ANNIE BESANT

Annie Besant was born in the year 1847, in the city of London. As a child, Annie Besant was a prodigy, as an young maid she grew up in highly conservative environment. As an young adult, she was a free thinker and became a champion of rationalist and scientific ideas of life and living. She fearlessly waged a war against injustice and cruelty. Annie Besant was married to Rev. Frank Besant. In the year 1889, she met her unforgettable friend H.P. Blavatsky. Annie Besant came to India in the year 1893 and carried on her work in close collaboration with the president and founder of the “ Theosophical Society ”.

“ Annie ! ”

On October 1st, 1847, I am credibly informed, my baby eyes opened to the light of a London afternoon at 5.39. It has always been somewhat of a grievance to me that I was born in London, ‘ within the sound of Bow Bells ’, when three-quarters of my blood and all my heart are Irish. My dear mother was of purest Irish descent and my father was Irish on the mother’s side.

“ My Mother ”

My mother was the second daughter in a large family. To her, the lightest breath of dishonour was to be avoided at any cost of pain, and she wrought into me, her only daughter, that same proud and passionate horror at any taint of shame or merited disgrace.

To the world always a brave front was to be kept, and a stainless reputation, for suffering might be borne but dishonour never. A gentlewoman might starve, but she must not run in debt she might break her heart, but it must be with a smile on her face ! I have often thought that the training in this reticence and pride of honour was a strange preparation for my stormy, public, much attacked and slandered life.

My earliest personal recollections are of a house and garden that we lived in when I was three and four years of age, situated in Grove Road, St. John’s Wood. I can remember my mother hovering round the dinner table to see that all was bright for the home-coming husband; my brother ... two years older than myself ... and I watching ‘ for papa ’ ; the loving welcome, the game of romps that always preceded the dinner of the elder folks.

I can remember on the Ist of October, 1851, jumping up in my little cot, and shouting out triumphantly : “ Papa ! Mamma ! I am four years old ! ” and the grave demand of my brother, conscious of superior age, at dinner - time : “ May not Annie have a knife today, as she is four years old ? ”

“ Father ... An Atheist ”

Deeply read in philosophy, he had outgrown the orthodox beliefs of his day, and his wife, who loved him too much to criticize, was wont to reconcile her own piety and his skepticism by holding that “ women ought to be religious”, while men had a right to read everything and think as they would, provided that they were upright and honourable in their lives.

But the result of his liberal and unorthodox thought was to insensibly modify and partially rationalize her own beliefs, and she put on oneside as errors the doctrines of eternal punishment, the vicarious atonement, the infallibility of the Bible, the equality of the Son with the father in the Trinity, and other orthodox beliefs, and rejoiced in her later years in the writings of such men as Jowett, Colenso and Stanley.

The baldness of a typical Evangelical service outraged her taste as much as the crudity of Evangelical dogmas outraged her intellect.

I can remember on the Ist of October, 1851, jumping up in my little cot, and shouting out triumphantly : “ Papa ! Mamma ! I am four years old ! ” and the grave demand of my brother, conscious of superior age, at dinner - time : “ May not Annie have a knife today, as she is four years old ? ”

“ Death of Father ”

The next scene that stands out clearly against the background of the past is that of my father’s death-bed. The events which led to his death I know from my dear mother.

About the middle of August, 1852, he got wet through, riding on the top of an omnibus, and the wetting resulted in a severe cold, which ‘settled on his chest ’.

I was lifted on to the bed to ‘ say good-bye to dear papa ’ on the day before his death, and I remember being frightened at his eyes which looked so large, and his voice which sounded so strange, as he made me promise always to be “ a very good girl to darling mamma, as papa was going right away ”.

My brother and I were allowed to see him just before he was placed in his coffin; I can see him still, so white and beautiful, with a black spot in the middle of the fair, waxen forehead, and I remember the deadly cold which stead me when I was told to kiss my little brother. It was the first time that I had touched death.

“ Child Yogi ”

For as a child, I was mystical and imaginative, religious to the very finger - tips, and with a certain faculty for seeing visions and dreaming dreams.To me in my childhood, elves and fairies of all sorts were very real things, and my dolls were as really children as I was myself a child.

All the objects about me were to me alive .. the flowers that I kissed as much as the kitten I petted.

As a child, I never knew what it was to be lonely. How or when I learned to read, I do not know, for I cannot remember the time when a book was not a delight.

At five years of age, I must have read easily, for I remember being often unswathed from delighful curtain, in which I used to roll myself with a book, and told to “ go and play ”, while I was still a five-years’ - old dot.

And I had a habit of losing myself so completely in the book that my name might be called in the room where I was and I never heard it, so that I used to be blamed for willfully hiding myself, when I had simply been away in fairyland, or lying trembling beneath some friendly cabbage-leaf as a giant went by.

I would sit for hours with some favourite book- Milton’s ‘ Paradise Lost ’ the chief favourite of all.

I read tales of the early Christian martyrs, and passionately regretted I was born so later when no suffering for religion was practicable; I would spend many an hour in day-dreams, in which I stood before Roman judges, before Dominican Inquisitors, was flung to lions, tortured on the rack, burned at the stake.

