( Originally Published 1907 )
WHEN Mr. Balfour said that what he did not like about Dr. Clifford was his " style," he expressed the vital difference between himself and his critic. They are as East and West, " and never the twain shall meet." Mr. Balfour lives in an atmosphere of aesthetic emotion, delicately sensuous, soft, and languorous. One pictures him on a couch of rose-leaves in a chamber where the colour harmonies are perfect and no fierce disturbing light breaks in. The air is soft and aromatic, and from behind the curtains comes the tender breathing of lute and viol. He feels a harsh note like a blow; a false accent in voice or colour or gesture afflicts him with physical distress. One would expect him to flee, hands to ears, from the violence of Tchaikowsky's "1812," or the poignant humanity of Beethoven, and to find refuge in the dream world of Chopin or the Watteau landscapes of Gluck. To such a temperament, life is neither a tragedy nor a comedy: it is an emotion. It is not a battle, but a dream vision; not a shattering reality, but a tone poem.
Into that atmosphere the Puritan bursts like a bombshell in the garden of old Khayyam. He is terribly in earnest, and there is nothing so distressing to the aesthete as earnestness. You cannot have a flawless tone poem with an earnest man about. You cannot enjoy your book of verse beneath the bough if a fierce person breaks in upon you with violent gesticulations, declaring that the City of Destruction is in flames and that you have got to go and help with the fire-engine.
To the Puritan, life is not an emotion to be enjoyed, but a conflict to be won, and he distrusts those sensuous decorations that distract the mind from the spiritual warfare. He is happiest when the battle is fiercest, and I can imagine that Dr. Clifford must sometimes lament that he was born two and a half centuries too late. Had he lived in the great days of the Puritans, how joyously would he have had his ears cropped, with what hymns and psalms and spiritual songs he would have rushed to battle, and, when the victory was won, what sermons he would have preached as the sun went down on the carnage of the battle - field! Cromwell's eye would have singled him out for swift promotion. He would have been one of those "russet-coated captains" whom he loved. He would have had him by him when he told the Rev. Mr. Hytch in Ely Cathedral to " cease his fooling and come down, and I see him in the grey dawn of that day at Dunbar turning to him to give the keynote of the battle song, and young Clifford-now a colonel of the Ironsides lifts his voice:
Let God arise and scattered Let all his enemies be.
He would have sat in judgment at Whitehall upon " the man, Charles Stuart," and would have spent his old age in preaching secretly in out-of-the-way conventicles, in prison oft, in the pillory and the stocks more often, harried from parish to parish, a stern, invincible old warrior waiting for the return of the saints and keeping the lamp trimmed and burning through the riotous night of the Restoration.
For he is the last of the Puritans. When Oxford and Cambridge opened their doors to Dissenters they ended the true Puritan strain. They infused into its strenuous intensity the subtle influences of an atmosphere of taste and culture. They softened the severe outlines, added light and shade, nuance and tone, where formerly the character was simple and sharply defined. To grace in the Puritan sense they have added the graces in the Cavalier sense.
Dr. Clifford is the, type of the Nonconformist minister of the old days of proscription and disability, with all the merits and all the defects of the stern school out of which he came. He is a man who has carved himself with his own jack-knife his University, Cassell's Popular Educator, which he bought in penny numbers—and his rugged personality bears the splendid impress of that unaided workmanship. He came from the people, and he belongs to the people in a sense in which, perhaps, he could not have belonged had not the Catechism stood in his path to Oxford. For when the little son of the warp machiner at Sawley, in Derbyshire, was sent to the National School, the master, attracted by his capacity, promised to get him to Oxford. But the Puritan father was not to be bribed by Oxford. He would have no Catechisms taught his son. " John," he would say, " I'll not have you tell a lie. You must not talk of your godfathers and godmothers when you haven't got any." And so, instead of going to Oxford, he went, at the age of ten, into a lace mill, where he advanced from the position of a " jacker off " to that of a " thredder." " As thredder," he will tell you, I had to work in a gang preparing the ' carriages and the ' bobbins ' for the big machines. If we fell behind, the machines would be delayed, so that we often had to keep at it far into the night, with the foreman setting one gang to compete with another. Our food was sent to us from home—coffee in a tin, bread with a bit of cheese, perhaps, or butter, though butter seldom, for we still felt the effect of the Corn Laws. Meat possibly once a week." It was a hard school, in which the character was hammered out strong, real, and enduring, or shattered in the process.
