Upton Sinclair: The Profits of Religion

Book Two - The Church of Good Society

Land and Livings

And how is it in the 20th century? Have conditions been much improved? There are great Englishmen who do not think so. I quote Robert Buchanan; a poet who spoke for the people and who therefore has still to be recognized by English critics. He writes of the "Now Rome," by which he means present-day England:

The gods are dead, but in their name
Humanity is sold to shame,
While (then as now!) the tinsel'd priest
Sitteth with robbers at the feast,
Blesses the laden, blood-stained board,
Weaves garlands round the butcher's sword,
And poureth freely (now as then)
The sacramental blood of Men!

You see, the land system of England remains - the changes having been for the worse. William the Conqueror wanted to keep the Saxon peasantry contented, so he left them their "commons"; but in the 18th century these were nearly all filched away. We saw the same thing done within the last generation in Mexico, and from the same motive - because developing capitalism needs cheap labor, whereas people who have access to the land will not slave in mills and mines. In England, from the time of Queen Anne to that of William and Mary, the parliaments of the landlords passed some four thousand separate acts, whereby more than seven million acres of the common land were stolen from the people. It has been calculated that these acres might have supported a million families; and ever since then England has had to feed a million paupers all the time.

As an old song puts the matter:

Why prosecute the man or woman
Who steals a goose from off the common,
And let the greater felon loose
Who steals the common from the goose?

In our day the land aristocracy is rooted like the native oak in British soil: some of them direct descendants of the Normans, others children of the court favorites and panders who grew rich in the days of the Tudors and the unspeakable Stuarts. Seven men own practically all the land of the city and county of London, and collect tribute from seven millions of people. The estates are entailed - that is, handed down from father to oldest son automatically; you cannot buy any land, but if you want to build, the landlord gives you a lease, and when the lease is up, he takes possession of your buildings. The tribute which London pays is more than a hundred million dollars a year. So absolute is the right of the landowner that he can sue for trespass the driver on an aeroplane which flies over him; he imposes on fishermen a tax upon catches made many hundred of yards from the shore.

And in this graft, of course the church has its share. Each church owns land - not merely that upon which it stands, but farms and city lots from which it derives income. Each cathedral owns large tracts; so do the schools and universities in which the clergy are educated. The income from the holdings of a church constitutes what is called a "living"; these livings, which vary in size, are the prerogatives of the younger sons of the ruling families, and are intrigued and scrambled for in exactly the fashion which Thackeray describes in the 18th century.

About six thousand of these "livings" are in the gift of great landowners; one noble lord alone disposes of 56 such plums; and needless to say, he does not present them to clergymen who favor radical land-taxes. He gives them to men like himself - autocratic to the poor, easy-going to members of his own class, and cynical concerning the grafts of grace.

In one English village which I visited the living was worth 700 pounds, with the use of a fine mansion; as the incumbent had a large family, he lived there. In another place the living was worth a thousand pounds, and the incumbent hired a curate, himself appearing twice a year, on Christmas day and on the King's birthday, to preach a sermon; the rest of the time he spent in Paris. It is worth noting that in 1808 a law was proposed compelling absentee pluralists - that is, clergymen holding more than one "living" - to furnish curates to do their work; it might be interesting to note that this law met with strenuous clerical opposition, the house of Bishops voting against it without a division. Thus we may understand the sharp saying of Karl Marx, that the English clergy would rather part with 38 of their 39 articles than with one 39th of their income.

There is always a plentiful supply of curates in England. They are the sons of the less influential ruling families, and of the clergy, they have been trained at Oxford or Cambridge, and possess the one essential qualification, that they are gentlemen. Their average price is 250 pounds a year; their function was made clear to me when I attended my first English tea-party. There was a wicker table, perhaps a foot and a half square, having three shelves, one below the other - on the top layer the plates and napkins, on the next the muffins, and on the lowest the cake. Said the hostess, "Will you pass the curate, please?" I looked puzzled, and she pointed. "We call that the curate, because it does the work of a curate."

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