In October he had printed a plea for Ireland, strong and earnest, asking:—
"Where is our boasted English freedom when you cross to Kingstown pier? Where has it been for near two years? The Habeas Corpus Act suspended, the gaols crowded, the steamers searched, spies listening at shebeen shops for sedition, and the end of it a Fenian panic in England. Oh, before it be too late, before more blood shall stain the pages of our present history, before we exasperate and arouse bitter animosities, let us try and do justice to our sister land. Abolish once and for all the land laws, which in their iniquitous operation have ruined her peasantry. Sweep away the leech-like Church which has sucked her vitality, and has given her back no word even of comfort in her degradation. Turn her barracks into flax mills, encourage a spirit of independence in her citizens, restore to her people the protection of the law, so that they may speak without fear of arrest, and beg them to plainly and boldly state their grievances. Let a commission of the best and wisest amongst Irishmen, with some of our highest English judges added, sit solemnly to hear all complaints, and then let us honestly legislate, not for the punishment of the discontented, but to remove the causes of the discontent. It is not the Fenians who have depopulated Ireland's strength and increased her misery. It is not the Fenians who have evicted tenants by the score. It is not the Fenians who have checked cultivation. Those who have caused the wrong at least should frame the remedy."
In December, 1867, I was married at St. Leonards, and after a brief trip to Paris and Southsea, we went to Cheltenham where Mr. Besant had obtained a mastership. We lived at first in lodgings, and as I was very much alone, my love for reading had full swing. Quietly to myself I fretted intensely for my mother, and for the daily sympathy and comradeship that had made my life so fair. In a strange town, among strangers, with a number of ladies visiting me who talked only of servants and babies—troubles of which I knew nothing—who were profoundly uninterested in everything that had formed my previous life, in theology, in politics, in questions of social reform, and who looked on me as "strange" because I cared more for the great struggles outside than for the discussions of a housemaid's young man, or the amount of "butter when dripping would have done perfectly well, my dear," used by the cook—under such circumstances it will not seem marvellous that I felt somewhat forlorn. I found refuge, however, in books, and energetically carried on my favorite studies; next, I thought I would try writing, and took up two very different lines of composition; I wrote some short stories of a very flimsy type, and also a work of a much more ambitious character, "The Lives of the Black Letter Saints". For the sake of the unecclesiastically trained it may be well to mention that in the Calendar of the Church of England there are a number of Saints' Days; some of these are printed in red, and are Red Letter Days, for which services are appointed by the Church; others are printed in black, and are Black Letter Days, and have no special services fixed for them. It seemed to me that it would be interesting to take each of these days and write a sketch of the life of the saint belonging to it, and accordingly I set to work to do so, and gathered various books of history and legend wherefrom to collect my "facts". I don't in the least know what became of that valuable book; I tried Macmillans with it, and it was sent on by them to someone who was preparing a series of church books for the young; later I had a letter from a Church brotherhood offering to publish it, if I would give it as an "act of piety" to their order; its ultimate fate is to me unknown.
The short stories were more fortunate. I sent the first to the Family Herald, and some weeks afterwards received a letter from which dropped a cheque as I opened it. Dear me! I have earned a good deal of money since by my pen, but never any that gave me the intense delight of that first thirty shillings. It was the first money I had ever earned, and the pride of the earning was added to the pride of authorship. In my childish delight and practical religion, I went down on my knees and thanked God for sending it to me, and I saw myself earning heaps of golden guineas, and becoming quite a support of the household. Besides, it was "my very own", I thought, and a delightful sense of independence came over me. I had not then realised the beauty of the English law, and the dignified position in which it placed the married woman; I did not understand that all a married woman earned by law belonged to her owner, and that she could have nothing that belonged to her of right. I did not want the money: I was only so glad to have something of my own to give, and it was rather a shock to learn that it was not really mine at all.
[Footnote 1: This odious law has now been altered, and a married woman is a person, not a chattel.]
From time to time after that, I earned a few pounds for stories in the same journal; and the Family Herald, let me say, has one peculiarity which should render it beloved by poor authors; it pays its contributor when it accepts the paper, whether it prints it immediately or not; thus my first story was not printed for some weeks after I received the cheque, and it was the same with all others accepted by the same journal. Encouraged by these small successes, I began writing a novel! It took a long time to do, but was at last finished, and sent off to the Family Herald. The poor thing came back, but with a kind note, telling me that it was too political for their pages, but that if I would write one of "purely domestic interest", and up to the same level, it would probably be accepted. But by that time I was in the full struggle of theological doubt, and that novel of "purely domestic interest" never got itself written.
I contributed further to the literature of my country a theological pamphlet, of which I forget the exact title, but it dealt with the duty of fasting incumbent on all faithful Christians, and was very patristic in its tone.
In January, 1869, my little son was born, and as I was very ill for some months before,—and was far too much interested in the tiny creature afterwards, to devote myself to pen and paper, my literary career was checked for a while. The baby gave a new interest and a new pleasure to life, and as we could not afford a nurse I had plenty to do in looking after his small majesty. My energy in reading became less feverish when it was done by the side of the baby's cradle, and the little one's presence almost healed the abiding pain of my mother's loss.
I may pass very quickly over the next two years. In August, 1870, a little sister was born to my son, and the recovery was slow and tedious, for my general health had been failing for some time. I was, among other things, fretting much about my mother, who was in sore trouble. A lawyer in whom she had had the most perfect confidence betrayed it; for years she had paid all her large accounts through him, and she had placed her money in his hands. Suddenly he was discovered by his partners to have been behaving unfairly; the crash came, and my mother found that all the money given by her for discharge of liabilities had vanished, while the accounts were unpaid, and that she was involved in debt to a very serious extent. The shock was a very terrible one to her, for she was too old to begin the world afresh. She sold off all she had, and used the money, as far as it would go, to pay the debts she believed to have been long ago discharged, and she was thus left penniless after thinking she had made a little competence for her old age. Lord Hatherley's influence obtained for my brother the post of undersecretary to the Society of Arts, and also some work from the Patent Office, and my mother went to live with him. But the dependence was intolerable to her, though she never let anyone but myself know she suffered, and even I, until her last illness, never knew how great her suffering had been. The feeling of debt weighed on her, and broke her heart; all day long while my brother was at his office, through the bitter winter weather, she would sit without a fire, lighting it only a little before his home-coming, so that she might save all the expense she could; often and often she would go out about half-past twelve, saying that she was going out to lunch, and would walk about till late in the afternoon, so as to avoid the lunch-hour at home. I have always felt that the winter of 1870-1 killed her, though she lived on for three years longer; it made her an old broken woman, and crushed her brave spirit. How often I have thought since: "If only I had not left her! I should have seen she was suffering, and should have saved her." One little chance help I gave her, on a brief visit to town. She was looking very ill, and I coaxed out of her that her back was always aching, and that she never had a moment free from pain. Luckily I had that morning received a letter containing L2 2s. from my liberal Family Herald editor, and as, glancing round the room, I saw there were only ordinary chairs, I disregarded all questions as to the legal ownership of the money, and marched out without saying a word, and bought for L1 15s. a nice cushiony chair, just like one she used to have at Harrow, and had it sent home to her. For a moment she was distressed, but I told her I had earned the money, and so she was satisfied. "Oh, the rest!" she said softly once or twice during the evening. I have that chair still, and mean to keep it as long as I live.
In the spring of 1871 both my children were taken ill with hooping-cough. The boy, Digby, vigorous and merry, fought his way through it with no danger, and with comparatively little suffering; Mabel, the baby, had been delicate since her birth; there had been some little difficulty in getting her to breathe after she was born, and a slight tendency afterwards to lung-delicacy. She was very young for so trying a disease as hooping-cough, and after a while bronchitis set in, and was followed by congestion of the lungs. For weeks she lay in hourly peril of death; we arranged a screen round the fire like a tent, and kept it full of steam to ease the panting breath, and there I sat all through those weary weeks with her on my lap, day and night. The doctor said that recovery was impossible, and that in one of the fits of coughing she must die; the most distressing thing was that at last the giving of a drop or two of milk brought on the terrible convulsive choking, and it seemed cruel to torture the apparently dying child. At length, one morning when the doctor was there, he said that she could not last through the day; I had sent for him hurriedly, for her body had swollen up rapidly, and I did not know what had happened; the pleura of one lung had become perforated, and the air escaping into the cavity of the chest had caused the swelling; while he was there, one of the fits of coughing came on, and it seemed as though it would be the last; the doctor took a small bottle of chloroform out of his pocket, and putting a drop on a handkerchief, held it near the child's face, till the drug soothed the convulsive struggle. "It can't do any harm at this stage," he said, "and it checks the suffering." He went away, saying that he would return in the afternoon, but he feared he would never see the child alive again. One of the kindest friends I had in my married life was that same doctor, Mr. Lauriston Winterbotham; he was as good as he was clever, and, like so many of his noble, profession, he had the merits of discretion and of silence.
