James and John were surnamed by the Lord “Boanerges“, meaning “sons of thunder.” (Mark 3:17) In the early years of the 19th century there was an Irishman by the name of Patrick Brunty, (1777-1861) who decided to change the spelling of his name to Brontë, the Greek word for thunder. He was a clergyman. His wife Maria Branwell (1783-1821) was Cornish. In 1820Brontë moved to Haworth, in Yorkshire, where he became Rector. He had four children, Charlotte (1816-1855), Patrick Branwell (1817-1848), Emily (1818-1848), and Anne (1820-1849).
Some years ago, when we drove up the very steep hill towards Haworth Church and Rectory, we were impressed by the dreary and isolated aspect of the Yorkshire moors, in which the Brontë children grew up, having no other companionship than each other. Patrick was an artist, but sadly addicted to alcohol and opium, which brought him into debt. His sisters worked for brief periods as governesses and teachers to pay off their brother’s debts, but their chief strengths lay in reading and writing.
As a legacy to the literary world we have Jane Eyre, The Professor, Shirley, and Villette by Charlotte, Wuthering Heightsby Emily, & Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne. In addition, all three contributed to a volume of poetry. Like George MacDonald (1824-1905), another literary giant of the same era, the children were brought up under the sound of rigid Calvinism. And like MacDonald, the “daughters of thunder” wrote novels and poetry showing their anger at such teaching, and yet at the same time demonstrating how difficult it was to throw off the Calvinistic view of a God who was set for damnation, fire and brimstone for quite the majority of His creatures. In this brief essay, we should like to present a few quotations from Charlotte’s and Anne’s writings to demonstrate that they divested themselves of a teaching they believed to be morally unworthy, to hold to that which is clearly Universalist in its scope.
First of all we turn to Jane Eyre, the name of the foundling child sent to a school run by the Calvinist Mr Brocklehurst, who was advised by Jane’s aunt that she was a wilful girl.
“. . . especially a naughty little girl. Do you know where the wicked go after death?” [asked Brocklehurst.] “They go to hell,” was my ready and orthodox answer, [said Jane]. “And what is hell? Can you tell me that?” “A pit full of fire.” “And should you like to fall into that pit , and to be burning there for ever?” “No, sir.”
Later, at the Lowood Institution, Jane finds a true friend in fellow-student Helen Burns. Both are treated abominably, Helen by Miss Scatcherd, and Jane by Mr Brocklehurst. They commiserate together on the wrongs, and Helen had this to say to Jane, who was still full of anger and resentment –
“Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity, or registering wrongs. We are, and must be, one and all, burdened with faults in this world: but the time will soon come when, I trust, we shall put them off in putting off our corruptible bodies; when debasement and sin will fall from us with this cumbrous frame of flesh, and only the spark of the spirit will remain – the impalpable principle of life and thought, pure as when it left the Creator to inspire the creature: whence it came it will return; perhaps again to be communicated to some being higher than man – perhaps to pass through gradations of glory, from the pale human soul to brighten to the seraph! Surely it will never, to the contrary, be suffered to degenerate from man to fiend? No; I cannot believe that: I hold another creed; which no one ever taught me and which I seldom mention; but in which I delight, and to which I cling: for it extends hope to all: it makes Eternity a rest – a mighty home, not a terror and an abyss. Besides, with this creed, I can so clearly distinguish between the criminal and his crime; I can so sincerely forgive the first while I abhor the last: with this creed revenge never worries my heart, degradation never too deeply disgusts me, injustice never crushes me too low: I live in calm, looking to the end.”
Next we turn to Anne Brontë’s “Tenant of Wildfell Hall.” The “tenant” was Helen, wife of Arthur Huntingdon, a selfish and irresponsible man, whom she left for a season when life became intolerable for her. Later on in the book, having returned home, she talks with her aunt about the position of their marriage.
