Friday, 25 January 2013


Mr. George Combe commenced by observing that he had never spoken on a subject of greater interest than that which  was now to occupy the attention of the meeting. . .
 I repeat, then, that the enlightened advocates of national education desire to raise your children to the rank of skilled operatives, and moral and intelligent members of the community. You are the persons chiefly interested in the movement, and yet, so far as I know, you have been least  of all consulted on the subject. Men of different religious denominations, and who are sincerely desirous to elevate your condition, have endeavoured to devise a scheme of national education, in which the rights of all shall be respected ; but hitherto the accomplishment of the good work has been hindered by the circumstance, that each religious sect desires to have such control, direct or indirect, of the educational machinery, that the schools may serve not merely to impart secular knowledge, but also to recruit the ranks of the sect, and to fill the pews of its churches or meeting-houses. In regard to this, too, they have omitted to consult the labouring classes, whose children chiefly the schools are intended to educate (Cheers, and loud applause.) Mr. Lombo's wish is that you should have an opportunity of declaring your own unbiased opinions on the education of your children, and for this purpose the present meeting has been called. To enable you to form an enlightened judgment on the matter, I beg leave to address to you a few practical considerations.
 The grand obstacle to the establishment of a national system of education, supported by taxation, is the "religious difficulty." Let us inquire into its nature and the objects of those who interpose it. In the discussions on this subject, three terms are in frequent use which it is necessary clearly to understand. Those are-"secular education," "religion," and "theology." The word "secular," derived from seculum an age, means things belonging to time as contradistinguished from eternity.  It means things belonging to this world ; and secular education, therefore, signifies instruction in things that exist in us and around us in our present state of being, and by knowing which we may vastly increase our temporal prosperity and happiness, and avoid much temporal suffering, Secular things, or things of this world, are not the opposites or antagonists of the interests of eternity, They are a portion of them with which we are necessarily much concerned in this state of being, and as such I beg that you will understand them. The word "religion" expresses a sentiment, an emotion, or a state of feeling ; and is distinct from intellectual conception. "Theology" means the intellectual views which we form concerning the objects which excite the religious emotion. The history of man in every age and country proves the innateness of the religious sentiment in his mind, though its intensity, like that of all his other emotions, is different in different individuals and nations, and in some it is so feeble that they are scarcely, if at all, conscious of its existence. In this respect it resembles the love of music and the power of producing it. Some savage tribes make only a series of monotonous sounds, in measured time, by beating on a rude drum with a stick, and this they call music. The Scotchman invents a sweet but simple tune in which melody and time are combined, he weds it to immortal verse, and this is his music and song. The German combines melodious sounds in infinite variety, and with every possible interval of time, adapts string to string and instrument to instrument, until he produces bursts of melody and harmony that thrill the astonished listener. But there are individuals to whom all perception of melody is denied, and to whom the sweet breathings of the lute are more momentous sounds. To prove to such individuals, that in this respect they form exceptions to the general nature of man, we point to the existence of musicians, musical instruments, orchestras and music halls, as evidence that a love of music exists, of which those are the external symbols. And thus it is with religion. We point to priests, temples, churches, and vast congregations of worshippers, existing in every age and almost in every country, as the visible and tangible proofs of the existence of a religious emotion in man. There are individuals to whom this emotion is denied, and others in whom it is feeble ; but those, as I have remarked, form exceptions to the common rule. In men in general it is a strong, vivid, or intense emotion, and from the grandeur of the objects to which it is naturally related, it assumes supremacy over all other feelings. Such, then, is the religious emotion. Let us now inquire into theology. Theology, as I have said, means the intellectual ideas which we form concerning the Being, or objects, to whom or which the devotional emotion should be addressed ; and here the difficulties of the subject begin. The ideas formed of the object to which our religious emotion should be directed, bear necessarily a direct reference to the extent of our knowledge of the external world and of the human mind. The savage is a stranger to science, and unacquainted with mind elevated and improved by knowledge ; and the lines of Pope describe his religion

"Lo! the poor Indian, whose untutored mind

Sees God in clouds or hears him in the wind."

