Research Unit member and final-year undergraduate student Edwin Marr has shared the following piece discussing the work he is doing for his major project dissertation on Anne Brontë.
Edwin also created an excellent research poster for his project which you can view here.
‘God will Reconcile All Things to Himself:’ Anne Brontë and Universal Salvation.
For such a close-knit family, the Brontës held remarkably disparate views when it came to religion, even more surprising when one considers their father, Patrick Brontë, was an Anglican vicar. Yet Patrick encouraged ‘free inquiry,’ (McKnight, 2011, p.22) in Theological issues, and as seen by the arrival of his late wife’s sister, the Methodist Elizabeth Branwell into the Haworth Parsonage, he had no qualms allowing dissenters under his roof. Charlotte Brontë likewise seemed to have a liberal attitude when it came to unorthodox groups, actively critiquing those who oppose them, labelling anti-Dissenters, ‘bigoted, intolerant and wholly unjustifiable.’ (Thormählen, 1999, p.19) She writes in a letter to her friend Ellen Nussey, ‘some rays from the shire of truth pierce the darkness of this life and world; but they are few, faith and scattered, and who without presumption can assert that he has found the only true path upwards?’ (Thormählen, 1999, p.20) Charlotte Brontë seems to be suggesting that there is more than one path to find Christian truth, instead recognising the role of differing religious groups, who each might find one piece of the whole picture of doctrinal truth.
In contrast, when it comes to Emily Brontë, it is far harder to place her religious views. One of the only comments Emily is known to have made regarding religion is in response to Mary Taylor’s declaration that her religion was ‘between God and me,’ to which Emily enigmatically replied, ‘That’s right!’ (Gordon, 1989, p.85) Some critics, such as Sharon Wiseman feel that Emily believed in a form of ‘pantheistic atheism,’ (Wiseman, 2007, n.p.) closely aligned to the Romantic tradition of finding one’s God in nature. Whatever her very personal beliefs were, she rarely attended church, and like so much of her life, her religion is characterised by missing information and ambiguity. Like his sister, Branwell also had a more dynamic relationship with the Church than other members of the Brontë family. At times Branwell seems to vehemently reject spiritual doctrine, writing ‘We say the world was made by one; / Who’s seen or heard by none.’ (du Maurier, 1960, p.88) These radical verses express the speaker’s secular view that it is hard to accept God made the world when there is no evidence of his existence. However, at other times Branwell was crippled by religious fears, ‘How can thy spirit live to stand…That voice whose terrors none can tell – / ‘Depart, lost spirit, into Hell!’’ (Neufedlt, n.d., n.p.) The speaker is expressing his abject fear of damnation, of hearing on the day of judgement that his soul is doomed to Hell.
That leaves only one person left to consider, and that is Anne, the youngest of the Brontë siblings and the one I will be focusing on for my thesis. Anne’s reputation has, until recently, largely been formed by Charlotte’s biographical notice, in which Charlotte labelled her younger sister ‘sensitive, reserved and dejected,’ in addition to suffering from ‘religious melancholy.’ (Brontë, 1850, n.p.) With such a negative and fallacious depiction it is little wonder Anne has, until lately, fallen out of attention. Critics have highlighted the fact that Anne shared a room with her Methodist aunt for many years, with some seeing Aunt Branwell as promulgating Calvinistic fears to her niece, for instance, Joseph Kestner foregrounds the influence of the ‘dreary Calvinism of Aunt Branwell on the sisters, especially on Anne Brontë.’ (1989, p.137) It is a view I find extremely implausible. As a Wesleyan Methodist, Aunt Branwell’s views were largely compatible with the Reverend Brontë’s, and if anything encouraged a more egalitarian outlook when compared to her brother in law, certainly not the ‘dreary’ dread of damnation that engrossed Branwell, and indeed Charlotte and Anne at various points in their lives. One such time was when Anne was seventeen and sought the comfort of Moravian minister James La Trobe. His gentle creed of forgiveness and mercy through the blood of Christ comforted the religiously troubled adolescent, preaching to her the ‘sweet views of salvation.’ (Barker, 2010, n.p.) Throughout Anne Brontë’s life, salvation becomes something of a preoccupation and she, like Charlotte, found solace in the Doctrine of Universal Salvation, the belief that all, even the most sinful, will be reconciled to God. It was a controversial belief; with the Methodist minister Timothy Merritt writing in 1833 that Universal Salvation is ‘pernicious to the morals of society.’ (p.318) In some ways it is unsurprising that he expresses such a strongly worded critique, if all of humanity is going to achieve salvation, there seems no need to be encouraged to live a good, Christian life. Anne recognises this, and writes in a letter of the danger of ‘revealing these truths too hastily to those as yet unable to receive them.’ (Brontë, 1848, n.p.) It is Anne’s belief in Universal Salvation I will be focusing on for my dissertation, exploring how her faith waxes and wanes, at times resembling a firm conviction, and at times more of a tenuous hope.
