t a key point in the narrative for Tom — that boisterous, good-hearted, popular, athletic young boy — he has to make a decision what to do when Arthur, the younger boy he has taken under his wing, kneels down to pray. In the writing that follows, Hughes sounds strikingly like the writer of an evangelical tract. First of all, he directly addresses his readers as "my dear boys," thus identifying his intended audience — all adolescent and younger boys, and only boys — and then he emphasizes what he takes to be an improvement in the spiritual condition of the country: "It was no light act of courage in those days, my dear boys, for a little fellow to say his prayers publicly, even at Rugby. A few years later, when Arnold's manly piety had begun to leaven the School, the tables turned; before he died, in the School-house at least, and I believe in the other house, the rule was the other way." So under the leadership of the great Thomas Arnold, whom both Thomas Hughes and Tom Brown regard as a hero, pubic displays of faith by young boys have become both acceptable and even expected.
"But poor Tom," we read, "had come to school in other times," in times when such acts of devotion met with ridicule and with accusations that the one praying was a Methodist (and Methodists, we must remind ourselves, were generally members of the lower classes and not people one would expect to attend a public school). Observing the saintly Arthur's unself-conscious public prayer, Tom finds himself embarrassed to recall they he also had came to school after praying the same way at home.
The first few nights after he came he did not kneel down because of the noise, but sat up in bed till the candle was out, and then stole out and said his prayers, in fear lest some one should find him out. So did many another poor little fellow. Then he began to think that he might just as well say his prayers in bed, and then that it didn't matter whether he was kneeling, or sitting, or lying down. And so it had come to pass with Tom, as with all who will not confess their Lord before men; and for the last year he had probably not said his prayers in earnest a dozen times.
Tom's "first and bitterest feeling which was like to break his heart was the sense of his own cowardice," for he finds himself forced to admit himself guilty of the one vice "he most loathed." Then continuing this catalogue of vices, he realizes that he "had lied to his mother, to his conscience, to his God" while Arthur, "the poor little weak boy, whom he had pitied and almost scorned for his weakness, had done that which he, braggart as he was, dared not do." Hughes then provides his audience with a list of things they, like Tom, can do to make up for spiritual cowardice. First, Tom makes a promise to himself that he will stand by Arthur "through thick and thin, and cheer him, and help him, and bear his burdens for the good deed done that night." Next he resolves "to write home next day and tell his mother all, and what a coward her son had been." Finally, he decides that the next morning he will pray in the presence of those who will mock him.
Several times he faltered, for the devil showed him first all his old friends calling him "Saint" and "Square-toes," and a dozen hard names, and whispered to him that his motives would be misunderstood, and he would only be left alone with the new boy; whereas it was his duty to keep all means of influence, that he might do good to the largest number. And then came the more subtle temptation, "Shall I not be showing myself braver than others by doing this? Have I any right to begin it now? Ought I not rather to pray in my own study, letting other boys know that I do so, and trying to lead them to it, while in public at least I should go on as I have done?" However, his good angel was too strong that night, and he turned on his side and slept, tired of trying to reason, but resolved to follow the impulse which had been so strong, and in which he had found peace.
This episode in the novel reminds us of several important points. First, Broad Churchmen like Arnold, or proponents of so-called Muscular Christianity like Hughes often had a lot more in common with evangelicals than they often admitted. Second, Hughes here associates Christianity with true heroism and gentlemanliness, thus arguing that it forms a central part of the character most of his boy-readers would want to have and not something eccentric or associated with social outcasts.
Hughes, Thomas. Tom Brown's Schooldays. Electronic version from Project Gutenberg produced by Gil Jaysmith and David Widger.
Last modified 26 June 2006