Eminent English liberals in and out of Parliament/Robert William Dale
ROBERT WILLIAM DALE.
"Well done I thy words are great and bold:
At times they seem to me,
Like Luther's in the days of old,
Half battles for the free."
RADICALISM is like a great world-haven which many ships reach by divers ocean-tracks. It is a generous fruit which grows on trees of many species. The editor of "The Fortnightly," about whom I had somewhat to say in the preceding article, and the lion-hearted pastor of Carr's-lane Chapel, Birmingham,—what a contrast! How far apart their motives! how closely allied their public aims! The earnest "rationalist" and the earnest religionist are sworn brothers in political conflict,—the one, because, like Abou Ben Adhem, he is content to be written down simply "as one that loves his fellow-men;" the other, because he is penetrated by the apostolic conception that he is a "co-worker" with his Divine Master in the sacred cause of humanity.
Mr. Dale is a political Christian, a sort of spiritual utilitarian of a remarkable type,—the best living embodiment of the traditions of the sect to which Oliver Cromwell belonged; not orthodox certainly, as the Scribes and Pharisees hold orthodoxy, but still, for so powerful an intellect, strangely orthodox. "I am very sensible," says Swift, in his "Argument to prove that the Abolishing of Christianity might be attended by some Inconveniences," "how much the gentlemen of wit and pleasure are apt to murmur and be shocked at the sight of so many daggled-tail parsons who happen to fall in their way and offend their eyes; but, at the same time, these wise reformers do not consider what an advantage and felicity it is for great wits to be always provided with objects of scorn and contempt in order to exercise and improve their talents and divert their spleen from falling on each other or on themselves. … We are daily complaining of the great decline of wit among us; and would we take away the greatest, perhaps the only, topic we have left?" Well, if there are any such great wits about who have a desire to exercise their talents in this particular way, I should strongly recommend them to go down to Birmingham, and break a lance with the minister of Carr's-lane Chapel. He is a man of the people, and will give them a kindly welcome. If they do not find him at home in his formidably equipped stud}', deep in the production of some systematic theological treatise on the Atonement or the Ten Commandments, they will be pretty sure to discover him either at a Liberal ward committee, at the Liberal Association Rooms in consultation with the taciturn strategist Schnadhorst, or haranguing an obstreperous multitude of electors in the Town Hall. When he is disengaged, he will be at their service; and, if they get much amusement at his expense, I wonder.
A happier, heartier man than Mr. Dale—he disclaims the "Rev." as a rag of priestcraft—I never met, combining as he does in no ordinary measure the laureate's desiderata of manhood,—"heart, head, hand." His practice squares with his theory of life to a nicety. His soul is in his work. Like Cromwell, he prays to God, and keeps his powder dry. What good, he is never tired of asking, is the petition, " Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," if a man is not prepared at the call of duty to take off his coat and descend into the political arena to wrestle with the powers of Conservative darkness? In one of his "Nine Lectures on Preaching," delivered as Lyman Beecher lecturer at the University of Yale, Connecticut,—a series of papers not less distinguished by practical wisdom than literary merit,—he told the students of the theological faculty,—
"In your pastoral preaching you ought not to omit to illustrate the law of Christ in relation to public duty. Perhaps you have sometimes met good people who have informed you, in a tone of spiritual self-complacency, that they have never been in a polling-booth. They do not seem to understand that the franchise is a trust, and that it imposes duties. A secretary of state might as well make it a religious boast that he habitually neglected some of the work belonging to his department. The duties of an individual voter may be less grave than the duties of an official politician; but neglect in either case is a crime against the nation. I think it possible that the time may come when men who refuse to vote will be subjected to church discipline, like men who refuse to pay their debts. The plea that the discharge of political duty is inconsistent with spirituality ought to be denounced as a flagrant piece of hypocrisy. It is nothing else. The men who urge it are not too spiritual to make a coup in cotton or coffee. Although they profess to be alarmed at the spiritual terrors of the ballot-box and of an occasional hour in a political committee-room, they are not afraid that their spirituality will suffer if they spend eight hours every day in their store or their counting-house. Their spirituality is of such a curious temper that it receives no harm from pursuits—no matter how secular—by which they can make money for themselves; but they are afraid of the most disastrous consequences if they attempt to render any service to their country. The selfishness of these men is as contemptible as their hypocrisy. They consent to accept all the advantages which come from the political institutions of the nation, and from the zeal and fidelity of their fellow-citizens. … People who are so very spiritual that they feel compelled to abstain from political life ought also to renounce the benefits which the political exertions of their less spiritual fellow-citizens secure for them. They ought to decline the services of the police when they are assaulted; they ought to refuse to appeal to such an unspiritual authority as a law court when their debts are not paid; and when a legacy is left them they ought piously to abstain from accepting it, for it is only by the intervention of public law that they can inherit what their dead friends have left them. For men to claim the right to neglect their duties to the state on the ground of their piety, while they insist on the state protecting their persons, protecting their property, and protecting from disturbance even their religious meetings in which this exquisitely delicate and valitudinarian spirituality is developed, is gross unrighteousness. It is as morally disgraceful as for a clerk to claim his salary from his employer after leaving other men to do the work for which his employer pays him." Plain speaking of this sort from the Carr's-lane and other Nonconformist pulpits of Birmingham has materially helped to preserve the borough from the arrow of Burnaby which flieth by day, and the pestilence of Jingo which stalketh by night.
