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Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, Autumn1999—Volume 12:23


Grace in the Arts:

CHARLES DICKENS:

CHESHIRE CAT “CHRISTIANITY”

JAMES TOWNSEND

Bible Editor

Cook Communications

Elgin, IL

 

I. Introduction

I doubt that the following trivia piece is included in any Ripley’s Believe It or Not, but my suspicion is that one would be hard pressed ever in the same twenty year period in world history to find three notable names of fame all of which share the same first name and begin the last name with the same first initial. Between 1850 and 1870 flourished three famous Charles D’s—Charles Dickens (the greatest English novelist of his time), Charles Dodgson (alias Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, which may be the best known children’s fantasy of all time), and Charles Darwin (popularizer of evolution). On many circles Darwinism fell like a bombshell. Yet (amazingly) Charles Darwin’s writings of the same period made virtually no impact upon Charles Dickens’s writings.

Harland Nelson reported: “Steven Marcus says forthrightly that of course Dickens was a Christian…”[1] The later English writer George Orwell said of Charles Dickens: “he ‘believed’ undoubtedly.”[1] The famous Russian novelist Fyodr Dostoevsky spoke of Dickens as a “great Christian” (in Diary of a Writer, vol. I, p. 350).[1] But was he? What does the preponderance of evidence show?

It is my contention—mirrored in my article’s subtitle—that Dickens merely had a “Cheshire Cat ‘Christianity’.” The other Charles D. (Charles Dodgson) painted in Alice in Wonderland the pen-portrait of the Cheshire Cat sitting in a tree—with its famed fade-away Cheshire grin. At times only the cat’s grin could be seen by Alice. The only brand of “Christianity” I believe Charles Dickens really had was that of the hangover, fading remnants of a cultural “Christian” consensus of a Victorian society. With this thesis most literary analysts of Dickens would concur.

Literary Laurels

Dickens was dubbed the Great Inimitable. A professor of English literature at the University of Pennsylvania wrote: “The truth is there is no great man of letters in all English literature so wholly sui generis [of his own kind] as Dickens.”[1] A Reader’s Digest writer asserted: “Many critics rank [Dickens’s] novels with Shakespeare’s plays as the greatest works of fiction in the English language. He has probably given more pleasure to more people than any other writer who ever lived.”[1] E. W. F. Tomlin offered the opinion that Dickens’s “position as the greatest novelist of the English-speaking world, and perhaps the greatest of all masters of fiction, is assured…”[1] With this assessment G. K. Chesteron concurred—that Dickens is “certainly the most popular and perhaps the greatest of the great English novelists.”[1]

If the praises of fellow novelists constitute a criterion, then one of the two greatest Russian novelist’s transcribed tributes will serve well. Aylmer Maude, friend and biographer for Tolstoy, recorded: “During my [last] visit he repeated his often expressed opinion that Dickens stands far above all other English writers.”[1] Dickens’s portrait was one of three portraits that hung in Tolstoy’s house. Tolstoy’s daughter remembered: “ ‘If you were to put the whole of world literature through a sieve,’ my father said, ‘and keep only the very best, you would be left with Dickens.’”[1]

In that time Dickensmania was like Beattle-mania in the 1960s. Americans met ships pulling into the New York harbor to find out if Little Nell, a Dickens character, was still living. As his daughter Katey said, “He had the world at his feet.”[1]

Only five of Thomas Hardy’s fourteen novels were first-rate. Robert Louis Stevenson produced four or five memorable works (out of over thirty published writings). Dostoevsky and Tolstoy each authored two world-class novels. Yet I would rate ten out of Dickens’s fourteen finished novels as worthy of high honors.

Dickens was friends with Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Carlyle, Wilkie Collins, and the other notable authors of his day. In “nine years…he had written almost two million words.”[1] Over 13,000 of Dickens’s letters (to and from him) have been preserved (even though Dickens personally burned twenty years worth of them!). Dickens (1812-1870) made two trips to America to do public readings, and “probably no other human being ever won such a triumph as a public reader as did Dickens.”[1]

III. A Brief Biography

The imprudent, impecunious, and grandiloquent Mr. Micawber (of David Copperfield) and the scatterbrained Mrs. Nickleby (of Nicholas Nickleby) were disguised versions of Charles Dickens’s parents. Neither of them possessed any serious spiritual roots or strong institutional ties to the Church of England. Dickens’s first biographer and long-time friend, John Forster, said almost nothing about Charles’s religious upbringing.

Later in life Fanny Burnett, Charles’s one sister, and her husband became seriously committed Christians and decided to leave the theater (which Charles frequented). Fanny reported concerning her childhood (which assuredly reflects that of her brother Charles as well): “I was brought up in the Established Church (of England), but I regret to say, without any serious idea of religion. I attended divine worship as a duty, not as a high privilege.”[1]

Next door to their childhood home was the Providence Baptist Chapel in Chatham where the Dickens family sometimes attended and where the Reverend William Giles pastored. Christopher Hibbert reported: “Charles detested these services, and ever afterwards when he was to write a scene showing children in church or chapel it was nearly always with the hint that it would have been better if they had not been made to go. The minister would sometimes preach for a full two hours” with the result that Dickens “was left with a permanent distaste for Nonconformism [churches]…”[1] Nevertheless, the same minister had a son of the same name who became Charles’s school teacher. “William Giles [the younger] was a kindly, intelligent Oxford graduate…who took great care with his pupils” and recognized Charles’s promise.[1] Charles also later attended Somers Chapel in Seymour Street with a friend.

