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 12.  Religion and the Place it Holds

But the instances of real fervour among the working class are such as put the leisured class to shame. In the poorer parts of London the majority, if not all, of the Sunday School teachers of all denominations are women and men who work hard all the week for their daily bread.

Two instances perhaps might be mentioned. Elinor Lowry is a girl of twenty-five; she works at an indiarubber factory daily for eleven hours; on Thursday evenings she attends a large Bible class and helps in the singing. On Sundays she teaches twice at Sunday School. Mary Boxam is aged nineteen. She is at work behind the counter at a draper's in a very low neighbourhood. Her health is poor, her eyes weak. She works daily from 9 to 9; on Saturdays from 9 AM till 11 PM. On Sundays she teaches twice and goes to a Bible class, and three times to church. And this is her life; the day of rest and happiness; the only day when the fervour of her soul can expand itself and find scope. On her early closing afternoon she often fills her time with going to visit her little Sunday scholars.

And sometimes one comes across women of the most wonderful power and fervour. Such was a certain Mrs. Martin, middle-aged and very stout indeed, the wife of an ex-guard, now living with her family of two daughters and two sons and a husband in the basement of big offices of which they are the caretakers. What with looking after her family and the offices, and cooking lunch for various gentlemen, her time was fairly filled. But she managed to get to herself two hours on three afternoons in the week. Her own story will tell best how she spent them. On one evening she had a large Bible-class of about forty women. "And you see," she said, "I must have those three afternoons. One of them I spend in visiting in my district (from here her women mostly came). It's discouraging work sometimes, that is. Why, one house I'd been to weekly for three years and taken the woman a tract, and never been asked inside the door. I never ask to go in, I shouldn't like it in my own house, and I wouldn't do it in anyone else's. When this woman asked me in at last, she told me why she hadn't before. She said the visiting lady in the last parish where she lived had come in one day without being asked, and had sat down, and they'd got a pot on the fire with the dinner cooking. 'Ho!' she said, 'is that your dinner?' and she went and lifted off the lid of the pot and looked in, and passed remarks on it. When she'd gone this woman's husband said to her, 'There sha'n't ever another visiting lady pass my door again.' So they hadn't let another in, till they asked me in. She must have been a silly kind of visitor, mustn't she, insulting anyone like that?

"Well, then, you see, the other two afternoons I want to myself; because one I must have to think over what I am going to say to my meeting on Friday evening. I don't believe in going unprepared like some. What's the Lord given us our minds for? Well, I get the thought early in the week, and turn it over while I'm about my work, and Wednesday afternoon I set to at it. And then another I must have for praying about them, and that I may say the right thing to them."

Mrs. Martin's efforts were often unavailing; but she was the most faithful of friends. After some years of her work, a Mission was held in the parish which was to last ten days.

Mrs. Martin threw herself into the preparations heart and soul. There were two women in particular over whom she had prayed and agonized, and who were no better than they had been. Her story as to what took place about them in this mission week is best told verbatim as she herself told it.

"I'd got these two, Mrs. Farrant and Mrs. Jakes, in my mind above all often," she said. "Those women had been a wonderful trouble to me; they held together, and they drank together, and their homes were a dreadful sight to see. Mrs. Farrant was the leader of the two. She was a bad woman enough, but somehow I always had a liking for the woman all the same; she was one I couldn't help liking. I'd said to them at the meeting the evening before, 'Now I'm going to ask you all to do something, and I'm not going to take No from any of you. You must all come with me to the Mission Service tomorrow evening.' Well, they laughed a bit, but I said I wouldn't take No for an answer, and they all said they'd come. So the next morning I went round to Mrs. Farrant's. 'Now look here,' I said to her, 'You've promised me to come and so has Mrs. Jakes, and I know you both will. But now I've come to you and want you to promise me something more. You and Mrs. Jakes has always rowed in the same boat and been mates. Well, now, I've seen signs about Mrs. Jakes as if she might be going to be touched by the Lord, and come to think differently, and I've been praying that the Mission'll do it for her. Well, and I want you to promise me that you won't go and laugh her out of it. Don't you go telling her it's all nonsense if she seems to be feeling it. She'll attend to you more than to anyone. You mayn't be touched yourself; I've been praying to God you may; but whether you are or not, I want you to promise me you'll let Mrs. Jakes alone.'

