Handful of Stars


11. Thomas Huxley's Text


She was a sermon-taster and was extremely sensitive to any kind of heresy. It is in his Life of Donald John Martin, a Presbyterian minister, that the Rev. Norman C. Macfarlane places her notable achievement on permanent record. He describes her as 'a stern lady who was provokingly evangelical.' There came to the pulpit one Sabbath a minister whose soundness she doubted. He gave out as his text the words: 'What doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?' 'Weel, weel,' this excellent woman exclaimed, as she turned to her friend beside her, 'weel, weel, if there's one text in a' the Buik waur than anither, yon man is sure to tak' it!'


She thought that text the worst in the Bible. Huxley thought it the best. Huxley was, as everybody knows, the Prince of Agnostics. We need not stop to ask why. Nobody who has read the story of John Stuart Mill's boyhood will wonder that Mill was a skeptic. And nobody who has read the story of Thomas Huxley's boyhood will wonder at his becoming an agnostic. As Edward Clodd, his biographer, says, 'his boyhood was a cheerless time. Reversing Matthew Arnold's sunnier memories:

No rigorous teachers seized his youth,
And purged its faith and tried its fire,
Shewed him the high, white star of truth,
There bade him gaze, and there aspire.

'He told Charles Kingsley that he was "kicked into the world, a boy without guide or training, or with worse than none"; he "had two years of a pandemonium of a school, and, after that, neither help nor sympathy in any intellectual direction till he reached manhood."' And, even then, as those familiar with his biography know, he had little enough.

What would Huxley have been, I wonder, if the sympathy for which he hungered had been extended to him? If, instead of badgering him with arguments and entangling him in controversy, Mr. Gladstone and Bishop Wilberforce and others had honestly attempted to see things through his spectacles! Huxley was said to be as cold as ice and as inflexible as steel; but I doubt it. In his life-story I find two incidents--one belonging to his early manhood and one belonging to his age--which tell a very different tale.

The first is connected with the birth of his boy. It is the last night of the Old Year, and he is waiting to hear that he is a father. He spends the anxious hour in framing a resolution. In his diary he pledges himself 'to smite all humbugs, however big; to give a nobler tone to science; to set an example of abstinence from petty personal controversies and of toleration for everything but lying; to be indifferent as to whether the work is recognized as mine or not, so long as it is done. It is half-past ten at night. Waiting for my child. I seem to fancy it the pledge that all these things shall be.' And the next entry runs:

'New Year's Day, 1859. Born five minutes before twelve. Thank God!'

Mark that 'Thank God!' and then note what follows. A year or two later, when the child is snatched from him, he makes this entry and then closes the journal for ever. He has no heart to keep a diary afterwards.

'Our Noel, our firstborn, after being for nearly four years our delight and our joy, was carried off by scarlet fever in forty-eight hours. This day week he and I had a great romp together. On Friday his restless head, with its bright blue eyes and tangled golden hair, tossed all day upon the pillow. On Saturday night I carried his cold, still body here into my study. Here, too, on Sunday night, came his mother and I to that holy leavetaking. My boy is gone; but in a higher and better sense than was in my mind when, four years ago, I wrote what stands above, I feel that my fancy has been fulfilled. I say heartily and without bitterness--Amen, so let it be!'

'Thank God!' exclaims our great Agnostic when the child is born.

'Amen!' he says, submissively, when the little one is buried.

This is the first of the two incidents. The second--which is no less pathetic--is recorded by Dr. Douglas Adam. 'A friend of mine,' the doctor says, 'was acting on a Royal Commission of which Professor Huxley was a member, and one Sunday they were staying together in a little country town. "I suppose you are going to church," said Huxley. "Yes," replied my friend. "What if, instead, you stayed at home and talked to me of religion?" "No," was the reply, "for I am not clever enough to refute your arguments." "But what if you simply told me your own experience--what religion has done for you?" My friend did not go to church that morning; he stayed at home and told Huxley the story of all that Christ had been to him; and presently there were tears in the eyes of the great agnostic as he said, "I would give my right hand if I could believe that!"'

