An Autobiography/Chapter VI

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An Autobiography by Annie Wood Besant
183120An Autobiography — Chapter VI: CHARLES BRADLAUGH.Annie Wood Besant

During all these months the intellectual life had not stood still; I was slowly, cautiously feeling my way onward. And in the intellectual and social side of my life I found a delight unknown in the old days of bondage. First, there was the joy of freedom, the joy of speaking out frankly and honestly each thought. Truly, I had a right to say: "With a great price obtained I this freedom," and having paid the price, I revelled in the liberty I had bought. Mr. Scott's valuable library was at my service; his keen brain challenged my opinions, probed my assertions, and suggested phases of thought hitherto untouched. I studied harder than ever, and the study now was unchecked by any fear of possible consequences. I had nothing left of the old faith save belief in "a God," and that began slowly to melt away. The Theistic axiom: "If there be a God at all He must be at least as good as His highest creature," began with an "if," and to that "if" I turned my attention. "Of all impossible things," writes Miss Frances Power Cobbe, "the most impossible must surely be that a man should dream something of the good and the noble, and that it should prove at last that his Creator was less good and less noble than he had dreamed." But, I questioned, are we sure that there is a Creator? Granted that, if there is, He must be above His highest creature, but—is there such a being? "The ground," says the Rev. Charles Voysey, "on which our belief in God rests is man. Man, parent of Bibles and Churches, inspirer of all good thoughts and good deeds. Man, the masterpiece of God's thought on earth. Man, the text-book of all spiritual knowledge. Neither miraculous nor infallible, man is nevertheless the only trustworthy record of the Divine mind in things pertaining to God. Man's reason, conscience, and affections are the only true revelation of his Maker." But what if God were only man's own image reflected in the mirror of man's mind? What if man were the creator, not the revelation of his God?

It was inevitable that such thoughts should arise after the more palpably indefensible doctrines of Christianity had been discarded. Once encourage the human mind to think, and bounds to the thinking can never again be set by authority. Once challenge traditional beliefs, and the challenge will ring on every shield which is hanging in the intellectual arena. Around me was the atmosphere of conflict, and, freed from its long repression, my mind leapt up to share in the strife with a joy in the intellectual tumult, the intellectual strain.

I often attended South Place Chapel, where Moncure D. Conway was then preaching, and discussion with him did something towards widening my views on the deeper religious problems; I re-read Dean Mansel's "Bampton Lectures," and they did much towards turning me in the direction of Atheism; I re-read Mill's "Examination of Sir William Hamilton's Philosophy," and studied carefully Comte's "Philosophie Positive." Gradually I recognised the limitations of human intelligence and its incapacity for understanding the nature of God, presented as infinite and absolute; I had given up the use of prayer as a blasphemous absurdity, since an all-wise God could not need my suggestions, nor an all-good God require my promptings. But God fades out of the daily life of those who never pray; a personal God who is not a Providence is a superfluity; when from the heaven does not smile a listening Father, it soon becomes an empty space, whence resounds no echo of man's cry. I could then reach no loftier conception of the Divine than that offered by the orthodox, and that broke hopelessly away as I analysed it.

At last I said to Mr. Scott, "Mr. Scott, may I write a tract on the nature and existence of God?"

He glanced at me keenly. "Ah, little lady, you are facing, then, that problem at last? I thought it must come. Write away."

While this pamphlet was in MS. an event occurred which coloured all my succeeding life. I met Charles Bradlaugh. One day in the late spring, talking with Mrs. Conway—one of the sweetest and steadiest natures whom it has been my lot to meet, and to whom, as to her husband, I owe much for kindness generously shown when I was poor and had but few friends—she asked me if I had been to the Hall of Science, Old Street. I answered, with the stupid, ignorant reflection of other people's prejudices so sadly common, "No, I have never been there. Mr. Bradlaugh is rather a rough sort of speaker, is he not?"

