Civilising the Heart

H. Rider Haggard is my kind of writer. I loved King Solomon’s Mines as a boy and I was induced to read more of his canon this year. Allan Quartermain, in the book bearing his name, travels to an ancient race of whites living in a remote part of Africa. He and his companions Sir Henry Curtis and Captain Good intrepidly enter this secluded kingdom, fall in love with its beautiful queens, share some European industrial techniques and have a few battles along the way. It’s all great stuff, and as Victorian and imperialist a yarn as one might expect. 

Many nineteenth-century British explorers and colonial administrators had a distinct view of Christianity. Towards the book’s close, Quartermain institutes a number of national reforms, including reducing the power of the nation’s querulous priesthood, which will

Pave the road for the introduction of true religion in the place of this senseless sun-worship. I yet hope to see the shadow of the cross of Christ lying on the golden dome of the Flower Temple; or, if I do not, that my successors may.

Advising Sir Henry, now become king-consort of the Zu-Vendi people, he exhorts him

Not to be carried away by the pride and pomp of absolute power, but always to strive to remember that he was first a Christian gentleman, and next a public servant, called by Providence to a great…trust.

He even insists on having a second wedding ceremony after the official one, using the decorous words of the Book of Common Prayer

I appreciate we’re dealing with fictional characters, yet we have here a snapshot of a former generation’s view of Christianity. For many Victorians, Christianity was just another great British export, like steam-powered machines, the Enfield revolver and the three-piece suit. Inferior cultures had inferior religions and the more railways and telegraph poles we built, the more ‘Christian’ they would want to become.

True Christianity, however, is not an expression of advanced civilisation, though civilising it is. It is not a limb of colonialism nor an expression of national identity. Genuine missionaries did take the gospel out to the various European empires and some thriving churches still exist as a result. Today this ‘civil religion’ attitude remains in Remembrance Day ceremonies and various national commemorations at St Paul’s Cathedral. It’s a kind of national, public-spirited religion; Christian is name but with little emphasis on redemption or sin’s forgiveness. Perhaps some folk still attend their local church as an expression of national or local identity. For these people, my hope is that the shadow of Christ’s cross lies on their hearts rather than some building or cathedral, especially now most have closed.

Image by wendy CORNIQUET from Pixabay