Charles Kingsley, Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet: Ch. 1

[+] | [-] | reset

Yet there was an hour's relief in the evening, when either my mother told us Old Testament stories, or some preacher or two came in to supper after meeting; and I used to sit in the corner and listen to their talk; not that I understood a word, but the mere struggle to understand—the mere watching my mother's earnest face—my pride in the reverent flattery with which the worthy men addressed her as "a mother in Israel," were enough to fill up the blank for me till bed-time.

Of "vital Christianity" I heard much; but, with all my efforts, could find out nothing. Indeed, it did not seem interesting enough to tempt me to find out much. It seemed a set of doctrines, believing in which was to have a magical effect on people, by saving them from the everlasting torture due to sins and temptations which I had never felt. Now and then, believing, in obedience to my mother's assurances, and the solemn prayers of the ministers about me, that I was a child of hell, and a lost and miserable sinner, I used to have accesses of terror, and fancy that I should surely wake next morning in everlasting flames. Once I put my finger a moment into the fire, as certain Papists, and Protestants too, have done, not only to themselves, but to their disciples, to see if it would be so very dreadfully painful; with what conclusions the reader may judge…. Still, I could not keep up the excitement. Why should I? The fear of pain is not the fear of sin, that I know of; and, indeed, the thing was unreal altogether in my case, and my heart, my common sense, rebelled against it again and again; till at last I got a terrible whipping for taking my little sister's part, and saying that if she was to die,—so gentle, and obedient, and affectionate as she was,—God would be very unjust in sending her to hell-fire, and that I was quite certain He would do no such thing—unless He were the Devil: an opinion which I have since seen no reason to change. The confusion between the King of Hell and the King of Heaven has cleared up, thank God, since then!

So I was whipped and put to bed—the whipping altering my secret heart just about as much as the dread of hell-fire did.

I speak as a Christian man—an orthodox Churchman (if you require that shibboleth). Was I so very wrong? What was there in the idea of religion which was represented to me at home to captivate me? What was the use of a child's hearing of "God's great love manifested in the scheme of redemption," when he heard, in the same breath, that the effects of that redemption were practically confined only to one human being out of a thousand, and that the other nine hundred and ninety-nine were lost and damned from their birth-hour to all eternity—not only by the absolute will and reprobation of God (though that infernal blasphemy I heard often enough), but also, putting that out of the question, by the mere fact of being born of Adam's race? And this to a generation to whom God's love shines out in every tree and flower and hedge-side bird; to whom the daily discoveries of science are revealing that love in every microscopic animalcule which peoples the stagnant pool! This to working men, whose craving is only for some idea which shall give equal hopes, claims, and deliverances, to all mankind alike! This to working men, who, in the smiles of their innocent children, see the heaven which they have lost—the messages of baby-cherubs, made in God's own image! This to me, to whom every butterfly, every look at my little sister, contradicted the lie! You may say that such thoughts were too deep for a child; that I am ascribing to my boyhood the scepticism of my manhood; but it is not so; and what went on in my mind goes on in the minds of thousands. It is the cause of the contempt into which not merely sectarian Protestantism, but Christianity altogether, has fallen in the minds of the thinking workmen. Clergymen, who anathematize us for wandering into Unitarianism—you, you have driven us thither. You must find some explanation of the facts of Christianity more in accordance with the truths which we do know, and will live and die for, or you can never hope to make us Christians; or, if we do return to the true fold, it will be as I returned, after long, miserable years of darkling error, to a higher truth than most of you have yet learned to preach.