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George William Erskine Russell

London: The Catholic Literature Association, 1933.

GEORGE William Erskine Russell was born in 1853, and was the son of Lord Charles Russell, and the scion of a family which had given a Prime Minister to England in the person of Lord John Russell. He was justly proud of his connection with this illustrious family. It has been said that 'there never was a stupid Russell,' and he was no exception to this admirable rule. He was educated at Harrow School and at University College, Oxford, being elected a scholar of the latter. Like so many others among the Anglo-Catholic leaders, he began by being an Evangelical. His deeply reflective nature, balanced by a strong sense of the practical, brought him to the Catholic position, which he held with very strong conviction.

There is, as yet, no formal Life of Russell, though it is understood that one is in preparation, but Russell himself has provided much material for such a Life in his Collections and Recollections, and also in a series of articles from his pen which appeared in the Commonwealth in the years 1910-11 entitled Retrospects. We propose to draw largely upon this latter, and so to allow him to tell his own story in his own vivid way. He describes the parish priest of the church he attended as a boy as 'the lowest Churchman who ever lived' and he writes: 'Before the passion for "restoration" had set in, and Sir Gilbert Scott had transmogrified the parish churches of England, the Family Pew was indeed the ark and sanctuary of the territorial system, a very comfortable ark too. It had a private entrance, a round table, a good assortment of arm-chairs, a fireplace, and a wood-basket. And I well remember a wash-leather glove of unusual size which was kept for the greater convenience of making up the fire during divine service. "You may restore the church as much as you like," said the lay-rector of our parish to an innovating incumbent, "but I must insist on my Family Pew not being touched. If I had to sit in an open seat, I should never get a wink of sleep again."' We seem to have improved a little on these arrangements for worship!

At Harrow, Russell was under the famous Dr. Butler. Of the arrangements in the School Chapel, he writes: 'The morning and evening services in the Chapel were what is called "bright and cheerful," in other words, extremely noisy, and not very harmonious or reverent. We had two sermons every Sunday. The Head-master preached in the evening; the Assistant-masters in the morning. Occasionally we had a stranger of repute.' Among such, he mentions Dean Stanley, Thring of Uppingham, and Dr. Liddon. When Dr. Welldon, who has just resigned the Deanery of Durham, became Head-master, he very wisely reduced the Sunday sermons from two to one. At the same time he made the following remark on the effect of the school sermons: 'When I came to Harrow, I was greatly struck by the feeling of the boys for the weekly sermon; they looked for it as an element in their lives, they attended to it, and passed judgment on it.' When Dr. Alington, the recent Head-master of Eton, who is now Dr. Welldon's successor at Durham, became Head-master of Shrewsbury School, he followed Dr. Welldon's example with regard to sermons, and frequently asked in outside preachers of repute. His experience as to the value of really good sermons in a School Chapel was evidently the same as Dr. Welldon's, and we hold that he was right. Dr. Butler's preaching had a great influence over Russell, and implanted in him a desire for Social Service which he never lost. 'In Dr. Butler's sermons,' he says, 'our thoughts were directed to such subjects as the Housing of the Working Classes, Popular Education, and the contrast between the lot of the rich with the lot of the poor. 'May God never allow us to grow proud, or to grow indolent, or to be deaf to the cry of human suffering.' 'Pray that God may count you worthy to be foremost in the truly holy and heroic work of bringing purity to the homes of the labouring classes, and so hastening the coming of the day when the longing of our common Lord shall be accomplished.' 'Forget not the complaint, and the yet more fatal silence, of the poor, and pray that the ennobling of your own life, and the gratification of your own happiness, may be linked hereafter with some public Christian labour.' Such was the seed which was sown by the good Doctor, and, in Russell's case, it fell on very fruitful ground.

