E. Belfort Bax, The Natural History of the Non-Conformist Conscience, The Free Review, 1 August 1894, pp.385-387. [1*]
Reprinted in E. Belfort Bax, Essays In Socialism, New & Old, 1907, pp.51-57.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
The Nonconformist voter and his conscience as a product of Anglo-Saxon civilisation has a distinctive and peculiar history in the social development of these islands which is worthy of a short exposure.
At the present day the Nonconformist element in the country (using the word “Nonconformist” in its widest sense) comprises the bulk of the middle classes, and such of the working classes as are desirous of being their hangers-on, politically or otherwise. It comprises the so-called “religious world”, barring the Catholics, Roman or Anglican, and is in the main co-incident with the old Evangelical Party, of which it is indeed a mere modern adaptation. To understand the power which the modern “Nonconformist conscience” has in influencing British public opinion, it is above all things necessary to recall what the old “Evangelicalism” was to which the “ Nonconformists” look back with such profound reverence, and to understand the at times somewhat indistinct line of demarcation which separates the new type from that of a generation ago.
The disruption of feudal relations, the modified village-community of mediaeval England, the decay of the guilds, and the rise of the independent craftsman, merchant, and trade syndicate, was expressed in the region of religious thought by what is known as the Reformation. But the rising middle-class took the Reformation differently from those of the other classes who nominally protected or supported it, but who really wished to save as much as suited them of the traditional system of Christianity.
It must be remembered that at this time doubt as to the fundamental articles of Christian theology had never entered the heads of the enormous majority of the inhabitants of Christendom. They were as axiomatic to most men then as the commonplaces of science are to us to-day. The feudal classes, although often like the rest desirous of being “ shot” of the Papal supremacy and of certain sides of ecclesiastical domination, were determined to hold back the movement at this point as far as possible, and not to let it get “out of hand”. The new middle classes, on the contrary, were bent upon driving the rupture with Catholicism to its logical conclusion, and getting a thoroughly individualistic form of Christianity established, in which each man as an individual should work out his own salvation. As soon, moreover, as the whole movement in Elizabeth’s reign ceased to have to struggle for its bare existence, the two strains within it began to break out into open antagonism, which issued later in the victory of the middle classes in the Commonwealth. Hence Puritanism on the one side, and high Anglicanism on the other. The Puritans wanted in the ecclesiastical sphere no hierarchy, but free play for individual enterprise in religious matters, just as they wanted in the secular sphere no nasty feudal privileges, but the opportunity for the commercial expansion of the individual by his own efforts.
In both cases, however, the free play of the individual was, of course, to be limited by the exigencies of bourgeois’ supremacy as a class. In politics the Puritan wished indeed to get rid of the arbitrary power of king and nobles, and were even not indisposed to get rid of the king himself. But the political and social doctrine of Anabaptists and Levellers was a thing to hold no parley with. Similarly in religion they zealously championed freedom from tradition and priestly control in the interpretation of dogma, but only to insist upon subservience to the dogma itself with more pitiless ferocity. Mariolatry was to be superseded by Bibliolatry, slavery to Pope and Church by slavery to the Authorised Version. Again, the new movement had no words strong enough to condemn the special religious life of the old religious orders, with its asceticism, but it was only to bring a sordid asceticism into the whole of human life, without distinction. Pleasure itself was an evil, all bodily satisfaction more or less vicious, and to be deprecated even where not positively condemned. Still, whatever our view of them in other respects, the rank and file of the old Puritans must be absolved of the charge of conscious hypocrisy. They really believed in their Bible, and the arid and unlovely dogmas they founded on it. The old genuine and militant Puritanism died before the end of the seventeenth century. Its tradition, however, slumbered on through the earlier part of the eighteenth century, and towards its close it had entered upon re-birth in the movements associated with the names of Whitfield and Wesley. Now the spread of these new Puritan movements was coincident with the rise of the great industry, and the new development of the middle-class consequent thereupon. The latter seized eagerly upon the latest religious revival – which soon found its counterpart in the Established Church – and the cancer of Evangelicalism took root in English society, ramifying in all directions, and gaining strength from the reaction in religious as in political matters succeeding the French Revolution. Without denying a measure of sincerity and enthusiasm in some of its earlier votaries, difficult as it is to see what there was in it to be enthusiastic about, it may be safely said that it soon sank into the festering mass of hypocrisy out of the womb of which has come the “ Liberator “ as the last-born among many brethren.
