Project Canterbury

Canon Liddon: A Memoir
With the Four Sermons Preached at St. Paul's Cathedral in April
And His Last Sermon Preached at St. Mary's, Oxford on Whitsunday

London: "The Family Churchman Office," 1890.


(Preached in St. Paul's Cathedral on Sunday afternoon, the 27th April, being the third Sunday after Easter, 1890.)

Acts x. 38. "Who went about doing good."

This epigrammatic description of our Lord's earthly life occurs, as you will remember, in St. Peter's address to Cornelius and his friends at Caesarea, an address which, on account of its reference to the Resurrection, is used by the Church as the Epistle for Easter Monday. When we first hear it, such an account of our Lord's life on earth, if taken by itself and without the striking context, may appear to fall below the level of the subject, and to range Him on the same plane of excellence as has been attained in successive centuries by many of His disciples. We must many of us have known, probably many of us do know, men and women of whom St. Peter's words would be a just and unexaggerated description, men and women who, nearly or altogether, throughout life have gone about, still do go about, doing good to their fellow-creatures; and as we think of them we are perhaps at first inclined to wonder that the Apostle should have so expressed himself, expressed himself in such very measured terms when speaking of his and our Lord and Master.

Here, then, it is necessary to consider to whom St. Peter was addressing himself. Before him stood the centurion, Cornelius, probably a few comrades, and certainly some Jews, who, on an occasion like this, would not have had the largest place in the Apostle's thought. The persons of whom St. Peter was chiefly thinking were Cornelius and the other soldiers present--above all, Cornelius. The band to which Cornelius belonged consisted of Italian levies, and Cornelius, as his name shows, belonged to an old Roman family. And when St. Peter says that our Lord during His earthly life [51/52] "went about doing good," he knew perfectly well that such an account of that life would have appeared anything but tame, commonplace, inadequate, to those whom he was especially anxious to influence, because it was so sharply contrasted with anything that they had left behind them at home. For that great world in which Cornelius and his comrades had been reared must indeed have made the men and affairs of Palestine, generally speaking, seem by comparison petty enough--as we should say, provincial. Everything outward at Rome, the world's centre, was on a splendid scale. The public buildings, the temples, the baths, the public shows, everything connected with the army, everything connected with the machinery and the apparatus of government, was calculated to impress, and even to awe the imagination. But there was one overshadowing defect in that great world which would have come home with especial force to the minds of the class from which the rank and file of the Roman forces were chiefly recruited. It was a world without love. It was a world full of want and suffering, and the whole of the great social and political machine went round and round without taking any account of this. It was a world without love. Commenting on this fact nearly three centuries later, Lactantius, after describing the salient features of heathen life, adds: "Compassion and humanity are peculiar to the Christians."

It is easy to point to a few facts which may at first sight appear to traverse this severe judgment. Such are isolated acts of natural kindness provoked by some great calamity, as was shown for instance in Nero's reign by the heathen inhabitants of Rome after the killing or wounding of fifty thousand persons by the fall of the theatre at Fidenae, or, some years later, by the general readiness to relieve distress when Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried by an eruption of Vesuvius. The beggars, too, who sat all day on the steps of the temples of ancient Rome, would never have sat there unless kind-hearted people had now and then tossed them a small coin. And liberality was celebrated in the speeches of great orators, in numerous inscriptions, even on the current coin of the empire, as a public virtue. Liberality, indeed, was a sort of virtue which had to be practised, whether he liked it or not, by every public man in Rome. From the Emperor downwards, every public man had to make over to the public, in [52/53] some shape or other, a certain part of his income, whether in gifts to his native city, or to the club or society to which he belonged, over and above gifts to his friends, guests, relatives. He must build a theatre, or build an aqueduct, or a fountain, or a temple; he must make a new road, he must repair the city walls, he must give corn, wine, oil, to be distributed among the citizens, he must erect public baths, he must endow a public library.