This, if you please, is the man who was supposed to be as cold as ice and as inflexible as steel! This is the man for whom the Christians of his time had nothing better than harsh judgments, freezing sarcasms and windy arguments! How little we know of each other! How slow we are to understand!


But the text! It was in the course of his famous--and furious--controversy with Mr. Gladstone that Huxley paid his homage to the text. He was pleading for a better understanding between Religion and Science.

'The antagonism between the two,' he said, 'appears to me to be purely fictitious. It is fabricated, on the one hand, by short-sighted religious people, and, on the other hand, by short-sighted scientific people.' And he declared that, whatever differences may arise between the exponents of Nature and the exponents of the Bible, there can never be any real antagonism between Science and Religion themselves. 'In the eighth century before Christ,' he goes on to say, 'in the eighth century before Christ, in the heart of a world of idolatrous polytheists, the Hebrew prophets put forth a conception of religion which appears to me to be as wonderful an inspiration of genius as the art of Pheidias or the science of Aristotle. "What doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God?" If any so-called religion takes away from this great saying of Micah, I think it wantonly mutilates, while if it adds thereto, I think it obscures, the perfect ideal of religion.'

And it was on the ground of their common admiration for this text--the worst text in the world, the best text in the world--that Mr. Gladstone and Professor Huxley reached some kind of agreement. Not to be outdone by his antagonist, Mr. Gladstone raised his hat to the text.

'I will not dispute,' he says, 'that in these words is contained the true ideal of discipline and attainment. Still, I cannot help being struck with an impression that Mr. Huxley appears to cite these terms of Micah as if they reduced the work of religion from a difficult to an easy program. But look at them again. Examine them well. They are, in truth, in Cowper's words:

Higher than the heights above,
Deeper than the depths beneath.

Do justly, that is to say, extinguish self; love mercy, cut utterly away all the pride and wrath and all the cupidity that make this fair world a wilderness; walk humbly with thy God, take his will and set it in the place where thine own was wont to rule. Pluck down the tyrant from his place; set up the true Master on His lawful throne.' In the text--the worst text in the Bible; the best text in the Bible--Mr. Gladstone and Professor Huxley find a trysting-place. We may therefore leave the argument at that point.


The words with which Huxley fell in love were addressed by the prophet to a desperate man--and that man a king--who was prepared to pay any price and make any sacrifice if only, by so doing, he might win for himself the favor of the Most High. 'Wherewith shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before the high God?' he cries. 'Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams or with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?'

'My firstborn!'--we have just witnessed a father's anguish on the death of his firstborn. But Balak, King of Moab, is prepared to lead his firstborn to the sacrificial altar if, by so doing, he can secure the favor of the Highest.

And the answer of the prophet is that the love of God is not for sale. And, if it were for sale, it could not be purchased by an act of immolation in which heaven could find no pleasure at all. F. D. Maurice points out, in one of his letters to R. H. Hutton, that the world has cherished two ideas of sacrifice. When a man discovers that his life is out of harmony with the divine Will, he may make a sacrifice by which he brings his conduct into line with the heavenly ideal. That is the one view. The other is Balak's. Balak hopes, by offering his child upon the altar, to bring the divine pleasure into line with his unaltered life. 'All light is in the one idea of sacrifice,' says Maurice, 'and all darkness in the other. The idea of sacrifice, not as an act of obedience to the divine will, but as a means of changing that will, is the germ of every dark superstition.'

Heaven is not to be bought, the prophet told the king. 'He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of thee but to do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God?'

Equity! Charity! Piety!

Do something! Love something! Be something!

Do justly! Love mercy! Walk humbly with thy God!

These, and these alone, are the offerings in which heaven finds delight.