"Well, she looked at me a minute. She's got big black eyes, and a kind of a frank way with her, and she said, 'Well, Mrs. Martin, since you've asked me, I will promise you­I won't meddle with her.'

"Well, that evening they both come to church with me and the others; and when we went into the pew Mrs. Jakes went first, and then me, and then Mrs. Farrant. I wasn't going to let her sit next Mrs. Farrant, for I thought she might be afraid of her laughing at her if she was moved, so I said I'd sit between them.

"When the sermon came, Mr. Sudbury said some beautiful plain words, just the very ones Mrs. Jakes needed; and I saw her begin to tremble, and then she began to cry, and when he asked us all to kneel down and pray with him that God would touch our sinful hearts, Mrs. Jakes was crying and crying. 'Oh, Mrs. Martin,' she says, 'pray for me. Oh, what a sinner I've been. Oh, dear, dear!'

"I was so happy and thankful to see her like that, that I couldn't but cry myself, and that made Mrs. Farrant look at me. She'd been looking all about at everyone and not listening a bit. So when she saw me begin to cry, she gave me a great nudge with her elbow. 'Hello,' she says, 'what's the matter with you?' 'Oh, be quiet,' I said, 'and look at Mrs. Jakes; it's gone home to her, thank God.' She screwed her head round and took a look at Mrs. Jakes, and then she looked very grave and I could see she began to listen. When the prayer was over, we all sat down and Mr. Sudbury spoke again. I could see Mrs. Farrant was listening with all her ears; and presently her face began to work, and then the tears began to come, and after a while she was crying too. And I sat there between them, and how I did thank God and pray for them both.

"When we got outside the church door and I'd spoken a word to Mrs. Jakes, Mrs. Farrant clutched hold of my arm with both hands.

"'Oh, Mrs. Martin,' she said, 'I don't know what's the matter with me. Something's took hold of me. Whatever is it?'

"And I said, 'It's the spirit of God. Now you go home, don't talk to anyone, but go straight back and kneel down by your bed and pray to God.'

"'Yes, yes,' she said. 'I will. But what shall I say to Him, Mrs. Martin? What shall I say?'

"'Say to Him?' I said. "Why, say what you mean. What do you want Him to do?'

"She trembled all the more and then she said, 'I want Him to forgive me all my sins, but I don't know how to ask Him. You tell me what to say.'

"'Well,' I said, 'you can say, "Dear Lord, have mercy on me, and forgive me all my sins; and wash me clean in Thy Blood."'

"'Yes,' she said; 'I'll say that. I'll remember that.'

"I could hardly sleep that night for thinking of them. I cried with thankfulness till my head ached. And in the morning first thing I went round to Mrs. Jakes. I found her very quiet and humble, and after I'd had a talk and a prayer, I went to Mrs. Farrant's.
"You should have seen that woman's face. She looked a different being. 'Oh, come in Mrs. Martin,' she said. 'I'm so happy, I don't know what to do.' So I told her to tell me about it.

"'Well,' she said, 'after I got home last night I did as you tell me. I went right through the living room where they all was into my bedroom. I knelt by my bed, and if I said that little prayer of yours once I said it fifty times. But I felt such a weight at my heart, I didn't know how to bear myself. And then I crawled into bed and lay there wide awake. I couldn't sleep; and it seemed to me as if it all go blacker and blacker, and God wouldn't answer me because my sins was too black, and I'd been too bad a woman. Well, at five my husband got up; and after he was gone I dozed a bit. Well, when I awoke, it was half past six, and the sun was shining, and I felt so happy I didn't know what to do. There, that's how I am.'

