[... back to menu for this book]
AL FRESCO INFIDELITY.
IN a series of papers like the present it is necessary,
every now and then, to pause and apologize, either for
the nature of the work in general, or for certain particulars
in its execution calculated to shock good
people whose feelings one would wish to respect.
Having so long been engaged in the study of infidelity
in London, I may, perhaps, be permitted to speak with
something like authority in the matter; and I have
no hesitation in saying that I believe the policy of
shirking the subject is the most fatal and foolish one
that could be adopted. Not only does such a course
inspire people, especially young people, with the idea
that there is something very fascinating in infidelity
- something which, if allowed to meet their gaze,
would be sure to attract and convince them - than
which nothing is farther from the truth - not only so,
however, but many of the statements and most of the
arguments which sound plausibly enough an the glib
tongue of a popular speaker read very differently indeed,
when put down in cold-blooded letter-press,
and published in the pages of a book. I protest
strongly against making a mystery of London infi-[-243-]delity. It has spread and is spreading, I know, and
it is well the public should know; but I believe
there would be no such antidote to it as for people to
be fully made aware how and where it is spreading.
That is the role I have all along proposed to myself:
not to declaim against any man or any system, not to
depreciate or disguise the truth, but simply to
describe. I cannot imagine a more legitimate method
of doing my work.
I suppose no one will regard it in any way as an indulgence or a luxury on the part of a clergyman, who be it remembered, is, during a portion of the Sunday, engaged in ministering to Christian people, that he should devote another portion of that day to hearing Christ vilified, and having his own creed torn to pieces. I myself feel that my own belief is not shaken, but in a tenfold degree confirmed by all I have heard and seen and written of infidelity; and : therefore I cannot concede the principle that to convey my experiences to others is in any way dangerous. Take away the halo of mystery that surrounds this subject, and it would possess very slender attractions indeed.
It was, for instance, on what has always appeared to me among the most affecting epochs of our Christian year, the Fifth Sunday after Easter - Christ's last Sunday upon earth - that, by one of those violent antitheses, I went to Gibraltar Walk, Bethnal Green Road, to hear Mr. Ramsey there demolish the very [-244-] system which, for many years, it has been my mission to preach. I did not find, and I hope my congregation did not find, that I faltered in my message that evening. I even venture to think that Mr. Ramsey's statements, which I shall repeat as faithfully as possible, will scarcely seem as convincing here as they did when he poured them forth so fluently to the costermongers and navvies of the Bethnal Green Road; and if this be true of Mr. Ramsey it is certainly so of the smaller men; for he is a master in his craft, and certainly a creditable antagonist for a Christian to meet with the mild defensive weapons we have elected to use.
When the weather proves fine, as it ought to have done in May, 1874, infidelity adjourns from its generally slummy halls to the street corners, and to fields which are often the reverse of green; thus adopting, let me remark in passing, one of the oldest instrumentalities of Christianity itself, one, too, in which we shall do well to follow its example. Fas est ab hoste doceri - I cannot repeat too often. Scorning the attractions of the railway arches in the St. Pancras Road, where I hope soon to be a listener, I sped via the Metropolitan Railway and tram to Shoreditch Church, not far from which, past the Columbia Market and palatial Model Lodging Houses, is the unpicturesque corner called Gibraltar Walk, debouching from the main road, with a triangular scrap of [-245-] young Bethnal Green is rapidly erasing from the face of the earth. When I got here, I found an unclerical-looking gentleman in a blue great-coat and sandy moustache erecting his rostrum in the shape of a small deal stool, from whence I could see he was preparing to pour forth the floods of his rhetoric by diligent study of some exceedingly greasy notes which he held in his hand and perused at what I feel sure must have been the windiest street corner procurable outside the cave of Bolus. I fell back into the small but very far from select crowd which had already begun to gather, and an old man, who was unmistakably a cobbler, having ascertained that I had come to hear the lecture, told me he had "listened to a good many of 'em, but did not feel much for'arder." Undismayed by this intelligence I still elected to tarry, despite the cruel nor'-easter that was whistling round the corner of the Bethnal Green Road. In a few minutes I perceived a slight excitement in the small gathering due to the fact that the Christians had put in an appearance, so that there would be some opposition. Mr. Harrington, a young man whom I had heard once speak fluently enough on the theistic side at an infidel meeting, was unpacking his rostrum, which was a patent folding one, made of deal, like that of his adversary, but neatly folded along with a large Bible, inside a green baize case. Both gentlemen commenced proceedings at the same time; and as they had pitched their stools very close to one another, the [-246-] result was very much like that of two grinding organs in the same street. Of