Early Chronicles of a Post-Christian Age

One sunny morning in September 1860, a British widower broke the news to his 11-year-old son that he was planning to marry again. The boy paused to take it in, then demanded, “But, Papa, is she one of the Lord’s children?”
The father replied that she was.
“Has she taken up her cross in baptism?” the lad persisted.
The father confessed that his intended hadn’t done that yet, since she’d been “brought up, hitherto, in the so-called Church of England.” Sheepishly he added, “We must pray that the Lord may make her way clear.”
The child was not appeased. Shaking a finger at his father like an angry inquisitor, he exclaimed, “Papa, don’t tell me that she’s a pedobaptist?”
For the benefit of those whose theological vocabularies may not have reached such esoteric heights, a pedobaptist is someone who believes in infant baptism.
Are we meant to laugh or cry over this snatch of dialogue? Probably a bit of both. The bizarre scene is one of many in Edmund Gosse’s extraordinary memoir Father and Son, which first appeared just a century ago, in 1907.
By a coincidence of sympathetic timing, another remarkable autobiographical work, The Education of Henry Adams, appeared in that same year. Although the Education was not published for general circulation until after Adams’s death in 1918, its fastidious and patrician author issued it in a limited edition of 100 copies in 1907 to be read and critiqued by friends.
The two books are alike in several ways. Both are marked by a tone of cool, skeptical irony — a literary and psychological distancing device — regarding the events they relate. More important, both supply incisive, complementary accounts of the loss of faith as experienced in 19th-century America and England by two uncommon men. In doing so, they also shed light on the situation of faith today.
Religious belief had been in crisis among Western elites for well over a century before 1907. The assault on Christianity involved attacks on the veracity of the Bible, attacks on the divinity of Christ — attacks on very nearly all of the significant elements of Christian faith. In general, the response of Protestants reluctant to abandon religion entirely took either of two forms: the rationalistic, relativistic religious liberalism that John Henry Newman so abhorred and religious fundamentalism, grounded in unyielding insistence that everything the Bible appeared to state as historical or scientific fact could only be taken literally.
That year, 1907, also saw the publication, among other works, of E. M. Forster’s The Longest Journey, J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, and works by Andre Gide and Henri Bergson. (It also brought the condemnation of Modernism by Pope St. Pius X.) The volumes by Adams and Gosse bear comparison with any of these. More than just histories of their times, they are penetrating self-analyses by two subtle minds at the dawn of a supposedly post-Christian era.{mospagebreak}
Henry Adams is well known to American readers. Edmund Gosse is not. We begin with Gosse and his remarkable book.
‘A Struggle Between Two Temperaments’
During a writing career stretching over more than 50 years, Edmund Gosse (1849-1928) produced a huge quantity of criticism, biography, and poetry. He knew everybody worth knowing on the British literary and artistic scene, introduced Ibsen to an English-speaking audience, and is credited with reviving interest in John Donne by publishing a two-volume biography of that great poet. Although most of his writing is forgotten now, Father and Son remains vividly alive for its psychological astuteness and its compelling narrative.
“This book is the record of a struggle between two temperaments, two consciences and almost two epochs,” Gosse begins. Speaking of himself and his father, he is quick to add that “neither, to the very last hour, ceased to respect the other, or to regard him with a sad indulgence.” As the story unfolds, the sad indulgence becomes clear enough; the unconditional mutual respect is something else.
Edmund’s parents, Philip Henry Gosse and Emily Bowes Gosse, were intelligent, kindly people. Philip, a naturalist, wrote popular books of natural history (Evenings at the Microscope, The Romance of Natural History, and many more). Emily had a talent for narrative which she rigorously repressed while cranking out Bible tracts instead. For she and her husband were fervent adherents of a small, fundamentalist Protestant sect, the Plymouth Brethren, that Gosse calls a throwback to 17th-century Puritanism.
