George Loveless Still Free

THE two years which George Loveless spent in England after his return bring to a fitting conclusion this story. He returned uncowed, unchanged in his zeal for religion and for his fellows. He wrote his remarkable Diary which was published by the London-Dorchester Committee, and to which we owe nearly all that we know of the details of these events. Everything he says is capable of demonstration from other documentary sources, but in the main his Diary gave us the hints as to the lines on which our investigation must go. He entered into controversy again as he had done before. His appeal to the public at the close of his story is a noble document.

After speaking of the men ‘thus transported and sent to perpetual bondage and slavery’, he says:

‘I can assure my Lord Stanley, who boasted a few years since that he would make transportation worse than death, that his wicked and diabolical purpose is more than accomplished: for it would be doing such unfortunate men a kindness, a favour; it would be granting them an unspeakable privilege to hang them in England, and so prevent exposure to cruelties, miseries, and wretchedness connected with the present system of transportation.

‘But I have been told it is done for the good of Society and to uphold our most holy religion! Good God! what hypocrisy and deceit is here manifested! The most cruel, the most unjust, the most atrocious deeds are committed and carried out under the cloak of religion! If I had not learnt what religion meant, such practices would make me detest and abhor the very name. And yet. strange as it may appear, those hypocrites who pretend to be so scrupulous, that rather than submit to have their most holy religion endangered, they would starve hardworking honest husbands and fathers, and who have solemnly pronounced “What God hath joined together let no man put asunder “, are some of the first to separate man and wife, to send some to banishment, and others to the Poor Law prisons: to oppress the fatherless and the widow. From all such religion as this, Good Lord deliver us!

‘But again we are told it is intended to lead to a reformation of their characters and to make them useful members of Society. I much question whether the present system is calculated to have such an effect on the moral conduct of men in general. As far as I have had an opportunity of observing it has the contrary effect. Nothing can be more absurd than to suppose that you can keep down the conquered for any length of time by pouring out on them judgement without mercy.

‘Although I was sent out of the country and have been subjected to privations, to distress and wretchedness, transportation has not had the intended effect upon me, but after all, I am returned from my bondage with my views and principles strengthened. It is indelibly fixed in my mind that labour is ill-rewarded in consequence of the few tyrannizing over the millions: and that, through their oppression, thousands are now working in chains on the roads, abused by the overseers, sentenced by the comitants, and punished by the fiagellator: young, and once strong men, now emaciated and worn almost to skeletons. Is this the plan to reform men? I say, no: if they were bad before, they are tenfold more the children of Hell now!

‘It has a tendency to harden the heart, stultify their feelings, make them careless and regardless of consequences, and they rush forward plunging headlong into an abyss from which they are not able to extricate themselves: the groans and cries of the labourers ere long will bring down vengeance on the heads of those who have been, and are still, the authors of so much misery. I believe that nothing will ever be done to relieve the distress of the working classes unless they take it into their own hands; with these beliefs I left England and with these views I am returned. Notwithstanding all that I have seen and felt, my sentiments on the subjects are unchanged

‘Nothing but union can ever accomplish the great and important object, namely, the salvation of the world. Let the producers of wealth firmly and peacefully unite their energies and what can withstand them? The power and influence of the non-producers would sink into insignificance, the conquest is won, the victory is certain.’

That was the spirit of his return. He believed in the unity of labour and its power. He believed also in his religion and the freedom of it. He went again on to the village greens and preached the gospel as he had done before he was transported. He was vigorous as he had always been. Perhaps he was now a lonelier figure. There was something so big in this man who had suffered so much, and he had returned alone! The people wondered what could have happened to his colleagues. Were they not given a free pardon as well? They why was the leader back before his followers? But he went on the greens, and crowds gathered around him. The clergy tried to persuade their people that to go and listen to an ex-convict was beneath their dignity. But they went. Loveless might be an ex-convict, but his preaching was a wonderful thing. He seemed something like the Apostle Paul after escaping from the Philippian gaol. He was a great figure.

