Project Canterbury

Arthur Henry Stanton

London: Catholic Literature Association, 1933.


'THE child is father to the man': and there are probably few of the great figures in the story of the Catholic Revival who present such an entirely consistent story of outlook and development as does Arthur Henry Stanton. The son of a Naval man turned manufacturer, Charles Stanton, who had settled at Stroud, in Gloucestershire, and married Miss Martha Holbrow of that town, Arthur Stanton was born there on June 21,1839, at Upfield Lodge. Stantons had lived in or near Stroud, and borne an honoured name there, for upwards of two centuries. Arthur was one of a family of eleven: his two brothers became respectively a successful barrister and M.P., and he had eight sisters. That was the beginning: of fine old stock, but without any aristocratic exclusiveness or pride, and in touch with the activities and life of the day. Wealthy, without any of the taint which may come from setting store by wealth: of marked individuality, but a member of a large family, and always intensely part of it.

In boyhood, we are told, he was always keen about his religion, but nobody could ever have called him a prig. He was fond of churches and Church services, but nobody (even at the earlier stage) could have been less absorbed in outward things for their own sake than he was. He went to a preparatory school at Leonard Stanley, and on to Rugby, where he remained from 1854 to 1858. In the latter year he went up to Trinity College, Oxford (Newman's College), and four years later took, apparently quite contentedly, a pass degree. This latter fact, however, must not be taken as an indication that Stanton's life at the University was an idle one: he never could be inactive, and entered keenly into University life, especially on its religious side. Pusey was still alive, but a figure rather remote and inaccessible, even to the older men: the dominating figure in Oxford Church life at the time was Liddon, then Vice-Principal of St. Edmund Hall, and upon Stanton he had a profound influence.

Stanton possessed unusual abilities and intelligence, and they were used to the full in his Oxford life, as they had been before, and were to the end: but they were never of the merely academic order, and in things scholastic he was content to 'pass muster.' He had a good many famous contemporaries, the best known of them at Trinity being James (afterwards Lord) Bryce. He spent six months at Cuddesdon in company with R. A. J. Suckling (afterwards his vicar) under the saintly Edward King, and put in his vacations working at St. Alban's, Holborn. There eventually he accepted a title, being ordained deacon at Advent, 1862, and priest at Trinity, 1864: and there he remained for more than fifty years. There his talents and powers developed, ripened, bore great fruit, and mellowed with advancing age. He left his post only a few months at the end, with the intention of returning: his return was only for the Church's final 'farewell.'

Outwardly, it was an ordinary, unexciting and (in the worldly sense) undistinguished record. But Stanton was emphatically one of the people who count, one of the influences that matter. The main secret of his influence was probably that very consistency in outlook and development already mentioned.

The Father Stanton of whom London (and the Christian world) took its leave in 1913 was the Arthur Stanton of Stroud, of Leonard Stanley, of Rugby, of Oxford, of Cuddesdon, come to full fruition. All his life he radiated religion and goodwill: he was immensely generous, entirely fearless (with the courage of the rebel), yet possessed of a wonderful toleration for the opinions or idiosyncrasies of other people. His sense of humour was perennial, never failing, however dark his surroundings: yet his reverence and courtesy, his placing of God and others always before himself, were part of his very nature. He was always socially at his ease in any sort or kind of company; he was steadfastly loyal to his friends: but there was never any room for compromise over principle, over anything that really mattered. He was to the end of his life a rich man, little as most people suspected such a thing of the humble slum priest: but he regarded money as a trust, to be used for service. To the end of his life he received no salary, and gave lavishly: yet his rooms at the Clergy House were simple to the point of austerity, furnished (except for the bare necessaries belonging to the house) entirely with simple gifts from his many friends. He never accumulated, or collected, or gathered: yet he never spent a penny of the capital left him--that was a trust to be handed on, and handed on it was to those who came after him: he used only the income from it. Yet he had, in the religious sphere, a horror of endowment, as stifling and crippling to the spiritual sense. 'Who ever heard,' he said once, 'of an established stranger or an endowed pilgrim?' For that reason he was an ardent advocate of disestablishment, and only just before his death he left £5,000 to St. Alban's on two conditions: (i) That the services should continue as usual; (2) that the money should be spent at once, and not invested. That this principle of 'service through sacrifice' was carried through all his mode of life has been recorded by his colleague for forty-six years, the Rev. E. F. Russell, who has described the extreme simplicity of Stanton's personal life, including the wearing of his clothes to the point where they would wear, and even mend, no longer. With his personal attributes it was as with his material possessions and surroundings. He possessed great good looks, health and strength, intelligence, social gifts, and the power of speech: all he had and all he was he concentrated on the one end of serving God and man. It was therefore only to be expected that he was awed as little by the censures or rebukes of officialdom as he was by the merely polite conventions of society. 'It's love that makes the world go round,' and the unifying principle in his powers, the true secret of the consistency with which Arthur Stanton lived and worked, was love: love of God and man.


