John Frederick Denison Maurice

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John Frederick Denison Maurice

The English theologian and cleric John Frederick Denison Maurice (1805-1872) was a founder of Christian socialism.

Frederick Denison Maurice was born in Suffolk on Aug. 29, 1805, the son of a deeply pious, politically radical Unitarian minister-teacher. When he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, he was much influenced by the Platonically derived, idealist philosophy then coming from Germany, especially through the works of S. T. Coleridge. He studied law but became an editor in London. However, about 1828, convinced that he had wasted his Cambridge years, he entered Oxford.

In 1831 Maurice was baptized an Anglican; in 1834 he was ordained. At this time he made a considerable stir with a long novel, Eustace Conway, and a tract in defense of the Oxford requirement of subscription to the Thirty-nine Articles, the Anglican creed, on entrance. He was professor of literature and history, and later of divinity, at King's College, until he was forced to resign in 1853, charged with unorthodox principles. He was professor of theology at Cambridge from 1866 until his death on April 1, 1872.

Maurice's greatest prominence, by the standard of public activity, came in the late 1840s and early 1850s: Christian socialism was a product of these politically disturbed years. In 1848 he helped to found and became principal of Queen's College, the first serious institution of higher learning for women. Maurice and his friends had been meeting with groups of radical, free-thinking workingmen, and in 1849-1850 they sponsored producers' cooperatives among tailors and seamstresses. These survived only briefly, but in 1854 Maurice extended his work in this direction when he organized and became first principal of a "Working Man's College" in London, which soon added classes for women.

Maurice was not primarily a social reformer, although, as he early said, he felt a "mighty impulse" toward politics in service to his spiritual objectives. He called himself a theologian (a "digger"), meaning that he worked to instate his simple but subtle religion at the basis of British society, especially in its Church, education, and economy. Christian socialism—Maurice invented the phrase in 1850—was a logical outgrowth of this steady purpose. (In a tactical sense, it was frankly meant to Christianize socialism and avert revolution.) Yet his religion, though liberal, was so idiosyncratic as to set him at odds with all the contending mid-Victorian sects, from Evangelicals to Anglo-Catholics. Further, he refused to sponsor any party or static, narrow creed or to give formulaic responses to his correspondents. He was tagged a "muddy mystic," and John Stuart Mill concluded that "there was more intellectual power wasted in Maurice than in any other of my contemporaries." But, he added, "few of the…. have had so much to waste."

Further Reading

The earliest and most important biography of Maurice is by his son, Frederick Maurice, The Life of Frederick Denison Maurice (2 vols., 1884). A modern study, topically organized, is Herbert George Wood, Frederick Denison Maurice (1950). The most authoritative work on Maurice's theological and ecclesiastical thought is A. R. Vidler, Witness to the Light: F. D. Maurice's Message for Today (1948). Two modern studies of Maurice's legacy of Christian social concern are Charles E. Raven, Christian Socialism, 1848-1854 (1920; repr. 1968), and Torbey Christensen, Origin and History of Christian Socialism, 1848-54 (1962). □