Unable to arrange the boycott, one of the clergymen went to hear him.

Loveless was in no mood to mince matters. The fact that an Anglican clergyman was in his audience made his denunciation of that Church and its clergy all the stronger. He believed that half the power of the squire which had sent him and his brother and friends to serve in durance vile was due to the clergy. And so, on the green he argued the case of Church and Dissent, and claimed that God had no special magic for clergymen, that grace was free, and that Jesus Christ could be approached direct. He said that the social conditions of the farm labourers of Dorset were a disgrace to the Christian profession of squire and parson, and that freedom was to come through shaking off the trammels of both these climbers on the backs of the workers. The parson heard him, and went away. He felt sure that these doctrines were not the ideas that would be expressed by those highly respectable Conservatives, the leading ministers of the Wesleyan Church. Surely they would do something to muzzle this unruly member of their Society!

The clergyman consequently wrote a letter to the President of the Wesleyan Conference protesting against the liberty which this member of his flock was taking, in denouncing the Church of England and pouring contempt on its clergy. Would not he, the President, put forth his hand and induce this local preacher presumably under his control, to cease preaching in this way on the village green? The letter was acknowledged, and the President wrote to the local minister about it. The minister approached Loveless, and told him what had happened and who the informant was.

‘My dear sir,’ said Loveless, ‘I shall not cease from preaching on the village greens. Who is this President, anyhow? I have had no part or lot in selecting him. I acknowledge no man’s right to dictate what I shall or shall not say, so long as I am interpreting the spirit of Christ.’

This was what the minister had expected and secretly he was delighted to hear it. His action was to write back to the President and tell him that this was a man who was preaching as John Wesley and many a better man had done on the village greens. He was preaching from personal experience, and many were listening to the gospel and hearkening to the words of the preacher that would never otherwise hear it.

Now George Loveless had long had in mind the project of writing about this matter of Dissent versus the Church. He felt that this was the time to do it. He therefore at once wrote an open letter of considerable length to the clergyman in question, Rev. Henry Walter, Vicar of Hodsbury Bryant. He scorned the letter to the President of the Conference, and told the clergyman he could write to anyone he liked. Neither President nor Pope nor any dignitary could stand between a true man and his God. He had learnt not to pin his faith to the sleeves of President, Bishops or Popes. After striking that defiant note, the letter went on to state the position of Dissent, the reasons for it, the necessity to uphold the free access of the individual soul to God, the wickedness of the clergy, and above all their alliance with the squires, grinding down the faces of the poor. Christ’s religion needed the dissenting preacher and the dissenting member in order that it could be maintained in its purity. ‘Does the honest Quaker,’ wrote he, ‘sleep less sound, or will he arise less cheerfully at the Judgement Day, from his grave, over which no prelatical jugglery has been practiced, and for which neither prelate or priest pocketed a doit? ‘ And so on—great controversial stuff, if perhaps somewhat reckless in its hitting. He scorned the clerical attitude to war, which to him was simply murder, and the urging by prelates and clergy of people to join in the fight in the name of their God was to him simple blasphemy. He made allegations of clerical influences being brought to bear on the administration of the Poor Law, so that those who had offended against some custom of the Church, or had not shown due respect to the clergy, were the sufferers because of their underhand influences. His faith in education is shown to be supreme. And a great part of that faith was the faith that the open Bible means freedom, because of its plain teaching. He concluded by saying:

‘Sir, I would assure you that from the Bible may be extracted those principles of morality and justice, the practice of which would increase the happiness of mankind, and that ultimately stripped of its appendages and unjustifiable mystifications of priest-craft, it will arise above all opposition, and will go down with the revolving ages, enlightening the faith, enlivening the charity, enkindling the love, upholding the zeal, and directing the conduct of men until the end of time.’