One day, I saw myself preaching some great new faith to a vast crowd of people, and they listened and were converted, and I became a great religious leader.

From the age of eight my education accented the religious side of my character.

“ Mother’s Struggle ”

And now began my mother’s time of struggle and of anxiety. Hitherto, since her marriage, she had known no money troubles, for her husband was earning a good income.

When he died, nothing was left for the widow and children, save a trifle of ready money.

In a few month’s time she betook herself, into lodgings over a grocer’s shop, and set herself to look for a house.

[Younger days of Annie were very much influenced by her strong-willed mother. Church had made a mark in her early childhood. The faculty of learning by heart, and the habit of dreamy recitation of the phrases of the Bible had become a passion of hers, under her teacher Miss Marryat.]

“ Miss Marryat ”

Miss Marryat had a perfect genius for teaching, and took in it the greatest delight. She taught us everything herself except music.

No words of mine can tell how much I owe her, not only of knowledge, but of that love of knowledge which has remained with me ever since .. as a constant spur to study.

Daily, when our lessons were over, we had plenty of fun ; long walks and rides, rides on a lovely pony, who found small children most amusing, and on which the coachman taught us to stick firmly, whatever his eccentricities of the moment; delightful all-day picnics in the lovely country round Charmouth.

“Girl-hood ”

In the spring of 1861 Miss Marryat announced her intention of going abroad, and asked my dear mother to let me accompany her. Our experiences in Bonn were not wholly satisfactory. Dear Auntie was a maiden lady, looking on all young men as wolves to be kept far from her growing lambs.

Mischievous students would pursue us wherever we went; sentimental Germans, with gashed cheeks, would whisper complimentary pharases as we passed; mere boyish nonsense of most harmless kind, but the rather stern English lady thought it ‘ not proper ’, and after three months of Bonn we were sent home for the holidays.

A couple of months later we rejoined Miss Marryat in Pairs, where we spent seven happy, workful months. I doubt if there was a beautiful church in Paris that we did not visit during those weekly wanderings; that of St Germain de I ‘Auxerrois was my favourite. I was decidedly a pious girl. I looked on theatres .. (never having been to one) .. as traps set by Satan for the destruction of foolish souls; I was quite determined never to go to a ball.

My mother did not allow me to read love stories, and my daydreams of the future were scarcely touched by any of the ordinary hopes and fears of a girl lifting her eyes towards the world she is shortly to enter.

Summer of 1862 was spent with Miss Marryat at Sidmouth, wise woman that she was, she now carefully directed our studies with a view to our coming enfranchisement from the ‘ school room ’. And I venture to say that this gentle withdrawal of constant supervision and teaching was one of the wisest and kindest things that this noblehearted woman ever did for us.

During the winter of 1862-63, Miss Marryat was in London, and for a few months I remained there with her. In the spring I returned home to Harrow, going up each week to the classes; and when these were over, Auntie told me that she thought all she could usefully do was done, and that it was time that I should try my wings alone.

Thus set free from the school room at 16½ an only daughter, I could do with my time as I would, save for the couple of hours a day given to music, for the satisfaction of my mother.

From then till I became engaged, just before I was 19 years old, my life flowed on smoothly, one current visible to all and dancing in the sunlight, the other running underground, but full and deep and strong.

I practised archery so zealously that I carried up triumphantly as prize for the best score the first ring I ever possessed.

So guarded and shielded had been my child-hood and youth from every touch of pain and anxiety that love could bear for me, that I never dreamed that life might be a heavy burden.

I powred over the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistles of Polycarp, Barnabas, Ignatius, and Clement the commentaries of Chrysostom, the confessions of Augustine. With these I studied the writings of Pusey, Liddon, and Keble, with many another smaller light, joying in the great conception of a Catholic Church, lasting through the centuries, built on the foundations of apostles and of martyrs, stretching from the days of Christ Himself down to our own .. “ One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism ”, and I myself a child of that Holy Church.

The hidden life grew stronger, constantly fed by these streams of study. I fasted, according to the ordinances of the Church, occasionally flagellated myself to see if I could bear physical pain. To serve Him through His Church became more and more a definite ideal in my life.

“ Priest’s Wife ”

Summer of 1866, saw me engaged to the young clergyman .. Rev. Frank Besant .. I had met at the mission church in the spring, our knowledge of each other being an almost negligible quantity.

We were thrown together for a week, the only two young ones in a small party of holidaymakers, and in our walks, rides and drives we were naturally companions ; an hour or two before he left he asked me to marry him. Startled, and my sensitive pride. I hesitated, did not follow my first impulse of refusal, but took refuge in silence.

The fortnight that followed was the first unhappy one of my life, for I had a secret from my mother, a secret which I passionately longed longed to tell her. On meeting my suitor on our return to town I positively refused to keep silence any longer, and then out of sheer weakness and fear of inflicting pain I drifted into an engagement with a man I did not pretend to love. My dislike of the thought of marriage faded before the idea of becoming the wife of a priest, working ever in the Church and among the poor.

