This book, being the published transcript of a formal lecture, is more descriptive, more analytical and less dramatic than many of the other texts on this site.
It is in no way less valuable because of this. Readers wishing to understand the context in which to place the lives of Wesley, Whitefield, Nelson, the Countess of Huntingdon and their contemporaries could do no better than to start here.
The early chapters paint a painful picture of the darkness of the days in which these saints laboured, which throws their shining examples into brilliant relief. The latter chapters provide one man’s summary overview of the work of God in England (and to some extent Wales) during this period. The detailed accounts of others’ lives and works and teachings slot into it like the interior pieces in a jigsaw puzzle once the outer edges have been completed.
Charles Kingsley, in his Village Sermons, affirms that the Bible says hardly anything about religion; that it never praises religious people. It talks of God, and tells us not to be religious, but to be godly. He points out that it speaks of a religious man only once, and of religion only twice, except where it speaks of the Jews’ religion to condemn it, and shows what an empty, blind, useless thing it was. Kingsley’s statement has that touch of exaggeration in it, which attracts attention; but there can be no doubt that the distinction he indicates exists, and it is essential that we should remember it. Especially must it be borne in mind when dealing with the subject of the ‘Revival of Religion.’ We must determine from the outset whether we are to use the word ‘religion’ in a superficial or a profound sense. If we employ it in the former, then we may be led into mere descriptions of advance in the elaboration of creeds and the ceremonies of worship; if in the latter, we must go down into the hidden deep of man’s moral and spiritual nature and watch those revolutions of thought and feeling which result in a new life brought into loving accord with the perfect will of God. It is in its deeper sense that we use the word when speaking of ‘The Revival of Religion in England in the Eighteenth Century.’
The student of the development of the Christian religion is aware that, in the teaching of Christ and His Apostles, we see the triumph of the spiritual over the ecclesiastical and ceremonial view of religion. The triumph cannot be understood without some knowledge of the struggle, and the record of the struggle is to be found in the Old Testament. In that book we see the elaborating of a system of ceremonial worship, which finally, became a burden that crushed the spiritual instincts of the Jewish people. In watching the tragedy, it is a relief to find that the tyranny of mere religiousness was assailed by men who knew that the direct service of God in their spirit was something altogether different from service through an intermediary priest at an altar or in a Temple. It is not necessary to dwell at any length on such familiar illustrations of the fact as Samuel’s words to Saul, ‘Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams’ (1 Sam. xv. 22) or the statement in the Book of Proverbs, ‘To do justice and judgement is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice’ (Prov. xxi. 3) or the assurance of the Psalmist, ‘the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise’ (Ps. ii 17). There are two passages, however, in Jeremiah which bring a ceremonial and a spiritual religion into sharp contrast, and which throw a stream of light upon the great controversy, which was closed by Christ’s emphatic words to the woman of Samaria. Let us pause for a few moments to consider Jeremiah’s significant statements.
Jeremiah, speaking in the name of God, says: ‘I spake not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices: but this thing commanded I them, saying, Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and ye shall be My people: and walk ye in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well with you’ (vii. 22, 23). In this passage we think it is clear that Jeremiah teaches the great truth that, in the original intention of God, the religious life of man was to be ethical and spiritual, and that the system of sacrifices was to be subordinate to the regnant idea. Sacrifices only served their purpose when they assisted to educate men into a life of obedience. The supreme object of ceremony and teaching was to create in worshippers and disciples a heart that loved God, a heart that absolutely submitted to His will. Unfortunately, they failed to accomplish their purpose. Jeremiah, in the chapter from which we have quoted, depicts the failure of the ceremonial system. He was directed to stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and to confront the crowds that flocked to the Temple. He stops the way of those who were streaming towards the altars with words that must have startled them. He cried: ‘Thus saith the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel, Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in. this place. Trust ye not in lying words, saying, and the temple of the Lord are these. For if ye thoroughly amend your ways and your doings; if ye thoroughly execute judgement between a man and his neighbour; if ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your own hurt: then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land I gave to your fathers, from of old even for evermore’ (vv. 3 - 7). There you have the ethical note; not a word of sacrifices, or of the benefits arising from the performance of a correct ceremonialism. The subject of sacrifices comes into view, but it kindles the prophet’s indignation. He has watched the men burning incense to Baal; he has seen the children gathering wood, the fathers kindling the fire, the women kneading the dough, the making of the cakes to the queen of heaven, the pouring out of drink-offerings to other gods. And now these idolaters come into the Temple, thinking that the Holy One of Israel may as well be remembered, and that no harm will be done if they also give something to Him. ‘No,’ cries the prophet, ‘He can do without your sacrifices. The time is coming when he will sweep the Temple and all its altars away. They are merely instruments with which he has sought to teach you the obedience you have failed to learn. They have become a hindrance to you. As the house in Shiloh has been destroyed, so will He do to this house that is called by His name. Everything shall vanish that blinds your eyes to the fact that obedience is the gift and sacrifice with which God is well pleased.’
In the estimation of Jeremiah, obedience to the will of God occupies the supreme place in the religious life. We may well ask him how this habit of obedience is to be formed. We get his answer. In the thirty-first chapter of his prophecy there is a declaration of the profoundest meaning. He says: ‘Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which My covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord: I will put My law in their inward parts, and in their heart will I write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people; and they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, know the Lord: for they shall all know Me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more’ (vv. 31 - 34).
Dean Plumptre, in commenting on the words ‘they shall teach no more every man his neighbour,’ says - “We trace in that hope for the future the profound sense of failure which oppressed the mind of the prophet, as it has oppressed the minds of many true teachers since. What good had come of all the machinery of ritual and of teaching which the law of Israel had provided so abundantly? Those repeated exhortations on the part of preachers and prophets that men should ‘know the Lord,’ what did they present but the dreary monotony as of an ‘old worm-eaten homily’? To know Him as indeed He is, required nothing less than a special revelation of His presence to each man’s heart and spirit; and that revelation was now, for his comfort, promised for all who were willing to receive it as the special gift of the near or distant future which opened to his view in his vision of the restored Israel.”
In the Epistle to the Hebrews, that epistle in which the kingdom, which cannot be shaken, comes into view, we see that the ‘New Covenant’ takes its place among permanent facts. There, as in Jeremiah’s prophecy, we find ‘the machinery of ritual and of the teaching of the law,’ having fulfilled their purpose, wax old and vanish. The verdict of the later writers of the Old Testament is endorsed by the Evangelists and Apostles - the ‘machinery’ had failed to make men know God, had failed to make them obey Him. In the day of Christ a new method is to be employed. Reliance is to be no longer placed on ceremony and homily. The experience of the forgiveness of sins is to lead to the knowledge of God, and the knowledge of God is to lead to perfect obedience to the divine will.
The knowledge of the forgiveness of sins is the resonant note of the Church of the New Covenant, and that note was sounded by the men who heralded and conducted the Evangelical Revival. Mr. Gladstone, in the remarkable article he contributed to the British Quarterly Review of July 1879, emphasizes this fact. He describes the ‘Evangelical Movement’ of the eighteenth century as ‘a strong, systematic, outspoken, and determined reaction against the prevailing standards both of life and preaching.’ He says - “It aimed at bringing back, on a large scale, and by an aggressive movement, the Cross, and all that the Cross essentially implies, both into the teaching of the clergy and into the lives as well of the clergy as the laity.”
Mr. Gladstone was right. ‘The bringing back of the Cross!’ That is the secret of the success of the Church of the New Covenant. The secret lay hidden, through dismal ages, in the teaching of Jeremiah, in the Epistle to the Hebrews, and in the letters and work of St. Paul; it was discovered at last by the men who stirred the conscience of England in the eighteenth century, when myriads of sorrowing people were led into the joyous experience of the forgiveness of sins.
When we turn to the Acts of the Apostles, and consider the descriptions contained therein of the Jewish and Gentile Pentecost’s, we wonder that the Church should have so completely forgotten that the ‘forgiveness of sins’ preludes the deep experiences of the Christian life. The Gentile Pentecost occurred in Caesarea, in the house of Cornelius. St. Peter was the missionary. When he returned to Jerusalem he gave an account to them ‘of the circumcision’ of the incidents connected with his preaching to the Gentiles. Describing the effects of his preaching, he said, ‘As I began to speak the Holy Ghost fell on them, even as on us at the beginning.’ What was he speaking about when the power of the Spirit of God descended on his audience? We have the words he was uttering: ‘To Him bear all the prophets witness, that through His name, whosoever believeth on Him shall receive remission of sins’ (Acts x. 43). Some of those who listened to St. Peter’s ‘apology’ must have been moved as the voice of memory spoke of a similar experience, especially when he went on to say, ‘If then God gave unto them the like gift as he did also unto us, when we believed on the Lord Jesus, who was I, that I could withstand God?’ (Acts xi. 15 - 18). Criticism was hushed by the recollection of the supreme hour when they also received their baptism of fire.
The revisers of the New Testament have laid us under a great obligation by the change they have introduced into a sentence spoken by St. Peter to the Caesarean critics. The A.V. says: ‘Forasmuch, then, as God gave them the like gift as He did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus,’ but the R.V. tells us that the gift came ‘when’ they believed on the Lord Jesus. The change leads us to mark the time and the reason of the descent of the Spirit. The gift came in consequence of their believing ‘on’ the Lord Jesus Christ. That is, it came when those who were gathered together in the upper room believed on Christ for the remission of their sins.
‘The remission of sins’: that is the trumpet-note that sounds clearly through the morning air of every great revival. There is no true revival in which that note is not predominant. When the ‘joyful news of sins forgiven’ is published and believed, then follows the renewal of the heart by the might of the Spirit of God. Upon the new heart the new law is written, the law, which gathers up all commandments into one: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, soul, mind, and strength; and thy neighbour as thyself.’
It has been abundantly demonstrated that the way into the new life lies through the keen and full apprehension of the fact of the forgiveness of our sins. We shall be met at this point by some who will ask us to account for the ineffectiveness of Churches, which give prominence in their formularies to the doctrine of forgiveness. Every church that uses the Apostles’ Creed has proclaimed through the centuries, not only by the lips of its priests, but also of its people, that it believes in the forgiveness of sins. Why then has not the Church always been in a state of revival?
The answer to the question we have suggested is not difficult to give. The words ‘I believe’ may be used in a great variety of meanings; may be uttered with an extraordinary difference of emphasis. In the Apostolic age belief was a mighty force of mind, heart, and spirit that led a man into immediate contact with God, and that contact filled him with a divine life. But the subsequent history of the Church has shown that men have emptied the word ‘believe’ of its force. It has come to pass that men say that they believe who scarcely exercise their mind when pronouncing their creed. A man may say, ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty,’ and may be a practical atheist. If we were to accuse him of atheism, he would be indignant. He does, in a kind of a way, believe in God, but he is so insulated by worldliness that he is cut off from the divine Presence. He may, spell-like, use the shibboleths of his creed, but their use never brings to him a single gleam of the light and glory of the Eternal God.
The ineffectiveness of the act of believing is not the only reason why Churches, which possess correct formularies concerning the forgiveness of sins, fail to reform the world. It is a melancholy fact that the Church has obscured, by its teaching, the doctrine of pardon; a doctrine which, in the life of Christ, is set before us with beautiful simplicity. In the words and actions of our Lord we have a revelation of the movements of the divine Mind, the love of the divine Heart. It is intensely interesting to watch Christ as He deals with sorrowful sinners. How swift is the relief He gives them! We do not now speak of the cleansing of the leper, or the raising of the dead; we speak of the gracious celerity with which he lifted the burden of sin from the conscience of a weeping woman or a palsied man. ‘Thy sins are forgiven thee!’ What a wealth of love and beauty and power lies in each word of that sentence! When it is spoken we can see the eager and astonished look, and then the answering joy in the eyes of those who listen to the words, ‘Go in peace.’ Such a revelation of the methods of the divine forgiveness ought not to have been misread. Why have we had such wearisome discussions on the possibility of the assurance of the pardon of sin? Why have we wasted so much time in doubting the reality of ‘instantaneous conversions’? Our discussions have run along lines fatally afflicted with modernity; they have not led us up to the methods of Christ. With thankfulness we say that a change is impending. One of the healthiest signs of the times is the tendency to make direct appeals to Jesus Christ on all questions that concern the salvation of men. The successors of the evangelists who brought back the Cross and planted it in the churches of England welcome that appeal. We do not fear Christ’s decision on the question of the forgiveness of sins. Let us consult Him. He must speak the last word in the controversy that has dragged its slow length along the dark centuries. We shall have to hear that word soon. Why should we not hear it now?
When we turn from the Master to His Apostles we pass from noonday to twilight. But the dimmer light comes from the sun; and in it we see facts concerning the great doctrine of the forgiveness of sins, which harmonize with those, which are revealed in the life of our Lord. We have dwelt upon the teaching of the Apostles concerning the gift of the Spirit. We have seen that in apostolic days, when a man believed on the name of Christ for the remission of sins, he received the Holy Ghost. Belief was an individual act, the contact of a man’s own soul with his Saviour, and, as a result of belief, there was a direct communication of the Spirit’s influences to him without the intervention or permission of an apostle. When the apostle had preached, his work was done. He had spoken words whereby the man might be saved. Then he stood aside, and the believer, exercising faith in the crucified Christ, realized the great experience of forgiveness.
