iDigress

Musings of an antipodean contrarian

T E Ruth and The Common Weal

In 1918 the Australian Baptist Publishing House (ABPH) released a book by the Rev. Thomas Elias Ruth (1875-1956) titled The Common Weal: Eighteen Studies in Social Subjects.[1]  The book included a foreword by Professor Meredith Atkinson of the University of Melbourne,[2] and was dedicated by the author to Arthur Black, “in token of friendship and fellowship; in admiration of his practical churchmanship; and in acknowledgement of the inspiration his passion for social service means to the author – though we are now physically separated by over 12,000 miles.”

At the time of publication, T.E. Ruth was the Minister of the Collins Street Baptist Church in Melbourne.  Ruth had previously published books and pamphlets, including the ABPH-published Wake Up, Australia! and The Catholic.  Known for his “flashes of wit, passion and fervour,” he was clearly suited to public life.[3]

Emigrating from England to Melbourne in March 1914, Ruth found himself in Sydney shortly after war broke out in Europe on 4 August, where he reportedly convinced a large Baptist young people’s rally to join him in the affirmation, “I am not a pessimist, because I am a Baptist,” the antiphon of which was, “Magnificent in its heartiness!”[4]  As one of his biographers observes, “He chose the pulpit, but revelled in the atmosphere of the hustings.”[5]

Life and ministry

Son of a Devonshire baker in whose Anglican tradition he was raised and prepared for holy orders, T.E. Ruth concluded that infant baptism did not stand for spiritual regeneration through reading a book, Outline of Christian Doctrine, by Dr Handley Moule, Bishop of Durham, and sought baptism as a believer.  His rector referred him to a Baptist minister who baptised him in South Street Chapel, Exeter.  He attended the Bristol Baptist College and University College, Bristol, from 1897 to 1899, where he gained a reputation as an original thinker, and served in Baptist churches at Southampton (1901-05), Liverpool (1905-11), and Southport (1911-14).

At Southampton, in 1902, he married Mabel Edith Law; they had two sons and a daughter.[6]  Ruth was Minister of the Collins Street church in central Melbourne from 1914-22, resigning at the age of 47 to enter on “general ministries in capital cities.”  In 1923 he began preaching at Sunday evening services of the Pitt Street Congregational Church in Sydney, where audiences soon grew to 1500 with a sevenfold increase in the offerings.  Two years later Ruth succeeded the Rev N.J. Cocks as Minister of the Pitt Street Church.  He had made a smooth and peaceable transition from Baptist to Congregational ministry.

Ruth retired from Pitt Street in 1938 and moved to Adelaide, but in 1942 was again interim Minister at Collins Street Baptist Church,[7] and later returned to Sydney where he died at Killara in 1956 and was buried according to the rites of the Congregational Church.[8]

Consuming passions

Ruth was an enthusiast for church union, believing that to be “only a Baptist” was to be a bigot (a label he did not favour but one which many Australian Baptists wore with pride), and that “to go to a Baptist heaven” would hold no charm for him.[9]  He also claimed that “[d]enominational division was a greater evil than infant baptism.”[10]  In the midst of the carnage and slaughter of the Great War, he appears to have accepted a sombre version of the doctrine of purgatory, and saw this conviction as antithetical to what he termed “the saccharine selfishness of some of [the Protestants’] Sankey hymns and … Glory songs.”[11]

Prominent dispensationalist Sydney Baptist William Lamb, always vigilant for truth, published a book attacking him and described him as “a Jesuit in disguise.”[12]  In fact, Ruth was a convinced Protestant and, in the late 1910s, the strongest and most eloquent public opponent of the fearsome Melbourne Catholic Archbishop Dr Daniel Mannix (although it was rumoured that the two men enjoyed a cordial personal relationship).  On the basis of a series of sermons preached in 1918, it appears that Ruth was a universalist who, in view of the love and justice of God, believed that “We shall all come home at last”.[13]

Ruth was also an enthusiast for nation and empire, as this extract from a 1915 sermon, titled “Wanted men, wanted more men,” amply demonstrates:

Oh, young man of the sunny south, fit and free, with enormous faith in your country, and splendid capacity for service, give yourself to save Australia’s name from the slightest suspicion of underestimating the danger of Empire: Your King is calling, your country’s calling, your women are calling, too; We want a hundred thousand men and the First that we want is You.[14]

Ruth favoured the preservation and development of a white, British, predominantly Protestant Australia.[15]  He developed a reputation in Melbourne as “the central Protestant spokesman for Imperialism,” and led the support for conscription in opposition to Catholic Archbiship Dr Daniel Mannix’s “no” case.[16]  In a sermon at the Pitt Street Congregational Church in April 1932 in support of the New Guard movement and its opposition to NSW Labor Premier Jack Lang, he described World War I diggers as “the supermen of the Southern cross,” and called on others to follow their example in the battle for public morality.[17]

