Until Victorian times, education had always gone hand-in-hand with religion — which is why the “godless” establishment at Bloomsbury (later to become University College, London) was such a bold departure, and caused such heated controversy. On the other hand, belief in the traditional relationship of the two was the very raison d’être of King’s College, London, so it is no surprise that Frederick Denison Maurice, one of the most influential Victorians in both areas, should have been among its staff.
Born in Normanton near Lowestoft, Maurice spent much of his childhood in Frenchay in South Gloucestershire, where his father was the minister of the Unitarian church, and where his memory is still honoured. He was brought up strictly, and amid an atmosphere of religious controversy, for his mother and two of his sisters adopted different religious affiliations from his father’s.
At Cambridge, Maurice was one of the founders of the very special and highly selective debating society, the Apostles. Despite having gained a first class in his civil law examinations, he left the University because he felt unable at that time to subscribe to the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles. He then went to live in London, where he contributed to the radical Westminster Review, but finally (in 1834) was received into the Church of England. He was appointed chaplain of Guy’s Hospital in 1836, and in 1840 was elected to a Professorship at King’s, a natural choice in view of his strong opposition to the Benthamites supporting the rival University College. At first he taught English Literature and History; later, he was appointed to a Professorship in Theology as well. The then principal, Dr Jelf, felt that “Maurice was giving only three arts lectures a week: it would be no burden to him to add a few lectures on ecclesiastical history… especially as he did not recognize any distinction between things sacred and profane” (Hearnshaw 209).
Not that Maurice’s lectures were going down well. While he made a lasting impression on the more responsive among his students, he was not, it seems, a natural or even a competent teacher:
Professor Maurice, in spite of his angelic appearance, his saintly character, his noble enthusiasms, and his high abilities, had from his first appointment [at King’s] in 1840 been a very doubtful asset to the college. He could not keep order; he was unable to make himself intelligible; he had no affinities with the young; he was entirely devoid of humour; he was shy, sensitive, reserved, preternaturally solemn. He inspired profound respect, of course, in the better students — such as Leslie Stephen, Edwin Arnold, F. W. Farrar, and C. H. Pearson — who came away from his history lectures with a vague sense of awe at the mysterious workings of Providence, although with empty notebooks. But his lofty speculations concerning the ways of God with Man were lost upon the generality… (Hearnshaw 208).
The paradox of the educationist who was unable to reach most of his students is perhaps best explained by the Rev. J. Llewelyn Davies’s analysis of Maurice: “He had a mind of the rarest insight and subtlety … but his mental home was amongst spiritual principles, and he was accustomed to address himself to what he took to be in the minds of his hearers or readers” (3). What Maurice took to be in his students’ minds may have been very different from what was actually there. The mature students whom he taught in the evenings would have come nearer to meeting his expectations.
Whatever his shortcomings as a teacher, Maurice did make a huge contribution to education, and especially the education of those to whom it had previously been denied. This he did by founding Queen’s College for women in Harley Street 1848 with some of his colleagues at King’s; and the Working Men’s College in Red Lion Square, Bloomsbury, in 1854 with Charles Kingsley (who had also studied at King’s before going on to Cambridge), Thomas Hughes and other members of the Christian Socialist movement. The former college was “the pioneer of the great movement of the last half-century for the higher education of women,” as Llewelyn Davies already recognised in 1904 (4-5). The latter college was founded after Maurice had been asked to leave King’s in 1853 because of the controversial stand he took on eternal punishment in his Theological Essays of that year (he could not accept that impenitent sinners were condemned to suffer for eternity). Although on this occasion too other notable figures were involved in the new educational project, there was never any doubt that “the force and guidance which made these creations what they were came through Maurice” (Llewelyn Davies 1). Maurice became the first Principal of the Working Men’s College, being replaced only on his death (by Hughes); he taught at Queen’s as well.
Maurice is, of course, equally important in his main subject area. Growing up in a family riven by religious dissensions, his great aim as a theologian was to promote unity, and he clung to his belief in the infinite love of God, a love, he felt, that all could share. Fortunately, however much his liberal stance upset his principal and colleagues at King’s, it did him no harm in the long run. He returned to Cambridge in triumph in 1866 as the Professor of Moral Philosophy there, and, in a sense, he also returned to King’s, where there is now an F. D. Maurice Professorship in Moral and Social Philosophy. More importantly, his views have thoroughly permeated his old department at King’s, where the need to understand all the faiths practised in our multi-cultural society has long been fully recognised, and students throughout the college are encouraged to take the opportunity of understanding them better. Maurice, whose pioneering book on The Religions of the World was published in 1847 while he was at King’s, would surely have approved. But Maurice’s influence goes far beyond academe: as the Anglican historian and ecumenist Bishop John Moorman has said, “Most modern theology is in some way indebted to Maurice’s clear and courageous thinking” (qtd. in Ellis 232).
- Murice’s detailed obituary in The Illustrated London News
- Maurice’s sermon, “Prosperity and Adversity” (full text)
- The Broad Church Party in the Church of England
- Muscular Christianity
- Dr. Arnold and the Meaning of Anglican Liberalism
Davies, Reverend J. Llewelyn, ed. The Working Men’s College 1854-1904: Records of Its History and Its Work for Fifty Years, By Members of the College. London: Macmillan, 1904.
Ellis, Roger. “Frederick Denison Maurice.” Who’s Who in Victorian Britain. London: Shepheard-Walwyn, 1997. 231-32.
Hearnshaw, F. J. C. The Centenary History of King’s College, London, 1828-1928. London: Harrap, 1929.
Reardon, Bernard M. G. “Maurice, (John) Frederick Denison (1805-1872).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Viewed 30 January 2007.