This is his theology. The half-civilised Hindoo and Mahometan know more of external nature and of the human mind, and they have invented sacred books describing God and his prophets, and purporting to reveal his will ; but these, with portions of truth, contain innumerable errors. The Christian nations are far the most advanced in knowledge on the face of the globe ; and the Bible, which they acknowledge as the chief source of their information about God, is infinitely superior to the so-called sacred books of the Hindoos and the Mahometans. Thus it appears that the sentiment or emotion of reverence and devotion to a great and good Being is common to the savage, the Hindoo, the Mahometan, and the Christian, but that each of those races forms notions of the qualities and will of that Being corresponding to its own intellectual enlightenment—in other words, its theology bears the stamp of its civilisation. The difference between religion and theology may be aptly illustrated by comparing them to the warp and woof of a web. The weaver fixes in his loom, first, long threads stretching out directly from his own position, and these are called the warp. Then he has thread upon a shuttle, which he ever and anon casts between the long threads, and these cross threads are called the woof. The web or cloth is composed of the two series of threads, closely pressed together. Now, in our present problem, the native sentiment of reverence and devotion may be likened to the warp. It is the foundation or first element of the web. The theological ideas may be considered as the cross thread, or woof. As the shuttle adds the woof to the warp to make the cloth, the intellect adds theology, or particular notions about God, to the emotion, and the two combined constitute what we commonly call religion. The Hindoo religion is the primitive pure emotion with such intellectual ideas as the priests of the country have been able to weave into it. The Mahometan and Christian religions may be described in similar terms ; and thus it is that the composite web of reverential emotion and intellectual ideas which each nation has formed for itself is called its religion. The compound nature of this web is not usually perceived by its votaries. The Hindoo regards his sacred web as altogether pure religion, and the Mahometan and the Christian of whatever sect, do the same. The primitive emotion, when energetic and excited, is so overpowering that it carries the whole mind captive. When it acts blindly, it dethrones reason, stifles conscience, and enlists every passion to vindicate the honour and glory of the Being whom it has been trained to reverence. When the woof of error has been added in infancy, and the web of superstition formed, every thread—that is to say, every notion concerning God, and his priests, and man's duty to both—becomes sacred in the eyes of the devotee, and stirs the emotion into a glow of rapture if gratified, and of indignation and fury if contradicted. In this state of mind barbarous nations plunder and slay in honour, and to the glory of their gods. Now, in Christian nations analogous phenomena appear.
 We all profess to draw our religion from the Bible ; but in Scotland, one woof is woven into the warp ; in England another ; in Ireland a third ; in Germany a fourth ; in Russia a fifth, and so on. In our own country the woof consists of certain views of God, of human nature and of man's state, duties, and destiny, embodied in the Shorter Catechism and the Confession of Faith. In our infancy these are woven by our parents and clergy into the very core of our religious emotion, and the resulting texture is our religion. The union is so intimate, and the web so firmly knit together, that most of us have no conception of anything being religion except this our own compound web of devotion and intellectual doctrine. The doctrine is to us as sacred as the emotion, and he who controverts it is regarded as the enemy of our religion. Nevertheless, the doctrine, all the time, is a mere human woof formed by mortal men assembled at Westminster in the 17th century ; men fallible like ourselves, and many of them more ignorant ; though its intimate union with our devotional emotion is apt to incapacitate our mind from so regarding it. We obtain direct and irresistible proof that such is the fact, by merely crossing the border, or St. George's Channel. In England, the woof is composed of the Liturgy and the Episcopalian Catechism. The Englishman, into whose devotional emotion the doctrines of these books have been woven from infancy, cannot conceive anything but his own web of opinion being the true religion. Cross the Channel, again to Catholic Ireland, and there you find that the Pope and Councils have fashioned other standards of faith, and that the priests have woven them into the warp of the Irish mind, and this web constitutes religion to them. Nay, the clergy of different sects have woven notions about church government and ceremonies into the warp, and made these also appear portions of religion, and men fight and defend them with as much zeal as if they were attributes of God. You can now under stand why it is that we are afflicted with such deadly strife and hatred in the name of religion. The thing we call religion is a compound web ; and when our neighbour shows us his fabric of religious opinion, and calls it divine, we, into whose minds it has not been woven, survey it with the eye of reason and pronounce it partly pure and partly spurious in its threads. Our neighbour's devotional feelings receive a rude shock; he becomes angry, and attacks our web of opinion in his turn, and treats it in a similar way. Neither of us, in general, is capable of examining closely and calmly the threads that constitute the woof of his own web, and hence discord is interminable. How is this unhappy state of things to be brought to a close?
