While Mr. Armstrong was still at Exeter, the surplice riots took place. He had commenced the use of the surplice in preaching, before the Bishop's Pastoral recommending it was issued, from the feeling that it is the only dress directly ordered by the Church in her services, and that its use causes less interruption than a change of vestments. He was wont to say, that "it is very hard for a clergyman to lose the singing, while putting on his black gown." This change had produced no excitement in the parish, and was apparently well received by the parishioners. Afterwards, when the agitation commenced, and became so violent, that, to preserve the peace of the city, the Bishop considered it necessary to advise the general discontinuance of the practice, this most unreasonable excitement was felt comparatively little in St. Paul's. There was some [87/88] disturbance in the vestry; but it appears to have been met with firmness by the better disposed parishioners, and it had the good effect of eliciting strong demonstrations of good feeling from many persons in the class of tradesmen, whose really firm Church principle, as well as personal attachment to their pastor, had been little anticipated. Still it was an anxious and very trying time for all who valued the preservation of Church order, and whose loving spirit shrank from such a contest. To be gentle and yet firm, to preserve charity and yet uphold spiritual authority, to bear witness to the truth, and yet to know how to yield to violence without loss of respect, in such scenes of popular commotion, is a matter of no common difficulty. The excited passions of the people rose to such a height, that in one of the city parishes, a clergyman who wore the surplice, not himself having commenced its use, but simply preserving the custom of his predecessor, could not pass from the church to his home in safety without the protection of the police.
The trial to which these occurrences subjected such a man as Mr. Armstrong, with his sensitive and tenderly affectionate spirit, and ardent attachment to Church principles, must have been peculiarly distressing. The feelings which [88/89] were manifested towards him on leaving the parish, shortly after the excitement had subsided, shew that, as a Christian pastor, he had not been found wanting in that trying time. That he gained the respect of the clergy then in chief authority in the city, by his conduct throughout these troubles, may be concluded from the testimony which Dr. Lowe, then, as now, Dean of Exeter, bears, while connecting together his recollections of him at St. Paul's with his after-work in the great Penitentiary movement. Observing, with regard to the latter, "With what zeal and energy he threw himself into it, giving himself to the work with all his heart and mind; how clear and comprehensive were the views which he had formed, and how they were pervaded by the spirit of purity and love;"--he adds, "This earnestness of purpose, and conscientious determination to act up to his convictions, at whatever cost, were so conspicuous in him during the time that he occupied the posts of Priest-Vicar in the cathedral, and Rector of St. Paul's, that even those who were most opposed to him in religious matters could not but give him credit for his stedfast adherence to that which he believed to be true."
Perhaps Mr. Armstrong's character may be [89/90] more truly described as decided than firm; or rather it was an effort to him to be firm. It was the strong sense of principle prevailing over great sensitiveness and tenderness of feeling which led him to decided action. But none could be firmer in a case where the principle of duty was clear. It was afterwards feared that he would have been found unequal to the burden of the episcopate, from defect in this point of character. But it did not prove so. He had then severe trials of feeling; but whether through increasing depth of his inner life, or through the special grace given in his consecration for the work committed to him, he shewed a constant firmness, though accompanied with all his habitual gentleness of heart.
The trial which he passed through at Exeter evidently told upon him in forming his views, and had its influence in after life in a higher sphere of action. He established as a rule at Grahamstown, that in new congregations the surplice should be used in preaching; but that in those already formed, the custom prevailing should not be disturbed. To the experience gained at that time of deep anxiety may also, probably, in great measure be traced the care which he shewed to avoid giving offence in [90/91] cases which he believed not to be essential in point of principle,--a habit of mind which tended greatly to his success in his subsequent undertakings.