Of all these forms of liberality we have many and indisputable records, as well as of the presents to the people which each emperor used to give on succeeding to the throne, on the fifth, on the tenth year of his reign, on the occasions of a birth or a wedding in the imperial family, or of a public triumph. When, for instance, Julius Caesar triumphed, the people were feasted in the streets at twenty-two thousand tables, and the costliest wines of Southern Italy and of the Greek Archipelago were said to have run in rivers.

Now, these isolated efforts to relieve suffering, these gifts to the needy, this liberality of the orators, and the inscriptions, these largesses to the people, these public works, these costly entertainments, as Cornelius and his friends knew well, were not the outcome of love. They were forms of an expenditure which was essentially selfish. The main object of such expenditure was to secure that sort of popularity which means political power. It was repaid, if not in kind, yet substantially. It has no more to do with charity, which loves its object for his own sake and not for the sake of what can be got out of him, than any other kind of outlay of capital with a view to a calculated return has to do with it. It was from first to last a matter of business, and as a consequence of this, so far was it, generally speaking, from doing good to the people who were its object, that it rapidly demoralised them by spreading among them habits of idleness and corruption. The Roman people, under the system of imperial largesses and entertainments, increasingly hated work. It cared only for such ease and enjoyment as it could wring out of its rulers. It became utterly indifferent to everything in its rulers except their capacity and willingness to gratify itself.

In order to do real good, the eye must rest not on what is prudent in, or what is expected of, the giver, but on what is needed in the recipient. And thus mere liberality, if active, [53/54] is blindfold; while charity seeks out its objects with discrimination and sympathy, liberality has no eye for the really sore places in the suffering and destitute world. Nothing was done systematically in that world with which Cornelius and his friends were familiar for classes or for individuals who could make no return. There was no sort of care for widows or for orphans. There were no hospitals--there was no public provision for those who were not citizens, and therefore had no influence. There was no consideration whatever--it is little enough to say this--for the immense class of slaves. Slaves were simply property to be bought and sold and punished, and, at one time, killed at the discretion of their masters. And if here and there there were schools, like those under Severus, their main object, when we come to examine them closely, appears to have been to provide recruits for the Roman army. And all this was in harmony with principles laid down by the great teachers of the ancient world, such as Plato and Aristotle. In Plato's ideal state the poor have no place--beggars are expelled or left to die as injuring the common prosperity.

In Aristotle's account of the virtues, the most promising from a Christian point of view is generosity, but on examination generosity turns out to be a prudential mean between avarice and extravagance. The generous man, we are told, gives because it is a fine thing to give, not from a sense of duty, still less at the dictates of love for his fellow-creatures. It is no wonder that, when these were governing principles, there were few efforts in that old world, to which Cornelius had belonged, that deserved the name of doing good.

When then Cornelius heard from St. Peter of such a life as that of our Lord, and had further in all probability asked and received answers to the questions which St. Peter's description suggested, he would have listened to a narrative which had all the charm, all the freshness of a great surprise. Cornelius knew that in his own Italy the poor, and especially the sick and the hungry poor, were not simply of no account, they were looked upon as Encumbrances on the national life. As they could be of no service to the State, either in the army or in the public works, there appeared to be no object in keeping them alive, and no effort was made to do so. This very class, it would have struck Cornelius, was the object of our Lord's particular attention. The hungry peasants whom [54/55] He fed on the shores of the Sea of Galilee were not like the comparatively well-to-do citizens who feasted at Caesar's twenty-two thousand tables. Our Lord was observing His own rule: "When thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maim, the lame, the blind, and thou shalt be blessed, for they cannot recompense thee, for thou shalt be recompensed at the resurrection of the just." To have fallen among thieves, to have been wounded and left half dead, was itself a claim on The Good Samaritan, and He spent His ministry in acknowledging it. His practice was in conformity with that Divine precept: "Be ye therefore merciful as your Father also is merciful."