If the simplicity of the doctrine of forgiveness, as it appears in the life of Christ and His Apostles, had been preserved, then the constant experience of pardon would have energized the Church throughout the ages. But it is a melancholy fact that the stream of pure teaching concerning the forgiveness of sins was disturbed soon after it flowed from its source; and it is to be regretted that the disturbance arose from the misuse of words, which the Master Himself had spoken.
Those words are to be found in Matt. xvi. 19, Matt. xviii. 18, and John xx. 23. In Matt. xvi. 19, Christ, in addressing St. Peter after his famous declaration of faith, says: ‘I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ in Matt. xviii. 18, in speaking to His disciples, Christ uses practically the same words He addressed to St. Peter: ‘Verily I say unto you, What things so-ever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and what things so-ever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.’ In John XX. 23, after His resurrection, speaking again to his disciples, he says: ‘whose so-ever sins ye forgive, they are forgiven unto them; whose so-ever sins ye retain, they are retained.’ We have now before us the three passages, which have been employed by certain sections of the Church to mar the simplicity and effectiveness of the great doctrine of pardon.
The words of the Lord Jesus to St. Peter have been used to build up the astounding claims of the Church of Rome to a supremacy over all other sections of the Christian Church. On this point it is enough to say that whatever may be the meaning of the ‘keys’ and ‘binding’ and ‘loosing,’ it is certain that the power ‘to bind and loose’ belongs to the other disciples as much as to St. Peter. We may, therefore, concentrate our attention on the second passage from St. Matthew. If we look at it in its connexion we see what Christ means. He is dealing with a sin, which has been committed against a man by a ‘brother’ - that is, a fellow Christian. In such a case these directions are given: ‘Go, shew him his fault between thee and him alone; if he hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he hears thee not, take with thee one or two more, that at the mouth of two witnesses or three every word may be established. And if he refuses to hear them, tell it unto the church: and if he refuse to hear the church also, let him be unto thee as the Gentile and the publican. Verily I say unto you, what things so-ever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and what things so-ever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say unto you, that if two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of My Father, which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them’ (Vers. 15 - 20).
Only a person prejudiced in favour of some theory of the necessity of priestly absolution can have sufficient ingenuity to pervert the simple meaning of these words. They evidently refer to the misunderstandings and quarrels, which arise among Christian people. Immediately after the twentieth verse comes the question of St. Peter: ‘Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?’ Let us remember Christ’s answer, and the parable of the two servants that follows. How does that parable end? ‘His lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due. So shall also My heavenly Father do unto you, if ye forgive not every one his brother from your hearts’ (vers. 34, 35). The directions, which have been so misapplied, concern the manner in which we are to treat offences against ourselves. ‘Every one’ has not only the right, but is bound to exercise the right, of forgiving his brother. This right is possessed not only by the individual, but by the church, or the ‘congregation,’ as the word stands in the margin of the R.V. Not only so. The right is also possessed by two or three persons who have gathered together in Christ’s name. It is impossible to discern in these plain words concerning the settlement of private disputes any warrant for the doctrine that a ‘priest’ possesses the exclusive authority to absolve people from sins committed not only against each other, but also against God.
When we turn to the incident recorded in St. John’s Gospel, we find ourselves unable to detect the presence of the absolving priest. Look at the circumstances. The company to which the risen Saviour revealed Himself was an assembly of His disciples. It was not made up exclusively of apostles. Indeed, Thomas was absent, and did not receive, as an apostle, the power to forgive sins, if that power was conferred by the words of Christ on this occasion. To the assembled disciples, having breathed on them, the Saviour said: ‘Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whose so-ever sins ye forgive, they are forgiven unto them; whose so-ever sins ye retain, they are retained.’ It is clear that these words run along the lines of the declaration in St. Matthew. Whatever may be their meaning; they were not spoken to a small section of the Church, but to the Church in full assembly.
We have seen that the great change which comes to a man, and which we call his salvation, is preceded by the act of divine pardon. That act is accompanied by the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit conveys the intelligence of forgiveness to the penitent soul, and, as a consequence, the love of God is shed abroad in the heart. The love of God being shed abroad creates the new life in the soul; and, from that moment, the man who has believed in Christ and has been filled with the love of God enters upon the experience of salvation. The supreme worker in this great change is God, and He acts directly upon the individual by the sole agency of His Holy Spirit. Looking through the records of the apostolic age, the teaching and the facts reported are all consistent with this simple but profound theory of the process of salvation.
It would have been well if the Church had never confused the teaching on the subjects of conversion and salvation. But, unfortunately, such confusion has occurred, and it persists. We have seen that the doctrine of forgiveness has been misstated and perverted. The same melancholy fate has befallen the doctrines, which concern the beginning, the maintenance, and the perfecting of the life of God in the soul of man.
No one who has read the history of the Apostolic and sub-Apostolic age will fall into the delusion that, in those periods, the Christian Church presented a picture of perfection. The Pauline epistles guard us against that mistake, and the facts recited by such writers as Harnack and von-Dobschütz still further save us from error. But, notwithstanding the spots and wrinkles, which disfigure the Early Church, one thing is certain. Up to the middle of the second century we do not find any teaching concerning the sacraments such as we now hear from the Roman Catholic Church and from the lips of High Anglicans.
Baptism in the Ancient Church was a sign that in the estimation of the person who administered it, its subject was already a believer. It was a rite, which set forth, as in a picture, the death and burial of the old self and the rising of the new self to the divine and Christian life. It was not to regenerate a man that he was baptized; he was baptized because he was regenerated. There can be no doubt that, under the solemn circumstances of the baptismal service, there came upon the believing candidate a special effusion of the Holy Spirit’s influences. But that was because, during the administration of the rite, he exercised a larger faith in Christ, and claimed the blessings symbolized by the sacrament. We do not find, in the first and second centuries, that the Church held that unconscious infants are changed into the reconciled children of God by sprinkling. It was only after the Church set up priests, who yearned to possess the magical powers of pagan rivals, that a doctrine was introduced which has blinded the minds of Christian people to the manner in which God, by the agency of the Spirit, regenerates the heart of a believing man.
The first error compelled a second. The comparatively modern doctrine of ‘Baptismal Regeneration’ is now accompanied by extraordinary teaching concerning the life-giving and life-sustaining power of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. It is one of the most distressing facts in Church history that the simple acts of breaking bread and drinking wine in remembrance of the death of Christ should have been so used as to lose their primitive and beautiful significance. Indeed, such has been the fatal perverseness of the ecclesiastical mind that these simple acts have become barriers in the way of a sinner’s approach to Christ. It is with sadness that we think of the black clouds of superstition that have curtained the sacred feast. It is with bitter shame that we remember the persecutions that have assailed and destroyed conscientious Christian people who have affirmed that spiritual view of the Eucharist which was in the mind of its first Administrator, and which was held by those who, in the early days of the Church, trod in His steps.
Let us be just to the Ancient Church. Whatever may have been its intellectual and moral defects, it was not under the dominion of the priest; it was not the teacher of sacerdotal doctrines. It is fortunate for us that in The Teaching of the Twelve, so strangely discovered in the library of the Jerusalem Monastery of the Most Holy Sepulchre in Constantinople, a record has been preserved concerning the Eucharist which shows that, in its celebration, there was no taint of the doctrine which has done so much to obscure the means whereby God effects the salvation of men. Originally, the Eucharistic service was an act of worship, and, especially, it was a thanksgiving service that followed the evening meal. It was celebrated with simplicity, and with brief prayers and ascriptions of praise to God. If we search The Teaching of the Twelve, the oldest Church manual we possess, we do not find any mention of a sacrificing priest, of the change of the elements, of the imparting of spiritual life by the mere taking of the bread and wine. There can be no doubt that, in those early assemblies, when the Church met with one accord in one place and celebrated its love-feast and its Eucharistic service, there were longing eyes that wistfully looked for the Lord, loving lips that whispered, ‘What think ye, that he will not come to the feast?’ Nor was the ‘real presence’ denied them. Assisted by the symbols and the circumstances of the sacrament, by an individual act of faith the spiritual worshippers found that the Saviour was with them; as surely with them as He was with His faithful disciples on that memorable evening when He showed them His hands and His side. They were glad because they saw the Lord. The vision of the risen Christ, obscured by the dust of the day’s toil and the mist of the world’s confusion, glowed in the temple of their spirit. There they worshipped Him; they feasted on Him in their hearts. Refreshed by the personal communion, which had come to them by the exercise of faith, they rose to face the night and the daybreak; they responded to the challenge of the world with a renewed courage and with an assurance of victory. The Saviour, whom they had seen in the supper-room, went with them into the street, into the home, into their work. In times of persecution He accompanied them into the place ‘where there was a garden’; He stood by them on the ‘hill’ when they were stretched upon a cross.
When we look upon those days, and then think of the dreary wanderings of the Church in intermediate years, we feel an aching of the heart because of the unutterable miseries that men have brought upon themselves and others by deserting the plain pathways in which the early Christians walked with their Lord.
It is not difficult to see how the perversion and corruption of the doctrines concerning forgiveness and the manner in which the new spiritual life is created and sustained have told upon the fortunes of Christianity. They have brought back the priest into the Church; they have produced a mechanical theory of salvation; they have created a condition of religious thought and ceremony such as was denounced by the most spiritual prophets and abolished by the coming of Christ. So long as the human priest stands in the way of the Cross-, so long as the Church believes that salvation can only come through him and his actions, so long is it impossible to secure a great revival of religion.
Dean Stanley, in his Christian Institutions, gives us a glimpse of a better time. speaking of absolution, he says - “As the misinterpretation of the texts on which the theory of Episcopal or Presbyterian absolution rests will die out before a sound understanding of the biblical records, so also the theory and practice itself, though with occasional recrudescence’s, will probably die out with the advance of civilization. The true power of the clergy will not be diminished but strengthened by the loss of this fictitious attribute.... In proportion as England has become, and in proportion as it will yet become, a truly free and truly educated people, able of itself to bind what ought to be bound, and to loose what ought to be loosed, in that proportion will the belief in priestly absolution vanish, just as the belief in wizards and necromancers has vanished before the advance of science.”
We agree with his conclusion - The belief in the magical offices of a sacerdotal caste will vanish before the growth of manly Christian independence and generous Christian sympathy.
The forgiveness of sins is not only the gateway through which we pass into the new life; it is the means whereby we attain to knowledge of the law of the Lord. In Jeremiah’s description of the effect of the New Covenant it is predicted that, in those days, which he saw in vision, the law of the Lord would be written on the heart. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews adopts the same view. He quotes Jeremiah’s words: ‘This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, saith the Lord; I will put My laws into their mind, and on their heart also will I write them’ (viii. 10). It is impossible for us to sever this assurance from the words that close and complete the prophecy: ‘For I will be merciful to their iniquities, and their sins will I remember no more.’ The light, which most perfectly illumines the Christian conscience, is that which springs up during the wonderful experiences that bring to us knowledge of the pardon of our sins.
Knowledge of the law is not the only result that follows forgiveness. The prophet shows that through pardon comes knowledge of the Lord. ‘They shall not teach every man his fellow citizen, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: For all shall know Me, from the least to the greatest of them. For I will be merciful to their iniquities, and their sins will I remember no more.’
Newman has said that ‘self-knowledge is the root of all real religious knowledge.’ That is one side of a great fact; the other is that knowledge of God is the root of all real self-knowledge. Let us take Newman’s line for a moment. When we come to knowledge of ourselves as sinners, we are driven to know the God against whom we have sinned. In Him is the remedy for our desperate plight. Gazing into the face of Jesus Christ we see ‘the knowledge of the glory of the Lord.’ Truth and grace are there. Truth that sets up its rigid standard and casts us down by its condemnations; grace that reveals the undeserved loving-kindness of our Father, and breaks our heart by its gentle reproach. A knowledge of our sinful self drives us to know God, and when we know Him we are sure that He will forgive our sins.
But that is not all. Self-knowledge is acquired by painful and disappointing processes. Still, at every revelation of our weakness, defect, and sin we are urged to a more complete knowledge of God. We have made up our mind that He is our sole remedy against ourselves. We explore the mystery of His power and His love, and find, at every step, something that compels us to be holy, something that shows us how that holiness may be attained through Him.
If it is true that the knowledge of God and of His laws comes to us most effectually as the result of the remission of our sins, then we shall note with anxiety the pathway taken by the Church at the close of the apostolic age.
When the light first falls on the Church we see where the teachers of the Christian religion stood. In the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles we have definite descriptions of the doctrines taught by the first preachers of the gospel. The burden of their teaching was ‘the joyful news of sins forgiven.’ Where that gospel glowed in the heart, its reception was followed by a great transformation, and the believer entered into a new life - a life in which shone two great lights: a knowledge of God, and a knowledge of His law.
