John Ruskin

On this date in 1829, art critic and reformer John Ruskin was born an only child in London. His mother, a devout evangelical, wanted him to study for the clergy but he turned to the arts, studying art and poetry at King’s College and Oxford. In Praeterita (1855), Ruskin related that by age 14 he had rejected the literal truth of the scriptures: “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.”

Ruskin credited his interest in geology with destroying his faith, being unable to reconcile science with such claims as the biblical flood. Ruskin became a public figure when he took up the cudgels to defend the paintings of J.M.W. 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 a professor of art at Oxford (1869-79). His interest in architecture helped to birth the National Trust and the Society of the Protection of Ancient Buildings. In his reforming years (1858-75), Ruskin was decidedly agnostic, telling Augustus Hare in 1860 that he “believed nothing” (Hare, Story of My Life). Although he dallied with spiritualism in the 1870s and regained a vague theism, according to biographer Cook, Ruskin never rejoined the church. 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.

Freedom From Religion Foundation