“I must say, Helen, I thought better of your judgment than this – and your taste too. How you can love such a man I cannot tell, or what pleasure you can find in his company: for ‘What fellowship hath light with darkness? or he that believeth with an infidel?’ “He is not an infidel;- and I am not light, and he is not darkness, his worst and only vice is thoughtlessness.” “And thoughtlessness,” pursued my aunt, “may lead to every crime, and will but poorly excuse our errors in the sight of God. Mr Huntingdon, I suppose, is not without the common faculties of men: he is not so light-headed as to be irresponsible: his Maker has endowed him with reason and conscience as well as the rest of us; the Scriptures are open to him as well as to others;-and ‘if he hear not them, neither will he hear though one rose from the dead.’ And remember, Helen,” continued she, solemnly, “‘The wicked shall be turned into hell, and they that forget God.’ And suppose, even, that he should continue to love you, and you him, and that you should pass through life together with tolerable comfort,- how will it be in the end, when you see yourselves parted for ever; you, perhaps, taken to eternal bliss, and he cast into the lake that burneth with unquenchable fire – there for ever to -” “Not for ever,” I exclaimed, “‘only till he has paid the uttermost farthing’, for ‘If any man’s work abide not the fire, he shall suffer loss, yet himself shall be saved, but so as by fire’ and He that ‘is able to subdue all things to Himself, will have all men to be saved,’ and ‘will in the fullness of time , gather together in one all things in Christ Jesus, who tasted death for every man, and in whom God will reconcile all things to Himself, whether they be things in earth or things in heaven.'” “Oh, Helen, where did you learn all of this?” “In the Bible, aunt. I have searched it through, and found nearly thirty passages, all tending to support the same theory.” “And is that the use you make of your Bible? And did you find no passages tending to prove the danger and the falsity of such a belief?” “No: I found, indeed, some passages that, taken by themselves, might seem to contradict that opinion; but they will all bear a different construction to that which is commonly given, and in most the only difficulty is in the word which we translate ‘everlasting’ or ‘eternal’: I don’t know the Greek, but I believe it strictly means ‘for ages’ and might signify either ‘endless’ or ‘long-enduring’. And as for the danger of the belief, I would not publish it abroad, if I thought any poor wretch would be likely to presume upon it to his own destruction, but it is a glorious thought to cherish in one’s own heart, and I would not part with it for all the world can give!”
Finally, here is a poem by Anne, entitled “A Word to the Elect,” written in 1843, in which she shows her anger at Calvinism, with its smug self-righteousness.
You may rejoice to think yourselves secure;
You may be grateful for the gift divine –
That grace unsought, which made your black hearts pure,
And fits your earth-born souls in Heaven to shine.
But, is it sweet to look around, and view
Thousands excluded from that happiness
Which they deserve at least as much as you –
Their faults not greater, nor their virtues less?
And, wherefore should you love your God the more,
Because to you alone His smiles are given;
Because He chose to pass the many o’er,
And only bring the favoured few to Heaven?
And, wherefore should your hearts more grateful prove,
Because for ALL the Saviour did not die?
Is yours the God of justice and of love?
And are your bosoms warm with charity?
Say, does your heart expand to all mankind?
And, would you ever to your neighbour do –
The weak, the strong, the enlightened, and the blind –
As you would have your neighbour do to you?
And, when you, looking on your fellow-men,
Behold them doomed to endless misery,
How can you talk of joy and rapture then? –
May God withhold such cruel joy from me!
That none deserve eternal bliss I know;
Unmerited the grace in mercy given:
But none shall sink to everlasting woe,
That have not well deserved the wrath of Heaven.
And oh! there lives within my heart, a hope long nursed by me;
(And should its cheering ray depart, how dark my soul would be!)
That as in Adam all have died, in Christ shall all men live;
And ever round His throne abide, eternal praise to give.
That even the wicked shall at last be fitted for the skies;
And when their dreadful doom is past, to life and light arise.
I ask not how remote the day, nor what the sinners’ woe,
Before their dross is purged away; enough for me to know
That when the cup of wrath is drained, the metal purified,
They’ll cling to what they once disdained, and live by Him that died.
We hope you have enjoyed reading these brief snatches from the works of the Brontë sisters, truly the “daughters of thunder”. May we encourage our readers to enjoy their complete works, which are true literary masterpieces of a by-gone day.