Ruth and public theology

It is public morality, or public theology, that occupied Ruth in The Common Weal.  The 18 “studies” are actually “notes of simple red-hot addresses” he had presented on Sunday nights to apparently large audiences in the Melbourne Auditorium (built in 1913, later the Metro Theatre), directly opposite the Collins Street Baptist Church, “in the ordinary course of my ministry.”[18]

In a self-deprecatory “Author’s note,” Ruth defined the purpose of the addresses as to “lead the reader to think for himself, and to invest his influence in the affairs of the Commonwealth for the sake of the Kingdom of God.”  He acknowledges indebtedness to four particular books and “a score of other books.”  The four listed books give an indication of the breadth of Ruth’s reading and the influences he was willing to acknowledge: Professor Francis Greenwood Peabody, Jesus Christ and the Social Question: An Examination of the Teaching of Jesus in Its Relation to Some of the Problems of Modern Social Life;[19] Rev S.E. Keble, Industrial Day-Dreams: Studies in Industrial Ethics and Economics;[20] Dr Lyman Abbott, Christianity and Social Problems;[21] and Dr Washington Gladden, Social Salvation.[22]

In his introduction, Ruth also mentions F.D. Maurice’s dictum that “we must either socialise Christianity or Christianise socialism”; and reiterates Dr Hatch’s view that “The unaccomplished mission of Christianity is to reconstruct society on the basis of brotherhood.”[23]  These authors sought to bring together the disciplines of theology and sociology, and to apply Christian principles to the great social problems of the day.

This was also T.E. Ruth’s passion, driven by a keen understanding of the universal Fatherhood of God, an assurance of the Lordship and agency of Jesus Christ, and an awareness of the kingdom of God as a practical, terrestrial, social reality.  His passion birthed a vision, the largest possible, in which:

The world’s wounds will be healed, the world’s weaknesses will be cured, the world’s wickedness will be banished, the world’s problems will be solved when men acknowledge the governance of God, when the sons of men become the subjects of the Father King and the earth becomes the realm of righteous rule, the home of the commonwealth, the sphere of spiritual socialism …

I believe that the only lasting solution to the social problem will be found in applied Christianity, and that the Church of Jesus must enter into more vital relations with the social kingdom of God.[24]

He concluded the first address in The Common Weal by appealing “to converted people to express their faith in some practical good Samaritanism,” and urged young men and women “to hand themselves over to Christ the only Saviour of the Soul, and the only Hope of the Race, for service in the city and the State, that God’s kingdom may come and His will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”[25]

Against the view that Ruth was at heart a socialist, it should be noted that he believed Conservative, Radical and Socialist governments alike were only “good” in so far as they followed the will of God as set forth in the Bible and exemplified in the life and teachings of Jesus, whose “ministry is the manifesto of the will of God.”[26]  Ruth also strongly condemned anarchism, then on the ascendency among political radicals in Australia and elsewhere, as “poisonous ideas” that had no future in the modern world.[27]

Further, the themes chosen by Ruth for publication in The Common Weal, from industrial relations reform to literature censorship, from affordable housing to the “misuse” of alcohol, indicate the richness, comprehensiveness and large-heartedness of his personal interests and social concerns.  That these interests and concerns were articulated by a theologically trained and well-read Baptist minister with a gift for oratory only added to their potency.

What of the specific issues addressed in the book?  The remainder of this paper outlines the content of each chapter in The Common Weal, with emphasis on Ruth’s rhetorical style and the rationale for the positions he took on specific issues.  Present tense has been used throughout to convey something of the immediacy and passion of the addresses.

Industrial relations

In chapter 2, “The reconciliation of capital and labour,” Ruth takes aim at intractable industrial disputes and “a series of costly strikes” that threatened to cripple economic prosperity and national progress.  He views the forces of capital and labour as “on a war footing,” and pleads for the Employers’ Federation and the Trades Hall to see things from their opponent’s perspective: “It is not a big country or a loud voice that makes a great man, but a big outlook, the power to appreciate the other man’s point of view, and to correct insularity of thought by fellowship with the community of interests.”[28]

Although the Gospels give no instruction on appropriate economic machinery to manage an industrial economy, Ruth invokes the example of Jesus in overcoming “the peril of parochialism” by casting a wider horizon (setting “daily duty in its relation to wholeness”); in refusing to subordinate “profits to personality” (that is, placing individual worth and the common good above the pursuit of profits); and in setting forth the principle of selfless social service.[29]  He gives a brief outline of political economy,[30] and states that it is social utility – not labour, not capital – that determines surplus value.

