Freethought Archives > G.W. Foote > Flowers of Freethought Vol. II (1894)


A leading London newspaper, the Daily Chronicle, has recently opened it columns to a discussion of the question, "Is Christianity Played Out?" Mr. Robert Buchanan thinks that it is, and we are of the same opinion. But in a certain sense Christianity is not played out. To use a common expression, "there's money in it." That is incontestable. Despite the "poverty" of the "lower clergy," for whom so many appeals are made, the clerical business beats all others, if we compare the amount of investment with the size of the dividend. Relatively speaking, the profits are magnificent. There are curates with only a workman's wages, and of course they merit our deepest sympathy. It is quite shocking to think that a disciple of the "poor Carpenter of Nazareth" has to subsist, and support his ten children, on such a miserable pittance. It is a calamity which calls for tears of blood. But, on the other hand, there are Archbishops with princely incomes, Bishops with lordly revenues, Deans and Canons with fine salaries and snug quarters; and between the two extremes of the fat bishop and the lean curate is a long line of gradations, in which, if we strike an average, the result is very far from despicable. It may be added that while the leading Nonconformist ministers, at least in England, do not rival the great Church dignitaries in the matter of income, they often run up to a thousand a year and sometimes over it. Taking the average of their incomes, we have no hesitation in saying it is beyond what they would earn in the ordinary labor market. Still, so far as they are not paid by the State, as the Church clergy are, we have no personal reason for complaint. This is a free country—especially for Christians; and if the lay disciples of the poor Carpenter like to pay his professional apostles a fancy price for their work, it is no concern of ours from a business point of view. Nevertheless, as the said apostles are public men, who set up as other people's teachers, we have a right to express an opinion as to the consistency between their preaching and their practice.

Our gallant colleague, Joseph Symes, who is nobly upholding the Freethought banner in Australia, once asked, "Who's to be Damned if Christianity is True?" Certainly, he said, the clergy stand a fine chance. They are more likely to go to Hades than the congregations they preach to. On on average they are better off. They preach, or should preach, the blessings of poverty, and the curse, nay, the damnableness, of wealth. According to the teaching of Jesus, as we read it in the Sermon on the Mount, and as we find it illustrated in the parable of Dives and Lazarus, every pauper is pretty sure of a front seat in heaven; and every man of property or good income is equally sure of warm quarters in hell. But you do not meet parsons in workhouses, though some of them get a good deal of outdoor relief. Go into a country parish and look for the clergyman's house; you will not find it difficult to discover. The best residence is the squire's, the next best is the parson's. Everywhere the clericals appropriate as much as they can of the good things of this world. They find it quite easy to worship God and Mammon together. The curate has his eye on a vicarage; the vicar has his on a deanery; the dean has his on a bishopric. The Dissenting minister is open to improve his position. Sometimes he is invited to another church. He wrestles with the Lord, and makes inquiries. If they prove satisfactory, he recognises "a call." Other people, in ordinary business, would honestly say they were accepting a better situation; but the man of God is above all that, so he obeys the Lord's voice and goes to a position of "greater service," though it would puzzle him to show an extra soul saved by the exchange. Yes, the poor Carpenter's apostles strive to make the best of this world, and take their chance of the next. They are wise in their generation; they resemble the serpent in the text, however they neglect the dove. And for all these things God shall bring them into account—that is, if the gospel be true; for nothing is more certain, according to the gospel, than that the poor will be saved, and those who are not poor will be damned.

Benjamin Disraeli called the Conservative government of Sir Robert Peel "an organised hypocrisy." Modern Christianity appears to us to merit the same description. The note of modern apologetics is the phrase of "Christ-like." In one respect the gentlemen who strike this note are Christ-like. They live on the gifts of the faithful, including those of "rich women." But the likeness ends there. In other respects they are dissimilar to their Master. He died upon the cross, and they live upon the cross. Yes, and many of them get far more on the cross than they would ever get on the square.

Doubtless we shall be censured in vigorous biblical language for speaking so plainly. But we mean every word we say, and are prepared to make it good in discussion. Men should practise what they preach. Those who teach that poverty is a blessing should themselves be poor. Those who teach that God Almighty cried "Woe unto you rich!" should avoid the curse of wealth. If they do not, they are hypocrites. It is no use mincing the matter. Plain speech is best on such occasions. When the great Dr. Abernethy told a gouty, dyspeptic, rich patient to "live on sixpence a day and earn it," his advice was more wholesome than the most dexterous rigmarole.

Nothing could better show than the conduct of the clergy that Christianity is played out, if it means the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. Those who preach it cannot practise it; what is more, they do not mean to. The late Archbishop of York, while Bishop of Peterborough, wrote a magazine article on this Sermon on the Mount, in which he urged that any Society that was based upon it would go to ruin in a week. He was paid at that time 4,500 a year to-preach this Sermon on the Mount, and he did so—in the pulpit; then he mounted another rostrum, and cried, "For God's sake don't practise it."

"Blessed be ye poor" and "Woe unto you rich" are texts with which the Church has bamboozled the multitude in the interest of the privileged classes. The disinherited sons of earth were promised all sorts of fine compensations in Kingdom-Come; meanwhile kings, aristocrats, priests, and all the rest of the juggling and appropriating tribe, battened on the fruits of other men's labor. The poor were like the dog crossing the stream, and seeing the big shadow of his piece of meat in the water. "Seize the shadow!" the priests cried. The poor did so. But the substance-was not lost. It was snapped up and shared by priestcraft and privilege.

The people have been told that the gospel is a cheap thing—without money and without price. That is the prospectus. But the gospel is frightfully dear in reality. Religion costs more than education. England spends more in preparing her sons and daughters for the next world than in training them for this world. Yet the next world may be nothing but a dream, and certainly we know nothing about it; while this world is a solid and often a solemn fact, with its business as well as its pleasures, its work as well as its enjoyments, its duties as well as its privileges. To keep people out of hell, and guide them to heaven (places that only exist in the map of faith), we spend over twenty millions a year. This is a sum which, if wisely devoted, would remedy the worst evils of human society in a single generation. It would found countless institutions of culture and innocent recreation; and, by means of experiments, it would solve a host of social problems. Instead of doing this, we keep up a huge army of black-coats to fight an imaginary Devil; yet we call ourselves a practical people. Christianity has it roots-deep down in the wealth of England, and this is the secret of its power, allied of course with its usurped authority over the minds of little children. The-churches and chapels are mostly social institutions, Sunday resorts of the "respectable" classes. For any purpose connected with the real welfare of the people Christianity might just as well be dead and buried—as it will be when the people see the truth.

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