 Dr. Duff, the missionary from the Church of Scotland to the Hindoos, wrote home that preaching Christianity had but little effect on that people. They opposed their sacred books to his, and their miracles to the Christian miracles, and were incapable of perceiving the difference between them. He said to the Church of Scotland—
Send me teachers of natural science to instruct these people in the order and law of nature, to open their understandings to truth and falsehood, to things that are real and things, that are fanciful, and to teach them to reason ; and, after they are so instructed, I shall convert them." In other words, he wished for men to pick out the threads of superstition from their minds and to substitute natural truth, and when the web was so prepared, he would be able to add the woof of Christian doctrine. By a similar process, perhaps, we might be enabled to pick out some errors from our own webs and form a fairer fabric of true religion ; for that the doctrines of many of our Christian sects must include error is certain, seeing that they so widely differ in their interpretations of Scripture.
 Indeed, how can the woof be pure? The Roman Catholic web was begun almost under the Roman Idolatry, and it was woven into its present texture amidst the barbarism of the dark ages. The Protestant faith was woven into a web or system three hundred years ago, amidst bloodshed, and fire, and devastation ; and many minor webs have been formed in later times, taking their origin from the mental peculiarities of their makers, such as Swedenborg, or from the circumstances of the times. The nature of the religious difficulty which obstructs the progress of a comprehensive scheme of national education will now be easily understood. There are vast bodies of clergy and laymen attached to particular woofs of Christian theology or doctrine, which they conscientiously regard as the only forms of true religion ; and so intimately are these doctrines connected in their minds with the pure devotional sentiment, that they regard deserting of them as deserting God. They are bent on promoting the universal diffusion of them as boons to the human race, and are offended and affronted by opposition.
 Not only so, but each denomination has expended large sums of money in building places of worship and school-houses in which to communicate their views to the old and to the young, as divine truth. They all see that the school-house is the recruiting station for the chapel, and they therefore aim, as I have said, first to benefit your children by education, but, in the second place, to benefit themselves by enlisting as many as possible of them under their own banners, in the certain expectation that, in twenty years hence, those children will prove pillars and stays to their chapels. (Loud cheers.)
 I do not blame them for their attachment to what they consider truth, and I admire and respect their zeal in endeavouring to diffuse it. Indeed, the deep interest and universal commotion that now exists in the United Kingdom on religion, are to me, in one view, subjects of rejoicing, for they indicate an awakening energy in the highest emotional faculties of man, the torpor of which, in the latter half of the last century, was fatal to moral progress. But I lament the blindness which prevents the lead of the different sects from discovering that their own web of theology is not necessarily the only true religion, although, from the circumstances before explained, it is the truest with which they are acquainted.