If we take up the books that give us the clearest view of the condition of the Church immediately after the apostolic age had closed, we detect a change in method. We insist upon the fact that knowledge of the forgiveness of sins leads directly to the highest morality. But when we read The Teaching of the Twelve, and search its pages, it is difficult to find the gospel preacher in it; at any rate it is difficult to discover that aspect of the gospel, which is turned towards us in the Pentecostal scenes of the Acts of the Apostles. All candidates for baptism have to be instructed in the way of life and the way of death. Studying the teaching concerning the ‘two ways,’ we find in it an admirable code of Christian ethics; but where is there any insistence upon the central fact that a man must be born again before he can see the kingdom of God? It may be said that only those who had experienced the ‘New Birth’ were admitted as catechumens. But on the face of the document this does not appear. What is clear is that in a book, which professes to record the ‘Teaching of the Twelve,’ the doctrine of the New Birth is not placed in the position of supreme prominence. It is so placed in the Gospel of St. John, and in the Acts and in the Epistles. But the Teaching is ‘as moonlight unto sunlight.’ The book reaches the level of the Epistle of St. James, but it does not lead us to the heights from which we discern the cross and the throne of Jesus Christ.
In two books, somewhat recently published, we gain an insight into the condition of the Christian Church in the sub-Apostolic age. The impression that is produced by reading them is that, unless the defects of their authors prevented them from seeing that which we are anxious to see, the supreme work of the Early Church, the preaching of the gospel, soon gave way to the ethical instruction of persons who were attracted to Christ by considerations other than an impassioned desire for the pardon of their sins. Professor Ernst von-Dobschütz, in his Christian Life in the Primitive Church, sets himself to describe the moral education of the Church. It is true that he speaks of Christianity entering into the world and ‘gathering churches round the gospel of God’s forgiving grace’; but he bends his whole strength to depict the condition of the morals of the Church, and to describe the methods by which the system of morals was inculcated. When we turn to Harnack’s Expansion of Christianity a similar scene is presented. We know Harnack’s limitations; but there is no denying his immense learning and his unweariable powers of research. What does he say about the doctrines preached by the Early Church? Summarizing the mission preaching to pagans, the type of which he thinks he finds in 1 Cor. xii. 2 and 1 Thess. i. 9, 10, he says - “Here we have the mission-preaching to pagans in a nutshell. The ‘living and true God ‘is the first and final thing; the second is Jesus, the Son of God, the Judge, who secures us against the wrath to come, and is therefore ‘Jesus the Lord.’ To the living God, who is now made known, we owe faith and devoted service; to God’s Son as Lord, our due is faith and hope. The contents of this brief message - objective and subjective, positive and negative - are inexhaustible. Yet the message itself is thoroughly compact and complete. It is objective and positive as the message of the only God, who is spiritual, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, the Creator of heaven and earth, the Lord and Father of men, and the great disposer of human history; furthermore, it is the message which tells of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came from heaven, made known the Father, died for sins, rose, sent the Spirit hither, and from His seat at God’s right hand will return for the judgement; finally, it is the message of salvation brought by Jesus the Saviour, that is, freedom from the tyranny of demons, sin, and death, together with the gift of life eternal. Then it is objective and negative, inasmuch as it announces the vanity of all other gods, and forms a protest against idols of gold and silver and wood, as well as against blind fate and atheism. Finally, it is subjective, as it declares the uselessness of all sacrifice, all temples, and all worship of man’s devising, and opposes to these the worship of God in spirit and in truth, assurance of faith, holiness and self-control, love and brotherliness, and, lastly, the solid certainty of the resurrection and of life eternal, implying the futility of a present life which lies exposed to future judgement.”
Although Harnack may be wrong in resting his description of the mission-preaching to heathens upon the passages he quotes from St. Paul, there can be no doubt that, in process of time, the preaching of the Church did assume the aspect he has depicted.
Not only did the evangelical note sound more faintly as the years passed, but also the motive of the ethical teaching seems to have become less predominantly Christian. At the present time we are stirred to right conduct not only by the voice of conscience, which urges us to obey the commands of law, but especially by a passionate desire to imitate our Lord. The ‘imitation of Christ’ is a phrase that is hallowed by sacred association. We owe an infinite debt of gratitude to Thomas à Kempis for reviving the idea. But it is undeniable that through many ages of Church history the possibility of such imitation was undiscerned. We cannot indicate the moment when the Church lost sight of the example of its Lord and began to cultivate morals by obeying a verbal ethical standard; but there can be no doubt that its gaze was diverted, and that, as a consequence, immense moral loss ensued. Harnack, in his Expansion of Christianity, writes words, which should be seriously pondered. He says -
“To ‘imitate’ or ‘be like’ Christ did not occupy the place one would expect among the ethical counsels of the age. Jesus had spoken of imitating God, and bidden men follow Himself, whilst the relationship of pupil and teacher readily suggested the formula of imitation. But whenever He was recognised as Messiah, as the Son of God, as Saviour and as Judge, the ideas of imitation and likeness had to give way, although the Apostles still continued to urge both in their epistles, and to hold up the mind, the labours, and the sufferings of Jesus as an example. In the Early Church the imitation of Christ never became a formal principle of ethics (to use a modern phrase) except for the virtuoso in religion, the ecclesiastic, the teacher, the ascetic, or the martyr; it played quite a subordinate part in the ethical teaching of the Church. The injunctions to be like Christ, in the strict sense of the term, also occurred with comparative rarity. Still, it is interesting to collect and examine the passages relative to this point; they show that whilst a parallel was fully drawn between the life of Christ and. the career and conduct of distinguished Christians, such as the emperors, the Early Church did not go to the length of drawing up general regulations with regard to the imitation of Christ. For one thing, the Christology stood in the way, involving not imitation, but obedience; for another thing, the actual details of imitation seemed too severe. Those who made the attempt were always classed as Christians of a higher order (though even at this early period they were warned against presumption), so that the Catholic theory of ‘evangelic counsels’ has quite a primitive root.”
The student of the history of the Early Church, in trying to discover the points of departure from Apostolic teaching and experience, has no difficulty in detecting the difference between the first and the second methods of teaching ethics. Christ summed up all commandments into the great command, and showed that the love of God was the energizing force, which enabled a man to keep the law. The Apostle Paul, continuing the teaching of his Master, declares that love is the fulfilling of the law, and that, when a man loves Christ and lives to be like Him, when he is consumed with a passion to be as He was in this world, then he walks according to the perfect law of liberty. If the mind that was in Christ is in us, then every Christian virtue is secured, then every Christian work is done. It is pitiful to watch the change that came over the experience of the Church when morals were catechistically taught. We see the creeping of the ice-sheet over the garden of the Lord, the garden of the Lord that was once beautiful with the flowers and fruits of a simple, loving Christian life. Under the ice-sheets that spread over some parts of the arctic regions, our explorers find the fossilized flowers that once opened their beauty in the warmth of the summer sun. Those flowers tell of nourishing soil and quickening air. They are relics of a lost paradise. When we note the frigid moralities of the post-Apostolic Church, and compare them with the graces that sprang up under the influence of the love of God in the church of the Philippians, we can only attribute the difference to the absence of atmosphere, and the veiling of the radiance of the Sun of Righteousness.
In tracing the processes by which ‘godliness’ was hardened into ‘religion,’ we must enter upon another line of thought. In the glimpses we get of the Church in its earliest stages, we find a fact that much impresses us. Harnack shows that the spread of Christianity, at the first, was not so much the result of Apostolic preaching as of the work of those who occupied a subordinate and, in some senses, an unofficial position in the Church. As to the Apostles, only one stands out in the New Testament as a great missionary, and he was not of the original twelve. St. Peter confined his work principally to the Jews within the borders of his own country. St. John went further, and probably was the Bishop of Ephesus. The missionary labours of the other Apostles are only known to us through the uncertain legends of the Church. St. Paul is the great missionary; he is the man of whom we instinctively think when we imagine the activities and the successes of the Christian Church in the remotest times.
We must turn aside from the original Apostles if we are to discover the agents in the missionary work of the Early Church. We must think of other ‘apostles’ - those workers who existed in the Church after 70 A.D. and up to the middle of the second century. These men were not the successors of ‘the twelve,’ they were in the line of the ‘other seventy also,’ who were sent out, two by two, as travelling evangelists and missionaries. They preached the gospel from place to place. They were itinerant preachers, who had no fixed church, but went from town to town, calling men to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. Harnack says: ‘They were not permanent, elected officials of an individual church, but, primarily, independent teachers, who ascribed their calling to a divine command or charism.’ The Teaching of the Twelve contains interesting directions concerning these wandering preachers. They were to be received ‘as the Lord,’ but were only permitted to remain a day or two in the Christian congregations, which they visited. This was a measure of protection. It was thought that a true apostle would be so full of zeal to preach the gospel to the unconverted that he would not be able to settle down for a lengthy period in one place. The apostle was maintained by the church during his stay. If he asked for money, that was a sign that he was a false apostle. He received hospitality for two or three days; if he remained longer, he had to work for his living. If he refused, he was declared to be a ‘Christ-trafficker,’ i.e. one who makes merchandises of his Christian profession, or uses the name of Christ for selfish ends.
In close connexion with the apostles stand the prophets. The distinction between an apostle and a prophet, in respect of their sphere of action, seems to be that the apostle was a missionary to the heathen, and must not settle down in any church; the prophet was an instructor and comforter of converts, and, in some cases, he was allowed to settle in a particular congregation. As a rule, however, the prophets seem to have belonged to the whole Church, and they itinerated from place to place. They were specially illuminated men, who possessed a gift of expounding the deeper sense of the Scriptures, and of rousing the consciences and stirring the hearts of their hearers. If their addresses proved spiritually effective, then they possessed the chief sign of the true prophet. So far as we know, this was the only proof demanded of them as a warrant for their title and work. They were maintained by the church to which they ministered. They must be poor. If any sign of avarice were detected in them, that showed they were false prophets.
In addition to the apostles and prophets, the itinerant preachers of the Early Church, there were the teachers. Some think that the teachers of the Didaché were members of the congregation who possessed the gift of instructive speech; others, that these men had a distinct office, and that, in general, their work was to go about among the churches and to minister edification, and support the spiritual life of Christian people in various localities. Upon the whole, it is probable that a teacher in the Early Church was a man who was conscious of his own gift and exercised it in public. He was not an elected officer of the church; the church had to decide whether it would hear him. The genuineness of teachers, as of apostles and prophets, was a matter for the consideration and decision of the churches. The teachers had a claim to be maintained by the church; but it does not appear that they were forbidden to earn money in other ways.
The apostles, prophets, and teachers were the gospel ministers who occupied the highest positions in the Apostolic and sub-Apostolic Church. But, in addition, we find that other church officials are mentioned, such as bishops, presbyters, and deacons. We have seen that the highest orders of Christian preachers were, in the main, itinerant preachers. But we readily admit that a ministry that is exclusively itinerant, some members of which only remain a day or two in a particular locality, can never provide an effective form of government for a large and ever-increasing Church. It was necessary, therefore, that in the individual churches there should be congregational officers, who would not only teach, but also govern, and be principally responsible for the administration of the affairs of the church. The difficulty was solved by the creation of the offices of presbyter, or bishop, and deacon. In the Didaché we find that they were elected or appointed by the people of the church they governed. They derived their authority, not directly from the Holy Spirit, as the apostles and prophets, but through the medium of the church. They were to be worthy of the Lord, meek and unselfish, truthful and of good report, and to be honoured like the prophets and teachers.
Dr. Schaff says that the bishops and deacons of the Didaché are evidently the same with those mentioned in the Acts and the Pauline epistles. He thinks that the bishops were the regular teachers and rulers who had the spiritual care of the flock; the deacons were the helpers who attended to the temporalities of the church, especially having the care of the poor and the sick. He also affirms that the bishops of the Didaché are identical with the presbyters. It was not until a later period, probably sometime in the second century, that bishops, priests, and deacons were distinguished as three separate orders in the Church.
There can be no doubt that the chief credit for the spread of Christianity belongs to the itinerant apostles, prophets, and teachers. But, in addition, we must remember that in those early days the members of the Church played an important part in influencing the pagan populations by which they were surrounded. In proportion to the spirituality, the morality, and the evangelizing zeal of a church, was the effect its members produced on their heathen neighbours. Harnack’s conclusion is probably right. He says -
“It was characteristic of this religion that every one who seriously confessed the faith proved of service to its propaganda. Christians are to let their light shine, that pagans may see their good works and glorify the Father in heaven. If this dominated all their life, and if they lived according to the precepts of their religion, they could not be hidden at all; by their very mode of living they could not fail to preach their faith plainly and audibly. We cannot hesitate to believe that the great mission of Christianity was in reality accomplished by means of informal missionaries. Justin says so quite explicitly. What won him over was the impression made by the moral life, which he found among Christians in general. We may safely assume, too, that really women did play a leading role in the spread of this religion. But it is impossible to see in any one class of people inside the Church the chief agents of the Christian propaganda.”
