As a teen the great English novelist Thomas Hardy was friendly with the Moule family and their seven impressive sons. Mr Moule was vicar at Fordington, his son Charles became president of Corpus Christi in Cambridge, Handley became Lord Bishop of Durham (I can see his book on Ephesians, squeezed in amongst my commentaries, as I type this) and two others went to China as missionaries.
Thomas Hardy was a year older than Handley Moule but became close friends with Horace Moule, eight years Hardy's senior. Horace became 'Tom's special friend', he was 'the charmer, handsome and gifted' but also 'a tender-hearted son to his mother, writing to her almost every year on the anniversary of the death of the baby brother who had died before he was two'.
Horace had studied at Oxford and Cambridge but failed to gain a degree from either university. Hardy's biographer, Claire Tomalin, describes the changes in Horace's thinking that put him at odds with his upbringing:
Horace introduced Hardy to the newest and cleverest of the weekly magazines, the Saturday Review, London based naturally, in which social issues were discussed and religion treated with small respect. He bought himself books on geology and science that alarmed his father, because they cast doubt on accepted religious ideas, and handed them on to Hardy.
Horace's upbringing had been more robustly Christian than Tom's, but, making his way in metropolitan literary journalism, he could not miss the spread of scepticism, and he was too quick and intelligent to ignore it.Tomalin also notes the impact of all this on the young Hardy:
Tom's situation was different and easier. Christianity was something he had taken for granted as part of the fabric of everyday life, and Christian theory was never discussed in the family. He read the Bible, he knew all the church services and most of the psalms by heart; indeed, the year was a sequence of church festivals quite as much as it was a sequence of the natural seasons for him.
And he remained a fully practising Christian into the 1860s, but his mind was on the move, and with Horace he began to see that there were questions to be asked and lines of thought to be followed that eroded the old faith. As their friendship ripened, they read the notorious Essays and Reviews of 1860, religious pieces that offended the orthodox by their attacks on doctrine and by their textual criticism of the Bible.
Hardy also claimed to have been an early admirer of Darwin's On the Origin of Species, published in 1859, though it is not clear exactly when he read it, or how much it influenced his thinking at the time. He could well have found his own way along the path towards free thought, but Horace was an encouraging companion on the journey, and with his access to books, guided his steps at many points.Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man, pp. 54-55
I don't think that it is necessary for me to spell out the implications here. It seems to me self-evident that this was a form of discipleship, and that it possessed many of the elements that we associate with and encourage in that type of relationship. Tragically, in the case of Horace Moule and Thomas Hardy, it was a path along which the younger man was led to follow the counsel of the ungodly.
Concerning the impact of Essays and Reviews (1860), and the climate of plausibility that a new approach to Biblical scholarship brought in, Roger Beckwith made the following remarks:
The ‘accepted results’ of critical study tend to be taken for granted as a basis for one’s own further study, and radical questions are rarely asked about them. When they are asked, and in a public manner, the presumption is against those who ask them, and any attempt the questioners make to turn back the tide of critical opinion is disregarded, as self-evidently perverse. New ideas receive an open-minded reception, but attempts to revive old ideas are, not unnaturally, seen as simply reactionary.There is more to the clash of orthodoxy and heterodoxy than learning. There is also more to it than spiritual conflict in the lives of individuals. There is also this sociological dimension, and the embedding of new orthodoxies in institutions, guilds and in the public mind. All of which makes the championing of older, historic, mainstream views appear to be little more than a retrograde step, a recrudescence of ideas considered untenable, obsolete and unworthy of re-examination.
Beckwith's conclusion is fitting:
All things considered, therefore, the revolution in Biblical study which began in England with Essays and Reviews, and the similar revolution which preceded it in Germany a hundred years before, is a revolution which did more harm to the Church than good...in so far as it taught us to approach the Bible unbelievingly, it has hindered the mission of the church ever since. It lies at the root of many of the calamities which have afflicted the church in our own day, and from which, until we repent of unbelief, the church will never recover.