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by [?]

When Charles was fourteen years old he had gravitated to the cashier’s desk, and his pay was twelve shillings a week.

He was large for his age, and the life of the streets had sharpened his wits, so he was old for his years. He was studious and very religious, as children struggling with adolescence often are. Sundays were sacred to church, morning and evening, and the spare hours were given over to reading the lives of the martyrs. Only on weekdays did he read history or political tracts. In Sunday School he was a very promising teacher.

Then comes in one, the Reverend J. G. Packer, incumbent of Saint Peter’s, who lives in history only because he entered into a quarrel with this boy.

Young Bradlaugh was preparing for confirmation; he could say the catechism backward and forward, and he also knew Bible history from Genesis to Revelation. But he could not reconcile certain portions of Bible history with our belief in an all-loving, all-wise and ever-just God. So he wrote to his pastor a long and respectful letter in precise and exact Spencerian, asking for light.

Now, the Reverend J. G. Packer regarded interrogation as proof of depravity, and straightway sent the letter to the boy’s father. At the same time he suspended the youth for three months from Sunday School, denouncing him before the school as atheistical, all this in the interests of discipline. These tactics of coercion were the rule a hundred years ago, and the Reverend J. G. Packer had simply lost his reckoning as to longitude and time. There was a violent scene between father and son, and the boy being too big to chastise was simply handed a few pages of Billingsgate.

At this time Bonner’s Fields was a great place for open-air meetings. The custom of public speaking in London parks still continues, and on any pleasant Sunday afternoon one can hear all kinds of orthodox and heretical vagaries defended on the turf. Young Bradlaugh took to the open-air meetings, and lifted up his voice in praise, feeling the usual stimulus and joyous uplift that goes with martyrdom. After his own orthodox service was over, he sought out the opposition and tried to silence the infidels in debate. One of these infidels, in pity for the boy’s innocence and ignorance, loaned him a copy of Paine’s “Age of Reason.” Up to this time he had never heard of Paine. Now he began to study him, and he began by reading his life. From this he gleaned the fact that Paine had suffered for conscience sake and had been driven out of England, just as he, himself, had been driven out of the church.

The three months’ suspension having expired, young Bradlaugh was invited to come back into the fold. But he did not come. He had been learning things. Paine and persecution had sharpened his mind. I do not believe that Packer drove Bradlaugh into atheism, but I do believe that he hastened the process by about twenty years. Bradlaugh did not have the quality of mind that could ever have been encysted by orthodoxy.

Boyhood was being left behind. He had joined a Free-thinkers’ Club, which met at a coffeehouse kept by Mrs. Richard Carlile, who had come up to London, alone, from the country, and published a little magazine devoted to the rights of woman. She had kept up the fight for freedom for a score of years. Poverty and calumny could not subdue her. She was bordering on fifty, and spoke in the parks, to all and any who would listen, scorning to take up a collection. Her private character was beyond reproach. Indeed, her namesake, Tammas the Titan, who spelled his name in a different way, speaks of her as one “insultingly virtuous.” And so the Reverend J.G. Packer discovered that young Bradlaugh was “loitering at the coffeehouse of that Jezebel, the Carlile woman.” Straightway he wrote a letter to young Bradlaugh, giving him three days in which to return to the church, renouncing all infidel beliefs, or his employers would be informed of his habits, in which case his cashiership would be taken from him.