Annie Wood Besant.

Autobiographical Sketches online

. (page 6 of 17)
Online LibraryAnnie Wood BesantAutobiographical Sketches → online text (page 6 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

emptiness: "Is it a Devil who has made this world? Are we the sentient
toys of an Almighty Power, who sports with our agony, and whose peals of
awful mocking laughter echo the wailings of our despair?"


On recovering from that prostrating physical pain, I came to a very
definite decision. I resolved that, whatever might be the result, I would
take each dogma of the Christian religion, and carefully and thoroughly
examine it, so that I should never again say "I believe" where I had not
proved. So, patiently and steadily, I set to work. Four problems chiefly
at this time pressed for solution. I. The eternity of punishment after
death. II. The meaning of "goodness" and "love" as applied to a God who
had made this world with all its evil and its misery. III. The nature of
the atonement of Christ, and the "justice" of God in accepting a
vicarious suffering from Christ, and a vicarious righteousness from the
sinner. IV. The meaning of "inspiration" as applied to the Bible, and the
reconciliation of the perfection of the author with the blunders and the
immoralities of the work.

Maurice's writings now came in for very careful study, and I read also
those of Robertson, of Brighton, and of Stopford Brooke, striving to find
in these some solid ground whereon I might build up a new edifice of
faith. That ground, however, I failed to find; there were poetry, beauty,
enthusiasm, devotion; but there was no rock on which I might take my
stand. Mansel's Bampton lectures on "The Limits of Religious Thought"
deepened and intensified my doubts. His arguments seemed to make
certainty impossible, and I could not suddenly turn round and believe to
order, as he seemed to recommend, because proof was beyond reach. I could
not, and would not, adore in God as the highest Righteousness that which,
in man was condemned as harsh, as cruel, and as unjust.

In the midst of this long mental struggle, a change occurred in the
outward circumstances of my life. I wrote to Lord Hatherley and asked him
if he could give Mr. Besant a Crown living, and he offered us first one
in Northumberland, near Alnwick Castle, and then one in Lincolnshire, the
village of Sibsey, with a vicarage house, and an income of £410 per
annum. We decided to accept the latter.

The village was scattered over a considerable amount of ground, but the
work was not heavy. The church was one of the fine edifices for which the
fen country is so famous, and the vicarage was a comfortable house, with
large and very beautiful gardens and paddock, and with outlying fields.
The people were farmers and laborers, with a sprinkling of shopkeepers;
the only "society" was that of the neighboring clergy, Tory and prim to
an appalling extent. There was here plenty of time for study, and of that
time I vigorously availed myself. But no satisfactory light came to me,
and the suggestions and arguments of my friend Mr. D - - failed to bring
conviction to my mind. It appeared clear to me that the doctrine of
Eternal Punishment was taught in the Bible, and the explanations given of
the word "eternal" by men like Maurice and Stanley, did not recommend
themselves to me as anything more than skilful special pleading -
evasions, not clearings up, of a moral difficulty. For the problem was:
Given a good God, how can he have created mankind, knowing beforehand
that the vast majority of those whom he had created were to be tortured
for evermore? Given a just God, how can he punish people for being
sinful, when they have inherited a sinful nature without their own choice
and of necessity? Given a righteous God, how can he allow sin to exist
for ever, so that evil shall be as eternal as good, and Satan shall reign
in hell, as long as Christ in Heaven? The answer of the Broad church
school was, that the word "eternal" applied only to God and to life which
was one with his; that "everlasting" only meant "lasting for an age", and
that while the punishment of the wicked might endure for ages it was
purifying, not destroying, and at last all should be saved, and "God
should be all in all". These explanations had (for a time) satisfied Mr.
D - - , and I find him writing to me in answer to a letter of mine dated
March 25th, 1872:

"On the subject of Eternal punishment I have now not the remotest doubt.
It is impossible to handle the subject exhaustively in a letter, with a
sermon to finish before night. But you _must_ get hold of a few valuable
books that would solve all kinds of difficulties for you. For most points
read Stopford Brooke's Sermons - they are simply magnificent, and are
called (1) Christian modern life, (2) Freedom in the Church of England,
(3) and (least helpful) 'Sermons'. Then again there is an appendix to
Llewellyn Davies' 'Manifestation of the Son of God', which treats of
forgiveness in a future state as related to Christ and Bible. As to that
special passage about the Blasphemy against the Holy Ghost (to which you
refer), I will write you my notions on it in a future letter."

A little later, according, he wrote:

"With regard to your passage of difficulty about the unpardonable sin, I
would say: (1) If that sin is not to be forgiven in the world to come, it
is implied that all other sins _are forgiven in the world to come_. (2)
You must remember that our Lord's parables and teachings mainly concerned
contemporary events and people. I mean, for instance, that in his great
prophecy of _judgment_ he simply was speaking of the destruction of the
Jewish polity and nation. The _principles_ involved apply through all
time, but He did not apply them except to the Jewish nation. He was
speaking then, not of 'the end of the _world_, (as is wrongly
translated), but of 'the end of the _age_'. (Every age is wound up with a
judgment. French Revolutions, Reformations, etc., are all ends of ages
and judgments.) [Greek aion] does not, cannot, will not, and never did
mean _world_, but _age_. Well, then, he has been speaking of the Jewish
people. And he says that all words spoken against the Son of Man will be
forgiven. But there is a blasphemy against the Holy Spirit of God - there
is a confusion of good with evil, of light with darkness - which goes
deeper down than this. When a nation has lost the faculty of
distinguishing love from hatred, the spirit of falsehood and hypocrisy
from the spirit of truth, God from the Devil - _then its doom is
pronounced_ - the decree is gone forth against it. As the doom of Judaism,
guilty of this sin, _was then_ pronounced. As the _decree against it had
already gone forth. It is a national warning, not an individual one. It
applies to two ages of this world, and not to two worlds_. All its
teaching was primarily _national_, and is only thus to be rightly read -
if not all, rather _most of it_. If you would be sure of this and
understand it, see the parables, etc., explained in Maurice's 'Gospel of
the Kingdom of Heaven' (a commentary on S. Luke). I can only indicate
briefly in a letter the line to be taken on this question.

"With regard to the [Greek: elui, elui, lama sabbachthani]. I don't
believe that the Father even momentarily hid his face from Him. The life
of sonship was unbroken. Remark: (1) It is a quotation from a Psalm. (2)
It rises naturally to a suffering man's lips as expressive of agony,
though not exactly framed for _his_ individual _agony_. (3) The spirit of
the Psalm is one of trust, and hope, and full faith, notwithstanding the
1st verse. (4) Our Lord's agony was very extreme, not merely of body but
of _soul_. He spoke out of the desolation of one forsaken, not by his
divine Father but by his human brothers. I have heard sick and dying men
use the words of beloved Psalms in just such a manner.

"The impassibility of God (1) With regard to the Incarnation, this
presents no difficulty. Christ suffered simply and entirely as man, was
too truly a man not to do so. (2) With regard to the Father, the key of
it is here. 'God _is_ love.' He does not need suffering to train into
sympathy, because his nature is sympathy. He can afford to dispense with
hysterics, because he sees ahead that his plan is working to the perfect
result. I am not quite sure whether I have hit upon your difficulty here,
as I have destroyed your last letter but one. But the 'Gospel of the
Kingdom' is a wonderful 'eye-opener'."

Worst of all the puzzles, perhaps, was that of the existence of evil and
of misery, and the racking doubt whether God _could_ be good, and yet
look on the evil and the misery of the world unmoved and untouched. It
seemed so impossible to believe that a Creator could be either cruel
enough to be indifferent to the misery, or weak enough to be unable to
stop it: the old dilemma faced me unceasingly. "If he can prevent it, and
does not, he is not good; if he wishes to prevent it, and cannot, he is
not almighty;" and out of this I could find no way of escape. Not yet had
any doubt of the existence of God crossed my mind.

In August, 1872 Mr. D - - tried to meet this difficulty. He wrote:

"With regard to the impassibility of God, I think there is a stone wrong
among your foundations which causes your difficulty. Another wrong stone
is, I think, your view of the nature of the _sin_ and _error_ which is
supposed to grieve God. I take it that sin is an absolutely necessary
factor in the production of the perfect man. It was foreseen and allowed
as a means to an end - as in fact an _education_.

"The view of all the sin and misery in the world cannot grieve God, any
more than it can grieve you to see Digby fail in his first attempt to
build a card-castle or a rabbit-hutch. All is part of the training. God
looks at the ideal man to which all tends. The popular idea of the fall
is to me a very absurd one. There was never an ideal state in the past,
but there will be in the future. The Genesis allegory simply typifies the
first awakening of consciousness of good and evil - of two _wills_ in a
mind hitherto only animal-psychic.

"Well then - there being no occasion for grief in watching the progress of
his own perfect and unfailing plans - your difficulty in God's
impassibility vanishes. Christ, _quâ_ God, was, of course, impassible
too. It seems to me that your position implies that God's 'designs' have
partially (at least) failed, and hence the grief of perfect benevolence.
Now I stoutly deny that any jot or tittle of God's plans can fail. I
believe in the ordering of all for the best. I think that the pain
consequent on broken law is only an inevitable necessity, over which we
shall some day rejoice.

"The indifference shown to God's love cannot pain Him. Why? because it is
simply a sign of defectiveness in the creature which the ages will
rectify. The being who is indifferent is not yet educated up to the point
of love. But he _will be_. The pure and holy suffering of Christ was
(pardon me) _wholly_ the consequence of his human nature. True it was
because of the _perfection_ of his humanity. But his Divinity had nothing
to do with it. It was his _human heart_ that broke. It was because he
entered a world of broken laws and of incomplete education that he became
involved in suffering with the rest of his race.....

"No, Mrs. Besant; I never feel at all inclined to give up the search, or
to suppose that the other side may be right. I claim no merit for it, but
I have an invincible faith in the morality of God and the moral order of
the world. I have no more doubt about the falsehood of the popular
theology than I have about the unreality of six robbers who attacked me
three nights ago in a horrid dream. I exult and rejoice in the grandeur
and freedom of the little bit of truth it has been given me to see. I am
told that 'Present-day Papers', by Bishop Ewing (edited) are a wonderful
help, many of them, to puzzled people: I mean to get them. But I am sure
you will find that the truth will (even so little as we may be able to
find out) grow on you, make you free, light your path, and dispel, at no
distant time, your _painful_ difficulties and doubts. I should say on no
account give up your reading. I think with you that you could not do
without it. It will be a wonderful source of help and peace to you. For
there are struggles far more fearful than those of intellectual doubt. I
am keenly alive to the gathered-up sadness of which your last two pages
are an expression. I was sorrier than I can say to read them. They
reminded me of a long and very dark time in my own life, when I thought
the light never would come. Thank God it came, or I think I could not
have held out much longer. But you have evidently strength to bear it
now. The more dangerous time, I should fancy, has passed. You will have
to mind that the fermentation leaves clear spiritual wine, and not (as
too often) vinegar.

"I wish I could write something more helpful to you in this great matter.
But as I sit in front of my large bay window, and see the shadows on the
grass and the sunlight on the leaves, and the soft glimmer of the
rosebuds left by the storms, I cannot but believe that all will be very
well. 'Trust in the Lord; wait patiently for him' - they are trite words.
But he made the grass, the leaves, the rosebuds, and the sunshine, and he
is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And now the trite words have
swelled into a mighty argument."

Despite reading and argument, my scepticism grew only deeper and deeper.
The study of W.R. Greg's "Creed of Christendom", of Matthew Arnold's
"Literature and Dogma", helped to widen the mental horizon, while making
a return to the old faith more and more impossible. The church services
were a weekly torture, but feeling as I did that I was only a doubter, I
spoke to none of my doubts. It was possible, I felt, that all my
difficulties might be cleared up, and I had no right to shake the faith
of others while in uncertainty myself. Others had doubted and had
afterwards believed; for the doubter silence was a duty; the blinded had
better keep their misery to themselves. I found some practical relief in
parish work of a non-doctrinal kind, in nursing the sick, in trying to
brighten a little the lot of the poor of the village. But here, again, I
was out of sympathy with most of those around me. The movement among the
agricultural laborers, due to the energy and devotion of Joseph Arch, was
beginning to be talked of in the fens, and bitter were the comments of
the farmers on it, while I sympathised with the other side. One typical
case, which happened some months later, may stand as example of all.
There was a young man, married, with two young children, who was wicked
enough to go into a neighboring county to a "Union Meeting", and who was,
further, wicked enough to talk about it when he returned. He became a
marked man; no farmer would employ him. He tramped about vainly, looking
for work, grew reckless, and took to drink. Visiting his cottage one day
I found his wife ill, a dead child in the bed, a sick child in her arms;
yes, she "was pining; there was no work to be had". "Why did she leave
the dead child on the bed? because there was no other place to put it."
The cottage consisted of one room and a "lean-to", and husband and wife,
the child dead of fever and the younger child sickening with it, were all
obliged to lie on the one bed. In another cottage I found four
generations sleeping in one room, the great-grandfather and his wife, the
grandmother (unmarried), the mother (unmarried), and the little child,
while three men-lodgers completed the tale of eight human beings crowded
into that narrow, ill-ventilated garret. Other cottages were hovels,
through the broken roofs of which poured the rain, and wherein rheumatism
and ague lived with the dwellers. How could I do aught but sympathise
with any combination that aimed at the raising of these poor? But to
sympathise with Joseph Arch was a crime in the eyes of the farmers, who
knew that his agitation meant an increased drain on their pockets. For it
never struck them that, if they paid less in rent to the absent landlord,
they might pay more in wage to the laborers who helped to make their
wealth, and they had only civil words for the burden that crushed them,
and harsh ones for the builders-up of their ricks and the mowers of their
harvests. They made common cause with their enemy, instead of with their
friend, and instead of leaguing themselves with the laborers, as forming
together the true agricultural interest, they leagued themselves with the
landlords against the laborers, and so made fratricidal strife instead of
easy victory over the common foe.

In the summer and autumn of 1872, I was a good deal in London with my
mother. - My health had much broken down, and after a severe attack of
congestion of the lungs, my recovery was very slow. One Sunday in London,
I wandered into St. George's Hall, in which Mr. Charles Voysey was
preaching, and there I bought some of his sermons. To my delight I found
that someone else had passed through the same difficulties as I about
hell and the Bible and the atonement and the character of God, and had
given up all these old dogmas, while still clinging to belief in God. I
went to St. George's Hall again on the following Sunday, and in the
little ante-room, after the service, I found myself in a stream of
people, who were passing by Mr. and Mrs. Voysey, some evidently known to
him, some strangers, many of the latter thanking him for his morning's
work. As I passed in my turn I said: "I must thank you for very great
help in what you have said this morning", for indeed the possibility
opened of a God who was really "loving unto every man", and in whose care
each was safe for ever, had come like a gleam of light across the stormy
sea of doubt and distress on which I had been tossing for nearly twelve
months. On the following Sunday, I saw them again, and was cordially
invited down to their Dulwich home, where they gave welcome to all in
doubt. I soon found that the Theism they professed was free from the
defects which revolted me in Christianity. It left me God as a Supreme
Goodness, while rejecting all the barbarous dogmas of the Christian
faith. I now read Theodore Parker's "Discourse on Religion", Francis
Newman's "Hebrew Monarchy", and other works, many of the essays of Miss
Frances Power Cobbe and of other Theistic writers, and I no longer
believed in the old dogmas and hated while I believed; I no longer
doubted whether they were true or not; I shook them off, once for all,
with all their pain, and horror, and darkness, and felt, with relief and
joy inexpressible, that they were all but the dreams of ignorant and
semi-savage minds, not the revelation of a God. The last remnant of
Christianity followed swiftly these cast-off creeds, though, in parting
with this, one last pang was felt. It was the doctrine of the Deity of
Christ. The whole teaching of the Broad Church School tends, of course,
to emphasise the humanity at the expense of the Deity of Christ, and when
the eternal punishment and the substitutionary atonement had vanished,
there seemed to be no sufficient reason left for so stupendous a miracle
as the incarnation of the Deity. I saw that the idea of incarnation was
common to all Eastern creeds, not peculiar to Christianity; the doctrine
of the unity of God repelled the doctrine of the incarnation of a portion
of the Godhead. But the doctrine was dear from association; there was
something at once soothing and ennobling in the idea of a union between
Man and God, between a perfect man and divine supremacy, between a human
heart and an almighty strength. Jesus as God was interwoven with all art,
with all beauty in religion; to break with the Deity of Jesus was to
break with music, with painting, with literature; the Divine Child in his
mother's arms, the Divine Man in his Passion and in his triumph, the
human friend encircled with the majesty of the Godhead - did inexorable
Truth demand that this ideal figure, with all its pathos, its beauty, its
human love, should pass into the Pantheon of the dead Gods of the Past?


The struggle was a sharp one ere I could decide that intellectual honesty
demanded that the question of the Deity of Christ should be analysed as
strictly as all else, and that the conclusions come to from an impartial
study of facts should be faced as steadily as though they dealt with some
unimportant question. I was bound to recognise, however, that more than
intellectual honesty would be here required, for if the result of the
study were - as I dimly felt it would be - to establish disbelief in the
supernatural claims of Christ, I could not but feel that such disbelief
would necessarily entail most unpleasant external results. I might give
up belief in all save this, and yet remain a member of the Church of
England: views on Inspiration, on Eternal Torture, on the Vicarious
Atonement, however heterodox, might be held within the pale of the
Church; many broad church clergymen rejected these as decidedly as I did
myself, and yet remained members of the Establishment; the judgment on
"Essays and Reviews" gave this wide liberty to heresy within the Church,
and a laywoman might well claim the freedom of thought legally bestowed
on divines. The name "Christian" might well be worn while Christ was
worshipped as God, and obeyed as the "Revealer of the Father's will",
the "well-beloved Son", the "Savior and Lord of men". But once challenge
that unique position, once throw off that supreme sovereignty, and then
it seemed to me that the name "Christian" became a hypocrisy, and its
renouncement a duty incumbent on an upright mind. But I was a clergyman's
wife; my position made my participation in the Holy Communion a
necessity, and my withdrawal therefrom would be an act marked and
commented upon by all. Yet if I lost my faith in Christ, how could I
honestly approach "the Lord's Table", where Christ was the central figure
and the recipient of the homage paid there by every worshipper to "God
made man"? Hitherto mental pain alone had been the price demanded
inexorably from the searcher after truth; now to the inner would be added
the outer warfare, and how could I tell how far this might carry me?

One night only I spent in this struggle over the question: "Shall I
examine the claims to Deity of Jesus of Nazareth?". When morning broke
the answer was clearly formulated: "Truth is greater than peace or
position. If Jesus be God, challenge will not shake his Deity; if he be
Man, it is blasphemy to worship him." I re-read Liddon's "Bampton
Lectures" on this controversy and Renan's "Vie de Jesus". I studied the
Gospels, and tried to represent to myself the life there outlined; I
tested the conduct there given as I should have tested the conduct of any
ordinary historical character; I noted that in the Synoptics no claim to
Deity was made by Jesus himself, nor suggested by his disciples; I
weighed his own answer to an enquirer, with its plain disavowal of
Godhood: "Why callest thou me good? There is none good save one, that is
God" (Matt, xix., 17); I conned over his prayers to "my Father", his rest
on divine protection, his trust in a power greater than his own; I noted
his repudiation of divine knowledge: "Of that day and that hour knoweth
no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, _neither the Son_, but
the Father" (Mark xiii., 32); I studied the meaning of his prayer of
anguished submission: "O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass
from me! nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt" (Matt, xxvi.,
39); I dwelt on his bitter cry in his dying agony: "My God, my God, why
hast thou forsaken me?" (Matt, xxvii., 46); I asked the meaning of the
final words of rest: "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit" (Luke
xxiii., 46). And I saw that, if there were any truth in the Gospels at
all, they told the story of a struggling, suffering, sinning, praying
man, and not of a God at all and the dogma of the Deity of Christ
followed the rest of the Christian doctrines into the limbo of past

Yet one other effort I made to save myself from the difficulties I
foresaw in connexion with this final breach with Christianity. There was
one man who had in former days wielded over me a great influence, one
whose writings had guided and taught me for many years - Dr. Pusey, the
venerable leader of the Catholic party in the Church, the learned
Patristic scholar, full of the wisdom of antiquity. He believed in Christ
as God; what if I put my difficulties to him? If he resolved them for me
I should escape the struggle I foresaw; if he could not resolve them,
then no answer to them was to be hoped for. My decision was quickly made;

1 2 3 4 6 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Online LibraryAnnie Wood BesantAutobiographical Sketches → online text (page 6 of 17)