§ 14. New Reformation

Photograph of Huxley at retirement as Professor, 1885

Huxley's early 1859 Science and Religion portrays theology and science as "mortal enemies" (though religion and science are "twin sisters"); in a letter about this lecture, he identified the irreconcilable enemies of science and invented the phrase "New Reformation": "My screed was meant as a protest against Theology and Parsondom in general–both of which are in my mind the natural and irreconcilable enemies of Science. Few see it but I believe we are on the eve of a new Reformation and if I have a wish to live thirty years, it is that I may see the foot of Science on the necks of her enemies"–January 30, 1859. In 1860, he again posed the opposition between science and its antagonist–Lecture at Royal Institution and On Species and Races, and Their Origin.

The encounter between traditional theology and the New Reformation was recognized long before the publication of the Origin of Species, excited for example by the Vestiges of Creation.. Charles Kingsley, Benjamin Jowett, and Bishop Colenso were fairly unusual clerical people in their appreciation of that New Reformation. The encounter was frequently narrated in terms of warfare, as for example in a cartoon which depicts Huxley, Darwin, Tyndall et al. in an engagement with religious folk, all of the soldiers bearing placards as weapons–The Battlefield of Science and the Church (c.1870), with Battlefield Close-up.

Huxley advised Darwin that "the revolution that is going on is not to be made with rose-water"–January 1, 1865. His role as heretic was known long before his commitment to writing on agnosticism and employing the Higher Criticism of the Bible. For example, in 1870, having come up as a candidate for the DCL at Oxford, Huxley was opposed by the Oxford Tractarian priest Pusey, and the candidature failed, though he did get this honor a long time later, in 1885–June 1870 (to Henrietta) and June 22, 1870 (to Darwin) on the Puseyite event.

And to his wife – August 8, 1873.– he defined freethought and traditional authority as "irreconcilable" antagonists, one of which "will have to succumb aftger a struggle of unknown duration. which will have as side issues vast political and social troubles." He was optimism that freethought would win, those who further it teaching people "to rest in no lie, and to rest in no verbal delusions." He (also optimistically) promised to draw himself "back entirely into my own branch of physical science."

His (undated) notes contain many aphorisms such as "Religions rise because they satisfy the many and fall because they cease to satisfy the few" and a synthesis of "The Four Stages of Public Opinion" from "just after publication" of the heresy to "A century later"–Notebook. A cartoon of 1873 by "Geefeëf" (Gordon E. Flaws) depicts ecclesiastical and scientific dignitaries–Darwin, Huxley, and Tyndall– comprisingOur National Church.

"A Christian and a Scotchman" observed about Huxley's candidacy for Lord Rector of Aberdeen: "If all men of character and culture are shocked at the coarse profanities of Bradlaugh, and the tribe of obscene lecturers who are engaged in spreading his views through all classes of our people, they have still greater reason to shudder at the deeper and darker blasphemies (as we are prepared to prove) of that nest of scientific infidels, of which Darwin, Huxley, and Tyndall form the select committee." (Aberdeen Free Press October 29, 1872). Huxley felt that his winning the was a "curious sign of the times"–the growing power of secularism–January 1, 1873. A long diatribe delivered as both essay and poem appeared a couple of years later: Protoplasm, Powheads, and Porwiggles (1875).

The most active enemies of the New Reformation were the fundamentalist Anglican Church and the Roman Catholic Church: opposing state payment for parochial schools in the 1870 contest for election to the London School Board, Huxley described the mission of Ultramontane Catholicism, "securing complete possession of the minds of those whom they taught or controlled," as "destructive to all that was highest in the nature of mankind, and inconsistent with intellectual and political liberty" [reported in the School Board Chronicle of November 4, 1870]– Gladstone Account. Materialism and atheism were also enemies of the New Reformation. Huxley described his mission as that of converting schoolmasters to scientific missionaries so that they could convert the "Christian Heathen" of the islands to the true faith–July 7, 1871. To Tyndall, he noted that he was pleased with an invitation to address Mason College on Joseph Priestley–"Satan whispered that it would be a good opportunity for a little ventilation of wickedness. I cannot say, however, that I can work myself up into much enthusiasm for the dry old Unitarian who did not go very deep into anything. But I think I may make him a good peg whereon to hang a discourse on the tendencies of modern thought–July 22, 1874.

