PHILOSOPHERS OF LIBERATING THOUGHT:

CHARLES DICKENS

Rev. Don Beaudreault

December 9, 2001

 

OPENING WORDS: #629 "Hanukkah Lights"

We gather in the chill of winter solstice, finding warmth from each other, nourishing hope where reason fails.

Grateful for small miracles, we rejoice in the wonder of light and darkness and the daring of hope.

Holy One of Blessing

Your Presence

fills creation.

You made us holy with Your commandments and called us to kindle the Hanukkah lights.

Holy One of Blessing

Your Presence

fills creation.

You performed miracles for our ancestors in days of old at this season.

Holy One of Blessing

Your Presence

fills creation.

You have kept us alive

You have sustained us

You have brought us

to this moment.

Beth El Congregation, Sudbury, MA

 

READING: "DICKENS’ LONDON"

All his life Dickens walked. In many of his novels and journalistic sketches, there is an image of the narrator as wanderer…The walker is a stranger; he passes through…he sees the rich and poor living within two or three streets of each other, and yet knowing very little of each other’s existence…a savage London. He once told a journalist that, "the amount of crime, starvation and nakedness and misery of every sort in the metropolis surpasses all understanding…I have spent many days and nights in the most wretched districts of the metropolis, studying the history of the human heart. There we must go to find it"…And it was in these mean streets that he did find the poverty and the desperation of the metropolis: he saw the skeletons outside the Whitechapel workhouse, wrapped in rags and dying of malnutrition, he saw the orphan children dying in the streets, he saw the boy in the Ragged School "with burning cheeks and great gaunt eager eyes" who had nothing in the world except a "bottle of physic" and who was gently led away to die. There were the human beings whom he observed on his journeys through London; they lived in the shadow that the city had cast... (Said Dickens): "I wonder whether the race of men...could deduce such an astounding inference as the existence of a polished state of society that bore with the public savagery of neglected children in the streets of its capital city, and was proud of its power by sea and land, and never used its power to seize and save them.

Peter Ackroyd

SERMON:

In a visit to Newgate Prison, Charles Dickens met with a young girl and wrote the following sketch of her, believing her to be a victim of environmental factors:

Barely past her childhood, it required but a glance to discover that she was one of those children born and bred in neglect and vice, who have never known what childhood is; who have never been taught of love and (to) court a parent’s smile; or to dread a parent’s frown…Talk to THEM of parental solicitude, the happy days of childhood and merry games of infancy! Tell them (rather) of hunger and the streets, of beggary and stripes, of the gin-shop, the stationhouse, and the pawnbroker’s and (then) they will understand you!"

Victorian England. Bush America, 2001. Listen to where we are today:

Kids under 5 suffer more poverty than any other age group in America. Roughly one in four is poor…Poor children are more likely to suffer from low birth weight, more likely to die during the first year of life, more likely to suffer hunger or abuse while growing up and less likely to benefit from immunizations or adequate medical care…Infant death is twice as common in the U. S. as in Japan. American black children are dying at twice the rate of whites…No disease, drug or environmental hazard rivals traumatic injuries as a killer of children. Every year mishaps claim the lives of 8,000 American youngsters and permanently disable 50,000…3 million youngsters – one in six children under 7 – have dangerous levels of lead in their blood…Only half of America’s 1-4 –year-old are being immunized against polio…studies have identified inner-city neighborhoods where 50 to 70 percent of preschool children are unvaccinated…Fetal alcohol exposure is the nations’ leading known cause of mental retardation, surpassing both Down’s Syndrome and Spina Bifida…experts guess that a million women of childbearing age use cocaine. "Newsweek Magazine")

There is more than a hundred years difference between Dickensian London and today’s America, but the similarities are apparent. Improvements have been made, of course, but not enough when our children and the children around the world are still at risk.

Today’s world could benefit from the existence of a Charles Dickens, that radical Unitarian, the kind who was literally willing to "walk his talk" – walking the streets of London, relating to the people he met, not merely observing them. Indeed, he would often take his friends on his voyages of discovery through London’s slums, visiting lodging houses:

He would go in quite blithely but there are reports of his companions, overpowered by the stench within, who came out into the streets to be sick. (DICKENS’ LONDON, p. 196)

But not Dickens. He didn’t get sick, so much as mad! Righteous anger that he directed to a society which, because of his engaging style of addressing the issues, was more than willing to hear his pleas. And his listeners included not just the highbrows, but the poor. They saw him as their champion. Historical evidence from the period reveals accounts of factory hands and chimney sweeps who were entranced by his work. If they couldn’t make out all the words, they COULD get the gist of what he was telling them by the many illustrations that accompanied his stories.

"Ah! Mr. Dickens," shouted a carriage driver to Dickens’s son, on the day of the novelist’s funeral, "your father’s death was a great loss to all of us – and we cabbies were in hopes that he would (next) be doing something to help us!"

What Dickens was able to do was to prod and entertain millions of readers into caring about the poor. He did not see them in some abstract way the way the economist Malthus did: as a seething mass of "surplus population." Instead, Dickens saw the poor as individuals.

