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William Ewart Gladstone

London: The Catholic Literature Association, 1933.


THE story of Mr. Gladstone's life as a statesman is part of the history of his country. It has, moreover, been told in full and with great ability by one of the greatest of his political disciples, the late Lord Morley. It is our purpose here to give some impression of Gladstone the Churchman, the greatest lay Churchman, indeed, of his own, perhaps of any, age. There are not wanting those who believe him to have been one of the very greatest of English statesmen: and that this greatness was connected as much with his uncompromising religious principles as with his immense natural abilities. It may be noted in passing that Morley's Life, written though it is from the point of view of history and politics, succeeds in being historical. Without sharing the religious convictions of his subject, its author never fails to record Gladstone's beliefs and the means he took to express them: he has realized that his leader was at least as much a Christian and a Churchman as he was a politician. We should venture to put his religion first: circumstances dictated that politics should be his sphere, and to them he brought all the powers of his remarkable mind, his unflinching courage, and his amazing energy. But even his political influence could only be wielded in accordance with his religious beliefs: and so his work became what it should be in the case of every Christian, the means whereby he did his share in the service of God and man. It was this very fact which caused him so often to be misunderstood and misjudged: his critics so rarely saw things either from Gladstone's point of view or as far-sightedly as he did, and so often judged by political expediency where he acted on principle. They could not grasp, too, the fact that a change of outlook, and the courage to admit it, may often be a mark at once of strength and of consistency. We can claim at least that it is fair to judge Mr. Gladstone's public work by his religious convictions, and that by such a test, though we may not always agree with his conclusions, he is seen to have done even more for the Church of which he was so distinguished a son than he did for the country which gave him birth.


William Ewart Gladstone was the fourth son of Sir John Gladstone, a God-fearing man of an old-fashioned type, and of his fervently Evangelical wife, Anne Robertson: he was born on December 29, 1809. At the age of ten his mother wrote of him that she believed him to have been 'truly converted to God.' When eleven years of age he went to Eton, and seventy years later Canon T. T. Carter of Clewer recalled him as a 'fine and noble boy.' In 1828 he went up to Christ Church, Oxford, and there was diligent, sober and abstemious. Cardinal Manning remembered him going to church 'with his Bible and Prayer book tucked under his arm.' Archbishop Temple, who went up to Oxford ten years later, declared that undergraduates drank less in the 'forties because of Gladstone's courageous abstinence in the 'thirties. At Christmas, 1831, he took first-class honours both in Classics and Mathematics, having previously taken a first in classical and mathematical moderations: this record of four firsts has been achieved by very few Oxford men, but John Keble had attained it twenty-one years earlier. Gladstone keenly desired to take Orders: Cardinal Manning in his old age said of him: ' He was nearer to being a clergyman than I was. He was as fit for it as I was unfit.' But his father overruled this desire, and compelled him to enter Parliament. In 1832 he was elected for the Duke of Newcastle's borough of Newark.

He himself has only left on record of his early years that his was ' not a vicious childhood,' but that he certainly showed no signs of precocious piety. He seems to have been left to himself in religious matters, for his father was too busy, his mother too ill, to teach him, though in his home life there was always the practice, even if little of the precept, of religion. Certainly he was a devout Evangelical all through his time at Oxford, attending St. Ebbe's Church, visiting a Baptist Chapel once, admiring Keble, but doubting his opinions, and disapproving of a sermon of Newman's. But he had already taken one step in advance of the current Evangelical opinion of his day: he had been converted to a belief in Baptismal Regeneration by reading the works of Hooker; and soon after taking his degree, a visit to St. Peter's, Rome, brought home to him the 'melancholy effects of schism.' Curiously enough, however, it was a study of the 'Occasional Offices' in the Prayer Book which first gave him a vision of the Church as a Divine Society, with sacramental powers: this was only a month before he entered Parliament. Had he been free to choose his avocation, he might have been one of England's greatest Archbishops, instead of one of her greatest statesmen. In the Middle Ages he would have been both!