Four experiences were most formative upon young Charles. His debt-ridden father was sent to Marshalsea Prison (which Dickens depicted in Little Dorrit). Secondly, he had to work in a rat-infested warehouse where he pasted labels upon shoe polish bottles for twelve hours a day. Thirdly, he experienced his first romantic crush upon Maria Beadnell (depicted as Dora Spenlow in David Copperfield). Fourthly, after he was married, his sister-in-law (Mary Hogarth who lived with them in mutual admiration) died suddenly. Most Dickens interpreters presume he would have been better off married to this sister (or someone like her). She became the angelic model for many of Dickens’s young female characters—Little Nell, Florence Dombey, etc. By the time Dickens was twenty-five years old he had hit the jackpot with the writing of Pickwick Papers.

Ironically, Dickens has been called “the laureate of family life.”[1] After some twenty years of marriage and ten children together, he separated from his wife in 1858. One year earlier he had met an eighteen-year-old actress named Ellen Ternan. Reportedly, a gift he intended for Ellen Ternan got into the hands of Mrs. Dickens, and that was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Fred Kaplan stated: “No conclusive evidence has surfaced to determine whether or not their relationship was sexual.”[1] Yet K. J. Fielding asserts that “there is no reasonable doubt” that Ellen Ternan was Dickens’s mistress.[1] Some of the strongest evidence to that effect is: (1) Dickens paid for the house she and her mother lived in; (2) she was the person first named in his will; (3) they were together in a near-death railroad train accident at Stapleton, France, in 1863; (4) he hoped she could follow him to America on his second public reading trip (though he finally realized it wouldn’t be feasible); (5) she visited frequently at the Dickens home among his children and with his sister-in-law (Georgina) who sent for her when he was dying; (6) his daughter Katey said her father “was not a good man.”[1] If this compiled evidence does not add up to her being Dickens’s mistress, it certainly was an unusual relationship. She was undoubtedly the real-life model for the beautiful-but-cruel Estella (in Great Expectations and for Helena Landless (in his last book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood), for Helen Landless’s name and Ellen Lawless Ternan’s are too coinciding to be coincidental.[1] In light of all that, it is ironical that at that very period Dickens considered calling his new magazine Household Harmony!

Dickens engaged in two public reading tours of the United States (1842 and 1867-68). By his last reading tour he was revealing the physical symptoms which would eventually kill him. He was addicted to this public adoration, and it was actually a form of slow suicide. When Dickens died, he left an estate worth 93,000 pounds (approximately 154,000 U.S. dollars).

IV. His Books in Brief

Generally Dickens novels were serialized before they were published in book form. He wrote five Christmas stories (from 1843-1848, omitting 1847), of which the most famous is unquestionably “A Christmas Carol” starring Scrooge.

The first of Dickens’s fourteen and a half novels skyrocketed him to fame. Pickwick Papers (1837) features a gentleman’s club out adventuring in England’s countryside and stars a Laurel and Hardy team of the cockney Sam Weller as humorous sidekick to the bespectacled Mr. Pickwick—“what is probably the greatest comedy team in all of literature.”[1] The BBC brain trust voted it and War and Peace the world’s two greatest novels.

From rollicking humor Dickens switched in Oliver Twist (1837-1839) to a much more somber expose¢ of poverty-grown crime. In his third book Dickens’s social consciousness shifted from slums to educational abuses in Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839), a delightful narrative with more than a hundred characters.

Dickens’s fourth novel, The Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1841) was perhaps his most melodramatic, and it attacks the vice of gambling. Little Nell’s death is a real tear-jerker. Dickens’s fifth book, Barnaby Rudge (1841) “is the least satisfactory of all Dickens’s full-length books.”[1] Its focus fell upon England’s anti-Catholic riots spearheaded by Lord George Gordon.

Dickens’s sixth novel, Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-1844), “met with the poorest reception of any of his novels.”[1] To inject interest and revive sales, Dickens shipped young Martin off to America (as Dickens had himself done in 1842) where Dickens slashed out satirically at America’s slavery, spittoonery, and swaggering spirit.

Dombey and Son (1846-1848), Dickens’s seventh, “is partly the teaching that a rich [person] cannot easily enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”[1] The proud industrialist, Dombey, wages everything on his small son who dies, and only the daughter whom he despises (Florence) can eventually save him.

David Copperfield (1850-1852) has Charles Dickens’s initials in reverse order, and it is Dickens’s most autobiographical novel. Edward Wagenknecht claimed it “is probably the best-loved novel in the English language.”[1]

Dickens’s ninth novel, Bleak House (1852-1853) hacks away at the injustice of England’s justice system (in his famous Chancery Court case of Jarndyce versus Jarndyce). Harland Nelson claimed that “Bleak House is the finest and most intricately worked out attempt [by Dickens] to show that the human world in its totality is the source of evil.”[1] The tenth, Hard Times (1854), lashes out against the exploitation of industrial captialists and the educational tenets of the utilitarian philosophy.

Little Dorrit (1855-1857) is a dark novel (written immediately prior to his separation from his wife) and is set against the backdrop of debtors’ prison. Dickens’s depiction of the Circumlocution Office (or government bureau of red tape) offers “his greatest social satire.”[1] George Bernard Shaw claimed the novel was “a more seditious book than [Marx’s] Das Kapital.”[1]

“A Tale of Two Cities [Dickens’s twelfth novel] is one of the most popular historical novels ever written. Certainly it is the most famous novel about the French Revolution,…yet it is a historical novel which has no historical characters in it.”[1] Avrom Fleishman stated that in A Tale of Two Cities (1859) “personal salvation in Christ is translated into…the promises of social regeneration through sacrifice.”[1] Yet it “expresses neither a redemption from the sins of history through Christ, nor a natural purging of crime and suffering…, but a fusion of the two.”[1] The key word is social, because for Dickens redemption was seen as primarily social rather than personal and spiritual.