The two salient dogmas of Evangelicalism were always Bibliolatry and Sabbatarianism. Family prayers and punctilious church-going followed as a matter of course. The essential dogmatic structure was the old Catholic theology, as somewhat clumsily pruned and awkwardly innovated upon by the reformers of the sixteenth Century.  Again, while the hierarchical order of beings, which the mediaeval theology took over from the pseudo-Dionysius, and he again from the last of the Pagans, Proklos, was got rid of; the quasi-neo-platonic dogma of the Trinity was still retained. Prayers to saints, and prayers for the dead, were abandoned as superstitious forms; but the belief in prayers as in some way or other altering the course of things, provided the alteration was like the illegitimate baby of fiction “only a little one”, was strenuously held to. Purgatory was thrown overboard, but Hell was retained. Miracles, i.e., great and palpable violations of natural law, were pronounced by the fiat of the Evangelical mind to have ceased. But, of course, to doubt the Biblical miracles, so long back in the past, was impious. All this arbitrary tangle of illogical positions it was the duty of the British “Evangelical” to hold intact, at once against the more logical Catholic theology, and against the inroads of modern science and criticism. The condemnation of Catholicism as superstitious by orthodox Protestants is exceedingly naive all round. The Protestant condemns the reverence paid by the Catholic to the pyx or to relics, but the Protestant finds so much sanctity in the brick and mortar of his churches that it would shock him to use them for everyday purposes as the Catholic churches of the Middle Ages commonly were.
But there was another side to Evangelicalism, also derived from Puritanism – viz., its practical side. This consisted in the carrying out of an ascetic life. Theatres, dancing, card-playing, the pursuit of every amusement beyond a very limited point were forbidden to the man “converted” to Evangelicalism, who must devote the whole of his time to two objects – making money (called “attending to business”), and saving his own and other people’s souls. If it was forbidden to do many things on week-days, it was forbidden virtually to do anything on Sundays. Many regarded even the exertion of the legs in walking as a breach of the Sabbath. Certainly a peal of laughter was unsuited to the character of the day. Altogether the God of the Evangelical seemed to find a singular amusement in watching his creatures boring themselves. There was a fourth aspect of Evangelicalism, and that was philanthropy. Philanthropy was a kind of adjunct to the soul-saving. Evangelicalism as the ideological expression of the English bourgeois Philistine was up to the tricks of its trade. Philanthropy was a plausible cloak for proselytism. As a matter of fact, it is certain the English middle classes gained more in the end by their proselytism than they lost by their charitable donations. For the indigent man who became “a new creature”, and received the “gospel” tidings at the hands of the city missionary, the district visitor, or the charitable society, backed by a more substantial somewhat, was understood from that moment to abrogate his independent class interests and instincts as one of the proletariat, and to become a humble retainer of the middle class in his new character of “Christian man”. Henceforth no more going out on strike, no more militant trade unionism, no more class-struggle! Although it is true Evangelicalism may never have made many converts among the organised working classes, there is no doubt the general influence of Evangelicalism was strong in retarding the class-struggle at certain stages.
In accordance with the class-influence it represented, it played its part in distracting attention from the economic situation, and its character of a “red herring” was indeed hardly concealed. For the Evangelical, with all his ostentation of charity and sympathy for the poor, became ferocity itself when it was a question of the working classes bettering themselves at the expense of the capitalist class, to which he belonged. The attitude of the various religious bodies to Chartism, and even the earlier trade-union movement, is a sufficient illustration of this. What really in foro conscientiae underlay the Evangelical horror of Infidelity often came out in the course of discussion. “If men all turned infidels, what would become of society, where would be the security for property?” It was the same spirit which led the Times reviewer of the Descent of Man, in 1871, to admonish Charles Darwin of his grievous responsibility for putting forward such doctrines when the outcome of irreligious teachings was being shown in the subversive aims of the Paris Commune. It was the same spirit which has made the statesman everywhere welcome religion as an ally. The only difference is that the Britisher has a special relish for hypocrisy. He regularly enjoys it as a sweet morsel. Other nations take their hypocrisy more or less sadly, as a conventional lie of civilisation, get it over as quickly as possible, like a black draught, and say little about it. The Anglo-Saxon chews it, and gets the full flavor out of it. Hence the Anglo-Saxon race alone in the nineteenth century has produced an Evangelical party. (I need scarcely remind the reader) that the German word “Evangelisch” does not connote the same thing as the English “Evangelical”.)
