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Religious Dangers

(Preached at the Chapel Royal, Whitehall, 1861, for the London Diocesan Board of Education.)

St. Mark viii. 4, 5, 8. And the disciples answered him, From whence can a man satisfy these men with bread here in the wilderness? . . . How many loaves have ye? And they said, Seven. . . . so they did eat and were filled; and they took up of the broken meat that was left seven baskets.

I think that I can take no better text for the subject on which I am about to preach, than that which the Gospel for this day gives me.

For is not such a great city as this London, at least in its present amorphous, unorganised state, having grown up, and growing still, any how and any whither, by the accidental necessities of private commerce, private speculation, private luxury--is it not, I say, literally a wilderness?

I do not mean a wilderness in the sense of a place of want and misery; on the contrary, it is a place of plenty and of comfort. I think that we clergymen, and those good people who help our labours, are too apt exclusively to forget London labour, in our first and necessary attention to the London poor; to fix our eyes and minds on London want and misery, till we almost ignore the fact of London wealth and comfort. We must remember, if we are to be just to God, and just to our great nation, that there is not only more wealth in London, but that that wealth is more equitably and generally diffused through all classes, from the highest to the lowest, than ever has been the case in any city in the world. We must remember that there is collected together here a greater number of free human beings than were ever settled on the same space of earth, earning an honest, independent, and sufficient livelihood, and enjoying the fruits of their labour in health and cheapness, freedom and security, such as the world never saw before. There is want and misery. I know it too well. There are great confusions to be organised, great anomalies to be suppressed. But remember, that if want and misery, confusion and anomaly were the rule of London, and not (as they are) the exception, then London, instead of increasing at its present extraordinary pace, would decay; London work, instead of being better and better done, would be worse and worse done, till it stopped short in some such fearful convulsion as that of Paris in 1793. No, my friends; compare London with any city on the Continent; compare her with the old Greek and Roman cities; with Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, with that Imperial Rome itself, which was like London in nothing but its size, and then thank God for England, for freedom, and for the Church of Christ.

And yet I have called London a wilderness. I have. There is a wilderness of want; but there is a wilderness of wealth likewise. And the latter is far more dangerous to human nature than the former one. It is not in the waste and howling wilderness of rock, and sand and shingle, with its scanty acacia copses, and groups of date trees round the lonely well, that nature shews herself too strong for man, and crushes him down to the likeness of the ape. There the wild Arab, struggling to exist, and yet not finding the struggle altogether too hard for him, can gain and keep, if not spiritual life, virtue and godliness, yet still something of manhood; something of--

The reason firm, the temperate will, Endurance, foresight, thought, and skill.

No; if you would see how low man can fall, you must go to the tropic jungle, where geniality of climate, plenty and variety of food, are in themselves a cause of degradation to the soul, as long as the Spirit of Christ is absent from it. Not in the barren desert, but in the rich forest, wanders the true savage, eating and eating all day long, like the ape in the trees above his head; and (I had almost said), like the ape, too, with no thoughts save what his pampered senses can suggest. I had almost said it. Thank God, I dare not say it altogether; for, after all, the savage is a man, and not an ape. Yes, to the lowest savage in the forests of the Amazon, comes a hunger of the soul, and whispers from the unseen world, to remind him of what he might have been, and still may be. In the dreams of the night they come; in vague terrors of the unseen, vague feelings of guilt and shame, vague dread of the powers of nature; driving him to unmeaning ceremonies, to superstitious panics, to horrible and bloody rites--as they might drive, to-morrow, my friends, an outwardly civilized population, debauched by mere peace and plenty, entangled and imprisoned in the wilderness of a great city.

I can imagine--imagine?--Have we not seen again and again human souls so entangled and opprest by this vast labyrinth of brick and mortar, as never to care to stir outside it and expand their souls with the sight of God's works as long as their brute wants are supplied, just as the savage never cares to leave his accustomed forest haunt, and hew himself a path into the open air through the tangled underwood. I can imagine--nay, have we not seen that, too?-- and can we not see it any day in the street?--human souls so dazzled and stupefied, instead of being quickened, by the numberless objects of skill and beauty, which they see in their walks through the streets, that they care no more for the wonders of man's making, than the savage does for the wonders of God's making, which he sees around him in every insect, bird, and flower. The man who walks the streets every day, is the very man who will see least in the streets. The man who works in a factory, repeating a thousand times a day some one dull mechanical operation, or even casting up day after day the accounts of it, is the man who will think least of the real wonderfulness of that factory; of the amount of prudence, skill, and science, which it expresses; of its real value to himself and to his class; of its usefulness to far nations beyond the seas. He is like a savage who looks up at some glorious tree, capable, in the hands of civilized man, of a hundred uses, and teeming to him with a hundred scientific facts; and thinks all the while of nothing but his chance of finding a few grubs beneath its bark.