Practically all Dickens commentators (including myself) concur with the conclusion of Richard Burton concerning Dickens’s thirteenth novel that if one considers “story value, construction, characters, atmosphere, adequacy of style, climactic interest, and impressive lesson, I should name Great Expectations…as his most perfect book…”[1]

Dickens’s last complete book, Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865), is described by Edgar Johnson as “the darkest and bitterest of all Dickens’s novels.”[1] In this last finished novel Dickens used “the powerful Jewish-Christian motif of redemption,” only he “conceives of the Jew in stereotypical Christian terms and the Christian in stereotypical Jewish terms.”[1] Fred Kaplan speaks of the author’s “fascination with rebirth and with human nature.”[1]
Though the poet Longfellow had lyrical praise for Dickens’s unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, I don’t think most interpreters would agree with his assessment. In this book, John Jaspers, the choir director in the cathedral, is also an opium addict, so this is Dickens’s version of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Also, interestingly, Dickens’s last two books contain his only really positive pictures of Christian clergyman—Rev. Frank Milvey (in Our Mutual Friend) and Canon Septimus Chrisparkle  (in The Mystery of Edwin Drood).

Dickens’s Doctrines

A. His General Position

Literary critic Angus Wilson spoke about “that very evasive thing, [Dickens’s] religious beliefs.”[1] Edward Wagenknecht claimed, “He was always, in Evangelical parlance a ‘professing Christian,’ though there is sometimes some question as to just what it was he professed.”[1] Three days after Dickens died, the Anglican Bishop of Manchester in Westminster Abbey declared, “Possibly we [he and Dickens] might not have been able to subscribe to the same creed in relation to God, but I think we should have subscribed to the same creed in relation to man.”[1] As the Introduction indicated, Dickens operated within a “Cheshire Cat Christianity”—a cultural consensus which pervaded his perspective and colored the moral universe of his writing.

One rationalist analyst, William Kent, acknowledged that “the thinnest streak of supernaturalism divides [Dickens] from the humanists.”[1] The great English social reformer Lord Shaftesbury compared Dickens to “the pagan Naaman by whom the Lord had delivered Israel.”[1] Georgina Hogarth, Dickens’s sister-in-law who lived with him for many years and raised his children, is probably the best voice for Charles’s views when she voiced her own to Mrs. Fields:

Like you, I have been brought up…in a very liberal atmosphere, with more of church influence than you, very likely, but always out of the pale of strict creeds and dogmas. I scarcely know what I believe! But I know I do faithfully and earnestly believe in the Almighty and in our Savior and have a perfect faith and trust in a Hereafter—and in the future state being blessed and peaceful![1]

Such a statement is congruent with what is known about and by Dickens elsewhere.

B. The Bible and Supernaturalism

Many preachers—from their sourcebooks for sermon illustrations—have run across Dickens’s statement (to his son) that the Bible “is the best book that ever was or will be known in the world…”[1] Also Dickens asserted: “There cannot be many men, I believe, who have a more humble veneration for the New Testament, or a more profound conviction of its all-sufficiency than I have.”[1] On the surface these affirmations sound impressive, but such statements do tell us that the Bible is God’s uniquely inspired Word.

There is no argument that Dickens—like agnostic Thomas Hardy, theist Robert Louis Stevenson, and Herman Melville—was steeped in the thought and terminology of Scripture. The Christian professor of literature at Yale University, William Lyon Phelps, remarked that Dickens’s novels are “virtually a commentary on the Four Gospels.”[1]

The amplitude of Dickens’s biblical allusions is made apparent in this quotation from Edward Wagenknecht:

            In 1929, James A. Stewart published Quotations and References in Charles Dickens…in which he collected 365 Biblical references and 480 to other literature…In his book he finds 64 quotations from Matthew, 18 from Mark, 44 from Luke, 21 from John, and 13 from Corinthians…Among Old Testament books, Genesis leads with 60…[1]

At this point I offer a selective mosaic of Biblical allusions from Dickens’s major novels:

“a vessel of wrath” (Pickwick Papers);

“if the sea gives up its dead” (Oliver Twist);

“Gog and Magog” (Nicholas Nickleby);

“heap coals of fire upon his head” (The Old Curiosity Shop);

“a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour” (Barnaby Rudge);

“as we sow, we reap” (Martin Chuzzlewit);

“firmament…rolled up like a scroll” (Dombey and Son);

“how Lazarus was raised from the dead” (David Copperfield);

“writing with His finger in the dust when they brought the sinful woman to Him” (Bleak House);

“like competing towers of Babel” (Hard Times);

“the camel and the needle’s eye” (Little Dorrit);

“I am the resurrection and the life” (A Tale of Two Cities);

“O Lord, be merciful to him, a sinner” (Great Expectations);

“Pharaoh’s multitude that was drowned in the Red Sea” (Our Mutual Friend);

“lamb…led to the slaughter” (The Mystery of Edwin Drood).