It will be of interest to give Russell's account of Dr. Liddon as preacher on Founder's Day. 'The Day of Days in Harrow Chapel was Founder's Day, October 10, 1868, when the preacher at the Commemoration Service was Liddon, who had just then become famous by the Bampton Lectures of 1866. The scene and the sermon can never be forgotten. Prayers and hymns and thanksgivings for founder and benefactors had been duly performed, and we had listened with becoming solemnity to that droll chapter about 'such as found out musical tunes and recited verses in writing.' When the preacher entered the pulpit, his appearance instantly attracted attention. We had heard vaguely of him as "the Great Oxford Swell," but now that we saw him we felt a livelier interest. "He looks like a monk," one boy whispers to his neighbour; and, indeed, it is a better description than the speaker knows. The Oxford M.A. gown, worn over a cassock, is the Benedictine habit modified by time and place; the spare, thin figure suggests asceticism; the beautifully chiselled, sharply-pointed features, the close-shaved face, the tawny skin, the jet-black hair, remind us vaguely of something by Velasquez or Murillo, or of Ary Scheffer's picture of St. Augustine. And the interest aroused by sight is intensified by sound. The vibrant voice strikes like an electric shock. The exquisite, almost over-refined, articulation seems the very note of culture. The restrained passion which thrills through the disciplined utterance warns even the most heedless that something quite unlike the ordinary stuff of school sermons is coming. "Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them." The speaker speaks of the blessedness and glory of boyhood; the splendid inheritance of a Public School built on Christian lines; the unequalled opportunities of learning while the faculties are still fresh and the mind is still receptive; the worthlessness of all merely secular attainment, however desirable, however necessary, when weighed in the balance against "the one thing needful." The congregation are still boys, but soon they will be men. Dark days will come, as Ecclesiastes warned--dark in various ways and sense, darkest when, at the University or elsewhere, we first are bidden to cast faith aside and to believe nothing but what can be demonstrated by "an appeal, in the last resort, to the organs of sense." Now is the time, and this is the place, so to "remember our Creator" that, come what may, we shall never be able to forget him, or to doubt his love, or to question his revelation. The preacher leans far out from the pulpit, spreading himself, as it were, over the congregation in an act of benediction. "From this place may Christ ever be preached, in the fullness of his creative, redemptive and sacramental work. Here may you learn to remember him in the days of your youth, and, in the last and most awful day of all, may he remember you." Five minutes afterwards we are in the open air. Boys stare and gasp; masters hurry past, excited and loquacious. Notes are compared and watches consulted. Liddon has preached for an hour, and the school must go without its dinner.'

One has here a great description of one of the greatest preachers in the Movement by one of its greatest journalists. It makes the scene live again, and it reveals Russell's great powers of sympathy and insight. The Retrospects from which it is taken were the fruit of a diary faithfully and fully kept from the age of thirteen. It is sometimes worth while keeping a diary!

Russell's physique was never robust, and, like Dr. Neale, he did not shine in games. But he was a great reader. He was also given, in his early years, to overworking.


We now pass on to his time at Oxford. In the middle of it he had a breakdown in health which affected him all his life, but never prevented him from living a very full life in spite of it. He formed many lasting friendships at Oxford, not only among his contemporaries, but also among his seniors. The Oxford of his day was full of celebrities. Liddell of Greek Dictionary fame was Dean of Christ Church, Jowett was Master of Balliol, Ruskin was Slade Professor, Pusey, Liddon, Acland, and Burgon were in residence, as also was King, afterwards Bishop of Lincoln, and Charles Gore was an undergraduate. 'The Vice-Chancellor who matriculated me,' he says, 'was the majestic Liddell, who, with his six feet of stately height draped in scarlet, his "argent aureole " of white hair, and his three silver maces borne before him, always helped me to understand what Sydney Smith meant when he said, of some nonsensical proposition, that no power on earth, save and except the Dean of Christ Church, should induce him to believe it.' He tells us that 'the accession of Dr. King to the Pastoral Professorship brought a new element of social delight into the ecclesiastical world of Oxford, and that was just what was wanted. We revered our leaders, but saw little of them. Dr. Pusey was buried in Christ Church; and, though there were some who fraudulently professed to be students of Hebrew in order that they might see him (and sketch him) at his lectures, most of us only heard him in the pulpit of St. Mary's. It was rather fun to take ritualistic ladies, who had fashioned mental pictures of the great Tractarian, to Evensong in Christ Church, and to watch their dismay as that very unascetic figure, with tumbled surplice and hood awry, toddled to his stall. "Dear me! Is that Dr. Pusey? Somehow I had fancied quite a different looking man." Liddon was now a Canon of St. Paul's, and his home was at Amen Court; so, when residing at Oxford, he lived a sort of hermit-life in his rooms at Christ Church, and did not hold much communication with the undergraduates. I have lively recollections of eating a kind of plum duff on Fridays at the Mission House of Cowley while one of the Fathers read passages from Tertullian on the remarriage of widows; but this, though edifying, was scarcely social. But the arrival of "Canon King" with the admirable mother who kept house for him was like a sunrise. All those notions of austerity and stiffness and gloom which had somehow clung about Tractarianism were dispelled at once by his fun and sympathy and social tact. Under his roof undergraduates always felt happy and at home, and, in the "Little Bethel," as he called it, a sort of disused greenhouse in his garden, he gathered week by week a band of undergraduates--hearers to whom religion spoke through his lips with her most searching yet most persuasive accent.'