In seeking for the causes which have influenced the Church, and which have diverted it from its true work of propagating the gospel, we cannot overlook the need for organizing the Church, which we have mentioned. It is useless to deny the necessity and value of such organization. Without it the results gathered together by enthusiastic workers gradually disappear. The necessity of organization arises out of the constitution of human nature; it is a law written in our members. So long as the social instinct survives and persists, so long will organization be imperative. The problem, which an evangelising Church has to solve, is so to organize itself, as that organization shall be the helper, not the hinderer, of evangelisation. If organization prevents genuine evangelisation, then it must be made to yield. Those who have followed the course of the Church through the ages know that the difficulty that always confronts an evangelising Church arises from the dominance of an organization that is unpliable and imperious. In such cases, organization, instead of being a servant, becomes a tyrant. This danger, arising from an inflexible organization, was soon revealed in the experiences of the Early Church. The apostles and prophets, even the evangelists, disappeared.
“Then [says Schaff] the bishops absorbed all the higher offices and functions, and became in the estimation of the Church the successors of the apostles; while the presbyters became priests, and the deacons Levites in the new Christian Catholic hierarchy.”
In considering the forces which diverted the Primitive Church from its mission, it is impossible to overlook the great change which took place in the fourth century, when Constantine took the Church under his patronage, and let loose upon it the influences of the world. We shall content ourselves by quoting the words of John Wesley on this subject. In his sermon entitled ‘Of the Former Times,’ he says -
“I have been long convinced, from the whole tenor of ancient history, that this very event, Constantine’s calling himself a Christian, and pouring that flood of wealth and honour on the Christian Church, the clergy in particular, was productive of more evil to the Church than all the ten persecutions put together. From the time that power, riches, and honour of all kinds were heaped upon the Christians, vice of all kinds came in like a flood, both on the clergy and laity. From the time that the Church and State, the kingdoms of Christ and of the world, were so strangely and unnaturally blended together, Christianity and Heathenism were so thoroughly incorporated with each other that they will hardly ever be divided till Christ comes to reign upon earth. So that, instead of fancying that the glory of the New Jerusalem covered the earth at that period, we have terrible proof that it was then, and has ever since been, covered with the smoke of the bottomless pit.”
These words are undoubtedly strong, but they come from the pen of a man who was conversant with Church history, and who was stung to the quick by the spectacle of the secularising of the Primitive Church, and the abandonment by that Church of the mission it had received from the lips of its Lord.
It is undoubted that a great fact is represented by the connexion of the Church and the State. A Church coterminous with the State is an ideal after which many men of the highest Christian character have striven; but the attempt to realize that ideal has been attended with dangers, which have assailed the Church as a moral, a spiritual, and an evangelising force. The world has been too much with the Church; and, as a rule, the world has conquered. The warning that the weapons of our warfare are not carnal has been neglected, or has fallen on deaf ears. Those weapons have been taken up to advance the supposed interests of the Church, and the result has been that there are pages of Church history that are covered with records of the persecution of Christian people by Christian people which justify the sneers of Gibbon, and which have left indelible disgrace on those who instigated and practised them. But that is not all. When the spirit of the world pervades the Church, when it captures and subdues its ministers, then the love of luxury, the love of office, and the love of meddling with civil affairs, threaten the existence of the evangelist. When all seek their own, who has time or inclination to follow the wandering souls of men? In such times the evangelist disappears, and his place is taken by the ‘priest,’ who obtrudes himself, the sacraments, and the Church into the position where the evangelist would have put the living Saviour.
In searching for the causes, which diverted the Primitive Church from its task, and led it to abandon its mission, there is one other subject upon which we must touch in closing our survey. There can be no doubt that, after the age of the Twelve Apostles, the manifestation of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church and the world assumed another form. We do not speak now of the extraordinary evidences which He gave of His presence in the bestowment of gifts of healing and of speaking with tongues. We do not know when these extraordinary gifts ceased. Wesley, speaking on the subject in his sermon on ‘The More Excellent Way,’ says - It does not appear that these extraordinary gifts were common in the Church for more than two or three centuries. We seldom hear of them after that fatal period when the Emperor Constantine called himself a Christian … from that time they almost totally ceased; very few instances of the kind were found. The cause of this was not, as has been vulgarly supposed, ‘because there was no more occasion for them,’ because all the world was become Christians. This is a miserable mistake; not a twentieth part of it was then nominally Christian. The real cause was ‘the love of many,’ almost of all Christians, so called, was ‘waxed cold.’ The Christians had no more of the Spirit of Christ than the other Heathens. The Son of Man, when He came to examine His Church, could hardly find ‘faith upon earth’! This was the real cause why the extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost were no longer to be found in the Christian Church; because the Christians were turned Heathens again, and had only a dead form left.
(Works, vol. vii. pp. 26, 27)
Our concern now is not so much with the extraordinary gifts that the Spirit bestowed on the churches, as with the manifestations of His presence which light up the story of the Acts of the Apostles with wonderful radiance. We have seen that both in the Jewish and the Gentile Pentecost’s there was a remarkable display of the Spirit’s presence. It came in answer to prayer; it came at the moment when a living faith in Christ as the ransomer from sin was exercised. We also remember that interesting case which occurred at Ephesus, when certain disciples of John the Baptist, who had accepted the doctrine of repentance, but who had not passed into the clear light of the teaching which concerns the forgiveness of sins, told St. Paul that they had never heard that when a man believes he receives the Holy Ghost. They were bewildered wanderers in the twilight; but St. Paul brought them into the sunshine of noon. Then, when they believed in the Lord Jesus - that is, when they believed in Him as the Saviour from sin - the Holy Spirit came upon them as He came upon those who were assembled in the upper room and in the house of Cornelius. We hold that whatever may have been the intention of God respecting ‘extraordinary gifts,’ the descent of the Holy Spirit upon a man who believes in Christ to the forgiveness of his sins was intended to be a perpetual experience in the Church.
But, further, the manifestations of the Spirit were not confined to the occasions when penitent sinners confessed their sins and found pardon. There are some, in the present day, who upbraid us because we pray for the coming of the Spirit. They say that the Spirit was given on the day of Pentecost, and that we need not implore Him to descend again. Perhaps our phraseology may be imperfect, but we must be careful lest we lose our hold of the fact that the gift of the Spirit to individuals and to churches is repeated. The Holy Spirit is present at all times in the Church and the world, but it is not always that His light glows before our eyes. It is in special moments that He comes to us and thrills us with His touch. Let us remember that, before the day of Pentecost, the Psalmist had uttered that most pathetic prayer, ‘Take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.’ Before the day of Pentecost Christ had breathed on His disciples, and had bestowed the Holy Spirit upon them. After the day of Pentecost, when the Church welcomed St. Peter and St. John, who had returned from the council, in answer to prayer ‘the place was shaken wherein they were gathered together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost.’ Other passages of Scripture teach the fact that the Holy Spirit was not once for all given on the day of Pentecost.
There can be no doubt that to individuals and to churches, in answer to prayer, the Spirit was repeatedly given. And when the Spirit was so given, the fainting soul was revived; the frightened church was quickened and spake the word with boldness; a change was effected which excited the astonishment of the bystanders; a fire fell from heaven which purified the church and caused it to respond to the prophetic cry, ‘Arise, shine, thy light is come; the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.’
These occasions may be called times of revival. The word ‘revival’ is old. The Psalmist pleads: ‘Wilt Thou not revive us again, that Thy people may rejoice in Thee?’ New life bringing a new joy - that is a fair description of a revival of religion. In searching the history of the Church, after the close of the Apostolic age and onward through gloomy and dreary centuries, we fail to find that the doctrine of the Holy Spirit was maintained in the form in which it is presented to us in the New Testament. Let us not do an injustice to the Church. In all times some men and women, who have been the bright particular stars of the firmament, have practised the presence of the Holy Spirit, and have shone with His light and beauty. But we contend that, in the history of the Church, there have been centuries in which the presence and work of the Holy Spirit have only been officially recognized. During those depressing and dangerous ages the gifts of the Spirit have been inappropriate by the living faith of a living Church. Indeed, they have been considered the peculiar possession of a privileged religious caste. When a revival of religion shakes the land, one of the truths which is most quickly demonstrated is that the lord has poured out His Spirit as a free gift 'upon all flesh.' The experiences of the day of Pentecost repeat themselves, and the weary Church, finding its lost youth walks in the morning light of apostolic days.
The Revival of Religion in England in the eighteenth century was a national event. The far-seeing historian gives it a prominent place in his description of the reigns of the Georges, because he perceives its profound influence on the social, moral, and religious condition of the country. The man who writes upon the eighteenth century without knowledge of the existence and work of John Wesley is unfit for the task he has too precipitately taken in hand.
It is admitted that Wesley changed the spirit of the age in which he lived. It is impossible to estimate the magnitude of that change unless we form some idea of the condition of England at the time when the great evangelist did his revolutionary work. We will try to give details from which that condition may be judged.
Macaulay, in the famous third chapter of his History, which contains his sketch of England in the seventeenth century, affirms that, if the England of 1685 could, by some magical process, be set before our eyes,
“We should not know one landscape in a hundred, or one building in ten thousand. The country gentleman would not recognize his own fields. The inhabitant of the town would not recognize his own street. Everything has been changed but the great features of nature, and a few massive and durable works of human art. Everything would be strange to us. Many thousands of square miles, which are now rich corn-land and meadow, intersected by green hedgerows, and dotted with villages and pleasant countryseats, would appear as moors overgrown with furze, or fens abandoned to wild ducks. We should see straggling huts built of wood and covered with thatch, where we now see manufacturing towns and seaports renowned to the farthest ends of the world. The capital itself would shrink to dimensions not much exceeding those of its present suburb on the south of the Thames.
History, vol. 1. p. 292, Cabinet ed.
Macaulay’s vivid words come to our mind when we try to imagine the condition of England in the century, which witnessed the work and the triumphs of the Evangelical Revival. With slight alteration the description applies to the eighteenth century. We are so accustomed to the England of to day, with its huge towns and its abounding population that we find it difficult to understand that it was not until the nineteenth century that the aspect of the country was strikingly transformed. The best authorities agree that the population of England remained stationary from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century; then came a time of rapid increase, which began to manifest itself in the eighteenth century; but, as we have suggested, the increase did not reach an astonishing rate until the last century. Then the big towns spread over the green fields and began to swallow up the country.
England, at the close of Elizabeth’s reign, only contained two and a half millions of persons. In the time of James II, the population, according to Macaulay’s estimate, was between five and five and a half millions. But, in the seventeenth century, owing to the growth of agriculture, and probably to the increasing activity of the English in textile industries, there was an extraordinary addition to the population of the island. In his Six Centuries of Work and Wages, Professor Thorold Rogers estimates the population of England in 1772 as seven and a half, or, possibly, eight millions. It will be seen that, as compared with our present numbers, the population of England in the eighteenth century was small.
It may assist us to understand the condition of the country in respect of population if we note that, in 1700, London contained only about five hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants. Fifty years later the population had increased by not more than fifty thousand. When John Wesley formed his Society in the Foundery, he lived in a city that contained less than six hundred thousand persons.
The size of London in the eighteenth century impresses us by its comparative insignificance. But when we turn to the country the contrast between the past and the present is even more striking. If we begin in the North we are instantly reminded of Macaulay’s description of the sparsely populated land. Lancashire in the seventeenth century was scantily peopled. It was one of the poorest of the English counties. It took rank with Cumberland. When the various counties were assessed for ship money in 1636, the two counties stood nearly at the bottom of the list in respect of opulence. As to the matter of population, in 1773 Liverpool contained 34,407 inhabitants, and Manchester and Salford 27,246. The return for Bolton and Little Bolton in the same year is 5,339; and for Bury, in 1772, 2,090. Yorkshire was sprinkled over with little towns, and was one of the poorest counties. Even Leeds, in 1775, only contained 17,121 persons.
Journeying from the sparsely populated North, and passing through the Midlands, we find that England, in the eighteenth century, was a country of small towns and little villages, which were encompassed by great stretches of waste and poorly cultivated land. We pause for a moment at Birmingham. A note on Wesley’s ‘Plan’ of the town informs us that in 1700 it contained 15,082 inhabitants. After that date it rapidly increased. In 1731 the population numbered about 24,000 persons.
Leaving Birmingham and journeying into the West, we still feel that the England of the eighteenth century was an unoccupied country. The only town that arrests our attention is Bristol. In the middle of the century its population was 33,000. In 1775 Bristol, Clifton, and Bedminster contained at least 35,440 inhabitants. When we remember that, in the eighteenth century, Bristol was the second city in the kingdom, we may judge of the size of other towns.
In these days, when a Manchester man travels to London in the morning, transacts business in the city, and returns to his northern home in the evening; when England thrills, as in a moment, at the report of some great event contained in the newspapers; when the heart-throb of London is felt throughout the Empire, it is difficult to understand the condition of isolation in which the capital stood during the eighteenth century. The problem does not only concern the relation of London to the provinces. It is a singular fact that the districts of London were divided from each other by sharp lines. Sydney, in his England and the English in the Eighteenth Century, says –
‘Though the extent of the city was commensurately limited, the inhabitants of the various districts which it comprised were not only almost totally unacquainted with each other, but were quite distinct in their habits, manners, and characteristics. Obviously, this common ignorance originated in the complete lack of communication which then existed, and which precluded one section of the community from paying frequent visits to the other section … Such a state of isolation tended to produce peculiarities. These peculiarities were never corrected, and the consequence was that those resident in the districts situated to the west of Temple Bar differed as much from the householders and shopkeepers of Bishopsgate Without, Whitechapel, Stepney, and the other localities which lay on the Essex side of the City, as they now do from the peasantry of Brittany, or the Western Pyrenees.’