Watch Him at work in or near Capernaum, as the Evangelist who on Friday was especially in the mind of the Church, and who was St. Peter's penman in describing his Divine Master's life, watched Him, as St. Mark describes Him in the first three chapters of his Gospel, beginning with the cure in the synagogue, then healing Peter's mother-in-law of a fever, then relieving a large number of persons who had gathered at sunset at the door of St. Peter's house, then, after prayer throughout the night, curing the leper, then on returning to Capernaum healing the paralytic who was let down through the house roof, then later on healing the man with the withered hand in the Capernaum synagogue on the Sabbath.

This is evidently a sample, an extract as we might say, from the diary of our Lord's occupations during His ministry, and Cornelius, when He came to inquire, would have been struck by the fact that, unlike the calculated liberality of the leading men at Rome, it did not win for Him any political or social capital. Those poor lepers, and paralytics, and fever-stricken peasants, could make no return to their Benefactor, and He did not ask for any. He was indeed sorry, for the men's own sake, when only one out of a company of ten lepers returned after being healed to give glory to God, but it was their loss, not His, that He deplored. His own rule was that which He enjoined on others: to ask for nothing again, to give alms and do kindnesses in such ways as might escape, if duty permitted it, a return in the way of honour, or reputation, or acknowledgment of any kind. And this, Cornelius would have observed, implied nothing short of a new ideal of life and work.

[56] The Roman rule was to get as much service, pay, deference, as you could out of others, out of slaves, out of conquered nations, out of dependent classes, out of friends placed under obligations, and so on, and to represent yourself all the while as conferring some sort of favour in receiving it. "The kings of the Gentiles," said our Lord, speaking in a designedly general way, but with obvious reference to the Roman practice, "the kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors, but ye shall not be so." Here was a contrast. To render service was greater than to receive it, to give honour and respect greater than to appropriate it; it was more blessed to give than to receive. And why? "The Son of Man came not to be ministered unto but to minister, and"--oh! the supreme expression of His love--"to give His life a ransom for many."

"He went about doing good." The highest and the greatest good which He did was done for the souls of men. To have done everything for man's bodily frame, and leave his spiritual being untouched, would have been a poor and worthless kind of doing good in the estimation of Jesus Christ. It would have been such a good as man would have needed, and would have been satisfied with, had he been only an animal with no assured destiny beyond the tomb, with no conscience within him, with no judgment awaiting him. The lessons by which our Lord brought men to know and to love the Father and Himself, the pardon which He won for them on the cross, the grace which He promised them after His Ascension, were His chiefest benefactions. But besides this He did abundant good in the physical, material, social sense. He relieved the pain of hunger, He enabled the poor and the suffering to fight the battle of life, as they could not have fought it without Him.

It has been said that Christ our Lord was the first Social Reformer. If by social reform be meant the doing away with all inequalities between classes, or even the removal from human life of the permanent cause of a great deal of physical suffering, it cannot be said that this description of Him is accurate. He showed no wish whatever, in any sort of way, to interfere with the existing structure of society. He insisted on Caesar's claim to tribute--He prescribed obedience to Scribes and Pharisees who sat in Moses' seat. He found a [56/57] great deal of distress in the world, and He left a great deal of distress; He found a great deal of poverty, and He left a great deal of poverty. He predicted: "In the world ye shall have tribulation." He announced: "The poor ye have always with you." His real work was to point to truths and to a life which made the endurance of poverty and distress for a short time here so easy as to be in the estimate of real disciples comparatively unimportant; but, at the same time, He relieved so much of it as would enable human beings to make a real step forward towards the true end of their existence. If our Lord was not, in the restricted modern sense, the first social reformer, He was undoubtedly, in the true and ample sense of the word, the first Philanthropist. He loved man as man--He loved not one part but the whole of man. He loved man as none had ever loved him before or since--He died for the being whom He loved so well.