How far the “Evangelical” of a generation ago was a sincere fanatic, and how far he was a conscious imposter, with his zeal against Catholicism and his unctuous horror of Atheism, it is difficult to determine. Probably he was in this respect like the rain-maker of the savage tribe, who is alleged to be at once dupe and cheat. Hypocrisy had been so part of his education from his cradle, that he perhaps succeeded in persuading himself that he believed in the dogmatic sweepings which formed his stock in trade, and that his moral sense was so blunted by custom as not to revolt against them. Did he or she, for example, really believe that sotto voce mutterings called prayers really affected the course of nature? This is a difficult question to answer. Be this, however, as it may, the exigencies of society as understood by the dominant class of the century required some religion, and it was obviously desirable that that religion should be the one selected by that class as best adapted to its nature and objects. This meant that Evangelical Protestantism had to be jealously maintained against “Popery” and “Infidelity”. For “Popery” implied subservience to an absolute head, and a foreigner at that; it implied the abrogation of the individual before a corporate entity, the Church, notions which stirred up the chauvinist and individualist bile of the great commercial class. Then again the amount of time allotted by “Popery” to devotion, the setting aside of a large portion of the community in a religious life where they consumed but did not produce wealth; the holidays and feast days when the work of the world stood still, all this was eminently unsuited to the regime of competition, laissez faire, and the new middle class.
Accordingly Catholicism was scathingly denounced as the “scarlet whore”, and a keen scent was kept up for “Papistic” tendencies. Beauty in churches and art in services were banished, and the uglier these things were the more evangelical did they become. The Evangelical parent and teacher had the brazen impudence, moreover, to paint the mediaeval church black to the rising generation for its persecution of Galileo, when with the next breath they were themselves denouncing Darwin or the geologists, and to hear them one would have thought they only stopped at the stake for lack of power. They well knew that the Inquisitors of the sixteenth century were merely anathematising a doctrine contrary to the “Bible”. Of course, the Evangelical declared it not at all contrary to the Bible – after it was useless to deny it longer – just as his descendant has now found out that “Darwinism” is perfectly consonant with that very accommodating body of writings. But the fact remains that the Inquisitors were only doing what they themselves were doing when they placed the Origin of Species on their Index, or tried to hunt Dr. Colenso down. The latter, we may remind the reader, a simple-minded, earnest man, who was not in the “swim” of his trade, was sent out to Natal as the ordinary Evangelical church parson, became convinced on a point of Biblical criticism, and was naive enough to proclaim the fact. The evangelical clericate, backed by its retainers, the religious middle class, determined to leave no stone unturned to destroy the man who was too unworldly to know how to play their game properly, and they only failed after some years through working their cards badly with the ecclesiastical judges. There was an additional incentive to persecution in the fact that Colenso was the first official Englishman whose conscience rose in active revolt against the oppression of native races, and hence he was by no means a persona grata to the religious and philanthropic speculator with a little spare capital locked up in South Africa, who wanted missionaries of another kidney. The economic basis of Evangelicalism is nowhere more plainly shown than in its foreign missions, those preliminary canters for the purpose of surveying new markets for the reception of the cheap cottons and other delectable products of the deacon’s or church-warden’s factory.
The defence of Evangelical dogma took the three forms of suppressio veri, something more than the suggestio falsi, and of personal scurrility. The suppressio veri was sedulously cultivated by the Evangelical parent or instructor of youth in the teaching not merely of history and opinion, but even of such a subject as physical geography. To take one trifling example. It is now generally recognised that one of the few successful hits of the old Biblical school of Paulus, technically known as the “rationalistic” school, was in indicating the reference to well-known natural phenomena in certain of the narratives in Exodus. Now it might have been too much to expect that this should have been pointed out in the course of Biblical instruction, but it was surely hardly too much to expect that in the ordinary course of physical geographical instruction the fact might have been mentioned (without comment, of course) that under the influence of strong East winds the Red Sea becomes fordable at certain times, the waters being, as it were, cut in two by the force of the gale; that the serpent and stick trick is a of the repertory of every modern Egyptian juggler; that the red appearance, resembling blood, of the Nile and Its tributaries at certain times is a natural phenomenon, familiar to travellers, and so on with the rest. Yet it would have gone badly with the teacher who had dared to state facts to his pupils, the inference from which was so obviously “agin’ Scriptur’.” For the Evangelical parent and guardian was a strict disciplinarian these matters. A semi-conscious hypocrite himself, his object was to train a race of as far as possible unconscious hypocrites.
