sinful, when they have inherited a sinful nature without their own choice and of necessity? Given a righteous God, how can he allow sin to exist for ever, so that evil shall be as eternal as good, and Satan shall reign in hell, as long as Christ in Heaven? The answer of the Broad church school was, that the word “eternal” applied only to God and to life which was one with his; that “everlasting” only meant “lasting for an age”, and that while the punishment of the wicked might endure for ages it was purifying, not destroying, and at last all should be saved, and “God should be all in all”. These explanations had (for a time) satisfied Mr. D—-, and I find him writing to me in answer to a letter of mine dated March 25th, 1872:
“On the subject of Eternal punishment I have now not the remotest doubt. It is impossible to handle the subject exhaustively in a letter, with a sermon to finish before night. But you _must_ get hold of a few valuable books that would solve all kinds of difficulties for you. For most points read Stopford Brooke’s Sermons–they are simply magnificent, and are called (1) Christian modern life, (2) Freedom in the Church of England, (3) and (least helpful) ‘Sermons’. Then again there is an appendix to Llewellyn Davies’ ‘Manifestation of the Son of God’, which treats of forgiveness in a future state as related to Christ and Bible. As to that special passage about the Blasphemy against the Holy Ghost (to which you refer), I will write you my notions on it in a future letter.”
A little later, according, he wrote:
“With regard to your passage of difficulty about the unpardonable sin, I would say: (1) If that sin is not to be forgiven in the world to come, it is implied that all other sins _are forgiven in the world to come_. (2) You must remember that our Lord’s parables and teachings mainly concerned contemporary events and people. I mean, for instance, that in his great prophecy of _judgment_ he simply was speaking of the destruction of the Jewish polity and nation. The _principles_ involved apply through all time, but He did not apply them except to the Jewish nation. He was speaking then, not of ‘the end of the _world_, (as is wrongly translated), but of ‘the end of the _age_’. (Every age is wound up with a judgment. French Revolutions, Reformations, etc., are all ends of ages and judgments.) [Greek aion] does not, cannot, will not, and never did mean _world_, but _age_. Well, then, he has been speaking of the Jewish people. And he says that all words spoken against the Son of Man will be forgiven. But there is a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit of God–there is a confusion of good with evil, of light with darkness–which goes deeper down than this. When a nation has lost the faculty of distinguishing love from hatred, the spirit of falsehood and hypocrisy from the spirit of truth, God from the Devil–_then its doom is pronounced_–the decree is gone forth against it. As the doom of Judaism, guilty of this sin, _was then_ pronounced. As the _decree against it had already gone forth. It is a national warning, not an individual one. It applies to two ages of this world, and not to two worlds_. All its teaching was primarily _national_, and is only thus to be rightly read– if not all, rather _most of it_. If you would be sure of this and understand it, see the parables, etc., explained in Maurice’s ‘Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven’ (a commentary on S. Luke). I can only indicate briefly in a letter the line to be taken on this question.
“With regard to the [Greek: elui, elui, lama sabbachthani]. I don’t believe that the Father even momentarily hid his face from Him. The life of sonship was unbroken. Remark: (1) It is a quotation from a Psalm. (2) It rises naturally to a suffering man’s lips as expressive of agony, though not exactly framed for _his_ individual _agony_. (3) The spirit of the Psalm is one of trust, and hope, and full faith, notwithstanding the 1st verse. (4) Our Lord’s agony was very extreme, not merely of body but of _soul_. He spoke out of the desolation of one forsaken, not by his divine Father but by his human brothers. I have heard sick and dying men use the words of beloved Psalms in just such a manner.
“The impassibility of God (1) With regard to the Incarnation, this presents no difficulty. Christ suffered simply and entirely as man, was too truly a man not to do so. (2) With regard to the Father, the key of it is here. ‘God _is_ love.’ He does not need suffering to train into sympathy, because his nature is sympathy. He can afford to dispense with hysterics, because he sees ahead that his plan is working to the perfect result. I am not quite sure whether I have hit upon your difficulty here, as I have destroyed your last letter but one. But the ‘Gospel of the Kingdom’ is a wonderful ‘eye-opener’.”
Worst of all the puzzles, perhaps, was that of the existence of evil and of misery, and the racking doubt whether God _could_ be good, and yet look on the evil and the misery of the world unmoved and untouched. It seemed so impossible to believe that a Creator could be either cruel enough to be indifferent to the misery, or weak enough to be unable to stop it: the old dilemma faced me unceasingly. “If he can prevent it, and does not, he is not good; if he wishes to prevent it, and cannot, he is not almighty;” and out of this I could find no way of escape. Not yet had any doubt of the existence of God crossed my mind.
In August, 1872 Mr. D—- tried to meet this difficulty. He wrote:
“With regard to the impassibility of God, I think there is a stone wrong among your foundations which causes your difficulty. Another wrong stone is, I think, your view of the nature of the _sin_ and _error_ which is supposed to grieve God. I take it that sin is an absolutely necessary factor in the production of the perfect man. It was foreseen and allowed as a means to an end–as in fact an _education_.
“The view of all the sin and misery in the world cannot grieve God, any more than it can grieve you to see Digby fail in his first attempt to build a card-castle or a rabbit-hutch. All is part of the training. God looks at the ideal man to which all tends. The popular idea of the fall is to me a very absurd one. There was never an ideal state in the past, but there will be in the future. The Genesis allegory simply typifies the first awakening of consciousness of good and evil–of two _wills_ in a mind hitherto only animal-psychic.
“Well then–there being no occasion for grief in watching the progress of his own perfect and unfailing plans–your difficulty in God’s impassibility vanishes. Christ, _qua_ God, was, of course, impassible too. It seems to me that your position implies that God’s ‘designs’ have partially (at least) failed, and hence the grief of perfect benevolence. Now I stoutly deny that any jot or tittle of God’s plans can fail. I believe in the ordering of all for the best. I think that the pain consequent on broken law is only an inevitable necessity, over which we shall some day rejoice.
“The indifference shown to God’s love cannot pain Him. Why? because it is simply a sign of defectiveness in the creature which the ages will rectify. The being who is indifferent is not yet educated up to the point of love. But he _will be_. The pure and holy suffering of Christ was (pardon me) _wholly_ the consequence of his human nature. True it was because of the _perfection_ of his humanity. But his Divinity had nothing to do with it. It was his _human heart_ that broke. It was because he entered a world of broken laws and of incomplete education that he became involved in suffering with the rest of his race…..
“No, Mrs. Besant; I never feel at all inclined to give up the search, or to suppose that the other side may be right. I claim no merit for it, but I have an invincible faith in the morality of God and the moral order of the world. I have no more doubt about the falsehood of the popular theology than I have about the unreality of six robbers who attacked me three nights ago in a horrid dream. I exult and rejoice in the grandeur and freedom of the little bit of truth it has been given me to see. I am told that ‘Present-day Papers’, by Bishop Ewing (edited) are a wonderful help, many of them, to puzzled people: I mean to get them. But I am sure you will find that the truth will (even so little as we may be able to find out) grow on you, make you free, light your path, and dispel, at no distant time, your _painful_ difficulties and doubts. I should say on no account give up your reading. I think with you that you could not do without it. It will be a wonderful source of help and peace to you. For there are struggles far more fearful than those of intellectual doubt. I am keenly alive to the gathered-up sadness of which your last two pages are an expression. I was sorrier than I can say to read them. They reminded me of a long and very dark time in my own life, when I thought the light never would come. Thank God it came, or I think I could not have held out much longer. But you have evidently strength to bear it now. The more dangerous time, I should fancy, has passed. You will have to mind that the fermentation leaves clear spiritual wine, and not (as too often) vinegar.
“I wish I could write something more helpful to you in this great matter. But as I sit in front of my large bay window, and see the shadows on the grass and the sunlight on the leaves, and the soft glimmer of the rosebuds left by the storms, I cannot but believe that all will be very well. ‘Trust in the Lord; wait patiently for him’–they are trite words. But he made the grass, the leaves, the rosebuds, and the sunshine, and he is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And now the trite words have swelled into a mighty argument.”
Despite reading and argument, my scepticism grew only deeper and deeper. The study of W.R. Greg’s “Creed of Christendom”, of Matthew Arnold’s “Literature and Dogma”, helped to widen the mental horizon, while making a return to the old faith more and more impossible. The church services were a weekly torture, but feeling as I did that I was only a doubter, I spoke to none of my doubts. It was possible, I felt, that all my difficulties might be cleared up, and I had no right to shake the faith of others while in uncertainty myself. Others had doubted and had afterwards believed; for the doubter silence was a duty; the blinded had better keep their misery to themselves. I found some practical relief in parish work of a non-doctrinal kind, in nursing the sick, in trying to brighten a little the lot of the poor of the village. But here, again, I was out of sympathy with most of those around me. The movement among the agricultural laborers, due to the energy and devotion of Joseph Arch, was beginning to be talked of in the fens, and bitter were the comments of the farmers on it, while I sympathised with the other side. One typical case, which happened some months later, may stand as example of all. There was a young man, married, with two young children, who was wicked enough to go into a neighboring county to a “Union Meeting”, and who was, further, wicked enough to talk about it when he returned. He became a marked man; no farmer would employ him. He tramped about vainly, looking for work, grew reckless, and took to drink. Visiting his cottage one day I found his wife ill, a dead child in the bed, a sick child in her arms; yes, she “was pining; there was no work to be had”. “Why did she leave the dead child on the bed? because there was no other place to put it.” The cottage consisted of one room and a “lean-to”, and husband and wife, the child dead of fever and the younger child sickening with it, were all obliged to lie on the one bed. In another cottage I found four generations sleeping in one room, the great-grandfather and his wife, the grandmother (unmarried), the mother (unmarried), and the little child, while three men-lodgers completed the tale of eight human beings crowded into that narrow, ill-ventilated garret. Other cottages were hovels, through the broken roofs of which poured the rain, and wherein rheumatism and ague lived with the dwellers. How could I do aught but sympathise with any combination that aimed at the raising of these poor? But to sympathise with Joseph Arch was a crime in the eyes of the farmers, who knew that his agitation meant an increased drain on their pockets. For it never struck them that, if they paid less in rent to the absent landlord, they might pay more in wage to the laborers who helped to make their wealth, and they had only civil words for the burden that crushed them, and harsh ones for the builders-up of their ricks and the mowers of their harvests. They made common cause with their enemy, instead of with their friend, and instead of leaguing themselves with the laborers, as forming together the true agricultural interest, they leagued themselves with the landlords against the laborers, and so made fratricidal strife instead of easy victory over the common foe.
In the summer and autumn of 1872, I was a good deal in London with my mother.–My health had much broken down, and after a severe attack of congestion of the lungs, my recovery was very slow. One Sunday in London, I wandered into St. George’s Hall, in which Mr. Charles Voysey was preaching, and there I bought some of his sermons. To my delight I found that someone else had passed through the same difficulties as I about hell and the Bible and the atonement and the character of God, and had given up all these old dogmas, while still clinging to belief in God. I went to St. George’s Hall again on the following Sunday, and in the little ante-room, after the service, I found myself in a stream of people, who were passing by Mr. and Mrs. Voysey, some evidently known to him, some strangers, many of the latter thanking him for his morning’s work. As I passed in my turn I said: “I must thank you for very great help in what you have said this morning”, for indeed the possibility opened of a God who was really “loving unto every man”, and in whose care each was safe for ever, had come like a gleam of light across the stormy sea of doubt and distress on which I had been tossing for nearly twelve months. On the following Sunday, I saw them again, and was cordially invited down to their Dulwich home, where they gave welcome to all in doubt. I soon found that the Theism they professed was free from the defects which revolted me in Christianity. It left me God as a Supreme Goodness, while rejecting all the barbarous dogmas of the Christian faith. I now read Theodore Parker’s “Discourse on Religion”, Francis Newman’s “Hebrew Monarchy”, and other works, many of the essays of Miss Frances Power Cobbe and of other Theistic writers, and I no longer believed in the old dogmas and hated while I believed; I no longer doubted whether they were true or not; I shook them off, once for all, with all their pain, and horror, and darkness, and felt, with relief and joy inexpressible, that they were all but the dreams of ignorant and semi-savage minds, not the revelation of a God. The last remnant of Christianity followed swiftly these cast-off creeds, though, in parting with this, one last pang was felt. It was the doctrine of the Deity of Christ. The whole teaching of the Broad Church School tends, of course, to emphasise the humanity at the expense of the Deity of Christ, and when the eternal punishment and the substitutionary atonement had vanished, there seemed to be no sufficient reason left for so stupendous a miracle as the incarnation of the Deity. I saw that the idea of incarnation was common to all Eastern creeds, not peculiar to Christianity; the doctrine of the unity of God repelled the doctrine of the incarnation of a portion of the Godhead. But the doctrine was dear from association; there was something at once soothing and ennobling in the idea of a union between Man and God, between a perfect man and divine supremacy, between a human heart and an almighty strength. Jesus as God was interwoven with all art, with all beauty in religion; to break with the Deity of Jesus was to break with music, with painting, with literature; the Divine Child in his mother’s arms, the Divine Man in his Passion and in his triumph, the human friend encircled with the majesty of the Godhead–did inexorable Truth demand that this ideal figure, with all its pathos, its beauty, its human love, should pass into the Pantheon of the dead Gods of the Past?
