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Luddite Spring: 50 The Little Bishop

...“Did God mean for the rich to abuse the poor? Is being poor a sin for which God is punishing the poor?” ...

Ronnie Bray continues his story of an epic fight for justive in the early days of the Industrial Revolution.

Abraham Lockwood, the Little Bishop, had preached the evening service in his chapel and was at home attending to his dinner. Lockwood was a small man with a big heart and a reputation among locals as a fiery preacher with leanings toward social reform. He had hardly settled at his meal table when there was a knock on his door. It was Seth Gledhill.

“I’m sorry to disturb you Reverend Lockwood, but can I speak to you?”

“You can, lad. Come in out of the cold. Sit yourself by the fire.”
Gledhill entered the room and saw Lockwood’s dinner sate at the table, the knife and fork at angles on the plate indicating that the meal was in process of being tackled.

“I’ve caught you in the middle of your dinner. I can come back.”

There’s no need to do that. My dinner’s always a cold cut on Sundays, so it won’t spoil.” He sat at the opposite side of the fireplace to Gledhill. “How can I help you? It’s Seth Gledhill, isn’t it?”

“That’s right, Mister Lockwood.”

“You don’t come to chapel, I notice.”

“No, Mister Lockwood, I don’t. I suppose you know why I don’t.”

“I’ve a fair idea, lad. Not many mill workers find time to go to church or chapel. I wish they would, but they do not. Anyway, what brings you here?” He crossed to the fireplace and poked the fire to raise the flame to warm his visitor who had walked the five miles from his home.

“There’s something I need to talk over with you.”

“Alright, young man. What is it? Out with it.”

“Is talking to you like talking to a priest?”

“What do you mean, Seth?”

“Is what we talk about kept between the two of us or not?”

“It’s confidential if I say so, and I do say so. Whatever you tell me will go with me to the grave. That’s my sacred word to you, Seth.”

“Right, then, Mister Lockwood. That’s what I needed to know. I am in a hard place and want to talk it over with someone trustworthy that isn’t involved in law.”

“I am involved in the law of the Lord,” said Lockwood directly, “but I have nothing to do with any other kind of law except to personally uphold the law of the land. What is it, lad?”

“My daughter was murdered by Staithes.”

“Yes. I heard about that. A terrible business. I am very sorry.”

“Well, there are some men, in truth too many men that have suffered the same and are sick of a world where children are beaten to death and nothing gets done about it. They are also sick of low wages and the evils of factory life. They are sick of poor homes, not enough to eat, not enough to wear, no fuel for their fire grates, they are sick of disease and of burying their bairns. They are getting ready to do something about it. I don’t know exactly what it is. I’m feeling to throw my lot in with them, but I need to talk to you first.”

“I’m not surprised that they take offence at their conditions. The one thing that does surprise me is that they have put up with it for so long. What are they going to do about it?”

“Well, Mister Lockwood, that I can’t tell you because I don’t know. However, whatever it is, I’m minded to go in with them. We’ll do something for sure and it could be bold, but I don’t know what it will be.”

“What do you want from me, Seth?”

“What I want from you is to know how God looks at it.”

“Then you are a believer?”

“I’m not sure about that. I’m in between. I thought I wasn’t after Mary’s death, and I forswore off God because he didn’t seem, interested in me. But, lately …” His voice trailed off, unsure of how to explain the impressions he was lately under.
“Now you are not sure?”

“That’s it, Mister Lockwood. I was sure there was no God, and so it didn’t matter. Now, well, I’ve been getting some feelings and I don’t know what to make of them. If God is real then he has to be reckoned with. I would say I was at a crossroads and unsure of which path to take to continue my journey. If God is real, then I have no wish to go against him. I know you believe in God, Reverend, and powerfully so, but that’s not the same as me believing, and I need to be sure that I don’t do anything badly wrong in the middle of trying to do what’s right. Do you see what I mean?”

“I think I do, Seth. You can’t be sure that God isn’t talking to you, trying to tell you something. If he is, then you need to know what it is, and what he says might change the way you set about putting things right for your fellow workers. Is that the nub of it?”

“It is! That’s exactly what it is. I was raised Christian, but things have happened that tore down my faith. Then, just when I come round to thinking there is no God, he seems to be nudging me. That raises doubts about the course I can take to bring justice into an unjust world. I have to know whether God, if he is real, will approve of the actions we will have to take to stop the madness we endure. What do you think, eh?”

“That would depend on what you do. If you plead with the masters to pay you better, treat you better, and such like, I think God would approve.”