"He is the finest speaker of Saxon-English that I have ever heard," she answered, "except, perhaps, John Bright, and his power over a crowd is something marvellous. Whether you agree with him or not, you should hear him."

In the following July I went into the shop of Mr. Edward Truelove, 256, High Holborn, in search of some Comtist publications, having come across his name as a publisher in the course of my study at the British Museum. On the counter was a copy of the National Reformer, and, attracted by the title, I bought it. I read it placidly in the omnibus on my way to Victoria Station, and found it excellent, and was sent into convulsions of inward merriment when, glancing up, I saw an old gentleman gazing at me, with horror speaking from every line of his countenance. To see a young woman, respectably dressed in crape, reading an Atheistic journal, had evidently upset his peace of mind, and he looked so hard at the paper that I was tempted to offer it to him, but repressed the mischievous inclination.

This first copy of the paper with which I was to be so closely connected bore date July 19, 1874, and contained two long letters from a Mr. Arnold of Northampton, attacking Mr. Bradlaugh, and a brief and singularly self-restrained answer from the latter. There was also an article on the National Secular Society, which made me aware that there was an organisation devoted to the propagandism of Free Thought. I felt that if such a society existed, I ought to belong to it, and I consequently wrote a short note to the editor of the National Reformer, asking whether it was necessary for a person to profess Atheism before being admitted to the Society. The answer appeared in the National Reformer:—

"S.E.—To be a member of the National Secular Society it is only necessary to be able honestly to accept the four principles, as given in the National Reformer of June 14th. This any person may do without being required to avow himself an Atheist. Candidly, we can see no logical resting-place between the entire acceptance of authority, as in the Roman Catholic Church, and the most extreme Rationalism. If, on again looking to the Principles of the Society, you can accept them, we repeat to you our invitation."

I sent my name in as an active member, and find it is recorded in the National Reformer of August 9th. Having received an intimation that Londoners could receive their certificates at the Hall of Science from Mr. Bradlaugh on any Sunday evening, I betook myself thither, and it was on August 2, 1874, that I first set foot in a Freethought hall. The Hall was crowded to suffocation, and, at the very moment announced for the lecture, a roar of cheering burst forth, a tall figure passed swiftly up the Hall to the platform, and, with a slight bow in answer to the voluminous greeting, Charles Bradlaugh took his seat. I looked at him with interest, impressed and surprised. The grave, quiet, stern, strong face, the massive head, the keen eyes, the magnificent breadth and height of forehead—was this the man I had heard described as a blatant agitator, an ignorant demagogue?

He began quietly and simply, tracing out the resemblances between the Krishna and the Christ myths, and as he went from point to point his voice grew in force and resonance, till it rang round the hall like a trumpet. Familiar with the subject, I could test the value of his treatment of it, and saw that his knowledge was as sound as his language was splendid. Eloquence, fire, sarcasm, pathos, passion, all in turn were bent against Christian superstition, till the great audience, carried away by the torrent of the orator's force, hung silent, breathing soft, as he went on, till the silence that followed a magnificent peroration broke the spell, and a hurricane of cheers relieved the tension.

He came down the Hall with some certificates in his hand, glanced round, and handed me mine with a questioning "Mrs. Besant?" Then he said, referring to my question as to a profession of Atheism, that he would willingly talk over the subject of Atheism with me if I would make an appointment, and offered me a book he had been using in his lecture. Long afterwards I asked him how he knew me, whom he had never seen, that he came straight to me in such fashion. He laughed and said he did not know, but, glancing over the faces, he felt sure that I was Annie Besant.

