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Carpenter's Writings

Rev. Edward Carpenter Sermon from 1872: On The International League

Transcribed and Edited By Rev. John Peirce


The Rev. John Peirce delivering the Rev. Edward Carpenter's sermon, On the Internationl League, in St Edward's Church, Cambridge, England. The delivery was part of the Forum's day long event, Edward Carpenter's Cambridge, in September 2009.
In making this typescript I have worked from the manuscript, written in his own hand, by Edward Carpenter.  The original of the sermon is held by Sheffield Archives and was taken from their micro-fische copy.

Carpenter’s use of punctuation is not as we would use it today.  Wherever possible I have used his punctuation as written.  This appears to us to lead to some overlong sentences and paragraphs, especially given that this was written originally for public delivery as a church sermon.

 The original uses both “and” and “&”, seemingly indiscriminately: I have endeavoured to copy accurately.

 There are a number of places where Carpenter corrects his own text.  I have not shown words crossed out but I have shown what appears to be his final, corrected version.

 The sermon as typed consists of 2925 words.

 Most of Carpenter’s extant sermons are marked with the date and place of their preaching.  Sadly this sermon lacks these details, though it has been subsequently marked “Nov 72?” and across the fly page “On the International League”.  At a few points in the latter part of the sermon Carpenter has given both future and past tenses with reference to some lectures given by the Professor of Political Economy.  I have shown these in square brackets with a passing note.  I can only assume that the address was delivered twice i.e. before and after the lectures quoted.  Several of his other sermons in the archive have been given 2 or more dates and places of delivery.

There are 14 sermons in the archive.  Given that Carpenter was curate for only 2 years or so at St Edward’s Church Cambridge before resigning his post, these may represent the totality of the sermons he wrote and preached.  It is remarkable that Carpenter kept them for the rest of his life (in spite of his dis-affection for the church) and that they have survived for us to read in the 21st century.



Adapted in 2009 by the Rev. John Peirce for The Edward Carpenter Forum



   And he stretched forth his hands towards his disciples and said, “Behold my mother and my brethren”. Matt.xii.49

It is curious that while the Christian world has always studied with so much care, and often indeed with such petty scrupulousness, all the details of private and personal conduct, it has so seldom given itself to the consideration of those broad social duties which true religion ought to make equally binding.

In all ages men have sought the approval of God by careful regulation of their own actions, by stated prayers or by ordered observances.  So - by filling their minds with what was after all nothing but self and a selfish religion – they have never so much as thought of the millions of their fellow creatures, who - spending their lives in misery, servitude and ignorance – who were not benefitted one whit by the ceremonious pastimes of their superiors and to whom - across all their years of darkness - the sound of the gorgeous voice of charity never came.

Curious is it, I say, because Christ himself taught such a different lesson.  He surely lived in the contemplation of a new era and a new order of social life.  He looked forward to a kingdom of heaven - shortly to be established on earth - in which the many and exclusive classes of men should be no more: where the intellectual should no longer sneer at the Religious or the Religious fold his skirt as he passed the practical man of the world or the worldly turn his ears for ever from the cry of the suffering or the poor for ever hate the powerful.  He looked for the kingdom of brotherhood and charity.  By such familiar parables as the Good Samaritan or Lazarus and Dives he taught it.  By a whole life spent among the degraded and ignorant he worked for it.  Yet this is only one out of many ways in which, calling itself Christian, the world has misunderstood and falsified the teaching of the most divine of men.

Let us look at our own day and country. What is about the only conception of social duty that we have?  Shall I say it? – It has been said before: To get on. It is true that a man may be a model in his own home life.  It is true that the English are not wanting in domestic virtues.  He may even thrust his hand into his pocket for the benefit of some charity; but once he has shut the door of his house behind him the one thought that oppresses him as he treads the crowded streets, chafing at the workman that thrusts him off the footpath or pushing contemptuously aside the ragged child that stands in his way is: “How shall I get on?”.  All the mass of humanity is nothing to him except as a beast of burden to carry him one step forward in the career that he has marked out for himself.