And when our Lord had left the heart, the spirit of His work became that of the Christian Church. It too, after its measure, went about the world doing good. The New Testament guides us through the first stage of the subject. The seven deacons were ordained shortly after Pentecost in order to relieve the Apostles of the work of " serving tables," that is. the administration of the public alms. The wealthier Churches of Greece were directed to lay by small offerings every Sunday, so that when the Apostle came by to fetch the collection the money might be ready for the poor Churches in Palestine. The poorer members of the Church were regularly supplied with food at the Agape, or love feast. Widows were especially provided for. Private Christians received orphans into their houses. The duty of hospitality, that is the entertainment of foreign Christians when travelling, is insisted on again and again in the[Apostolic Epistles. Gaius is said, in St. John's third Epistle, to have dealt faithfully with the members of the Church and strangers, in contrast with Diotrephes, who neglected these duties. A bishop is required in this sense " to be given to hospitality," and the action of Christian charity is especially observable in the case of slaves. The Apostles made no effort to emancipate them. St. Paul advises the slave, instead of asking for freedom, to make good use of his condition as a slave, but the slave knows that he is our Lord's freeman, and the freeman [57/58] who is his master, if he be a Christian, knows himself to be Christ's slave. And thus Christian charity united the slave and the master, it united the Jewish and the Gentile Churches, it healed social sores, and it diffused material comfort as well as spiritual happiness.

It would be impossible here and now to notice the various activities of Christian work in the primitive times which followed the apostolic age. Early in the third century, if not in the second, there were houses for the reception of poor widows: orphans were brought up at the expense of the Church by the bishop or by some private person. Thus, for instance, after the martyrdom of Leonidas at Alexandria, his boy, who became the celebrated Origen, was brought up by a pious woman who lived in the city, and an excellent man, Severus, is named as having devoted himself in Palestine to the education of all children--they were a considerable number--whose parents were martyrs. In the middle of the third century the Roman empire was afflicted by a pestilence which, according to the historian, Gibbon, destroyed not less than half the population. It broke out at Carthage while St. Cyprian was still alive. There was a general panic; all the heathen that could do so fled, they avoided contact with infected persons, they left their own relations to die alone.

Corpses were lying unburied about the streets, and there were rogues who seized the opportunity of making horrible profits. Cyprian summoned the Christians to aid him in doing all that could be done. He was everywhere encouraging, advising, organising, helping the sick and dying with his own hands, and each man under him had, and knew that he had, his appointed task. Some of the Christians were anxious to confine their aid to their fellow-believers; their feelings against the heathen had been irritated by a recent persecution, and they knew that another persecution was impending; but they received no countenance fron their bishop. "If," exclaimed St. Cyprian, in a sermon preached at this crisis, "if we only do good to those who do good to us, what do we more than the heathen and the publicans? if we are the children of God, Who makes His sun to shine upon the good and the bad, and sends His rain on the just and on the unjust, let us now prove it by our own acts, let us bless those who curse us, let us do good to those who persecute us."

[59] One class of persons who were especial objects of primitive Christian charity were those who were sent to work in the mines. They were almost naked, they had the scantiest supply of food, they were often treated with great cruelty by the inspectors of public works. We find from the letters of St. Cyprian these poor people were special objects of his attention; he regularly sent them supplies by the hands of a trusted sub-deacon; and he wrote to them continually, assuring them of his sympathy and his prayers. And another work of mercy in which the primitive Church especially interested itself was the improvement of the condition of prisoners. The prisons in old Rome were crowded with persons of all descriptions--prisoners of war, especially after the barbarian inroads, prisoners for the non-payment of taxes and for debt--subjects on which the Roman law was very severe--prisoners for the various kinds of felony, and, when a persecution was going on, prisoners for the crime of being Christians. These unhappy people were huddled together, it is little to say, with no attention to the laws of health or to the decencies of life, and one of the earliest forms of Christian charity was to raise funds for the redemption of prisoners. Early writers like Ignatius of Antioch mention the liberation of prisoners by payment as a specially Christian form of mercy. Cyprian raised large sums from his flock to purchase freedom for prisoners of war.

