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(J): “ROBERT ELSMERE” - John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, Selections from the Correspondence of the First Lord Acton, Vol. I (Cardinal Newman, Lady Blennerhassett, W.E. Gladstone) 
Selections from the Correspondence of the First Lord Acton, edited with and Introduction by John Neville Figgis and Renald Vere Laurence. Vol. I Correspondence with Cardinal Newman, Lady Blennerhassett, W.E. Gladstone and Others (London: Longmans, Gree and Co., 1917).
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My dear Acton,—
I do not like to let too long a term elapse without some note of intercourse, even though that season approaches which brings you back to the shores of your country. Were you here, I should have much to say on many things; but I will now speak, or first speak, of what is uppermost, and would, if a mind is like a portmanteau, be taken or tumble out first. You perhaps have not heard of Robert Elsmere; for I find, without surprise, that it makes its way slowly into public notice. It is not far from twice the length of our ordinary novel; and the labour and effort of reading it all, I should say, sixfold, while one could no more stop in it than in reading Thucydides.
The idea of the book, perhaps of the writer, appears to be a movement of retreat from Christianity upon Theism: a Theism with a Christ glorified, always in the human sense, but beyond the ordinary measure. It is worked out through the medium of a being—one ought to say a character, but I withhold the word, for there is no sufficient substratum of character to uphold the qualities—gifted with much intellectual subtlety and readiness, and with almost every conceivable moral excellence. He finds vent in an energetic attempt to carry his new Gospel among the skilled artisans of London, whom the writer apparently considers as supplying the norm for all right human judgment. He has extraordinary success, establishes a new Church under the name of “The New Christian Brotherhood”; kills himself with overwork; but leaves his project flourishing in a certain “Elgood Street.” It is, in fact (like the Salvation Army), a new Kirche der Zukunft.
I am always inclined to consider this Theism as among the least defensible of the positions alternative to Christianity. Robert Elsmere, who has been a parish clergyman, is upset entirely, as it appears, by the difficulty of accepting miracles; and by the suggestion that the existing Christianity grew up in an age specially predisposed to them.
I want as usual to worry you into helping the lame dog over the stile: and I should like to know whether you would think me violently wrong in holding that the period of the Advent was a period when the appetite for, or disposition to the supernatural was declining and decaying: that in the region of human thought speculation was strong and scepticism advancing: that if our Lord were a mere man, armed only with human means, His whereabout was in this and many other ways misplaced by Providence; that the Gospels and the New Testament must have much else besides miracle torn out of them in order to get us down to the Caput mortuum of Elgood Street. This very remarkable work is in effect identical with the poor, thin, ineffectual production published with some arrogance by the Duke of Somerset,1 which found a quack remedy for difficulties in what he considered the impregnable citadel of belief in God.
Knowles has brought this book before me, and, being as strong as it is strange, it cannot perish still-born. I am tossed about with doubt as to writing upon it.
In public affairs there is no recession, not much advance. The Dissentients quaking, but the bulk of them hopeless, and self-placed in a position more hopeless than that of the Tories. The Government have, I think, serious difficulties ahead of them in the Local Government Bill and in the Budget, both of them large, necessarily complex, in many respects good and liberal measures. But the Budget limps fatally in respect to the Death Duties.
Have you heard anything lately of Dr. Döllinger, and does all go well with him? Are you all thriving? We thank God we are prosperous, barring the inveterate disease and manifold subtle invasions of old age. On Thursday I expect to be at Oxford (Keble): back in London by the 9th.—Ever yours,
W. E. Gladstone.
Cannes,April 5, 1888.
Dear Mr. Gladstone,—
The author of Robert Elsmere came out here this winter, but we had no talk about her book, and I have not seen it. Neither the Spectator nor the Dean of St. Paul’s,2 who has been reading reviews of it, has made the meaning quite clear to me.
In examining the appetite for the miraculous we have to distinguish the people and the age which produced the New Testament and the people and the age that received it; between the Jews of the first century and the pagans of 150 years later.
It would be clearly true to say that among the heathen of the time of our Lord, under Stoic and Epicurean influences, and during the utmost decline of religion, the thirst for the marvellous was weak. But that is not the atmosphere in which the Gospels arose, nor that in which they were accepted. Long before Christianity began to take much root in pagan society, by the beginning of the third century, Stoicism was nearly extinct, and Neo-Platonism and Neo-Pythagoreanism were growing into importance.
The Rationalism of the Augustan age had made way for systems as full of the marvellous as the old mythology which fades away in Livy. If the question is: Was not the sphere of thought in the midst of which the Gospels came to be written rationalistic, and averse from the miraculous, I should be afraid to answer in the affirmative, when I think of Philo just before, and of the vast apocryphal Ebionite-Clementine literature shortly after.
That the Gospels can justify themselves apart from miracle is very true, and only needs very guarded statement. Both because the miraculous has been the chief motive for their rejection, and because it would have to be shown that their teaching is superior to what men possessed before, and not only superior, but out of all proportion superior. “Nec deus intersit . . . .”
On the other hand, the Gospel, apart from miracle, is precisely what great part of mankind does now accept. It is the bequest of Schleiermacher divided among a hundred schools.
Pray guard your flank against those who will say that the miracles discredit the Gospels; that if you take them out, or think them away, the rest comes to pieces; against those who will say, it remains to be shown that the wisdom of the New Testament was far above that attainable by Philo and Seneca and the best Orientals; and against those who might say that a non-miraculous Gospel is the Gospel of great part of the more or less religious world.
I hear that the hero of Mrs. Ward’s book is Green,1 the Balliol metaphysician and editor of Hume, embroidered with traits from J. R. Green, the historian, from Kegan Paul, and, perhaps, from her own father,2 who followed Newman to Dublin and Birmingham, then followed Buckle into utter scepticism, and has since fluttered between Ultramontanism and the friendship of Addis.1
Green was steeped in Natural Science, and no doubt accepted the reigning maxim by which Natural Science has so largely subjugated philosophy: “Causa aequat effectum.” I can imagine a book written on this thesis:—Here is a man who has not been able to retain his religious belief. What will become of him? If he is of common clay, or propelled by resentment and disgust, he will find his consolation in atheism, materialism, and the scoffing philosophy. If he is of a higher type, and fairly casts himself upon the waters of modern thought, there are strong currents in it which will land him near the gates of the Church, in some sort of Socinianism.
This would not have been true twenty years ago; but I think it is nearly true now, taking a wide survey, as Green no doubt did, who knew as much of Virchow, Helmholtz, and Pasteur, as of Darwin and Spencer.
I see from your letter that you have no great patience with this kind of spiritualism. But it is all that the cultivation of physical science is likely to do under the dominion of the laws that are prevailing. It is more than any of the leading schools of Metaphysics that have thrown off Pantheism are doing yet. The probability is, on the whole, that a first-rate scientific man will be brought nearer to Christianity than an equally eminent metaphysician—as things are moving now. Though it is about equally improbable that either of them will be a Christian, at any rate in anything more than words.
We have to deal with a large portion of the world which, whether in an increasing area I know not, but with an increasing fixity and security, rejects revelation. For obvious reasons, the belief in the constancy of Nature’s laws, which is the motive of rejection, is peculiarly strong in our generation, and is gaining strength from the predominance of physical over metaphysical studies.
Society has less to fear from the Theism of modern Kantians, of French Eclectics, than from most of the unbelieving systems that now flourish. I know that you think generously of the Positivists; but I cannot think the Ethical order safe in their hands. There are shocking things in Comte.
You do not indicate that there is any glaring moral deficiency in Elgood Street.
I have heard that the skilled artisans of London are hostile to the clergy, but not to property. Stepniak, after visiting the East End, said: “Vous avez vaincu le Socialisme.” Dean Church spoke of an interesting review in the Guardian, not by a regular contributor, but also not by a friend of the writer.
We hear from Munich that the Professor has delivered a discourse on the history of religious liberty, which explains his having pillaged my materials on the subject for a long time. But I have only had messages from him, no letter for some months.
All well here, very glad to know that you are prospering, and if this reaches you at Keble, I hope you will remember me affectionately to Talbot.—Ever yours, in haste and disorder,
Dear Mr. Gladstone,—
The passage you quote, about all schools craving for miracles, is absurd.
Besides, early Christianity addressed itself to men who belonged to no schools. Not a single eminent pagan writer knew anything about it until late in the second century. Plutarch, who knew most things knowable, seems not to have heard the name of it.
But if it spread for near a hundred years only among the unlettered classes, and was in touch with decaying religion, not with progressive philosophy, it is useless to speak of all schools.
Too much stress should not be laid on its having “spread at once among Greeks and Romans.”
It is true that the prevailing philosophies were not fundamentally theistic. Epicureanism, of course, not at all. Stoicism, not in strict theory; but practically, by their use of ambiguous terms, their attention never to define what they meant by God, the Stoics helped Theism. At first sight, every one would take Cleanthes, Seneca, Epictetus, Antoninus for believers in one personal God. Tacitus even relates imperial miracles.
To say that “the cont. Academy” taught universal doubt is hazardous. That had been; but there is a change in the time of Cicero, or of his teacher Antiochus; and the Academy diverged, after that, from the Sceptics.
When you say “aristocratic religion,” you say what is, of course, originally true. But the word seems to recall an age when the classes were strictly, theoretically, divided, and to present the religion of Flavian Rome as more perfectly organised and self-contained than it was, after the influx of manifold forms of worship, and even of belief.
And if it is true that portents were part of the machinery of State, I don’t think that went so far as a claim to exclusive possession. They did not deny that divine forces were at work for the behoof of other nations. They even became curious about some of them.
“Invited as no other religion”—that is too sweeping. The Romans did actually suppress, in those very days, two religions, the Celtic and the Tyrian.
Whether it invited at all in the eyes of a civilised and monotheistic—or Stoic—Roman, I am not sure. But no doubt it did threaten the established institutions, and their upholders, with eventual, though probably very remote and contingent, destruction.
Remember, the apologists, down to Origen, denied what you assert.
And when you say “every prejudice,” you disregard the craving for better things, the habit of looking abroad, to Greece for philosophy (and even mythology), to the East for schemes for reconciling polytheism with monotheism.
The strong current of monotheism was already undermining the established Cultus, and must have made straight some way for Christianity.
Something besides the decay of old forms of worship should be allowed for the Præparatio Evangelica. On that account I rather dread the sentence about what would have been an anachronism. As long as polytheism was strong in general belief there was little room for Christianity. It supposes a time when monotheism had made some way. Also a time in which ethical science had been thought out. And if there was some decline of belief in the marvellous, it was by no means extinct in the masses. “Prodigia,” says Livy, “quæque magis credebant simplices ac religiosi homines, eo plura nuntiabantur”—referring to a rather earlier time. But similar things occur later. Besides, I suppose the author would not object to the idea of an anachronism. There was nothing of that immediate, overwhelming success, that evident fitness of time and place, that bewilder us in Mahommedanism.
Beugnot’s1 estimate is that which is generally accepted by all who reject the declamations of Tertullian. It is very hard to believe that so small a minority became predominant in one generation, after so long an interval of obscurity and repression.
Not being a man of science I have no right to say what I am going on to; but I only want to raise a question and suggest a precautionary doubt:
“Neither philosophical nor scientific.” Not philosophical—although much of the most powerful philosophic thinking has been pantheistic and therefore averse from miracle. But undoubtedly that sort of philosophy has not prevailed, and the other has held its own, and enjoys an equality.
But that is not the case in science. We are very far from the epoch of the Kosmos.2 In our time physical science proceeds as it never did before upon principles that are opposed to miracle: continuous causation, simplicity, or unity, of force, permanence of laws. The progress has never been so rapid. Therefore the confidence in these axioms has gone on growing, without a check.
It is possible, but it is not easy, to find works of considerable mark written on other lines, On the whole, the vote of natural science is against miracle. We dispute this on ground furnished to us by metaphysics. We could hardly do so on ground exclusively scientific. Science may admit, it assuredly does not encourage, belief in the miraculous—I mean, as things now are, since Joule1 and Mayer,2 and the prodigious revolution that has ensued, to say nothing of Evolution and the law of great numbers.
If we think this erroneous, we do so apart from scientific teaching.
That makes me fear your use of the term scientific, lest it should be thought arbitrary and violent—as if you thought that the testimony of natural science so far as it has yet been definitely given, really favours miracle.
You say I referred to 250 bc as a time of progress. I fancy a misprint for ad Yes; I think that the progress before the third century was slow. But in that century there were long spells of partial tranquillity.—Ever yours,
Dear Mr. Gladstone,—
The thesis that Christianity is due to the craving for miracle, and dies away with it, is so unhistoric, so unscientific, as to awaken a strong prejudice against the author’s integrity. A prejudice more than confirmed by what you say of the argument all on one side, and nothing but sentiment on the other.
It always seems to me a valid test of sincerity, whether a man begins by appreciating, and even if it may be, fortifying and strengthening the adversary’s position, supplying the gaps and correcting the flaws of his argument, before he declares it untenable. To set up an opponent like Newcome, mere material for demolition, betrays the infancy of art.
The suspicion you express at foot of p. 778 is not too severe applied to Mrs. Ward. But the passage may be subjected to hostile interpretation as implying that the decline of faith is mainly due to subjective causes, not to the operation of objective forces proper and peculiar to our age as compared with the eighteenth century, or to the antediluvian part of the nineteenth.
I am bound to admit that I do not gather from your essay that it is really an important book; unless more is made of the motives working for good outside of the Church. That might be an interesting theme.
Your impression that Christianity occupies a large area of Christendom is one which I should like to be able to verify. The Lutheran revival has done much to justify it, even in America. It might be possible to determine how many universities teach Christ, or what proportion in a given number of leading theologians believe in His divinity. The returns of the Unitarian body in England do not go very far. They have scarcely more than one eminent divine just now.
At top of p. 775 you have thoroughly guarded the flank. I still regret the word “scientific” on the previous page; and I think there is some objection to what you urge, there and again later on, about the pagan reluctance to receive a religion from the Jews.
This would apply to the first century, when the Jews were peculiarly odious, and when Christianity was preached by Jewish missionaries. But in that first century pagans did not accept their religion. Afterwards, when they did accept it, although the Gospel history was wrought and written by Jews, it was no longer preached by them. Christianity appeared without the Jewish husk, and there had been a considerable casting off of Judaism and its influence, both without and within.
The article is full of food for thought, and in one or two places I should like to plead for more care in understatement and definition; especially where you describe the moral action of Christianity. The saying of St. Augustine, p. 782, will hardly bear analysis; and the argument from Christian character, p. 778, is not obviously sound. We know only modern characters thoroughly. Men must have been dead some time for the whole truth to be told, and not long enough to fade into distance—say, about 500 years, from Dante or Petrarca to Carlyle. How many of these that belong to history will bear scrutiny? The better we get to know them, from letters, diaries, table talk, etc., the worse, as a rule, they appear. It is very difficult for the most keen-sighted Diogenes to detect a really good man—for instance, in the Reformation, or Revolution. We have to conclude backwards, from experience in the known to the less known age: and so are not dazzled by the halo of Fabricius and Decius.
There is some risk in sending a modern question to an ancient answer, as when you tell Mrs. Ward that she does not know the earlier apologists. The apologists of an age meet the difficulties they know, but they cannot anticipate the march of ages. There are leaps and bounds in the history of thought. We must not get ourselves into the position of those who objected to Luther that his propositions had been long since condemned; or of a man citing the Critici Sacri against Reimarus1 or Renan.
If we went to St. Thomas or Leibniz or Paley for rescue from Hegel or Haeckel, apologetics would be a record of disaster. The answer is in the next stage, not in any preceding one.
This may not apply to Mrs. Ward; but I imagine her difficulty to come from the Monistic philosophy, and nothing with the mould of ages upon it can help us against that. There are problems of which no man sees the crux unless trained up to date. Newman once said that in theology we had to meet questions the Fathers could hardly have been made to understand.
You will say that all this is mere skirmishing. But there is one thing which, I fear, may give an enemy his opportunity:—You insist, broadly, on belief in the divine nature of Christ as the soul, substance, and creative force of Christian religion. You assign to it very much of the good the Church has done; you urge the consent of ages; and you say that people have no right to deny this fundamental dogma. All this with little or no qualification or drawback, or allowance for the other side, or Catholic mea culpa.
Enter Martineau, or Stephen, or Morley (unattached), and loq.—Is this the final judgment of the Chief of Liberals? The pontiff of a Church whose Fathers are the later Milton and the later Penn, Locke and Bayle,1 Toland,2 Franklin, Turgot, Smith, Washington, Jefferson, Bentham, D. Stewart,3 Romilly, Jeffrey, B. Constant, Tocqueville, Channing, Macaulay, Mill? These men and others like them disbelieved that doctrine, established freedom, and undid the work of orthodox Christianity. They swept away that appalling edifice of intolerance, tyranny, cruelty, which believers in Christ built up, to perpetuate their belief. There is much to deduct from the praise of the Church in protecting marriage, abolishing slavery and human sacrifice, preventing war, and helping the poor. No deduction can be made from her evil-doing towards unbelievers, heretics, savages, and witches. Here her responsibility is more undivided, her initiative and achievement more complete.
Now the common run of Liberals are used to look on these transactions as the worst of all crimes. The Assassins did not kill in masses. The Terrorists generally inflicted a painless death. The Christian Church superadded the cruelty of Red Indians, by the use of torture and of fire.
It was the negation not only of religious liberty, which is the mainspring of civil, but equally of civil liberty, because a government armed with the machinery of the Inquisition is necessarily absolute. So that, if Liberalism has a desperate foe it is the Church, as it was in the West, between 1200 and 1600 or 1700. The philosophy of Liberal history which has to acknowledge the invaluable services of early Christianity, feels at the same time rather more strongly the anti-liberal and anti-social action of later Christianity, before the rise of the sects which rejected, some the divinity of Christ, others, the institutions of the Church erected upon it.
Liberalism, if it admits these things as adiaphora, surrenders its own raison d’être, and ceases to strive for an ethical cause. To speak with unabated reverence of the actual Christianity as it prevailed from Innocent III to Bossuet and Oates, would imply that the moral evil bore no proportion to the dogmatic merit, that so orthodox an institution could not be employed to do the devil’s work and people hell. Whatever we think of the faith, we must condemn the works. If the doctrine of Torquemada makes us condone his morality, there can be no public right and wrong, no political sin, no secular cause to die for, no damnation lurking in affairs of State.
Therefore it might be said that you care not to compare your earlier and later doctrines, your views on Church and on State; that you have lost some of your supreme Charisma, of knowing ab intra all the other side of the question, its restraining as well as its propelling elements; that you do not work really from the principle of Liberalism, but from the cognate though distinct principle of Democracy, Nationality, Progress, etc.
To some extent, I fear, you will estrange valued friends, not, assuredly, by any expression of theological belief, but by seeming to ignore the great central problem of Christian politics. If I had to put my own doubts instead of the average Liberal’s, I should state the case in other terms, but not altogether differently.—Ever yours,
Cannes,May 2, 1888.
[1 ] The book referred to is Christian Theology and Modern Scepticism, by Edward Adolphus Seymour, Twelfth Duke of Somerset (1872).
[2 ] R. W. Church.
[1 ] This is an error. T. H. Green in Robert Elsmere is represented by Mr. Gray, the tutor. J. R. Green is supposed to have served as a model for the hero.
[2 ] Mrs. Ward is a daughter of Thomas Arnold, son of Dr. Arnold of Rugby.
[1 ] The Rev. W. E. Addis was ordained in the Roman Church, and was afterwards Vice-Principal of Manchester College, Oxford, and since has become Rector of St. Botolph’s, Aldgate, and All Saints’, Ennismore Gardens. He died in 1916.
[1 ]Beugnot, Arthur Auguste, Comte (1797-1865), a French publicist and archæologist. The book alluded to is his Histoire de la Destruction du Paganisme en occident, 2 tom., 1835.
[2 ] Alexander von Humboldt’s book with that title was published in 1845.
[1 ]Joule, James Prescott (1818-89), a great physicist and discoverer.
[2 ]Mayer, Julius Robert von (1818-78), a great German physicist, who has been called the Galileo of the nineteenth century.
[1 ]Reimarus, Hermann Samuel (1694-1768), the founder of modern criticism of the New Testament. His most famous book is Von dem Zwecke Jesu und seiner Junger, 1778.
[1 ]Bayle, Pierre (1647-1706), author of the famous Dictionnaire historique et critique, and also the Nouvelles de la République des Lettres. Bayle was falsely accused of being an infidel.
[2 ]Toland, John (1670-1722), a deist and author of Christianity not Mysterious, 1696. His publication was the beginning of the battle between the Deists and the Orthodox.
[3 ] Dugald Stewart, the Edinburgh philosopher.