Determined to shield their only child from worldly corruption and raise him in total fidelity to the stern doctrine of the Brethren, the boy’s parents kept the child at home, allowed him no playmates, and permitted him no reading material except theological tomes and natural history. “I was told about missionaries, but never about pirates; I was familiar with humming-birds, but I had never heard of fairies,” Gosse writes. The family’s recreation was reading and discussing the Bible. After several years of this regimen, Gosse records, he was “innocent but inhuman.”
Though schooled to regard his father as all-knowing, much like God himself, the child’s “hard nut of individuality” nevertheless now and then asserted itself in acts of rebellion. Thus, after Philip explained the sin of idolatry and warned that it was certain to draw down divine wrath on the idolater’s head, Edmund hit on an experiment to test the truth of that claim.
One day, when his parents were away, he set a small chair on a table by the window.
I knelt down on the carpet in front of the table and looking up I said my daily prayer in a loud voice, only substituting the address “O Chair!” for the habitual one. . . . But nothing happened. . . . I had committed idolatry, flagrantly and deliberately, and God did not care.
Here was an early crack in the façade of paternal — and possibly divine — omniscience.
Soon, however, the Gosses had something worse to contend with than a clever but naïve child’s fling with idolatry: Emily Gosse was found be suffering from breast cancer. A lengthy, agonizing struggle with the disease ensued. A half-century later, in possibly the book’s most moving passage, the son paid tribute to his anguished parents’ courage and faith.
What must be recorded was the extraordinary tranquility, the serene and sensible resignation, with which at length my parents faced the awful hour. Language cannot utter what they suffered, but there was no rebellion, no repining; in their case even an atheist might admit that the overpowering miracle of grace was mightily efficient.{mospagebreak}
Emily Gosse died on February 8, 1857. Her husband and son were at her side. Her last words were, “Take our lamb, and walk with me!” Her companions understood the lamb to be Edmund. “What a weight,” he exclaims from the vantage point of 50 years, “to lay on the shoulders of a little fragile child!” Taking his beloved wife’s injunction unquestioningly to heart, Philip Gosse returned to their son’s religious indoctrination with redoubled zeal.
Evolution’s Threat to Faith
In adult life, Gosse came to see his father with painful clarity.
[W]ith all his justice, he had no conception of liberty; with all his intelligence, the boundaries of the atmosphere in which his mind could think at all were always close about him; with all his faith in the Word of God, he had no confidence in the Divine Benevolence; and with all his passionate piety, he habitually mistook fear for love.
In fairness, though, it must be said that Philip had other things on his mind besides raising a small boy. Long before The Origin of Species, he saw the scientific tide flowing in the direction of evolution, and as a believer who also was a man of science, he was deeply troubled. For him, more than just being the word of God, the Bible — except where it specifically identified itself as poetry or parable — had to be taken in an entirely literal sense. “Nothing was symbolic, nothing allegorical or allusive. . . . If the Bible said that all things in Heaven and Earth were created in six days, created in six days they were — in six literal days of twenty-four hours each.”
Philip found a way of resolving the apparently conflicting imperatives of science and faith in “the law of the fixity of species.” His son explains: “There had been no gradual modification of the surface of the earth, or slow development of organic forms. . . . [W]hen the catastrophic act of creation took place, the world presented, instantly, the structural appearance of a planet on which life had long existed.” Plants, animals, and human beings came to be in much the same way — immediately and in their final form, by a direct creative act. (Critics took delight in saying this meant that “God hid the fossils in the rocks in order to tempt geologists into infidelity.”)
The result was a curious book called Omphalos. The word is Greek for navel. Did Adam have one? Of course. After all, Adam was “created full-grown yesterday. He would certainly . . . display an omphalos, yet no umbilical cord had ever attached him to a mother.” The response to his father’s “obstinate” and “fanatical” volume, Edmund adds, was that “atheists and Christians alike looked at it and laughed, and threw it away.” Its author accepted this as God’s punishment for some fault of his.
