I imagine we all have heroes and heroines who inspire us. Over the next two issues of our church magazine I would like to share with you two of mine, both, as it happens, from the eighteenth-century: the Revd Gilbert White and Captain Thomas Coram.
Gilbert White lived an extraordinarily uneventful life. He never married. He was born in his grandfather’s vicarage in Selborne in Hampshire where he died seventy-two years later. Apart from his education and early curacies his entire world was his Hampshire parish.
And yet this little world gave this obscure vicar a whole universe, and from that he produced one of the great books of English literature, first published in 1789 and never since out of print: The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne. White was not alone in being a ‘parson-naturalist’, but his book not only provides the results of years of his close observations of nature but marks him out as one of the first ecologists. He saw that the unglamorous earthworm was vital in the chain of being. He was one of the first to be convinced of the migration of birds and argued for the importance of ringing birds and taking a census of their number. In addition to his great interest in birds he recorded hundreds of plant and animal species.
There are two types of people: those who go with nature and those who fight against it. Gilbert White clearly was in the former group while contemporary radicals like Tom Paine, William Godwin and his famous son-in-law, Percy Bysshe Shelley, were in the latter. Their mythical hero was Prometheus who stood against nature and the established order. They celebrated Prometheus because he dared to oppose the gods. He defied them by stealing fire from them. This daring act of human self-assertiveness was, to them, the way to be free and thereby to be fully human.
Gilbert White, the gentle parson of Selborne, went with nature. He accepted the world in which he found himself and wondered at it. He gloried in the natural world and worshipped the God who created it. Shelley and his friends stood against nature. Theirs was a position of self-assertion where for human beings to be on top the idea of God must be banished. It is pretty much the ideology of modern secular Britain where the individual not God is sovereign.
I wonder who was the happier and more content. And who are the happier today? those who are always asserting themselves against the world, or those who accept life and their place in the world? Gilbert White would have understood that verse of William Blake’s:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower;
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.
Very sincerely Yours,