A Unitarian descended from Dissenters (non-Anglican Protestants), Gaskell makes religion a recurrent theme in North and South. Throughout the novel, she highlights several characters—including Margaret Hale’s minister father, as well as Nicholas and Bessy Higgins, a working-class father and daughter Margaret befriends in Milton—who seek to live according to conscience in the matter of religion, despite disapprobation from those around them or of society at large. In fact, Margaret herself is the only major character who is portrayed as a mainstream, orthodox member of the Church of England. By portraying diverse beliefs through Margaret’s eyes, Gaskell makes the case—a broad-minded one for her time—that there is a spectrum of valid religious worldviews, and that respect for individual conscience is paramount.
Though Mr. Hale’s defection from the Church of England is devastating for Margaret and sets in motion much upheaval, it is portrayed as a necessary move for conscience’s sake and not as an obstacle to Mr. Hale’s Christian integrity. Shortly after her return to Helstone, Margaret is shocked by her father’s revelation that he must no longer be a minister, as he can no longer uphold Anglican doctrines with a clear conscience. Though the precise nature of Mr. Hale’s “smoldering doubts” is never revealed (Margaret finds them “as terribly mysterious as if [he] were about to turn [Muslim]”), he maintains that he has “no doubts as to religion; not the slightest injury to that.” The two later recite the Lord’s Prayer together, showing that Mr. Hale’s basic Christian convictions remain intact.
Mr. Hale’s change of views necessitates the family’s rapid removal from Helstone and into a more financially tenuous position in Milton, by which Gaskell demonstrates the personal and social cost of dissent from England’s established church. Despite all the tragedy that follows the family’s move to Milton, including his wife’s illness and death, Mr. Hale maintains that he made the right decision, telling his friend Mr. Bell, “You’re not to think, that if I could have foreseen all that would come … that I would undo it.” Bell replies, “[God] gave you strength to do what your conscience told you was right; and I don’t see that we need any higher or holier strength than that.” Gaskell affirms that, while religious dissent is not without tangible cost, it is worth following for conscience’s sake.
Despite Higgins’s and Margaret’s criticisms that her religious views are naïve and morbid, Bessy Higgins gives a cogent defense of the ways her faith supports her through the sufferings of life. Though Bessy’s father often complains that her faith fills her “so full of th’ life to come, [she] cannot think of th’ present,” Bessy finds a tangible solace in her faith that frees her, albeit briefly, from the ever-present burdens of her surroundings. After they’ve discussed the violence surrounding the millworkers’ strike, Bessy asks Margaret to read “some thoughts of the world that’s far away to take the weary taste of [this world] out o’ my mouth … pictures … which I see when my eyes are shut.” Though otherworldly, Bessy’s faith has a vivid sensory aspect that doesn’t deny her anxieties, but elevates her above them. When Margaret tells Bessy that God doesn’t willingly afflict anyone, Bessy explains that she believes herself specially predestined to suffer. She tells Margaret, “One can bear pain and sorrow better if one thinks it has been prophesied long before for one … otherways it seems all sent for nothing.” Bessy uses biblical prophecies to invest her suffering with purpose, and she doesn’t allow Margaret to dissuade her from this interpretation. By this, Gaskell shows that Bessy’s faith, unsophisticated as it may be, is also valid, and that the dignity of her conscience should be affirmed as well.
Mr. Higgins, though seemingly an opponent of organized religion throughout the book, is portrayed as a discerning critic and is ultimately vindicated as a believer in God. When Margaret expresses surprise at Higgins’s seeming disbelief, he retorts, “I believe what I see, and no more … I say, leave a’ this talk about religion alone, and set to work on what yo’ see and know. That’s my creed.” In contrast to his daughter’s trust in the unseen, Higgins believes that dwelling on faith distracts from visible needs. When Higgins discusses religion with Mr. Hale, he explains that the sufferings of Milton workers shape their faith or lack thereof: “I reckon you’d not ha’ much belief in yo’ if yo’ lived here… Lord, sir, d’ye think their first cry i’ the morning is, ‘What shall I do to get hold on eternal life?’ or ‘What shall I do to fill my purse this blessed day?’” Not only does Higgins believe that religion makes people passive, he also perceives that the strain in people’s environment directly shapes their capacity for belief. Yet, despite his avowals of unbelief, following Bessy’s death Higgins acknowledges that he believes in a God who is the “one thing steady and quiet i’ all this reeling world,” and he consents to pray with Anglican Margaret and her Dissenting father. Far from denigrating Higgins, Gaskell portrays him as a thoughtful critic, capable of belief in God despite no discernible allegiance to an organized religious tradition.
