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Recollections of James Martineau: with some letters from him and an essay on his religion online

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imagination and stifled the more vivid forms of

If these things be so, we cannot wonder that
men hesitate to become Unitarians. We prefer
twilight to the bleak and parching dryness of
merely rationalistic enlightenment. We hover
between modified orthodoxy and mysticism.
We retain our old doctrines, and try to put more
meaning into them. We recognise their merely
provisional nature, even whilst we continue to
learn from them. We do not mistake the " candle
of the Lord " for the full blaze of our spiritual
sun. We acknowledge that our present creeds
are " things temporal " and not " things eternal."
We know that they are but crutches and not
angels' wings. If Unitarianism offered us pure
and unadulterated truth, we might be compelled
to receive and follow it. But we know that it
does not. In this life all our knowledge is neces-
sarily relative and inadequate. Finiteness
vitiates our syllogisms just as much as our im-
aginative efforts. The Unitarian intellect is
none the stronger for refusing the aid of our
spiritual and emotional nature. The masculine

* Neither Theodore Parker, nor F. W. Newman, nor Miss Frances
Power Cobbe, nor Mr. Stopford Brooke, can be regarded as at all
typically Unitarian.


element in us needs the assistance of the feminine
element. If Trinitarianism implied a belief that
our present orthodox formulas are even approxi-
mately an adequate expression of the highest
truths, no reflecting man could remain a Trini-
tarian for one day ; neither could he remain a
Unitarian. But we do not construe our formulas
in that rigid and absurd way. We know well
that they are but dim shadows of ineffable
realities. These shadows may be and often are
distorted and bewildering ; but yet we believe
that they to some extent represent everlasting
verities. Interpreting our own highest nature
as best we can, reading the handwriting of God
in the recesses of our own noblest faculties, we
find more reason to believe in a social than in a
solitary God ; we believe that there is something
quasi-human from all eternity in God ; and in that
inexpugnable, though in some ways unintelligible,
belief we find an unfailing source of moral and
emotional power that we could never find in the
" barren and dry land " of formal Unitarianism.
We prefer vivid spiritual life to apparent intel-
lectual consistency, and so we erect our altars to
our unknown yet ever quickening divinity. In
Him we live, move, and have our truest being,


even though we feel blank misgivings at times
as in worlds not realised. We cling to our most
vitalising though provisional ideas as to some
plank from the wreck of Paradise, and journey
on with strenuous hearts over the dark threaten-
ing waters of utter Agnosticism. The doctrine
of the Eternal Spirit of God is no stumbling-
block to us. It is the very nature of the Sun to
send forth his rays of light. God needs no
created being to remind Him of the eternal truth
that " it is more blessed to give than to receive."

I have discussed the position of Liberal thinkers
at such great length because I felt bound to do so.
In some ways I had more respect for the judg-
ment of Dr. Martineau than I had for that of any
other man whom I have personally known. It
was always a real grief to me to find myself in
opposition to so great a religious teacher. We
had many conversations on this subject, and we
could never agree. Consequently I have felt
obliged to explain why I ventured in this matter
to differ so profoundly from one to whom I owe
so vast an intellectual and spiritual debt.

I believe that we may, without much difficulty,
find some reasons why my friend thought as he
did regarding the ethics of religious conformity


and subscription to creeds, I mean some reasons
more or less personal and peculiar. Martineau
had never belonged to a great historical church,
and had hardly felt the need of such an institution.
His nature was intensely individualistic. The
ethical element in him was very far stronger than
the social. His religion was a lonely one. To a
great extent he could live and work without
much human sympathy. In his creed the im-
perious claims of God tended a little to restrict
the claims of human affection. Duty, or the
Categorical Imperative, had always the first
claim on his thoughts. God strengthened His
faithful servant so greatly that he scarcely needed
much aid from his fellow-men. Moreover, the
natural saintliness of my friend enabled him
to live and thrive on a rather meagre gospel.
Sinners need far more Evangelical teaching.
Dr. Martineau had ministered almost exclusively
to respectable people, and he did not adequately
understand the grievous necessities of the law-
less and the wandering, who cannot be satisfied
with the comparatively weak redeeming efficacy
of Unitarian religion. These need a God very
nigh unto them, a God who comes to meet them
when they are yet a great way off, whereas the


Unitarian God appears to stay at home and
merely invite His powerless creatures to return
to Him.