Despite massive biblical allusion, however, Edward Wagenknecht claimed that even before the onslaught of higher criticism, Dickens “had independently made up his own mind that the Bible was not infallible…”[1] Dickens thought all authentic new discoveries should be counted as “revelation.” Edgar Johnson (in a Dickens biography of more than a thousand pages) said, “[Dickens] read Lyell’s Antiquity of Man, and calmly ranged himself with Colenso’s demonstration that the Pentateuch and the Book of Joshua could not be considered reliable scientific documents.”[1] Dickens also did a respectful writeup in his magazine All the Year Round of the implications of Darwin’s Origin of the Species. In Martin Chuzzlewit one of the Dickens characters speaks of “teaching the probability of the human race having once been monkeys.”[1] Another story he had published late in life in The Atlantic Monthly (“George Silverman’s Explanation”) has been called “certainly the most naturalistic…thing [Dickens] ever did…”[1] All in all, then, it would seem that despite Dickens’s declared respect for the Bible, he was floating with the tide of his times.

C. God

Dickens inherited the traditional Church of England view that God is personal, powerful, and providential. Dickens even asserted that “all art is but a little imitation” of “the way of Providence.”[1] Harland Nelson affirmed that Dickens “believes in a guiding Providence, the plainest mark of his affinity with evangelicalism.”[1]

Dickens’s best friend and first biographer, John Forster, belonged to the Unitarian Church. When Dickens visited the Boston area in 1842, he discovered that the poet Longfellow and many of his intellectual American friends were Unitarians. When Dickens returned to England, “in the winter of 1842-43 he [became] a member of Tagart’s Unitarian congregation.”[1] However, Dickens’s non-doctrinal motivation is illustrated by his own statement: “Disgusted with our Established [Anglican] Church, and its Puseyisms, and daily outrages on common sense and humanity, I…joined the Unitarians, who would do something for human improvement, if they could; and who practice Charity and Toleration.”[1] Obviously Dickens was not overly concerned about metaphysical distinctions.

After visiting with the famous Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing in Boston, back in England Dickens visited the Essex Street Chapel pastored by Reverend Thomas Madge. “In November of [1843] he had heard the Rev. Edward Tagart preach a funeral sermon for Dr. Channing at…the leading [London] West End place of worship of the Unitarians.”[1] With Tagart, Dickens maintained a lifelong friendship, though he stopped going to church. Whether Dickens ever seriously factored into his thinking a Unitarian concept of God is up to the guesstimate of Dickens interpreters.

D. Christ

Naturally if one is a bonified Unitarian, this has monumental ramifications for one’s view of Christ. All the Dickens commentators I read concurred with Edgar Johnson’s appraisal: “Dickens did not believe in the virgin birth of Christ…”[1]

In 1849 Dickens wrote a private book for his own children’s religious instruction. In the 1930s this slender volume was published posthumously as The Life of Our Lord. In this treatment Dickens preserves Christ’s miracles intact and offers no de-supernaturalizing explanation. This publication recounts the biblical story of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension.

In The Life of Our Lord Dickens set forth a number of interpretive comments that bear upon his Christology. The angels announce to the Bethlehem-area shepherds that the child “will grow up to be so good that God will love Him as His own Son…”[1] This sentence does not sound like it teaches the eternal Sonship of Isaiah 9:6, Hebrews 1:8, or Hebrews 5:9.

After Lazarus’s raising from the dead, Dickens wrote, “Many of the people there believed that Christ was indeed the Son of God, come to instruct and save mankind.”[1] Similarly, Dickens observed that “because [Jesus] did such good, and taught people how to love God and how to hope to go to Heaven after death, He was called Our Saviour.”[1] Any evangelical editor would want a stronger statement than the latter for a biblical presentation on Christ’s person.

The rationalist Kent claimed that “neither in his works nor in his letters did Dickens ever repudiate or even question the doctrine of the Trinity or the belief in a mediator.”[1] Kent’s assertion, however, is open to some serious question. Though one of Dickens’s sons was christened in the Church of England, the famed contemporary poet Robert Browning spoke of Dickens as “an enlightened Unitarian…”[1] Whether Dickens was all that doctrinally “enlightened” is the nub of the issue.

Toward the end of his life Dickens wrote back “to a man who had questioned his religious beliefs, saying, ‘I have always striven in my writings to express veneration for the life and lessons of our Saviour.’”[1] John Forster, Dickens’s first biographer (Life, Appendix 2), claimed Dickens acknowledged Jesus to be “Lord and Savior,” but we must remember that Forster was a Unitarian and such biblical terms become plastic in the hands of Unitarian users. Thus, Fred Kaplan claimed that “despite his secularism, [Dickens] believed ‘Jesus Christ to be the son of God…’”[1] However, Edgar Johnson speaks of the “consistently Unitarian emphasis” of The Life of Our Lord and that Dickens treated Christ as a “spiritual teacher, not…divinity.”[1] Therefore, the “Son” of Charles Dickens’s writing is commensurate with the views of an Arian or Unitarian.

E. Angels, Satan, and Demons

In chapter 3 of Martin Chuzzlewit we read of one who was as “proud as Lucifer.” One woman in David Copperfield speaks of “the father of all evil.” Bleak House refers to “its father the devil” and “Sir Lucifer.” A Tale of Two Cities mentions “Lucifer’s pride” and the “father of lies.” There is certainly linguistic fodder in Dickens’s works for a doctrine of Satan. Yet the Anglican-turned-Catholic G. K. Chesterton penned: “I do not know whether, in the kindly rationalism of his epoch, he kept any belief in a personal devil in his theology…”[1] Whether Dickens’s view of the devil was literal or literary, on the very last page of his unfinished novel the old opium den woman is described as “malignant as the Evil One.”[1]

Dickens was acquainted with spiritualism though he considered most seances as a species of humbug. Nevertheless, Dickens himself practiced mesmerism (hypnosis) on other people who were sick or troubled.