Russell also tells a story about a very different divine, the Master of Balliol. 'My intercourse with Jowett was not intimate, but I once dined with him on an occasion which made an equally deep impression on two of the guests--Lord Milner and myself. When the ladies had left the dining-room, an eminent diplomatist began an extremely full-flavoured conversation which would have been unpleasant anywhere, and, in the presence of the diplomatist's son, a lad of sixteen, was disgusting. For a few minutes the Master endured it, though with visible annoyance; and then, suddenly addressing the offender at the other end of the table, said, in a bird-like chirp, "Sir----," "Yes, Master," "Shall we continue this conversation in the drawing-room? " 'Russell adds: 'No rebuke was ever more neatly administered.' To those who can remember Jowett personally, 'bird-like chirp' will appear absolutely le mot juste! Lord Milner became one of Russell's close friends.

On Russell's first Sunday in Oxford, 'My friend, Charles Gore, took me to the Choral Eucharist at Cowley St. John, and afterwards to luncheon with the Fathers. So began my acquaintance with a Society of which I have always been a grateful admirer.' On his second Sunday Liddon preached a famous University Sermon on the text: 'He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life; and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.' The preacher stated that the purpose of St. John's Gospel is condensed into this sentence. 'If to believe him is life, to have known and yet to reject him is death. There is no middle term or state between the two. ... In fact, the stern, yet truthful and merciful, claim makes all the difference between a faith and a theory.' The real heart of the sermon was then disclosed. It had reference to a current controversy about the Athanasian Creed. The great sermon has long been given to the world in permanent form. 'But,' says Russell, 'the concluding words, extolling "the high and rare grace of an intrepid loyalty to known truth" spoke with a force of personal appeal which demands commemoration: "To be forced back upon the central realities of the faith which we profess; to learn, better than ever before, what are the convictions which we dare not surrender at any cost; to renew the freshness of an early faith, which affirms within us, clearly and irresistibly, that the one thing worth living for, if need were, worth dying for, is the unmutilated faith of Jesus Christ our Lord--these may be results of inevitable differences, and, if they are, are blessings indeed.'

On the same day Russell was introduced to St. Barnabas' church, 'an unforgettable experience. ' He found the whole service 'the most inspiring and uplifting experience' in which he had ever joined. 'My impressions of it are as clear as yesterday's--the unadorned simplicity of the fabric, emphasizing by contrast the blaze of light and colour round the altar; the floating cloud of incense, the expressive and unfussy ceremonial; the straightforward preaching; and, most impressive of all, the large congregation of men, old and young, rich and poor, undergraduates and artizans, all singing Evangelical hymns with one heart and one voice. It was, if ever there were on earth, congregational worship; and I for one have never seen its like. The people's pride in the church was very characteristic; they habitually spoke of it as "our Barnabas." The clergy and the worshippers were a family, and the church was a home.' St. Barnabas' is still like that; and who could estimate the tremendous asset this particular church has been and is to the Catholic Revival! The services at this church have, now literally for generations, been the first introduction to Catholic worship to hundreds of undergraduates, who afterwards, whether in the Ministry or as laymen, have done and are doing good work for the Church.

The lessons learnt at Harrow from Dr. Butler regarding Social Service were not forgotten by Russell at Oxford. 'The influence of school co-operated with the influences of home to give me, at the most impressionable age, a lively interest in Social Service; and that interest found a practical outlet at Oxford. When young men first attempt good works, they always begin with teaching; and a Sunday School at Cowley and a Night School at St. Frideswide's were the scenes of my (very unsuccessful) attempts in this direction. Through my devotion to St. Barnabas' I became acquainted with the homes and lives of the poor in the squalid district of "Jericho," and the experience thus acquired was a valuable complement to the knowledge of the agricultural poor which I had gained at home.'