Besides all this, it is one thing to cling to a
church in which we have been born and trained,
and another thing to seek entrance into a church
in which we have not been born. Broad Church
thinkers might not select the Church of England,
if they were seeking a new spiritual home ; but,
for many reasons they are naturally reluctant to
abandon their old home consecrated by so many
touching and pathetic memories. The prayers
of the Church are dear to many perplexed souls,
even though some of its doctrines may now seem
questionable. To such souls it naturally seems
a more faithful and loyal course to endeavour to
reform their church than to forsake it in im-
patient disgust. Thus I think it is manifest
that the motives which keep many doubters in
their ancient home are not mean or unworthy
ones. Since all religious organisations are more
or less unacceptable and unsuitable to pro-
gressive intellects, these perplexed spirits may
well be pardoned if they linger in those temples
of God where they can pray best. The demands
of their souls are more imperious than those of


their understandings. Sectarianism is hateful to
intensely social natures. These seek profound
human fellowship even at the expense of intel-
lectual inconsistency. The true communion of
the saints and of aspiring sinners is based on
something far deeper than any merely intel-
lectual agreement. It is based on a common and
unmutilated humanity, which is as that river
that " went out of Eden " when it was in its
primal plenitude, before " it was parted and be-
came into four heads." If man's intellect is
parted into diverse heads, his heart refuses to
be thus separated into fragments. We are not
willing to purchase apparent intellectual con-
sistency at the price of a very real mutilation and
impoverishment of our emotional and moral life.
Emerson declared that " the Eden of God is bare
and grand." If it were so, we should be tempted
to think that it is well for man that he has been
driven out of it. Since we cannot in this life
" be as Gods," since anything approaching to
coherent and satisfying knowledge is denied to
us, we naturally resolve that we will at least be
genuinely human. Forgetting our speculative
differences, we seek to live heart to heart with
the noblest and profoundest feelings of our race.


Doctrinal distinctions often seem to us what
worldly rank seemed to Burns. They are often
as superficial as the " guinea stamp." Beneath
that superficial mark our souls seek for the really
significant and abiding humanity. Men's spiritual
uniforms are often diaphanous ; we see through
them, and our eyes discern the man within the
man. To judge of deep and passionate natures
by their professed opinions sometimes seems as
absurd as to judge of men by their clothes.

Dr. Martineau found much pleasure and satis-
faction in the debates of the famous Metaphysical
Society, which included in its ranks so many
celebrated men. He keenly enjoyed his intel-
lectual contests with Professor Huxley. But he
found a much deeper satisfaction and joy in the
escape from sectarianism which he found in this
select yet miscellaneous gathering of vivid minds.
The Catholic element in his nature fraternised
eagerly with the same element in Dr. Ward and
Father Dalgairns, who there represented the
Roman theology. I am sure that it was a very
real joy to my revered friend to find an echo of
many of his own profoundest convictions in the
minds of these two champions of an apparently
hostile faith. James Martineau thus enjoyed a


kind of spiritual holiday. He was released from
the galling fetters of an uncongenial sectarianism.
He was no longer a citizen of a poor Unitarian
village. He had visions of a truly universal
church of God. He saw in nominally alien
souls the very same foundations of that eternal
city of God which he discerned in the depths of
his own faithful spirit. Deep cried responsively
to deep, and the vexing perturbations of super-
ficial storms and strifes were almost forgotten.
So great a spirit as that of Martineau could not
be naturally sectarian. Formal Unitarianism
was to him only as the restraining bottle to the
genie in the old Arabian story. He was then
only his veritable self when he was enabled to
emerge from it. His profound sympathy with
Dr. Ward and Father Dalgairns was in truth a
kind of faint anticipation of that harmonious
gathering of noble and elect souls behind the
veil, wherein all sectarian voices shall be merged
in the one language of the immortals, wherein
the old dream of a Catholic church shall at
length be realised, where God shall be all in all,
and there shall be " one fold and one shepherd."
Dr. Martineau had very little sympathy with
Mrs. Humphry Ward's story called " Robert


Elsmere." He did not much care for it when
he read it, and he afterwards forgot a good deal
of it. He thought " David Grieve " a far more
interesting and powerful work, though his
fastidious ethical sense made him dislike that
part of the story which deals with student life
in Paris. Though he did not agree with Mrs.
Humphry Ward with regard to the importance
of what are called miracles, he yet had a high
opinion of some of her religious work. He told
me that she is a genuine and thorough student
of the origins of Christianity.

