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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter LVII. - Religion


SOLEMN Sunday rest with cessation of work came once a week to the Bradford district. It was preceded on Saturday by a great house cleaning, and washing of persons likewise from the grime of six days' labour. The many places of worship were well attended by men, women, and children in their best clothes. The line of demarcation between Church and Dissent was much more broadly marked in things civil than in matters of faith. Excluding the recently imported Irish Roman Catholics and some minor sects, the whole population might well be said to wear the same decided Protestant brand. Dissenters had to justify the continuance of separatism by exaggerating small points of difference, manufacturing fancy grievances as soon as the old real ones disappeared, and by carefully raking together the embers of ancient feuds which once were of importance, but which had been, in course of time, deprived of sensible meaning. The Church, assailed without by the Liberation Society and its train of strangely assorted Roman Catholic and Secularist auxiliaries, was, at the same time, beginning to be troubled within by the ritualism which was, in the main, the natural reaction to rationalism, and in some cases, too, the outcome of individual petty arrogance or the desire to create sensations, and to pander to the theatrical and superstitious tastes of society ladies, or to appeal to the element of mysticism which is strong in speculative dreamers, and is not wholly absent from any human mind. Ritualism found very little of congenial soil in which to strike its roots within the diocese of Ripon, whose then bishop, Bickersteth, was a strong Evangelical, and one of the most earnest preachers of his day. There should be room for the Ritualists as well as for the Evangelicals and Broad parties in the Church of Eng- land ; and it has to be acknowledged that they have done much good, self-denying work in the slums of London and other places. That rescue work should be set off to the credit side of their account against their priestly pretensions, their ministering to the theatrical tastes and superficial remorses of society sinners, and their sending to Rome the more logical and thorough receivers of their doctrines. The laity of the Church of Eng- land are, taken in the mass, I verily believe, more immovably Protestant than the Dissenters who speak so much about the Romanising mischief done by ritualism. The English Church people are tolerant to an exceptional degree. They will listen apathetically to sermons and discourses by high and dry clergymen who refrain from, introducing innovations in worship, but they set their teeth in deadly wrath against new priestly garments, and postures, and genuflexions which they denounce as Popish. If they had the right to elect their clergymen the Evangelicals would be chosen almost everywhere. They like good sermons, but can put up with dull and foolish ones, because they think the Prayer Book services sufficient for the need of Christians, and that as long as he cannot add to or take from these services it does not much matter what may be the clergyman's personal views or character. The Church of England gains breadth from theoretical imperfections and startling contrasts. It is aristocratic and popular, rich and poor, lax in some matters of importance, and rigorous in some small ones, such as confirmation of children, which has no importance beyond that of custom, and yet which acts as a barrier against the entrance into communion of outsiders wishing to come in from other denominations, who have ten times more of scripture knowledge, and far deeper religious feelings than the youngsters on whose heads bishops lay their hands. Evangelical awakening in the Church was so directly and unmistakably due to the eighteenth century revival outside of it, which is connected specially with the names of Whitefield and Wesley, that the one thing might be considered an off-shoot of the other. To the same pressure of external influence must, in a large measure, be ascribed the generating of the reforming force which, by degrees, swept away many old abuses, such as pluralities, absenteeism, and scandals of clerical life. Ritualism, and the Anglican High Churchism of modern days, must be taken as protests of religious people against the materialism of an unbelieving age, which is cutting away human beings from the highest sources of inspiration and forcing them to deprive their souls of the spiritual wings with which God had furnished them. In sense and purpose, the protest is commendable and timely, too. But it has taken a form which is detestable to the majority of English people. Many intelligent Romanists would, if they possibly could, get gladly rid of the superstitious lumber of the Middle Ages to which our self-styled Catholics of the Church of England are striving to bring back a people stubbornly Protestant, who anchor themselves on Bible and Prayer Book, and are, in country places especially, loyally attached to the old churches, which are often museums of local historical monuments, and about which the dead of many ages have been buried. In the worsted district I found that the Church of England was by far the strongest single religious denomination, although it had not perhaps a numerical majority against all the other sects, Christian, Jewish, Secularist, when pooled together. Out in non-manufacturing rural districts the Church was predominant, and Dissent, in all its forms, was weak and wavering in character and fortunes, al- though subsidised and patronised by urban co- religionists.

