Project Canterbury

The Streets and Lanes of the City

By Mary Eleanor Benson

With a brief memoir by her father [E. W. Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury].

London: Privately printed, 1891.

Transcribed by S. R. Holman, Center for Poverty Studies, 2006

Chapter 11. Irreligion

A young married woman, only a girl in years, who has nothing left to do when she has tidied up the one room, and put the pink perforated paper over the looking-glass, is talking to her landlady, a nice respectable woman, nearer forty than thirty, an active and affectionate wife and mother.

"Did the visiting lady ask you to be confirmed?"

"Yes," says the landlady. "So I told her I didn't mind; but then, when I thought over it, I thought I wouldn't. And so I went and told the clergyman to take my name off again."

"Did yer?" says her lodger. "Well, I wouldn't do that. Think of letting yer name go all through the books and that, and then getting it took off. It makes you look a silly."

"Ah! Well, perhaps you hold with Confirmation?"

"Yes, I do," says the young woman stoutly. She has her convictions.

"Well, then, I don't. There's many a one as is worse after Confirmation than they are before it."

"Oh, no, that ain't so; you're not right there, Mrs. Smith."

"Well, I don't know. Perhaps you hold with religion. Well, so do I in a way of speaking. It ain't that I don't believe it's true, and always send the children to school and church, and always should; but I don't hold with going too fur into it."

There was the note--struck unerringly; there was the fact tersely and forcibly put as to the attitude of a large mass of the respectable working classes towards religion. Between professed infidelity on the one hand, and real fervour on the other, lies the wide field in which religion is neither denied nor entertained. Such numbers of respectable mothers and fathers, with good moral codes, firmly, even sternly held, consider religion as well enough in itself; as proper and desirable as far as church and school and even Confirmation for the children, but not as an element of life. "Live a good life; that's what everyone ought to do; but religion's for them that take to it."

For such people to go to a place of worship, to pray except in moments of dire distress, to read the Bible, forms no part of the plan of their respectable life.

It is more often so in middle age, when the habit and stress of life has dulled both fears and longing; and there are always plenty of concrete conceptions to fill the mind when tempers have learnt a certain measure of the discipline of expediency, and truths have got impressed rather by experience than by creed or code.

Children and young people are far more impressible. To go to church and Sunday School is often a delightful thing to a working-class child of a respectable home; it brings order and ideas, and beauty into their lives. It would be well worthwhile to incite the attendance of children coming alone to church, and to make them feel welcomed by every means in our power, even if at times we consequently suffer a little noise and distraction.

But so it is that to a large mass religion is a meaningless thing, not disbelieved, but not considered--something which ladies and gentlemen, especially ladies, have plenty of time for and understand and like, and think rather more necessary than it is. Still a harmless thing and a pretty one. Few mothers, or even fathers, are not pleased if a child takes to uttering religious sayings. A mother who never went to church told me with a touched, pleased face that the eldest girl seemed to have taken such a liking to religion. She would go up into her room and lie on the bed singing hymns to herself. It is like poetry; something not unenjoyable for idler moments, in sickness or on a holiday at a Convalescent Home, something whose existence is justified, but a thing that has little to do with the real business of life. In death perhaps it comes a little nearer, but mostly as a comforting thought. "Life is coming to an end; well, if religion is true, and we always thought it was, there is a kind and happy home above for those who have not been wicked."

But along with this insensibility to religion there lingers a firm, almost superstitious adherence to certain outward forms. It would be dreadful not to be married in church. "We shouldn't feel we was married at all; I should never think it had been done right." It would be more dreadful still to be buried without a service. Where is religion appropriate if not here?

And often foremost among these tenets stands the observance of Sunday.

"Jones ud never work on Sunday. It isn't that he ever goes to church or chapel. He don't care about that; but he don't think it right to work on Sunday. He says 'What you gain on the Sunday you lose in the week.' It's only once he's done it--seven years ago. It was a bar in a public, and they wanted it finished Sunday morning before the opening time. So he done it as a kindness to the landlady. But he says he never will again. Money took that way only does you harm."

Over and over again one years the same in varying form.

"My cousin Maria came up to London. She thought it dreadful the way they went on on Sunday--selling in the streets and the amusement and all. But when she heard that a band played in the park in the afternoon, that done her. That done her quite. She said she did not know however the Queen allowed it."

Indifference such as this of which we speak has, as we have already said, nothing whatever to do with infidelity or even with doubt. And of doubt, in the sense of speculative doubt, there is comparatively little.