The new parish of St. Alban's, Holborn, in 1862 was an ideal, though outwardly unpromising, sphere for powers and aims like Stanton's. The first church was a basement in Greville's Gardens, off Gray's Inn Road, and at the time it was in a bad slum area. Alexander Heriot Mackonochie, its first incumbent, had not long begun there his ministry of twenty-one years when Stanton joined him. The building of the church and the establishment of Catholic worship by men who themselves were convinced Catholics involved a struggle lasting many years--a struggle with disapproving authority, popular prejudice, violence, and legal opposition. The lawsuits into which Fr. Mackonochie was plunged in defence of Catholic teaching and practice lasted fifteen years, and ended only with his resignation. Stanton in joining him and supporting him was one of the chief agents of the victory which was ultimately secured, but in so doing he deliberately turned his back on all preferment and advancement. He did it, as he did all his work, without a regret: but he spoke in after years of the disillusionment which his young enthusiasm suffered in those early days, and while there was the inevitable 'breaking of dreams' which the visionary suffers when he comes in contact with human nature as it is, it was the misunderstanding and lack of sympathy, to say nothing of official criticism and even censure, on the part of those who might have been expected to promote his work, that tried far more keenly his inherent faith, hope, and courage, than any deception or failure to respond on the part of those to whom he ministered. The record of those early years is a dual one: of a priest fighting to commend to authority and popular opinion the principles which he believed to be those of the Church of which he was a minister, and that not because they were his rights, but the rights of its members and of Divine authority: and, on the other hand, a consistent and strenuous effort to carry out those principles in action in the life of a devoted parish priest; and again his innate consistency eventually won the day. Mackonochie's firmness and consistent charity and gentleness in the face of persecution, inhibition, bitterness and vituperation have laid succeeding generations of English Catholics under a debt of gratitude which they can never repay save by their own loyalty to the principles for which he contended. Enmity followed him even after his exchange to St. Peter's, London Docks, and he soon resigned. Thereafter for a year he gave some voluntary help to St. Alban's, but died in December, 1884, in a snowstorm in the Scottish Highlands, where he was staying with his friend, Bishop Chinnery-Haldane of Argyll and the Isles. He was a martyr for the Faith, persecuted to the point of yielding his life, for his death was really due to a breakdown in health brought on by the worry of litigation: but he had not died in vain. His successor at St. Alban's, Fr. Suckling, and the one who had fought by his side, Fr. Stanton, were henceforth left in peace. St. Alban's might be viewed askance by authority, latitudinarianism might shake its head, the cautious might leave it alone. But it had borne more than its share of the results of the Public Worship Regulation Act, it had stood firm, and it had won the day. But Stanton could not pass scathless through such an ordeal: after 1875 he always looked upon himself as an alien in the English Church, and though his loyalty to his work and to his people never faltered, he was less than ever an Anglican, save by the 'accident' of baptism and ordination, in the English Church. Always his outlook was that of the Catholic; his religion was the faith of the undivided Church, centred on the Incarnation and the Atonement, and their ministry to the world today through the Sacraments, and especially the Mass and Penance. To this, and second only to it, was added a profound belief in the Communion of Saints, and a deep devotion to Our Lady. So it was that the Mass, Mary and Penance were as much part of the life of St. Alban's all through the long ministry of himself and those with whom he worked, as they were in the ages of faith for all the Christian world. In church and out he ministered patiently, assiduously, with a never-failing love and understanding, a true mediator of Divine Grace, a true Catholic priest.

There appeared in the magazine Good Words in 1868 a long article descriptive of a visit to St. Alban's parishioners in Stanton's company: the author, Richard Rowe, was not by any means in sympathy with St. Alban's teaching and practice, but he drew a striking picture of the poverty of the place, the varied nature and conditions of the people, and the pastoral care of the priest, to whose devotion and goodness he paid ungrudging tribute.