In the autumn I was definitely betrothed, and I married fourteen months later. Once, in the interval, I tried to break the engagement, but on my broaching the subject to my mother all her pride rose up in revolt. Would I, her daughter, break my word, would I dishonor myself by jilting a man I had pledged myself to marry ?

So I married in the winter of 1867 with no more idea of the marriage relation than if I had been four years old instead of twenty.

I became betrothed maiden ere yet nineteen. I had but two ideals in my childhood and youth, round whom twined these budding tendrils of passion; they were my mother and the Christ.

I had men friends, but no lovers .. at least, to my knowledge, for I have since heard that my mother received two or three offers of marriage for me, but declined them on account of my youth and my childishness .. friends with whom I liked to talk, because they knew more than I did; but they had no place in my daydreams.

These were more and more filled with the one Ideal Man, and my hopes turned towards the life of the Sister of Mercy, who ever worships the Christ, and devotes her life to the service of His poor.

Viewed in this way, the position of the priest’s wife seems second only to that of the nun, and has therefore, a wonderful attractiveness.

“ Radicalism ”

Before leaving the harbourage of girl-hood to set sail on the troublous sea of life, there is an occurrence of which I must make mention, as it marks my first awakening of interest in the outer world of political struggle.

In the autumn of 1867, my mother and I were staying with some dear friends of ours, the Robertses, at Pendleton, near Manchester. Mr. Roberts was “ the poor man’s lawyer ”, in the affectionate phrase used of him by many a hundred men. He was a close friend of Ernest Jones, and was always ready to fight a poor man’s battle without fee. He worked hard in the agitation which saved women from working in the mines. This dear old man was my first tutor in Radicalism, and I was an apt pupil.

“ Ill-matched pair ”

In December, 1867, I sailed out of the safe harbour of my happy and peaceful girl-hood on to the wide sea of life, and the waves broke roughly as soon as the bar was crossed.

We were an ill-matched pair, my husband and I, from the very outset, he, with very high ideas of husband’s authority and a wife’s submission, holding strongly to the “ master-in-my-own-house theory ”, thinking much of the details of home arrangements, precise methodical, easily angered and with difficulty appeased. I, accustomed to freedom, indifferent to home details, impulsive, very hot-tempered, and proud as Lucifer.

“ Unsatisfactory Wife ”

The easy-going, sunshiny, enthusiastic girl changed .. and changed pretty rapidly into a grave, proud, reticent woman, burying deep in her own heart all her hopes, her fears and her disillusions.

I must have been a very unsatisfactory wife from the beginning. I had never had an allowance or even bought myself a pair of gloves .. though eager to perform my new duties creditably ; unwilling to potter over little things, and liking to do swiftly what I had to do, and then turn to my beloved books ; at heart fretting for my mother but rarely speaking of her, as I found my longing for her presence raised jealous vexation ; with strangers about me with whom I had no sympathy ; visited by ladies who talked to me only about babies and servants .. troubles of which I knew nothing and which bored me unutterably and who were as uninterested in all that had filled my life, in theology, in politics, in science, as I was uninterested in the discussions on the housemaid’s young man and on the cook’s extravagance in using ‘ butter, when dripping.

I must have been inexpressibly tiring to the Rev. Frank Besant. And, in truth, I ought never to have married , for under the soft, loving, pliable girl there lay hidden, as much unknown to herself as to her surroundings, a woman of strong dominant will, strength that panted for expression and rebelled against restraint.

“ Literary Talent ”

My first serious attempts at writing were made in 1868, and I wrote some short stories of a very flimsy type, and also a work of a muchmore ambitious character, “ The Lives of the Black Letter Saints ”.

I sent the first to the “ Family Herald ”, and some weeks afterwards received a letter from which dropped a cheque as I opened it. Dear me ! I have earned a good deal of money since by my pen, but never any that gave me the intense delight of that first thirty shillings.

It was the first money I had ever earned, and the pride of the earning was added to the pride of authorship. From time to time after that I earned a few pounds for stories in the same journal.

“ Family Life ”

In January, 1869, my little son was born, and as I was very ill for some months before, and was far too much interested in the tiny creature afterwards, to devote myself to pen and paper, my literary career was checked for a while.

The baby gave a new interest and a new pleasure to life, and as we could not afford a nurse I had plenty to do in looking after his small majesty. My energy in reading became less feverish when it was done by the side of the baby’s cradle, and the little one’s presence almost healed the abiding pain of my mother’s loss.

In August, 1870, a little sister was born to my son, and the recovery was slow and tedious, for my general health had been failing for some time.

“ Fight with Death ”

In the spring 1871, the two children caught the whooping cough, my Mabel’s delicacy made the ordeal well-nigh fatal to her. She was very young for so trying a disease. For weeks she lay in hourly peril of death. There I sat, day and night, all through those weary weeks, the tortured baby on my knees. I loved my little ones passionately, and there, alone, I fought with Death for my child. At length, one morning the doctor said she could not last through the day.

