Monday, 8 September 2014

THE RELIGIOUS QUESTION AT SHINGLETOWN.

( Australasian.)

When the news of the recent discovery of Noah's Ark, embedded in a glacier on the summit of Mount Ararat, reached Shingletown, the full importance of the intelligence was not at first realized. The announcement was made in the columns of the local Inquirer, which reprinted the article on the subject that was going the rounds of the country papers, carrying with it great comfort and balm to many earnestly pious souls. In the first instance, the news was read with interest as narrating the discovery of a highly interesting relic of the distant past, but little notice was taken of its theological significance. It was not till an advertisement appeared in the special column of the Inquirer, notifying that the Rev. Sledge Hammer would (D.V.) preach in the Baptist Church on "The Ark Discovered, or the Unbeliever Trampled Under foot," that the people began to be dimly aware of the controversial aspect of the discovery. The rev. gentleman preached an energetic and conclusive discourse triumphantly showing that the finding of the authentic vessel in which Noah took his memorable voyage, at once placed the authenticity of the scriptural history on the basis of demonstration, and also that it refuted the pseudo-science of the Darwins and Huxleys of the day, besides showing that geology was but a tissue of fancies and fables. This set the ball rolling. The next Sunday the subject was discussed in most of the pulpits of the town. The Rev. Mr. MacStinger, of the Presbyterian Church, exulted in the discovery as overwhelming with shame certain divines of the metropolis who had shown a persistent sympathy with modern thought and secular science. The Methodist minister, the Rev. J. Smitem, carried the argument a little further by showing that the ark must have been miraculously preserved throughout these ages, and that the discovery was kept back till the present day that the leaders of science might have time to develop their infidel theories and till the cup of their abominations to the brim, that the greater might be their overthrow and more signal their condemnation. The Episcopalian clergyman was one of the last to refer to the matter, but at length he too expressed the opinion that so remarkable a proof of Holy Writ would supply a much needed support to the faith of the church, so often assailed in these days by irreverent speculation and science, falsely so called. The lay preacher to the congregation of the Little Remnant which met in the local Oddfellows' Hall,felt it due to himself to make more of the stupendous occurrence than his reverend rivals had done, and in a series of revival sermons on the text, " Pitch it within and without with pitch," he powerfully showed in twenty-five divisions of the subject that the discovery was one of the most striking of the signs which were ushering in the nearly approaching end of the world. The fervent discourses of the zealous evangelist worked up the expectations of his limited but very earnest flock to fever heat, expectation which for the time ruled and transformed all of their actions except those relating to business matters, which went their course pretty much as usual.
 While the news produced this sense of triumph and exaltation in the religious world, its effect in the camp of the enemy was an altogether contrary one. It evidently filled the minds of the members of the local Secularists' Union with something like dismay and consternation. Those advanced thinkers, who assembled every Sunday evening at the back of the shop of Mr. Solem, the freethinking bootmaker, held, two or three meetings for the special discussion of the subject, without arriving at any very satisfactory decision. The suggestion of Mr. Hornbook, the state school teacher, that the vessel was perhaps a Roman galley deposited where it was found by a great earthquake wave, produced probably by the volcanic eruption which overwhelmed Pompeii and Herculaneum, was hopefully considered, and the proposer cited some beautifully parallel cases of ships being carried inland, and left high and dry by similar oscillations of the ocean. But it was felt that a wave, which would have carried a Roman trireme to the top of Mount Ararat, 17,000 feet high, would also have done many other remarkable things which history has omitted to mention, and the union was reluctantly compelled to abandon this tempting suggestion. It was pointed out that the account was explicit in stating that the vessel was built of gopherwood, which was at once recognised by the Turkish Commissioners who made the discovery, and there was no evidence that this wood was ever made use of in the construction of the Roman navy. Still it was felt that, though there were many difficulties about this suggestion, it might be held in reserve as a possible reply to the sermons now getting very hot and exulting, if no better answer was evolved by the deliberations of the society.
