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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 60

Letters to Bon-Accordians

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Letters to Bon-Accordians.

To the Rev.

A. M. Bannatyne

, Minister of Free Union Church.

Rev. Sir,—No doubt you have heard the story about Henry Ward Beecher, for it has been often printed. He had been giving utterance at some meeting to views that greatly incensed a gentleman of the press, who thus wrote him on the following day: "Dear Mr. Beecher,—You made an ass of yourself yesterday,—Yours truly." The famous preacher replied: "Dear sir,—The Lord saved you the trouble of making an ass of yourself, by making you an ass at the beginning, and his work still stands sure,—H. W. Beecher." I am greatly perplexed whether to send you the journalist's note or Beecher's retort. The best I can think of is, to make you a present of them both. Some men are known only by making themselves ridiculous; you are now well known. I hope you are satisfied.

The proceedings at a Presbytery are rarely read by a layman, save when there is a scene, a heresy hunt, or a scandal, or a "close-bosomed, whirling" motion, such as the reverend fathers (and grandmothers) of the Free Presbytery passed the other day. To thoughtful onlookers the "dancing" proceedings of the reverend court induce the belief that its members have finally resolved to make religion absurd and themselves ridiculous. One does not know whether to laugh or to cry—to laugh at your folly, or to cry over your ignorance of human nature. Yet to a layman there is some occasion for indignation at the extraordinary conceit of a few men,—ministers, indeed, who talk like angels and live like men—some of them with brains, as Carlyle would impudently put it, "not bigger than a rabbit's," with a knowledge of the world not better than a child's, abounding mostly in everything but commonsense—who meet together in holy conspiracy against the amusements of the people, and condemn, with solemn faces, amid the hypocritical odour of sanctity, the only recreations that can be page 3 cheaply procured and universally enjoyed by the mass of man-kind. It is time to talk plainly. Ministers, as a rule, are allowed to make the most extraordinary statements without fear of contradiction, to enunciate the most astounding paradoxes as if they were axioms of Euclid. You thus get into a slovenly mode of thought. Dean Alford went straight to the point, when he declared: "I mean to say this—that there is many a thing said in many a sermon that—shut the preacher into a room with an intelligent parishioner, eye to eye—he daren't stick to. You know, and I know, what fudge it is!" From the respect due to the pulpit, we will not contradict you in church; but when you leave your own sphere (in nubibus), and come down from the pulpit, and enter the meetings of our young people, not to elevate them with your presence, but to demoralise them by your gross suspicions, and impudent and rude insinuations, do not think, rev. sir, that you will here be met in silent awe; but we will ask you, cui bono? We will ask you, By what authority doest thou these things?

As the circumstance that has been the immediate cause of my writing you, is your Resolution in the Presbytery and speech "thereanent," I shall begin with them, and come, if space permit, to other matters presently.

First, then, as to dancing per se. Some dozen of you have met in a hall, and have, though you have not distinctly censured dancing, spoken so ambiguously on the subject, that weak-minded and honest people will be harassed with doubts as to how they are to conduct themselves. In truth, you have laid one more burden on the people, grievous to be borne. And no less true is it that you will, none of you, touch the burden with the tip of your reverend fingers. When you so loudly condemn dancing assemblies and such amusements, you are not in any way infringing your own liberty. You have enjoyments innumerable otherwise. Indeed, it would be as great a hardship, and would be equally just, to compel you to dance once a week, as it is to deny the right of dancing to any man or woman. Now, I am not going to enter with you into any hair-splitting discussion as to the meaning of any particular passage of the Bible. Your endless and opposite assertions have well-nigh convinced us, that you can prove both sides of every dispute from the Scriptures, giving chapter and verse. To unravel the meaning, therefore, of particular passages would page 4 only darken counsel with words, and obliterate the matter in the mists of theology and nonsense. One can hardly have patience to discuss the subject. Bring it to the touch-stone of common sense. Do you think, sir, that the great All-Father, Who you believe has created the universe, of which this earth is (not the centre, but) a molecule, and the children of men but microscopic atoms—do you think that a beneficent Creator is watching with angry looks some of His children here enjoying themselves, only, indeed, lifting their feet a little more quickly and gracefully than usual? Do you think so? And if you do—what about it? You are not the great All-Father; and are we to be guided by the cobwebs of theology, and the bigoted flounderings of a morose and narrow mind? By no means. But you may say that you do not condemn dancing per se, only the alleged evils connected with it. If so, turn your attention to these evils, and do not condemn a public good in an attempt to cure a possible evil that is present in all human enjoyments. Preach less theology and more religion; have less hair-splitting and give us common-sense.

