Democracy and Christianity

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Democracy and Christianity

W. T. Stead (The Northern Echo, October 14, 1870)

During the performance of one of the grand masterpieces of our grandest musicians, when discords themselves, mingling, seem Harmonies, and the tangled confusion of a hundred instruments, united in one overpowering burst of melody, responsive to the stroke of the conductor, it is often very difficult to discern, amid the wild luxuriancy of the sound, the various parts taken by each instrument. To the performers it is otherwise.

Each occupied with his own instrument can scarcely form any idea of the multitudinous majesty of the blending whole. In the orchestra of the Universe, in which every mortal being is a performer, we often fail to recognise the tendency, or appreciate the beauty, of the music upon which we are engaged. The performance of that orchestra is the history of the world, evolved with wondrous harmony from millions of distinct and contending souls by the Ruler of all Amid the tumult of chords, and the overpowering majesty of some bars where the battle tread of nations mingles with the roaring artillery, with the bursting shell, and with the wailing pathos of the widow’s cry we are often at a loss to discriminate rightly the relative important of the events of our time, or to perceive with what tendency they unite with the ever-varying music of the centuries. Yet, in the midst of the thick crowding notes of battle and of revolution, of peace and of purity, we think we can dimly, ‘as through a glass darkly,’ discern the most powerful tendency of our age.

Democracy— the symbol of the death of a worn-out world, and the rising of a new social era, the faith of the coming century—, we believe, destined to be universally triumphant. All events tend that way. The landmarks of our history are but the records of its progress; like the tide, the wave may for a moment recede, but outward motion is irresistible. It may be of importance to endeavour to understand the relation which this new power occupies or will occupy to Christianity. A weightier question could scarcely be discussed— future of Christianity for a generation at least is bound up in its solution. “The enthusiasm for Democracy,” remarks a well-known writer upon Rationalism, “has throughout Europe taken the place of the enthusiasm for Christianity. The very men who in the first three centuries would have been the martyrs of the Church, are now the apostles of liberty.” When such a change has come over European in fifteen centuries, it betokens something which it would be well for us to ponder. Of its truth we believe there can be no doubt in the mind of any observer of recent events. The prisons of Italy, even at the present day, are occupied by men whose burning zeal alone made a kingdom of Italy a possibility. Siberian mines and the islands of the Frozen Sea now occupy the place which the amphitheatre of the ancient world held to the enthusiasts of the Roman Empire. The plantations of Cavenna bear witness to the persecution of the French professors of Democracy, and the only enthusiasm which filled Austrian dungeons with victims was that of which we are writing. The martyrs of Democracy are its strength; they reveal its importance and show us the intensity with which its principles are held. Two resuscitated kingdoms, those of Greece and Italy, torn by it from the domains of Austria and Turkey, bear witness to its power; and a score of battle-fields in Poland, in France, and in Italy testify to the courage of its followers. It is this zeal which has made Mazzini “the stormy petrel of Europe;” it edged the sword of Garibaldi, and animates the eloquence of Castela. Russia, perhaps the last place in the world in which we would look for its presence, affords us one of the most forcible examples of Democratic zeal. Alexander Herzen, an exile, and outlaw, by his famous Kolokol, which was published in London and circulated from Sabastopol to Alaska, led the way in preaching the evangel of Democracy. Following his example, scores of journals were started, all animated by Democratic fervour, and the first result of their newborn energies was the emancipation of the Serfs in 1861. A still more striking instance of the substitution of Democracy for Christian zeal was seen in 1858, when Sunday schools were established through the length and breadth of that vast empire, with the avowed purpose of disseminating the principles of Democracy. They were formed in the army, and young men from the Universities laboured at teaching the soldiery to read and write, to cover the opinions which they cherished, and with such success that whereas only 4½. per cent. of the recruits could read, 50 per cent. of the cavalry and 85 per cent. of the artillery learnt to read by these means. In America, in the great Civil War, it was Democracy that faced Aristocracy in the death-grapples of Gettysberg, and the fall of Richmond sounded the knell of feudalism in the West. Unfortunately, by many the progress of this spirit has been looked upon with aversion, and retarded by all the means at their disposal. To many well-meaning men Democracy is only a little less horrible than Atheism, and it is too often regarded in common conversation as a synonym of anarchy. “Democracy is godless” is one of the most commonest of cries in the mouths of those to whom Garibaldi is an Atheist, and America a nation without a religion. Many others — including, fortunately, almost all observing men — are discovering that so far from being godless, this vast power of the present and of the nearing future, is one of the most religious forces that ever agitated the kingdoms of this world. There are Democrats and Democrats. The Democrat of Russia differs from the Democrat of Germany, and both from the Democrat of America. But beneath all differences in customs, in principles, and theology, lies the most remarkable unity ever perceived in any body of men. It is a unity of the heart, a common aspiration of the best nature of mankind, one burning love for humanity, and one untiring warfare against all that interferes with its development — animating alike the atheistic Socialists at St. Petersburg and the Christian Republicans at New York. Liberty for men, room for every creature on God’s universe to live as he has power given him from on high, emancipation for the slave, freedom for the oppressed, help for the needy, the universal brotherhood of man, the universal fatherhood of God, these are the ideas which are now the solace and the stay of the apostles of a new era, who, grasping the sublimest truths of Christianity, have interpreted them again to an eager world. Many of their writings are but the Sermon on the Mount para-phrased. The grand truths of the Christian life, the self-sacrificing love of the Gospels, the primitive communism of the early Church — these are the very life of Democracy, which give it the vigour which has enchained nations to its faith, and will yet prostrate before it all the tyrannies of this earth. Democracy, as developed and developing in the nineteenth century, is inspired by Christianity, and Christianity is the inspiration of God.

It is true, that, although the ideas which nerve the Pole to bear to the last, and enable the Italian to mock the prison’s gloom, are Christian ideas in a modern dress, many leaders of Continental Democracy are avowed infidels — some few Atheists, but the majority Deists. They are in reality preaching the ethics of Christianity while denying its divinity. The reason of this estrangement between the prophets of the future — the enthusiasts of the present — and organised Christianity is not difficult to divine. The Churches in Italy, in France, in Spain, in Russia, forgetting her true position as the representative of the Almighty and the Just , allied themselves with the powers of the world, the tyrants and the Unjust. Men arose whose souls revolted against the oppression of the State; they commenced a crusade against tyranny on behalf of the humanity which Christ had come to save, and to their surprise the Church, which pretended to embody His ideas, threw her whole weight against their cause. They found the Church their bitterest foe, and the champion of every injustice and wrong. The inevitable result was that to be a Liberal was to be under a ban, and being persecuted by the Church the Democrat was forced into a position of hostility to her creed. Where superstition was darkest, where the Church was most firmly allied to earthly Powers, liberty has receded the greatest distance from Christianity. Where religion was not allied to the State, as in America, or but loosely allied, as in England, liberty and Democracy exist with the most Christianity. The Puritans of England, and Covenanters of Scotland, and the Nonconformists of a later day, have made religion more the nurse of Liberty than the handmaid of Despotism; and the small fraction of Atheism which is now and then audible in the declamations of a Bradlaugh may be easily traced to the injustice of our National Establishment. In Russia the Nihilist scoffs at God, Law and Marriage, precisely because religion in his land has been a department of a despotic state; but America, that land founded by Christian pilgrims and colonised by the sturdy descendants of men whose song of praise had been heard on the Moor of Long Marston and the heights of Dunbar, has shown to the world that Christianity flourishes most in a Democracy, and that in the ultimate triumph of Democratic principles there is a brighter prospect of the universal spread of Christianity than in any other event that can be imagined.