As in outward things, Stanton's reward came by way of the vindication of the principles for which he fought and suffered in doctrine and worship, so he was repaid within the sanctuary of the common work of a parish by the love, loyalty, and complete trust of those to whom he ministered unceasingly and unsparingly all the time. Thought and energy had to be given to legal problems and ecclesiastical strife: and when that strife was a thing of the past and St. Alban's had come into its own, and his own influence from its altar and pulpit and confessional had penetrated wherever English is spoken, it was still back to St. Alban's parish and St. Alban's people that he could always turn as a solace from any trial. There he was sure of welcome and understanding; there from the first day to the last of his ministry were his own people, who loved and trusted 'the Father' above all living things.


But there was none of the cut-and-dried parochialism about Fr. Stanton which has crippled many a smaller man. If the persecution of St. Alban's had driven him, parochially speaking, into his shell, if he made up his mind from 1875 or thereabouts that St. Alban's was his sphere, that he was not really wanted elsewhere in the Church of England, and that he would confine himself to his job and get on with it there, his real influence could never be lessened by such an accident. For his fame as a preacher was already established; and his large-hearted sympathy, his intense love for his fellow-men, brought him a host of personal contacts which would never have come the way of a smaller or more conventional personality. His natural characteristics made him defiant of conventionalism; his courage was the courage of the rebel. In politics he had always been a Liberal (with more than a dash of Radicalism) and an ardent Home Ruler. Catholicism was of the fibre of his being, and made him, as the true Catholic always must, revolt against everything unfair, sordid, unjust or even merely material. So just as he had no love for the austerity and 'meagreness' of the Book of Common Prayer, and was repelled and chilled by the Establishment, he instinctively took sides with the world's unfortunates: he was content to be himself an outcast in the cause of truth, but he loathed the injustice and lack of understanding which could make him such. Himself a rebel, he drew to him any within reach whom life, whether through their own fault or others', had treated badly. So men and women, boys and girls, of every walk in life, from the highest to the lowest, were sheep to be shepherded: from the best to the most degraded, none ever failed of his help and his sympathy. He was often reproached for his (apparently) indiscriminate charity with money and clothes. But he was a shrewd judge of character: he was simply always willing to help where help was needed, and that without bribery, and he believed implicitly in our Lord's precept, 'Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness.' His very transparency often made the help of real avail where a more suspicious man would not have succeeded. Often his service for the downtrodden and overworked took an organized form. Such an effort was St. Martin's League for postmen, in which he was helped for a period by Robert (afterwards Fr.) Dolling. For twenty-five years this League with its different meeting-places, its consistent and unfailing atmosphere of good-fellowship without 'angling,' of fun without coarseness, made life a different thing for hundreds of London postmen, especially for those who were young and unmarried. It would be difficult to say how many souls were led to faith in our Lord through this and similar efforts (such as the Brotherhood of Jesus of Nazareth, a guild confined to St. Alban's district, and giving workmen a new vision of fellowship and co-operation), and through the individual touch of its founder upon their lives. There was no preaching of religion: Stanton simply showed the Gospel in action among men, and it was borne in upon even the roughest that Christianity was the secret of the fellowship they saw and experienced. Stanton was also a keen supporter of the Guild of St. Matthew, Stewart Headlam's early attempt at a Christian Socialist organization, and (in a day when the stage was viewed with more distrust and suspicion by most of the clergy than it is today) he was the protagonist of the Church and Stage Guild. So, believing in a free field for the Faith, he was equally opposed to any religious 'privilege' by artificial means: he supported as a principle the removal of religious disabilities when the case of Bradlaugh was before the country, and he voted for the passing of the Affirmation Bill.

In his dealing with individuals, in his political actions, in his work and in his preaching, he stood always for the same consistent and unswerving aim: to present the primitive Gospel in word and action, certain that it could and must redeem the life of man through love untrammelled by thoughts of self and expediency. So, whether he were 'Mr' Stanton to the outside world, 'Father' Stanton to his own people, or 'Dad' to the thousands who knew him as comrade, friend and guide, the same power was ever at work, ever showing itself in the sphere to which God had called him. The light never even flickered, the patience and love never waned, the steadfast faith went on unfaltering. Small wonder that it was perhaps in the hidden places of the earth, to the thousands of under-dogs to whom he was just 'Dad,' that Arthur Stanton meant most. Whatever the world might yield of admiration, grudging or otherwise, or of misunderstanding, and therefore of suspicion; whatever the loyalty of his brother priests and workers, the record of his life is graven most deeply in the lives of those whom the world does not count, or counts only to despise.


