[In Chapter 40 of Robert Elsemere Ward's protagonist explains his religious position to a group of workers from London's East End, most of them skilled workers and artisans, and this meeting becomes the founding moment of his New Brotherhood of Christ. The last paragraph of this passage closely resembles the closing of Ruskin's “Traffic,” which may well have been a source. — George P. Landow]
God only draws closer . . . as miracle disappears
am not a Unitarian, nor am I an English Churchman. A year ago I was the rector of an English country parish, where I should have been proud, so far as personal happiness went, to spend my life. Last autumn I left it and resigned my orders because I could no longer accept the creed of the English Church. . . . Since then I have joined no other religious association. But it is not — God forbid! — because there is nothing left me to believe, but because in this transition England it is well for a man who has broken with the old things, to be very patient. No good can come of forcing opinion or agreement prematurely. A generation, nay, more, may have to spend itself in mere waiting and preparing for those new leaders and those new forms of corporate action which any great revolution of opinion, such as that we are now living through, has always produced in the past, and will, we are justified in believing, produce again. But the hour and the men will come, and "they also serve who only stand and wait!" . . . .
“I am to speak to you to-night of the Jesus of history, but not only as an historian. History is good, but religion is better! — and if Jesus of Nazareth concerned me, and, in my belief, concerned you, only as an historical figure, I should not be here to-night.
“But if I am to talk religion to you, and I have begun by telling you I am not this and not that, it seems to me that for mere clearness' sake, for the sake of that round and whole image of thought which I want to present to you, you must let me run through a preliminary confession of faith — as short and simple as I can make it. You must let me describe certain views of the universe and of man's place in it, which make the framework, as it were, into which I shall ask you to fit the picture of Jesus which will come after. . . .
“My friends,” he said at last, speaking to the crowded benches of London workmen with the same simplicity he would have used toward his boys at Murewell, “the man who is addressing you to-night believes in God; and in Conscience, which is God's witness in the soul; and in Experience, which is at once the record and the instrument of man's education at God's hands. He places his whole trust, for life, and death, "in God the Father Almighty!" — in that force at the root of things which is revealed to us whenever a man helps his neighbor, or a mother denies herself for her child; whenever a soldier dies without a murmur for his country, or a sailor puts out in the darkness to rescue the perishing; whenever a workman throws mind and conscience into his work, or a statesman labors not for his own gain but for that of the State! He believes in an Eternal Goodness — -and an Eternal Mind — of which Nature and Man are the continuous and the only revelation.'... “There,” he said slowly, “in the unbroken sequences of nature, in the physical history of the world, in the long history of man, physical, intellectual, moral — there lies the revelation of God. There is no other, my friends!”
Then, while the room hung on his words, he entered on a brief exposition of the text, “Miracles do not happen,” restating Hume's old argument, and adding to it some of the most cogent of those modern arguments drawn from literature, from history, from the comparative study of religions and religious evidence, which were not practically at Hume's disposal, but which are now affecting the popular mind as Hume's reasoning could never have affected it.
“We are now able to show how miracle, or the belief in it, which is the same thing, comes into being. The study of miracle in all nations, and under all conditions, yields everywhere the same results. Miracle may be the child of imagination, of love, nay, of a passionate sincerity, but invariably it lives with ignorance and is withered by knowledge!”
And then, with lightning unexpectedness, he turned upon his audience, as though the ardent soul reacted at once against a strain of mere negation. “But do not let yourselves imagine for an instant that, because in a rational view of history there is no place for a Resurrection and Ascension, therefore you may profitably allow yourself a mean and miserable mirth of this sort over the past!” — and his outstretched hand struck the newspapers beside him with passion — 'Do not imagine for an instant that what is binding, adorable, beautiful in that past is done away with when miracle is given up! No, thank God! We still "live by admiration, hope, and love." God only draws closer, great men become greater, human life more wonderful as miracle disappears. Woe to you if you cannot see it! — it is the testing truth of our day.” . . .
“You think — because it is becoming plain to the modern eye that the ignorant love of his first followers wreathed his life in legend, that therefore you can escape from Jesus of Nazareth, you can put him aside as though he had never been? Folly! Do what you will, you cannot escape him. His life and death underlie our institutions as the alphabet underlies our literature. Just as the lives of Buddha and of Mohammed are wrought ineffaceably into the civilization of Africa and Asia, so the life of Jesus is wrought ineffaceably into the higher civilization, the nobler social conceptions of Europe. It is wrought into your being and into mine. We are what we are to-night, as Englishmen and as citizens, largely because a Galilean peasant was born and grew to manhood, and preached, and loved, and died. . . .
'To reconceive the Christ! It is the special task of our age, though in some sort and degree it has been the ever recurring task of Europe since the beginning. It is your urgent business and mine — at this moment — to do our very utmost to bring this life of Jesus, our precious, invaluable possession as a people, back into some real and cogent relation with our modern lives and beliefs and hopes. . . . If we turn away from the true Jesus of Nazareth because he has been disfigured and misrepresented by the Churches we turn away from that in which our weak will; and desponding souls are meant to find their most obvious and natural help and inspiration from that symbol of the Divine, which, of necessity, means' most to us. No! give him back your hearts — be ashamed that you have ever forgotten your debt to him! Let combination and brotherhood do for the newer and simpler faith what they did once for the old — let them give it a practical shape, a practical grip on human life. Then we too shall have our Easter! — we too shall have the right to say, He is not here, he is risen. Not here — in legend, in miracle, in the beautiful out-worn forms and crystallizations of older thought. He is risen — in a wiser reverence and a more reasonable love; risen in new forms of social help inspired by his memory, called afresh by his name!
- The Crisis of Faith in Mrs. Humphry Ward's Robert Elsmere
- “It is hard, it is bitter” — Robert Elsemere's loss of belief
- “There are drawbacks to having a St. Elizabeth for a sister” — Robert Elsemere's Catherine Leyburn
Ward, Mrs. Humphry. Robert Elsemere. Ed. Clyde de L. Ryals. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1967.
Ward, Mrs. Humphry. Robert Elsemere. Boston: DeWolfe, Fiske & Co., n.d. Project Gutenberg E-Book produced by Andrew Templeton and David Widger. Last Updated: February 7, 2013. Web. 20 July 2014.
Last modified 27 July 2014