On a table in my library, I keep a copy of The Times from Saturday, July 10, 1858. Among other interesting news tidbits is this little advertisement:
MR. CHARLES DICKENS will READ, at St. Martin’s-hall, on Wednesday afternoon, July 14, at 3 o’clock, for the last time, his CHRISTMAS CAROL… Tickets to be had at Messrs. Chapman and Hall’s, publishers, 193, Piccadilly; and at St. Martin’s-hall, Long-acre.
The idea of scanning a fresh newspaper, lighting upon the advertisement—and purchasing a ticket to listen to one of the greatest writers of all time read from one of the most well-known novels of all time is a bit exhilarating.
For more than a century, A Christmas Carol was easily one of the most famous Dickens stories in print. Recently, however, I came across another of his works that deals with Christmas—his almost entirely unknown book The Life of Our Lord, which was given the subtitle “Written for His Children During the Years 1846 to 1849” by Simon and Schuster in 1934. Dickens wrote the short volume—his summary of the Gospel of Luke—to be shared only with his family. Writing it during the time he was labouring over David Copperfield, Dickens called it a “children’s New Testament,” and he read it aloud to his family each Christmas. It begins:
My Dear Children,
I am very anxious that you should know something about the History of Jesus Christ. For everybody ought to know about Him. No one ever lived who was so good, so kind, so gentle, and so sorry for all people who did wrong, or were in any way ill or miserable, as He was. And as He is now in Heaven, where we hope to go, and all to meet each other after we are dead, and there be happy always together, you never can think what a good place Heaven is, without knowing who He was and what He did.
Dickens never intended the book to be published, and when his sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth asked him if he would allow it to be printed for private circulation, he declined. “He said I might make a copy of it for Peggy (Mrs. Dickens) or any one of his children, but for no one else,” she wrote, “and he also begged that we would never even hand the manuscript, or a copy of it, to anyone to take out of the house.” As great-great-grandson Gerald Charles Dickens noted: “The Dickens family felt that in return for such a wonderful gift, they must honor their father’s wishes. The clan closed ranks and protected their secret with great zeal.”
When Charles Dickens died in 1870, the manuscript was willed to Georgina Hogarth and, upon her passing, to Henry Fielding Dickens, the eighth of Dickens’ ten children. Henry, a lawyer, wanted The Life of Our Lord to have a wider readership, and while adhering to his father’s wishes, decided to give his children the option of making it publicly available. “Being his son I have felt constrained to act upon my father’s expressed desire that it should not be published, but I do not think it right that I should bind my children by any such view,” he wrote in his will. He stated that upon his death, his wife and children could decide whether to publish it by majority vote, with any proceeds being divided equally among them.
Sir Henry died in 1933, and The Life of Our Lord was published in 1934. It was celebrated immediately as one of the greatest finds of the century, despite Dickens’ deliberate decision to lay down his literary powers and write a simple, straight-forward story meant only to convey the story of Christ to children. He abjures descriptive language throughout the entire story, with the one exception being his description of the murder of the babies in Bethlehem: “The mothers of the children ran up and down the streets with them in their arms, trying to save them, and hide them in caves and cellars, but it was of no use. The soldiers with their swords killed all the children they could find. This dreadful murder was called the Murder of the Innocents, because the little children were so innocent.”
Critics immediately noted the difference between the little book he’d written for his family and his great novels, some of which are considered among the greatest ever written. But Simon & Schuster’s American edition was a runaway bestseller nonetheless, and the book was also syndicated in three hundred newspapers. Dead for half a century, the name of Charles Dickens once again graced the bestseller lists. Despite that, The Life of Our Lord is missing from most formal lists of Dickens’ works and is now almost entirely unknown.
The Life of Our Lord gives us a glimpse of Dickens’ preferred expression of Christianity. Dickens was deeply religious but disliked Catholicism, evangelicalism, and any form of publicly professed nonconformist Protestantism. His parents were disinterested Anglicans; Dickens himself attended a small Baptist chapel in Chatham as a boy. Indeed, much of what is known about Dickens’ religious beliefs for the first decades of his writing career is largely limited to what he opposed—his skewering of Sabbatarianism, his scathing religious satire. And in the little book written for his children, the Christ that Dickens describes is more a defender of the poor than a saviour of sinners.
The Christianity Dickens expresses is generally considered to be of the Unitarian sort. While he does place great emphasis on the miracles of Jesus and mentions prayer (he notes that his children say the Lord’s Prayer each night), his primary focus is on the poor and disenfranchised, gleaning a social gospel from Scripture just as he did in A Christmas Carol. He notes that the disciples were chosen primarily from among the working poor, warning his children to never treat the disadvantaged with disrespect; his analysis of the parable of the vineyard workers appears to endorse salvation by works: “Our Saviour meant to teach them by this, that people who have done good all their lives long will go to Heaven after they are dead.”
Dickens concludes The Life of Our Lord with his summation of Christianity:
It is Christianity TO DO GOOD always—even to those who do evil to us. It is Christianity to love our neighbors as ourself, and to do to all men as we would have them to do to us. It is Christianity to be gentle, merciful, and forgiving, and to keep those qualities quiet in our own hearts, and never make a boast of them, or of our prayers or of our love of God, but always to show that we love Him by trying to do right in everything. If we do this, and remember the life and lessons of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and try to act up to them, we may confidently hope that God will forgive us our sins and mistakes, and enable us to live and die in peace.
Dickens’ view of an all-powerful Saviour was the theology of “I will do my best and God will do the rest”; he believed in Heaven as a real place, but his descriptions of it were, as one literary scholar put it, “rather like a permanent stay at the ideal Pickwickian inn.” To be fair to Dickens, some sections do more accurately emphasize the Gospel. In his summary of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, for example, he writes that “Our Saviour meant to teach that those who have done wrong and forgotten God, are always welcome to Him and will always receive His mercy, if they will only return to Him in sorrow for the sin of which they have been guilty.”
Despite his rather anemic theology, Charles Dickens penned some of the greatest Christian prose ever produced in England. The final lines of A Tale of Two Cities are among the best ever written—and then there is this wonderful paragraph from A Christmas Carol. Mrs. Cratchit asks Bob how Tiny Tim behaved at church:
“As good as gold,” said Bob, “and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful, sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.”
A very blessed Christmas to you all.