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Reference group
Lux mundi essayists (act. 1889) were a group of Anglican high churchmen, all of them clergymen, who wrote a volume of essays published in 1889 under the title Lux mundi (‘The light of the world’). They had worked together in Oxford, many at the recently founded Keble College: Edward Stuart Talbot was the college's first warden; Walter Lock was sub-warden; and William James Heathcote Campion (1851–1892), John Richardson Illingworth (1848–1915), Arthur Lyttelton, and Aubrey Moore were or had been tutors there. Others had connections with Christ Church: Henry Scott Holland, Robert Campbell Moberly, Francis Paget, and Robert Lawrence Ottley (1856–1933). The editor, Charles Gore, was principal of Pusey House, Oxford.

In obvious ways the essayists were—and saw themselves as—heirs to the Tractarian tradition; but the inheritance was a contested one. The controversy which developed within Oxford had all the intensity of intimacy: the protagonists were close friends and colleagues. It was rapidly transferred, through sermons, pamphlets, and the periodical press, to a wider stage, on which the main players were already familiar. Lux mundi went into ten British editions (and several American ones) within a year. The book was compared at the time to its controversial predecessor, Essays and Reviews (1860), and it has continued to be seen as one of a sequence of essay collections published by diverse groups of Anglicans concerned to justify Christian faith in the light of contemporary thought. The obvious successor to Lux mundi was Foundations (1912), edited by B. H. Streeter, whose contributors included Walter Hamilton Moberly, the son of Robert Campbell Moberly, who wrote on ‘The incarnation as the basis of dogma’ in Lux mundi. To mark the centenary of Lux mundi a group of Anglican theologians who had worked together in Oxford in the late 1970s published a set of essays (The Religion of the Incarnation: Anglican Essays in Commemoration of Lux mundi, 1989) paying homage to the themes of the original essays, and interpreting them in the light of late-twentieth-century concerns.

The sub-title of Lux mundi was ‘A series of studies in the religion of the incarnation’, a focus which was both Tractarian and patristic. The essayists formed part of the revival of Christian moral philosophy in Oxford particularly, but not solely, associated with T. H. Green; and many of them shared the practical social commitment which was its counterpart, and which was embodied in the Christian Social Union, founded in 1889. Gore, Scott Holland, and Ottley contributed regularly to the union's periodical the Economic Review; Campion was one of its first editors and was also secretary to the Oxford House settlement at Bethnal Green in the East End of London. In this respect they developed a very different view of Christian community from the world-denying focus of the Cowley Fathers, founded by Richard Meux Benson, who was to refer to Lux mundi as Lux mundana (‘Worldly light’). For the essayists, Christian social commitment was a key expression of their devotion. As a group they went on regular retreats to develop the principles of a devotional life and to discuss common theological concerns, their name—the ‘holy party’—not inappropriately evoking the circle of John Wesley in early eighteenth-century Oxford. Like Wesley, they saw the need for religious renewal, for a revival of holiness, rooted in a closer individual engagement with both the mystery and the reality of Christ's personality. For an individual Christian's spiritual and moral life to work in harmony, the incarnation needed to be clearly expressed as a living reality.

A fundamental theme running through all the essays was the moral relationship between God and man, which was embodied in Christ's life and death. Philosophical abstractions were to be resisted, and personality to be affirmed. Christianity, as a moral system, was to be seen to offer an account of conscience and of freedom to which both absolute idealism and crude materialism—the dominant intellectual tendencies of the moment—were equally alien. The substantial concluding essay by Ottley, ‘Christian ethics’, with its ‘Appendix on some aspects of Christian duty’, articulated this point in tangible terms: personal responsibility needed to be reaffirmed in a contemporary world in which a sense of accountability, whether for conduct or belief, was under threat. A Christian theory of rights and duties needed to be elaborated and brought down to a practical level: the rights and responsibilities of employer and employee should be addressed in specific terms, rather than abstracted into generalizations about capital and labour. The role of the church in the education ‘of feeling and character’ in a modern democracy was underlined in relation to a series of difficult questions of the moment—vivisection, colonialism, just causes of war.