That chance thought of his about the chloroform, verily, I believe, saved the child's life. Whenever one of the convulsive fits was coming on I used it, and so not only prevented to a great extent the violence of the attacks, but also the profound exhaustion that followed them, when of breath at the top of the throat showing that she still lived. At last, though more than once we had thought her dead, a change took place for the better, and the child began slowly to mend. For years, however, that struggle for life left its traces on her, not only in serious lung-delicacy but also in a form of epileptic fits. In her play she would suddenly stop, and become fixed for about a minute, and then go on again as though nothing had occurred. On her mother a more permanent trace was left.
Not unnaturally, when the child was out of danger, I collapsed from sheer exhaustion, and I lay in bed for a week. But an important change of mind dated from those silent weeks with a dying child on my knees. There had grown up in my mind a feeling of angry resentment against the God who had been for weeks, as I thought, torturing my helpless baby. For some months a stubborn antagonism to the Providence who ordained the sufferings of life had been steadily increasing in me, and this sullen challenge, "Is God good?" found voice in my heart during those silent nights and days. My mother's sufferings, and much personal unhappiness, had been, intensifying the feeling, and as I watched my baby in its agony, and felt so helpless to relieve, more than once the indignant cry broke from my lips: "How canst thou torture a baby so? What has she done that she should suffer so? Why dost thou not kill her at once, and let her be at peace?" More than once I cried aloud: "O God, take the child, but do not torment her." All my personal belief in God, all my intense faith in his constant direction of affairs, all my habit of continual prayer and of realisation of his presence, were against me now. To me he was not an abstract idea, but a living reality, and all my mother-heart rose up in rebellion against this person in whom I believed, and whose individual finger I saw in my baby's agony.
At this time I met a clergyman—I do not give his name lest I should injure him—whose wider and more liberal views of Christianity exercised much influence over me during the months of struggle that followed. Mr. Besant had brought him to me while the child was at her worst, and I suppose something of the "Why is it?" had, unconsciously to me, shown itself to his keen eyes. On the day after his visit, I received from him the following letter, in which unbeliever as well as believer may recognise the deep human sympathy and noble nature of the writer:—
"April 21st, 1871.
"MY DEAR MRS. BESANT,—I am painfully conscious that I gave you but little help in your trouble yesterday. It is needless to say that it was not from want of sympathy. Perhaps it would be nearer the truth to say that it was from excess of sympathy. I shrink intensely from meddling with the sorrow of anyone whom I feel to be of a sensitive nature.
'The heart hath its own bitterness, and the stranger meddleth not therewith.'
It is to me a positively fearful thought that I might await a reflection as
'And common was the common place, And vacant chaff well meant for grain'.
Conventional consolations, conventional verses out of the Bible and conventional prayers are, it seems to me, an intolerable aggravation of suffering. And so I acted on a principle that I mentioned to your husband, that 'there is no power so great as that of one human faith looking upon another human faith'. The promises of God, the love of Christ for little children, and all that has been given to us of hope and comfort, are as deeply planted in your heart as in mine, and I did not care to quote them. But when I talk face to face with one who is in sore need of them, my faith in them suddenly becomes so vast and heart-stirring that I think I must help most by talking naturally, and letting the faith find its own way from soul to soul. Indeed I could not find words for it if I tried. And yet I am compelled, as a messenger of the glad tidings of God, to solemnly assure you that all is well. We have no key to the 'Mystery of Pain', excepting the Cross of Christ. But there is another and a deeper solution in the hands of our Father. And it will be ours when we can understand it. There is—in the place to which we travel—some blessed explanation of your baby's pain and your grief, which will fill with light the darkest heart. Now you must believe without having seen; that is true faith. You must
'Reach a hand through time to catch The far-oft interest of tears'.
That you may have strength so to do is part of your share in the prayers of yours very faithfully, W. D——."
During the summer months I saw much of this clergyman, Mr. D—— and his wife. We grew into closer intimacy in consequence of the dangerous illness of their only child, a beautiful boy a few months old. I had gained quite a name in Cheltenham as a nurse—my praises having been sung by the doctor—and Mrs. D—— felt she could trust me even with her darling boy while she snatched a night's sorely needed rest. My questionings were not shirked by Mr. D——, nor discouraged; he was neither horrified nor sanctimoniously rebuking, but met them all with a wide comprehension inexpressibly soothing to one writhing in the first agony of real doubt. The thought of hell was torturing me; somehow out of the baby's pain through those seemingly endless hours had grown a dim realisation of what hell might be, full of the sufferings of the beloved, and my whole brain and heart revolted from the unutterable cruelty of a creating and destroying God. Mr. D—— lent me Maurice and Robertson, and strove to lead me into their wider hope for man, their more trustful faith in God.
Everyone who has doubted after believing knows how, after the first admitted and recognised doubt, others rush in like a flood, and how doctrine after doctrine starts up in new and lurid light, looking so different in aspect from the fair faint outlines in which it had shone forth in the soft mists of faith. The presence of evil and pain in the world made by a "good God", and the pain falling on the innocent, as on my seven months' old babe; the pain here reaching on into eternity unhealed; these, while I yet believed, drove me desperate, and I believed and hated, instead of like the devils, "believed and trembled". Next, I challenged the righteousness of the doctrine of the Atonement, and while I worshipped and clung to the suffering Christ, I hated the God who required the death sacrifice at his hands. And so for months the turmoil went on, the struggle being all the more terrible for the very desperation with which I strove to cling to some planks of the wrecked ship of faith on the tossing sea of doubt.
After Mr. D—— left Cheltenham, as he did in the early autumn of 1871, he still aided me in my mental struggles. He had advised me to read McLeod Campbell's work on the Atonement, as one that would meet many of the difficulties that lay on the surface of the orthodox view, and in answer to a letter dealing with this really remarkable work, he wrote (Nov. 22, 1871):
"(1) The two passages on pp. 25 and 108 you doubtless interpret quite rightly. In your third reference to pp. 117, 188, you forget one great principle—that God is impassive; cannot suffer. Christ, qua God, did not suffer, but as Son of Man and in his humanity. Still, it may be correctly stated that He felt to sin and sinners 'as God eternally feels'—i.e., abhorrence of sin and love of the sinner. But to infer from that that the Father in his Godhead feels the sufferings which Christ experienced solely in humanity, and because incarnate, is, I think, wrong.
"(2) I felt strongly inclined to blow you up for the last part of your letter. You assume, I think quite gratuitously, that God condemns the major part of his children to objectless future suffering. You say that if he does not, he places a book in their hands which threatens what he does not mean to inflict. But how utterly this seems to me opposed to the gospel of Christ. All Christ's reference to eternal punishment may be resolved into reference to the Valley of Hinnom, by way of imagery; with the exception of the Dives parable, where is distinctly inferred a moral amendment beyond the grave. I speak of the unselfish desire of Dives to save his brothers. The more I see of the controversy the more baseless does the eternal punishment theory appear. It seems, then, to me, that instead of feeling aggrieved and shaken, you ought to feel encouraged and thankful that God is so much better than you were taught to believe him. You will have discovered by this time, in Maurice's 'What is Revelation' (I suppose you have the 'Sequel' too?) that God's truth is our truth, and his love is our love, only more perfect and full. There is no position more utterly defeated in modern philosophy and theology, than Dean Mansel's attempt to show that God's justice, love, etc., are different in kind from ours. Mill and Maurice, from totally alien points of view, have shown up the preposterous nature of the notion.
"(3) A good deal of what you have thought is, I fancy, based on a strange forgetfulness of your former experience. If you have known Christ (whom to know is eternal life)—and that you have known him I am certain—can you really say that a few intellectual difficulties, nay, a few moral difficulties if you will, are able at once to obliterate the testimony of that higher state of being?
"Why, the keynote of all my theology is that Christ is loveable because, and just because, he is the perfection of all that I know to be noble and generous, and loving, and tender, and true. If an angel from heaven brought me a gospel which contained doctrines that would not stand the test of such perfect loveableness—doctrines hard, or cruel, or unjust—I should reject him and his trumpery gospel with scorn, knowing that neither could be Christ's.
"Know Christ and judge religions by him; don't judge him by religions, and then complain because you find yourself looking at him through a blood-colored glass....
"I am saturating myself with Maurice, who is the antidote given by God to this age against all dreary doubtings and temptings of the devil to despair."
On these lines weary strife went on for months, until at last brain and health gave way completely, and for weeks I lay prostrate and helpless, in terrible ceaseless head-pain, unable to find relief in sleep. The doctor tried every form of relief in vain; he covered my head with ice, he gave me opium—which only drove me mad—he used every means his skill could dictate to remove the pain, but all failed. At last he gave up the attempt to cure physically, and tried mental diversion; he brought me up books on anatomy and persuaded me to study them; I have still an analysis made by me at that time of Luther Holden's "Human Osteology ". He was wise enough to see that if I were to be brought back to reasonable life, it could only be by diverting thought from the currents in which it had been running to a dangerous extent.