 The struggle between the sects to obtain possession of the schools commenced with the Reformation. Luther, Calvin, and Knox, urged education as the only means of making good their conquests from Catholicism. They saw that the school was an admirable place for effectively weaving the Protestant woof into young minds, and, by the most praiseworthy efforts, they accomplished this great work. But Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits did the same service to Catholicism. He and his followers instituted Roman Catholic schools and they speedily wove such a woof of faith into the young minds of the flocks left to them after the Reformation, that Catholicism has not only been impregnable ever since, but appears actually to be gaining on Protestantism. Mr. Macaulay, in the Edinburgh Review, remarked that, since the age of Luther, Protestantism, relatively to Catholicism, has not increased and that whatever since that time has been gained by Christianity, has been acquired, by Roman Catholicism.
 How do the interests of laymen fare under these conflicts of contending sects ? They wither and decay. The theology itself cramps the understanding and lowers the moral courage of the nation. These contests not only present obstacles to the foundation of schools and benevolent societies, but block up the door of our universities, and of as many of our existing seminaries as the sects are able to command. Sentinels, with theological and ecclesiastical tests in their hands, stand at the portals of our colleges and parish schools, of our charitable foundations for education, and beckon back all who will not consent to receive them as embodiments of divine truth.

The consequences, as I have said, are, that education, and with it the moral and intellectual progress of the nation, are obstructed. We are brought to a dead lock and unless the people declare their resolutions to be free, I see no means of escape. Survey the histories of nations, and you will find that they all tell one tale. Wherever the education of the people has been chiefly under clerical control, there, religious doctrines have been assiduously taught, and the knowledge of God's creation, and the laws by which it is administered, has, generally speaking been omitted ; the people are ignorant and superstitious, and have made small progress in material well-being. This is the character of the instruction given in Southern Italy, Spain, and Portugal, in some of the rural districts of England, and until lately, in Catholic Ireland. The Highlands and Western Islands of Scotland afford additional examples. Intellectual torpor and material degradation reign in these countries, hand in hand with undisputed religious creeds ; and Germany and the United States of North America present examples of nations who are educated by laymen in secular knowledge, and by the their clergy in religious creeds : and there intellectual activity and material well being are far more general among the people than in the same class even in Great Britain.
 Within thirty years, under universal secular education, Germany has made greater advances in civilisation in all its branches than for a century before under purely clerical instruction. Nay, so palpable did the evil of a predominant clerical influence in education become to the Swiss, that in 1847 the Protestant cantons made actual war on the Roman Catholic cantons, and expelled the Jesuits, because they had engrossed and turned to their own purposes the education of the young, and were constantly, through this means, extending their influence.
  In these countries far greater religious freedom reigns than in Scotland. There a man who is moral may profess what religion he pleases ; here the shopkeeper is forsaken by his customers if he is reputed unsound in his faith ; the orthodox Churchman will not stand on the same platform, for educational objects, with the Unitarian ; the Evangelical supporter of the Original Ragged School will not even enter the door of the United Industrial School, because Roman Catholic and Protestant children are there instructed in secular knowledge in the same classes. Nay, although the webs of faith of the Established Church, the Free Church, and the United Presbyterian Church, are actually woven from the same materials (the Westminster Confession and the Catechism), yet because they are the products of different looms, and each has three or four threads of opinion about church government, in which it differs from the others-(laughter and cheers)-those few threads act like electrical elements of discord, and make the whole webs repel each other with fiery vehemence.
