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Some people lose their faith and then find it again. In Timothy Larsen’s new book Crisis of Doubt, we are treated to seven such figures in 19th Century England. They had a secularist crisis of (their) doubt. This way of framing the issue, namely losing faith and then finding faith again, can be explained in various ways theologically, but anecdotally it looks like this.
Here is the pattern for the crisis of faith — those who lose their faith: “It is that of a nonconformist, often a Wesleyan, who becomes a class teacher or even a lay preacher, and in studying the Bible closely to prepare for lessons from it discovers inconsistencies and absurdities, and finds that he can no longer regard the Bible as divinely inspired or literally true” (239-40, quoting Susan Budd). The book that influenced sceptics the most was Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason. In addition, a radical politics worked against the church’s complicity in the political status quo. Finally, the deathbed argument and hell shaped a move away from faith.
Here is the patten for the crisis of doubt — those who reclaim their faith.
(1) They were the leading edge thinkers of the Victorian Secularist movement and they had absorbed philosophical trends and biblical criticism through Germans like Strauss.
(2) They were frequently frustrated with scepticism being so one-sidedly negative and not as capable of constructing something positive.
(3) Secularists often realized they had no foundation for morality and their morality ran on borrowed fuel.
(4) They came to the realization that knowledge and truth could be ascertained in more than empirical ways.
(5) They re-appraised the Bible’s content, and in particular began to approach it more positively.
(6) Larsen concludes the reconverts were “haunted by Jesus of Nazareth” (243). The story of the Gospel was “too good not to be true” (243).
(7) Many Secularists of the Victorian era experienced a “spiritual life” of some sort, making them more open to the truth of Christianity — while others moved into Spiritualism and others into Theosophy.
(8) Some realized that Christianity was compatible with a radical politics.
And, (9) Christian sermons, literature, and apologetics each played a role in reconversion.
Here are the figures Larsen devotes a chapter to: William Hone, Frederic Howland Young, Thomas Cooper, John Henry Gordon, Joseph Barker, John Bagnall Bebbington, and George Sexton.
Who are the most significant intellectual figures you know who reclaimed faith (other than CS Lewis)?
A significant factor at work here is what I would call the critique voice. What I mean is this: it is easier to shoot holes in your opponent’s system than construct an unassailable defense of your own. What happens in the crisis of doubt is the realization that the Victorian Secularist movement could not withstand critique and could not offer a positive apologetic (in the minds of those whose crisis of doubt led them back to faith). And this “critique” voice, the voice of the person who discovers problems with the claims of a system of thought, leads one to entertain other options. (CS Lewis, at some level, could not explain a ground for morals apart from belief in God.)
I should also add that Larsen’s book is redressing an imbalance among historians who have overly emphasized the crisis of faith in the 19th Century, suggesting at times that it was the Century the church lost its faith. Larsen traces instead the crisis of doubt: “when a significant pattern can be found of erstwhile sceptics coming to find unbelief no longer intellectually convincing” (15). Thus, he is concerned with “reconverts” and “reconversion.” The 19th Century was a century not only of honest doubt but also of honest faith. Larsen argues that many more secularists reconverted than Anglican clergyman lost their faith. What he argues for then is that there were plenty of honest intellectuals in the 19th Century who reclaimed the Christian faith.

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