Pieties of the Past
The Freethinker, May 9, 1937
For an Octogenarian to have changed his address may seem, in view of the change that cannot be far distant, somewhat anomalous; but it so happens that such is my position, and I have therefore lately been engaged in looking over old letters and recalling to mind certain old stories that used to amuse me. I venture to hope that some of these anecdotes of early years will have interest for readers of the Freethinker.
My mother was very religious, but she had a keen sense of humour, and there were cases where she allowed it free play. One was when a cousin in the Indian Army consulted her, in all seriousness, as to the length of time he should kneel in that initial prayer in which church-goers were expected to indulge. It had been his practice, he told her, to count twenty. Did she consider that sufficient?
To tell this to a schoolboy, already on the look out for such things, was perhaps indiscreet; and I shocked her by one or two of the stories I took back from Eton, where the chapel services lent themselves inevitably to diversions. No eccentricity, no deviation from the fixed routine went unnoticed. A gown among surplices, or a surplice among gowns, subjected its wearer to merciless attention; and when the chaplain by inadvertence read the same prayer twice, or confused one precept with another, the interest suddenly became keen. One of his slips, “Rend your garments, and not your hearts,” was immensely popular with us. Our cruelty was a thing of which even seventy years later I feel ashamed. There was one boy who had been convicted of some theft from a schoolfellow, and him we named Barabbas, and when the text reached us, “Now Barabbas was a robber,” there was not a head that was not turned in his direction. Such was religion at a great public school.
At King’s College, Cambridge, where, as a scholar on the Eton foundation, it was my duty at certain intervals to read the Lessons, things were not very different. I remember the awe with which, on the first occasion, I stepped clown from my stall to the lectern, which stood in the centre of the great Chapel; but the awe soon passed, and in a year or two I had devised the plan of making the long homily short by announcing at a suitable juncture: “Here endeth the Lesson.” And it did end; the organ tuned up, and the service proceeded. I used to expect to be called to account for taking this liberty; but either the authorities did not follow the rubric with clue attention, or they were secretly glad to be spared what I cut out. I suspect the latter.
Then I was back at Eton again, as a junior master; and my troubles in chapel-going were much relieved by someone giving me a small volume of Wordsworth’s poems bound like a prayer book, so that my piety went unquestioned; I still know a lot of the verse by heart. Though I had not as yet realized the importance of enlightening others, I had long lost any faith in Christianity; and once when my mother, who was staying with me, asked me to go with her to communion at the Eton parish church, as she was growing old, it was from filial piety that I did so. There an unusual thing happened; for the second of the two parsons, who was carrying the cup, left me by mistake without his attention. I was letting the matter rest; taking the omission as a sort of recompense for my goodness in being there at all; but unfortunately my mother, seeing what had happened, brought the poor man back by a wave of her arm. The thing that puzzled me was that afterwards, at home, when I asked her in all innocence (as I thought) the reason of her interference, she expressed the utmost horror and amazement; said that never in her life had she been so shocked. What malady she feared would have befallen me, if I had had only half of the sacred rite, she would not say; nor have I ever been able to learn from friends in holy orders. The evening prayers that had to be read in the boarding-houses at Eton were a great trial. A member of a large household told me that once, when the bell rang, she had heard one of the servants (who were expected to be present) say to another: “Oh! why do gentry have prayers?”; and I thought the question an appropriate one: I think I can guess now why they do. But there were risks. I once read prayers with our cat seated on my shoulder, and I was so lucky as to succeed in jerking her off before the boys, who were kneeling with their backs to me, were able to turn round. I dread to think what would have happened if I had been seen so encumbered; though why a cat should not attend prayers as much as a boy (or a master) I cannot pretend to be aware.
I was married in that Eton Parish Church of which I have spoken; for my father-in-law, a very kind old clergyman, knowing my wish to get to Keswick the same day, offered to borrow the church from the vicar, a great friend of his, and to omit certain parts of the service which he did not hold to be essential to matrimony. He did so, and we caught our train at Euston; but what I want to mention is that when he proposed, a year or so later, to borrow the church again, in order to marry another daughter to a most devout clergyman, the vicar declined to lend it, and the reason he gave for his refusal was that the scandal caused in the parish by Mr. Salt’s marriage had been so great. It must have been the omissions from the service that caused offence, and the verger who blabbed. Thus, once more, my piety had led me into trouble.Henry S. Salt