Dickens’s doctrine of angels is, I suspect, responsible for a good deal of erroneous teaching. Essentially Dickens taught that when the good people (particularly children) die, they become angels in heaven (a doctrine that the Bible nowhere maintains). When Dickens’s favorite sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, died at age seventeen, he said, “God numbered her among the angels at seventeen.”[1] The word “among” in the previous sentence might mean that she was simply surrounded by angels—unless we had other Dickens contexts that clarified this notion.

There can be little question about Dickens’s meaning when he taught his children in The Life of Our Lord: “The most miserable, the most ugly, deformed wretched creatures that live [on earth] will be bright Angels in Heaven if they are good here on earth.”[1] In Dickens’s account of Jesus receiving little children he even asserts: “the Angels are all children.”[1] In The Old Curiosity Shop (chapter 54) the schoolmaster says to Little Nell: “There is not an angel added to the Host of Heaven but does its blessed work on earth in those that loved it here.”[1] In other words, individuals engage in their “work on earth” and are finally “added to the [angelic] Host of Heaven.” Reflecting this people-become-angels teaching, Dickens’s adult daughter Katie remarked, “Well, really, papa, I think when you’re an angel your wings will be made of looking glass, and your crown of [his favorite] scarlet geraniums!”[1] Thus, we must conclude that Dickens’s angelology was askew—and it suggests his naivete about some other doctrines.

F. Human Nature, Sin, and Evil

Dickens analysts coalesce upon their biographical subject’s understanding of this theme. Dickens’s position is: “human beings are innately good; their goodness resides in their natural moral sentiments.”[1] Fielding spoke of Dickens’s “faith in human goodness.”[1] George Orwell referred to Dickens’s “whole message” as an “enormous platitude: If men would behave decently, the world would be decent.”[1] A Reader’s Digest article summarized “the single personal quality that runs like a bright thread through the fabric of Dickens’ life and writings [which is] the basic decency of man.”[1]

Notwithstanding Dickens’s optimism about intrinsic human nature, he is aware (as a meek character says in Our Mutual Friend) there is “something appallingly wrong somewhere,” but another counters with the comment: It’s “easy to say somewhere; not so easy to say where.”[1] Mr. Plornish (a Dickens character) says of the world-muddle: “He only know’d that it wasn’t put right by them what undertook that line of business, and that it didn’t come right of itself.”[1]

Harland Nelson evaluated the situation as follows: “The Dickens man is born without sin. The world—human society—is his enemy because it is evil and will corrupt him.”[1] In a different book Nelson wrote: “The one religious doctrine that I have noted Dickens objecting to is that of original sin…”[1] In an essay in The Uncommercial Traveler Dickens objected to a preacher addressing his audience as “fellow sinners.”[1] Naturally there are philosophical problems for someone who believes that humans aren’t born with sin, yet society corrupts them. If they weren’t born that way, how did they get that way? Nelson encapsulated Dickens’s perspective by saying that “evil grows out of the environment,” yet “people to Dickens are fundamentally good.”[1] Obviously Dickens’s view on sin runs aground of the orthodox Christian view of sin—and so will skew his soteriology as well. In short, in Dickens society is always the scapegoat—though individuals are mostly okay. In one case, (Bill Sikes) however, Dickens did describe one of his characters as incurably bad (which he altered from “irredeemably bad”).

G. Salvation

Anyone who has studied and subscribed to biblical theology is aware that one’s stance on sin will invariably slant one’s stance on the subject of salvation. Dickens is a classic case of that truth.

Sometimes sermonizers are familiar with the wording of Dickens’s will: “I commit my soul to the mercy of God through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Yet, as the rationalist Kent observed: “the wording is very similar to that of Shakespeare’s will and may be conventional.”[1] As Wagenknecht put it: Jesus Christ in Dickens’s view is “our Savior,” “but there is no indication of how He saves us, or of what we are to be saved from.”[1] (Please remember that this is not an orthodox theologian speaking but a literary analyst who authored three books on Dickens.)

One of Dickens’s most offensive passages to evangelicals concerning salvation appeared in his first blockbuster book (Pickwick Papers). The cockney Sam Weller’s father explains to his son that his wife has been involved with Methodist meetings.

She’s got hold o’ some inwention for grownup people being born again, Sammy; the new birth, I think they calls it. I should wery much like to see that system in haction, Sammy. I should wery much like to see your mother-in-law [actually his stepmother]
born again.[1]

To objectors to this paragraph Dickens penned: “That every man who seeks heaven must be born again, in good thoughts of his Maker, I sincerely believe.”[1] However, the explanation “born again, in good thoughts of his Maker” sounds like something a Christian Scientist might use to explain John 3:3 and 5. Dickens’s explanation to his objector didn’t even satisfy Kent the rationalist (who grew up within conservative Christianity). Kent wryly commented: “Bless his innocence. Did [Dickens] really think he had thus defined the evangelical doctrine of the new birth?”[1] As Kent noted, probably Dickens’s correspondent was now really sure that Dickens was lost.