While Ottley's essay focused on both belief and conduct, Campion's essay, ‘Christianity and politics’, historicized the relationship between church and state. It drew on Augustine and on Coleridge to stress the responsibility of individual Christians (rather than assuming the automatic commitment of the church to any one type of government or system of property-holding) to apply rigorously, through personal experience, tests of the capacity offered in a particular context for the living of a perfected common life. Other essays focused more squarely on the grounds of belief. The apologetic position developed was one which made particular reference to contemporary intellectual concerns—especially to the centrality of the concept of evolution; but in fact the arguments proposed were for the most part uncontroversial. Moore's essay, ‘The Christian doctrine of God’, perhaps the most profound of the volume, emphasized that while it was impossible to demonstrate the existence of God, either from conscience or from nature, the Christian's belief in him was attested by both; in this respect belief in God was analogous to belief in objective reality. Darwinism had helped to reinforce the Christian view of divine immanence in nature. Scott Holland cited the eighteenth-century Christian apologist Joseph Butler on the relationship of reason to moral will in the context of faith, and Illingworth, too, began the first of his two essays by referring to Butler. The review of Lux mundi published in the Oxford Magazine (12 Feb 1890) commented that the essays bore ‘the unmistakeable impress of the “Greats” school, the permanent influence of Aristotle, the temporary of Green’. The influence of Butler, whose works were for so long recommended in Oxford alongside Aristotle's Ethics, was no less evident.

It was Gore's essay, ‘The Holy Spirit and inspiration’, which created the controversy. In it he argued for a historical understanding of revelation, in which it was legitimate to regard parts of the Old Testament as allegorical or mythical rather than strictly historical, and to regard revelation as an evolutionary process. To recognize the limitations of the Old Testament was not to undermine a belief in its inspiration. Christ and his apostles clearly believed that the Old Testament scriptures were inspired texts, but Christ's use of these texts did not depend on their historicity. Christ's method was to reason with men on their own premises, and in this sense his teaching was to be understood within the terms of knowledge and belief available at the time. Gore here expounded the doctrine of kenosis, of Christ's voluntary renunciation of divine omniscience, as the key to understanding the extraordinary nature of the incarnation, at the same time as permitting the moral engagement of each Christian with Christ-made-man. He argued thus for the acceptance of challenges to the historicity of the Old Testament, while at the same time reaffirming the absolute reliability of the New Testament as historical witness. In part because its argument was not very systematically developed, the essay provoked criticism from both more conservative and more liberal thinkers, and responses to it ensured the impact of the book as a whole.

On 25 October 1889, a matter of days before Lux mundi was due to appear, Gore sent a copy to Henry Parry Liddon, commenting: ‘I believe you will approve almost all of it … I think I should almost die if it did harm … If you seriously disapprove it would be a great misery’ (Pusey Oxf., Lux mundi collection). He wrote again the next day, recalling that when he had listened to Liddon's Bampton lectures he had felt his own position to be ‘wholly with the Cambridge people [B. F. Westcott and J. B. Lightfoot] in critical matters, as it was wholly [Gore inserted ‘or almost wholly’] with Dr Pusey and you in doctrinal’; his whole life represented the growth in his conviction that the two tendencies were compatible. Liddon, however, was appalled. Gore's essay to him was ‘a thunderbolt out of a clear sky’. He feared that it would tip people in the opposite directions of Rome or of a more consistent unbelief. Only Paget's essay (on the sacraments) could be seen as a real contribution to theology; as a whole the volume was contaminated by Gore's critical position on the Old Testament. Liddon hoped that Gore would withdraw the book, or disavow his essay; when it was clear that this would not happen, he became the focal point of conservative high church opposition to Gore, distressed though he was by the personal implications of the controversy. He saw Paget every week, but the subject of Lux mundi was studiously avoided. He commented bitterly on the power of Gore's influence, and described the contributors to Lux mundi as ‘a mutual-admiration-society’. Seeing Gore as a traitor to the Tractarian tradition, he felt that the entire project of Pusey House, to which he had appointed Gore as principal in 1884, was in jeopardy. Liddon's sermon for the first Sunday of Advent was a counterblast which was widely reported. His last sermon to the University of Oxford on Whitsunday 1890 attracted huge crowds—‘undergraduates and ladies alike struggled for admission’—and many were turned away from the door. The Zeitgeist—deplored by Liddon as a point of reference as trivial and inconstant as fashions in women's dress—was code for the book which was not mentioned but which was the reason why so many people had come to listen.