When I say “to get on” I do not mean it in the sense of making money merely (though we are a money getting people).  There are other ways of getting on to which we are even more addicted than this.

There are other modes of course of getting on in social matters – such as by gaining reputation or power.  But what I mean in all these things is this: that each person who acts so has it furthest of all from his thoughts that he owes any duty to society.  His only conception of society is as a thing on which to trample in order to make his way to the highest point possible, while he takes care not to trouble himself with the thought of what harm and misery he may bring about in doing so.

No one of course could think it wrong to make money or to seek the best companionship; but surely it is a deep wrong when his whole theory is to live as much as possible on the work of others, to get the most out of his fellow creatures and give as little in return as he with safety can.

Let us see a moment how the balance of indebtedness stands.  We know very well that the food we eat has been obtained by the work of other men; the clothes we wear, the books we read, all the means of daily life are the results of the labour of thousands and thousands of people whom we have never seen.  What are we going to do them, each one of us, in return for all these benefits?  You say we give money in exchange, but surely that is a poor kind of return: men cannot feed on money; they cannot clothe themselves with money; it does no good to mankind in general, it is after all only a counter which one man happens to have and which enables him to get a large share of the goods of the world by depriving somebody else of them.

To put the question in another light:  There is no great store of bread and cheese put by by our ancestors for our especial use but the quantity of all the things we want, depends simply and solely on the number of people who labour for them.  It is easy to see therefore that if only half the population works - while the rest live out their lives in idleness - there will be precisely half as many good things to be divided as there would be if the whole population worked.  And that not only will workers and non-workers both in consequence be twice as badly off - but that the non-workers or idle people will be simply living on the labour of those whom with an elegant contempt they term “the lower classes”.

Manifestly then there is one duty – which every member of society owes to society – to devote some of his work to it.  Seeing that he receives so much at the hands of others, he cannot without shame & ignominy refuse to do his best in return.

Let us then consider how, it being established that we owe a debt to society, we ought to pay that debt.  It would of course be absurd to suppose that everyman ought to give some part of his time to making bread or boots.  On the contrary bakers and bootmakers would probably reject, such assistance!  Each man owes a duty to society according to the station in which he is placed, the education he has received and the work of which he is capable.  And it is much if a man only recognise that he has such a duty; for then his profession becomes, beside a means of advancement to himself, a means of good to his fellow men.  If the legal profession, a means of providing  justice; if the medical profession, a means of alleviating suffering; if mercantile a means of contributing to national prosperity.  If the barrister held the true rendering of justice, or the merchant the prosperity of his nation to be one of the objects for which he was striving, as well as his own aggrandisement, see what a true service would be done to the country: how many a wrong would be righted, how much suffering avoided!  And so each one of us by using his profession rightly may do something toward the payment of the debt that he owes & everyone may find something which directly or indirectly may serve to that end, even if it be only the education of himself now for whatever post he may be called upon to fill hereafter.

Let us take the example of a wealthy country gentleman.  See what an immense deal he can do by his influence in his village neighbourhood.  He can do much by merely setting an example of a higher kind of life & of the true humanity of manners which makes the gentleman.  But he can do more: he can take an interest in matters which concern the welfare of the community & by real goodwill on his part call forth the good feeling amongst all classes around him.  He can as magistrate assist the administration of justice and as landlord improve the condition of his poorer labourers, their dwelling houses & their education.  Yet how many there are who never dream of this: to whom it never occurs that if they fulfilled it all they would only be rendering back some small return to the people by whose labour their sumptuous houses are supported; who if they are magistrates become so out of necessity or for their own convenience than out of any sense of general good or if they improve their cottages do it merely to prevent their tumbling down.  Happily there are many brilliant exceptions, especially in England, still it is a matter worth thinking of.