The struggle was a sharp one ere I could decide that intellectual honesty demanded that the question of the Deity of Christ should be analysed as strictly as all else, and that the conclusions come to from an impartial study of facts should be faced as steadily as though they dealt with some unimportant question. I was bound to recognise, however, that more than intellectual honesty would be here required, for if the result of the study were–as I dimly felt it would be–to establish disbelief in the supernatural claims of Christ, I could not but feel that such disbelief would necessarily entail most unpleasant external results. I might give up belief in all save this, and yet remain a member of the Church of England: views on Inspiration, on Eternal Torture, on the Vicarious Atonement, however heterodox, might be held within the pale of the Church; many broad church clergymen rejected these as decidedly as I did myself, and yet remained members of the Establishment; the judgment on “Essays and Reviews” gave this wide liberty to heresy within the Church, and a laywoman might well claim the freedom of thought legally bestowed on divines. The name “Christian” might well be worn while Christ was worshipped as God, and obeyed as the “Revealer of the Father’s will”, the “well-beloved Son”, the “Savior and Lord of men”. But once challenge that unique position, once throw off that supreme sovereignty, and then it seemed to me that the name “Christian” became a hypocrisy, and its renouncement a duty incumbent on an upright mind. But I was a clergyman’s wife; my position made my participation in the Holy Communion a necessity, and my withdrawal therefrom would be an act marked and commented upon by all. Yet if I lost my faith in Christ, how could I honestly approach “the Lord’s Table”, where Christ was the central figure and the recipient of the homage paid there by every worshipper to “God made man”? Hitherto mental pain alone had been the price demanded inexorably from the searcher after truth; now to the inner would be added the outer warfare, and how could I tell how far this might carry me?
One night only I spent in this struggle over the question: “Shall I examine the claims to Deity of Jesus of Nazareth?”. When morning broke the answer was clearly formulated: “Truth is greater than peace or position. If Jesus be God, challenge will not shake his Deity; if he be Man, it is blasphemy to worship him.” I re-read Liddon’s “Bampton Lectures” on this controversy and Renan’s “Vie de Jesus”. I studied the Gospels, and tried to represent to myself the life there outlined; I tested the conduct there given as I should have tested the conduct of any ordinary historical character; I noted that in the Synoptics no claim to Deity was made by Jesus himself, nor suggested by his disciples; I weighed his own answer to an enquirer, with its plain disavowal of Godhood: “Why callest thou me good? There is none good save one, that is God” (Matt, xix., 17); I conned over his prayers to “my Father”, his rest on divine protection, his trust in a power greater than his own; I noted his repudiation of divine knowledge: “Of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, _neither the Son_, but the Father” (Mark xiii., 32); I studied the meaning of his prayer of anguished submission: “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me! nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt, xxvi., 39); I dwelt on his bitter cry in his dying agony: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt, xxvii., 46); I asked the meaning of the final words of rest: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke xxiii., 46). And I saw that, if there were any truth in the Gospels at all, they told the story of a struggling, suffering, sinning, praying man, and not of a God at all and the dogma of the Deity of Christ followed the rest of the Christian doctrines into the limbo of past beliefs.
Yet one other effort I made to save myself from the difficulties I foresaw in connexion with this final breach with Christianity. There was one man who had in former days wielded over me a great influence, one whose writings had guided and taught me for many years–Dr. Pusey, the venerable leader of the Catholic party in the Church, the learned Patristic scholar, full of the wisdom of antiquity. He believed in Christ as God; what if I put my difficulties to him? If he resolved them for me I should escape the struggle I foresaw; if he could not resolve them, then no answer to them was to be hoped for. My decision was quickly made; being with my mother, I could write to him unnoticed, and I sat down and put my questions clearly and fully, stating my difficulties and asking him whether, out of his wider knowledge and deeper reading, he could resolve them for me. I wish I could here print his answer, together with two or three other letters I received from him, but the packet was unfortunately stolen from my desk and I have never recovered it. Dr. Pusey advised me to read Liddon’s “Bampton Lectures”, referred me to various passages, chiefly from the Fourth Gospel, if I remember rightly, and invited me to go down to Oxford and talk over my difficulties. Liddon’s “Bampton Lectures” I had thoroughly studied, and the Fourth Gospel had no weight with me, the arguments in favor of its Alexandrian origin being familiar to me, but I determined to accept his invitation to a personal interview, regarding it as the last chance of remaining in the Church.
To Oxford, accordingly, I took the train, and made my way to the famous Doctor’s rooms. I was shown in, and saw a short, stout gentleman, dressed in a cassock, and looking like a comfortable monk; but the keen eyes, steadfastly gazing straight into mine, told me of the power and subtlety hidden by the unprepossessing form. The head was fine and impressive, the voice low, penetrating, drilled into a somewhat monotonous and artificially subdued tone. I quickly found that no sort of enlightenment could possibly result from our interview. He treated me as a penitent going to confession, seeking the advice of a director, not as an enquirer struggling after truth, and resolute to obtain some firm standing-ground in the sea of doubt, whether on the shores of orthodoxy or of heresy. He would not deal with the question of the Deity of Jesus as a question for argument; he reminded me: “You are speaking of your judge,” when I pressed some question. The mere suggestion of an imperfection in Jesus’ character made him shudder in positive pain, and he checked me with raised hand, and the rebuke: “You are blaspheming; the very thought is a terrible sin”. I asked him if he could recommend to me any books which would throw light on the subject: “No, no, you have read too much already. You must pray; you must pray.” Then, as I said that I could not believe without proof, I was told: “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed,” and my further questioning was checked by the murmur: “O my child, how undisciplined! how impatient!”. Truly, he must have found in me–hot, eager, passionate in my determination to know, resolute not to profess belief while belief was absent–but very little of that meek, chastened, submissive spirit to which he was accustomed in the penitents wont to seek his counsel as their spiritual guide. In vain did he bid me pray as though I believed; in vain did he urge the duty of blind submission to the authority of the Church, of yielding, unreasoning faith, which received but questioned not. He had no conception of the feelings of the sceptical spirit; his own faith was solid as a rock– firm, satisfied, unshakeable; he would as soon have committed suicide as have doubted of the infallibility of the “Universal Church”.
“It is not your duty to ascertain the truth,” he told me sternly. “It is your duty to accept and to believe the truth as laid down by the Church; at your peril you reject it; the responsibility is not yours so long as you dutifully accept that which the Church has laid down for your acceptance. Did not the Lord promise that the presence of the Spirit should be ever with his Church, to guide her into all truth?”
“But the fact of the promise and its value are the very points on which I am doubtful,” I answered.
He shuddered. “Pray, pray,” he said. “Father, forgive her, for she knows not what she says.”
It was in vain I urged that I had everything to gain and nothing to lose by following his directions, but that it seemed to me that fidelity to truth forbade a pretended acceptance of that which was not believed.
“Everything to lose? Yes, indeed. You will be lost for time and lost for eternity.”
“Lost or not,” I rejoined, “I must and will try to find out what is true, and I will not believe till I am sure.”
“You have no right to make terms with God,” he answered, “as to what you will believe and what you will not believe. You are full of intellectual pride.”
I sighed hopelessly. Little feeling of pride was there in me just then, and I felt that in this rigid unyielding dogmatism there was no comprehension of my difficulties, no help for me in my strugglings. I rose and, thanking him for his courtesy, said that I would not waste his time further, that I must go home and just face the difficulties out, openly leaving the Church and taking the consequences. Then for the first time his serenity was ruffled.
“I forbid you to speak of your disbelief,” he cried. “I forbid you to lead into your own lost state the souls for whom Christ died.”
Slowly and sadly I took my way back to the station, knowing that my last chance of escape had failed me. I recognised in this famous divine the spirit of the priest, which could be tender and pitiful to the sinner, repentant, humble, submissive, craving only for pardon and for guidance, but which was iron to the doubter, to the heretic, and would crush out all questionings of “revealed truth”, silencing by force, not by argument, all challenge of the traditions of the Church. Out of such men were made the Inquisitors of the Middle Ages, perfectly conscientious, perfectly rigid, perfectly merciless to the heretic. To them heretics were and are centres of infectious disease, and charity to them “the worst cruelty to the souls of men”. Certain that they hold “by no merit of our own, but by the mercy of our God the one truth which he hath revealed”, they can permit no questionings, they can accept nought but the most complete submission. But while man aspires after truth, while his brain yearns after knowledge, while his intellect soars upward into the heaven of speculation and “beats the air with tireless wing”, so long shall those who demand faith be met by challenge for proof, and those who would blind him shall be defeated by his determination to gaze unblenching on the face of Truth, even though her eyes should turn him into stone.
During this same visit to London I saw Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Scott for the first time. I had gone down to Dulwich to see Mr. and Mrs. Voysey, and after dinner we went over to Upper Norwood, and I was introduced to one of the most remarkable men I have ever met. At that time Mr. Scott was an old man, with beautiful white hair, and eyes like those of a hawk gleaming from under shaggy eyebrows; he had been a man of magnificent physique, and though his frame was then enfeebled, the splendid lion-like head kept its impressive strength and beauty, and told of a unique personality. Of Scotch descent and wellborn, Thomas Scott had, as a boy, been a page at the French Court; his manhood was spent in many lands, for he “was a mighty hunter”, though not “before the Lord”. He had lived for months among the North American Indians, sharing the hardships of their wild life; he had hunted and fished all over the world. At last, he came home, married, and ultimately settled down at Ramsgate, where he made his home a centre of heretical thought. He issued an enormous number of tracts and pamphlets, and each month he sent out a small packet to hundreds of subscribers and friends. This monthly issue of heretical literature soon made itself a power in the world of thought; the tracts were of various shades of opinion, but were all heretical: some moderate, some extreme; all were well-written, cultured and polished in tone–this was a rule to which Mr. Scott made no exceptions; his writers might say what they liked, but they must have something real to say, and they must say that something in good English. The little white packets found their way into many a quiet country parsonage, into many a fashionable home. His correspondence was world-wide and came from all classes–now a letter from a Prime Minister, now one from a blacksmith. All were equally welcome, and all were answered with equal courtesy. At his house met people of the most varying opinions. Colenso, Bishop of Natal, Edward Maitland, E. Vansittart Neale, Charles Bray, Sara Hennell, W.J. Birch, R. Suffield, and hundreds more, clerics and laymen, scholars and thinkers, all gathered in this one home, to which the right of _entree_ was gained only by love of Truth and desire to spread Freedom among men.
Mr. Scott devoted his fortune to this great work. He would never let publishers have his pamphlets in the ordinary way of trade, but issued them all himself and distributed them gratuitously. If anyone desired to subscribe, well and good, they might help in the work, but make it a matter of business he would not. If anyone sent money for some tracts, he would send out double the worth of the money enclosed, and thus for years he carried on this splendid propagandist work. In all he was nobly seconded by his wife, his “right hand” as he well named her, a sweet, strong, gentle, noble woman, worthy of her husband, and than that no higher praise can be spoken. Of both I shall have more to say hereafter, but at present we are at the time of my first visit to them at Upper Norwood, whither they had removed from Ramsgate.
