When I was a child, I spake as a child. I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." — 1 Corinthians, xii.11
In an untitled sermon Thomas Arnold preached at Rugby on Ash Wednesday to the text of Corinthians quoted above, he connects the Bible to the lives and experiences of the boys and young men before him, and he does so in a characteristically direct, uncomplicated, unpretentious manner. This particular sermon, which matches those mentioned in Tom Brown's Schooldays, has a point of particular biographical interest: it directly responds to the kind of discouraging situation he described in a letter to his friend, Sir T. Pasley — a situation Arnold found so troubling that, as he told his friend, it "makes me always unwilling to undergo the responsibility of advising any man to send his son to a public school" (Stanley, I, 181). The great headmaster explained that "there has been a system of persecution carried on by the bad against the good, and then, when complaint was made to me, there came fresh persecution on that very account; and divers instances of boys joining in it out of pure cowardice, both physical and moral, when if left to themselves they would have rather shunned it" (I, 181). Arnold's comments later in the letter make clear that he was as much disturbed by the moral cowardice of the better students who went along with the mob as he was by the specific acts of the ring-leaders.
Here, then, is Arnold's response to this kind of situation (we cannot be sure he was responding to the same situation described in the letter to Pasley since it appears undated in Stanley). He begins by reminding his listeners of previous week's reading — "the story of Adam eating the forbidden fruit, and being on that account driven out of paradise" (p. 43).
This story tells us how the first man that ever lived became a sinner: and we know, if we look into our own hearts with any care and sincerity, that we shall find enough that is sinful in ourselves. That this is so generally, — that bad, if left to itself, is too strong for good, and that the greatest number are apt to follow the bad rather than the good, — men learn every year of their lives more fully, by their experience of the world around them; but you too have had some experience of it already.
Several of you are only just come to this place; some of you were never at any school at all till you came here. Some of you, at least, and I hope very many, have had the blessing of good parents at home; you have been taught to hear of God, and of Christ, to say your prayers, and to remember that wherever you are, and whatever you are doing. God ever sees you. You have seen in your own house nothing base, nothing cruel, nothing ill-natured, and especially, nothing false. You thought a lie was one of the most hateful things in the world; wad that to give up to your brothers and sisters, and to please your parents, was a great deal better than to be always quarrelling and envying, and to think of pleasing no one but yourselves. I hope and believe that many of you, before you came to school, were thus taught, and that the teaching was not in vain; that you not only heard of what was good, but, on the whole, practised it.
But how is it with you now? I am afraid that I dare not ask those who have been here so much as one half year or more: but even if I were to ask those who have not yet been here so much as one month, what sort of an answer could you give, if you answered truly? Do you think of God now? Do you remember that he ever, and in every place, sees what you are doing? Do you say your prayers to him? Do you still think that lying, and all those shuffling, dishonest excuses, which are as bad as lying, are base, and contemptible, and wicked? — or have you heard these things so often from others, even if you yourselves have not been guilty of them, that you think th ere cannot be any great harm in them? Do you still love to be kind to your companions, never teasing or ill-treating them, and never being ill-natured and out of temper with them? — or have you already been accustomed to the devilish plea- sure of giving pain to others: and whilst you are yourselves teased and ill used by some who are stronger than you, do you repeat the very same conduct to those who are weaker than you ? Are you still anxious to please your parents; and, in saying your lessons, do you still retain the natural thought of a well-bred and noble disposition, that you would like to say them as welL as you can, and to please those who teach you? — or have you already learnt the first lesson in the devil's school, to laugh at what is good, and generous, and high-principled, and to be ashamed of doing your duty?
Now if you have been wholly or in part corrupted in these points, within one short month, so that the good learnt in ten or twelve years has been overthrown in less than thirty days; — and if this has happened riot to one or two only, who might happen to be weak, and easily led into evil, but, more or less, to all of you, and, in a greater degree, generally speaking, to those who have been here for a longer period ; if, in short, you all find that you would be afraid to speak and act just as you ought to do, because you would be laughed at and disliked if you did; — then you have already had some experience of the truth of what the Bible tells us, that man's, nature is corrupt and bad; and yon can understand somewhat of the meaning of those texts which speak of the world as being opposed to God, and that its friendship is enmity with God. It shows you plainly, how strong must be our evil dispositions, when you see them, in so short a time, getting the better of those that have had ten or twelve years to ripen; it shows you, too, how much the world is opposed to God; that is, the opinions and practices of a number of persons, living together in one society, — because you see a number of boys, who, while living at home, or by themselves, might go on very well, and think and act very rightly, yet, as soon as they mix with one another, and form one large body, the opinions and influence of that body shall be bad. Every boy brings some good with him, at least, from home, as well as some evil; and yet you see how very much more catching the evil is than the good, or else you would make one another better by mixing together; and if any single boy did anything wrong, it would be condemned by the general opinion of all the school, just as some wrong things, such as stealing money, for example, are condemned at present. You have learnt, then, or at least, you have had the experience, and may have learnt, if you chose, how easily you are tempted to do wrong, and how apt the world is to tempt you: for, as I said before, the society in which we live is the world ; and, therefore, school is the world to you, just as our town and neighbourhood and acquaintance, and all those who hear or know any thing about us, are the world to each of us in after life. [pp. 44-47; paragraph breaks added; this section of Arnold's text has none.]
Arnold, Thomas. Sermons with an Essay on the Right Interpretation and Understanding of the Scriptures. 3rd ed. 3 vols. London: B. Fellowes, 1844.
Stanley, Arthur Penrhyn. The life and correspondence of Thomas Arnold, D.D., late head-master of Rugby school, and regius professor of modern history in the University of Oxford. 4th ed. 2 vols. London: B. Fellowes, 1845.
Last modified 4 August 2006