The child, however, recovered, and her recovery was due, I think, to that chance thought of Mr. Winterbotham’s about the chloroform, for I used it whenever the first sign of a fit of coughing appeared and so warded off the convulsive attack.

For years, the child remained ailing and delicate, requiring the tenderest care, but those weeks of anguish left a deeper trace on mother than on child. Once she was out of danger I collapsed physically, and lay in bed for a week unmoving, and then rose to face a struggle which lasted for three years and two months, and nearly cost me my life, the struggle which transformed me from a Christian into an Atheist.

“ It was hell ”

The agony of the struggle was in the first nineteen months a time to be looked back upon with shrinking, as it was a hell to live through at the time. There is in life no other pain so horrible, so keen in its torture, so crushing in its weight. It seems to shipwreck everything, to destroy the one steady gleam of happiness “ on the other side ”.

It was the long months of suffering through which I had been passing, with the seemingly purposeless torturing of my little one as a climax, that struck the first stunning blow at my belief in God as a merciful Father of men.

“ Belief and Hate ”

My religious past became the worst enemy of the suffering present. All my personal belief in Christ, all my intense faith in His constant direction of affairs, all my habit of continual prayer and of realisation of His Presence .. all were against me now.

I believed and hated. All the hitherto dormant and unsuspected strength of my nature rose up in rebellion; I did not yet dream of denial, but I would no longer kneel.

“ Thought of Suicide ”

One night in that summer of 1871, stands out clearly before me. Mr. Besant was away, and there had been a fierce quarrel before he left.

I was outraged, desperate, with no door of escape from a life that, losing its hope in God. No door of escape ? The thought came like a flash. “ There is one ! ” And before me there swung open, with lure of peace and of safety, the gateway into silence and security, the gateway of the tomb.

I was standing by the drawing-room window, staring hopelessly at the evening sky ; with the thought came the remembrance that the means was at hand .. the chloroform that had soothed my baby’s pain, and that I had locked away upstairs.

I ran up to my room, took out the bottle, and carried it downstairs, standing again at the window in the summer twilight, glad that the struggle was over and peace at hand. I uncorked the bottle, and was raising it to my lips, when, as though the words were spoken softly and clearly, I heard :

“ Oh coward, coward, who used to dream of martyrdom, and cannot bear a few short years of pain ! ”

A rush of shame swept over me, and I flung the bottle far away among the shrubs in the garden at my feet.

“ Helpless and Prostrate ”

Months of this long-drawn-out mental anguish wrought their natural effects on physical health, and at last I broke down completely, and lay for weeks helpless and prostrate, in raging and unceasing head-pain, unable to sleep, unable to bear the light, lying like a log on the bed, not unconscious, but indifferent to everything, consciousness centred, as it were, in the ceaseless pain.

My religious wretchedness only increased the unhappiness of home-life.

Surely it was a woman’s business to attend to her husband’s comforts and to see after her children, and not to break her heart over misery here and hell hereafter, and distract her brain with questions that had puzzled the greatest thinkers and still remained unsolved!

And, truly, women or men who get themselves concerned about the universe at large, would do well not to plunge hastily into marriage, for they do not run smoothly in the double harness of that honourable estate.

“ Weary months of Anxiety ”

It was not a desire for moral licence which gave me the impulse that finally landed me in Atheism ; it was the sense of outraged justice and insulted right ; I was a wife and mother, blameless in moral life, with a deep sense of duty and a proud self-respect it was while I was this that doubt struck me, and while I was in the guarded circle of the home, with no dream of outside work or outside liberty, that I lost all faith in Christianity.

“ Practical Parish Work ”

During these weary months of anxiety and torment I found some relief from the mental strain inpractical parish work, nursing the sick, trying to brighten the lot of the poor.

“ Jesus as God ”

In the course of my reading I had become familiar with the idea of Avataras in Eastern creeds, and I saw that the incarnate God was put forward as a fact by all ancient religions, and thus the way was paved for challenging the especially Christian teaching, when the doctrines morally repulsive were cleared away.

But I shrank from the thought of placing in the crucible a doctrine so dear from all the associations of the past ; there was so much that was soothing and ennobling in the idea of a union between Man and God, between a perfect man and a Divine life, between a human heart and an almighty strength.

Jesus as God was interwoven with all art and all beauty in religion ; to break with the Deity of Jesus was to break with music, with painting, with literature.

“ Searcher after Truth ”

If I gave up belief in Christ as God, I must give up Christianity as creed. Once challenge the unique position of the Christ, and the name Christian seemed to me to be a hypocrisy, and its renouncement a duty binding on the upright mind. I was a clergyman’s wife ; what would be the effect of such a step ? Hitherto mental pain alone had been the price demanded inexorably from the searcher after truth ; but with the renouncing of Christ outer warfare would be added to the inner, and who might guess the result upon my life ?

“ Reviewing the Evidence ”

I decided to carefully review the evidence for and against the Deity of Christ, with the result that that belief followed the others, and I stood, no longer Christian, face to face with a dim future in which I sensed the coming conflict.

