Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet : An Autobiography, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter 22.

An Emersonian Sermon.

Certainly, if John Crossthwaite held the victim-of-circumstance doctrine in theory, he did not allow Mike Kelly to plead it in practice, as an extenuation of his misdeeds. Very different from his Owenite “it’s-nobody’s-fault” harangues in the debating society, or his admiration for the teacher of whom my readers shall have a glimpse shortly, was his lecture that evening to the poor Irishmen on “It’s all your own fault.” Unhappy Kelly! he sat there like a beaten cur, looking first at one of us, and then at the other, for mercy, and finding none. As soon as Crossthwaite’s tongue was tired, Mackaye’s began, on the sins of drunkenness, hastiness, improvidence, over-trustfulness, &c., &c., and, above all, on the cardinal offence of not having signed the protest years before, and spurned the dishonourable trade, as we had done. Even his most potent excuse that “a boy must live somehow,” Crossthwaite treated as contemptuously as if he had been a very Leonidas, while Mackaye chimed in with —

“An’ ye a Papist! ye talk o’ praying to saints an’ martyrs, that died in torments because they wad na do what they should na do? What ha’ ye to do wi’ martyrs? — a meeserable wretch that sells his soul for a mess o’ pottage — four slices per diem o’ thin bread-and-butter? Et propter veetam veevendi perdere causas! Dinna tell me o’ your hardships — ye’ve had your deserts — your rights were just equivalent to your mights, an’ so ye got them.”

“Faix, thin, Misther Mackaye, darlint, an’ whin did I desarve to pawn me own goose an’ board, an’ sit looking at the spidhers for the want o’ them?”

“Pawn his ain goose! Pawn himsel! pawn his needle — gin it had been worth the pawning, they’d ha’ ta’en it. An’ yet there’s a command in Deuteronomy, Ye shall na tak the millstone in pledge, for it’s a man’s life; nor yet keep his raiment ower night, but gie it the puir body back, that he may sleep in his ain claes, an’ bless ye. O— but pawnbrokers dinna care for blessings — na marketable value in them, whatsoever.”

“And the shopkeeper,” said I, “in ‘the Arabian Nights,’ refuses to take the fisherman’s net in pledge, because he gets his living thereby.”

“Ech! but, laddie, they were puir legal Jews, under carnal ordinances, an’ daur na even tak an honest five per cent interest for their money. An’ the baker o’ Bagdad, why he was a benighted heathen, ye ken, an’ deceivit by that fause prophet, Mahomet, to his eternal damnation, or he wad never ha’ gone aboot to fancy a fisherman was his brither.”

“Faix, an’ ain’t we all brothers?” asked Kelly.

“Ay, and no,” said Sandy, with an expression which would have been a smile, but for its depths of bitter earnestness; “brethren in Christ, my laddie.”

“An’ ain’t that all over the same?”

“Ask the preachers. Gin they meant brothers, they’d say brothers, be sure; but because they don’t mean brothers at a’, they say brethren — ye’ll mind, brethren — to soun’ antiquate, an’ professional, an’ perfunctory-like, for fear it should be ower real, an’ practical, an’ startling, an’ a’ that; and then jist limit it down wi’ a’ in Christ,’ for fear o’ owre wide applications, and a’ that. But

“For a’ that, and a’ that.

It’s comin’ yet, for a’ that,

When man an’ man, the warld owre,

Shall brothers be, for a’ that —

“An’ na brithren any mair at a’!”

“An’ didn’t the blessed Jesus die for all?”

“What? for heretics, Micky?”

“Bedad, thin, an’ I forgot that intirely!”

“Of course you did! It’s strange, laddie,” said he, turning to me, “that that Name suld be everywhere, fra the thunderers o’ Exeter Ha’ to this puir, feckless Paddy, the watchword o’ exclusiveness. I’m thinking ye’ll no find the workmen believe in’t, till somebody can fin’ the plan o’ making it the sign o’ universal comprehension. Gin I had na seen in my youth that a brither in Christ meant less a thousand-fold than a brither out o’ him, I might ha’ believit the noo — we’ll no say what. I’ve an owre great organ o’ marvellousness, an’ o’ veneration too, I’m afeard.”

“Ah!” said Crossthwaite, “you should come and hear Mr. Windrush to-night, about the all-embracing benevolence of the Deity, and the abomination of limiting it by all those narrow creeds and dogmas.”

