Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 30 (1999) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
In chapter 3 of Felix Holt, the narrator gives an account of the 'social changes in Treby parish', including the altered character of Trebian Dissent. It had
been of a quiescent, well-to-do kind, represented architecturally by a small venerable, dark-pewed chapel, built by Presbyterians, but long occupied by a sparse congregation of Independents, who were as little moved by doctrinal zeal as their church-going neighbours, and did not feel themselves deficient in religious liberty, inasmuch as they were not hindered from occasionally slumbering in their pews, and were not obliged to go regularly to the weekly prayer meeting.
In the early part of the nineteenth century, however,
the Independent chapel began to be filled with eager men and women, to whom the exceptional possession of religious truth was the condition which reconciled them to a meagre existence, and made them feel in secure alliance with the unseen but supreme rule of a world in which their own visible part was small. There were Dissenters in Treby now who could not be regarded by the Church people in the light of old neighbours to whom the habit of going to chapel was an innocent, unenviable inheritance along with a particular house and garden, a tanyard or a grocery business - Dissenters who, in their turn, without meaning to be in the least abusive, spoke of the high-bred Rector as a blind leader of the blind. (45)
The narrator explains that this change in relations coincided with a worsening economy, increased political agitation, and most people's opposition to the very unpopular Catholic Emancipation Bill of 1829. The upshot was that many Treby Magnians, such as Mr Tiliot, became deeply suspicious of ' ... Dissenters, Deists, Socinians, Papists, and Radicals, who were in league to destroy the Constitution'. The Rev. Augustus Debarry, too, bristled at the Independent preacher's 'pernicious' political sermons (46). Mr Lyon later tells Felix Holt that these socio-political views involve comparisons between Old Testament characters and modern- day reformers - and why not? 'Does God know less of men than He did in the days of Hezekiah and Moses? - is His arm shortened, and is the world become too wide for His providence?' (62).