The Christian Faith of Jane Austen

Starting with Sympathy toward Evangelicalism

Jane “displays an Anglican reticence about religious affections”[1] and is very interested in Christianity as a teacher of morals. Given this, it is not surprising that Jane was not an evangelical.[2] In fact, in 1809, Jane was forthright: referring to a novel by Hannah More, she told her sister Cassandra, “I do not like the Evangelicals.”[3] By 1814, however, her attitude had changed. As she told her niece Fanny Knight (1793–1882): “I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals, & am persuaded that they who are so from reason & feeling, must be happiest & safest.”[4]

It is noteworthy that her novel Mansfield Park, finished not long before this remark to Fanny Knight, reveals a clear “sympathy with Evangelicalism.”[5] That sympathy was especially centered upon the belief that Jane and evangelicals had in common: “Christians should be up and doing in the world.”[6] For example, Mansfield Park tackles a theme dear to the heart of many late eighteenth century evangelicals, the abolition of the slave trade.[7] Jane could thus write in the fall of 1814 in a letter to a friend, Martha Lloyd (1765–1843), that her hope during the latter stages of the War of 1812 was: “If we are to be ruined, it cannot be helped—but I place my hope of better things on a claim to the protection of heaven, as a religious nation, a nation in spite of much evil improving in religion, which I cannot believe the Americans to possess.”[8] Of course, evangelicals had figured prominently in the wave of religious revival that had swept Britain during the previous twenty years or so, a revival that had seen the evangelical victory in the abolition of the slave trade.

What Jane’s Prayers Reveal about Her Faith

An excellent vantage point to see Jane’s faith is one of three written prayers that have been attributed to her and that probably date from Jane’s life after the death of her father in 1805,[9] though there are doubts about the authenticity of two of them.[10] The third runs as follows and does seem to have been written by Jane:

Give us grace, Almighty Father, so to pray, as to deserve to be heard, to address thee with our hearts, as with our lips. Thou art every where present, from thee no secret can be hid. May the knowledge of this, teach us to fix our thoughts on thee, with reverence and devotion that we pray not in vain.

Look with mercy on the sins we have this day committed, and in mercy make us feel them deeply, that our repentance may be sincere, & our resolutions steadfast of endeavouring against the commission of such in future. Teach us to understand the sinfulness of our own hearts, and bring to our knowledge every fault of temper and every evil habit in which we have indulged to the discomfort of our fellow-creatures, and the danger of our own souls. May we now, and on each return of night, consider how the past day has been spent by us, what have been our prevailing thoughts, words, and actions during it, and how far we can acquit ourselves of evil. Have we thought irreverently of Thee, have we disobeyed thy commandments, have we neglected any known duty, or willingly given pain to any human being? Incline us to ask our hearts these questions, Oh! God, and save us from deceiving ourselves by pride or vanity.

Give us a thankful sense of the blessings in which we live, of the many comforts of our lot; that we may not deserve to lose them by discontent or indifference.

Be gracious to our necessities, and guard us, and all we love, from evil this night. May the sick and afflicted, be now, and ever thy care; and heartily do we pray for the safety of all that travel by land or by sea, for the comfort & protection of the orphan and widow and that thy pity may be shewn upon all captives and prisoners.

Above all other blessings Oh! God, for ourselves, and our fellow-creatures, we implore thee to quicken our sense of thy mercy in the redemption of the world, of the value of that holy religion in which we have been brought up, that we may not, by our own neglect, throw away the salvation thou hast given us, nor be Christians only in name. Hear us Almighty God, for his sake who has redeemed us, and taught us thus to pray:

Our Father which art in Heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever.
Amen.[11]

The language of this prayer is clearly drawn from the Book of Common Prayer, with which Jane was so familiar.[12] It is expressed in the first-person plural and is not at all a piece of literary art; it is a simple, unvarnished prayer to God to be prayed by a group of believers in a family context, probably Jane’s own family circle.[13] She is deeply concerned in this prayer with hurting others, a common theme in her novels. As Irene Collins notes, Jane’s “characters who experience true happiness are those who think about others.”[14] Emma Woodhouse thus commented on the character of Mr. Weston in Emma: “General benevolence, not general friendship, made a man what he ought to be.”[15] In the same novel, it is Mr. Knightley’s concern for Emma’s father and Miss Bates that stands as Jane’s model of true Christian behavior.[16]

Eight Women of Faith

Eight Women of Faith

Michael A. G. Haykin

Historian Michael Haykin reminds contemporary Christians of the important contributions eight women have made in the history of the church, including Jane Austen, Lady Jane Grey, and Sarah Edwards.

