When Lord Lipton arrived at the London residence of the Viscount Sydney and his family, which was not very distant from his own fashionable townhouse, in the same district, he was greeted by attentive servants and seated at the table next to Miss Sarah. Besides the family, which numbered five, two of them adopted children and one of whom was the young son and heir of the family, and himself, there numbered one other guest, one who Lord Lipton recognized but could not immediately place. Before too long, though, he recognized the man as having been the minister he had heard for morning services, and this provided him with a reason to talk to the man more closely.
“I am sorry I had to come alone,” Mr. Sandwell said. “My wife is indisposed.”
“I am glad you were able to come anyway,” Lord Sydney said.
Mr. Sandwell looked at Lord Lipton, unable to place him and unsure of how to respond. “And who are you?”
“Does it matter? Like you, I am here as a friend of the family.”
“But who are you?”
“Let me give you two possibilities, and you can determine how to treat me. On the one hand, suppose that I am a Mr. Hartley, lately returned from the Southern Colonies and having been involved in transporting freed slaves to their liberty in New Providence and other loyal colonies of his majesty, with my most notable living relative being my mother, who is currently married to the Lt. Governor of New Providence. On the other hand, suppose that I am Lord Lipton, third Viscount Lipton, living in Yorkshire at Orient House, and soon to take up my seat in the House of Lords.”
“That is a big difference between the two.”
“Is it? Both are true.”
“They are both true? How could they both be true?”
“I am Mr. Hartley, and I am late of the Southern colonies and service to His Christian Majesty. I have no living relatives that I know of on my father’s side, and am right now the last known member of my line. I am also the new Viscount Lipton, having inherited after the deaths of my father a few years ago, my uncle, who was the heir, and the incumbent Viscount himself, my grandfather.”
“Are you trying to deceive me?”
“Not in the least.”
“Are you trying to test me?”
“Why would I admit it if I was.”
The table was now very interested in this conversation, looking with great interest at their two guests.
Lord Lipton continued. “If I remember correctly, you gave a sermon this past Sunday on Solomon’s warning in Ecclesiastes.”
“You were present?”
“Yes, my London house is in this parish as well and so you are my local priest here. I did not make a big fuss about myself but yes, I was sitting and listening to your message.”
“What did you think about it?”
“I’m not sure what I think about it.”
“What do you mean?”
“I am not sure what I think because I am not sure what you meant by it.”
“Did you have a problem with my message?”
“I am not sure I would categorize it as a problem. I certainly wondered why you went about your subject the way that you did.”
“Well, I am all ears.”
“When you gave this message, you were aware that you were speaking to an audience of wealthy and powerful people who would not be inclined to speak evil about the king or about the wealthy, right?”
The minister was taken aback. “Do you suppose I had my audience in mind when I spoke?”
“I do indeed.”
“Do you think of that as an evil?”
“I do not think we can avoid thinking of the audience we are speaking to. Nor do I think we should talk to a king or a viscount the way that one would talk to a fishmonger.”
Sarah tittered with laughter beside him.
“Why be concerned about the matter at all?”
“I have a vicar back home who makes his living from what I provide him, and on my first Sunday in the pulpit gave me a message talking about the bravery it takes to tell the wealthy and powerful their sins. Then, the following Sunday, I listen to your message and hear nothing of the sort, but merely hear how authorities are appointed by God and implying that one should not say anything negative to those who are wealthy and powerful.”
“Those are very different messages, indeed.”
“But they spring from the same Scriptures.”
“The scriptures can be read many ways.”
“That is certainly true, and I do not speak of this as someone who has been trained as a theologian. What I am saying, though, is that while as a Viscount I was certainly far more flattered to hear your message than to hear that of my own village vicar, I believe that his message is ultimately more useful and beneficial to me.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I say that because it is far more likely that I will have to master within myself the tendency to do harm to those who seek to prevent me from doing evil, or who bring my sins and follies to my attention, than that I will set out to be in charge of a mob to show hostility to my lord the King. It is my judgment, for what it is worth, that we are better served by those messages which remind us of what which is difficult but important to do for the sake of our lives here and our judgment to come than that which gratifies our sense of pride in our position and which makes us demand an honor and dignity from others which may go beyond what the Scriptures command.”
There was a pause as everyone took this in.
“You have thought deeply on the subject,” the vicar continued.
“I have indeed.”
“What led you think so much about such matters?”
“I spent many years in some disguise living among the rebels of Georgia and South Carolina. While I was there I would frequently attend services where ministers spoke eloquently about freedom for the people there, never thinking about what freedom would mean to the souls that they claimed as chattel property, and never stopping to mention those scriptures that, as you cited, require a respect for those in power and authority. They could have used your message, but given their temper, you might have been in some danger of losing your life and would certainly have been driven in exile from the pulpit had you dared to speak to such rebels about the need to respect one’s proper authorities.”
