Ian Hesketh, Victorian Jesus: J.R. Seeley, Religion, and the Cultural Significance of Anonymity

Ian Hesketh, Victorian Jesus: J.R. Seeley, Religion, and the Cultural Significance of Anonymity (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017) xiii + 272 pp. 11 B&W illustrations. £36.00 Kindle. £38.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781442645776

To most modern readers, J. R. Seeley is familiar as the author of The Expansion of England (1883). Indeed, it was while researching Seeley’s contribution to the science of history that Ian Hesketh encountered the letters between Seeley and his publisher Alexander Macmillan that became the foundation for Victorian Jesus, Hesketh’s engaging study of the publication, reception, and previously underestimated significance of Seeley’s Ecce Homo (1865). Hesketh deftly integrates book history and the study of religious culture into a compelling analysis of Seeley’s theological and historical writing.

The book’s opening chapters examine the role and status of anonymous religious publishing prior to Ecce Homo. Seeley’s father was an important influence, as the elder Seeley was a noted evangelical publisher and the author of numerous anonymous evangelical tracts. The majority of the book follows the reception of Ecce Homo and the controversy and sensation over its anonymous authorship. Macmillan figures prominently, and Hesketh unpacks a number of compelling insights about the intellectual marketplace and the ethical issues surrounding anonymous publishing. The final third of the book deals with Seeley’s post-Ecce Homo career. This includes an analysis of Seeley’s appointment as Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, his scholarly historical writing, as well as his much-delayed sequel to Ecce Homo, Natural Religion (1882). Hesketh concludes with an intriguing but ultimately frustrating effort at synthesis that attempts to situate Seeley’s better-known career as an historian within the framework of Seeley the theologian.

The problem of authorial anonymity is central to Hesketh’s study and is the lens through which he examines bigger questions. Ecce Homo appeared in the wake of the controversies surrounding Essays and Reviews (1860) and Bishop Colenso in 1861. Seeley was from an evangelical home but drifted from that position while an undergraduate at Christ College in the 1850s, and he was deeply affected by the Broad Church controversies of the early 1860s. Seeley’s decision to publish Ecce Homo anonymously arose from this context and reflected both personal and intellectual motivations. On the one hand, Seeley wished to avoid hurting his evangelical family. Intellectually, Ecce Homo was a risky intervention into the nascent religious genre of the historical Jesus, exemplified by D. F. Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu (1835). Seeley’s approach to writing about Christ reflected the concerns and methods of both the Broad Church and German Biblical criticism. Consequently, Seeley decided to publish anonymously to avoid having his book associated with any one party within Anglicanism. Despite these efforts, accusations of partisanship swiftly arose from every direction, and when Seeley’s authorship was revealed it did strain his family relationships. Nevertheless, Seeley’s anonymity was sustained for over a year, and the controversy over Seeley’s identity gives Hesketh’s book its dramatic engine.

Seeley’s desire to stay above the theological fray of party affiliation had the unintended result of leaving the meaning and intention of Ecce Homo unclear in the minds of many of his readers. Hesketh traces the shift towards a liberal individualist ethos in the book trade through this controversy. Seeley’s anonymity was interpreted as a sign that the author was evading responsibility for publishing potentially dangerous ideas, lying or obfuscating to hide his authorship from friends and colleagues. The author was assumed to be morally suspect and lacking the authority to engage in such weighty matters as faith, religion, and morality.

The ultimate revelation of Seeley as the author of Ecce Homo gives shape to Hesketh’s analysis of Seeley’s post-Ecce Homo career as an historian at the vanguard of scientific history. In the book’s fourth chapter, Hesketh offers a remarkable analysis of the conceptual roots of Seeley’s Jesus through an analysis of Seeley’s engagement with the ideas of the Positivists. In short, Seeley hoped to rescue Christianity from being an obsolete remnant of an earlier stage of human development by presenting a humanistic Jesus who was the founder of a moral tradition rather than a dogmatic faith. Christianity is therefore dynamic and progressive rather than static and antiquated. This topic was the focus of Seeley’s theological writing. Ecce Homo was an attempt to historicize Jesus as the founder of a humanist moral system rather than as a divine agent. Seeley’s sequel to Ecce Homo, the much less successful Natural Religion (1882), sought to modernize Christianity by stripping it of its supernatural elements. For Hesketh, this move is a process of secularization. However, Hesketh also argues that Ecce Homo provides a conceptual template for understanding Seeley’s seemingly more “secular” scientific history. Seeley’s histories “were always situated within an implied universal history that began in an immense age of transition with the arrival of Jesus Christ and ended in another immense transition when Christ’s society and enthusiasm for humanity would have to be adapted for a new social and political reality” (213). Seeley’s histories were therefore just “another part of the story he sought to tell about the founding and development of Christ’s society” (213)

This is a fascinating observation, but it is frustratingly under-developed as an idea. Hesketh describes secularization as the retreat of religion to the background that allows “secular ideas and institutions to merge effectively with modern civilization” (211). However, in Seeley’s histories, the retreat of Christianity into the background is really an elevation to the status of a master key for understanding a putatively secular historiography. It is unfortunate that Hesketh does not probe this implication, as it has the potential to open enticing lines of inquiry about the process of secularization in modern Britain. If Seeley’s histories are, as Hesketh suggests, reflections of a grander theological commitment, this implies they bear within them an occult Christian telos that runs against the grain of their claim to an empirical and scientific examination of the past.

While this element of Hesketh’s conclusion is frustrating, it does not detract from the value of the book. Hesketh’s lively prose provides readers with penetrating and intriguing insights into Seeley’s career, the dynamics of literary marketing in mid-Victorian Britain, and the changing religious and ethical landscape of the second half of the nineteenth century. Victorian Jesus successfully utilizes its tightly focused scope to offer truly valuable insights to all students of Victorian Britain and is deserving of just such a broad audience.

Patrick J. Corbeil, St. Mary’s University, Calgary