Think over, I beseech you, this fact of the stupefying effect of mere material civilization; and remember that plenty and comfort do not diminish but increase that stupefaction; that Hebrew prophets knew it, and have told us, again and again, that, by fulness of bread the heart waxeth gross; that Greek sages knew it, and have told us, again and again, that need, and not satiety, was the quickener of the human intellect. Believe that man requires another bread than the bread of the body; that sometimes the want of the bodily bread will awaken the hunger for that bread of the soul. Bear in mind that the period during which the middle and lower classes of England were most brutalized, was that of their greatest material prosperity, the latter half of the eighteenth century. Remember that with the distress which came upon them, at the end of the French war, their spiritual hunger awakened--often in forms diseased enough: but growing healthier, as well as keener, year by year; and that if they are not brutalized once more by their present unexampled prosperity, it will be mainly owing to the spiritual life which was awakened in those sad and terrible years. Remember that the present carelessness of the masses about either religious or political agitation, though it may be a very comfortable sign to those who believe that a man's life consists in the abundance of the things which he possesses, is a very ominous sign to some who study history, and to some also who study their Bibles: and ask yourselves earnestly the question, 'From where shall a man find food for these men in this wilderness, not of want, but of wealth?' For, believe me, that spiritual hunger, though stopped awhile by physical comfort, will surely reawaken. Any severe and sudden depression in trade--the stoppage of the cotton crop, for instance, will awaken in the minds of hundreds of thousands deep questions--for which we, if we are wise, shall have an explicit answer ready.

For it is a very serious moment, my friends, when large masses have had enough to eat and drink, and have been saying, 'Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die;' and then, suddenly, by not having enough to eat and drink, and yet finding themselves still alive, are awakened to the sense that there is more in them than the mere capacity for eating and drinking. Then begin once more the world- old questions, Why are we thus? Who put us here? Who made us? God? Is there a God? and if there be, what is he like? What is his will toward us, good or evil? Is it hate or love?

My friends, those are questions which have been asked often enough in the world's history, by vast masses at once. And they may be answered in more ways than one.

They may be answered as the weavers of a certain country (thank God, not England) answered them in the potato famine with their mad song, 'We looked to the earth, and the earth deceived us. We looked to the kings, and the kings deceived us. We looked to God, and God deceived us. Let us lie down and die.'

Or they may answer them--they will be more likely to answer them in England just now, because there are those who will teach them so to answer--in another, but a scarcely less terrible tone. 'Yes, there is a God; and he is angry with us. And why? Because there is something, or some one, in the nation which he abhors--heretics, papists'--what not--any man, or class of men, on whom cowardly and terrified ignorance may happen to fix as a scapegoat, and cry, 'These are the guilty! We have allowed these men, indulged them; the accursed thing is among us, therefore the face of the Lord is turned from us. We will serve him truly henceforth--and hate those whom he hates. We will be orthodox henceforth--and prove our orthodoxy by persecuting the heretic.'

Does this seem to you extravagant, impossible? Remember, my friends, that within the last century Lord George Gordon's riots convulsed London. Can you give me any reason why Lord George Gordon's riots cannot occur again? Believe me, the more you study history, the more you study human nature, the more possible it will seem to you. It is not, I believe, infidelity, but fanaticism, which England has to fear just now. The infidelity of England is one of mere doubt and denial, a scepticism; which is in itself weak and self-destructive. The infidelity of France in 1793 was strong enough, but just because it was no scepticism, but a faith; a positive creed concerning human reason, and the rights of man, which men could formulize, and believe in, and fight for, and persecute for, and, if need was, die for. But no such exists in England now. And what we have most to fear in England under the pressure of some sudden distress, is a superstitious panic, and the wickedness which is certain to accompany that panic; mean and unjust, cruel and abominable things, done in the name of orthodoxy: though meanwhile, whether what the masses and their spiritual demagogues will mean by orthodoxy, will be the same that we and the Church of England mean thereby, is a question which I leave for your most solemn consideration. That, however, rather than any proclamation of the abstract rights of man, or installations of a goddess of Reason, is the form which spiritual hunger is most likely to take in England now. Alas! are there not tokens enough around us now, whereby we may discern the signs of this time?