"Sick are we of idle words, past all reconciling—
Words that weary and perplex, and pander, and conceal."

It is not merely that you will do no good by your indiscriminate condemnation of popular amusements, but you do a positive, an immediate, and grievous harm. You confuse the moral judgment of the people—and that, is worse, infinitely worse, than all the dancing in Christendom. When a young man is in the habit of hearing the most trivial amusements—which, at the worst, are due only to thoughtlessness that will cure itself but too soon in the bitter struggle of life—condemned in language fitted only for the greatest moral turpitude, his judgment is upset As he goes abroad a bit, he finds that what he was taught to believe was a grievous sin, is regarded by even the best of men as a happy and lawful recreation. He doubts all his moral training, and throws his scruples about dancing and Sunday walking overboard—along with his virtue. The monstrous rigidness (and hypocrisy) of the Scottish Sabbath is now happily passing away; but, in the past, it has been the ruin of many a timorous conscience and life. A young man with plenty animal spirits, hard working all the week, could not but seek the fresh air of a Sunday by the sea-shore and the river bank; but his misguided and hard pressed conscience told him that he was "breaking the Saw-bath." And he could not but break the page 5 Sabbath. So, after crushing his scruples in that respect, and being compelled to harden himself against the sneers and condemnation of the unco' guid, he has gone from this innocent recreation to the worst of crimes.

Again, by your condemnation of the people's amusements, you have lessened the dignity and usefulness of Church Courts. It is certain that no sane man will heed your injunctions about dancing; but the evil is, by their increasing disrespect (almost contempt) for Church Courts, the people may be led to disregard your injunctions, and wise and temperate guidance, when they are really in need of them and you fitted to guide. The Salvation Army affords an almost alarming and certainly conclusive instance in point. Thirty years ago, the ministers of Scotland would have stamped out this sincere mockery of religion in a few weeks. Now, you dare not; you are impotent. The Churches of this country have so invariably arranged themselves on the side of existing tyrannies and against the people, they have condemned so many things and then accepted them, that now, at last, they have become weak-kneed, and, after confusing the people, have now made "confusion worse confounded" by confusing themselves. Never was there a more wanton or solemn mockery of religion than is this Salvation Army. It is religion in masquerade. It is nothing that its officers are sincere: sincere ignorance in power, and as a guide, is the worst of all calamities—and many of them are certainly not sincere. A lot of ignorant men and women—as ignorant of history as they are of human nature—rant about problems of which the wisest men are in profound ignorance, as if they were discussing merely the best manner of cleaning the street or washing their faces. You assume to be guided in all things by the Bible. Why, then, do you not condemn what the Bible condemns, and leave that alone of which the Scriptures say nothing? The Bible says nothing about dancing, save in the way of approvingly mentioning the fact of its existence; but it does most distinctly condemn the chief features of the Salvation Army. What are its distinctive features? Are they not the great disorder (often profanity) of its services, and its employment of women preachers? Can anything be more emphatic than this from Paul?—"Let your women keep silence in the Churches, for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law . . . it is a shame for women to speak in the page 6 Church." Again, he says, possibly having in view the emotional nature of women as preachers (only four verses on): "Let all things be done decently and in order." Well, now, the branch of the Salvation Army in this very town is (or was a short time ago) conducted or commanded solely by women. Yet this distinct condemnation of the Salvation Army is quite overlooked by your Presbytery; and you spend your time in making speeches, abounding in "passages that lead to nothing," about dancing and theatres. I need hardly stop, even for a moment, to consider the hair-splitting objection that the so-called Barracks of the Army cannot be regarded as "Churches," and that, therefore, women may preach in them. Independently of the fact that the Churches of Paul's time were much more like the Salvation Barracks than the costly fabrics now raised to the glory of man; it is sufficient only to remind you (of what you know very well) that the word in the Greek text—ekklesia—means just a Christian "gathering" or "assembly." That, so far as the Bible is concerned, ought to be conclusive. I, for my part, do not say women should not talk in public; far from it; for they are only half emancipated in this country even yet; but what I do venture to say is, that your Courts ought to be consistent, and if you are going to import injunctions that were suitable to the civilisation of the first century into that of the nineteenth, you should condemn this preaching by women. Besides, sir, your "craft is in danger"; and I quite believe that any old woman of your poor congregation would preach something more human, and, therefore, more god-like, than your own brutal Calvinism. In passing, I humbly submit that Paul's admonitions against women evidence one of his idiosyncrasies; and that the evidently enjoined subjection of women, so conspicuous in his writings, is only one of the many Oriental peculiarities latent, sometimes, indeed, prominent, in the Bible.

