My Days and My Ways
CHAPTER THIRTEEN: A Brush with Atheism.
We had to wait for a month before we could get away from Huddersfield. Meanwhile, Fowler and Wells had gone forward to Leeds, a large manufacturing town about 16 miles off, where in due time we joined them. Before doing so, we had to dispose of our furniture, which we could only do at a sacrifice.
Looking back, I can see what an indiscreet proceeding this braking up of our first settlement was, and how much wiser, as this world goes, it would have been to have declined the specious attractions of the American firm, and remained rooted in a neighbourhood where, with all its limitations and drawbacks, a steady quiet development would have been
More humanising on some points, and more contributive to the peace and well-being that all men naturally place before them as the aim of all their efforts. We should have been moored in a quiet creek, as it were, and where the tranquillities and sweetnesses of a composed life could have been enjoyed, instead of having to buffet with the winds and waves that were awaiting us down the river in the open sea.
However, as the Scriptures testify, “it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps,” for when he thinks he is grasping the helm in the most assiduous and clear-headed fashion, who knows but the brain-promptings that guide his arm are the secret volitions of Him “in whose hand our breath is, and whose are all our ways.” Had we remained in Huddersfield our subsequent course must have been entirely different; for though we returned in no great length of time, influences were started into action by our first departure, that led to a second, and all that may have come of that.
Two things helped us to decide on the departure. We had lost a little daughter, who came to us at the cot in Hebble Row some 12 months after our assumption of matrimonial bonds. (By the way, we have found the said bonds such as we would not throw off. We have met a few, in our time, whose experience has resembled our own in this respect; but where we have met one case of this sort, we have met a hundred of the other sort – whose marriage wreaths were all faded and withered within a few months, and whose golden links have turned to iron fetters. There must be some reason for the difference. There is. All depends upon the character of the wedded people. If the fear of God and regard for duty and the hope of futurity in Christ prevail on both sides, there will be lasting sweetness, because neither side leans too much on the other, and neither looks to the present for the realisation of life’s meaning; yet both do their duty as partners in the pact, even if natural motive fail. But if there is nothing but natural ignorance of God on each side, and natural seeking for pleasure and ministration, there will come, with the inevitable failings of nature, little breaks under stress – acts of inconsiderateness, expressions of haste that will act as escapes of steam, which scald and destroy. Scald wounds will heal with time, but not with repetitions going on; and this is the danger, that when once this sort of things sets in, it is liable to become chronic, and marriage degenerates to a mere lodging-house convenience, and sour at that, instead of being what it was designed to be, a partnership of sweet and helpful adjustment: a noble communion of life – a fountain of love and light in the arid desolation that belongs to the things of evil that must prevail during the hiding of God’s face from the children of men.)
The loss of our blue-eyed life-blossom, whom we called Agnes, after an interesting and spiritually-minded sister of her mother’s who died two years before, was naturally a deep sorrow to young people, who generally feel they can never get over what may deeply grieve them. It would have been a grief to us, even if we could have believed our darling had gone to be an angel in heaven. It was doubly so in the view which truth compelled us to entertain. We had learnt that life was life, and that death was death. We had not learnt the inherited and universal view, that there is no death, and that what we call death is the state of having passed to another life. In this enlightenment, there was great emancipation from the difficulties that beset the whole question of religion from the immortal-soul and present-state-of-the-human-race point of view. But there was also great aggravation to personal bereavement when death came before the hope of life had opportunity to begin with the belief and obedience of the gospel.
There was an advantage, perhaps, in such a test of personal conviction. I had been told that when I had children in the grave, I would change my mind about the state of the dead. I felt that it would not be so: that the accident of personal experience could make no difference to truth perceived on evidence. Still, sometimes we deceive ourselves in our theoretical constructions. It was as well to have the matter put to the proof. I keenly felt it would have been a most welcome salve to lacerated feeling if I could have believed the beautiful fable; but I cast if from me with a “Get thee behind me, Satan.” I recognised that in the wisdom of God, “sin had reigned unto death”; that God had given and God had taken away, and that it was the part of created intelligence to bow in absolute submission. Still, it was hard work for weak human nature. A sense of desolation was left which, perhaps, predisposed us to fall in with a proposal which opened the prospect of travel.
The other thing that helped in the same direction was the prevalance of atheism in Huddersfield and neighbourhood. Bradlaugh was a frequent visitor, and dew crowded and enthusiastic audiences. A “Rev.” Joseph Barker, who had gone over to infidelity, was also very popular, and received a wide and gleeful hearing. He was an able lecturer, with a fine, sonorous, though somewhat nasal voice – original in matter, free and voluble in style. He was also a good singer, and used to finish his lectures with a platform solo on “The good time coming” or some such topic.
Nobody seemed able to answer these men, and the gullible public of unbelief was in high feather all through the district. I contrived to meet the latter gentleman at the house of a mutual friend – “Joe” somebody or other, beginning with an “S”. This friend was somewhat interested in the things I had brought to his notice, but they could take no hold of him because of his lack of faith in the Bible. He said if the Bible was right, the things I said were true; but how could he believe in the Bible in the face of all that these able men advanced against it. I asked him to bring me face to face with them; and the result was a tea-table meeting with Barker. I was introduced as a friend who believed in the Bible. During tea, conversation soon came to be limited to me and Mr. Barker. My object was to show, by questions addressed to him, how shallow the grounds of unbelief were, for the benefit of the friend who was entertaining us. I kept to the case of Paul, the writer of most of the New Testament epistles.
Mr. Barker did not enjoy my tactics at all. After a while, he tried to evade the force of Paul’s case by saying that Paul changed his min when he was old. Asked for a proof of this, he quoted the remark in I Cor. 13 that “When I became a man, I threw away childish things.” I asked if it was not after Paul became a man that he embraced the faith and service of Christ, and whether he did not die in them and whether it was not the things of literal childhood which every man threw away, that Paul was referring to in the verse quoted. –At this point, Mr. Barker looked at his watch, and though tea was not finished, he rose and said he had an appointment to keep –and thereupon he vanished from the room without the usual courtesies. Unprincipled jugglers with facts, I have always found them to be. Whether friend “Joe” was that in this case, I now remember not. He was amused, but I rather think it went no further.
In a manuscript magazine which I had tried to carry on during the first year of my Huddersfield residence (a single copy sent from friend to friend through the post, but which did not get beyond, perhaps, the fourth or fifth number), I had sent myself out particularly for the answering of infidel objections, so that I had acquired a certain readiness in this direction, which enabled me to beard such a considerable lion as Mr. Barker had, at that time, grown to. In course of time, Mr. Barker apostatized from his apostasy and became a professed Christian again, and was received as a prodigal son into the Wesleyan ranks which he had quitted. He died some years ago, and before his death, he called witnesses to his bedside and professed his faith in the things he so influentially undermined during the prime of his manhood. –Mr. Bradlaugh’s voice is also hushed under the turf. Their influence at the time was great in Yorkshire, and tended to create such a state of spiritual desolation – (of the arid type of the Great Sahara) – that I felt the prospect of a change rater acceptable from a spiritual point of view.
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