Feast of Frederick Denison Maurice (April 1)   4 comments

Frederick Denison Maurice

Above: Portrait (1854) of Frederick Denison Maurice, by Jane Mary Hayward

Image in the Public Domain



Anglican Priest and Theologian



In 1843 Karl Marx called religion the “opiate of the masses.”  Indeed, one of the uses of religion by the powerful has been as just that, so that, for example, the peasants might not rebel again this year.  In the same year that Marx wrote his famous comment about religion Frederick Denison Maurice wrote,

We have been dosing our people with religion when what they want is not this but the living God.

–Quoted in Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), page 300

Although Marx opposed theism, Maurice favored it.

(John) Frederick Denison Maurice, son of a Unitarian minister, became a great Anglican divine.    Our saint, a native of Normaston, Suffolk, England, debuted on August 29, 1805.  His mother left the Unitarianism for the Calvinistic Baptists when he was ten years old.  That religious change disrupted the family’s harmonious home life.  Our saint, still a Unitarian as a young man, lived with an Evangelical (Low Church) Anglican family in London while preparing the study civil law at Trinity College, Cambridge University.  He graduated in 1827 but could not received his degree because he was a dissenter.  Maurice moved to London, where he edited the London Literary Chronicle until 1830.  Next he edited the Athenaeum briefly.  Then our saint, a newly-minted member of The Church of England, entered Exeter College, Oxford, to study for the priesthood.



(“Conserve” is the root word of “conservative.”)

Maurice, a priest from 1834, was simultaneously revolutionary and conservative during an age when the spectre of the French Revolution (1789-1799) haunted the fears of many in Britain.  He served as the Curate of Bubbenhall, Warwickshire, then as the Chaplain of Guy’s Hospital.  In Subscription No Bondage, or the Practical Advantages Afforded by the Thirty-Nine Articles as Guides in All the Branches of Academic Education (1835) our saint defended the Articles as requirements in universities, an opinion he did not change.  From 1840 to 1853 he was Professor of English History and Literature (doubling as the Chair of Divinity from 1846 to 1853) at King’s College.  During this time Maurice began his service as the Chaplain at Lincoln’s Inn, for students.  Theological Essays (First Edition, 1853; Second Edition, 1854; Third Edition, 1871) prompted allegations of heresy and forced his resignation from King’s College yet not from the Chapel of Lincoln’s Inn.

Our saint’s theology of sin and the Atonement alarmed many people to his right.  Maurice noted that human sin was the actual beginning point for much of Christian theology.  He considered this an error.  The proper beginning of Christian theology, Maurice argued, was Christ, specifically his restoration of people to their true lives as bearers of the image of God.  God, our saint wrote, had created and redeemed all people in Christ, only in whom all people can find their proper identity.  Maurice defined sin as the refusal to acknowledge Christ as central, leading to the effort to establish false independence from God.  Thus Christ, in the thought of our saint, was the transformer and converter of societies.

Related to this theological position was the assertion that members of all social classes were “in it together,” to use words far less eloquent than Maurice’s.  Thus the proper solution to social problems, especially those related to class (in the rigid British class system and in the context of the economic chasm separating the haves from the have nots) was for people to become aware of their fraternity for each other across class lines and to act accordingly.  Our saint, with Charles Kingsley (1819-1875), a founder of British Christian Socialism, was therefore to the right of other Christian Socialists, for he disagreed on the topic of tactics.

Christian Socialism is the assertion of God’s order.  Every attempt to bring it forth I honour and desire to assist.  Every attempt to hide it under a great machinery, call it Organization of Labour, Central Board, or what you like, I must protest against as hindering the gradual development of what I regard as a divine purpose, as an attempt to create a new constitution of society, when what we want is that the old constitution should exhibit its true function and energies.

–Quoted in John C. Cort, Christian Socialism:  An Informal History (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 1988), page 147

The revolution Maurice sought was first spiritual then economic and political, not the other way around.  Aubrey de Vere, a critic from our saint’s left, complained,

Listening to Maurice is like eating pea soup with a fork.

