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Manitoba History: Review: Ramsay Cook, The Regenerators: Social Criticism in Late Victorian English Canada

by Michael Gauvreau
St. Paul’s College, University of Manitoba

Manitoba History, Number 14, Autumn 1987

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

The Regenerators: Social Criticism in Late Victorian English Canada. Ramsay Cook. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985. x, 291 pp. ISBN 0-8020-5670-91.

‘All true reformers must at heart be religious’.” For Professor Ramsay Cook of York University, this sentiment (p. 228) bound together a galaxy of liberal Christians, freethinkers, and social critics in the years between 1870 and 1920. This equation of religion and reform, for an articulate section of the Anglo-Canadian public, Professor Cook contends, marked a new understanding of the relationship that should prevail between religion and society. In exploring the facets of this important cultural problem, The Regenerators leads the reader on an entertaining and whimsical tour. The book is replete with sharply-etched, ironic and, at times, scathing portraits of self-styled “regenerators,” defined as those who sought to replace the tradition-al Christian concern with man’s salvation with a commitment to social redemption.

The main contribution of this lively and energetic study lies in stimulating an awareness of the intense intellectual and religious debates in which Canadians participated in the late Victorian period. As Professor Cook reminds us, Darwinism and the Higher Criticism profoundly unsettled the religious climate and raised the spectre of doubt. It is, however, the rich and, at times, disorderly pattern of late Victorian culture which stands out as the central feature of this book. Cook’s concern is with those long regarded as outsiders or eccentrics, the critics of “orthodoxy,” whether it be political or religious. Popular movements such as spiritualism and theosophy are related to the context of social and religious criticism, and in the strongest sections of this book, the reader is treated to fine essays on important though forgotten figures of the era. Indeed, it is in the character descriptions of the bee-keeper, Allen Pringle, the theosophist pioneer of psychiatric medicine, Dr. Richard Bucke, and the cartoonist and radical, J.W. Bengough, that Professor Cook best displays his creative talents. As a historian who can awaken popular interest in the cultural world of late Victorian Protestantism in decline, Cook has few competitors.

With a somewhat diffident manner, the author suggests that the modest aim of The Regenerators is “to restore to the Canadian historical record a few undeservedly forgotten non-conformists — journalists, cartoonists, novelists, bee-keepers, versifiers” (p. 6) and to provide new perspectives on more well-known figures such as Goldwin Smith, J. S. Woodsworth, and Mackenzie King. The book does, however, make larger claims, and it is precisely here that deficiencies in both argument and research become most evident. Far from merely restoring the reputations of a few late-Victorian eccentrics, Professor Cook offers nothing less than an explanation for the secularization which occurred in English Canadian culture between 1870 and 1920. More particularly, he seeks to account for the substitution of theology, the science of religion, with sociology, the science of society. The key intellectual element in this process, Cook declares, was doubt. Doubt, aroused by Darwinian science and the Higher Criticism, eroded the bases of traditional religion, and provoked religious people to attempt to salvage Christianity by transforming it into an essentially social religion.

The Regenerators thus boldly attempts answers to questions left unexplored by Richard Allen’s pioneering study of the social gospel. But is the evidence sufficient to sustain the argument? Cook’s selection of individuals offers only ambiguous illustration of the transition from theology to social ethics. Many of those treated in the opening chapters, Pringle, for example, or Bucke, or the spiritualist Flora McDonald Denison, can only by stretching the point be regarded as beginning their journey to social criticism within the fold of Christian “orthodoxy.” Bengough, the cartoonist, and Albert Carman, General Superintendent of the Methodist Church, were both devotees of the social radicalism of Henry George, but both maintained their theological outlook without becoming “liberals.” One can likewise question the inclusion of Goldwin Smith and William Dawson LeSueur, religious doubters, but hardly social radicals!

Cook sometimes ignores such contradictions in the interest of a witty and vigorous writing style. For the historian of late Victorian culture however, these problems suggest that there is a more complex and perhaps closer link between religion and reform than that entertained by the freethinking “demi-monde” which populates The Regenerators. The clue to the problem revolves, I think, around Cook’s use of the term “orthodoxy.” By failing to adequately explore the meaning of the word in its context, Cook does not do justice to the nuances available to late-Victorian Christians. Like several other scholars who have addressed this issue Professor Cook considers “orthodoxy” incompatible with “evolution.” The presence of Bengough and Carman in reform ranks, and the fact that “liberals” such as Principal Grant, Agnes Maule Machar, and S.D. Chown, were able to preserve important elements of their evangelical theology, raises serious doubts concerning the validity of these assumptions. Indeed, the conflict between, on the one hand, the new social thought based on evolution and, on the other hand, the traditional doctrines of sin, personal regeneration, and the divinity of Christ is more apparent to the mind of the late twentieth century than it was to the mind of late Victorian Protestants.

The lack of systematic exploration of the cultural meaning of religious “orthodoxy” in the opening sections of the book calls into question the model of secularization posited by Professor Cook. Indeed, without such definitions, the book loses coherency and becomes a series of essays. Future studies of late Victorian culture will have to pay closer attention to the persistence of the main emphases of Christian theology in an age dominated by the evolutionary outlook. In positing the decline of religion as a cultural force historians will need to account for the coexistence of theology and the social sciences. The origins of modem social inquiry do not perhaps lie in a decline of “orthodoxy” into secular theology; as the valuable work of Thomas Haskell reminds us, they sprang from a variety of cultural factors, some of which had little to do with “regeneration.” The Regenerators may well have contributed to a new understanding of religion and society in Victorian Canada. Even in the sure hands of Professor Cook, however, this unusual assortment of freethinkers and reformers cannot sustain a complete revision of Victorian religious history.

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