Leaving Oxford before the Oxford Movement began, he was immersed in politics from 1833 to 1838; but during that period he became fast friends with James Robert Hope, who gave it as his opinion that 'the Oxford writers were right,' and he was further influenced in the Tractarian direction by a growing intimacy with Henry Edward (afterwards Cardinal) Manning. In the winter of 1838 he became engaged to Catherine, sister of Sir Stephen Glynne; the marriage was as nearly ideal as a marriage can be, and no great man ever owed more, or was more devoted, to his wife. His first book, The State in its Relations with the Church, published in that same year, was the first proof of the edifice of Catholic doctrine and practice which was rising on the foundation of his Evangelical fervour. But he was dominated during these early years by a belief in a State conscience; he held that the State as such (i.e., a secular power) could decide upon and present moral and religious truth. This involved a belief in Establishment. By 1845 he had changed his opinion, and to that change he was consistently loyal to the end of his life. But the change was constantly misunderstood: and misunderstanding was always a hard fate for a man who desired as passionately to be understood as Gladstone did.

Still occupied by politics as he was, however, between 1838 and 1845, it will be readily seen that his relations with the Oxford Movement were rather by correspondence and hearsay than by actual contact; his assistance was given by alliance and co-operation rather than by the Movement's absorbing him. 'From 1841 to the beginning of 1845,' he has himself recorded, 'I continued a hard-working official man, but with a decided prominence of religious over secular interests.' In all essentials his belief and practice seem to have been those of an English Catholic by the year 1846. In that year he published Church Principles considered in their Results, and in this he maintains the visibility and office of the Church, the historical certainty of the Apostolic succession, and the nature and efficacy of the Sacraments. He also asserts the claims of the Anglican Church. Meanwhile, practice went along with doctrine: he and his wife were at one in all works of charity and benevolence; with James Hope he began a life-long support of rescue work, and he joined in guaranteeing the maintenance of the first religious Community of the Revival; sleep and food were rigidly limited; his almsgiving was profuse and systematic; he kept Fridays, reserved 'Sunday for sacred uses,' and was a weekly communicant.


The opinions and propaganda of the Oxford leaders were beginning to stir that opposition and unpopularity which were destined to reach such great proportions later. It can be imagined what an effect it had, both in public and private, to find that the teaching which was' everywhere spoken against ' was firmly held by a man already so prominent in public life as Mr. Gladstone; that it was, indeed, part of the very man himself. He was becoming, as he remained for long, a political oracle; and it was impossible to believe that the oracle became an imbecile or an impostor directly he touched religion. Between 1840 and 1844 various pamphlets from his pen had shown his progress from academic approval to personal support. It was an act of great courage on the part of a man of Cabinet rank to welcome the action of the Oxford proctors who refused to allow the condemnation of Tract XC.; and his return to Parliament for Oxford University in 1847 was a remarkable tribute to the honesty and high principle of the man who had voted for the recognition of the Irish Roman Seminary at Maynooth, and opposed the condemnation of W. G. Ward by the University. It was recognized, if not expressed, by thoughtful people that Gladstone was as aware of the shortcomings of the English Church as Newman had been, but that he had more patience in trying to remedy them and more faith that they were capable of remedy. This was shown by the controversy over the Gorham Judgment, which marks the end of the second stage of the Oxford Movement. In the first stage, much agitation had been caused by the question of the Roman Supremacy: the matter now in dispute was the supremacy of the Crown. The findings of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, neither condemning Mr. Gorham's teaching nor definitely upholding it, but leaving the teaching of Baptismal Regeneration an open question, were held by many to impugn an essential Catholic doctrine, and they made their submission to Rome. Among them were Henry Manning and James Hope: Gladstone remained when his friends went, because his belief in the essential Catholicity of the English Church was by this time unshakable, and he saw her glory as a thing yet to be realized, and not past and gone. The whole episode gave the ecclesiastical side of his mind a new intensity, and in particular he was moved to deal with the question of the Royal Supremacy in Remarks on the Royal Supremacy. For his information about ecclesiastical precedents in history under Justinian and Charlemagne he was dependent on Dr. R. W. (afterwards Dean) Church's article in the Christian Remembrancer for April, 1850. He concluded that the Church in England was still guardian of the Faith, and that her essential authority was not impugned by the accident of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which Committee, moreover, existed contrary to the Reformation Settlement. It may be noted here that nearly forty years later he wrote again, and very trenchantly, to the same effect in the Nineteenth Century Review of 1888 and 1889; those articles are a magnificent defence of the English Church against Roman attacks on the score of the Reformation. It may be wondered why he did not abandon politics for theology; but he had set his hand to the former, and would not abandon what he regarded as his appointed sphere, and he was, moreover, engaged about 1850 with the task of preserving the Hawarden estate, and the stewardship of property was to him a sacred trust, a matter of real principle.