My friend said that he never could under-
stand the views of that erratic thinker, the late
James Hinton. He told me that, at the meet-
ings of the Metaphysical Society, the papers read
by Hinton were always received in total silence.
Not one of the other members professed to
fathom his meaning ; so his communications
elicited neither assent nor disapproval.

Martineau very greatly valued the writings of
that learned German, Harnack, though the views
of that laborious and acute student on historical
and religious matters were not altogether in
harmony with his own. He often urged me to
study Harnack.


My teacher's political opinions were on the
whole of the old Whig description. Born and
bred a Nonconformist, he adhered to the party
which had favoured religious liberty in bygone
years. But he was no zealot for disestablish-
ment. He would have preferred to widen the
churches and make them truly national rather
than to disestablish them. He was especially
unwilling that the Scottish national church
should be interfered with. He had no great
faith in democracy. Like the late W. R. Greg,
he in many ways dreaded the effects of a half-
educated republic. He feared that it would not
sufficiently respect the rights of minorities.
This fear was perhaps increased by the fact that
he belonged to a very small religious denomina-
tion, which had only obtained adequate tolera-
tion and freedom in recent years. He also
thought that a British democracy would very
likely fail to appreciate intellect, that it would
tend to promote a kind of regnancy of the
commonplace. Like Mr. Herbert Spencer, he
also dreaded the effects of Socialism.* He
thought that the interference of the state was

* Martineau once told me that he thought that Mrs. Humphry
Ward was rather too much inclined to Socialism.


likely to impair individual energy and to weaken
the sense of responsibility.

Martineau looked forward on the whole with
confidence to the future development of religion.
He thought that it is essential to the well-being
of ethics ; he held that ethics must either perfect
itself in religion or disintegrate itself into Hedon-
ism or the pursuit of pleasurable sensations. He
had no faith in any ideal substitutes for a personal
God. Hence he did not care for Emerson's
teaching, though he was much attracted by his
gracious and winning personality. He disliked
the intellectual waywardness of the sage of
Concord. He thought that he approached far
too near to Pantheism. He considered him too
flighty and lacking in moral gravity or serious-
ness. He also found his contempt for careful
reasoning rather aggravating. I believe that
he considered that Emerson, like Renan, was
rather too apt to play with the most important
and vital problems.

In his later years Martineau came more and
more to look on the doctrine of the distinct
personality of God as the one thing needful in
religion. He was ready to forgive much to those
who held firmly to that cardinal truth. He


began to see a real meaning and value in the
Christian doctrine of the Incarnation. He began
to be of opinion that in some respects Liberal
orthodoxy is a more satisfactory creed than
Unitarianism, even though he still continued to
blame Broad Churchmen for remaining in the
Church of England. In this matter it appears to
me that my friend was not quite consistent.
Why should we be called upon to abandon
Liberal orthodoxy, if its moral and spiritual
efficacy is superior to that of Unitarianism ?

In a letter written in the year 1892, and
published in the " Life and Letters of James
Martineau," my friend wrote thus of the Con-
gregationalists in England and the Presbyterians
in Scotland : " Their escape from the old ortho-
dox scheme is by a better path than ours. With
us insistence on the simple humanity of Christ
has come to mean the limitation of all divineness
to the Father, leaving man a mere item of
creaturely existence under laws of natural ne-
cessity. With them the transfer of emphasis
from the Atonement to the Incarnation means
the retention of a divine essence in Christ, as
the head and type of humanity in its realised
Idea ; so that man and life are lifted into kin-


ship with God, instead of what had been God
being reduced to the scale of mere Nature. The
union of the two natures in Christ resolves itself
into their union in man, and links heaven and
earth in relations of a common spirituality. It
is easy to see how the divineness of existence,
instead of being driven off into the heights be-
yond life, is thus brought down into the deeps
within it, and diffuses there a multitude of
sanctities that would else have been secularised.
Hence the feeling of reverence, the habits of
piety, the aspirations of faith, the hopes of im-
mortality, the devoutness of duty, which have
so much lost their hold on our people, remain
real powers among the liberalised orthodox, and
enable them to carry their appeal home to the
hearts of men in a way the secret of which has
escaped from us. I hardly think we shall re-
cover it now."

Notwithstanding this frank confession, Dr.
Martineau remained staunch in his adherence to
Unitarian doctrines. Though starved to a great
extent, his intellect compelled him to remain at
his old post. There is something intensely
pathetic in this intellectual fidelity. We seem
to overhear the sorrowful sighing of a spirit still


cleaving resolutely to the skirts of a vanishing
or receding God, and in his desolation crying
mournfully, like one of old, " Although the fig-
tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in
the vines, the labour of the olive shall fail, and
the fields shall yield no meat ; the flock shall be
cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd
in the stalls, yet will I rejoice in the Lord, I will
joy in the God of my salvation." The great
Unitarian might well claim fellowship with
heroic Job when he declared, " Though He slay
me, yet will I trust in Him." The resolute soul
of Stoical old Cato might have smiled approvingly
on my friend. " Victrix causa Deis placuit, sed
victa Catoni" But in reality God was with His
faithful servant even in the days of his forlorn
starvation. His deferred salvation was in some
ways a far greater and nobler thing than any
immediate salvation. God tried him and found
him worthy of Himself. Even in that day of
sadness a divine voice doubtless whispered into
his ears the old message of encouragement and
unfailing love, " For a small moment have I
forsaken thee, but with great mercies will I
gather thee."

James Martineau very much disliked the word


Unitarian when used to designate a religious
denomination. He thought that it was too en-
tirely metaphysical, and that it gave no real idea
of the inner contents of a religion. Yet he held
firmly to most of the Unitarian doctrines. I
never discovered in him the very least tendency
to accept Trinitarian theology. He loved what
he reckoned to be truth more than he loved
edification. He told me once that he had a
very low opinion of the controversial writings
of Dr. Gore (the present Bishop of Worcester)
concerning the Deity of Christ. He said that he
thought them " poor stuff." And yet he must
have known that his friend R. H. Hut ton had
a very high opinion of these same writings.
Probably the veteran Unitarian was insensibly
a good deal prejudiced on the subject. I once
asked him if he did not think that there must
have been some kind of appearances or manifesta-
tions of Jesus to His followers after His death, as
one could not otherwise account for their sudden
transition from the depths of depression and
despair to the heights of exultant joy. My
friend replied that he did not at all believe in
any such appearances. He thought that no such
abrupt transition ever occurred ; he thought



that it had only been imagined by Christians in
later years.

Thus James Martineau followed his intellect to
the very end, even though it kept him back from
that light and warmth and nourishment which he
discerned from afar in the more fertile regions of
liberalised orthodoxy. Perhaps he was too old
to change. Like Moses, he had led many out of
their old house of bondage, out of the prison-
houses of Materialism and Atheism ; but it was
not given to him to enter the " promised land "
of harmonised convictions and satisfying truth.
But he was a true prophet of the Eternal, a
valiant and noble leader of our pilgrim race.
And so, I doubt not that to him, as to worn and
sorrowing Moses, the Infinite Pity vouchsafed
some genuine consolation, and wiped away some
tears at least from those pathetic and wistful
eyes. I doubt not that, like the great Israelite,
he also ascended to " the top of Pisgah," and
there surveyed from afar the serene glories of
God's " promised land." His Pisgah was the
mountain land of a noble and purified mysticism,
in which, as in a vision, God showed him things
to come. The " iron had entered into his soul "
in bygone years. He still bore in his spirit


many depressing influences of his old Necessi-
tarian creed. The eagle's wings were clipped,
but the eagle's soul was comparatively free.
From afar God showed His servant things that
shall be hereafter. His gladdened eyes dis-
cerned " that great city, the holy Jerusalem, de-
scending out of heaven from God." He per-
ceived the fact that the finest moral Idealism is
no vain dream or deceptive mirage, but a true
prophecy coming forth as a blessed and healing
missionary from the central depths of the uni-
verse, a veritable harbinger of that glorious
reign of an immediately present God, concerning
which an ancient seer has given us this soul-
gladdening account : ; ' The city had no need of
the sun, neither of the moon to shine in it ; for
the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is
the light thereof ; and I saw no temple therein,
for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are
the temple of it."

I doubt not that this great prophet soul saw
from afar, on his lonely Pisgah height, the vanish-
ing of all our present churches and formal creeds
and the advent of a truer and more compre-
hensive religion. And with this consoling vision
that patient spirit, that lowly and self-abnegating


heart, was well content. He could now chant
his " Nunc Dimittis " ; for his eyes had seen
God's coming full salvation. Addressing us, his
admiring and devoted followers, he could cry in
the very spirit of the baffled Hebrew warrior :
" But I must die in this land, I must not go over
Jordan ; but ye shall go over and possess that
good land." Thus, in the bleak land of chilling
and semi-Deistic Unitarianism, died one of the
noblest spiritual leaders of our bewildered age.
" Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried
our sorrows, and by his stripes we are healed."
He sowed in tears what we may reap in
joy. His sad experience has plainly disclosed
to us the unsatisfying nature of Deism and
ordinary Unitarianism. We look henceforth
for a larger and deeper religion in which the
best teaching of Unitarianism and of Trini-
tarianism shall be reconciled, for a religion
which shall cast out no great thoughts as
heretics, but shall interpret, conciliate, and
harmonise them all.

At least one great English poet would have
admired and sympathised with Martineau's heroic
fidelity to reason. Coleridge declared that he
who begins by loving Christianity better than


truth is likely to go on to love his own sect better
than Christianity, and to end in loving himself
better than either.

When the attractive vision of fuller and more
satisfying religious truth dawned on the soul of
James Martineau, he was already too old to alter
the framework of his intellectual system. To
some extent the fetters of his old Deism troubled
him even to the end. Mechanical conceptions
marred his philosophy. In order to be ade-
quately free, he needed to be transplanted into
another world. Death was to him a kind of
sacrament of Infinity, an emancipating new birth
into a grander world of thought. There, in God's
larger world, that elect spirit could indeed come
to itself and realise its own most glorious potenti-
alities. There patient fidelity to reason might
find at length its exceeding great reward. There
at last his ears might hear those gladdening
words of real spiritual enfranchisement and de-
liverance from oppressive finiteness, " Loose him,
and let him go." Then he would indeed expand
into his true spiritual stature, and shake off the
old grave-clothes of inveterate misconceptions.
Then he would indeed be admitted into the
glorious liberty of the best sons of God, and feel


in the inmost fibres of his noble nature that he
had found his own veritable ideal, feel

11 As if he were at length himself,
And ne'er had been before."

And so to us his devoted followers it is some
consolation to believe that our beloved teacher
understands us more adequately now behind the
veil than he ever did on earth. He now pro-
bably knows more fully the deplorable weakness
of ordinary human nature. He knows how much
of our sinfulness is really almost involuntary.
He comprehends more completely the great
mystery of iniquity in man's troubled and tra-
vailing heart. He can now better interpret the
groans of those oppressed by the burden of in-
herited evil. He has perhaps learnt in heaven
the meaning of sin, as others have there to learn
the meaning of holiness. Perhaps in that land
of knowledge he has taken counsel with souls
like that of Robert Browning. The profound
inherent pathos of human life is now, we hope,
appreciated by this born saint as it never was
before. He knows that the creation has been
made subject to vanity " not willingly." Greater
insight has brought to him fuller sympathy with

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Online LibraryAlexander Henry CraufurdRecollections of James Martineau: with some letters from him and an essay on his religion → online text (page 8 of 12)