“An’ wha’s Meester Windrush, then?”

“Oh, he’s an American; he was a Calvinist preacher originally, I believe; but, as he told us last Sunday evening, he soon cast away the worn-out vestures of an obsolete faith, which were fast becoming only crippling fetters.”

“An’ ran oot sarkless on the public, eh? I’m afeard there’s mony a man else that throws awa’ the gude auld plaid o’ Scots Puritanism, an’ is unco fain to cover his nakedness wi’ ony cast popinjay’s feathers he can forgather wi’. Aweel, aweel — a puir priestless age it is, the noo. We’ll e’en gang hear him the nicht, Alton, laddie; ye ha’ na darkened the kirk door this mony a day — nor I neither, mair by token.”

It was too true. I had utterly given up the whole problem of religion as insoluble. I believed in poetry, science, and democracy — and they were enough for me then; enough, at least, to leave a mighty hunger in my heart, I knew not for what. And as for Mackaye, though brought up, as he told me, a rigid Scotch Presbyterian, he had gradually ceased to attend the church of his fathers.

“It was no the kirk o’ his fathers — the auld God — trusting kirk that Clavers dragoonit down by burns and muirsides. It was a’ gane dead an’ dry; a piece of Auld–Bailey barristration anent soul-saving dodges. What did he want wi’ proofs o’ the being o’ God, an’ o’ the doctrine o’ original sin? He could see eneugh o’ them ayont the shop-door, ony tide. They made puir Rabbie Burns an anything-arian, wi’ their blethers, an’ he was near gaun the same gate.”

And, besides, he absolutely refused to enter any place of worship where there were pews. “He wadna follow after a multitude to do evil; he wad na gang before his Maker wi’ a lee in his right hand. Nae wonder folks were so afraid o’ the names o’ equality an’ britherhood, when they’d kicked them out e’en o’ the kirk o’ God. Pious folks may ca’ me a sinfu’ auld Atheist. They winna gang to a harmless stage play — an’ richt they — for fear o’ countenancing the sin that’s dune there, an’ I winna gang to the kirk, for fear o’ countenancing the sin that’s dune there, by putting down my hurdies on that stool o’ antichrist, a haspit pew!”

I was, therefore, altogether surprised at the promptitude with which he agreed to go and hear Crossthwaite’s new-found prophet. His reasons for so doing may be, I think, gathered from the conversation towards the end of this chapter.

Well, we went; and I, for my part, was charmed with Mr. Windrush’s eloquence. His style, which was altogether Emersonian, quite astonished me by its alternate bursts of what I considered brilliant declamation, and of forcible epigrammatic antithesis. I do not deny that I was a little startled by some of his doctrines, and suspected that he had not seen much, either of St. Giles’s cellars or tailors’ workshops either, when he talked of sin as “only a lower form of good. Nothing,” he informed us, “was produced in nature without pain and disturbance; and what we had been taught to call sin was, in fact, nothing but the birth-throes attendant on the progress of the species. — As for the devil, Novalis, indeed, had gone so far as to suspect him to be a necessary illusion. Novalis was a mystic, and tainted by the old creeds. The illusion was not necessary — it was disappearing before the fast-approaching meridian light of philosophic religion. Like the myths of Christianity, it had grown up in an age of superstition, when men, blind to the wondrous order of the universe, believed that supernatural beings, like the Homeric gods, actually interfered in the affairs of mortals. Science had revealed the irrevocability of the laws of nature — was man alone to be exempt from them? No. The time would come when it would be as obsolete an absurdity to talk of the temptation of a fiend, as it was now to talk of the wehrwolf, or the angel of the thunder-cloud. The metaphor might remain, doubtless, as a metaphor, in the domain of poetry, whose office was to realize, in objective symbols, the subjective ideas of the human intellect; but philosophy, and the pure sentiment of religion, which found all things, even God himself, in the recesses of its own enthusiastic heart, must abjure such a notion.”


