[Letter of James Martineau to Francis William Newman.]
June 15, 1857
My dear Newman,
Ever since the receipt of your delightful letter, its words have been with me to assuage a spirit often faint. But I have been so knocked about, in Somersetshire, London, and Yorkshire, that I could only muse on it amid railway noise, and wait for this first leisure moment to reply. . . .
Frighten me not, dear friend, by assuring me that some great thing is expected of me in London; even though the hint supplies an occasion for your wise and loving counsels. I look on my removal rather as a contraction than as an expansion of my sphere. I come to realise Plato's picture of the lover of wisdom, and "teach a few boys in a corner," with only the additional hope of quietly maturing a volume or two that may survive me. No more public function is in contemplation for me, least of all in connexion with any regular London congregation of Unitarians. Between them and me—partly, no doubt, from the faults you so truly indicate—there is little sympathy; I could never supply their wants: and they would never yield me that response without which the teacher's heart and hope must die. But, be assured, my want of accord with them is spiritual, not doctrinal; and the story of my leanings to Trinitarianism and the Atonement is a fiction of theological gossips. It can be founded on nothing but that National article respecting "Newman, Coleridge, and Carlyle"; for nowhere else have I touched upon these subjects for many a year.* The only change of which I am conscious as in progress within me, is an increasing tendency towards the Hellenic Realism—a tendency fostered by the study of Plato and St. Paul. Doubtless this philosophic change enables one to interpret with a more apprehensive sympathy the types and development of doctrine in the Christian Church. They are no longer to me the mere nonsense, absurdity, and contradiction they once appeared. But this equally holds of Buddhism, Spinozism, and some half-dozen foreign systems, which have come to speak intelligibly, but still not truthfully, to me. I fear this very change, which opens the way into other ages, hinders access to our own. At least in England a Platonic or a Pauline dialect seems doomed to remain an unknown tongue. To this, much more than to any excess of thought in what I preach, do I attribute the complaint of obscurity; for I find on the one hand very intellectual people whom I annoy and puzzle, and very simple people who follow me without strain. But I know not how it is: my will seems to have no voice or power in regard to what I prepare for preaching. I wish always precisely what you wish for me. But without a movement of the spirit I cannot write at all; and when the movement is there, it seems to exclude all alternative, and to produce just what actually comes. It is otherwise with mere literary lecturing; but in regard to preaching, this fatality seems beyond control. Sometimes I indulge the hope of being yet shaken out of my cloud by the intercourses of a London life, and chiefly with you, dear friend, so near to me in religious sympathy, so generous and quickening with your intellectual wealth. Here I have lived virtually alone; and have doubtless contracted morbid and metaphysic ways. . . .
With our united warmest regards, ever, dear friend,
"*The article on 'Mediatorial Religion,' National, 1856, was apparently forgotten. A reader unaccustomed to Mr. Martineau's language, might easily misunderstand the declaration that 'mediatorial religion is imperishable and imperishably identified with Christianity,' Studies of Christianity, p. 176. The estimate of his former pupil, Miss Catherine Winkworth, an earnest Anglican, is not here inapposite. To Mr. Edward Herford she wrote (Nov. 5, 1856): 'What I admire in him is his religious philosophy, as far as I understand it, his absolute fearless truth, his singular power of appreciating other people's stand-point, and his deep conviction of the evil of sin. This last, especially, is utterly unlike anything I have ever seen in other Unitarians, whose easy way of getting over the difficulty in general by a few moments of not over-sharp repentance, and a forgiveness that really deserves no better name than good-nature, is to me one of the worst parts of their system. In this, as in many other points of his philosophy, I always feel as though Mr. Martineau were wholly out of his place among them.' A few days later the same writer declared him 'far nearer in faith and experience to the Church. He seems to have so deep a longing for Church-communion, too, that I fancy he always feels rather exiled in his present position. But then comes in his great unbelief about the Scriptures to prevent him from changing.' Life of Catherine Winkworth, vol. ii. pp. 82, 84" (Carpenter, fn., 395-96).