"And it wasn't talk. That woman was in earnest. 'Do you see that?' she said, and she put her hand on a bottle on the table. 'That's gin. And there it is.' And she went to the window and poured it away into the court.

"Well, we had a talk and a prayer after that; and you should have seen her cry.

"When the Mission was over it was arranged she should be confirmed, and Mrs. Jakes too, and two more of them. Wasn't the Lord good, giving me four souls like that, in answer to prayer? Well, one day when the Confirmation classes had begun, I met her coming along the street. I was surprised at her look; she looked angry and red in the face and miserable. When she saw me she says:

"'Well, Mrs. Martin, it's just as well I met you. I'm going to give up Confirmation; I can't manage it. It ain't for me; I'm going to give it up.'

"It came upon me like a shock. I'd only been talking to her two days before, and she'd been so quiet and so earnest.

"'What,' I said; 'you aren't backsliding already, are you?'

"She stood quite still where she was; there on the edge of the pavement, and looked right up at the sky, not at me.

"'Backsliding,' she said low to herself. 'Oh, my god; you're not letting me backslide, are yer?'

"'Well, then,' I said; 'whatever is the matter?'

"So then it turned out, that at the Confirmation class they'd all been given questions to write; and Mrs. Farrant could hardly read and couldn't write at all; and the poor, silly woman had never thought of telling the clergyman so, but thought nobody could be confirmed that couldn't write the questions.

"When I'd explained it to her, her face all cleared up.

"'Do you think I can be confirmed after all?' she said. 'I began to think that it was only them that was good scholars and could write and read that could be confirmed.'

"'What!' I said; 'do you think God cares any less for you because you can't write and read? He cares for you just as much as for those that can, and perhaps more, because He knows you can't help yourself by reading the Bible, as they can.'

"She looked at me ever so happy; and then I went home with her, and found her husband there.

"'Well,' he said, 'I'm glad you've met her, Mrs. Martin, and put all right. She's been near out of her mind these two days, and last night she woke me up, a hollering about the Confirmation and what was she to do.'

"And then he told me how glad he was about it all; and how he was thinking of coming to church himself; for he said she'd been a different woman since. And you could see it too. The room was as clean and nice as possible, and the children too; and it used to be more like a pigsty than a human dwelling. I never saw a more wonderful change in any place."

And it was a change that endured. It is now three years since the Mission, and Mrs. Farrant is still what that change made her. The sudden emotion which the new perception and the new desires brought to the frank, uncultured nature was in this case no transitory flood.

At times religious phraseology tends to be too much of a stumbling-block. One is apt to think that because it is uniform it is not individual, and therefore not genuine. But this is often far from the case. The unready, whether educated or not, must have the mode of expression found for them; and even extreme fervour will often not lead them to find words of their own.

For instance, the following passages, stereotyped though the expressions may be, are dictated only by real fervour:

"I went to see her in the infirmary; we had a nice little prayer and she seemed much affected. I asked her to trust her Heavenly Father and He would guide her in the future. Do not think you have taken a liberty in asking me to go, as it is our duty to do all we can to bring back the wandering sheep to our dear Shepherd."

Or again:

"The work is progressing; God has blessed it; only the week before last one poor woman gave her heart to the Lord and now she has persuaded her Husband to come with her to the meeting and several others has declared with the Lord's help they will lead a different life on an average we have between fifty and sixty attend it."

Or again, from the letter of a most genuine good woman, highly "respectable" and respected:

"This is another blessed answer to prayer. I was feeling grieved yesterday because I could not keep my promise of paying you the money and now today the dear Lord has sent me the means. Oh He is very precious to me and I do pray earnestly that He will draw other branches of my family nearer to Him but I must wait patiently. His blessed will be done."

