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Luddite Spring, Luddite Spring: 48 - Church Talk

...“He said that in England everyone went to church, and were better for it. I asked him how a poor man that toiled hard for six days out of seven could benefit by sitting through a carping list of nasty remarks week by week.”

“What did he say?”

“He said that it was time poor people realised what God had made them for, and got used to liking it. If they didn’t, he said, they will go straight to Hell...

Ronnie Bray continues his epic novel concerning a workers' uprising in the early days of the Industrial Revolution.

It was Sunday lunchtime. Two men sat on the low wall that enclosed the village church dedicated to Saint Matthew. The morning service had dismissed an hour earlier and it would be several hours until the faithful attended evening service there. A weak winter sun brightened the day and made the air a touch less cold than it had been all week. They sat outside because during the week they went into work when it was still dark and it was grown dark again when they left the mill to go home for the night.

One of the men had a handsome pile of farm cheese and onion sandwiches tied in his kerchief. He shared them generously with his friend. Handing him a doorstep-sized lump, he swung around to look at the house of worship, and asked whether his friend had ever been inside.

“Never have and never expect to,” said his companion with feeling.

“Why not? You’re Church of England, aren’t you?”

“I am on paper, but that has nothing to do with it. Most folks are, but not many bother to go. How about you? Do you go?”

“I used to. But I stopped going some years back.”

“Why,” asked his companion, taking a mouthful of his sandwich. “What stopped you?”

“To tell the truth, I didn’t like praying with the enemy! I have little in common with Church and King Men.”

“You mean the parson sides with the rich?”

“Exactly! The squires, parsons, magistrates, and owners are all of a kind, and that kind isn’t our kind. They made me uncomfortable, so I stopped going.”

“Is that the same as falling out with God?”

His friend didn’t answer right away, but wiped crumbs from round his mouth with his sleeve. “It might look that way, but it’s not the same thing. God made us all and some of us remember that and as far as I can see those that don’t remember it go to church.”

“That’s a rum way to look at it. But, I suppose you don’t have to go to church to believe in God.”

“That’s not what the parson says. After I stopped going he used to stop me in the street and ask me why I didn’t attend any more.”

“What did you tell him?”

“I told him that it was no place for poor people. I pointed out that a lot of mill owners and merchants had stopped going as well. He said that was true, but that they hadn’t stopped going altogether, that they went to a chapel instead. He didn’t seem too pleased about that, but he said that I should go to church. I told him life was hard enough for workers without being reminded that we were cursed by a God that is only fond of the rich.”

His friend cleared his throat and then took another bite of his dinner. When he had swallowed it, he spoke again. “What did he say to that?”

“He said that in England everyone went to church, and were better for it. I asked him how a poor man that toiled hard for six days out of seven could benefit by sitting through a carping list of nasty remarks week by week.”

“What did he say?”

“He said that it was time poor people realised what God had made them for, and got used to liking it. If they didn’t, he said, they will go straight to Hell. I told him that there was hardly a poor man or woman in the country that wasn’t in Hell six days a week, and six days out of seven in Hell was more than enough for anyone to bear.”

“You’re right. Poor folks aren’t made to feel welcome in church, and some of the chapels are just as bad.”

“Too true, old lad. When I did go to church I could never sit in a pew. I had to sit on one of the benches next to the draughty door and freeze to death, or else sit on one of the rush mats in the back corner when the benches were full. The churchwarden told me that what he called good people didn’t like the smell of working folks, and were afraid of catching fleas and diseases from them, because the poor were always dying of something or other.”

“Aye. Nobody dies as well or as often as working folks. It’s as if we had a fondness for dying, eh?”

His companion laughed generously at the jest, but knew that there was much truth in his observation.

“Have you had a visit from the Man with the Book?”

“You mean the Methodist chap?”

“Yes. They often come to our street and talk to people Have you seen them?”

“One came by a month or so ago.”

“Did you talk with him?”

“He invited us to go to chapel on Sundays, but we put him off.”


“I told him that we’d like him to speak up for us and make masters change their ways so that our lives would be better.”

“What did he say about that?”

“He said he understood our lives were a bit rough – I laughed when he said that – but, he said life was meant to be hard, and those that endure hardships without complaining will go to heaven where everything will be perfect. I asked him why we had to die before we could have justice.”

“What did he say to that?”

“He said that was the way God ordained it to be and that we should take God at his word and keep quiet about troubles and woes, because, he said, when we complain about our lives we were saying that God had got it all wrong.”

