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


(December, 1893.)

In our last week's article we criticised the attitude of the Churches towards the working classes, with especial reference to the late Conference of "representatives of Christian Churches" in the Jerusalem Chamber. It will be remembered that the Conference was a ridiculous fiasco. The upshot of it was simply and absolutely nothing. The Christian gentlemen there assembled could not bring themselves to pass a resolution in favor of "a living wage" for the workers. Mr. Hugh Price Hughes, in particular, asserted that no one could define it, and the discussion was therefore a waste of time. But suppose the question had been one of "a living wage" for the sky-pilots; would not a minimum figure have been speedily decided? Thirty shillings a week would have been laughed at. Two pounds would have been treated as an absurdity. Men of God, who have to live while they cultivate the Lord's vineyard, want a more substantial share of the good things of this world. Nothing satisfies them but the certainty of something very valuable in this life, as well as the promise of the life that is to come. No doubt is entertained in the clerical mind as to the laborer being worthy of his hire. But they give their first attention to the clerical laborer; partly because they know him most intimately, and have a deep concern for his secular welfare; and partly because charity begins at home and looking after one's self is the primary law of Christian prudence.

A burning and a shining light among the Nonconformists of the last generation was the famous Mr. Binney, a shrewd preacher who published a book on How to Make the Best of Both Worlds. We believe he combined precept and practice. At any rate, he expounded a principle which has always had the devotion of the great bulk of Christian ministers. These gentry have made the best of both worlds. Most of them have been comfortably assured of good positions in Kingdom-Come, and most of them have been comfortably provided for in this land of pilgrimage, this scene of tribulation, this miserable vale of tears. Come rain or shine, they have had little cause for complaint. Hard work has rarely brought them to a premature old age. Famine has never driven them into untimely graves. Even the worst paid has had a hope of better thing-. There were fine plums in the profession, which might drop into watering mouths. What if the curate had little pocket money and a small account at the tailor's, with a large account at the shoemaker's through excessive peregrinations on shanks's mare? There was a vicarage, a deanery, a bishopric in perspective. A fat purse might be dandled some day, and the well-exercised limbs repose gracefully in a carriage and pair. If the worst came to the worst, one might marry a patron's daughter, and get the reversion of the living; or even snap up the ninth daughter of a bishop, and make sure of some preferment.

Yes, the clericals, taking them altogether, have had a very good "living wage." After all these centuries, it is high time they began to think about the comfort of other classes of the community. And yet, after all, is there not something indecent in their talking about a "living wage" for the workers? Are they not parasites upon the said workers? Have they not, also, had ever so many centuries of dominance? Is it not disgraceful that, at this time of day, there should be any need to discuss a "living wage" for the workers in a Christian civilisation? Really, the clericals should not, in this reckless way, invite attention to their past sins and present shortcomings. If they stand up for the workers now, it shows that they have not stood up for the workers before. They have been so many hundreds of years thinking about it—or rather not thinking about it. It is interest—nothing but interest—which informs their new policy. They always find out what pays. Never did they fight a forlorn hope or die for a lost cause. As the shadow follows the sun, so priests follow the sun of prosperity. They are the friends of power, whoever wields it: of wealth, whoever owns it. When they talk about the rights of the people, it means that they feel the king-times are ending. Byron said they would end, nearly a hundred years ago. Blood would flow like water, he said, and tears would fall like rain, but the people would triumph in the end. Yes, and the end is near; the people are triumphing; and the fact is visible to the very owls and bats of theology.

But let us return to the "living wage" business. There were several Bishops at the Jerusalem Chamber meeting, and in view of their incomes their patronage of the working man is simply disgusting. Pah! An ounce of civet, good apothecary! The bishops smell to heaven. Whatever they say is an insult to the miners—because they say it. The "living wage" of the poorest bishop would keep fifty miners' families; that of the richest would keep two hundred. "Nay," the bishops say, "we are poorer than you think." Only the other day, the Archbishop of Canterbury stated that most of the bishops spent more than they received. Indeed! Then the age of miracles is not past. By what superhuman power do they make up the deficiency? We tell the Archbishop that he lies. It is not a polite answer, we admit, but it is a true one; and this is a case where good plain Saxon is most appropriate. Edward White Benson forgets that bishops die. Their wills are proved like the wills of other mortals, and the Probate Office keeps the record. Of course it is barely possible—that is, it is conceivable—that bishops' executors make false returns, and pay probate duty on fanciful estates; but the probability is that they do nothing of the kind. Now some years ago (in 1886) the Rev. Mercer Davies, formerly chaplain of Westminster Hospital, issued a pamphlet entitled The Bishops and their Wealth, in which he gave a table of the English and Welsh prelates deceased from 1856 to 1885, with the amount of personalty proved at their death. Of one bishop he could find no particulars. It was Samuel Hinds, of Norwich, who resigned as a disbeliever, and died poor. The thirty-nine others left behind them collectively the sum of 2,105,000; this being "exclusive of any real estate they may have possessed, and exclusive also of any sums invested in policies of Life Assurance, or otherwise settled for the benefit of their families." Divide the amount of their mere personalty by thirty-nine, and you have 54,000 apiece. This is how the Bishops spend more than they receive! One of these days we will go to the trouble and expense of bringing the list up to date. Meanwhile it may be noted that there is no falling off in the figures towards 1885. No less than five bishops died in that year, and they left the following personalities: —72,000—85,000—29,000—85,000—19,000; which more than maintain the average.

So much for the poor bishops. As for the rest of the clergy, it is enough to say that the Church they belong to has a total revenue of about 10,000,000 a year. Probably twice that sum is spent on the sky-pilots of all denominations, which is more than is received in wages by all the miners in Great Britain. It is a fair calculation that the average sky-pilot is six times better paid than the average miner. Yet the latter works hard in the bowels of the earth to provide real coals for real consumers, while the former is occupied in open air and daylight in damping down the imaginary fires of an imaginary hell. It is easy to see which is the more useful functionary, just as it is easy to see which is the better paid. Let us hope that the miners, and all other workers, will lay these facts to heart, and act accordingly. There are too many drones in England, living on the common produce of labor. The number of them should be diminished, and a beginning should be made with the mystery men. Were the great Black Army disbanded, and turned into the ranks of productive industry, the evils of society would begin to disappear; for those evils are chiefly the result of too much energy and attention being devoted to the problematical next life, and too little to the real interests of our earthly existence. We should also be spared the wretched spectacle of the well-paid drones of theology maundering over the question of a "living wage" for the honest men who do the laborious work of the world.

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