The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 84
Francis W. Newman
Francis W. Newman.
Among the glorious band termed infidels by the believers in a religion of magical metamorphosis and incantation, no name stands higher at the present day than that which heads this page. Thomas Carlyle has a wider reputation and a more authoritative position in the literary world; Darwin, Tyndall, Huxley, and Wallace are better known to scientific investigators; Emerson has a grander following of discipleship, and Spencer leads with more decisive sway in the realms of philosophy; but for a pure and unassuming life of fidelity to conscience, and lofty moral and religious teaching, the author of "Phases of Faith," "The Hebrew Monarchy," "The Soul: its Sorrows and Aspirations," and "Theism," has no superior. Many who, like myself, became acquainted with his works more than a quarter of a century ago, would fail in attempting to express the grateful reverence with which he is regarded. With the exception, perhaps, of Theodore Parker's "Discourse of Matters pertaining page 66 to Religion," and Greg's "Creed of Christendom," I know of no treatise in the English language which can so satisfactorily be placed in the hands of a youth struggling to escape from the coils of superstition as "Phases of Faith, or Passages from the History of my Creed," by Francis William Newman.
The name of John Newman, of the London banking firm of Rams-bottom, Newman, and Co., will remain known to English history as that of the father of two men so widely different, yet so distinguished, as John Henry and Francis William. The marked way in which the careers of these two have been concurrent with, and typical of, the religious conflict of the nineteenth century, has frequently been pointed out. Both were oo great to find rest in the Established Church groove in which they were placed. Both had spiritual promptings transcending the Rubric and overtopping the Thirty-nine Articles. Both sought ardently, with the whole strength of fervent natures, for truth; but the elder was impelled to look for it in authority born of human organization, the younger in the study of universal law. One brought his doubts to the test of Church dogma: the other to that of Nature. Both felt Protestantism sliding away from them like ice, melted by the heat of their own fervid aspirations; the one was left hanging by the venerable but tattered skirts of the Papacy; the other clinging to science and living present-day inspiration. John Henry has reaped his reward, by being elevated to the rank of a prince of the organization to which he surrendered his soul; the other stands untitled, but approaching that higher life where a Crown of Light and an opening for fresh service, transcending any mundane possibilities, await him.
"Here also, as before, the Evangelical clergy whom I consulted were found by me a broken reed. The clerical friend whom I had known at school wrote kindly to me, but quite declined to solve my doubts; and in other quarters I soon saw that no fresh light was to be got. One person there was at Oxford who might have seemed my natural adviser : his name, character, and religious peculiarities have so been made public property, that I need not shrink to name him—I mean my elder brother, the Rev. John Henry Newman. As a warm-hearted and generous brother, who exercised towards me paternal cares, I esteemed him, and felt a deep gratitude; as a man of various culture and peculiar genius, I admired and was proud of him; but my doctrinal religion prevented my loving him as much as he deserved, and even justified my feeling some distrust of him. He never showed any strong attraction to those whom I regarded as spiritual persons; on the contrary, I thought him stiff and cold towards them. Moreover, soon after his ordination, he had startled and distressed me by adopting the doctrine of baptismal regeneration; and in rapid succession worked out the views which I regarded as full blown "Popery." I speak of the years 1823-6. It is strange to think that twenty years more had to pass before he learnt the place to which his doctrine belonged.
