A happy half-century and other essays/The Pietist


They go the fairest way to Heaven that would serve God without a Hell.—Religio Medici.

"How cutting it is to be the means of bringing children into the world to be the subjects of the Kingdom of Darkness, to dwell with Divils and Damned Spirits."

In this temper of pardonable regret the mother of William Godwin wrote to her erring son; and while the maternal point of view deserves consideration (no parent could be expected to relish such a prospect), the letter is noteworthy as being one of the few written to Godwin, or about Godwin, which forces us to sympathize with the philosopher. The boy who was reproved for picking up the family cat on Sunday—"demeaning myself with such profaneness on the Lord's day"—was little likely to find his religion "all pure profit." His account of the books he read as a child, and of his precocious and unctuous piety, is probably over-emphasized for the sake of colour; but the Evangelical literature of his day, whether designed for young people or for adults, was of a melancholy and discouraging character. The "Pious Deaths of Many Godly Children" (sad monitor of the Godwin nursery) appears to have been read off the face of the earth; but there have descended to us sundry volumes of a like character, which even now stab us with pity for the little readers long since laid in their graves. The most frivolous occupation of the good boy in these old story-books is searching the Bible, "with mamma's permission," for texts in which David "praises God for the weather." More serious-minded children weep floods of tears because they are "lost sinners." In a book of "Sermons for the Very Young," published by the Vicar of Walthamstow in the beginning of the last century, we find the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah selected as an appropriate theme for infancy, and its lessons driven home with all the force of a direct personal application. "Think, little child, of the fearful story. The wrath of God is upon them. Do they now repent of their sins? It is all too late. Do they cry for mercy? There is none to hear them. … Your heart, little child, is full of sin. You think of what is not right, and then you wish it, and that is sin. … Ah, what shall sinners do when the last day comes upon them? What will they think when God shall punish them forever?"

Children brought up on these lines passed swiftly from one form of hysteria to another, from self-exaltation and the assurance of grace to fears which had no easement. There is nothing more terrible in literature than Borrow's account of the Welsh preacher who believed that when he was a child of seven he had committed the unpardonable sin, and whose whole life was shadowed by fear. At the same time that little William Godwin was composing beautiful death-bed speeches for the possible edification of his parents and neighbours, we find Miss Elizabeth Carter writing to Mrs. Montagu about her own nephew, who realized, at seven years of age, how much he and all creatures stood in need of pardon; and who, being ill, pitifully entreated his father to pray that his sins might be forgiven. Commenting upon which incident, the reverent Montagu Pennington, who edited Miss Carter's letters, bids us remember that it reflects more credit on the parents who brought their child up with so just a sense of religion than it does on the poor infant himself. "Innocence," says the inflexible Mr. Stanley, in "Cœlebs in Search of a Wife," "can never be pleaded as a ground of acceptance, because the thing does not exist."

With the dawning of the nineteenth century came the controversial novel; and to understand its popularity we have but to glance at the books which preceded it, and compared to which it presented an animated and contentious aspect. One must needs have read "Elements of Morality" at ten, and "Strictures on Female Education" at fifteen, to be able to relish "Father Clement" at twenty. Sedate young women, whose lightest available literature was "Cœlebs," or "Hints towards forming the Character of a Princess," and who had been presented on successive birthdays with Mrs. Chapone's "Letters on the Improvement of the Mind," and Mrs. West's "Letters to a Young Lady," and Miss Hamilton's "Letters to the Daughter of a Nobleman," found a natural relief in studying the dangers of dissent, or the secret machinations of the Jesuits. Many a dull hour was quickened into pleasurable apprehension of Jesuitical intrigues, from the days when Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, stoutly refused to take cinchona—a form of quinine—because it was then known as Jesuit's bark, and might be trusted to poison a British constitution, to the days when Sir William Pepys wrote in all seriousness to Hannah More: "You surprise me by saying that your good Archbishop has been in danger from the Jesuits; but I believe they are concealed in places where they are less likely to be found than in Ireland."

