Frederick Denison Maurice.
In Memoriam


Charles Kingsley

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First published in Macmillan’s Magazine, May 1872.

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Frederick Denison Maurice. In Memoriam

On Friday, the fifth of April, a noteworthy assemblage gathered round an open vault in a corner of Highgate Cemetery. Some hundreds of persons, closely packed up the steep banks among the trees and shrubs, had found in that grave a common bond of brotherhood. I say, in that grave. They were no sect, clique, or school of disciples, held together by community of opinions. They were simply men and women, held together, for the moment at least, by love of a man, and that man, as they had believed, a man of God. All shades of opinion, almost of creed, were represented there; though the majority were members of the Church of England — many probably reconciled to that Church by him who lay below. All sorts and conditions of men, and indeed of women, were there; for he had had a word for all sorts and conditions of men. Most of them had never seen each other before — would never see each other again. But each felt that the man, however unknown to him who stood next him, was indeed a brother in loyalty to that beautiful soul, beautiful face, beautiful smile, beautiful voice, from which, in public or in secret, each had received noble impulses, tender consolation, loving correction, and clearer and juster conceptions of God, of duty, of the meaning of themselves and of the universe. And when they turned and left his body there, the world — as one said who served him gallantly and long — seemed darker now he had left it; but he had stayed here long enough to do the work for which he was fitted. He had wasted no time, but died, like a valiant man, at his work, and of his work.

He might have been buried in Westminster Abbey. There was no lack of men of mark who held that such a public recognition of his worth was due, not only to the man himself, but to the honour of the Church of England. His life had been one of rare sanctity; he was a philosopher of learning and acuteness, unsurpassed by any man of his generation; he had done more than any man of that generation to defend the Church’s doctrines; to recommend her to highly-cultivated men and women; to bring within her pale those who had been born outside it, or had wandered from it; to reconcile the revolutionary party among the workmen of the great cities with Christianity, order, law; to make all ranks understand that if Christianity meant anything, it meant that a man should not merely strive to save his own soul after death, but that he should live here the life of a true citizen, virtuous, earnest, helpful to his human brethren. He had been the originator of, or at least the chief mover in, working-men’s colleges, schemes for the higher education of women, for the protection of the weak and the oppressed. He had been the champion, the organiser, the helper with his own money and time, of that co-operative movement — the very germ of the economy of the future — which seems now destined to spread, and with right good results, to far other classes, and in far other forms, than those of which Mr. Maurice was thinking five-and-twenty years ago. His whole life had been one of unceasing labour for that which he believed to be truth and right, and for the practical amelioration of his fellow-creatures. He had not an enemy, unless it were here and there a bigot or a dishonest man — two classes who could not abide him, because they knew well that he could not abide them. But for the rest, those from whom he had differed most, with whom he had engaged, ere now, in the sharpest controversy, had learned to admire his sanctity, charity, courtesy — for he was the most perfect of gentlemen — as well as to respect his genius and learning. He had been welcomed to Cambridge, by all the finer spirits of the University, as Professor of Moral Philosophy; and as such, and as the parish priest of St. Edward’s, he had done his work — as far as failing health allowed — as none but he could do it. Nothing save his own too-scrupulous sense of honour had prevented him from accepting some higher ecclesiastical preferment — which he would have used, alas! not for literary leisure, nor for the physical rest which he absolutely required, but merely as an excuse for greater and more arduous toil. If such a man was not the man whom the Church of England would delight to honour, who was the man? But he was gone; and a grave among England’s worthies was all that could be offered him now; and it was offered. But those whose will on such a point was law, judged it to be more in keeping with the exquisite modesty and humility of Frederick Denison Maurice, that he should be laid out of sight, though not out of mind, by the side of his father and his mother. Well: be it so. At least that green nook at Highgate will be a sacred spot to hundreds — it may be to thousands — who owe him more than they will care to tell to any created being.

It was, after all, in this — in his personal influence — that Mr. Maurice was greatest. True, he was a great and rare thinker. Those who wish to satisfy themselves of this should measure the capaciousness of his intellect by studying — not by merely reading — his Boyle Lectures on the Religions of the world; and that Kingdom of Christ, the ablest “Apology” for the Catholic Faith which England has seen for more than two hundred years. The ablest, and perhaps practically the most successful; for it has made the Catholic Faith look living, rational, practical, and practicable, to hundreds who could rest neither in modified Puritanism nor modified Romanism, and still less in scepticism, however earnest. The fact that it is written from a Realist point of view, as all Mr. Maurice’s books are, will make it obscure to many readers. Nominalism is just now so utterly in the ascendant, that most persons seem to have lost the power of thinking, as well as of talking, by any other method. But when the tide of thought shall turn, this, and the rest of Mr. Maurice’s works, will become not only precious but luminous, to a generation which will have recollected that substance does not mean matter, that a person is not the net result of his circumstances, and that the real is not the visible Actual, but the invisible Ideal.

