Religion and The Supernatural

This page will discuss a key theme in Dickens's work and life: religious and spiritual belief. 


Dickens was never an outwardly devout Christian in that he did not profess any specific denomination or attend Church particularly regularly, but he was raised in the Church of England. He also became dismissive of Evangelical Christianity after his mother adopted that denomination during his childhood. We can gain insight into how religion influenced Dickens's work from a letter he wrote to Rev. David Macrae: 

With a deep sense of my great responsibility always upon me when I exercise my art, one of my most constant and most earnest endeavours has been to exhibit in all my good people some faint reflections of our great Master, and unostentatiously to lead the reader up to those teachings as the great source of all moral goodness. All my strongest illustrations are drawn from the New Testament; all my social abuses are shown as departures from its spirit; all my good people are humble, charitable, faithful, and forgiving.1 

For more on 'Dickens and Religion', click here to visit The Victorian Web.

Throughout the work of Dickens, we see him hoping to teach these Christian sentiments and morals. This includes in his speeches. For example, a common phrase he uttered was "Christian kindness" to invoke pathos and persuade his audience to donate to the charitable cause he was speaking on behalf of. In his General Theatrical Fund (1851) speech he proclaims:

If you help this Fund you will not be performing an act of charity, but you will do an act of Christian kindness, benevolence, encouragement.

This is also a popular sentiment in his literature. For example, in Stave One of A Christmas Carol, Christmas is described by Scrooge's nephew, Fred, as: 

a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable time... when men and women seem by one consent to open up their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.

For more on how Chrisitianity appears in 'A Christmas Carol', click here to visit BBC Bitesize.

This features similar sentiments to the General Theatrical Fund speech above, suggesting this is how Dickens saw Christianity. He characterised the religion as one of charity, kindness, and an openness to fellow people.

We also see this characterisation of Christianity in Oliver Twist. At the very end (Book 3, Chapter 15), Oliver and Rose are described as having undergone:

lessons in mercy to others, and mutual love, a fervent thanks to Him [God] who had protected and preserved them.

These characters are key protagonists of the novel and have the attributes of a 'good' Christian: mercy, love and gratitude. This would have appealed to the Christian Victorian society. 

Another method Dickens used to evoke emotions when he was public speaking was his likening of kind people to angels or celestial beings. For example, at the Commercial Travellers' Schools Anniversary Dinner (1854), he appeals to the audience:

it is clear that the visitors who come as a sort of celestial representatives ought to bring that aid in their pockets which the precept teaches us to expect from them.

He references a Christian precept, and evokes the image of those who help as angels from God doing Christian charitable work. 

He paints a similar image of Rose in Oliver Twist. Nancy often uses the word 'angel' to describe Rose, after Rose showed her great kindness. This quote from Nancy is taken from Book 3, Chapter 4: "dear, sweet, angel lady, you are the first that ever blessed me with such words as these". 

There is a theme that Dickens presents regarding Christianity: that members of its faith are merciful and generous with their charity. Despite Dickens never belonging to a particular denomination of Christianity, it nevertheless greatly informs his work. Perhaps he was using this faith rhetorically, in an attempt to appeal to his Victorian audience, either to donate to the causes he spoke for, or to buy his novels?


Dickens doesn't mention Judaism in his speeches. However, to consider his religious views in context, it is helpful to consider this blindspot in his empathy. His use of Jewish characters in Oliver Twist reflects a historic prejudice that was held in England. Within the novel, Judaism is concentrated in the character of Fagin. Fagin is depicted as the Victorian stereotype of a Jewish person, and is usually refered to as 'the Jew'. This negative stereotype involves him being depicted as manipulative, corrupting children, and wanting to make money no matter the cost. An example of the common imagery surrounding Fagin in the novel is in Book 3, Chapter 5: 

The Jew again applied his eye to the glass, and turning his ear to the partition, listened attentively, with a subtle and eager look upon his face that might have appertained to some old goblin.

In this quote, Fagin is listening to Noah and Charlotte talking about their robbery in a hope to partner up and commit crimes together. By making Fagin Jewish, Dickens wanted to make him seem even more villainous because of this common stereotype in mainstream Victorian society.

This stereotype of Jewish people lasted up until World War 2 and was heavily present in Nazi Germany. An example of commonly used propaganda in Nazi Germany is a story of two children named 'Hans' and 'Else':

The Experience of Hans and Else with a Strange Man. Large, ominous hook-nosed figure doles sweets to small blond children. ‘Here, kids, I have some candy for you. But you both have to come with me…’2 

This is how Fagin is presented, which might raise questions about our image of Dickens as universally kind and benevolent. Judaism was seen as evil, involving the corruption of children.

DIckens's good friend Eliza Davis wrote multiple letters to him persuading him to stop presenting Jewish characters in this harmful way, as, she argued, it wasn't a truthful depiction of those with of Jewish faith. She wrote: 

It has been said that Charles Dickens the large-hearted, whose works plead so eloquently and nobly for the oppressed of his country… has encouraged a vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew.3 

Following Eliza's letters, Dickens developed the character Mr. Riah in Our Mutual Friend, a kind old Jewish man. However, this character still features some of the negative associations of the Jewish stereotype, such as his economic dealings as a money lender who charges high interest rates. It seems that even Dickens could not escape some of the negative social attitudes that were so common during his lifetime.