Vol. i. p. 43.
The fact of the isolation of the districts into which London was divided in the eighteenth century has been overlooked by those historians who have only been conscious of the life, the thought, the acts, and the manners of the people who lived west of Temple Bar. The greatest discovery that the modern historian has made is the discovery of the people of England. In the eighteenth century, the leaders of the Church and of the State seemed to be ignorant of the existence of what we call ‘the masses.’ They little thought that, in the next century, the crowds that moved before their eyes as in a haze would emerge into sun-bright clearness, holding in their hands the mastery of the nation.
If the districts of London were isolated from each other, what shall be said of the relation of the provinces to the mother city? Picturesque writers and imaginative artists have done much to make the eighteenth century fascinating and charming. Sketches of old coaching days embellish the pages of daintily bound books, and the exquisite scenes which are pictured elicit from the unwary enthusiast a passionate cry for ‘the good old times.’ But hard facts interfere with artistic illusions. Let any man read the descriptions of the adventures of Arthur Young, as he plunged through the morasses and quagmires, which by courtesy were called roads, in his attempts to ascertain the agricultural condition of the counties of England, and he will sympathize with the strong language, which the testy traveller so frequently employed. Not only was the state of the roads abominable, but, even where they were sufficiently sound to bear the passage of a stage-coach, any attempt to travel from the provincial towns to London was fraught with so much peril that only the most urgent necessity induced men to undertake it. Let us select one instance. At the present time the journey from Liverpool to London is quickly and safely accomplished in a few hours. Sydney tells us that, in 1753, intercourse between Liverpool and London, as well as between that port and the interior of the country, was very rare. In that year there was not a single stagecoach that left Liverpool for any other town than London. The journey to the metropolis occupied four days, and this was considered very swift travelling.
The old Lancashire and Cheshire stage-wagons, which started from the Axe Inn, Aldermanbury, London, every Monday and Thursday, were ten days on the road in summer and eleven in winter.
Vol. ii. p. 19.
It was not until April 1774 that a stagecoach began to run between Liverpool, Warrington, and Manchester, and that only ran thrice a week. The expresses now flash along the line from Liverpool to Manchester every hour, and accomplish the journey in forty-five minutes. The flight of the express and the crawl of the stage-wagon mark the difference between the eighteenth and the present century.
If London was an isolated city, if the provincial towns were nearly cut off from communication with each other and with the capital, what was the condition of the villages? Professor Rogers says -
There is, I believe, no part of the Western world in which so little change was induced on the fortunes, on the life, and on the habits of the people, as there has been in rural England from the peaceful reign of Henry III to the earlier years of George III.
Six Centuries of Work and Wages, p. 86.
What does that statement imply? It implies that the villages were so completely shut off from all intercourse with the other parts of the country that, for five centuries and a half, that is, for fifteen or sixteen generations, there was no appreciable alteration in the condition of the rustics of England. Rogers further says -
Changes of dynasty, civil wars, changes in religion, had occurred without making a break, or leaving a memory, in the routine of rural existence.
Now and again, in these days, we are sometimes startled by reports of incidents in village life, which seem to indicate that for hundreds of years, in secluded spots, time has stood still. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the rural life of England proceeded along the dull dead level on which it had moved since the days of Henry
When we have sufficiently considered the indisputable fact of the isolation of the capital from the towns, and of both from the villages and hamlets of England in the eighteenth century, we shall begin to perceive one element of the problem that was faced and solved by the men who were the leaders in the Revival which transformed and transfigured the face of England. We watch with interest and wonder John Wesley and his comrades pushing their way on horseback over wild mountains, into valleys and dales, which were inaccessible to ordinary travellers. We can understand why John Wesley so often records the ‘staring’ of the people who crowded round him. The sight of a strange face in some of the towns and in all of the villages of England in the eighteenth century, excited amazement, and furnished a thrilling topic of conversation at the ale-bench and the hearthside.
At the present time, the social condition of the people of England is attracting keen attention. Abundant statistics are being gathered, and the theorist and the practical man make use of them according to the bent of their minds. In the eighteenth century a few enlightened men studied the condition of sections of the population, but it is difficult to discover any complete survey of the state of the people at large. Professor Rogers, in his Six Centuries of Work and Wages, has laid us under an enduring obligation, and from the pages of his invaluable book it is possible to get a glimpse of a fascinating subject.
Guided by Professor Rogers, we find that, judged by the standard of wages, and comparing the wages received with the cost of the necessaries of life, the fifteenth and the first quarter of the sixteenth century were ‘the golden age of the English labourer.’ In the sixteenth century his circumstances changed. Hard times set in, and, with various fluctuations, continued. In the first half of the eighteenth century, however, the agricultural labourer was better off than he had been since the ‘golden age.’ The calculations in Professor Rogers’s book are carefully made, and are reliable. In the eyes of a town mechanic, at the present time, the wages paid to farm-labourers, even in an ‘age of gold,’ would appear contemptible, but the modern mechanic is often oblivious of the fact that the amount of wage must be measured by its capacity to meet absolutely necessary expenses. Cheap and abundant food, a life lived in surroundings that conduce to health, the absence of temptations to spend money on unnecessary things, all must be considered when we are asked to decide the question of wage. There can be little doubt that, at the present time, many agricultural labourers are in a better condition than thousands of the artisans of our towns; in the first half of the eighteenth century the superiority of the position of the agricultural labourer in some parts of the country is undeniable. The villages were left
To dumb forgetfulness a prey;
Their inhabitants were afflicted with an apathy that irritates a modern progressive; the cottages in which the people herded defied every law of sanitary science; the men possessed the uninquiring mind of the serf; the women drudged; most of the children were uneducated: but, so far as food for the body is concerned, and so far as a superficial happiness is concerned,
Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain,
is not altogether a fanciful picture created by Goldsmith’s graceful pen.
Considerable information concerning the condition of the working classes in the eighteenth century may be gathered from Professor Rogers’s pages. We will content ourselves by noting a few facts that will cast light upon the people among whom John Wesley and his fellow evangelists did their principal work. It is fortunate that Arthur Young does not content himself with giving us information about the wages paid for agricultural labour exclusively; he also inserts information concerning the price paid to other workers. Professor Rogers, gathering this information together, says that the highest wages were earned by colliers.
At Newcastle they could get 15s. a week, and at Wakefield 11s. In iron and cutlery works the weekly wages were 10s. at Rotherham and 13s.6d. at Sheffield. Workmen in porcelain at Liverpool, Burslem, and Worcester received, respectively, 8s.11d., 9s.6d., and 9s. The average weekly payment for spinning and weaving was 8s.7d.; the lowest wages, out of seven localities, being paid at Manchester for fustians, 7s.1d.; the highest at Wakefield for cloth, 10s. The average wages of women in textile manufactures was 4s.2½d.; of boys, 2s.11¾d.; and of girls, 2s.7d. The drugget-weavers of Braintree earned about 9s.; the wool-combers 12s.; the Wilton carpet-weavers from 10s. to 12s.; the Gloucester pin-makers from l0s. to 12s.; the woollen manufacturers of Henningham, 7s.; the combers from 12s. to 14s.; the steel-polishers of Woodstock from 15s. to 42s.; the blanket-weavers of Witney from l0s. to 12s. The best-paid workmen in textile fabrics were the wool-combers, who earned on an average, wherever they were, about 13s. a week; the lowest, the say and calamanco weavers of Lavenham, who were paid 5s.9d.
Comparing these wages with those paid in some localities to the agricultural labourer, we are not surprised to find evidence of the town-ward drift, which has become so pronounced in our own time. The best-paid agricultural labourers were those in Kent and Middlesex, and they received a weekly wage of 11s.4d. The worst paid were those of Gloucestershire and Wiltshire; they got 5s.2½d. a week. Young tells us that, taking all things together; the wages of the manufacturing labourer were, on the average, 8d. a week beyond those of the agricultural labourer. He incidentally mentions that in the West of England the farm-labourers were paid only 5s. and 6s. all the year round.
Turning from those whom we are accustomed to call the ‘working classes,’ we must briefly refer to the condition of the shopkeepers and the traders of London and the provinces. Their position, judged by the sketches, which have survived in the pages of the novelists of the period, differed greatly from that of the tradesmen of the present day. In country towns, especially, their life was slow and comparatively uneventful. Their goods were brought to them by stage-wagons that crawled along the ill-kept roads, or were carried by packhorses that plunged through the mud in which they nearly foundered. The shops were small; ill lighted, and contained a scanty supply of goods. Market-day brought some bustle into the country towns; but, at other times, the tradesman had leisure to bask in the sunshine at the door of his shop, or to gossip with his cronies at the alehouse table. It is difficult to estimate the average income of the eighteenth century shopkeeper, but one thing must be borne in mind - on the trading class fell, with crushing weight, that great burden of taxation which was the result of the prolonged campaigns that were fought on the Continent. Those taxes made serious inroads on their uncertain income, and extorted from them many a groan. In London, trade was more briskly and profitably done, but, even there, the citizen was only too familiar with that dark figure of Care, which still dogs the footsteps of the man of commerce.
Above the labourers and the tradesmen, in social rank, stood ‘the upper classes.’ They dwelt in a region of their own. That region lay far from the common tracks of men. Its line of demarcation was sharply defined. We do not think that the aloofness of the upper classes arose, in all cases, from any conscious contempt for persons who were in an inferior social position. It seemed rather the product of indifference. East of Temple Bar was an unknown country. With rare exceptions, the people who lived there were uninteresting and not worth discovering. And so the members of the ‘upper classes’ lived within the ring fence of ‘good Society.’ They consorted together to talk politics and literature and art in coffee-house and club; they cultivated luxury and pleasure with an assiduity which, if the same energy had been spent on nobler things, would have raised England to a conspicuous height of moral greatness; they excited themselves over trifles, and wasted in frivolity and dilettantism the golden opportunities God had given them for the service of man; and, all the time, millions of Englishmen lay around them perishing of neglect. We keenly appreciate the literary and artistic aspects of the eighteenth century; we recognize the efforts of Addison and Johnson to raise the moral tone of the literature and of the cultured people of the day; but it is difficult to restrain our impatience in the presence of the fatal paralysis of sympathy which made it impossible for the upper classes to imagine those reforms which, in a brighter and more vitalized age, have changed the condition of the people of England. Mr. Sydney has gathered together, in his England and the English in the Eighteenth century, a number of remarkable facts relating to the condition of the upper classes in the times of which he writes. We shrink from his conclusion that ‘nine-tenths of the English people of quality in the eighteenth century were either knaves or fools.’
Vol. ii. p. 123.
It is difficult to resist the evidence he produces; but charity suggests a more lenient verdict. It is unfortunate when the ‘people of quality’ in a country are devoid of a sense of responsibility; when they lack moral earnestness; when they are out of touch with the rest of their countrymen; when the spectacle they exhibit to those who are eager to imitate them is that of a luxurious race loving pleasure and forgetting God.
When we turn from the contemplation of the classes whose condition we have considered, we find that we have not finished our investigation into the condition of the people of England. The lower sections of the working classes are always subject to variations of fortune, which tend to make their lot hard and cruel. Beneath them, in this country, there are many thousands who have no claim to be considered as workers: they live in the helplessness and suffering that are the results of habitual poverty. During the earlier years of the eighteenth century, the condition of the country, as we have seen, was prosperous; but after a time harvests failed, prices rose, work was scarce, and thousands of the English people were brought to the verge of starvation. In London the existence of poverty was marked. Sydney considers that much of this poverty was due to early and improvident marriages, to unthrifty habits, and to drunkenness; but, on the other hand, he thinks that a vast amount of it arose from the lack of employment. Hundreds who were able and willing to work could not find in London any means of subsistence.
Vol. i. p. 66.
Dr. Wendeborn, a German minister who lived for many years during the eighteenth century in London, was much impressed by the spectacle of English poverty. He says -
There are in no country such large contributions raised for the support of the poor as in England, yet there is nowhere so great a number of them; and their condition, in comparison with the poor of other countries, appears truly the most miserable. They never seem to be apprehensive, or to think of making any provision for a time of want. In Germany and other northern countries of Europe, the poor keep always in mind that it is cold in winter, and that no harvests or fruits can be reaped from the earth while it is covered with snow. On this account they consider in time the warmer clothing they will then require, and lay up such a store of provisions as their circumstances allow, in order to prepare themselves in the best manner possible for the inclemency of that season. But, in England, it seems as if the poor and necessitous never looked forward, or would not trouble themselves to think of what may happen to them in future. They neither foresee the winter’s cold, nor the scarcity of that season; and, therefore, when it arrives, are the most forlorn beings imaginable. The lower classes of people have no disposition to be frugal or provident. When trade becomes dull and employment scanty, they who maintained themselves by their labour must either beg or obtain support for themselves and their families from the parish. In those counties and towns where manufactures are carried on, there is for this very reason the greatest number of poor; for as soon as any particular branch of them is on the decline, the workmen who were employed in it are threatened with want, and in danger of starving.
