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Public Meeting Religion

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

THE question may be asked whether the public meeting, as an organ of expression and as a power in affairs, is not, amongst the cultivated classes at least, losing its hold. Men begin to realise more acutely than before time the disabilities of the thing. In a meeting they are so much less free than at their club or their fireside. They cannot smoke ; they cannot talk ; they cannot move about. The man on the platform is probably a bore, and they are unable to extinguish him. They cannot throw him away as they do their newspaper when they have had enough. They must listen as long as he speaks. And the average speaker, even if not a bore, has probably less of value to say on his subject than the book we can pick up and lay down at our will. There is a constant growth in the modern mind of the sense of independence, and more and more men prefer to get their information in the way that least interferes with it.

The public meeting will, however, last our time and that of many a generation to come. It has had much to do with the making of history, and will have much more ; and in itself as a function it is amazingly interesting. There is a psychology of assemblies which offers all manner of problems. As we study the demeanour of a crowd we find our-selves in contact with subtle laws of life, with newly-evolved powers of which we are at present largely ignorant, but which, we may be sure, will occupy the science of the future. We see, for instance, here, how, in certain directions, a whole is some-thing quite different from the sum of its parts. You could not at all reckon the quality of a meeting —its feeling, its probable action—from examining the separate qualities of the individuals composing it. This fusion has produced a new entity with a force and character of its own. We are learning to-day something of the mysterious magnetisms which sweep through the earth from equator to pole. There is a still mightier magnetic evolution in the coming together of the thousand life-centres of which a great audience is composed. Shall we ever be able to measure the range, or catch the full effect of the vibrations then set up in the invisible ethers that surround us ?

Observe, too, the miracle that is wrought in this business of public speech. That out of throat, vocal chords, tongue, teeth, lips, we can produce at will, with unvarying accuracy, these myriad sounds; announce them as the translation of our subtlest thought and feeling ; and that these air waves, vibrating at inconceivable velocities, should be caught on the tympanum of our neighbour, and be translated back in his brain once more to the invisibles of his thought and feeling, is assuredly wonderful enough. But that is not all. A public meeting repeats before our eyes the wonder of the five thousand, fed from one tiny store, which does not diminish in the process. The one speech spreads itself over the entire assembly. Each member of it takes the whole ; yet his absorption of that whole diminishes no whit the portion of his neighbour. Here, surely, is a mystery of ` the many and the one " greater than those 'expounded of Parmenides ! On the other hand, to the psychological whole furnished by an assembly every separate member, though he utters no word, contributes an appreciable part. If we had proper instruments for inner measurement we should be able to register the exact effect which each member of an audience produces on the speakers, and on the psychological entity of the entire gathering. Another department for our instruments would be the progress of inner movement in the assembly—the gradual fusion that takes place under the influence of genuine oratory by which the separate souls, as it were, melt into one and become a kind of huge common consciousness which laughs, sorrows, exults together.

This fusion, in its entirety, is rarely accomplished. A cultivated speaker, with a difficult theme, and delivering himself, we will say, with the cool, average English utterance, will at one and the same time be making a thousand different speeches to the thousand auditors before him. Each man will interpret the speaker's words according to his standpoint, according to the level of his culture and comprehension. It is amongst the more emotional races, which produce at once the genuine orators and the ideal audiences, that the full magnetic possibilities of speech are realised. The result here is not so much opinion as feeling. The effect, indeed, is largely that of music. The oration is a chant. The sentences group them-selves in a rhythmic combination. We have listened to French and to Welsh orators who have in this way stirred the soul precisely as great music stirs it. The words we listen to are creating their effect not by the ideas or facts they impart ; they seem, in both the speaker's soul and our own, to be but the foam on the surface of a deep hurrying flood of emotion, that bears both him and ourselves away in its mighty movement.

When we come to estimate the meeting as a factor in public life, we find an accurate and discriminating judgment to be a difficult business. Good and evil are so closely mingled in the part it has played. Froude had a theory that eloquence was a public bane, and that orators were never to be trusted. He divided men into talkers and doers, to the immense disparagement of the former. But the distinction is baseless. There are speeches that are mighty deeds. Caesar was as potent with pen and tongue as with the sword. Athanasius, Augustine, St. Francis, Luther, Pitt, are names of giants who hewed fresh channels for the human stream to run in, and did it as much by speech as by act. We have to remember here Plato's distinction, in the Gorgias, of the two kinds of rhetoric—one which is mere flattery and declamation, " the other which is noble and aims at the training and improvement of the souls of the citizens." The Greeks, indeed, had full experience of the good and evil of the public meeting. The government of the republics was largely a government of rhetoric. The art of speech took first place in a liberal education ; for in a democracy it was felt that in the faculty of stirring the multitude lay the surest way to power. A Pericles, a Demosthenes held sway by eloquence. Not the less did the wisest minds discern the peril here. We remember Plato's famous comparison of the populace to a huge, passionate animal, and his declaration that the skill of the governor consists in gaining his ends by flattering its humours. It was this aspect of the matter that, doubtless, led him later to speak of democracy as " the worst of lawful governments."