No one who has not felt it knows the fearful agony caused by doubt to the earnestly religious mind. There is in this life no other pain so horrible. The doubt seems to shipwreck everything, to destroy the one steady gleam of happiness "on the other side" that no earthly storm could obscure; to make all life gloomy with a horror of despair, a darkness that may verily be felt. Fools talk of Atheism as the outcome of foul life and vicious thought. They, in their shallow heartlessness, their brainless stupidity, cannot even dimly imagine the anguish of the mere penumbra of the eclipse of faith, much less the horror of that great darkness in which the orphaned soul cries out into the infinite emptiness: "Is it a Devil who has made this world? Are we the sentient toys of an Almighty Power, who sports with our agony, and whose peals of awful mocking laughter echo the wailings of our despair?"
On recovering from that prostrating physical pain, I came to a very definite decision. I resolved that, whatever might be the result, I would take each dogma of the Christian religion, and carefully and thoroughly examine it, so that I should never again say "I believe" where I had not proved. So, patiently and steadily, I set to work. Four problems chiefly at this time pressed for solution. I. The eternity of punishment after death. II. The meaning of "goodness" and "love" as applied to a God who had made this world with all its evil and its misery. III. The nature of the atonement of Christ, and the "justice" of God in accepting a vicarious suffering from Christ, and a vicarious righteousness from the sinner. IV. The meaning of "inspiration" as applied to the Bible, and the reconciliation of the perfection of the author with the blunders and the immoralities of the work.
Maurice's writings now came in for very careful study, and I read also those of Robertson, of Brighton, and of Stopford Brooke, striving to find in these some solid ground whereon I might build up a new edifice of faith. That ground, however, I failed to find; there were poetry, beauty, enthusiasm, devotion; but there was no rock on which I might take my stand. Mansel's Bampton lectures on "The Limits of Religious Thought" deepened and intensified my doubts. His arguments seemed to make certainty impossible, and I could not suddenly turn round and believe to order, as he seemed to recommend, because proof was beyond reach. I could not, and would not, adore in God as the highest Righteousness that which, in man was condemned as harsh, as cruel, and as unjust.
In the midst of this long mental struggle, a change occurred in the outward circumstances of my life. I wrote to Lord Hatherley and asked him if he could give Mr. Besant a Crown living, and he offered us first one in Northumberland, near Alnwick Castle, and then one in Lincolnshire, the village of Sibsey, with a vicarage house, and an income of L410 per annum. We decided to accept the latter.
The village was scattered over a considerable amount of ground, but the work was not heavy. The church was one of the fine edifices for which the fen country is so famous, and the vicarage was a comfortable house, with large and very beautiful gardens and paddock, and with outlying fields. The people were farmers and laborers, with a sprinkling of shopkeepers; the only "society" was that of the neighboring clergy, Tory and prim to an appalling extent. There was here plenty of time for study, and of that time I vigorously availed myself. But no satisfactory light came to me, and the suggestions and arguments of my friend Mr. D—— failed to bring conviction to my mind. It appeared clear to me that the doctrine of Eternal Punishment was taught in the Bible, and the explanations given of the word "eternal" by men like Maurice and Stanley, did not recommend themselves to me as anything more than skilful special pleading— evasions, not clearings up, of a moral difficulty. For the problem was: Given a good God, how can he have created mankind, knowing beforehand that the vast majority of those whom he had created were to be tortured for evermore? Given a just God, how can he punish people for being sinful, when they have inherited a sinful nature without their own choice and of necessity? Given a righteous God, how can he allow sin to exist for ever, so that evil shall be as eternal as good, and Satan shall reign in hell, as long as Christ in Heaven? The answer of the Broad church school was, that the word "eternal" applied only to God and to life which was one with his; that "everlasting" only meant "lasting for an age", and that while the punishment of the wicked might endure for ages it was purifying, not destroying, and at last all should be saved, and "God should be all in all". These explanations had (for a time) satisfied Mr. D——, and I find him writing to me in answer to a letter of mine dated March 25th, 1872:
"On the subject of Eternal punishment I have now not the remotest doubt. It is impossible to handle the subject exhaustively in a letter, with a sermon to finish before night. But you must get hold of a few valuable books that would solve all kinds of difficulties for you. For most points read Stopford Brooke's Sermons—they are simply magnificent, and are called (1) Christian modern life, (2) Freedom in the Church of England, (3) and (least helpful) 'Sermons'. Then again there is an appendix to Llewellyn Davies' 'Manifestation of the Son of God', which treats of forgiveness in a future state as related to Christ and Bible. As to that special passage about the Blasphemy against the Holy Ghost (to which you refer), I will write you my notions on it in a future letter."
A little later, according, he wrote:
"With regard to your passage of difficulty about the unpardonable sin, I would say: (1) If that sin is not to be forgiven in the world to come, it is implied that all other sins are forgiven in the world to come. (2) You must remember that our Lord's parables and teachings mainly concerned contemporary events and people. I mean, for instance, that in his great prophecy of judgment he simply was speaking of the destruction of the Jewish polity and nation. The principles involved apply through all time, but He did not apply them except to the Jewish nation. He was speaking then, not of 'the end of the world, (as is wrongly translated), but of 'the end of the age'. (Every age is wound up with a judgment. French Revolutions, Reformations, etc., are all ends of ages and judgments.) [Greek aion] does not, cannot, will not, and never did mean world, but age. Well, then, he has been speaking of the Jewish people. And he says that all words spoken against the Son of Man will be forgiven. But there is a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit of God—there is a confusion of good with evil, of light with darkness—which goes deeper down than this. When a nation has lost the faculty of distinguishing love from hatred, the spirit of falsehood and hypocrisy from the spirit of truth, God from the Devil—then its doom is pronounced—the decree is gone forth against it. As the doom of Judaism, guilty of this sin, was then pronounced. As the decree against it had already gone forth. It is a national warning, not an individual one. It applies to two ages of this world, and not to two worlds. All its teaching was primarily national, and is only thus to be rightly read— if not all, rather most of it. If you would be sure of this and understand it, see the parables, etc., explained in Maurice's 'Gospel of the Kingdom of Heaven' (a commentary on S. Luke). I can only indicate briefly in a letter the line to be taken on this question.
"With regard to the [Greek: elui, elui, lama sabbachthani]. I don't believe that the Father even momentarily hid his face from Him. The life of sonship was unbroken. Remark: (1) It is a quotation from a Psalm. (2) It rises naturally to a suffering man's lips as expressive of agony, though not exactly framed for his individual agony. (3) The spirit of the Psalm is one of trust, and hope, and full faith, notwithstanding the 1st verse. (4) Our Lord's agony was very extreme, not merely of body but of soul. He spoke out of the desolation of one forsaken, not by his divine Father but by his human brothers. I have heard sick and dying men use the words of beloved Psalms in just such a manner.
"The impassibility of God (1) With regard to the Incarnation, this presents no difficulty. Christ suffered simply and entirely as man, was too truly a man not to do so. (2) With regard to the Father, the key of it is here. 'God is love.' He does not need suffering to train into sympathy, because his nature is sympathy. He can afford to dispense with hysterics, because he sees ahead that his plan is working to the perfect result. I am not quite sure whether I have hit upon your difficulty here, as I have destroyed your last letter but one. But the 'Gospel of the Kingdom' is a wonderful 'eye-opener'."
Worst of all the puzzles, perhaps, was that of the existence of evil and of misery, and the racking doubt whether God could be good, and yet look on the evil and the misery of the world unmoved and untouched. It seemed so impossible to believe that a Creator could be either cruel enough to be indifferent to the misery, or weak enough to be unable to stop it: the old dilemma faced me unceasingly. "If he can prevent it, and does not, he is not good; if he wishes to prevent it, and cannot, he is not almighty;" and out of this I could find no way of escape. Not yet had any doubt of the existence of God crossed my mind.
In August, 1872 Mr. D—— tried to meet this difficulty. He wrote:
"With regard to the impassibility of God, I think there is a stone wrong among your foundations which causes your difficulty. Another wrong stone is, I think, your view of the nature of the sin and error which is supposed to grieve God. I take it that sin is an absolutely necessary factor in the production of the perfect man. It was foreseen and allowed as a means to an end—as in fact an education.
"The view of all the sin and misery in the world cannot grieve God, any more than it can grieve you to see Digby fail in his first attempt to build a card-castle or a rabbit-hutch. All is part of the training. God looks at the ideal man to which all tends. The popular idea of the fall is to me a very absurd one. There was never an ideal state in the past, but there will be in the future. The Genesis allegory simply typifies the first awakening of consciousness of good and evil—of two wills in a mind hitherto only animal-psychic.
"Well then—there being no occasion for grief in watching the progress of his own perfect and unfailing plans—your difficulty in God's impassibility vanishes. Christ, qua God, was, of course, impassible too. It seems to me that your position implies that God's 'designs' have partially (at least) failed, and hence the grief of perfect benevolence. Now I stoutly deny that any jot or tittle of God's plans can fail. I believe in the ordering of all for the best. I think that the pain consequent on broken law is only an inevitable necessity, over which we shall some day rejoice.
