February 7 2021

Charles Dickens: his influences and his legacy.

To be a Unitarian in the 19th century meant something very different to being a Unitarian today. To be a Unitarian in the 19th century was to risk social and political non-respectability and non-acceptance. Today I would like to talk for a few minutes about an individual who rose far above those considerations, and did so by dint of his own genius alone.

Unitarianism was not the sum total of radical dissent at that period of history. Our forebears were part of a much larger movement, which threatened the stability of both Church and State. It existed against a background of revolution in neighbouring France and in America.

From the time of Henry VIII the Church of England, with Henry at its head, was on the defensive, against the Catholics and against Dissenters. Heretics were prosecuted and executed, property was seized. As we know, in 1662 some 2000 ministers were ejected and, along with any congregations sympathetic to their views, banished from their parish churches.

It was not until 1689 that dissenting worship became legal, and until 1831 that Unitarianism finally became legal. Long before that date, however, these independent-minded people had sought to overcome the civil and religious prejudices that they encountered, and began to constitute a new middle class in society. Consistent critics of government policies, Unitarians advocated reform across many divides, education, women’s rights, and politically.

Charles Dickens shared many 19th century Unitarian views, and a great deal of their spirit. He was born on this day, 7th February, in 1812.

Dickens grew up on the cusp of the working classes and the middle class, and had some experience of both. It had been necessary for the 12 year old to leave school and go to work in a shoe-blacking factory to help his family make ends meet, when his father had to spend some time in a debtor’s prison.

His formal education cut short, Dickens became a clerk in a lawyer’s office, and later he began his career as a journalist. As he grew in experience of the world of his time he became increasingly aware of the effects of inhumane officialdom and religious intolerance. As we know, these injustices became the stuff of his stories. He had an overwhelming sense and understanding of the manner in which poverty and deprivation, sheer ignorance and the loss of hope affected the people of his day.

As a journalist, and later as an editor, he constantly exposed injustice and led campaigns for reform. He helped to establish a home for “fallen women” and prostitutes, and he assisted in the formation of a “ragged school” for the street urchins.

Charles Dickens’ was a religious and spiritual man in an emphatically humanist manner. His religion was all about people and not about beliefs. He had little sympathy for religious congregations who, despite their avowals of clothing the naked and feeding the poor, did little to make life better for those who needed it.. He especially despised those who offered “charity with strings attached”: soup kitchens which offered food for those who would attend the church.

For a while he himself attended the Unitarian congregation in Little Portland Street in London. At the time he wrote:

“Disgusted with our Established Church.. and daily outrages on common sense and humanity, I have carried into effect an old idea of mine, and joined the Unitarians, who would do something for human improvement, if they could; and who practice Charity and Toleration…”

Like many of his contemporaries Dickens was very aware of the responsibility his access to people’s minds gave him. George Eliot, Mrs Gaskell and others had all embraced the ideal that writing should be force for common good. That such a belief did not necessarily always go hand in hand with Dickens’ own personal morality ( he was known to be a womaniser and a lover of public acclaim) does not appear to disconcert most of his admirers.

We are often encouraged to dislocate the writer’s work from his or her private life, as if it were hermetically sealed, but in my view to do so is to have an incomplete understanding of both the work and the author. That is why knowing so little about Shakespeare the man continues to exercise us. That is why the loss of Byron’s Journal or Larkin’s diary are considered to be regrettable. That is why biographies of writers and artists sell so well. The author and their work constitute a whole.

Dickens’ Unitarian affiliation is considered by some to have amounted to little more than a passing phase. He seems always to have been Christocentric in his thinking as far as he expressed his own religious views, but in common with Unitarian belief, he recognised that Jesus’ message to humanity was to “do good always”.

Beyond this he had little use for empty expressions of doctrine or dogma. He did not join the Unitarians for any other reason except that he saw we shared the same concerns.

It seems significant that it was during his time at Little Portland Street that he wrote “A Christmas Carol”, one of the world’s most influential tales, possibly responsible for many of the traditions we now accept to be a necessary part of  Christmas.

Compared to his other books, it seems like a slight volume, but it nevertheless contains much of his philosophy about human nature, society, and forgiveness. In a concentrated form it lays out in an uncomplicated fashion his values, which can be summed up as, treat people as they are supposed to be treated, and be kind to one another.

Charles Dickens, who was born today 209 years ago. Amen.

Sunday Service homilies from the Minister during coronavirus period