John Ruskin

On this date in 1829, art critic and reformer John Ruskin was born an only child in London. Ruskin's mother, who was a devout evangelical, intended her son for the Church. But Ruskin turned to the arts, studying art and poetry at King's College and Oxford. In Praeterita (1855), Ruskin related that by the age of fourteen, he had rejected the literal truth of the bible: "It had never entered into my head to doubt a word of the Bible, though I saw well enough already that its words were to be understood otherwise than I had been taught; but the more I believed it, the less it did me any good. It was all very well for Abraham to do what angels bid him, -- so would I, if any angels bid me; but none had ever appeared to me that I knew of." Ruskin credited his interest in geology with destroying his faith, unable to reconcile that science with such claims as the Flood. Ruskin became a public figure when he took up the cudgels to defend the paintings of Joseph Turner, writing the book Modern Painters (1843). Ruskin wrote several other books on art, then turned to social reform, working as an art teacher with the London Working Men's College, and writing on economic questions. Ruskin also founded the Art School at Oxford, a museum in Sheffield, and attempted some experimental agrarian communities. "In an earlier age he might have become a saint," noted E.T. Cook in the Dictionary of Natural Biology. Ruskin gave away most of his inheritance on the theory that it was a contradiction to be a rich socialist. He became Slade professor of Art at Oxford (1869-1879). His interest in architecture helped to birth the National Trust and the Society of the Protection of Ancient Buildings. In his reforming years (1858-1875), Ruskin was decidedly agnostic, telling Augustus Hare in 1860 that he "believed nothing" (Hare, Story of My Life). In Fors Clavigera (1875), Ruskin admitted that "of all sects . . . I most dislike and distrust the so-called Evangelical." Although he dallied with spiritualism in the 1870s and regained a vague theism, according to biographer E.T. Cook, Ruskin never rejoined the Church. When talking of taking "the Lord's Supper," Ruskin was joking about dining at his own table. Cook also wrote that Ruskin rejected the misconception that morality depends on religion. Ruskin's returning interest in religion coincided with his first of several recurring bouts of mental illness in 1878. D. 1900.

“It is neither Madonna-worship nor saint-worship, but the evangelical self-worship and hell-worship—gloating, with an imagination as unfounded as it is foul, over the torments of the damned, instead of the glories of the blest—which have in reality degraded the languid powers of Christianity to their present state of shame and reproach.”

—John Ruskin, Fors Clavigera (1875)

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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