Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Mystic London, by Charles Maurice Davies, 1875 - Chapter XXXI - Al Fresco Infideilty

[... back to menu for this book]    




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.

source: Charles Maurice Davies, Mystic London, 1875