Annie Besant
Annie Besant

Part 2 out of 5

And still It draws them, though the feet must bleed,
Though garments must be rent, and eyes be scorched:
And if the valley of the shadow of death
Be passed, and to the level road they come,
Still with their faces to the polar star,
It is not with the same looks, the same limbs,
But halt, and maimed, and of infirmity.
And for the rest of the way they have to go
It is not day but night, and oftentimes
A night of clouds wherein the stars are lost."[2]

Aye! but never lost is the Star of Truth to which the face is set, and
while that shines all lesser lights may go. It was the long months of
suffering through which I had been passing, with the seemingly
purposeless torturing of my little one as a climax, that struck the
first stunning blow at my belief in God as a merciful Father of men. I
had been visiting the poor a good deal, and had marked the patient
suffering of their lives; my idolised mother had been defrauded by a
lawyer she had trusted, and was plunged into debt by his non-payment of
the sums that should have passed through his hands to others; my own
bright life had been enshrouded by pain and rendered to me degraded by
an intolerable sense of bondage; and here was my helpless, sinless babe
tortured for weeks and left frail and suffering. The smooth brightness
of my previous life made all the disillusionment more startling, and
the sudden plunge into conditions so new and so unfavourable dazed and
stunned me. My religious past became the worst enemy of the suffering
present. All my personal belief in Christ, all my intense faith in His
constant direction of affairs, all my habit of continual prayer and of
realisation of His Presence--all were against me now. The very height
of my trust was the measure of the shock when the trust gave way. To me
He was no abstract idea, but a living reality, and all my heart rose up
against this Person in whom I believed, and whose individual finger I
saw in my baby's agony, my own misery, the breaking of my mother's
proud heart under a load of debt, and all the bitter suffering of the
poor. The presence of pain and evil in a world made by a good God; the
pain falling on the innocent, as on my seven months' old babe; the pain
begun here reaching on into eternity unhealed; a sorrow-laden world; a
lurid, hopeless hell; all these, while I still believed, drove me
desperate, and instead of like the devils believing and trembling, I
believed and hated. All the hitherto dormant and unsuspected strength
of my nature rose up in rebellion; I did not yet dream of denial, but I
would no longer kneel.

As the first stirrings of this hot rebellion moved in my heart I met a
clergyman of a very noble type, who did much to help me by his ready
and wise sympathy. Mr. Besant brought him to see me during the crisis
of the child's illness; he said little, but on the following day I
received from him the following note:--

"_April_ 21, 1871.

"My Dear Mrs. Besant,--I am painfully conscious that I gave you but
little help in your trouble yesterday. It is needless to say that it
was not from want of sympathy. Perhaps it would be nearer the truth to
say that it was from excess of sympathy. I shrink intensely from
meddling with the sorrow of any one whom I feel to be of a sensitive
nature. 'The heart hath its own bitterness, and the stranger meddleth
not therewith.' It is to me a positively fearful thought that I might
awaken such a reflection as

"'And common was the commonplace,
And vacant chaff well meant for grain.'

Conventional consolations, conventional verses out of the Bible, and
conventional prayers are, it seems to me, an intolerable aggravation of
suffering. And so I acted on a principle that I mentioned to your
husband that 'there is no power so great as that of one human faith
looking upon another human faith.' The promises of God, the love of
Christ for little children, and all that has been given to us of hope
and comfort, are as deeply planted in your heart as in mine, and I did
not care to quote them. But when I talk face to face with one who is in
sore need of them, my faith in them suddenly becomes so vast and
heart-stirring that I think I must help most by talking naturally, and
letting the faith find its own way from soul to soul. Indeed, I could
not find words for it if I tried. And yet I am compelled, as a
messenger of the glad tidings of God, to solemnly assure you that all
is well. We have no key to the 'mystery of pain' excepting the Cross of
Christ. But there is another and a deeper solution in the hands of our
Father; and it will be ours when we can understand it. There is--in the
place to which we travelsome blessed explanation of your baby's pain
and your grief, which will fill with light the darkest heart. Now you
must believe without having seen; that is true faith. You must

"'Reach a hand through time to catch
The far-off interest of tears.'

That you may have strength so to do is part of your share in the
prayers of

"Yours very faithfully,

"W. D----."

A noble letter, but the storm was beating too fiercely to be stilled,
and one night in that summer of 1871 stands out clearly before me. Mr.
Besant was away, and there had been a fierce quarrel before he left. I
was outraged, desperate, with no door of escape from a life that,
losing its hope in God, had not yet learned to live for hope for man.
No door of escape? The thought came like a flash: "There is one!" And
before me there swung open, with lure of peace and of safety, the
gateway into silence and security, the gateway of the tomb. I was
standing by the drawing-room window, staring hopelessly at the evening
sky; with the thought came the remembrance that the means was at
hand--the chloroform that had soothed my baby's pain, and that I had
locked away upstairs. I ran up to my room, took out the bottle, and
carried it downstairs, standing again at the window in the summer
twilight, glad that the struggle was over and peace at hand. I uncorked
the bottle, and was raising it to my lips, when, as though the words
were spoken softly and clearly, I heard: "O coward, coward, who used to
dream of martyrdom, and cannot bear a few short years of pain!" A rush
of shame swept over me, and I flung the bottle far away among the
shrubs in the garden at my feet, and for a moment I felt strong as for
a struggle, and then fell fainting on the floor. Only once again in all
the strifes of my career did the thought of suicide recur, and then it
was but for a moment, to be put aside as unworthy a strong soul.

My new friend, Mr. D----, proved a very real help. The endless torture
of hell, the vicarious sacrifice of Christ, the trustworthiness of
revelation, doubts on all these hitherto accepted doctrines grew and
heaped themselves on my bewildered soul. My questionings were neither
shirked nor discouraged by Mr. D----; he was not horrified nor was he
sanctimoniously rebukeful, but met them all with a wide comprehension
inexpressibly soothing to one writhing in the first agonies of doubt.
He left Cheltenham in the early autumn of 1871, but the following
extracts from a letter written in November will show the kind of net in
which I was struggling (I had been reading M'Leod Campbell's work "On
the Atonement"):--

"You forget one great principle--that God is impassive, cannot suffer.
Christ, _qua_ God, did not suffer, but as Son of _Man_ and in His
humanity. Still, it may be correctly stated that He felt to sin and
sinners 'as God eternally feels'--_i.e., abhorrence of sin, and love of
the sinner_. But to infer from that that the Father in His Godhead
feels the sufferings which Christ experienced solely in humanity, and
because incarnate is, I think, wrong.

"(2) I felt strongly inclined to blow you up for the last part of your
letter. You assume, I think quite gratuitously, that God condemns the
major part of His children to objectless future suffering. You say that
if He does not, He places a book in their hands which threatens what He
does not mean to inflict. But how utterly this seems to me opposed to
the gospel of Christ! All Christ's references to eternal punishment may
be resolved into references to the Valley of Hinnom, by way of imagery;
with the exception of the Dives parable, where is distinctly inferred a
moral amendment beyond the grave. I speak of the unselfish desire of
Dives to save his brothers. The more I see of the controversy, the more
baseless does the eternal punishment theory appear. It seems then, to
me, that instead of feeling aggrieved and shaken, you ought to feel
encouraged and thankful that God is so much better than you were taught
to believe Him. You will have discovered by this time in Maurice's
'What is Revelation?' (I suppose you have the 'Sequel,' too?), that
God's truth is our truth, and His love is our love, only more perfect
and full. There is no position more utterly defeated in modern
philosophy and theology than Dean Mansel's attempt to show that God's
love, justice, &c., are different in kind from ours. Mill and Maurice,
from totally alien points of view, have shown up the preposterous
nature of the notion.

"(3) A good deal of what you have thought is, I fancy, based on a
strange forgetfulness of your former experience. If you have known
Christ--(whom to know is eternal life)--and that you have known Him I
am certain--can you really say that a few intellectual difficulties,
nay, a few moral difficulties if you will, are able at once to
obliterate the testimony of that higher state of being?

"Why, the keynote of all my theology is that Christ is lovable because,
and _just_ because, He is the perfection of all that I know to be noble
and generous, and loving, and tender, and true. If an angel from heaven
brought me a gospel which contained doctrines that would not stand the
test of such perfect lovableness--doctrines hard, or cruel, or
unjust--I should reject him and his trumpery gospel with scorn, knowing
that neither could be Christ's. Know Christ and judge religions by Him;
don't judge Him by religions, and then complain because they find
yourself looking at Him through a blood-coloured glass."

"I am saturating myself with Maurice, who is the antidote given by God
to this age against all dreary doublings and temptings of the devil to

Many a one, in this age of controversy over all things once held
sacred, has found peace and new light on this line of thought, and has
succeeded in thus reconciling theological doctrines with the demands of
the conscience for love and justice in a world made by a just and
loving God. I could not do so. The awakening to what the world was, to
the facts of human misery, to the ruthless tramp of nature and of
events over the human heart, making no difference between innocent and
guilty--the shock had been too great for the equilibrium to be restored
by arguments that appealed to the emotions and left the intellect
unconvinced. Months of this long-drawn-out mental anguish wrought their
natural effects on physical health, and at last I broke down
completely, and lay for weeks helpless and prostrate, in raging and
unceasing head-pain, unable to sleep, unable to bear the light, lying
like a log on the bed, not unconscious, but indifferent to everything,
consciousness centred, as it were, in the ceaseless pain. The doctor
tried every form of relief, but, entrenched in its citadel, the pain
defied his puny efforts. He covered my head with ice, he gave me
opium--which only drove me mad--he did all that skill and kindness
could do, but all in vain. Finally the pain wore itself out, and the
moment he dared to do so, he tried mental diversion; he brought me
books on anatomy, on science, and persuaded me to study them; and out
of his busy life would steal an hour to explain to me knotty points on
physiology. He saw that if I were to be brought back to reasonable
life, it could only be by diverting thought from the channels in which
the current had been running to a dangerous extent. I have often felt
that I owed life and sanity to that good man, who felt for the
helpless, bewildered child-woman, beaten down by the cyclone of doubt
and misery.

So it will easily be understood that my religious wretchedness only
increased the unhappiness of homelife, for how absurd it was that any
reasonable human being should be so tossed with anguish over
intellectual and moral difficulties on religious matters, and should
make herself ill over these unsubstantial troubles. Surely it was a
woman's business to attend to her husband's comforts and to see after
her children, and not to break her heart over misery here and hell
hereafter, and distract her brain with questions that had puzzled the
greatest thinkers and still remained unsolved! And, truly, women or men
who get themselves concerned about the universe at large, would do well
not to plunge hastily into marriage, for they do not run smoothly in
the double-harness of that honourable estate. _Sturm und Drang_ should
be faced alone, and the soul should go out alone into the wilderness to
be tempted of the devil, and not bring his majesty and all his imps
into the placid circle of the home. Unhappy they who go into marriage
with the glamour of youth upon them and the destiny of conflict
imprinted on their nature, for they make misery for their partner in
marriage as well as for themselves. And if that partner, strong in
traditional authority and conventional habits, seeks to "break in" the
turbulent and storm-tossed creature--well, it comes to a mere trial of
strength and endurance, whether that driven creature will fall panting
and crushed, or whether it will turn in its despair, assert its Divine
right to intellectual liberty, rend its fetters in pieces, and,
discovering its own strength in its extremity, speak at all risks its
"No" when bidden to live a lie.

When that physical crisis was over I decided on my line of action. I
resolved to take Christianity as it had been taught in the Churches,
and carefully and thoroughly examine its dogmas one by one, so that I
should never again say "I believe" where I had not proved, and that,
however diminished my area of belief, what was left of it might at
least be firm under my feet. I found that four chief problems were
pressing for solution, and to these I addressed myself. How many are
to-day the souls facing just these problems, and disputing every inch
of their old ground of faith with the steadily advancing waves of
historical and scientific criticism! Alas! for the many Canutes, as the
waves wash over their feet. These problems were:--

(1) The eternity of punishment after death.

(2) The meaning of "goodness" and "love," as applied to a God who had
made this world, with all its sin and misery.

(3) 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.

(4) The meaning of "inspiration" as applied to the Bible, and the
reconciliation of the perfections of the author with the blunders and
immoralities of the work.

It will be seen that the deeper problems of religion--the deity of
Christ, the existence of God, the immortality of the soul--were not yet
brought into question, and, looking back, I cannot but see how orderly
was the progression of thought, how steady the growth, after that first
terrible earthquake, and the first wild swirl of agony. The points that
I set myself to study were those which would naturally be first faced
by any one whose first rebellion against the dogmas of the Churches was
a rebellion of the moral nature rather than of the intellectual, a
protest of the conscience rather than of the brain. It was not a desire
for moral licence which gave me the impulse that finally landed me in
Atheism; it was the sense of outraged justice and insulted right. I was
a wife and mother, blameless in moral life, with a deep sense of duty
and a proud self-respect; it was while I was this that doubt struck me,
and while I was in the guarded circle of the home, with no dream of
outside work or outside liberty, that I lost all faith in Christianity.
My education, my mother's example, my inner timidity and self-distrust,
all fenced me in from temptations from without. It was the uprising of
an outraged conscience that made me a rebel against the Churches and
finally an unbeliever in God. And I place this on record, because the
progress of Materialism will never be checked by diatribes against
unbelievers, as though they became unbelievers from desire for vice and
for licence to do evil. What Religion has to face in the controversies
of to-day is not the unbelief of the sty, but the unbelief of the
educated conscience and of the soaring intellect; and unless it can arm
itself with a loftier ethic and a grander philosophy than its opponent,
it will lose its hold over the purest and the strongest of the younger



My reading of heretical and Broad Church works on one side, and of
orthodox ones on the other, now occupied a large part of my time, and
our removal to Sibsey, in Lincolnshire, an agricultural village with a
scattered population, increased my leisure. I read the works of
Robertson, Stopford Brooke, Stanley, Greg, Matthew Arnold, Liddon,
Mansel, and many another, and my scepticism grew deeper and deeper as
I read. The Broad Church arguments appeared to me to be of the nature
of special pleading, skilful evasions of difficulties rather than the
real meeting and solving of them. For the problem was: Given a good
God, how can He have created mankind, knowing beforehand that the vast
majority of those whom He created were to be tortured for ever? 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? Worst of all 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
incessantly: "If He can prevent it and does not, He is not good; if He
wishes to prevent it and cannot, He is not almighty." I racked my
brains for an answer. I searched writings of believers for a clue, but
I found no way of escape. Not yet had any doubt of the existence of
God crossed my mind.

Mr. D---- continued to write me, striving to guide me along the path
which had led his own soul to contentment, but I can only find room
here for two brief extracts, which will show how to himself he solved
the problem. He thought me mistaken in my 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 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.... "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 can 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."

I found more help in Theistic writers like Grey, and Agnostic like
Arnold, than I did in the Broad Church teachers, but these, of course,
served to make 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 kept my doubts to myself. 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 recovered their faith; for the doubter
silence was a duty; the blinded had better keep their misery to

During these weary months of anxiety and torment I found some relief
from the mental strain in practical parish work, nursing the sick,
trying to brighten the lot of the poor. I learned then some of the
lessons as to the agricultural labourer and the land that I was able
in after-years to teach from the platform. The movement among the
agricultural labourers, due to the energy and devotion of Joseph Arch,
was beginning to be discussed in the fens, and my sympathies went
strongly with the claims of the labourers, for I knew their
life-conditions. In one cottage I had found four generations sleeping
in one room--the great-grandfather and his wife, the unmarried
grandmother, the unmarried mother, the little child; 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 human dwellers. How could I do aught but sympathise with any
combination that aimed at the raising of these poor? But the
Agricultural Labourers' Union was bitterly opposed by the farmers, and
they would give no work to a "Union man." One example may serve for
all. There was a young married man with two small children, who was
sinful enough to go to a Union meeting and sinful enough to talk of it
on his return home. No farmer would employ him in all the district
round. He tramped about vainly looking for work, grew reckless, and
took to drink. Visiting his cottage, consisting of one room and a
"lean-to," I found his wife ill with fever, a fever-stricken babe in
her arms, the second child lying dead on the bed. In answer to my
soft-spoken questions: Yes, she was pining (starving), there was no
work. Why did she leave the dead child on the bed? Because she had no
other place for it till the coffin came. And at night the unhappy,
driven man, the fever-stricken wife, the fever-stricken child, the
dead child, all lay in the one bed. The farmers hated the Union
because its success meant higher wages for the men, and it never
struck them that they might well pay less rent to the absent landlord
and higher wage to the men who tilled their fields. They had only
civil words for the burden that crushed them, hard words for the
mowers of their harvests and the builders-up of their ricks; they made
common cause with their enemies instead of with their friends, and
instead of leaguing themselves together with the labourers as forming
together the true agricultural interest, they leagued themselves with
the landlords against the labourers, and so made ruinous fratricidal
strife instead of easy victory over the common foe. And, seeing all
this, I learned some useful lessons, and the political education
progressed while the theological strife went on within.

In the early autumn a ray of light broke the darkness. I was in London
with my mother, and wandered one Sunday morning into St. George's
Hall, where the Rev. Charles Voysey was preaching. There to my delight
I found, on listening to the sermon and buying some literature on sale
in the ante-room, that there were people who had passed through my own
difficulties, and had given up the dogmas that I found so revolting. I
went again on the following Sunday, and when the service was over I
noticed that the outgoing stream of people were passing by Mr. and
Mrs. Voysey, and that many who were evidently strangers spoke a word
of thanks to him as they went on. Moved by a strong desire, after the
long months of lonely striving, to speak to one who had struggled out
of Christian difficulties, I said to Mr. Voysey, as I passed in my
turn, "I must thank you for very great help in what you said this
morning," for in truth, never having yet doubted the existence of God,
the teaching of Mr. Voysey that He was "loving unto _every_ man, and
His tender mercy over _all_ His works," came like a gleam of light
across the stormy sea of doubt and distress on which I had so long
been tossing. The next Sunday saw me again at the Hall, and Mrs.
Voysey gave me a cordial invitation to visit them in their Dulwich
home. I found their Theism was free from the defects that had revolted
me in Christianity, and they opened up to me new views of religion. I
read Theodore Parker's "Discourse on Religion," Francis Newman's
works, those of Miss Frances Power Cobbe, and of others; the anguish
of the tension relaxed; the nightmare of an Almighty Evil passed away;
my belief in God, not yet touched, was cleared from all the dark spots
that had sullied it, and I no longer doubted whether the dogmas that
had shocked my conscience were true or false. I shook them off, once
for all, with all their pain and horror and darkness, and felt, with
joy and relief inexpressible, that they were delusions of the
ignorance of man, not the revelations of a God.

But there was one belief that had not been definitely challenged, but
of which the _rationale_ was gone with the orthodox dogmas now
definitely renounced--the doctrine of the Deity of Christ. The whole
teaching of the Broad Church school tends, of course, to emphasise the
humanity of Christ at the expense of His Deity, and when eternal
punishment and the substitutionary atonement had gone there seemed no
reason remaining sufficient to account for so tremendous a miracle as
the incarnation of the Deity. In the course of my reading I had become
familiar with the idea of Avataras in Eastern creeds, and I saw that
the incarnate God was put forward as a fact by all ancient religions,
and thus the way was paved for challenging the especially Christian
teaching, when the doctrines morally repulsive were cleared away. But
I shrank from the thought of placing in the crucible a doctrine so
dear from all the associations of the past; there was so much that was
soothing and ennobling in the idea of a union between Man and God,
between a perfect man and a Divine life, between a human heart and an
almighty strength. Jesus as God was interwoven with all art and all
beauty in religion; to break with the Deity of Jesus was to break with
music, with painting, with literature; the Divine Babe in His Mother's
arms; the Divine Man in His Passion and His Triumph; the Friend of Man
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 away into the Pantheon of the dead Gods of the Past?

Nor was this all. If I gave up belief in Christ as God, I must give up
Christianity as creed. Once challenge the unique position of the
Christ, and the name Christian seemed to me to be a hypocrisy, and its
renouncement a duty binding on the upright mind. I was a clergyman's
wife; what would be the effect of such a step? Hitherto mental pain
alone had been the price demanded inexorably from the searcher after
truth; but with the renouncing of Christ outer warfare would be added
to the inner, and who might guess the result upon my life? The
struggle was keen but short; I decided to carefully review the
evidence for and against the Deity of Christ, with the result that
that belief followed the others, and I stood, no longer Christian,
face to face with a dim future in which I sensed the coming conflict.

One effort I made to escape it; I appealed to Dr. Pusey, thinking that
if he could not answer my questionings, no answer to them could be
reasonably hoped for. I had a brief correspondence with him, but was
referred only to lines of argument familiar to me--as those of Liddon
in his "Bampton Lectures"--and finally, on his invitation, went down
to Oxford to see him. I found a short, stout gentleman, dressed in a
cassock, looking like a comfortable monk; but keen eyes, steadfastly
gazing straight into mine, told of the force and subtlety enshrined in
the fine, impressive head. But the learned doctor took the wrong line
of treatment; he probably saw I was anxious, shy, and nervous, and he
treated me as a penitent going to confession and seeking the advice of
a director, instead of as an inquirer struggling after truth, and
resolute to obtain some firm standing-ground in the sea of doubt. He
would not deal with the question of the Deity of Jesus as a question
for argument. "You are speaking of your Judge," he retorted sternly,
when I pressed a difficulty. The mere suggestion of an imperfection in
the character of Jesus made him shudder, and he checked me with raised
hand. "You are blaspheming. The very thought is a terrible sin." Would
he recommend me any books that might throw light on the subject? "No,
no; you have read too much already. You must pray; you must pray."
When I urged that I could not believe without proof, I was told,
"Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed"; and my
further questioning was checked by the murmur, "O my child, how
undisciplined! how impatient!" Truly, he must have found in me--hot,
eager, passionate in my determination to _know_, resolute not to
profess belief while belief was absent--nothing of the meek,
chastened, submissive spirit with which he was wont to deal in
penitents seeking his counsel as their spiritual guide. In vain did he
bid me pray as though I believed; in vain did he urge the duty of
blind submission to the authority of the Church, of blind, unreasoning
faith that questioned not. I had not trodden the thorny path of doubt
to come to the point from which I had started; I needed, and would
have, solid grounds ere I believed. He had no conception of the
struggles of a sceptical spirit; he had evidently never felt the pangs
of doubt; his own faith was solid as a rock, firm, satisfied,
unshakable; he would as soon have committed suicide as have doubted of
the infallibility of the "Universal Church."

"It is not your duty to ascertain the truth," he told me, sternly. "It
is your duty to accept and believe the truth as laid down by the
Church. At your peril you reject it. The responsibility is not yours
so long as you dutifully accept that which the Church has laid down
for your acceptance. Did not the Lord promise that the presence of the
Spirit should be ever with His Church, to guide her into all truth?"

"But the fact of the promise and its value are just the very points on
which I am doubtful," I answered.

He shuddered. "Pray, pray," he said. "Father, forgive her, for she
knows not what she says."

It was in vain that I urged on him the sincerity of my seeking,
pointing out that I had everything to gain by following his
directions, everything to lose by going my own way, but that it seemed
to me untruthful to pretend to accept what was not really believed.

"Everything to lose? Yes, indeed. You will be lost for time and lost
for eternity."

"Lost or not," I rejoined, "I must and will try to find out what is
true, and I will not believe till I am sure."

"You have no right to make terms with God," he retorted, "as to what
you will believe or what you will not believe. You are full of
intellectual pride."

I sighed hopelessly. Little feeling of pride was there in me just
then, but only a despairful feeling that in this rigid, unyielding
dogmatism there was no comprehension of my difficulties, no help for
me in my strugglings. I rose, and, thanking him for his courtesy, said
that I would not waste his time further, that I must go home and face
the difficulties, openly leaving the Church and taking the
consequences. Then for the first time his serenity was ruffled.

"I forbid you to speak of your disbelief," he cried. "I forbid you to
lead into your own lost state the souls for whom Christ died."

[Illustration: THOMAS SCOTT.]

Slowly and sadly I took my way back to the station, knowing that my
last chance of escape had failed me. I recognised in this famous
divine the spirit of priest-craft, that could be tender and pitiful to
the sinner, repentant, humble, submissive; but that was iron to the
doubter, the heretic, and would crush out all questionings of
"revealed truth," silencing by force, not by argument, all challenge
of the traditions of the Church. Out of such men were made the
Inquisitors of the Middle Ages, perfectly conscientious, perfectly
rigid, perfectly merciless to the heretic. To them heretics are
centres of infectious disease, and charity to the heretic is "the
worst cruelty to the souls of men." Certain that they hold, "by no
merit of our own, but by the mercy of our God, the one truth which He
has revealed," they can permit no questionings, they can accept nought
but the most complete submission. But while man aspires after truth,
while his mind yearns after knowledge, while his intellect soars
upward into the empyrean of speculation and "beats the air with
tireless wing," so long shall those who demand faith from him be met
by challenge for proof, and those who would blind him shall be
defeated by his resolve to gaze unblenching on the face of Truth, even
though her eyes should turn him into stone. It was during this same
autumn of 1872 that I first met Mr. and Mrs. Scott, introduced to them
by Mr. Voysey. At that time Thomas Scott was an old man, with
beautiful white hair, and eyes like those of a hawk gleaming from
under shaggy eyebrows. He had been a man of magnificent physique, and,
though his frame was then enfeebled, the splendid lion-like head kept
its impressive strength and beauty, and told of a unique personality.
Well born and wealthy, he had spent his earlier life in adventure in
all parts of the world, and after his marriage he had settled down at
Ramsgate, and had made his home a centre of heretical thought. His
wife, "his right hand," as he justly called her, was young enough to
be his daughter--a sweet, strong, gentle, noble woman, worthy of her
husband, and than that no higher praise could be spoken. Mr. Scott for
many years issued monthly a series of pamphlets, all heretical, though
very varying in their shades of thought; all were well written,
cultured, and polished in tone, and to this rule Mr. Scott made no
exception; his writers might say what they liked, but they must have
something to say, and must say it in good English. His correspondence
was enormous, from Prime Ministers downwards. At his house met people
of the most varied opinions; it was a veritable heretical _salon_.
Colenso of Natal, Edward Maitland, E. Vansittart Neale, Charles Bray,
Sarah Hennell, and hundreds more, clerics and laymen, scholars and
thinkers, all coming to this one house, to which the _entree_ was
gained only by love of Truth and desire to spread Freedom among men.
For Thomas Scott my first Freethought essay was written a few months
after, "On the Deity of Jesus of Nazareth," by the wife of a benefited
clergyman. My name was not mine to use, so it was agreed that any
essays from my pen should be anonymous.

And now came the return to Sibsey, and with it the need for definite
steps as to the Church. For now I no longer doubted, I had rejected,
and the time for silence was past. I was willing to attend the Church
services, taking no part in any not directed to God Himself, but I
could no longer attend the Holy Communion, for in that service, full
of recognition of Jesus as Deity and of His atoning sacrifice, I could
no longer take part without hypocrisy. This was agreed to, and well do
I remember the pain and trembling wherewith on the first "Sacrament
Sunday" after my return I rose and left the church. That the vicar's
wife should "communicate" was as much a matter of course as that the
vicar should "administer"; I had never done anything in public that
would draw attention to me, and a feeling of deadly sickness nearly
overcame me as I made my exit, conscious that every eye was on me, and
that my non-participation would be the cause of unending comment. As a
matter of fact, every one naturally thought I was taken suddenly ill,
and I was overwhelmed with calls and inquiries. To any direct question
I answered quietly that I was unable to take part in the profession of
faith required by an honest communicant, but the statement was rarely
necessary, as the idea of heresy in a vicar's wife is slow to suggest
itself to the ordinary bucolic mind, and I proffered no information
where no question was asked.

It happened that, shortly after that (to me) memorable Christmas of
1872, a sharp epidemic of typhoid fever broke out in the village of
Sibsey. The drainage there was of the most primitive type, and the
contagion spread rapidly. Naturally fond of nursing, I found in this
epidemic work just fitted to my hand, and I was fortunate enough to be
able to lend personal help that made me welcome in the homes of the
stricken poor. The mothers who slept exhausted while I watched beside
their darlings' bedsides will never, I like to fancy, think
over-harshly of the heretic whose hand was as tender and often more
skilful than their own. I think Mother Nature meant me for a nurse,
for I take a sheer delight in nursing any one, provided only that
there is peril in the sickness, so that there is the strange and
solemn feeling of the struggle between the human skill one wields and
the supreme enemy, Death. There is a strange fascination in fighting
Death, step by step, and this is of course felt to the full where one
fights for life as life, and not for a life one loves. When the
patient is beloved the struggle is touched with agony, but where one
fights with Death over the body of a stranger there is a weird
enchantment in the contest without personal pain, and as one forces
back the hated foe there is a curious triumph in the feeling which
marks the death-grip yielding up its prey, as one snatches back to
earth the life which had well-nigh perished.

The spring of 1873 brought me knowledge of a power that was to mould
much of my future life. I delivered my first lecture, but delivered it
to rows of empty pews in Sibsey Church. A queer whim took me that I
would like to know how "it felt" to preach, and vague fancies stirred
in me that I could speak if I had the chance. I saw no platform in the
distance, nor had any idea of possible speaking in the future dawned
upon me. But the longing to find outlet in words came upon me, and I
felt as though I had something to say and was able to say it. So
locked alone in the great, silent church, whither I had gone to
practise some organ exercises, I ascended the pulpit steps and
delivered my first lecture on the Inspiration of the Bible. I shall
never forget the feeling of power and delight--but especially of
power--that came upon me as I sent my voice ringing down the aisles,
and the passion in me broke into balanced sentences and never paused
for musical cadence or for rhythmical expression. All I wanted then
was to see the church full of upturned faces, alive with throbbing
sympathy, instead of the dreary emptiness of silent pews. And as
though in a dream the solitude was peopled, and I saw the listening
faces and the eager eyes, and as the sentences flowed unbidden from my
lips and my own tones echoed back to me from the pillars of the
ancient church, I knew of a verity that the gift of speech was mine,
and that if ever--and then it seemed so impossible!--if ever the
chance came to me of public work, this power of melodious utterance
should at least win hearing for any message I had to bring.

But the knowledge remained a secret all to my own self for many a long
month, for I quickly felt ashamed of that foolish speechifying in an
empty church; but, foolish as it was, I note it here, as it was the
first effort of that expression in spoken words which later became to
me one of the deepest delights of life. And, indeed, none can know,
save they who have felt it, what joy there is in the full rush of
language that moves and sways; to feel a crowd respond to the lightest
touch; to see the faces brighten or darken at your bidding; to know
that the sources of human emotion and human passion gush forth at the
word of the speaker as the stream from the riven rock; to feel that
the thought which thrills through a thousand hearers has its impulse
from you, and throbs back to you the fuller from a thousand
heart-beats. Is there any emotional joy in life more brilliant than
this, fuller of passionate triumph, and of the very essence of
intellectual delight?

In 1873 my marriage tie was broken. I took no new step, but my absence
from the Communion led to some gossip, and a relative of Mr. Besant
pressed on him highly-coloured views of the social and professional
dangers which would accrue if my heresy became known. My health, never
really restored since the autumn of 1871, grew worse and worse,
serious heart trouble having arisen from the constant strain under
which I lived. At last, in July or August, 1873, the crisis came. I
was told that I must conform to the outward observances of the Church,
and attend the Communion; I refused. Then came the distinct
alternative; conformity or exclusion from home--in other words,
hypocrisy or expulsion. I chose the latter.

A bitterly sad time followed. My dear mother was heart-broken. To her,
with her wide and vague form of Christianity, loosely held, the
intensity of my feeling that where I did not believe I would not
pretend belief, was incomprehensible. She recognised far more fully
than I did all that a separation from my home meant for me, and the
difficulties that would surround a young woman, not yet twenty-six,
living alone. She knew how brutally the world judges, and how the mere
fact that a woman was young and alone justified any coarseness of
slander. Then I did not guess how cruel men and women could be, how
venomous their tongues; now, knowing it, having faced slander and
lived it down, I deliberately say that were the choice again before me
I would choose as I chose then; I would rather go through it all again
than live "in Society" under the burden of an acted lie.

The hardest struggle was against my mother's tears and pleading; to
cause her pain was tenfold pain to me. Against harshness I had been
rigid as steel, but it was hard to remain steadfast when my darling
mother, whom I loved as I loved nothing else on earth, threw herself
on her knees before me, imploring me to yield. It seemed like a crime
to bring such anguish on her; and I felt as a murderer as the snowy
head was pressed against my knees. And yet--to live a lie? Not even
for her was that shame possible; in that worst crisis of blinding
agony my will clung fast to Truth. And it is true now as it ever was
that he who loves father or mother better than Truth is not worthy of
her, and the flint-strewn path of honesty is the way to Light and

Then there were the children, the two little ones who worshipped me,
who was to them mother, nurse, and playfellow. Were they, too,
demanded at my hands? Not wholly--for a time. Facts which I need not
touch on here enabled my brother to obtain for me a legal separation,
and when everything was arranged, I found myself guardian of my little
daughter, and possessor of a small monthly income sufficient for
respectable starvation. With a great price I had obtained my freedom,
but--I was free. Home, friends, social position, were the price
demanded and paid, and, being free, I wondered what to do with my
freedom. I could have had a home with my brother if I would give up my
heretical friends and keep quiet, but I had no mind to put my limbs
into fetters again, and in my youthful inexperience I determined to
find something to do. The difficulty was the "something," and I spent
various shillings in agencies, with a quite wonderful unanimity of
failures. I tried fancy needle-work, offered to "ladies in reduced
circumstances," and earned 4s. 6d. by some weeks of stitching. I
experimented with a Birmingham firm, who generously offered every one
the opportunity of adding to their incomes, and on sending the small
fee demanded, received a pencil-case, with an explanation that I was
to sell little articles of that description, going as far as
cruet-stands, to my friends. I did not feel equal to springing
pencil-cases and cruet-stands on my acquaintances, so did not enter on
that line of business, and similar failures in numerous efforts made
me feel, as so many others have found, that the world-oyster is hard
to open. However, I was resolute to build a nest for my wee daughter,
my mother, and myself, and the first thing to do was to save my
monthly pittance to buy furniture. I found a tiny house in Colby Road,
Upper Norwood, near the Scotts, who were more than good to me, and
arranged to take it in the spring, and then accepted a loving
invitation to Folkestone, where my grandmother and two aunts were
living, to look for work there. And found it. The vicar wanted a
governess, and one of my aunts suggested me as a stop-gap, and thither
I went with my little Mabel, our board and lodging being payment for
my work. I became head cook, governess, and nurse, glad enough to have
found "something to do" that enabled me to save my little income. But
I do not think I will ever take to cooking for a permanence; broiling
and frying are all right, and making pie-crust is rather pleasant; but
saucepans and kettles blister your hands. There is a charm in making a
stew, to the unaccustomed cook, from the excitement of wondering what
the result will be, and whether any flavour save that of onions will
survive the competition in the mixture. On the whole, my cooking
(strictly by cookery book) was a success, but my sweeping was bad, for
I lacked muscle. This curious episode came to an abrupt end, for one
of my little pupils fell ill with diphtheria, and I was transformed
from cook to nurse. Mabel I despatched to her grandmother, who adored
her with a love condescendingly returned by the little fairy of three,
and never was there a prettier picture than the red-gold curls nestled
against the white, the baby-grace in exquisite contrast with the worn
stateliness of her tender nurse. Scarcely was my little patient out of
danger when the youngest boy fell ill of scarlet fever; we decided to
isolate him on the top floor, and I cleared away carpets and curtains,
hung sheets over the doorways and kept them wet with chloride of lime,
shut myself up there with the boy, having my meals left on the
landing; and when all risk was over, proudly handed back my charge,
the disease touching no one else in the house.

And now the spring of 1874 had come, and in a few weeks my mother and
I were to set up house together. How we had planned all, and had
knitted on the new life together we anticipated to the old one we
remembered! How we had discussed Mabel's education, and the share
which should fall to each! Day-dreams; day-dreams! never to be

My mother went up to town, and in a week or two I received a telegram,
saying she was dangerously ill, and as fast as express train would
take me I was beside her. Dying, the doctor said; three days she might
live--no more. I told her the death-sentence, but she said resolutely,
"I do not feel that I am going to die just yet," and she was right.
There was an attack of fearful prostration--the valves of the heart
had failed--a very wrestling with Death, and then the grim shadow drew
backwards. I nursed her day and night with a very desperation of
tenderness, for now Fate had touched the thing dearest to me in life.
A second horrible crisis came, and for the second time her tenacity
and my love beat back the death-stroke. She did not wish to die, the
love of life was strong in her; I would not let her die; between us we
kept the foe at bay. Then dropsy supervened, and the end loomed slowly

It was then, after eighteen months' abstention, that I took the
Sacrament for the last time. My mother had an intense longing to
communicate before she died, but absolutely refused to do so unless I
took it with her. "If it be necessary to salvation," she persisted,
doggedly, "I will not take it if darling Annie is to be shut out. I
would rather be lost with her than saved without her." I went to a
clergyman I knew well, and laid the case before him; as I expected, he
refused to allow me to communicate. I tried a second, with the same
result. At last a thought struck me. There was Dean Stanley, my
mother's favourite, a man known to be of the broadest school within
the Church of England; suppose I asked him? I did not know him, and I
felt the request would be an impertinence; but there was just the
chance that he might consent, and what would I not do to make my
darling's death-bed easier? I said nothing to any one, but set out to
the Deanery, Westminster, timidly asked for the Dean, and followed the
servant upstairs with a sinking heart. I was left for a moment alone
in the library, and then the Dean came in. I don't think I ever in my
life felt more intensely uncomfortable than I did in that minute's
interval as he stood waiting for me to speak, his clear, grave,
piercing eyes gazing questioningly into mine. Very falteringly--it
must have been very clumsily--I preferred my request, stating boldly,
with abrupt honesty, that I was not a Christian, that my mother was
dying, that she was fretting to take the Sacrament, that she would not
take it unless I took it with her, that two clergymen had refused to
allow me to take part in the service, that I had come to him in
despair, feeling how great was the intrusion, but--she was dying.

His face changed to a great softness. "You were quite right to come to
me," he answered, in that low, musical voice of his, his keen gaze
having altered into one no less direct, but marvellously gentle. "Of
course I will go and see your mother, and I have little doubt that, if
you will not mind talking over your position with me, we may see our
way clear to doing as your mother wishes."

I could barely speak my thanks, so much did the kindly sympathy move
me; the revulsion from the anxiety and fear of rebuff was strong
enough to be almost pain. But Dean Stanley did more than I asked. He
suggested that he should call that afternoon, and have a quiet chat
with my mother, and then come again on the following day to administer
the Sacrament.

"A stranger's presence is always trying to a sick person," he said,
with rare delicacy of thought, "and, joined to the excitement of the
service, it might be too much for your dear mother. If I spend half an
hour with her to-day, and administer the Sacrament to-morrow, it will,
I think, be better for her."

So Dean Stanley came that afternoon, all the way to Brompton, and
remained talking with my mother for about half an hour, and then set
himself to understand my own position. He finally told me that conduct
was far more important than theory, and that he regarded all as
"Christians" who recognised and tried to follow the moral law of
Christ. On the question of the absolute Deity of Jesus he laid but
little stress; Jesus was "in a special sense the Son of God," but it
was folly to quarrel over words with only human meanings when dealing
with the mystery of the Divine existence, and, above all, it was folly
to make such words into dividing walls between earnest souls. The one
important matter was the recognition of "duty to God and man," and all
who were one in that recognition might rightfully join in an act of
worship, the essence of which was not acceptance of dogma, but love of
God and self-sacrifice for man. "The Holy Communion," he concluded, in
his soft tones, "was never meant to divide from each other hearts that
are searching after the one true God. It was meant by its founder as a
symbol of unity, not of strife."

On the following day Dean Stanley celebrated the Holy Communion by the
bedside of my dear mother, and well was I repaid for the struggle it
had cost me to ask so great a kindness from a stranger, when I saw the
comfort that gentle, noble heart had given to her. He soothed away all
her anxiety about my heresy with tactful wisdom, bidding her have no
fear of differences of opinion where the heart was set on truth.
"Remember," she told me he said to her--"remember that our God is the
God of truth, and that therefore the honest search for truth can never
be displeasing in His eyes." Once again after that he came, and after
his visit to my mother we had another long talk. I ventured to ask
him, the conversation having turned that way, how, with views so broad
as his, he found it possible to remain in communion with the Church of
England. "I think," he answered, gently, "that I am of more service to
true religion by remaining in the Church and striving to widen its
boundaries from within, than if I left it and worked from without."
And he went on to explain how, as Dean of Westminster, he was in a
rarely independent position, and could make the Abbey of a wider
national service than would otherwise be possible. In all he said on
this his love for and his pride in the glorious Abbey were manifest,
and it was easy to see that old historical associations, love of
music, of painting, of stately architecture, were the bonds that held
him bound to the "old historic Church of England." His emotions, not
his intellect, kept him Churchman, and he shrank, with the
over-sensitiveness of the cultured scholar, from the idea of allowing
the old traditions to be handled roughly by inartistic hands.
Naturally of a refined and delicate nature, he had been rendered yet
more exquisitely sensitive by the training of the college and the
court; the polished courtesy of his manners was but the natural
expression of a noble and lofty mind--a mind whose very gentleness
sometimes veiled its strength. I have often heard Dean Stanley harshly
spoken of, I have heard his honesty roughly challenged; but never has
he been attacked in my presence that I have not uttered my protest
against the injustice done him, and thus striven to repay some small
fraction of that great debt of gratitude which I shall ever owe his

And now the end came swiftly. I had hurriedly furnished a couple of
rooms in the little house, now ours, that I might take my mother into
the purer air of Norwood, and permission was given to drive her down
in an invalid carriage. The following evening she was suddenly taken
worse; we lifted her into bed, and telegraphed for the doctor. But he
could do nothing, and she herself felt that the hand of Death had
gripped her. Selfless to the last, she thought but for my loneliness.
"I am leaving you alone," she sighed from time to time; and truly I
felt, with an anguish I did not dare to realise, that when she died I
should indeed be alone on earth.

For two days longer she was with me, my beloved, and I never left her
side for five minutes. On May 10th the weakness passed into gentle
delirium, but even then the faithful eyes followed me about the room,
until at length they closed for ever, and as the sun sank low in the
heavens, the breath came slower and slower, till the silence of Death
came down upon us and she was gone.

Stunned and dazed with the loss, I went mechanically through the next
few days. I would have none touch my dead save myself and her
favourite sister, who was with us at the last. Cold and dry-eyed I
remained, even when they hid her from me with the coffin-lid, even all
the dreary way to Kensal Green where her husband and her baby-son were
sleeping, and when we left her alone in the chill earth, damp with the
rains of spring. I could not believe that our day-dream was dead and
buried, and the home in ruins ere yet it was fairly built. Truly, my
"house was left unto me desolate," and the rooms, filled with sunshine
but unlighted by her presence, seemed to echo from their bare walls,
"You are all alone."

But my little daughter was there, and her sweet face and dancing feet
broke the solitude, while her imperious claims for love and tendance
forced me into attention to the daily needs of life. And life was hard
in those days of spring and summer, resources small, and work
difficult to find. In truth, the two months after my mother's death
were the dreariest my life has known, and they were months of
tolerably hard struggle. The little house in Colby Road taxed my
slender resources heavily, and the search for work was not yet
successful. I do not know how I should have managed but for the help
ever at hand, of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Scott. During this time I wrote
for Mr. Scott pamphlets on Inspiration, Atonement, Mediation and
Salvation, Eternal Torture, Religious Education of Children, Natural
_v_. Revealed Religion, and the few guineas thus earned were very
valuable. Their house, too, was always open to me, and this was no
small help, for often in those days the little money I had was enough
to buy food for two but not enough to buy it for three, and I would go
out and study all day at the British Museum, so as to "have my dinner
in town," the said dinner being conspicuous by its absence. If I was
away for two evenings running from the hospitable house in the
terrace, Mrs. Scott would come down to see what had happened, and many
a time the supper there was of real physical value to me. Well might I
write, in 1879, when Thomas Scott lay dead: "It was Thomas Scott whose
house was open to me when my need was sorest, and he never knew, this
generous, noble heart, how sometimes, when I went in, weary and
overdone, from a long day's study in the British Museum, with scarce
food to struggle through the day--he never knew how his genial, 'Well,
little lady,' in welcoming tone, cheered the then utter loneliness of
my life. To no living man--save one--do I owe the debt of gratitude
that I owe to Thomas Scott."

The small amount of jewellery I possessed, and all my superfluous
clothes, were turned into more necessary articles, and the child, at
least, never suffered a solitary touch of want. My servant Mary was a
wonderful contriver, and kept house on the very slenderest funds that
could be put into a servant's hands, and she also made the little
place so bright and fresh-looking that it was always a pleasure to go
into it. Recalling those days of "hard living," I can now look on them
without regret. More, I am glad to have passed through them, for they
have taught me how to sympathise with those who are struggling as I
struggled then, and I never can hear the words fall from pale lips, "I
am hungry," without remembering how painful a thing hunger is, and
without curing that pain, at least for the moment.

The presence of the child was good for me, keeping alive my aching,
lonely heart: she would play contentedly for hours while I was
working, a word now and again being enough for happiness; when I had
to go out without her, she would run to the door with me, and the
"good-bye" would come from down-curved lips; she was ever watching at
the window for my return, and the sunny face was always the first to
welcome me home. Many and many a time have I been coming home, weary,
hungry, and heart-sick, and the glimpse of the little face watching
has reminded me that I must not carry in a grave face to sadden my
darling, and the effort to throw off the depression for her sake threw
it off altogether, and brought back the sunshine. She was the
sweetness and joy of my life, my curly-headed darling, with her
red-gold hair and glorious eyes, and passionate, wilful, loving
nature. The torn, bruised tendrils of my heart gradually twined round
this little life; she gave something to love and to tend, and thus
gratified one of the strongest impulses of my nature.



During all these months the intellectual life had not stood still; I
was slowly, cautiously feeling my way onward. And in the intellectual
and social side of my life I found a delight unknown in the old days
of bondage. First, there was the joy of freedom, the joy of speaking
out frankly and honestly each thought. Truly, I had a right to say:
"With a great price obtained I this freedom," and having paid the
price, I revelled in the liberty I had bought. Mr. Scott's valuable
library was at my service; his keen brain challenged my opinions,
probed my assertions, and suggested phases of thought hitherto
untouched. I studied harder than ever, and the study now was unchecked
by any fear of possible consequences. I had nothing left of the old
faith save belief in "a God," and that began slowly to melt away. The
Theistic axiom: "If there be a God at all He must be at least as good
as His highest creature," began with an "if," and to that "if" I
turned my attention. "Of all impossible things," writes Miss Frances
Power Cobbe, "the most impossible must surely be that a man should
dream something of the good and the noble, and that it should prove at
last that his Creator was less good and less noble than he had
dreamed." But, I questioned, are we sure that there is a Creator?
Granted that, if there is, He must be above His highest creature,
but--is there such a being? "The ground," says the Rev. Charles
Voysey, "on which our belief in God rests is man. Man, parent of
Bibles and Churches, inspirer of all good thoughts and good deeds.
Man, the masterpiece of God's thought on earth. Man, the text-book of
all spiritual knowledge. Neither miraculous nor infallible, man is
nevertheless the only trustworthy record of the Divine mind in things
pertaining to God. Man's reason, conscience, and affections are the
only true revelation of his Maker." But what if God were only man's
own image reflected in the mirror of man's mind? What if man were the
creator, not the revelation of his God?

It was inevitable that such thoughts should arise after the more
palpably indefensible doctrines of Christianity had been discarded.
Once encourage the human mind to think, and bounds to the thinking can
never again be set by authority. Once challenge traditional beliefs,
and the challenge will ring on every shield which is hanging in the
intellectual arena. Around me was the atmosphere of conflict, and,
freed from its long repression, my mind leapt up to share in the
strife with a joy in the intellectual tumult, the intellectual strain.

I often attended South Place Chapel, where Moncure D. Conway was then
preaching, and discussion with him did something towards widening my
views on the deeper religious problems; I re-read Dean Mansel's
"Bampton Lectures," and they did much towards turning me in the
direction of Atheism; I re-read Mill's "Examination of Sir William
Hamilton's Philosophy," and studied carefully Comte's "Philosophie
Positive." Gradually I recognised the limitations of human intelligence
and its incapacity for understanding the nature of God, presented as
infinite and absolute; I had given up the use of prayer as a
blasphemous absurdity, since an all-wise God could not need my
suggestions, nor an all-good God require my promptings. But God fades
out of the daily life of those who never pray; a personal God who is
not a Providence is a superfluity; when from the heaven does not smile
a listening Father, it soon becomes an empty space, whence resounds no
echo of man's cry. I could then reach no loftier conception of the
Divine than that offered by the orthodox, and that broke hopelessly
away as I analysed it.

At last I said to Mr. Scott, "Mr. Scott, may I write a tract on the
nature and existence of God?"

He glanced at me keenly. "Ah, little lady, you are facing, then, that
problem at last? I thought it must come. Write away."

While this pamphlet was in MS. an event occurred which coloured all my
succeeding life. I met Charles Bradlaugh. One day in the late spring,
talking with Mrs. Conway--one of the sweetest and steadiest natures
whom it has been my lot to meet, and to whom, as to her husband, I owe
much for kindness generously shown when I was poor and had but few
friends--she asked me if I had been to the Hall of Science, Old
Street. I answered, with the stupid, ignorant reflection of other
people's prejudices so sadly common, "No, I have never been there. Mr.
Bradlaugh is rather a rough sort of speaker, is he not?"

"He is the finest speaker of Saxon-English that I have ever heard,"
she answered, "except, perhaps, John Bright, and his power over a
crowd is something marvellous. Whether you agree with him or not, you
should hear him."

In the following July I went into the shop of Mr. Edward Truelove,
256, High Holborn, in search of some Comtist publications, having come
across his name as a publisher in the course of my study at the
British Museum. On the counter was a copy of the _National Reformer_,
and, attracted by the title, I bought it. I read it placidly in the
omnibus on my way to Victoria Station, and found it excellent, and was
sent into convulsions of inward merriment when, glancing up, I saw an
old gentleman gazing at me, with horror speaking from every line of
his countenance. To see a young woman, respectably dressed in crape,
reading an Atheistic journal, had evidently upset his peace of mind,
and he looked so hard at the paper that I was tempted to offer it to
him, but repressed the mischievous inclination.

This first copy of the paper with which I was to be so closely
connected bore date July 19, 1874, and contained two long letters from
a Mr. Arnold of Northampton, attacking Mr. Bradlaugh, and a brief and
singularly self-restrained answer from the latter. There was also an
article on the National Secular Society, which made me aware that
there was an organisation devoted to the propagandism of Free Thought.
I felt that if such a society existed, I ought to belong to it, and I
consequently wrote a short note to the editor of the _National
Reformer_, asking whether it was necessary for a person to profess
Atheism before being admitted to the Society. The answer appeared in
the _National Reformer_:--

"S.E.--To be a member of the National Secular Society it is only
necessary to be able honestly to accept the four principles, as given
in the _National Reformer_ of June 14th. This any person may do
without being required to avow himself an Atheist. Candidly, we can
see no logical resting-place between the entire acceptance of
authority, as in the Roman Catholic Church, and the most extreme
Rationalism. If, on again looking to the Principles of the Society,
you can accept them, we repeat to you our invitation."

I sent my name in as an active member, and find it is recorded in the
_National Reformer_ of August 9th. Having received an intimation that
Londoners could receive their certificates at the Hall of Science from
Mr. Bradlaugh on any Sunday evening, I betook myself thither, and it
was on August 2, 1874, that I first set foot in a Freethought hall.
The Hall was crowded to suffocation, and, at the very moment announced
for the lecture, a roar of cheering burst forth, a tall figure passed
swiftly up the Hall to the platform, and, with a slight bow in answer
to the voluminous greeting, Charles Bradlaugh took his seat. I looked
at him with interest, impressed and surprised. The grave, quiet,
stern, strong face, the massive head, the keen eyes, the magnificent
breadth and height of forehead--was this the man I had heard described
as a blatant agitator, an ignorant demagogue?

He began quietly and simply, tracing out the resemblances between the
Krishna and the Christ myths, and as he went from point to point his
voice grew in force and resonance, till it rang round the hall like a
trumpet. Familiar with the subject, I could test the value of his
treatment of it, and saw that his knowledge was as sound as his
language was splendid. Eloquence, fire, sarcasm, pathos, passion, all
in turn were bent against Christian superstition, till the great
audience, carried away by the torrent of the orator's force, hung
silent, breathing soft, as he went on, till the silence that followed
a magnificent peroration broke the spell, and a hurricane of cheers
relieved the tension.

He came down the Hall with some certificates in his hand, glanced
round, and handed me mine with a questioning "Mrs. Besant?" Then he
said, referring to my question as to a profession of Atheism, that he
would willingly talk over the subject of Atheism with me if I would
make an appointment, and offered me a book he had been using in his
lecture. Long afterwards I asked him how he knew me, whom he had never
seen, that he came straight to me in such fashion. He laughed and said
he did not know, but, glancing over the faces, he felt sure that I was
Annie Besant.

From that first meeting in the Hall of Science dated a friendship that
lasted unbroken till Death severed the earthly bond, and that to me
stretches through Death's gateway and links us together still. As
friends, not as strangers, we met--swift recognition, as it were,
leaping from eye to eye; and I know now that the instinctive
friendliness was in very truth an outgrowth of strong friendship in
other lives, and that on that August day we took up again an ancient
tie, we did not begin a new one. And so in lives to come we shall meet
again, and help each other as we helped each other in this. And let me
here place on record, as I have done before, some word of what I owe
him for his true friendship; though, indeed, how great is my debt to
him I can never tell. Some of his wise phrases have ever remained in
my memory. "You should never say you have an opinion on a subject
until you have tried to study the strongest things said against the
view to which you are inclined." "You must not think you know a
subject until you are acquainted with all that the best minds have
said about it." "No steady work can be done in public unless the
worker study at home far more than he talks outside." "Be your own
harshest judge, listen to your own speech and criticise it; read abuse
of yourself and see what grains of truth are in it." "Do not waste
time by reading opinions that are mere echoes of your own; read
opinions you disagree with, and you will catch aspects of truth you do
not readily see." Through our long comradeship he was my sternest as
well as gentlest critic, pointing out to me that in a party like ours,
where our own education and knowledge were above those whom we led, it
was very easy to gain indiscriminate praise and unstinted admiration;
on the other hand, we received from Christians equally indiscriminate
abuse and hatred. It was, therefore, needful that we should be our own
harshest judges, and that we should be sure that we knew thoroughly
every subject that we taught. He saved me from the superficiality that
my "fatal facility" of speech might so easily have induced; and when I
began to taste the intoxication of easily won applause, his criticism
of weak points, his challenge of weak arguments, his trained judgment,
were of priceless service to me, and what of value there is in my work
is very largely due to his influence, which at once stimulated and

One very charming characteristic of his was his extreme courtesy in
private life, especially to women. This outward polish, which sat so
gracefully on his massive frame and stately presence, was foreign
rather than English--for the English, as a rule, save such as go to
Court, are a singularly unpolished people--and it gave his manner a
peculiar charm. I asked him once where he had learned his gracious
fashions that were so un-English--he would stand with uplifted hat as
he asked a question of a maidservant, or handed a woman into a
carriage--and he answered, with a half-smile, half-scoff, that it was
only in England he was an outcast from society. In France, in Spain,
in Italy, he was always welcomed among men and women of the highest
social rank, and he supposed that he had unconsciously caught the
foreign tricks of manner. Moreover, he was absolutely indifferent to
all questions of social position; peer or artisan, it was to him
exactly the same; he never seemed conscious of the distinctions of
which men make so much.

Our first conversation, after the meeting at the Hall of Science, took
place a day or two later in his little study in 29, Turner Street,
Commercial Road, a wee room overflowing with books, in which he looked
singularly out of place. Later I learned that he had failed in
business in consequence of Christian persecution, and, resolute to
avoid bankruptcy, he had sold everything he possessed, save his books,
had sent his wife and daughters to live in the country with his
father-in-law, had taken two tiny rooms in Turner Street, where he
could live for a mere trifle, and had bent himself to the task of
paying off the liabilities he had incurred--incurred in consequence of
his battling for political and religious liberty. I took with me my
MS. essay "On the Nature and Existence of God," and it served as the
basis for our conversation; we found there was little difference in
our views. "You have thought yourself into Atheism without knowing
it," he said, and all that I changed in the essay was the correction
of the vulgar error that the Atheist says "there is no God," by the
insertion of a passage disclaiming this position from an essay pointed
out to me by Mr. Bradlaugh. And at this stage of my life-story, it is
necessary to put very clearly the position I took up and held so many
years as Atheist, because otherwise the further evolution into
Theosophist will be wholly incomprehensible. It will lead me into
metaphysics, and to some readers these are dry, but if any one would
understand the evolution of a Soul he must be willing to face the
questions which the Soul faces in its growth. And the position of the
philosophic Atheist is so misunderstood that it is the more necessary
to put it plainly, and Theosophists, at least, in reading it, will see
how Theosophy stepped in finally as a further evolution towards
knowledge, rendering rational, and therefore acceptable, the loftiest
spirituality that the human mind can as yet conceive.

In order that I may not colour my past thinkings by my present
thought, I take my statements from pamphlets written when I adopted
the Atheistic philosophy and while I continued an adherent thereof. No
charge can then be made that I have softened my old opinions for the
sake of reconciling them with those now held.



The first step which leaves behind the idea of a limited and personal
God, an extra-cosmic Creator, and leads the student to the point
whence Atheism and Pantheism diverge, is the recognition that a
profound unity of substance underlies the infinite diversities of
natural phenomena, the discernment of the One beneath the Many. This
was the step I had taken ere my first meeting with Charles Bradlaugh,
and I had written:--

"It is manifest to all who will take the trouble to think steadily,
that there can be only one eternal and underived substance, and that
matter and spirit must, therefore, only be varying manifestations of
this one substance. The distinction made between matter and spirit is,
then, simply made for the sake of convenience and clearness, just as
we may distinguish perception from judgment, both of which, however,
are alike processes of thought. Matter is, in its constituent elements,
the same as spirit; existence is _one_, however manifold in its
phenomena; life is one, however multiform in its evolution. As the
heat of the coal differs from the coal itself, so do memory,
perception, judgment, emotion, and will differ from the brain which is
the instrument of thought. But nevertheless they are all equally
products of the one sole substance, varying only in their
conditions.... I find myself, then, compelled to believe that one only
substance exists in all around me; that the universe is eternal, or at
least eternal so far as our faculties are concerned, since we cannot,
as some one has quaintly put it, 'get to the outside of everywhere';
that a Deity cannot be conceived of as apart from the universe; that
the Worker and the Work are inextricably interwoven, and in some sense
eternally and indissolubly combined. Having got so far, we will
proceed to examine into the possibility of proving the existence of
that one essence popularly called by the name of _God_, under the
conditions strictly defined by the orthodox. Having demonstrated, as I
hope to do, that the orthodox idea of God is unreasonable and absurd,
we will endeavour to ascertain whether _any_ idea of God, worthy to be
called an idea, is attainable in the present state of our faculties."
"The Deity must of necessity be that one and only substance out of
which all things are evolved, under the uncreated conditions and
eternal laws of the universe; He must be, as Theodore Parker somewhat
oddly puts it, 'the materiality of matter as well as the spirituality
of spirit'--_i.e._, these must both be products of this one substance;
a truth which is readily accepted as soon as spirit and matter are
seen to be but different modes of one essence. Thus we identify
substance with the all-comprehending and vivifying force of nature,
and in so doing we simply reduce to a physical impossibility the
existence of the Being described by the orthodox as a God possessing
the attributes of personality. The Deity becomes identified with
nature, co-extensive with the universe, but the _God_ of the orthodox
no longer exists; we may change the signification of God, and use the
word to express a different idea, but we can no longer mean by it a
Personal Being in the orthodox sense, possessing an individuality
which divides Him from the rest of the universe."[3]

Proceeding to search whether _any_ idea of God was attainable, I came
to the conclusion that evidence of the existence of a conscious Power
was lacking, and that the ordinary proofs offered were inconclusive;
that we could grasp phenomena and no more. "There appears, also, to
be a possibility of a mind in nature, though we have seen that
intelligence is, strictly speaking, impossible. There cannot be
perception, memory, comparison, or judgment, but may there not be a
perfect mind, unchanging, calm, and still? Our faculties fail us when
we try to estimate the Deity, and we are betrayed into contradictions
and absurdities; but does it therefore follow that He _is_ not? It
seems to me that to deny His existence is to overstep the boundaries
of our thought-power almost as much as to try and define it. We
pretend to know the Unknown if we declare Him to be the Unknowable.
Unknowable to us at present, yes! Unknowable for ever, in other
possible stages of existence? We have reached a region into which we
cannot penetrate; here all human faculties fail us; we bow our heads
on 'the threshold of the unknown.'

"'And the ear of man cannot hear, and the eye of man cannot see,
But if we could see and hear, this vision--were it not He?'

Thus sings Alfred Tennyson, the poet of metaphysics: '_if_ we could
see and hear.' Alas! it is always an 'if!'[4]

This refusal to believe without evidence, and the declaration that
anything "behind phenomena" is unknowable to man as at present
constituted--these are the two chief planks of the Atheistic platform,
as Atheism was held by Charles Bradlaugh and myself. In 1876 this
position was clearly reaffirmed. "It is necessary to put briefly the
Atheistic position, for no position is more continuously and more
persistently misrepresented. Atheism is _without_ God. It does not
assert _no_ God. 'The Atheist does not say "There is no God," but he
says, "I know not what you mean by God; I am without idea of God; the
word God is to me a sound conveying no clear or distinct affirmation.
I do not deny God, because I cannot deny that of which I have no
conception, and the conception of which, by its affirmer, is so
imperfect that he is unable to define it to me."' (Charles Bradlaugh,
"Freethinker's Text-book," p. 118.) The Atheist neither affirms nor
denies the possibility of phenomena differing from those recognised by
human experience.... As his knowledge of the universe is extremely
limited and very imperfect, the Atheist declines either to deny or to
affirm anything with regard to modes of existence of which he knows
nothing. Further, he refuses to believe anything concerning that of
which he knows nothing, and affirms that that which can never be the
subject of knowledge ought never to be the object of belief. While the
Atheist, then, neither affirms nor denies the unknown, he _does_ deny
all which conflicts with the knowledge to which he has already
attained. For example, he _knows_ that one is one, and that three
times one are three; he _denies_ that three times one are, or can be,
one. The position of the Atheist is a clear and a reasonable one: I
know nothing about 'God,' and therefore I do not believe in Him or in
it; what you tell me about your God is self-contradictory, and is
therefore incredible. I do not deny 'God,' which is an unknown tongue
to me; I do deny your God, who is an impossibility. I am without
God."[5] Up to 1887 I find myself writing on the same lines: "No man
can rationally affirm 'There is no God,' until the word 'God' has for
him a definite meaning, and until everything that exists is known to
him, and known with what Leibnitz calls 'perfect knowledge.' The
Atheist's denial of the Gods begins only when these Gods are defined
or described. Never yet has a God been defined in terms which were not
palpably self-contradictory and absurd; never yet has a God been
described so that a concept of Him was made possible to human
thought--Nor is anything gained by the assertors of Deity when they
allege that He is incomprehensible. If 'God' exists and is
incomprehensible, His incomprehensibility is an admirable reason for
being silent about Him, but can never justify the affirmation of
self-contradictory propositions, and the threatening of people with
damnation if they do not accept them."[6] "The belief of the Atheist
stops where his evidence stops. He believes in the existence of the
universe, judging the accessible proof thereof to be adequate, and he
finds in this universe sufficient cause for the happening of all
phenomena. He finds no intellectual satisfaction in placing a gigantic
conundrum behind the universe, which only adds its own
unintelligibility to the already sufficiently difficult problem of
existence. Our lungs are not fitted to breathe beyond the atmosphere
which surrounds our globe, and our faculties cannot breathe outside
the atmosphere of the phenomenal."[7] And I summed up this essay with
the words: "I do not believe in God. My mind finds no grounds on which
to build up a reasonable faith. My heart revolts against the spectre
of an Almighty Indifference to the pain of sentient beings. My
conscience rebels against the injustice, the cruelty, the inequality,
which surround me on every side. But I believe in Man. In man's
redeeming power; in man's remoulding energy; in man's approaching
triumph, through knowledge, love, and work."[8]

These views of existence naturally colour all views of life and of the
existence of the Soul. And here steps in the profound difference
between Atheism and Pantheism; both posit an Existence at present
inscrutable by human faculties, of which all phenomena are modes; but
to the Atheist that Existence manifests as Force-Matter, unconscious,
unintelligent, while to the Pantheist it manifests as Life-Matter,
conscious, intelligent. To the one, life and consciousness are
attributes, properties, dependent upon arrangements of matter; to the
other they are fundamental, essential, and only limited in their
manifestation by arrangements of matter. Despite the attraction held
for me in Spinoza's luminous arguments, the over-mastering sway which
Science was beginning to exercise over me drove me to seek for the
explanation of all problems of life and mind at the hands of the
biologist and the chemist. They had done so much, explained so much,
could they not explain all? Surely, I thought, the one safe ground is
that of experiment, and the remembered agony of doubt made me very
slow to believe where I could not prove. So I was fain to regard life
as an attribute, and this again strengthened the Atheistic position.
"Scientifically regarded, life is not an entity but a property; it is
not a mode of existence, but a characteristic of certain modes. Life
is the result of an arrangement of matter, and when rearrangement
occurs the former result can no longer be present; we call the result
of the changed arrangement death. Life and death are two convenient
words for expressing the general outcome of two arrangements of
matter, one of which is always found to precede the other."[9] And
then, having resorted to chemistry for one illustration, I took
another from one of those striking and easily grasped analogies,
facility for seeing and presenting which has ever been one of the
secrets of my success as a propagandist. Like pictures, they impress
the mind of the hearer with a vivid sense of reality. "Every one knows
the exquisite iridiscence of mother-of-pearl, the tender, delicate
hues which melt into each other, glowing with soft radiance. How
different is the dull, dead surface of a piece of wax. Yet take that
dull, black wax and mould it so closely to the surface of the
mother-of-pearl that it shall take every delicate marking of the
shell, and when you raise it the seven-hued glory shall smile at you
from the erstwhile colourless surface. For, though it be to the naked
eye imperceptible, all the surface of the mother-of-pearl is in
delicate ridges and furrows, like the surface of a newly-ploughed
field; and when the waves of light come dashing up against the ridged
surface, they are broken like the waves on a shingly shore, and are
flung backwards, so that they cross each other and the oncoming waves;
and, as every ray of white light is made up of waves of seven colours,
and these waves differ in length each from the others, the fairy
ridges fling them backward separately, and each ray reaches the eye by
itself; so that the colour of the mother-of-pearl is really the spray
of the light waves, and comes from arrangement of matter once again.
Give the dull, black wax the same ridges and furrows, and its glory
shall differ in nothing from that of the shell. To apply our
illustration: as the colour belongs to one arrangement of matter and
the dead surface to another, so life belongs to some arrangements of
matter and is their resultant, while the resultant of other
arrangements is death."[10]

The same line of reasoning naturally was applied to the existence of
"spirit" in man, and it was argued that mental activity, the domain of
the "spirit," was dependent on bodily organisation. "When the babe is
born it shows no sign of mind. For a brief space hunger and repletion,
cold and warmth are its only sensations. Slowly the specialised senses
begin to function; still more slowly muscular movements, at first
aimless and reflex, become co-ordinated and consciously directed.
There is no sign here of an intelligent spirit controlling a
mechanism; there is every sign of a learning and developing
intelligence, developing _pari passu_ with the organism of which it is
a function. As the body grows, the mind grows with it, and the
childish mind of the child develops into the hasty, quickly-judging,
half-informed, unbalanced youthful mind of the youth; with maturity of
years comes maturity of mind, and body and mind are vigorous and in
their prime. As old age comes on and the bodily functions decay, the
mind decays also, until age passes into senility, and body and mind
sink into second childhood. Has the immortal spirit decayed with the
organisation, or is it dwelling in sorrow, bound in its 'house of
clay'? If this be so, the 'spirit' must be unconscious, or else
separate from the very individual whose essence it is supposed to be,
for the old man does not suffer when his mind is senile, but is
contented as a little child. And not only is this constant,
simultaneous growth and decay of body and mind to be observed, but we
know that mental functions are disordered and suspended by various
physical conditions. Alcohol, many drugs, fever, disorder the mind; a
blow on the cranium suspends its functions, and the 'spirit' returns
with the surgeon's trepanning. Does the 'spirit' take part in dreams?
Is it absent from the idiot, from the lunatic? Is it guilty of
manslaughter when the madman murders, or does it helplessly watch its
own instrument performing actions at which it shudders? If it can only
work here through an organism, is its nature changed in its
independent life, severed from all with which it was identified? Can
it, in its 'disembodied state,' have anything in common with its

It will be seen that my unbelief in the existence of the Soul or
Spirit was a matter of cold, calm reasoning. As I wrote in 1885: "For
many of us evidence must precede belief. I would gladly believe in a
happy immortality for all, as I would gladly believe that all misery
and crime and poverty will disappear in 1885--_if I could_. But I am
unable to believe an improbable proposition unless convincing evidence
is brought in support of it. Immortality is most improbable; no
evidence is brought forward in its favour. I cannot believe only
because I wish."[12] Such was the philosophy by which I lived from
1874 to 1886, when first some researches that will be dealt with in
their proper place, and which led me ultimately to the evidence I had
before vainly demanded, began to shake my confidence in its adequacy.
Amid outer storm and turmoil and conflict, I found it satisfy my
intellect, while lofty ideals of morality fed my emotions. I called
myself Atheist, and rightly so, for I was without God, and my horizon
was bounded by life on earth; I gloried in the name then, as it is
dear to my heart now, for all the associations with which it is
connected. "Atheist is one of the grandest titles a man can wear; it
is the Order of Merit of the world's heroes. Most great discoverers,
most deep-thinking philosophers, most earnest reformers, most toiling
pioneers of progress, have in their turn had flung at them the name of
Atheist. It was howled over the grave of Copernicus; it was clamoured
round the death-pile of Bruno; it was yelled at Vanini, at Spinoza, at
Priestley, at Voltaire, at Paine; it has become the laurel-bay of the
hero, the halo of the martyr; in the world's history it has meant the
pioneer of progress, and where the cry of 'Atheist' is raised there
may we be sure that another step is being taken towards the redemption
of humanity. The saviours of the world are too often howled at as
Atheists, and then worshipped as Deities. The Atheists are the
vanguard of the army of Freethought, on whom falls the brunt of the
battle, and are shivered the hardest of the blows; their feet trample
down the thorns that others may tread unwounded; their bodies fill up
the ditch that, by the bridge thus made, others may pass to victory.
Honour to the pioneers of progress, honour to the vanguard of
Liberty's army, honour to those who to improve earth have forgotten
heaven, and who in their zeal for man have forgotten God."[13]

This poor sketch of the conception of the universe, to which I had
conquered my way at the cost of so much pain, and which was the inner
centre round which my life revolved for twelve years, may perhaps show
that the Atheistic Philosophy is misjudged sorely when it is scouted
as vile or condemned as intellectually degraded. It has outgrown
anthropomorphic deities, and it leaves us face to face with Nature,
open to all her purifying, strengthening inspirations. "There is only
one kind of prayer," it says, "which is reasonable, and that is the
deep, silent adoration of the greatness and beauty and order around
us, as revealed in the realms of non-rational life and in Humanity; as
we bow our heads before the laws of the universe, and mould our lives
into obedience to their voice, we find a strong, calm peace steal over
our hearts, a perfect trust in the ultimate triumph of the right, a
quiet determination to 'make our lives sublime.' Before our own high
ideals, before those lives which show us 'how high the tides of Divine
life have risen in the human world,' we stand with hushed voice and
veiled face; from them we draw strength to emulate, and even dare
struggle to excel. The contemplation of the ideal is true prayer; it
inspires, it strengthens, it ennobles. The other part of prayer is
work; from contemplation to labour, from the forest to the street.
Study nature's laws, conform to them, work in harmony with them, and
work becomes a prayer and a thanksgiving, an adoration of the
universal wisdom, and a true obedience to the universal law."[14]

To a woman of my temperament, filled with passionate desire for the
bettering of the world, the elevation of humanity, a lofty system of
ethics was of even more importance than a logical, intellectual
conception of the universe; and the total loss of all faith in a
righteous God only made me more strenuously assertive of the binding
nature of duty and the overwhelming importance of conduct. In 1874
this conviction found voice in a pamphlet on the "True Basis of
Morality," and in all the years of my propaganda on the platform of
the National Secular Society no subject was more frequently dealt with
in my lectures than that of human ethical growth and the duty of man
to man. No thought was more constantly in my mind than that of the
importance of morals, and it was voiced at the very outset of my
public career. Speaking of the danger lest "in these stirring times of
inquiry," old sanctions of right conduct should be cast aside ere new
ones were firmly established, I wrote: "It therefore becomes the duty
of every one who fights in the ranks of Freethought, and who ventures
to attack the dogmas of the Churches, and to strike down the
superstitions which enslave men's intellect, to beware how he uproots
sanctions of morality which he is too weak to replace, or how, before
he is prepared with better ones, he removes the barriers which do yet,
however poorly, to some extent check vice and repress crime.... That
which touches morality touches the heart of society; a high and pure
morality is the life-blood of humanity; mistakes in belief are
inevitable, and are of little moment; mistakes in life destroy
happiness, and their destructive consequences spread far and wide. It
is, then, a very important question whether we, who are endeavouring
to take away from the world the authority on which has hitherto been
based all its morality, can offer a new and firm ground whereupon may
safely be built up the fair edifice of a noble life."

I then proceeded to analyse revelation and intuition as a basis for
morals, and, discarding both, I asserted: "The true basis of morality
is utility; that is, the adaptation of our actions to the promotion of
the general welfare and happiness; the endeavour so to rule our lives
that we may serve and bless mankind." And I argued for this basis,
showing that the effort after virtue was implied in the search for
happiness: "Virtue is an indispensable part of all true and solid
happiness.... But it is, after all, only reasonable that happiness
should be the ultimate test of right and wrong, if we live, as we do,
in a realm of law. Obedience to law must necessarily result in
harmony, and disobedience in discord. But if obedience to law result
in harmony it must also result in happiness--all through nature
obedience to law results in happiness, and through obedience each
living thing fulfils the perfection of its being, and in that
perfection finds its true happiness." It seemed to me most important
to remove morality from the controversies about religion, and to give
it a basis of its own: "As, then, the grave subject of the existence
of Deity is a matter of dispute, it is evidently of deep importance to
society that morality should not be dragged into this battlefield, to
stand or totter with the various theories of the Divine nature which
human thought creates and destroys. If we can found morality on a
basis apart from theology, we shall do humanity a service which can
scarcely be overestimated." A study of the facts of nature, of the
consequences of man in society, seemed sufficient for such a basis.
"Our faculties do not suffice to tell us about God; they do suffice to
study phenomena, and to deduce laws from correlated facts. Surely,
then, we should do wisely to concentrate our strength and our energies
on the discovery of the attainable, instead of on the search after the
unknowable. If we are told that morality consists in obedience to the
supposed will of a supposed perfectly moral being, because in so doing
we please God, then we are at once placed in a region where our
faculties are useless to us, and where our judgment is at fault. But
if we are told that we are to lead noble lives, because nobility of
life is desirable for itself alone, because in so doing we are acting
in harmony with the laws of Nature, because in so doing we spread
happiness around our pathway and gladden our fellow-men--then, indeed,
motives are appealed to which spring forward to meet the call, and
chords are struck in our hearts which respond in music to the touch."
It was to the establishment of this secure basis that I bent my
energies, this that was to me of supreme moment. "Amid the fervid
movement of society, with its wild theories and crude social reforms,
with its righteous fury against oppression and its unconsidered
notions of wider freedom and gladder life, it is of vital importance
that morality should stand on a foundation unshakable; that so through
all political and religious revolutions human life may grow purer and
nobler, may rise upwards into settled freedom, and not sink downwards
into anarchy. Only utility can afford us a sure basis, the
reasonableness of which will be accepted alike by thoughtful student
and hard-headed artisan. Utility appeals to all alike, and sets in
action motives which are found equally in every human heart. Well
shall it be for humanity that creeds and dogmas pass away, that
superstition vanishes, and the clear light of freedom and science
dawns on a regenerated earth--but well only if men draw tighter and
closer the links of trustworthiness, of honour, and of truth. Equality
before the law is necessary and just; liberty is the birthright of
every man and woman; free individual development will elevate and
glorify the race. But little worth these priceless jewels, little
worth liberty and equality with all their promise for mankind, little
worth even wider happiness, if that happiness be selfish, if true
fraternity, true brotherhood, do not knit man to man, and heart to
heart, in loyal service to the common need, and generous
self-sacrifice to the common good."[15]

To the forwarding of this moral growth of man, two things seemed to me
necessary--an Ideal which should stir the emotions and impel to
action, and a clear understanding of the sources of evil and of the
methods by which they might be drained. Into the drawing of the first
I threw all the passion of my nature, striving to paint the Ideal in
colours which should enthral and fascinate, so that love and desire to
realise might stir man to effort. If "morality touched by emotion" be
religion, then truly was I the most religious of Atheists, finding in
this dwelling on and glorifying of the Ideal full satisfaction for the
loftiest emotions. To meet the fascination exercised over men's hearts
by the Man of Sorrows, I raised the image of man triumphant, man
perfected. "Rightly is the ideal Christian type of humanity a Man of
Sorrows. Jesus, with worn and wasted body; with sad, thin lips, curved
into a mournful droop of penitence for human sin; with weary eyes
gazing up to heaven because despairing of earth; bowed down and aged
with grief and pain, broken-hearted with long anguish, broken-spirited
with unresisted ill-usage--such is the ideal man of the Christian
creed. Beautiful with a certain pathetic beauty, telling of the long
travail of earth, eloquent of the sufferings of humanity, but not the
model type to which men should conform their lives, if they would make
humanity glorious. And, therefore, in radiant contrast with this,
stands out in the sunshine and under the blue summer sky, far from
graveyards and torture of death agony, the fair ideal Humanity of the
Atheist. In form strong and fair, perfect in physical development as
the Hercules of Grecian art, radiant with love, glorious in
self-reliant power; with lips bent firm to resist oppression, and
melting into soft curves of passion and of pity; with deep, far-seeing
eyes, gazing piercingly into the secrets of the unknown, and resting
lovingly on the beauties around him; with hands strong to work in the
present; with heart full of hope which the future shall realise;
making earth glad with his labour and beautiful with his skill--this,
this is the Ideal Man, enshrined in the Atheist's heart. The ideal
humanity of the Christian is the humanity of the slave, poor, meek,
broken-spirited, humble, submissive to authority, however oppressive
and unjust; the ideal humanity of the Atheist is the humanity of the
free man who knows no lord, who brooks no tyranny, who relies on his
own strength, who makes his brother's quarrel his, proud,
true-hearted, loyal, brave."[16]

A one-sided view? Yes. But a very natural outcome of a sunny nature,
for years held down by unhappiness and the harshness of an outgrown
creed. It was the rebound of such a nature suddenly set free,
rejoicing in its liberty and self-conscious strength, and it carried
with it a great power of rousing the sympathetic enthusiasm of men and
women, deeply conscious of their own restrictions and their own
longings. It was the cry of the freed soul that had found articulate
expression, and the many inarticulate and prisoned souls answered to
it tumultously, with fluttering of caged wings. With hot insistence I
battled for the inspiration to be drawn from the beauty and grandeur
of which human life was capable. "Will any one exclaim, 'You are
taking all beauty out of human life, all hope, all warmth, all
inspiration; you give us cold duty for filial obedience, and
inexorable law in the place of God'? All beauty from life? Is there,
then, no beauty in the idea of forming part of the great life of the
universe, no beauty in conscious harmony with Nature, no beauty in
faithful service, no beauty in ideals of every virtue? 'All hope'?
Why, I give you more than hope, I give you certainty; if I bid you
labour for this world, it is with the knowledge that this world will
repay you a, thousand-fold, because society will grow purer, freedom
more settled, law more honoured, life more full and glad. What is your
heaven? A heaven in the clouds! I point to a heaven attainable on
earth. 'All warmth'? What! you serve warmly a God unknown and
invisible, in a sense the projected shadow of your own imaginings, and
can only serve coldly your brother whom you see at your side? There is
no warmth in brightening the lot of the sad, in reforming abuses, in
establishing equal justice for rich and poor? You find warmth in the
church, but none in the home? Warmth in imagining the cloud glories of
heaven, but none in creating substantial glories on earth?' All
inspiration'? If you want inspiration to feeling, to sentiment,
perhaps you had better keep to your Bible and your creeds; if you want
inspiration to work, go and walk through the East of London, or the
back streets of Manchester. You are inspired to tenderness as you gaze
at the wounds of Jesus, dead in Judaea long ago, and find no
inspiration in the wounds of men and women, dying in the England of
to-day? You 'have tears to shed for Him,' but none for the sufferer at
your doors? His passion arouses your sympathies, but you see no pathos
in the passion of the poor? Duty is colder than 'filial obedience'?
What do you mean by filial obedience? Obedience to your ideal of
goodness and love--is it not so? Then how is duty cold? I offer you
ideals for your homage: here is Truth for your Mistress, to whose
exaltation you shall devote your intellect; here is Freedom for your
General, for whose triumph you shall fight; here is Love for your
Inspirer, who shall influence your every thought; here is Man for your
Master--not in heaven, but on earth--to whose service you shall
consecrate every faculty of your being. 'Inexorable law in the place
of God'? Yes; a stern certainty that you shall not waste your life,
yet gather a rich reward at the close; that you shall not sow misery,
yet reap gladness; that you shall not be selfish, yet be crowned with
love; nor shall you sin, yet find safety in repentance. True, our
creed _is_ a stern one, stern with the beautiful sternness of Nature.
But if we be in the right, look to yourselves; laws do not check their
action for your ignorance; fire will not cease to scorch, because you
'did not know.'"[17]

With equal vigour did I maintain that "virtue was its own reward," and
that payment on the other side of the grave was unnecessary as an
incentive to right living. "What shall we say to Miss Cobbe's
contention that duty will 'grow grey and cold' without God and
immortality? Yes, for those with whom duty is a matter of selfish
calculation, and who are virtuous only because they look for a 'golden
crown' in payment on the other side the grave. Those of us who find
joy in right-doing, who work because work is useful to our fellows,
who live well because in such living we pay our contribution to the
world's wealth, leaving earth richer than we found it--we need no
paltry payment after death for our life's labour, for in that labour
is its own 'exceeding great reward.'"[18] But did any one yearn for
immortality, that "not all of me shall die"? "Is it true that Atheism
has no immortality? What is true immortality? Is Beethoven's true
immortality in his continued personal consciousness, or in his
glorious music deathless while the world endures? Is Shelley's true
life in his existence in some far-off heaven, or in the pulsing
liberty his lyrics send through men's hearts, when they respond to the
strains of his lyre? Music does not die, though one instrument be
broken; thought does not die, though one brain be shivered; love does
not die, though one heart's strings be rent; and no great thinker dies
so long as his thought re-echoes through the ages, its melody the
fuller-toned the more human brains send its music on. Not only to the
hero and the sage is this immortality given; it belongs to each
according to the measure of his deeds; world-wide life for world-wide
service; straitened life for straitened work; each reaps as he sows,
and the harvest is gathered by each in his rightful order."[19]

This longing to leave behind a name that will live among men by right
of service done them, this yearning for human love and approval that
springs naturally from the practical and intense realisation of human
brotherhood--these will be found as strong motives in the breasts of
the most earnest men and women who have in our generation identified
themselves with the Freethought cause. They shine through the written
and spoken words of Charles Bradlaugh all through his life, and every
friend of his knows how often he has expressed the longing that "when
the grass grows green over my grave, men may love me a little for the
work I tried to do."

Needless to say that, in the many controversies in which I took part,
it was often urged against me that such motives were insufficient,
that they appealed only to natures already ethically developed, and
left the average man, and, above all, the man below the average, with
no sufficiently constraining motive for right conduct. I resolutely
held to my faith in human nature, and the inherent response of the
human heart when appealed to from the highest grounds; strange--I
often think now--this instinctive certainty I had of man's innate
grandeur, that governed all my thought, inconsistent as that certainty
was with my belief in his purely animal ancestry. Pressed too hard, I
would take refuge in a passionate disdain for all who did not hear the
thrilling voice of Virtue and love her for her own sweet sake. "I have
myself heard the question asked: 'Why should I seek for truth, and why
should I lead a good life, if there be no immortality in which to reap
a reward?' To this question the Freethinker has one clear and short
answer: 'There is no reason why you should seek Truth, if to you the
search has no attracting power. There is no reason why you should lead
a noble life, if you find your happiness in leading a poor and a base
one.' Friends, no one can enjoy a happiness which is too high for his
capabilities; a book may be of intensest interest, but a dog will very
much prefer being given a bone. To him whose highest interest is
centred in his own miserable self, to him who cares only to gain his
own ends, to him who seeks only his own individual comfort, to that
man Freethought can have no attraction. Such a man may indeed be made
religious by a bribe of heaven; he may be led to seek for truth,
because he hopes to gain his reward hereafter by the search; but Truth
disdains the service of the self-seeker; she cannot be grasped by a
hand that itches for reward. If Truth is not loved for her own pure
sake, if to lead a noble life, if to make men happier, if to spread
brightness around us, if to leave the world better than we found
it--if these aims have no attraction for us, if these thoughts do not
inspire us, then we are not worthy to be Secularists, we have no right
to the proud title of Freethinkers. If you want to be paid for your
good lives by living for ever in a lazy and useless fashion in an idle
heaven; if you want to be bribed into nobility of life; if, like silly
children, you learn your lesson not to gain knowledge but to win
sugar-plums, then you had better go back to your creeds and your
churches; they are all you are fit for; you are not worthy to be free.
But we--who, having caught a glimpse of the beauty of Truth, deem the
possession of her worth more than all the world beside; who have made
up our minds to do our work ungrudgingly, asking for no reward beyond
the results which spring up from our labour--we will spread the Gospel
of Freethought among men, until the sad minor melodies of Christianity
have sobbed out their last mournful notes on the dying evening breeze,
and on the fresh morning winds shall ring out the chorus of hope and
joyfulness, from the glad lips of men whom the Truth has at last set

The intellectual comprehension of the sources of evil and the method
of its extinction was the second great plank in my ethical platform.
The study of Darwin and Herbert Spencer, of Huxley, Buechner and
Haeckel, had not only convinced me of the truth of evolution, but,
with help from W.H. Clifford, Lubbock, Buckle, Lecky, and many
another, had led me to see in the evolution of the social instinct the
explanation of the growth of conscience and of the strengthening of
man's mental and moral nature. If man by study of the conditions
surrounding him and by the application of intelligence to the subdual
of external nature, had already accomplished so much, why should not
further persistence along the same road lead to his complete
emancipation? All the evil, anti-social side of his nature was an
inheritance from his brute ancestry, and could be gradually
eradicated; he could not only "let the ape and tiger die," but he
could kill them out." It may be frankly acknowledged that man inherits
from his brute progenitors various bestial tendencies which are in
course of elimination. The wild-beast desire to fight is one of these,
and this has been encouraged, not checked, by religion.... Another
bestial tendency is the lust of the male for the female apart from
love, duty, and loyalty; this again has been encouraged by religion,
as witness the polygamy and concubinage of the Hebrews--as in Abraham,
David, and Solomon, not to mention the precepts of the Mosaic
laws--the bands of male and female prostitutes in connection with
Pagan temples, and the curious outbursts of sexual passion in
connection with religious revivals and missions. Another bestial
tendency is greed, the strongest grabbing all he can and trampling
down the weak, in the mad struggle for wealth; how and when has
religion modified this tendency, sanctified as it is in our present
civilisation? All these bestial tendencies will be eradicated only by
the recognition of human duty, of the social bond. Religion has not
eradicated them, but science, by tracing them to their source in our
brute ancestry, has explained them and has shown them in their true
light. As each recognises that the anti-social tendencies are the
bestial tendencies in man, and that man in evolving further must
evolve out of these, each also feels it part of his personal duty to
curb these in himself, and so to rise further from the brute. This
rational 'co-operation with Nature' distinguishes the scientific from
the religious person, and this constraining sense of obligation is
becoming stronger and stronger in all those who, in losing faith in
God, have gained hope for man."[21]

For this rational setting of oneself on the side of the forces working
for evolution implied active co-operation by personal purity and
nobility." To the Atheist it seems that the knowledge that the
perfecting of the race is only possible by the improvement of the
individual, supplies the most constraining motive which can be
imagined for efforts after personal perfection. The Theist may desire
personal perfection, but his desire is self-centred; each righteous
individual is righteous, as it were, alone, and his righteousness does
not benefit his fellows save as it may make him helpful and loving in
his dealings with them. The Atheist desires personal perfection not
only for his joy in it as beautiful in itself, but because science has
taught him the unity of the race, and he knows that each fresh
conquest of his over the baser parts of his nature, and each
strengthening of the higher, is a gain for all, and not for himself

Besides all this, the struggle against evil, regarded as transitory
and as a necessary concomitant of evolution, loses its bitterness. "In
dealing with evil, Atheism is full of hope instead of despair. To the
Christian, evil is as everlasting as good; it exists by the permission
of God, and, therefore, by the will of God. Our nature is corrupt,
inclined to evil; the devil is ever near us, working all sin and all
misery. What hope has the Christian face to face with a world's
wickedness? what answer to the question, Whence comes sin? To the
Atheist the terrible problem has in it no figure of despair. Evil
comes from ignorance, we say; ignorance of physical and of moral
facts. Primarily, from ignorance of physical order; parents who dwell
in filthy, unventilated, unweathertight houses, who live on
insufficient, innutritious, unwholesome food, will necessarily be
unhealthy, will lack vitality, will probably have disease lurking in
their veins; such parents will bring into the world ill-nurtured
children, in whom the brain will generally be the least developed part
of the body; such children, by their very formation, will incline to
the animal rather than to the human, and by leading an animal, or
natural, life will be deficient in those qualities which are necessary
in social life. Their surroundings as they grow up, the home, the
food, the associates, all are bad. They are trained into vice,
educated into criminality; so surely as from the sown corn rises the
wheat-ear, so from the sowing of misery, filth, and starvation shall
arise crime. And the root of all is poverty and ignorance. Educate the
children, and give them fair wage for fair work in their maturity, and
crime will gradually diminish and ultimately disappear. Man is
God-made, says Theism; man is circumstance-made, says Atheism. Man is
the resultant of what his parents were, of what his surroundings have
been and are, and of what they have made him; himself the result of
the past he modifies the actual, and so the action and reaction go on,
he himself the effect of what is past, and one of the causes of what
is to come. Make the circumstances good and the results will be good,
for healthy bodies and healthy brains may be built up, and from a
State composed of such the disease of crime will have disappeared.
Thus is our work full of hope; no terrible will of God have we to
struggle against; no despairful future to look forward to, of a world
growing more and more evil, until it is, at last, to burned up; but a
glad, fair future of an ever-rising race, where more equal laws, more
general education, more just division, shall eradicate pauperism,
destroy ignorance, nourish independence, a future to be made the
grander by our struggles, a future to be made the nearer by our

This joyous, self-reliant facing of the world with the resolute
determination to improve it is characteristic of the noblest Atheism
of our day. And it is thus a distintly elevating factor in the midst
of the selfishness, luxury, and greed of modern civilisation. It is a
virile virtue in the midst of the calculating and slothful spirit
which too ofter veils itself under the pretence or religion. It will
have no putting off of justice to a far-off day of reckoning, and it
is ever spurred on by the feeling, "The night cometh, when no man can
work." Bereft of all hope of a personal future, it binds up its hopes
with that of the race; unbelieving in any aid from Deity, it struggles
the more strenuously to work out man's salvation by his own strength.
"To us there is but small comfort in Miss Cobbe's assurance that
'earth's wrongs and agonies' 'will be righted hereafter.' Granting for
a moment that man survives death what certainty have we that 'the next
world' will be any improvement on this? Miss Cobbe assures us that
this is 'God's world'; whose world will the next be, if not also His?
Will He be stronger there or better, that He should set right in that
world the wrongs He has permitted here? Will He have changed His mind,
or have become weary of the contemplation of suffering? To me the
thought that the world was in the hands of a God who permitted all the
present wrongs and pains to exist would be intolerable, maddening in
its hopelessness. There is every hope of righting earth's wrongs and
of curing earth's pains if the reason and skill of man which have
already done so much are free to do the rest; but if they are to
strive against omnipotence, hopeless indeed is the future of the
world. It is in this sense that the Atheist looks on good as 'the
final goal of ill,' and believing that that goal will be reached the
sooner the more strenuous the efforts of each individual, he works in
the glad certainty that he is aiding the world's progress thitherward.
Not dreaming of a personal reward hereafter, not craving a personal
payment from heavenly treasury, he works and loves, content that he is
building a future fairer than his present, joyous that he is creating
a new earth for a happier race."[24]

Such was the creed and such the morality which governed my life and
thoughts from 1874 to 1886, and with some misgivings to 1889, and from
which I drew strength and happiness amid all outer struggles and
distress. And I shall ever remain grateful for the intellectual and
moral training it gave me, for the self-reliance it nurtured, for the
altruism it inculcated, for the deep feeling of the unity of man that
it fostered, for the inspiration to work that it lent. And perhaps the
chief debt of gratitude I owe to Freethought is that it left the mind
ever open to new truth, encouraged the most unshrinking questioning of
Nature, and shrank from no new conclusions, however adverse to the
old, that were based on solid evidence. I admit sorrowfully that all
Freethinkers do not learn this lesson, but I worked side by side with
Charles Bradlaugh, and the Freethought we strove to spread was
strong-headed and broad-hearted.

The antagonism which, as we shall see in a few moments, blazed out
against me from the commencement of my platform work, was based partly
on ignorance, was partly aroused by my direct attacks on Christianity,
and by the combative spirit I myself showed in those attacks, and very
largely by my extreme Radicalism in politics. I had against me all the
conventional beliefs and traditions of society in general, and I
attacked them, not with bated breath and abundant apologies, but
joyously and defiantly, with sheer delight in the intellectual strife.
I was fired, too, with passionate sympathy for the sufferings of the
poor, for the overburdened, overdriven masses of the people, not only
here but in every land, and wherever a blow was struck at Liberty or
Justice my pen or tongue brake silence. It was a perpetual carrying of
the fiery cross, and the comfortable did not thank me for shaking them
out of their soft repose.

The antagonism that grew out of ignorance regarded Atheism as implying
degraded morality and bestial life, and they assailed my conduct not
on evidence that it was evil, but on the presumption that an Atheist
must be immoral. Thus a Christian opponent at Leicester assailed me as
a teacher of free love, fathering on me views which were maintained in
a book that I had not read, but which, before I had ever seen the
_National Reformer_, had been reviewed in its columns--as it was
reviewed in other London papers--and had been commended for its clear
statement of the Malthusian position, but not for its contention as to
free love, a theory to which Mr. Bradlaugh was very strongly opposed.
Nor were the attacks confined to the ascription to me of theories


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