Ruskin and religion

Ruskin was one of several great Victorians, including George Eliot and W.E. Gladstone, Cardinal Newman and Cardinal Manning, whose intellectual lives were grounded in the Evangelicalism of their youth which they then left behind them. Whereas his father, John James Ruskin, whose own mother had been a daughter of the manse, was a moderate man in religious matters and later warned his son against excessive zeal, his mother, Margaret Ruskin, was deeply invested in Calvinist Evangelicalism. Having dedicated her boy to God at his birth, she later insisted that he read aloud two or three chapters from the Bible each day, and also learnt several verses daily - a habit that stayed with him into adult life, by which time he knew the Bible better than the bishops. In Praeterita (1885-89), he was to record his gratitude to his mother for the lessons, continued until he was fourteen, which had made every word of the 'Scriptures' familiar to his ear 'in habitual music, - yet in that familiarity reverenced, as transcending all thought, and ordaining all conduct' ( Works, 35.40, 189).

As in other areas of his personal life, Ruskin 's self-styled 'un-conversion' from Evangelicalism occurred later in life than usual, at the age of 39 (1858), and although there are similarities between his position in his troubled middle years and George Eliot's agnosticism, he later returned to a simple if somewhat unorthodox Christian faith. Ruskin certainly wrestled with what his generation called 'difficulties' throughout his adult life, but in 1877 and again in 1887 he had to make it clear that he had not converted to Roman Catholicism, so strong were the rumours circulating in England. On the first occasion he stated that he was a 'Catholic' of 'those Catholics, to whom the Catholic Epistle of St. James is addressed - "the Twelve Tribes which are scattered abroad" - the literally or spiritually wandering Israel of all the Earth'.

While Ruskin's life and work are certainly unique in many ways, his internalization of debates which raged in the mid-nineteenth century - on biblical criticism, Church authority, sacred art, church architecture and Darwin - also makes him the quintessential Victorian. His beliefs underwent many changes, susceptible as they were to his own sharpened critical awareness. What never left him, however, and what proved to be least susceptible to the application of new critical tools by the scientists and biblical scholars of the day, was belief in divine wisdom and a God of peace. (See The influence of Ruskin's religion upon his work and Ruskin and Evangelicalism.)