Four explanatory comments from Dickens’s own mouth (in The Life of Our Lord) most epitomize his view on this determinative subject. In the scene of Jesus’ temptation Dickens told children that Jesus prayed “that He might be of use to men and women, and teach them to be better, so that after their deaths, they might be happy in Heaven.”[1] In explaining the parable at the outset of Matthew 20, Dickens declared: “Our Savior meant to teach them…that people who have done good all their lives long will go to Heaven after they are dead. But that people who have been wicked, because of their being miserable, or not having parents and friends to take care of them when young, and are truly sorry for it, however late in their lives, and pray to God to forgive them, will be forgiven and go to Heaven too.”[1]

The formula given when Dickens teaches the story of the Prodigal Son is as follows: “Our Savior meant to teach that those who have done wrong and forgotten God are always welcome to Him and will always receive His mercy, if they will only return to Him in sorrow for the sin of which they have been guilty.”[1]

In these three previous statements there is ample material for critique. Any Christian should be able to recognize (in light of Romans 3:10-12) the falseness of saying “that people who have done good all their lives long will go to Heaven…” In none of the first three Dickens statements is there any mention of believing in Jesus (John 3:16; Acts 16:31; Romans 3:22-24).

At the finale of The Life of Our Lord Dickens concludes by declaring: “Remember! It is Christianity to do good always…It is Christianity to love our neighbors as ourself… If we do this, and remember the life and lessons of our Lord Jesus Christ, and try to act up to them, we may confidently hope that God will forgive us our sins and mistakes, and enable us to live and die in peace."[1] There is nothing in Dickens’s preceding statement that tells one how to become a Christian. His first couple of sentences have value for one who has already become a Christian through believing in Christ for eternal life, but as a formula for entering eternal life it will never do. The rationalist Kent (familiar from childhood with biblical salvation) critiques Dickens by saying that he “seems to have taken the view that the whole duty of a Christian was simply to do what any decent-living man or woman would do…”[1] Tragically, that is often the world’s view of Christianity—simply doing your best and presuming God will accept you on that basis.

H. The Church, Catholicism, Anglicanism, Evangelicalism, and Dissent

Brought up in a nominal Anglicanism, with a very souring childhood stint among dissenting churches, after Dickens “ceased to attend [the Unitarian] Little Portland Street Chapel, there is no evidence that he was a church-goer at all…during the last twenty-five years of his life.”[1] Dickens seems to have been like his initial popular character Mr. Pickwick—who only attended church at Christmas or for a wedding. Interestingly, even Dickens’s agnostic contemporary, George Eliot, depicted Christian clergy in her writings far more favorably than Dickens did.

Despite Dickens’s opposition to legislative anti-Catholic opposition and anti-Catholic riots (in Barnaby Rudge), Dickens “felt…more violently unsympathetic to the Church of Rome as an institution than he did to the Church of England or even to the bulk of Dissenters.”[1]

There is one dream that Dickens had while he was in Italy that is of interest. He was visited (he wrote) by his dead sister-in-law Mary’s spirit, and he asked her, “What is the true religion?” Dickens prompted her spirit by saying, “You think, as I do, that the form of religion does not so greatly matter, if we try to do good?” Then he added, “Perhaps the Roman Catholic is the best?” To this, the spirit replied, “For you it is the best!”[1] There is nothing to indicate, however, by way of follow-up that this dream changed his views about Catholicism, for he wrote his friend Miss Coutts concerning “the Roman Catholic religion—that curse upon the world.”[1] Dickens was more opposed to Catholicism’s stagnating social effect than to its dogmas.

Though he had his children christened in the Anglican Church, Dickens said of one of his children, “I don’t know what I should do if he were to get hold of any Conservative or High Church notions.”[1]

Toward Evangelicals within Anglicanism and Dissenters found in chapels Dickens consistently revealed an attitude of antagonism. To him such people were represented either by the harsh, stern, gracelessness of Arthur Clennam’s mother (in Little Dorrit) or made the butt of humor, (as is the social worker, Mrs. Jellyby [in Bleak House] who terribly neglects her own ragged children while she pours all her energies into propaganda for the natives of Borrioboola-Gha). Even the names of Miss Murdstone and Miss Barbary announce to the reader that this is a brand of religion you don’t want. “Witness [Rev.] Stiggins in Pickwick, Little Bethel [chapel] and its devotees in The Old Curiosity Shop, the Rev. Melchisedech Howler and his disciple Mrs. MacStinger in Dombey and Son, [Rev.] Mr. Chadband in Bleak House, [and] Brother Hawkyard and Brother Gimblet [who “used to detail from the platform the torments reserved for the wicked”] in ‘George Silverman’s Explanation.’”[1] The only attractive Christian clergymen painted by Dickens are found in his last two books—and both of them are Anglicans. In summary, Dickens treated evangelicalism either with humor or hostility in his books. Even the American Harriet Beecher Stowe criticized Dickens on the score of his antipathy to evangelicalism.[1]

If one is opposed to evangelicalism, one will most naturally be opposed to world evangelization. With “the missionary movement Dickens was fundamentally out of sympathy.”[1] Dickens satirically depicted Jo the crossing sweeper (in Bleak House) starving to death on the steps of the building of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. As the rationalist Kent (who grew up in a Nonconformist chapel) stated: “Dickens seems to have regarded what is called ‘a passion for souls’ as something unseemly and “the missionary effort Dickens recommended appeals as much to the Agnostic as to the Christian…”[1] No wonder church was not big on Dickens’s agenda.