"The indifference shown to God's love cannot pain Him. Why? because it is simply a sign of defectiveness in the creature which the ages will rectify. The being who is indifferent is not yet educated up to the point of love. But he will be. The pure and holy suffering of Christ was (pardon me) wholly the consequence of his human nature. True it was because of the perfection of his humanity. But his Divinity had nothing to do with it. It was his human heart that broke. It was because he entered a world of broken laws and of incomplete education that he became involved in suffering with the rest of his race.....
"No, Mrs. Besant; I never feel at all inclined to give up the search, or to suppose that the other side may be right. I claim no merit for it, but I have an invincible faith in the morality of God and the moral order of the world. I have no more doubt about the falsehood of the popular theology than I have about the unreality of six robbers who attacked me three nights ago in a horrid dream. I exult and rejoice in the grandeur and freedom of the little bit of truth it has been given me to see. I am told that 'Present-day Papers', by Bishop Ewing (edited) are a wonderful help, many of them, to puzzled people: I mean to get them. But I am sure you will find that the truth will (even so little as we may be able to find out) grow on you, make you free, light your path, and dispel, at no distant time, your painful difficulties and doubts. I should say on no account give up your reading. I think with you that you could not do without it. It will be a wonderful source of help and peace to you. For there are struggles far more fearful than those of intellectual doubt. I am keenly alive to the gathered-up sadness of which your last two pages are an expression. I was sorrier than I can say to read them. They reminded me of a long and very dark time in my own life, when I thought the light never would come. Thank God it came, or I think I could not have held out much longer. But you have evidently strength to bear it now. The more dangerous time, I should fancy, has passed. You will have to mind that the fermentation leaves clear spiritual wine, and not (as too often) vinegar.
"I wish I could write something more helpful to you in this great matter. But as I sit in front of my large bay window, and see the shadows on the grass and the sunlight on the leaves, and the soft glimmer of the rosebuds left by the storms, I cannot but believe that all will be very well. 'Trust in the Lord; wait patiently for him'—they are trite words. But he made the grass, the leaves, the rosebuds, and the sunshine, and he is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And now the trite words have swelled into a mighty argument."
Despite reading and argument, my scepticism grew only deeper and deeper. The study of W.R. Greg's "Creed of Christendom", of Matthew Arnold's "Literature and Dogma", helped to widen the mental horizon, while making a return to the old faith more and more impossible. The church services were a weekly torture, but feeling as I did that I was only a doubter, I spoke to none of my doubts. It was possible, I felt, that all my difficulties might be cleared up, and I had no right to shake the faith of others while in uncertainty myself. Others had doubted and had afterwards believed; for the doubter silence was a duty; the blinded had better keep their misery to themselves. I found some practical relief in parish work of a non-doctrinal kind, in nursing the sick, in trying to brighten a little the lot of the poor of the village. But here, again, I was out of sympathy with most of those around me. The movement among the agricultural laborers, due to the energy and devotion of Joseph Arch, was beginning to be talked of in the fens, and bitter were the comments of the farmers on it, while I sympathised with the other side. One typical case, which happened some months later, may stand as example of all. There was a young man, married, with two young children, who was wicked enough to go into a neighboring county to a "Union Meeting", and who was, further, wicked enough to talk about it when he returned. He became a marked man; no farmer would employ him. He tramped about vainly, looking for work, grew reckless, and took to drink. Visiting his cottage one day I found his wife ill, a dead child in the bed, a sick child in her arms; yes, she "was pining; there was no work to be had". "Why did she leave the dead child on the bed? because there was no other place to put it." The cottage consisted of one room and a "lean-to", and husband and wife, the child dead of fever and the younger child sickening with it, were all obliged to lie on the one bed. In another cottage I found four generations sleeping in one room, the great-grandfather and his wife, the grandmother (unmarried), the mother (unmarried), and the little child, while three men-lodgers completed the tale of eight human beings crowded into that narrow, ill-ventilated garret. Other cottages were hovels, through the broken roofs of which poured the rain, and wherein rheumatism and ague lived with the dwellers. How could I do aught but sympathise with any combination that aimed at the raising of these poor? But to sympathise with Joseph Arch was a crime in the eyes of the farmers, who knew that his agitation meant an increased drain on their pockets. For it never struck them that, if they paid less in rent to the absent landlord, they might pay more in wage to the laborers who helped to make their wealth, and they had only civil words for the burden that crushed them, and harsh ones for the builders-up of their ricks and the mowers of their harvests. They made common cause with their enemy, instead of with their friend, and instead of leaguing themselves with the laborers, as forming together the true agricultural interest, they leagued themselves with the landlords against the laborers, and so made fratricidal strife instead of easy victory over the common foe.
In the summer and autumn of 1872, I was a good deal in London with my mother.—My health had much broken down, and after a severe attack of congestion of the lungs, my recovery was very slow. One Sunday in London, I wandered into St. George's Hall, in which Mr. Charles Voysey was preaching, and there I bought some of his sermons. To my delight I found that someone else had passed through the same difficulties as I about hell and the Bible and the atonement and the character of God, and had given up all these old dogmas, while still clinging to belief in God. I went to St. George's Hall again on the following Sunday, and in the little ante-room, after the service, I found myself in a stream of people, who were passing by Mr. and Mrs. Voysey, some evidently known to him, some strangers, many of the latter thanking him for his morning's work. As I passed in my turn I said: "I must thank you for very great help in what you have said this morning", for indeed the possibility opened of a God who was really "loving unto every man", and in whose care each was safe for ever, had come like a gleam of light across the stormy sea of doubt and distress on which I had been tossing for nearly twelve months. On the following Sunday, I saw them again, and was cordially invited down to their Dulwich home, where they gave welcome to all in doubt. I soon found that the Theism they professed was free from the defects which revolted me in Christianity. It left me God as a Supreme Goodness, while rejecting all the barbarous dogmas of the Christian faith. I now read Theodore Parker's "Discourse on Religion", Francis Newman's "Hebrew Monarchy", and other works, many of the essays of Miss Frances Power Cobbe and of other Theistic writers, and I no longer believed in the old dogmas and hated while I believed; I no longer doubted whether they were true or not; I shook them off, once for all, with all their pain, and horror, and darkness, and felt, with relief and joy inexpressible, that they were all but the dreams of ignorant and semi-savage minds, not the revelation of a God. The last remnant of Christianity followed swiftly these cast-off creeds, though, in parting with this, one last pang was felt. It was the doctrine of the Deity of Christ. The whole teaching of the Broad Church School tends, of course, to emphasise the humanity at the expense of the Deity of Christ, and when the eternal punishment and the substitutionary atonement had vanished, there seemed to be no sufficient reason left for so stupendous a miracle as the incarnation of the Deity. I saw that the idea of incarnation was common to all Eastern creeds, not peculiar to Christianity; the doctrine of the unity of God repelled the doctrine of the incarnation of a portion of the Godhead. But the doctrine was dear from association; there was something at once soothing and ennobling in the idea of a union between Man and God, between a perfect man and divine supremacy, between a human heart and an almighty strength. Jesus as God was interwoven with all art, with all beauty in religion; to break with the Deity of Jesus was to break with music, with painting, with literature; the Divine Child in his mother's arms, the Divine Man in his Passion and in his triumph, the human friend encircled with the majesty of the Godhead—did inexorable Truth demand that this ideal figure, with all its pathos, its beauty, its human love, should pass into the Pantheon of the dead Gods of the Past?
The struggle was a sharp one ere I could decide that intellectual honesty demanded that the question of the Deity of Christ should be analysed as strictly as all else, and that the conclusions come to from an impartial study of facts should be faced as steadily as though they dealt with some unimportant question. I was bound to recognise, however, that more than intellectual honesty would be here required, for if the result of the study were—as I dimly felt it would be—to establish disbelief in the supernatural claims of Christ, I could not but feel that such disbelief would necessarily entail most unpleasant external results. I might give up belief in all save this, and yet remain a member of the Church of England: views on Inspiration, on Eternal Torture, on the Vicarious Atonement, however heterodox, might be held within the pale of the Church; many broad church clergymen rejected these as decidedly as I did myself, and yet remained members of the Establishment; the judgment on "Essays and Reviews" gave this wide liberty to heresy within the Church, and a laywoman might well claim the freedom of thought legally bestowed on divines. The name "Christian" might well be worn while Christ was worshipped as God, and obeyed as the "Revealer of the Father's will", the "well-beloved Son", the "Savior and Lord of men". But once challenge that unique position, once throw off that supreme sovereignty, and then it seemed to me that the name "Christian" became a hypocrisy, and its renouncement a duty incumbent on an upright mind. But I was a clergyman's wife; my position made my participation in the Holy Communion a necessity, and my withdrawal therefrom would be an act marked and commented upon by all. Yet if I lost my faith in Christ, how could I honestly approach "the Lord's Table", where Christ was the central figure and the recipient of the homage paid there by every worshipper to "God made man"? Hitherto mental pain alone had been the price demanded inexorably from the searcher after truth; now to the inner would be added the outer warfare, and how could I tell how far this might carry me?