The solution to the great problem of conflict between labour and capital is not the creation of more laws but the application of the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12),[31] since it is the selfishness of labour and capital, and the fact that both interests forget their responsibility to the wider community and to God, which ultimately causes industrial unrest.

Ruth concludes: “Only the man who prays, ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me’ can properly pray, ‘Create a better social order, O God, and renew a right relationship between men.’”[32]

More on industrial relations

In chapter 3, “Industrial Prussianism,” the author extends his treatment of industrial relations in the previous chapter to the current great coal strike, and refers to Jesus as “our industrial redeemer.”[33]  By “Prussianism” he means a ruthless and despotic attitude similar to that articulated by Prussian Generals and the Kaiser in the Great War.  Ruth rails against exploitation of labour by capital, denouncing the system of economic slavery introduced by “Capital Prussianism” resulting in “a calculated capitalistic contrivance that crushes independence, that makes a workman nothing but a machine for grinding out wealth.”[34]  There is also “Labour Prussianism,” which has attained an unprecedented perfection of organisation and can order rank and file unionists to “down tools” as though they were military conscripts.

On the other hand, Ruth claimed that “the very introduction of machinery put an end to individualism in industry, and necessitated the rise of Trade Unions.  He affirmed the role of the union agitator, but held that a strike should only be called with a secret ballot and that married men should have “at least thrice the influence of the single man” in such votes.[35]

For Ruth, all forms of Prussianism are “parochialism touched with despotic power,” and therefore insane.  The way to industrial peace is the New Testament vision of “righteousness, justice, brotherhood and joy,”[36] faithfulness to the Golden Rule, and reliance on the work of God in the individual person.[37]

Work and employment

In chapter 4, “Workers and non-workers,” Ruth changes pace.  Wanting to discover first-hand “the tramp’s philosophy of life” while on holiday in Westmoreland ten years before, he had dressed as a tramp (swaggie) and sought accommodation in a “casual ward” (hostel) attached to a workhouse.  He found boarding conditions rough, conversation between tramps both crude and knowledgeable, and the “work” demoralising (consisting merely of detention in a closed-in yard until the manager released them at his whim, according to the administration of the English Poor Law).

Ruth lamented “the tragedy of prolonged unemployment” and the possibility of unemployability for those who remained out of work for long periods.  He praised recent efforts by Continental countries (especially Germany) to grapple with problems of poverty, vagrancy and unemployment.[38]  He lays the blame for rises in unemployment in Australia on class warfare between labour and capital, and argues that the solution is personal:

There is no adequate mission to the social conscience that is not overwhelmingly individualistic.  There is no real collectivism that is not based on personal character.”[39]

Housing

In chapter 5, “Houses and homes,” the author examines enlightened town planning and the moral foundations of family life as major contributors to the common good.  He claims that:

it is quite impossible to go into some of our own nearer suburbs without feeling the ugliness and the offensiveness of the wretched houses and monotonous streets that seem to have been dumped down in haphazard fashion and shaped by accident and disaster.[40]

He regards a slum as “not merely a blot on the beauty of a place, and not merely a menace to physical health, and a centre of moral filth [but] the negation of civilisation, the negation of Christianity.”[41]  Towns and cities should be properly planned with moral purity as well as social amenity in mind; and slum owners should be prosecuted in the same way as butchers who knowingly sell tainted meat.[42]

Far more precious, though, is the family who lives within a house.  For Ruth, the family is the fundamental social organisation, and problems of home life are more important than the constitution of the state or the divine order of the church.[43]  He especially mentions the institution of marriage (and the prevalence of divorce), and overcrowded and insanitary conditions (associated with a decline in decency, morality, citizenship and religion), and claims that “The decay of homelife is the cause of many of the evils infesting our streets and parks and sea beaches.”[44]  The solution lies in divinely ordered home life:

The nearest image earth holds of hell is the loveless, joyless home, where God is not known, where contempt has supplanted reverence, where hate has cast out love.  And the nearest image earth holds of heaven is the home where God is known and worshipped, where father, mother, children know God well enough to laugh in His presence, where perfect love casts out fear, the place of light and love, holiness and humour, mirth and music, song and sacrifice.[45]

Indecent literature

In chapter 6, “Literature and life, and the Devil in ink,” Ruth tackles the problem of the corrupting power of literature (or, as we would describe it today, of communications media).  “Literature is the spring of our mental life, the greatest agent in our social and religious education, and the devil seeks to poison life at its source.”[46]

