In Jane Austen: Real and Imagined Worlds, historian Oliver MacDonagh writes on the religion of Fanny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park:
Edmund is indubitably on the side of the angels, but not at the extremity of the host, even in terms of Jane Austen’s narrow range. This is Fanny’s station. The spiritual spectrum of Mansfield Park would seem to run Fanny, Edmund, Sir Thomas, Mary and Crawford, the last two being separated by they relative moral capacities and depth of mind. It is Fanny who strikes the only note of religious emotion in the book – pinchbeck though it may be in the feeble Gothicism of ‘”nothing awful here [Sotherton chapel]”‘. It is Fanny who makes the only reference to the interior workings of spiritual reflection – puerile though it may be to argue that Dr. Grant’s conduct would be still more gross were it not for ‘”that knowledge of himself, the frequency, at least, of that knowledge which it is impossible he should escape'” as a preacher of the gospel. It is Fanny who, first and most clearly of all in the novel, categorizes Crawford’s liaison with Maria in sternly religious terms, in the language of guilt, sin, and punishment. . . .
But although there is no question that Fanny’s religious understanding and practice are superior to all the rest – just as, consequently, her principles and moral perceptions are the finest – even she is not wholly immune from the corruption of the world’s slow stain. We have seen already that, in Edmund’s defence, she proclaims a prudential, not to say worldly, view of holy orders. In the end, she succumbs to the accumulated pressure to take a part in the half-improper drama, Lovers’ Vows. In the end (the author makes it clear), she would also have succumbed to Henry Crawford, had he been constant, and his sister yielding – to Edmund’s suit. Thus Fanny is no saint or ranter. But she is awarded the character of earnest, strict and struggling Christian. It is made clear that within limits, very close limits of course, her principles can be overborne, though it is also made quite clear that her inner citadel is inviolable.
On sacerdotal doctrine:
The sacerdotal doctrine which Mansfield Park preaches is implicitly corrosive of the ancien régime. The insistence on residence was ultimately incompatible with pluralism. The serious performance of parish duties was ultimately incompatible with a traffic in livings based on the accident of possessing capital; so too were even hereditary rights to presentation and the use of political or social ‘interest’ for clerical advancement. The absence of training for the priesthood was ultimately incompatible with Edmund’s call for a counterpoint to educated laity and effective clerical exegesis of the scriptures. The very word ‘improvement,’ as used by three of the novel’s main protagonists, is a touchstone. The Crawfords speak the mid-eighteenth century language at its worst. For Mary, ‘improvement’ in religion means less obligatory devotion; for Henry, grander rectories and rhetorical excursions. But for Edmund, it is conduct rooted in religion. An ecclesiastical framework built or maintained in the spirit of the first two cannot long endure, at least in its entirety, as the spirit of the third advances.