But while Gladstone's dismissal of the Judicial Committee as an 'accident' which did not affect the main principles, created an immense effect in political and ecclesiastical circles, and in public opinion generally, he never attempted when in power even to effect a compromise, still less to assert the Church's rights. The reason lies most probably not in an inconsistency with which he was often charged at the time, but in a far-sightedness which others could not share. He saw the practical hopelessness of engaging in sectional battles in the existing state of Church and secular feeling; he was content, therefore, to assert principles strongly, and so to work for the gradual leavening of the whole of English opinion which in time would bring the desired changes as a matter of course. In his passion for religious freedom as a vital principle he was entirely consistent; and that was the reason for his opposition in 1850 to the Bill for penalizing Roman Catholics for the use of diocesan organization and titles in England. He was convinced that the State had ceased to exercise any religious function, and that religious organization must therefore be entirely free. It shows also his faith in the spiritual power of the English Church. He was by this time no believer in the principle of the Establishment of Religion, though he probably did not contemplate the possibility of Disestablishment in England in his own time.

Between 1854 and 1860 he was once more in the arena of religious controversy, engaged in a spirited defence of Archdeacon Denison. The latter was prosecuted for teaching the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Blessed Eucharist and condemned, and deprived of all his preferments in 1855; the sentence was, however, quashed by Sir John Dodson in the Court of Arches on technical grounds. Mr. Gladstone did all he could to help the Archdeacon; and in 1856 he wrote: 'My mind is quite made up, that if belief in the Eucharist as a Reality is proscribed by law in the Church of England, all I hold dear in life shall be given and devoted to oversetting and tearing in pieces such law, whatever consequences, of whatever kind, may follow.' No one, indeed, had a more complete and childlike faith in the Real Objective Presence under the sacramental veils. 'The Presence of the Lord upon the Christian altar,' that characteristic central belief of Catholic theology, was held and taught by Gladstone with all his heart and soul and mind and strength. To see him at Communion was an object-lesson in adoration; and his conviction on this point, coupled with his profound belief in the power in the Church of Absolution, often brought accusations of a Romeward tendency. This latter was an entire delusion. 'I am the strongest anti-papalist in the world,' he once said.

But though his advocacy aided Archdeacon Denison greatly, he was unable, despite his valiant endeavours, to save the saintly Bishop Forbes of Brechin from condemnation by his brother bishops for similar Eucharistic teaching; the Scottish bishops were 'too set on going wrong.' Mr. Gladstone's share in the Eucharistic controversy is all the more remarkable when we remember that during this time he was much occupied with vital events in politics, his early budgets, the Crimean War, and his break with Lord Palmerston and the Conservatives. So great a mind had he that he was able to deal, and deal adequately, with both political and religious questions. He was keen, also, at this period, about the revival of Convocation, and had great hopes of the formation of a House of Laity.

From 1855 to 1857 he was out of office and, ostensibly, content to be so. The Divorce Bill of 1857 brought him back. In theory, the State still held marriage to be indissoluble: in practice divorce had long been possible by the expensive and cumbrous method of a private Parliamentary Bill. Practically, the law said one thing and Parliament another; and the proposal now was to create legal facilities and grounds for divorce. In the Quarterly Review for July, 1857, Gladstone presented a convincing argument for the indissolubility of marriage from Scripture, history and practical policy. He knew it was a hopeless fight, but that made no difference to principle. He was charged with gross inconsistency in drawing a distinction between Church and State, and their respective laws: once again his opponents did not realize that he had outgrown his earlier belief in a Christian state, and had been large-minded enough to change his outlook. The fact stands out boldly as a result of the controversy that Mr. Gladstone believed as firmly in the sanctity of marriage and its indissolubility as he did in any doctrine of the Christian Church. Further, though perhaps he would not have used the phrase, he regarded the State that permitted re-marriage after divorce as apostate from the Christian standard.