But that religion gets woven in with the daily life, with the little daily events, no one can doubt. The following sentences from the letter of a girl who, among others, had not been allowed to go to a day's treat as she expected, are an example of this. She was a merry, rather naughty, Irish girl:

"I don't suppose it will only be me that will be disappointed and I hope whoever they are that they will not be angry about it. I know I did not like it at all until I said my prayers when I asked God to give me patience and not to be so hasty about anything. I hope it will be a nice and fine day on Friday and that they will all enjoy themselves."

Or again:

"I had my arm burnt at the hospital on Saturday week. It was so dreadfully painful I did not know how to bear it; but I can't help thinking what a better nerve I had then than I very often have. But I know who gave it me."

Or again, in the case of two girls who had quarrelled:

"We are Friends again I have prayed so much about it, and I am sure Lizzie has."

Or again, more pathetically:

"Dear Miss ----- to tell the truth I did begin to think you had almost forgotten me but I prayed that I might have a letter from you and when I found that I did not get one as quick as I thought I should I began to despair but then I thought of your lessons so I kept on and on and at dinner time yesterday I got one from you and I cannot tell you how pleased I was."

It is a wonderful thing when one is able to witness the gallant struggle of a religious-hearted girl to conform her life to her creed, or one of the repentances that come blessedly often, sometimes too often, to the young. Such a struggle one sees touchingly presented in the following letter:

"I have not been very happy lately I feel as though I have been very naughty I have spoken rather cross to Mother and Polly and my little Brothers, and I feel very miserable Mother has been very kind to me and I have not appreciated it. Will you pray for me as I am praying myself to God to make me better I want Jesus to be with me and I know he will if I ask him. I am very lonely as my friend that is always with me in the week is gone away and I think if I had a good talking to it would give me something to remember that I would not be lonely if I had Jesus with me I feel when I come to class on Sunday afternoon I ought not to be there because I am not good and it makes me feel very unhappy."

Or again--This writer was a girl of sixteen, in very trying circumstances, with a shop and house to see to, an upright but rather stern father, and three younger children, more noted for life and vigour than for docility. The girl had been at a Training Home for a while, and had then to come home because of her mother's illness.--

"I am afraid I do not keep my temper nearly as well as I did at Walton, but it did seem easier there where everything wasn't depending on one but I will try too though it is all very hard sometimes."

And not much later: "I see Mrs. Jones last night and she spoke very nice to me about being patient but it is very trying sometimes in the shop all day the same as I am."

And again: "I hope you will not think I am any better than I used to be because I don't believe I am a bit better."

And last and most touchingly: "Thank you for your kind words in your last letter for it does not seem as if I can keep straight or out of trouble it is so very nice to have a friend to tell all your troubles to. My trouble now is that I cannot keep my temper with Lizzie or Ethel [her two little sisters] or anybody else for they are so tiresome of a morning when I am getting them ready for school and they make their pinafores so dirty that I get illtempered over it to think I cannot keep them nice and clean like other little girls at the school and then when I am spoken to I grumble because I cannot get my own way and to speak the truth I am not best pleased tonight now that I am writing and I do not feel as If I should be any better for when I get up in the morning I make a resolution that I will be good and then something comes and upsets me and then I think it is no good trying to be better because it seems as if I am to be baffled and made bad again although I was really never good. My Dear Miss ------ you don't know how hard it is sometimes I wish I could go to business like other girls or to service but then when I think of it, I know it is wicked not to be content with my lot. My Dear Miss ----- it is so nice to have somebody to tell one's feeling to and yet it is so hard to speak freely but then you said the last Sunday you were at class we were to make a friend of you and tell you all our troubles. Well I think I have kept you long enough with my little vexations but I hope I have not kept you to long I hope you will not look at my blots and blunders for the tears will come although I try to stop them."