“What if asking nicely doesn’t do any good and other things happen? You know yourself that we have asked respectfully time and time again, but every time we do things get worse. New laws are passed that put us further under the heels of masters, and grind our faces into the muck. We are beginning to think that rising against the tyrants is all that will work for us. But, if we do rise, what would God think about that?”
“It all depends on exactly what you plan to do. What do you have in mind?” Lockwood had a strong suspicion that Gledhill knew more than he was letting on, but did not want to probe too deeply. “Are there plans to do something more than ask the masters?”

“You know we’ve asked. We’ve asked and asked again until we’re sick of asking, and now we’re sick of being ignored. Masters and government are dancing about looking busy but doing nothing to set matters right. Folks are hurting, they’re starving and dying, and that’s not saying it too strong!”

“I know what goes on,” said the minister sadly. “But my question is whether there are plans to do more than ask? I have tried talking to owners about conditions and wages, but it seems their ears are made of the same stuff they sell - cloth! I know that places have had raids and machines have been smashed to keep hand crafters at work. I don’t think God is pleased with that kind of work.”

“How not?”

“The Bible, which tells us what God has in mind, tells us to ‘Fear God, and honour the king.’ Since the king makes our laws, we have to respect the laws he makes even when we do not agree with them. If we don’t respect them, then God isn’t pleased with us.”

“Doesn’t God see what is happening, then? Isn’t he angry with that?”

“I am sure he is, because the Bible tells us to treat all men as we want to be treated. But it doesn’t give us leave to take matters into our own hands even when we don’t like what is happening.”

“If we don’t change the way things are, then who will change them? Will God change them?”

“He will, but not until the end of the world. Then everything will change and all wrongs will be righted, every injustice will be set straight. God will wipe every tear from our eyes when the end comes and His kingdom is established, and the kingdoms of men swept aside.”

“I don’t know, Mister Lockwood. Some of us are weary of waiting for God to set the world right. It needs putting right now before more of us die from abuse, starvation, and disease. Why must we wait?”

“Because God says so, Seth. That is all I can tell you. While we live here on earth, we are called upon to endure everything the world sends our way, good or bad. We have to bear our sufferings, heartbreaks, disappointments, and pain. But when we get to heaven we will be rewarded.”

“I heard that you preach that all men should be treated well, and that no man is better than any other.”

“That I do.” Lockwood looked troubled, afraid where this might lead. He had been accused of preaching sedition and treason after he preached a sermon expounding the Bible’s idea of social justice. “If equality does not exist, then we must be forbearing, patient, and wait on the Lord. The Bible does not teach revolution as a means of changing our situation, however unpleasant.”

“Didn’t Moses take the law into his own hands when he saw an overseer beating a Hebrew slave? Didn’t he slay the Egyptian and bury his body? And didn’t God then use him to free all his people from a cruel king?”

“He did. But there may be other things that passed that we don’t know about. We cannot use Moses’ example to licence ourselves to kill our oppressors. Through a later prophet, we are told not to be rebellious, but to open our mouths, and eat what God sends to us. Jesus said the meek would inherit the earth. As bad as things are, there is nothing to be gained from revolt. It is God’s will that we suffer what we must and take our reward in heaven.”

“That’s a hard lesson, Parson. If we don’t turn our hands to help ourselves, no one else will.”

“God is against revolt, Seth, ‘Fear God and honour the king,’ is what Saint Peter taught.”

“At Sunday School I learned that Jesus taught compassion for the suffering, help for the weary, and love for each other. How can we say we love each other if we stand still and watch their suffering but do nothing to help them? What was the Good Samaritan about if it wasn’t about our being willing to step in and save the life of a fellow man when those that should have saved his life chose not to help him? The priest wouldn’t help him, and if priests won’t help us, to whom shall we look but to those that seem willing to help? They are not always priests, but they are always moved by the sufferings of others. The Bible says God will free men from tyranny, and God uses men to do his work on earth.”

“It is wise not to read civil revolt into the words of the Bible. That is not its purpose. The tyranny God will free us from is the tyranny of sin. Christians must submit to their masters, even though their masters are tyrants.”

Gledhill was gathering speed and impatience. “Methodist Bible Classes teach that Jesus promised that burdens working men carry will be made lighter. ‘ My yoke is easy and my burden is light.’ They teach us that we are to feed the hungry as Jesus fed them. ‘Feed my sheep.’ We cannot even feed ourselves with our wages so low and food prices so high! Jesus says we are to give drink to the thirsty, feed the poor, tend the sick, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and that when we do it to the poor we do it to him and gain heaven. He says if we do not do those things we shall be sent to Hell. How can we stand and watch as more of us starve and die and not do the things Jesus said to do if we want to be saved?”

