The Rev. R. J. Campbell
( Originally Published 1907 )
WHETHER to friend or foe, the Rev. R. J. Campbell is one of the most arresting personalities in the London of our time. He is the voice of disquiet and of challenge. He is the disturber of our comfortable peace. He hurries with breathless eagerness from point to point, the lighted torch ever in his hand, the trail of conflagration ever in his wake. He follows no lead, except that of his own urgent, unquiet spirit. He is indifferent to consequences, will brook no interference, drives straight forward, deaf to appeals from the right hand or the left. Friends cannot persuade him; parties cannot hold him; creeds cannot limit him. He is like the wind that bloweth where it listeth.
If stagnation is death and discontent divine, then he is one of the best assets of our time. He flings his bombs into the stagnant parlours of our thought, and thrills the air with the spirit of unrest. Acquiescence and content vanish at his challenge. The sleeper rubs his eyes. He is awake. The vision is before him. The air is filled with the murmur of many voices. He, too, must be up and doing.
In the great, dim, industrial cities of the North, where, in the dark of the winter and the grey dawn of the summer mornings the women, clothed in their shawls and clogs, go forth to their labour in the mills, there is a familiar figure. He is known as the " knocker-up." At four o'clock the clatter of his clogs rings down the silent street, and the thunder of his knock echoes from every door. He passes, and soon in the darkness there is the sound of a people awake. Doors bang, and voices ring out on the still air, and there follows the harsh music of a thousand clogs, pattering in shrill chorus to the mills. The battle of life has recommenced.
Mr. Campbell is the " knocker -up" in the dawn of the twentieth century. The chimes of the great cathedral surge dreamful music on our slumbers; but across from the City Temple comes the sound of a bell, violent, clangorous, insistent, that shatters sleep, and awakes the City. You may not like it. You may find it harsh and discordant. But at least it makes you leap to your feet, if only to take up its challenge.
Nonconformity does not know what to make of this apparition that has suddenly burst into its midst. It finds its throne, as it were, in the hands of the revolutionary. It finds the old flags that waved from the keep hauled down, and the twin flags of the " New Theology " and Socialism flying defiantly in the breeze. It finds its doctrines vaporised into thin air, diffused into a kind of purple mist, beautiful, but intangible. It finds itself indicted in its own cathedral for the sin of Pharisaism, pictured to the world as Mrs. Oliphant loved to picture it as a system of smug content, caricatured in the bitter sneer of Swift :
We are God's chosen few;
It has borne the scourge with singular restraint. It knows that there has been a certain truth in the charge in the past. It knows that there is less truth in it today than at any time since it was born out of the purging fires of persecution. It has been the Church of the middle classes; but its future, as Sir Compton Rickett has said, is with the people, and it is to them that its appeal is directed to-day. The work of men like F. B. Meyer and John Clifford, Silvester Horne and Ensor Walters, Campbell-Morgan and Thomas Phillips, reflects the new spirit that has been breathed in these days into the dry bones of Nonconformity.
It is otherwise with the challenge to its faith. Here Mr. Campbell has done a real service. He has done the service to the religious world which Mr. Chamberlain did to the political world when he challenged the economic structure of the State. He was wrong; but he made us discover that we were right. He set the whole nation to think out the problem of its economic existence. We had accepted the faith as final, and had forgotten its very elements. We were in servitude to a theory that we did not understand and did not want to understand. He made us dig down to our foundations and see if they were true. He put us on our defence, and taught us our case. And so Free Trade was born again. It was a fetish: it has become a faith. This we owe to Mr. Chamberlain.
And so with Mr. Campbell. He has challenged our religious structure at its centre and has set the mind of his time seething with unrest and inquiry. He has lighted a fire which will burn up the refuse and leave the residue pure and vital. He has made the man in the street think about ultimate things, and no one can do a greater service to his time.
" But," says the Divinity Student, " think of the danger."
The danger to what? " asks the Autocrat.
" The danger to Truth," says the Divinity Student.
And the Autocrat answers, " Truth is tough. You may kick it about all day like a football, and it will be round and full like the moon at evening, while Error dies of the prick of a pin." We need not worry about Truth. It comes out of the battle-smoke unharmed, leaving the Lie dead upon the plain.
The Churches needed this challenge. They had ceased to face those obstinate questionings of the intellect which will not be stilled, or, if they are stilled, are stilled only as the restless strivings of the fevered patient are stilled with the drugs of a deathly in-difference. The world was passing them by. Mr. Campbell has made them dig down to their foundations. He has put them upon their defence, and out of the dust and heat of the conflict it may be that faith will be born again.
