interprets the world around him. “Father and Son” was perhaps Gosse’s greatest work.
Another man, a contemporary of Edmund Gosse’s father, Naturalist, PH Gosse, who was also influenced by his family was Charles Darwin. He tells of his rearing in his autobiography, “The Autobiography of Charles Darwin”.
Darwin lost his mother when he was eight. His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was a Naturalist and had written “Zoonomi, The Laws of Organic Life”, an early theory on evolution. As a child, he was fond of collecting things. This was probably the beginnings of his bent towards the Natural Sciences.
Being sent to a Unitarian boarding school, Darwin found many friends, took many solitary walks and did adequately. Although he was a fabulous fibber and was able to create many “deliberate falsehoods”, he was also gullible and fell into the trickery of his friends. “The school as a means of education to me was simply a blank. I learned absolutely nothing except by amusing myself reading and experimenting in chemistry.”
Because he was not studious and seemed to have no ambition, his father removed him from the boarding school and sent him off to Edinburgh University to be with his brother for two years. He hated the lectures and had no desire to study although it was his father’s desire that he become a physician, like himself. “He was very properly vehement against my turning into an idle sporting man, which then seemed my probable destination.”
Since he showed no desire towards becoming a physician, Darwin’s father suggested that he become a clergyman. Being agreeable, he headed to Cambridge. At the time, he “did not... in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible”. He was quite interested in William Paley’s, “Evidences of Christianity” and was able to get his BA from Christ’s College.
During his last year in Cambridge, he became fascinated with the activity of collecting beetles. He also began reading “Personal Narrative” and “Introduction to the Study of Natural Philosophy”, two books that began to lead him towards the Natural Sciences. Through his encounters with John Stevens Henslow, Darwin become more interested in nature than his own studies. He also went on a geological tour which seemed to seal his fate as a scientist and not a clergyman.
Soon after, he learned of an expedition that was looking to secure a naturalist. His father was vehemently against the idea and challenged him: “If you can find any man of common sense who advises you to go I will give my consent.” That person would be his uncle who was respected by Darwin’s father. Darwin would go on, what would be, his life changing voyage!
It is impossible to discount this history as having such a profound influence on Darwin. While he was not affected by his grandfather’s “Zoonomi” at this point in his life, he did say that it might have been due to the fact that he was just so familiar and accustomed to the idea. While religion was never a forced issue in his family, his was a natural and simple faith. It wasn’t until he set sail on the Beagle that he even felt his own orthodoxy challenged. “I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers for quoting the bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality.”<br />
His seminal work, “The Origin of Species” gives great detail of all that Darwin learned on this voyage. His departure from a literalist belief in the Bible was very gradual and hesitant. It was this very reason that it took him almost 20 years to finally publish his findings and theories that would create sharp criticism in the scientific and religious communities. One idea that created such a storm was the idea of the mutability of the species. The ‘orthodox’ belief was that the species were as they were from the Dawn of Creation. Darwin believed that species evolved and changed according to environments. He called it Natural Selection. It was his scientific belief in this idea that led him away from what he called “a damnable doctrine”; that those who did not believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible would be “everlastingly punished”.
Darwin never set out to disprove the idea of a creator or to disprove orthodoxy. He was a quiet and private man. His early life, though seemingly unimpressive, gave him freedom to explore ideas. He also had the privilege of not being forced into a profession as he always knew the comfort of a well-off family. As far as his religious beliefs, they could be summed up with this quote: “(A) source of conviction in the existence of God, connected with the reason and not with the feelings, impresses me as having much more weight. This follows from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist.”
Upon reading “Son and Father” and Darwin’s autobiography, I am affected by it because of my own lens or beliefs. While I once viewed the world through a very literal interpretation of the Bible, in recent years, much like Gosse’s dismay, I have found the God of most Christians to be capricious and untrustworthy, as I find even some Christians themselves. Gosse’s dismissal of God causes me distress, however, as I, much like Darwin, feel that there is some force, some Thing that is greater than I am able to understand. Gosse seemed to live a lost life, as he tried to live up to an unachievable standard. Darwin, though he seemed to ramble quite a bit, was never dismissed or given up on. It is my belief and hope that, as a parent, I would learn from these men’s families. I would wish to incorporate my spiritual beliefs with acceptance and encouragement towards my children in hopes that they will find their way into a happy, satisfied life. The rejection and disappointment felt from a parent, as in Gosse’s case, follows one to death, as does the love and acceptance.
Darwin, Charles. "The Autobiography of Charles Darwin by Charles Darwin - Project Gutenberg." Main Page - Gutenberg. Ed. Francis Darwin. 01 Apr. 2009 <http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/2010>.
Gosse, Edmund. "Father and Son: a study of two temperaments by Edmund Gosse - Project Gutenberg." Main Page - Gutenberg. 01 Apr. 2009 <http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/2540>.