It’s noteworthy that Mr. Hale is not the first religious dissenter in the Hale family. In an understated aside, Gaskell reveals that Margaret’s brother, Frederick, is himself a Roman Catholic convert—a shocking development, given that legal restrictions against English Catholics had only been repealed within the past two decades. Because of the way religious dissent has been handled earlier in the book, Frederick’s Catholicism hardly causes a ripple at this point. Gaskell not only makes a positive case for diverse viewpoints, but also acknowledges a diversity of motivations for different views—including theological conviction, personal experience, social concern, and, in Frederick’s case, romantic attachment.
Religious Diversity and Conscience ThemeTracker
Religious Diversity and Conscience Quotes in North and South
“Doubts, papa! Doubts as to religion?” asked Margaret, more shocked than ever.
“No! not doubts as to religion; not the slightest injury to that…You could not understand it all, if I told you—my anxiety, for years past, to know whether I had any right to hold my living—my efforts to quench my smoldering doubts by the authority of the Church. Oh! Margaret, how I love the holy Church from which I am to be shut out!” He could not go on for a moment or two. Margaret could not tell what to say; it seemed to her as terribly mysterious as if her father were about to turn Mahometan.
“…[P]oor old wench,—I’m loth to vex thee, I am; but a man mun speak out for the truth, and when I see the world going all wrong at this time o’ day, bothering itself wi’ things it knows nought about, and leaving undone all the things that lie in disorder close at its hand—why, I say, leave a’ this talk about religion alone, and set to work on what yo’ see and know. That’s my creed. It’s simple, and not far to fetch, nor hard to work.”
“As I was a-saying, sir, I reckon yo’d not ha’ much belief in yo’ if yo’ lived here,—if you’d been bred here. I ax your pardon if I use wrong words; but what I mean by belief just now, is a-thinking on sayings and maxims and promises made by folk yo’ never saw, about the things and the life yo’ never saw, nor no one else…There’s many and many a one wiser, and scores better learned than I am around me,—folk who’ve had time to think on these things,—while my time has had to be gi’en up to getting my bread.”
“But the truth is, these country clergymen live such isolated lives—isolated, I mean, from all intercourse with men of equal cultivation with themselves, by whose minds they might regulate their own, and discover when they were going either too fast or too slow—that they are very apt to disturb themselves with imaginary doubts as to the articles of faith, and throw up certain opportunities of doing good for very uncertain fancies of their own.”
After visiting with Margaret in London, Henry and Mr. Bell chat about the struggles the Hale family has endured in recent years. Henry remarks that he’s heard from Mr. Hale’s successor, Hepworth, that Hale need not have abandoned his position as rector over a few nagging doubts. Henry argues that “country clergymen” become so morbidly consumed by their own ideas that they make mountains out of theological molehills, and overreact about small things. They have no neighbors of similar education, so they have few opportunities to test and refine their thinking against others. The result is that they become disproportionately fixated on certain pet ideas and sometimes do what Mr. Hale did, walking away from a potentially fruitful ministry for no good reason. While Mr. Hale himself had warned of the risk of stagnation in country life, Henry’s claim is presumptuous—assuming that Hale’s doubts were insignificant, and that his heartbreaking choice to leave Helstone need not have been made. It also lines up with the bias, seen elsewhere in the novel, that concrete, measurable action is to be preferred to thought.