Although Scenes of Clerical Life is Eliot’s first fiction about religion, she had been thinking about religion for at least a decade prior to the publication of Scenes of Clerical Life. In 1846, she translated D. F. Strauss’s groundbreaking Das Leben Jesu (1835) as The Life of Jesus Christ Critically Examined; eight years later, she translated Ludwig Feuerbach’s Das Wesen des Christentums (1841; The Essence of Christianity, 1854). Both of these works, critical of the foundations of traditional Christianity, influenced Eliot’s portrait of the bankruptcy of traditional religion in Scenes of Clerical Life.
Moreover, by the time Eliot published Scenes of Clerical Life, the Anglican Church was facing challenges on all sides. The Tractarian, or Oxford, movement of the 1830’s sought to reform the Anglican Church along Catholic lines. This High Church movement emphasized the power and authority of the bishops. The Low Church, or Evangelical, movement, on the other hand, tried to move the Anglican Church in a more Protestant direction, challenging the power of the bishops and asserting the authority of individual believers.
In each of the novellas in Scenes of Clerical Life, the village of Milby struggles with these issues, most starkly in “Janet’s Repentance.” The Evangelical clergymen Amos Barton, Maynard Gilfil, and Tryan represent the freedom from stifling liturgy and corrupt episcopal power of the Anglican Church. Although Eliot portrays each cleric as less than heroic, each of them brings new perspectives on the meaning of true religion to Milby. True religion, in these novellas, is the religion of kindness and humanity.