To the world at large, however, Fr. Stanton was best known and exerted his widest influence as a preacher. His first sermon was preached in the Greville Street basement at the end of 1862. He himself forgot the subject, but the text was from the passage at which the aged Bishop Fisher opened his New Testament on the way to execution: 'And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent' (John xvii. 3). It might have served as the text of his whole life and preaching. On that first occasion he carried with him an unused MS. for the rest of his life he preached extempore. That did not mean that he preached without preparation: everything that he said was most carefully weighed and balanced beforehand, material assiduously accumulated, illustrations and verses noted for future use. But his greatest preparation, as it must always be with the truly great preacher, was the remote and indirect: his prayers and meditations, his experience of men, and above all his constant study of the Bible. The sacred Scriptures were to him an inexhaustible storehouse of light and learning: no one who ever heard Stanton read or expound a passage from the Bible could forget it. It was partly the reverence, the love and the faith of the man himself, partly the freshness and vividness with which he presented his theme, that made it a memorable experience for the listener. Passages familiar and perhaps disregarded from their very familiarity took on a new meaning and a new personal application, lived afresh before the mind, as Stanton unfolded their message with a simplicity and a direct eloquence which could not fail of their effect. If greatness in a speaker or preacher be judged by the catholicity of his appeal, Arthur Henry Stanton was indeed a great preacher. Yet for his whole ministry of half a century he seldom preached away from St. Alban's, Holborn: nearly every Sunday at Mass, and every Monday evening in Advent, Lent and August at a mission service which he conducted alone, he occupied the pulpit at St. Alban's. To the end of his ministry the church was thronged for the mission services long before the hour of service: people (especially men) sat on extra chairs, up the altar steps, even on the organ stool. The Sunday morning sermons were 'teaching' discourses, or dealt with burning questions of the day, and on the latter nobody could be more fearlessly outspoken than Stanton, whether the topic were of general import or merely of parochial interest. But on the Monday evenings the service consisted of merely a few prayers, some mission hymns (and possibly a metrical litany), a reading and exposition of a passage from Scripture, and than a direct Evangelical 'mission' appeal. Some idea of the universality of this appeal may be gained from the fact that people of all religions, and of none, came to hear them, and did not go away empty. In one week Fr. Stanton received two letters--one from a militant Protestant who told him he ought to go over to Rome, another from a sober Anglican who complained that the service might have taken place in a Methodist chapel! Fr. Stanton characteristically read both letters from the pulpit, and considered that his ministry was successful. Nonconformists found him a preacher of Evangelical Christianity, full of the appeal of a personal Christ: Catholics found through his preaching the direct appeal of the same Lord through the Church, the Sacraments and the Saints. And those who had no religious background heard a call which could redeem and save if only men would follow. Two of the most prized 'relics' of these mission services were a bottle of whisky and a burglar's complete 'kit' of tools: both were left in a pew.

Early in his ministry, Father Stanton had been asked to preach a mission to soldiers; the Chaplain-General inhibited him for his teaching. He felt it keenly, and though he took another mission at St. Columba's, Haggerston, in 1869, the treatment of St. Alban's by authority thenceforward kept him at home. 'Never from that moment (i.e. 1875) have I preached a mission or taken a retreat,' he said at the meeting held in Holborn Town Hall in 1907.

If, however, he could not or would not go out to them, they could go to him; and go they did, not only from all over London, but from all over England and beyond the seas. Large numbers of Americans and Colonials from all the Dominions were to be found in the congregations at St. Alban's, and his influence as a preacher waxed with the passing of the years, humble as he was, and devoid of any tendency to advertisement. The present writer well remembers the efforts made to get him to preach one of the Sunday evening sermons to undergraduates at Oxford during the early years of this century. He steadily refused: 'Nobody wants to listen to a worn-out old curate,' was his contention. Ultimately, he consented to talk informally to a small party of undergraduates, stipulating that it must be in no place larger than a college study. When the time arrived he was wedged behind a table in a corner: on every available article of furniture, on every inch of floor, down the stairs beyond the open door, in the quadrangle beneath the open windows, sat or stood a crowd of 'Varsity men, undergraduates and fellows, young, middle-aged, and old. His 'talk' was a message for University life on the text i Peter i. 20: 'Fore-ordained from the foundation of the world.' Nobody could miss the fire, the appeal, the passionate faith and the love of the speaker: and this was Oxford, blasé from many appeals, and the speaker a London curate nearly seventy years old. The tribute was complete when, the talk ended, there was a cry, 'Tell us some stories, Father!' Whereupon the speaker sat him on the table, and recounted incident after incident of life at St. Alban's: helpless with laughter one moment, his audience would be left with a catch in their breath and a suspicious lump in the throat the next, as grave succeeded gay in Stanton's recital, and pathos followed naturally upon humour. It was a picture of the man as he was, and may give the reader some idea of his appeal and his power.

