Happy Few

Patricia Beer

  • Told in Gath by Max Wright
    Blackstaff, 177 pp, £11.95, January 1991, ISBN 0 85640 449 7

I have not met Max Wright, but a few years ago I read two chapters of a book he was writing about the Plymouth Brethren. I thought highly of the script and looked forward to hearing how it was getting on. Now I have the finished work. Told in Gath is published in the streets of Askelon and the daughters of the Philistines rejoice (2 Samuel 1.20). I align myself on this occasion with the daughters of the Philistines. This seems to me a necessary book.

Far too little has been written about the Brethren. Over the years many people have had the relevant experiences but not the relevant skills, for by tradition the persuasion is by no means learned. The Brethren as I knew them long ago were eloquent in the sense that they loved the sound of their own voices, but the language they used was very odd, a mixture of pastiche and ineptitude which Max Wright can imitate with distressing accuracy when he needs to. The authors of such books would have had to be backsliders (the word ‘apostate’ was not used – it was thought to sound both Popish and highfalutin) and they might have preferred to forget what life was like before they slid back. These defections (another neglected word, being suggestive of the politics of this present world) tended to take place in youth; the first whiff of real education, however acquired, often did it.

The potential of the Brethren as subject-matter has of course been exploited by writers in all genres, but seldom with much credibility; the picture Peter Carey gives of them in Oscar and Lucinda, for example, is what might politely be called a travesty. Edmund Gosse is the nearest to an exception. In Father and Son he does not tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, for though the book was not published till 1907 it was well within the hagiographical convention of the previous century, but it tells quite enough of the truth to be getting on with.

There is two-way traffic on the Damascus Road, and many Brethren have found that at the moment of apostasy the voice from heaven was the voice of Gosse. He is the patron saint of backsliders, and has stood beside them. He often materialises today. Max Wright’s opening paragraph relates how he first read Father and Son in the course of one September afternoon when he was 17. ‘There are not many joys,’ he says, ‘to compare with the discovery of the right book at the right time.’ I have no such experience to recount; I came to the book later in life. But my qualifications to review Told in Gath, apart from the essential one of being a backslider myself, are bound up with the Gosse family.

My grandmother broke bread with Philip Henry Gosse. Not many people know that. She had come in from Dartmoor where she was born, to seek excitement as a housemaid in one of the villas that were going up all round St Marychurch, and in one of which the Gosses lived. So they both worshipped in the local Hall. The moorland Brethren were very strong in those days, with nearly as many adherents as the Flat Earthers, and considered themselves to be as superior to those of the cities of the plain in holiness as they were in altitude, so she would have attended the Breaking of Bread – we were not allowed to use a more papistical expression – in a marked manner. P.H. Gosse would certainly have noticed her, but she can never have shared food with him in a secular way; there was a strict though of course unacknowledged pecking order. But perhaps he got his servants to ask her to tea in the kitchen. In due season my mother (P.H. Gosse just missed her) worshipped there too, and in childhood so did I, if you can call it worshipping. There the line ended.

It was from this background that I can testify to the complete authenticity of Max Wright’s book. He is over ten years younger than I am and was born and brought up in another place, Northern Ireland, but the Brethren were not only timeless but, in spite of their neat little houses, of no fixed address, except in the sense of heaven being their home. The only thing he describes which is new to me is the practice of reading somebody out of the assembly for fornication. (‘Excommunicating’ would be one more forbidden word.) Whether this means that my brethren were more lethargic about committing and condemning fornication than his or just more stealthy I do not know. Everything else is precisely as I remember it. I recognise even the clichés. Over the years our brethren across the sea had apparently been declaring, in an extremity of liberalism, that we might conceivably meet Roman Catholics in heaven, not many but some, exactly as their brethren in Devon had been declaring, starting with P.H. Gosse and including my mother. They could not have meant it, given the virulence of their anti-Catholicism. It was just a form of words, a mood.

Max Wright tells us everything there is to tell, in Gath or anywhere else, about the Brethren, and as he is scrupulously accurate his book could be valuable for that alone. It is likely to be consistently interesting to those with no knowledge of the Brethren beyond their being a group of fundamentalist Christians who base all their beliefs and behaviour on those of the early Church as described in the Bible, without the help of any extraneous information, knowledge of languages or trained ministry; who have no set services yet never deviate from their procedures; who are poorly integrated with the world they live in; who are flattered that Jesus Christ called them peculiar (Titus 2.14); whose attitude to everything is negative; and who doubt if Ian Paisley is saved. Such readers might well be curious about the details.

And these Dr Wright supplies. As a teacher of philosophy he is obviously aware that he is dealing with no system of thought. One can work one’s way down the long column in the OED which defines philosophy, from 1 to 9b, without coming across anything which sounds like any mental process engaged in by the Brethren. Their guiding notions are wild without being free, a kind of folklore. So he takes each of the observances most characteristic of the Brethren and dearest to their hearts and shows how they worked in practice.

A good example is extempore prayer. Several sects claim to pray on the spur of the moment and some really do. With the Brethren, though it was statutory that there should be no set form of prayer such as Papists go in for, no real spontaneity took its place. Their prayers were a ragbag of stale exhortations, updated with topical sideswipes, addressed to those present in the flesh; informative remarks addressed to God who often had to be reminded that it was Sunday; and any odd bits and pieces that were good for padding. This last was important in view of the essentially competitive nature of this kind of prayer. It had to be long-winded. It also had to be loud and determined, so often were two brethren guided to rise to their feet simultaneously, when it could become a trial of strength.

One brother, contender on both counts, used to bolster up his prayer with a favourite poem, as Max Wright relates.

