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to-day, I should not have been able to respond to your invitation to take the chair, as I should have thought it inconsistent with the position which I occupy, and with the duty which I owe to the Queen, and the country at large. I see those here before me who have taken a leading part in those important discussions, and I am happy to meet them upon a neutral ground; happy to find that there is a neutral ground upon which their varied talents and abilities can be brought to bear in communion upon the common subject."
Such was the firm, though considerate and delicate, manner in which the Prince Consort noticed the impossibility that existed of a general consent to establish and work the great question-National Education - on a religious foundation. Of what that neutral ground consists, to which the Prince referred as having been presented to him as a newly-discovered foundation upon which to rear the great superstructure of National Education, is not made to appear; this, however, does appear, and it may be said to be all that does appear, and, unhappily, it is of a negative character only. It is that the parties holding and maintaining the differences, dissensions, and dogmas, alluded to as being the obstructive barriers, had not met, and so discussed, the great subject, as to have succeeded in neutralising these differences, dissensions, and invented dogmas. These still subsisting, and being entertained and hence present with them, by what law of affinity they could have composed a solid neutral ground, is a matter for grave inquiry, an inquiry which, I must maintain, could not eventuate in anything better than a discovery that the neutral ground thus attained, could possess no substantial character at all. It was said of it that it offered the opportunity for union and communion. Still the question of quality is forced upon us; the question of principle. Many, unhappily,
begin professedly in union, but soon, very soon, they have to discern that the essential element of union is either not present, or, if present, is mixed up with, and perverted and diverted by, an element that is of an opposite quality and character, and then the consequences are of any and every kind, excepting those which are good and serviceable.
The Prince afterwards addressed the meeting as follows:"Public opinion is the powerful lever which in these days moves a people for good and for evil; and to public opinion we must therefore appeal if we would achieve any lasting or beneficial result. You, Gentlemen, will richly add to the service which you have already rendered to the noble cause if you will prepare public opinion by your inquiry into this state of things, and by discussing in your sections the causes of it, as well as the remedies which may lie within our reach. This will be no easy matter; but even if your labours should not result in the adoption of any immediate practical steps, you will have done great good in preparing for them. It will probably happen, that, in this instance, as in most others, the cause which produces the evil will be more easily detected than its remedy; and yet a just appreciation of the former must ever be the first and essential condition for the discovery of the latter. You will probably trace the cause of our social condition to a state of ignorance, and lethargic indifference, on the subject among the parents generally; but the root of the evil will, I suspect, also be found to extend into that field on which the Political Economist exercises his activity- I mean the labour market, -demand and supply."
Thus we see that the Prince Consort, in the realisation of his kind wish to assist the poor and weak members of the nation on the great point of affording the advantages of education to their children, having examined and considered the state of things by which the question was surrounded,
declared that a course of action must be adopted in accordance with general public opinion; describing this engine - public opinion – "lever which in this day moves a people for good or for evil. Seeing, then, that the subject of national education was surrounded by that public opinion which could not be brought into such union as to make the religious element a primary element of education, the Prince, in this necessity, had recourse to another principle which could be made to take the place of it-a principle in accordance with public opinion. This, he announced, was to be found in that field of social science in which the Political Economists had exerted their talents; and so religion is, by general and public assent, that is, by the constraining force of public opinion-to be dispossessed of the highest, its right position; and Political Economy is to be made, in compliance with public opinion, to assume this position.
The Prince had to declare, moreover, that it would not have been possible for him to have given his aid to the conference, if, in advocating and supporting the cause of national education, it had been necessary for him to have entered the sphere of religion, involving a discussion of those particular questions and dogmas which the men, of all denominations, who profess and undertake especially to expound religion, have put into forms which constitute impediments against both the attainment of union and the promotion of it; this fact of injury to the cause of religion prevailing, and being kept in constant and powerful action, not only by and amongst those men who prefer to depend upon the especial and selected expounders of religion, that is, the clergy of each and every denomination and sect, as authorities to be accepted and relied upon by them, but, also, amongst the professed expounders themselves. Thus, we see that under the unworthy and bad pretext which is often advanced, namely,
a desire of showing a reverence for religion by preserving it from injury, consent is given that she shall be removed from her rightful highest position, or be dethroned, and then that Political Economy shall be installed in her place. The question whether or not the school of writers on Political Economy have dealt scientifically, or truly, with the great subjects mentioned by the Prince as being most intimately connected with the present condition and the future prospects of the labouring members of the nation, these subjects being — the supply of labour — or the principle of the increase of the people; the demand for labour or the laws of the creation of wealth or capital; and, also, the law of the diffusion and distribution of capital, together with the many other subjects which are comprehended within the field of Political Economy, all of which have such an important bearing on the interests of the labouring population, is to be left for individual as well as for general practical decision, to that same public opinion which the Prince justly declared to be the power that moves a people either for good or for evil. The next question, then, for the people to ponder over is— Which will they choose? The good-fraught with more and more union, ease, and healing; or, the evil-fraught with more and more contestation, loss, and misery? It should be remembered that a choice must be made; that no compromise can be effected; that there is here no halting between two opinions. It is, more and more solid and wholesome enjoyment; or, it is, more and more poverty, suffering, and misery. It is, as of old, truth or falsehood! It is God or Baal!
But, to return from this digression to a consideration of the main subject under discussion, which is that of the course adopted by writers, with the policy and practice adopted by statesmen, of viewing and holding religion as a subject distinct from social and political science, and excluding it from
their treatment of the science, I have to protest against it with all the force possible. The allegation advanced by them for this unworthy and unfaithful treatment of religion, namely, that, in admitting religion within the province of social and political science, they would have to admit all kinds and diversities of opinion, some of which would be of the wildest and most extravagant character, and so composed as to render nugatory every attempt to proceed by means of calm and dispassionate judgment; these opinions being based merely on human inventions, and being abortions advanced as divine creations, ought not to be received as a substantial allegation. It should be the solemn duty and the joyful service of every faithful man, to join in the noble work of rescuing religion from the hands of those who have deformed and defiled her, and to place her before the world in her simple practical beauty, and in her all-comprehensive power. And whilst this noble service in the cause of divine truth is being rendered by faithful and courageous men, it should, likewise, be the solemn duty of the clergy, of every denomination, to devote themselves to a full and honest consideration of the question,— whence it arises that the subject of religion has ever been, and is now, so treated by many of them, as to be made a source of discord, of alienation, and of weakness, instead of a source of union and strength. For, I have to declare, and to maintain, that it is by the amplitude and the power of the religious principle, and by this principle alone, that the labourer in the field of Social and Political Science and Economy, can acquire the ability to detect erroneous courses of reasoning; to expose and explode those series of false propositions by which the science is and may be loaded and overwhelmed, as well as the ability to construct those solid propositions which, by the element of truth contained in them, and incorporated throughout them, repel