1920s >> 1924 >> no-243-november-1924

Socialism and Religion. Reply to a Vicar


The Vicar of Watford (Herts) recently took it into his head to attack Socialism, taking as his text our pamphlet “Socialism and Religion.” A member of our Watford Branch sent a reply to the Vicar for insertion in the “West Herts Post” (the paper reporting the Vicar’s address), but this paper could not find space for it.
The local Labour Party were highly indignant at the attitude taken up by the Vicar, and spared no pains in the endeavour to prove that “Socialism” and “Christianity” were practically synonymous terms. They imported an East End parson to defend them against the imputation of supporting anti-Christian doctrines, and even threatened to secure the aid of the Bishop of St. Albans.
As the matter may perhaps be of general interest we print below the letter rejected by the “West Herts Post.”—Editorial Committee, S.S.

Under the above title the “West Herts Post” for September 25th reports an address delivered at the Watford Parish Church by the Rev. Henry Edwards, the Vicar of Watford.

In this address a pamphlet entitled “Socialism and Religion,” published by the Socialist Party of Great Britain (of which I am a member); was attacked by the Vicar, and is the immediate reason for the following criticism of his address.

In his address the Vicar claims that:

Religion is the true remedy for the ills of humanity ;
The Church is just as keen as Socialism to see a better state of things;
The working men of to-day owe to Christianity their freedom, homes, education’ and hospitals ;
Socialism is essentially immoral and advocates free-love.

The word “Religion,” as used by the Vicar, is rather confusing. The religions of the world are countless, and each sect claims that it alone holds the true philosophy of life. I take it, however, that the Vicar is not speaking on behalf of Mohammedanism, Buddhism, or Shintoism, for instance, but only on behalf of the Christian Church.

I will therefore confine my remarks to the attitude and activities of this Church.


The Church has enjoyed for centuries a power over the affairs of men unparalleled by any other single organisation. During part of the time it was the largest land-owner in the world, owning one-third of the entire land of Europe and controlling the bulk of the educational facilities. This period is familiarly known as the “Dark Ages,” when persecution was rife, knowledge languished and almost died, and the poor suffered from oppressive and barbarous regulations. The Church taught but little beyond the singing of hymns, the saying of prayers, and the belief in miracles. Every step made by science then, and since, has been in spite of, and in face of, the bitter opposition of the Church. Galileo was persecuted by the Church for his scientific discoveries, and only saved himself from torture and death by recanting. Giordano Bruno was burnt for teaching that the earth goes round the sun.

From the time it became a State religion until the present day Christianity has supported the oppressors against the oppressed. The barbarities of the pagan empires were outdone by the barbarities perpetrated after Christianity became the ruling religion in the Roman Empire. The subsequent history contains records of vice on the part of the clergy that would be difficult to equal, as anyone can verify by looking into “The Life and Times of Machiavelli,” by Villari, or, better still, the book the Vicar recommends us to read, “The History of European Morals,” by Lecky. Lecky’s book contains multitudes of illustrations of murder, rape, and other crimes committed by the leading figures in the Church. For instance, on page 261 of Vol. II he points out that Constantine, shortly after his conversion to Christianity, put to a violent death his son, his nephew, and his wife.

The doctrines taught by Christianity are slavish and calculated to make the slave satisfied with his oppressed condition. On this point let me quote Lecky again :—

“Slavery was distinctly and formally recognised by Christianity, and no religion ever laboured more to encourage a habit of docility and passive obedience.” (Page 66, Vol. II.)
“ Christianity for the first time gave the servile virtues the foremost place in the moral type.” (Page 68, Vol. II.)

Are not “docility” and “passive obedience” the ideas most opposed to working class improvement? As long as slaves are satisfied with their lot they will submit to wage reductions and all the other oppressive conditions imposed by their masters. Acting on these ideas, the workers would not have gained the limited advantages they now possess, such as Trade Union combination, factory regulations, “limitations” of the hours of labour, and the suffrage. All these, as a matter of fact, have been obtained against the opposition of the Church.

Christianity is, therefore, proved by its own supporters (Lecky was a Protestant) to be a religion favouring the continuance of slavery.

