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The Autobiography of Christopher Kirkland, Vol. 2. Linton, E. Lynn (Elizabeth Lynn), 1822–1898.
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NATURALLY all the Liberals, and even the Freethinkers who cared nothing about the intrinsic merits of the question, were on the side of Mr. Gorham in the controversy about baptismal regeneration which took place between him and ‘Henry of Exeter,’ that diluted representative of Hildebrand, or, more properly, Thomas à Becket modernized. It was easy to foresee the tyranny of the High Church, should it ever have supreme power. For though Tractarianism was only in the protesting and struggling stage, a condition of things for which page: 76 Liberals have a constitutional sympathy, yet we knew then, as we know now, that it was the effort of tyranny, happily restrained, to place its yoke on the necks of men. It was like Sinbad's Old Man of the Sea, apparently helpless and ill-used and asking leave only to live like the rest. Once seat him on your shoulders and you will never know intellectual freedom again!

Men suffer individually from the moral grip of the Low Church ministers; yet, as this grip is more congregational than organic, it can be shaken off when desired, and is by no means so dangerous as that other. The ‘sin of Erastianism,’ which the Tractarians denounce, is the only safeguard of national religious freedom; and while the Church remains national, and holds in its hands any kind of directing power over the lives of citizens, it ought to be essentially, not nominally, Catholic; that is, it ought to page: 77 include in its bounding line as much diversity as may be without self-stultification.

For all that, and in spite of the part which I, and others like me, took in this Gorham affair, the Evangelical section was, and always has been, profoundly abhorrent to me. The constricted human sympathies of these people—their hostility to science—their superstitious adhesion to every word of the Bible, whatever geology or philology may say—their arrogant assumption of absolute rightness—their greater reverence for certain mystical and unprovable doctrines than for active and practical virtues—their unnatural asceticism, which has none of the manliness of stoicism in it, but is founded on the crushing idea of Sin, that pallid spectre everywhere, even in our affections—in a word, their sanctimoniousness, gave me in my early youth a repulsion for the whole school, which I retain to my page: 78 cooler and soberer old age. I have had a wide personal experience of this section, and when I speak of them it is according to knowledge;—which is the only excuse I can offer for a prejudice I confess to be both illiberal and unphilosophical.

Amongst the full-flavoured Bohemianism and scoffing Voltaireanism of Mrs. Hulme—the practical honesty and unreserve of my uncovenanted friends, the Free-lovers—the sharp and brilliant, but not always modest, wit of Mr. King's lawyer guests, to whom nothing was sacred save success—was wedged in the Evangelical straitness of the Honourable and Reverend Mr. Caird, the Low Church incumbent of the parish in which my boarding-house was situated. My father had stipulated that I should attend the church and make the personal acquaintance of the clergyman, whoever he might be, within whose jurisdiction I might be placed; and, of course, I kept my word.

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This intercourse was my penance for the pleasure of the rest.

The Honourable and Reverend Mr. Caird was one of those ecclesiastics whose very personality sends one's blood the wrong way. Manner, look, voice, enunciation, gestures, all are studied and artificial with these men, who talk of glory and knowledge, saving grace, the blood of Jesus, and the new birth, as others talk of the crops and the weather. Everything is subdued, nothing is spontaneous about them; and there is the ever-present consciousness of superior holiness, like a visible varnish, over them. The thin lips, tightly closed, seem unable or unwilling to take a deep draught of vitalizing air. Who knows what sobbing breaths of sinful passion may not have profaned it?—what rude impulses of vigorous life may not have stirred it?—unlawful for those whose castigated pulses may never throb beyond the chill regulation page: 80 beat. The smooth clean-shaven face is as impassive as if cut out of wood. No generous flash of quick emotion brightens the cheek nor softens the eye, dilates the pinched nostril nor dimples the sterile mouth. You detect the clerical impress on that impassive face the first instant that you see it; for the episcopal laying-on of hands has left the thumb-mark for ever. The eyelids are generally dropped over eyes which may not see too much of Nature, that robust child of goat-footed Pan, with its bold glances roving free and wild over all the mysteries of life, and its ruddy mouth, red with the juice of fruits, laughing up to the sun, its creator and preserver and destroyer in one. Nature, which is unredeemed—humanity, which is unregenerate—are both among the things inhibited to the ‘saved’ sons of the Gospel. To them Love itself is a snare and a sin; and the very passion of a mother for her page: 81 child is deprecated as an idolatrous preference for the creature over the Creator.

