THE CHURCHES AND THE AGRICULTURAL LABOURERS.
WE have expressed pretty strongly our profound regret at the shortsightedness of the Clergy,—we may say of all denomina- tions,—in not heartily supporting the Agricultural Labourer in his agitation for higher wages, decent houses, the exemption of women and young children from field labour, and lastly, moderate,—we do not mean short,—h ours of labour. We return to the subject, because there is visible in the defence formally set up for the clergy, —for instance, in the letter of a correspondent which we printed last week,—a belief which we find pervading almost every excuse sent to the conveners of labourers' meetings on the part of clergymen, landowners,, magistrates, or others who may be reluctant to mix themselves up in a very angrily con- tested controversy, that the mischief to be remedied is one whose sources are so complex and whose cure is so far beyond the reach of mere well-intentioned effort, that "meddling "is about the same as " muddling " in the matter ; and that society might almost as well attempt to do away with ugliness, as to do away with starved
and degraded labour. We have been looking back through the his- tory of the last year's Somersetehire agitation,—which is, we see, to be further pushed by four great torch-light processions at Shepton Mallet, Wells, Glastonbury, and Martock, on October 2, 3, 4, and 6, processions which will, we hope, be at once orderly and successful as demonstrations,—and we find that, whether this be always the true reason or not, it is almost uniformly the excuse assigned, especially by the Clergy, for discouraging or refus- ing to encourage the efforts of the Agricultural Unions. Now of course it ma' be admitted that while the labourers themselves were passive and apparently indifferent to the moral evils from which they were suffering, little could be done for them directly by others, beyond attempts to educate them, and to arouse in them the moral feeling which would lead them to revolt against their condition. But when once the feeling of horror is roused,—as it has now been roused, thanks to Mr. Arch, Mr. Mitchell, and the other public-spirited men who have striven to raise agricultural labour to a sense of its own dignity,—when once the labourers are convinced that more wages and more decent dwelling-places are the first conditions of any real moral life for their class, it does seem to us the very acme of spiritual imbecility to raise economical doubts whether this agitation be useful. When the Bishop of Bath and Wells writes, for instance, that he is as anxious as any one to raise the physical, moral, and religious state of the peasants of Sornersetahire, but that he believes meetings which tend to set class against class, and "to produce discontent with their lot," are not a proper means to use,— he seems tons to talk nonsense just as conspicuous as a theologian who should say that he wished to see men aspiring to a higher state of holiness, but that he did not think it a right means to that end to sow a feeling of self- condemnation and horror at existing sin. We do not agree with Mr. Mitchell and his brother Unionists when they declare that the agricultural labourer is in the position of a white slave; indeed the best proof that he is not, is that he may, and does, attend meeting after meeting in which his rights as against his employers are publicly and sometimes even, though seldom, intemperately urged. But we do say that it would be just as absurd to urge that slavery must not be attacked by agitation because it could not be re- moved except at the cost of setting class against class, and rendering the slaves discontented with their lot, as to urge the mass of agricul- tural labourers, many of whom are living their life under the moral conditions of beasts rather than men, to keep quiet and avoid co-operation. The question for a moral and spiritual teacher is not,—will this unsettle the community ? or will it stir up heart- burnings, and render it very difficult to live in peace? for we have all of us heard of a teacher who came "not to bring peace on earth, but a sword." The question for a moral and spiritual teacher is : Must there be a radical change of some kind before a better life can be lived at all ? If so, at any risk of setting class against class, of social heartburninga, of disturbed social con- ditions, the change must be attempted. It seems to us that, as a rule, prelates, clergy, Dissenting ministers of every school, have been fatally blind to the truth that the horror felt of their own physical and therefere moral condition by the agricultural labourers is the sine guti non of any moral or spiritual improve- ment ; that more wages is the first necessity of a better moral condition ; that without more wages there cannot be that decency of outward life, that separation of the sexes, that devotion of the mother of the family to her proper work, that physical nourish- ment of the children, which is as essential to any moral improve- ment as division of labour is to improvement in manufacture ; and that more wages can only be secured by more union. It is sheer nonsense to remind us that setting class against class is an evil. Of course it is. And where bad motives which need not and often do not exist are imputed, and the strife is in that way needlessly embittered, the evil is very great and very superfluous. But when class is set against class only by that collision of interests which is inevitable in the case of any great social change, you might just as well object to a thunderstorm that it sets element against element, as to a great and needful reform that it sets class against class. We never heard of a reform yet that did not set class against class. Christianity set class against class. The reform of the Church set class against class. Every liberty that has been won by Englishmen has set class against class. The agitation for the Reform Bill set class against class. The Anti-Corn-law League set class against class. And the Agricultural Labourers' agitation sets class against class. This sad result is nearly inevitable, though of course if there were but wisdom in the resisting classes to see that they are resisting what ought to happen, and what they themselves ought to wish to happen, it would not be a necessary result. Still, however wisely and prudently the new attack upon old and mischievous conditions may be managed,—and no such attack has, on the whole, ever been conducted, as it seems to us, with such temperateness as the agricultural labourers' movement,—it is all but inevitable, considering how short-sighted men are, and how quickly custom seems to lend a sanction to the most evil conditions of life, that those who are likely to be the first sufferers by a necessary change, will resist it angrily, and denounce its supporters with virulent and unjust invective.