I. The Afterlife, Heaven, and Hell

With his “Cheshire Cat”-like hangover of cultural Christianity Dickens accepted the general Christian view of the afterlife. In A Tale of Two Cities Charles Darnay, threatened with death by the guillotine, tells his wife “they would meet in heaven.” In Pickwick Papers someone says that a dead “woman’s soul took its flight—I confidently hope—to a place of eternal happiness and rest” (chapter 6). Oliver Twist (chapter 51) speaks of one who “went to heaven.” In The Old Curiosity Shop Little Nell’s mother had “flown to a beautiful country beyond the sky where nothing died or ever grew old” (chapter 6). Chapter 72 of the same novel speaks of the “assurance of immortality.”

When his seventeen year old sister-in-law died, Dickens said that she “is now in Heaven.”[1] Then he copied out a relevant entry from Sir Walter Scott’s diary: “She is sentient and conscious of my emotions somewhere—where, we cannot tell; how, we cannot tell; yet would I not this moment renounce the mysterious yet certain hope that I shall see her in a better world…”[1] Near the end of his life Dickens wrote: “in this world there is no stay but the hope of a better [world] and no reliance but on the mercy and goodness of God.”[1] In The Life of Our Lord Dickens stated that Christ “is now in Heaven, where we hope to go, and all meet each other after we are dead and there be always happy together…”[1]

Charles Dickens’s views in relation to hell are far more nebulous than his statements about heaven. He does have the flighty Miss Flite (in Bleak House) say, “I am expecting a judgment shortly, on the Day of Judgment.” In David Copperfield (chapter 47) we find: “in the name of the great Judge before whom” all must stand. In Barnaby Rudge Barnaby’s father (a murderer) must face the “retribution which is to come” (chapter 73). In chapter 68 of the same book it is “as though the last day had come and the whole universe were burning.” In Oliver Twist we read of “hell’s fire” in reference to Bill Sykes (chapter 47). In chapter 14 of The Mystery of Edwin Drood there is a reference to “the bottomless pit.” Outside of his novels, however, there is little that could be regarded as definitive of his personal views on this subject.

VI. Conclusion

Because Charles Dickens echoed a number of Christian sentiments, we have subtitled this paper: “Cheshire Cat ‘Christianity’.” He was a strange amalgam (like Robert Louis Stevenson) of rationalism, humanism, and traditionalism. Of course, in order to be a popular and successful seller of novels, Dickens could hardly afford to offend the strong prevailing Christian sensibilities in a Victorian England.

Though Dickens pimentoed his novels with over 300 biblical allusions and professed high respect for the Bible, he was beginning to buy into the evolutionary secularism of his contemporaries and so denied the Bible’s infallibility. We can’t say definitively if or how his short Unitarian stint really affected his doctrine of God, but certainly his presentation of Christ to children in The Life of Our Lord would’ve been acceptable to Unitarians. Dickens denied the virgin birth of Christ, yet he narrated His miracles, bodily resurrection, and ascension.

His “Cheshire Cat ‘Christianity’” kept most of his readers satisfied—except for the more discerning, biblically literate ones. Dickens’s notion that people who go to heaven turn into angels doesn’t jibe with scriptural data. The most problematic area, however, is undoubtedly his comments that relate to the subject of salvation. His view of salvation seems mostly to be summed up in the idea of “doing good.” If you haven’t done an adequate amount of good, then you should indicate your sorrow and seek God’s mercy. It is the absence of clearcut biblical information about specifically believing in Jesus Christ in order to receive eternal life that an evangelical analyst would find most disturbing. In fact, Dickens’s one clearcut reference to being “born again” is found in one of his humorous satires (in Pickwick Papers).

Dickens wanted society to change for the better, but he offered no crystal clear message of Christian conversion. In Bleak House a poor, ignorant boy named Jo is dying. Dr. Allan Woodcourt seeks to help this youth who has no biblical background and is at the point of his death. Woodcourt asks Jo if he has ever prayed. Then Woodcourt starts to teach him to say the Lord’s Prayer. Jo only gets to “our Father,” then dies. Surely someone with New Testament instincts would want to know if the boy knew about Jesus and had believed personally in Him.

Probably no better story of Dickens brings home the salvation question than the one known by most people—“A Christmas Carol.” Scrooge is the epitome of selfishness. But what brings about Scrooge’s moral betterment is not a life-changing experience through faith in Christ. Like liberal Christendom, Dickens wanted the results of Christianity without its reality and roots in real regeneration.

The very last thing that Dickens penned (in The Mystery of Edwin Drood) before he died was how the springtime gardens were “preach[ing] the Resurrection and the Life…”[1] It is the resounding message of the Christian that all may come to know the One who is “the Resurrection and the Life” through faith in Christ.

Sadly, one biographer (who wrote three complete books on Charles Dickens) said that whatever religion Dickens had, “it never brought him peace. All his life he was conscious of wanting something—restless—searching for a satisfaction he never found.”[1] When a human being is “justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1, NKJV). Thus, we ever extend the message of Christ who cried out “Come to Me…and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, NKJV).

[1] Harland Nelson, Charles Dickens (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1981), 179.

[1] Ibid.

[1] A. Boyce Gibson, The Religion of Dostoevsky (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973), 16.

[1] Cornelius Weygandt, A Century of the English Novel (Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1925), 67.

[1] James Nathan Miller, Reader’s Digest (November, 1972), 223.

[1] E. W. F. Tomlin, Charles Dickens: 1812-1870 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1969), 100.

[1] G. K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens: The Last of the Great Men (New York: The Press of the Readers Club, 1942), 214.

[1] Aylmer Maude, The Life of Tolstoy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), vol. II, 464.

