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Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Jane Austen and the Evangelicals

As I visited the Paragon in Bath, where Jane Austen spent a few weeks in 1799 with her Uncle and Aunt Leigh-Perrot, I came across this quaint little chapel across the road from the Leigh-Perrots’ lodgings.


On the gate, it read “The Countess of Huntingdon’s Chapel”.

I became intrigued and was left wondering if this Countess of Huntingdon lived at the time when Jane Austen stayed in Bath, and whether Jane had anything to do with this undoubtedly formidable lady.  I decided to find out what the story was behind the church.


Countess of Huntingdon. Image from Wikipedia at

I discovered that the chapel was an evangelical connection set up by Selina Hastings,  Countess of Huntingdon, in the 18th Century. The Countess was born in 1707, became a born-again Christian at the age of 32 and, after she became a widow at the age of 39, she started to devote her time to religion. The Countess opened several private chapels like this for the public preaching of the gospel. After her death in 1891, there were local trusts running the chapels, and this small congregation is still active in Bath.

In Jane Austen’s times there was an evangelical revival, which would later have a great effect on the pious Victorians. The principle of the evangelicals was to express faith and to share the gospel actively and publicly. They were known for showing plenty of emotion in their worship and for singing hymns with fervour. 

Is this why Jane Austen wrote in a letter to her sister Cassandra, on January 24, 1809  [66],  "I do not like the Evangelicals", refusing to read a piece of religious fiction written by Hannah More, an evangelical reformer? Perhaps she first came across evangelicals during her first visit to Bath and, staying so close to the chapel, found them to be noisy and even vulgar?


Cover page for Hannah More’s “Calebs”, which Jane did not wish to read. Image from the Open Library:

For Jane Austen, religion was a more private affair. Being brought up as a moderate 18th Century Anglican clergyman’s daughter, religion was a part of her daily life, but it was demonstrated in a discreet manner. While Jane was well versed in her scriptures and attended morning prayer without fail, in her public writing she preferred to steer away from these topics, perhaps feeling that it wasn’t her place to preach. She did compose several sermons and prayers, but was otherwise undemonstrative in her approach to religion. In the Austen family, religion was demonstrated through action rather than feeling – through acts of charity and through their responsibility to the parish. The public preaching by the chapel might have put Jane off Paragon for good. She vastly preferred the location of her next lodgings at Queen’s Square, and wrote that the view from the drawing room windows was ‘far more cheerful than Paragon’.

                                                                           The Paragon as seen from the chapel.

It may be surprising, therefore, that five years later in 1814, Jane wrote in a letter to her niece, Fanny Knight, “I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals, & am at least persuaded that they who are so from Reason & Feeling, must be happiest & safest.” This statement suggests that Jane may have become more religious as she grew older, perhaps growing up to see the permissive, indulgent Regency society, of whose monarch she despised. During the first two decades of the 19th Century, the evangelical movement did indeed become popular within the Anglican church, perhaps to counter the low morality of the time and to educate people of vice and virtue.

At the time when Jane Austen first stayed in Bath, she was still young and perhaps resisted restrictions on behaviour. Her later, more serious novels, such as Mansfield Park and Persuasion, reflect a less permissive approach. Fanny’s character in Mansfield Park, in particular, stands for morality and even saintliness, considering her forgiving and principled nature.  

But do Jane Austen’s novels actually show religious influences? Surely her characters make moral choices without any reference to god or religion? The debate on Jane Austen’s religiousness vs. her ambivalence towards religion continues, but I think we can safely say that Jane Austen was a practising Anglican with religion in her heart, even if she preferred not to show it to the outside world.  


Further reading:

Jane Austen’s Letters:

  • Jones, V. (2004). Selected Letters by Jane Austen. OUP.

On the history of the Chapel of the Countess of Huntingdon:

Frequently cited work on Jane Austen’s religion:


  1. Great article Anna. I'm going back to Bath this Summer. I didn't explore The Paragon the last two times I was there but this time I will.