The Church of England itself has little of which to boast. It was the offspring of the Reformation movement. The Roman Catholic religion, with its numerous holidays, feastings, and taxations for religious purposes, stood in the way of the free exploitation of the workers by the rising commercial magnates of the time. After the Reformation the holidays and feast days were abolished, the workers were driven off the green fields into the factory hells, and their fearful sufferings there—under the control of Christian employers, backed up by Christian clergy—have been recorded on many a burning page in books written by Christian and non-Christian writers. The reports of factory inspectors, Shaftesbury’s “Diary,” Gaskell’s “Machine and Industry,” Gibbin’s “Industrial History of England,” and a host of other books provide illustrations of the depth of brutality Bright, Cobden, and other Christian employers of the time, sank to in their lust after profit.

Martin Luther, the leading figure in the Reformation movement, hated the peasants, the poor people of his time, and supported the savage repression exercised by the feudal lords of Germany. He is reported to have written the following exhortation :—

“Crush them, strangle them, and pierce them, in secret and in the sight of men, he who can even as one would strike dead a mad dog.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9th Ed. article Luther.)

That his suggestion was faithfully carried out appears probable, as the ”Harmsworth Encyclopædia” states that 130,000 peasants were slaughtered during, and immediately after, the revolt (page 4623, Vol. VI).


The Vicar quotes Wilberforce as an example of the Church’s work for freedom, but what was Wilberforce’s attitude towards the oppressed?

In the period following the Battle of Waterloo, when industry was changing over from hand work to machine work, children from six years of age and upwards were employed for long hours in factories, and girls and boys were working up to sixteen hours a day in coal mines. Wilberforce was deaf to all appeals for assistance on their behalf, and used his influence to support the Government in savage acts of repression against the overworked and starving workers. In 1818, when a peaceful meeting of working men assembled at Peterloo to protest against oppressive regulations, a body of militia set upon them and massacred numbers. Wilberforce opposed any enquiry into the matter, and, in the same year, voted £1,000,000 to build new churches ! (See “John o’ London’s Weekly,” September 6th, 1924, and also the “Diary” of Lord Shaftesbury.)

Lord Shaftesbury struggled for years to interest influential people in the terrible plight of factory children, but he failed to enlist the Church in the support of factory legislation. Those who shed tears over the condition of the black slaves in far-away America were blind to the anguish of the tiny white slaves at their door. Here is a brief extract from Hodder’s “Life of Lord Shaftesbury,” which will give a faint idea of the horrors prevailing at the time in the coal mines of this Christian country :—

“A very large proportion of the workers underground were less than thirteen years of age ; some of them began to toil in the pits when only four or five; many when between six and seven, and the majority when not over eight or nine—females as well as males. . . .
“From the time the first coal was brought forward in the morning, until the last whirley had passed at night, that is to say for twelve or fourteen hours a day, the trapper was at his monotonous, deadening work. . . . Except on Sunday, they never saw the sun. . . .
“It sometimes happened that the children employed in the mines were required to work ‘double shifts,’ that is to say, thirty-six hours continuously, and the work thus cruelly protracted consisted, not in tending self-acting machinery, but in the heaviest kinds of bodily fatigue, such as pushing loaded waggons.” (Pages 221-222.)

Shaftesbury complains bitterly of the indifference of the clergy to the children’s sufferings. In his diary he makes the following remarks on the clergv :—

“I find as usual, the clergy are, in many cases, frigid ; in some few, hostile. So it has ever been with me. At first 1 could get none; at last I have obtained a few, but how miserable a proportion of the entire class ! The ecclesiastics, as a mass, are, perhaps, as good as they can be under any institution of things where human nature can have full swing ; but they are timid, time-serving, and great worshippers of wealth and power. I can scarcely remember an instance in which a clergyman has been found to maintain the cause of labourers in the face of pew-holders.” (Hodder’s “Life,” page 378.)

I may add that Wilberforce and other Church dignitaries who were so concerned about negro slavery raised not a murmur about the indentured white labour, which was equally as bad, if not worse, that flourished in America at the same time.


The Vicar urges patriotism, and blames Socialism for being unpatriotic. We had a good illustration of the patriotism of Christianity during the war. The Christian Churches of Germany blessed the arms of the German soldiers and wished the soldiers success in their endeavour to murder their fellow-beings of other lands. The Christian Churches of England likewise blessed the English soldier and prayed that he would be successful in the slaughter. Incidentally, I may mention that the English Church had thousands of pounds invested in War Loan ! The patriotism of the Church has been dealt with by Lecky as follows :—

“Much misapplied learning has been employed in endeavouring to extract from the Fathers a consistent doctrine concerning the relations of subjects to their sovereigns; but every impartial observer may discover that the principle on which they acted was exceedingly simple. When a sovereign was sufficiently orthodox in his opinions, and sufficiently zealous in patronising the Church and persecuting the heretics, he was extolled as an angel. When his policy was opposed to the Church he was represented as a demon.” (History of European Morals, page 261, Vol. II.)

