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Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Dickens 2012 and Unitarianism

2012 marks the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens with a host of celebration events and coverage across a range of media. “Dickens2012” and “Dickens at 200” are just two of the popular slogans.

When I was in Boston recently I participated in a walking tour of significant Unitarian-Universalist locations. In Downtown we heard how Charles Dickens had been treated as a celebrity and been mobbed by huge crowds on a visit. When he first visited the US, in 1842, at age 30, Dickens met and interacted with a number of Unitarians who impressed him deeply. He met Dr William Ellery Channing, the foremost Unitarian leader of his day and ardent opponent of slavery, whose statute we also saw opposite Arlington Street Church.

Charles Dickens is sometimes referred to a Unitarian but this needs explanation. He was born and raised as an Anglican. Soon after his return to England he heard news of the death of Dr Channing and Dickens attended a Unitarian service in his honour at Little Portland Street Chapel and met the Minister Rev Edward Tagart.  Subsequently he "subscribed" and took a pew there. According to an inscription composed by Dickens on a silver salver presented to Tagart for his labours, his minister, had "that religion which has sympathy for men of every creed and ventures to pass judgment on none."

Dickens wrote to Unitarian Harvard professor Cornelius Felton, "I have carried into effect an old idea of mine and joined the Unitarians, who would do something for human improvement if they could; and practice charity and toleration."

During this period, he wrote the “A Christmas Carol” and most of his other Christmas work. According to Rev Cliff Reed the values expressed “are broadly and liberally Christian, the sort of values that Dickens had come to associate with his adopted Unitarianism”.

He also wrote “The Life of Our Lord” that was intended only for his children and not published until 1934. The book begins:

“My Dear Children, I am very anxious that you should know something about the History of Jesus Christ. For everybody ought to know about Him. No one ever lived who was so good, so kind, so gentle, and so sorry for all people who did wrong, or were in any way ill or miserable, as He was.”

In many respects this represents much of the thinking of Unitarianism of his day. His social and political concerns echo those of contemporary Unitarians. In later life Dickens as he moved out of London returned to the Anglican Church, but remained friends with many Unitarians including his ex-minister.

Dickens is important as an Editorial in "The Guardian" on 23 December 2011 put it because "More than anything, though, Dickens's writings engage our sympathies because we identify with the rights and wrongs of what is happening.". Similarly modern day Unitarianism needs to engender the broad sympathies of right-minded people. It won't be in the same way as in the 19th Century but needs to connect in ways that are meaningful and true for today.

For further information see the entry on Dickens in the Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography.

The Hibbert Trust have also produced material for school assemblies on Dickens.

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