  At a subsequent meeting Mr. Sawbones, the gifted young surgeon of the place, a strong sceptic in religious matters, mooted a theory that the supposed ark was in reality a vessel built by the orders of Alexander the Great when he was invading India, and drawn overland to be launched in the Caspian Sea for some purpose not very plainly visible at the present day. The theory involved the supposition that when the army of Alexander had dragged the vessel to the top of Mount Ararat, they were unable or unwilling to get it any further, and agreed to leave it there. This was plainly a difficulty, and another was the historical one that the route assigned to Alexander's army was a different one, and that no historian mentioned the incident of the vessel left on the top of Mount Ararat. Mr. Sawbones concluded the discussion by thanking the society for the attention his scheme had received, and stating that he did not offer it as one that was completely demonstrated, but merely as a " working hypothesis," and as a possible answer to the assertions of the churches now be coming very aggressive and very irritating to intelligent rationalists who prided themselves on keeping abreast of the thought of the nineteenth century.
 Other theories were broached by the members of the Secular Union. One, the mythic theory, proposed by Mr Schnupfen, the German tobacconist, was recognised to be very profound, but laboured under the disadvantage of being unintelligible to everybody save the proposer, and it was expected to be scarcely intelligible to him. Little Wallah, who had been in the Indian civil service before he retired on a pension and came to take up a farm in the Shingletown district, had a brilliant suggestion that though it was absurd to suppose that the vessel was Noah's Ark, it might possibly be the ark commemorated by Hindoo tradition in which the remnant of mankind were preserved in the great flood of Vishnu. It was felt that this was a very able suggestion for turning the tables on the religious bodies, but as many of the members were imperfectly acquainted with Brahminical mythology, it did not meet with general acceptance, and when Solem said that he "would as soon let it go as Noah's Ark as say that it was What's-his-name's, as one religion seemed to be as objectionable as another," it was generally felt that he had clenched the matter. And the result was that the Secularists' Union was left in the humiliating position of having no perfectly satisfactory theory to oppose to the triumphant discourses of the various preachers of the town. Its members moved about with a sense of discomfiture, and had lost much of the confident air by which they were usually distinguished.
 By this time the feeling in the public mind was a very excited one. The sermons of the different ministers were full of the ark, and by the copious details of its construction, of which so many were given, they sounded very much like treatises on the art of wooden shipbuilding. It was proved by one or two members, who had read Mr. Piazzi Smith's book on Our Inheritance in the Great Pyramid, that the dimensions of the Ark and time periods of the Deluge were all symbolic, and that by proper manipulation they could be seen to foretell all the events of modern history, besides many which had not yet happened, but would do so very shortly. The controversy overflowed into the columns of the local paper, which was obliged to leave out its notices of the shire council meetings and agricultural shows to make room for the letters and reports of the sermons of the divines who addressed themselves to the subject. An animated discussion arose as to what steps should be taken to deal with the Rev. Mr. Sturdy, of the Presbyterian Church in the neighbouring town of Cowford, who was believed not to be sound on the point of this discovery. It was remarked that he never gave it prominence in his sermons, and Mr. MacStinger, who had attended his church disguised by a woollen comforter and a mutchkin of whiskey, for the purpose of taking notes, ultimately decided to bring the conduct to his dearly beloved brother before the Presbytery at its next meeting.
 While this contest thus raged in the public life of this important centre of southern civilisation, its ramifications extended also into almost every domestic circle of Shingletown. It was remarked that while the men view the matter with comparative indifference, their wives took it up with much greater warmth and certitude. Host Stubby, of the Farmers' and Carriers Arms, expressed the feelings of many of his less emotional sex when, to the pleadings of his wife that he would go to hear that dear man, Mr. Thumpem, of the Little Remnant, in his 14th discourse, which was announced as " An Appeal to the Sinner to Fly from the Wrath to Come," he re plied, " Oh, what a fuss about a lot of rotten old timbers." Many good women spent much of their time in sighing over the approaching fate of their husbands, which would necessarily involve their separation in the next world, now close at hand. As a fact, some men did go to church who never went before, and the evening services and special meetings for wrestling in the spirit were largely attended by young people of both sexes. A general sense that the end of the world was near, accompanied by the feeling that many irregularities, such as staying out late at night, were practicable and permissible now in circles where they were usually forbidden, took possession of the public mind. It is a matter for regret to have to confess that there is no reason to believe that the morals and manners of the place where any better than at other times — indeed, so far as the overt evidence went, what difference was visible was in a quite opposite direction.