I cannot help feeling sorry for the lady in the Scottish church. She thinks that Balaam's brave reply to Balak is the worst text in the Bible. And she is not alone. For, in his Literature and Dogma, Matthew Arnold shows that she is the representative of a numerous and powerful class. 'In our railway stations are hung up,' Matthew Arnold says, 'sheets of Bible texts to catch the eye of the passer-by. And very profitable admonitions to him they generally are. One, particularly, we have all seen. It asks the prophet Micah's question: Wherewith shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before the high God? And it answers that question with one short quotation from the New Testament: With the precious blood of Christ.' Matthew Arnold maintains that this is not honest. By casting aside the prophet's answer, and substituting another, the people who arranged the placard ally themselves with the lady in the Scottish church. They evidently think Balaam's reply to Balak the worst text in the Bible. But is it? Is it good, is it fair, is it honest to strike out the real answer and to insert in its place an adopted one? I wish to ask the lady in the Scottish church--and the people who prepared the placard--two pertinent questions.

My first question is this. Is the deleted text--the worst text in the Bible--true? That is extremely important. Does God require that man should do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with Himself? Is it not a fact that heaven does insist on equity and charity and piety? Can there, indeed, be any true religion without these things? Do they not represent the irreducible minimum? If this be so, is it not as well for that Scottish minister to preach on that terrible text, after all? And, if this be so, would not the original answer to the question be the best answer for the placard?

My second question is this. Even from the standpoint of 'a stern lady who is provokingly evangelical,' is it not well for the minister to preach on that objectionable text? The lady is anxious, and commendably anxious, that the pulpit of her church should sound forth the magnificent verities of the Christian evangel. But will a man desire the salvation which the New Testament reveals unless he has first recognized his inability to meet heaven's just demands? In a notable fragment of autobiography, Paul declares that, but for the law, he would never have known the meaning of sin. It was when he heard how much he owed to the divine justice that he discovered the hopelessness of his bankruptcy. It was when he listened to the Thou shalts and the Thou shalt nots that he cried, 'O wretched man that I am: who shall deliver me?' It was Sinai that drove him to Calvary. The law, with its stern, imperative demands, was, he says, the schoolmaster that led him to Christ. The best way of showing that a stick is crooked is to lay a straight one beside it. This being so, the lady in the Scottish church, and the compilers of Matthew Arnold's placard, must consider whether, in the interests of that very evangelism for which they are so justly jealous, they can afford to supersede the stately passages that make men feel their desperate need of a Saviour.

This, at any rate, is the way in which Micah used the story of the conversation between Balak and Balaam. By means of it he sought to reduce the people to despair. And then, when they had fallen upon their faces and covered themselves with sackcloth, he made one of the noblest evangelical pronouncements that the Old Testament contains: 'He pardoneth iniquity because He delighteth in mercy: Thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.' But the people would never have listened hungrily to that glad golden word unless they had first realized the sublimity of the divine demand and the incalculable extent of their shortcoming.


We each have a blind spot. We see truth fragmentarily. If only the excellent lady in the Scottish church could have seen, in the minister's text, what Huxley saw in it! But she didn't; and, because she was blind to its beauty, she called it 'the worst text in the Bible!' And if only Huxley could have grasped those precious truths that were so dear to her! But he never did. He could only shake his fine head sadly and say, 'I do not know!' 'I would give my right hand,' he exclaims, 'if I could believe that!' Mr. Clodd adorns the title-page of his Life of Huxley with the words of Matthew Arnold: 'He saw life steadily and saw it whole.' That sad shake of the head, and that passionate but melancholy exclamation about giving his right hand, prove that the tribute is not quite true. Huxley, as he himself more than half suspected, missed the best.

When Sir George Adam Smith, in his Book of the Twelve Prophets, comes to this great passage in Micah, he prints it in italics right across the page:

What doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God?

This, says Sir George, is the greatest saying of the Old Testament; and there is only one other in the New which excels it:

Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

Huxley had eyes for the first, but none for the second; the Scottish lady had eyes for the second, but none for the first; but they who 'see life steadily and see it whole' will stand up to salute the majesty of both.


It is customary for the Presidents of the United States to select the passage which they shall kiss in taking the oath on assuming the responsibilities of their great office. President Harding had no hesitation in making his choice. He turned to this great saying of Micah. 'What doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God?' The lady in the Scottish church would frown and shake her head, but the President felt that, of all the texts in the Bible, that was the best.