It is a relief to report that the lives of father and son soon took a happier turn. Giving up his home in London, Philip bought a house in a seaside town in Devon. In 1860, he met and married a “sympathetic Quakerish lady,” Eliza Brightwen, who introduced some badly needed common sense into family affairs. Earlier, in recognition of his interest in geography, Edmund had been allowed to read a tale of the West Indies, Tom Cringle’s Log by Michael Scott, and this “noisy, amorous novel of adventure . . . was like giving a glass of brandy neat to some one who had never been weaned from a milk diet.” Now his stepmother gave him poetry to read. In the summer of 1861 he was finally permitted to play unsupervised with other boys. Soon there were invitations to children’s homes. Demurring, his father told him to pray to know God’s will. “The Lord says I may go to the Browns,” the son reported.
In 1863 his parents sent him to a boarding school in a nearby town run by a Plymouth Brethren couple. Although Gosse had a low opinion of this establishment, his reading expanded there, and he began to write — a tragedy in imitation of Shakespeare, odes in the manner of Shelley. There, too, he experienced “the highest moment of my religious life.”{mospagebreak}
He had been thinking much about the Coming of Christ, which he, like his father, believed to be imminent. Late one summer afternoon, while his schoolmates were out for an excursion, Edmund lay alone on a couch by an open window in an upper room. Suddenly an immense surge of emotion seized him, and he cried: “Come now, Lord Jesus, come now and take me to be for ever with Thee in Thy Paradise. I am ready to come. My heart is purged from sin, there is nothing that keeps me rooted to this wicked world.”
The colour deepened, the evening came on. From far below there rose to me the chatter of the boys returning home. The tea-bell rang — last word of prose to shatter my mystical poetry. “The Lord has not come, the Lord will never come,” I muttered, and in my heart the artificial edifice of extravagant faith began to totter and crumble.
Soon the 17-year-old went to London to start work at a job his father had gotten him as an apprentice librarian in the British Museum. Philip deluged him with letters demanding minute accounts of his activities and the state of his faith. Then the inevitable happened. Badgered out of his wits during a visit home, Edmund burst out furiously and demanded to be let alone. Philip kept his peace, but after his son returned to London he sent a long, hurt-filled letter urging him to repent. Here is how Father and Son ends:
No compromise…was offered; no proposal of a truce would have been acceptable. It was a case of ‘Everything or Nothing’; and thus desperately challenged, the young man’s conscience threw off once for all the yoke of his “dedication,” and, as respectfully as he could, without parade or remonstrance, he took a human being’s privilege to fashion his inner life for himself.
Memories of a Unitarian Boyhood
Edmund Gosse’s lineage was respectable but far from prominent. By contrast, Henry Adams (1838-1918) belonged to one of the most famous of American families. His great-grandfather, John Adams, was a Founding Father of the American republic and second president of the United States; his grandfather, John Quincy Adams, was sixth president; his father, Charles Francis Adams, served in the Senate and House of Representatives, and during the Civil War did yeoman service in the Union cause as U.S. minister (ambassador) to Britain. Despite Henry’s distinguished career as historian, novelist, and autobiographer, The Education is suffused with a melancholy sense of failure to measure up.
Like Gosse, Adams found his early experience of religion alienating. In his case, though, the alienation was generated by the Unitarian Church that upper-crust Bostonians patronized in the early years of the 19th century.
Nothing quieted doubt so completely as the mental calm of the Unitarian clergy. In uniform excellence of life and character, moral and intellectual, the score of Unitarian clergymen about Boston, who controlled society and Harvard College, were never excelled. They proclaimed as their merit that they insisted on no doctrine. . . . [D]ifficulties might be ignored; doubts were waste of thought; nothing exacted solution.
