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When, therefore, Jesus Christ stood up for the first time to speak to the people, He could not well find words more clearly expressing the popular hope and longing than those which He quoted from the great statesman-prophet of His country. And moreover, do not let us forget it, Christ and His disciples were, in fact, surrounded by everything which could tempt human reformers to enter on revolutionary courses; the nation of His day was grievously oppressed and shamefully degraded. The rulers and princes of Judæa were sensual and cruel tyrants, and their tyranny was supported by a central tyranny equally cruel and sensual. Injustice in the form of Pilate sat on the judgment-seat. A foreign soldiery filled the land,“ doing violence,” “accusing men falsely,” “not content with their wages.” So oppressive was the fiscal system that the name of the collector of taxes was a byword of loathing and shame: the distress of the people was such that multitudes were ready to follow a teacher into the wilderness, not for the sake of his words, but for the sake of a little bread. And for this oppression there was no appeal to remorse in the breast of the oppressor, or to the tribunal of a civilised world. There seemed no hope but in patriotic arms. Nor was the nation incapable of wielding them. The spirit of Gideon and Judas Maccabæus glowed in it still. It cherished the constant hope of a Deliverer.
And the Deliverer came, a radical revolution did take place, an immense transformation of society was brought about. The popular ideal was realised, though not according to the popular idea. The Sermon on the Mount, although it must have seemed little short
of mockery to those whose passionate enthusiasm for the redemption of Israel centred in the expectation of a militant Messiah, did in reality contain the popular charter of the world's liberties, did inaugurate as vast a revolution as the world has ever known. To ascribe the heroic character to those citizens of the new kingdom who were not proud and rich, valiant and strong, but to those who were meek-hearted, poor in spirit, peacemakers, childlike, innocent, simple, may have come as a chilling disappointment to the popular hopes of His day; yet beneath those beatitudes of the new kingdom Christ had placed a principle which, in giving a new valuation to the human soul as such, and ennobling it with the patent of His own nobility, has proved itself not only the most powerful solvent of ancient civilisation, but also the great motive force in the progressive social order of the present.
Obviously it would not be possible, within the limits of our present opportunity, to trace out historically the development of that principle, for it would be to tell the history, not only of Christianity, but of modern civilisation. The very briefest recollection, however, of the prominent facts of social development in the West—the Abolition of Slavery, the Enfranchisement of Woman, Representative Democracy, the Protestant Reformation, Free-trade, Free-thought—will be sufficient to remind you how potent has been this principle of the intrinsic value of the human soul as such, revealed by Christ, as a systematic organ of emancipation, not only
in the religious and ecclesiastical sphere, but also in the civil and industrial order of modern Europe.
My purpose, however, to-day is a much humbler
I want, if I can, to show you how, in regard to our own country at any rate, the spirit of social liberty learnt in the school of Christ was preached to the Englishmen of the fourteenth century by one of our great representative poets. I want you to read with me if you will, in the pages of the “Piers Plowman of William Langland, a short but important chapter in the history of the genesis of the social conscience in England, and of that conception of the Personality of Jesus Christ as the Master of Conscience, which has still, it seems to me, its lessons for men of our own day. I trust you will not think I am wanting in reverence for the genius of this University if I express my belief that the mass of men are moved to noble issues much more by the presentation of splendid ideals than of clear arguments; that the poetic imagination, in fact, has done far more for the average human will than the philosophic reason.
Anyhow, I am proposing to ask you to consider with me the influence exerted upon the social and spiritual conscience of the England of five centuries ago by that peasant poet, who was also a Christian prophet, a seer of the vision of the present, a prophet of the future kingdom of social righteousness, a rebuker of wickedness in high places, a champion of the poor, a preacher, a teacher at once simple and mystical—simple, because his one endeavour was to translate the text of the
Gospel of Jesus Christ as literally as possible into life; and mystic, because he would allow no merit to any action which is not the direct result of the action of the individual conscience.
Born in the third decade of the fourteenth century, William Langland was the product of an age of great men and of great events. For Europe it was the age of Dante and Petrarch, of Cimabue and Giotto, of Thomas Aquinas and Thomas à Kempis.
But for England it was one of the saddest periods of all her history. The brilliant reign of the third Edward was drawing to its close. The collapse of the French War after Crecy; the ruinous taxation of the country, which was consequent upon that event; the terrible plague of the Black Death, sweeping away half the population of England; the iniquitous Labour Laws, which, in face of that depopulation, strove to keep down the rate of wages in the interests of the landlords, had brought the country to the verge of social revolution. Mediæval society in England was, in fact, breaking up-mediæval society and mediæval institutions. Even the Church in its Augustinian conception-modified though that had been by the Franciscan ideal of the apostolic life, and interpreted by the “Summa” of S. Thomas and the writings of the Schoolmen—was yet boldly challenged by that spirit of reform, which in England is associated with the great name of John Wycliff, “the morning star of the Reformation.” It is not, however, in the philosophic arguments of John Wycliff—whose “De Dominio Divino " is the work of the greatest Oxford
schoolman of his age—but in the virile, homely English tracts, terse and vehement, which John Wycliff the Reformer wrote for the guidance of his “poore priestes (and in which incidentally he made once more the English tongue a weapon of literature), that we find the new forces of thought and feeling which were destined to tell upon every page of our later history.
These “poore priestes” of Wycliff, as we know, carried to the people of England much beside the religious doctrines of the Reformer. They imbued, in fact, the mind of the English people with ideas which in these days we should call religious socialism, and which in those led to that great popular uprising which we call the Peasant Revolt.
With that chapter in the social history of England we are all familiar. But the lesson of it and that lesson was the burden, as I read it, of the Vision of William of Langland—I take to be this :
The only true revolution is that which is the result of revelation. The force of new thought is always stronger than the force of arms. There can be no safe and lasting change of national condition which is not founded on a previous change of national character. No change of condition, no bettering of environment, is sufficient in itself to make good men.
No rearrangement of society, no social transformation, is possible, has ever been possible, or ever will be, except as the application of a religious principle, of a moral development, of a strong and active common faith. And for this reason. Men may easily remake institutions, but they do not so easily remake themselves. As Mr. John Morley