One night only I spent in this struggle over the question: "Shall I examine the claims to Deity of Jesus of Nazareth?". When morning broke the answer was clearly formulated: "Truth is greater than peace or position. If Jesus be God, challenge will not shake his Deity; if he be Man, it is blasphemy to worship him." I re-read Liddon's "Bampton Lectures" on this controversy and Renan's "Vie de Jesus". I studied the Gospels, and tried to represent to myself the life there outlined; I tested the conduct there given as I should have tested the conduct of any ordinary historical character; I noted that in the Synoptics no claim to Deity was made by Jesus himself, nor suggested by his disciples; I weighed his own answer to an enquirer, with its plain disavowal of Godhood: "Why callest thou me good? There is none good save one, that is God" (Matt, xix., 17); I conned over his prayers to "my Father", his rest on divine protection, his trust in a power greater than his own; I noted his repudiation of divine knowledge: "Of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father" (Mark xiii., 32); I studied the meaning of his prayer of anguished submission: "O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me! nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt" (Matt, xxvi., 39); I dwelt on his bitter cry in his dying agony: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matt, xxvii., 46); I asked the meaning of the final words of rest: "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit" (Luke xxiii., 46). And I saw that, if there were any truth in the Gospels at all, they told the story of a struggling, suffering, sinning, praying man, and not of a God at all and the dogma of the Deity of Christ followed the rest of the Christian doctrines into the limbo of past beliefs.
Yet one other effort I made to save myself from the difficulties I foresaw in connexion with this final breach with Christianity. There was one man who had in former days wielded over me a great influence, one whose writings had guided and taught me for many years—Dr. Pusey, the venerable leader of the Catholic party in the Church, the learned Patristic scholar, full of the wisdom of antiquity. He believed in Christ as God; what if I put my difficulties to him? If he resolved them for me I should escape the struggle I foresaw; if he could not resolve them, then no answer to them was to be hoped for. My decision was quickly made; being with my mother, I could write to him unnoticed, and I sat down and put my questions clearly and fully, stating my difficulties and asking him whether, out of his wider knowledge and deeper reading, he could resolve them for me. I wish I could here print his answer, together with two or three other letters I received from him, but the packet was unfortunately stolen from my desk and I have never recovered it. Dr. Pusey advised me to read Liddon's "Bampton Lectures", referred me to various passages, chiefly from the Fourth Gospel, if I remember rightly, and invited me to go down to Oxford and talk over my difficulties. Liddon's "Bampton Lectures" I had thoroughly studied, and the Fourth Gospel had no weight with me, the arguments in favor of its Alexandrian origin being familiar to me, but I determined to accept his invitation to a personal interview, regarding it as the last chance of remaining in the Church.
To Oxford, accordingly, I took the train, and made my way to the famous Doctor's rooms. I was shown in, and saw a short, stout gentleman, dressed in a cassock, and looking like a comfortable monk; but the keen eyes, steadfastly gazing straight into mine, told me of the power and subtlety hidden by the unprepossessing form. The head was fine and impressive, the voice low, penetrating, drilled into a somewhat monotonous and artificially subdued tone. I quickly found that no sort of enlightenment could possibly result from our interview. He treated me as a penitent going to confession, seeking the advice of a director, not as an enquirer struggling after truth, and resolute to obtain some firm standing-ground in the sea of doubt, whether on the shores of orthodoxy or of heresy. He would not deal with the question of the Deity of Jesus as a question for argument; he reminded me: "You are speaking of your judge," when I pressed some question. The mere suggestion of an imperfection in Jesus' character made him shudder in positive pain, and he checked me with raised hand, and the rebuke: "You are blaspheming; the very thought is a terrible sin". I asked him if he could recommend to me any books which would throw light on the subject: "No, no, you have read too much already. You must pray; you must pray." Then, as I said that I could not believe without proof, I was told: "Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed," and my further questioning was checked by the murmur: "O my child, how undisciplined! how impatient!". Truly, he must have found in me—hot, eager, passionate in my determination to know, resolute not to profess belief while belief was absent—but very little of that meek, chastened, submissive spirit to which he was accustomed in the penitents wont to seek his counsel as their spiritual guide. In vain did he bid me pray as though I believed; in vain did he urge the duty of blind submission to the authority of the Church, of yielding, unreasoning faith, which received but questioned not. He had no conception of the feelings of the sceptical spirit; his own faith was solid as a rock— firm, satisfied, unshakeable; he would as soon have committed suicide as have doubted of the infallibility of the "Universal Church".
"It is not your duty to ascertain the truth," he told me sternly. "It is your duty to accept and to believe the truth as laid down by the Church; at your peril you reject it; the responsibility is not yours so long as you dutifully accept that which the Church has laid down for your acceptance. Did not the Lord promise that the presence of the Spirit should be ever with his Church, to guide her into all truth?"
"But the fact of the promise and its value are the very points on which I am doubtful," I answered.
He shuddered. "Pray, pray," he said. "Father, forgive her, for she knows not what she says."
It was in vain I urged that I had everything to gain and nothing to lose by following his directions, but that it seemed to me that fidelity to truth forbade a pretended acceptance of that which was not believed.
"Everything to lose? Yes, indeed. You will be lost for time and lost for eternity."
"Lost or not," I rejoined, "I must and will try to find out what is true, and I will not believe till I am sure."
"You have no right to make terms with God," he answered, "as to what you will believe and what you will not believe. You are full of intellectual pride."
I sighed hopelessly. Little feeling of pride was there in me just then, and I felt that in this rigid unyielding dogmatism there was no comprehension of my difficulties, no help for me in my strugglings. I rose and, thanking him for his courtesy, said that I would not waste his time further, that I must go home and just face the difficulties out, openly leaving the Church and taking the consequences. Then for the first time his serenity was ruffled.
"I forbid you to speak of your disbelief," he cried. "I forbid you to lead into your own lost state the souls for whom Christ died."
Slowly and sadly I took my way back to the station, knowing that my last chance of escape had failed me. I recognised in this famous divine the spirit of the priest, which could be tender and pitiful to the sinner, repentant, humble, submissive, craving only for pardon and for guidance, but which was iron to the doubter, to the heretic, and would crush out all questionings of "revealed truth", silencing by force, not by argument, all challenge of the traditions of the Church. Out of such men were made the Inquisitors of the Middle Ages, perfectly conscientious, perfectly rigid, perfectly merciless to the heretic. To them heretics were and are centres of infectious disease, and charity to them "the worst cruelty to the souls of men". Certain that they hold "by no merit of our own, but by the mercy of our God the one truth which he hath revealed", they can permit no questionings, they can accept nought but the most complete submission. But while man aspires after truth, while his brain yearns after knowledge, while his intellect soars upward into the heaven of speculation and "beats the air with tireless wing", so long shall those who demand faith be met by challenge for proof, and those who would blind him shall be defeated by his determination to gaze unblenching on the face of Truth, even though her eyes should turn him into stone.
During this same visit to London I saw Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Scott for the first time. I had gone down to Dulwich to see Mr. and Mrs. Voysey, and after dinner we went over to Upper Norwood, and I was introduced to one of the most remarkable men I have ever met. At that time Mr. Scott was an old man, with beautiful white hair, and eyes like those of a hawk gleaming from under shaggy eyebrows; he had been a man of magnificent physique, and though his frame was then enfeebled, the splendid lion-like head kept its impressive strength and beauty, and told of a unique personality. Of Scotch descent and wellborn, Thomas Scott had, as a boy, been a page at the French Court; his manhood was spent in many lands, for he "was a mighty hunter", though not "before the Lord". He had lived for months among the North American Indians, sharing the hardships of their wild life; he had hunted and fished all over the world. At last, he came home, married, and ultimately settled down at Ramsgate, where he made his home a centre of heretical thought. He issued an enormous number of tracts and pamphlets, and each month he sent out a small packet to hundreds of subscribers and friends. This monthly issue of heretical literature soon made itself a power in the world of thought; the tracts were of various shades of opinion, but were all heretical: some moderate, some extreme; all were well-written, cultured and polished in tone—this was a rule to which Mr. Scott made no exceptions; his writers might say what they liked, but they must have something real to say, and they must say that something in good English. The little white packets found their way into many a quiet country parsonage, into many a fashionable home. His correspondence was world-wide and came from all classes—now a letter from a Prime Minister, now one from a blacksmith. All were equally welcome, and all were answered with equal courtesy. At his house met people of the most varying opinions. Colenso, Bishop of Natal, Edward Maitland, E. Vansittart Neale, Charles Bray, Sara Hennell, W.J. Birch, R. Suffield, and hundreds more, clerics and laymen, scholars and thinkers, all gathered in this one home, to which the right of entree was gained only by love of Truth and desire to spread Freedom among men.
Mr. Scott devoted his fortune to this great work. He would never let publishers have his pamphlets in the ordinary way of trade, but issued them all himself and distributed them gratuitously. If anyone desired to subscribe, well and good, they might help in the work, but make it a matter of business he would not. If anyone sent money for some tracts, he would send out double the worth of the money enclosed, and thus for years he carried on this splendid propagandist work. In all he was nobly seconded by his wife, his "right hand" as he well named her, a sweet, strong, gentle, noble woman, worthy of her husband, and than that no higher praise can be spoken. Of both I shall have more to say hereafter, but at present we are at the time of my first visit to them at Upper Norwood, whither they had removed from Ramsgate.