Throughout his novels he exhibited the premise that no one economic class had a monopoly on intelligence or morality, which, "was a revolutionary creed at a time when the affluent saw the poor as a mob – to be feared or appeased…but definitely not to be considered as individuals." (THE WASHINGTON MONTHLY, "Why We Need a New Dickens," Matthew Cooper, December, 1988)

Perhaps this analysis of Dickens’ character is what Dostoevski was referring to when he called the Unitarian Dickens, "the great Christian."

Or perhaps this is what was meant when a commentator said upon the occasion of Dickens’ death:

He was set to rouse attention to many evils and many woes; and though not putting it on Christian principle, he may have been, in God’s singular and unfathomable goodness, a servant of the Most High.

Still, not all Victorian religious leaders thought Dickens was such a saint! Said one:

His writings are of the most questionable tendency in point of morals, and when he touches on religion, he is often profane.

Another preacher back then labeled him as a writer

Who never ceased to sneer at and vilify religion.

Dickens, himself, said of his religion in a letter to a friend:

I have carried into effect an old idea of mine and joined the Unitarians, who would do something for human improvement, if they could; and who practice charity and toleration.

It was that leading 19th century Unitarian, the Rev. William Ellery Channing, who upon the occasion of Dickens’ visit to the U.S. during a lecture tour, convinced the novelist that he was a Unitarian.

Dickens’ religious outlook was shaped by his conviction that religion was a matter of individual conscience, not something that depended significantly upon ritual, ecclesiastical authority, or abstruse theology; and, he believed that charity and benevolence were essential and highly appropriate products of a religious faith.

By the way, Dickens responded to those non-Unitarian clergy who fulminated against him by saying that he deplored their "excessive enthusiasm, emotionalism, ignorance, and lack of cultivation." And he pronounced that missionaries were "perfect nuisances who leave every place worse than they found it."

Still, Dickens could and did work with anyone on the social justice issues of his day. One’s particular religion did not matter when it came to that!

The three major issues to which he was dedicated were education, health, and housing. He believed that if environmental factors could be changed for the better, people’s lives would be improved. In this regard, he countered those non-rationalistic preachers and pundits who believed that people suffered because they were spiritually or genetically predestined to suffer.

In education, he supported what were called "Ragged Schools," which were established in London in 1791 to help educate destitute children. Most of the money to maintain these institutions came from the Church of England, although, most of the teachers came from the Unitarians!

Dickens made a continual outcry in support of neglected and abandoned children, and in effect, was echoing his own personal experience as a child growing up in a poor family.

The second of eight children in a family continually plagued by debt – his father and various members of the family spent time in debtor’s prison – the young Dickens came to know hunger and privation. As a child he learned of the injustice of child labor, due to his own experience of labeling bottles in a shoe-blacking factory. In essence, he found himself an abandoned child, ill lodged, underfed, poorly educated, often aimlessly wandering the streets. As he later said of the experience, he received "no advice, no counsel, no encouragement, no consolation, no support, from anyone that I can call to mind, so help me, God."

This experience, however, became grist for his literary mill and for his social-justice action.

In one of his Christmas books called THE HAUNTED MAN he says of the ill treatment of children in England:

There is not a country throughout the earth on which it would not bring a curse. There is no religion on earth that it would not deny. There are no people upon earth it would not put to shame.

Concerning health and housing issues, Dickens wrote:

In all my writings, I hope I have taken every available opportunity of showing the want of sanitary improvements in the neglected dwellings of the poor.

Furthermore, the novelist was involved in numerous organizations to accomplish what he wrote. One of the most notables of these was able to turn a large garbage dump into a housing development, creating 150 homes for the disadvantaged poor.

This very practical solution to a real problem went far beyond the thinking of those who merely preached or talked about the causes of social maladies, but did little or nothing to actually help the situation.

One of Dickens’ contemporaries with whom he would have agreed proclaimed:

It is to no purpose to send out the schoolmaster, it is to no purpose to employ the missionary, it is to no purpose to preach from the pulpit, it is to little or no purpose to visit from house to house and carry with you the precepts and the lessons of the Gospel, so long as you leave the people in this squalid, obscene, filthy, disgusting, and overcrowded state.

Indeed, here was the so-called "Social Gospel" being preached – where one was expected to do something – not just talk about doing something!

What happened in Victorian England – and to a great extent Dickens is to be appreciated for this change – was that the environmentalists won over the evangelicals – meaning that England began to realize that there were real factors for the terrible conditions people experienced. They were not suffering because God was punishing them for their sins!

Now, how very Unitarian Universalistic is this environmentalist position? That is our theology in action: believing that all human beings have a right to a worthwhile life, we attempt to discover real reasons for the injustices in the world, and then we work to improve the situation!

Indeed, Dickens held a utilitarian point of view and wrote about specific causes and remedies. His genius was that he could intertwine art with cause; he was literary stylist and political activist, word painter and social prophet. He was a man who viewed life in all its complexity but he did so with the hope that the common good would prevail. Despite all those evil characters who crossed his pages, he never lost his basic belief in human goodness. He counted upon the common humanity of women and men to alleviate its many ills.

Consider what happened to that despicable, miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge! Look at his conversion:

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did NOT die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he though it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed; and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well.

And so, my dear friends, may we all keep the holiday well – by showing our love and concern for one another.

CLOSING READING: "A CHRISTMAS CAROL"

(As Dickens said of Scrooge at the conclusion of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, may it be said of us, too):

…and he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any person alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, "God bless us, every one!"

Charles Dickens