In Bradford and district, as indeed all over England, Old Dissent, hailing back to Commonwealth time, and in less definite form to the reign of Queen Elizabeth, was represented by Independents, Baptists, and Presbyterians. The Quakers were so few that they hardly counted, and the old English Presbyterians had, at the end of the eighteenth century, slided into Unitarianisin, except those of them who joined the Independents, or Wesleyans, or slipped back into the Church of England. With the exception of very few places, the English Presbyterians of Baxter days, who had the majority of the four thousand ministers expelled from vicarages and rectories on St Bartholomew's Day, 1662, had lost their chapels and endowments, and all but ceased to exist as a religious denomination. But the Scotch incomers of the industrial revolution built new Presbyterian chapels for themselves, and imported ministers from benorth the Tweed, which, I believe, would rarely have been done if, in the First Parliament of the Restoration, clericals and cavaliers had not, by the Uniformity Act, shut the door on conciliation by refusing to recognise any but episcopal orders, and by putting obstacles in the way of men and women of non-episcopal churches joining the Church of England. Educated, fair-minded English Church people of recent times regret the exclusiveness embodied in the Uniformity Act, which is in such a contrast to the servility of passive obedience, recognition of the divine right of kings, and hailing such a scamp as Charles II. with the blasphemous title of Sacred Majesty. But the punishment came with the endeavour of his brother and successor to make logical use of these professions of abject servility for reimposing the Papal yoke on Protestant England; and the trial of the bishops brought a sort of absolution to the self-degraded Church which all the while had many good and learned men among its ministers.

If James II. of England and VII. of Scotland had possessed half the insight and cleverness of his gay, profligate, and wholly selfish and unprincipled elder brother, he would never have dreamed of forcing Protestant England England of the Smithfield martyrs, of the Armada, and the great Elizabethan reign and literature back into the bosom of the Roman Catholic Church, nor would he have placed reliance, as if bond slaves because of their profession of the servile obedience, on the clergy of the Established Church. The man was, however, fatuously sincere in his religious fanaticism, while in his relations with women nearly as immoral as the preceding Sacred Majesty. The Church of England, by slavish professions of loyalty on the one hand and oppressive proceedings against Nonconformity on the other, damaged its character in England as the willing aider of attempted royal despotism, earned the disrespect of a blood-stained, persecuting aggressor in Scotland, and by the Act of Uniformity cut itself off from alliance and inter- communion with all the Reformed Churches of the Continent, whose existence was placed in danger by French conquests. The fact that from such an abyss there was a quick recovery, Jacobite plottings notwithstanding, proved beyond dispute the strong hold their national Church had got on the freedom- loving English people. In the dark days before the 1688 Revolution, the Nonconformists of all denominations were the real champions of civil and religious liberty, and as such they acted throughout the next century, and as such they love to pose to the present day, though matters are so changed that the nominal championship slips with fatal ease into petty persecution of foolish vicars and rectors with swollen priestly heads, who try to uphold prerogatives and customs, which common- sense, or contrary laws, have consigned to the tomb of all the Capulets.

