A new tender fatherhood: ‘Divine love’ in the 19th century

The pre-eminence of God’s ‘fatherhood’ was especially salient in the second half of the nineteenth-century. Indeed, some historians have argued that the second half of the 19th century witnessed the introduction of God as a ‘sentimental fatherhood’ – to be contrasted with the earlier emphasis upon God as a ‘moral governor’.

From the 1850s, myriad publications were produced which highlighted the fatherhood of God, asserting its value for understanding humankind’s relationship with God.[1] However, this characterization was accompanied by theological debate.

The Scope of God’s Fatherhood

To whom was God considered a father?

Charles Mead, publishing in the American Journal of Theology in 1897, suggested three modes in which God might be considered a father: in his relationship to Jesus, in his relationship to the redeemed, and his relationship to all of humankind.[2] It was in the final point in which the debate was considerable…

Debates arose regarding whether or not God was a universal father to all humankind. Contemporary authors disagreed over the application of God’s love. Philosopher Simon May, in his seminal text on the history of love, suggests that Christian love has always exuded a conditional nature – and, thus, it is only those who are faithful who may be the privileged recipients of God’s love.[3]

Mead precipitates this sentiment, in his article wherein he concludes that ‘sonship is constituted by faith’: to be a recipient of God’s fatherly love required the condition of faith.[4] On the other hand, a few years before Mead’s publication, a sermon by the Rev. John Coleman Adams (revealingly published by the ‘Universalist Publishing House’) suggested that the universal fatherhood of God over all humankind was engendered by his role as the creator of all humankind. Coleman reserved this right for all humankind, not just the regenerate subscribers of faith.

Using the bible’s book of Malachi

‘Have we not all one Father? Hath not one God created us?’ – he concludes that

‘…it shows beyond question that in the mind of the prophet the fatherhood of God was coextensive with His creatorship over souls.’[5]

The fatherhood of God, therefore, was a contested theological issue in its scope: applying either solely to the faithful, or to the entirety of humankind. The latter view was increasingly popular as contemporaries approached the fin de siècle.

What was the constitution of God’s fatherhood?

Some have argued that, by the middle of the 19th century, a tension had developed between viewing God as a just ‘moral governor’ and viewing him as a ‘tender father’. Perceptions of God as a ‘lawgiver’ were supplanted with that of a tender father.[6] This is most evident in changing perceptions of hell, which also arose in the late 19th century. Indeed, the characterisation of hell as a place of eternal torment was increasingly viewed with distaste. Such sentiments were evinced in the 1876 publication of Catholic Eschatology: ‘It is currently asserted that the doctrine of eternal punishment, and indeed of future retribution altogether, is peculiarly repugnant to the spirit of the age’.[7]

It was increasingly believed that God could not possibly be a loving God if he sent anyone to physical torment for eternity. Thus, new conceptions of hell arose to try to reconcile this eternal place of damnation with the ‘tender father’ lens through which God was increasingly viewed. Two potential solutions were adduced:

1.  Hell was not eternal.

It was increasingly difficult to reconcile a ‘tender father’ with eternal hell. A redefinition of ‘eternity’ was deployed. Rather than being an unending torment, hell was to become a ‘temporary’ torment, albeit for an indefinite period of time.

2. Hell was not physical.

Hell had long been conceived of as a physical bodily pain. Historical literature focused upon the physical and bodily torments which sufferers would endure in hell. Children’s books spoke of fire and brimstone. However, this was problematic in view of God’s ‘tender fatherhood’ which was increasingly popular. A solution was reached: hell was reconsidered. Rather than being a physical bodily pain, it was reconceived as a spiritual pain. Sufferers would likely endure pain due to their separation from God.


It is, perhaps, less helpful to think about the shift in understanding’s God’s love as being from one of judge to that of a father; instead, it is ideal to consider how the perception and experience of God’s loving fatherhood itself transitioned. Divine love as characterised by fatherhood was not a new concept; indeed, as Mead affirms ‘That God has been conceived as a Father thoughout the course of Christian history is a truth so patent that no one would think of denying it.’[8]

What was different, however, was the emphasis of God’s love. Whereas discipline had formerly occupied a central position within the remit of divine love, this emphasis was fading, at best. The disciplinary divine father was being displaced by the tender and merciful divine father. These changes would have been recognised in two parallel shifts occurring in this period: the mediator of God’s love (the atonement) and the message of his love (the bible).

[1] Broughton and Rogers 16

[2] Mead 583

[3] May

[4] Mead 593

[5] Adams: 11

[6] Bebbington

[7] Catholic Esch xxix

[8] Mead 577

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