Mr. Dale was born in London, in December, 1829. His early education was received chiefly at a private school in Finsbury Square, kept by a Mr. Willey. After a brief period of probation as an assistant master, he removed to Birmingham to attend Springhill College, a training-school of the Congregationalists,—the religious denomination of his parents. Here he remained for the whole curriculum of six years; and in 1853 he graduated at London University, carrying off the gold medal in the department of philosophy and political economy. Among his tutors at Springhill was Henry Rogers, author of the once popular work, "The Eclipse of Faith." Rogers had a fine literary taste, with which he did not fail to imbue his pupils. A strong friendship sprang up between the old man and Dale, and to this day the latter acknowledges his obligations to his master with almost juvenile warmth. Another remarkable friend of Dale's youth was a man renowned in the world of Evangelic Nonconformity, John Angell James. He was for over half a century the pastor of Carr's-lane Chapel, and Dale had no sooner finished his studies than he was appointed his colleague and successor. James imagined that he himself was a stanch Calvinist. But Calvinism his successor could not swallow; and, shortly after his appointment, he one Sunday opened a vigorous fire on its cardinal dogma, and set the congregation by the ears. James, appealed to by alarmed church-goers, magnanimously defended his colleague.
"He is a young man," he said; "but the root of the matter is in him. Wait: you will see." They waited, but did not see; for the young man hardened his heart, and to this day repudiates the doctrine which "sends ane to heaven and ten to hell, a' for Thy glory," as unscriptural and revolting. James himself had a naive excuse for practically banishing it from his preaching. "Ah, well!" he would say, "you see the Scriptures don't say much about it."
In relation to eternal punishment, Mr. Dale's position is that of an exegetical Darwin. He believes that hereafter the spiritually fittest will alone ultimately survive. With him the spiritual, and not the material, is the real. There is a Light which lighteth every man that cometh into this world, be he Jew or Gentile, Christian or pagan. It is a plastic theory, of which much may be made by a humane mind. Accordingly, Mr. Dale is a very cosmopolitan sort of Christian. He is a strong admirer of Mr. Moody, of Moody and Sankey fame; and he is a sworn friend, at the same time, of Mr. Crosskey, the leading Unitarian heresiarch of Birmingham.
"Of old things all are over-old,
Of good things none are good enough;
He'll show that he can help to frame
A Church of better stuff,"
The Carr's-lane congregation consists of over fifteen hundred "souls," though I fear their pastor counts them as frequently by "votes." They are largely composed of working-men and small tradesmen,—nearly all Liberals. A sprinkling are quasi-Conservatives; among the latter a wealthy alderman, about whom Mr. Dale tells with glee how he described one of his special expositions of Christian truth as "a brilliant farrago of democratic nonsense."
And this has struck me as a peculiar feature of Birmingham Radicalism. It is intense, without being bitter or personally rancorous. It may be different in the actual throes of an election contest, which I have never witnessed; but ordinarily there is a gratifying exhibition of mutual respect among political opponents. There is, at all events in the Dale family, a kindly tendency to regard a Tory as an "undeveloped Liberal," who will do better by and by. The political evangel, like the religious, is not completely closed to any.
I shall never forget my first impression of the Dale household. A ward election was impending at the time; and Mrs. Dale, a lady not less remarkable than her husband for vigor of mind and public spirit, was in the thick of it canvassing the women electors, note-book in hand, as if the salvation of the borough depended on the issue. I had always regarded canvassing as more or less demoralizing work; but it depends largely on the spirit in which it is conducted. Mrs. Dale was a model canvasser, using no argument—even with the most ignorant—which did not appeal to their better reason. The result was mutually beneficial. The accomplished lady had her sympathies with the poor braced, and her knowledge of their wants extended; while her less fortunate sisters had their political education, to some extent at least, improved by coming in contact with a superior mind. The interest taken in politics by the youngest members of the family, hardly in their teens, would have been comical if it had not been so genuine and intelligent.
The political soundness of Birmingham Mr. Dale traces back to the old Dr. Priestley leaven, which is still at work in the community. The good which that great man did has not been interred with his bones. The Tor}' mob of his day stoned him; but the present generation has built him a worthy sepulchre. The solidarity of the Birmingham Liberal vote is less easy to account for. Mr. Dale thinks the large number of small employers of labor, who are only a few degrees removed from the condition of their employés, has much to do with it; and he is probably right. There is more of what the French call égalité in Birmingham than in any other town in England. No doubt there are snobs there as elsewhere; but I have not had the misfortune to meet them. Rich men like Mr. Chamberlain are devoted to Radical principles, and that sets the fashion. Given, moreover, culture and religion on the same side, and the worst Conservative foe that remains to be overcome is ignorance.
This last-named obstacle to the triumph of Radicalism Mr. Dale has set himself vigorously to combat. He was one of the most strenuous champions of the famous National Education League, which had for its object the complete separation of religious from secular instruction in board schools. To seek to disestablish religion in the church, and to hasten to establish it in the school, did not seem to some Nonconformists too glaring an inconsistency. The minister of Carr's Lane thought otherwise, and was returned at the first school-board election in the purely "secular" interest, along with Chamberlain, Dawson, Wright, Dixon, and Vince. They were in a minority on account of the inexperience of the party managers in working the cumulative vote. At the ensuing election, however, they succeeded in securing a bare majority; and public education in Birmingham was "secularized" at a blow. Since then, alas! there has been a certain retrogression.
The board, which consists of fifteen members, is subdivided into five committees,—Finance, Education and School Management, Sites and Buildings, General Purposes, and Night Schools; and it requires no small amount of skilful manipulation to supply each of these with a Liberal chairman. Mr. Dale has acted as chairman of the hardest-worked of all the committees; viz.. Education and School Management. He is, moreover, under the new government scheme for the better conduct of the grammar-school with its large revenues, a governor; having been appointed to that honorable office by the University of London. But, though the School Board of Birmingham has discharged its duties with exemplary efficiency Mr. Dale is opposed, on principle, to the multiplication of such authorities. He would strengthen the local parliament, the Birmingham Town Council, and place every civic interest in its keeping. The corporation already manages the gas and water supplies, and Mr. Dale would not shrink from charging it with the control of education and of the liquor traffic as well. I cannot but think he is right. Every thing that tends to fritter away the authority and dignity of our municipalities is an injury to the public spirit of a community, and there is no surer mode of bringing about a result so undesirable than the senseless multiplication of local boards. It is the latest application of one of the most ancient maxims of tyranny, Divide et impera.