If anyone, again, would test Mr. Maurice’s faculty as an interpreter of Scripture, let him study the two volumes on the Gospel and the Epistles of St. John; and study, too, the two volumes on the Old Testament, which have been (as a fact) the means of delivering more than one or two from both the Rationalist and the Mythicist theories of interpretation. I mention these only as peculiar examples of Mr. Maurice’s power. To those who have read nothing of his, I would say: “Take up what book you will, you will be sure to find in it something new to you, something noble, something which, if you can act on it, will make you a better man.” And if anyone, on making the trial, should say: “But I do not understand the book. It is to me a new world;” then it must be answered: “If you wish to read only books which you can understand at first sight, confine yourself to periodical literature. As for finding yourself in a new world, is it not good sometimes to do that? — to discover how vast the universe of mind, as well as of matter, is; that it contains many worlds; and that wise and beautiful souls may and do live in more worlds than your own?” Much has been said of the obscurity of Mr. Maurice’s style. It is a question whether any great thinker will be anything but obscure at times; simply because he is possessed by conceptions beyond his powers of expression. But the conceptions may be clear enough; and it may be worth the wise man’s while to search for them under the imperfect words. Only thus — to take an illustrious instance — has St. Paul, often the most obscure of writers, become luminous to students; and there are those who will hold that St. Paul is by no means understood yet; and that the Calvinistic system which has been built upon his Epistles, has been built up upon a total ignoring of the greater part of them, and a total misunderstanding of the remainder: yet, for all that, no Christian man will lightly shut up St. Paul as too obscure for use. Really, when one considers what worthless verbiage which men have ere now, and do still, take infinite pains to make themselves fancy that they understand, one is tempted to impatience when men confess that they will not take the trouble of trying to understand Mr. Maurice.

Yet after all, I know no work which gives a fairer measure of Mr. Maurice’s intellect, both political and exegetic, and a fairer measure likewise, of the plain downright common sense which he brought to bear on each of so many subjects, than his Commentary on the very book which is supposed to have least connection with common sense, and on which common sense has as yet been seldom employed — namely, the Apocalypse of St. John. That his method of interpretation is the right one can hardly be doubted by those who perceive that it is the one and only method on which any fair exegesis is possible — namely, to ask: What must these words have meant to those to whom they were actually spoken? That Mr. Maurice is more reverent, by being more accurate, more spiritual, by being more practical, in his interpretation than commentators on this book have usually been, will be seen the more the book is studied, and found to be what any and every commentary on the Revelation ought to be — a mine of political wisdom. Sayings will be found which will escape the grasp of most readers, as indeed they do mine, so pregnant are they, and swift revealing, like the lightning-flash at night, a whole vision: but only for a moment’s space. The reader may find also details of interpretation which are open to doubt; if so, he will remember that no man would have shrunk with more horror than Mr. Maurice from the assumption of infallibility. Meanwhile, that the author’s manly confidence in the reasonableness of his method will be justified hereafter, I must hope, if the Book of Revelation is to remain, as God grant it may, the political text-book of the Christian Church.

On one matter, however, Mr. Maurice is never obscure — on questions of right and wrong. As with St. Paul, his theology, however seemingly abstruse, always results in some lesson of plain practical morality. To do the right and eschew the wrong, and that not from hope of reward or fear of punishment — in which case the right ceases to be right — but because a man loves the right and hates the wrong; about this there is no hesitation or evasion in Mr. Maurice’s writings. If any man is in search of a mere philosophy, like the neo-Platonists of old, or of a mere system of dogmas, by assenting to which he will gain a right to look down on the unorthodox, while he is absolved from the duty of becoming a better man than he is and as good a man as he can be — then let him beware of Mr. Maurice’s books, lest, while searching merely for “thoughts that breathe,” he should stumble upon “words that burn,” and were meant to burn. His books, like himself, are full of that θυμος, that capacity of indignation, which Plato says is the root of all virtues. “There was something,” it has been well said, “so awful, and yet so Christ-like in its awful sternness, in the expression which came over that beautiful face when he heard of anything base or cruel or wicked, that it brought home to the bystander our Lord’s judgment of sin.”

And here, perhaps, lay the secret of the extraordinary personal influence which he exercised; namely, in that truly formidable element which underlaid a character which (as one said of him) “combined all that was noblest in man and woman; all the tenderness and all the strength, all the sensitiveness and all the fire, of both; and with that a humility which made men feel the utter baseness, meanness, of all pretension.” For can there be true love without wholesome fear? And does not the old Elizabethan “My dear dread” express the noblest voluntary relation in which two human souls can stand to each other? Perfect love casteth out fear. Yes: but where is love perfect among imperfect beings, save a mother’s for her child? For all the rest, it is through fear that love is made perfect; fear which bridles and guides the lover with awe — even though misplaced — of the beloved one’s perfections; with dread — never misplaced — of the beloved one’s contempt. And therefore it is that souls who have the germ of nobleness within, are drawn to souls more noble than themselves, just because, needing guidance, they cling to one before whom they dare not say or do, or even think, an ignoble thing. And if these higher souls are — as they usually are — not merely formidable, but tender likewise, and true, then the influence which they may gain is unbounded, for good — or, alas! for evil — both to themselves and to those that worship them. Woe to the man who, finding that God has given him influence over human beings for their good, begins to use it after awhile, first only to carry out through them his own little system of the Universe, and found a school or sect; and at last by steady and necessary degradation, mainly to feed his own vanity and his own animal sense of power.