I say, the spiritual hunger will reawaken; and woe to us who really understand and love the Church of England; woe to us who are really true to her principles, honestly subscribe her formulas, if we cannot appease it in that day.

But wherewith? We may look, my friends, appalled at the danger and the need. We may cry to our Lord, 'From whence can a man satisfy these men with bread in the wilderness?' But his answer will be, as far as I dare to predict it, the same as to his apostles of old on another and a similar occasion, 'Give ye them to eat. They need not depart.'

I am not going to draw any far-fetched analogy between the miracle recorded in the gospel, and the subject on which I am speaking. I am not going to put any mystical and mediaeval interpretation on the seven loaves, or the two small fishes. I only ask you to accept the plain moral practical lesson which the words convey.--

Use the means which you have already, however few and weak they seem. If Christ be among you, as he is indeed, he will bless them, and multiply them you know not how.

Use the means which you have; though they may seem to you inadequate, though they may seem to the world antiquated, and decrepit, try them. They need not depart from us, these masses, to seek spiritual food, they know not where, if we have but faith. Let us give them what we have; the organization of the Church of England, and the teaching of the Church of England.

The organization of the Church. Not merely its Parochial system, but its Diocesan system. In London, more than in any part of England, the Diocesan system is valuable. A London parish is not like a country one, a self-dependent, corporate body, made up of residents of every rank, capable of providing for the physical and spiritual wants of its own stationary population. In London, population fluctuates rapidly, sometimes rolling away from one quarter, always developing itself in fresh quarters; in London all ranks do not dwell side by side within sight and sound of each other: but the rich and the poor, the employed and the unemployed, dwell apart, work apart, and are but too often out of sight, out of mind. These, and many other reasons, make it impossible for the mere parochial system to bring out the zeal and the liberality of London Churchmen. If they are to realize their unity and their strength, they must do so not as members of a Parish, but of a Diocese; their Bishop must be to them the sign that they are one body; their good works must be organized more and more under him, and round him. This is no new theory of mine; it is a historic law. The Priest for the village, the Bishop for the city, has been the natural and necessary organization of the Church in every age; and it was in strict accordance with this historic law, that the London Diocesan Board of Education was founded in 1846, not to override the parochial system, but to do for it what it cannot, in a great city, do for itself; to establish elementary schools (and now I am happy to say, evening schools also) in parishes which were too poor to furnish them for themselves. I, as the son of a London Rector, can bear my testimony to the excellent working of that Board; and it is with grief I hear that, in spite of the vast work which it has done since 1846, and which it is still doing, on an income which is now not 300 pounds a year--proving thereby how cheaply and easily your work may be done when it is done in the right way--it is with grief, I say, that I hear that it is more and more neglected by the religious public.

With grief: but not with surprise. For the religious public, even the Church portion of it, has of late been more and more inclined to undervalue the organization and the teaching of the Church of England, and to supply its place with nostrums, borrowed from those denominations who disagree with the Church, alike in their doctrines of what man should be, and of what God is. How have their energies, their zeal, their money (for zealous they are, and generous too) been frittered away! But I will not particularize, lest I hurt the feelings of better people than myself, by holding up their good works to the ridicule of those who do us no good works at all. But I entreat them to look at their own work; to look at the vastness of its expense, compared with the smallness of its results; and then to ask themselves, whether the one cause of their failure--for failures I must call too many of the religious movements of this day, in spite of their own loud self-laudations--whether, I say, one cause of these failures may not be, that the religious world is throwing itself into anything and everything novel and exciting, rather than into the simple and unobtrusive work of teaching little children their Catechism, that they may go home as angels of God and missionaries of Christ, teaching their parents in turn as they have been taught themselves, and so awakening that sacred family life, without which there can be no sound Christianity. I know well that there has been much work done in the right direction; but when I look at the ugly fact, that the population of London is increasing far faster than its schools; that in 25 of the poorest parishes thereof there are now nearly 60,000 children who go to no school at all; and that the proportion of scholars to the population is lower in Middlesex than in almost any county in England, while the proportion of crime is highest; I cannot but sigh over the thousands which I see squandered yearly on rash novelties by really pious and generous souls, and cry, Ah, that one-fourth, one-tenth of it all had been spent in the plain work of helping elementary schools; I cannot but call on all London churchmen of the plain old school, to stand by the organization and the doctrines of the Church to which they belong; to rally in this matter round their bishop; and work for him, and with him.

And now, there may be some here who will ask, scornfully enough, And do you talk of nostrums? and then, after confessing that the masses are hungering for the bread of life, offer them nothing but your own nostrum, the Catechism?