Just what they were going to do to the good Archbishop does not appear, for Sir William at this point abruptly abandons the prelate to tell the story of a Norwich butcher, who for some mysterious and unexplained reason was hiding from the inquisitors of Lisbon. No dignitary was too high, no orphan child too low to be the objects of a Popish plot. Miss Carter writes to Mrs. Montagu, in 1775, about a little foundling whom Mrs. Chapone had placed at service with some country neighbours.

"She behaves very prettily, and with great affection to the people with whom she is living," says Miss Carter. "One of the reasons she assigns for her fondness is that they give her enough food, which she represents as a deficient article in the workhouse; and says that on Fridays particularly she never had any dinner. Surely the parish officers have not made a Papist the mistress! If this is not the case, the loss of one dinner in a week is of no great consequence."

To the poor hungry child it was probably of much greater consequence than the theological bias of the matron. Nor does a dinnerless Friday appear the surest way to win youthful converts to the fold. But devout ladies who had read Canon Seward's celebrated tract on the "Comparison between Paganism and Popery" (in which he found little to choose between them) were well on their guard against the insidious advances of Rome. "When I had no religion at all," confesses Cowper to Lady Hesketh, "I had yet a terrible dread of the Pope." The worst to be apprehended from Methodists was their lamentable tendency to enthusiasm, and their ill-advised meddling with the poor. It is true that a farmer of Cheddar told Miss Patty More that a Methodist minister had once preached under his mother's best apple tree, and that the sensitive tree had never borne another apple; but this was an extreme case. The Cheddar vestry resolved to protect their orchards from blight by stoning the next preacher who invaded the parish, and their example was followed with more or less fervour throughout England. In a quiet letter written from Margate (1768), by the Rev. John Lyon, we find this casual allusion to the process:—

"We had a Methodist preacher hold forth last night. I came home just as he had finished. I believe the poor man fared badly, for I saw, as I passed, eggs, stones, etc., fly pretty thick."

It was all in the day's work. The Rev. Lyon, who was a scholar and an antiquarian, and who wrote an exhaustive history of Dover, had no further interest in matters obviously aloof from his consideration.

This simple and robust treatment, so quieting to the nerves of the practitioners, was unserviceable for Papists, who did not preach in the open; and a great deal of suppressed irritation found no better outlet than print. It appears to have been a difficult matter in those days to write upon any subject without reverting sooner or later to the misdeeds of Rome. Miss Seward pauses in her praise of Blair's sermons to lament the "boastful egotism" of St. Gregory of Nazianzus, who seems tolerably remote; and Mr. John Dyer, when wrapped in peaceful contemplation of the British wool-market, suddenly and fervently denounces the "black clouds" of bigotry, and the "fiery bolts of superstition," which lay desolate "Papal realms." In vain Mr. Edgeworth, stooping from his high estate, counselled serenity of mind, and that calm tolerance born of a godlike certitude; in vain he urged the benignant attitude of infallibility. "The absurdities of Popery are so manifest," he wrote, "that to be hated they need but to be seen. But for the peace and prosperity of this country, the misguided Catholic should not be rendered odious; he should rather be pointed out as an object of compassion. His ignorance should not be imputed to him as a crime; nor should it be presupposed that his life cannot be right, whose tenets are erroneous. Thank God that I am a Protestant! should be a mental thanksgiving, not a public taunt."

Mr. Edgeworth was nearly seventy when the famous "Protestant's Manual; or, Papacy Unveiled" (endeared forever to our hearts by its association with Mrs. Varden and Miggs), bowled over these pleasant and peaceful arguments. There was no mawkish charity about the "Manual," which made its way into every corner of England, stood for twenty years on thousands of British book-shelves, and was given as a reward to children so unfortunate as to be meritorious. It sold for a shilling (nine shillings a dozen when purchased for distribution), so Mrs. Varden's two post-octavo volumes must have been a special edition. Reviewers recommended it earnestly to parents and teachers; and it was deemed indispensable to all who desired "to preserve the rising generation from the wiles of Papacy and the snares of priestcraft. They will be rendered sensible of the evils and probable consequences of Catholic emancipation; and be confirmed in those opinions, civil, political, and religious, which have hitherto constituted the happiness and formed the strength of their native country."

