Item 1 - Letter from W. K. Clifford to [Lucy Lane]

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Letter from W. K. Clifford to [Lucy Lane]


  • [late Oct. 1874?] (Creation)

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7 sheets

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(Place of writing not indicated.)—Thanks her for her long letter. Discusses arrangements for going to a play, and refers to his negotiations about the house. Mrs Sitwell has invited them to tea. Points out that they only need to understand each other to agree on what is important, and refers to his loneliness since losing ‘the only mind that had really grown up with my own [Crotch]’. Discusses in detail his views on Christianity.

(This letter was written some time between Crotch’s death on 16 June 1874 and Clifford's marriage on 7 April 1875. The Sunday lecture referred to may have been ‘Body and Mind’, read before the Sunday Lecture Society on 1 November 1874.)

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20 pages! you sweet child—and a little bit over—all along of my telling you about my Sunday talks. First, thank you, darling, for sending me the Gibbon; though Sir Fred would not have minded waiting till I have taken my house, and then there would have been less to carry across. Next, I have secured miladi and Moss—Walter being away at his sweetheart’s—to go to the play with us tomorrow; and we are to dine there at 6 if I telegraph to that effect tomorrow morning after seeing you: because, as I said, uomo propone, donna dispone. Also I have written to the agent that my medical adviser Dr Corfield will come with me to inspect the house on Thursday, and asked if in the event of my taking it for 3 or more years the proprietor will either decrease the rent or let my holding commence at Xtmas. We must arrange somehow that you go and see your aunt while we elect members from 5 to 6, and then we must meet again somewhere. Have we made any arrangement about Sunday afternoon? Mrs Sitwell wants us to go to tea with her after my lecture {1}. She says she has met you and apologizes for the irregularity of the invitation, but will make a formal call first if you wish it. She has been working like a slave at the working women’s college and other excellent works.

Your letter made me very happy, darling; it is quite clear we only want to understand each other to agree on everything that is important; as for mere speculative opinions it is far better to have something left to discuss. You can’t conceive how lonely I have felt since I lost the only mind that had really grown up with my own; we never agreed upon results, but we always used the same method with the same object, which is much better {2}. It is only lately that I have seen other faces near me through the fog; have recognized how vast is the army that is all going the same way, and how rapidly the enemy is disappearing, though he does not know it. Now you won’t have time to read this tomorrow morning, but still I shall talk over one or two points.

First, a very small one. Your theory about the unconfessed feeling that the divine origin of Xt may be true, is not so far as I know a fact. It is of course very hard to realize that other people do actually honestly disbelieve what we believe ourselves; but no man that I know who has rejected Xtianity on moral grounds (and I know few men who have not) ever shews the slightest sign of such a doubt as you speak of, though I have had most confidential talks with a great many. There is, as you say, a vagueness about the character of Xt, a want of some definite action which can be called good or bad, which makes the ideal of him as exceedingly good to be more persistent when one has got it. But cutting away the impossible stories, and supposing some basis of truth in the healing of nervous diseases by strong excitement, one can say of him a little less than of Buddha, a little more than of Chrishna; nothing at all approaching to the definite heroism of Socrates, or Spinoza, or Mazzini. Buddha was an actual prince who left his throne to study the woes of poor people and find remedies for them; Chrishna stole cows, instead of killing pigs, that belonged to other people. These two claimed, like Christ, a supernatural mission, and worked miracles according to the earliest accounts we have. Why should I, a Teuton, hanker after one of these foreigners rather than the other? the Hindus are nearer to me by blood than the Jew; one has as many, the other twice as many followers, as he.

This is for me, who have ceased to believe in the supernatural goodness of Jesus. I fought hard for it; perhaps now have not courage to bear another such wrench as the losing of it gave me. But for you, darling, who still have that belief, keep it; a person of whom we really know so little is perhaps the safest sort of figure to clothe with your ideal. Only make up your mind that an increasing number of thoughtful people do sincerely think that person unworthy of your ideal.