From that first meeting in the Hall of Science dated a friendship that lasted unbroken till Death severed the earthly bond, and that to me stretches through Death's gateway and links us together still. As friends, not as strangers, we met—swift recognition, as it were, leaping from eye to eye; and I know now that the instinctive friendliness was in very truth an outgrowth of strong friendship in other lives, and that on that August day we took up again an ancient tie, we did not begin a new one. And so in lives to come we shall meet again, and help each other as we helped each other in this. And let me here place on record, as I have done before, some word of what I owe him for his true friendship; though, indeed, how great is my debt to him I can never tell. Some of his wise phrases have ever remained in my memory. "You should never say you have an opinion on a subject until you have tried to study the strongest things said against the view to which you are inclined." "You must not think you know a subject until you are acquainted with all that the best minds have said about it." "No steady work can be done in public unless the worker study at home far more than he talks outside." "Be your own harshest judge, listen to your own speech and criticise it; read abuse of yourself and see what grains of truth are in it." "Do not waste time by reading opinions that are mere echoes of your own; read opinions you disagree with, and you will catch aspects of truth you do not readily see." Through our long comradeship he was my sternest as well as gentlest critic, pointing out to me that in a party like ours, where our own education and knowledge were above those whom we led, it was very easy to gain indiscriminate praise and unstinted admiration; on the other hand, we received from Christians equally indiscriminate abuse and hatred. It was, therefore, needful that we should be our own harshest judges, and that we should be sure that we knew thoroughly every subject that we taught. He saved me from the superficiality that my "fatal facility" of speech might so easily have induced; and when I began to taste the intoxication of easily won applause, his criticism of weak points, his challenge of weak arguments, his trained judgment, were of priceless service to me, and what of value there is in my work is very largely due to his influence, which at once stimulated and restrained.

One very charming characteristic of his was his extreme courtesy in private life, especially to women. This outward polish, which sat so gracefully on his massive frame and stately presence, was foreign rather than English—for the English, as a rule, save such as go to Court, are a singularly unpolished people—and it gave his manner a peculiar charm. I asked him once where he had learned his gracious fashions that were so un-English—he would stand with uplifted hat as he asked a question of a maidservant, or handed a woman into a carriage—and he answered, with a half-smile, half-scoff, that it was only in England he was an outcast from society. In France, in Spain, in Italy, he was always welcomed among men and women of the highest social rank, and he supposed that he had unconsciously caught the foreign tricks of manner. Moreover, he was absolutely indifferent to all questions of social position; peer or artisan, it was to him exactly the same; he never seemed conscious of the distinctions of which men make so much.

Our first conversation, after the meeting at the Hall of Science, took place a day or two later in his little study in 29, Turner Street, Commercial Road, a wee room overflowing with books, in which he looked singularly out of place. Later I learned that he had failed in business in consequence of Christian persecution, and, resolute to avoid bankruptcy, he had sold everything he possessed, save his books, had sent his wife and daughters to live in the country with his father-in-law, had taken two tiny rooms in Turner Street, where he could live for a mere trifle, and had bent himself to the task of paying off the liabilities he had incurred—incurred in consequence of his battling for political and religious liberty. I took with me my MS. essay "On the Nature and Existence of God," and it served as the basis for our conversation; we found there was little difference in our views. "You have thought yourself into Atheism without knowing it," he said, and all that I changed in the essay was the correction of the vulgar error that the Atheist says "there is no God," by the insertion of a passage disclaiming this position from an essay pointed out to me by Mr. Bradlaugh. And at this stage of my life-story, it is necessary to put very clearly the position I took up and held so many years as Atheist, because otherwise the further evolution into Theosophist will be wholly incomprehensible. It will lead me into metaphysics, and to some readers these are dry, but if any one would understand the evolution of a Soul he must be willing to face the questions which the Soul faces in its growth. And the position of the philosophic Atheist is so misunderstood that it is the more necessary to put it plainly, and Theosophists, at least, in reading it, will see how Theosophy stepped in finally as a further evolution towards knowledge, rendering rational, and therefore acceptable, the loftiest spirituality that the human mind can as yet conceive.

In order that I may not colour my past thinkings by my present thought, I take my statements from pamphlets written when I adopted the Atheistic philosophy and while I continued an adherent thereof. No charge can then be made that I have softened my old opinions for the sake of reconciling them with those now held.