This was a strong appeal. A universal uneasiness prevailed, manifesting itself in hostility to innovations, however innocent and orthodox. Miss Hannah More's Sunday Schools were stoutly opposed, as savouring of Methodism (a religion she disliked), and of radicalism, for which she had all the natural horror of a well-to-do, middle-class Christian. Even Mrs. West, an oppressively pious writer, misdoubted the influence of Sunday Schools, for the simple reason that it was difficult to keep the lower orders from learning more than was good for them. "Hard toil and humble diligence are indispensably needful to the community," said this excellent lady. "Writing and accounts appear superfluous instructions in the humblest walks of life; and, when imparted to servants, have the general effect of making them ambitious, and disgusted with the servile offices which they are required to perform."

Humility was a virtue consecrated to the poor, to the rural poor especially; and what with Methodism on the one hand, and the jarring echoes of the French Revolution on the other, the British ploughman was obviously growing less humble every day. Crabbe, who cherished no illusions, painted him in colours grim enough to fill the reader with despair; but Miss More entertained a feminine conviction that Bibles and flannel waistcoats fulfilled his earthly needs. In all her stories and tracts the villagers are as artificial as the happy peasantry of an old-fashioned opera. They group themselves deferentially around the squire and the rector; they wear costumes of uncompromising rusticity; and they sing a chorus of praise to the kind young ladies who have brought them a bowl of soup. It is curious to turn from this atmosphere of abasement, from perpetual curtsies and the lowliest of lowly virtues, to the journal of the painter Haydon, who was a sincerely pious man, yet who cannot restrain his wonder and admiration at seeing the Duke of Wellington behave respectfully in church. That a person so august should stand when the congregation stood, and kneel when the congregation knelt, seemed to Haydon an immense condescension. "Here was the greatest hero in the world," he writes ecstatically, "who had conquered the greatest genius, prostrating his heart and being before his God in his venerable age, and praying for His mercy."

It is the most naïve impression on record. That the Duke and the Duke's scullion might perchance stand equidistant from the Almighty was an idea which failed to present itself to Haydon's ardent mind.

The pious fiction put forward in the interest of dissent was more impressive, more emotional, more belligerent, and, in some odd way, more human than "Cœlebs," or "The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain." Miss Grace Kennedy's stories are as absurd as Miss More's, and—though the thing may sound incredible—much duller; but they give one an impression of painful earnestness, and of that heavy atmosphere engendered by too close a contemplation of Hell. A pious Christian lady, with local standards, a narrow intelligence, and a comprehensive ignorance of life, is not by election a novelist. Neither do polemics lend themselves with elasticity to the varying demands of fiction. There are, in fact, few things less calculated to instruct the intellect or to enlarge the heart than the perusal of controversial novels.

But Miss Kennedy had at least the striking quality of temerity. She was not afraid of being ridiculous. She was undaunted in her ignorance. And she was on fire with all the bitter ardour of the separatist. Miss More, on the contrary, entertained a judicial mistrust for fervour, fanaticism, the rush of ardent hopes and fears and transports, for all those vehement emotions which are apt to be disconcerting to ladies of settled views and incomes. Her model Christian, Candidus, "avoids enthusiasm as naturally as a wise man avoids folly, or as a sober man shuns extravagance. He laments when he encounters a real enthusiast, because he knows that, even if honest, he is pernicious." In the same guarded spirit, Mrs. Montagu praises the benevolence of Lady Bab Montagu and Mrs. Scott, who had the village girls taught plain sewing and the catechism. "These good works are often performed by the Methodist ladies in the heat of enthusiasm; but, thank God! my sister's is a calm and rational piety." "Surtout point de zèle," was the dignified motto of the day.