At issue are indecent newspapers and magazines, and “the sex novel,” but also “euphemistic words,” “commercial grabs,” “degrading exhibitions,” “passions which actually unmake man,” “clever schemes of colour and design that subtly convey poison to the soul,” and “the glamour of expressive airs of rich, luscious sounds of sensuous and seductive music.”[47]  Further, in journalism and the publishing industry, there are the twin dangers of “being bought” and of sensationalism.[48]

Moreover, Ruth argues,

the press is very much more than the mirror of public life, it is the maker of public sentiment and soul.  It often sets the pace for public men and sets the standard for public morality, and, within certain limits, it can make or mar a public man, it can create or destroy public morality.[49]

There are also, in Ruth’s estimation, newspapers that wallow “in the filth of demoralising details of crime and evil-doing, papers published in the Commonwealth that are positively indecent, the publication of which ought to be prohibited by the law that prohibits immorality in public places.”[50]  Ruth advocates protecting the mind from the onslaught of immoral publications just as one protects the body from the ravages of infectious disease.[51]

The solution to the problem of various kinds of indecent literature is to employ the strategy outlined by the Apostle Paul in Philippians 4:8-9 (“Whatever is true,” etc), and to “pass into real personal fellowship with the immortals” by occupying the mind with the works of such greats as Shakespeare, Milton, Ruskin, Dickens and, of course, the biblical writers.  For “good is better than bad.”[52]

Sex

In chapter 7, “Problems of sex,” the author takes up the delicate subject of sexual reproduction, described as “the father-mother ideas of life’” and common departures from the ideal.  From the creation stories in Genesis, Ruth finds that “the genesis of the father-mother idea is in God,”[53] and “we have so much more power than flower or bird or beast.”[54]  But this power for good may also be adapted for evil purposes with catastrophic results, as evidenced by sexual immorality that results in sexually transmitted infections, prostitution and the birth of children outside of marriage.  Thus by

letting lust take the place of love … we can transgress the ordinance of God and men, and the penalty is written in bodies bloated by loathsome disease, that spreads its poisons of putrefaction, not only among the sensualists of society, but among innocent men and women and children, bequeathing even to children unborn a heritage of foul blood and depraved instincts.[55]

When Ruth considers prostitution – or, as he was compelled to describe it, “the social evil” –

we think of the poor abandoned woman of the streets, abandoned of church, abandoned of society, abandoned by herself, abandoned to a life of immorality, of vice and shame, until she becomes a prolific cause of corruption, an actual peddler of plague.[56]

Society has tried to repress and manage such persons through legal penalties, segregation and regulation.  Christ’s method, argues Ruth,

is fundamentally different, and rests on a radically different assumption.  To Him, she is not an abandoned woman.  She is not shut out from the congregations or from His personal conversation … Christ’s first principle was that vice in woman was curable.  The second was equally radical and far-reaching.  He did not condone in man what is condemned in woman … Christ’s method of dealing with the social evil [was one of] compassion and cure.[57]

By way of emphasis, Ruth quotes Dr Napheys: “ ‘Would you learn the only possible method of reforming sinful women?  … Reform the men.’”[58]  In regard to children born outside of marriage, he observes with characteristic pastoral sensitivity that

There are illegitimate parents, but there are no illegitimate children.  There never have been, there never can be any illegitimate children.  The children born of illegitimate parents ought never to be penalised by the community.  In any case the child is the best asset of the community, and the community ought to care much more for the child.[59]

Alcohol

In chapter 8, “The case against the drink traffic” (the first of five chapters on this subject), Ruth makes an unmitigated call for total abstinence from the consumption of alcohol.  In doing so he had the support of the vast majority of Baptists, and many Protestants, who believed with him that

there is absolutely no evil so far-reaching in its influence, and so diametrically opposed to physical, mental, moral, social, and Imperial well-being, nothing that so certainly and effectively poisons the springs of our common life as the deplorable drinking habits of our day … [Alcohol is] an age-long curse, which it is impossible to exaggerate, and which it should be the chief aim of civilised people to kill.[60]

He continues:

Think of the ruin that has been wrought within your own domestic domain, within your own social circle, within the realm of your commercial activity … The misery in our hearts and homes is but a faint echo of the ravages of the great Beast that makes war against the Lamb, the hydra-headed monster, breathing forth misery, blighting men, ruining women, cursing little children from their birth, turning home that should be heaven into hell, streets that should be pure into advertisements of lewdness and vice, and life that should be lovely with divine light into darkness and devilry.[61]

Ruth claims that alcohol consumption causes physical and mental deterioration, “affects the moral nature,” and “is of the gravest social significance.”[62]  The solution is to oppose the industry, to apply every legitimate influence to secure legislation restricting “the drink traffic,” and to abstain from consumption of alcohol.

