Huzzah! We’ve reached the Victorian Era in our 10th-grade World History textbook, World History and Cultures In Christian Perspective. Funny how so much of the best world history in this book just happens to be British history, isn’t it? We’ll assume this is simple Anglophilia on the part of the editors, with no theological implications, but who knows! Last week we covered the happy-go-lucky job creators of the Industrial Revolution, and this week, it’s on to other notable achievements of Victorian England, such as Victoria herself, who was the Bestest Monarch Evar, and Imperialism, which brought the blessings of civilzation and the Gospel to undeserving savages around the world.
Imminent Victorians: Best. Era. Ever.
World History goes through some wild swings in tone, from sneering disgust at the “atheists” behind the French Revolution to peeved defenses of the decent, unfairly-demonized robber barons of the industrial age. The editors have a mad crush on Queen Victoria that seems beyond ideology; we suspect the following passage was written with a raging stiffy:
It is said that [Victoria] once declared, “I will be good.” When Victoria was 18 years old, William IV died and the responsibilities of the crown fell to her. Victoria would become the longest-ruling monarch in English history; throughout the 64 years of her reign she kept her childhood resolution to “be good,” changing the people’s view of the monarchy from one of disdain to one of respect and pride….Under the wise leadership of Queen Victoria (ruled 1837 – 1901), Great Britain reached the height of its glory and became the leading country of the world (p. 359).
Lurking behind this tumescent prose, of course, is a love of raw geopolitical power, Christianist self-congratulation, and a little something else, as we see in the following little just-so stories, presented as actual events:
Victoria spoke for the nation in her reply to a visiting African prince who asked her the secret of England’s success. Victoria did not take him to see the glittering crown jewels, or to observe the great industrial cities at work, or to hear the brilliant orators who debated in Parliament. Instead, she presented the prince with a Bible, and said, “Here is the secret of England’s greatness.” A prince from India also recognized this truth. “Where did the English-speaking people get all their intelligence, and energy, and cleverness, and power?” he asked. “It is their Bible that gives it to them. And now they bring it to us and say, ‘This is what raised us. Take it and raise yourselves'” (pp. 360-61).
O, how grateful these unnamed dusky-hued nobles are! They don’t mind being colonized one bit! Both stories have enough holes to fill the Albert Hall: the “African prince” yarn is wholly mythical, although it made for a nice 1865 propaganda painting. Similarly, the story of the “Indian prince” comes from an 1880 edition of The Missionary Herald, so you know that it’s perfectly accurate. (And now we know — for the sake of mythological accuracy, they really should start stocking Bibles at Victoria’s Secret).
Why, Yes, There Are Workhouses. And They’re AWESOME!
And despite the impression that you may have gotten from that malcontent Charles Dickens, Victorian Christians were just the kindest, warmest, most wonderful human beings you’ve ever known in your life:
The world has probably never seen such selfless charity as burst forth in the 19th century in the wake of England’s Wesleyan revival and the subsequent preaching of the gospel during the Victorian Age. Never before in history had so many people done so much for others. The Victorians’ acts of benevolence were freely performed, compelled by the inner sense of duty and the love for mankind that come from obedience to Scriptural truth.
We learn about founders of orphanages and crusading reformers who “eased the difficult conditions in the factories and lowered the number of working hours to 10 per day” and prohibitied children from working in coal mines. And yet for some reason, the textbook doesn’t ever quite explain just why such awful conditions came about in the first place. We bet it was Papists. In a passage on the founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth, we do get one possible explanation:
Believing that the main problem of London’s poor was not their destitute environment but rather their sinful hearts, Booth dedicated his life to winning the indigent to Christ and helping them with their physical needs (p. 365).
