Trollope on American Religion

Anthony Trollope is a wonderful novelist of the Victorian period.  His Chronicles of Barsetshire series is both a window on nineteenth-century Britain and a stylistic masterpiece.  And he is the author of as stingingly elegant a line about literary talent as I have run across (composed at the expense of my man, James Fitzjames Stephen): “a poor novelist, when he attempts to rival Dickens or rise above Fitzjeames, commits no fault, though he may be foolish.” (from “Barchester Towers”)

Here is a fascinating quote from his travelogue, “North America” (1862), written long before President Eisenhower said something vaguely similar, though in a very different register:

I have said that it is not a common thing to meet an American who belongs to no denomination of Christian worship.  This I think is so: but I would not wish to be taken as saying that religion on that account stands on a satisfactory footing in the States.  Of all subjects of discussion, this is the most difficult.  It is one as to which most of us feel that to some extent we must trust to our prejudices rather than our judgments.  It is a matter on which we do not dare to rely implicitly on our own reasoning faculties, and therefore throw ourselves on the opinions of those whom we believe to have been better men and deeper thinkers than ourselves . . . .

It is a part of [the American] system that religion shall be perfectly free, and that no man shall be in any way constrained in that matter.  Consequently, the question of a man’s religion is regarded in a free-and-easy way.  It is well, for instance, that a young lad should go somewhere on a Sunday; but a sermon is a sermon, and it does not much concern the lad’s father whether his son hear the discourse of a free-thinker in the music-hall, or the eloquent but lengthy outpouring of a preacher in a Methodist chapel.  Everybody is bound to have a religion, but it does not much matter what it is.

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