More on alcohol

In chapter 9, “The Church and temperance reform,” the author considers the role of the churches in the temperance movement (the push to reduce or prohibit the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages).  Ruth begins with an apologetic for Christian social action in general:

the Christian Church, with its mission of healing the moral diseases and remedying the moral wrongs of our time, is bound to face the issues of social ferment.  All problems of social unrest are ethical at the root, and all ethical questions are fundamentally religious, and the Christian Church cannot stand coldly aloof …

The Christian Church is a society founded by Christ for the salvation of the world.  The first line of its duty is to win men to Christ, to bring them into touch with God, that they may realise their relationship to the eternal.  And you cannot possibly exaggerate the importance of this work even from the social and political point of view …

But that is not the whole duty of the Church.  The second line of duty is the salvation of society.  The mission of the Church is not only to the individual, but to the social conscience [and] it is the business of the Church to see that its members discharge their duty, not only in the social worship of Almighty God, but in the social service of their neighbours.[63]

And so to temperance.  Ruth is appalled at the number of people he knew who had “been ruined by this subtle agency of the devil.”[64]  He suggests that alcohol is “far and away the mightiest stronghold of sin our nation knows,”[65] that “the churches are called by the events of our time to take their true position as leaders in the aggression on this awful evil,”[66] that fermented wine “never should be used in any church professing to stand for the salvation of men,”[67] and that Christians ought to deny their “legitimate rights” in order to do their “larger duty.”[68]  For

total abstinence is not simply a temporary expedient for a critical condition of society.  It is one of the conditions of the highest physical, mental, and moral efficiency.  Pledge yourself to Christ.  Pledge yourself to the State.

And let not the sword sleep in your hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In Australia’s great and glorious land.[69]

Still more on alcohol

In chapter 10, “The drink traffic and public life,” Ruth continues his theme of temperance, examining the social and political ramifications of the liquor industry.  He observes that in ancient times distillation was unknown, wines were mild in strength when compared to modern wines, and Buddhist and Islamic traditions explicitly required total abstinence.[70]  He argues that “Right through our history this evil has corrupted and debased civic and political life, and in this crisis it stands revealed as our greatest Imperial foe.”[71]

Ruth criticises Australian politicians for looking only to the next election rather than campaigning on moral principles,[72] and denounces vested British liquor interests allegedly establishing themselves in Australian public life.  “It is time,” Ruth says,

for politicians and publicists of all parties to unite to curb and control this great enemy … high time for us to translate into economic and political practice that which we profess to believe, that only “righteousness exalteth a nation” (a reference to Proverbs 14:34).[73]

Alcohol again

In chapter 11, “ ‘Vested interests’ versus ‘victory’,” the author quotes extensively from Hansard to show that prohibition of certain publications of the Strength of Britain movement was motivated by vested interests of the liquor industry to suppress material that might aid the temperance movement.[74]

He directly attacks the Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, asking, “Where is Mr Hughes on this vitally important question?  … What has the Prime Minister done?  Is he standing supinely by while drink robs the Empire of men, money and munitions?”[75]  He urges political leaders to proclaim “prohibition during war and mobilisation,” and challenges his audience, “in the name of the Strong Son of God, to use your influence, in every possible fashion, to secure the overthrow of wrong and the establishment of right.”[76]

Last word on alcohol

In chapter 12, “Why not censor the drink traffic,” Ruth argues that, since a form of literature censorship was established in Australia for war purposes, the drink traffic ought also to be censored.  Just as political propaganda that might advantage Germany is censored, so alcohol that might weaken public morale should be restricted.[77]  Instead, “We have censored the truth about the drink trade.  It is time the trade was censored.  It is time Australia came into line with Canada.”[78]  Ruth sees no hope for radical change in the present federal government (the Win-the-War Government), nor in the outcome of the next general election.  But he believes

the hour has struck for a great citizens’ movement.  The people are ready.  And the leaders are ready.  Arrangements are underway … And this is real church service – service for the good name of God, service for His glory and our fellows’ good …

Our immediate duty is to secure a proclamation of prohibition against the misuse of the alcohol God has made [he approved of its use as an industrial chemical], during war time, and the time of demobilisation.  That is our duty.  And may God help us.[79]

Gambling

In chapter 13, “Australia’s pet vice,” the author sets gambling in his moral sights, acknowledging it as a very ancient and universal vice, and declaring it to be theft, and the gambler a thief who stands condemned by the Decalogue (“Thou shalt not steal,” Exodus 20:15) in the same way that a murderer stands condemned by the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.”[80]  He distinguishes the vice of gambling from the legitimate activities in which it occurs:

it is not with racing I am concerned now, but with that which robs racing of its value, robs recreation of its recreating ministry, degrades innocent pastimes into moral pests and plagues, and makes even of charitable appeals a means of fostering the lust of gain, of sealing up the springs of sympathy, and of coarsening character.[81]