A View of England towards the Close of the Eighteenth Century, vol. i. p. 113.
In another place, he says -
In no other country are poorer to be seen than in England, and in no city a greater number of beggars than in London. A foreigner who hears of many millions annually raised for the benefit of the poor ... will find himself unable to explain how it happens, that in his walks he is, almost every hundred yards, disturbed by the lamentations of unfortunate persons who demand his charity.
In Professor Rogers’s Six Centuries of Work and Wages the question of poverty is exhaustively discussed. With much skill, insight, and knowledge, he states the problem, which still awaits solution. At the present moment we are only concerned with it in its relation to the eighteenth century. With the authority of a master of his subject, Mr. Rogers declares that, with the exception of about fifty years in the earlier part of the eighteenth century, ‘the wages of labour have been a bare subsistence, constantly supplemented by the poor-rate.’ In modern times a considerable amelioration in the condition of some kinds of labour has been effected, but there can be no doubt that Rogers’s statement is correct so far as concerns the condition of labourers’ wages during the second half of the eighteenth century.
It must not be supposed that the nation was callous to the appeal made by the sufferings of the poor. Much poverty was relieved by private benevolence, and more by doles from the poor-rates. The annual expenditure in poor-rates is said to have trebled between the close of the reign of Anne and the year 1750. The sum raised astonished a foreigner like Dr. Wendeborn. It amounted to, at least, three millions. He cries -
The revenues of the kingdom of Denmark are six millions of thalers, which answers to one million of pounds sterling; and those of Sweden amount hardly to a million and a half, English money. With half of the provision of the poor in England, therefore, whole realms, crowns, armies, navies, and other expenses of the State are supported! How much matter is here for an arithmetician, a financier, and a philosophic observer.
A View of England, vol. i. p. 117.
Although Dr. Wendeborn does not ‘presume’ to say that the funds for the poor were mismanaged and misapplied, other writers have not exercised a similar reticence. Dr. Franklin, for instance, roundly affirmed that the enormous sum collected annually for the poor in England ‘increased their number as well as their wretchedness.’
We have spoken of the extraordinary ignorance of each other, which, like a black dividing-line, separated class from class in the England of the eighteenth century. That line was strongly marked, and its existence was constantly evidenced. If we wish to understand how much the governing classes of a country know of the conditions of those whom they govern, we ought to inspect their criminal code. If we find that it only contains measures of repression and punishment, we may be sure that its framers know little of the people whom they so shamefully misgovern. Let us apply this test to the England of the eighteenth century. Every man who is acquainted with the code then existing will be of Rogers’s opinion, that -
The desperation which poverty and misery produce, and the crime they suggest, were met by a code more sanguinary and brutal than any, which a civilized nation had ever heretofore devised, or a high-spirited one submitted to.
Six Centuries of Work and Wages, p. 490.
Sir Samuel Romilly, in his Observations on a Late Publication, intituled Thoughts on Executive Justice, reviews the criminal law of England, and says -
The first thing which strikes one is the melancholy truth that among the variety of actions which men are daily liable to commit, no less than one hundred and sixty have been declared by Act of Parliament to be felonies without benefit of clergy; or, in other words, to be worthy of instant death.
Romilly founds his statement on Blackstone’s Commentaries; and, in a note, he draws attention to the fact that, since the publication of those Commentaries, the number of felonies had been considerably augmented by the legislature. Sydney says
To steal a horse or a sheep; to snatch property from the hands of a man and run away with it; to steal to the amount of forty shillings in a dwelling-house, or privately to the value of five shillings in a shop; to pick a pocket of only twelve pence and a farthing; these offences all continued till the end of the eighteenth century to be punishable with death.
England and the English, vol. ii. pp. 268, 269.
Mr. John Latimer, in The Annals of Bristol in the Eighteenth Century, gives a list of the persons executed in that city during the first half of the eighteenth century. The list is confessedly incomplete, but, so far as we can judge by its details, executions for murder were comparatively infrequent. Out of the seventy-seven criminals whose cases and crimes are cited, only eighteen suffered death for murder. The rest were executed for offences, which would now be punished by imprisonment. It is no wonder that the number of executions in England was great. Lecky tells us that, when Blackstone wrote, it was a very ordinary occurrence for ten or twelve culprits to be hung on a single occasion, and for forty or fifty to be condemned at a single assize. In 1732 no less than seventy persons received sentence of death at the Old Bailey. In the same year eighteen persons were hung in one day in the town of Cork.
History of England, vol. i. p. 505.
Execution by hanging was not the only form of punishment inflicted on criminals. The barbarities inflicted on a man who was found guilty of high treason are too horrible to be described. It is enough to say that, so late as 1746, eight persons were slowly done to death by the hands of the executioner. If a man refused to plead on a capital charge, then the law directed that he was to be laid naked on his back, in a dark room, and weights of stone or iron were to be placed on his breast till he died. This hideous punishment was inflicted in England in 1721 and in 1735. A criminal was sentenced to the same fate in 1741, but he escaped by at last consenting to plead. This disgraceful law was not repealed till 1771. It is almost incredible that women who were found guilty of murdering their husbands, or of the other offences comprised under the terms high or petit treason, were publicly burnt, in accordance with a law which was not abolished till 1790. It is true that in practice, before the fire touched the body of the woman, the executioner mercifully strangled the victim; but sometimes, as in a case, which occurred in 1726, the fire interfered with the process of strangulation, and a considerable time elapsed before the agonies of the woman were ended.
It is painful to record these brutalities, but it is impossible to understand the temper of the English people in the eighteenth century unless we do so. An utter callousness to the sufferings of criminals prevailed. We may go further. Those sufferings were a source of pleasurable excitement to the crowds that witnessed them. When the death-carts rumbled along the road from Newgate to Tyburn, the pavements were crowded with spectators. From the windows of the houses, hosts of people looked out with admiration upon the jaunty men who, with nosegays on their breasts, journeyed on the solemn path that broke away so suddenly into eternity. Let the wanderer along the present Oxford Street imagine the scene. Let him try to conceive the possibility of its repetition to day. He will then be able to form some idea of the immeasurable distance that divides us from the spirit and the customs of the eighteenth century.
We ask in amazement if any voice was raised in Church or State, against the brutal punishments contained in the criminal code of England. The answer is disappointing. The ascertained facts show that, so far as the executions for felony are concerned, not only was there an absence of protest, but such executions were approved by the most enlightened opinion of the time. We have mentioned Sir Samuel Romilly’s Observations. His little pamphlet was written in answer to a publication intituled Thoughts on Executive Justice. In that publication the author declared that the statutes concerning the punishment of crime in England were such as no stranger could contemplate without imagining the English nation to be ‘the happiest people under the sun, or without admiring the disposition of the whole, as well as the adapting of every part to the public good.’ So enamoured of our ‘sanguinary’ code was the author that he exhorted judges to enforce the laws with the utmost rigour, expressing the opinion that these laws approached as near to perfection as any law could be expected to do which emanated from ‘the finite wisdom of humanity.’ It is strange that, according to Sir Samuel Romilly, some of the learned judges to whom the Thoughts on Executive Justice was addressed seemed inclined to try the terrible expedient, which was recommended. With shame we confess that the writer of this publication, which drew forth such a noble protest from Sir Samuel Romilly, was a prominent clergyman of the Evangelical party in the Church of England.
It was not until the second half of the nineteenth century was well on its way that the English nation woke up to the fact that the spectacle of a public execution has a brutalizing effect upon those who witness it. What wonder, then, that in 1783, a year when fifty-one persons were executed in London, Dr. Johnson was found protesting against the proposed abolition of the Tyburn processions? Boswell relates that, one night, in March 1783, at the Literary Club, the subject of the discontinuance of these ghastly parades was discussed. Dr. Johnson, speaking to Sir William Scott, said -
The age is running mad after innovation, and all the business of the world is to be done in a new way. Men are to be hanged in a new way; Tyburn itself is not safe from the fury of innovation.
Someone present ventured to argue that such a step would be a vast improvement.
No, sir [thundered Johnson], it is not an improvement. They object that the old method drew together a number of spectators. Sir, executions are intended to draw spectators. If they do not draw spectators, they don’t answer their purpose. The old method was most satisfactory to all parties; the public was gratified by a procession; the criminal was supported by it; why is all this swept away?
When we consider the opinions of such a man as Dr. Johnson, we do not wonder that the law held on its sanguinary way unchecked by the protests of judges and legislators. When the eighteenth century was drawing to a close, a new spirit of philanthropy made its presence felt in English society. To that spirit Sir Samuel Romilly made his appeal. By slow degrees the Statute Book of England was cleansed of its more glaring cruelties, and brought into harmony with the ideas of pity and mercy, which men had learned from the new revelation of the forgiving love of God.
It will be admitted that the condition of the prisons of a country reveals its character. The people who are careless of the way in which prisoners awaiting trial, or serving their sentences, are treated, write a sentence of condemnation against themselves. Judged by this test, the England of the eighteenth century stands condemned. It is impossible to exaggerate the loathsomeness of the dens in which men and women were then confined, or the abominations that were hidden behind the sullen walls of our prisons. In 1729, through the influence of General Oglethorpe, a commission was obtained for investigating the condition of the three London prisons for debtors. Beginning with the Fleet, the commission discovered that it was divided into two classes, known as the Common Side and the Master’s Side. The former contained three wards, tenanted in all by ninety-three persons, many of whom were compelled to lie upon the bare floor, through inability to provide a bed for themselves; in several rooms on the chapel stairs men and women, sick and ill, lay on the floor without a rag to cover them; the warden, not satisfied with extracting large sums of money, had locked them in filthy cells in default of payment, had caused them to be manacled, and when they died, had appropriated to his own use any effects which they had possessed.
Sydney, England and the English, vol. ii. pp. 308, 309.
Sydney says -
It would require more space than here can be afforded to enumerate a tithe of the enormities that had been practised in that foul den. Of the instruments of torture, which had been employed by the warden, it is enough to say that when they were produced for the inspection of the committee, they caused a thrill of horror to run through all who were present.
As to the ‘strong room’ in the prison, the following description, taken from the Report of the Visiting Committee, must suffice -
This place is like a vault, like those in which the dead are interred, and wherein the bodies of persons dying in the said prison are usually deposited till the coroner’s inquest hath passed upon them; it has no chimney nor fireplace, nor any light but what comes over the door or through a hole of about eight inches square. It is neither paved nor boarded, and the rough bricks appear both on the sides and top, being neither wainscoted nor plastered.
What adds to the dampness and stench of the place is it’s being built over the common sewer, and adjoining to the sink, and where all the nastiness of the prison is cast.
Twenty years later the noxious fumes emitted by Newgate prison attacked, and eventually killed, two judges, the Lord Mayor, one alderman, and others to the number of sixty persons and upwards, while sitting in the Old Bailey Sessions House. Carlyle would have considered this massacre as a broad suggestion on the part of nature concerning the brotherhood of man.
The work of General Oglethorpe casts a ray of light on the condition of the London prisons. But both in the metropolis and the provinces the state of the jails continued for many years to be infamous. After a considerable interval of time, John Howard, in Burke’s fine phrase, commenced his ‘circumnavigation of charity.’ We have taken one illustration of prison life in the eighteenth century from London. We will take another from the West of England. In 1774, John Howard visited the Castle prison at Gloucester, and found it in a wretched condition. The floor of the main ward was so ruinous that it could not be washed; the male and female felons were herded together in a single day-room; a large dunghill lay against the steps leading to the dormitories, and the jailer, having no salary, made his living out of the profits of the liquor sold to the prisoners, and by taxing the debtors brought under his charge. Howard noted that many prisoners died there in the course of the year. Newgate prison, in Bristol, was overcrowded with inmates, but was in a better sanitary state than that of Gloucester, though the ‘dungeon’ or night-room for male felons, often densely crowded, was eighteen steps underground and only seventeen feet in diameter. Howard’s note is: ‘No bedding, nor straw.’ In the yard the criminals of all ages and both sexes mingled with the insolvent debtors; even the poorest of the latter class paying the jailer, who had no salary, ten pence halfpenny a week for the lodgings in which they were incarcerated by their creditors. At the time of Howard’s visit there were thirty-eight felons and fifty-eight debtors in Newgate. Bridewell was in a worse state than the jail, the rooms being very dirty, and the air offensive from open sewers. There was no bedding, no employment, insufficient water, and the only food was two pennyworth of bread per head daily. At Lawford’s Gate Bridewell there was -
a dark room, the dungeon, about twelve feet by seven, in which the felons slept, except those who could afford to pay for beds. The rooms were without chimneys, and yet the inmates were never allowed to leave them. A prisoner had no allowance for food, except where he was very poor, when he had two pence a day.
Latimer’s Annals of Bristol pp. 406, 407.