Though not attracted to games, Russell, like Dr. Neale, was a great rider. He had been accustomed to horses all his life, and he was genuinely astonished at finding fellow undergraduates regard riding a horse as a difficult thing to do. Up to the time of his illness, the result of an attack of rheumatic fever wrongly diagnosed, and therefore wrongly treated, he rode regularly while he was up at Oxford.

In his second term, Russell founded an 'Oxford University Church Society' designed to unite undergraduates of all shades of churchmanship for common worship and interchange of views. It was based on the model of a similar society at Cambridge, and was blessed by the adherence of Scott Holland; Illingworth, Ottley, Lacey, and others of a different ecclesiastical outlook. It was short-lived. Catholic members felt they could not continue to combine with those who were favourable to their persecution under the P.W.R. Act. It was revived, after many years, by the present Archbishop of Canterbury, when Vicar of St. Mary's, Oxford.


Russell said good-bye to Oxford in 1876. He had gravely overtaxed his strength, and was suffering from the results of the illness we have mentioned. His doctor, accordingly, ordered him a complete rest for two or three years. He obeyed the advice, and settled at his home at Woburn Park. Finding that he could carry on his cure as well in London as there, he varied life by an annual visit to London of three or four months. Here he 'knew everybody,' and formed a friendship with Mr. Gladstone--another great ally of the Movement. He describes him at a dinner-party 'with his white tie working round towards the back of his neck, and a rose in his button-hole, looking like a rather unwilling captive in the hands of Mrs. Gladstone, who moved through the social crush with that queen-like dignity of bearing which distinguished her ever since the days when she and her sister, Lady Lyttelton, were "the beautiful Miss Glynnes."

Russell played a full part in Society. He rather disliked the theatre and the opera, and says of himself at this period: 'Personally, I have always been fonder of real life than of its dramatic counterfeit; and the form of Public Entertainment which really attracted me was that provided by the Law Courts. To follow the intricacies of a really interesting trial; to observe the demeanour and aspect of the witnesses; to listen to the impassioned flummery of the leading counsel; to note its effect on the Twelve Men in the Box; and then to see the Chinese Puzzle of conflicting evidence arranged in its damning exactness by a skilful judge is to me an intellectual enjoyment which can hardly be equaled, 'I have never stayed in court,' he goes on, ' after the jury had retired in a capital case, for I hold it impious to stare at the mortal agony of a fellow-creature.'

This penchant for attending trials might suggest that Russell had a- leaning towards a legal career. But, as he himself tells us, only two professions ever attracted him in the slightest degree--Holy Orders and Parliament. Debarred by his health from choosing the former, he fell back upon the latter. He was returned as member for Aylesbury in 1880 as an enthusiastic supporter of Mr. Gladstone. He very quickly made his mark in Parliament, and was appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Local Government Board in 1882. He lost his seat in 1885, and did not return to Parliament until 1892, when North Bedfordshire elected him as its representative. He was appointed Under-Secretary for India, and, two years later, Under-Secretary for the Home Department. He abandoned political life in 1895 as a result of a hasty decision, which he afterwards regretted. However, he made no attempt to return to the House, but, instead, gave excellent service to the London County Council at a time when men of strong conviction and marked character were specially valuable.


In the matter of ecclesiastical politics, Russell was a strong Liberationist. 'He knew too much,' a friend of his wrote in the Church Times after his death, 'of the making and characters of the State bishops to regard the Establishment as anything but evil. To all schemes for reforming the Establishment he was utterly opposed.' His real passion for the Faith, and his strong desire that the Church should be left to proclaim it unhampered by outside influences, helped strongly towards his attitude to Disestablishment. In this attitude he has proved a pioneer, aided by his strong sense of justice and equity. In this he is the precursor of his life-long friend, Bishop Gore, and of the present Bishop of Durham. But vested interests are hard to move, and time-worn prejudices easily get themselves erected into creeds. Add the vis inertia which dislikes all changes and you have three formidable bulwarks of a system, or lack of it, which, one would have thought, no reasonable person, not to say no convinced Catholic, could possibly defend.