“What!” he asked again, “shall all nature be a harmonious whole, reflecting, in every drop of dew which gems the footsteps of the morning, the infinite love and wisdom of its Maker, and man alone be excluded from his part in that concordant choir? Yet such is the doctrine of the advocates of free-will, and of sin — its phantom-bantling. Man disobey his Maker! disarrange and break the golden wheels and springs of the infinite machine! The thought were blasphemy! — impossibility! All things fulfil their destiny; and so does man, in a higher or lower sphere of being. Shall I punish the robber? Shall I curse the profligate? As soon destroy the toad, because my partial taste may judge him ugly; or doom to hell, for his carnivorous appetite, the muscanonge of my native lakes! Toad is not horrible to toad, or thief to thief. Philanthropists or statesmen may environ him with more genial circumstances, and so enable his propensities to work more directly for the good of society; but to punish him — to punish nature for daring to be nature! — Never! I may thank the Upper Destinies that they have not made me as other men are — that they have endowed me with nobler instincts, a more delicate conformation than the thief; but I have my part to play, and he has his. Why should we wish to be other than the All-wise has made us?”

“Fine doctrine that,” grumbled Sandy; “gin ye’ve first made up your mind wi’ the Pharisee, that ye are no like ither men.”

“Shall I pray, then? For what? I will coax none, natter none — not even the Supreme! I will not be absurd enough to wish to change that order, by which sun and stars, saints and sinners, alike fulfil their destinies. There is one comfort, my friends; coax and flatter as we will, he will not hear us.”

“Pleasant, for puir deevils like us!” quoth Mackaye.

“What then remains? Thanks, thanks — not of words, but of actions. Worship is a life, not a ceremony. He who would honour the Supreme, let him cheerfully succumb to the destiny which the Supreme has allotted, and, like the shell or the flower —(‘Or the pickpocket,’ added Mackaye, almost audibly)— become the happy puppet of the universal impulse. He who would honour Christ, let him become a Christ himself! Theodore of Mopsuestia — born, alas! before his time — a prophet for whom as yet no audience stood ready in the amphitheatre of souls —‘Christ!’ he was wont to say; ‘I can become Christ myself, if I will.’ Become thou Christ, my brother! He has an idea — the idea of utter submission — abnegation of his own fancied will before the supreme necessities. Fulfil that idea, and thou art he! Deny thyself, and then only wilt thou be a reality; for thou hast no self. If thou hadst a self, thou wouldst but lie in denying it — and would The Being thank thee for denying what he had given thee? But thou hast none! God is circumstance, and thou his creature! Be content! Fear not, strive not, change not, repent not! Thou art nothing! Be nothing, and thou becomest a part of all things!”

And so Mr. Windrush ended his discourse, which Crossthwaite had been all the while busily taking down in short-hand, for the edification of the readers of a certain periodical, and also for those of this my Life.

I plead guilty to having been entirely carried away by what I heard. There was so much which was true, so much more which seemed true, so much which it would have been convenient to believe true, and all put so eloquently and originally, as I then considered, that, in short, I was in raptures, and so was poor dear Crossthwaite; and as we walked home, we dinned Mr. Windrush’s praises one into each of Mackaye’s ears. The old man, however, paced on silent and meditative. At last —

“A hunder sects or so in the land o’ Gret Britain; an’ a hunder or so single preachers, each man a sect of his ain! an’ this the last fashion! Last, indeed! The moon of Calvinism’s far gone in the fourth quarter, when it’s come to the like o’ that. Truly, the soul-saving business is a’thegither fa’n to a low ebb, as Master Tummas says somewhere!”

“Well, but,” asked Crossthwaite, “was not that man, at least, splendid?”

“An’ hoo much o’ thae gran’ objectives an’ subjectives did ye comprehen’, then, Johnnie, my man?”

“Quite enough for me,” answered John, in a somewhat nettled tone.

“An’ sae did I.”

“But you ought to hear him often. You can’t judge of his system from one sermon, in this way.”

“Seestem! and what’s that like?”

“Why, he has a plan for uniting all sects and parties, on the one broad fundamental ground of the unity of God as revealed by science —”

“Verra like uniting o’ men by just pu’ing aff their claes, and telling ’em, ‘There, ye’re a’ brithers noo, on the one broad fundamental principle o’ want o’ breeks.’”

“Of course,” went on Crossthwaite, without taking notice of this interruption, “he allows full liberty of conscience. All he wishes for is the emancipation of intellect. He will allow every one, he says, to realize that idea to himself, by the representations which suit him best.”

“An’ so he has no objection to a wee playing at Papistry, gin a man finds it good to tickle up his soul?”