Under such circumstances, we maintain that the duty of every true Church is to advocate firmly and pertinaciously the new change, only taking care to do all in her power to moderate the spirit of its leaders, whenever they are in danger, as they always will be in danger, of judging unjustly and harshly those who resist their claims. We say that, as in the case of slavery, so in the case of social conditions which really do not admit of self-respect and purity of life,—the first duty of a Church is to strain every effort to make the economical conditions conform to the moral, instead of preaching that the moral conditions must be conformed to the economical. If education will not cure the evil without emigration, then it becomes as much a social duty to promote emigration till a physical standard of life is reached at which self-respect becomes possible, as it is to promote education. It is to us simply a marvel how calmly men who really are labouring hard at the moral improve- ment of their congregations, accept the duty of passivity and non- resistance as regards the rate of wages. Here, for instance, is a clergyman who writes that he has himself always believed Unions among the labourers to be the mocha operandi by which the labourer's condition would be improved,—bul he is not on that account inclined to recommend Unions, "for the reason that the question affects so vitally other classes beside the labourers, whom I am equally bound to consider. First, there is the tenant farmer. He has his lease of some years. He cannot raise his prices, which are fixed for him at Mark Lane. What is he to do, if he is to pay double the price of his labour ? No doubt rents must come down, but what is he to do in the meantime? Then the land itself is encumbered, in various ways over which the owner has no control. My opinion, then, would be that readjustment (which must be) must be gradual," &c. Is not that something like fiddling while Rome is burning? The worthy clergyman is quite right that the readjustment of wages will press severely on any farmer who holds a rack-rented lease so computed as to be just remunerative at the old prices of labour. But even if that were the average case in every county,—and it is very far from the average case,—and if better paid labour were not likely to be much more efficient, and therefore to imply a reduction in the number of labourers to be paid, why is the labourer, whose soul may be said to be involved as well as his body, to go on living the life of a beast, that the farmer may not be fined ? Surely the moral evil of the greater exigency ought to be remedied, before the mere physical evil of the smaller exigency is even considered. When would free trade have been carried, if the vested interests of the various traders had been so tenderly considered? No Church, at least, has any right to regard the vested interests of property as of higher claim than the vested interests of virtue.
If anything in the world is evident, surely it is evident that a Christian minister ought to strive with all his power to render the Lord's Prayer something better than a mockery to the poor labourers to whom he teaches it. Yet how can he teach them to pray to a Father at all, with any feeling of sacredness attaching to the name, if the only father they know is a bead of burden, far dirtier and far worse housed than most of the farmers' horses?—and that this is the case in multitudes of instances the Builder, a most im- partial authority, has proved. How can he teach them to pray that God's name be hallowed, if the only bedroom in the house is crowded with blasphemous and dissolute lodgers, whose small weekly pay- ment is essential to the very life of the household ; if, in short, as the Blue-book shows,—the instance we quote being by no means an unusual one,—" in a bedroom eleven feet square, two men and their wives, an unmarried woman and her three illegitimate children, aged respectively eighteen, ten, and five years, and a young man lodger, all sleep together " ? How is he to teach them to pray that God's kingdom may come and His will be done, while clergymen themselves seem to regard a condition of things in which hunger and vice play into each other's hands, as a very fair, though only "gradual," approximation to that kingdom and that will ? How is he to teach them to pray for daily bread with- out helping them to get the wages which alone can pay for it? How is he to inculcate the prayer for forgiveness in proportion as they have forgiven, on men who have bad to struggle like the beasts in the conflict for existence, without moral room or opportunity for that comparison of their own hearts with those of others on which even the sense of justice, and much more the sense of mercy, must depend ? How is he to teach young men and women to pray against being led into temptation, who are crowded into the grossest and most degrading temptations by the mere conditions of their life and sleep ? How is he to teach those to pray to be delivered from evil, who are delivered soul and body to evil, when they enter their homes ? And how is he to teach them to believe that it is God's kingdom, power, and glory under which they live, who find magistrates committing women to prison for sympathising with their husbands' cry for better wages, who see the only beneficent power they can distinctly realise—the Union—visited with the severe displeasure of the Church, and who are told that it is for God's glory that they should not murmur against a lot that soils their very souls ? We say that it is so obviously the duty, the imperious duty, of every true Church to strengthen the hands of those simple and sagacious men who have commenced this agitation, while using every oppor- tunity of controlling the passionate and often unjust thoughts which must rise up in the course of such an agitation, that we can hardly understand how any Church which professes to found a new spiritual order of things at all, can ignore the duty. If that which is " natural " must come before that which is "spiritual," that which Mr. Arch and Mr. Mitchell have begun with so much energy, is a work more apostolic than any missionary work which can be attempted without it. Bishops and clergymen who stand aloof from it, seem to us to abdicate their offices as clergymen, not less than to neglect their duties as men.