Work of various kinds, in addition to his pastoral duties, now grew rapidly upon him. The Architectural Society of Exeter was then just growing up. He was one of its most active supporters, and a member of the Committee of Lecturers. He was also the chief originator of a Library for the middle classes, to which was joined a Literary Institute on Christian principles. He was also one of the original promoters of the Exeter School of Church Music for the working classes. These various plans were intended to supply a special need caused by the "early closing movement," which had this attendant disadvantage, that it suddenly threw an active-minded but untaught class on their own resources, for the long evenings.
In the course of the year 1845 he wrote his second article, which appeared in the last number of the "English Review" for 1846; the subject being "Englishwomen of the Seventeenth and Nineteenth Centuries." The article is remarkable in connexion with the personal history of the writer, because it shews a line of [91/92] thought evidently tending towards the great work which has given to him so enduring a name in our generation. Of the earlier portions of the article, where he contrasts the character and condition of Englishwomen at the two periods named, it would be irrelevant here to speak. It is where he dwells on the results of the habits of modern society, that we may trace the working of those enlarged sympathies, and that keen appreciation of neglect of duty, with its consequent sufferings, which characterized his subsequent labours on behalf of one most suffering and neglected class. In the article alluded to he points out the effects of modern social habits, not only on the education and religious state of the higher classes themselves, but in the neglect of duty towards their dependents, towards the poor, and all works of charity. He shews what elements of practical usefulness are lost, what energies wasted, in the trivial round of polished society, and what an untold amount of sins of omission lies at the door of its votaries. The same mind which so keenly perceived and so vividly pourtrayed the evil, had also perceived the true means of providing a remedy; and towards the close of the article he suggests what was then growing into shape in his mind, to be [92/93] afterwards applied with such signal success in the cause of Church Penitentiaries:--
"But the insufficiency of the education is a slight evil compared with others which the love of 'society' inflicts upon woman's early life. Think of the prospect which is presented to the girl at the end of the dull avenue of lesson life! Is not her whole mind, with an eager longing natural to youth, hent upon the door at the end which in a moment will open out into a dazzling course of ease and pleasure. Parties, parties are the things of which she hears, and of which, therefore, she thinks and dreams. Infinitely hurtful must it be to the unformed and buoyant mind, the importance attached to ' coming out,' to see it by the fact that a given time is fixed upon for so sudden and so great a change of life, when she is to burst into the gaieties of the world; a wrong idea, must be running through her brain, a false notion of human life. It will be strange if this wrong idea does not influence her in her studies, by leading her to place a wrong motive for improvement before her eyes, to pursue it with a view of appearing to advantage and shining in society, in short, to regard education as a mere preparation for society. Consider, also, the undue prominence which the coming out into the world necessarily gives to the mere fringes, and trimmings, and ornaments of education, the lesser but the more showy parts, we mean ' accomplishments.' Music, [93/94] dancing, drawing, &c, no longer hold a subordinate place, nor fill up the chinks and corners of the day. 'Accomplishments' strike and tell in society, carry admiration by storm, and therefore are studied for their quick effectiveness; and even the modern languages are learnt in a shallow way, rather with regard to conversation, than as opening out stores of wisdom to be mastered and digested.
"And when the great epoch is reached, when the girl is 'out' fairly in the world, think of the reaction! Eleven professors one week and none the next! All her course changed, and all her hours upon her own hands. To dance, to dine out, to make morning calls, to receive visits, these are the beginnings of full-grown life. The school-room opens into the ball-room. It is but one bound from French exercises and dreary strummings upon the piano, to fetes and gaieties. What young head can bear all this freedom after all that restraint, all this self-indulgence after all that discipline? And what shall we say of the effect of late hours, frivolous conversation, questionable amusements, or at best excess of amusement, of the care for dress, the habits of self-indulgent expense, of flatteries and compliments, of the surrounding idolatry of fashion, and rank, and riches, upon an unformed character, a mere girl?"