The financial interests of the Church are bound up with the continuance of the present system of profitmaking. It has millions of pounds invested in railway and other securities, from which it draws dividends, so that it stands to workers in the relation of an employer to the employed. As such, therefore, it is in favour of wage slavery and against its abolition.


And now a few words on Education.

Christianity has been the prevailing religion among Western nations for two thousand years, and yet educational facilities were not provided for the mass of the people until comparatively recently. Every step in education has been opposed by the Church. It was “infidels” like Robert Owen and William Lovett who pressed forward the movement for elementary education, and the Church flung the same charge—“immorality”—against Owen that it has flung against every innovator. When National School Boards were established, the Church saw that its resistance was futile, so the clergy fought for control of the School Boards in order that religious teaching should occupy the main part of the cur¬riculum.

Pestalozzi, who has been called the “Founder of the Elementary School,” met with opposition and indifference in his attempt to spread education among the poor. His biographer, Gabriel Compayre, writes :

“In every time and country, fanatics have been found to decry innovators. He was accused of countenancing anti-Christian doctrines. . . Those of his colleagues who had remained orthodox Protestants were the first to cast stones at him.” (Peslatozzi and Elementary Education, page 57.)


The Vicar contends that the coming of Socialism will bring immorality and destroy family life. There is no need to look into the future, the evil is here in our midst to-day, and the source of the evils is the system in which we live. The introduction of the factory system long ago dragged the father, mother, and children from the home and set them in competition with each other in industry.

The streets of every large town in this country are thronged with women who are compelled to barter their bodies in exchange for bread. They must live, and the avenues of employment are already thronged to overflow with the unsuccessful. When women are assured of their bread they will be able to spend their affections freely upon those they love, and some of them will not have to adopt the sordid refuge of the streets. But it is not only on the streets that bodies are bought. The woman that enters into a loveless marriage, in order to obtain security of livelihood, is just as much a prostitute as her sister of the streets, the only difference of account being that one sells herself for a short while and the other does so for life. The boasted morality of to-day is a sham, as the ugly facts published in the divorce columns of the daily papers bear eloquent witness.

How much home life does the average worker get? In many instances the whole family are out at work all day trying to obtain the wherewithal to keep a roof over their heads. Their home is more of a sleeping and meal-snatching place than anything else. Overwork makes them irritable with each other, and the time they have together is too brief to enable them to thoroughly understand one another. Trying to make the meagre wages cover the needs of the family, crabs and twists the minds of all. Finally, it is surely idle to speak of home life to working people nowadays, when multitudes of them cannot even find, or pay the rent of, houses to live in, and have to pack themselves into rooms under unhealthy conditions and with the fear of eviction from even these poor shelters constantly haunting them.


That the virtues extolled by Christianity are the virtues of submission is borne out by the statements of the Founder Himself. In his celebrated “Sermon on the Mount” Christ says :—

“ Blessed are the poor in spirit. . . .
“ Blessed are the meek. . . .
“ Blessed are they that mourn. . . .
“ Blessed are the peacemakers. …”

The following out of these ideals is a passive submission to the misery and oppression of this world for the sake of the happiness to be enjoyed in a mythical world hereafter. The true Christian is exhorted to “Resist not evil,” and, therefore, must not take any action to alter the existing order of society, in which the workers are a class of poor and oppressed slaves, subject to the laws and whims of a profit-seeking class of employers.

Socialism aims at taking from the masters the power they wield and the wealth they have stolen. Its object is to raise the workers from slaves to freemen. It is therefore opposed to Christianity.

I have now shown, by a few illustrations out of the multitudes that exist, that the ideals and attitude of the Church were, and are, opposed to the interests of the workers. Any real advance the workers make will have to be made, now as in the past, against the opposition of the Church. If the workers would cast off the chains of wage slavery, then they must cast off the slavish doctrines of Christianity, which counsel them to love, honour, and obey those who oppress them


(Socialist Standard, November 1924)

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