It would be impossible within our limits to do any sort of justice to this vast subject--the manner in which the ancient Church of Christ carried on, both in the higher and the lower senses of the term, her Master's work of doing good. But the last-named particular, her care for prisoners, naturally leads us to think of a great man who died exactly a century ago, and who ought not to be unmentioned at some time during this current year from this pulpit, since his monument is a familiar object to all who visit and worship in St. Paul's. In the whole course of history few men have done so much to relieve human suffering as the reformer of prisons, John Howard. In this great task he was not first in the field, for in the first year of the last century the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge appointed a committee to inspect and report upon the London prisons, and the chairman of that committee, Dr. Bray, a man eminent for other good works, published an instructive essay on the subject of prison reform. [59/60] But these efforts did not, it must be confessed, succeed in influencing public opinion, until Howard in his own person regularly visited the prisons throughout the country, published accounts of what he witnessed, and left no means untried to bring about an improved condition of things. Howard's journals show that he was by no means an inequitable fanatic bent on drawing an uniformly gloomy picture. He makes the best of everything he can, as for instance of the kindness of a prison chaplain at Ipswich, but the general tenor of his accounts would appear to us at the present day quite incredible.

It is difficult to believe that such a dungeon as "The Chink" at Plymouth existed in the days of George III., and " The Chink" was only an extreme sample of the arrangements which were largely prevalent throughout the country. Howard penetrated everywhere, observed everything, recorded all that he observed, cross-questioned everybody--prisoners, jailors, magistrates. Everybody bent instinctively to the moral authority of his pure disinterestedness, and he gained increased authority by his resolute abstinence from any trace of exaggeration. All that bore upon health, upon morality, upon decency, upon self-respect, was carefully recorded, and he left no means untried to promote improvements. After he had visited the country jails in England, he went through Scotland once and again with the same object; then through Ireland; then, in 1775, he began his great series of visits to the Continent. His practice of bestowing alms upon prisoners obtained for him at that time access to the country prisons in France. He endeavoured, but in vain, to explore the secrets of the Bastile. With this single purpose he visited Belgium, Holland, Germany, Switzerland--especially Urselburg, Brunswick, Berlin, Bale. At Vienna his plain-spokenness nearly got him into trouble at Court. Thence he made his way through Gratz, Lombardy, Trieste, and Venice, where he visited the cells under the leads and the dungeons below the water-level which the poetry of Samuel Rogers has made familiar to many of us, and then to Padua, Florence, Rome, Naples, and at a later date he explored--not seldom at the risk of his life, and, in those days of bad travelling, with extraordinary difficulty--Spain and Portugal, Poland and Russia--even Turkey and the Eastern Archipelago.

He died at Cherson, on the shores of the Black Sea, in [60/61] January, 1790, true to the last to the great purpose of his life, and he was buried with the service of the Church of England with every demonstration of respect and honour that the army and people of Russia could offer him. His monument was the first that was admitted to a place within this cathedral, and at the instance of Dr. Samuel Johnson. He had declined a public statue while living: his real monument is the record of his life. In the memorable words of Edmund Burke, "This gentleman visited all Europe, not to survey the sumptuousness of palaces or the stateliness of temples, but to dive into the depths of dungeons, to plunge into the infection of hospitals, to take the gauge and dimensions of human misery, to remember the forgotten, to attend to the neglected."

There are two lessons which Howard teaches us more especially. The first: Howard was a philanthropist because he was a religious man. In the last century a great school of writers, especially in France, endeavoured to treat philanthropy as a virtue which has no connection with religion,--indeed, as a virtue which was an effective rival of religion, as being at once more practical and not encumbered by a supernatural creed. Howard, the greatest philanthropist of the century, gives no countenance to this idea. His Journals show him to have been a deeply religious man, who drew all the governing and guiding motives for his exertions from his religious convictions. The English Church cannot claim him as one of her sons; he belonged to a body of independent Dissenters at Bedford, and at one time he was powerfully attracted by the simplicity of life and by the active benevolence of the Quakers. But he always entertained friendly feelings towards the Church, and in his last hours he desired that her Burial Service might be read over his grave. We Churchmen can only wish that, being what he was, he had been one of ourselves, in one sense for his own sake, in another for our own. That he was profoundly influenced in all the actions of his life by the spirit and example of our Lord and Saviour, that he obeyed the will of Jesus Christ so far as he knew it with touching fidelity, is altogether beyond dispute.