Then follows a painful picture of the wide-spreading evils resulting from this state of [94/95] things, and telling upon the whole aspect of outward religion in this country:--
"As we are disposed to accuse society-life, not only of being an active course of vanity and self-indulgence, but of being one prolonged sin of omission, what shall we say, in speaking of the omission of home-duties in this undomestic course, of the treatment of servants? It is the fashion to complain of servants; but masters and mistresses should first complain of themselves. The olden interest in servants is all but past; much society prevents interest; the dissipation of mistresses dissipates the servants; the spirit of the heads of the house descends. We believe the habits of servants in large towns to be vicious in the extreme, vicious almost beyond belief; they have caught the vices of those above them, and exhibit them in grosser and coarser forms. Extravagance, luxurious ways of living, self-indulgence, passion for dress, these are among their more obvious sins. Whether servants are Christians or infidels, as long as they preserve a show of propriety and respect, seems among a host of persons to be a matter of no concern; their spiritual state is not cared for, and is not known. The constant entertainments which they attend throws them among large numbers and varieties of servants, who corrupt each other and provoke each other to sin; late hours, an unquiet house, want of regularity, stiff, formal, brief glimpses of their [95/96] mistresses, worldly examples before them; all these are injuries which ' society' inflicts upon the dependants of her votaries. If servants' morals be at the very lowest ebb, what an awful weight of responsibility rests upon the souls of those to whom they have been given in charge by God Himself!
"Omitted duties thicken upon our minds as we begin to number them. What regard is paid to the poor by those who fly from home-life to society? We go into the narrow streets of our larger towns, where the poor are packed together in their close homes; where there is many a sick-bed, and the sickness aggravated by want. How rarely do we see any sisters of charity turning out of the broader and sunnier highways of the world to dive into the gloomy abodes of poverty! Where is the heart for such a task, where the time? A few stragglers may occasionally be found, and but a few; even these making often rather irregular incursions, than carrying on a systematic and well-directed mission; acting often without the knowledge or guidance of the clergy, and going perhaps where they had better not, and not going where they would do well to go; meaning well, and yet, for want of order, hindering their own charitable design, or making it less fruitful. While women shrink from the sickly sights which meet the visitors of the poor, and disturb not the serene life of self-indulgence by agitating spectacles of distress, anything like a system or due proportion of almsgiving is not to be hoped for. Where [96/97] there is not real pity, there will not be real bounty; a selfish life, and a self-denying life in order to be bountiful cannot be led by the same person at the same time; a few shillings at a charity sermon, or to a 'troublesome' beggar, or a few guineas squeezed out by the ingenious importunities of some 'collectors' for doubtful societies, 'to get rid of the men,' make up the sum-total of gifts. Society-life is voracious; it demands the whole purse, it leaves scarcely any shreds or scrapings of worldly means for the poor; all the resources of those who are much out, all the 'allowances,' or ' pin-money,' or whatever other name is given to a woman's privy purse; all are required to keep pace with the costly and restless fashions of dress.
"Again, we go into the schools of the poor in London, and in our large towns, and we see one hot, wearied mistress acting as colonel, captain, lieutenant, and ensign of her regiment of 200 or 300 girls, while some dozen little corporals, a lesson or two ahead of those they teach, are placed as ' monitors' under her. Occasionally a lady hurries from class to class, but being unable, on an emergency, to multiply herself into a dozen, she is able to effect but little, and is almost lost in the sea of little ones. Where, we ask, are the 'daughters of England;' the daughters of the upper classes, who have time and leisure on their hands? There is time for worsted work, time for polking, for shopping, for calls, but no time can be found for the blessed work of [97/98] teaching the children of the poor. We know women's aptness to teach, their power of adapting themselves to children's minds, and of interesting them; and, therefore, we bewail the more the lack of devotion to so great a cause, the neglect of those natural gifts which would give blessings to others and rebound in blessings to themselves.