A reward came slowly to her faithful struggles. Only the other day she and her great friend were sitting together one Sunday evening, and the friend said,

"You're so different to what you used to be. There was a time when I never knew what sort of a temper you might be in. You're ever so much better tempered than you was."

A word or two as to the way in which churchgoing and, further, Confirmation and Communion are regarded, may not be out of place. It is seldom that any ritualistic distinctions are a trouble; once perhaps in a way a reredos may afflict the mind, or one may hear such sentences as the following from a girl who went as servant in a sisterhood:

"Had mother known what kind of a place it was before I went she would never have sanctioned my going. I do not like to see such high ways in religion."

But this is rare; such little things as ceremonies trouble them neither one way nor the other, and to go to church means to pledge one's self to a good life.

The seasons of Christmas and Easter get much interwoven with their life. One wrote when Christmas Day fell on a Sunday:

"I am glad we are to have one class on Sunday. We all wished it for it spoil the real Christmas joy if it interfered with our Sabbath duty."

Or again: "It did seem so hard to be bad just when I wanted to be most well. I was looking with such pleasure to Easter--when I should be able to take the Holy Communion. It seems so strange I should be ill always at that time. I suppose God has some purpose in it although we cannot see it just at the time."

Services and churchgoing are to them the culminating time of religious thought in the week. Here a sense of mystery and loftiness so easily lost in daily life come back to them, and beauty and size and order bring them into a higher atmosphere; where their simple faith and their definite ideals and definite failings are all brought out in vividness to their eyes.

"On Sunday when I got in church I felt as though it was to much for me to know what had been going on and I felt as though I could not keep from crying and know it made me look very silly to cry in Church but could not help it."

Confirmation is regarded as a most open and complete pledge to live not only a good life, but a life with high ideals and consistent practice. It is very seldom undertaken lightly. Once only I remember two rather simpering girls, all of whose answers when spoken to on the subject was, "Oh yes; we do think baptism so very nice, don't you? And Confirmation so nice too, oh, yes, don't you?" And of course there are instances of neglect twenty years ago, which lead to such remarks as the following, from a girl who had been talked to about it on three successive occasions:

"Well, now you talk about it, I do seem to remember having had something of the kind done to me once. Whether it was Confirmation or christening I can't say. But I know I had white gloves and a veil."

But as a rule it is the reluctance of an honest awe that has to be overcome. "If she was to go back, you see, after being confirmed, she'd better not have been done."

If the preparation is careful it is very genuine; it is a new departure on the road to right. The following is from a thorough good girl of seventeen:

"I have now more time to think about our Lord because I have a nice little room to myself and I can go to sit in it as long as I like and when I reflect on the past I think I have led a very sinful life but I hope to turn over a new leaf and lead new life because I shall look to Confirmation now as I hope to be confirmed in the Autumn I begin to feel happier now because I feel the Lord is beginning to open my eyes I know the Lord has asked me to be good before but I am very sorry to say I have rejected him but now I hope that feeling is all gone."

And if Confirmation is regarded with reverence, so more still is Holy Communion by those who go to it with anything like a good intention and an honest heart. It weaves in with their life; it is the moment at which all their best hopes and loves are most in their mind.

"I cannt tell you how I felt last night," wrote one girl, who was in trouble and disheartened and had grown a little careless, "when you talked about going to holy Communion it seemed as though I could not tell you that I never go now and how it is I could not tell you and know it is not wrigh of me for not going but latly I feell that miserable that I cannt go anywhere."

Things grew better with her. She took heart and made up her mind to do her best in her most trying life, and then she wrote: "I did go to communion on Sunday morning it seemed as though it brough everything up to me especially when I was going up to the altar I shall never forget it."

Another: "If it would not be asking to great favour I should like so to take my first Communion with you as my Brothers and sisters have had Someone to take it with and it seems to hold one up."

Or again, very simple and from a most genuine girl: "I am going to make my first Communion tomorrow and I shall think of you. I have felt very happy lately."

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