But if he is the last of the Puritans in character, equipment, and temperament, he has none of the harshness of the Calvinist theology. He is all for the sanctity of conscience and the right of private judgment in the affairs of the soul. He will impose no creeds on anyone, not even on his Church. His own faith is still as clear and primitive as when, sixty years ago, he sat a boy in Beeston Chapel, in "much mental anguish," and in his own words experienced conversion in the midst of the singing of the verse:
The soul that longs to see My face Is sure My love to gain;
But he is for the spirit and not for the letter. He will not make his own faith the measure of his neighbour's, and when Charles Spurgeon began his " Downgrade " controversy, and sought to rivet anew the Calvinistic dogma on the Baptist Church, it was John Clifford, then President of the Baptist Union, who fought the battle of liberation and won. " I do not object to creeds as statements of belief," he said. " It is coercion through and by creeds that I object to." He was willing, and even assisted, to formulate a declaration of the Church's faith; but beyond that he would not go. He would not apply it as a test to the individual conscience. " Creed " or " Declaration " became the issue, and Spurgeon passed out of the Baptist Church with his Calvinist doctrines and his assertion of the verbal inspiration of the Bible, while Dr. Clifford remained within victorious. And so, when Mr. Campbell raised the waters with his " New Theology," it was Dr. Clifford, almost alone among Nonconformist leaders, who took his stand by him, in sympathy not with his views, but with liberty of thought.
Hatred of creeds and passion for the freedom of an awakened conscience are the two motives that actuate him. " How long is it," asks Holmes, "since religion was such an invalid that it could only go out in a closed carriage with a gentleman in a black suit and a white tie on the box? " Dr. Clifford insists that religion is an active pedestrian who wants plenty of light and moorland air. He will not sit on the box, nor wear a white tie, nor call himself Reverend," nor name any man heretic. He believes, with Renan's Ebrew Jew, that On fait ce qu'on veut, mais on croit ce qu'on peut. He has no fear of consequences if only men will think. It is not unbelief, but non-belief; not the conscience that questions, but the conscience that is atrophied, that he assails. " Think for yourselves," he cries. " If you find that it is not rational to be a Christian, then be not a Christian ; but reflect well before you decide." He is the antithesis of those Christians who, in Swift's phrase, have " just enough religion to hate each other." He is all tolerance. He does not deliver the law from an infallible throne; but comes down, as it were, into the market-place and talks the thing out with you, a plain, man like yourself, offering you his opinion and seeking yours. Hence his attraction for all sorts and conditions of men, his long friendship with Freethinkers like Holyoake, and his monthly " Question-Nights," when he meets all assailants on a common ground, not avoiding contradiction, but seeking it. " You must under-stand a man's doctrine before you attack it " is his axiom.
He has the serenity and the unconquerable optimism of the man who believes in the moral sovereignty of the world. "Personalities pass and disappear," he cries, " but the principle of justice is eternal. Ignorant men may nail it to the Cross, but the third day it rises again and mounts to heaven." And this triumph of the spirit of righteousness is reflected in the life of men. " Our lecturer thinks the world is getting better," said a Social Democrat at the close of an address. " Now, I don't think it is." " But I know it is," replied Dr. Clifford. " I know that when I was ten I was called at six o'clock in the morning to go and work twelve or fourteen hours in a lace factory, and I know that no boy of ten will be called at six to-morrow morning to be forced to work in any factory in the land."