Once more, your Resolution and speeches, besides con-fusing the moral judgment of the people, and lessening the usefulness of church courts, produce another harm. They have a demoralising tendency on young people, and will, probably, produce results contrary to those expected. Here, however, I will digress for a moment to make a remark that you will perhaps think rather strong. It is this, that strict truthfulness—I need not say strict; for truth does not admit of degrees—truthfulness is not, in their speeches, and when they have a page 7 case to make out, a characteristic any more of ministers than of lawyers. For an example in point I need not go farther than your meeting of Presbytery, or than your own speech. Providence seems to have created you incapable of enjoying humour or of making a joke; but it is a pity that you should, in your praiseworthy endeavours in that line, exaggerate quite beyond the bounds of legitimate description. You say, "scores upon scores" of young men are taught in clubs to "drink beer as freely as if it were water, whisky as readily as if it were sweet milk, and bitters as copiously as if they were butter-milk." To quote Dean Alford again, "You know, and I know, what fudge that is." Perhaps it is only a detail that it is not even true. Then take your friend, Mr. Selkirk. He declared that the language now heard in the street, compared with eleven years back, is more profane and obscene, and that he is compelled to stop in the streets and reprove it. Here, again, I am certain that, in the former part of this assertion, the reverend gentleman was drawing on his imagination. On the contrary, I fearlessly assert that profane and obscene language has not increased, and it is diminishing every day. What is more, profane and obscene language in the street is a proof only of lack of education. The absence of it would not prove a bit that people were more religious—only that they were more educated. Your upper classes (so-called) are just as profane and obscene as the poor fellows who may occasionally lack sufficient self-control to prevent their giving expression to an oath in the street. And I wish to say right here, that it is a most unjust proceeding, and one calculated to degrade the law in the eyes of the people, that two policemen (who themselves swear like other mortals) should drag a man before a merchant—(the merchant is called a "Baillie," which, no doubt, means "a merchant that is utterly untrained in the sifting of evidence and ignorant of law")—and have him fined a week's wages for a hasty expression. Yet, rev. sir, is it not a woeful, even a damnific, condemnation of your profession, of its methods, and of your own Calvinistic creed, that, in this nineteenth century of grace, men should be dragged into the Police Court for obscenity in this fairest city of the kingdom, the most "Christian" country of the world? I think that if ministers attended a good deal more to how people lived than to what they believed, there would be a vast deal less profanity and obscenity all the world over. I said at the beginning of this paragraph that your speeches have a demoralising tendency page 8 on the young; and I think that, if you had a little knowledge of human nature, you would try different methods than that of giving loudest utterance to your grossest suspicions. You declare, in your most wordy and inelegant language, that our public parks are prostituted, even on the Lord's day, to frivolity and precociously lustful companionship and imprudent and impertinent indecency." This is another instance of how you attend to such a detail as truth; just more of your "fudge." But how did you come by this knowledge? I daresay I have been in the public parks as often as you in recent years; but I never saw the dirt that was so conspicuous to you. Nor do I hear the bad language so present to the ears of Mr. Selkirk in the street. I am compelled to say, that "scenes" in your Presbyteries and scandals in the churches are oftener present to my ears. Why, this very meeting in which you so piously condemned dancing, there was shown anything but a desire to avoid the appearance of conformity to the ways of the world. How ready you all are to "vindicate your position" How often is there "much ado about nothing!" Then, of course, "you cherish nothing." Mr. Bell declared, "I cherish nothing—he may do so if he pleases." Just so. Coleridge about hit the mark when he said—"The Devil's darling sin is the pride that apes humility." The fact is, we hardly see a meeting at which ministers are present but there is a "scene" of some sort. It requires just two of them to make a "row." Let School and Parochial Boards from Caithness to Galway bear witness. But to resume. Your language about "precociously lustful companionship," I have said, is demoralising to young people. Why? For the well-known reason that people tend to do what is expected of them. What was the secret of Arnold of Rugby's success as a former of character in the young, but that he invariably acted towards his pupils as if none of them would think of deceiving him? They felt that they were on their honour. They lived up to his expectation. I think that it was Frederick Robertson who said that (were it not a Satanic task) he would undertake to make a truthful boy a consummate liar, simply by always suspecting him. And I will venture to say: if you want to make young people immoral, just let them know that, you always suspect them. It is your continuous libelling of the theatres that makes them so bad as they are. If you want sir, to benefit our poor humanity in its many earnest struggles page 9 after the good, do not for ever be slandering us and our recreations; come down from the clouds (where you have no right to be); regard things as they are a little more, not as you think they ought to be; do not condemn, but elevate the moral tone of our amusements. If you want to purify our theatres, do not stand for ever on your pinnacle of assumed goodness; but come down with us to the threatre. Let us see a row of ministers in the pit—recognising that they are bone of our bone—and I promise you that vice there, if it be there, will hide its shameful head, and you will do incalculable good by the tone that you cannot fail to impart. You will find, too, that the theatre in this city has no more evil connected with it than there is with any other gathering of our humanity. Indeed, it would be as reasonable to close some of your churches of a Sunday night as to close the theatre. You need not, for once in your life, be so afraid of "the pit;" you will be very courteously treated, and you will have pleasure in observing how quickly that stout gentleman puts out any "impertinent indecency."