For Anne, evidence for her belief in salvation for all is closely linked to the depiction of God as love, as the First Book of John claims. After all, how can an all-loving God damn his people to Hell for all eternity? Anne wrote her poem ‘To Cowper,’ as a reply to the concerns of the Calvinist poet William Cowper who believed himself damned to Hell. Writing of her hope that all will be saved, Anne states ‘It must be so if God is love, / And answers fervent prayer.’ (Brontë, 2000, ll.21-2) If God is as loving as the Bible claims, and prepared to answer the individual’s plea for salvation, then surely, Anne argues, they will achieve it. Nonetheless, it is a belief tempered with doubts, as Anne ends ‘To Cowper,’ by considering the implications of Cowper’s dread being realised:
Yet should thy darkest fears be true,
If Heaven be so severe
That such a soul as thine is lost,
Oh! How shall I appear? (ll.41-4)
Anne’s belief in Universal Salvation emerges again in ‘A Word to the Calvinists,’ a poem written in attack of predestination. The speaker claims, ‘Even the wicked, shall at last / Be fitted for the skies.’ (Brontë, 2000, ll.37-8) No one will be damned to Hell for all eternity, with even the sinful being ‘fitted’ for Heaven. It is also in this poem that Anne lays out her understanding of Hell:
I ask not how remote the day
Nor what the sinner’s woe
Before their dross is purged away,
Enough for me to know
That when the cup of wrath is drained,
The metal purified,
They’ll cling to what they disdained
And live by Him that died.
Hell serves a reformative rather than punitive function, cleaning the ‘dross’ of sins away, and cleansing the individual in readiness for ascension into Heaven.
In the second chapter of my dissertation, I will be focusing on Anne’s debut novel of 1847, Agnes Grey, in which Anne’s views emerge again. By setting up a dichotomy between the two vicars, Anne shows two differing opinions on salvation. On the one hand, the reader is presented with Mr Hatfield, a stern, hellfire and brimstone preacher. His sermons are ‘sunless and severe, representing the Deity as a terrible task-master, rather than a benevolent father.’ (Brontë, 1969, p.457) Hatfield is presenting a view of God, not as emblematic of love and forgiveness, but rather a stern and unrelenting ‘taskmaster.’ In addition, when confronted with the religious doubts of the poor cottager Nancy Brown, Hatfield tells her ‘If you do your best to get to heaven and can’t manage it, you must be one of those that seek to enter in at the strait gate and shall not be able.’ (p.464) Hatfield is asserting there are those who will not be able to achieve salvation, and if Nancy is unable to build a relationship with God she will number among them. His advice is simple, although practically difficult for the ailing Nancy to follow, ‘Take the sacrament, of course, and go on doing your duty; and if that won’t serve you, nothing will.’ (p.456) His finality is startling, arguing that if Nancy cannot find a connection to God by going to church, she will not find salvation. Unsurprisingly, even though Nancy followed the rector’s advice by struggling to church, she took no comfort from it, ‘I felt as though I were eating and drinking to my own damnation all th’ time.’ (p.465) Whereas Charlotte Brontë’s contempt for curates is well documented (one need only look at the first chapter of Shirley for evidence) Anne is far more open-minded, and indeed it is the young curate Mr Weston who helps Nancy through her despair. He tells her:
Many shall seek to enter in at the strait gate and shall not be able, it is their own sins that hinder them; just as a man with a large sack on his back might wish to pass under a narrow doorway, and find it impossible to do so unless he would leave his sack behind him. (p.466)
For those unable to achieve salvation, it is not through being damned from birth, as in Calvinist doctrine, nor is it through transgressions, but rather the inability to shed sins and ask forgiveness. Weston’s analogy to a man struggling with a large sack highlights this viewpoint. The sack is not tied to the man, he can remove it at anytime, but rather it is his decision to carry his sins with him, and only the individual who blocks his own salvation. Through the two vicars, two very different views on salvation are presented. Hatfield argues that few will be able to enter into heaven, a doctrine that terrifies his parishioners, in contrast to Weston’s more hopeful belief that all who turn to God will find their reward in heaven, and only the sins that the individual refuses to shed, will hold them back.