 The position of Mr. Cashdown, the local auctioneer, was eminently unsatisfactory to both sides of the discussion. In a rash moment, when pressed hard by the Rev. Mr. MacStinger, Mr. Cashdown had confessed that he was not convinced by the evidence. In a later discussion with the Church of England parson, he expressed the opinion that the churches had jumped rather hastily to a conclusion on insufficient demonstration. At the same time he openly scoffed at the theories put forward by the members of the Secularists' Union. He said they ought to call their body the Secularists' Disunion, as they counted just as many theories as members, and not a single man had succeeded in convincing another. This drew upon him fire from all sides The Rev. Jabez Credo, of the Church of England, brought up a great ecclesiastic dignitary from the capital, who delivered a stirring and fulminating discourse in which he denounced those " waverers " and "know nothings " who professed to hold no opinion and to suspend their judgement in a matter of such vast importance, as being many degrees worse than absolute atheists. He strongly asserted that no more evidence was necessary to the really believing heart, and beautifully showed that it was the province of the faculty of faith to make good all deficiencies in the chain of proof by links forged, as he finely expressed it, in the heat of its own inner, self-originating glow.
 It was while the discussion was at its hottest, the fire of controversy at its brightest, and the feelings stirred by the strife were at their most violent and virulent point, that the crash came. Minion, the editor of the local paper, who, though a pronounced sceptic, had as a shrewed journalist given great prominence to the original statement, which he told Comp, the printer, was one that "would go down well," showed his impartiality by giving equally prompt and conspicuous place to the rueful announcement that the whole thing was a heartless hoax, and that the paper from which it was ostensibly quoted had been suppressed by the Turkish Government for one or two years. The effect was as though a heavy cloud had settled on the community, and it was not easy to say whether the secularists or the churches felt the blow the most. The former were smitten in their vanity and claims to superior enlightenment, and the latter, besides this humiliation, had to sustain a great shock to their belief. After having welcomed the discovery as a new bulwark against "the encroaching tide of scientific atheism and modern unbelief" it was hard to have to admit even tacitly that it was all a mistake. The Episcopalian parson was perhaps the most judicious in maintaining in his sermon after the exposure that though an out work on which undue trust was reposed had fallen, the citadel of their faith was secure. Some of the more valiant divines showed great courage and energy in denouncing the exposure as a trick of the enemy, devised, some of them insinuated, most probably by Mr. Cashdown, whom they now all declared against as a callous, unsympathetic Agnostic. Vigorous attempts were made to keep the belief alive, and it was explained that the smaller the evidence, the more creditable the exercise of faith. At the Secularists' meeting, Sawbones showed great alacrity in pulling a manuscript out of his pocket, which proved that from the first the whole story had been a transparently evident hoax which "might impose on minds drugged with effect ecclesiasticism, but was dissipated in a moment before the blaze of reason." It afterwards appeared that the other dozen members present had all prepared written or oral discourses in exactly the same strain, exultingly demolishing the exploded belief. Though some of the churches still professed to "stick by the standard," furnished by the first report, it was apparent that the life had gone from the belief, and that all attempts to revive it were by flogging a dead horse. Gradually it was allowed to sink into oblivion, and the evening revivalist meetings and processions were discontinued, much to the disgust of many of the younger residents of this important country town. And at the time this is written the incident seems terminated, and everybody is left in just the same position and just as convinced of his infallibility and of the deadly peril of all those who differ from him as before the discovery of the ark on Mount Ararat was put before the intelligent and discerning public of Shingletown.

 Maryborough Chronicle 10 November 1883,

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