But if this general condemnation of pleasure reminds us of the Puritans, there were also aspects of Evangelical morality which seem almost medieval. I am thinking particularly of the tendency to see in every misfortune the direct manifestation of divine displeasure and even the inevitable consequence of departing from the law. Not only was the death of individuals interpreted as God’s punishment for their evil deeds, but political and economic ills were attributed not to defects of government or to poor harvests, but to the immorality of men’s behaviour.
“To the decline of religion and morality our national difficulties must both directly and indirectly, be chiefly ascribed”, said Wilberforce in his Practical View (1797).
Bowdler, similarly, blamed corruption in private life in his “Reform or Ruin“. The Evangelicals were latter-day prophets, telling of the Lord’s forthcoming vengeance upon his stiff-necked people.
Like Calvin, the Evangelicals insisted upon a completely literal and fundamentalist interpretation of Holy Writ, a fundamentalism which was to bring them into headfirst collision with the scientists, when the ideas of evolution and fossil geology were put forward, and into still more acute embarrassment when the higher criticism of Biblical texts was developed. Naturally, the idea of original sin also reappeared. Hannah More praised the dictum that children should be taught that they are “naturally depraved creatures” and parents willingly followed the suggestion. But nothing illustrates the common psychological origins of medieval and Victorian patrism more vividly than the bitter battles which were fought to prevent the use of anaesthetics in childbirth. The patrist’s resentment of women finds a convenient rationalization in the proposition that the pains of childbirth are God’s punishment for the sin of Eve. Simpson’s use of chloroform, in 1847, to relieve these pains forced that resentment into the open. Since it is so easy to delude ourselves that these beliefs belong to the remote and almost barbaric past, and to pretend that opposition to new techniques was a product of medieval superstition and ignorance, which could never occur in an age of science among educated persons, it is worth recalling the facts in more detail.(118)