“I am sure I would have spoken certainly had I been there.”
“I am sure you would have as well. Perhaps you would have flattered them with a mention of Colossians and Ephesians of how servants and slaves are to honor and obey their masters.”
“Are you accusing me of being a trimmer?”
“Nothing of the sort,” Lord Lipton replied.
“What are you saying, then?”
“I am saying that you would have put your weight on that side which would have gratified the interest of those in the audience. What I am saying is that it may have been better for their lives and souls, and for the lives of those unfortunate souls who had to deal with them, if someone had reminded them that they too have a master in heaven, and that they too serve a God for whom rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft. It might have encouraged them to rebel less, which would have served their interest and ours.”
“But how could they have been so convinced?”
“That is a difficult matter,” Lord Lipton conceded. “Before we can be given rebuke and correction we must be convicted of our falling short of perfection, and of being in a state where it may be necessary for us to receive medicine that we may not find enjoyable to take, but which may be beneficial for us.”
“That does not mean, of course, that everything we partake of is beneficial to us.”
“No, we would not want to encourage people to submit themselves to a poisoner who would only wish to rob them of their health, their energy, and their life, even if such a man claimed to be a physician and claimed that the poison was for our benefit. But there are a great many people who refuse to take anything that is not pleasant for them, and so before we give them strong medicine we must prepare the ground by convincing them that at least at times such medicine is necessary and proper for them to take, for their own well being now and for all time.”
“What did you think of the content of my message?”
“I took it as a warning.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“What did you assume me to be warning you of?”
“My assumption was that the audience was being reminded that London, and perhaps all of Britain as a whole, is under observation and surveillance.”
“Well said, I sought to put the audience on guard of such a thing.”
“Let us hope that no one listening was in danger of being in such a place as being imprisoned.”
“I would hope not either.”
“Very well, we are agreed so far then, but should we not warn people of dangers that they are very likely to get into rather than those that they are by virtue of their rank and order less likely to do, and more likely to feel themselves to be righteous for not doing?”
“Do you think it is bad for people to feel complacent in their goodness?”
“Very much so.”
“And why is that?”
“Because we are not good on our own. We are only good to the extent that we are like God, and to the extent we have overcome our fallen human nature. And those who have done that well would be the last to admit it.”
This seemed to settle it, as a discussion over original sin and human nature was the last thing that Mr. Sandwell wanted to discuss, and Lord Lipton was by no means a Calvinist nor an expert on Augustine, and so he did not have any desire to explore the matter beyond that where an intelligent layperson could safely go without wading into deep theological matters. As it was, dinner was tasty enough that the conversation soon found itself on very pleasant ground. People could ask about passing the vegetables, or the soup, or the tasty mutton, or the bread and butter, or the bottles of Madeira and less alcoholic alternatives that freely flowed among all the people.
Before too long, there had been discussions of the careers of Mr. Sandwell and Lord Lipton and at least the general details of their careers and how they had come to their current positions. Mr. Sandwell had been an apt pupil at Oxford and had early come into a pleasant living, where his skill in speaking according to the interests of his patron had earned him the ear of the Anglican bishop responsible for London churches, where he was able to take one of the more prestigious and profitable livings there as a means of encouraging his advance through the Anglican hierarchy. Lord Lipton could see how such a thing could happen very easily, and how it was that people would be very happy to have someone in the church who would not rock the boat and who would support the interests of those who were like him. It made for a pleasant life, but perhaps a more unpleasant afterlife, as those who have had their good things in this world and who were not godly about how they lived their lives may find much unpleasant in the world to come, as in the story of Lazarus and the rich man. Mr. Sandwell, however, was untroubled by these things.
To the audience, Lord Lipton remained more of a mystery, at least to everyone other than Lord Sydney, who was similarly unable to add more details for the same reasons Lord Lipton had to be discreet. There was much he could not discuss about his precise duties in the late Southern Colonies, and that which he did tell only prompted more curiosity on the part of others. What had it been like living in disguise among the rebels and being inflamed to anger by their continual treachery, how was it like to work with escaped slaves and help them seek liberty and secure title for their own lands? What was it like to conduct diplomacy among the savage tribes of the swamps of Florida and Georgia? About the extent to which he found those tribes to be civilized, which he did, and the extent of his dealings with the freed blacks, who he could find very agreeable, he could not and would not say, but it was impossible not to want to know. It lent an air of mystery and derring-do to Lord Lipton that could not help but make him more attractive to a sympathetic female audience, which no single man should go without.