The suggestio falsi took protean forms. One of the favorite ones was manipulating geological facts so as to square with Genesis. It seems almost incredible now-a-days that men at that time, of a certain scientific standing, did not disdain to prostitute their pens and their names to this vile and contemptible “pious fraud”‘. Recent discoveries in oriental archeology were impudently “adapted” not to clash with the “Bible”. The results of foreign scholarship in Biblical research were of course ignored. But the great coup in the name of “bluff” was over the Sabbatarian dogma. Here it was the practice to represent to ingenuous youth that Sabbatarianism was a fundamental article of Christian faith, not only concealing the fact that it has never existed outside the races inhabiting the British islands and their colonies, and that even there it has been but a growth of two hundred years standing, but averring at the same time that all those who refused to abase themselves before it (e.g., the entire body of non-Anglo-Saxon Christians, Protestant no less than Catholic) were worse than “Infidels”. For Sabbatarianism was no mere matter of opinion, it was a vital point in the Evangelicals’ system. So much was this the case that among the stock of pious lies by which it was sought to strike terror into the heart of the “godless”, and which the not very fertile evangelical imagination worked up again and again in the form of tracts, the case of the boy who went out on the river on a Sunday, and either got drowned for doing it or else ended with murder, played a very large part.
Scurrility was the third means by which it was sought to damage the opponents of the precious “gospel” which the Evangelical professed it his mission to proclaim. That all “infidels” were counted wicked men goes without saying; and as one cannot expect scrupulous integrity from the upholders of any system of arbitrary dogma, it is perhaps hardly fair to be too severe on our Evangelical for this. But the elaborate and very excogitated lies which were invented to damage particular reputations were really a little strong even for religious men and theologians. One noteworthy case of this was the vilification of Thomas Paine, who was represented as a drunken, swearing monster, with every shade of coloring a malicious imagination could suggest. Of course those who made the assertion knew well enough that it was a direct lie, and that it had been refuted. But it was good enough to serve their purpose, since at that time no one dared to defend the character of a well-known “infidel”, ands no “respectable” publisher would then have ventured to publish any statement anent such a one that was not scurrilous. Thus it came that a poor man who had written a somewhat crude essay suggesting in mild language a reconsideration of certain current theological tenets, and whose worst offence was voting for the life of Louis XVI in the French Convention, at the risk of his own, labored under a libellous and false imputation for well-nigh a century. The late Mr. Bradlaugh was similarly vilified by the whole religious middle-class until they found out he was an anti-Socialist.
Now such has been the history of the Evangelical party up to less than a generation ago – lying, hypocrisy, calumny, and social ostracism were the only weapons known to this band of successful counter jumpers, cheesemongers, et id genus omne, turned theologians, who terrorised the whole intellectual and social life of the English-speaking race. It may possibly be alleged that even in suggesting at any measure of conscious fraud on the part of the zealots of Evangelicalism have been unjust to honest bigotry. But I ask the charitable soul who thinks thus to remember that the men who were loudest in denouncing the exponents of (evangelically-speaking) inconvenient truths, were shrewd men of business, men keen enough to detect the smallest point which told in favor of or against their interests in a worldly point of view, but who yet fought to the knife the most obvious scientific facts or critical commonplaces which seemed to jeopardise the dogmas they regarded as essential to their interests, and were prepared to maintain or to accept the most childishly transparent fallacies in favor of those dogmas. Does anyone affirm that these individuals would have taken a cheque, a bill, or any negotiable instrument on a week-day, on the strength of such evidence as to solvency of the parties to it, as was sufficient to convince (?) them, let us say, of the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, or of the consonance of the facts of geology with the Hebrew cosmogony, or of the practical utility of prayer on a Sunday? No, the plea for complete honesty is too thin. For these things involved no subtle points of metaphysics, but the mere ordinary science and commonsense Philistine.
