A Vicar in Victorian Norfolk
A VICAR IN VICTORIAN NORFOLK
The Life and Times of Benjamin Armstrong (1817-1890)
Susanna Wade MartinsA biography reflecting the changes which accompanied Victorian Church life
Benjamin Armstrong never rose to fame, or reached any prominent rank within the Church of England. He was a solid, straightforward, hard-working priest, the vicar of Dereham, who toiled continuously to instil sound religion within the stratified Victorian framework of that corner of England. But his achievements do not especially stand out from the many thousands of his contemporaries who were similarly conscientious. Why, then, does he need a biography - and, indeed, such a handsome, well-produced and detailed one? The answer: he was an able and prolific diarist, and his daily entries - eleven volumes covering nearly forty years of ministry - comprise an invaluable record of the life of a priest in a market town during an age which had a full share of religious controversy. Although he lacked, perhaps, the lyrical genius of that other great Victorian diarist, Francis Kilvert, Armstrong’s record is more extensive. We see, for example, how Armstrong, who was an adherent of the ‘High Church’ or Tractarianism within a dominantly evangelical Diocese, was deeply interested in the ‘Ritual’ controversies of the 1870s, and horrified that a small number of ritualistic priests were actually imprisoned for their excessive ceremonials. In contrast, he was apparently not interested in the debate on evolution (Darwin is never mentioned in his diaries), but he took a conventional, albeit relatively uninformed, line in the contemporary debate on doctrine and biblical criticism which followed the publication of Essays and Reviews in 1860. The parish of Dereham absorbed his daily life. He gradually re-ordered the interior of his church, and cautiously brought in more Anglo-Catholic forms of worship, including more frequent Eucharists; and he had a commendable devotion to pastoral work, especially visits to disadvantaged or infirm parishioners. As the former Bishop of Norfolk, Graham James, notes in his thoughtful foreword, Armstrong should be commended as fully representative of a generation of clergy who ‘exhibited a new pastoral zeal alongside a desire for the highest standards in public worship.’ In summary, it was priests like Armstrong who helped to build the foundations of twentieth century Anglicanism. Susanna Wade Martins’ valuable illustrated biography will therefore be of considerable interest to historians and students of the Victorian Church. It is especially recommended for libraries.
Reviewed by Leonard Rickard
Church History - Biography