“Ay, he did speak of that — what did he call it? Oh! ‘one of the ways in which the Christian idea naturally embodied itself in imaginative minds!’ but the higher intellects, of course, would want fewer helps of that kind. ‘They would see’— ay, that was it —‘the pure white light of truth, without requiring those coloured refracting media.’”

“That wad depend muckle on whether the light o’ truth chose or not, I’m thinking. But, Johnnie, lad — guide us and save us! — whaur got ye a’ these gran’ outlandish words the nicht?”

“Haven’t I been taking down every one of these lectures for the press?”

“The press gang to the father o’t — and you too, for lending your han’ in the matter — for a mair accursed aristocrat I never heerd, sin’ I first ate haggis. Oh, ye gowk — ye gowk! Dinna ye see what be the upshot o’ siccan doctrin’? That every puir fellow as has no gret brains in his head will be left to his superstition, an’ his ignorance to fulfil the lusts o’ his flesh; while the few that are geniuses, or fancy themselves sae, are to ha’ the monopoly o’ this private still o’ philosophy — these carbonari, illuminati, vehmgericht, samothracian mysteries o’ bottled moonshine. An’ when that comes to pass, I’ll just gang back to my schule and my catechism, and begin again wi’ ‘who was born o’ the Virgin Mary, suffered oonder Pontius Pilate!’ Hech! lads, there’s no subjectives and objectives there, na beggarly, windy abstractions, but joost a plain fact, that God cam’ down to look for puir bodies, instead o’ leaving puir bodies to gang looking for Him. An’ here’s a pretty place to be left looking for Him in-between gin shops and gutters! A pretty Gospel for the publicans an’ harlots, to tell ’em that if their bairns are canny eneugh, they may possibly some day be allowed to believe that there is one God, and not twa! And then, by way of practical application —‘Hech! my dear, starving, simple brothers, ye manna be sae owre conscientious, and gang fashing yourselves anent being brutes an’ deevils, for the gude God’s made ye sae, and He’s verra weel content to see you sae, gin ye be content or no.’”

“Then, do you believe in the old doctrines of Christianity?” I asked.

“Dinna speir what I believe in. I canna tell ye. I’ve been seventy years trying to believe in God, and to meet anither man that believed in him. So I’m just like the Quaker o’ the town o’ Redcross, that met by himself every First-day in his ain hoose.”

“Well, but,” I asked again, “is not complete freedom of thought a glorious aim — to emancipate man’s noblest part — the intellect — from the trammels of custom and ignorance?”

“Intellect — intellect!” rejoined he, according to his fashion, catching one up at a word, and playing on that in order to answer, not what one said, but what one’s words led to. “I’m sick o’ all the talk anent intellect I hear noo. An’ what’s the use o’ intellect? ‘Aristocracy o’ intellect,’ they cry. Curse a’ aristocracies — intellectual anes, as well as anes o’ birth, or rank, or money! What! will I ca’ a man my superior, because he’s cleverer than mysel? — will I boo down to a bit o’ brains, ony mair than to a stock or a stane? Let a man prove himsel’ better than me, my laddie — honester, humbler, kinder, wi’ mair sense o’ the duty o’ man, an’ the weakness o’ man — and that man I’ll acknowledge — that man’s my king, my leader, though he war as stupid as Eppe Dalgleish, that could na count five on her fingers, and yet keepit her drucken father by her ain hands’ labour for twenty-three yeers.”

We could not agree to all this, but we made a rule of never contradicting the old sage in one of his excited moods, for fear of bringing on a week’s silent fit — a state which generally ended in his smoking himself into a bilious melancholy; but I made up my mind to be henceforth a frequent auditor of Mr. Windrush’s oratory.

“An’ sae the deevil’s dead!” said Sandy, half to himself, as he sat crooning and smoking that night over the fire. “Gone at last, puir fallow! — an’ he sae little appreciated, too! Every gowk laying his ain sins on Nickie’s back, puir Nickie! — verra like that much misunderstood politeecian, Mr. John Cade, as Charles Buller ca’d him in the Hoose o’ Commons — an’ he to be dead at last! the warld’ll seem quite unco without his auld-farrant phizog on the streets. Aweel, aweel — aiblins he’s but shammin’. —

“When pleasant Spring came on apace,

And showers began to fa’,

John Barleycorn got up again,

And sore surprised them a’.

“At ony rate, I’d no bury him till he began smell a wee strong like. It’s a grewsome thing, is premature interment, Alton, laddie!”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56