Kindly greeting was given by both, and on Mr. Voysey suggesting that judging by one essay of mine that he had seen–an essay which was later expanded into the one on “Inspiration”, in the Scott series–my pen would be useful for propagandist work, Mr. Scott bade me try what I could do, and send him for criticism anything I thought good enough for publication; he did not, of course, promise to accept an essay, but he promised to read it. A question arose as to the name to be attached to the essay, in case of publication, and I told him that my name was not my own to use, and that I did not suppose that Mr. Besant could possibly, in his position, give me permission to attach it to a heretical essay; we agreed that any essays I might write should for the present be published anonymously, and that I should try my hand to begin with on the subject of the “Deity of Jesus of Nazareth”. And so I parted from those who were to be such good friends to me in the coming time of struggle.
My resolve was now made, and henceforth there was at least no more doubt so far as my position towards the Church was concerned. I made up my mind to leave it, but was willing to make the leaving as little obtrusive as possible. On my return to Sibsey I stated clearly the ground on which I stood. I was ready to attend the Church services, joining in such parts as were addressed to “the Supreme Being”, for I was still heartily Theistic; “the Father”, shorn of all the horrible accessories hung round him by Christianity, was still to me an object of adoration, and I could still believe in and worship One who was “righteous in all His ways, and holy in all His works”, although the Moloch to whom was sacrificed the well-beloved son had passed away for ever from my creed. Christian I was not, though Theist I was, and I felt that the wider and more generous faith would permit me to bow to the common God with my Christian brethren, if only I was not compelled to pay homage to that “Son of Man” whom Christians believed divine, homage which to me had become idolatry, insulting to the “One God”, to him of whom Jesus himself had spoken as of “my God and your God”.
Simply enough was the difficulty arranged for the moment. It was agreed that I should withdraw myself from the “Holy Communion”–for in that service, full of the recognition of Jesus as Deity, I could not join without hypocrisy. The ordinary services I would attend, merely remaining silent during those portions of them in which I could not honestly take part, and while I knew that these changes in a clergyman’s wife could not pass unnoticed in a country village, I yet felt that nothing less than this was consistent with barest duty. While I had merely doubted, I had kept silence, and no act of mine had suggested doubt to others. Now that I had no doubt that Christianity was a delusion, I would no longer act as though I believed that to be of God which heart and intellect rejected as untrue.
For awhile all went smoothly. I daresay the parishioners gossipped about the absence of their vicar’s wife from the Sacrament, and indeed I remember the pain and trembling wherewith, on the first “Sacrament Sunday” after my return, I rose from my seat and walked quietly from the church, leaving the white-spread altar. That the vicar’s wife should “communicate” was as much a matter of course as that the vicar should “administer”; I had never in my life taken public part in anything that made me noticeable in any way among strangers, and still I can recall the feeling of deadly sickness that well nigh overcame me, as rising to go out I felt that every eye in the church was on me, and that my exit would be the cause of unending comment. As a matter of fact, everyone thought that I was taken suddenly ill, and many were the calls and enquiries on the following day. To any direct question, I answered quietly that I was unable to take part in the profession of faith required from an honest communicant, but the statement was rarely necessary, for the idea of heresy in a vicar’s wife did not readily suggest itself to the ordinary bucolic mind, and I did not proffer information when it was unasked for.
It happened that, shortly after that (to me) memorable Christmas of 1872, a sharp epidemic of typhoid fever broke out in the village of Sibsey. The drainage there was of the most primitive type, and the contagion spread rapidly. Naturally fond of nursing, I found in this epidemic work just fitted to my hand, and I was fortunate enough to be able to lend personal help that made me welcome in the homes of the stricken poor. The mothers who slept exhausted while I watched beside their darlings’ bedsides will never, I like to fancy, think over harshly of the heretic whose hand was as tender and often more skilful than their own. I think Mother Nature meant me for a nurse, for I take a sheer delight in nursing anyone, provided only that there is peril in the sickness, so that there is the strange and solemn feeling of the struggle between the human skill one wields and the supreme enemy, Death. There is a strange fascination in fighting Death, step by step, and this is of course felt to the full where one fights for life as life, and not for a life one loves. When the patient is beloved, the struggle is touched with agony, but where one fights with Death over the body of a stranger, there is a weird enchantment in the contest without personal pain, and as one forces back the hated foe there is a curious triumph in the feeling which marks the death-grip yielding up its prey, as one snatches back to earth the life which had well-nigh perished.
Meanwhile, the promise to Mr. Scott was not forgotten, and I penned the essay on “The Deity of Jesus of Nazareth” which stands first in the collection of essays published later under the title, “My Path to Atheism”. The only condition annexed to my sending it to Mr. Scott was the perfectly fair one that if published it should appear without my name. Mr. Scott was well pleased with the essay, and before long it was printed as one of the “Scott Series”, to my great delight.
But unfortunately a copy sent to a relative of Mr. Besant’s brought about a storm. That gentlemen did not disagree with it–indeed he admitted that all educated persons must hold the views put forward–but what would Society say? What would “the county families” think if one of the clerical party was known to be a heretic. This dreadful little paper bore the inscription “By the wife of a beneficed clergyman”; what would happen if the “wife of the beneficed clergyman” were identified with Mrs. Besant of Sibsey?
After some thought I made a compromise. Alter or hide my faith I would not, but yield personal feelings I would. I gave up my correspondence with Mr. and Mrs. Voysey, which might, it was alleged, he noticed in the village and so give rise to mischievous gossip. In this Mr. and Mrs. Voysey most generously helped me, bidding me rest assured of their cordial friendship while counselling me for awhile to cease the correspondence which was one of the few pleasures of my life, but was not part of my duty to the higher and freer faith which we had all embraced. With keen regret I bade them for awhile farewell, and went back to my lonely life.
In that spring of 1873, I delivered my first lecture. It was delivered to no one, queer as that may sound to my readers. And indeed, it was queer altogether. I was learning to play the organ, and was in the habit of practising in the church by myself, without a blower. One day, being securely locked in, I thought I would like to try how “it felt” to speak from the pulpit. Some vague fancies were stirring in me, that I could speak if I had the chance; very vague they were, for the notion that I might ever speak on the platform had never dawned on me; only the longing to find outlet in words was in me; the feeling that I had something to say, and the yearning to say it. So, queer as it may seem? I ascended the pulpit in the big, empty, lonely church, and there and then I delivered my first lecture! I shall never forget the feeling of power and of delight which came upon me as my voice rolled down the aisles, and the passion in me broke into balanced sentences, and never paused for rhythmical expression, while I felt that all I wanted was to see the church full of upturned faces, instead of the emptiness of the silent pews. And as though in a dream the solitude became peopled, and I saw the listening faces and the eager eyes, and as the sentences came unbidden from my lips, and my own tones echoed back to me from the pillars of the ancient church, I knew of a verity that the gift of speech was mine, and that if ever–and it seemed then so impossible–if ever the chance came to me of public work, that at least this power of melodious utterance should win hearing for any message I had to bring.
But that knowledge remained a secret all to my own self for many a long month, for I quickly felt ashamed of that foolish speechifying in an empty church, and I only recall it now because, in trying to trace out one’s mental growth, it is only fair to notice the first silly striving after that expression in spoken words, which, later, has become to me one of the deepest delights of life. And indeed none can know save they who have felt it what joy there is in the full rush of language which, moves and sways; to feel a crowd respond to the lightest touch; to see the faces brighten or graven at your bidding; to know that the sources of human passion and human emotion gush at the word of the speaker, as the stream from the riven rock; to feel that the thought that thrills through a thousand hearers has its impulse from you and throbs back to you the fuller from a thousand heart-beats; is there any joy in life more brilliant than this, fuller of passionate triumph, and of the very essence of intellectual delight?
My pen was busy, and a second pamphlet, dealing with the Johannine gospel, was written and sent up to Mr. Scott under the same conditions of anonymity as before, for it was seen that my authorship could in nowise be suspected, and Mr. Scott paid me for my work. I had also made a collection of Theistic, but non-Christian, hymns, with a view of meeting a want felt by Mr. Voysey’s congregation at St. George’s Hall, and this was lying idle, while it might be utilised. So it was suggested that I should take up again my correspondence with Mr. and Mrs. Voysey, and glad enough was I to do so. During this time my health was rapidly failing, and in the summer of 1873 it broke down completely. At last I went up to London to consult a physician, and was told I was suffering from general nervous exhaustion, which, was accompanied by much disturbance of the functions of the heart. “There is no organic disease yet,” said Dr. Sibson, “but there soon will be, unless you can completely change your manner of life.” Such a change was not possible, and I grew rapidly worse. The same bad adviser who had before raised the difficulty of “what will Society say?” again interfered, and urged that pressure should be put on me to compel me at least to conform to the outward ceremonies of the Church, and to attend the Holy Communion. This I was resolved not to do, whatever might be the result of my “obstinacy “, and the result was not long in coming.
I had been with the children to Southsea, to see if the change would restore my shattered health, and stayed in town with my mother on my return under Dr. Sibson’s care. Very skilful and very good to me was Dr. Sibson, giving me for almost nothing all the wealthiest could have bought with their gold, but he could not remove all then in my life which made the re-acquiring of health impossible. What the doctor could not do, however, others did. It was resolved that I should either resume attendance at the Communion, or should not return home; hypocrisy or expulsion–such was the alternative; I chose the latter.
A bitterly sad time followed; my dear mother was heartbroken; to her, with her wide and vague form of Christianity, loosely held, the intensity of my feeling that where I did not believe I would not pretend belief, was incomprehensible. She recognised far more fully than I all that a separation from my home meant for me, and the difficulties which would surround a young woman not yet six-and-twenty, living alone. She knew how brutally the world judges, and how the mere fact that a woman is young and alone justifies any coarseness of slander. Then, I did not guess how cruel men and women could be, but knowing it from eleven years’ experience, I deliberately say that I would rather go through it all again with my eyes wide open from the first, than have passed those eleven years “in Society” under the burden of an acted lie.
But the struggle was hard when she prayed me for her sake to give way; against harshness I had been rigid as steel, but to remain steadfast when my darling mother, whom I loved as I loved nothing else on earth, begged me on her knees to yield, was indeed hard. I felt as though it must be a crime to refuse submission when she urged it, but still–to live a lie? Not even for her was that possible.
Then there were the children, the two little ones who worshipped me, I who was to them mother, nurse, and playfellow. Were these also to be resigned? For awhile, at least, this complete loss was spared me, for facts (which I have not touched on in this record) came accidentally to my brother’s knowledge, and he resolved that I should have the protection of legal separation, and should not be turned wholly penniless and alone into the world. So, when everything was arranged, I found myself possessed of my little girl, of complete personal freedom, and of a small monthly income sufficient for respectable starvation.
The “world was all before us where to choose”, but circumstances narrowed the choice down to Hobson’s. I had no ready money beyond the first month’s payment of my annuity; furnished lodgings were beyond my means, and I had nothing wherewith to buy furniture. My brother offered me a home, on condition that I should give up my “heretical friends” and keep quiet; but, being freed from one bondage, nothing was further from my thoughts than to enter another. Besides, I did not choose to be a burden on anyone, and I resolved to “get something to do”, to rent a tiny house, and to make a nest where my mother, my little girl, and I could live happily together. The difficulty was the “something”; I spent various shillings in agencies, with a quite wonderful unanimity of failures. I tried to get some fancy needlework, advertised as an infallible source of income to “ladies in reduced circumstances”; I fitted the advertisement admirably, for I was a lady, and my circumstances were decidedly reduced, but I only earned 4s. 6d. by weeks of stitching, and the materials cost nearly as much as the finished work. I experimented with a Birmingham firm, who generously offered everyone an opportunity of adding to their incomes, and received in answer to the small fee demanded a pencil-case, with an explanation that I was to sell little articles of that description–going as far as cruet-stands–to my friends; I did not feel equal to springing pencil-cases and cruet-stands casually on my acquaintances, so did not start in that business. It would be idle to relate all the things I tried, and failed in, until I began to think that the “something to do” was not so easy to find as I had expected.
I made up my mind to settle at Upper Norwood, near Mr. and Mrs. Scott, who were more than good to me in my trouble; and I fixed on a very little house in Colby Road, Gipsy Hill, to be taken from the ensuing Easter. Then came the question of furniture; a friend of Mr. Scott’s gave me an introduction to a manufacturer, who agreed to let me have furniture for a bedroom and sitting-room, and to let me pay him by monthly instalments. The next thing was to save a few months’ annuity, and so have a little money in hand, wherewith to buy necessaries on starting, and to this end I decided to accept a loving invitation to Folkestone, where my grandmother was living with two of my aunts, and there to seek some employment, no matter what, provided it gave me food and lodging, and enabled me to put aside my few pounds a month.