“You say you learned these things in class?”

“Yes. I went for a few weeks. The Methodist Man with the Book came round, invited me, and then taught me these things. He said that we must not let the teachings of Jesus unsettle us and make us want to change the world. He said that Jesus would do that for us when he comes again. If you’ll forgive me for saying this, Mister Lockwood, that was double talk and the Bible condemns it. That’s when I stopped going. God is either on the side of justice, or else he is not. If his ministers are afraid to change the world then I’ll have nothing more to do with them!”

“It is true that to those not versed in scriptures some things can seem to pull us both ways at once when it comes to settling our wrongs. Nevertheless, overall, the Bible teaches us patience, endurance, faith in adversity, and the need for us to wait upon God. That French business, the Revolution, was well meant, but look at the suffering it caused and the blood it spilled. God didn’t mean for that to happen.”

“Did God mean for the rich to abuse the poor? Is being poor a sin for which God is punishing the poor?”

“Indeed, being poor is not a sin. I know that some preach that the poor are poor because they are sinners. But then, the Bible teaches us that all men are sinners, yet not all men are poor. It seems to me that the circumstances in which one man is rich and another man is poor are conditions that neither merit reward nor blame. I have had many rich men sit in that very chair where you now sit, yes, and many poor men too, but I have not recognised in either why it is they bear the favour of fortune or the affliction of misfortune. There is no easy answer, Seth. One thing I do know is that God demands justice from us all, regardless of our stations in life.”

“But, when there is no justice and one imposes cruelty, even murder, on another, has not the victim the right to right the wrong? I look at Moses and the sufferings of his people, and see that he was sent to free them. Will a Moses come to free us from the tyrants that enslave us? Isn’t there anything we can do to free ourselves?”

“When Moses led Israel out of the cities of Egypt, they wandered in the desert for years and years. Forty years in all and life was not easy for them. It was so hard at times that some wished themselves back in Egypt under the tyrant. That is because although Egypt was hard on them, at least they were fed and watered. If God had not guided and helped them, they would have perished in the desert. I do not see God raising his hand or another prophet like Moses to sort out your present difficulties. You see, Seth, God is not a revolutionary. That is where the French went wrong. They abandoned the way of the Lord, and the Devil took over their hearts and their country.”

“Then we must suffer whatever the masters do to us and not resist?”

“I do not believe God is disinterested when there is injustice. Nevertheless, I do not believe that he encourages us to strike off our chains ourselves. He looks beyond our horizon of time and place and sees this life as part of an eternal scene in which his grand designs are being worked out in his own way. There will surely come a day of judgement in which all wrongs will be made right. When that comes, the guilty will not escape. Until then, we must be patient and endure whatever we are saddled with.”

“My daughter was murdered by that Devil, Staithes! How do I suffer that in patience?”

“I wish I could tell you, Seth, but I cannot. I have never stood in your shoes. Your burden is far greater than I am ever likely to bear. I deeply regret that I cannot show you how to bear it in a godly way. I am sorry.”

Unrelieved, Gledhill rose and shook the hand of the Little Bishop. Leaving the preacher’s house, he took himself home more troubled than ever. One thing he was sure of was that if Bishop Lockwood was right, then he could not rely on God to rectify his situation, and must find a way to do it for himself. He mused on what he could do. Then, he remembered.

“Jack Crowther,” he said aloud as he rounded the bottom corner of the row in which his home stood. “Jack Crowther! He’ll have the answer, I’ll be bound! That’s a turn up for the book. Almighty God doesn’t know, but Jack Crowther does!”
Although it seems to be a contradiction of his intentions after meeting with Abe Lockwood, Gledhill did eventually arrive at an uneasy connection to God. How it happened, we may never know. Observers say they witnessed him change as he became more involved in plans for dealing with the future. Whether it was a spiritual experience, such as Luther’s or George Fox’s, he never did say.

Sarah Gledhill noticed a softness grow in him that seemed almost saintly, even as he grew ever harder in resolve to correct what was not right. Such opposites are often to be seen in robust individuals that fight for the rights of others. They are never found in those that fight to keep others from their rights. Whenever Gledhill’s transformation towards piety took place remains a mystery. All that is certain is that subsequent events found Gledhill and God on somewhat better terms.


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