In Print: The Science of Religion in Britain, 1860–1915

Marjorie Wheeler-Barclay's upcoming book hailed as major contribution to the history of ideas, the history of religion, and British history.

Marjorie Wheeler-Barclay

When Marjorie Wheeler-Barclay’s book is released in November, it will represent more than 20 years of research and work.

“Some people get really tired of something when they do it over a period of time,” said Wheeler- Barclay, the Charles A. Dana Professor of History. “I never did. I kept reading new things and learning new things, and that kept me excited about what I was doing.”

Wheeler-Barclay’s book, The Science of Religion in Britain, 1860– 1915, is part of the Victorian Literature and Culture Series published by the University of Virginia Press.

“I’m particularly pleased that it is going to be published in a series that has a good reputation for Victorian history,” Wheeler-Barclay said.

She began work on the project, which is based on her dissertation, more than 20 years ago. During that time, Wheeler-Barclay’s research has taken her to London, Oxford, Cambridge, and Scotland, where she spent time delving into archives of personal papers and other documents of six scholars from the late 19th century who studied religion as a social and human institution.

“What they accomplished was not so much to persuade people that religion was true or false, but rather to contribute to a changing understanding of what religion itself was,” she said.

“For many years, the consensus among scholars in different fields was that as societies become more industrialized and modern, they become more secular, and religion seems to be less meaningful. The past 20 years would suggest it is not that simple. Religion just doesn’t go away because people aren’t living in peasant societies.”

A graduate of the University of Illinois in Chicago, Wheeler- Barclay earned her Ph.D. from Northwestern University. She came to the College in 1986 and teaches modern European history.

The book has received favorable reviews from fellow scholars.

Jeffrey Cox, author of The British Missionary Enterprise since 1700, said Wheeler-Barclay’s book was a “major contribution to the history of ideas, the history of religion, and British history... Wheeler-Barclay has succeeded in defining ‘the science of religion’ and put each of its practitioners into an entirely new light. It is a considerable achievement.”

She wanted her book to provide a different perspective of the Victorian era.

“It’s important for people to know that during the second half of the 19th century, debates about religion were not just about whether the Bible was literally correct. There was a much wider grappling of problems going on. A lot of American and European culture today ignores big questions because we don’t think they can be answered. In the 19th century, they had more of a tendency to tackle things head on. I find it admirable, and it’s certainly more fascinating as you get to know about Victorian culture.”

Now that her book is finished, Wheeler-Barclay is wasting no time starting a new project. She began work on her latest research this summer. She is studying the history of the 19th century controversies surrounding Stonehenge.

“I think,” she laughed, “I’ll just be doing an article for that one.”