Kindly greeting was given by both, and on Mr. Voysey suggesting that judging by one essay of mine that he had seen—an essay which was later expanded into the one on "Inspiration", in the Scott series—my pen would be useful for propagandist work, Mr. Scott bade me try what I could do, and send him for criticism anything I thought good enough for publication; he did not, of course, promise to accept an essay, but he promised to read it. A question arose as to the name to be attached to the essay, in case of publication, and I told him that my name was not my own to use, and that I did not suppose that Mr. Besant could possibly, in his position, give me permission to attach it to a heretical essay; we agreed that any essays I might write should for the present be published anonymously, and that I should try my hand to begin with on the subject of the "Deity of Jesus of Nazareth". And so I parted from those who were to be such good friends to me in the coming time of struggle.
My resolve was now made, and henceforth there was at least no more doubt so far as my position towards the Church was concerned. I made up my mind to leave it, but was willing to make the leaving as little obtrusive as possible. On my return to Sibsey I stated clearly the ground on which I stood. I was ready to attend the Church services, joining in such parts as were addressed to "the Supreme Being", for I was still heartily Theistic; "the Father", shorn of all the horrible accessories hung round him by Christianity, was still to me an object of adoration, and I could still believe in and worship One who was "righteous in all His ways, and holy in all His works", although the Moloch to whom was sacrificed the well-beloved son had passed away for ever from my creed. Christian I was not, though Theist I was, and I felt that the wider and more generous faith would permit me to bow to the common God with my Christian brethren, if only I was not compelled to pay homage to that "Son of Man" whom Christians believed divine, homage which to me had become idolatry, insulting to the "One God", to him of whom Jesus himself had spoken as of "my God and your God".
Simply enough was the difficulty arranged for the moment. It was agreed that I should withdraw myself from the "Holy Communion"—for in that service, full of the recognition of Jesus as Deity, I could not join without hypocrisy. The ordinary services I would attend, merely remaining silent during those portions of them in which I could not honestly take part, and while I knew that these changes in a clergyman's wife could not pass unnoticed in a country village, I yet felt that nothing less than this was consistent with barest duty. While I had merely doubted, I had kept silence, and no act of mine had suggested doubt to others. Now that I had no doubt that Christianity was a delusion, I would no longer act as though I believed that to be of God which heart and intellect rejected as untrue.
For awhile all went smoothly. I daresay the parishioners gossipped about the absence of their vicar's wife from the Sacrament, and indeed I remember the pain and trembling wherewith, on the first "Sacrament Sunday" after my return, I rose from my seat and walked quietly from the church, leaving the white-spread altar. That the vicar's wife should "communicate" was as much a matter of course as that the vicar should "administer"; I had never in my life taken public part in anything that made me noticeable in any way among strangers, and still I can recall the feeling of deadly sickness that well nigh overcame me, as rising to go out I felt that every eye in the church was on me, and that my exit would be the cause of unending comment. As a matter of fact, everyone thought that I was taken suddenly ill, and many were the calls and enquiries on the following day. To any direct question, I answered quietly that I was unable to take part in the profession of faith required from an honest communicant, but the statement was rarely necessary, for the idea of heresy in a vicar's wife did not readily suggest itself to the ordinary bucolic mind, and I did not proffer information when it was unasked for.
It happened that, shortly after that (to me) memorable Christmas of 1872, a sharp epidemic of typhoid fever broke out in the village of Sibsey. The drainage there was of the most primitive type, and the contagion spread rapidly. Naturally fond of nursing, I found in this epidemic work just fitted to my hand, and I was fortunate enough to be able to lend personal help that made me welcome in the homes of the stricken poor. The mothers who slept exhausted while I watched beside their darlings' bedsides will never, I like to fancy, think over harshly of the heretic whose hand was as tender and often more skilful than their own. I think Mother Nature meant me for a nurse, for I take a sheer delight in nursing anyone, provided only that there is peril in the sickness, so that there is the strange and solemn feeling of the struggle between the human skill one wields and the supreme enemy, Death. There is a strange fascination in fighting Death, step by step, and this is of course felt to the full where one fights for life as life, and not for a life one loves. When the patient is beloved, the struggle is touched with agony, but where one fights with Death over the body of a stranger, there is a weird enchantment in the contest without personal pain, and as one forces back the hated foe there is a curious triumph in the feeling which marks the death-grip yielding up its prey, as one snatches back to earth the life which had well-nigh perished.
Meanwhile, the promise to Mr. Scott was not forgotten, and I penned the essay on "The Deity of Jesus of Nazareth" which stands first in the collection of essays published later under the title, "My Path to Atheism". The only condition annexed to my sending it to Mr. Scott was the perfectly fair one that if published it should appear without my name. Mr. Scott was well pleased with the essay, and before long it was printed as one of the "Scott Series", to my great delight.
But unfortunately a copy sent to a relative of Mr. Besant's brought about a storm. That gentlemen did not disagree with it—indeed he admitted that all educated persons must hold the views put forward—but what would Society say? What would "the county families" think if one of the clerical party was known to be a heretic. This dreadful little paper bore the inscription "By the wife of a beneficed clergyman"; what would happen if the "wife of the beneficed clergyman" were identified with Mrs. Besant of Sibsey?
After some thought I made a compromise. Alter or hide my faith I would not, but yield personal feelings I would. I gave up my correspondence with Mr. and Mrs. Voysey, which might, it was alleged, he noticed in the village and so give rise to mischievous gossip. In this Mr. and Mrs. Voysey most generously helped me, bidding me rest assured of their cordial friendship while counselling me for awhile to cease the correspondence which was one of the few pleasures of my life, but was not part of my duty to the higher and freer faith which we had all embraced. With keen regret I bade them for awhile farewell, and went back to my lonely life.
In that spring of 1873, I delivered my first lecture. It was delivered to no one, queer as that may sound to my readers. And indeed, it was queer altogether. I was learning to play the organ, and was in the habit of practising in the church by myself, without a blower. One day, being securely locked in, I thought I would like to try how "it felt" to speak from the pulpit. Some vague fancies were stirring in me, that I could speak if I had the chance; very vague they were, for the notion that I might ever speak on the platform had never dawned on me; only the longing to find outlet in words was in me; the feeling that I had something to say, and the yearning to say it. So, queer as it may seem? I ascended the pulpit in the big, empty, lonely church, and there and then I delivered my first lecture! I shall never forget the feeling of power and of delight which came upon me as my voice rolled down the aisles, and the passion in me broke into balanced sentences, and never paused for rhythmical expression, while I felt that all I wanted was to see the church full of upturned faces, instead of the emptiness of the silent pews. And as though in a dream the solitude became peopled, and I saw the listening faces and the eager eyes, and as the sentences came unbidden from my lips, and my own tones echoed back to me from the pillars of the ancient church, I knew of a verity that the gift of speech was mine, and that if ever—and it seemed then so impossible—if ever the chance came to me of public work, that at least this power of melodious utterance should win hearing for any message I had to bring.
But that knowledge remained a secret all to my own self for many a long month, for I quickly felt ashamed of that foolish speechifying in an empty church, and I only recall it now because, in trying to trace out one's mental growth, it is only fair to notice the first silly striving after that expression in spoken words, which, later, has become to me one of the deepest delights of life. And indeed none can know save they who have felt it what joy there is in the full rush of language which, moves and sways; to feel a crowd respond to the lightest touch; to see the faces brighten or graven at your bidding; to know that the sources of human passion and human emotion gush at the word of the speaker, as the stream from the riven rock; to feel that the thought that thrills through a thousand hearers has its impulse from you and throbs back to you the fuller from a thousand heart-beats; is there any joy in life more brilliant than this, fuller of passionate triumph, and of the very essence of intellectual delight?
My pen was busy, and a second pamphlet, dealing with the Johannine gospel, was written and sent up to Mr. Scott under the same conditions of anonymity as before, for it was seen that my authorship could in nowise be suspected, and Mr. Scott paid me for my work. I had also made a collection of Theistic, but non-Christian, hymns, with a view of meeting a want felt by Mr. Voysey's congregation at St. George's Hall, and this was lying idle, while it might be utilised. So it was suggested that I should take up again my correspondence with Mr. and Mrs. Voysey, and glad enough was I to do so. During this time my health was rapidly failing, and in the summer of 1873 it broke down completely. At last I went up to London to consult a physician, and was told I was suffering from general nervous exhaustion, which, was accompanied by much disturbance of the functions of the heart. "There is no organic disease yet," said Dr. Sibson, "but there soon will be, unless you can completely change your manner of life." Such a change was not possible, and I grew rapidly worse. The same bad adviser who had before raised the difficulty of "what will Society say?" again interfered, and urged that pressure should be put on me to compel me at least to conform to the outward ceremonies of the Church, and to attend the Holy Communion. This I was resolved not to do, whatever might be the result of my "obstinacy ", and the result was not long in coming.
