Charles Dickens

On this date in 1812, novelist Charles Dickens was born in England. As a child, he chafed at the two-hour religious services he and his family attended. His brief experience working as a 12 year old in a factory when his father was sent to debtor's prison had a life-changing effect on him. Although he returned to school, he began work as a clerk at age 15 when his family was evicted. Moving to freelance reporting he soon turned to story writing. Dickens launched on celebritydom with the serialization of his first book, The Pickwick Papers (1836-37). He married Catherine Hogarth in 1836. The death of her younger sister Mary virtually in Dickens' arms was said to inspire Little Nell. The Dickenses had 10 children, nine of whom survived. Long incompatible, they separated, to Catherine's grief, in 1858, when Dickens fell in love with actress Ellen Ternan. Dickens' hugely successful novel-writing career included Oliver Twist (serialized 1837-39), A Christmas Carol (1844), David Copperfield (1849-50), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), and Great Expectations (1861). Dickens' books called public attention to the scandalous conditions of child labor under the Industrial Revolution. His social conscience brought him to North America in 1842 to speak against slavery (and for international copyright).

Dickens was orthodox in many respects, praying daily and writing a "Life of Our Lord" (which took out much of the superstition) for his children. But at one time he joined the Unitarians (a creedless church). Although he returned to the Church of England, he quit it once again, saying: "I cannot sit under a clergyman who addresses his congregation as though he had taken a return ticket to heaven and back." Biographer Edgar Johnson wrote of Dickens: "Inclining toward Unitarianism, he had little respect for mystical religious dogma. He hated the Roman Catholic Church, 'that curse upon the world,' as the tool and coadjutor of oppression throughout Europe. . . . He thought the influence of the Roman Church almost altogether evil. . . . He had rejected the Church of England and detested the influence of its bishops in English politics. . . ." (Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph, 1952). Dickens actively opposed a bill to ban public activity and recreational outlets on Sundays, writing a pamphlet, "Sunday under Three Heads," which gibed at "the saintly venom," the "intolerant zeal and ignorant enthusiasm" of the pious, who would have denied the poor and working class their only respite after a 6-day work week. Biographer Hesketh Pearson noted the contradictions in Dickens' beliefs: "He accepted the teachings of Christ, not the doctrines of the Christian churches. . ." (Dickens: His Character, Comedy, and Career, 1949). D. 1870.

“The preacher is a coarse, hard-faced man of forbidding aspect. . . . He stretches his body half out of the pulpit, thrusts forth his arms with frantic gestures, and blasphemously calls upon the Deity to visit with eternal torments those who turn aside from the word, as interpreted and preached by--himself. A low moaning is heard, the women rock their bodies to and fro, and wring their hands.”

—Charles Dickens, Sunday under Three Heads" (1836), pamphlet opposing Sabbath restrictions. All quotes on religion cited in 2,000 Years of Disbelief, by James R. Haught"

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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