Iarose, a motlier in Israel.
Judges V. 7.
The period of Israelite history comprised in the Book of Judges is briefly summed up in one expressive sentence; 'Every man did that which was right in his own eyes.' It was a period of disorganisation and tumult. A judge arose in this place or in that. He was acknowledged by one tribe and repudiated by another. The nation was exposed to repeated and disastrous attacks from the surrounding peoples. There was no central authority at home. Again and again Israel lay at the mercy of her enemies; again and again by an unforeseen deliverance the nation was saved from extinction. It was a unique chapter in the world's history—this career of the Jewish people, ' persecuted but not forsaken,' 'chastened but not killed,' * dying, and behold it lived.'
An eventful moment had arrived in this critical epoch when the words of the text were spoken. The enemy were pressing hard upon the chosen people. Their counsels were paralysed by the apathy of despair. They could only hang their hands and await their fate. Suddenly a woman's voice was heard amidst the confusion and dismay. A woman's hand was raised to wave them forward to battle. She —Deborah—arose, a mother in Israel. The foe was vanquished; the terror passed away; the sunlight broke once more through the darkness. A fresh lease of life was granted to the nation.
This prominence of a woman guiding the destinies of the people has, so far as I remember, no parallel in the great classical nations of antiquity, Greece and Rome. They had their able and resolute women, wives and mothers of princes, who exercised a vast influence —too often a pernicious influence—on the fortunes of their country; but neither in Greece nor in Rome—at least in their palmy days—was there one of whom it could be truly said that she was a mother of her people, not one who beat back the enemies of her country and gave the land rest. Greek and Roman history can produce more than one parallel to Athaliah or to Jezebel, but none to Deborah.
Standing out in Jewish history a unique and stately figure, Deborah is herself a prophecy and a foreshadowing of that larger dispensation, when the Oriental and the Greek ideal of woman—as then most truly fulfilling her mission when seldomest seen and heard—should be cast away as a forgotten thing; when 'in Jesus Christ' there should be ' neither male nor female;' but the sister and the wife, emancipated from their thraldom, should take their place side by side with the brother and the husband, as their counsellors and their friends.
Not indeed that under the Gospel dispensation the prophetess or the judge or the warrior-chieftain should become the normal type of the functions of womanhood, the ideal of the woman's aspirations. For the most part, the Israel of which she is mother will be her own home, her own social circle, her own parish and neighbourhood. By her stronger affections and her finer sensibilities, by her greater sympathy and her truer tact, by her comparative physical weakness, by the direct demands made upon her as a wife and mother, she will commonly be guided to a less conspicuous, but not less useful, sphere of action. The Marys of the Gospel, the Lydia and the Priscilla, the Lois and the Eunice of the apostolic history, these and such as these are the types of Christian womanhood. But ever and again a great crisis will arise, and some heaven-sent heroine will respond to the call. Then it is that the peasant girl will save the most renowned throne in Europe, and the dyer's daughter will restore the most venerated see of Christendom to its ancient home and its long-lost prestige. But a Joan of Arc and a Catherine of Siena will only appear at long intervals on the stage of this world's history.
A prophecy, but only a prophecy, of the womanhood of the higher dispensation; a shadow of the good things to come, but not the very image. The song of Deborah with all its lofty patriotism, and its exultant faith, is not the utterance of Christian lips. Prophetess though she was, she falls short of the Gospel ideal. Her spirit, as Coleridge42 finely puts it, is 'the yet not tamed chaos of the spiritual creation.' In 'the fierce and the inordinate' of her utterances, we are 'made to know' through the contrast and 'be grateful for the clearer and the purer radiance which shines on a Christian's path.'
You will have anticipated my reasons for choosing this theme. One subject forces itself on our notice to-day. Met together on the morrow of the festival consecrated to the memory of S. Hilda48, standing on the ground which she herself trod, and almost beneath the shadow of an ancient sanctuary dedicated in her name, how can we do otherwise than lift up our hearts in thanksgiving to God for her work and example today? While our lips have hitherto named only the judge of Israel, the prophetess of Mount Ephraim, our thoughts have reverted to the royal lady, the saintly abbess of Hartlepool and Whitby. How can it be otherwise? The church which we consecrate to-day is the latest fruit of a mighty tree planted by her between twelve and thirteen centuries ago.
It is no strained parallel to compare her with the Hebrew heroine. The period of the Heptarchy was to England what the period of the Judges was to Israel. It was an epoch of ferment and disturbance, a great seething time, when the elements destined to compose the mighty England of the generations to come were still struggling one with another, till at length they settled down, and order was evolved out of chaos. Pagan and believer lived side by side, and fought one with another. Among Christian princes themselves the conflicts were frequent and deadly. Only now and then one king towered above his peers, and forced them to acknowledge his supremacy ; just as ever and again one judge in Israel mightier than the rest had been recognised by all the tribes as their supreme ruler. The Church of Christ, having a principle of unity in herself, was the great moral power which composed and harmonized these discordant elements. The unity of the State arose out of the unity of the Church. In this great work of pacification our Northumbrian Deborah bore a conspicuous part. Northumbria was then the centre and focus of light to England. Hilda was in God's hands a chief maker of England, as Deborah was a chief maker of Israel.
