Penelope's Progress/Chapter 9
Religion in Edinburgh is a theory, a convention, a fashion (both humble and aristocratic), a sensation, an intellectual conviction, an emotion, a dissipation, a sweet habit of the blood; in fact, it is, it seems to me, every sort of thing it can be to the human spirit.
When we had finished our church toilettes, and came into the drawing-room, on the first Sunday morning, I remember that we found Francesca at the window.
"There is a battle, murder, or sudden death going on in the square below," she said. "I am going to ask Susanna to ask Mrs. M'Collop what it means. Never have I seen such a crowd moving peacefully, with no excitement or confusion, in one direction. Where can the people be going? Do you suppose it is a fire? Why, I believe … it cannot be possible … yes, they certainly are disappearing in that big church on the corner; and millions, simply millions and trillions, are coming in the other direction,—toward St. Knox's."
Impressive as was this morning church-going, a still greater surprise awaited us at seven o'clock in the evening, when the crowd blocked the streets on two sides of a church near Breadalbane Terrace; and though it was quite ten minutes before service when we entered, Salemina and I only secured the last two seats in the aisle, and Francesca was obliged to sit on the steps of the pulpit or seek a sermon elsewhere.
It amused me greatly to see Francesca sitting on pulpit steps, her Paris gown and smart toque in close juxtaposition to the rusty bonnet and bombazine dress of a respectable elderly tradeswoman. The church officer entered first, bearing the great Bible and hymn-book, which he reverently placed on the pulpit cushions; and close behind him, to our entire astonishment, came the Reverend Ronald Macdonald, evidently exchanging with the regular minister of the parish, whom we had come especially to hear. I pitied Francesca's confusion and embarrassment, but I was too far from her to offer an exchange of seats, and through the long service she sat there at the feet of her foe, so near that she could have touched the hem of his gown as he knelt devoutly for his first silent prayer.
Perhaps she was thinking of her last interview with him, when she descanted at length on that superfluity of naughtiness and Biblical pedantry which, she asserted, made Scottish ministers preach from out-of-the-way texts.
"I've never been able to find my place in the Bible since I arrived," she complained to Salemina, when she was quite sure that Mr. Macdonald was listening to her; and this he generally was, in my opinion, no matter who chanced to be talking. "What with their skipping and hopping about from Haggai to Philemon, Habakkuk to Jude, and Micah to Titus, in their readings, and then settling on seventh Nahum, sixth Zephaniah or second Calathumpians for the sermon, I do nothing but search the Scriptures in the Edinburgh churches,—search, search, search, until some Christian by my side or in the pew behind me notices my hapless plight, and hands me a Bible opened at the text. Last Sunday it was Obadiah first, fifteenth, 'For the day of the Lord is near upon all the heathen.' It chanced to be a returned missionary who was preaching on that occasion; but the Bible is full of heathen, and why need he have chosen a text from Obadiah, poor little Obadiah one page long, slipped in between Amos and Jonah, where nobody but an elder could find him?" If Francesca had not seen with wicked delight the Reverend Ronald's expression of anxiety, she would never have spoken of second Calathumpians; but of course he has no means of knowing how unlike herself she is when in his company.
To go back to our first Sunday worship in Edinburgh. The church officer closed the door of the pulpit on the Reverend Ronald, and I thought I heard the clicking of a lock; at all events, he returned at the close of the services to liberate him and escort him back to the vestry; for the entrances and exits of this beadle, or "minister's man," as the church officer is called in the country districts, form an impressive part of the ceremonies. If he did lock the minister into the pulpit, it is probably only another national custom, like the occasional locking in of the passengers in a railway train, and may be positively necessary in the case of such magnetic and popular preachers as Mr. Macdonald or the Friar.
I have never seen such attention, such concentration, as in these great congregations of the Edinburgh churches. As nearly as I can judge, it is intellectual rather than emotional; but it is not a tribute paid to eloquence alone, it is habitual and universal, and is yielded loyally to insufferable dullness when occasion demands.
When the text is announced, there is an indescribable rhythmic movement forward, followed by a concerted rustle of Bible leaves; not the rustle of a few Bibles in a few pious pews, but the rustle of all of them in all the pews,—and there are more Bibles in an Edinburgh Presbyterian church than one ever sees anywhere else, unless it be in the warehouses of the Bible Societies.
The text is read twice clearly, and another rhythmic movement follows when the books are replaced on the shelves. Then there is a delightful settling back of the entire congregation, a snuggling comfortably into corners and a fitting of shoulders to the pews,—not to sleep, however; an older generation may have done that under the strain of a two-hour "wearifu' dreich" sermon, but these church-goers are not to be caught napping. They wear, on the contrary, a keen, expectant, critical look, which must be inexpressibly encouraging to the minister, if he has anything to say. If he has not (and this is a possibility in Edinburgh, as it is everywhere else), then I am sure it is wisdom for the beadle to lock him in, lest he flee when he meets those searching eyes.
The Edinburgh sermon, though doubtless softened in outline in these later years, is still a more carefully built discourse than one ordinarily hears out of Scotland, being constructed on conventional lines of doctrine, exposition, logical inference, and practical application. Though modern preachers do not announce the division of their subject into heads and sub-heads, firstlies and secondlies and finallies my brethren, there seems to be the old framework underneath the sermon, and everyone recognizes it as moving silently below the surface; at least, I always fancy that as the minister finishes one point and attacks another the younger folk fix their eagle eyes on him afresh, and the whole congregation sits up straighter and listens more intently, as if making mental notes. They do not listen so much as if they were enthralled, though they often are and have good reason to be, but as if they were to pass an examination on the subject afterwards; and I have no doubt that this is the fact.