–Quoted in Cort, Christian Socialism (1988), page 142

Maurice sought reconciliation and unity yet found himself persona non grata in many ecclesiastical quarters.  On his left he faced allegations of heresy and sympathized with the oppressed and the downtrodden.  Our saint also encouraged his students to consider and act on the social implications of the Gospel, something which entailed changing society.  His theology of eternal life, grounded in the definition (knowing God via Christ) of that term in the Gospel of John, caused some to accuse him of heresy.  Maurice’s masterpiece, The Kingdom of Christ (First Edition, 1838; Second Edition, 1842–Volumes I and II), denounced religious partisanship and laid the foundations of Anglican ecumenism.  Although our saint affirmed Apostolic Succession and the episcopal office, he, unlike many Tractarians, refused to classify those who had abandoned those traditions as being outside the fold.   God was the only proper judge of that matter, Maurice insisted.

On the right Maurice, a Broad (as opposed to Low or High) Churchman, opposed Higher Criticism of the Bible and certain economic and political structures which many of his fellow Christian Socialists favored.  He also insisted on six signs of the Church:

  1. Baptism, which he called “the sacrament of constant union,”
  2. The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed,
  3. The Book of Common Prayer,
  4. The Holy Eucharist,
  5. Holy Orders, and
  6. The Bible.

These were essential, our saint insisted.  Of the liturgy he wrote:

I do not think we are to praise the liturgy but use it.  When we do not want it for our life, we may begin to talk of it as a beautiful composition.

–Quoted in Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), page 300

Maurice practiced what he preached.  The Church, he said, must educate and stimulate the public conscience.  He fulfilled his role in that effort.  Our saint helped to found Queen’s College, London (1848), for women and served as its first Principal.  Six years later he helped to found the Working Men’s College, London, and served as its first Principal.  He also founded cooperatives for workers.



Maurice’s career during his final years played out in London and Cambridge.  From 1860 to 1869 he was the Incumbent of St. Peter’s, Vere Street, London.  In 1866 he became Professor of Casuistry and Moral Theology at Cambridge.  And, from 1870 to 1872, our saint served as the Incumbent of St. Edward’s, Cambridge.

The definition of casuistry, according to Funk and Wagnalls New Practical Standard Dictionary of the English Language–Britannica World Language Edition (1956), is:

The science or doctrine of resolving doubtful cases of conscience or questions of right or wrong according to the injunctions or sacred books or of individual authority or social conventions, rather than on grounds of moral reason.

Maurice married twice.  His first wife, Anna Barton, died in 1845, leaving him to raise to young boys.  Our saint’s second wife was Georgiana Hare.

Maurice wrote and published much.  I found links to many of his works at archive.org during the research phase of the development of this post.  Others also wrote and published about him, both positive and negative.  I also found such works at archive.org.  I have decided, however, to forgo creating a catalog of those in this post and to refer you, O reader, to that website.

Maurice died at Cambridge on April 1, 1872, which was Easter Sunday, as he prepared to receive the Holy Eucharist.



If I had established complete agreement with someone as a standard for sainthood, this Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days would never have come into existence.  Although I disagree with Maurice regarding much, I also agree with him regarding much more.  My bottom line is that Maurice was worthy of inclusion on calendars of saints.  I have therefore followed the lead of The Church of England, The Episcopal Church, and The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia.






Almighty God, you restored our human nature to heavenly glory

through the perfect obedience of our Savior Jesus Christ:

Keep alive in your Church, we pray, a passion for justice and truth;

that, like your servant Frederick Denison Maurice,

we may work and pray for the triumph of the kingdom of your Christ;

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Genesis 33:1-10

Psalm 72:11-17

Ephesians 3:14-19

John 18:33-37

Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), page 301


4 responses to “Feast of Frederick Denison Maurice (April 1)

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