“ Thomas Scott ”

It was during this same autumn 1872, that I first met Mr and Mrs Scott, Thomas Scott was an old man, with beautiful white hair, and eyes like those of a hawk gleaming from under shaggy eyebrows. Mr. Scott, for many years, issued monthly a series of pamphlets, all heretical, though very varying in their shades of thought. His correspondence was enormous, from Prime Ministers downwards.

“ My First Free-thought Essay ”

For Thomas Scott my first Free-thought essay was written a few months after, “ On the Deity of Jesus of Nazareth ”, by the wife of a beneficed clergyman. My name was not mine to use, so it was agreed that any essays from my pen should be anonymous.

Now I no longer doubted, I had rejected, and the time for silence was past.

“ A Nurse ”

I could no longer attend the Holy communion. Shortly after that memorable Christmas of 1872, a sharp epidemic of typhoid fever broke out in the village of Sibsey. Naturally fond of nursing, I found in this epidemic work just fitted to my hand, and I was fortunate enough to be able to lend personal help that made me welcome in the homes of the stricken poor.

I think Mother Nature meant me for a nurse, for I take a sheer delight in nursing any one.

“ Gift of Speech ! ”

The spring of 1873, brought me knowledge of a power that was to mould much of my future life. I delivered my first lecture, but delivered it to rows of empty pews in Sibsey Church.

Locked alone in the great, silent church whither I had gone to practise some organ exercises, I ascended the pulpit steps and delivered my first lecture on the Inspiration of the Bible. I knew of a verity that the gift of speech was mine.

“ Expulsion ”

In the year 1873, my marriage tie was broken. My health, never really restored since the autumn of 1871, grew worse and worse, serious heart trouble having arisen from the constant strain under which I lived.

At last, in July or August, 1873, the crisis came. I was told that I must conform to the outward observances of the Church, and attend the Communion; I refused. Then came the distinct alternative; conformity or exclusion from home .. in other words, hypocrisy or expulsion. I chose the latter.

“ Mother was heart-broken ”

A bitterly sad time followed.

My dear mother was heart-broken. To her, with her wide and vague form of Christianity, loosely held, the intensity of my feeling that where I did not believe I would not pretend belief, was incomprehensible.

She recognized far more fully than I. She knew how brutally the world judges, and how the mere fact that a woman was young and alone justified any coarseness of slander. Then I did not guess how cruel men and women could be, how venomous their tongues ; now, knowing it, having faced slander and lived it down, I deliberately say that were the choice again before me I would choose as I chose then ; I would rather go through it all again than “ live in society ” under the burden of an acted lie.

“ Live a Lie ? ”

My darling mother, threw herself on her knees before me, imploring me to yield. It seemed like a crime to bring such anguish on her ; and I felt as a murderer. And yet .. to live a lie ? Not even for her was that shame possible.

“ Legal Separation ”

Then there were the children, the two little ones who worshipped me, who was to them mother, nurse and playfellow were they, too, demanded at my hands ?

My brother managed to obtain for me a legal separation, and when everything was arranged, I found myself guardian of my little daughter, and possessor of a small monthly income sufficient for respectable starvation. With a great price I had obtained my freedom, but .. I was free.

“ Reduced Circumstances ”

I spent various shillings in agencies, with quite wonderful unanimity of failures. I tried fancy needlework, offered to “ ladies in reduced circumstances ”, and earned 4s. 6d. by some weeks of stitching.

I was resolute to build a nest for my wee daughter, my mother and myself, and the first thing to do was to save my monthly pittance to buy furniture.

“ Reduced Circumstances ”

I spent various shillings in agencies, with quite wonderful unanimity of failures. I tried fancy needlework, offered to “ ladies in reduced circumstances ”, and earned 4s. 6d. by some weeks of stitching.

I was resolute to build a nest for my wee daughter, my mother and myself, and the first thing to do was to save my monthly pittance to buy furniture.

“ Head cook, governess and nurse ”

I found a tiny house in Calby Road, Upper Norwood, near the Scotts, who were more than good to me, and arranged to take it in the spring, and then accepted a loving invitation to Folkestone, where my grandmother and two aunts were living, to look for work there. And found it. The vicar wanted a governess, and one of my aunts suggested me as a stop-gap, and thither I went with my little Mabel. I became head cook, governess and nurse.

Now the spring of 1874, had come. My mother went up to town, and in a week or two I received a telegram, saying she was dangerously ill, and as fast as express train would take me I was beside her. Dying, the doctor said. I nursed her day and night with a very desperation of tenderness.

“ Death of Mother ”

It was then, after eighteen months’ abstention, that I took the Sacrament for the last time. My mother had an intense longing to communicate before she died, but absolutely refused to do so unless I took it with her.

The end came swiftly. She herself felt that the hand of Death had gripped her. Selfless tothe last, she thought but for my loneliness. “ I am leaving you alone ”, she sighed from time to time. For two days longer she was with me, my beloved, and I never left her side for five minutes. On May 10th the weakness passed into gentle delirium .. the faithful eyes followed me about the room, until at length they closed for ever.

