Freethought Archives > G.W. Foote > Arrows of Freethought (1882)


(April, 1882.)

There is no new thing under the sun, said the wise king. Many a surprising novelty is only an old thing in a new dress. And this is especially true in respect to religion. Ever since the feast of Pentecost, when the Apostles all jabbered like madmen, Christianity has been marked by periodical fits of insanity. It would occupy too much space to enumerate these outbursts, which have occurred in every part of Christendom, but we may mention a few that have happened in our own country. During the Commonwealth, some of the numerous sects went to the most ludicrous extremes; preaching rousing sermons, praying through the nose, assuming Biblical names, and prophesying the immediate reign of the saints. There was a reaction against the excesses of Puritanism after the death of Cromwell; and until the time of Whitfield and Wesley religion continued to be a sober and respectable influence, chiefly useful to the sovereign and the magistrate. But these two powerful preachers rekindled the fire of religious enthusiasm in the hearts of the common people, and Methodism was founded among those whom the Church had scarcely touched. Not many years ago the Hallelujah Band spread itself far and wide, and then went out like a straw fire. And now we have Salvationism, doing just the same kind of work, and employing just the same kind of means. Will this new movement die away like so many others? It is difficult to say. Salvationism may be only a flash in the pan; but, on the other hand, it may provide the only sort of Christianity possible in an age of science and freethought. The educated classes and the intelligent artisans will more and more desert the Christian creed, and there will probably be left nothing but the dregs and the scum, for whom Salvationism is exactly suited. Christianity began among the poor, ignorant, and depraved; and it may possibly end its existence among the very same classes.

In all these movements we see a striking illustration of what the biologists call the law of Atavism. There is a constant tendency to return to the primitive type. We can form some idea of what early Christianity was by reading the Acts of the Apostles. The true believers went about preaching in season and out of season; they cried and prayed with a loud voice; they caused tumult in the streets, and gave plenty of trouble to the civil authorities. All this is true of Salvationism to-day; and we have no doubt that the early Church, under the guidance of Peter, was just a counterpart of the Salvation Army under "General" Booth—to the Jews, or men of the world, a stumbling-block, and to the Greeks, or educated thinkers, a folly.

Early Christians were "full of the Holy Ghost," that is of wild enthusiasm. Scoffers said they were drunk, and they acted like madmen. Leap across seventeen centuries, and we shall find Methodists acting in the same way. Wesley states in his Journal (1739) of his hearers at Wapping, that "some were torn with a kind of convulsive motion in every part of their bodies, and that so violently that often four or five persons could not hold one of them." And Lecky tells us, in his "History of the Eighteenth Century," that "religious madness, which from the nature of its hallucinations, is usually the most miserable of all the forms of insanity, was in this, as in many later revivals, of no unfrequent occurrence." Now Salvationism produces the very same effects. It drives many people mad; and it is a common thing for men and women at its meetings to shout, dance, jump, and finally fall on the floor in a pious ecstacy. While they are in this condition, the Holy Ghost is entering them and the Devil is being driven out. Poor creatures! They take us back in thought to the days of demoniacal possession, and the strange old world that saw the devil-plagued swine of Gadara drowned in the sea.

The free and easy mingling of the sexes at these pious assemblies, is another noticeable feature. Love-feasts were a flagrant scandal in the early Church, and women who returned from them virtuous must have been miracles of chastity. Methodism was not quite so bad, but it tolerated some very strange pranks. The Rev. Richard Polwhele, in his "Anecdotes of Methodism" (a very rare book), says that "At St. Agnes, the Society stay up the whole night, when girls of twelve and fourteen years of age, run about the streets, calling out that they are possessed." He goes on to relate that at Probus "the preacher at a late hour of the night, after all but the higher classes left the room, would order the candles to be put out, and the saints fall down and kneel on their naked knees; when he would go round and thrust his hand under every knee to feel if it were bare." Salvationism does not at present go to this length, but it has still time enough to imitate all the freaks of its predecessor. There was an All-Night meeting in Whitechapel a few months ago, which threatened to develope into a thoroughgoing love-feast. The light was rather dim, voices grew low, cheeks came perilously near, and hands met caressingly. Of course it was nothing but the love of God that moved them, yet it looked like something else; and the uninitiated spectator of "the mystery of godliness" found it easy to understand how American camp-meetings tend to increase the population, and why a Magistrate in the South-west of England observed that one result of revivals in his district was a number of fatherless weans.

In one respect Salvationism excels all previous revivals. It is unparalleled in its vulgarity. The imbecile coarseness of its language makes one ashamed of human nature. Had it existed in Swift's time, he might have added a fresh clause to his terrible indictment of mankind. Its metaphors are borrowed from the slaughter-house, its songs are frequently coarser than those of the lowest music-hall, and the general style of its preaching is worthy of a congregation of drunken pugilists. The very names assumed by its officers are enough to turn one's stomach. Christianity has fallen low indeed when its champions boast such titles as the "Hallelujah Fishmonger," the "Blood-washed Miner," the "Devil Dodger," the "Devil Walloper," and "Gipsy Sal."

The constitution of the Salvation Army is a pure despotism. General Booth commands it absolutely. There is a Council of War, consisting of his own family. All the funds flow into his exchequer, and he spends them as he likes. No questions are allowed, no accounts are rendered, and everything is under his unqualified control. The "General" may be a perfectly honest man, but we are quite sure that none but pious lunatics would trust him with such irresponsible power.

We understand that the officials are all paid, and some of them extremely well. They lead a very pleasant life, full of agreeable excitement; they wear uniform, and are dubbed captain, major, or some other title. Add to all this, that they suppose themselves (when honest) to be particular favorites of God; and it will be easy to understand how so many of them prefer a career of singing and praying to earning an honest living by hard work, The Hallelujah lads and lasses could not, for the most part, get decent wages in any other occupation. All they require for this work is a good stomach and good lungs; and if they can only boast of having been the greatest drunkard in the district, the worst thief, or the most brutal character, they are on the high road to fortune, and may count on living in clover for the rest of their sojourn in this vale of tears.

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