The sinful-hearted poor no doubt loved having to take a bucket of preaching with their cups of gruel. We also learn that the Victorians had a model for education that the authors strongly imply should be adopted right away in modrn-day America:
Many 19th-century Christians helped the cause of Britain’s poor by providing them with an education. In fact, until the 20th century, most of Britain’s schools were run by Christian organizations. Christians aided popular education through the founding of Sunday schools, “ragged schools” (schools for poor children), and monitorial schools, which compensated for the lack of qualified teachers by training older children to help teach the younger children. In 1870, the British government opened tax-supported public schools, but at the turn of the century approximately 3/4 of British schools were still privately administered, and all schools were required to teach religion p. 365).
We thought some of Newt Gingrich’s ideas for school reform sounded familiar. Why have we gotten away from this obviously golden age?
Into The Heart of Darkness…with Bibles!
You will be thoroughly surprised to learn that the expansion of British hegemony across the globe was pretty much the nicest thing that could have happened to those benighted places :
The empire was a great benefit to Britain, and Britain was in many ways a great benefit to the lands in her dominion. While the colonies gave Britain wealth and power, Britain shared with the colonies her traditions of Christianity, technology, representative government, and reform. British colonial rule also established law and order throughout the realm and suspended much of the war and bloodshed that had raged between the various tribes and religious factions in Africa and Asia. In the process, the British effected great improvements in the livelihood of the native populations, such as better agriculture, education, hospitals, and industry (p. 367).
Also, hardly any massacres, and any exploitation was made up for by all the good stuff. For instance, in India, the British
usually tried to respect the religious customs and traditions of India. Sometimes, however, a custom was so barbaric that it had to be stopped. Such horrific practices included the suttee (forcing widows to hurl themselves upon their husbands’ funeral pyres) and human sacrifice. Such cruelty shocked the British, and rightly so. The British ended such practices while preserving most traditions. The British also introduced the Indians to modern conveniences such as the railroad, the telegraph, and improved agricultural methods. Thus the culture of India became a blending of East and West, a mixing together of the time-hallowed old and the civilized new (p. 370).
So it sounds like things worked out pretty well! Of the bloody “Sepoy Rebellion” of 1857, we are told only that “The British government quelled the rebellinon and took measures to ensure that such a incident never happened again,” which sort of glosses over some of the fun stuff that happened involved in a good thorough quelling, like mass bayonetting of civilians and a playful method of execution the British borrowed from the locals:
the British had some [mutineers] “blown from cannon” (an old Mughal punishment adopted many years before in India). Sentenced rebels were tied over the mouths of cannons and blown to pieces when the gun was fired.
Leaving this out seems like a notable oversight, because it shows that firm discipline is just part of a Bible-inspired nation’s enlightened style of ruling its backwards subjects.
And then there’s Africa! You might be wondering whether they call it “The Dark Continent” again. Why, yes! They actually do, but that is not a racial thing!
People called it the “Dark Continent” because so little was known about the land and its people….The nations of Europe saw Africa as a vast treasure chest waiting to be opened. But some Europeans saw the continent as more than just a source of possible riches; many saw it as a mission field ripe for harvest…Throughout the 19th century Christian missionaries worked diligently to penetrate the dark interior of Africa with the light of the gospel. In addition to evangelizing the African people, they established churches, schools, and hospitals, and helped bring to an end the cruel and inhumane slave trade and many of the bloody tribal wars (p. 371).
See! Focus on the good stuff, OK? As a case study of European colonization, the textbook focuses on South Africa. (We will let you provide your own answers as to why this might be a slightly problematic example.) The Boer War is glossed over in a short paragraph, which at least mentions that the Boers lost “thousands of their women and children to disease in British detention camps.” Interesting phrasing, no? Good to know who those women and children belonged to! The textbook doesn’t use the British military’s own coinage for those camps — the Christian soldiers of Great Britain called them “concentration camps.”
All in all, Colonialism worked out pretty well for everybody:
Britain greatly profited from the empire, but the countries of the empire greatly profited from Britain as well, for she shared two most important gifts with them: her Christian faith and her representative form of government (p. 375).
Wasn’t that nice of Britain?
Next Week: After two weeks of previews saying he was on the way, we finally get to history’s greatest monster: Charles Darwin. Also, a bunch of socialists and atheists show up and ruin EVERYTHING.
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