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

DID BRADLAUGH BACKSLIDE?

(November 19, 1893.)

The Freethinker for October 22 contained a bright article by Mr. George Standring, giving an account of a Sunday service which he attended at the famous Wesley Chapel in the City-road. The preacher on that occasion was the Rev. Allen Rees, and the theme of his discourse was "The Death of the National Reformer" Amongst other more or less questionable remarks, there was one made by the reverend gentleman, which the reporter very justly criticised. What was said by Mr. Rees was recorded as follows by Mr. Standring:—

"Indeed, there was reason to believe that Charles Bradlaugh had himself materially modified his views before his death, that his Atheism became weaker as he grew older. Sir Isaac Holden had told him (Mr. Bees) that Mr. Bradlaugh had often spoken to him privately in the House of Commons upon religious matters, and had admitted that the conversion of his brother had profoundly impressed him. Mr. Bradlaugh had often said to Sir Isaac Holden that he often wished he were half as good a man as his brother."

To anyone at all acquainted with the relations that existed between Mr. Bradlaugh and his brother, the last clause of Mr. Rees's statement is sufficient to stamp the whole of it as false and absurd. Without going into details, it is enough to say that Mr. Bradlaugh simply could not speak of his brother in this manner; it is absolutely beyond the bounds of possibility; and, as Sir Isaac Holden is the authority throughout, the entire passage about Mr. Bradlaugh would have to be dismissed with contempt.

Mr. Standring sent Mr. Rees a marked copy of the Freethinker, and intimated that space would probably be afforded him for a correction or an explanation. Mrs. Bradlaugh Bonner was also communicated with, and she immediately wrote to Mr. Rees on the subject. The reverend gentleman replied that he had made "no positive statements" as to any change of view on the part of Mr. Bradlaugh. He had "nothing to add" and "nothing to retract." But to prevent a misunderstanding he enclosed a verbatim copy of the passage in his sermon to which she referred. It ran as follows:—

"As a rule, men who profess Atheism do not become stronger in their belief as time goes on. I think I may almost say that this was true of Mr. Bradlaugh. Sir Isaac Holden has told me that he frequently conversed with Mr. Bradlaugh on religious subjects. The conversion of his brother deeply affected him, and on one occasion he said to him: 'I wish I were half as good as my brother.' It was the unreality of much of the Christianity with which in early life Mr. Bradlaugh was associated and the worldliness and uncharitableness of religious professors, which made an Atheist of Mr. Bradlaugh, as it has done of many others."

This is a precious sample of clerical logic, composition, and veracity. Mr. Rees must have been very ignorant of Mr Bradlaugh's writings and intellectual character, or else he was deliberately inventing or trusting to mere hearsay, when he stated that Mr. Bradlaugh was made an Atheist by the bigotry or selfishness of certain Christians. "I think I may almost say" is a strange expression. What is it to "almost say" a thing? Is it almost said when you have said it? And what a jumble of "hims" in the fourth sentence! It would really disgrace a schoolboy.

Mrs. Bradlaugh Bonner replied to Mr. Rees, hoping that his "sense of honor" would impel him to acknowledge his mistake. She told him that her father's convictions never wavered on his death-bed; that Mr. W. R. Bradlaugh was never converted, because he was always a professed Christian; that Sir Isaac Holden must be laboring under a misapprehension; and that if Mr. Rees would call upon her she would tell him the facts which made it "utterly impossible" that her father could have spoken of his brother in the way alleged. Mrs. Bonner also wrote to Sir Isaac Holden, asking him whether he "really did tell this to the Rev. Allen Rees." Sir Isaac Holden did not reply. He is a very old man, years older than Mr. Gladstone. This may be an excuse for his manners as well as the infirmity of his memory.

Mr. Rees did reply. He said that "of course" he could not tell an untruth, that he had "made no absolute statement," that he "knew he had no positive evidence," and that his remark was "a bare suggestion." Having crawled away from his clear responsibility, Mr. Rees gratuitously committed another offence. "There was," he wrote, "another remark which your father uttered at the Hall of Science." Now this is a "positive statement." And where is the evidence? "I can give you," Mr. Rees added, "the name of the person who heard him say it." According to Mr. Rees, therefore, it is only "a bare suggestion" when he gives the authority of Sir Isaac Holden, but an anonymous authority is a good basis for a direct, unqualified assertion. And what is the "remark" which Mr. Bradlaugh "uttered" (what etymology!)?

It is this—"A man twenty-five years old may be an iconoclast, but I cannot understand a man being one who has passed middle age."

Mrs. Bonner took leave to disbelieve (as she well might) that her father had uttered such nonsense. She told Mr. Rees that her father had lectured and written as "Iconoclast" till he was thirty-five, and only dropped the "fighting name" then because his own name was so well known. She repeated her assurance that he had never wavered in his Atheism, and begged Mr. Rees to take her father's own written words in preference to "other people's versions of his conversation." His Doubts in Dialogue, the final paper of which left his hands only three or four days before his last illness, would show what his last views were, and she ventured to send Mr. Rees a copy for perusal. Mr. Rees read the volume, and, instead of admitting that he had been mistaken, he had the impertinence to tell Mrs. Bonner that her father's book was full of "sophism" and the "merest puerilities," and ended by expressing his "simple contempt." It was impertinence on Mr. Rees's part, in both senses of the word, for the merit of Mr. Bradlaugh's writing was not the point in consideration.

The point was this, Did the writing—the last writing—of Mr. Bradlaugh show the slightest change in his Atheism? Mr. Rees could not see this point, or he would not see it; and either alternative is discreditable to a man who sets himself up as a public teacher.

Mr. Rees did one right thing, however; he sent Mrs. Bonner a letter he had received from Sir Isaac Holden, containing the following passage:—

"Your rendering of the story is a little different to what I spoke—'Mr. Bradlaugh was affected to tears when I told him that his brother James said to the Rev. Richard Allen that his brother Charles was too good a man to die an Infidel, and he believed that before his death he would become a Christian.' Tears started in his (Charles's) eyes, and he simply replied: 'My brother James is a good fellow,' not 'I wish I were half as good as my brother.' There was evidently a very kind feeling in each of the brothers towards each other."

What is clear is this—there is a very bad difference between Sir Isaac Holden and the Rev. Allen Rees. "I wish I were half as good as my brother" is a very definite expression, and not a bit like "My brother James is a good fellow." Now if Sir Isaac Holden did convey this expression to the Rev. Allen Rees, the old gentleman has a treacherous memory; if he did not, the expression must be ascribed to the reverend gentleman's invention.

Mrs. Bonner replied sharply with "mixed feelings of surprise and indignation." Her father had no brother named James. The only brother he had was most distinctly not "a good fellow," which there was "documentary evidence" to prove. There was also documentary evidence to show that the feelings of the brothers towards each other was "the reverse of kindly." Mr. Rees had chosen to ignore all this, and, in consequence of his attitude, Mrs. Bonner intended to "give this matter publicity"—which she has done by printing the whole correspondence and sending copies to the press.

Mr. Rees wrote "surprised"—poor man! He thought it was a "private correspondence." He could not understand why he was "personally abused"—in fact, it was "vulgar personal abuse." "I entirely decline," he ended majestically, "to have any further correspondence with you."

What a sorry display of clerical temper! But it is the way of the profession when tackled. They are so used to speaking from the "coward's castle," not under correction, that they lose their heads when taken to task.

Mrs. Bonner appends a note to the correspondence, remarking on "the obviously loose reminiscences of Sir Isaac Holden," which Mr. Rees had "materially altered," and denying the possibility of any such conversation between Sir Isaac Holden and her father.

As to the private correspondence, surely the conversation (if it occurred) was "of a private nature," yet Mr. Rees had no scruple in retailing it from the pulpit. Mrs. Bonner adds that her demerits are beside the point, which is, "Did Mr. Bradlaugh weaken in his Atheism?" to which she answers emphatically "No." She nursed him in his last illness, and her testimony is authoritative. Respect for her father's memory justifies her in printing this correspondence, and we are glad that she has done so, for it nails down another wretched fiction to the counter of truth.


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