But the comparison involves a sharp contrast Our northern Deborah was a Christian Deborah; like the Hebrew heroine of old, she too led the Lord's hosts against the foe; but unlike her Israelite prototype, the weapons of her warfare were not carnal. There was nothing in her of the fierce untamed spirit, which bristles through the magnificent faith and ardour of the 'great dame of Lapidoth.' Her antagonism was love. Her warfare was peacefulness. By instruction, by example, by discipline, by deeds of kindliness and mercy, she subdued the enemy. We are expressly told that, while in the houses under her care, she studiously inculcated all other virtues such as justice, piety and chastity, yet she laid the chief stress on peace and love. In that last late autumn night, as it were yesterday, ere her spirit departed at cock-crow, she gathered about her her spiritual daughters, and with her waning breath exhorted them to keep peace —the peace of the Gospel—one towards another and towards all men. Though the child of a race of warriors, and herself bearing the name of a Saxon war-goddess44, yet she was before all things a woman of peace. Princess and prophetess both, she had her pagan counterparts in the British warrior-queen Boadicea, and the Teutonic seer Veleda. The commanding spirit, the fiery energy, the sense of a divine indwelling, she shared with one or other of them; but the fierceness was subdued, and the exaltation was sanctified, by the transforming power of the word of Christ. The gospel of peace had triumphed. The flame, which a few years earlier had been lighted in Northumbria by the Roman missionary Paulinus, had flickered and died out. The true evangelisation of this northern kingdom commenced with the mission from Iona. Three figures stand out conspicuously in this first planting of the Northumbrian Church. Two of these were Oswald the king, and Aidan the missionary bishop. The third is Hilda, the chief educator of the Northumbrian Church in this its earliest stage— the inaugurator of the work which was afterwards taken up by Benedict Biscop and Bede.
Hilda is closely connected with our own Durham. Of the Northumbrian royal race by birth, she returned at Aidan's bidding to Northumbria for the great work of her life. The Tyne, the Wear, the Hartlepools— these are our three chief centres of population and commerce, and with all these her name is connected. The largest town on the Durham side of the Tyne45 was originally called after an ancient chapel bearing her name, coeval (it is thought) with the venerable monastery of Jarrow itself—though its later and now common designation is taken from the fisherman's 'sheelings 'or sheds. As recently as two centuries ago—after the Restoration—I still find this town described as 'S. Hild's, commonly called Sheelds.' On the northern banks of the Wear again we are told she had a piece of ground allotted to her, and there she established on a small scale her first religious community. But it was in your own Hartlepool that she first became famous. Here she presided for many years over a great religious house, till she migrated hence to the still more famous abbey of Whitby, of which she herself was foundress—the Beacon Bay, as it then was called by a doubly appropriate name, for it became the great centre of spiritual and intellectual light, amidst the darkness of the heathen night, and the twilight of the Christian dawn, to the storm-tossed and shipwrecked on the ocean of ignorance and sin, not in Northumbria only, but throughout the whole of England.
Of this great benefactress of English Christendom unhappily we know but little. All our trustworthy information is contained in two or three pages of Bede. Yet even these scanty notices suggest the features of a striking personality. Of such advantages, social and intellectual, as the age afforded, she seems to have had her full share. She was the daughter of a kingly race, but her stock of experience was enriched by close intercourse with the ignorant and poor. Her spiritual education again was not less wide in its range. Two distinct streams met together in the evangelisation of England. The one was the Roman mission under Augustine, having its head-quarters in Kent; the other was the Celtic mission which issued from S. Columba's Monastery of Iona under Aidan, and settled in our own Northumbria. Both these streams met in Hilda, though her closest associations and her deepest sympathies were with the latter. She had been instructed and baptized in her girlhood, with her kinsfolk, by the Roman missionary Paulinus; and in her mature age she had for her chief adviser and friend the Celtic missionary, Aidan.
Those who live altogether in the world, and those who live altogether apart from the world, both alike miss some valuable elements in the discipline and formation of the character. Neither advantage was denied S. Hilda. Her life, sixty-six years in all, was equally divided. The first half was spent among her kindred in society: during the second half she was an inmate of a religious house.
Her own natural gifts and capacities too, so far as the scanty notices enable us to judge, seem to have fitted her to make good use of these external advantages. To the Celtic and Roman influences of her Christian education she contributed the sterling sober D. s. 5
qualities of a Teutonic descent. With the tact and sympathy of a woman, she united the sound judgment and the self-restraint of a man. 'The spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and ghostly strength' were hers. The great and the lowly alike were drawn towards her. Kings and princes sought her advice in the perplexities of statesmanship; bishops exchanged spiritual counsels with her. