These lines will fall under the notice of their readers within a few hours of the end of Lent, and it appears natural to turn for a moment from the common topics of political and social discussion to look at another department of things, which after all possesses an ever deeper and more permanent interest. Of the many commonplaces which will be addressed to all the congregations in England to-morrow, a considerable number will turn upon the Church and "her" festivals. We shall hear how the penitential and gloomy season has now passed away, and is to be succeeded by a time of cheerfulness and festivity, and most people know pretty well into what sort of divisions such discourses will run, as it were, of themselves. They will also know, in all probability, how utterly dead, unreal, unnatural, and altogether foreign to their daily life and habits of thought such discourses generally are. With some exceptions here and there the course of, life in these-days has ceased to be regulated by ecclesiastical habits of thought. We are not sad during Lent. We do not rejoice at Easter. The great Church festivals are little more than holidays which happen to be called by ecclesiastical names, but which in reality are just like other holidays. Work intermits for a few days at Easter and Christmas, just as it intermits for a longer period in the autumn; but the number of people who, if they wanted to work on Good Friday or Christmas Day, would feel in the least degree hampered in doing so by conscientious scruples is very small. Even Sunday itself is probably less strictly observed than it was five-and-twenty years ago. There is, in short, a general relaxation throughout large and influential classes of society of the force of religious ceremonial observances. The outward and visible signs and recognitions of religion in daily life are continually diminishing in number and authority. Days of public fasting and humiliation are now left to the private discretion of religious bodies. Religious expressions are not nearly so common as they once were in common forms of speech. An Irish nurse the other day, jealous for the honour of her child, declared that this was a heathen country, for that none of the child's relations or friends, said "God bless it." The invisible world is, no doubt, freely recognized in common conversation by the national oath, but those who have the opportunity of observing the pathology of language will probably agree with us in thinking that, though there is still a lamentable amount of profanity to be heard in the streets, the commonest and most characteristic expressions are derived from a different source. We are indeed so shy of referring to things supernatural that the fear of God and the special instigation of the devil are no longer contrasted with each other in indictments for murder, and that one at least of the judges systematically refuses to add to the sentence of death, "May the Lord have mercy on your soul."
No doubt there are exceptions to this tendency, but they are exceptions which in the strictest sense prove the rule, inasmuch as they are reactions against it. The whole High Church movement in its various shapes, both within the Church of England and without, is one great protest against the tendency under consideration, and in particular places and classes it is no doubt powerful enough to lead superficial observers to the conclusion that the tide is running the other way; but if the matter is properly looked into it is obvious enough that in every part of Europe, the lay mode of looking at life is the common and the increasing one, and that the ecclesiastical way of looking at it is only a reaction, and in many places a very forced and spasmodical one. In one of his late publications Dr. Manning observes that everywhere throughout Europe science and politics have fallen away from the faith, and either he or one of the authors of a volume of essays which he edited observes that nearly all the Governments of Europe are infidel. In their sense of the words this is quite true. The thoughts of men on all important subjects, their legislation, their amusements, their very language, and the regulation of their daily habits of life are continually growing to be less and less influenced by definite religious doctrines. They are continually tending to become more and more things of this world and this life.
To many persons this is the greatest and the most interesting of all contemporary phenomena. There is no important department of affairs in which its influence is not felt. It has as clearly marked an influence on morals, on the social relations, and on politics as upon theology or public worship, and the distress and anxiety which it causes to many minds is at least as deep and well marked as the confident exultation which it excites in others. It has driven many persons to take refuge in the most exaggerated views of the Roman Catholic creed. It is saluted by others as the characteristic leading feature of all that they mean by progress and civilization. We will try to make one or two observations upon it which have been suggested by the season of the year, and by the practice of that large and increasing number of persons to whom Easter means nothing but a fragment of the long vacation which has happily slipped into the spring. The first remark is that it is mere lost time to blame, to argue against, or to lament the tendency in question. If a man is not ecclesiastically minded, if he is impatient of religious ceremonies and looks upon them more or less definitely with an aversion of which he may never have traced out the origin, all the arguments and, all the rebukes in the world will not convince him. The streets have lately been placarded with an exhortation to the passers-by to keep Good Friday, on account of the solemn nature of the events which it commemorates. But if a man is conscientiously able to say, as many people are, that the view which he takes of those events, and the influence which those views have on his conduct in fixed and settled matters, on which neither the eating of salt fish nor even the not eating of meat for dinner will exercise any influence at all, and to which such observances and others of the same kind appear merely impertinent and irrelevant-- if he says, My views are not expressed by your ceremonies; they are inappropriate and ill-proportioned to my feelings, and jar upon me like the manners of a foreign country or a different age of the world-- what can be said to him? The answer is, Nothing. You would have to alter the man's whole frame of mind before you could make him like what you want him to like. You might as well try to give, him an ear for music, or a taste for French cookery.
The next remark is that this state of mind is, or may be, based upon a perfectly rational and consistent view of things, which is seldom perhaps plainly realized by those who feel it, and which is persistently and most unfortunately overlooked by preachers, who appear in general to be either ignorant of its existence or unable to do justice to it in any way. Men who have no turn whatever for ecclesiastical ceremonies, who never made the faintest distinction between Lent and other times of the year, and whom it is impossible to work up into a state of religious excitement upon any subject, habitually practise certain religious observances; for instance, they go to church on a Sunday. The topic continually urged against such people is that they are inconsistent or hypocritical, that they give no good account of their conduct, nor assign any reason why they do so much and no more. This is the staple of thousands of sermons, and as no one ever gets a reply upon the clergymen it looks very convincing. If a reply were permitted, the matter might be considerably altered. Such a man as we have referred to-- and our readers must know hundreds of them-- would say, "My conduct exactly corresponds to the state of my mind on these subjects, and that state of mind is perfectly reasonable, and I am prepared to defend it. I am in a state of enforced and therefore contented ignorance on most of the great topics of religion. My practical conclusion is that public worship is spiritually, morally, and socially good-- that I had better acquiesce in that form of it which is established in my own country and neighbourhood, inasmuch as experience has proved its, general utility, and I accordingly do so; but I am conscious that: the whole subject is beset with difficulties, many of which, as you candidly tell me from the pulpit, are altogether insoluble and intractable. I do not believe that you, the clergy, know more about these things than other people, and I positively know that you are continually trying to make up in vehemence what you want ill knowledge. For these reasons I act just as I feel and think. I attend public worship because I thoroughly believe it to be a good thing. I do not care for details, for refinements, for special commemorations, ceremonies, and other observances, because my belief in the whole system is general and vague, is based on a balance of probabilities, and is largely influenced by and derived from considerations of expediency.” Enthusiastic devotion worked out in detail and applied to all the common transactions of life cannot grow out of such a soil as this.
The last remark is that this frame of mind is by no means inconsistent with strong moral and religious principles, and that it is an abuse of language and implies a confusion of thought to call it skepticism. A sceptic is a man who comes to no conclusion. A man who acknowledges that a doubtful matter is doubtful, and who acts for the best upon that conclusion, is no sceptic. There is not necessarily any want of decision or vigour of mind in coming to and acting upon the conclusion that it is doubtful whether a thing is true or not. A juryman may acquit because he doubts whether the prisoner is guilty or not. A man may go to church in the spirit described above because he doubts whether it may not be advisable to do so. That this sort of doubt is consistent with strong moral and religious principles is a matter of daily experience. A man may see or think he sees in every part of the world and of human life marks of design, of law and order, moral and physical, and of rewards and punishments, and innumerable indications and suggestions of the belief that this life is only a stage in an indefinitely prolonged scale of existence, and he may deduce from this the conclusion that virtue and vice are enjoined and forbidden under the most tremendous sanctions here and hereafter; and yet he may be so conscious of the extent of his ignorance, the vagueness and conjectural nature of his belief, and the inadequacy of all articulate or systematic expressions of it, as to feel comparatively little interest in any definite dogmas or specific ceremonies, though he is willing as a prudent and reasonable person to acquiesce in those which the world about him have agreed to make use of so long as they do afford an expression for the great truths, or if you please for the great suppositions, which he has derived from other sources.
Pall Mall Gazette, April 20, 1867.
(Identified as by J.F.S. by John Llewelyn Davies, p. vii in “The Gospel and Modern Life”)