The prayers are many, and are divided, apparently, like those of the liturgies, into petitions, confessions, and aspirations; not forgetting the all-embracing one with which we are perfectly familiar in our native land, in which the preacher commends to the Fatherly care every animate and inanimate thing not mentioned specifically in the foregoing supplications. It was in the middle of this compendious petition, "the lang prayer," that rheumatic old Scottish dames used to make a practice of "cheengin' the fit," as they stood devoutly through it. "When the meenister comes to the 'ingetherin' o' the Gentiles,' I ken weel it's time to cheenge legs, for then the prayer is jist half dune," said a good sermon-taster of Fife.
The organ is finding its way rapidly into the Scottish kirks (how can the shade of John Knox endure a "kist o' whistles" in good St. Giles'?), but it is not used yet in some of those we attend most frequently. There is a certain quaint solemnity, a beautiful austerity, in the unaccompanied singing of hymns that touches me profoundly. I am often carried very high on the waves of splendid church music, when the organ's thunder rolls "through vaulted aisles" and the angelic voices of a trained choir chant the aspirations of my soul for me; but when an Edinburgh congregation stands, and the precentor leads in that noble Paraphrase,
"God of our fathers, be the God
Of their succeeding race,"
there is a certain ascetic fervor in it that seems to me the perfection of worship. It may be that my Puritan ancestors are mainly responsible for this feeling, or perhaps my recently adopted Jenny Geddes is a factor in it; of course, if she were in the habit of flinging fauldstules at Deans, she was probably the friend of truth and the foe of beauty, so far as it was in her power to separate them.
There is no music during the offertory in these churches, and this, too, pleases my sense of the fitness of things. It cannot soften the woe of the people who are disinclined to the giving away of money, and the cheerful givers need no encouragement. For my part, I like to sit, quite undistracted by soprano solos, and listen to the refined tinkle of the sixpences and shillings, and the vulgar chink of the pennies and ha'pennies, in the contribution-boxes. Country ministers, I am told, develop such an acute sense of hearing that they can estimate the amount of the collection before it is counted. There is often a huge pewter plate just within the church door, in which the offerings are placed as the worshipers enter or leave; and one always notes the preponderance of silver at the morning, and of copper at the evening services. It is perhaps needless to say that before Francesca had been in Edinburgh a fortnight she asked Mr. Macdonald if it were true that the Scots continued coining the farthing for years and years, merely to have a piece of money serviceable for church offerings!
As to social differences in the congregations we are somewhat at sea. We tried to arrive at a conclusion by the hats and bonnets, than which there is usually no more infallible test. On our first Sunday we attended the Free Kirk in the morning, and the Established in the evening. The bonnets of the Free Kirk were so much the more elegant that we said to one another, "This is evidently the church of society, though the adjective 'Free' should by rights attract the masses." On the second Sunday we reversed the order of things, and found the Established bonnet much finer than the Free bonnets, which was a source of mystification to us, until we discovered that it was a question of morning or evening service, not of the form of Presbyterianism. We think, on the whole, that, taking town and country congregations together, millinery has not flourished under Presbyterianism,—it seems to thrive better in the Romish atmosphere of France; but the Disruption, at least, has had nothing to answer for in the matter, as it appears simply to have parted the bonnets of Scotland in twain, as Moses divided the Red Sea, and left good and evil on both sides.
I can never forget our first military service at St. Giles'. We left Breadalbane Terrace before nine in the morning and walked along the beautiful curve of street that sweeps around the base of Castle Rock,—walked on through the poverty and squalor of the High Street, keeping in view the beautiful lantern tower as a guiding star, till we heard
"The murmur of the city crowd;
And, from his steeple, jingling loud,
St. Giles's mingling din."
We joined the throng outside the venerable church, and awaited the approach of the soldiers from the Castle parade-ground; for it is from there they march in detachments to the church of their choice. A religion they must have, and if, when called up and questioned about it, they have forgotten to provide themselves, or have no preference as to form of worship, they are assigned to one by the person in authority. When the regiments are assembled on the parade-ground of a Sunday morning, the first command is, "Church of Scotland, right about face, quick march!"—the bodies of men belonging to other denominations standing fast until their turn comes to move. It is said that a new officer once gave the command, "Church of Scotland, right about face, quick march! Fancy releegions, stay where ye are!"
Just as we were being told this story by an attendant squire, there was a burst of scarlet and a blare of music, and down Castle Hill and the Lawnmarket into Parliament Square marched hundreds of redcoats, the Highland pipers (otherwise the Olympian gods) swinging in front, leaving the American female heart prostrate beneath their victorious tread. The strains of music that in the distance sounded so martial and triumphant we recognized in a moment as "Abide with me," and never did the fine old tune seem more majestic than when it marked a measure for, the steady tramp, tramp, tramp, of those soldierly feet. As "The March of the Cameron Men," piped from the green steeps of Castle Hill, had aroused in us thoughts of splendid victories on the battlefield, so did this simple hymn awake the spirit of the church militant; a no less stern, but more spiritual soldiership, in which "the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace."
As I fell asleep on that first Sunday night in Edinburgh, after the somewhat unusual experience of three church services in a single day, three separate notes of memory floated in and out of the fabric of my dreams: the sound of the soldiers' feet marching into old St. Giles' to the strains of "Abide with me;" the voice of the Reverend Ronald ringing out with manly insistence: "It is aspiration that counts, not realization; pursuit, not achievement; quest, not conquest!"—and the closing phrases of the Friar's prayer: "When Christ has forgiven us, help us to forgive ourselves! Help us to forgive ourselves so fully that we can even forget ourselves, remembering only Him! And so let his kingdom come; we ask it for the King's sake. Amen."