It is not uncommon to hear him dismissed as a rather crude mind rushing in where wiser men fear to tread, and fighting out his doubts in the public eye. There is a certain truth in the criticism. He is the ordinary man thinking furiously aloud. He is the preacher wrestling with the plain man's doubts in the pulpit. He is not so much fighting for the souls of his hearers as for his own soul, and in that intense drama the man from the counting-house and the shop sees mirrored his own disquiet and his own hunger. Perhaps he, too, out of this conflict may catch a vision of the Promised Land. It is this fact that makes him the most attractive pulpit personality of the day to those outside the churches. The orthodox view him with coldness or alarm. He shakes the pillars of the temple and brings the familiar fabric tumbling about their ears, without providing another stucture equally solid and secure to receive them. He invites them out into the open in pursuit of the rainbow. But to the soul adrift from the churches, yet consumed with the hunger for some revelation that the world cannot provide, the pursuit of the rainbow offers an emotion and a vision that stimulate if they do not satisfy.
This visionary fervour is expressed with unaffected sincerity and simplicity. In the oratory of Dr. Parker there was always a suggestion of the stage. It was not that he was insincere, but that the instinct of the drama was ineradicable. He could not forget the limelight, and loved the echoes of his own thunder. Mr. Campbell delivers himself up to his emotion with absolute self-surrender. He goes out of himself, as it were, into space. There is no strain either of thought or diction, no effort after effect, no flowers of speech. He speaks as the spirit moves him, without literary consciousness and without any thought of consequences. It is not without spiritual relevance that the pulpit of the City Temple used to be filled by an old man with a black mane and is now filled by a young man with a white.
For the leader of a great crusade, he has one serious defect. He is intensely sensitive to criticism. He plays at bowls, but does not look for rubbers. He " comes through," as they say on the green, with crashing force, scattering the " woods " in his path, and he seems surprised that the woods do not get out of the way, with polite apologies for their presence.
They don't burn you at the stake today," he said not long ago; " they stab you in the back." Few men have invited reprisals more; few men have been treated with more generosity by those who find their beliefs, their errors, if you will, suddenly and furiously assailed from within.
He has another defect. It is a certain feverishness of the spirit. There is about him the sense of the hot, uneasy pillow. The raw edges of life chafe him. He cannot escape from the hair-shirt of this mortal vestment, and he cannot endure it. Whatever is, is wrong. The Churches are wrong, society is wrong, Free Trade is wrong. It is this irritation with his environment that gives him the touch of perversity which is so noticeable in him. Nonconformity is definite; he is mystical. Nonconformity is individualistic; he is a member of the I.L.P. The I.L.P. is for Free Trade; he, I gather from a conversation I had with him, is for Tariff Reform. He conforms to no system, accepts no shibboleth, either spiritual or temporal. When Sir David Baird's mother heard that her son was captured in India and chained to natives, she remarked, placidly, " I pity the puir laddies that are chained to oor Dauvit." She knew the imperious waywardness of her son. The way of one chained intellectually to Mr. Campbell would be not less trying. He has the impatience of the idealist in the presence of realities. The vision fades when he touches it concretely. " Now," as Lowell says, now ain't just the minit that ever fits us easy while we're in it." The son of a United Methodist minister, brought up in the Presbyterian atmosphere of his grandfather's home at Belfast, he turned instinctively from the appeal of Nonconformity, with its lack of sensuous attraction, to that of Anglicanism, with its sense of historic continuity. In the conflict between loya'ty to the Free Church traditions of his ancestry, and the call of a more aesthetic system, his mind turned away from the pulpit. He married and took up the teaching profession. Then, with the impulsiveness that always drives him, he set out for Oxford, his mind still under the influence of Anglicanism. But the atmosphere of Oxford was Anglican, and that fact —so subversive of the Nonconformity of the normal man headed him back to the original fold. It was not lack of sympathy, for the singular charm of his personality made a deep impression on Dr. Paget, and Dr. Gore was especially anxious to secure so powerful a recruit for the Church. It was the instinct of the nomadic spirit to escape from the encompassing fold. It was the operation of what the psychologists call " contrarient ideas." The one way to prevent him going in a given direction is to urge him to go. The one way to enlist him in a cause is to prove that it is contrary to all tradition and propriety.
When men reflect upon Mr. Campbell's astonishing career, one question rises to their lips: Whither? There is no answer. I question whether Mr. Campbell himself has an answer. He belongs to no planetary system. He is a lonely wanderer through space a trail of fire burning at white heat, and flashing through the inscrutable night to its unknown goal. His head grey in his youth, his eyes eloquent with some name-less hunger, his face thin and pallid, his physique frail as that of an ascetic of the desert, he stands before us a figure of singular fascination and disquiet, a symbol of the world's passionate yearning after the dimly-apprehended ideal, of its unquenchable revolt against the agonies of men.