    It's interesting to note that Jane didn't attend services in Bath Abbey when she lived there. She mentions in her letters going to the Chapel which is a shop these days.The Austens even payed for their own benches in the chapel.

    Also when she lived in Castle Square Southampton the nearest church to her was St Mary's a beautiful medieval church with some Norman parts but she didn't go there. She attended All Souls in the High Street an 18th century building, modern for her time, and was enamoured with the preaching of Dr Mant a religous academic who was a great preacher. She obviously had leanings towards new ideas in religion and you illustrated that she changed her views about the Evangelicals.

  2. Thank you, Tony. You should definitely have a look at the Paragon, as that was the first place that Jane Austen stayed at when she was in Bath and may have had an impact on her experiences of Bath.

    It did say in my Jane Austen walks guide book that she must have attended the services at the Abbey, but like you, I have also read that she never did...

    Interesting to learn about her religious life in Southampton. Where could I read about her views on Dr Mant's preaching?

  3. She mentions Dr Mant in her letters. If you have the Deirdre le Faye edition you will find Dr Mant in the index.

    Here is a link to Dr Mant.

    All the best,

  4. Sorry Anna the Dr mant in this link is the son of the Dr Mant of All Saints Southampton that jane knew.

    The Dr Mant jane knew was a an academic too and was at one time headmaster of King Edwards School Southampton.

    Here is a link to the school website. I think he is listed amongst the headmasters.It shows that in 1770 Richard Mant was the headmaster.

  5. Quote from a Hampshire jouranl dated 1826

    Friday, July 14.

    Our sessions were held on Friday before the Mayor and a full bench of magistrates; there was no business of importance, and only one case tried, viz that of J.D.Doswell v. Thos.Major, for assault : the defendant apologized to the prosecutor, and the Court simply bound him to appear at the next session to receive judgement, if pressed against him. - A large party of gentlemen dined with the Mayor in the afternoon.

    A large shoal of Sir Mullet has been taken in the Solan and round the Island, and retailed as low as 2d each. This fish has been known to fetch 10s 6d in the London market.

    Died, on the 8th instant at Lambeth, aged 80, Mrs.Elizabeth Mant, relict of the late Rev.Richard Mant, D.D. formerly Rector of All Saints Church, Southampton, and mother of the present Right. Rev.the Lord Bishop of Downe and Connor.
    On Saturday last died, aged 61, Mr.J.Crouch, brewer, of this town.

  6. Thank you for the links, Tony! Interesting connections... I shall look him up :)

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  8. A very interesting post! Another area for research is Jane Austen's inclination towards the Catholic church. I read about this in a church in the Cotswolds in a village where Jane used to stay with some wealthy relatives. There was a pamphlet there which described her romantic? support of Mary Queen of Scots, of the Pope and of the Catholic church in general. It's quite difficult to fathom Jane Austen's real views on religion and I would love to know more.

  9. Radha-Madhava, interesting! I haven't read much about Jane's views on the Catholic church, but I can imagine that it would have offered a more romantic style of worship perhaps more to her liking than the evangelical - or strict protestant style.

  10. I completed my M.Div thesis on Jane Austen and the Anglican Church. It is not so much that she was reticent about religion as it is that we don't pick up on the code language and references in the same way as Regency readers. For example, when she says that Lydia has not been trained in "serious subjects", she is not talking about calculus; that was the phrase used for religion and study of the Bible. She wrote several very devout prayers, which can be found in the Minor Works volume by Chaplain; and, fascinatingly enough, the plot of Pride and Prejudice seems to lifted entirely from the narrative in the book of Numbers, where five daughters, disinherted in favor of their close male relative, take their case to the Prophet, who then degrees that they are the proper ones to receive it. I don't quite know how to post this, so will use Anonymous, but my name is Price Grisham. :)

    1. @Price: Thank you for your comment, which I have only just come across, going through my old posts (sorry about that!). How interesting! Thank you for this alternative point of view. I'm sure we miss out a lot of references, not being Regency readers. Did she really get a lot more inspiration from The Bible than we are aware of? Fascinating.

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