What are the opinions of those classes of whom I have been speaking – who sometimes no doubt suffer from the want of consideration of the more wealthy.  Do they complain?  Do they think themselves maltreated?  When they see walking about the streets vast numbers of young men who have but one idea & that to be dressed correctly do they think it on the whole a very pretty sight or do they think it an expensive amusement, and one to be got rid of as quickly as possible?

I do not say that these so called “working classes” are always right in their judgement: I believe they are very often wrong.  They are no doubt often deceived by the outward flourish and think that because a man lives in a comfortable house & is well clothed he cannot be well employed, thus overlooking an immense amount of work done by the educated and affluent classes. They often, no doubt in a hasty and ill directed judgement, confuse the good & the ill.  Still it may be worth our while to find out their opinion and whether they consider themselves injured or not.  If they do we cannot conceal from ourselves that it becomes not only worth our while, but a matter of extreme importance to us to know it.

If we have hoodwinked this huge human creature and made it our beast of burden – what if it one day it come to know this and shrug up its back and shake us into the dirt?....For this people is many & ignorant & passionate, confusing the good & evil together.  Though often gentle in its own home, not very gentle when it rises as an angry flood to sweep away all alike: the elegant theories & deliberate effronteries of its oppressors and the carefully wrought schemes & the wise experience of its well wishers.  It is not very discriminating then, in those moments of passionate revolution.  It ought to be one of our most earnest endeavours by sincerity and not by deceit; by considerateness and not by contempt; by open discussion and not by concealment; by sympathy and above all by the steadfast fulfilment of social duty, to keep the very possibility of such moments for ever afar from our shores.

Those who have been to the lectures of the Professor of Political Economy this term will have heard an answer to the question we are asking.  The subject was “Modern Socialism”.  The classes of whom we were speaking have not only felt and protested against the injustice which the idleness and luxury of large numbers of the wealthy impose upon them; they have not only declared the need of a regeneration & reform of society, but they have organised themselves, as you probably all know, into a vast and international union for the especial purpose of devising such reforms and of forwarding, compelling if need be, their adoption.

It may easily be imagined that their schemes, formed hastily & under a sense of wrong, are in many respects crude and indeed impracticable.  Yet we cannot but admire the nobility of mind which dictates such maxims as ‘The Brotherhood of Nations’ and ‘the Abolition of all Standing Armies’ – impracticable for the present though they may remain.

The Professor of Political Economy has been lecturing on this subject with the view of discussing these very schemes, of criticising them in a friendly spirit, pointing out where they fail & approving them if likely to be beneficial.  In so doing he is no doubt working in the very best way possible to avert what may be one of the very greatest dangers of our age, the sudden & untimely revolution of European society.

For ourselves, while we seek to throw out all these questions into the broad light of truth – if we have been wrong, to confess it; if the others, to show it – Let us above all beware of ascribing to these men, though we may differ from them, evil motives.  There is enough ill feeling already between class & class in England.  In our narrowness of mind we have too often forgotten that we are all human & liable to err: all human & capable of being loved.

Let us once more go back to Christ & his teaching: for though we have wrangled & fought about it for centuries & written books about it and thought ourselves withal very wise, I do not think we have ever yet got beyond it.

Society in his time, as in ours, was split up into its thousand classes, its religious, its fashionable, its philosophising, its indifferent, its powerful, its wealthy, its poverty stricken.  It was his endeavour, out of the narrowness of these conflicting sects to disentangle & bring forward the broad ground of our humanity – its wants and aspirations, its rights & duties, its strength & weakness, and to unite men in the brotherhood of a society thus divine because human, - a kingdom of heaven, because no longer a kingdom of this world’s selfishness & sneering.

In the present day, though we have other ways of life, other & more scientific views of it, the hard facts remain.

Class feeling, class exclusiveness, is one of the great curses of England, the drag on progress, the foe of that ideal state of society for which we look.

We have talked for centuries about our rights: let us go & fulfil the duties that we have not spoken of.


This sermon is reproduced by the kind permission of Sheffield City Archives; Carpenter Collection MSS 2-1