Russell found the next main outlet for his energies in literature, for which, as will be apparent from the long extracts we have given from his pen, he had a real and strong bent. Even in Harrow days he had tried his hand at it. 'I had dabbled in composition,' he says, 'ever since I was ten, and had published both prose and verse before I entered Harrow School.' He early became a contributor to the Harrovian, and, in his last year at school, its editor. He turned his attention to journalism, which was to be his life-long pursuit. In 1887 he became a contributor to the Manchester Guardian, and continued this connection for a quarter of a century. He calls it 'the best newspaper in Great Britain.' In 1890 he published his first book, a Life of his friend, Mr. Gladstone. This was in a series of The Queen's Prime Ministers, published by Sampson Low. The first number of the series, a Life of Lord Beaconsfield, was contributed by Froude, the historian. Before acceding to the proposal, Russell thought he had better consult Gladstone himself, asking whether he had any objection, and, if not, whether he would give any help. He received the eminently characteristic reply: 'When someone proposed to write a book about Harry Phillpotts, Bishop of Exeter, the Bishop procured an Injunction in Chancery to stop him. I shall not seek an injunction against you, but that is all the help I can give you.' A successful Life of Gladstone was the result. Later on Russell was to give to the world equally successful Lives of Bishop King of Lincoln and of Father Stanton of St. Alban's, Holborn. His long and intimate friendship with them both helped in these tasks. The true Evangelical spirit both of the saintly Bishop and of the eminent Priest attracted him and informed his pen. But, if he gave to literature, he also took from it. 'I am thinking now,' he remarks in his chapter on 'Literature' in his Retrospects, 'not of what I have done but of what I have received; and my debt to literature is great indeed. I do not know the sensation of dulness, but, like most human beings, I know the sensation of sorrow; and with a grateful heart I record the fact that the darkest hours of my life have been made endurable by the companionship of books.'

Russell, though he never advanced much beyond the position of the Caroline Divines, such as Jeremy Taylor and Bishop Ken, very properly disliked the expression 'High Churchman.' He never had any sympathy with a movement towards Rome, though he formed a great and mutually understanding friendship with Cardinal Manning. All his life his Evangelical upbringing left him with a prejudice against the papacy. To work for a reunited Christendom did not appeal to his eminently practical mind as a feasible policy, and in this he differed materially from Lord Halifax, and disliked his efforts in this direction. It is for the reader to judge who showed the stronger faith. Russell's Evangelicalism never rose to the realization of the Church as a conscious unity; in this respect it constituted a serious handicap.

With Modernism, Liberal though he was in politics, Russell had not the smallest sympathy. Indeed, it was abhorrent to him. He regarded it not only as against the Faith--as, of course, it is--but also as 'cranky.' And towards cranks, in which he included teetotallers, he was merciless. In expression of his views he was frank, clear, and trenchant, but never discourteous. Critical even of his great chief, Gladstone, his pen often became caustic when writing of lesser men. He had little patience with dulness or mediocrity. Yet his humour and tolerance preserved him from malice.

He carried on his practical activities for the Church for many years as a lay-reader in the diocese of Southwark, like Mr. H. W. Hill, the well-known secretary of E.C.U. He was very much in the centre of things as regards ecclesiastical patronage. He liked to see the right man get the right post, and he was specially kind in this matter to the junior clergy, who regarded him as a powerful and sympathetic friend. Nor did his purview confine itself to the English Church. Like his great leader, Mr. Gladstone, he was profoundly moved by the sufferings and oppressions of Eastern Christians, and worked hard for their liberation. He lived to see some fruits of these efforts. He also fought hard and valiantly for the sanctity of the marriage bond, and vigorously resisted all movements in favour of divorce.

The adherence of so 'central' a layman, socially speaking, as George Russell, was a real asset to the Catholic cause. An aristocrat, a Liberal, a real friend of the poor, a former Member of Parliament, a personal friend of powerful people, such as Gladstone and Manning, a prominent member of the London County Council, a lay reader, a journalist, he touched life at many points. He died on March 17, 1919, at his home in Wilton Street. The Church Times, in its obituary notice, remarks: 'Few men can have had so wide a circle of friends and acquaintances. But far more than ever knew him or saw him will regret his loss, readers of his many books the world over, Churchmen who knew him for the most large-hearted and devoted of laymen.'

'Sit anima mea cum sanctis,' he once remarked of his Evangelical relatives. The Evangelicalism from which he all but fully emerged was at once an asset and a handicap, as we have seen. But he possessed, with whatever limitations he was not entirely successful in surmounting, the great Evangelical virtues, the high personal piety, the strong sense of right and justice. And so he is worthy to find his due place among the heroes of the Catholic Revival. And for all the devoted and important work he did for the furtherance of the Catholic Faith may Christ, Our Lord, the Author of that Faith, abundantly reward him!

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