Mrs. Jones, whose husband's views on Sunday were so very strict, was one of the rare instances of a really speculative woman. She was the mother of a family of twelve, who were brought up in extremely respectable ways. And they were a family who discussed everything and everybody that they came across. The eldest girl was the most complete example of a kind-hearted, sincere prig that could be conceived.

Mrs. Jones had had a very sad early life. Her father had been one of the villainous plausible men seldom existing out of fiction. He had ill-treated and starved both his wife and children, while "playing the religious," as she said. His wife, an excellent woman, had slaved from morning to night to keep herself and them, but the bitterness of her lot worked in her an utter disbelief of all religion. "I don't believe there's a good God," she said. "That's all humbug. He wouldn't let such things go on if He was good­to let the innocent suffer like this."

And her tone of mind had descended in some measure to her daughter; even though since her marriage Mrs. Jones had lived a prosperous life.

"Sometimes," she said, "I sit and think when I'm up at my sewing, till I have to get up and walk about to sweep the thoughts away, or I should be miserable. I think about father and all he used to do to us, and how he made mother suffer, and all of us. And when I think of all we had to go through, and none of it our fault, why it comes into my head over and over again, 'God's good; yes, I believe that; He's a good God, but can He be powerful?' And then it seems to me so dreadful to think of, and I worry so, I have to get up and get something as'll take my thoughts off."

But such speculation, at least among middle-aged mothers of families, is, one would imagine, rare. It is interesting to trace the generations. Mrs. Jones's daughter is a most regular church-goer and communicant. But she too speculates on questions which do not concern central truth; she is anxious to be clear as to the precise conditions of the Intermediate State, and will talk on such subjects for hours. She is apt to regard a want of definiteness in the answers as merely a symbol of want of knowledge in her interlocutor, though she is too respectful to express this plainly. Confirmation was to her not merely a question of intention to lead a good life, as it is to most. She wished to be satisfied about its doctrinal aspect. "I do not understand, so you may say," she wrote, "what it means, but yesterday evening I went to a service entitled 'What is Confirmation?' and now I understand clearly all about it."

She is apt to engage in controversies a little too complicated for her. The other day she said, "I've a wish to consult you, miss, on a point, if it's not troubling you too much. There's a man as lives near us, and is a atheist, so I thought I'd have a talk to him. 'The Bible ain't true,' he said. I said 'Yes, it was.' So he said 'You look here. Don't it say that Cain was sent away when there was only three others beside him in the world­Adam, and Eve, and Abel? And then it goes on to say, 'Of him was the whole earth overspread.' How's that, when there wasn't anybody for him to marry? You explain that to me and I'll believe the Bible.' 'Well,' I said, 'I can't explain it now; but I know we ought to believe the Bible­and all it says is true.' So I thought you'd explain it to me, miss."

It was instructive to see on what difficulties the profession of infidelity may at least nominally be founded; as well as to see the utter inability of the faithful in this instance to meet it without further research--the same fact of ignorance, if viewed on two sides.

But a far more serious stumbling-block than such intricate questions on Cain is the existence of religious enthusiasts who are not good livers--comparatively few though these are.

Mrs. Thomas, whose character is elsewhere briefly described, was one of the most complete, self-deceiving hypocrites that could be. Her phraseology was not of the conventional, but of the heartfelt kind: her very look was beautiful at times. There was no event of her life that she did not refer to in religious terms.

She was got hold of by the Salvation Army, and every night she would go to their meetings; struggling there often when she was not fit to be out, in pain and discomfort, to bear her testimony with streaming eyes at the thought of how happy she was, and how great her peace with God. When she was in hospital, she was buoyed up with perfect happiness and peace by her religious thoughts throughout the acutest pain and most ghastly discomfort.

Yet every evening that she was out, she was leaving her eldest daughter to the insults of a set of rowdy young men who lodged with her; leaving her husband at the only hours she could see to him, to the uncomfortable meals and untidy room, which was all that one pair of overburdened hands could prepare for him. And she went into the hospital, leaving this girl totally without a protector, making no arrangements even for her to have decent sleeping accommodation, leaving her exposed to hardship and temptation from which she might have shielded her. And besides this she was an inveterate liar, and had no principles of the smaller honesty, but pawned her boys' and husband's things, and concealed the fact, and was incessantly in debt.

Such a woman does more than many an infidel lecturer to wean the hearts of those round her from sensibility to religious influence. They are apt not to distinguish between the profession and the possession of religion, and to think that in condemning it as a system of humbug they are judging the tree by its fruits.

Such are some few aspects of the darker side of the matter.

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