The Supernatural 

Ghosts often feature in Dickens's literary works, but not in his public speaking. He was critical of people who believed in ghosts in real life and once wrote a piece making fun of a séance he attended. Here he makes fun of the 'tippings' in séances, which referred to the tipping of the table, supposedly by ghosts who had been summoned: 

We did at first suppose this excessive word to be of English growth, and to refer to the preliminary 'tipping' of the medium, which is found to be indispensable to the entertainments on this side of the Atlantic. We have discovered, however, that it denotes the spiritual movements of the tables and chairs, and of a mysterious peice of furniture called a 'stand', which appears to be in every apartment.4  

However, he often used ghosts in his novels to convey moral messages. For example, in A Christmas Carol, each Ghost of Christmas carries their own tale of morality that they wish for Scrooge to take on. This is also true of the ghost of Jacob Marley, who shows Scrooge the chains he has placed on himself for living a mean and selfish life. 

We also find this use of ghosts in Oliver Twist. The very last section of the story (Book 3, Chapter 15) is dedicated to the ghost of Agnes, Oliver's mother. The Narrator recites: 

But if the spirits of the Dead ever come back to earth to visit spots hallowed by the love - the love beyond the grave - of those whom they knew in life, I do believe that the shade of that poor girl [Agnes] often hovers about that solemn nook - ay, though it is a church, and she was weak and erring.

Ghosts are not mentioned in Oliver Twist until this final moment. But through this small quote, Dickens reiterates an important moral message from the novel: though Agnes was viewed as sinful due to her poverty, she was still loved, and thus should be recognised by the church.  


Although Dickens doesn't mention ghosts in his speeches, death is a fairly prominent theme. In the General Theatrical Fund (1851) speech, his friend John Forster was told 30 minutes prior to speaking that Dickens's daughter Dora had died. John decides not to tell Dickens this until after his speech.5 This made the following quote from his speech all the more painful: 

from scenes of affliction and misfortune - even from death itself - to play his part before us; all men must do that violence to their feelings, in passing on to the fulfilment of their duties in the great strife and fights of life.

He also mentions the dead in his Gardeners's Benevolent Insitution (1851) speech: 

It was a holy duty in foreign countries to decorate the graves of the dead with flowers, and here, too, the resting places of those who had passed away from us would soon be gardens.6 

During the Victorian era, sanitary reformers, such as Edwin Chadwick, wanted to restructure the way graveyards were used to bury the dead. They used to be overcrowded mass burial grounds, unsanitary due to poor hygiene and controntations with dead bodies.7 The experience of being at one of these graveyards is outlined in more detail in Chadwick's A Supplementary Report on the Results of a Special Inquiry into the Practice of Interment in Towns (1843). 

Nisinger, C. 2012. Mary Scott Hogarth's Grave.

After this report, graveyards became designed as places the living would be able to enjoy, with landscaped gardens and a nostaligc feel to remember the dead. Dickens's sister-in-law Mary was buried in a graveyard like this in 1837, and it had a profound effect on him: 

The Cemetery at Kensal Green, adorned as it is with such a goodly variety of beautiful flowers, and freshest evergreens, presents a smiling countenance as well amidst the gloomy winter as in the sunny days of blooming summer, and, unlike the desolate, pent-up burial grounds of the crowded metropolis, instead of repelling our approach but when positive duty commands, allures us to enter its sacred precincts, both by the floral charms within, and the view afforded thence of the extensive and pleasing surrounding scenery without.8 

Although he never resorts to a belief in supernatural beings, death was something Dickens was confronted with many times in his life. His use of imagery of the dead in a variety of speeches, from those about gardening to the theatre, points to his continual coming to terms with the end of his life, and what possibly waits on the other side.   


  1. Dickens, C. In: Cody, D. 1988. Dickens and Religion. Available from: The Victorian Web.

  2. Langton, R. 2012. In: Maitra, I & McGowan, M. K. Speech and Harm: Controversies Over Free Speech. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 75.

  3. Davis, E. 1863. In: Baumgarten, M. 2015. “The Other Woman” –
    Eliza Davis and Charles Dickens. Dickens Quarterly. 32. pp. 44-70 (p. 48). 

  4. Dickens, C. 1858. Well-Authenticated Rappings. Household Words. 17(413). Available from: Dickens Online Journal.

  5. Forster, J. 1875. The Life of Charles Dickens. Vol. 1. James R. Osgood & Company: Boston. p. 493. Available from: Project Gutenburg.

  6. Dickens, C. 1851. In: Fielding, K.J. 1960. The Speeches of Charles Dickens. Oxford: Clarendon Press. (p. 133)

  7. McAllister, D. 2020. Dickens’s ‘school of affliction’: learning from death in
    Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop. Victoriographies: A Journal
    of Nineteenth-Century Writing. 10 (3), pp. 228-247 (p. 237).

  8. Dickens, C. 1843. In: McAllister, D. 2020. p. 239.