The idea of perfect religious liberty is a plant of such slow growth that even yet it has not come to flower and fruit in all civilised countries. It took no real root at all in any land during the fierce religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In our own country the desire for toleration changed as the three main parties into which Protestants had become divided, changed from top or to bottom their respective positions. Unitedly the English Protest- ants passed through the ordeal of the Marian persecution, to get divided by different ideals in the reign of Elizabeth. But these divided parties acted like one in keeping down the Catholics, although the latter acted like true patriots in defence of their native land in the year of the Armada. It was no double dose of original sin but greater opportunities which made the Church of England the greater and longer oppressor of the outside Protestant parties. When Henry VIII. deposed the Pope he put himself in his place as head of the English Church. That headship principle was maintained by the succeeding Tudor sovereigns with the exception of the much-to-be-pitied "Bloody Mary," who was as brave as any of her remarkably strong-headed race. The Tudors were popular despots, who attached themselves to great national causes, and established law and order in a turbulent time. Elizabeth got a poor law passed which solved a long-standing difficulty, and took care that the meanest of her subjects should get justice against big superiors. The Puritans provoked her by outspoken denunciation of the slack discipline and doctrines and constitution of the National Church into capricious acts of persecution, and yet they remained all the time her loyal subjects. When the headship passed on to the "Scotch Solomon," the aspect of political and religious affairs very soon assumed a stormy appearance. For all the pedantry and personal oddities which made James an object of ridicule to his English subjects, he was the farthest- seeing, and, except in regard to unworthy favourites, the wisest of the four Stuarts that sat on the throne of England. Unity of Church and State on the Royal headship accorded admirably with the kingship principles he frankly expounded in his "Basilicon Doron," arid which, in a later time, Hobbes more thoroughly and logically argued out in his "Leviathan." James had come out of Scotland with a perfect dread of the democratic nature of Presbyterianism, and muttering "No bishop, no king." He had laboured artfully, with patient perseverance, to pave the way for his accession to the English throne by the creation of Scotch bishops, who at first were without a shadow of pretension to the shadow of historical and so-called canonical Apostolic succession, magnified in England. After he got to a safe distance from the recalcitrant and loudly rebuking Presbyterian ministers and the fear of their ultra-Protestant followers, and had for his ecclesiastical design in Scotland the whole influence of the Church of England at his back, he pushed forward the completion of his Episcopal-Presbyterian blend. With similar artfulness and the willing help of his bishops, he throttled the independence of the Scotch Parliament through a juggling manipulation of the Lords of the Articles. He would never have committed his son's error of letting Laud or any Englishman, clerical or lay, presume to interfere, far less to dictate in the affairs of the Scotch Kirk. His design was to bring about both ecclesiastical and parliamentary union between England and Scotland. What marred that great design was the kingly despotism which he intended to place on the top of it. His son set the heather on fire in Scotland by treating that poor, proud, and warlike country as if it had been made a conquered province of England; and the revolt of defiant Scotland gave the English Parliament and the English freedom-loving patriots their opportunity for calling Stuart despotism to strict account.

Banded together as Covenanters, the Scotch Presbyterians were every whit as intolerant as their former oppressors had ever been, or were destined again to be during the, to the whole realm, dark- clouded Restoration period. Throughout the whole struggle they had an earnest desire to preserve the hereditary kingship when it was deprived of the despotic powers claimed and exercised by James and his more stately yet far less astute son. They also, in a reverse way, adopted James's policy of ecclesiastical union. He wanted by his royal power to impose Anglican Episcopacy on Scotland. They hoped that Presbyterianism would be voluntarily adopted by the English Parliament and people, because, they argued, it was the system of Church Government which was more consistent with constitutional monarchy. The arguments from the Scriptures and the early records of Christianity, with which the learned disputants of both sides belaboured one another, had far less weight with the public, who did not find any clearly defined and unalterable scheme of Church Government in the New Testament, than this plain constitutional argument. It was the force of this constitutional argument, and the solution of very pressing difficulties, which led so many of the English Church clergy and laity to surmount their international prejudices against taking a lesson from Scotland and Geneva, and to avow themselves Presbyterians. Hence the strong muster of Presbyterians in the Long Parliament before it was violently reduced to a mere faction. Hence the Westminster Assembly of Divines, whose Confession of Faith, although truly the work of the English majority, was at once accepted in Scotland, and still remains, nominally at least, the Confession of Faith of the various sections into which the Kirk got unhappily divided. The English reformers, clerical and lay, who wished to preserve what was good in the past, and to bring the continued Kingship under constitutional restrictions, saw that Episcopacy had made itself condemned not because of inherent demerits but because Charles, Laud, and Stafford had involved it in the discredit of having been used as the servile drudge of a system of political and ecclesiastical despotism to which the British people would no longer submit.