[1] Tatyana Tolstoy, Tolstoy Remembered (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1977), 275.

[1] Edgar Johnson, Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952), vol. II, 1007.

[1] Ibid., vol. I, 540.

[1] Edward Wagenknecht, The Man Charles Dickens (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966), 11.

[1] W. Kent, Dickens and Religion (London: Watts, 1930), 10-11.

[1] Christopher Hibbert, The Making of Charles Dickens (London: Book Club Associates, 1967), 31.

[1] Ibid., 33.

[1] Wagenknecht, The Man Charles Dickens, 4.

[1] Fred Kaplan, Dickens: A Biography (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1988), 410.

[1] K. J. Fielding, Charles Dickens: A Critical Introduction (City, State: Longman and Green, 1958), 161.

[1] Johnson, Dickens, vol. II, 1007.

[1] Ibid., 1123.

[1] Miller, Reader’s Digest, 223.

[1] Johnson, Charles Dickens, vol. I, 330.

[1] Ibid., 470.

[1] Fielding, Charles Dickens, 99.

[1] Edward Wagenknecht, An Introduction to Dickens (New York: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1952), 239.

[1] Harland Nelson, “Evangelicalism in the Novels of Charles Dickens” (Ph.D. thesis at the University of Minnesota, July, 1959), 244.

[1] Fielding, Charles Dickens, 145.

[1] Wagenknecht, The Man Charles Dickens, 10.

[1] Edward Wagenknecht, Introduction to Dickens, 426.

[1] Avrom Fleishman, The English Historical Novel (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1971), 123.

[1] Ibid., 125.

[1] Richard Burton, Masters of the English Novel (Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1969), 189.

[1] Johnson, Charles Dickens, vol. II, 1043.

[1] Kaplan, Dickens, 472.

[1] Ibid., 473.

[1] Nelson, Charles Dickens, 179.

[1] Wagenknecht, The Man Charles Dickens, 212.

[1] Kent, Dickens and Religion, 22.

[1] Ibid., 135.

[1] Ibid., 58.

[1] Wagenknecht, The Man Charles Dickens, 247.

[1] Robert C. Hanna, The Dickens Family Gospel (San Diego, CA: Legacy Press, 1998), 20.

[1] Wagenknecht, The Man Charles Dickens, 213.

[1] Edward Wagenknecht, Dickens and the Scandalmongers (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965), 112.

[1] Wagenknecht, The Man Charles Dickens, 229.

[1] Ibid.

[1] Johnson, Charles Dickens, vol. II, 1132.

[1] Ibid., 193.

[1] Ibid., 26.

[1] Kaplan, Dickens, 415.

[1] Nelson, “Evanglicalism in the Novels of Charles Dickens,” 236.

[1] Kaplan, Dickens, 175.

[1] Ibid.

[1] Johnson, Charles Dickens, vol. I, 464.

[1] Ibid.

[1] Charles Dickens, The Life of Our Lord (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1934), 13.

[1] Hanna, The Dickens Family Gospel, 89.

[1] Dickens, The Life of Our Lord, 33.

[1] Kent, Dickens and Religion, 30.

[1] Johnson, Charles Dickens, vol. I, 574.

[1] May Lamberton Becker, Introducing Charles Dickens (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1940), 246.

[1] Kaplan, Dickens, 284.

[1] Johnson, Charles Dickens, vol. II, notes, Part Seven, note 35.

[1] Chesterton, Charles Dickens: The Last of the Great Men, 202.

[1] Fielding, Charles Dickens, 204.

[1] Becker, Introducing Charles Dickens, 129.

[1] Ibid.

[1] Dickens, The Life of Our Lord, 59.

[1] Wagenknecht, The Man Charles Dickens, 237.

[1] Kaplan, Dickens, 495.

[1] Kaplan, Dickens, 353.

[1] Fielding, Charles Dickens, 41.

[1] Ibid., 42.

[1] Miller, Reader’s Digest, 228.

[1] Nelson, Charles Dickens, 202.

[1] Ibid., 201.

[1] Nelson, “Evangelicalism in the Novels of Charles Dickens,” 211.

[1] Ibid., 106.

[1] Kent, Dickens and Religion, 30.

[1] Nelson, “Evangelicalism in the Novels of Charles Dickens,” 238.

[1] Kent, Dickens and Religion, 29.

[1] Wagenknecht, The Man Charles Dickens, 240.

[1] Ibid., 214-15.

[1] Ibid.

[1] Kent, Dickens and Religion, 27.

[1] Dickens, The Life of Our Lord, 23.

[1] Ibid., 61-62.

[1] Ibid., 74.

[1] Ibid., 124.

[1] Kent, Dickens and Religion, 126.

[1] Ibid., 115.

[1] Johnson, Charles Dickens, vol. I, 562.

[1] Kaplan, Dickens, 174.

[1] Wagenknecht, The Man Charles Dickens, 226.

[1] Johnson, Charles Dickens, vol. I, 452.

[1] Wagenknecht, The Man Charles Dickens, 220.

[1] Edward Wagenknecht, Harriet Beecher Stowe: The Known and the Unknown (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), 148-51.

[1] Wagenknecht, The Man Charles Dickens, 219.

[1] Kent, Dickens and Religion, 128, 131.

[1] Kaplan, Dickens, 94.

[1] Johnson, Charles Dickens, vol. I, 199.

[1] Wagenknecht, The Man Charles Dickens, 238.

[1] Dickens, The Life of Our Lord, 12.

[1] Becker, Introducing Charles Dickens, 247.

[1]