Ruth also observes (quoting the Anglican Bishop B.F. Westcott and the English philosopher Herbert Spencer) that gambling seeks personal pleasure and gain through another’s pain and loss, without making adequate compensation or adding anything to the sum of common wealth.  Further, he argued,

it is quite beside the mark to say that the gambler works.  So does the bank robber.  So does the house-breaker.  So does the pick-pocket – but it is criminal work.  It is equally beside the mark to say the gambler displays skills, it is not the skill of a tradesman who provides his fellows with necessities, or the skill of the artist who clothes ideas with beauty and refines the thoughts of men, or the skill of the statesman who applies the principles of political economy to the welfare of the people, or the skill of the physician who applies to life the laws of health, or the skill of the soldier or sailor who defends his country’s cause – it is the skill that violates the laws of honourable labour that seeks all the time to get something for nothing, the cunning that would get gain without recompense, that would take advantage of another’s ignorance.[82]

The solution to the problem of “gambling … with its concomitant evils, always and naturally associated, of drink and immorality,” is, for Ruth, for the state to introduce “much more effective legislation”[83] to restrict the practice, and for the individual to adopt “the simple law of neighbourly love.”[84]

More on gambling

In chapter 14, “What’s wrong with a bet?” Ruth asks whether gambling is inherently wrong, or only wrong because of its lurid and evil associations.  In answer, he reiterates the general argument of the previous chapter in the strongest terms:

In the act of gambling, God is dethroned, and chance is substituted.  All that Christ taught of the Fatherhood of God; all the sovereignty, and all the love included in our Lord’s conception of the first cause and final end of life; all the ideas of justice and right-dealing; all the moral majesty and movements of mercy are consciously or unconsciously – often unconsciously – repudiated, and chance becomes the gambler’s creator, chance the gambler’s providence, chance the heart and soul of the gambler’s life.  Men are marionettes, made to move by chance.

Things are not ordered – they simply happen.  Risk is substituted for reason, chance for conscience, luck for pluck.  Christianity, I repeat, stands for the sovereignty of God; gambling, for the sovereignty of chance.[85]

Further, gambling “is an utter denial of the brotherhood of man and all its implications.”[86]  Whether he wins or loses, the gambler “is engaged in a transaction that cannot stand the test of elementary morality.”[87]  For a Christian, money is only ever held in trust, “Christianity stands for the stewardship of wealth”[88] and “it is shameful to lose money in gambling; it is immoral to win it.”[89]  Ruth concludes:

And the remedy?  It is in the realisation of the reality of the doctrines of grace – the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the dignity of labour, the stewardship of wealth, the sanctity of life.

No believer in Jesus has any right to bet.  Every church member should regard raffling and gambling as a distinct repudiation of churchmanship.  We are here as the agents of the redeeming Word, to act for Christ; and complicity in this evil will unfit us for the task to which we have pledged our lives – the uplift of humanity, the righteousness of the race, the redemption of society, the joy of life.[90]

Gambling again

In chapter 15, “After the Referendum, the Cup!” the author expresses concern that the Melbourne cup (Australia’s premier horse race) was overshadowing more weighty matters such as a referendum.  He acknowledges that Scripture is silent on the morality of horse-racing, but argues that it has ceased to be a sport and has degenerated into evil,[91] especially on account of corrupt bookmakers.[92]

Ruth appeals “to the social conscience of the community to be honest with God and just with man, adding the following to the rhetoric expressed in the previous chapter:

Gambling means the denial of the dignity of man and the taking of a mean opportunity to inflict injury.  Gambling cuts right across the principles of commerce and makes a man an economic thief.  Gambling adds immeasurably to the sins of society and makes meaningless the Saviourhood of Christ.  Gambling spoils the man, injures his home, unfits him for honest commerce, destroys his social and civic qualities, and works untold mischief and misery in all his relationships.[93]

Sunday trading

In chapter 16, “Can we save Sunday as a democratic institution?” Ruth turns to the observance of Sunday as a day of rest, in decline for commercial reasons.  He believes the principle of a weekly day of rest from labour is “part and parcel of our common life, a democratic institution, a great heritage of the common people, a gift of Christ.”[94]  It is “woven into the very texture of our physical necessities … indispensable to our physical stamina.”[95]  Moreover Sunday rest allows for spiritual fellowship and exercises with the goal of “the widening of the horizon, the enrichment of being, the fulness of vision, the beautifying of life, the completion and coronation of character.”[96]

Yet commercial and popular pressure, in the form of Sunday picnics, Sunday excursion trains and steamers, and Sunday picture shows (i.e. films) threaten to dismantle the institution.  In response, Ruth observes that “Sunday amusements mean Sunday employment.”[97]  In particular,

Sunday pleasures are usually purchased at the price of somebody’s pain, and generally mean a coarsening of nature, a deadening of sensibility and a general deterioration of character … [Sunday pleasures are] an offence not only against the Divine in man, but against our social democracy, an offence not only against our great religious traditions, but against the world’s workers.[98]

Ruth urges his audience “to guard our Sundays, make much of our Sundays, and Sundays will make much of us … Citizenship depends on churchmanship.”[99]

Entertainment

In chapter 17, “Christianity and amusements,” the author addresses the charge that churches and amusement agencies are necessarily and essentially antagonistic.  He replies that “both groups are guilty of the sin of schism.”[100]  Amusements that do not afford recreation are frauds; one cannot live on amusements; Christianity is for those who aspire to wholeness and for whom “character is the golden goal”; Christianity has no message for the idler.[101]

For Ruth, with respect to amusements, three things are certainly clear:

(1) We must avoid unnecessary association with evil;

(2) We must guard against excess even of legitimate pleasures; and

(3) We must make amusements our ministers not our masters.[102]

Ruth cautions against churches entering into competition with commercial amusements, citing the example of Charles Sheldon (of “What would Jesus do” fame).  But he suggests that

Christian people might capture the passion [afforded by such amusements] and purify it, by demanding the best, by supporting the best, by praying for amusement caterers as for other servants of the public.  But here again the impact of the Christian appeal is to the individual.  The salvation of the city depends on the salvation of the soul, and the service of the citizen.[103]

A final word on Christian social action

In chapter 18, “Why can’t we cast out devils?” Ruth ends his series of “Studies” on a sombre note, reminding the church of its faithlessness and impotence in the face of impending moral crisis and urgent social need.  He reminds his audience that, immediately after the glorious transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17:1-13), Jesus finds his disciples perplexed at their inability to cast a demon out of an epileptic boy (vv 14-21), and explains that their failure was the result of unbelief.

Ruth casts much of the conduct of today’s individuals, communities and nations as analogous to the madness of the demon-possessed boy, and suggests that the world is oppressed by the “evil spirits” of selfism, sensualism, scepticism, and superstition – and that, despite its nature and mission as “salt” and “light” (Matthew 5:13-16), the church appears powerless to heal such moral sicknesses.[104]

The only remedy for the church is regeneration;[105] “a mighty revival of faith” in God, in man, in the gospel of saving grace, in Jesus Christ, in Christianity, in the Holy Spirit, and in the “unseen” (by which Ruth may have meant the spiritual or eternal in contrast to the physical or temporal); and “a mighty revival of faith in one another.”[106]

Ruth concludes the chapter, and the book, with these words:

Let us partake of [our Lord’s] passion, that He may cast out from us our own selfishness, our own sensualism, our own scepticism, our own superstition, and so possess us, that in us, through us, by us, He may cast out the evils that destroy the men He loves and that ruin the world for which He died.[107]

Conclusion

The Reverend T.E. Ruth was a significant Baptist minister in England and Australia.  He was a talented preacher and a passionate writer.  His large contribution to Australian society as a Christian minister, a public theologian and a social activist – evident in part through the lens of The Common Weal – deserves greater recognition and attention.  His strong opposition to alcohol and gambling might have been tempered by greater attention to other social problems of the time.

Yet Ruth is an exemplar of what can be achieved by a person who embraces what Walter B. Shurden has called the “four fragile freedoms” precious to Baptists around the world: freedom to study and obey the Bible; freedom to relate to God without the interference of creed, clergy or civil government; freedom for the local church to order its own ministry and mission; and freedom of religion.[108]

Like Shurden, Ruth would also have wanted his various audiences to balance the freedoms they embraced with an equivalent sense of responsibility for the world they inhabited.  At his memorial service in the Pitt Street Congregational Church in 1956, the Rev A.P. Campbell said of him, “T.E. Ruth with his voice and his pen stood boldly as an advocate of civil and religious liberty.”[109]  He was, in his own words, a “superman of the southern cross.”

There is a place in Australian Baptist life for more women and men of similar passion and gifting today.

Rev Rod Benson is an ordained Baptist minister. He is Ethicist and Public Theologian with the Tinsley Institute, Morling College, Sydney.


[1] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal: Eighteen Studies in Social Subjects (Sydney: ABPH, 1918).

[2] On Atkinson see Warren Osmond, “Atkinson, Meredith (1883 – 1929),” Australian Dictionary of Biography (Volume 7; Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1979), pp 121-122, available at http://www.adb.online.anu.edu.au/biogs/A070126b.htm, found on 16 Sep 2007.

