Charles Dickens’s novels reflect the central ideas of nineteenth-century Unitarianism.
Charles Dickens’s famous novel about Ebenezer Scrooge changed the celebration of Christmas into what we think of as traditional today: an occasion to give to those less fortunate and to gather family and friends around laden dinner tables and Christmas trees filled with lights, decorations, and toys. Written shortly after Dickens joined a Unitarian church, A Christmas Carol became his most famous novel—and the one most representative of his Unitarian beliefs.
Born and baptized into the Anglican Church, Dickens turned to Unitarianism in his thirties. His letters, speeches, and novels all show that he hated dogma: “The Church’s hand is at its own throat because of the doctrinal wranglings of the various parties: Here, more Popery, there, more Methodism—many forms of consignment to eternal damnation, these things cannot last,” he once wrote to a correspondent.
Throughout his life, Dickens was allied with British Unitarians, philosophically and socially. His oldest friend, John Forster, who later became his literary executor and first biographer, was a devoted member of the Hanover Square Unitarian congregation. Then, in 1842 Dickens traveled to America and chronicled his disillusionment with the country’s institutions, especially slavery, in his American Notes. Yet Dickens praised his visit to Boston, where he met Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Ellery Channing, the leading figure of American Unitarianism. “His interest in Unitarianism was virtually the only enthusiasm he managed to bring back with him undamaged at the end of the trip,” writes Victorian scholar Robert Newsom.
On returning home, Dickens took a pew at the Little Portland Street chapel in London and became close friends with its minister, Edward Tagart. “Disgusted with our Established Church, and its Puseyisms, and daily outrages on common sense and humanity,” Dickens wrote in a letter, “I have carried into effect an old idea of mine, and joined the Unitarians, who would do something for human improvement, if they could; and who practice Charity and Toleration.”
Dickens himself worked tirelessly for a wide range of charitable causes, raising funds for soup kitchens, emigration schemes, housing associations, prison reform, hospitals, adult education, and disabled artists. He also believed that through his fiction he could promote moral solutions to social ills and could change society for the better.
All Dickens’s novels reflect the central ideas of nineteenth-century Unitarianism: the belief that Jesus was a human being who exemplified a truly religious life; the rejection of materialism and the doctrine of necessity; the rejection of a God of stern judgment; a disdain of theological controversy; the rejection of dogma; an inclusive rather than an exclusive religion; and an emphasis on doing good works.
In A Christmas Carol, without once mentioning Jesus, Dickens shows it is possible to experience a conversion—not necessarily based on a specific religious experience—but a personal regeneration that leads one to help others. With Scrooge’s transformative change of heart, Dickens illustrates that his readers, too, can be converted from a harsh, complacent, selfish worldview to one of love, hope, and charity and, like Scrooge, can again become part of the human community. For Dickens, that was the true meaning of Christmas.
Later in his life Dickens returned to the country and to an Anglican village church like the one he had grown up in. But he again grew disillusioned with church quarrels and attempts to control freedom of thought, and before long stopped attending.
To the end Dickens maintained his admiration and friendship with his Unitarian friends and colleagues, and they responded with equal enthusiasm. At the time of his death in 1870, almost idolatrous eulogies were heard all over New England. “Every Unitarian pulpit in Boston,” one writer observed, “sent him to heaven immediately.”
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