It was part of Brethren folklore that these verses had been written by the inmate of a lunatic asylum. Why this alleged fact was found worthy of remark may not be immediately obvious to the outsider, but I suspect that the moral of the story was that the madman, though deranged, had, through the grace of God, never lost contact with the great truth that no account of the divine love will ever be definitive. And so Mr Stevenson would never fail to slot his favourite into his prayer in a way which must have sounded odd to one hearing him for the first time without the required background knowledge. ‘As the lunatic,’ he would intone, ‘has put it so beautifully ...’

And then he quoted the poem. Few would call it beautiful but, to be fair, it was a great deal saner than the hymns in Moody and Sankey, of which, incidentally, there is a vivid account in another chapter.

The book is often anecdotal, and very funny in this deadpan way. I particularly like the story about a brother in County Armagh delivering a fervent gospel address which centred on Felix, the governor of Caesarea who appears in the Acts of the Apostles being preached to by Paul. (Not Saint, of course: we were all saints.) The humour is not in what happened to Felix, which is sad by any standards: he rejected God’s plan of salvation, threw Paul into gaol and swept out, presumably to hell. Neither, obviously, is it in what happened to Paul. It is in the words of the preacher who in momentary lapses of inspiration, knowing nothing and caring less about oxymoron or indeed Latin, kept apostrophising the governor as ‘Unhappy Felix’.

Edmund Gosse in his preface to Father and Son thinks it necessary to explain and almost apologise for his mingling of ‘merriment and humour with a discussion of the most solemn subjects’. He trusts his readers, however, to understand ‘that the comedy was superficial and the tragedy essential,’ and indeed we do. Nearly a century later we would be surprised if it were otherwise. There is darkness enough in Told in Gath to balance considerable merriment, and much of it is implied rather than spelled out. In the account of extempore prayer, for example, though the tone is light almost to jollity and it is with laughter that we realise the prayers were not extempore, it is with something like desolation that we see they were not prayers at all. Some miseries had to be more explicitly told: the long years of childhood panic when the boy was desperately trying to follow the Biblical instruction ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved,’ not knowing how it was done – who does? – and trying again and again, mortally terrified that he had not got it right; and the long months of emotional blackmail leading up to his adolescent submission to baptism by total immersion, the Brethren’s most cherished observance, an obscene ceremony the way they did it.

It is clear, I hope, that I admire Told in Gath for many more qualities than the clarity and completeness of its information, but there is something else as well. I should explain why I have called the book necessary. After all, people can sustain relationships and earn their living without knowing that the Brethren ever existed. The answer is that I have long been convinced that this kind of Christian fundamentalism should be opposed by some fairly firm writing-on-the-wall, and, now, that this book could be it.

Max Wright quotes in full Edmund Gosse’s terrible denunciation of the religion in which he had been brought up. The most damning sentence is this: ‘It encourages a stern and ignorant spirit of condemnation; it throws altogether out of gear the healthy movement of the conscience; it invents virtues that are sterile and cruel; it invents sins which are no sins at all, but which darken the heaven of innocent joy with futile clouds of remorse.’ These judgments are perfectly true, though perhaps the language is overblown for nowadays. Gosse may still have been under the acutely painful influence of his father’s deathbed, when Philip Henry Gosse shouted blasphemies at the God for whom he had sacrificed so much. Edmund Gosse, however, had grounds for comfort which have been denied to those who came after him. He was sure that the evils he had endured had passed away and would never return, and he was unselfishly glad that the dying Puritanism he had analysed would not survive to ruin anybody else. Unfortunately he was wrong. He came to his conclusion, even if he did not publish it till later, in the 1860s. Apostates of the mid-20th century know that nothing had changed by then and have lived on to see that it still has not.

The Brethren are convinced otherwise. One or two of us have spoken our minds but they sweep our revelations under the seats, and it is not just a case of ‘Well, they would, wouldn’t they?’: they genuinely feel they have altered, and of course for the better. My own book about them (to which Dr Wright generously alludes) was officially put down by their spokesman as a ‘vivid and humorous account of an age that is past’.

If they have altered, it could be for the worse, to judge from the last chapter of Told in Gath, which gives a devastating picture of thoroughly modern Brethren, modishly referring to Scott Fitzgerald and Pan Am jumbo jets bound for South Korea, slapping God on the back in prayer, competitively singing hymns in alternate lines (gallery v. floor, under-forties v. over-forties), and ‘pretending self-indulgently that if Christ was not risen from the dead they would go home and put their heads in the gas oven’.

Their capers, as Max Wright calls them, made him feel a bit faint; and made me feel that Edmund Gosse did not know his luck. But on second thoughts we both realised, I am sure, that it was much the same. That sentiment about the gas ovens was entertained long before there were such things; God was always treated too matily, never with the reverence He deserved; and before jumbo jets and trendy novelists there had been the GWR and Mrs O.F. Walton. It was just like the Brethren to fluster us up with crossed signals and pious cosmetics.

Told in Gath is a positive book. It will help many escapees from the Brethren to be defined so carefully. When we first turned off the Damascus Road – to become atheists, Catholics, Laodiceans (Revelation 3.14-16) – many of us, I imagine, lugged our Brethren-induced oddities with us and may never be able to set them down. We are probably still a peculiar people, and semasiology prevents us from taking the adjective as the high compliment that St Paul (I refuse to continue the discourtesy of docking him of his sainthood) intended to convey to us from the Lord. But, if we are still to some extent what we like to think we are not at all any more, we can take comfort from St Paul’s robust command: ‘Let no man despise you’ (1 Titus 2.15). Certainly not.