There is neither inside nor outside Parliament a more eloquent and uncompromising advocate of church disestablishment than Mr. Dale. lie approaches the question primarily from the old Puritan stand-point; viz., that the State cannot rightfully legislate for the Church. The latter is to the former what the conscience is to the individual. The things of Cæsar and the things of God must be kept asunder. Regnum meum non est de hoc mundo. The union of Church and State is a foul liaison, which use can never convert into just matrimony. Such is his theory. Now for a statement of the practical disadvantages of the Anglican establishment. "To a Nonconformist," he says in his "Impressions of America,"—a series of admirable sketches, political, social, educational, and religious, contributed to "The Nineteenth Century,"—"travelling in America, one of the freshest sensations arises from the absence of an ecclesiastical establishment. In England I am reminded wherever I go that the State is hostile to my religious opinions and practices. Diocesan episcopacy, in my judgment, deprives the commonalty of the Church of many of their rights, and releases them from many of their duties; but in every parish I find an Episcopal clerg3'man, who, according to Mr. Forster's accurate description, is a servant of the State. Though I am a minister of religion, the civil government has placed me under the spiritual charge of the Vicar of Edgbaston: that excellent gentleman is my pastor and religious teacher, I am not obliged to hear him preach; but the State has thought it necessary to intrust him with the duty of instructing me in Christian truth, and celebrating for my advantage the Christian sacraments. The doctrine of baptismal regeneration seems to me a mischievous superstition; but I cannot say this to anybody without being in revolt against a great national institution. Now and then I am bound to liberate my conscience, and I tell my congregation what I think of the doctrine; but within a couple of hundred yards there are two national buildings, in which, under the authority of the State, the State clergy give thanks to Almighty God for the regeneration of every child they baptize, and in which grown men and women are taught that in baptism they were made members of Christ, children of God, and inheritors of the kingdom of heaven. The law is against me. It tolerates me, but condemns me. It barks, though it does not bite. It describes me as being among those people in divers parts of this realm who, 'following their own sensuality and living without knowledge and due fear of God, do wilfully and schismatically refuse to come to parish churches.' It has provided a Book of Common Prayer, that 'every person within this realm may certainly know the rule to which he is to conform in public worship.' I am permitted to break the rule; but the rule stands. It is the policy of the State to induce the country to accept or retain religious doctrines which seem to me to be erroneous, and an ecclesiastical polity which seems to me to be unfriendly to the free and vigorous development of the religious life. The position of a Nonconformist in this country is, to say the least, not a pleasant one. His religious work is carried on in the presence of a government which condemns his creed, condemns his modes of worship, condemns his religious organization, and sustains the authority of a hostile Church. In the United States I breathed freely."
Mr. Dale has travelled in the East and in the West. He has visited Egypt, the Sinaitic Desert, and Palestine. His American wanderings, however, have borne the most valuable fruit. His published "Impressions" of the States are the best compliment to Sir Charles Dilke's "Greater Britain" with which I am acquainted. They suppl}^ exactly the sort of information one desires with regard to that mighty theatre of new social and political experiments. That so many competent observers are now turning their footsteps towards the far West is a subject for unqualified congratulation.
"Was 'The Mayflower' launched by cowards?
Steered by men behind their time?
Turn those paths towards past, or future,
That make Plymouth Rock sublime?"
It is a Western and not an Eastern policy of which England stands most in need. Overthrow the aristocracy of this country, and there will be no insuperable barrier to a grand re-union of the two great branches of the English-speaking race.
When the pressure of Mr. Dale's pastoral and political duties is considered, the tale of his literary labors is immense. They include a "Life of John Angell James," a volume of "Week-Day Sermons," "The Atonement," which ran through seven editions in four years, "Lectures on Preaching," "Discourses on Special Occasions," "The Ten Commandments," "Lectures on the Epistle to the Hebrews," an "Essay on Lacordaire," another on "George Dawson," "A Reply to Mr. Matthew Arnold's Attack on Puritanism," "The Necessity for an Ethical Revival," &c. Besides contributing to "The British Quarterly," "The Fortnightly," "The Contemporary," and "The Nineteenth Century," he has acted as joint editor of "The Eclectic Review," and for seven years as editor of "The Congregationalist," the organ of his denomination. In regard to many of these multifarious matters, I am far from being able to see eye to eye with him; but he is always earnest, honest, able, tolerant, the steady, stout-hearted friend of civil and religious liberty, as he understands civil and religious liberty. In one of the hymns compiled by Mr. Dale, still sung at Carr's-lane Chapel, I read,—
"Unlearn not the lore thy Wycliffe well learned,
Forsake not the cause thy Milton approved,
Forget not the fire where thy Latimer burned,
Nor turn from the truth thy Cromwell so loved."
To younger Radicals among us, who draw inspiration from less venerable historic sources, such injunctions may appear superfluous. But they are still real to many of the best men and women in England, with whom it should be our pride and pleasure to co-operate. Mr. Dale can pour new wine into old bottles without accident. He is likewise perfectly familiar with the uses of the newest bottles of Liberalism, as will be discovered by any one who cares to read his presidential address delivered to the members of the Birmingham Junior Liberal Association in October, 1878. He is one of the most effective platform speakers in Great Britain, and would make a heaven-born parliamentary candidate for a great popular constituency. Is it past praying for that such a man should be translated from Carr's Lane, Birmingham, to the wider sphere of usefulness at St. Stephen's, Westminster?