Autobiographical Sketches/Chapter XI


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 :—

"Give light."