Religious ContextSee also: History of the Church of England - 19th Century
George Eliot's intellectual journey to agnosticism had been circuitous, taking in "the easygoing Anglicanism of her family in the 1820s... the severe Calvinistic evangelicalism of her youth in the 1830s and her crisis of faith and search for a secular alternative to Christianity in the 1840s". (It should be noted that, during her evangelical phase, she was an evangelical Anglican; Maria Lewis, her mentor during this period, was anti-Nonconformist and refused to take a position as governess in a Nonconformist household. This distinction is important; during the nineteenth century it had significant implications for class and status. The Church of England enjoyed a unique position as the established church, and all the clergymen in Scenes of Clerical Life, including Tryan, are portrayed as being members of it.) By 1842 she had become agnostic, refusing to attend church with her father. Her friendship with Charles and Cara Bray, Unitarians of Coventry, and her theological studies, were probably responsible for her renunciation of Christianity. Scenes of Clerical Life is sympathetic to the Church and its ministers, however; Eliot "was too secure in her own naturalistic ethics to need to become crudely anti-religious. What she demanded was a freedom from fanaticism, dogma, intolerance and inhumanity in the preachers of the Gospel".
During the period that George Eliot depicts in Scenes of Clerical Life religion in England was undergoing significant changes. While Dissenting (Nonconformist) Churches had been established as early as the Church of England itself, the emergence of Methodism in 1739 presented particular challenges to the Established Church. Evangelicalism, at first confined to the Dissenting Churches, soon found adherents within the Church of England itself. Meanwhile, at the other end of the religious spectrum, the Oxford Movement was seeking to emphasise the Church of England's identity as a catholic and apostolic Church, reassessing its relationship to Roman Catholicism. Thus in the early 19th century Midlands that George Eliot would later depict various religious ideas can be identified: the tension between the Established and the Dissenting Churches, and the differing strands within Anglicanism itself, between the Low church, the High church and the Broad church.
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