I had been with the children to Southsea, to see if the change would restore my shattered health, and stayed in town with my mother on my return under Dr. Sibson's care. Very skilful and very good to me was Dr. Sibson, giving me for almost nothing all the wealthiest could have bought with their gold, but he could not remove all then in my life which made the re-acquiring of health impossible. What the doctor could not do, however, others did. It was resolved that I should either resume attendance at the Communion, or should not return home; hypocrisy or expulsion—such was the alternative; I chose the latter.
A bitterly sad time followed; my dear mother was heartbroken; to her, with her wide and vague form of Christianity, loosely held, the intensity of my feeling that where I did not believe I would not pretend belief, was incomprehensible. She recognised far more fully than I all that a separation from my home meant for me, and the difficulties which would surround a young woman not yet six-and-twenty, living alone. She knew how brutally the world judges, and how the mere fact that a woman is young and alone justifies any coarseness of slander. Then, I did not guess how cruel men and women could be, but knowing it from eleven years' experience, I deliberately say that I would rather go through it all again with my eyes wide open from the first, than have passed those eleven years "in Society" under the burden of an acted lie.
But the struggle was hard when she prayed me for her sake to give way; against harshness I had been rigid as steel, but to remain steadfast when my darling mother, whom I loved as I loved nothing else on earth, begged me on her knees to yield, was indeed hard. I felt as though it must be a crime to refuse submission when she urged it, but still—to live a lie? Not even for her was that possible.
Then there were the children, the two little ones who worshipped me, I who was to them mother, nurse, and playfellow. Were these also to be resigned? For awhile, at least, this complete loss was spared me, for facts (which I have not touched on in this record) came accidentally to my brother's knowledge, and he resolved that I should have the protection of legal separation, and should not be turned wholly penniless and alone into the world. So, when everything was arranged, I found myself possessed of my little girl, of complete personal freedom, and of a small monthly income sufficient for respectable starvation.
The "world was all before us where to choose", but circumstances narrowed the choice down to Hobson's. I had no ready money beyond the first month's payment of my annuity; furnished lodgings were beyond my means, and I had nothing wherewith to buy furniture. My brother offered me a home, on condition that I should give up my "heretical friends" and keep quiet; but, being freed from one bondage, nothing was further from my thoughts than to enter another. Besides, I did not choose to be a burden on anyone, and I resolved to "get something to do", to rent a tiny house, and to make a nest where my mother, my little girl, and I could live happily together. The difficulty was the "something"; I spent various shillings in agencies, with a quite wonderful unanimity of failures. I tried to get some fancy needlework, advertised as an infallible source of income to "ladies in reduced circumstances"; I fitted the advertisement admirably, for I was a lady, and my circumstances were decidedly reduced, but I only earned 4s. 6d. by weeks of stitching, and the materials cost nearly as much as the finished work. I experimented with a Birmingham firm, who generously offered everyone an opportunity of adding to their incomes, and received in answer to the small fee demanded a pencil-case, with an explanation that I was to sell little articles of that description—going as far as cruet-stands—to my friends; I did not feel equal to springing pencil-cases and cruet-stands casually on my acquaintances, so did not start in that business. It would be idle to relate all the things I tried, and failed in, until I began to think that the "something to do" was not so easy to find as I had expected.
I made up my mind to settle at Upper Norwood, near Mr. and Mrs. Scott, who were more than good to me in my trouble; and I fixed on a very little house in Colby Road, Gipsy Hill, to be taken from the ensuing Easter. Then came the question of furniture; a friend of Mr. Scott's gave me an introduction to a manufacturer, who agreed to let me have furniture for a bedroom and sitting-room, and to let me pay him by monthly instalments. The next thing was to save a few months' annuity, and so have a little money in hand, wherewith to buy necessaries on starting, and to this end I decided to accept a loving invitation to Folkestone, where my grandmother was living with two of my aunts, and there to seek some employment, no matter what, provided it gave me food and lodging, and enabled me to put aside my few pounds a month.
Relieved from the constant strain of fear and anxiety, my health was quickly improving, and the improvement became more rapid after I went down with my mother to Folkestone. The hearty welcome offered to me there was extended with equal warmth to little Mabel, who soon arrived, a most forlorn little maiden. She was only three years old, and she had not seen me for some weeks; her passion of delight was pitiful; she clung to me, in literal fashion, for weeks afterwards, and screamed if she lost sight of me for a moment; it was long before she got over the separation and the terror of her lonely journey from Sibsey and London in charge only of the guard. But she was a "winsome wee thing", and danced into everyone's heart; after "mamma", "granny" was the prime favorite, and my dear mother worshipped her first grand-daughter; never was prettier picture than the red-golden hair nestled against the white, the baby-grace contrasting with the worn stateliness of her tender nurse. From that time forward— with the exception of a few weeks of which I shall speak presently and of the yearly stay of a month with her father—little Mabel was my constant companion, until Sir George Jessel's brutality robbed me of my child. She would play contentedly while I was working, a word now and again enough to make her happy; when I had to go out without her she would run to the door with me, and the "good-bye" came from down-curved lips, and she was ever watching at the window for my return, and the sunny face was always the first to welcome me home. Many and many a time have I been coming home, weary and heart-sick, and the glimpse of the little face watching has reminded me that I must not carry in a grave face to sadden my darling, and the effort to throw off the dreariness for her sake shook it off altogether, and brought back the sunshine. I have never forgiven Sir George Jessel, and I never shall, though his death has left me only his memory to hate.
At Folkestone, I continued my search for "something to do", and for some weeks sought for pupils, thinking I might thus turn my heresy to account. But pupils are not readily attainable by a heretic woman, away from her natural home, and with a young child as "encumbrance". It chanced, however, that the vicar of Folkestone, Mr. Woodward, was then without a governess, and his wife was in very delicate health. My people knew him well, and as I had plenty of spare time, I offered to teach the children for a few hours a day. The offer was gladly accepted, and I soon arranged to go and stay at the house for awhile, until he could find a regular governess. I thought that at least I could save my small income while I was there, and Mabel and I were to be boarded and lodged in exchange for my work. This work was fairly heavy, but I did not mind that; it soon became heavier. Some serious fault on the part of one or both servants led to their sudden retirement, and I became head cook as well as governess and nurse. On the whole, I think I shall not try to live by cooking, if other trades fail; I don't mind boiling and frying, and making pie-crust is rather pleasant, but I do object to lifting saucepans and blistering my hands over heavy kettles. There is a certain charm in making a stew, especially to the unaccustomed cook, because of the excitement of wondering what the result of such various ingredients will be, and whether any flavor save that of onions will survive the competition in the mixture. On the whole my services as cook were voted very successful; I did my cooking better than I did my sweeping: the latter was a failure from sheer want of muscular strength.
This curious episode came to an end abruptly. One of my little pupils fell ill with diptheria, and I was transformed from cook into sick-nurse. I sent my Mabel off promptly to her dear grandmother's care, and gave myself up to my old delight in nursing. But it is a horrible disease, diptheria, and the suffering of the patient is frightful to witness. I shall never forget the poor little girl's black parched lips and gasping breath.
Scarcely was she convalescent, when the youngest boy, a fine, strong, healthy little fellow, sickened with scarlet fever. We elders held a consultation, and decided to isolate the top floor from the rest of the house, and to nurse the little lad there; it seemed almost hopeless to prevent such a disease from spreading through a family of children, but our vigorous measures were successful, and none other suffered. I was voted to the post of nurse, and installed myself promptly, taking up the carpets, turning out the curtains, and across the door ways hanging sheets which I kept always wet with chloride of lime. My meals were brought upstairs and put on the landing outside; my patient and I remained completely isolated, until the disease had run its course; and when all risk was over, I proudly handed over my charge, the disease touching no other member of the flock.
It was a strange time, those weeks of the autumn and early winter in Mr. Woodward's house. He was a remarkably good man, very religious and to a very remarkable extent not "of this world". A "priest" to the tips of his finger-nails, and looking on his priestly office as the highest a man could fill, he yet held it always as one which put him at the service of the poorest who needed help. He was very good to me, and, while deeply lamenting my "perversion", held, by some strange unpriestlike charity, that my "unbelief" was but a passing cloud, sent as trial by "the Lord", and soon to vanish again, leaving me in the "sunshine of faith". He marvelled much, I learned afterwards, where I gained my readiness to work heartily for others, and to remain serenely content amid the roughnesses of my toiling life. To my great amusement I heard later that his elder daughters, trained in strictest observance of all Church ceremonies, had much discussed my non-attendance at the Sacrament, and had finally arrived at the conclusion that I had committed some deadly sin, for which the humble work which I undertook at their house was the appointed penance, and that I was excluded from "the Blessed Sacrament" until the penance was completed!
Very shortly after the illness above-mentioned, my mother went up to town, whither I was soon to follow her, for now the spring had arrived, and it was time to prepare our new home. How eagerly we had looked forward to taking possession; how we had talked over our life together and knitted on the new one we anticipated to the old one we remembered; how we had planned out Mabel's training and arranged the duties that should fall to the share of each! Day-dreams, that never were to be realised!