The public meeting as a factor in affairs has, perhaps, nowhere shown a more mixed record than in the story of religion. In some departments of it the influence one must confess, has been of the most sinister kind. And nowhere more notably than in the elucidation of religious truth ; in the region, that is to say, of dogmatic theology. The idea of discovering and authoritatively declaring truths by means of public meetings would be scouted as in the highest degree absurd by the modem scientist ; yet it is precisely in this way that the Church creeds, which undertake to settle for us the profoundest questions of human life, reached their affirmations. When we try to think of a Newton or of a Darwin proposing to themselves to accept, in their separate departments, the resolutions of a heated assembly as the proper way of deciding on the planetary motion, or the descent of man, we begin to understand the difference between the fourth century and our own on the criteria of truth. And yet it is on the results of the fourth-century methods that the Church still professes to found its doctrine ! And what public meetings these Church assemblies were ! We think of the second Council of Ephesus, " the robber synod," where, amid wildest uproar, the Patriarch of Constantinople was trampled to death. We remember how the Council which gave us the Nicene Creed acted under the orders of an Emperor ; while a later Council, under the dictation of his successor, fastened on the Church a directly opposite affirmation. At the Council of Trent it was the persuasive eloquence of the Jesuit Lainez that carried the assembly on point after point of doctrinal dispute. To the modern mind the search after truth is an affair of the ripest intellects, to be carried on year after year in silence, by constant, patient experiment and slow deduction. In theology we see truth, or what passes for it, declared to the world on the authority of public gatherings, torn by fiercest passions, swayed by facile oratory, or coerced and dictated to by a tyrant Emperor. That the Church has survived such processes and such nursing fathers is surely the best evidence of the innate, immortal vigour at its heart.

But the influence of the public meeting in religion has not been all of this kind. Misused, it has often enough helped the enslavement of the human spirit. Into her hands it has been a mighty instrument of liberation. The entire difference between Romanism and Protestantism, one might say, is exhibited in their use of the public meeting. The one has used it for forging chains, the other for breaking them. There was a humble Baptist meeting in London in the early seventeenth century, of which Masson, in his " Life of Milton," thus writes : " The obscure Baptist congregation seems to have become the depositary for all England of the absolute principle of liberty of conscience. . . It is, in short, from this little dingy meeting-house somewhere in old London that there flashed out first in England the absolute doctrine of religious liberty." One may compare this with what went on in another obscure meeting-house on the other side of the Atlantic, when Dr. Hopkins, of Newport, Massachusetts, preaching to a congregation whose capital was largely embarked in the slave trade, at the peril of his position and livelihood, declared the whole business an unchristian iniquity ; and, so saying, started the movement which finally liberated the slave.

The fortunes of Protestantism have hitherto been linked largely with those of the public meeting. Its worship, its propaganda, have been through the popular assembly. Its force has been largely in speech, in preaching, in the enthusiasm, the emotion of the crowd. It was thus that Luther, Zwingli, Calvin fought for the Reformation. It was among their gathered crowds that Wesley and Whitefield sowed the seeds of the evangelical revival. It is amid the glow of impassioned oratory that the religious leaders of today stir the multitude to repentance and reformation, and the Church to higher ideals of service.

It may be, as we hinted at the beginning, that with the growth of knowledge, and with a better organised science of living, the fortunes of the public meeting may undergo a change. In religion, for instance, it is possible that to the Catholic era of symbol and ceremony, and to the Protestant era of speech and argument, there may succeed yet another in which the emphasis will be on organisation and the scientific direction of life. But no social development, we may be satisfied, can render obsolete the divine passion of common worship, or stay that marvellous evolution of the higher powers when, under the magic touch of the inspired speaker, a thousand souls melt into one. Indeed, in the common consciousness, shared at such times by a myriad separate personalities, we have the best suggestion of that Eternal Mind which, living in all the forms of universal being, is yet undividedly One.

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