The Congregational Puritans hated with good cause the Episcopal system and refused to look with favour at the Presbyterian alternative. They had long and nobly testified against crowned and mitred tyranny, and manfully suffered for their testimonies. They had a just right to look upon themselves, especially in the Restoration period, as the torch-bearers of heavenly light in a long night of darkness and as the standard-bearers of civil liberty. But they had no scheme for preserving national continuity and making an orderly re-settlement come after the upheaval. In their view every single worshipping and faithful congregation was a perfectly organised and divinely ordained Church. The wildly theocratic views of some of them transcended the bounds of reason altogether. They looked for miscellaneous inspiration as the outcome of individual religious fervour, and so could dispense with a learned and regularly appointed ministry altogether. Of course, those were the views of extremists and not of the more sober-minded Congregationalists. But they were views which took hold of the army, and decided the course of public events against the larger number who wanted to stop at constitutional reform of a very extensive character, and to obtain an ecclesiastical system which would accord with that reform. Although they had not so much as the shadow of a practical reconstructive plan, the extremists, with the help of the army, got their destructive innings. By "Pride's purge" the Long Parliament was reduced to a rump which would have been simply farcical if it had not also been so tyrannical and inhumanly intolerant. The Cromwell dictatorship then followed as a blessing undisguised. It effectually stopped the rapid progress of anarchy and rescued the precious heritage of the past from irreparable damage. Abroad it restored British prestige, and boldly vindicated British honour and interests. At home, after war devastations and the fierce collisions of parties and factions, it enforced peace and order, accompanied with a more impartial administration of justice and a larger amount of religious toleration than England ever enjoyed before or after under a Stuart king.

While the English Presbyterians within a hundred years of the death of Richard Baxter disappeared almost entirely, by partly lapsing into Unitarianism, and partly dispersing themselves among orthodox dissenters or joining the Church of England, the Congregationalists-Independents, Baptists, and minor sects holding their one-congregation one- church organisation views stiffly retained in cities, towns and populous districts their historical continuity through all trials and ups and downs, until the Reform Bill gave them their reward in the shape of an enormous increase of their political and municipal power. In Bradford, when the majority of the much decayed Presbyterian body there became Unitarians, and, by keeping the old name, managed to possess themselves of chapel property, the orthodox minority joined the Independents, and founded a new chapel for themselves, which in 1860 had one of the largest congregations in the town and whole district. This was typical of what was earlier or at the same time taking place at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century in mostly all places in England in which, at St. Bartholomew's Day, 1662, Presbyterianism had been strong. Exteriorly it suffered from adherence to the principle of monarchy, while not accepting the rule of bishops, and interiorly the philosophies of the eighteenth century and sympathy with the first promising phase of the French Revolution hastened disintregation which only left a shadowy and misleading simulacrum. The Congregationalists retained a large portion of the bitter hostility of their ancestors to the Church of England, although in other respects they professed and practised liberal sentiments and promoted in and outside their own country philanthropic and humanitarian objects and projects. For the root thing in which they showed an unforgiving and un-Christian temper, they had the wrongs of many ages to plead as a kind of justification. Hereditary hostilities between religions long resist eliminating influences, and are paradoxically conservative. During the twenty years I was in the West Riding, Puritannic doctrines among the younger ministers were obviously losing their hold, and giving place to rationalistic, philosophical, or unmistakably evasive pulpit eloquence and platform dissenterism. In proportion as spiritual Puritanism decayed the Liberation Society grew stronger in number, and so did the ambition to disestablish, cripple, and destroy the Church of England. However purely spiritual their faith may be, and however high their original aims, religious association of all sorts more or less quickly harden into secular interests that cannot help getting earth-cased and clogged in various forms and degrees. The policy of the Liberation Society seems to me to have brought into unblessed prominence and suicidal activity the little something devilish which by natural law was always mixed up with the much which was really divine in ancient Puritanism. Discipline had lost its early inquisitorial severity before I went to England, yet ministers and deacons did not neglect proper over- sight of members and adherents of their congregations; and moreover, they made themselves helpful in many ways to young people in search of openings, and to widows, orphans, and disabled or afflicted men and women of their respective communions. They had no very large proportion of helpless ones, or ne'er-do-wells among them; for they were to an extent beyond ordinary companies of hard-working, well-conducted, and generally fairly well off upper-class operatives, shopkeepers, and artisans, and their leaders, and often their employers, were the middle- class aristocracy of the newly enriched, who had crows of their own to pluck with the old feudal aristocracy. In my long residence among them, Liberation Society policy, decay of Puritanic doctrines, and municipal and parliamentary electioneering did not seem to detrimentally affect the good old life habits of the people who worshipped in congregational chapels. Their Christian ideal of duty and their standard of morality were as high as they had ever been.

