Augustine Birrell and the weakness of Victorian Nonconformity

What kind of historical memory is needed today? Well, we need to know the Fathers, to remind ourselves of the catholicity of our Faith. We cannot forget the great gains made by the Reformers--no, I dare opine, the Reformation is not over. The children of the Reformers, the Puritans, need to be read for their sturdy piety and confessionalism. The eighteenth century--my favourite century, if I were to name one--must be remembered for the Spirit's great works. And then overlaying these last two our Baptist heritage (we cannot know who we are if we not know whence we came--whence our persons indeed if we forget our spiritual kin?). Now, in all of this, it would be easy to overlook the Victorians. But there is much to be learned from them. This one thing, for example: the way in which much of late nineteenth-century Evangelicalism traded in its heritage for a mess of liberal stew! The rot, so evident in the twentieth century, has far deeper roots than we imagine.

These words of the Victorian politician Augustine Birrell (1850-1933), an unbeliever though the son of the Evangelical Baptist minister Charles Mitchell Birrell (d.1880), about the impact of the writings of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)--born in Ecclefechan, what a name that!--and the Roman Catholic John Henry Newman (1801-1890) could have been written today: "these great writers found their most enthusiastic readers among the ranks of youthful Nonconformity" [Things Past Redress (London: Faber and Faber, 1937), 273]. "Youthful Nonconformity"--the heirs of the Puritans and the Evangelicals of the eighteenth century--Birrell continues, found "great solace" in these two authors, one an arch-opponent of all things Evangelical and the other a Roman Catholic author (ibid.).

Little wonder the succeeding weakness of Nonconformity when faced with the behemoth of Liberalism. The abandonment of a rich heritage and for what? And what the end result? Spiritual desolation. 1 Cor 10:6.