Literacy And Biblical Knowledge: The Victorian Age And Our Own -- By: Timothy T. Larsen

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 52:3 (Sep 2009)
Article: Literacy And Biblical Knowledge: The Victorian Age And Our Own
Author: Timothy T. Larsen

Literacy And Biblical Knowledge: The Victorian Age And Our Own

Timothy T. Larsen*

* Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, 501 College Ave., Wheaton, IL 60187-5593.

My area of expertise is nineteenth-century Britain, and the more I have studied it, the more I have come to realize that it would be hard to set any limit on the extent to which Victorian culture was shaped by a shared knowledge of the Bible. The Scriptures were a significant presence throughout people’s entire lives. In the beginning was the Word. It was standard practice for Victorian children to learn to read on the Authorized Version (often called the King James Version in America) of the Bible. The Bible was the primary text in schools. Universal state education was not enacted until 1870. Before that time, many poor children received all the formal education they would ever have from a church. It must be borne in mind that Sunday schools originally really were schools. Children worked all week long and then learned to read by going to a church-run school on their one day off, Sunday. Not surprisingly, the Bible was central at Sunday schools. Some poor children were able to attend a proper, day school as well. The vast majority of these weekday schools was run by a denominational or non-denominational Christian charity, and also used the Bible as their main text. Moreover, if one moves beyond these Christian efforts which overwhelmingly dominated the educational landscape, Phil Gardner’s research has revealed that even in independent, working-class schools the Bible was still the standard book used “for learning to read and for reading practice.”1

Once state education was established, the Bible retained a place in the core curriculum during the nineteenth century. Even the scientist T. H. Huxley, the original agnostic who wrote polemical works attacking the Scriptures, insisted on “the use of the Bible as an instrument of popular education” when he was elected to the London School Board.2 Moreover, while some ideologues did want a truly secular curriculum that was Bible-free, parents would not tolerate such schemes, but rather overwhelmingly insisted that their children study the Bible in state schools. Moving up the social scale, learning the Bible was also a prominent and essential part of elite education.

If one went to Eton, Harrow, Rugby, or the like, then one studied the Bible with a master who was also an ordained clergyman in the Church of England. And going to university did not mean leaving scriptural education behind. For example, one c...

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