Young Henry found this praiseworthy and abysmally dull. He went to church twice on Sunday, read the Bible, prayed, believed in a deism without dogma, did whatever custom required of him. “But neither to him nor to his brothers or sisters was religion real. Even the mild discipline of the Unitarian Church was so irksome that they all threw it off at the first possible moment.” In later life, this faith of his childhood appeared very strange indeed.
That the most powerful emotion of man, next to the sexual, should disappear, might be a personal defect of his own; but that the most intelligent society, led by the most intelligent clergy, in the most moral conditions he ever knew . . . should have persuaded itself that all the problems which had convulsed human thought from earliest recorded time, were not worth discussing, seemed to him the most curious social phenomenon he had to account for in a long life.
The Education of Henry Adams is a highly selective book. Adams’s marriage and the suicide of his wife are unmentioned. It is an understandable omission on the part of a reticent man, but a regrettable one. As an autobiographer, Gosse found it possible to speak of strong feeling; Adams preferred to pass it over, and its absence from his book may be as telling in its own way as its inclusion would have been. All the same, his silence allows one only to guess at the impact that this central tragedy of his life had upon his worldview and character.{mospagebreak}
Gosse, Adams, and Catholicism
Strange to say, both men had an interest in Catholicism — curiosity, possibly something more, in the case of Gosse; a nostalgic attraction in Adams’s case.
Philip and Emily Gosse shared the violent anti-Catholicism of the Plymouth Brethren and unhesitatingly imparted it to their son. But that changed as the boy’s resistance to paternal domination developed. Philip saw little reason to think Catholics would be saved, and Edmund marveled that someone as kindly as his father could believe that God “would punish human beings, in millions, for ever, for a purely intellectual error of comprehension.” Soon he wanted to know more about Catholic beliefs, even attend Catholic services. But that was out of the question. His father would find out and be hurt. The impulse faded.
What, if anything, the young Henry Adams thought of Catholicism is not recorded in the Education. Catholicism makes its first entrance in the story when the recent Harvard graduate, making the Grand Tour in 1858, finds himself kneeling in the Antwerp cathedral before a painting of the Descent From the Cross. “He was only too happy to feel himself kneeling at the foot of the Cross; he learned only to loathe the sordid necessity of getting up again, and going about his stupid business,” Adams writes.
Eventually, his interest came to focus on the Blessed Virgin as a symbol of the integration of life achieved during the Christian Middle Ages and so painfully lost in modern times. In a famous chapter, “The Dynamo and the Virgin,” reflecting on the lesson of the great medieval cathedrals and their tangible testimony to faith in the Virgin, Adams declares Mary to be “the greatest force the Western world ever felt.”
But this could carry him only so far. Adams discovered that he could handle the unsettling implications of his admiration for the Virgin and for the system of beliefs and values she represented “as one escapes most dilemmas” — namely, by “ignoring it.” His fitful spiritual journey, such as it was, ends with the author, now 66 years old — but “three hundred years old” in his imagination — kneeling in yet another cathedral, before a window dedicated to the Virgin, “in the silent solitude of an empty faith . . . still desperately hoping to understand.” Apparently he never did.
It would be absurd to suggest that, absent a major infusion of extraordinary grace, either Gosse or Adams had in him the makings of a fervent believer. But there is nothing at all ridiculous in suggesting that early exposure to two unsatisfactory forms of religiosity — the Puritanism of the Plymouth Brethren and the dogmatic enfeeblement of Boston Unitarianism — stifled any tender shoots of faith that may conceivably have been struggling toward daylight in either man or both.
If, then, a moral must be drawn, it’s this: In a post-Christian setting, fundamentalism and liberalism are the Scylla and Charybdis of religion. They remain as hostile to faith now as they were a century ago, when Edmund Gosse and Henry Adams depicted them to such devastating effect.

Russell Shaw is a Crisis contributing editor. His latest book, coauthored with Rev. C. John McCloskey III, is Good News, Bad News: Evangelization, Conversion, and the Crisis of Faith (Ignatius Press).


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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