Lastly, your motion and speeches tend to foster not religion but religiosity, not purity but hypocrisy, not uprightness but cant. Some of us have been brought up so much in the nurture and fear of the Lord, the Shorter Catechism, and Sunday, that we are not able either to dance, or to play cards, or to drink whisky. It is easy, then, for some of us to condemn with a pious air "the sin of dancing," while we make a hell for others, by our gossiping and uncharitableness and bad temper. I see you are particular in your motion about our avoiding all "appearance of conformity to the world." That is the easiest thing possible. That devout rascal of the Glasgow Bank, who could not read Monday's newspaper because it was printed on Sunday, did it very successfully; yet he could rob the widow and the fatherless—

"With the fat affectionate smile
That makes the widow lean,
Who, never naming God except for gain,
So never took that awful name in vain—
Made Him his catspaw, and the Cross his tool,
And Christ the bait to trap his dupe and fool."

Again, it is amusing (and contemptible) to see how Good Words avoids "the appearance of conformity to the World." Dr. Macleod has got a microscopic or homoeopathic dose of page 10 Christianity sandwiched between two novels. Now, you will notice that these three-volume novels are called "stories" while they appear in the pages of Good Words; but after they have run their pious course there, they come forth as "yellow-backs!" And people that have a specially pious horror of novels will actually read these "stories" on Sunday! A more amusing instance of avoiding the wicked "appearance" of the "world" is seen in connection with the organ playing that goes on in houses of a Sunday. Now, you will agree that most of this playing is to "kill time" and give pleasure to those listening; but it is all done under the pious "appearance" of "praising God." The chief requisites are, that this day's music must be very slow, solemn, and execrably bad. But I submit that, as it is to please only themselves that they are playing, it does not matter to the Almighty whether it be the Hundreth Psalm or the "Laird O' Cockpen." Perhaps, you will not agree with me, that stories and music of all kinds are most proper of a Sunday; but, at all events, it cannot be affirmed that this endeavour to avoid "the appearance of conformity to the world" is commendable. Whatever we are, let us be honest; for a pious knave is the worst of all possible rogues.

Before leaving the matter of your Resolution, I should like to refer to one other point, viz., betting. No condemnation of this vice can be too severe. But the harmful thing is, that you should have so little moral perception as to mix up dancing with it, and condemn, in the same sentence, those villainous weekly club dances (which should be stopped or regulated), and annual dances, and balls of associations, and trades. But it is a wonder that you said nothing of the devout gambling that goes on at Church Bazaars, as a means of raising (not the devil or the wind, but) temples to the glory of God. Just as Dr. Macleod makes novels have a pious look by calling them "stories," so here they give gambling the less wicked "appearance" of "raffling." Truly it is sad, that ministers should be so very little above this wicked world as to act on the principle: "Get money, if you can honestly; but, at all events, get money."

