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19th Century News Media Perception of British and American Religion

I love history; it forms the basis of my interest in genealogy and has an influence on our itinerary when on family holidays.


The Age of Enlightenment and Humour

Whether you are religious or not you have to admire the Victorians for their energies devoted to re-evaluating their beliefs. In previous generations the church was the centre of the community and it was taken for granted that children would be christened or baptised and that couples would have a church wedding.

With the dawning of the Victorian era people began to question their religious beliefs as much as they questioned everything else. It's not to say everyone ceased to be religious, although some did, but rather people began to base their faith on reasoning rather than just blind faith.

It should be stressed that this didn't suddenly happen in the 19th century, many dissenting Christian groups sprang up in England in the late 1640s following the English Civil War; it's just that as with everything else the process was accelerated in the Victorian era.

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19th Century News Stories

This article gives a light-hearted snapshot of religious views and values as often portrayed in British and American newspapers in the 19th century; frequently by republishing humorous religious story’s previously published in other newspaper as fillers, a common technique at that time for filling spare space on the page.

The source of these (often humorous) religious articles showcased in this article is from the Victorian scrapbook of George Burgess, born in 1829. George Burgess was religious, but he also had a good sense of humour, and it is thanks to him compiling a scrapbook of over 500 newspaper articles reflecting his views, humour and taste, that I have been able to get a good insight into Victorian values and pass some of this material on in this article.

So below, as well as snippets of 19th century religious themed newspaper articles I’ve also included a brief section on George Burgess and his religious leaning; along with a link to my genealogy website where I’ve transcribed his religious written thoughts in full.

George Burgess (1829-1905)

Bristolian Phrenologist From 1861 to 1901

My great-great-grandfather, George Burgess (1829-1905) was religious; he thought about his beliefs deeply before writing his religious thoughts down in several volumes. In his writings he stressed that the bible could not be taken literally, he also went on to explain in great detail why he believed the messiah could not have been a virgin birth and why he couldn't have risen from the dead three days after his death.

George Burgess was a form of spiritualist by faith, believing in the spirit in everything; not just the human spirit but a spirit that went through everything (organic and inorganic) and connected everything e.g. the spirit in the seed that makes the seed grow and blossom into a tree. It sounds a bit like Buddhism to me, or even a little akin to the energy force in quantum! But nevertheless his profession of Phrenology is based on the scriptures; although I'm not quite sure what the connection is? His religious writings along with the Victorian era newspapers referred to in this article are all freely available for viewing on Nathanville, link to website below.

George Burgess 1829-1905

George Burgess 1829-1905

Full Transcript of George Burgess Writings

Victorian scrapbook containing newspapers articles saved by George Burgess 1929-1905

Victorian scrapbook containing newspapers articles saved by George Burgess 1929-1905

19th Century Religious Articles

Published in British and American Newspapers

Below are three newspaper articles on religion, selected from the Victorian Scrapbook of Newspaper articles compiled by George Burgess during his working life. These newspaper articles are interesting in that two of them where published in newspapers as 'fillers', one re-published in England several times and the other, a fictional story based on a real character, first published in American newspapers and then recycled in newspapers all over the world from the 1850s to the 1880s.

The third Victorian newspaper article is just humorous and no doubt was also used as 'filler' e.g. to fill the space on the page.

Further information on these and other Victorian era newspaper articles can be found on my Nathanville genealogy website.

Paul Denton and the Famous Barbeque

19th Century Methodist Preacher in Texas, America

This Newspaper Articles Starts:-

Paul Denton, A Methodist preacher in Texas, once advertised a barbecue, with better liquor than usually furnished. When the people were assembled, a fellow in the crowd cried out, "Mr Paul Denton, your reverence has lied. You promised us not only good barbecue, but better liquor. Where is the liquor?" "There!" answered the missionary, in the tones of thunder, and pointed his finger at the matchless double spring, gushing upon two strong columns, with a sound like a shout of joy from the bosom of the earth. "There!" he repeated, "there is the liquor which God, the Eternal, brews for all His children!

Paul Denton was a fictionalized account based on the life of John B Denton, a pioneer preacher who went to Texas in 1837, became a lawyer and in 1841 engaged in fighting Indians; but unfortunately for him he was the only Texan killed in the battle.

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The story of Paul Denton and the Barbeque was used in newspapers all around the world as filler from the 1850s to the 1880s.

Paul Denton, Methodist Preacher in Texas

Paul Denton, Methodist Preacher in Texas

Full Transcript of the Paul Denton Newspaper Story

Religion in Amusements

A Singular Sermon (1750)

This story (A Singular Sermon), first published in 1750 was republished in a British newspaper in the 1890s (as a filler story) with the following introduction:-

The following singular sermon, which has recently been reprinted in a tract at Diss, in Norfolk, is said to be authentic. This title is "A Sermon occasioned by the Death of Mr. Proctor, Minister of Gissing, by the Rev, Mr. Moore, of Burston, in Norfolk." It is surmised to have been preached about one hundred and forty years ago, in the parish church of Burston, a small village near Diss. Most of the names mentioned in this curious - but considering the times and manners of the locality, rather characteristic - discourse, are now standing in the register books of the said parish, thus so far supporting the reality of the sermon. In 1750 it was printed in the British Magazine for November, and a manuscript copy of it was found in an old wall, pulled down at Wisbeach, in 1823. We thus introduce it, and we give the discourse entire, which we are able to do without trespassing much on our own space, as it has, at least, the merit of brevity: -

Religion in Amusements

Religion in Amusements

British Humour and No Doubt Another 'Filler' Story

A Welsh Sermon

A Welsh Sermon

An Enlightening Vote

Nothing to do With Religion

You've seen from these Victorian era newspaper articles that the Victorians, although they may have taken religion serious were lighthearted about it and had plenty of room in there publications to add a good stock of 'filler' stories to their pages.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Arthur Russ

Your Views - Have Any Views?