But now let us admit that the rule of life which you read into the Gospels (as my friend Syed Ahmed Khan {3} reads all manner of enlightened things into the Koran) is really there; and even that Jesus is still alive and can hear you and help you carry it out. Then you say “won’t it be a good thing if some good is done for his sake that would not be done for the sake of ordinary men, out of sympathy and comradeship? And is it not quite natural and likely that he should have set apart certain men to preach this same doctrine, and have given them some of the same wonderful power?”

Here are two sets of things. 1. An excellent rule of life, and devotional affection for a certain person. 2. The substitution of the theological for the social motive, and the honouring of a set of men supposed to possess magical powers. The latter seem to follow naturally from the former; are they not then right things to do?

If the experiment had never been made, one might well answer, let us try. But the experiment has been made, at the cost of centuries of blood and fire and misery. If you love your brother for the sake of somebody else who is very likely to damn your brother, it soon comes to burning him alive for his soul’s health. That doesn’t seem likely, but it’s an observed fact. No Christian ecclesiastical body has ever had the power to persecute without using it. (It was once objected to me that some Quakers in Pennsylvania had the chance of persecuting their Indian servants and didn’t. But the Quakers have no clergy.) Before the clergy were recognized by the state they had destroyed the national sentiment all over the empire, and had sapped the foundations of social life with monasticism and the “theological motive.” Afterwards they got the hospitals suppressed and the physicians banished; substituting places where a martyr’s toe was brought to cure you, in a silver box. They shut up the philosophical & scientific schools. They they quarelled†. Ten million men were killed in the religious wars of Justinian and by the plagues which the relics were unable to stop. They suppressed all freedom of thought and therefore all progress. They respected not even the name of truth; for those frauds were called “pious” whose object was the honour of the Church. They reduced all Europe to a black night of barbarism which Greece had not known for two thousand years. And then when the light came, when the Teutons rose against her crimes and the Arabs exposed her falsehoods, the Church fought desperately over every inch of ground against the new civilization that was growing up; not only in Catholic but in Protestant countries. Even now the clergy howl against every new truth that is discovered, because the law will let them do nothing worse. They hinder the education of children, except in their own formulæ, knowing well that a straight conscience and a free-grown intellect will neither believe in their doctrines nor approve their precepts. There is the result of a fairly long experiment on the theological motive and the sacerdotal principle. If you put your hand in the fire and burn it tomorrow, and somebody comes on Thursday and says “see how nice and warm the fire is when your hand is outside; don’t you think it will be nicer and warmer if you put it in?” would you follow that person’s advice? The priesthood has destroyed one civilization. It has just failed to strangle another in its birth; and it is the bounden duty of every honest man to see that it shall never have another chance.

Well now, suppose that Christ is responsible for this; that he did knowingly let loose the Xtian clergy upon Europe. Then I say that no amount of diligence in preaching the Rabbis’ good precepts, no cure of some hundred or so paralytics and madmen in Palestine, can outweigh the atrocity of that awful crime. But if he is really alive now, was innocent, as I believe, of making priests, and represents your ideal; do you think his indignation is less against the “generation of vipers” than it was at Jerusalem? The language is strong, perhaps; the men are good in many respects, well-meaning; they only profess a little magic. All the more should our blood boil against the Institution that puts good men to such vile uses.

So, when our souls look back to thee
They sicken, seeing against thy side,
Too foul to speak of or to see
The leprous likeness of a bride,
Whose kissing lips through his lips grown
Leave their God rotten to the bone. {4}

There’s a sermon for you! Poor little thing, there is one comfort, that you won’t read it. Farewell, my own child; I shall see you at 11 tomorrow.



{1} Perhaps ‘Body and Mind’, read before the Sunday Lecture Society on 1 November 1874.

{2} Frederick Pollock (Lectures and Essays, i. 16) identified these words as referring to G. R. Crotch, who died at Philadelphia on 16 June 1874.

{3} Clifford presumably met Ahmad Khan when he visited England in 1869 and 1870.

{4} This is the thirtieth stanza of Swinburne’s poem ‘Before a Crucifix’.

† Sic.

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