Relieved from the constant strain of fear and anxiety, my health was quickly improving, and the improvement became more rapid after I went down with my mother to Folkestone. The hearty welcome offered to me there was extended with equal warmth to little Mabel, who soon arrived, a most forlorn little maiden. She was only three years old, and she had not seen me for some weeks; her passion of delight was pitiful; she clung to me, in literal fashion, for weeks afterwards, and screamed if she lost sight of me for a moment; it was long before she got over the separation and the terror of her lonely journey from Sibsey and London in charge only of the guard. But she was a “winsome wee thing”, and danced into everyone’s heart; after “mamma”, “granny” was the prime favorite, and my dear mother worshipped her first grand-daughter; never was prettier picture than the red-golden hair nestled against the white, the baby-grace contrasting with the worn stateliness of her tender nurse. From that time forward– with the exception of a few weeks of which I shall speak presently and of the yearly stay of a month with her father–little Mabel was my constant companion, until Sir George Jessel’s brutality robbed me of my child. She would play contentedly while I was working, a word now and again enough to make her happy; when I had to go out without her she would run to the door with me, and the “good-bye” came from down-curved lips, and she was ever watching at the window for my return, and the sunny face was always the first to welcome me home. Many and many a time have I been coming home, weary and heart-sick, and the glimpse of the little face watching has reminded me that I must not carry in a grave face to sadden my darling, and the effort to throw off the dreariness for her sake shook it off altogether, and brought back the sunshine. I have never forgiven Sir George Jessel, and I never shall, though his death has left me only his memory to hate.
At Folkestone, I continued my search for “something to do”, and for some weeks sought for pupils, thinking I might thus turn my heresy to account. But pupils are not readily attainable by a heretic woman, away from her natural home, and with a young child as “encumbrance”. It chanced, however, that the vicar of Folkestone, Mr. Woodward, was then without a governess, and his wife was in very delicate health. My people knew him well, and as I had plenty of spare time, I offered to teach the children for a few hours a day. The offer was gladly accepted, and I soon arranged to go and stay at the house for awhile, until he could find a regular governess. I thought that at least I could save my small income while I was there, and Mabel and I were to be boarded and lodged in exchange for my work. This work was fairly heavy, but I did not mind that; it soon became heavier. Some serious fault on the part of one or both servants led to their sudden retirement, and I became head cook as well as governess and nurse. On the whole, I think I shall not try to live by cooking, if other trades fail; I don’t mind boiling and frying, and making pie-crust is rather pleasant, but I do object to lifting saucepans and blistering my hands over heavy kettles. There is a certain charm in making a stew, especially to the unaccustomed cook, because of the excitement of wondering what the result of such various ingredients will be, and whether any flavor save that of onions will survive the competition in the mixture. On the whole my services as cook were voted very successful; I did my cooking better than I did my sweeping: the latter was a failure from sheer want of muscular strength.
This curious episode came to an end abruptly. One of my little pupils fell ill with diptheria, and I was transformed from cook into sick-nurse. I sent my Mabel off promptly to her dear grandmother’s care, and gave myself up to my old delight in nursing. But it is a horrible disease, diptheria, and the suffering of the patient is frightful to witness. I shall never forget the poor little girl’s black parched lips and gasping breath.
Scarcely was she convalescent, when the youngest boy, a fine, strong, healthy little fellow, sickened with scarlet fever. We elders held a consultation, and decided to isolate the top floor from the rest of the house, and to nurse the little lad there; it seemed almost hopeless to prevent such a disease from spreading through a family of children, but our vigorous measures were successful, and none other suffered. I was voted to the post of nurse, and installed myself promptly, taking up the carpets, turning out the curtains, and across the door ways hanging sheets which I kept always wet with chloride of lime. My meals were brought upstairs and put on the landing outside; my patient and I remained completely isolated, until the disease had run its course; and when all risk was over, I proudly handed over my charge, the disease touching no other member of the flock.
It was a strange time, those weeks of the autumn and early winter in Mr. Woodward’s house. He was a remarkably good man, very religious and to a very remarkable extent not “of this world”. A “priest” to the tips of his finger-nails, and looking on his priestly office as the highest a man could fill, he yet held it always as one which put him at the service of the poorest who needed help. He was very good to me, and, while deeply lamenting my “perversion”, held, by some strange unpriestlike charity, that my “unbelief” was but a passing cloud, sent as trial by “the Lord”, and soon to vanish again, leaving me in the “sunshine of faith”. He marvelled much, I learned afterwards, where I gained my readiness to work heartily for others, and to remain serenely content amid the roughnesses of my toiling life. To my great amusement I heard later that his elder daughters, trained in strictest observance of all Church ceremonies, had much discussed my non-attendance at the Sacrament, and had finally arrived at the conclusion that I had committed some deadly sin, for which the humble work which I undertook at their house was the appointed penance, and that I was excluded from “the Blessed Sacrament” until the penance was completed!
Very shortly after the illness above-mentioned, my mother went up to town, whither I was soon to follow her, for now the spring had arrived, and it was time to prepare our new home. How eagerly we had looked forward to taking possession; how we had talked over our life together and knitted on the new one we anticipated to the old one we remembered; how we had planned out Mabel’s training and arranged the duties that should fall to the share of each! Day-dreams, that never were to be realised!
But a brief space had passed since my mother’s arrival in town, when I received a telegram from my brother, stating that she was dangerously ill, and summoning me at once to her bedside. As swiftly as express train could carry me to London I was there, and found my darling in bed, prostrate, the doctor only giving her three days to live. One moment’s sight I caught of her face, drawn and haggard; then as she saw me it all changed into delight; “At last! now I can rest.”
The brave spirit had at length broken down, never again to rise; the action of her heart had failed, the valves no longer performed their duty, and the bluish shade of forehead and neck told that the blood was no longer sent pure and vivifying through the arteries. But her death was not as near as the doctor had feared; “I do not think she can live four-and-twenty hours,” he said to me, after I had been with her for two days. I told her his verdict, but it moved her little; “I do not feel that I am going to die just yet,” she said resolutely, and she was right. There was an attack of fearful prostration, a very wrestling with death, and then the grim shadow drew backwards, and she struggled back to life. Soon, as is usual in cases of such disease, dropsy intervened, with all its weariness of discomfort, and for week after week her long martyrdom dragged on. I nursed her night and day, with a very desperation of tenderness, for now fate had touched the thing that was dearest to me in life. A second horrible crisis came, and for the second time her tenacity and my love beat back the death-stroke. She did not wish to die–the love of life was strong in her; I would not let her die; between us we kept the foe at bay.
At this period, after eighteen months of abstention, and for the last time, I took the Sacrament. This statement will seem strange to my readers, but the matter happened in this wise:
My dear mother had an intense longing to take it, but absolutely refused to do so unless I partook of it with her.
“If it be necessary to salvation,” she persisted doggedly, “I will not take it if darling Annie is to be shut out. I would rather be lost with her than saved without her.” In vain I urged that I could not take it without telling the officiating clergyman of my heresy, and that under such circumstances the clergyman would be sure to refuse to administer to me. She insisted that she could not die happy if she did not take it with me. I went to a clergyman I knew well, and laid the case before him; as I expected, he refused to allow me to communicate. I tried a second; the result was the same. I was in despair; to me the service was foolish and superstitious, but I would have done a great deal more for my mother than eat bread and drink wine, provided that the eating and drinking did not, by pretence of faith on my part, soil my honesty. At last a thought struck me; there was Dean Stanley, my mother’s favorite, a man known to be of the broadest school within the Church of England; suppose I asked him? I did not know him, though as a young child I had known his sister as my mother’s friend, and I felt the request would be something of an impertinence. Yet there was just the chance that he might consent, and then my darling’s death-bed would be the easier. I told no one, but set out resolutely for the Deanery, Westminster, timidly asked for the Dean, and followed the servant upstairs with a very sinking heart. I was left for a moment alone in the library, and then the Dean came in. I don’t think I ever in my life felt more intensely uncomfortable than I did in that minute’s interval, as he stood waiting for me to speak, his clear, grave, piercing eyes gazing right into mine.
Very falteringly I preferred my request, stating baldly that I was not a believer in Christ, that my mother was dying, that she was fretting to take the Sacrament, that she would not take it unless I took it with her, that two clergymen had refused to allow me to take part in the service, that I had come to him in despair, feeling how great was the intrusion, but–she was dying.
“You were quite right to come to me,” he said as I concluded, in that soft musical voice of his, his keen gaze having changed into one no less direct, but marvellously gentle: “of course, I will go and see your mother, and I have little doubt that if you will not mind talking over your position with me, we may see our way clear to doing as your mother wishes.”
I could barely speak my thanks, so much did the kindly sympathy move me; the revulsion from the anxiety and fear of rebuff was strong enough to be almost pain. But Dean Stanley did more than I asked. He suggested that he should call that afternoon, and have a quiet chat with my mother, and then come again on the following day to administer the Sacrament.
“A stranger’s presence is always trying to a sick person,” he said, with rare delicacy of thought; “and joined to the excitement of the service it might be too much for your dear mother. If I spend half-an-hour with her to-day, and administer the Sacrament to-morrow, it will, I think, be better for her.”
So Dean Stanley came that afternoon, and remained talking with my mother for about half-an-hour, and then set himself to understand my own position. He finally told me that conduct was far more important than theory, and that he regarded all as “Christians” who recognised and tried to follow the moral law. On the question of the absolute Deity of Jesus he laid but little stress; Jesus was, “in a special sense”, the “Son of God”, but it was folly to jangle about words with only human meanings when dealing with the mysteries of divine existence, and above all it was folly to make such words into dividing lines between earnest souls. The one important matter was the recognition of “duty to God and man”, and all who were one in that recognition might rightfully join in an act of worship, the essence of which was not acceptance of dogma, but love of God and self-sacrifice for man. “The Holy Communion”, he said, in his soft tones, “was never meant to divide from each other hearts that are searching after the one true God; it was meant by its founder as a symbol of unity, not of strife”.
On the following day he came again, and celebrated the “Holy Communion” by the bedside of my dear mother. Well was I repaid for the struggle it had cost me to ask so great a kindness from a stranger, when I saw the comfort that gentle noble heart had given to my mother. He soothed away all her anxiety about my heresy with tactful wisdom, bidding her have no fear of differences of opinion where the heart was set on truth. “Remember”, she told me he had said to her, “remember that our God is the God of truth, and that therefore the honest search for truth can never be displeasing in his eyes”.
Once again after that he came, and after his visit to my mother we had another long talk. I ventured to ask him, the conversation having turned that way, how, with views so broad as his own, he found it possible to remain in communion with the Church of England. “I think”, he said gently, “that I am of more service to true religion by remaining in the Church and striving to widen its boundaries from within, than if I left it and worked from without”. And he went on to explain how, as Dean of Westminster, he was in a rarely independent position, and could make the Abbey of a wider national service than would otherwise be possible. In all he said on this his love for and his pride in the glorious Abbey were manifest, and it was easy to see that old historical associations, love of music, of painting, and of stately architecture, were the bonds that held him bound to the “old historic Church of England”. His emotions, not his intellect, kept him Churchman, and he shrunk with the over-sensitiveness of the cultured scholar from the idea of allowing the old traditions, to be handled roughly by inartistic hands. Naturally of a refined and delicate nature, he had been rendered yet more sensitive by the training of the college and the court; the exquisite courtesy of his manners was but the high polish of a naturally gentle and artistic spirit, a spirit whose gentleness sometimes veiled its strength. I have often heard Dean Stanley harshly spoken of, I have heard his honesty roughly challenged, but never in my presence has he been attacked that I have not uttered my protest against the injustice done him, and thus striven to repay some small fraction of that great debt of gratitude which I shall owe to his memory as long as I live.