But a brief space had passed since my mother's arrival in town, when I received a telegram from my brother, stating that she was dangerously ill, and summoning me at once to her bedside. As swiftly as express train could carry me to London I was there, and found my darling in bed, prostrate, the doctor only giving her three days to live. One moment's sight I caught of her face, drawn and haggard; then as she saw me it all changed into delight; "At last! now I can rest."
The brave spirit had at length broken down, never again to rise; the action of her heart had failed, the valves no longer performed their duty, and the bluish shade of forehead and neck told that the blood was no longer sent pure and vivifying through the arteries. But her death was not as near as the doctor had feared; "I do not think she can live four-and-twenty hours," he said to me, after I had been with her for two days. I told her his verdict, but it moved her little; "I do not feel that I am going to die just yet," she said resolutely, and she was right. There was an attack of fearful prostration, a very wrestling with death, and then the grim shadow drew backwards, and she struggled back to life. Soon, as is usual in cases of such disease, dropsy intervened, with all its weariness of discomfort, and for week after week her long martyrdom dragged on. I nursed her night and day, with a very desperation of tenderness, for now fate had touched the thing that was dearest to me in life. A second horrible crisis came, and for the second time her tenacity and my love beat back the death-stroke. She did not wish to die—the love of life was strong in her; I would not let her die; between us we kept the foe at bay.
At this period, after eighteen months of abstention, and for the last time, I took the Sacrament. This statement will seem strange to my readers, but the matter happened in this wise:
My dear mother had an intense longing to take it, but absolutely refused to do so unless I partook of it with her.
"If it be necessary to salvation," she persisted doggedly, "I will not take it if darling Annie is to be shut out. I would rather be lost with her than saved without her." In vain I urged that I could not take it without telling the officiating clergyman of my heresy, and that under such circumstances the clergyman would be sure to refuse to administer to me. She insisted that she could not die happy if she did not take it with me. I went to a clergyman I knew well, and laid the case before him; as I expected, he refused to allow me to communicate. I tried a second; the result was the same. I was in despair; to me the service was foolish and superstitious, but I would have done a great deal more for my mother than eat bread and drink wine, provided that the eating and drinking did not, by pretence of faith on my part, soil my honesty. At last a thought struck me; there was Dean Stanley, my mother's favorite, a man known to be of the broadest school within the Church of England; suppose I asked him? I did not know him, though as a young child I had known his sister as my mother's friend, and I felt the request would be something of an impertinence. Yet there was just the chance that he might consent, and then my darling's death-bed would be the easier. I told no one, but set out resolutely for the Deanery, Westminster, timidly asked for the Dean, and followed the servant upstairs with a very sinking heart. I was left for a moment alone in the library, and then the Dean came in. I don't think I ever in my life felt more intensely uncomfortable than I did in that minute's interval, as he stood waiting for me to speak, his clear, grave, piercing eyes gazing right into mine.
Very falteringly I preferred my request, stating baldly that I was not a believer in Christ, that my mother was dying, that she was fretting to take the Sacrament, that she would not take it unless I took it with her, that two clergymen had refused to allow me to take part in the service, that I had come to him in despair, feeling how great was the intrusion, but—she was dying.
"You were quite right to come to me," he said as I concluded, in that soft musical voice of his, his keen gaze having changed into one no less direct, but marvellously gentle: "of course, I will go and see your mother, and I have little doubt that if you will not mind talking over your position with me, we may see our way clear to doing as your mother wishes."
I could barely speak my thanks, so much did the kindly sympathy move me; the revulsion from the anxiety and fear of rebuff was strong enough to be almost pain. But Dean Stanley did more than I asked. He suggested that he should call that afternoon, and have a quiet chat with my mother, and then come again on the following day to administer the Sacrament.
"A stranger's presence is always trying to a sick person," he said, with rare delicacy of thought; "and joined to the excitement of the service it might be too much for your dear mother. If I spend half-an-hour with her to-day, and administer the Sacrament to-morrow, it will, I think, be better for her."
So Dean Stanley came that afternoon, and remained talking with my mother for about half-an-hour, and then set himself to understand my own position. He finally told me that conduct was far more important than theory, and that he regarded all as "Christians" who recognised and tried to follow the moral law. On the question of the absolute Deity of Jesus he laid but little stress; Jesus was, "in a special sense", the "Son of God", but it was folly to jangle about words with only human meanings when dealing with the mysteries of divine existence, and above all it was folly to make such words into dividing lines between earnest souls. The one important matter was the recognition of "duty to God and man", and all who were one in that recognition might rightfully join in an act of worship, the essence of which was not acceptance of dogma, but love of God and self-sacrifice for man. "The Holy Communion", he said, in his soft tones, "was never meant to divide from each other hearts that are searching after the one true God; it was meant by its founder as a symbol of unity, not of strife".
On the following day he came again, and celebrated the "Holy Communion" by the bedside of my dear mother. Well was I repaid for the struggle it had cost me to ask so great a kindness from a stranger, when I saw the comfort that gentle noble heart had given to my mother. He soothed away all her anxiety about my heresy with tactful wisdom, bidding her have no fear of differences of opinion where the heart was set on truth. "Remember", she told me he had said to her, "remember that our God is the God of truth, and that therefore the honest search for truth can never be displeasing in his eyes".
Once again after that he came, and after his visit to my mother we had another long talk. I ventured to ask him, the conversation having turned that way, how, with views so broad as his own, he found it possible to remain in communion with the Church of England. "I think", he said gently, "that I am of more service to true religion by remaining in the Church and striving to widen its boundaries from within, than if I left it and worked from without". And he went on to explain how, as Dean of Westminster, he was in a rarely independent position, and could make the Abbey of a wider national service than would otherwise be possible. In all he said on this his love for and his pride in the glorious Abbey were manifest, and it was easy to see that old historical associations, love of music, of painting, and of stately architecture, were the bonds that held him bound to the "old historic Church of England". His emotions, not his intellect, kept him Churchman, and he shrunk with the over-sensitiveness of the cultured scholar from the idea of allowing the old traditions, to be handled roughly by inartistic hands. Naturally of a refined and delicate nature, he had been rendered yet more sensitive by the training of the college and the court; the exquisite courtesy of his manners was but the high polish of a naturally gentle and artistic spirit, a spirit whose gentleness sometimes veiled its strength. I have often heard Dean Stanley harshly spoken of, I have heard his honesty roughly challenged, but never in my presence has he been attacked that I have not uttered my protest against the injustice done him, and thus striven to repay some small fraction of that great debt of gratitude which I shall owe to his memory as long as I live.
As the spring grew warmer, my mother rallied wonderfully, and we began to dare to hope. At last it was decided to move her down to Norwood; she was wearying for change, and it was thought that the purer air of the country might aid the system to recover tone and strength. The furniture was waiting for me to send for it, and it was soon, conveyed to Colby Road; it only furnished two rooms, but I could easily sleep on the floor, and I made the two rooms on the ground floor into bedroom and sitting-room for my dear invalid. One little servant-maid was all our slender resources could afford, and a very charming one was found for me by Mrs. Scott. Through the months of hard work and poor living that followed, Mary was the most thoughtful and most generous of comrades. And, indeed, I have been very fortunate in my servants, always finding in them willingness to help, and freely-rendered, ungrudging kindness.
I have just said that I could only furnish two rooms, but on my next visit to complete all the arrangements for my mother's reception, I found the bedroom that was to be mine neatly and prettily furnished. The good fairy was Mrs. Scott, who, learning the "nakedness of the land" from Mary, had determined that I should not be as uncomfortable as I had expected.
It was the beginning of May, and the air was soft and bright and warm. We hired an invalid carriage and drove slowly down to Norwood. My mother seemed to enjoy the drive, and when we lifted her into the bright cosy room prepared for her, she was delighted with the change. On the following morning the improvement was continued, but in the evening she was taken suddenly worse, and we lifted her into bed and telegraphed for the doctor. But now the end had come; her strength completely failed, and she felt that death was upon her; but selfless to the last, her only fear was for me. "I am leaving you alone," she would sigh from time to time, and truly I felt, with an anguish I dared not realise, that when she died I should indeed be alone on earth.
For two days longer she was with me, and, miser with my last few hours, I never left her side for five minutes. At last on the 10th of May the weakness passed into delirium, but even then the faithful eyes followed me about the room, until at length they closed for ever, and as the sun sank low in the heavens, the breath came slower and slower, till the silence of death came down upon us and she was gone.
All that followed was like a dream. I would have none touch my dead save myself and her favorite sister, who was with us at the last; she wept over her, but I could not, not even when they hid her beneath the coffin-lid, nor all that weary way to Kensal Green, whither we took her to lay her with her husband and her baby-son. I could not believe that our day-dream was dead and buried, and the home destroyed ere it was fairly made. My "house was left unto" me "desolate", and the rooms filled with sunshine, but unlighted by her presence, seemed to reiterate to me: "You are all alone ".
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: