chapter  2
17 Pages

Leave or remain? Antidisestablishmentarianism in Margaret Oliphant’s Salem Chapel

WithMargaret Markwick

This chapter studies the low-brow novels of the Scottish-born Margaret Oliphant (1828–1897) from the perspective of the theme of disunion from the established church in Victorian England, focussing especially on Salem Chapel (1862–1863). In a Protestant culture where religion still mattered, novels by Charlotte Yonge, Charles Kingsley and others, referred to religious divisions and debates. The chapter briefly outlines the post-Reformation politico-religious history of Britain (including Glorious Revolution settlement, and Act of Union with Ireland) and the key controversies of Anglicanism and Protestant Dissent that were discussed in detail in the expanding periodical literature. There was an increasingly insistent cry that the State should address the discriminations faced by nonconformists. They demanded the disestablishment of the Church of England. This was but one strand of a wide-ranging and fervent religious debate. Oliphant’s immensely popular Carlingford novels all consider aspects of the current contentions – ‘perversion’ to Roman Catholicism, high Anglicanism versus Low Church. Salem’s Chapel looks closely at the arguments against disestablishment. It is the tale of a dissenting community in a small town well provided with all the fine gradations of Anglican worship. Though the text never explicitly endorses the established church, I show how Oliphant, with considerable irony, wove this into her story of chapel life. The novel’s primary plot is a classic Oliphant domestic tale of a dissenting congregation’s relationship with their young minister, Arthur Vincent. The chapter also examines religious themes in The Perpetual Curate (1864) and Phoebe, Junior (1876), a novel appearing after much of the heat had left the disestablishment controversy with the abolition of the church rate (a great grievance for dissenters from the established church).