Monday, February 26, 2024

I am praying for your death

’The newspapers are attacking me more furiously than ever, for my speech on the 14th, and I have a swarm of abusive letters. One good lady says: “I am praying for your death; I have been very successful in two other cases.” The whole nation seems to be mad with rage and hatred. Nevertheless, on reading my speech again, I think it was rather unwise and provocative.’ This is from a diary kept by William Ralph Inge - who died 70 years ago today - during his time as Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral. He was a prolific author (being nominated three times for a Nobel Prize), and a very popular - if sometimes controversial - speaker.

Inge was born in 1860 in Crayke, Yorkshire, where his father, Rev. William Inge was then curate. He was educated at Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge, where his academic brilliance was evident early on. He worked as an assistant master at Eton from 1884 to 1888, and also a Fellow of King’s College. He was ordained deacon in 1888, and priest in 1892. In 1905, he married Mary Spooner and they had five children.

Inge was a prolific author of articles, lectures, sermons and books. His writing spanned a wide array of subjects, including theology, philosophy, history, and social criticism, earning him the nickname ‘The Gloomy Dean’ due to his pessimistic views on modern civilisation and technology’s impact on society. He is probably best known for his works on Plotinus and neoplatonic philosophy, and on Christian mysticism. He was also a columnist for the Evening Standard for many years, finishing in 1946. 

In 1907, Inge moved to Jesus College, Cambridge, on being appointed Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity. However, in 1911, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith appointed him Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, a position he retained until his retirement in 1934. There he became a celebrated preacher - being often outspoken and provocative - who drew large congregations to the cathedral. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature three times; and he was awarded the Order of Merit in 1934, recognising his contributions to literature and philosophy. He died on 26 February 1954. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, and

Inge kept a diary during his time as Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, which Macmillan published in 1950 as Diary of a Dean St Paul’s 1911-1934. This can be digitally borrowed from Internet Archive. Here is Inge’s own explanation for the book’s raison d’ĂȘtre.

‘When I resigned my office in 1934, Messrs. Longman published for me a small book of reminiscences called Vale, which I meant to be my ‘farewell’ to my public. The book was destroyed by enemy action, and several friends have expressed a wish that I would leave some recollection of my life at St. Paul’s. There have been threats that otherwise someone else might seek to draw my frailties from their dead abode, though I begged my family not to allow anything like a memoir to be compiled after my death, apart from the biographical notice which the British Academy prints of its deceased members. I had no suspicion, in 1934, that 1 should still be cumbering the ground fifteen years after my retirement, or I should have known that the cacoethes scribendi, the penman’s itch, is not to be resisted as long as publishers and readers are kind.

It was a strange experiment for a Prime Minister to uproot a shy scholar from his study table, and plunge him into the turmoil of London life. For I have no social gifts. I have inherited from my mother’s family, the Churtons, the faculty of being silent in several languages. I have been further handicapped by slowly increasing deafness, and by a ridiculous inability to remember faces. I have failed to recognise at least three duchesses, and a score of less exalted people. By rights I should have ended my days in college rooms, the world forgetting, by the world forgot. But I am glad to have escaped this fate. It was owing to my dear wife, who was greatly beloved in London, and had a singular power of winning the affection of all who knew her, that we were received into a circle of distinguished and wholly delightful friends, through whom we met many of the leading men and women in the national life.’

Here are several extracts from Inge’s diary.

18 April 1911
‘By the second post arrived a letter of great importance. Asquith tells me that he has the King’s consent to offer me the Deanery of St. Paul’s, vacant by the resignation of Dr. Gregory. I showed the letter to Kitty, and at first we could hardly believe it. I wrote to the Prime Minister to say that I felt rather overwhelmed by so unexpected an honour, and that I should like to consult the Archbishop of Canterbury before making up my mind. I did so, but I had really decided to accept. If the Prime Minister singles out a man who has never stirred a finger for preferment, who has no friends in high places and is not a political supporter, he must think that the choice is right. I ought not to refuse to go where I am sent. Kitty’s parents are in favour of my acceptance. My father-in-law said, “If you have no better reason for refusing than that you would rather live at Cambridge, it is your duty to accept.” ’

3 May 1911
‘I went to London and attended a party at Lambeth. The Archbishop and Mrs. Davidson were most kind. It was not altogether a pleasant beginning of my new work. I was incommoded financially by having to pay one-third of my stipend as pension. My nonagenarian predecessor had taken all the Dean’s appointments for the year in the first four months, so that I had no patronage of preachers till the end of the year. Worse still, he had refused to resign unless he was allowed to occupy the Deanery house till his death. This was a most improper arrangement, which not only put me to the greatest inconvenience, but made it very difficult for me to do my work properly. I went to a hotel; my wife and family remained at Cambridge.