As for Nature, the word itself is redolent to them of impiety and indelicacy. I remember how once, when my sister Ellen, protesting against the arid teachings of one who it was then thought would be her mother-in-law, said warmly: ‘It is not natural,’ received for her rebuke: ‘Natural, Ellen! how can you, a Christian young woman, use a word at once so indelicate and profane?’

Still, the men themselves are often so good, so conscientious, that it is impossible not to respect them as individuals, how much soever one may shrink from them as officials. And this was the case with me in my intercourse with Mr. Caird.

He lived only to do his duty, as he conceived it, and to spread what he thought to be right principles. But what principles they were! He sanctioned no kind of page: 82 social pleasure and found sin in the most innocent amusements. Cards were always the ‘devil's books’ with him; a theatre was the equivalent of hell, and those who went there were predestined to eternal damnation as surely as those who sunk in mid ocean were doomed to be drowned; and dancing was also synonymous with damnation. He once found himself at a lady's house where a small impromptu dance among the boys and girls was got up. They were only children, none counting over ten years of age.

Mr. Caird routed up his wife, took her on his arm, and went straight to the hostess.

‘Madam,’ he said severely; ‘I cannot stay here to see these young souls led down to hell. Either this sinful pastime must be stopped, or I and my wife must leave.’

As the lady refused to stop that in which she saw no kind of harm, and thus make page: 83 a whole roomful of innocent little people unhappy, as their sacrifice to this Moloch of superstition, Mr. Caird acted on his threat, and buried himself and his wife in the cloak-room until his carriage came to take them away.

Another time his wife went out with a cameo brooch in front of her dress. Seeing it for the first time as she came from the cloak-room, unshawled and bare-necked, he peremptorily bade her take it off, saying, with more prudent prevision than substantial delicacy:

‘Take that off. It attracts the eyes of men to a part of your person it is not desirable they should look at too closely.’

He was a man as incapable of understanding or discussing a religious doubt as was my father himself. He might, perhaps, have scraped up as much moss of tolerance from among the boulders of his convictions as would have enabled him to discuss page: 84 variorum readings of certain texts; but any doubt cast on the bases of his faith—that was beyond his limit; and to have entered on it at all would have been to him like holding a candle to the devil, where the torchbearer would have been as damnable as the demon he served.

To him and all his school the devil is a personage as real as that next-door neighbour the Socinian, and hell is as actual a place as Paris or Rome. Logical and literal, they admit no refining away of words nor enlargement of sense by the doctrine of development. The worm that dieth not and the fire that is not quenched are material and existing things. They cannot accept the softening exegesis of ‘tropes,’ ‘parables,’ ‘speaking to the people in the language which alone they could understand,’ ‘doctrine according to the learning of the times, and not permanent and fixed in the face of better knowledge,’ page: 85 with which the Broad Church smooth out difficulties. The words are final and of cast-iron; consequently the material personality of Satan and the topical reality of hell are matters of absolute certainty which nothing can undo.

I was once present at a very painful scene in the house of one of these fervent believers in the personality of the devil and the physical pains of hell—a scene which made a great impression on me and drove me farther and farther from the line of orthodoxy. The eldest son of the family had lately died. He had been a wild outward kind of young fellow, who had enjoyed his youth too freely and flung his cap too far over the windmill. He had been thoughtless, extravagant, pleasure-loving; and he had done a great many things which it would have been better to have left undone. But he had harmed no one but himself; and his worst offences had been due to tempera- temperament page: 86 ment rather than to any obliquity of moral nature.

One day, about a month after his death, I was dining with the family, when the father suddenly laid down his knife and fork, covered his face in his hands and burst into loud weeping. We saw the tears run down below the palms of his hands and ooze through his fingers. His eldest daughter got up, went over to him, and put her arms round his neck.

‘Dearest papa,’ she said; ‘what is it? what troubles you?’

‘Ah, my dear!’ he sobbed; ‘I was thinking of poor Jim in hell!’

The strange incongruity of the thought, so ghastly and so grim, with the prosaic circumstances of the meal, made a contrast that I have never forgotten.