But Mr. Maurice, above all men whom I have ever met, conquered both these temptations. For, first, he had no system of the Universe. To have founded a sect, or even a school, would be, he once said, a sure sign that he was wrong and was leading others wrong. He was a Catholic and a Theologian, and he wished all men to be such likewise. To be so, he held, they must know God in Christ. If they knew God, then with them, as with himself, they would have the key which would unlock all knowledge, ecclesiastical, eschatological (religious, as it is commonly called), historic, political, social. Nay even, so he hoped, that knowledge of God would prove at last to be the key to the right understanding of that physical science of which he, unfortunately for the world, knew but too little, but which he accepted with a loyal trust in God, and in fact as the voice of God, which won him respect and love from men of science to whom his theology was a foreign world. If he could make men know God, and therefore if he could make men know that God was teaching them; that no man could see a thing unless God first showed it to him — then all would go well, and they might follow the Logos, with old Socrates, whithersoever he led. Therefore he tried not so much to alter men’s convictions, as, like Socrates, to make them respect their own convictions, to be true to their own deepest instincts, true to the very words which they used so carelessly, ignorant alike of their meaning and their wealth. He wished all men, all churches, all nations, to be true to the light which they had already, to whatsoever was godlike, and therefore God-given, in their own thoughts; and so to rise from their partial apprehensions, their scattered gleams of light, toward that full knowledge and light which was contained — so he said, even with his dying lips — in the orthodox Catholic faith. This was the ideal of the man and his work; and it left him neither courage nor time to found a school or promulgate a system. God had His own system: a system vaster than Augustine’s, vaster than Dante’s, vaster than all the thoughts of all thinkers, orthodox and heterodox, put together; for God was His own system, and by Him all thing’s consisted, and in Him they lived and moved and had their being; and He was here, living and working, and we were living and working in Him, and had, instead of building systems of our own, to find out His eternal laws for men, for nations, for churches; for only in obedience to them is Life. Yes, a man who held this could found no system. “Other foundation,” he used to say, “can no man lay, save that which is laid, even Jesus Christ.” And as he said it, his voice and eye told those who heard him that it was to him the most potent, the most inevitable, the most terrible, and yet the most hopeful, of all facts.

As for temptations to vanity, and love of power — he may have had to fight with them in the heyday of youth, and genius, and perhaps ambition. But the stories of his childhood are stories of the same generosity, courtesy, unselfishness, which graced his later years. At least, if he had been tempted, he had conquered. In more than five-and-twenty years, I have known no being so utterly unselfish, so utterly humble, so utterly careless of power or influence, for the mere enjoyment — and a terrible enjoyment it is — of using them. Staunch to his own opinion only when it seemed to involve some moral principle, he was almost too ready to yield it, in all practical matters, to anyone whom he supposed to possess more practical knowledge than he. To distrust himself, to accuse himself, to confess his proneness to hard judgments, while, to the eye of those who knew him and the facts, he was exercising a splendid charity and magnanimity; to hold himself up as a warning of “wasted time,” while he was, but too literally, working himself to death — this was the childlike temper which made some lower spirits now and then glad to escape from their consciousness of his superiority by patronising and pitying him; causing in him — for he was, as all such great men are like to be, instinct with genial humour — a certain quiet good-natured amusement, but nothing more.

But it was that very humility, that very self-distrust, combined so strangely with manful strength and sternness, which drew to him humble souls, self-distrustful souls, who, like him, were full of the “Divine discontent;” who lived — as perhaps all men should live — angry with themselves, ashamed of themselves, and more and more angry and ashamed as their own ideal grew, and with it their consciousness of defection from that ideal. To him, as to David in the wilderness, gathered those who were spiritually discontented and spiritually in debt; and he was a captain over them, because, like David, he talked to them, not of his own genius or his own doctrines, but of the Living God, who had helped their forefathers, and would help them likewise. How great his influence was; what an amount of teaching, consolation, reproof, instruction in righteousness, that man found time to pour into heart after heart, with a fit word for man and for woman; how wide his sympathies, how deep his understanding of the human heart; how many sorrows he has lightened; how many wandering feet set right, will never be known till the day when the secrets of all hearts are disclosed. His forthcoming biography, if, as is hoped, it contains a selection from his vast correspondence, will tell something of all this: but how little! The most valuable of his letters will be those which were meant for no eye but the recipient’s, and which no recipient would give to the world — hardly to an ideal Church; and what he has done will have to be estimated by wise men hereafter, when (as in the case of most great geniuses) a hundred indirect influences, subtle, various, often seemingly contradictory, will be found to have had their origin in Frederick Maurice.

And thus I end what little I have dared to say. There is much behind, even more worth saying, which must not be said. Perhaps some far wiser men than I will think that I have said too much already, and be inclined to answer me as Elisha of old answered the over-meddling sons of the prophets:

“Knowest thou that the Lord will take away thy master from thy head to-day?”

“Yea, I know it: hold ye your peace.”

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