Our knowledge of the condition of the prisons of England does not arise exclusively from the revelation of General Oglethorpe’s commission and from the reports of John Howard. In the eighteenth century they were the scenes of the constant visits of the Wesley’s and of Whitefield, and from the pages of their journals abundant materials for constructing the repulsive picture of prison life in England during the eighteenth century may be gleaned. Their work was continued, under more favourable circumstances at the beginning of the next century by Mrs. Elizabeth Fry, whose self-denying labours at last produced some impression upon the minds of those who were responsible for the treatment of debtors and criminals. The comparative failure of the attempts made by Oglethorpe and Howard to effect permanent reforms in the jails of the country strengthens our conviction that a condemnatory verdict must be cast against the humanity of the ruling classes of England in the eighteenth century.
We have seen that, in the eighteenth century, England was a country of isolated towns and lonely villages. In addition, we have noted that, taking London as an example, the towns were divided into independent sections by the estrangement of class from class, and by a striking lack of sympathy. It is sympathy that knits a people together. Where it is absent, national character suffers. Our moral faults have no mercy on our social life. They wound it at every point, and constantly threaten it with destruction, If it had not been for the coming of a day when Englishmen saw each other in a new light, when, to their surprise, they discovered that they were brethren, the history of this country would have been a story of the withering of all social virtues, and of the perishing of all that is most God-like in man.
Having glanced at the social condition of England, we will now consider the grave subject of the state of morals in this country in the eighteenth century. In the treatment of this question care is necessary. A writer who has to describe a national revival of religion is in danger of blackening his shadows. That danger should be seen and avoided. There is no need to deepen the gloom in order to increase the intensity of the brightness. All the facts should be kept steadily in view. In the eighteenth century we can find many pictures of pure domestic life. The figures of men and women, radiant with the quiet light of a true saintliness, pass before our eyes. The constant preaching of a Christian morality in the churches produced decisive effects on conscience and conduct. The praise of virtue led to its practice in innumerable English homes. These facts must not be overlooked. We appreciate them fully, and their remembrance relieves the darkness of the picture which candour compels us to paint.
Our inquiry concerns the general condition of morals in England during the reigns of the Georges, and especially in the period before the Great Revival had exerted its utmost force in this country.
The character of a people can be judged by its amusements. The chief amusement of English Society in the eighteenth century was provided by the theatre. It is important to discover the estimate of theatrical managers of that day concerning the taste of the people for whom they catered. No men knew more accurately the innermost mind of the play-going public. They selected the things, which would attract, and their selection proceeded upon a profound knowledge of the current thought and character of the people. There were some managers who discerned the better side of human nature, and appealed to it. They were convinced that by pertinacity and genius they could make the stage one of the great educational forces of the day. We cannot withhold our admiration from these men; neither can we deny them our compassion. In the eighteenth century we greet with respect the figure of David Garrick. With a superb courage, and with a prodigal expenditure, he fought against the evils, which had dragged the stage through the mire. He succeeded in cleansing it from some of its most startling evils. It is undoubted that his example has been an inspiration to some of our modern playwrights and managers. But, as we have said, we pay him the meed of our compassion. The battle was too hard, and gradually it broke him down. He rescued a plot from the desert, and made it bright with blossoms; but round his tiny garden the rank weeds grew. When a little plot of cultivated ground lies in a weedy wilderness, we know its doom.
In speaking of the condition of the English theatre in the eighteenth century, we will not forget Garrick and those who shared with him the arduous toils of the Shakespearean revival. We think that it is scarcely fair to judge the stage by the testimonies of those who have a violent prejudice against theatrical performances. We therefore select our witnesses from the ranks of those who do not suffer from this defect. Lecky, who regrets the opposition of religious people to the theatre, admits that, in the eighteenth century, although English play-writers borrowed very largely from the French, the English stage was far inferior to that of France in decorum, modesty, and morality (History of England, vol.i. p.540). No one can deny that Lecky delivers his verdict with remarkable self-restraint. Let us listen to a man who lived in the eighteenth century, and who was himself a writer of plays. Addison, in the Spectator of 1712, confesses that it was one of the most unaccountable things in that age, that the lewdness of the theatre should be so much complained of, so well exposed, and so little redressed.
As matters stand at present [he says] multitudes are shut out from this noble diversion by reason of those abuses and corruptions that accompany it. A father is often afraid that his daughter should be ruined by those entertainments, which were invented for the accomplishment, and refining of human nature … The accomplished gentleman upon the English stage is the person that is familiar with other men’s wives and indifferent to his own, as the fine woman is generally a composition of sprightliness and falsehood.
It may be said that Addison wrote before Garrick’s attempt to purify the stage. That is so; but Garrick’s success may be easily exaggerated. Speaking of the year 1782, Sydney says -
With regard to the character of the plays, this much only needs be said, that, although Garrick and others worked hard during the second half of the century to eliminate the coarse, obscene, and scandalous elements which entered only too largely into the composition of many of them, the state of the stage was very far from satisfactory, even in the closing decades of the century, although, by that time, the stream of public opinion was being fairly directed against the coarseness by which it had been so long disfigured (England and the English, vol.i. p.165).
Dr. Wendeborn, whose love of theatrical performances made him lenient in his judgement, says -
The English stage has been blamed, particularly during the reign of Charles II, for being exceedingly licentious but it has been, in this respect, much reformed; though there occur frequently such expressions and double entendres as may put modesty to the blush; which, however, seem not to be disliked by the majority even of female spectators, who either bestow a smile upon them, or hide their titter behind their fans (A View of England, vol.ii. p.255).
If an audience may be judged by a play, a play may also be judged by an audience. What was the character of the people who trooped into the theatres in the eighteenth century? Writing in 1786, Dr. Wendeborn says -
The great propensity of the present English to see plays of all kinds performed; the crowded play-houses in London; the private theatres, and the spouting clubs make a fine contrast with the times in which Dryden lived. It might, perhaps, be wished, for the sake of morality, that the reservedness and seriousness of that age were not, as it seems, totally given up. Numbers of women of easy virtue are to be seen within the theatres, and in the avenues leading to them, which contributes not a little to increase that immorality which play-houses are said to promote. Formerly, this class of females, when they frequented the theatre, were obliged to wear either masks or hats with a black crape, and they were not admitted into every part of the house. At present, they are seen in numbers in the boxes, or any division of the house, among the rest of the company, without the least distinctive mark, impudence perhaps excepted. Nay, they often give the ton in dress, and in an easy and free deportment, to those of their sex who are reputed modest; so that it is attended with some difficulty to distinguish innocence lost from that which is supposed still to exist (ibid. vol.ii. pp. 261, 262).
Lest it should be said that this description of the audience in an English theatre bears the marks of a foreigner’s spite, we will quote the words of Sydney. He says -
The reader would err, and that very considerably, were he to suppose that it was the attractions of the stage that induced the majority of fine gentlemen in the last century to resort to the three principal theatres in London. Contemporary light literature bears its emphatic testimony to the fact that it was the attractions presented by the saloons of the playhouses, establishments that partook as much of the nature of brothels as they did of taverns, which filled the benches of the theatres with visitors, and the purses of those who kept them with the coin of the realm. The existence of these resorts was the chief inducement for hundreds of men, old and young, to resort to Drury Lane, Covent Garden, and the Haymarket Theatres (England and the English, vol.i. p.161).
Weighing the evidence we have collected, and giving due allowance for the reforms introduced by David Garrick, we see no reason to dispute the substantial accuracy of John Wesley’s verdict, that the English theatre of his day was ‘the sink of all profaneness and debauchery.’
The classes, which had some claim to be considered, educated, found their amusement not only at the theatre, but also in the perusal of the books, which poured from the ‘Minerva Press.’ These were eagerly devoured, and the character of the readers may be gauged by the novels they read.
Jeffrey, in his Essays, describing these books, says -
A greater mass of trash and rubbish never disgraced the press of any country than the ordinary novels that filled and supported circulating libraries down nearly to the time of Miss Edgeworth’s first appearance ... The staple of our novel market was beyond imagination despicable, and had consequently sunk and degraded the whole department of literature, of which it had usurped the name. Sydney informs us that ‘these trashy productions’ were, in most cases, the composition of women; and their plots turned chiefly upon amorous intrigue. ‘Rotten is the one adjective that, with some few exceptions, best describes them one and all.’ He continues -
The perusal of these detestable novels was, in great measure, the sole recreation of young people of either sex whose education had been utterly neglected, or of persons whose morbid cravings after excitement could be satisfied by no other means.
Novel reading was one of the chief employments of women, and the quickest way to coarsen the moral fibre of a nation is to pollute the minds of its women. Speaking of the general literature of the period, Overton, in The English Church in the Eighteenth Century, says -
Notwithstanding the improvement, which such writers as Addison and Steele had effected, it was still very impure. Let us take the evidence of the kindly and well-informed Sir Walter Scott: ‘we should do great injustice to the present day by comparing our manners with those of the reign of George I. The writings, even of the most esteemed poets of that period, contain passages, which now would be accounted to deserve the pillory. Nor was the tone of conversation more pure than that of composition; for the taint of Charles II’s reign continued to infect society until the present reign [George III], when, if not more moral, we are at least more decent.’ (vol.ii. p.45)
While mawkish women were enervating themselves with sentimentality, and besmirching their minds with the scenes and suggestions of infamous novels, their fathers and brothers pursued a more exciting form of pleasure. The men of the eighteenth century have an evil reputation for their passion for gaming. That passion was cultivated and inflamed by the rulers of the nation. The State lotteries affected thousands of men and women, and filled them with a burning desire for gain. The patronage of lotteries continued until the latter end of the eighteenth century, and we agree with Sydney when he says: ‘Of all the baneful things that the evil propensities of Government ever induced it to patronize, assuredly they were the worst.’ (England and the English, vol.i. p.224.)
When we get a clear sight of the men of the time, we cease to wonder at the action of Parliament. Both Houses of the Legislature were filled with gamblers. The name of Charles James Fox springs up in the mind at once. Before he had reached his twenty-fourth year he was indebted to the Jews for something like £100,000, which he had lost at cards and dice. Gibbon says that Fox strengthened himself for the memorable debate in the House of Commons on the relief of the clergy from subscription to the Thirty-nine Articles by indulging in a twenty-two hours’ recreation at hazard, at the cost of £600 per hour - that is £11,000 in all. Pitt, at one period of his life, was a keen gamester. At the Boar’s Head, Eastcheap, he made a great impression on William Wilberforce by the intense earnestness, which he displayed when joining in games of chance. But Pitt perceived his danger in time, and, by a strong effort of will, broke loose from the gaming table, and abandoned it forever. It is strange to watch William Wilberforce at Brooks’s so late as 1780, sitting at the faro-table, where George Selwyn kept the bank. He explains that he joined in play ‘from mere shyness.’ But the fascination seized him, and it was not until he won £600, ‘much of it lost by those who were only heirs to future fortune’ that ‘the pain he felt at their annoyance cured him of a taste which seemed but too likely to become predominant.’
Diverting our glance from the Legislature, we find that the whole of English society was infected with the passion for gaming. Trevelyan, in his Early Life of C. J. Fox, declares that -
Society was one vast casino. On whatever pretext and under whatever circumstances half a dozen people of fashion found. themselves together, whether foil music, or dancing, or politics, or for drinking the waters or each other’s wine, the box was sure to be rattling, and the cards were being cut and shuffled (p.89).
Beneath the level of ‘Society,’ the same craze for games of chance existed. There is no reason to doubt the correctness of the assertion that it may be fairly questioned whether the passion for gambling ever wielded such absolute sway in any country as it did in England during the whole of the eighteenth century.
Let us apply another test to the character of the English people in the eighteenth century. The character of a nation is revealed by the manner in which it treats the lower animals. Since the eighteenth century we have learned reverence for that which is beneath us. The virtue of humaneness has appeared in the English character, and its advent signifies much in the eyes of a man who knows how to test the moral progress of a people. At the time of which we write, in town and country, one of the most popular forms of public amusement was cock fighting. The pencil of Hogarth has made us realize the scenes of cruelty that were enacted in order to give a mild excitement to dull country squires and debauched men about town. In Hogarth’s picture of the cockpit there is one figure that specially impresses us. It is that of a Frenchman, who is turning away from the brutal spectacle with an expression of unqualified disgust. Our insular pride is wounded by this keen touch of the satirist’s pencil. Latimer, in his Annals of Bristol records the occurrence of great cockfights. In March 1724, a match took place between the ‘gentlemen’ of Bath and Bristol. The stakes were six guineas on each battle, and sixty guineas on the concluding fight. The tournament extended over three days. The ‘gentlemen’ of the two cities must have been glutted with blood (Latimer’s Annals, p.140). In February 1778, a fight took place at the Ostrich Inn, Durdham Down. It was attended by a great number of country squires, the match having been arranged between the gentry of Somerset and Devon. Fifty-one birds contended on each side, for prizes amounting to about 350 guineas (p.432). In April 1786, there was a great cock-fighting tournament in Bristol. The promoters were the gentry of Gloucester-shire and Dorset. The stakes were £350, and the betting was heavy. In Leicester, in the closing years of the eighteenth century, it is on record that as many as one hundred cocks were slain in the course of a single day.