In Bradford and its district I found the Wesleyans, or Methodists as they preferred to call them- selves, very numerous and still largely animated with the enlivening spirit of the great revival movement, which shook Christian England out of lethargic slumbers in the eighteenth century, and had its Calvinistic counterpart in Scotland and in Wales also. Let evolution theory, higher criticism and science limited to materialistic researches, do their worst, but in spite of all, human beings conscious of possessing immortal souls will always be seeking spiritual connections with God, or the Soul of the Universe, and that seeking will ever and anon after a period of slackness become intense and burst forth in a revival which may take a warlike shape like the Crusades, or a monastic form, as often happened in the Roman Catholic Church, or a doctrinal and purifying overhauling and reconstruction like the Reformation, or a pacific religious enthusiasm such as that in which Wesleyanism originated. The movement began in the Church of England; and Wesleyanism as a missionary organisation might have continued in affiliated union with and subordination to the Church of England had not the first Cavalier Parliament of Charles the Second fettered freedom and furnished the hierarchy with a good excuse for neglecting a great opportunity, and stupid rectors, vicars, and squires with weapons of contumelious offence and paltry persecution. John Wesley died without ever separating himself from the communion and membership of the Church of England. Long after his death, the Bradford Wesleyans, although they had a chapel and ministry of their own, communicated only in the parish church as long as the evangelical vicar, who deeply sympathised with them, held the incumbency. I think it was not until 1816 that the severance was made complete. Unlike the Congregationalists, the Wesleyans had no hereditary roots of bitterness planted in the dust of the Civil War and of the Restoration time. They were dissenters by no design, or irreconcilable principles of their own, but because the Church of England had failed to find for them a field of work within its vineyard. If the rulers of that Church despised and neglected them, and if some rectors, vicars, and squires despitefully treated and abused them, others, like the vicar of Bradford, befriended them, and so did not a few of the nobility and gentry. So far were they from objecting on principle to the recognition of religion by the State, and from thinking that every congregation should rule and uphold itself, that by a Deed enrolled in Chancery they established their missionary- board scheme for securing corporate funds and a circulating ministry. They had had their troubles and divisions in the first half of last century. The waves of the revival tide had broken on rocks of strife and secular interests, but for all that I found between 1860 and 1880 there was a good deal of the old purely religious revival force operating among the whole of them. They accepted the Bible as their unerring guide and did not concern themselves with the controversies regarding its composition and contents raised by what is called the higher criticism. If their religion was emotional it was lovable and kindly and brotherly to outsiders.

But reluctantly and slowly the Wesleyans, as far as their ruling and representative bodies could do it, were drawn into the net of the Liberation Society, and thereby placed in antagonism to their original and natural principles, and the system by which they had made themselves an unendowed but established denomination under the binding guarantee of the law of the land. This conquest by the Liberation Society was not completed when I was in England. I question whether it can ever be made quite complete as long as the old revival spirit continues to operate with sensible effect.


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