 Such a state of things, I repeat, brings dishonour on our country. It wastes in paltry contests the mental energy that should be applied in improving the moral and intellectual condition of the people ; it stifles our emotions of benevolence and justice; wastes our substance in building schools and chapels, which ruin previously existing establishments of a similar kind ; and, worst of all, it renders us moral poltroons; for so intense and active is sectarian hostility and so vindictive in its spirit, that thousands who see and deplore these evils are deterred from attempting to remove them. They occasion more evil still. They prevent the development of the national mind. In our Universities the Professor of Anatomy will, for example, show the structure of the eye, and name it the organ of vision ; and the Professor of Natural Philosophy will describe the sun, and demonstrate the laws of the solar system. Or the anatomist will describe the cells and tissues, the air tubes and blood-vessels, of the lungs ; and the chemist will demonstrate the composition of the atmosphere. But there is no chair instituted to teach the relations between these different classes of objects, and the lessons which they read to man. Any instruction, given about them is merely incidental. Now, the young student, when his attention is properly directed to these relations, discovers that the eye without light would be useless, yet that the grand fountain of illumination is   ninety millions of miles distant from this organ. Then the stupendous thought rushes into his mind, that an intelligence which embraced both, which designed, adapted, and maintains both, must exist ; and the devotional emotion glows with rapture in the contemplation of His greatness, His goodness, and His power. Or again the admirable adaptation of the air, with its 78 parts of nitrogen, 21 of oxygen, and one of carbonic acid gas, to the lungs, bespeaks the presence of the same divine Intelligence in the arrangements of our bodies and of the earth, and reads to us lessons of great practical utility in regard to ventilation, exercise, and the laws of health ;—yet this teaching is not to be found, except incidentally, in our Universities.
 The Catechism and Confession of Faith are thrust between the external creation and its Author ; we must draw our theology from them ; and small encouragement is given to us to gather threads of divine texture from the magnificent stores of nature, and to weave them into the warp of our religious emotions. The standards of the Church, and they chiefly, must constitute the woof of our religious web ; if we insert other threads, it must be at our peril and by stealth. In our schools, generally speaking, this teaching of the relation between Nature and God is nearly unknown ; nay, it is frowned upon, is designated as infidel ; and the Catechism is thrust into the reluctant hands of the schoolmaster to be taught in its place.
There are two questions, wholly distinct, which are very generally confounded in this discussion. " What shall I do to be saved ?" is the first. This every man is at liberty, in the exercise of an unquestionable right, to judge of and answer for himself. The appropriate and legitimate object of the standards of every church and of all clerical teaching is to help each of us to form a sound opinion on this momentous point. But the other question, in which the working-classes are also deeply interested is " What shall we do to provide wholesome food, comfortable raiment, pleasant dwellings, and the harmless luxuries of life, for our wives, our children and ourselves?" This question the Catechism does not answer. Yet you have only to compare the forlorn, incapable, and helpless Barra Highlander, the ignorant destitute Irishman, or the neglected agricultural labourer—all of whom, we may hope, have been adequately instructed in the way of salvation with the intelligent, energetic, industrious, and economical skilled workman of Sheffield, Manchester, Edinburgh, or Glasgow, to discover the importance of answering the second question in the right way. Secular education, or instruction in God's works of creation, and in the laws which He has impressed on them, which are the fountains of human well-being on earth, must be given free in our common schools, before the people can rise to the dignity of intelligent administrators of this world, and cease to wage the hopeless war of competition with the steam-engine and the horse.
 In England a society of enlightened and philanthropic men has laboured for several years to introduce a system of free schools for secular education into that country. It now comprises men of high character and station, many of whose names are known to you, and, to their honour be it mentioned, also several ministers of Evangelical churches. After having agitated for several years for a bill for the county of Lancaster alone, they have recently been led to render their association national. They invited Scotland to join ; but our countrymen, too intently engaged in the conflicts which I have described, declined to accept their invitation. I am authorised to say, however, that they will hail our accession, at any hour, with joy, and they invite us to unite our voices to theirs in demanding from Parliament a measure that shall impart secular education to the people, free from all denominational control, leaving to parents and pastors the duty of weaving their own woof of faith into each child's mind, according to their own convictions of truth and the right way to salvation.
 I conclude by moving the following resolution :-" That the meeting approve of the basis of the Association for National Public School Education in England and Wales, expressed in the following words : -'The National Public School Association is formed to promote the establishment, by law, in England and Wales, of a system of Free Schools--which, supported by local rates, and managed by local committees specially elected for that purpose by the rate-payers, shall impart secular instruction only ;  leaving to parents, guardians, and religious teachers, the inculcation of doctrinal religion, to afford opportunities for which, the schools shall be closed at stated times in each week.' "
 Empire 18 September 1851,

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