Book Reviews -- By: Mark R. Stevenson
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A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians, By Timothy Larsen, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, 326 pages, paperback, $35.00.
In 1989, pollster George Gallup claimed “Americans revere the Bible—but, by and large, they don’t read it. And because they don’t read it, they have become a nation of biblical illiterates.”1 The situation has certainly not improved in recent years—if anything, it has deteriorated even further. While it comes as no surprise that secularized Americans are biblically illiterate, multiple surveys indicate that even confessing Christians know less and less about the Bible. By contrast, Timothy Larsen’s A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians harkens back to a time when the average unbelieving skeptic knew more of the Bible than the average Christian does today.
Larsen, McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, demonstrates that the Bible was the preeminent book among the Victorians. Perhaps this is to be expected among evangelical Protestants, but the author’s scope is far broader. Indeed, a key contribution of the book is in the evidence it provides of the Bible’s primacy across the spectrum of Victorian thought. From Methodists to Roman Catholics, atheists to Quakers, Unitarians to agnostics, all were steeped in Scripture. Whether they believed the Bible or not, they knew it and constantly referenced it in both public and private discourse.
Larsen advances his argument through various case studies of individuals who serve as representatives for their respective group—for example, the Baptist C. H. Spurgeon for “Orthodox Old Dissent,”
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Florence Nightingale for the “Liberal Anglicans,” and Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant for Victorian atheists. In the interests of balance and thoroughness, approximately half of the representative figures are women. While Larsen makes his case for the fitness of each individual he has selected, some may question whether certain figures were truly representative of their particular group. For example, while it certainly makes sense for E. B. Pusey to represent the Anglo-Catholics (the movement was also called Puseyism), Pusey himself was the Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford and thus had a greater grasp of the Bible than most. Likewise, Archbishop Nicholas Wiseman was the most prominent Catholic in England of his time, but he was also a biblical scholar, and one might be excused for wondering if the average Victorian Catholic was as Bible-centered as Wiseman.
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