the two, Mr. Harrington's voice was louder than Mr. Ramsey's. The latter gentleman had a sore throat, and had to be kept lubricated by means of a jug of water, which a brother heretic held ready at his elbow. Mr. Harrington was in prime condition, but his congregation was smaller than ours; for I kept at first - I was going to say religiously, I suppose I ought to say ir-religiously - to the infidels. Mr. Ramsey, who had a rooted aversion to the letter " h," except where a smooth breathing is usual, began by saying that Christianity differed from other religious in the fact of its having an eternal 'Ell. The Mahometans had their beautiful ladies; the North American Indian looked for his 'Appy 'Unting Grounds; but 'Ell was a speciality of the Christian system. On the other side was the fact that you continually had salvation inundated upon you. Tracts were put into your hand, asking-" What must I do to be saved?" We had to pay for this salvation about 11,000,000l. a year to' the Church of England, and something like an equal amount to the Dissenters. In fact every tub-thumper went about preaching and ruining servant girls, and for this we paid over twenty millions a year-more than the interest on the whole National Debt. After this elegant exordium, Mr. Ramsey said he proposed to divide his remarks under four heads. 1. Is Salvation necessary ? 2. What are we to be saved from ? 3. What for? 4. How? [-247-] 1. According to the Christian theory, God, after an eternity of "doin' nothin'," created the world. He made Adam sin by making sin for him to commit; and then damned him for doing what He knew he would do. He predestined you - the audience - to be damned because of Adam's sin ; but after a time God "got sick and tired of damning people," and sent His Son to redeem mankind.
This flower of rhetoric tickled Bethnal Green immensely; but Mr. Harrington was equal to the occasion, and thundered out his orthodoxy so successfully that Mr. Ramsey took a longer drink than usual, and complained that he was not having "a free platform" - it was so he dignified the rickety stool on which he was perched. He then meandered into a long dissection of Genesis i., appearing to feel particularly aggrieved by the fact of the moon being said to "rule the night," though I could not see how this was relevant to the Christian scheme of salvation; and a superb policeman, who had listened for a moment to Mr. Ramsey's astronomical lucubrations, evidently shared my feelings and passed on superciliously. I devoutly wished my duty had permitted me to do the same.
The speaker then went into a long dissertation on the primal sin; the gist of which was that though the woman had never been warned not to eat of the Forbidden Fruit, she had to bear the brunt of the punishment. Then - though one is almost ashamed [-248-] to chronicle such a triviality - he waxed very wroth because the serpent was spoken of as being cursed above all "cattle." Who ever heard of snakes being called cattle ? He was condemned to go on his belly. How did he go before? Did he go on his back or "'op" along on the tip of his tail? These pleasantries drew all Mr. Harrington's audience away except a few little dirty boys on the wall. Mr. Ramsey clearly knew his audience, and " acted to the gallery." 2. But what were we to be saved from ? Eternal 'Ell-fire. This 'Ell-fire was favourite sauce for sermons, and served to keep people awake. Where was 'Ell? It was said to be a bottomless pit; if so, he should be all right, because he could get out at the other end! Then, again, 'Ell was said to be a very 'ot place. When the missionaries told the Greenlanders that, everybody wanted to go to 'Ell ; so they had to change their tune and say it was very cold. Mr. Ramsey omitted to mention his authority for this statement.
Into his pleasantries on the monotony of life in 'Eaven, I do not feel inclined to follow this gentleman. The Atonement, he went on to remark, if necessary at all, came 4000 years too late. It should have been - so we were to believe on his ipse dixit - contemporaneous with the Fall. This atonement we were to avail ourselves of by means of faith. Idiots could not have faith, but were allowed to be saved. Consequently, argued Mr. Ramsey, in conclusion, the [-249-] best thing for all of us would have been to have been born idiots, and, consistently enough, Christianity tried to turn us all into idiots.
Such were some of the statements. I refrain from quoting the most offensive, which were deliberately put forward at this al fresco infidels' meeting ; and with what result? Though a vast population kept moving to and fro along that great highway there were never, I am sure, more than a hundred people gathered at the shrine of Mr. Ramsey. They laughed at his profanities, yes; but directly he dropped these, and grew argumentative, they talked, and had to be vigorously reduced to order. Gallio-like they cared for none of these things, and I am quite sure a good staff of working clergy, men like Mr. Body or Mr. Steele of St. Thomas's, who could talk to the people, would annihilate Mr. Ramsey's prestige. As for Mr. Harrington, he meant well, and had splendid lungpower, but his theology was too sectarian to suit a mixed body of listeners embracing all shades of thought and no-thought.
Supposing Mr. Ramsey to have put forth all his power that morning - and I have no reason to doubt that he did so - I deliberately say that I should not hesitate to take my own boy down to hear him, because I feel that even his immature mind would be able to realize how little there was to be said against Christianity, if that were all.