Entering the eighties, Huxley was much impressed and depressed by the "tenacity of fallacies"–January 9, 1880. Instead of being lapped by pleasure upon his retirement in 1885, Huxley was seized by the blue devils of depression. A November article, Prime Minister Gladstone’s Dawn of Creation and of Worship, had as its immediate mission a defense of the scientific accuracy of the Genesis account of creation and as its serendipitous benefit a deletion of Huxley’s depression. Applying his scientific knowledge and his polemical talents, Huxley refuted Gladstone's reconciliation of scripture and science. In a letter early in 1886, Huxley wrote that Gladstone's "shiftiness" tempted him to "pin and dissect him as an anatomico-psychological exercise. May it be accounted unto me for righteousness, though I laughed so much over the operation that I deserve no credit. ... After I have done with the reconcilers, I will see whether theology cannot be told her place rather more plainly than she has yet been dealt with"–January 13, 1886. Huxley's metaphors taken from Native American military ritual, of war-dance and tomahawk, appeared back in a letter of January 23, 1867, in which he comments on the value of an enthusiastic polemical stance. The controversies with Gladstone on scriptural stories will be found in § 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis and § 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons. A historical survey of science as opposed to theology is found in The Progress of Science (1887).

Dean Huxley
THH at desk - pencil drawing by T. B. Wirgman, 1882
THH Dean of Normal College of Science, 1881-95

Huxley opened his The Keepers of the Herd of Swine (1890) with an extended and humorous allusion: he and Gladstone having buried the "hatchet of war" could now join in smoking the calumet (though if Gladstone objects to tobacco, Huxley was willing to smoke for both); but Gladstone being "on the war-path once more," his tribe believing that Huxley's scalp already adorns "the big chief's wigwam," Huxley finds it sadly as well as cheerfully necessary to do battle once again.

He also engaged in controversy with critics less august than Gladstone, but as desirous of flagellating him. In February of 1887, Huxley published Scientific and Pseudo-Scientific Realism, to which the Duke of Argyll replied in March: Professor Huxley on Canon Liddon, to which Huxley replied the following month’s Science and Pseudo-Science. The Duke of Argyll's charges in the May 1887 Science Falsely So Called. A Reply that Huxley was evasive and incapable of conducting a strict argument prompted Huxley's thorough An Episcopal Trilogy. Huxley wrote to his friend Skelton, that he is presently engaged "on a series of experiments on the thickness of skin of that wonderful little wind-bag [Argyll]... The way that second rate amateur poses as a man of science, having authority as a sort of papistical Scotch dominie, bred a minister, but stickit, really 'rouses my corruption.' What a good phrase that is! I am cursed with a lot of it"– March 7, 1887. Many letters of these years pin the warfare between science theology, e.g., November 5, 1887 and May 22, 1889', Huxley happy as a contributor to bringing about freedom from orthodoxy. Twenty years earlier he had complained to Darwin that he was "weary of controversy"–March 17, 1869.

He admired the secularism of Mrs. Humphrey Ward, author of Robert Elsmere, and wrote her a letter of praise on March 15, 1888. In November, he wrote to a correspondent that if Jesus were a fiction, "Christianity vanishes." "Now the inquiry into the truth or falsehood of a matter of history is just as much a question of pure science as the inquiry into the truth or falsehood of a matter of geology and the value of evidence in the two cases must be tested in the same way"–November 27, 1888. A couple of weeks later, he advised Ray Lankester not to get into time-consuming controversy: "I wish you would let an old man, who has had his share of fighting, remind you that battles, like hypotheses, are not to be multiplied beyond necessity. Science might say to you as the Staffordshire collier's wife said to her husband at the fair, ‘Get thee foighten done and come whoam.’ You have a fair expectation of ripe vigour for twenty years; just think what may be done with that capital. No use to tu quoque me. Under the circumstances of the time, warfare has been my business and duty."–December 6, 1888.