But my little daughter was there, and her sweet face and dancing feet broke the solitude, while her imperious claims for love and tendence forced me into attention to the daily needs of life.

“ Dreary life ”

The two months after my mother’s death were the dreariest my life has known. I do not know how I should have managed but for the help ever at hand, of Mr and Mrs Thomas Scott.

During this time I wrote for Mr Scott pamphlets on Inspiration, Atonement, Meditation and Salvation, Eternal Torture, Religious Education of Children, Natural vs Revealed Religion and the few guineas thus earned were very valuable.

In those days the little money I had was enough to buy food for two but not enough to buy it for three, and I would go out and study all day at the British Museum, so as to “ have my dinner in town ”, the said dinner being conspicuous by its absence. If I was away for two evenings running from the hospitable house in the terrace Mrs Scott would come down to see what had happened, and many a time the supper there was of real physical value to me.

“ My Curly-headed Darling ”

The presence of the child was good for me, keeping alive my aching, lonely heart ; she would play contentedly for hours while I was working, a word now and again being enough for happiness ; when I had to go out without her, she would run to the door with me, and the ‘ good-bye ’ would come from down-curved lips ; she was ever watching at the window for my return, and the sunny face was always the first to welcome me home.

She was the sweetness and joy of my life, my curly-headed darling, with her red-gold hair and glorious eyes, and passionate, wilful, loving nature.

“ Joy of Freedom ”

I found a delight unknown in the old days of bondage. First, there was the joy of freedom, the joy of speaking out frankly and honestly each thought. Mr. Scott’s valuable library was at my service.

I studied harder than ever, I had nothing left of the old faith save belief in ‘ a God ’, and that began slowly to melt away. What if God were only man’s own image reflected in the mirror of man’s mind ? What if man were the creator, not the revelation of his God ?

“ Direction of Atheism ”

I re-read Dean Mansel’s “ Bampton Lectures ”, and they did much towards turning me in the direction of Atheism.

I had given up the use of prayer as a blasphemous absurdity, since an all-wise God could not need my suggestions, nor an allgood God require my promptings.

But God fades out of the daily life of those who never pray. I could then reach no loftier conception of the Divine than that offered by the orthodox, and that broke hopelessly away as I analysed it.

As last I said to Mr Scott, “ Mr Scott, may I write a tract on the nature and existence of God ? ”

“ I meet Charles Bradlaugh ”

While this pamphlet was in manuscript an event occurred which coloured all my succeeding life. I met Charles Bradlaugh.

Having received an intimation that Londoners could receive their certificates at the Hall of science from Mr. Bradlaugh on any Sunday evening, I betook myself thither, and it was on 2nd August 1874, that I first set foot in a Freethought hall.

Charles Bradlaugh began quietly and simply, tracing out the resemblances between the Krishna and the Christ myths..

Eloquence, fire, sarcasm, pathos, passion, all in turn were bent against Christian superstititon, till the great audience, hung silent, breathing soft, as he went on, till the silence that followed a magnificent peroration broke the spell, and a hurricane of cheers relieved the tension.

“ Swift Recognition ”

As friends, not as strangers, we met .. swift recognition, as it were, leaping from eye to eye ; and I know now that the instinctive friendliness was in very truth an outgrowth of strong friendship in other lives, and that on that August day we took up again an ancient tie, we did not begin a new one. And so in lives to come we shall meet again, and help each other as we helped each other in this.

“ Pearls of Atheist Wisdom ”

“ You should never say you have an opinion on a subject until you have tried to study the strongest things said against the view to which you are inclined ”.

“ No steady work can be done in public unless the worker study at home far more than he talks outside ”. “ Do not waste time by reading opinions that are mere echoes of your own ; read opinions you disagree with, and you will catch aspects of truth you do not readily see ”.

One very charming characteristic of his was his extreme courtesy in private life, especially to women. He was absolutely indifferent to all questions of social position ; peer or artisan, it was to him exactly the same; he never seemed conscious of the distinctions of which men make so much.

“ Atheistic Platform ”

Atheism is without God. It does not assert no God. “ The Atheist does not say ‘ There is no God ’, but he says, ‘ I know not what you mean by God ; I am without idea of God ; the word God is to me a sound conveying no clear or distinct affirmation. I do not deny God, because I cannot deny that of which I have no conception and the conception of which, by its affirmer, is so imperfect that he is unable to define it to me ’.” (Charles Bradlaugh, Freethinker’s Text-Book’ p.118)

The Atheist neither affirms nor denies the possibility of phenomena differing from those recognised by human experience.

Further, he refuses to believe anything concerning that of which he knows nothing, and affirms that that which can never be the subject of knowledge ought never to be the object of belief. While the Atheist, then, neither affirms nor denies the unknown, he does deny all which conflicts with the knowledge to which he has already attained. If “ God ” exists and is incomprehensible, His incomprehensibility is an admirable reason for being silent about Him, but can never justify the affirmation of self-contradictory propositions, and the threatening of people with damnation if they do not accept them.