From 1859 to 1866 he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, and it was about this time that Sir Thomas Acland rebuked him for devoting so much time to religious matters. He might have retorted that in his judgment (as was actually the case) the public welfare was as much affected by religious as by political questions. But what he actually replied was that he gave all the time and care that was physically possible to public affairs; and that the others were to him a complete relaxation. In fact, he gave each aspect of things part of his mind; and part of Mr. Gladstone's mind was equal to more than the entire mind of lesser men. Moreover, both were based, as we have seen, upon his private religious practice as distinct from his public arguments. It is recorded of him that during Parliamentary sessions, and especially during debates on questions near to his heart, he would slip away when his presence was not actually needed in the House and spend long periods in prayer in St. Peter's, Great Windmill Street.

Two more incidents of his public life must be recorded as bearing upon his work for the Church. The first was his promotion of the disestablishment of the Irish Church. It is easier for us to-day to see how right he was in principle than did Churchmen of his own day. He recognized two facts: that the Anglican Church in Ireland was not the Church of the people (John Stuart Mill described its establishment as 'an anomaly maintained at the sword's point and condemned by the whole human race') and that she would gain immeasurably in spiritual power if she were free. The main argument against Disestablishment was really the same as it is now, viz., the fear of impoverishment. But to Gladstone a 'High Churchman' was a defender of spiritual powers and privileges, not of temporal possessions or influence: to his opponents the converse was the main truth, though they did not see it. But while Gladstone held that ' it is sometimes necessary in politics to make surrender of what, if not surrendered, will be wrested from us,' this must not extend to things which 'touch the faith of Christians and the life of the Church.' We must not' surrender an article of the Creed in order to save the rest, or make the abolition of Episcopacy a subject of compromise.' On the other hand, ' the external possessions of the Church, its endowments and its privileges, were given it for the more effectual promotion of its work, and may be lessened or abandoned with a view to the same end.' This was written in 1865; its vital truth was never more apparent than it is at the present day, nor the warning it gives more urgently needed than by this generation! He had already written that the Church of England seemed 'much more likely to part with her faith than with her gold. It is the old question, Which is the greater, the gold or the altar which sanctifies the gold?' The right-ness of his principles, dictating his attitude towards both the English and Irish Churches, has been abundantly vindicated in subsequent events in both countries: by the growth of the latitudinarian spirit in England, ever more vigorously combated by the Catholic ideals which animated Gladstone, and by the re-invigoration of the Irish Church, together with the removal of a religious grievance.

The second great event of these years in Parliament was much less fortunate in its results. Mr. Gladstone was consistent in his approval (though he did not actually frame them) of the provisions of the Education Act of 1870, but he miscalculated altogether the results of the attempted compromise between blank secularism and dogmatic teaching which was secured by the provision of undenominational instruction. He hoped to leave the door open to all dogmatic teaching by abandoning the requirement of definite formularies; the actual result has been to make undenominational teaching the normal thing for 'official' England. The greatest of men make mistakes; Mr. Gladstone's motives and intentions were of the best, but his efforts achieved in education a result which he would have abhorred.


As the years went by, Mr. Gladstone's original rather narrow outlook broadened. In 1865 he was ousted from the Parliamentary representation of Oxford, and this was undoubtedly due to his growing Liberalism; he stood for spiritual rights of the Church and the University, the electors for temporal privilege. In 1864 he had come to know the prominent Nonconformist, Dr. Newman Hall, and through him, Dr. R. W. Dale of Birmingham, and others. Such contacts made no difference to his own convictions, but brought about a radical change in his attitude to those of other people.