As the spring grew warmer, my mother rallied wonderfully, and we began to dare to hope. At last it was decided to move her down to Norwood; she was wearying for change, and it was thought that the purer air of the country might aid the system to recover tone and strength. The furniture was waiting for me to send for it, and it was soon, conveyed to Colby Road; it only furnished two rooms, but I could easily sleep on the floor, and I made the two rooms on the ground floor into bedroom and sitting-room for my dear invalid. One little servant-maid was all our slender resources could afford, and a very charming one was found for me by Mrs. Scott. Through the months of hard work and poor living that followed, Mary was the most thoughtful and most generous of comrades. And, indeed, I have been very fortunate in my servants, always finding in them willingness to help, and freely-rendered, ungrudging kindness.
I have just said that I could only furnish two rooms, but on my next visit to complete all the arrangements for my mother’s reception, I found the bedroom that was to be mine neatly and prettily furnished. The good fairy was Mrs. Scott, who, learning the “nakedness of the land” from Mary, had determined that I should not be as uncomfortable as I had expected.
It was the beginning of May, and the air was soft and bright and warm. We hired an invalid carriage and drove slowly down to Norwood. My mother seemed to enjoy the drive, and when we lifted her into the bright cosy room prepared for her, she was delighted with the change. On the following morning the improvement was continued, but in the evening she was taken suddenly worse, and we lifted her into bed and telegraphed for the doctor. But now the end had come; her strength completely failed, and she felt that death was upon her; but selfless to the last, her only fear was for me. “I am leaving you alone,” she would sigh from time to time, and truly I felt, with an anguish I dared not realise, that when she died I should indeed be alone on earth.
For two days longer she was with me, and, miser with my last few hours, I never left her side for five minutes. At last on the 10th of May the weakness passed into delirium, but even then the faithful eyes followed me about the room, until at length they closed for ever, and as the sun sank low in the heavens, the breath came slower and slower, till the silence of death came down upon us and she was gone.
All that followed was like a dream. I would have none touch my dead save myself and her favorite sister, who was with us at the last; she wept over her, but I could not, not even when they hid her beneath the coffin-lid, nor all that weary way to Kensal Green, whither we took her to lay her with her husband and her baby-son. I could not believe that our day-dream was dead and buried, and the home destroyed ere it was fairly made. My “house was left unto” me “desolate”, and the rooms filled with sunshine, but unlighted by her presence, seemed to reiterate to me: “You are all alone “.
The two months after my mother’s death were the dreariest my life has known, and they were months of tolerably hard struggle. The little house in Colby Road taxed my slender resources heavily, and the search for work was not yet successful. I do not know how I should have managed but for the help, ever at hand, of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Scott. During this time I wrote for Mr. Scott pamphlets on Inspiration, Atonement, Mediation and Salvation, Eternal Torture, Religious Education of Children, Natural _v._ Revealed Religion, and the few guineas thus earned were very valuable. Their house, too, was always open to me, and this was no small help, for often in those days the little money I had was enough to buy food for two but not enough to buy it for three, and I would go out and study all day at the British Museum, so as to “have my dinner in town”, the said dinner being conspicuous by its absence. If I was away for two evenings running from the hospitable house in the terrace, Mrs. Scott would come down to see what had happened, and many a time the supper there was of real physical value to me. Well might I write, in 1879, when Thomas Scott lay dead: “It was Thomas Scott whose house was open to me when my need was sorest, and he never knew, this generous noble heart, how sometimes, when I went in, weary and overdone, from a long day’s study in the British Museum, with scarce food to struggle through the day–he never knew how his genial ‘Well, little lady’, in welcoming tone, cheered the then utter loneliness of my life. To no living man or woman–save one–do I owe the debt of gratitude that I owe to Thomas Scott.”
The small amount of jewellery I possessed, and all my superfluous clothes, were turned into more necessary articles, and the child, at least, never suffered a solitary touch of want. Mary was a wonderful contriver, and kept house on the very slenderest funds that could be put into a servant’s hands, and she also made the little place so bright and fresh-looking that it was always a pleasure to go into it. Recalling those days of “hard living”, I can now look on them without regret. More, I am glad to have passed through them, for they have taught me how to sympathise with those who are struggling as I struggled then, and I never can hear the words fall from pale lips: “I am hungry”, without remembering how painful a thing hunger is, and without curing that pain, at least for the moment.
But I turn from this to the brighter side of my life, the intellectual and social side, where I found a delight unknown in the old days of bondage. First, there was the joy of freedom, the joy of speaking out frankly and honestly each thought. Truly, I had the right to say: “With a great price obtained I this freedom,” and having paid the price, I revelled in the Liberty I had bought. Mr. Scott’s valuable library was at my service; his keen brain challenged my opinions, probed my assertions, and suggested phases of thought hitherto untouched. I studied harder than ever, and the study now was unchecked by any fear of possible consequences. I had nothing left of the old faith save belief in “a God”, and that began slowly to melt away. The Theistic axiom: “If there be a God at all he must be at least as good as his highest creature”, began with an “if”, and to that “if” I turned my attention. “Of all impossible things”, writes Miss Frances Power Cobbe, “the most impossible must surely be that a man should dream something of the good and the noble, and that it should prove at last that his Creator was less good and less noble than he had dreamed.” But, I questioned, are we sure that there is a Creator? Granted that, if there is, he must be above his highest creature, but–is there such a being? “The ground”, says the Rev. Charles Voysey, “on which our belief in God rests is man. Man, parent of Bibles and Churches, inspirer of all good thoughts and good deeds. Man, the master-piece of God’s thought on earth. Man, the text-book of all spiritual knowledge. Neither miraculous nor infallible, man is nevertheless the only trustworthy record of the Divine mind in things perhaps pertaining to God. Man’s reason, conscience, and affections are the only true revelation of his Maker.” But what if God were only man’s own image reflected in the mirror of man’s mind? What if man were the creator, not the revelation of his God?
It was inevitable that such thoughts should arise after the more palpably indefensible doctrines of Christianity had been discarded. Once encourage the human mind to think, and bounds to the thinking can never again be set by authority. Once challenge traditional beliefs, and the challenge will ring on every shield which is hanging in the intellectual arena. Around me was the atmosphere of conflict, and, freed from its long repression, my mind leapt up to share in the strife with a joy in the intellectual tumult, the intellectual strain.
At this time I found my way to South Place Chapel, to which Mr. Moncure D. Conway was attracting many a seeker after truth. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to this remarkable religious leader, and to his charming wife, one of the sweetest and steadiest natures which it has been my lot to meet. It was from. Mrs. Conway that I first heard of Mr. Bradlaugh as a speaker that everyone should hear. She asked me one day if I had been to the Hall of Science, and I said, with the stupid, ignorant reflexion of other people’s prejudices which is but too common:
“No, I have never been. Mr. Bradlaugh is rather a rough sort of speaker, is he not?”
“He is the finest speaker of Saxon English that I have ever heard,” Mrs. Conway answered, “except, perhaps, John Bright, and his power over a crowd is something marvellous. Whether you agree with him or not, you should hear him.”
I replied that I really did not know what his views were, beyond having a vague notion that he was an Atheist of a rather pronounced type, but that I would go and hear him when I had an opportunity.
Mr. Conway had passed beyond the emotional Theism of Mr. Voysey, and talk with him did something towards widening my views on the question of a Divine Existence. I re-read carefully Mansel’s Bampton Lectures, and found in them much to provoke doubt, nothing to induce faith. Take the following phrases, and think whither they carry us. Dean Mansel is speaking of God as Infinite, and he says: “That a man can be conscious of the Infinite is, then, a supposition which, in the very terms in which it is expressed, annihilates itself…. The Infinite, if it is to be conceived at all, must be conceived as potentially everything and actually nothing; for if there is anything in general which it cannot become, it is thereby limited; and if there is anything in particular which it actually is, it is thereby excluded from being any other thing. But again, it must also be conceived as actually everything and potentially nothing: for an unrealised potentiality is likewise a limitation. If the infinite can be that which it is not, it is by that very possibility marked out as incomplete and capable of a higher perfection. If it is actually everything, it possesses no characteristic feature by which it can be distinguished from anything else and discerned as an object of consciousness.”
Could any argument more thoroughly Atheistic be put before a mind which dared to think out to the logical end any train of thought? Such reasoning can lead but to one of two ends: despair of truth and consequent acceptance of the incomprehensible as Divine, or else the resolute refusal to profess belief where reason is helpless, and where faith is but the credulity of ignorance. In my case, it had the latter effect.
At the same time I re-read Mill’s “Examination of Sir W. Hamilton’s Philosophy”, and also went through a pretty severe study of Comte’s _Philosophic Positive_. I had entirely given up the use of prayer, not because I was an Atheist but because I was still a Theist. It seemed to me to be absurd to pray, if I believed in a God who was wiser and better than myself. An all-wise God did not need my suggestions: an all-good God would do all that was best without my prompting. Prayer appeared to me to be a blasphemous impertinence, and for a considerable time I had discontinued its use. But God fades gradually out of the daily life of those who never pray; a God who is not a Providence is a superfluity; when from the heaven does not smile a listening Father, it soon becomes an empty space whence resounds no echo of man’s cry.
At last I said to Mr. Scott: “Mr. Scott, may I write a tract on the nature and existence of God?”
He glanced at me keenly: “Ah, little lady; you are facing then that problem at last? I thought it must come. Write away.”
The thought that had been driving me forward found its expression in the opening words of the essay (published a few months later, with one or two additions that were made after I had read two of Mr. Bradlaugh’s essays, his “Plea for Atheism”, and “Is there a God?”): “It is impossible for those who study the deeper religious problems of our time to stave off much longer the question which lies at the root of them all, ‘What do you believe in regard to God?’ We may controvert Christian doctrines one after another; point by point we may be driven from the various beliefs of our churches; reason may force us to see contradictions where we had imagined harmony, and may open our eyes to flaws where we had dreamed of perfection; we resign all idea of a revelation; we seek for God in Nature only: we renounce for ever the hope (which glorified our former creed into such alluring beauty) that at some future time we should verily ‘see’ God; that ‘our eyes should behold the King in his beauty’, in that fairy ‘land which is very far off’. But every step we take onwards towards a more reasonable faith and a surer light of Truth, leads us nearer and nearer to the problem of problems: ‘What is THAT which men call God?”.
I sketched out the plan of my essay and had written most of it when on returning one day from the British Museum I stopped at the shop of Mr. Edward Truelove, 256 High Holborn. I had been working at some Comtist literature, and had found a reference to Mr. Truelove’s shop as one at which Comtist publications might be bought. Lying on the counter was a copy of the _National Reformer_, and attracted by the title I bought it. I had never before heard of nor seen the paper, and I read it placidly in the omnibus; looking up, I was at first puzzled and then amused to see an old gentleman gazing at me with indignation and horror printed on his countenance; I realised that my paper had disturbed his peace of mind, and that the sight of a young woman, respectably dressed in crape, reading an Atheistic journal in an omnibus was a shock too great to be endured by the ordinary Philistine without sign of discomposure. He looked so hard at the paper that I was inclined to offer it to him for his perusal, but repressed the mischievous inclination, and read on demurely.
This first copy of the paper with which I was to be so closely connected bore date July 19th, 1874, and contained two long letters from a Mr. Arnold of Northampton, attacking Mr. Bradlaugh, and a brief and singularly self-restrained answer from the latter. There was also an article on the National Secular Society, which made me aware that there was an organisation devoted to the propagandism of Free Thought. I felt that if such a society existed, I ought to belong to it, and I consequently wrote a short note to the editor of the _National Reformer_, asking whether it was necessary for a person to profess Atheism before being admitted to the Society. The answer appeared in the _National Reformer_:–
“S.E.–To be a member of the National Secular Society it is only necessary to be able honestly to accept the four principles, as given in the _National Reformer_ of June 14th. This any person may do without being required to avow himself an Atheist. Candidly, we can see no logical resting-place between the entire acceptance of authority, as in the Roman Catholic Church, and the most extreme nationalism. If, on again looking to the Principles of the Society, you can accept them, we repeat to you our invitation.”
I sent my name in as an active member, and find it recorded in the _National Reformer_ of August 9th. Having received an intimation that Londoners could receive their certificates at the Hall of Science from Mr. Bradlaugh on any Sunday evening, I betook myself thither, and it was on the 2nd August, 1874, that I first set foot in a Freethought hall.