Though he concluded the November letter by noting that writing was burdensome to him, the next month in a letter to John Knowles, he said that a stag must have been his ancestor, for he got mischievous late in the year. "Not however for the stag's reason, I beg to remark." Henry Wace ("On Agnosticism," read at the Manchester Church Congress, 1888) and others had stirred him to the boiling point by their commentaries on agnosticism. Huxley asked Knowles if he wanted a "goring article" for the February Nineteenth CenturyDecember 30, 1888. Although "agnostic" had been invented in 1869, 1889 was the year of Huxley's discussion of agnosticism. Someone, a cleric often enough, would address an audience somewhere or publish an article some place, Huxley would reply, the victim would fight back, which insured another reply, these exchanges going on for years. The series starts with the "goring article" in the February issue, Agnosticism.

In a paper delivered before the Manchester Church Congress late in the 80s the Rev. Dr. Henry Wace protested that the agnostics were really infidels in disguise, that agnostic was a euphemism employed by cowards. Wace had given Huxley "a lovely opening by his profession of belief in the devils going into swine," and people were "watching the game with great interest"–February 28,1889. That the English were interested more in politics and religion than anything else was to their credit. Huxley was happy to "give a shove to the 'New Reformation.'" He congratulated Mrs. Humphrey Ward for inventing this phrase, having forgotten that he had invented it in 1859.

In Agnosticism, he surprised no one by declaring that "agnostic" was not synonymous with "infidel," but may have surprised some people–or confirmed their opinion– by commenting "Near my journey's end, I find myself in a condition of something more than mere doubt about these matters. I shall think the fag end of my life well spent." To W. F. Collier, on January 24, 1889, he wrote: "I have recovered in such an extraordinary fashion that I can plume myself on being an 'interesting case,' though I am not going to compete with you in that line. And if you look at the February Nineteenth I hope you will think that my brains are none the worse. But perhaps that conceited speech is evidence that they are."

One of those watching the game with great interest was Benjamin Jowett, who wrote to Huxley on February 26, 1889 that he was excited by Huxley's "extraordinary vigour and power" in his role as a "tremendous controversalist." Among hostile reviews were R. H. Hutton's Professor Huxley on Agnosticism (February 1889), which Huxley dismissed as "drivel"–February 19, 1889; Henry Wace's Agnosticism: A Reply I (March 1889), and the Bishop of Peterborough, W. C. Magee 's Agnosticism: A Reply II (March 1889).

"I can't understand Peterborough nohow," Huxley wrote to Knowles–March 10, 1889. The Bishop invented a phrase which annoyed Huxley: "cowardly agnosticism," the idea being that Agnosticism chickened out from advocating the vice it would inevitably initiate. The pith of Huxley's response was that Christ was not a Christian; and Huxley was glad for the opportunity to smite the Bishop of Peterborough and Wace. The orthodox Humpty-Dumpty of Christianity could no longer be reassembled after such an attack, he noted on March 15, 1889. March saw the publication of Huxley's dramatic historical investigation of The Value of Witness to the Miraculous.

W. H. Mallock had with fine humor in 1877 satirized Huxley as "Professor Storks"–The New Republic. His attack on Huxley (and Spencer and Harrison and Agnosticism) in 1889, however, was choleric:"Cowardly Agnosticism" A Word with Professor Huxley.

Huxley wrote that he was glad the editor Knowles would give the cleric Wace another go (though Huxley did request having the last word). "Considering that I got named in the House of Commons last night as an example of a temperate and well-behaved blasphemer, I think I am attaining my object." He wanted to "hammer in two big nails": (1) That the demonology of Christianity's founders proves that they were as ignorant of the spiritual world as other people; and (2) that Cardinal Newman's doctrine of Development was meritorious, though after an hour or two of reading Newman, Huxley said, he began "to lose sight of the distinction between truth and falsehood." The great gulf between Newman and Huxley (unfortunately these gentlemen never came to blows) is shown by Newman's dictum "as if evidence were the test of truth"–April 14, 1889.