Many of Liddon's friends urged him not to overreact, and drew attention to the positive aspects of the book. The position of the essayists was defended by William Sanday and S. R. Driver, both moderate biblical critics and canon-professors of Christ Church (where Liddon lived). Even more compellingly, Edward King, the theologically conservative high churchman who became bishop of Lincoln in 1885, stood by them. R. W. Church, dean of St Paul's from 1871 to 1890, who was sympathetic to Lux mundi, but also personally close to Liddon, was faced with the diplomatic challenge of having Scott Holland and Liddon as two of his canons. Paget was married to his eldest daughter. Church's last role in St Paul's was to preside over the funeral of Liddon in September 1890. While criticizing the stance taken by Gore, The Guardian—representative of mainstream high church opinion—argued that the essays in Lux mundi were not brilliant but were serious, and expressed deep conviction. The Church Times waited until 7 March 1890 to review the book, obviously hoping that the controversy would have died down by then. The reviewer emphasized that the contested passages represented a very small part of the whole, and felt that it would be a pity if the benefit of the rest of the book were to be lost. A. C. Headlam wrote (on 10 February 1890) to the editor of the Church Quarterly Review, regretting the critical stance which the journal was to take, and contending that Lux mundi represented the views of ‘the vast majority of the younger men who think about the subject, of far more laymen and clergy than you think, who are loyal to the Church and Christianity’. When Liddon was shown this letter, it only confirmed his worst fears. The Church Quarterly Review was to maintain a consistently critical attitude to the Christological positions of the Lux mundi writers.

The book was widely and carefully reviewed from different religious perspectives, and was rarely subjected to outright attack in the periodical press. The British Weekly compared Lux mundi to the Congregationalist R. W. Dale's The New Evangelicalism and the Old (1889) as analogous re-engagements with inherited religious traditions, acknowledging differences of approach, but underlining the importance of their common conviction that revelation and redemption were great and living realities. There were indeed broader affinities between the impulses behind Dale's work on the atonement and the Lux mundi group's on the incarnation. Even the conservative evangelical The Rock and The Record alternated between recognizing some strengths (especially Moore's essay) and (increasingly) seizing the opportunity to reaffirm the superior clarity of evangelicalism. Several commentators made the same point that the book would be chattered over for a season and would then be forgotten—that it would mark rather than make an epoch. The Catholic News was the most hostile and opportunistic, printing the critique of Lux mundi written by the high church polemicist and controversialist George Denison, and expressing the hope that Denison would convert to Catholicism. Denison had been involved in every major cause célèbre from the appointment of R. D. Hampden to the bishopric of Hereford in 1847, and he was to be a key mover in the ‘declaration on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit’, which was signed by thirty-eight Anglican clergy in December 1891 in opposition to Lux mundi.

Precisely because Gore's essay was taken to embody what was wrong with Lux mundi, Gore was led more firmly to defend the position which he had taken. Ironically this led to clashes with the more liberal wing of Anglicanism, which included some of his closest friends. Hastings Rashdall, his fellow activist in the Christian Social Union, who took a much more liberal (and consistent) view of biblical criticism, felt that Gore did not go far enough in his essay, and was inconsistent in his distinction between critical approaches to the Old and New testaments. Rashdall was involved in the controversy in 1913–14 over clerical orthodoxy in the Church of England, as was James Bethune-Baker, who wrote an open letter to Gore, The Miracle of Christianity (1914), which begged him to follow through what he saw as the logic of the Lux mundi essay. Beyond the church, the agnostic T. H. Huxley attacked both Liddon's position and Gore's view of history in Lux mundi.

The controversy helped to establish the volume as a significant point of reference for the liberal catholic tradition in the Anglican church. The book was taken by its advocates to indicate the ability of liberal catholics to draw on broad theological influences—on F. D. Maurice as well as J. H. Newman—and to be open to a wide range of philosophical argument. Although many aspects of the essays became dated as critical debate and ways of framing political and ethical questions moved on, the emphasis on the centrality of the incarnation remained inspirational. Rather than constituting a turning point in themselves, the essays and the debate which they aroused symbolized the confidence and creative potential of a revived Anglican high churchmanship which defined itself in new terms as liberal catholic.

Jane Garnett


Pusey Oxf., Lux mundi collection · C. Welch, Protestant thought in the nineteenth century, 2 (1985) · P. Hinchliff, God and history: aspects of British theology, 1875–1914 (1992) · J. R. Moore, The post-Darwinian controversies (1979) · P. Avis, Gore: construction and conflict (1988) · R. Morgan, ed., The religion of the incarnation: Anglican essays in commemoration of Lux mundi (1989)