As I sat, much crushed, surveying the crowded audience with much interest and longing to know which were members of the brotherhood I had entered, a sudden roar of cheering startled me. I saw a tall figure passing swiftly along and mounting the stairs, and the roar deepened and swelled as he made a slight acknowledgment of the greeting and sat down. I remember well my sensations as I looked at Charles Bradlaugh for the first time. The grave, quiet, _strong_ look, as he sat facing the crowd, impressed me strangely, and most of all was I surprised at the breadth of forehead, the massive head, of the man I had heard described as a mere ignorant demagogue.
The lecture was on “The ancestry and birth of Jesus”, and was largely devoted to tracing the resemblance between the Christ and Krishna myths. As this ground was well-known to me, I was able to judge of the lecturer’s accuracy, and quickly found that his knowledge was as sound as his language was splendid. I had never before heard eloquence, sarcasm, fire, and passion brought to bear on the Christian superstition, nor had I ever before felt the sway of the orator, nor the power that dwells in spoken words.
After the lecture, Mr. Bradlaugh came down the Hall with some certificates of membership of the National Secular Society in his hand, and glancing round for their claimants caught, I suppose, some look of expectancy in my face, for he paused and handed me mine, with a questioning, “Mrs. Besant?”. Then he said that if I had any doubt at all on the subject of Atheism, he would willingly discuss it with me, if I would write making an appointment for that purpose. I made up my mind to take advantage of the opportunity, and a day or two later saw me walking down Commercial Road, looking for Turner Street.
My first conversation with Mr. Bradlaugh was brief, direct, and satisfactory. We found that there was little real difference between our theological views, and my dislike of the name “Atheist” arose from my sharing in the vulgar error that the Atheist asserted, “There is no God”. This error I corrected in the draft of my essay, by inserting a few passages from pamphlets written by acknowledged Atheists, to which Mr. Bradlaugh drew my attention; with this exception the essay remained as it was sketched, being described by Mr. Bradlaugh as “a very good Atheistic essay”, a criticism which ended with the smiling comment: “You have thought yourself into Atheism without knowing it.”
Very wise were some of the suggestions made: “You should never say you have an opinion on a subject until you have tried to study the strongest things said against the view to which you are inclined”. “You must not think you know a subject until you are acquainted with all that the best minds have said about it.” “No steady work can be done in public unless the worker study at home far more than he talks outside.” And let me say here that among the many things for which I have to thank Mr. Bradlaugh, there is none for which I owe him more gratitude than for the fashion in which he has constantly urged the duty of all who stand forward as teachers to study deeply every subject they touch, and the impetus he has given to my own love of knowledge by the constant spur of criticism and of challenge, criticism of every weak statement, challenge of every hastily-expressed view. It will be a good thing for the world when a friendship between a man and a woman no longer means protective condescension on one side and helpless dependence on the other, but when they meet on equal ground of intellectual sympathy, discussing, criticising, studying, and so aiding the evolution of stronger and clearer thought-ability in each.
A few days after our first discussion, Mr. Bradlaugh offered me a place on the staff of the _National Reformer_ at a small weekly salary; and my first contribution appeared in the number for August 30th, over the signature of “Ajax”; I was obliged to use a _nom de guerre_ at first, for the work I was doing for Mr. Scott would have been injured had my name appeared in the columns of the terrible _National Reformer_, and until the work commenced and paid for was concluded I did not feel at liberty to use my own name. Later, I signed my _National Reformer_ articles, and the tracts written for Mr. Scott appeared anonymously.
The name was suggested by the famous statue of “Ajax crying for light”, a cast of which stands in the centre walk of the Crystal Palace. The cry through the darkness for light, even if light brought destruction, was one that awoke the keenest sympathy of response from my heart:
“If our fate be death,
Give light, and let us die!”
To see, to know, to understand, even though the seeing blind, though the knowledge sadden, though the understanding shatter the dearest hopes, such has ever been the craving of the upward-striving mind of man. Some regard it as a weakness, as a folly, but I am sure that it exists most strongly in some of the noblest of our race; that from the lips of those who have done most in lifting the burden of ignorance from the overstrained and bowed shoulders of a stumbling world has gone out most often into the empty darkness the pleading, impassioned cry :–
My first lecture was delivered at the Co-operative Society’s Hall, 55, Castle Street, on August 25, 1873. Twice before this, I had ventured to raise my voice in discussion, once at a garden-party at which I was invited to join in a brief informal debate, and discovered that words came readily and smoothly, and the second time at the Liberal Social Union, in a discussion on a paper read by a member–I forget by whom– dealing with the opening of Museums and Art Galleries on Sunday.
My membership of that same “Liberal” Social Union was not, by the way, of very long duration. A discussion arose, one night, on the admissibility of Atheists to the society. Dr. Zerffi declared that he would not remain a member if avowed Atheists were admitted. I declared that I was an Atheist, and that the basis of the Union was liberty. The result was that I found myself coldshouldered, and those who had been warmly cordial to me as a Theist looked askance at me after I had avowed that my scepticism had advanced beyond their “limits of religious thought”. The Liberal Social Union knew me no more, but in the wider field of work open before me the narrowmindedness of this petty clique troubled me not at all.
To return from this digression to my first essay in lecturing work. An invitation to read a paper before the Co-operative Society came to me from Mr. Greenwood, who was, I believe, the Secretary, and as the subject was left to my own choice, I determined that my first public attempt at speech should be on behalf of my own sex, and selected for it, “The Political Status of Women”. With much fear and trembling was that paper written, and it was a very nervous person who presented herself at the Co-operative Hall. When a visit to the dentist is made, and one stands on the steps outside, desiring to run away ere the neat little boy in buttons opens the door and beams on one with a smile of compassionate contempt and implike triumph, then the world seems dark and life is as a huge blunder. But all such feelings are poor and weak when compared with the sinking of the heart, and the trembling of the knees, which, seize upon the unhappy lecturer as he advances towards his first audience, and as before his eyes rises a ghastly vision of a tongue-tied would-be speaker facing rows of listening faces, listening to–silence.
All this miserable feeling, however, disappeared the moment I rose to my feet and looked at the faces before me. No tremor of nervousness touched me from the first word to the last. And a similar experience has been mine ever since. I am still always nervous before a lecture, and feel miserable and ill-assured, but, once on my feet, I am at my ease, and not once on the platform after the lecture has commenced have I experienced the painful feeling of hesitancy and “fear of the sound of my own voice” of which I have often heard people speak.
The death of Mr. Charles Gilpin in September left vacant one of the seats for Northampton, and Mr. Bradlaugh at once announced his intention of again presenting himself to the constituency as a candidate. He had at first stood for the borough in 1868, and had received 1086 votes; on February 5th, 1874, he received 1653 votes, and of these 1060 were plumpers; the other candidates were Messrs. Merewether, Phipps, Gilpin, and Lord Henley; Mr. Merewether had 12 plumpers; Mr. Phipps, 113; Mr. Gilpin, 64; Lord Henley, 21. Thus signs were already seen of the compact and personally loyal following which was to win the seat for its chief in 1880, after twelve years of steady struggle. In 1868, Mr. John Stuart Mill had strongly supported Mr. Bradlaugh’s candidature, and had sent a donation to his election fund. Mr. Mill wrote in his Autobiography (pp. 311,312):
“He had the support of the working classes; having heard him speak I knew him to be a man of ability, and he had proved that he was the reverse of a demagogue by placing himself in strong opposition to the prevailing opinion of the Democratic party on two such important subjects as Malthusianism. and Personal Representation. Men of this sort, who, while sharing the democratic feelings of the working classes, judge political questions for themselves, and have courage to assert their individual convictions against popular opposition, were needed, as it seemed to me, in Parliament; and I did not think that Mr. Bradlaugh’s anti-religious opinions (even though he had been intemperate in the expression of them) ought to exclude him.”
When the election was over, and after Mr. Mill had himself been beaten at Westminster, he wrote, referring to his donation: “It was the right thing to do, and if the election were yet to take place, I would do it again”. The election in February, 1874 took place while Mr. Bradlaugh was away in America, and this second one in the same year took place on the eve of his departure on another American lecturing tour.
I went down to Northampton to report electioneering incidents for the _National Reformer_, and spent some days there in the whirl of the struggle. The Whig party was more bitter against Mr. Bradlaugh than was the Tory, and every weapon that could be forged out of slander and falsehood was used against him by “Liberals”, who employed their Christianity as an electioneering dodge to injure a man whose sturdy Radicalism they feared. Over and over again Mr. Bradlaugh was told that he was an “impossible candidate”, and gibe and sneer and scoff were flung at the man who had neither ancestors nor wealth to recommend him, who fought his battle with his brain and his tongue, and whose election expenses were paid by hundreds of contributions from poor men and women in every part of the land. Strenuous efforts were made to procure a “Liberal” candidate, who should be able at least to prevent Mr. Bradlaugh’s return by obtaining the votes of the Liberal as against the Radical party. Messrs. Bell and James and Dr. Pearce came on the scene only to disappear. Mr. Jacob Bright and Mr. Arthur Arnold were suggested. Mr. Ayrton’s name was whispered. Major Lumley was recommended by Mr. Bernal Osborne. Dr. Kenealy proclaimed himself ready to rescue the Liberal party in their dire strait. Mr. Tillet of Norwich, Mr. Cox of Belper, were invited, but neither of these would consent to oppose a sound Radical, who had fought two elections at Northampton and who had been before the constituency for six years. At last Mr. William Fowler, a banker, was invited, and accepted the task of handing over the representation of a Radical borough to a Tory.
October 6th was fixed as the election day, and at 7.30 on that day Mr. Merewether, the Tory, was declared elected with 2,171 votes. Mr. Bradlaugh polled 1,766, having added another 133 voters to those who had polled for him in the previous February.
The violent abuse levelled against Mr. Bradlaugh by the Whigs, and the foul and wicked slanders circulated against him, had angered almost to madness those who knew and loved him, and when it was found that the unscrupulous Whig devices had succeeded in turning the election against him, the fury broke out into open violence. As Mr. Bradlaugh was sitting well-nigh exhausted in the hotel, the landlord rushed in, crying to him to go out and try to stop the people, or there would be murder done at the “Palmerston”, Mr. Fowler’s head-quarters; the crowd was charging the door, and the windows were being broken, with showers of stones. Weary as he was, Mr. Bradlaugh sprang to his feet and swiftly made his way to the rescue of those who had defeated him. Flinging himself before the door, he drove the crowd back, scolded them into quietness and dispersed them. But at nine o’clock he had to leave the town to catch the mail for Queenstown, where he was to join the steamer for America, and after he had left, the riot he had quelled broke out afresh. The soldiers were called out, the Riot Act was read, stones flew freely, heads and windows were broken, but no very serious harm was done. The “Palmerston” and the printing office of the _Mercury_, the Whig organ, were the principal sufferers, windows and doors vanishing somewhat completely.
In this same month of October I find I noted in the _National Reformer_ that it was rumored “that on hearing that the Prince of Wales had succeeded the Earl of Ripon as Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of England, Mr. Bradlaugh immediately sent in his resignation”. “The report”, I added demurely, “seems likely to be a true one”. I had not much doubt of the fact, having seen the cancelled certificate.
My second lecture was delivered on September 27th, during the election struggle, at Mr. Moncure D. Conway’s Chapel in St. Paul’s Road, Camden Town, and was on “The true basis of morality.”. The lecture was re-delivered a few weeks later at a Unitarian chapel, where the minister was the Rev. Peter Dean, and gave, I was afterwards told, great offence to some of the congregation, especially to Miss Frances Power Cobbe, who declared that she would have left the chapel had not the speaker been a woman. The ground of complaint was that the suggested “basis” was Utilitarian and human instead of Intuitional and Theistic. Published as a pamphlet, the lecture has reached its seventh thousand.
In October I had a severe attack of congestion of the lungs, and soon after my recovery I left Norwood to settle in London. I found that my work required that I should be nearer head-quarters, and I arranged to rent part of a house–19, Westbourne Park Terrace, Bayswater–two lady friends taking the remainder. The arrangement proved a very comfortable one, and it continued until my improved means enabled me, in 1876, to take a house of my own.