“ Over-mastering Sway of Science ”

Despite the attraction held for me in Spinoza’s luminous arguments, the overmastering sway which Science was beginning to exercise over me drove me to seek for the explanation of all problems of life and mind at the hands of the biologist and the chemist.

Scientifically regarded, life is the result of an arrangement of matter, and when rearrangement occurs the former result can no longer be present ; we call the result of the changed arrangement ‘ death ’.

I wrote in the year 1885 :

“ For many of us evidence must precede belief. I would gladly believe in a happy immortality for all, as I would gladly believe that all misery and crime and poverty will disappear in 1885 .. if I could. But I am unable to believe an improbable proposition unless convincing evidence is brought in support of it. I cannot believe only because I wish. ”

Such was the philosophy by which I lived from 1874 to 1886.

I called myself Atheist, and rightly so, for I was without God, and my horizon was bounded by life on earth. “ ‘ Atheist ’ is one of the grandest titles a man can wear ; it is the Order of Merit of the world’s heroes. ”

Where the cry of ‘ Atheist ’ is raised .. there may we be sure that another step is being taken towards the redemption of humanity. The saviours of the world are too often howled at as Atheists, and then worshipped as Deities.

Atheists are the vanguard of the army of Freethought, on whom falls the brunt of the battle, and are showered the hardest of the blows ; their feet trample down the thorns that others may tread unwounded ; their bodies fill up the ditch that, by the bridge thus made, others may pass to victory.

In the year 1874, this conviction found voice in a pamphlet on the “ True Basis of Morality ”. That which touches morality touches the heart of society ; a high and pure morality is the life- blood of humanity ; mistakes in belief are inevitable, and are of little moment; mistakes in life destroy happiness, and their destructive consequences spread far and wide.

“ Basis of Morality ”

The true basis of morality is utility ; that is, the adaptation of our actions to the promotion of the general welfare and happiness ; the endeavour so to rule our lives that we may serve and bless mankind.

If we can find morality on a basis apart from theology, we shall do humanity a service which can scarcely be overestimated.

We should do wisely to concentrate our strength and our energies on the discovery of the attainable, instead of on the search after the unknowable.

Equality before the law is necessary and just ; liberty is the birthright of every man and woman ; free individual development will elevate and glorify the race.

“ Material Philosophy of Life ”

The study of Darwin and Herbert Spencer, of Huxley, Buchner and Haeckel, had not only convinced me of the truth of evolution, but, with help from W.H. Clifford, Lobbock, Buckle, Lecky, and many another, had led me to see in the evolution of the social instinct the explanation of the growth of conscience and of the strengthening of man’s mental and moral nature.

If man .. by study of the conditions surrounding him and by the application of intelligence to the subdual of external nature ... had already accomplished so much, why should not further persistence along the same road lead to his complete emancipation ?

“ Lust and Greed ”

Another bestial tendency is the lust of the male for the female apart from love, duty and loyalty ; this again has been encouraged by religion, as witness the polygamy and concubinage of the Hebrews .. as in Abraham, David and Solomon, not to mention the precepts of the Mosaic laws .. the bands of male and female prostitues in connection with Pagan temples, and the curious outbursts of sexual passion in connection with religious revivals and missions.

Another bestial tendency is greed, the strongest grabbing all he can and trampling down the weak, in the mad struggle for wealth ; how and when has religion modified this tendency, sanctified as it is in our present civilisation ?

All these bestial tendencies will be eradicated only by the recognition of human duty, of the social bond. Religion has not eradicated them, but science, by tracing them to their source in our brute ancestry has explained them and has shown them in their true light.

“ Man is Circumstance-made ! ”

Man is God-made, says Theism ; man is circumstance-made, says Atheism. Make the circumstances good and the results will be good, for healthy bodies and healthy brains may be built up, and from a State composed of such the disease of crime will have disappeared.

Thus is our work full of hope ; no terrible will of God have we to struggle against.

Such was the creed and such the morality which governed my life and thoughts from 1874, to 1886, and with some misgivings to 1889, and from which I drew strength and happiness amid all outer struggles and distress.

“ Mind Ever Open ! ”

The chief debt of gratitude I owe to Free-thought is that it left the mind ever open to new truth, encouraged the most unshrinking questioning of Nature, and shrank from no new conclusions, however adverse to the old, that were based on solid evidence.

I admit sorrowfully that all Freethinkers do not learn this lesson, but I worked side by side with Charles Bradlaugh, and the Free-thought we strove to spread was strong-headed and broad-hearted.

I had against me all the conventional beliefs and traditions of society in general, and I attacked them, not with bated breath and abundant apologies, but joyously and defiantly, with sheer delight in the intellectual strife.

“ Foulest Accusations ”

Christian opponents at Leicester assailed me as a teacher of free love. Agents of the Christian Evidence Society, in their street preaching, made the foulest accusations against me of personal immorality.