"Again, we go through our cathedral towns, or other places where the privilege of daily common prayer is offered. We pass down goodly streets, crescents, rows, terraces, where the wealthier classes live. Well, we say to ourselves, how happy a thing for this busy town; these houses must yield a host of at least female worshippers; here are those who can go to pray for those restless multitudes of busy men. Here there must be an army of defenders to go daily into the citadel, and by their prayers in the temple to defend the place against the powers of darkness. How excellent the economy of God, who in His mercy gives so large a portion of His servants, in the very places where temptations most abound, time and opportunities for the work of daily intercession. Filled with these thoughts, we wend our way hopefully to the cathedral or the church in the morning; alas! only to be chilled and saddened. All those houses, all those streets and terraces, yield but a dozen or so who have the heart and spirit to seek the Lord in His temple. If household cares employ the mothers, where are the daughters? As we return, we catch the sounds of a multitude of pianos, [98/99] and in passing from house to house carry in our ears a shred of secular music from each; here the end of the overture of 'Don Giovanni,' and there the middle of a quadrille from 'Robert le Diable,' and then the last notes of 'Soave immagine d'amor.' Again however, we tread the same path in the afternoon, determined to hope even against hope. We behold the doors of these goodly houses opening, and female crowds issuing forth; our spirit brightens with fresh hope; but, alas! we quickly discern, to our dismay, card-cases, and not Prayer-books, in their hands: they are bent upon that work of confessed and most profitless self-denial which even the world exacts from its worshippers. We see carriages rolling by, we hear the knockings at doors, and with these sounds in our ears we enter the almost forsaken temple."
Afterwards he touches upon the means already at hand for breaking through the mesh of entanglement which long habits of false conventionalities have cast around many capable of better things:--
"Now if we have in any degree taken a true view of the undomestic tendencies that are at work among the upper classes, making them frivolous 'lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God,' taking them from their proper duties, from all objects worthy of their care, or able to recompense them at the last, from all that constitutes a spiritual, unworldly, and useful [99/100] life, what can be done to stem the tide? We must look to the Church--this is the true domesticating power; this is the true nurse of home affections, of genuine well-grounded friendships. Here, when the mind is beginning to have some longings after a more satisfying life, and conscience between the exciting acts of gaiety remembers something of the renouncing of the world, when the 'heart, distrusting, asks if this be joy,' or rather, if this be the proper use of human life, then the Church meets the awakening conscience with a given system, with a satisfying course of life marked out, with clear and defined schemes of nobler occupations. We must look, we repeat, to the Church;--this is the divinely appointed antagonist of the world, and of that form of the world now developing itself among the upper classes. As society really dislocates while it seems to unite, as it wastes and weakens the natural love of fellowship, while it pretends to gratify it, by substituting a hollow system of acquaintanceship, too broad and universal to be deep and true,--so the Church, on the other hand, increases the reality of communion, while it reduces the number of persons known; it opens out hearts, while it checks the mere knowledge of faces. It presents, too, as we have said, a distinct, intelligible plan of life; it gives those who are sickening of the world something positive to do; it has a work prepared for them; and system is a great help; human nature needs it.
"If it be asked, how does the Church rescue souls [100/101] from the life of the world, and lead them into a home-life, where they can enter upon a useful course, let the Prayer-book, not the only voice of the Church, speak. This at once, if it be obeyed, breaks the round of society-life, causes the wheel to pause, and claims no slight portion of the week for the retirement of home. It takes, for instance, every Sunday as a matter of course, and sets it apart as the great day of devotion and charity; it forbids all parties and entertainments of every kind on Saturday, as being the vigil or eve of the Lord's Day, on which Christians should prepare themselves in quietness for the solemn duties of the morrow. It marks all Fridays of the year as days of abstinence and humiliation; and if we take the loosest view of fasting, perhaps to beginners the best view, we should at least interdict ourselves from the pleasures of society on that day, and practise that abstinence. Here, then, has the Church rescued three days out of seven from the world, while to these we may add the forty days of Lent, which would indeed be a gain to the soul, if it were but spent strictly at home. Here is a plan prepared for those who want to break the flow of society. It is not left to us to say, 'some day we will pause;' it is not left to us to choose the day, or number of days, which shall be kept inviolate and consecrated to home; but, what is of the greatest help, especially to unstable novices, certain days are marked out for them and chosen; a rule is ready at hand, which they have but to use. It saves them [101/102] also from the appearance of inventing over-strict rules of life, in a moment of new-born zeal; they can meet remarks by saying, '"We have set up no private standard; we are doing no unheard-of things; we are simply obeying the plain rules of the Church, and taking her standard of strictness.' If the clergy's wives and daughters led the way in such an observance of these days, that is, in withdrawing from all society thereon, the task would be made still easier for the lay members of the Church.
