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More than once in these chapters we have spoken of the service rendered to the progress of Christian thought by the criticism and interpretation of religion at the hands of literary men. That country and age may be esteemed fortunate in which religion occupies a place such that it compels the attention of men of genius. In the history of culture this has by no means always been the case. That these men do not always speak the language of edification is of minor consequence. What is of infinite worth is that the largest minds of the generation shall engage themselves with the topic of religion. A history of thought concerning Christianity cannot but reckon with the opinions, for example, of Carlyle, of Emerson, of Matthew Arnold—to mention only types.
Carlyle has pictured for us his early home at Ecclefechan on the Border; his father, a stone mason of the highest character; his mother with her frugal, pious ways; the minister, from whom he learned Latin, ’the priestliest man I ever beheld in any ecclesiastical guise.’ The picture of his mother never faded from his memory. Carlyle was destined for the Church. Such had been his mother’s prayer. He took his arts course in Edinburgh. In the university, he says, ’there was much talk about progress of the species, dark ages, and the like, but the hungry young looked to their spiritual nurses and were bidden to eat the east wind.’ He entered Divinity Hall, but already, in 1816, prohibitive doubts had arisen in his mind. Irving sought to help him. Irving was not the man for the task. The Christianity of the Church had become intellectually incredible to Carlyle. For a time he was acutely miserable, bordering upon despair. He has described his spiritual deliverance: ’Precisely that befel me which the Methodists call their conversion, the deliverance of their souls from the devil and the pit. There burst forth a sacred flame of joy in me.’ With Sartor Resartus