Huxley was embarrassed by secular excess, as for example that provided by the "naughty boy" Ernst Haeckel, and acted as censor of Haeckel's ardent atheism, – November 13, 1868. The commentaries of some agnostics Huxley heartily approved, such as those of W. K. Clifford, who was even less fond than Huxley of Christianity; John Skeleton, who gave Darwin's Bulldog a new nickname: "John Knox of Agnosticism"; and Edward Clodd. But the definition given to "agnosticism" by other agnostics did not always agree with Huxley's. While the term "agnosticism" is not patented, Huxley's understanding of it was not to go beyond the evidence. All positive conclusions were working hypotheses, good for now, maybe not good for the future. See Huxley's Agnosticism: A Symposium and Laing's, The Agnostic's Creed (1889).

Tennyson and Huxley were acquaintances, both members of the Metaphysical Society. Huxley quoted Tennyson now and then in his papers, as in Advisabileness of Improving Natural Knowledge (from "In Memoriam") and Evolution and Ethics (from "Ulysses"), and thought highly of Tennyson as the Lucretius of Victorian science. Tennyson thought highly enough of Huxley to send him, for Christmas of 1889, a copy of his poem "Demeter," though Tennyson thought lowly enough of agnoticism to present, in "Despair," a hero who snaps at those who saved him from drowning–the hero had wanted to escape from a world corrupted by an agnosticism that had vitiated his religious faith, as the non-fictional character W. B. Yeats would also protest. Huxley's affection for Tennyson was so strong that upon the poet's death, Huxley actually wrote an elegy, while on a train returning from the funeral: To Tennyson.

The comments by two European observers are worth quoting. Nietzsche in On the Geneology of Morals queried "who could hold it against the agnostics if, as votaries of the unknown and mysterious as such, they now worship the question mark itself as a God?" And Nicolai Lenin, whom one might expect to be more sympathetic, sums up an attitude prevalent from at least 1869 to the present: that agnosticism is a fig-leaf for materialism.

April saw Huxley's replies to his critics: Agnosticism: A Rejoinder. On Huxley's "Agnosticism," John Knowles had written: "It must 'win souls' even from Baptists." The February and March numbers of The Nineteenth Century went into four editions; and even though Knowles had printed more than the usual for the April number, that went into two editions. He wrote to Huxley that he had no doubt the great demand was due to Huxley's "scripture." Those whose souls were not won replied:

Henry Wace
Christianity and Agnosticism (May 1889)
W. C. Magee
An Explanation to Professor Huxley (May 1889)

Huxley found these replies mere waste paper–May 4, 1889 and May 22, 1889. In the latter letter, he returned to Cardinal Newman: "That a man of his intellect should be brought down to the utterance of such drivel–by Papistry–is one of the strongest arguments against that damnable perverter of mankind I know of."

On May 25, 1889, he asked Ray Lankester: "Do you see any chance of educating the white corpuscles of the human race to destroy the theological bacteria which are bred in parsons?" Huxley wrote to Hooker on May 30, 1889, that he was glad Hooker had enjoyed the wind-up with Wace and once more on Newman: the "slipperiest sophist I have ever met with." He wrote to a correspondent on June 3, 1889, that the church founded by Jesus had gone extinct; the sect that survived was a compound of "Alexandrian Judaism" and "Neoplatonic mystagogy." June saw the publication of Agnosticism and Christianity. At the end of the year, WIlliam Robertson Smith, editor of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, for which Huxley had written articles on zoology and evolution, expressed a common opinion when he wrote to Huxley: "I think that you are doing religion a great service by your continual protests against cant and by the way in which you have exposed the paltry Jesuistry of such a man as Wace." Huxley admired Jowett, who shared this view, as he liked Kingsley, both of these clergymen eager to accept scientific conclusions, or at least tolerant of them, and on October 11, 1890, wrote to another clergymen expressing approval of his book on the gospels and approval of Nazarenism, the letter something of a precis of his themes in the agnosticism essays.

Last Lustrum

Possibilities and Impossibilities (1891) is a thorough investigation of the point he had often made, that a miraculous event, if it is comprehensible, need not be ignored simply because it is a violation of the regular order of events; but such an event requires more proof than those of the regular order. One highlight of 1892 was the Huxley's habitation of their new home, Hodeslea, in Eastbourne.

Photograph by Downey
Huxley home, photogravure from photograph
Hodeslea study, from water-color by Reginal Barrett

Another highlight was the publication of an anthology of his Essays upon some Controverted Questions, its comprehensive prologue a most readable investigation of the history and philosophy of Christianity: Prologue to Controverted Questions. Back in 1863, the question of questions, as he stated in Man's Place in Nature, was our affinity with other primates; thirty years later, the questions of questions was a different one: "The point to which I wish to direct attention is that the difference exists and is making itself felt. Men are growing to be seriously alive to the fact that the historical evolution of humanity, which is generally, and I venture to think not unreasonably, regarded as progress, has been, and is being, accompanied by a co-ordinate elimination of the supernatural from its originally large occupation of men's thoughts. The question–How far is this process to go?–is, in my apprehension, the Controverted Question of our time." This book, which he noted had "cost me more time and pains than any equal number of pages I have ever written," was translated into French and German. A review of it is offered here: Professor Huxley Speaks Out (The Oxford Magazine, February 1, 1893). The way Britain answered that question would effect its power as a nation–Huxley often striking a patriotic note in defense of teaching science in schools and converting the masses to agnosticism.

1892 also saw the publication of in The Agnostic Annual. An Apologetic Irenicon, published in The Fortnighty Review and scheduled for inclusion in a proposed Volume 10 of Collected Essays, was never republished. It affirms the good work he had done, rejecting the common notions that he was merely negative, knocking down tradition, and biased in his critique of scripture.

Early in the year, he responded to a letter from a Roman Catholic priest (January 27, 1892) who had read his physiology lectures and needed to know whether the sacrament could undergo some physiological transformation other than that experienced by other food: "Upon this purely physiological question I seek your help, because an answer once given by yourself would be decisive and would obviate the repetition of statements which to a Catholic are painfully irreverent." Huxley's gentle reply was that it could not–February 3, 1892. His feeling of sympathy for Christianity as a religion (not as a theology) he expressed to Mrs. Humphrey Ward, adding that in T. H. Huxley was a "fused mass of prophetism and mysticism"– April 1892. Along the same line, he wrote to an unknown correspondent, "Heterodox ribaldry disgusts me, I confess, rather more than orthodox fanaticism"–May 22, 1892. And he again confessed, this time in a letter to George Romanes, that he had a great respect for Nazarenism; the religion that really appealed to him would be a blend of that with Stoicism, Spinoza, Goethe, and prophetic Judaism– November 3, 1892; on Spinoza, see also August 31, 1894.

1893 features letters to the Times in January on sea-serpents and in August on Bible reading. In 1893, Huxley returned to Oxford to deliver an address on Evolution and Ethics, and selected what would go where in the forthcoming Collected Essays, writing the prefaces to them, such as Preface IV to the volume on Science and Hebrew Tradition and Preface V to the volume on Science and Christian Tradition.. In the following year, he wrote appraisals of two people who had recently died, his enemy Richard Owen and his closest friend John Tyndall. He assured Professor L. Campbell: "I am not afraid of the priests in the long run. Scientific method is the white ant which will slowly but surely destroy their fortifications" (August 14 1894). It was about this time that Huxley penned a draft of what may have been intended as an introduction: >Agnosticism, a Fragment.