"Then, again, as regards the duty of prayer, and the hearing or reading God's Word, the Church does not leave her members without guidance; she arranges a course of devotion to arm them against hurry, changeableness, lessening of prayers; though she gives no direction as to the length or time of private prayer, she enjoins daily Common Prayer. And where this privilege can be had, what is to hinder the mass of the women of the upper classes from a regular daily attendance in the House of God? The offer of this privilege is almost daily multiplied. The golden remarks of the Bishop of London on this point are still fresh in our minds; while in our cathedral towns the privilege has never been withheld. Even where it is not as yet to be enjoyed, the spirit of the Prayer-book would lead us to go through the service devoutly at home, to read the Psalms and Lessons of the day, and to use the prayers appointed. We may remember the custom of the Scotch saints, who, when prevented by the bigoted tyranny of their [102/103] opponents from receiving the Holy Communion, were wont to receive it, as they said, spiritually, on the same day when they would have actually received it had it been administered. If no such rule of reading and praying be observed, some days might pass without any reading of God's Word, or a few verses might be read hurriedly, or some portions of Scripture might be dwelt upon to the neglect of other portions; we know that there is a tendency to read the Epistles more than the Holy Gospels, and to cast the Old Testament into the shade altogether. "We must, also, suggest the devout observance of the festivals of the Church, that relish for spiritual feasts may be learnt, and the love of earthly feasts may be lessened. "We need hardly speak of the Church's view of the duty of communicating, nor of the many excellent devotional works which her members have supplied to aid communicants in a due preparation for that great feast.
"But we must not forget the union of devotion with active piety, which we saw in the Church-women of the seventeenth century. It is not enough for the daughters of the Church to be found at daily prayer, to be frequent communicants, to keep fast and festival; the means of grace must not be mistaken for the end; there must be no patching of a worldly life upon a devotional course; there must not be a piebald life; consistency in action is imperatively required. We must guard against inactivity or worldliness after these devotional duties [103/104] have been fulfilled. There is great temptation to rest here; to begin to build, but not to finish; to pray, but not to act: among young persons the danger is greater; we have seen painful inconsistencies, which have provoked the ridicule of the world, and brought discredit upon a great cause. To be praying in the morning, and waltzing at night; to be talking at dinner-parties upon high, solemn subjects to one neighbour, and nonsense to the other; to be gabbling about architecture, or the Gregorian tones, as the mere hobbies of the day; to be reading good books, and to be spending as much as ever on dress and gaiety; this is just the course which must be at once denounced; this flimsy shadow of earnestness must be guarded against with especial care. We want consistency; we want action; we want calm, unostentatious, deep devotion of daily life to the service of our blessed Lord, and of our brethren in Him. But, supposing that a course of action is desired consistent with the course of devotion, what guidance does the Church give? Here the Church suggests the aid of the ministry. It is the part of the parish priest to direct any member of his flock who desires to do good towards some definite actions, to point out a course of usefulness. Here he meets the enquiring portion of his family, not as preacher only, but as pastor, as the spiritual guide and friend. When, then, any earnest women desire to do good, we may say that he is not only likely, but certain, to suggest the visiting of the sick and poor, to set them [104/105] forth on that course of charity in which 'pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father' consists. He is able also to temper zeal, that it may be more useful, to suggest the particular individual whom particular individuals would do well to visit, to hinder his visitors from going into scenes unfit for female feet. It is true that in our larger towns this personal contact with the clergy is not always easy as yet, for it implies the proper action of the parochial system; whereas, from the unexampled increase of population, and the Church's neglect in former times, this system has become, in many parts, a fiction rather than a reality. Still the fiction is fast becoming a reality again, and the overgrown parishes are undergoing a rapid process of dismemberment, that the parochial system may be adapted to the altered state of things; and thus a close and familiar intercourse with the clergy, now overburdened with care, will be attainable where it is desired; opportunities of seeking their guidance will be obtained, without those difficulties in reaching them which sometimes deter timid minds from revealing their desire to be employed in some labour of love.