In other ways the prospect seemed equally discouraging. Canon Pearce, afterwards Bishop of Worcester, said, “You have not even a casting vote. No one who is not an Anglo-Catholic has a chance of being appointed to a Chapter living.” I talked to the Archdeacon of London (Sinclair) about one or two things that I hoped to do. He said, “As long as Alexander and Newbolt are both here you are not going to be allowed to do anything.” These two men remained at St. Paul’s till near the end of my time there: one of them indeed much longer.

It is not generally known that Cathedral statutes differ widely. The older statutes give the Dean no independent power; those of the Reformation period give him a great deal. My friend Henson as Dean of Durham was under the statutes of Mary Tudor. He developed quite an affection for Bloody Mary, who would have made short work of him. I explained to Mr. Baldwin that at St. Paul’s the Chapter and not the Dean is what is called the Ordinary. “My dear Dean,” he replied, “nobody could suspect you of being the Ordinary.” I should not advise any man who loves power to accept the Deanery of St. Paul’s. The Dean is like a mouse watched by four cats.’

27 May 1911
‘I dined with the Prime Minister - a very mixed party, from royalties to journalists. Near me were Sir George Lewis the famous solicitor, and Sir John Hare the actor.’

10 June 1911
‘To Windsor, to preach before the King and Queen. I was met by a royal carriage drawn by two white horses, and by an enormous omnibus to carry my handbag. Two magnificent gentlemen escorted me to my apartments. The sitting-room contained portraits of Gladstone, Disraeli, Melbourne and other statesmen. In the evening a ‘page’, a splendid elderly personage, came to fetch me to the Red Drawing Room, where I was introduced to Lord Knollys, Lady Mary Trefusis, Lady Ampthill, and two pretty maids of honour. Then Their Majesties were announced. I took in Lady Ampthill, with the Queen on my left. The Queen, I heard afterwards, said, “What shall I talk about to this learned man?” and she said very little. I ought to have made conversation, though I had been told that it is not etiquette. The King afterwards talked to me mainly about his French tutor Hua, whom I remember as an Eton master. I do not know what they thought of my sermon next day, but they were very gracious to me.’ 

13 February 1912
‘I took the Chair at a meeting of the Sociological Society, where Dr. Saleeby read a paper on Eugenics. All through my time as Dean I took an active interest in Eugenics. I was a friend of Sir Francis Galton until his death. Vital statistics were an old hobby of mine, and I studied the population question in all its branches. After many years on the Council of the Eugenics Society I thought they were becoming too environmental, interested, in Galton’s phrase, in nurture rather than nature; and when they appointed Sir William Beveridge to give the Galton Lecture, I resigned my membership. To subsidise the teeming birth-rate of the slums is not the way to improve the quality of the population.’

19 April 1912
‘A great service for the victims of the Titanic. We were told that thousands were unable to get in.’

12 April 1917
‘I dined with the ‘Pilgrims’, invited by Sir Rider Haggard. I met Sir Charles Parsons, General Smuts, Lord d’Abernon, H. G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Page, the American Ambassador, made a fine speech.’ 

7 July 1917
‘We were warned of an approaching raid. During the Second Lesson people began to leave the church, and soon there was a series of tremendous explosions close at hand. The boys sang the anthem most pluckily. The Central Telegraph Office, 150 yards from the cathedral, was wrecked. I went round to the Choir House to thank the boys for their courage.’

30 November 1917
‘I lunched with Lady Vera Herbert, whose house is full of packing-cases for our prisoners in Germany.’

14 December 1917
‘A Meeting of the ‘League for promoting International Friendship through the Churches’. I took the opportunity to tell them some unpopular truths. “We cherish three impossible hopes: (1) that we can destroy German militarism. We cannot; they will only live for revenge. (2) A restoration of the balance of power. This means a mad competition in armaments and the suicide of Europe. (3) That we can force Germany to adopt our democratic system. They do not want government by mass-bribery, and will prefer a military dictatorship.” I do not want to be unduly discouraging. There is a real horror of war among the peoples; but in spite of the proverb it takes only one to make a quarrel.’

17 December 1917
‘The newspapers are attacking me more furiously than ever, for my speech on the 14th, and I have a swarm of abusive letters. One good lady says: “I am praying for your death; I have been very successful in two other cases.” The whole nation seems to be mad with rage and hatred. Nevertheless, on reading my speech again, I think it was rather unwise and provocative.’

31 December 1917
‘So ends another year of protracted nightmare. Whatever is the end of the war, Europe is ruined for my lifetime and longer. Nearly one-fifth of the upper and middle class of military age - the public school and university men, from whom the officers arc chosen, are dead, and there is no rift in the clouds anywhere. Our people, slow and reluctant to enter the war, are now mad with rage and hatred, and will sacrifice anything rather than make terms with the enemy. It is indeed a terrible time.’

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