In January, 1875, I made up my mind to lecture regularly, and in the _National Reformer_ for January 17th I find the announcement that “Mrs. Annie Besant (Ajax) will lecture at South Place Chapel, Finsbury, on ‘Civil and religious liberty'”, Mr. Conway took the chair at this first identification of “Ajax” with myself, and sent a very kindly notice of the lecture to the _Cincinnati Commercial_. Mr. Charles Watts wrote a report in the _National Reformer_ of January 24th. Dr. Maurice Davies also wrote a very favorable article in a London journal, but unfortunately he knew Mr. Walter Besant, who persuaded him to suppress my name, so that although the notice appeared it did me no service. My struggle to gain my livelihood was for some time rendered considerably more difficult by this kind of ungenerous and underhand antagonism. A woman’s road to the earning of her own living, especially when she is weighted with the care of a young child, is always fairly thorny at the outset, and does not need to be rendered yet more difficult by secret attempts to injure, on the part of those who trust that suffering and poverty may avail to bend pride to submission.
My next lecture was given in the Theatre Royal, Northampton, and in the _National Reformer_ of February 14th appears for the first time my list of lecturing engagements, so that in February next I shall complete my first decade of lecturing for the Freethought and Republican Cause. Never, since first I stood on the Freethought platform, have I felt one hour’s regret for the resolution taken in solitude in January, 1875, to devote to that sacred Cause every power of brain and tongue that I possessed. Not lightly was that resolution taken, for I know no task of weightier responsibility than that of standing forth as teacher, and swaying thousands of hearers year after year. But I pledged my word then to the Cause I loved that no effort on my part should be wanting to render myself worthy of the privilege of service which I took; that I would read, and study, and would train every faculty that I had; that I would polish my language, discipline my thought, widen my knowledge; and this, at least, I may say, that if I have written and spoken much I have studied and thought more, and that at least I have not given to my mistress, Liberty, that “which hath cost me nothing”.
A queer incident occurred on February 17th. I had been invited by the Dialectical Society to read a paper, and selected for subject “The existence of God”. The Dialectical Society had for some years held their meetings in a room in Adam Street rented from the Social Science Association. When the members gathered as usual on this 17th February, the door was found closed, and they were informed that Ajax’s paper had been too much for the Social Science nerves, and that entrance to the ordinary meeting-place was henceforth denied. We found refuge in the Charing Cross Hotel, where we speculated merrily on the eccentricities of religious charity.
On February 12th, I started on my first lecturing tour in the provinces. After lecturing at Birkenhead on the evening of that day, I started by the night mail for Glasgow. Some races–dog races, I think–had been going on, and very unpleasant were many of the passengers waiting on the platform. Some Birkenhead friends had secured me a compartment, and watched over me till the train began to move. Then, after we had fairly started, the door was flung open by a porter and a man was thrust in who half tumbled on to the seat. As he slowly recovered, he stood up, and as his money rolled out of his hand on to the floor and he gazed vaguely at it, I saw, to my horror, that he was drunk. The position was pleasant, for the train was an express and was not timed to stop for a considerable time. My odious fellow-passenger spent some time on the floor hunting for his scattered coins. Then he slowly gathered himself up, and presently became conscious of my presence. He studied me for some time and then proposed to shut the window. I assented quietly, not wanting to discuss a trifle, and feeling in deadly terror. Alone at night in an express, with a man not drunk enough to be helpless but too drunk to be controlled. Never, before or since, have I felt so thoroughly frightened, but I sat there quiet and unmoved, only grasping a penknife in my pocket, with a desperate resolve to use my feeble weapon as soon as the need arose. The man had risen again to his feet and had come over to me, when a jarring noise was heard and the train began to slacken.
“What is that?” stammered my drunken companion.
“They are putting on the brakes to stop the train,” I said very slowly and distinctly, though a very passion of relief made it hard to say quietly the measured words.
The man sat down stupidly, staring at me, and in a minute or two more the train pulled up at a station. It had been stopped by signal. In a moment I was at the window, calling the guard. I rapidly explained to him that I was travelling alone, that a half-drunken man was with me, and I begged him to put me into another carriage. With the usual kindliness of a railway official, the guard at once moved my baggage and myself into an empty compartment, into which he locked me, and he kept a friendly watch over me at every station at which we stopped until he landed me safely at Glasgow.
At Glasgow a room had been taken for me at a Temperance Hotel, and it seemed to me a new and lonely sort of thing to be “on my own account” in a strange city in a strange hotel. By the way, why are Temperance Hotels so often lacking in cleanliness? Surely abstinence from wine and superfluity of “matter in the wrong place” need not necessarily be correlated in hotel-life, and yet my experience leads me to look for the twain together. Here and there I have been to Temperance Hotels in which water is used for other purposes than that of drinking, but these are, I regret to say, the exceptions to a melancholy rule.
From Glasgow I went north to Aberdeen, and from Aberdeen home again to London. A long weary journey that was, in a third-class carriage in the cold month of February, but the labor had in it a joy that outpaid all physical discomfort, and the feeling that I had found my work in the world gave a new happiness to my life.
I reported my doings to the chief of our party in America, and found them only half approved. “You should have waited till I returned, and at least I could have saved you some discomforts,” he wrote; but the discomforts troubled me little, and I think I rather preferred the independent launch out into lecturing work, trusting only to my own courage and ability to win my way. So far as health was concerned, the lecturing acted as a tonic. My chest had always been a little delicate, and when I consulted a doctor on the possibility of my lecturing he answered: “It will either kill you or cure you”. It has entirely cured the lung weakness, and I have grown strong and vigorous instead of being frail and delicate as of old.
On February 28th I delivered my first lecture at the Hall of Science, London, and was received with that warmth of greeting which Freethinkers are ever willing to extend to one who sacrifices aught to join their ranks. From that day to this that hearty welcome at our central London hall has never failed me, and the love and courage wherewith Freethinkers have ever stood by me have overpaid a thousandfold any poor services I have been fortunate enough to render to the common cause.
It would be wearisome to go step by step over the ten years’ journeys and lectures; I will only select, here and there, incidents illustrative of the whole.
Some folk say that the lives of Freethought lecturers are easy, and that their lecturing tours are lucrative in the extreme. On one occasion I spent eight days in the north lecturing daily, with three lectures on the two Sundays, and made a deficit of 11s. on the journey! I do not pretend that such a thing would happen now, but I fancy that every Freethought lecturer could tell of a similar experience in the early days of “winning his way”.
There is no better field for Freethought and Radical work than Northumberland and Durham; the miners there are as a rule shrewd and hard-headed men, and very cordial is the greeting given by them to those whom they have reason to trust. At Seghill and at Bedlington I have slept in their cottages and have been welcomed to their tables, and I remember one evening at Seghill, after a lecture, that my host invited about a dozen miners to supper to meet me; the talk ran on politics, and I soon found that my companions knew more of English politics and had a far shrewder notion of political methods than I had found among the ordinary “diners-out” in “society”. They were of the “uneducated” class despised by “gentlemen” and had not the vote, but politically they were far better educated than their social superiors, and were far better fitted to discharge the duties of citizenship.
On May 16th I attended, for the first time, the Annual Conference called by the National Secular Society. It was held at Manchester, in the Society’s rooms in Grosvenor Street, and it is interesting and encouraging to note how the Society has grown and strengthened since that small meeting held nearly ten years ago. Mr. Bradlaugh was elected President; Messrs. A. Trevelyan, T. Slater, C. Watts, C.C. Cattell, R.A. Cooper, P.A.V. Le Lubez, N. Ridgway, G.W. Foote, G.H. Reddalls, and Mrs. Besant Vice Presidents. Messrs. Watts and Standring were elected as Secretary and Assistant-Secretary–both offices were then honorary, for the Society was too poor to pay the holders–and Mr. Le Lubez Treasurer. The result of the Conference was soon seen in the energy infused into the Freethought propaganda, and from that time to this the Society has increased in numbers and in influence, until that which was scarcely more than a skeleton has become a living power in the land on the side of all social and political reforms. The Council for 1875 consisted of but thirty-nine members, including President, Vice-Presidents, and Secretary, and of these only nine were available as a Central Executive. Let Freethinkers compare this meagre list with the present, and then let them “thank” man “and take courage”.
Lecturing at Leicester in June, I came for the first time across a falsehood of which I have since heard plenty. An irate Christian declared that I was responsible for a book entitled the “Elements of Social Science”, which was, he averred, the “Bible of Secularists”. I had never heard of the book, but as he insisted that it was in favor of the abolition of marriage, and that Mr. Bradlaugh agreed with it, I promptly contradicted him, knowing that Mr. Bradlaugh’s views on marriage were conservative rather than revolutionary. On enquiry afterwards I found that the book in question had been written some years before by a Doctor of Medicine, and had been sent for review by its publisher to the _National Reformer_ among other papers. I found further that it consisted of three parts; the first dealt with the sexual relation, and advocated, from the standpoint of an experienced medical man, what is roughly known as “free love”; the second was entirely medical, dealing with diseases; the third consisted of a very clear and able exposition of the law of population as laid down by Malthus, and insisted–as John Stuart Mill had done–that it was the duty of married persons to voluntarily limit their families within their means of subsistence. Mr. Bradlaugh, in the _National Reformer_, in reviewing the book, stated that it was written “with honest and pure intent and purpose”, and recommended to working men the exposition of the law of population. Because he did this Christians and Tories who desire to injure him still insist that he shares the author’s views on sexual relations, and despite his reiterated contradictions, they quote detached pieces of the work, speaking against marriage, as containing his views. Anything more meanly vile and dishonest than this it would be difficult to imagine, yet such are the weapons used against Atheists in a Christian country. Unable to find in Mr. Bradlaugh’s own writings anything to serve their purpose, they take isolated passages from a book he neither wrote nor published, but once reviewed with a recommendation of a part of it which says nothing against marriage.
That the book is a remarkable one and deserves to be read has been acknowledged on all hands. Personally, I cordially dislike a large part of it, and dissent utterly from its views on the marital relation, but none the less I feel sure that the writer is an honest, good, and right meaning man. In the _Reasoner_, edited by Mr. George Jacob Holyoake, I find warmer praise of it than in the _National Reformer_; in the review the following passage appears:–
“In some respects all books of this class are evils: but it would be weakness and criminal prudery–a prudery as criminal as vice itself–not to say that such a book as the one in question is not only a far lesser evil than the one that it combats, but in one sense a book which it is a mercy to issue and courage to publish.”
The _Examiner_, reviewing the same book, declared it to be
“A very valuable, though rather heterogeneous book…. This is, we believe, the only book that has fully, honestly, and in a scientific spirit recognised all the elements in the problem–How are mankind to triumph over poverty, with its train of attendant evils?–and fearlessly endeavored to find a practical solution.”
The _British Journal of Homaeopathy_ wrote:
“Though quite out of the province of our journal, we cannot refrain from stating that this work is unquestionably the most remarkable one, in many respects, we have ever met with. Though we differ _toto coelo_ from the author in his views of religion and morality, and hold some of his remedies to tend rather to a dissolution than a reconstruction of society, yet we are bound to admit the benevolence and philanthropy of his motives. The scope of the work is nothing less than the whole field of political economy.”
Ernest Jones and others wrote yet more strongly, but out of all these Charles Bradlaugh alone has been selected for reproach, and has had the peculiar views of the anonymous author fathered on himself. Why? The reason is not far to seek. None of the other writers are active Radical politicians, dangerous to the luxurious idleness of the non-producing but all-consuming “upper classes” of society. These know how easy it is to raise social prejudice against a man by setting afloat the idea that he desires to “abolish marriage and the home”. It is the most convenient poniard and the one most certain to wound. Therefore those whose profligacy is notorious, who welcome into their society the Blandfords, Aylesburys, and St. Leonards, rave against a man as a “destroyer of marriage” whose life is pure, and whose theories on this, as it happens, are “orthodox”, merely because his honest Atheism shames their hypocritical professions, and his sturdy Republicanism menaces their corrupt and rotting society.
