The following is excerpted from Iain H. Murray, The Undercover Revolution: How Fiction Changed Britain (The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009):
In 1870 the largest group of new books to be published was religious. Works of fiction came fifth on the list. With reference to that era, the historian G.M. Trevelyan wrote: ‘The popular heroes of that period--and they were true heroes--were religious men first and foremost (Livingstone, Gordon, Lord Shaftesbury, Gladstone).’ ... however in 1886, a further census on popular literature put works of fiction at the head of the list. The following year Robert Louis Stevenson felt able to assert, ‘The most influential books, and the truest in their influence, are works of fiction.’ The reading habits of the nation were entering a new era and the type of literature that was to have the most pervasive influence upon the twentieth century was the work of novelists and dramatists.
A most potent attack on Christianity in modern times has been little recognized. Most of the writers to whom I will refer used fiction to present something they believed to be better than the Christian life. Their presentations were to become the accepted wisdom of succeeding generations and they have powerfully affected society down to the present day. ... I will argue that their claim to have arrived at a better knowledge, when tested by the evidence of their lives (now fully documented by many biographers), will be found to be fraudulent. The truth is that it is unbelief rather than Christianity that depends upon the irrational for its survival. ...
As a nurse for Louis, the Stevensons appointed Alison Cunningham, a young woman of definite belief and Christian commitment. ... ‘Cummy’, as Alison was called, came to be the boy’s governess and virtually a second mother. ... At the head of Cummy’s subjects for her pupil were the Bible, the Shorter Catechism, hymns, and, sometimes, the writings of Robert Murray M’Cheyne. ...
In 1867 ... Robert Lewis Stevenson entered Edinburgh University. ... before long he found a new world, different from his affluent home and the respectable Presbyterian standards which characterized much of Edinburgh. There were easy-going companions to enjoy among his fellow-students, public houses to visit--‘frequented’, he later wrote, ‘by the lowest order of prostitutes’, and books to read that he could never have seen in his father’s study. At times he hung around Greyfriars churchyard for hours at a time, reading Baudelaire, an author who ‘would have corrupted St. Paul’. Of all this his parents knew nothing, and the young Stevenson became a man of two lives. With like-minded friends at the university, he formed a frivolous club that had for one of its rules, ‘Ignore everything that our parents taught us.’ When his father happened on a piece of paper recording these words, and questioned Louis, he was shocked to discover his son no longer believed in the Christian religion. The date was January 31, 1871, and the father’s verdict, ‘You have rendered my whole life a failure.’ A sorrow came into the life of Thomas Stevenson that was to remain until his death. ...
Sidney Colvin ... an editor and literary critic in London, was well placed to open the door for RLS into the capital’s literary world. He proposed him for the Savile Club where the Scot met men who played a large part in his future. One of them was Leslie Stephen, earlier ordained in the Church of England but now set on a different career as editor of the monthly Cornhill Magazine which had no religious content. Stephen’s extensive writings would include An Agnostic’s Apology and Other Essays. ... Another young author writing for Leslie Stephen was W.E. Henley, whom Stephen introduced to RLS in 1875. That same year Henley wrote his best-known poem, ‘Invictus’, and RLS was quick to quote. ... ‘It matters not how strait the gate,/ How charged with punishments the scroll,/ I am the master of my fate:/ I am the captain of my soul.’ Henley became RLS’s close friend and literary agent.
Of similar significance for RLS’s future life was Edmund Gosse, whom he met at the Savile Club ... Gosse’s break with his father was to be explained to the world in his much-acclaimed book, Father and Son. Although focused on his family estrangement, this book was in fact an apologia for the whole movement to unbelief. ... [Gosse’s claimed that evangelical Christianity] invents sins which are no sins at all, but which darken the heaven of innocent joy with futile clouds of remorse.’ ...
In 1876, while travelling purportedly in the interest of his poor health, he transferred his affection to another woman, Fanny Osbourne, whom he met in France. The fact that she was already married did not hinder their intimacy, and after she returned to California and to her husband, he followed her. When she divorced, he married her in 1880. ... With Fanny, and her son, he moved from place to place, his health and his recurring depressions unhelped by alcohol ... [In 1888] RLS and Fanny sailed for the South Seas, where they made a home on Vailima in the Samoan Islands. There he died suddenly, aged 44, of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1894. ...
[H]e wrote to a friend in 1886, ‘If I could believe in the immortality business, the world would indeed be too good to be true; but ... the sods cover us, and the worm that never dies, the conscience sleeps well at last.’ Life was only a ‘pilgrimage from nothing to nowhere’.
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