The concept of The Great Exhibition of 1851 was created by Henry Cole, a council member of The Society of Arts. Henry met Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria in the year 1846. This resulted in The Society of Arts receiving a royal charter and its name was changed to ‘The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce.’ They began arranging small exhibitions to promote their cause. Inspired by the French ‘Industrial Exposition’ of 1844, Henry sought the help of Prince Albert to stage a similar event, catering to the public of England. Although there was little interest in this idea, Henry and Albert continued developing it until the government grudgingly set up a royal commission to investigate the idea. The venue for the exhibition was set to be the Crystal Palace, designed by Joseph Paxton. Prince Albert and Henry hoped that the exhibition be global and self-financing.
The exhibition opened on 1st May, 1851 with the first royal walkabout by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The exhibition displayed over 100,000 artefacts including industrial inventions, art, photography, and many other novelties. Some of the exhibit displayed at the event were The Koh-i-noor, The Tara Brooch, the world’s first voting machine and a precursor to today’s fax machine.
Although the exhibition was meant to be a celebration of art from all across the globe, the event turned out to be a showcase for British products. It went on to run from May till October. Over six million people visited the fair. The exhibition was the pinnacle of Victorian Britain.
Religion in the Victorian times
During the 1800s, the government of England was attempting to improve the church’s representation across England’s manufacturing city. In 1818, it invested £1 million in order to build more churches. There was a huge increase in the number of churches from 14,500 in 1841 to 24,000 in 1875. Due to this, religion was playing a central role in the era round the great exhibition.
Religious Participation in the Great Exhibition
As the great exhibition was mostly about material artefacts, one may assume that religion did not play a role in the event. Moreover, it was an All Nation event, thus secular. The most obvious mention of religion was the prayer made by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the beginning of the exhibition. Each religion however, viewed the exhibition differently. Following this, were the hundreds of sermons delivered by priests all across the country on the day after the opening ceremony. Special guides were produced to guide visitors and explain the rich religious lifestyle of the people of London. Religious organizations produced books, pamphlets and handbills in order to advocate their religion.
Exhibits were not only about the gross material value, but also about spiritual enlightenment. The British and Foreign Bible Society and The Religious Tract Society even managed to put up stands inside the exhibition hall and were thus listed as authorized exhibitors.
Religious perspectives about the Great Exhibition
While there was strong religious opposition to the event during the late 1850s, it dissolved by the time of the opening of the exhibition. Several periodicals which had earlier criticized it were now encouraging the masses to attend the event.
The organizers looked at the event as a secular celebration of products manufactured across the globe, but religious missionaries perceived it as an opportunity to promote their beliefs.
Christians welcomed The Great Exhibition with open arms. John Stoughton, a historian and a Christian, stated that The Great Exhibition was ‘a monument to Christianity.’ Prince Albert himself believed that the exhibition would be the key to great technological advancements. It would be a divine event that would showcase God’s creations and would advance Christianity.
Some students put forth a strong connection between the Great Exhibition and Belshazzar’s Feast. 1
They went on to say that the Great Exhibition too, will end in the same way that Belshazzar’s feast ended.
Catholics viewed the exhibition as an oppressor that made the exhibition exclusionary and exclusive, but the Anglo-Jewish elite thought that it encouraged equality of the Jews, especially at the time of their emancipation. For the Jews, the exhibition was a chance to gain respect. Pacifists such as Burritt believed that the exhibition as the start of a new world order, and peace would prevail over warring nations.
Secularists were mostly divided in their opinion about the exhibition. Radical socialists saw several social dangers.
All the three groups, however – Catholics, Jews and Secularists – found that the exhibition raised the question of identity, more so because it was during this period that they were attempting to figure out their position on the religious landscape.
The very fact that the Great exhibition was an extensive display of material artefacts raised issues of spiritual sensibility. Some clergymen, however, thought that the exhibition was a dedication of sorts to the God of material wealth, Mammon.
Another issue that cropped up was the fact that the event was a celebration of human achievements, and thus encouraged the growth of pride. Therefore, to many, the exhibition became a source of sin.
The religious parameters of the exhibition, however, were not confined to its purpose. During the period of the exhibition, Jews, Muslims, and other such ‘heathens’ flocked to visit this great event and their presence posed several other issues. Christians in England wondered if their presence posed a threat to them or an opportunity to facilitate mass conversions.
Old history depicts the Great Exhibition as one of the most important events in the development of science and technology across the world. One must strive to understand the exhibition by looking at it stripped of its official ideology, since the exhibition served a variety of purposes. Unsurprisingly, the exhibition, given its magnanimous scale, had a profound bearing not only on the industrial side of the word, but also on contemporary religion.
- Belshazzar was the Coregent of Babylon who celebrated a great feast for a thousand of his grandees and drinks from the temple vessels. During the feast, a hand appears and writes something incomprehensible on the wall. The king’s advisor, Daniel, a man renowned for his wisdom, explains that Belshazzar had blasphemed God, and thus, God had sent down the hand to curse him. The curse stated that Belshazzar would be overthrown by Mendes and the Persians.
Cantor, Geoffrey. Introduction to Religion and the Great Exhibition of 1851. Oxford University Press, 2011.
Cohn, Jonathon. “Who is out of line in the march of progress? Perspectives on Religion and Industry around the Great Exhibition of 1851”. Georgetown University, 2010.
English Heritage. “Story of England: Victorians: Religion”. Last accessed on August 29, 2016. http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/story-of-england/victorian/religion/
Historic UK. “The Great Exhibition of 1851”. Last accessed on August 29, 2016. http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Great-Exhibition-of-1851/
History. “The Great Exhibition”. Last accessed on August 29, 2016. http://www.history.co.uk/study-topics/history-of-london/the-great-exhibition
UK Essays. “The Impacts of the Great Exhibition”. Last accessed on August 29, 2016. https://www.ukessays.com/essays/history/the-impacts-of-the-great-exhibition-history-essay.php