In the earliest period of my Oxford residence I fell into uneasy collision with him concerning Episcopal powers. I had on one occasiou dropt something disrespectful against bishops or a bishop—something which, if it had been said about-a clergyman would have passed unnoticed; but my brother checked and reproved me—as I thought very uninstructively—for "wanting reverence towards bishops." I knew not then, and I know not now, why bishops, as such, should be more reverenced than common clergymen; or clergymen, as stick, more than common men. In the world I expected pomp, and vain show, and formality, and counterfeits; but of the Church, as Christ's own kingdom, I demanded reality, and could not digest legal fictions. I saw round me what sort of young men were preparing to be clergymen; I knew the attractions of family "livings" and fellowships, and of a respectable position and undefinable hopes of preferment. I farther knew, that when youths had become clergymen through a great variety of mixed motives, bishops were selected out of these clergy on avowedly political grounds; it therefore amazed me how a man of good sense should be able to set up a duty of religious veneration towards bishops. I was willing to honour a Lord-Bishop as a peer of Parliament; but his office was to me no guarantee of spiritual eminence. To find my brother thus stop my mouth was a puzzle, and impeded all free speech towards him. In fact I very soon left off the attempt at intimate religious intercourse with him, or of asking counsel as of one who could sympathise. We talked, indeed, a great deal on the surface of religious matters, and on some questions I was overpowered, and received a temporary bias from his superior knowledge; but as time went on, and my own intellect ripened, I distinctly felt that his arguments were too fine-drawn and subtle, often elaborately missing the moral points and the main points, to rest on some ecclesiastical fiction; and his conclusion to me was so marvellous and painful, that I constantly thought I had mistaken him. In short he was my senior by a very page 68 few years; nor was there any elder resident at Oxford accessible to me who united all the qualities which I wanted in an adviser. Nothing was left for me but to cast myself on Him who is named Father of Lights, and resolve to follow the lights which He might give, however opposed to my own prejudices, and however I might be condemned by men. This solemn engagement I made in early youth, and neither the frowns nor the grief of my brethren can make me ashamed of it in my manhood."*
It was in the spirit manifested in these concluding sentences that Francis William set out in his search for truth; it is in this spirit he has abided to the present day. Authority, merely as such, he quietly set at nought. Upon every doctrine presented to his notice, the question with him has been, not "Who formulated it?" but, "Is it true?" tested by comparison with the admitted facts of God's universe. "Is it not," he asks, "historically manifest that Authority has been the bane of Christendom?—authority, which, when established as a Church rule, means that we are to prefer sense to conscience—ostensible presumptions to spiritual insight; that we are to subject our mature to our immature convictions—progressive knowledge to some fixed standard in the past. To set up other men's inspiration as our law is to disown that teaching of God to which alone they owed their eminence. Christians were certain to degenerate themoment they began to worship apostles, and books, and church-rules, and precedent, and tradition, and thus to sip at other men's buckets instead of drawing living water from the true fountain—God himself."†
Having travelled far along the road towards spiritual freedom, he found himself, then, in the year 1830, brought face to face with the important question : "Can I subscribe to the bondage of the Church for the sake of worldly advancement?" In some shape or other, and at some portion of his career, this is the question which is presented for decision to every Freethinker, and ever has been, throughout the ages. The World or Conscience? Mammon or God? Woe to those who violate conscience at this stage of growth, but happiness and ever-increasing capacity for usefulness to all who at this supreme moment decide aright, and abide by the dictates of their higher nature.
"Tis an assured good
To seek the noblest; 'tis your only good,
Now you have seen it; for that higher vision
Poisons all meaner choice for evermore."‡
"While we were at Aleppo, I one day got into a religious discourse with a Mahominedan carpenter, which left on me a lasting impression. Among other matters, I was particularly desirous of disabusing him of the current notion of his people, that our gospels are spurious narratives of late date. I found great difficulty of expression, but the man listened to me with much attention, and I was encouraged to exert myself. He waited patiently till 1 had done, and then spoke to the following effect: 'I will tell you, sir, how the case stands. God has given to you English a great many good gifts. You make fine ships, and sharp penknives, and good cloth and cottons; and you have rich nobles and brave soldiers; and you write and print many learned books (dictionaries and grammars); all this is of God. But there is one thing that God has withheld from you, and has revealed to us, and that is the knowledge of the true religion, by which one may be saved.' When he thus ignored my argument (which was probably quite unintelligible to him), and delivered his simple protest. I was silenced, and at the same time amused. But the more I thought it over, the more instruction I saw in the case. His position towards me was exactly that of an humble Christian towards an unbelieving philosopher; nay, that of the early Apostles or Jewish prophets towards the proud, cultivated, worldly-wise, and powerful heathen. This not only showed the vanity of any argument to him, except one purely addressed to bis moral and spiritual faculties, but it also indicated to me that Ignorance has its spiritual self-suffiency as well as Krudition; and that if there is a Pride of Reason, so there is a Pride of Unreason. But though this rested on my memory, it was long before I worked out all the results of that thought."—" Phases of Faith," 5th Edition, p. 32.