Robert Sacchi on February 25, 2020:

You're welcome.

Arthur Russ (author) from England on February 25, 2020:

Thanks for that: Yep, no surprises there.

Robert Sacchi on February 24, 2020:

There was an old saying about the Soviet newspaper "Pravda". «Правда» означает правду, но в «Правде» нет правды. Pravda meand truth but there is no truth in Pravda.

Arthur Russ (author) from England on February 24, 2020:

Yep, spot on. Although RT is owned and run by the Russian Government, who tailor their programmes to their target audience in each country that it broadcast in e.g. UK-RT in Britain, USA-RT in America etc.

The difference with Russia and the free world is that ALL News Media in Russia is State Controlled, and Russia has a heavy censorship making it difficult for Russians to access news from the free world. So in Russia RT (the mouth piece for the Russian Government) doesn’t have to be so subtle in its Government’s Propaganda.

Robert Sacchi on February 23, 2020:

Yes, RT is very slick. They have the advantage of a different approach. Western journalists tend to focus on their audience, who are like minded people. Group think kicks in. RT and other government propaganda arms try to win over people. Requires more subtly to accomplish its purpose. CNN has been taking a beating in the ratings and the network doesn't seem to mind. Somehow I don't think the Russian government would be so tolerant of RT.

Arthur Russ (author) from England on February 23, 2020:

Yep, that was the ‘70s. Since then (outside of the Russian borders) Russia has wised up and is far more subtle in its approach e.g. RT (TV network). RT (Russian TV) is a Russian international television network funded by the Russian government.

The potentially dangerous thing about RT is that, unlike the British Mail Newspaper and the American FOX News, it doesn’t actually ‘fake’ news, but broadcasts genuine news that is designed to help undermine and destabilise the ‘Establishment’ in the free world: ‘The Long Game’.

Although RT does engage in some political spin and bias reporting, which periodically breaches British Laws covering British broadcasting, its political spin and bias reporting tends to be even more subtle than CNN News Broadcasts; so that it becomes less obvious to viewers that there is a political agenda behind the broadcasts.

Robert Sacchi on February 22, 2020:

I remember someone in the '70s telling me about Radio Moscow. He told me if it was an American newscaster saying such things you'd be cheering him on. The only thing preventing that was that you knew you were listening to Soviet propaganda.

Arthur Russ (author) from England on February 22, 2020:

Well put: A very astute reply; it says it all.

Robert Sacchi on February 22, 2020:

Thank you for the analysis. News spin aka propaganda, as with anything else, has to get better to get followers. It is interesting how simple changes in wording, leaving out certain facts, or throwing in extraneous ones, can change a reader's, or viewer's, perception on events.

Claiming phrenology had a basis in science and scripture seems a good way of getting a wider audience,

Arthur Russ (author) from England on February 22, 2020:

You pose some interesting questions. On your first point, I can only speculate that people were more trusting in what they read in the popular press because there wasn’t the controversy over claims of propaganda and fake news etc., that there is these days; and it was far more difficult to ‘fact check’ what you read. These days, I think propaganda is more sophisticated and deliberate, and it ceases to amaze me how many people in modern society still tend to believe what they read in the newspapers without fact checking, even though fact checking has been easier.

Your second question does give food for thought. I can only speculate; but the link between phrenology and the scriptures does seem to be rather tenuous in practice as its development as a science was based more on physical observation than on theological theory. But it has its origins in physiognomy which was developed by the Swiss pastor Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801) who believed that thoughts of the mind and passions of the soul were connected with an individual's external frame. So Phrenology was a reformist philosophy rather than a radical one e.g. one foot in each camp (religion and science); which I am sure helped to have wide appeal with the public at a time when both in America and Britain Modernists attempted to update Christianity to match their view of science.

Certainly my great-great grandfather, a professional phrenologist, although he was religious in that he believed in the ‘spirit’, and he used the scriptures as the source in publishing his books on phrenology (which was the accepted practice at the time); in his personal writings, he clearly stressed that he didn’t take the bible literally.

So I’m guessing Phrenologists, as with the wider public at the time, followed the scriptures regardless to whether they believed in them literally or not.

Robert Sacchi on February 17, 2020:

This is an interesting article. Wonder if there was a divide then of what the popular press believed and what the general public believed. Do you know if it was common among Phrenologist to believe their "science" was based on scripture?

Arthur Russ (author) from England on June 13, 2017:

Thanks, yes I too love the Welsh Sermon for its humour.

anonymous on March 07, 2012:

this was insightful

Susanna Duffy from Melbourne Australia on November 18, 2011:

Interesting news on religion in the Victorian Age - the Welsh Sermon is a chuckle

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