"In a thousand cases, however, notwithstanding these present and partial hindrances, arising from the defective organization of the parish system, the members of the Church who desire to know the poor, and to shew kindness to the sick, can procure from their parish priest judicious direction in such a course. And when this course is entered upon, there [105/106] are spectacles enough of misery and distress to touch eyen hearts of stone; we know no such cure for personal luxuriousness and self-indulgence, as the sight of the homes and wants of the poor. The 'visible rhetoric' of such sights is strong; a visible sermon is preached to the soul through the eye, and never does personal extravagance seem so sinful, never does it pierce the conscience with such keen and sharp reproach; the trappings and costly ornaments of the rich, 'the wearing of gold and the putting on of apparel,' seem then to be malefactor's robes, rather than things to be coveted; and when the cry for bread is heard, or the want of bread is seen, the extravagant trifles and gewgaws seem to torment the wearers with stern accusations of cruelty. Pity is sure to flow, self-indulgence to be seen in its true light, if the poor be really visited, and their state really revealed. If the visiting is regular and habitual, the pity becomes habitual; and habitual pity will produce what is so much to be desired, habitual alms-giving and personal self-denial. And it is constant giving, not by fits, nor on impulse, nor in gusts, which is of real good. There should be a fixed and stated portion set apart and consecrated to the poor by those who would be true alms-givers, to secure them and help them against themselves, to prevent the spirit of self-indulgence or self-deceit from creeping in. Would not the tithing of an 'allowance' or 'pin-money' suggest itself, as the least that should be done?"
 The close of this interesting article, containing so much painful truth, is relieved by expressions of buoyant hopefulness, and hearty recognition of the tokens of a better promise, very characteristic of the writer:--
"Now, in thus freely commenting on the present condition of the women of the upper classes, in contrasting them with no small portion of the same classes in former times, and in anxiously urging a return to a more domestic, unselfish, and Christian mode of life, we write hopefully and in good heart. Though we see great evils, we are not disposed to sink into the gloomy apathy of despair; it is no time to despond; we can discern a break in the sky. Though the smooth, deadly current of worldly life sweeps down with fearful force, and gathers into itself a vast multitude of lighter minds, there is, as we have already said, a counter-current setting in, breasting with the other tide, with a still, deep, and mysterious power; not noisily, not tumultuously, nor with great show of power, but steadily, and with a firm, unyielding earnestness. The Church is beginning to be stirred with a new life, and to lay hold of souls, and to work in them, and to possess them, with a spirit such as she has not had the grace to put forth for a century and a half. We see the renewal of olden zeal, and faith, and love; we behold a more self-denying spirit spreading itself into the very seats of wealth,--simplicity of life, adopted as a [107/108] duty and as a means to greater usefulness,--the system of the Church better understood, more fully felt, and entered into, and obeyed,--an increase of earnestness; and this earnestness tempered by a teachable spirit, and uniting itself to order. All these marks of renewed vitality give witness that ours is no ephemeral, no schismatical body, raised for a time to provoke the true body to faith and to good works, but a true, living, enduring branch of the Catholic Church."
The germ of Mr. Armstrong's Church Penitentiary efforts lay hid in these deep views of the evils of our social state, and of the powers of reviving life abiding in us.