The note of heart sincerity also runs throughout the prayer: “Give us grace, Almighty Father, . . . to address thee with our hearts,” and she prays for “mercy” that she might “feel” her sins “deeply” and that her “repentance may be sincere.” A remark written by Jane in 1814 on the back of one of her brother James’s sermons that has recently come to light would indicate that religious sincerity was keenly prized by Jane: “Men may get into a habit of repeating the words of our prayers by rote, perhaps without thoroughly understanding—certainly without thoroughly feeling their full force & meaning.”[17] And linked to this desire for sincerity is a longing for self-knowledge, a freedom from self-deception.[18]

“For His Sake Who Redeemed Us”

It is not really until the end of the prayer, though, that we hear a specifically Christian note and tone, as Jane pleads with God that she might continue to value her salvation and “that holy religion in which [she had] been brought up,” a plea that is specifically made “for his sake who has redeemed us.” And with a fervor that matches that of any evangelical, Jane asks God to “quicken our sense of thy mercy in the redemption of the world.”[19] As Bruce Stovel observes, these sentiments tell us that “Jane Austen had a deep and sincere religious [Christian] faith.”[20]

This article is adapted from Eight Women of Faith by Michael A. G. Haykin.

Notes:
[1] Leithart, Miniatures and Morals, 31; Collins, Jane Austen, 236: “Religion was to her [that is, Jane] a private matter: to discuss it in a novel would have been a breach of good taste.”
[2] See the discussion by John Wiltshire, The Hidden Jane Austen (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 82–84.
[3] Letter to Cassandra, January 24, 1809. Le Faye, Jane Austen’s Letters, 177. On the influence of Hannah More at this period of time, see Irene Collins, Jane Austen and the Clergy (New York: Hambledon & London, 1994), 145–47. See also Collins, Jane Austen, 216–17 on Jane’s dislike of evangelical preaching. For other areas where Jane disagreed with evangelicalism, see Collins, Jane Austen and the Clergy, 186–88.
[4] Letter to Fanny Knight, November 18–20, 1814, in Le Faye, Jane Austen’s Letters, 292).
[5] Kelly, “Religion and politics,” in Copeland and McMaster, eds., Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, 156.
[6] Collins, Jane Austen and the Clergy, 185.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Letter to Martha Lloyd, September 2, 1814, in Le Faye, Jane Austen’s Letters, 285.
[9] Austen-Leigh and Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen, 274n57.
[10] Wiltshire, Hidden Jane Austen, 78–79. For the textual history of the prayers, see Jane Austen, Catharine and Other Writings, ed. Margaret Anne Doody and Douglas Murray (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1993), 283–84; Bruce Stovel, “‘A Nation Improving in Religion’: Jane Austen’s Prayers and Their Place in Her Life and Art,” Persuasions: A Publication of the Jane Austen Society of North America, 16 (1994): 185–186.
[11] Found in Jane Austen, Catharine and Other Writings, ed. Doody and Murray, 247–48. See also The Prayers of Jane Austen (Eugene, OR: Harvest, 2015).
[12] Collins, Jane Austen and the Clergy, 194; Wiltshire, Hidden Jane Austen, 79.
[13] Stovel, “A Nation Improving in Religion,” 185–196, passim.
[14] Collins, Jane Austen, 50. See also Wiltshire, Hidden Jane Austen, 79.
[15] Jane Austen, Emma, ed. Fiona Stafford (1816; repr. London: Penguin, 1996), 264 (vol. 3, chap. 2).
[16] Collins, Jane Austen, 50–51.
[17] Sam Marsden, “New Jane Austen manuscript criticises ‘men repeating prayers by rote,’” The Telegraph (February 3, 2014), accessed July 31, 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/10615541 /New-Jane-Austen-manuscript-criticises-men-repeating-prayers-by-rote .htm.
[18] Stovel, “A Nation Improving in Religion,” 193.
[19] Collins, Jane Austen and the Clergy, 194.
[20] Stovel, “A Nation Improving in Religion,” 189.



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