Poor man! How often I have thought of the needless agony of that moment; and how often I have wished that I could help page: 87 in breaking once and for ever all these cruel chains which bind men to misery and falsehood. We deprecate the sacrifices made of life and manhood to Juggernaut; are ours of spiritual peace and courage made to Satan any more respectable? By my own early torments I can gauge the misery felt by others; by my own early terrors I know the strength of that mysterious fear which possesses the souls of those who believe and tremble.

I was brought into even closer personal relations with this section of the Church. My sister Ellen was engaged to be married to the son of one of these Low Church clergymen, and I was naturally a reprobate and accursed to the family she was about to enter. Mr. Smith, her father-in-law elect, made it a condition of the marriage that she should give me up as completely as if I were dead—that she should never see me, hold no intercourse with me, and that she page: 88 should abandon me entirely, as the plain and manifest duty of a Christian woman.

We were a strange family and full of apparent contradictions. We might quarrel among ourselves at home, as we did; I might be reprobated and considered abominable by the rest, as I was; but we were too strong-willed a race to submit for submission's sake to king or kaiser. And Ellen, who had never specially loved me and had always trounced me when she could, refused to accept any husband in the world on these terms.

‘Christopher may be quite wrong in all he thinks—and he is quite wrong; that I admit,’ she said; ‘but he is my brother, and I will not give him up. And if Morley’—her lover—‘has not courage to stand by me, he need not.’

He had not the courage; and the marriage was broken off, to my intense trouble. But Ellen did better afterwards; so that page: 89 burden of unavailing regret was rolled off my shoulders. And indeed I doubt if she would ever have been happy in a family where it was considered indelicate and unchristian to say that a thing was unnatural, and where the theatre was considered as one of the Halls of Eblis.

In later years another sister discarded me of her own free-will for my unsoundness. This was when she had become a believer in the theory of the Ten Tribes—in universal Jesuitism, so that a Freethinker, a Socinian, an Evangelical, a Tractarian, have each and all been supposed by her to be so many emissaries of the Jesuits—in secret poisonings as matters of weekly occurrence—in the Apocalypse, and the Seal now being opened (witness thereof the potato disease and the phylloxera)—and in ghosts, apparitions, presentiments and warnings as among the ordinary phenomena of this solid earth.

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Not all these Evangelicals are sincere; or, if they are sincere in their convictions, they have odd irregularities in practice. A certain great provincial light in these days was the leader of the Evangelical school where he was stationed. An eloquent preacher, he longed to get to London, saying: ‘I am an oak in a flower-pot here’—though his place was in the second city of the kingdom, and his fame and following were as great as if he had had St. Paul's for his pulpit. Among his hearers and friends was a very charming young married woman, with that kind of mental activity which made her go into religion as she went into society; study the esoteric meaning of texts as she studied Balzac and Georges Sand; and long for peculiar enlightenment as she longed to be received at court and to work her way into the houses of the great. It was one part of human life to her; and she had a feverish desire to know all the parts, page: 91 and to possess herself of everything by which her mind would be filled with new ideas, as a balloon is filled with gas.

Mr. — was a handsome, well-favoured man, also desirous of new ideas, and not disinclined to lead blind white souls into the light, nor to set dainty tripping feet on to holy places. He and his fair friend often read the Bible together. He expounded and she took in. How it really ended I do not know, for she did not tell me more than this little anecdote. When they were sitting together in the summer-house, with the Bible open before them, he suddenly re-enacted the drama of Francesca and Paolo—they were studying the Song of Solomon—broke out into a declaration of love, and, when she repulsed him, reminding him that both were married, flung piety to the winds and said:

‘Let us then go down to hell together.’

This is all I know; and I know this only page: 92 by the voluntary confession of the lady herself. The Oak in the Flower-pot I never saw; and I never told the story against him. But I used to laugh to myself when I heard his name, and think how odd it was that I knew so much of him, while to him I was not even the shadow of a name.