The results of the Education Act of 1870 were largely responsible for the defeat of his Ministry in 1874. He wanted a respite, 'an interval between Parliament and the grave,' and this was largely because he felt increasingly that the world's real battle was being fought in the sphere of thought, and not of politics. The attacks on the Gospel meant more than worldly affairs, and he wanted to take his part against them. But the introduction of the Public Worship Regulation Bill saw him moving amendments to it in Parliament. These he afterwards withdrew; and he seems to have been altogether less fiery over this matter than he had been, for example, over divorce. The reasons were not far to seek; this was mainly a matter of ceremonial, and that was secondary to vital matters of faith; and further, he could see in 1874 what few others could see, and that was that the measure would defeat its own ends. Also, the followers of the Movement were now more numerous, better organized and more able to stand alone than they had been. There was, too, Mr. Gladstone's own personal insistence that he would not wear the label of any party in the Church. 'His interest in all the three great branches of Christianity' (to quote Lord Morley) 'was incessant, sincere and profound,' but he stood out as an English Churchman of the historic school, and to him no further' ticket' was needed. He was roused to great eloquence and activity by the Brad-laugh controversy; and his support of the principle of affirmation instead of an oath in public affairs was due to the same consistency as had always guided him. He realised that opposition to Bradlaugh and affirmation was not really based on religious belief: 'You know, Mr. Speaker, we all of us believe in a God of some sort or another' was a remark in Parliament which made him see more clearly than ever what the lip-service of the State to religion had become. So in the interests of true religion he fought for 'affirmation,' and thereby incurred even the charge of irreligion from his opponents! It was his most striking fight for liberty of conscience. 'I was brought up,' he said, 'to distrust and dislike liberty. I learned to believe in it.'

Enough has been written here in this yet all too brief survey of Mr. Gladstone's public work to show what enormous services he rendered to the Catholic Revival.

But the picture would not be complete without a further glimpse of that private life which in his later days was as familiar to Englishmen as his public ministry. His life at Hawarden, in the beautiful home which will always be associated with him, was that of an English country squire at its very best. Here there are more real and intimate memorials of the man himself than any place or thing connected with his public work. Here he would walk Sunday by Sunday, whenever he was in residence, to his Communion at the early Mass in the parish church, and later in the day would read the lessons. Close to the Church is St. Deiniol's Library, a fine building containing a first-class library for the use of the clergy, with a resident Warden and Sub-Warden, and provision for resident visitors. It is Mr. Gladstone's own gift to the Church. His own theology was most conservative (as witness his book The Impregnable Rock of Holy Scripture), and in matters strictly theological he wrote and spoke, as he always allowed, as an amateur. But he valued theological learning as he valued all learning, and this provision for theological research by clergy and laity shows it conclusively. It is additionally proved by his care in his Church appointments, and the scholarly men who owed their advancement to him; here also he showed his Catholic convictions, as, for example, in the appointment of Dean Church and Canon Liddon to St. Paul's Cathedral.


His all too rare leisure produced many pamphlets and articles during his latter years; notable among them was his attack on the book Robert Elsmere with its attempt to uphold Christian morality without any dogmatic basis. Later events have shown once more how entirely justified his attitude was. In 1897 he fell ill; his sight and hearing were already failing. A shadow fell over England with the knowledge in 1898 that the 'grand old man' had been declared incurable; he was then eighty-nine years of age. At once he began, with the help of his friend, Bishop Wilkinson of St. Andrews, to prepare for death. 'I wish that every young man' said the bishop afterwards, 'could have seen him as he weighed his life, not in the balances of earth but of heaven, as he reviewed the past and anticipated the future.' This was in March, and by Easter he had become physically very feeble, though his natural force was unabated. 'It will be the first Easter since I was confirmed,' he said, 'that I have not made my Easter Communion.' His son, the Rector of Hawarden, arranged to communicate him from the Reserved Sacrament. Just as earlier he had shown that he felt 'sin was a horrible thing, a cursed thing,' that nailed the Son of God to the Cross, and abased himself wholeheartedly in penitence, so now he showed a complete fervour of simple devotion in receiving Our Lord in Holy Communion. It was his last; and on Ascension Day, May 19, 1898, just as the earliest Masses were pleaded before the throne of God, his great soul passed into the nearer Presence.

His country honoured him, and itself still more, by laying his body in Westminster Abbey; but it is round Hawarden that his spirit seems to linger. In the north chapel of the parish church is one of the finest memorials of its kind that England holds, the inspired work of Sir William Richmond. On an altar tomb, side by side, lie the effigies of Mr. Gladstone and the faithful companion of his life, his wife Catherine.

Full length between them lies a great crucifix, and a hand of each rests on an arm of the cross. Over their heads bends with sheltering wings the 'angel of victory over death.' And on the side of the tomb itself there are cut words which are the best possible summary of the whole life of William Ewart Gladstone, great Catholic Churchman, great statesman-words which he wrote himself, 'All I think, and all I speak, and all I write, is centred in our Lord Jesus Christ, the one only hope of our poor wayward race.'

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