In my final chapter I will explore The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, looking in particular at how Helen Huntingdon encourages returning to the Bible and interpreting it for herself. When Helen’s aunt learns of Helen’s intention to marry the debauched Arthur Huntingdon, she warns her niece, How will it be in the end, when you see yourselves parted for ever, you, perhaps, taken into eternal bliss, and he cast into the lake that burneth with unquenchable fire – there for ever to -.’ (Brontë, 2015, p.210) Helen’s aunt does not get chance to finish, she is interjected by her niece’s eager claim, ‘Not for ever…Only till he had paid the uttermost farthing.’ (p.210) Helen directly quotes Matthew 5:26 in her rebuttal. Far from being damned perpetually, Helen believes Arthur will only remain in Hell until he has accepted his transgressions and served appropriate punishment. Once his debt has been paid, he will be able to attain salvation. Helen then uses a series of Biblical quotes to underline her belief in Universal Salvation:
‘“if any man’s work abide not the fire, he shall suffer loss, yet himself shall be saved, but so as by fire;” and He that “is able to subdue all things to Himself will have all men to be saved,” and “will, in the fulness of time, gather together in one all things in Christ Jesus, who tasted death for every man, and in whom God will reconcile all things to Himself, whether they be things in earth or things in heaven.”’ (p.210)
Helen’s argument is clear, ‘God will reconcile all things to Himself,’ all will find their place in Heaven. Once more, Helen’s interpretation of Scripture recognises the cathartic role of Hell in salvation, whilst the individual may suffer loss, he will be saved ‘by fire.’ In addition, Helen acknowledges the place of Christ in reconciliation, with his sacrifice being the trigger for man’s salvation.
Of all the Brontë sisters, ‘Dear gentle Anne,’ (Armitage, 1999, n.p.) has perhaps been most misrepresented. Far from being the lesser Brontë, or merely the youngest, I argue she was showing a great awareness of contemporary 19th century religious debates, and actively engaging herself within them, presenting throughout her novels and poetry a sustained and reasoned argument in favour of Universal Salvation. Indeed, the Reverend David Thom of Liverpool wrote to Anne after reading The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in support of the doctrine. He had, unknown to Anne, written several books on the subject of Universal Salvation. She wrote in her reply that it was a faith she drew ‘secretly from my own heart.’ (Brontë, 1848, n.p.) Whilst it is a belief that was interlaced with doubts and uncertainty, it was nonetheless a source of great comfort to not only Anne but her characters, and I wish to end with an excerpt from Helen’s letter to her brother after her husband’s death:
How could I endure to think that that poor trembling soul was hurried away to everlasting torment? It would drive me mad! But, thank God, I have hope – not only from a vague dependence on the possibility that penitence and pardon might have reached him at the last, but from the blessed confidence that, through whatever purging fires the erring spirit may be doomed to pass – whatever fate awaits it, still, it is not lost, and god, who hateth nothing that He hath made, will bless it in the end! (p.539-40)
Armitage, M., 1999, A Literary Picture of Anne Brontë, [online] Available at: http://www.mick-armitage.staff.shef.ac.uk/anne/anperson.html [Accessed 23/2/16]
Barker, J., 2010, The Brontës, London: Hachette Digital.
Brontë, A., 1969, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Agnes Grey, London: Everyman’s Library.
Brontë, A., 1848, Anne’s Letter to the Reverend Thom, [online] Available at: http://www.mick-armitage.staff.shef.ac.uk/anne/letter4.html [Accessed 23/2/16]
Brontë, A., 2000, qtd. by Armitage, M., To Cowper, [online] Available at: http://www.mick-armitage.staff.shef.ac.uk/anne/poems/p-cowper.html [Accessed 7/11/15]
Brontë, A., 2000, qtd. By Armitage, M., A Word to the Calvinists, [online] Available at: http://www.mick-armitage.staff.shef.ac.uk/anne/poems/p-calvin.html [Accessed 28/11/15]
Brontë, A., 2015, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, London: Vintage.
Brontë, C., 1850, Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell by Charlotte Brontë, [online] Available at: http://www.mick-armitage.staff.shef.ac.uk/anne/biognotc.html [Accessed 23/2/16]
Du Maurier, D., 1960, The Infernal World of Patrick Brontë, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Gordon, F., 1989, A Preface to the Brontës, London: Longman.
Kestner, J.A., 1989, Reviewed Works: Myths of Sexuality: Representations of Women in Victorian Britain by Lynda Need; The Landscape of the Brontës by Arthur Pollard, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, Volume 8(1), pp.135-7.
McKnight, N., 2011, Fathers in Victorian Fiction, Newcastle Upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars.
Merritt, T., 1833, A Discussion on Universal Salvation in Three Lectures and Five Answers Against that Doctrine, New York: B. Waugh and T. Mason.
Neufeldt, V.A., n.d., The Poems of Patrick Branwell Brontë, London: Routledge.
Thormählen, M., 1999, The Brontës and Religion, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wiseman, S., 2007, Emily Brontë’s Muse and Symbolism, [online] Available at: http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/bronte/ebronte/wiseman1.html [Accessed 23/2/16]