Hearing so much of sin from Mr. Caird, and seeing how he conjured up this pale and ghastly spectre everywhere, I set myself to think out the matter and to clear the question, so far as I could, from all conventionalized interpretations, going down, more meo, to the foundations of things. And going down to the foundations here, I made it clear to myself that elemental sin does not exist, and that the whole thing is a question of proportion. Cut away the base of anything—even of murder—and you cut away a necessary and integral part of human nature. Exaggerate this absolutely necessary base, and you come to disproportion page: 93 and selfishness—that is, to sin; as in the instinct of self-preservation, of which anger or revenge, culminating in murder, is the excess, the exaggeration, the disproportion, the crime. Also I made it clear that certain virtues rest on a physical basis; as, the value of chastity in woman for the sake of the purity of the race—the value of temperance in man for the sake of the health of the offspring.

When I had reasoned this out for myself, I can scarcely describe the relief I felt; how much more manageable the whole question of human life became; how much wider the horizon, how much clearer the light. Instead of that maddening mystery of the origin of evil, and why God, who is Omnipotent, causes His creatures to be born in sin and conceived in iniquity, I came to the simple equation of comparative excess and conditional ignorance, of which the results must be dealt with as severely page: 94 as may be, but whereof the cause is remediable, and will one day be removed. It seemed to lift me out of the depths, and to invest humanity with a hope and power forbidden while I believed in the inborn wickedness of the human heart. I saw law, crime, and punishment as the logical conditions of human society—society conscious of its needs, and acting out the law of self-preservation by repressing excess and punishing inordinate selfishness. But this was a very different thing from the doctrine of elemental and intrinsic sin which the Low Church holds so strongly. And, as I say, the freedom, the light, the hope, the cheerfulness which resulted from my conclusions made a new moral world for me. So far I owe gratitude to Mr. Caird and his followers. That powerful stimulant of opposition, which has ever worked so strongly in me, led me to the examination of the whole matter; and I burst into page: 95 freedom through the very contemplation of bondage.

It was about this time that I met Robert Owen, then an old man, but still full of pith and vigour. His belief and enthusiasm were in no wise damped by disappointment, and he still held on to his idea of philosophical communism as the ultimate outcome and regeneration of society. I became his ardent convert, and had there been a ‘phalanstery’ founded on philosophical principles I would have gone into it. In some form or other I felt sure that these principles of co-operation would ultimately prevail; and we see their partial working at the present day, under a new name and an altered shape. But I should have liked to have seen the question fairly tried, and to have proved for myself what was the moral hitch to prevent smooth running. We can live peaceably together in hotels and pensions—why not in a community, page: 96 where we should simply enlarge the principle, and still further restrict that bane of life and progress—selfishness?

Together with Owen I knew Dr. Travis, the delightful man they used to call his Paraclete. He was one of the loveliest flowers of humanity; but he wanted magnetic force and vitalizing energy. Handsome, well-read, singularly well-bred and as pure as a good woman, he was content with holding sacred the faith that had been bequeathed to him, but he made no valid efforts to spread it. He might not have succeeded if he had; but I have always thought that if a more supple intellect, a more worldly-wise and experimental man, had taken the management of Robert Owen's ideas, we might have had co-operation sooner in time and more radical in organization than we have. It seems to me very certain that the thing has to come sooner or later, and that mutual support will some day be the rule of page: 97 society, rather than what we have now, universal competition.

The strange variety of thought and view found among the people I most frequented made a moral and intellectual dissolving view or kaleidoscope which sometimes a little bewildered me; and I often asked with Pilate: ‘What is Truth?’—that question which no man answered then, and no man has answered since; and yet we all believe that we ourselves have this Truth. And I in those days thought that I had it in faithful belief in God's Providence and power; in the ultimate good of all things; in the perfectibility of man and the rapid advance of society towards that perfection; in the sure progress of the soul after death; in the elimination of the devil from the scheme of the spiritual world; in the sweeping away of hell; in the divine life within us; in the universal Fatherhood of God—God above and beyond us all—God revealed in page: 98 the mind of man—God untrammelled by church or creed or formula, neither Christian nor Jewish, neither Mohammedan nor Brahmin, but everywhere, in all beliefs, in all heroic deeds, in all faithful effort, wherever a prayer went up to heaven or an act of sacrifice was done on earth. For though I had got rid of sin in the abstract, I had not relaxed my hold on good; and of all arguments, that which maintains there can be no good without evil was the one I most passionately repudiated. Light was light to me, and I could not admit that it needed darkness to enable it to exist. And in like manner God was God, and needed no devil as His shadow.