I have spoken throughout this paper of Evangelicalism and Evangelicals in the past tense, as I did not wish to lay myself open to the charge of accusing the modern world of orthodox Protestantism of views and practices which it may be said are no longer obtaining among them. But I have not the least doubt that there are still existing religious circles to which the above remarks will fully apply. And even those who are prepared to explain away or modify the more flagrantly immoral or irrational dogmas of the old “gospel” still maintain without shame the tradition of their disreputable past. The tendency, however, is not to be denied for the sects to lie low as to theology and to turn on the “moral” tap. Finding theology very much at a discount all round, Nonconformity plays out its last card – its conscience. “Out of the eater came forth meat.” Out of the Nonconformist conscience came the Liberator Building Society. “Orlando in the old chains!” The old hypocrisy still! Board-meetings opened by prayer. Veritably that prayer was answered! Veritably was the “Liberator” a Nemesis for the small British middle-class that battens on chapels and cant! Hoist they were worthily with their own petard! They wanted piety in the capitalist syndicate to whom they entrusted their savings – and they got it. “Vous l’avez voulu, Georges Dandin!” May all those who entrust the products of their parsimony to boards of directors who open their meetings with prayer fare similarly!
Let us remember that this class in placing their savings with the “Liberator” were only carrying out the principle which a generation ago would boycott men who did not bow to their shibboleth, would make it impossible for a man who labored under the suspicion of religious heterodoxy to earn his living in any provincial town in Britain, and would harry those who did not frequent one of their “places of worship” till they found themselves driven to choose between moral dishonesty and social ruin. The latter was the Evangelical substitute for the stake.
For the rest, as above said, the Nonconformist conscience to-day occupies itself largely in the attempt to maintain intact and keep alive enthusiasm for the conventional class-morality of the bourgeois system. This morality is a compound of the old Christian or Puritan individualist asceticism, and the exigencies of an economically-individualist state of society. But the Nonconformist conscience pretends to find in it the power of God and the wisdom of God to all eternity. Sexual abstinence, euphemistically called “social purity”, is its great piece de resistance. In the present social and legal restrictions to the formation of free unions between the sexes, which are based on the natural but perfectly prosaic desire of the ratepayer not to be saddled with the maintenance of his neighbours’ children, it pretends to see absolute moral laws, irrespective of social and economic circumstances. But even apart from this, any breach of the conventional ethics of middle-class society is sure of the reprobation of their specially constituted guardian, the “Non-conformist conscience” – whose methods are spying, eavesdropping, and other edifying practices of the amateur detective. It would seek to avert the abuse of any particular thing by forcibly suppressing its use. Thus it has no idea of getting rid of the evils of drink by opening up the Sunday, the only rest-day for the masses, to higher means of recreation; it has no idea of mitigating the present evil effects of cheap alcohol by enacting and enforcing laws against adulteration. Oh dear, no; it would do as it has done in the United States, suppress all consumption of alcohol by force of law! In fine, the Nonconformist conscience remains like its forbears, the eternal quintessence of the hypocritical type of bourgeois philistinism.  Always bitterly opposed to liberty for others, it has known how to whine loud enough when its own liberties have been infringed by some equally bigoted High Church vicar, with whom, bien entendu, it has been only too willing to join hands to oppress the Freethinker. To the latter it was, until recently, if possible, more merciless than any Roman or Anglican Sacerdotalist.
Such is the pedigree of that “Nonconformist conscience” which now arrogates to itself to dictate the character and general walk and conversation of every man holding a public position, and as far as possible the whole public policy of the country. These be your gods, O middle-class Englishmen!
1. The pretence that the traditional orthodox dogmas of Protestantism had their justification in the theory that the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament were the ultimate courts of appeal, is almost too thin to be worth noticing. Of course, the “Evangelical” and Protestant generally read into the Bible all that he wanted to find there, and read out of it all that he did not want. For instance, the Trinitarian dogma and the incarnation are not to be found in the Bible, yet he professes to discover them there. Again, Sabbatarianism is precisely one of the Jewish religious rites (about the only one) which the founder of Christianity, is reported as having expressly abrogated. Yet this has not hindered the English Evangelical from attempting its tyrannical enforcement on the wrong day!! On the other hand ancient astronomical theories not consonant with modern science, and quaint survivals of early sexual morality, equally inconsistent with the morale bourgeoise in such matters, are conveniently passed by, or explained away
2. There are two prominent types of British bourgeois Philistinism, the one embodied in the “religious world”, the hypocritical type: and the other embodied in the “sporting world”, the blatantly coarse type.
1*. This is a paper of intellectual Non-Conformity in which Bax, of Quaker descent himself, wrote this article. He does not appear to have been asked to write another article.
Last updated on 13.1.2006