How can this man and his friends be accounted for? How can you reconcile his paltry earnings and his willingness to remain in tie occupation of farm labourer, with no better prospect than at the utmost ten shillings per week, when he had the ability to lead men and to move men as he had undoubtedly? How can you account for the fishermen founders of Christianity, for the tinker genius John Bunyan, for the peasant poet Robert Burns? Incorruptible and upright, they stand today for the unconquerable soul of Britain. Loveless was of their calibre. The masters of these men expected exact and skilful work from them, and their expectation was generally fulfilled. Year after year, decade after decade, century after century, the English peasantry have striven to keep home together, and have given of their best in honest labour for the pittance their masters have spared to them. They have seen their class scorned and condemned. They have seen the possession of wealth and birth flouted before them as the inalienable right of inferior men to rule over their intellectual superiors. Only occasionally and sporadically did they revolt. John Ball and Jack Cade led definite labour protests. Cornishmen in a body resented the imprisonment of Trelawney. But on the whole they were subservient without reason and without hope.

And yet, in the wars, it was the yeomen of the earlier kings, it was the infantry of Wellington’s squares, it was the seamen from Devon and Cornwall and Somerset who made possible the growth of Britain’s possessions. In an emergency they could always be trusted. The brain of England’s average worker was developing year after year. His character was always there. The poet, Gray, was right in his ‘Elegy written in a Country Churchyard’. He was right because he was talking of things he knew. We have had mute inglorious Miltons.’ and but for the over-reaching of a country parson, a Squire Frampton, a Lord Melbourne and a Lord John Russell, with a Judge Williams cast in the pattern of the infamous Jeffreys, Loveless too would be a peasant who had done his day’s work and gone down to the grave unhonoured and unsung.

Is that all? One thing more emerges, surely. In that village chapel these men had learnt that Jesus of Nazareth, who was the acknowledged leader of both them and their opponents, and preached a Kingdom of God that was within them, a truth that shall make men free, a justice that is dependent on neither place, birth nor power. They had learnt to sing

On all the kings of earth

With pity we look down,’

because of their consciousness of a royal birth through their religion. They feared none but the devil, and their own cowardice; and fearing cowardice, they were brave. I think their favourite gospel must have been Luke’s and Wesley’s translation of it, with its ‘He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; but sent the rich empty away’ and

‘Happy are ye poor; for yours is the kingdom of God;

‘Happy are ye that hunger now; for ye shall be satisfied. ‘Woe to you that are rich! for ye have your consolation,

‘Woe to you that are full! for ye shall hunger,’

and Wesley’s connotation of ‘Miserable are ye rich’.

They loved Luke’s gospel with its story of the rich farmer who was a fool, its story of the Samaritan who was good whereas the Priest and Levite of the Established Church were indifferent to the ills of the stricken man, its story of the self-righteous Pharisee and the repentant publican—a man just like themselves, and its story of the poor man Lazarus in Heaven and the rich man Dives in Hell! But perhaps most of all they would turn to either of the synoptic gospels and read the words of Him who said ‘Fear not them which kill the body and after that can do no more. . . . But when they bring you to the synagogues and to magistrates, and powers, take no thought how or what ye shall answer, or what ye shall say; for the Holy Ghost shall teach you in that hour what ye ought to say.’ If ever a man tested the truth of that promise it was George Loveless in his hours of trial. Was it the Holy Ghost or his innate genius that gave him the right (that is the righteous) answer in all these testings?

Have I shown my readers something of the heroic in this man George Loveless? Have they seen the loyalty of James Loveless and Thomas and John Standfield, his fellow Methodists, and James Brine, the outsider who threw in his lot with them for the sake of an ideal of which no religious inner light showed him the truth? Have they realized the loftiness of character of the silent James Hammett, who suffered in another’s stead? If so, I have done justice to six great men, poor and humble though they were, and am satisfied. If not, I must apologize for poor craftsmanship; for great they were and noble, with that utter sincerity which Carlyle says, ‘is the first characteristic of all men in any way heroic.’