An anonymous (perhaps by R. H. Hutton) article in Quarterly Review appraised Huxley's agnosticism, gentle in places and slashing elsewhere: Professor Huxley's Creed (January 1895). Of this, Huxley said "It made me feel quite young again. It is a strong attack, of course, but very well written. I know a good bit of work when I see it." Wilfred Ward reported on a conversation he had had with Huxley, the conversation including Huxley's comments on deceased Francis Balfour, whom he much admired, and on elder Balfour, whose book, The Foundations of Belief: Being Notes Introductory to the Study of Theology (1906) he found disappointing–Thomas Henry Huxley: A Reminiscence. About Balfour's failure to read what naturalists actually said, Huxley reporte to Knowles that " 'e don't know where he are'" and that as he had begun his career dissecting invertebrates, it seemed likely he would end it doing the same service–February 12, 1895. On March 1, 1895, he commented to a daughter on the Balfour controversy.

The service appeared in the March number of The Nineteenth CenturyMr. Balfour's Attack on Agnosticism I. Using his usual militant language, he wrote to a daughter that the article is "the cavalry charge." Part II would be "the heavy artillery and the bayonets," and as he wrote to Knowles, he was busy in early March setting this up–March 6, 1895–but two days after that, when the proofs arrived, influenza prevented his reading them. The posthumously published manuscript is Mr. Balfour's Attack on Agnosticism II. Three months later, T. H. Huxley died. He had written to John Tyndall in 1854: "The poor fellow vanished in the midst of an unfinished article, which has appeared in the last Westminster , as his forlorn Vale! to the world. After all, that is the way to die, –better a thousand times than drivelling off into eternity betwix awake and asleep in a fatuous old age."


Alphonse Legros oil sketch of THH in 1879, year of publication of The Crayfish and Hume. In a talk at Sion College, Huxley had dubbed himself "Minister"

It was often noted, by friends such as Herbert Spencer and by enemies such as R. H. Hutton–see his postmortem dissection of Huxley, The Great Agnostic (1895), and by Huxley himself, that Huxley brought to his controversies on religion a prophetic intensity reminiscent of assertive theologians. From his childhood dressing as a vicar to sermonize the family's maids throughout his career, he used the language and vigor of piety to attack piety, earning Richard Hutton's terming him Pope Huxley. His friend Michael Foster addressed him as "Reverend Sir" and "Honoured Episcopus"; John Skelton's moniker for him was "The John Knox of Agnosticsim"; Bishop Thirlwall of the Metaphysical Society identified two colleagues as "Archbishop Huxley and Professor Manning." Huxley humorously referred to himself as "right reverend father in worms and Bishop of Annelidae, (to Dyster, April 9, 1855) and as an "Extra-christian Missionary"– May 10, 1870, this in a letter thanking Matthew Arnold for St. Paul and Protestantism. He reprimanded his friend Donnelly for the latter's failure to address THH as "the Very Revd," proper title for a Dean: "I don't generally stand much upon etiquette, but when my sacred character is touched, I draw the line"–August 18, 1881; and confessed to his friend Hooker that the only position he had ambition for was that of Archbishop of Canterbury–August 20, 1890', all of which is a reminder of five-year old Tom delivering a sermon to household maids. For the autobiographical sketch he wrote to Francis Galton, he noted that he was endowed with "A profound religious tendency capable of fantaticism, but tempered by no less profound theological scepticism."

Great Agnostic
Photograph by Mayall, the year of publication of Collected Essays, vol. 1,1893

For Agnostic warfare as it applied to Old Testament and New Testament stories, see § 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis and § 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons.



1.   THH Publications
2.   Victorian Commentary
3.   20th Century Commentary

1.   Letter Index
2.   Illustration Index

Gratitude and Permissions

C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University

§ 1. THH: His Mark
§ 2. Voyage of the Rattlesnake
§ 3. A Sort of Firm
§ 4. Darwin's Bulldog
§ 5. Hidden Bond: Evolution
§ 6. Frankensteinosaurus
§ 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution
§ 8. Matter of Life: Protoplasm
§ 9. Medusa
§ 10. Liberal Education
§ 11. Scientific Education
§ 12. Unity in Diversity
§ 13. Agnosticism
§ 14. New Reformation
§ 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible
§ 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis
§ 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons
§ 18. Emancipation: Gender and Race
§ 19. Aryans et al.: Ethnology
§ 20. The Good of Mankind
§ 21.  Jungle Versus Garden