I find it interesting that characters in Ruth find solace and direction in using the prayer book rather than the Bible. Most are Dissenters from the Church of England. Though Mrs. Gaskell was a Unitarian, along with her colleague Charles Dickens, she liked Church services, and her experience described in the following is similar to her character, Ruth’s.
Gaskell frequently attended Church (Anglican services) as well as Chapel. She enjoyed the spiritual feeling of the high church service. “I wish our Puritan ancestors had not left out so much that they might have kept in of the beautiful and impressive Church service,” she confided to Marianne. “But I always do feel as if the Litany—the beginning of it I mean,—and one or two other parts did so completely go against my belief that it would be wrong to deaden my sense of its serious error by hearing it too often.”
These explanations of her beliefs are also intriguing:
During her formative years Gaskell had been brought up amongst Unitarians of a Priestleyan cast. These included Turner, Robberds, and her husband. These “old school” Unitarians believed in a deterministic—called by Priestley “necessarian”—universe in which human error inevitably led to suffering, and suffering infallibly brought about reconciliation with God. The plots of her more serious novels conform to the necessarian pattern, sometimes apparently compromising the logic of her social messages. In a crucial scene in North and South she depicts three people, an Anglican, a Dissenter, and an “infidel,” kneeling together in mutual tolerance and reconciliation. According to scholar R. K. Webb, “Mrs. Gaskell’s Unitarianism is not to be found in her characters but in the dynamics of her narratives and in her comments upon her characters’ actions.”
Not wishing to be identified as a “Unitarian novelist” as this would severely limit her readership, Gaskell was careful not to tell her stories in explicitly Unitarian terms. In her personal letters, however, there are many clear expressions of her religious opinions and affinities. In a letter to her daughter Marianne she wrote, “one thing I am clear and sure about is this that Jesus Christ was not equal to His father.” Gaskell preferred devotional to doctrinal preaching. About doctrines, she wrote to Charles Eliot Norton, “I am more and more certain we can never be certain in this world.” She rejected “dogmatic hard Unitarianism, utilitarian to the backbone” and protested that she was not “(Unitarianly) orthodox!” See wrote a friend how she had tried to avoid seeing James Martineau, whom she did not like personally and whose “new school” Unitarian theology differed from her own.
In Gaskell’s estimation, true Christianity was not to be found in organized denominations nor in liturgy nor in theology. She believed and acted on a religion of works, “the real earnest Christianity which seeks to do as much and as extensive good as it can.” Local action for change by those most intimately concerned, not government legislation, was her solution to social problems. Those who have should help those who have not. For her such charity began at or near home. She took her motto from Thomas Carlyle, “Do the duty that lies nearest to thee.” Unitarian rationalist feminist journalist Frances Power Cobbe, after reading a story by Gaskell, wrote, “it came to me that Love is greater than knowledge—that it is more beautiful to serve our brothers freely and tenderly, than to hive up learning with each studious year.”