Many stories are told of him, too many to be recounted here: whether serious or merry, they bear the stamp of his inimitable personality, of his unfailing humour, of his humanity and goodness. Few of his sermons have been published, and indeed his printed sermons lack the fire and force of his delivery. Good as they are, it was the man that mattered: the preacher's greatest sermon, his most telling argument, was himself, little as he would have been prepared to admit it. But while the English language is spoken, while any record remains of those who have proclaimed the love of God as man's supreme hope, Arthur Stanton's name must hold an honoured place on that record.


For years towards the end of his life Fr. Stanton was wont to speak of his advancing age and to talk of 'slowing down into the terminus.' But he continued as busy as ever. St. Alban's was proud of him, but he could not have lived without St. Alban's. In 1907 there was a movement to give public expression to the honour and gratitude thousands owed him: and at a meeting in Holborn Town Hall he was presented with a chalice and paten, and pictures of St. Paul's Cathedral, where he was ordained, and of St. Alban's, where he had ministered. His own speech on that occasion was entirely in keeping with the occasion and the man himself: humorous and serious by turns, the revelation of utter goodness, humanity and unselfish humility. No ecclesiastical authority lent countenance to the meeting: quite recently Fr. Stanton had been asked by his Bishop to withdraw his name from the preface to Catholic Prayers. But though authority might still doubt, the packed audience did not, and the presentation of the gifts had been followed by that of an address of love and loyalty signed by 3,600 men. No earthly honour had come his way, but God, of whose love he was so certain, had given him something better--the love of his fellow-men.

Both surrounded him as the weariness of life began at last to take toll of his physical powers. On Sunday, November 24, 1912, he was out of health--a thing to him hitherto unknown. He said Mass at 8 o'clock, and preached (just one of his ordinary sermons) at the High Mass at 11: both, as it proved, were for the last time, the last acts of his ministry of half a century. For a time he was nursed in the Clergy House, but in January, 1913, was moved to Upfield Lodge, Stroud, his old home, now occupied by his sister. While he rested there he was offered a prebendal stall in St. Paul's Cathedral by the present Bishop of London: the offer was declined (on the score of age and unsuitability) as gracefully as it was made; and, indeed, it came too late. On the Thursday after Easter, Fr. E. F. Russell, who was visiting him, gave him his Easter Communion, and he seemed greatly better; but late that night he changed for the worse, and the call came to him early the next morning. It was Friday, March 28, 1913, and he was in his seventy-fourth year. 'If he wills it, I am willing,' were his last recorded words, just before the end.

His body was brought back to St. Alban's, and laid to rest after dirge and requiem in St. Alban's own burial ground at Woking. London has never witnessed anything just like Fr. Stanton's funeral: from the church to the station in Westminster Bridge Road the streets were lined with reverent and attentive spectators, and who can tell how many thousands among them had individual reasons to bless his name and pray for his soul? None of the great ones of the earth were there: his four colleagues at St. Alban's (Frs. Suckling, Russell, Hogg and Pearkes) walked on either side of the bier, a hundred other priests followed in the procession, 800 mourners went on with the train to Brookwood. But even these were only a small proportion of the souls all over the world who mourned their loss of Father, friend, guide--or just 'Dad.'

It was his fundamental characteristic that he loved our Lord: that loving him he found him everywhere--in Church and Sacrament, in Blessed Mary, in the souls of all men, even the least worthy. And loving him, finding him, knowing him, every power and faculty he possessed was concentrated on making him known to others, and bringing them to him. A great man, a great Catholic Christian, a great preacher, a great friend: but, above all, a great lover of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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