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Luddite Spring: 49 - The Sign

...When he contemplated the course of actions he and his fellows might take in their pursuit of social justice, he took to brooding about what God thought of such actions...

Ronnie Bray continues his epic story of the days when good men rose up to protest about shocking working conditions.

Although he claimed that he had finished with religion, Gledhill continued to be plagued by thoughts of what relationship could exist between God, if there were a God, and man, particularly himself. Could God look on suffering such as went on daily in Staithes’ mill and do nothing about it, he wondered? Was God’s presumable acceptance of abuse the proof that God did not exist or, if he existed, was it proof of His disinterest?

Attending church as a child had been a mixed experience for Gledhill, ranging from peculiar joy at Christmas, to deep sorrow at Easter, although his sadness changed to triumph at the telling of the Resurrection story. Life had been better then, although it was never fully satisfactory. His family, farm labourers, had struggled against want, weather, and unexpected ills. Yet, with all their disappointments, life had been more balanced than it was since he became a cropper, and his basic needs were not met. Often, they had no coal or firewood on the coldest days. Local woods had been hewn down by builders, and money for fuel was hard to put aside. Food was in short supply, and other misfortunes were constant factors.

He was encouraged when a boy by the hymn ‘God Moves In A Mysterious Way, especially the future promise that ‘Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.’ Disappointment in his expectation of God grew as he saw nothing but frowns, while the smiling face did not materialise. This mattered to Gledhill because it eroded the foundation of his upbringing. His parents had the simple, bucolic faith common to countrymen in a less hurried time. They encouraged their children to believe that God provided for the good and the patient.

Gledhill’s experience was that goodness and patience led only to disappointment, and he gave up expecting anything at from Providence, smiling or otherwise.

The God of his fathers had disappeared when he arrived in the textile town, and his experiences at Outcote Mill led him to believe that Omnipotence could not or would not penetrate its walls. Therefore, he considered that God's attention was either limited to strictly pastoral pursuits, such as making a grand harvest and causing cows to yield plenty of milk. Either that or else God simply did not exist and he had been misled. If there were no providential Deity, then he would have to look for help elsewhere.

Gledhill was not alone in disappointment with his experience of the Divine. Such disillusionment was a common factor of working life for those that walked in the furrow behind the Industrial Revolution. The failure of God and God’s religion transferred to the new secular tradition, rendering Radicalism and other infidel notions increasingly attractive to the dissociated. The foremost appeal of radicalism was the argument that society should offer more to the poor than it did. The bold and idealistic humanitarian schemes that grew from them were attempts to relocate the poor into the mainstream of life, to rescue them from despondency, throw off unjust restrictions, and free them from the tyranny of the powerful.

Despite this beautiful outlook, it remained an almost impossible struggle for the poor to swap their self-images from being downtrodden to being entitled, because the convincing postulates of capitalism all but blinded them to the deficiencies of their status in society. Hunger, abuse, and hopelessness guaranteed that the focus of the underprivileged was directed no further afield than their empty bellies, abuse, disease, and deadly poverty.

However, Gledhill learned that the God he renounced did not reciprocally remove himself from the consciousness of his repudiators. Omnipotence has a disagreeable tendency to butt in when He is neither expected nor welcome. Gledhill became increasingly conscious of an invisible but persistent Presence, that he could not shut out from his thoughts. He did not understand it, but since his meeting with Jack Crowther, he had the impression that he did not walk alone, but was conscious of a Nearness that troubled him.

Despite these impressions, he did not go to church, but took to watching for signs as to whether God, if it were God, would guide him as he searched for truth. He had said that he was finished with God because God seemed to have finished with him, and decided that if God was detached from him, then he should steer clear of God. Even so, his predicament did not settle as he thought it should.

When he contemplated the course of actions he and his fellows might take in their pursuit of social justice, he took to brooding about what God thought of such actions. He also feared lest he wake the sleeping God and find his own outrage overwhelmed by the outrage of an other-worldly Master who could not be stopped by a blow with a branch from a beech tree.

Having promised Crowther not to discuss matters with Sarah, he looked for another sounding board with whom he could discuss his concerns without putting himself into the power of the powers-that-be. He remembered Abe Lockwood, ‘The Little Bishop’ of Berry Brow, and resolved to see him.


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