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Gladstone: the Making of a Christian Politician: The Personal Religious Life and Development of William Ewart Gladstone, 1809-1832.

When John Morley's Life of Gladstone was published by Macmillan in three volumes on the 9th of October in 1903, it was widely regarded as a standard work, a status and a prestige which it has largely retained. Memories of Gladstone in the Edwardian era (1901-1910) remained both emotional and influential, and its immediate sales were quite phenomenal. Day after day Macmillan staff struggled to satisfy the demands, 'running up ladders to hurl down the topmost packages to collectors fighting for them at the trade counter'. It has long been recognized, however, that 'Honest John Morley', rationalist and agnostic, while he fully understood Gladstone's political and public life and work, could never be completely in tune with the Liberal leader's religious beliefs: his inner spiritual life, which constantly affected both his personality and his public policy.

Peter J. Jagger, Warden and Chief Librarian of St. Deiniol's Library, Hawarden, has since 1977 been working assiduously upon the complementary theme, of Gladstone's religious development, especially related to his public life. This present book denotes the publication of the first instalment of these profound and meticulous studies, hopefully to be followed by a second volume, pursuing the same theme to the end of Gladstone's long and controversial career.

Perhaps it is fair to say that Gladstone's Christianity was something of an enigma to his contemporaries -- especially to his political opponent, Disraeli -- and it has mostly remained so, ever since. The question remains: whether, for Gladstone, these religious convictions helped or impeded the success of his political decisions. Disraeli did not object to Gladstone's Christianity, but he did demur when the 'G.O.M.' seemed to him to keep God up his sleeve as an opportunist supporter. This 'cult of righteousness' in politics could be both irritating and unrealistic. It can be even more so in the different lights of our own secular and materialistic times.

It is doubtful whether this present book entirely clears up the matter of Gladstone's Christianity. Nevertheless, it goes far to elucidate it, and it is certainly an important and decisive contribution to the literature of its subject. One can only admire the Warden's solid and protracted scholarship, as if of another age and truly Victorian in its dedication. His studies of both primary and secondary sources have been omniscient. His search for documentation is everywhere thorough and scrupulous. The book, therefore, supplies a long-felt need in Gladstonian studies. It deals with the full and moving story of Gladstone's spiritual pilgrimage, from childhood until his first election to Parliament: the substitution of politics, instead of the Church, as his career in life, largely in response to the wishes of his formidable father, Sir John Gladstone (1764-1851). So much of the early life of Gladstone depends upon Liverpool and its environs: his father built and endowed St. Thomas's Church, Seaforth, and it was there that Gladstone began his schooling. He met Wilberforce in Liverpool in 1818 and again in 1819. He used to say that he gained his first practice in public speaking by addressing -- from the top of a chair -- the 'ladies and gentlemen', assembled by his father at Seaforth House (retained by the Gladstones until 1873).

It was a long and lonely trail in politics, between that vision of juvenile and aspiring eloquence, expressed in Liverpool, and the 'G.O.M.' of his last Ministry of 1892-94: when Gilbert Murray listened to him from the Strangers Gallery of the House of Commons -- 'I saw a small old man with an unimpressive voice start to speak, and, as he spoke he grew bigger and bigger and his voice became stronger and stronger, until after four hours it died away and there was the little old man again'.

It may be questioned whether Gladstone ever liked being a politician. But he put into politics, for better or worse, the intense passion that also went into his personal religion (perhaps to its detriment). He was very much a 'conviction politician', like some folk of our own times. That ruined him in the end, over 'Home Rule' in Ireland. When young, he shared something of the same characteristics as that Liberal of another generation, Sir Edward Grey (1862-1933), of whom Gladstone said: 'I never knew in a man such aptitude for political life and such disinclination for it'.
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Author:Glasgow, Eric
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1993
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