"The Tractarian movement was just commencing in 1S33. My brother was taking a position in which he was bound to show that he could sacrifice private love to ecclesiastical dogma; and, upon learning that I had spoken at some small meetings of religious people (which he interpreted, I believe, to be an assuming of the priest's office), he separated himself entirely from; my private friendship and acquaintance. To the public this may have some interest, as indicating the disturbing excitement which animated that cause; but my reason for naming the fact here is solely to exhibit the practical positions into which I myself was thrown. In my brother's conduct there was not a shade of uukindness, and I have not page 70 thought of complaining of it. My distress was naturally great, until I had fully ascertained from him that I had given no personal offence. But the mischief of it went deeper. It practically cut me off from other members of my family, who were living in his house, and whose state of feeling towards me, through separation and my own agitations of mind, I totally mistook."—" Phases of Faith," 5th Ed., p. 34.
"I was in despair, and like a man thunderstruck. I had nothing more to say. Two more letters from the same hand I saw, the latter of which was to threaten some new acquaintances who were kind to me—(persons wholly unknown to him)—that if they did not desist from sheltering me, and break off intercourse, they should, as far as his influence went, themselves everywhere be cut off from Christian communion and recognition. This will suffice to indicate the sort of social persecution through which, after a succession of straggles, I found myself separated from persons whom I had trustingly admired, and on whom I had most counted for union—with whom I had fondly believed myself bound for eternity—of whom some were my previously-intimate friends, while for others, even on slight acquaintance, I would have performed menial offices and thought myself honoured—whom I still looked upon as the blessed and excellent of the earth, and the special favourites of heaven—whose company (though oftentimes they were considerably my inferiors, either in rank or in knowledge and cultivation) I would have chosen in preference to that of nobles—whom I loved solely because I thought them to love God, and of whom I asked nothing but that they would admit me as the meanest and most frail of disciples. My heart was ready to break : I wished for a woman's soul, that I might weep in floods. Oh, Dogma! Dogma! how dost thou trample under foot love, truth, conscience, justice! Was ever a Moloch worse than thou ? Burn me at the stake; then Christ will receive me, and saints beyond the grave will love me, though the saints here know me not. But now I am alone in the world; I can trust no one. The new acquaintances who barely tolerate me, and old friends whom reports have not reached—if such there be—may turn against me with animosity to-morrow, as those have done from whom I could least have imagined it. Where is union ? Where is the Church which was to convert the heathen ?—" Phases of Faith," 5th Ed., p. 36.
"In opposing and exposing notions which other people hold sacred, it is perfectly impossible to please them as to the mode. They always persuade themselves that it is the mode which they dislike, but it is really the substance of the thing. Speak in plain, simple, true words, and it is called coarse, rude, unfeeling, irreverent; speak by gentle allusion, or say only half of what you might say, and it is called a sarcasm or a sneer, and is probably derided also as tame and weak. Deal with the argument gravely and strongly, and you are thought overbearing and hard; treat it lightly (if it seem to be light in itself), and you are called flippant, contemptuous, superficial. I very much regret this universal tendency of idolaters to defend themselves by arbitrary querulousness; for they hereby tend to produce total want of sympathy with their weakness. There is such an offence as unfeeling flippancy, which sees only evil, and is blind to good. I desire to avoid it. 1 would not wilfully give needless pain in refuting error, any more than would a humane surgeon in cutting off a limb. But the work of refuting error is strictly necessary if truth is to be advanced. The negative side of every question is as essential to truth as the shadows in a picture; and whatever outcry people make against ' negative teaching,' it is certain that the apostles and prophets, whom they admire, were emphatically idol-breakers in their own day, and often very harsh ones. I cannot submit to treat as sacred that which I discern to be a hurtful superstition; nor do I choose to reason elaborately against it, if it rests on no reasons at all, or utterly absurd ones. If anybody is wounded by plain and true statements, I am sorry for bis pain, but I cannot help it. Let him learn to love Truth, as such, better than his own opinions; and his soreness will rapidly disappear."
Newman belongs essentially to that class of great men to which posterity, and not contemporaries, are destined to do justice. In honouring him, therefore, however poorly and inadequately, the Freethinkers of Sydney are anticipating the verdict of the future, and rising above the fashionable party-cries of their epoch. While the multitude around page 72 them are flinging up their caps for Caiaphas, they raise a feeble but penetrating voice on behalf of one whom the crowd despise. While the million huzzahs are being roared in wonder at the sky-rocket, they point with quivering finger and a faint hosanna to the steadfast splendour of the star beyond.
* "Phases of Faith," 5th Edition, p. 7.
† "The Soul: its Sorrows and its Aspirations."—8th Edition, p. 161.
‡ George Eliot.