My first acquaintance with it as I remember, was in a Methodist chapel in Staffordshire, England, where three small boys, including myself, prisoned in an old-fashioned high-back pew, were endeavouring to relieve the apparently endless ennui of the service by eating surreptitious apples. Suddenly upon our three young heads descended what seemed like a heavy block of wood, wielded by an ancient deacon who did not approve of boys. We were, each of us, no more than eight years old, and the book which had thus descended upon our heads was nothing more to us than a very weighty book—to be dodged if possible, for we were still in that happy time of life when we hated all books. We knew nothing of its contents—to us it was only a schoolmaster’s cane, beating us into silence and good behaviour.
So the Bible has been for many generations of boys a book even more terrible than Caesar’s Commentaries or the Aeneid of Virgil—the dull thud of a mysterious cudgel upon the shoulders of youth which you bore as courageously as you could.
So many of us grew up with what one might call a natural prejudice against the Bible.
Then some of us who cared for literature took it up casually and found its poetic beauty. We read the Book of Job—which, by the way, Mr. Swinburne is said to have known by heart; and as we read it even the stars themselves seemed less wonderful than this description of their marvel and mystery:
Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades or loose the hands of Orion?
Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his season? or canst thou guide Arcturus with his sons?
Or we read in the 37th chapter of the Book of Ezekiel of that weird valley that was full of bones—“and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together bone to bone,” surely one of the most wonderful visions of the imagination in all literature.
Or we read the marvellous denunciatory rhetoric of Jeremiah and Isaiah, or the music of the melodious heart-strings of King David; we read the solemn adjuration of the “King Ecclesiast” to remember our Creator in the days of our youth, with its haunting picture of old age: and the loveliness of The Song of Songs passed into our lives forever.
To this purely literary love of the Bible there has been added within the last few years a certain renewed regard for it as the profoundest book of the soul, and for some minds not conventionally religious it has regained even some of its old authority as a spiritual guide and stay. And I will confess for myself that sometimes, as I fall asleep at night, I wonder if even Bernard Shaw has written anything to equal the Twenty-third Psalm.