In conclusion, I desire to refer to one or two matters of importance, not mentioned in your present Resolution and speeches. Not long since, a curious pastoral letter was read from our pulpits, and it condemned, after the manner of the Encyclical of old Pio Nono, "the chief errors and follies of our page 11 time." But it fell on dull ears and hard hearts, and happily passed away like an April shower. We were told not to bathe on Sunday. Why? Because the noodles of the Aberdeen Presbyteries had so conspired. You never say a word, however, about one's taking a bath in one's house. But ordinary mortals have no baths in their house; they must go where the Creator intended they should—to the sea and the river. So it comes to this, that the rich man may enjoy his bath inside, but if a working man goes to the sea he will be overwhelmed in the wrath of Calvin and Mr. Bannatyne! The same is true of Museums. The wealthy lord may enjoy his gallery of pictures and statuary on Sunday at ease in his house, and have a bishop to dine with him; but if the working man, who cannot get during the week, were to visit a Museum on Sunday, you would roast him for ever for his pains.

But, rev. sir, there are many things calling for your attention, much more urgently than dancing. Our Government is just going to spend some £5,000,000 on more instruments of cruelty and bloodshed. Cannot you do something—not to stop the building of the ships, but—to raise and increase the cry, now being heard louder and louder all over Europe, against all wars—that men in this nineteenth century of grace shall not always settle disputes like fiends. Your advocacy of temperance is very praiseworthy. You have a Temperance League spending its energies—not in persuading men to be teetotal or temperate but—to induce a bare majority to forcibly close the public-houses. You will never make people virtuous by means of force and the police. But could you not start a great Anti-War League, a powerful league, independent of party, to force Governments to settle their differences like rational beings and not like bears? Far more money is spent in war material than in all the vices of Christendom. And how cruel and unrelenting is war! how it drains off our strongest men, how it breaks the innocent heart, how it kills the brave! The distress of the Queen, on the eve of the battle of Tel-el-Kebir, was nothing to that of thousands of our country. The Queen's son was never in any danger, and never likely to be; and even if he had followed the brave, the Queen's loss were nothing to that of the wives and sisters of our soldiers who, with broken hearts, lost their all—to live on in penury and sorrow all their days, that the bonds of money-lenders may be safe.

To raise a constant, ever-increasing, loud, angry cry page 12 against war, rev. sir, would be more becoming the dignity and sphere of your Church Courts than absurdities about theatres and dancing. Churches, in the past, have never been famous for their abhorrence of war; indeed, the most conspicuous act His Grace of Canterbury performs for his £15,000 a-year is, to compose a prayer to the great All-Father that He will help to murder a thousand men. The bullets of the soldiers have too often been the sequel to the Bibles of the missionaries, How long such a state of things is to continue, we cannot predict; but it will not be kept up when the working man refuses to pay any longer for the heart-rending devilment.

To sum up. We have found that dancing, in itself, cannot be regarded as sinful, and that if there are, in some cases, evils connected with it, they form a condemnation not of dancing but of your profession and its methods; that by condemning vices and lawful recreations in the same language, you confuse the moral judgment of the people, and bring church courts into disrespect, almost contempt; that your speeches, by continually slandering us and our amusements, tend not to elevate but to demoralise; that you are all woefully inconsistent, permitting in the palace what you condemn in the hut; that you foster hypocrisy and cant; that your brethren, particularly those of the State Kirk, gamble to glorify God; that, if cleanliness be next to godliness, one ought to bathe on Sunday if one has not bathed during the week, and whether or not; that one may on a Sunday look at the pictures in a gallery as innocently as in a private house without fear of either Calvin or the Devil; and, finally, that, although you and your brethren are servants of the Prince of Peace, you are forever quarrelling among yourselves, and have never been known, on principle, to condemn a war. We have seen, too, that you talk mostly "fudge," that you are a ridiculous man, that everybody knows it, and that nevertheless you cannot help it, and that you are probably satisfied.

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