Yes, my friends, I do. I know that the Church Catechism is not the bread of life. Neither, I beg you to remember, is any other Catechism, or doctrine, or tract, or sermon, or book or anything else whatsoever. Christ is the Bread of Life. But how shall they know Christ, unless they be taught what Christ is; and how can they be taught what Christ is, unless the conception of him which is offered them be true?

And, I say, that the Catechism does give a true conception of Christ; and more, a far truer one--I had almost said, an infinitely truer--than any which I have yet seen in these realms: that from the Catechism a child may learn who God is, who Christ is, who he himself is, what are his relation and duty to God, what are his relation and duty to his neighbours, to his country, and to the whole human race, far better than from any document of the kind of which I am aware.

I know well the substitutes for the Catechism which are becoming more and more fashionable; the limitations, the explainings away, the non-natural and dishonest interpretations, which are more and more applied to it when it is used; and I warn you, that those substitutes for, and those defacements of, the Catechism, will be no barrier against an outburst of fanaticism, did one arise; nay, that many of them would directly excite it; and prove, when too late, that instead of feeding the masses with the bread of life, which should preserve them, soul and body, some persons had been feeding them with poison, which had maddened them, soul and body. But I see no such danger in the Catechism. I see in the Catechism; in its freedom alike from sentimental horror and sentimental raptures; its freedom alike from slavish terror, and from Pharisaic assurance; a guarantee that those who learn it will learn something of that sound religion, sober, trusty, cheerful, manful, which may be seen still, thank God, in country Church folk of the good old school; and which will, in the day of trial, be proof against the phantoms of a diseased conscience, and the ravings of spiritual demagogues.

And therefore I preach gladly for this institution; therefore I urge strongly its claims on you, whom I am bound to suppose honest Churchmen, because the fact of its being a Diocesan Board of Education is, at least in this diocese, a guarantee that the schools which it supports will teach their children, honestly and literally, the Catechism of the Church of England, which may God preserve!

Not that I expect it to teach only that. I take for granted, that that will be its primary object, the guarantee that all the rest is well done: but I know that much more than that must be done; that much more will be done, even unintentionally.

For, shall I--I trust that I shall not--make a too fanciful application of the last fact recorded of this great miracle, if I bid you find in it a fresh source of hope in your work?

'And they took up of the fragments which were left seven baskets full.'

The plain historic fact is, that not only do the seven loaves feed 4,000, but that what they leave, and are about to throw away, far exceeds the original supply.

I believe the fact: I ask you to consider why it was recorded? Surely, like all facts in the gospels, to teach us more of the character of Christ, which (a fact too often forgotten in these days) is the character of God. To teach us that he is an utterly bountiful God. That as in him there is no weakness, nor difficulty, so in him is no grudging, no parsimony. That he is not only able, but willing, to give exceeding abundantly, beyond all that we can ask or think. That there is a magnificence in God and in God's workings, which ought to fill us with boundless hope, if we are but fellow-workers with God.

You see that magnificence in the seeming prodigality of nature; in the prodigality which creates a thousand beautiful species of butterfly, where a single plain one would have sufficed; in the prodigality which creates a thousand acorns, only one of which is destined to grow into an oak. Everywhere in the kingdom of nature it shows itself; believe that it exists as richly in the higher kingdom of grace. Yes. Believe, that whenever you begin to work according to God's law and God's will, let your means seem as inadequate as they may, not only will your work multiply, as by miracle, under your hands; but the very fragments of it, which you are inclined to neglect and overlook, will form in time a heap of unexpected treasure. Plans which you have thrown aside, because they seemed to fail, details which seemed to encumber you, accessory work which formed no part of your original plan, all will be of use to some one, somehow, somewhere.

You began, for instance, by wishing to educate the masses of London; you are educating over and above, indirectly, thousands who never saw London. You began by wishing to teach them spiritual truth; you have been drawn on to give them an excellent secular education besides. You intended to make them live as good Christians here at home. But since you began, the interpenetration of town and country by railroads, and the rush of emigrants to our colonies, have widened infinitely the sphere of your influence; and you are now teaching them also to live as useful men in the farthest corners of these isles, and in far lands beyond the seas, to become educated emigrants, loyal colonists; to raise, by their example, rude settlers, and ruder savages; and so, the very fragments of your good work, without your will or intent, will bless thousands of whom you never heard, and help to sow the seeds of civilization and Christianity, wherever the English flag commands Justice, and the English Church preaches Love.


Charles Kingsley