“No complaining, eh?”

“No. He said that God knows what he is doing and it is not our place to question the Almighty. I asked him whose place it was, then, and he said it was no one’s place to challenge God. I bid him good day and God speed at that point. He’s not been back since.”

“With that sort of notion in mind it’s no wonder that some are starting their own chapels. They can hire a preacher that isn’t fettered with outworn ideas about how life should be. These new fellows know that the human soul needs hope or it cannot breathe.”

“It’s true that the poor are made to feel welcome in the new chapels. It’s also true that they preach from the Bible about equality. But they won’t do anything about it to bring it about. When they say that, their preaching sounds thoughtless. They rail on against slavery but they don’t see that we are slaves. If it’s right for them to want to end slavery in the America’s, then it’s right for them to work openly to bring change here and now and set us mill-slaves free. I quoted a poem to one minister”

“A poem? What was it?”

“It’s an old thing my father used to hum now and then, ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’”

“Do you understand all those grand words they use?”

“I won’t make on as if I do. But I know what it feels like to be put upon, and I know what it’s like to delve. However, I have no experience at being a gentleman!” He laughed at his own wry wit.

“I shouldn’t wonder, and neither have I. it seems daft to me that parsons can see what’s wrong with our lives and agree that they’re not right, but then they aren’t willing to do nothing about it. If they can see its wrong, why do they do nothing, then?”

“I ask the same question. They run classes for us and teach us to read and write and understand the Bible, and that’s useful. But when we point out to them what the Bible says about fairness, they tell us to put the Bible back on the shelf and not go where they say we must not go. Many's the time I have been told by parsons not to delve into the mysteries! What I can’t swallow is that they know something should be done, but won’t do anything.”

“Do you want to share this last half sandwich with me?”

“Thank you. They are grand sandwiches. Do you make your own cheese?”

“My sister makes it. She always gives us a good lump of it when she visits. It’s better than anything you can buy.”

“It is that. I’ll help you eat your sandwiches any time. You’ve only to ask!”

His friend laughed heartily. He broke the sandwich in two and handed the largest piece to his friend.

“Eat and enjoy! Life holds few pleasures for workers, but a good cheese sandwich and friendship are among the best of them.”

“By Saint George, you’re right about that. Now, if only religious folks could understand that Jesus fed the poor before he preached to them. They don’t seem to know that it’s hard to get religion inside a man with an empty belly.”

“Yon parson’s not particularly fond of Methodists and such. He says they’re upsetting God’s balance by making the poor think they are equal to the rich. He says they are fostering revolution and should be hung for it.”

“When change comes, and come it must, parsons will be the last to accept it. They’ve held to their high and holy ways too long, and as most of them come from landed families that don’t know what being poor is. If they could see life through a worker’s eyes, then they would know that what we have to put up with is something that was never meant to be. When God made man, he didn’t make one man to lord it over another. Greed made some men rich and they turn their back on the rest of us. They see us as dumb animals to fill their pockets with gold. Our children go shoeless while theirs wear fine kid shoes. We wear rags and they spend a fortune that would keep our family for two years on a jacket for their sons or a gown for their daughters. They feed on the best, and we feed on the slops they leave for us. Pigs are better fed than we are. They waste food and throw it out by the bucketful, but we never get enough. It’s a shame. Their eyes are shut fast. It will take a miracle to open them. A miracle!”

“Those new chapel folks are not ready to rock the boat any more than it has already been rocked by what they call enthusiasm. I swear there’s more Puritan in parsons today than there ever was in Puritans!”

“I’ve heard them complain about the wild antics of Methodists and other chapel folks that sing and dance as if they were happy.”

“Some poor folks find such carryings on pleasing.”

“Why do you think they do?”

“Well, how it was explained to me is that the only sign from heaven poor folks have when they go to church is the excitement they feel in Methodist and such-like meetings.”

“What do they think the signs mean?”

“It is supposed to be a sign from heaven that God approves of what they are doing. You know how glum and dreary parson preaching is?”

“I do that!”

“Well, these chapel men are fiery and exciting. They call on God to send the fire of the Holy Ghost to sweep through the congregation, and bless me, if that doesn’t seem to happen!”

“So, they think that being excited is God telling them they are doing right?”

“They do. Mind you, even that has its drawbacks.”

“What kind of drawbacks?”