No accusation was too coarse, no slander too baseless, for circulation by these men ; and for a long time these indignities caused me bitter suffering, outraging my pride, and soiling my good name. Miss Frances Power Cobbe wrote in the “ Contemporary Review ” that loss of faith in God would bring about the secularisation or “ destruction ” of all cathedrals, churches, and chapels.

“ Why ”, I wrote in answer, “ should cathedrals, churches, and chapels be destroyed ? Atheism will utilize, not destroy, the beautiful edifices which, once wasted on God, shall hereafter be consecrated for man. Destroy Westminster Abbey ? With its exquisite arches, its glorious tones of soft, rich colour, its stonework light as if of cloud, its dreamy, subdued twilight, soothing as the ‘ shadow of a great rock in a weary land ’ ? Nay, but reconsecrate it to humanity. ”

“ Strength of my Brain and My Tongue ! ”

Against the teachings of eternal torture, of the vicarious atonement, of the infallibility of the Bible, I levelled all the strength of my brain and tongue, and I exposed the history of the Christian Church with unsparing hand, its persecutions, its religious wars, its cruelties, its oppressions.

That men and women are now able to speak and think as openly as they do, that a broader spirit is visible in the Churches, that heresy is no longer regarded as morally disgraceful .. these things are very largely due to the active and militant propaganda carried on under the leadership of Charles Bradlaugh, whose nearest and most trusted friend I was.

“ Extreme Political Views ”

My extreme political views had also much to do with the general feeling of hatred with which I was regarded.

Politics, as such, I cared not for at all, for the necessary compromises of political life were intolerable to me ; but wherever they touched on the life of the people they became to me of burning interest.

The land question, the incidence of taxation, the cost of Royalty, the obstructive power of the house of Lords .. these were the matters to which I put my hand. I found myself always in opposition to the Government of the day.

Against our aggressive and oppressive policy in Ireland, in the Transvaal, in India, in Afghanistan, in Burmah, in Egypt, I lifted up my voice in all our great towns, trying to touch the consciences of the people, and to make them feel the immorality of a landstealing, piratical policy.

“ A Fire Brand ! ”

Against war, against capital punishment, against flogging, demanding national education instead of big guns, public libraries instead of warships .. no wonder I was denounced as an agitator, a fire brand, and that all orthodox society turned up at me its most respectable nose.

“ Mr. Bradlaugh ”

I clasped hands with Mr. Bradlaugh in 1874, and won the noblest friend that woman ever had. He never spoke to me a harsh word ; where we differed, he never tried to override my judgment, nor force on me his views ; we discussed all points of difference as equal friends.

He was the most unselfish man I ever knew, and as patient as he was strong.

He was the merriest of companions in our rare hours of relaxation ; he was a veritable poor man’s lawyer, always ready to help and counsel. Sometimes he would play cards for an hour. all the country round London has for me bright memories of our wanderings .. Richmond, where we tramped across the park, and sat under its mighty trees ; Windsor, with its groves of bracken ; Kew, where we had tea in a funny little room, with watercress ad libitum.

“ National Reformer ”

A place on the staff of the National Reformer was offered me by Mr. Bradlaugh a few days after our first meeting. I wrote in it regularly until Mr Bradlaugh died ; from 1877, until his death I sub-edited it, so as to free him from all the technical trouble and the weary reading of copy and for part of this period was also co-editor.

“ Theosophical Society ”

January 1875, after much thought and selfanalysis, I resolved to give myself wholly to propagandist work, as a Free-thinker and a Social Reformer, and to use my tongue as well as my pen in the struggle.

This same year 1875 that saw me launched on the world as a public advocate of Freethought, saw also the founding of the Theosophical Society to which my Freethought was to lead me.

I have often since thought with pleasure that the very time I began lecturing in England, H.P. Blavatsky was at work in the United States, preparing the foundation on which in November, 1875, the Theosophical Society was to be raised. And with deeper pleasure yet have I found her writing of what she called the noble work against superstition done by Charles Bradlaugh and myself.

“ H.P. Blavatsky ”

The year 1889 .. the never to be forgotten year in which I found my way ‘ home ’, and had the priceless good fortune of meeting, and of becoming the pupil of, H.P. Blavatsky.

Ever more and more had been growing on me the feeling that something more than I had was needed for the cure of social ills. The socialist position sufficed on the economic side, but where to gain the inspiration, the motive, which should lead to the realization of the Brother-hood of Man ?

Our efforts to really organize bands of unselfish workers had failed. Much indeed had been done, but there was not a real movement of self-sacrificing devotion, in which men worked for Love’s sake only, and asked but to give, not to take.

“ Occult World ”

Fact after came hurtling in upon me, demanding explanation I was incompetent to give.

I studied the obscurer sides of consciousness, dreams, hallucinations, illusions, insanity. Into the darkness shot a ray of light .. A.P. Sinnett’s ‘ Occult World ’, with its wonderfully suggestive letters, expounding not the supernatural but a nature under law, wider than I had dared to conceive.

I added Spiritualism to my studies, experimenting privately, finding the phenomena indubitable !

Annie Besant vecated her body on 20th September, 1933 in India.

Source : “ An Autobiography ” by Annie Besant

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