[3] Sandra Thwaites, “Rev T.E. Ruth, a city preacher in a time of war and after,” Our Yesterdays 4, 1996, p. 25.

[4] The Australian Baptist, 29 Sep 1914, p. 16.

[5] John Garrett, “Ruth, Thomas Elias (1875 – 1956)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography (Volume 11; Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1988), pp 485-486; available at http://www.adb.online.anu.edu.au/biogs/A110496b.htm, found 16 Sep 2007.

[6] Garret, “Ruth, Thomas Elias (1875 – 1956)”, p. 485.

[7] Ken R. Manley, From Woolloomooloo to ‘Eternity’: A History of Australian Baptists.  Volume 2: A National Church in a Global Community (1914-2005) (Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2006), p. 506.

[8] A collection of the papers of Herbert (1867-1963) and Ivy Brookes (1883-1970) contains their correspondence with Rev T.E. Ruth from 1923 until 1956, and a collection of Ruth’s writings comprising typescript copies of sermons, pamphlets issued by the Loyalist League of Victoria, and cuttings of his articles in the press. See National Library of Australia MS 1924, http://nla.gov.au/nla.ms-ms1924, n.d., found on 16 Sep 2007.

[9] Thwaites, “T.E. Ruth,” p. 33.

[10] Ken R. Manley, From Woolloomooloo to ‘Eternity’: A History of Australian Baptists.  Volume 1: Growing an Australian Church (1831-1914) (Milton Keynes: Paternoster Press, 2006), p. 228.

[11] Ken R. Manley, From Woolloomooloo (Vol. 2), p. 416.

[12] William Lamb, Purgatory and Prayers for the Dead: An Examination of the Teaching in Rev. T.E. Ruth’s Book, Wake Up Australia! (Sydney: Australian Baptist Publishing House, 1918), p. 46 inter alia.

[13] Ken R. Manley, From Woolloomooloo (vol. 2), p. 416.

[14] M. McKernan, Australians in Wartime: Commentary and Documents (Melbourne: Nelson, 1980), pp. 26-27; originally published in The Australian Christian World, 15 Jan 1915.

[15] Garrett, “Ruth, Thomas Elias (1875 – 1956)”, p. 486.

[16] Thwaites, “T.E. Ruth,” pp. 19, 27-31.

[17] Manley, From Woolloomooloo (vol. 2), pp. 436-437.

[18] “Author’s Note,” front material of book.

[19] London/New York: Macmillan, 1900.

[20] London: Culley, 1907.

[21] London: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1896.

[22] London: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1902.

[23] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 7.

[24] Chapter titled, “The social significance of the kingdom,” in T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 2, 7.

[25] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 8.

[26] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 4.

[27] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 7.

[28] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 11.

[29] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 11-12.

[30] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 14-15.

[31] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 15.

[32] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 16.

[33] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 17.

[34] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 23.

[35] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 26.

[36] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 24.

[37] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 27.

[38] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 32-33.

[39] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 34.

[40] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 39.

[41] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 39.

[42] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 40.

[43] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 37, 43.

[44] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 42.

[45] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 44.

[46] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 47.

[47] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 45-46, 49.

[48] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 48-49.

[49] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 48.

[50] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 49.

[51] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 50.

[52] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 51.

[53] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 52.

[54] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 55.

[55] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 55.

[56] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 56.

[57] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 57-58.

[58] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 58.

[59] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 58.

[60] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 60.

[61] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 61.

[62] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 61-62.

[63] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 67-68.

[64] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 72.

[65] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 74.

[66] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 74.

[67] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 70.

[68] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 75.

[69] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 75.

[70] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 76-77.

[71] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 81.

[72] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 78.

[73] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 82.

[74] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 84-91.

[75] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 93.

[76] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 93-94.

[77] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 95.

[78] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 99.

[79] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 103-104.

[80] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 105, 108.

[81] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 107.

[82] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 109.

[83] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 107.

[84] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 111.

[85] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 113.

[86] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 114.

[87] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 115.

[88] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 115, 116.

[89] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 116.

[90] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 117.

[91] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 120-121.

[92] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 122.

[93] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 124.

[94] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 125-126.

[95] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 127.

[96] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 127.

[97] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 129.

[98] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 128-129.

[99] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 131.

[100] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 132.

[101] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 135.

[102] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 137.

[103] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 140.

[104] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, pp. 143-145.

[105] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 146.

[106] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 149.

[107] T.E. Ruth, The Common Weal, p. 150.

[108] Walter B. Shurden, The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 1993).

[109] The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Apr 1956.

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