There is none of this chill sobriety about Miss Kennedy's Bible Christians, who, a hundred years ago, preached to a listening world. They are aflame with a zeal which knows no doubts and recognizes no forbearance. Their methods are akin to those of the irrepressible Miss J——, who undertook, Bible in hand, the conversion of that pious gentleman, the Duke of Wellington; or of Miss Lewis, who went to Constantinople to convert that equally pious gentleman, the Sultan. Miss Kennedy's heroes and heroines stand ready to convert the world. They would delight in expounding the Scriptures to the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople. Controversy affords their only conversation. Dogma of the most unrelenting kind is their only food for thought. Piety provides their only avenue for emotions. Elderly bankers weep profusely over their beloved pastor's eloquence, and fashionable ladies melt into tears at the inspiring sight of a village Sunday School. Young gentlemen, when off on a holiday, take with them "no companion but a Bible"; and the lowest reach of worldliness is laid bare when an unconverted mother asks her daughter if she can sing something more cheerful than a hymn. Conformity to the Church of England is denounced with unsparing warmth; and the Church of Rome is honoured by having a whole novel, the once famous "Father Clement," devoted to its permanent downfall.

Dr. Greenhill, who has written a sympathetic notice of Miss Kennedy in the "Dictionary of National Biography," considers that "Father Clement" was composed "with an evident wish to state fairly the doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church, even while the authoress strongly disapproves of them";—a point of view which compels us to believe that the biographer spared himself (and who shall blame him?) the reading of this melancholy tale. That George Eliot, who spared herself nothing, was well acquainted with its context, is evidenced by the conversation of the ladies who, in "Janet's Repentance," meet to cover and label the books of the Paddiford Lending Library. Miss Pratt, the autocrat of the circle, observes that the story of "Father Clement" is, in itself, a library on the errors of Romanism, whereupon old Mrs. Linnet very sensibly replies: "One 'ud think there did n't want much to drive people away from a religion as makes 'em walk barefoot over stone floors, like that girl in 'Father Clement,' sending the blood up to the head frightful. Anybody might see that was an unnat'ral creed."

So they might; and a more unnatural creed than Father Clement's Catholicism was never devised for the extinction of man's flickering reason. Only the mental debility of the Clarenham family can account for their holding such views long enough to admit of their being converted from them by the Montagus. Only the militant spirit of the Clarenham chaplain and the Montagu chaplain makes possible several hundred pages of polemics. Montagu Bibles run the blockade, are discovered in the hands of truth-seeking Clarenhams, and are hurled back upon the spiritual assailants. The determination of Father Dennis that the Scriptures shall be quoted in Latin only (a practice which is scholarly but inconvenient), and the determination of Edward Montagu "not to speak Latin in the presence of ladies," embarrass social intercourse. Catherine Clarenham, the young person who walks barefooted over stone floors, has been so blighted by this pious exercise that she cannot, at twenty, translate the Pater Noster or Ave Maria into English, and remains a melancholy illustration of Latinity. When young Basil Clarenham shows symptoms of yielding to Montagu arguments, and begins to want a Bible of his own, he is spirited away to Rome, and confined in a monastery of the Inquisition, where he spends his time reading "books forbidden by the Inquisitors," and especially "a New Testament with the prohibitory mark of the Holy Office upon it," which the weak-minded monks have amiably placed at his disposal. Indeed, the monastery library, to which the captive is made kindly welcome, seems to have been well stocked with interdicted literature; and, after browsing in these pastures for several tranquil months, Basil tells his astonished hosts that their books have taught him that "the Romish Church is the most corrupt of all churches professing Christianity." Having accomplished this unexpected but happy result, the Inquisition exacts from him a solemn vow that he will never reveal its secrets, and sends him back to England, where he loses no time in becoming an excellent Protestant. His sister Maria follows his example (her virtues have pointed steadfastly to this conclusion); but Catherine enters a convent, full of stone floors and idolatrous images, where she becomes a "tool" of the Jesuits, and says her prayers in Latin until she dies.

No wonder "Father Clement" went through twelve editions, and made its authoress as famous in her day as the authoress of "Elsie Dinsmore" is in ours. No wonder the Paddiford Lending Library revered its sterling worth. And no wonder it provoked from Catholics reprisals which Dr. Greenhill stigmatizes as "flippant." To-day it lives by virtue of half a dozen mocking lines in George Eliot's least-read story: but for a hundred years its progeny has infested the earth,—acrooked progeny, like Peer Gynt's, which can never be straightened into sincerity, or softened into good-will. "For first the Church of Rome condemneth us, we likewise them," observes Sir Thomas Browne with equanimity; "and thus we go to Heaven against each others' wills, conceits, and opinions."