“They feel God in their bones. That’s called enthusiasm, and while it is condemned by the Mother Church of England as being straight from the devil, it’s seen by the uneducated poor as a sign that God is giving them the go-ahead.”

“The go-ahead to do what?”

“That’s just it. For all the fire in their bellies, they are not free to do anything about it because their preachers forbid it. Some want to revolt and change society, but that terrifies the ministers and they tell the people they have stirred up to take the empty sign as all that matters. If you get the sign, they say, you have got all that God is going to give you. They are afraid of being thought of as in sympathy with the French.”

“Then it’s all for nothing, eh?”

“Mostly. Them that is satisfied with what they call ‘the sign’ carry on attending and getting merry, and those that feel they are being moved to do something about the condition of their lives stop going to chapel and seek out Radicals. Empty signs are as much use as empty bellies to people in need.”

“What happens then?”

“I’m not saying that this is so in every case, but a lot of those that have had this kind of sense awoken in them go on to look for ways of bringing real change into the unhappy lives of working people. That’s Radicalism. They believe that political change has to happen before there will be any change in workplaces.”

“Do you think they’re right?”

“Let me put it this way, and then I’ll leave the subject alone. I don’t think they’re wrong! Those with power hang on to it for dear life. The only way change can come is if there is a shift of power from the hands of the few into the hands of the many. But power is never volunteered, it must be taken.”

“Taken by force?”

“That’s the only way it ever changes hands. Come on. I’ll walk with you.”

They jumped from the wall together, dusted off their britches, and set off towards their homes. After a while, the sandwich provider paused his feet, turned to his friend and asked, “Do you know what I think?”

“Do I know what you think about what?”

“About Saint Matthew’s and the folks that fill it every Sunday.”
No. What do you think about it and them?”

“I think it should be dedicated to Saint Jude, and I think Defoe had it in mind when he wrote,
“Whenever God erects a house of prayer
The devil always builds a chapel there;
And 'twill be found, upon examination,
The latter has the largest congregation.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that, for the most part, Christian congregations don’t serve God, but keep themselves busy doing the will of the Prince of Darkness.”

“Do you mean the Devil?”

“I do, and I’ll tell you why. As we have discussed, they say one thing and then do something opposite, or else they say they should do so-and-so and then they do nothing, and that amounts to the same thing.”

“I don’t understand you. Could you give me an example?”

“The last sermon I heard in there was about loving our neighbours as we love ourselves.”

“Like the Good Samaritan?”

“Exactly. Our Lord Jesus told that story to answer a clever Dick that asked him who his neighbour was. This fellow wanted to limit those he would have to love. Jesus told the story of the Samaritan to show that the whole world was our neighbour and that Christian love should be universal.”

“Right, but … ”

“Well, that was the subject of the last sermon I ever heard there, and afterwards I heard an old widow woman ask the vicar for some help buying food, only a matter of a few pennies, and he told her that the Church wasn’t in the business of helping useless good-for-nothings. She hobbled off in tears. What he said to her spoke louder than any sermon he had ever given. That’s what I mean by them saying one thing and then doing, or not doing, another thing. It is hypocrisy not Christianity, and I want nothing to do with it.”

“If you want nothing to do with it, why do you want to change the name from Saint Matthew to Saint Jude?”

“It’s my little bit of fun, that’s all.”

“What does it mean?”

“Saint Jude is held to be the patron saint of lost or hopeless causes, and I reckon Saint Matthew’s Church is about as lost and hopeless a cause as exists anywhere. Furthermore, my friend, it will be so until Christian talk from the pulpit and approving nods from the pews are followed by loving Christian actions from parson and people.”

“My goodness! You ought to be a preacher yourself, or else one of those political men that speak in the streets. You have a way of saying things that make sense.”

“I won’t say I don’t have both opinions and leanings, but silence doesn’t get me into trouble. If I was picked out as a radical, there’s no knowing where I would end up. I have no wish to be transported for what I’m thinking.”

“Are you a radical, then? You sound a bit like one.”

“A wise head keeps a still tongue,” he smiled, tapping the side of his nose with his forefinger, before wheeling off to walk up the lane that led to his home.

His friend, full of cheese sandwiches and confusion walked the last half mile to his own cottage, thinking that he had found his friend a confounded radical. On reflection, he could see the reason for his thinking and it made sense. Perhaps he should look deeper into radicalism, or, maybe, even Luddism. He would have to think more about it.


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