Sometimes my lecturing experiences were not of the smoothest. In June, 1875, I visited Darwen in Lancashire, and found that stone-throwing was considered a fair argument to be addressed to “the Atheist lecturer”. On my last visit to that place in May, 1884, large and enthusiastic audiences attended the lectures, and not a sign of hostility was to be seen outside the hall. At Swansea, in March, 1876, the fear of violence was so great that no local friend had the courage to take the chair for me (a guarantee against damage to the hall had been exacted by the proprietor). I had to march on to the platform in solitary state, introduce myself, and proceed with my lecture. If violence had been intended, none was offered: it would have needed much brutality to charge on to a platform occupied by a solitary woman. (By the way, those who fancy that a lecturer’s life is a luxurious one may note that the Swansea lecture spoken of was one of a series of ten, delivered within eight days at Wednesbury, Bilston, Kidderminster, Swansea, and Bristol, most of the travelling being performed through storm, rain, and snow.) On September, 4th, 1876, I had rather a lively time at Hoyland, a village near Barnsley. A Mr. Hebblethwaite, a Primitive Methodist minister, “prepared the way of the” Atheist by pouring out virulent abuse on Atheism in general, and this Atheist in particular; two Protestant missionaries aided him vigorously, exhorting the pious Christians to “sweep Secularists out”. The result was a very fair row; I got through the lecture, despite many interruptions, but when it was over a regular riot ensued; the enraged Christians shook their fists at me, swore at me, and finally took to kicking as I passed out to the cab; only one kick, however, reached me, and the attempts to overturn the cab were foiled by the driver, who put his horse at a gallop. A somewhat barbarous village, that same village of Hoyland. Congleton proved even livelier on September 25th and 26th. Mr. Bradlaugh lectured there on September 25th to an accompaniment of broken windows; I was sitting with Mrs. Wolstenholme Elmy in front of the platform, and received a rather heavy blow at the back of the head from a stone thrown by someone in the room. We had a mile and a half to walk from the hall to Mrs. Elmy’s house, and this was done in the company of a mud-throwing crowd, who yelled curses, hymns, and foul words with delightful impartiality. On the following evening I was to lecture, and we were escorted to the hall by a stone-throwing crowd; while I was lecturing a man shouted “Put her out!” and a well-known wrestler of the neighborhood, named Burbery, who had come to the hall with seven friends, stood up in the front row and loudly interrupted. Mr. Bradlaugh, who was in the chair, told him to sit down, and as he persisted in making a noise, informed him that he must either be quiet or go out. “Put me out!” said Burbery, striking an attitude. Mr. Bradlaugh left the platform and walked up to the noisy swashbuckler, who at once grappled with him and tried to throw him; but Mr. Burbery had not reckoned on his opponent’s strength, and when the “throw” was complete Mr. Burbery was underneath. Amid much excitement Mr. Burbery was propelled to the door, where he was handed over to the police, and the chairman resumed his seat and said “Go on”, whereupon on I went and finished the lecture. There was plenty more stone-throwing outside, and Mrs. Elmy received a cut on the temple, but no serious harm was done– except to Christianity.
In the summer of 1875 a strong protest was made by the working classes against the grant of L142,000 for the Prince of Wales visit to India, and on Sunday, July 18th, I saw for the first time one of the famous “Hyde Park Demonstrations”. Mr. Bradlaugh called a meeting to support Messrs. Taylor, Macdonald, Wilfrid Lawson, Burt, and the other fourteen members of the House of Commons who voted in opposition to the grant, and to protest against burdening the workers to provide for the amusement of a spendthrift prince. I did not go into the meeting, but, with Mr. Bradlaugh’s two daughters, hovered on the outskirts. A woman is considerably in the way in such a gathering, unless the speakers reach the platform in carriages, for she is physically unfitted to push her way through the dense mass of people, and has therefore to be looked after and saved from the crushing pressure of the crowd. I have always thought that a man responsible for the order of such huge gatherings ought not to be burdened in addition with the responsibility of protecting his female friends, and have therefore preferred to take care of myself outside the meetings both at Hyde Park and in Trafalgar Square. The method of organisation by which the London Radicals have succeeded in holding perfectly orderly meetings of enormous size is simple but effective. A large number of “marshals” volunteer, and each of these hands in to Mr. Bradlaugh a list of the “stewards” he is prepared to bring; the “marshals” and “stewards” alike are members of the Radical and Secular associations of the metropolis. These officials all wear badges, a rosette of the Northampton election colors; directions are given to the marshals by Mr. Bradlaugh himself, and each marshal, with his stewards, turns up at the appointed place at the appointed time, and does the share of the work allotted to him. A ring two or three deep is formed round the place whence the speakers are to address the meeting, and those who form the ring stand linked arm-in-arm, making a living barrier round this empty spot. There a platform, brought thither in pieces, is screwed together, and into this enclosure only the chosen speakers and newspaper reporters are admitted. The marshals and stewards who are not told off for guarding the platform are distributed over the ground which the meeting is to occupy, and act as guardians of order.
The Hyde Park meeting against the royal grant was a thoroughly successful one, and a large number of protests came up from all parts of the country. Being from the poorer classes, they were of course disregarded, but none the less was a strong agitation against royal grants carried on throughout the autumn and winter months. The National Secular Society determined to gather signatures to a “monster petition against royal grants”, and the superintendence of this was placed in my hands. The petition was drafted by Mr. Bradlaugh, and ran as follows:–
“TO THE HONORABLE THE COMMONS OF GREAT BRITAIN AND IRELAND, IN PARLIAMENT ASSEMBLED.
“The humble petition of the undersigned,
“Prays,–That no further grant or allowance may be made to any member of the Royal Family until an account shall have been laid before your Honorable House, showing the total real and personal estates and incomes of each and every member of the said Royal Family who shall be in receipt of any pension or allowance, and also showing all posts and places of profit severally held by members of the said Royal Family, and also showing all pensions, if any, formerly charged on any estates now enjoyed by any member or members of the said Royal Family, and in case any such pensions shall have been transferred, showing how and at what date such transfer took place.”
Day after day, week after week, month after month, the postman delivered rolls of paper, little and big, each roll containing names and addresses of men and woman who protested against the waste of public money on our greedy and never-satisfied Royal House. The sheets often bore the marks of the places to which they had been carried; from a mining district some would come coal-dust-blackened, which had been signed in the mines by workers who grudged to idleness the fruits of toil; from an agricultural district the sheets bore often far too many “crosses”, the “marks” of those whom Church and landlord had left in ignorance, regarding them only as machines for sowing and reaping. From September, 1875, to March, 1876, they came in steady stream, and each was added to the ever-lengthening roll which lay in one corner of my sitting-room and which assumed ever larger and larger proportions. At last the work was over, and on June 16th, 1876, the “monster”–rolled on a mahogany pole presented by a London friend, and encased in American cloth–was placed in a carriage to be conveyed to the House of Commons; the heading ran: “The petition of the undersigned Charles Bradlaugh, Annie Besant, Charles Watts, and 102,934 others”. Unrolled, it was nearly a mile in length, and a very happy time we had in rolling the last few hundred yards. When we arrived at the House, Mr. Bradlaugh and Mr. Watts carried the petition up Westminster Hall, each holding one end of the mahogany pole. Messrs. Burt and Macdonald took charge of the “monster” at the door of the House, and, carrying it in, presented it in due form. The presentation caused considerable excitement both in the House and in the press, and the _Newcastle Daily Chronicle_ said some kindly words of the “labor and enthusiasm” bestowed on the petition by myself.
At the beginning of August, 1875, the first attempt to deprive me of my little daughter, Mabel, was made, but fortunately proved unsuccessful. The story of the trick played is told in the _National Reformer_ of August 22nd, and I quote it just as it appeared there :–
“PERSONAL.–Mrs. Annie Besant, as some of our readers are aware, was the wife of a Church of England clergyman, the Rev. Frank Besant, Vicar of Sibsey, near Boston, in Lincolnshire. There is no need, _at present_, to say anything about the earlier portion of her married life; but when Mrs. Besant’s opinions on religious matters became liberal, the conduct of her husband rendered a separation absolutely necessary, and in 1873 a formal deed of separation was drawn up, and duly executed. Under this deed Mrs. Besant is entitled to the sole custody and control of her infant daughter Mabel until the child becomes of age, with the proviso that the little girl is to visit her father for one month in each year. Having recently obtained possession of the person of the little child under cover of the annual visit, the Rev. Mr. Besant sought to deprive Mrs. Besant entirely of her daughter, on the ground of Mrs. Besant’s Atheism. Vigorous steps were at once taken by Messrs. Lewis and Lewis (to whom our readers will remember we entrusted the case of Mr. Lennard against Mr. Woolrych), by whose advice Mrs. Besant at once went down herself to Sibsey to demand the child; the little girl had been hidden, and was not at the Vicarage, but we are glad to report that Mrs. Besant has, after some little difficulty, recovered the custody of her daughter. It was decided against Percy Bysshe Shelley that an Atheist father could not be the guardian of his own children. If this law be appealed to, and anyone dares to enforce it, we shall contest it step by step; and while we are out of England, we know that in case of any attempt to retake the child by force we may safely leave our new advocate to the protection of the stout arms of our friends, who will see that no injustice of this kind is done her. So far as the law courts are concerned, we have the most complete confidence in Mr. George Henry Lewis, and we shall fight the case to House of Lords if need be.
The attempt to take the child from me by force indeed failed, but later the theft was successfully carried out by due process of law. It is always a blunder from a tactical point of view for a Christian to use methods of illegal violence in persecuting an Atheist in this Christian land; legal violence is a far safer weapon, for courage can checkmate the first, while it is helpless before the second. All Christians who adopt the sound old principle that “no faith need be kept with the heretic” should remember that they can always guard themselves against unpleasant consequences by breaking faith under cover of the laws against heresy, which still remain on our Statute Book _ad majorem Dei gloriam_.
In September, 1875, Mr. Bradlaugh again sailed for America, leaving plenty of work to be done by his colleagues before he returned. The Executive of the National Secular Society had determined to issue a “Secular Song Book”, and the task of selection and of editing was confided to me. The little book was duly issued, and ran through two editions; then, feeling that it was marred by many sins both of commission and omission, I set my face against the publication of a third edition, hoping that a compilation more worthy of Free Thought might be made. I am half inclined to take the matter up again, and set to work at a fresh collection.
The delivery and publication of a course of six lectures on the early part of the French Revolution was another portion of that autumn’s work; they involved a large amount of labor, as I had determined to tell the story from the people’s point of view, and was therefore compelled to read a large amount of the current literature of the time, as well as the great standard histories of Louis Blanc, Michelet, and others. Fortunately for me, Mr. Bradlaugh had a splendid collection of works on the subject, and before he left England he brought to me two cabs full of books, French and English, from all points of view, aristocratic, ecclesiastical, democratic, and I studied these diligently and impartially until the French Revolution became to me as a drama in which I had myself taken part, and the actors therein became personal friends and foes. In this, again, as in so much of my public work, I have to thank Mr. Bradlaugh for the influence which led me to read fully all sides of a question, and to read most carefully those from which I differed most, ere I judged myself competent to write or to speak thereon.
The late autumn was clouded by the news of Mr. Bradlaugh’s serious illness in America. After struggling for some time against ill-health he was struck down by an attack of pleurisy, to which soon was added typhoid fever, and for a time lay at the brink of the grave. Dr. Otis, his able physician, finding that it was impossible to give him the necessary attendance at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, put him into his own carriage and drove him to the Hospital of St. Luke’s, where he confided him to the care of Dr. Leaming, himself also visiting him daily. Of this illness the _Baltimore Advertiser_ wrote:
“Mr. Charles Bradlaugh, the famous English Radical lecturer, has been so very dangerously ill that his life has almost been despaired of. He was taken ill at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, and partially recovered; but on the day upon which a lecture had been arranged from him before the Liberal Club he was taken down a second time with a relapse, which has been very near proving fatal. The cause was overwork and complete nervous prostration which brought on low fever. His physician has allowed one friend only to see him daily for five minutes, and removed him to St. Luke’s Hospital for the sake of the absolute quiet, comfort, and intelligent attendance he could secure there, and for which he was glad to pay munificently. This long and severe illness has disappointed the hopes and retarded the object for which he came to this country; but he is gentleness and patience itself in his sickness in this strange land, and has endeared himself greatly to his physicians and attendants by his gratitude and appreciation of the slightest attention.”
There is no doubt that the care so willingly lavished on the English stranger saved his life, and those who in England honor Charles Bradlaugh as chief and love him as friend must always keep in grateful memory those who in his sorest need served him so nobly well. Those who think that an Atheist cannot calmly face the prospect of death might well learn a lesson from the fortitude and courage shown by an Atheist as he lay at the point of death, far from home and from all he loved best. The Rev. Mr. Frothingham bore public and admiring testimony in his own church to Mr. Bradlaugh’s perfect serenity, at once fearless and unpretending, and, himself a Theist, gave willing witness to the Atheist’s calm strength.