What strikes us in reading the descriptions of eighteenth-century cock fighting is the fact that the nation at large seemed utterly unable to feel any disgust at the scenes in the pit. It is singular that the sport was considered so harmless that boys might enjoy it without rebuke. At Wimborne School, an annual cockfight was held with the approval of the masters (p.25). The pastime was numbered among the recreations of some of the clergy. In 1656 Parson Allambrigge, of Monkton Farleigh, fought a main of cocks with a neighbour, and was so delighted by his victory that he recorded it in the parish register (Latimer’s Annals, p.25). The mantle of this clerical sportsman seems to have fallen on Samuel Creswicke, the Dean of Bristol in 1730, and the incumbent of St. James’s Church in that city. In 1739 he was promoted to the deanery of Wells, holding still his Bristol parish. At his residence, Haydon, near Wells, he ordered a cock-pit to be constructed, so that he and his guests could witness the ‘sport’ from his dining-room, the window of which was enlarged for the purpose (ibid. p.170). Roberts, in his Social History of the Southern Counties, informs us (p.421) that the church bells at times announced the winning of a long main.
At one time bear baiting was a favourite amusement in England. It was enjoyed, more especially by ‘gentlemen,’ but the rabble entered with great zest into the ‘sport.’ But the bear disappeared from the arena in favour of the bull. Throughout the whole of the eighteenth century bulls were tortured to make an English holiday. In London, in Queen Anne’s time, they were baited twice a week; and Lecky tells us that there was no provincial town to which the practice did not extend.
It was regarded on the Continent as peculiarly English. The tenacity of the English bull-dog, which would sometimes suffer itself to be cut to pieces rather than relax its hold, was a favourite subject of national boasting, while French writers pointed to the marked difference in this respect between the French and English taste as a conclusive proof of the higher civilization of their own nation (Lecky’s History, vol.i. p.552).
The torture of animals for amusement is one of the most hideous forms of human cruelty. Prize fighting between men, in comparison with it, is an innocent form of physical exercise. But the eighteenth century could not allow even this form of amusement to stand in its native simplicity. The readers of the newspapers, in the first half of the century, often caught sight of the advertised challenges of women. Sydney reproduces advertisements from the London Journal and the Daily Post in confirmation of this fact. As the nation was callous to the spectacles of the cockpit and bullring, it is scarcely necessary to say that it was indifferent to the batterings of a prizefight. All the evidence shows that the sport was not considered brutal. We presume that some fastidious persons objected to look at the combat between the Stoke Newington ass-driver and the European championess, or the contest in which ‘the famous boxing woman of Billingsgate’ pounded her adversary; but, as to the fights between men, even members of Parliament held that they were conducive to manliness, and that the national character and the constitutional liberties of the country were closely bound up with them.
According to Dr. Wendeborn (A View of England, vol.i. p.364), some foreigners were accustomed to call the English ‘the wild nation of Europe,’ and notwithstanding the natural resentment we feel at the criticism, it must be admitted that, in the eighteenth century, we deserved the epithet. The ‘wildness’ of the English people was especially illustrated, in times of excitement, by the swift gathering and desperate onslaught of the mob. Fielding calls the English rabble the ‘Fourth Estate.’ There were occasions, such as the Sacheverell, the Wilkes, and the Lord Gordon riots, when the mob ruled London. Outside the metropolis the rabble often reigned. In the provincial towns there seemed always to be a large number of people who, on provocation, would break out into tumults, disgraced by murder and the burning of the houses of obnoxious persons. In many places the magistrates were held in contempt. As for the constables, instead of hunting they were hunted. Nothing tamed the madness of the mob save the sight of soldiers and a discharge of musketry. Then the coward, so often latent in the rioter, revealed himself, and the crowd scattered and ran for its hiding-places. The mob also existed in sparsely peopled neighbourhoods. By some evil instinct the most violent men and women of the villages got to know that some obnoxious person was coming into the district, and they swiftly assembled to drive him out with cudgels and brickbats. They gathered quickly, and gave themselves up to the luxury of fury. The unbridled brutality of the English rabble may be traced, in part, to the indifference for the sufferings of other people, which is acquired by long indulgence in cruel sport. There is not much difference between the baiting of a bear or a bull and the hounding of a man through a village street. In an age when gallant deeds on battlefields were common, we doubt whether any soldier displayed a finer heroism than was shown by the evangelists of the Great Revival, who, knowing their danger, stood in perfect peace in the midst of the raging ruffians who sought their lives.
We have tested the moral character of the people of England by the condition of the criminal code and by their amusements. In concluding our sketch of that condition we will avail ourselves of the keen eyes of John Wesley. He was a seer, and he had unparalleled opportunities for observing the state of the nation. His verdict was that the outstanding evils of his day were the prevailing habits of ‘taking the name of God in vain, the profaning the day of the Lord, and drunkenness.’ Wherever he rode, through city, town, or village, these were the signs, which revealed the moral condition of England.
Let us take one of the ‘evils’, which Wesley indicates. The student of the moral condition of the people of England in the eighteenth century is especially impressed with the prevalence of drunkenness. It was a vice affecting all ranks of society. The clubs, the coffeehouses, and the city taverns ministered to the corruption of the upper and middle classes, and the beer- and gin-shops intensified the miseries of the labourer and the herder in the slums. The vice desolated both town and country; it mastered the English people in the eighteenth century.
Lecky, in his History of England in the Eighteenth Century, gives a sketch of the rise and progress of this curse of our nation. Drunkenness extensively prevailed during the time when beer was the ordinary beverage of the people. But the starting-point of our career as a pre-eminently drunken race is to be found in the early Hanoverian period, when gin drinking began to be the rage in this country. Under Charles I a company was formed with the sole right of making spirits and vinegar in the cities of London and Westminster, and within twenty-one miles of the same. Other distilleries were subsequently started; but, according to Lecky, up to the time of the Revolution their number was inconsiderable. In 1689, in order to exclude French brandies, the importation of spirits from all foreign countries was absolutely prohibited; and the trade of distilling, on the payment of certain duties, was thrown open to all English subjects. For a time the consequences of this fatal step were not seen. In the days when French-made brandies were imported, they were so expensive that they were consumed, almost exclusively, by the moneyed classes. But the spirits produced in English distilleries were purchasable by all sections of the population; and spirit-drinking gradually became a habit in England. Lecky mentions 1724 as the year when gin drinking began to spread with ‘the rapidity and the violence of an epidemic.’ He says -
Small as is the place which this fact occupies in English history, it was probably, if we consider all the consequences that have flowed from it, the most momentous in that of the eighteenth century - incomparably more so than any event in the purely political or military annals of the country. The fatal passion for drink was at once, and irrevocably, planted in the nation (History, vol.i. p.479).
The progress in the drinking of spirits at this period may be gauged from the following facts: In 1684 the average of British spirits distilled was 527,000 gallons. In 1714 the quantity rose to 2,000,000; in 1727 to 3,601,000; and in. 1735 to 5,394,000 gallons. In 1742 more than 7,000,000 gallons were distilled. In 1750 and 1751 more than 11,000,000 gallons of spirits were annually consumed.
With these figures before us, we can understand the indignant words, which were uttered by humane men who watched the physical deterioration of the English race. The London physicians stated that, in 1750, there were in and about the metropolis no less than fourteen thousand cases of illness, most of them beyond the reach of medicine, directly attributable to gin. Fielding, in his pamphlet On the late Increase of Robbers, declared that ‘gin was the principal sustenance of more than a hundred thousand people in the metropolis,’ and he predicted that ‘should the drinking of this poison be continued at its present height during the next twenty years, there will, by that time, be very few of the common people left to drink it.’ It seems to be a well-authenticated fact that retailers of gin were accustomed to hang out painted boards, announcing that their customers could be made drunk for a penny, dead drunk for twopence, and that they should have straw to lie upon for nothing. Cellars, strewn with straw, were accordingly provided, into which those who had become insensible were dragged, and where they remained until they had sufficiently recovered to renew their orgies.
It must not be supposed that Parliament was wholly indifferent to the prevalence of the evil, which the Legislature had, in a sense, created. In 1736 Sir J. Jekyll brought in and carried a measure imposing a duty of twenty shillings a gallon on all spirituous liquors, and prohibiting any person from selling them in less quantities than two gallons without paying a tax of £50 a year. This stringent law produced violent riots, and created a clandestine trade. In 1749 more than four thousand persons were convicted of selling spirituous liquors without a licence, and it was estimated that more than seventeen thousand private gin-shops existed within the Bills of Mortality. In 1751 a measure was carried in Parliament, which had a considerable effect on the liquor trade. Distillers were prohibited, under a penalty of £10, from either retailing spirituous liquors themselves, or selling them to unlicensed retailers. Debts contracted for liquors, not amounting to twenty shillings at a time, were made irrecoverable by law. Retail licences were conceded only to £10 householders within the Bills of Mortality, and to traders, who were subject to certain parochial rates, without them; and the penalties for unlicensed retailing were greatly increased. For the second offence the clandestine dealer was liable to three months’ imprisonment and to whipping; for the third offence he incurred the penalty of transportation. Two years later another useful law was carried, restricting the liberty of magistrates in issuing licences, and subjecting public houses to severe regulations. Lecky considers that these later Acts improved the morals and physical health of the people, but, he says, ‘these measures formed a palliation, and not a cure; and from the early years of the eighteenth century, gin-drinking has never ceased to be the main counteracting influence to the moral, intellectual, and physical benefits that might be expected from increased commercial prosperity.’ (History, vol.i. pp. 481, 482.)
The destructive effects of drinking spirituous liquors are graphically depicted in Hogarth’s picture of Gin Lane. It is a little bit of eighteenth-century London cut out as a specimen of scenes, which were being enacted over the whole country. Dr. Martin Benson, the Bishop of Gloucester, writing to Bishop Berkeley in 1752, says: ‘Our people are now become - what they never before were - cruel and inhuman. Those accursed spirituous liquors, which, to the shame of our Government, are so easily to be had, and in such quantities drunk, have changed the very nature of our people. And they will, if continued to be drunk, destroy the very race of the people themselves.’ (Sydney, England and the English, vol.i. pp. 62, 63.)
It is difficult to trace the evils produced by drunkenness. It is a vice, which never stands alone. One effect, however, is sufficiently conspicuous. We have mentioned the creation of a clandestine trade in spirituous liquors, which was produced by the action of Parliament. When the Government of the Revolution took the false step of ‘encouraging the home industry’ of distilling, they were blind to the fact that another step would soon have to be taken. When the liquor trade is fostered, it flourishes so prodigiously that restraints have to be applied to it lest it should rule the country and endanger the morals and health of the people. But when a Government has so legislated as to create a taste, a passion, for strong drink, its subsequent efforts to restrain the evil it has created meet with strenuous resistance. When the Government remedy is increased taxation, which either raises the price of liquor or impairs its quality, then an effort will be made to obtain strong spirits that are cheap because they have escaped duty. It seemed like a nemesis that the French brandy which was so obnoxious to the Government that it determined to shut it out by encouraging home distilleries, should have been a means of setting on foot a contraband trade that produced innumerable evils in English life. Nor was this all. Holland was ready to send any quantity of gin into England. Round our coasts, as a direct consequence of the action of the Government, smugglers’ boats ran into creek and cove, and immense quantities of duty-free spirits were landed, and conveyed by packhorses to the towns and villages of England. Dr. Wendeborn says -
I have frequently seen, on the public roads leading to London at midday, gangs of smugglers, between fifteen and twenty, mounted on the best horses, provided with pistols and cutlasses, carrying their contraband goods behind their saddles in packages, and sufficiently resolute to repel any excise or custom-house officers who should attempt to stop them. If these should happen to have soldiers along with them for assistance, bloody engagements will ensue, and many on both sides will lose their lives (A View of England, vol.i. p.212.).
There can be no doubt that the life of the smuggler lends itself to picturesque description; but those who recognize the fact that the smuggled ankers of brandy and Hollands were confirming Englishmen in their drunken habits see the black shadows that blot the sketches painted by graphic writers.
It is impossible to challenge with any success the doleful descriptions, which have been given of the moral condition of the masses of the people of England in the eighteenth century. Mark Pattison, in his essay on Tendencies of Religious Thought in England, 1688 - 1750 expresses our own conviction when he says - The historian of moral and religious progress is under the necessity of depicting the period as one of decay of religion, licentiousness of morals, public corruption, profaneness of language - a day of ‘rebuke and blasphemy.’ It was an age destitute of depth or earnestness; an age whose poetry was without romance, whose philosophy was without insight, and whose public men were without character; an age of ‘light without love,’ whose ‘very merits were of the earth, earthy.’ (Essays, vol.ii. p.42.)
Chapter 1. Religion
Chapter 2. The Social Condition Of England
Chapter 3. The Moral Condition Of England
Chapter 4. The Religious Condition Of England
Chapter 5. The Religious Societies
Chapter 6. The Dawn Of The Revival In Wales
Chapter 7. The Dawn Of The Revival In England
Chapter 8. The Revival In England
Chapter 9. Some Results Of The Revival
We have included 3 of the 9 chapters.