His mind is all daylight. There are no subtle half-tones, or sensitive reserves, or significant shadows of silence; no landscape fading through purple mists to a romantic distance. All is clear, obvious, emphatic. There is little atmosphere and a lack of that humour that softens the contours of controversy. His thought is direct and simple, and makes its appeal, not to culture, but to the primitive emotions. He is probably the best popular orator in England. The strenuousness which is so distasteful to Mr. Balfour is a battle-cry to the crowd. He keeps his passion white hot; his body works like a windmill in a hurricane; his eyes flash lightnings; he seizes the enemy, as it were, by the throat, pommels him with breathless blows, and throws him aside a miserable wreck. In the pulpit his slight, bent form moves restlessly to and fro: he fixes someone with his glittering eye; argues with him, as it were; wrestles with him; poses him with questions; draws back to make a point; leaps forward, and explodes. Punch declares that he wears two cravats, one in front and one behind, so that in the midst of his passionate speeches the one behind can take the place of that in front. In the case of a long speech the cravat behind recovers its position in front, having made a complete tour of the Doctor. This, of course, is an exaggeration ; but he is energetic.
This moral and intellectual strenuousness makes him the symbol of all that is hateful to the foe. He is pictured as a bitter, intolerant, assertive man. He is, in fact, one of the gentlest, most humble-minded men I have known, simple and unaffected, merry as a child and delighting in children, easily imposed on by the melting tale, overflowing with generous sympathy, entirely free from all personal bitterness. It is the custom of the meaner part of the Press to gibe at his degree, to represent him as a charlatan flaunting a sham honour. " Dr." indeed ! Does it come from Oxford or Cambridge ? Not at all. From Bates University, in the United States. And at the oft-told tale there is a gust of scornful laughter. And there's an end of " Dr." Clifford.
It is a foolish and ungenerous taunt. If Oxford and Cambridge have not offered him the honour, so much the worse for Oxford and Cambridge. He does not ask it, did not ask it of Bates University, has never himself used it. But what man of our time has a higher claim to recognition from any seat of learning or worth? What story is more fascinating, more full of wholesome stimulus, than that of his eager pursuit of knowledge under difficulties working in the mill all day, studying far into the night ; taking now a youth his theological course at Leicester, and, having started on that fifty years' ministry at Westbourne Park, not sinking down into a comfortable rut, but setting out bravely to London University to lay the foundations that circumstances had denied him. And well he laid them, working all the time at his pastorate B.A. in 1861; B.Sc., with honours in Logic, Moral Philosophy, Geology, and Palaeontology, in 1862; M.A., first of his year, in 1864; LL.B., with honours in the Principles of Legislation, in 1866.
Nothing to blush for here, is there? And then add to it those fifty years spent in tireless and unselfish labour for all noble human causes; in the front rank of every fight against tyranny and intolerance, whether in the spiritual or the political sphere, whether in London or Africa; loving truth and justice even more than religion and piety; a great citizen, a great patriot; spending himself ungrudgingly for the reward of a head clerk; as poor at the end, save for the modest competence presented to him by his admirers on his seventieth birthday, as at the beginning. " What is your fee? " asked the secretary at the dose of a lecture in a remote part of England. " My third-class fare," he answered.
There are few lives that one would rather have lived than this—a life rich in unselfish service that has kept his roots watered and his branches green, so true is it that " what I gave I have." You may dislike his style, you may find the note too strident for your sensitive taste, you may resent the moral maxim and the passionate truism; but do not pride yourself upon living in the atmosphere of an artificial culture in which no man of breeding talks of principles, and in which the ripeness of emotion passes insensibly into the rottenness of moral decadence. For there is a far worse cant than the cant of morality, and that is the cant of culture. No nation was ever kept sweet and vital by moral opiates, and it is because he is a bracing tonic in a time of moral slackness that John Clifford ranks among the chief assets of our day.