Few men have had a better right to say " The love of Christ constraineth me," or have done more to convince the world, by the force of a splendid example, that philanthropy [61/62] is a flower that grows naturally on the tree of deep personal religious conviction.

And a second lesson which Howard's life teaches us is the. importance of concentrating thought and strength on any good work which we are led to take in hand. Howard did so much, he was so widely influential, because he was what would be called, perhaps disparagingly, "a man of one idea"--the miseries of existing prison life not only in his own country but throughout the world. He knew that our human powers, whether of thought or of action, are after all very limited, and that, if any serious task has to be attempted, they must be used economically and made the best of.

Howard allowed nothing to interfere with his efforts to improve the condition of prisoners. He would decline invitations, sometimes he would not look at a newspaper, lest his mind should be diverted from the duties of that day with reference to the great object ot his life. He was alive to, but he was impatient of( the charms of art and of scenery. He was desirous, and yet neglectful, of opportunities for recreation. When at Wilton he would not divert his attention from the jail at Salisbury in order to visit the great mansion of the Herberts. When in Rome he would not even allow himself the necessary time to inspect the splendid ruins which distinguish the capital of the ancient world. This rigid unity of purpose makes his journals somewhat monotonous, and, from a literary point of view, disappointing. "Prisons, prisons, prisons," is always the burden of his tale, but at the same time it shows the secret of his success under unparalleled difficulties. He revolutionised the opinion, not only of England, but of Europe, as to the treatment of criminals. In one of the hospitals at Rome he read with delight a famous sentence which proclaimed the principle which already lay nearest to his heart, the principle that it is a poor thing tovisit the bad with punishment unless you can also do something to improve them by discipline.

That there is still much to be done in order to give full effect to the truth that punishment should be remedial as well as penal is true enough, but that the principle is now, not merely inscribed on the walls of a charitable institution, but generally recognised throughout the civilised world, is very largely indeed the work of Howard. If it should be thought that in some particulars Howard carried his [62/63] concentration of thought and effort to an extreme, there can be no doubt whatever that the absence of such concentration is one reason why in our day so many promising lives, so many bright thoughts, so many good resolves, lead to so little, lead to nothing. The temptations to dissipation of interest are greater now than they were a century ago. Facilities for travelling, the great multitude of books and newspapers brought within everybody's reach, and, it may be added, something in the temper of the time, all have the effect of leading the mind to pass rapidly, too rapidly, from one subject to-another, and to give itself thoroughly to none. Some of us' may have a greater breadth of interest, a wider outlook, more varied cultivation than had John Howard, but yet we may pass through life without doing a twentieth part of what he did for the good of man and for the glory of God.

No doubt he was in easy circumstances, without being wealthy, but what he had to give he gave with all his heart, he gave it to an object of immense importance. We may have more time and means, we may have less, than he had, but a young man or woman on the threshold of life cannot do better than consider what he or she can do that will glorify God and do good to man, and then, in old words, "turn all the desires of the heart that way." The most unshowing and unromantic methods of doing good may be the most acceptable. To work at a night-school, to keep the accounts of a charity, to get up Sunday breakfasts for poor people, may mean more in the eyes of the Infinite Mercy than to dispose of immense charitable resources, or even to be a great teacher or ruler in the Church. The vital condition of doing good, whether it be spiritual or physical good, is that simple unity of purpose which springs from disinterestedness, and this can best be learned at His blessed feet Who remains the first and the greatest of philanthropists, since in life and in death He gave Himself for us, that whether we wake or sleep we might live together with Him.

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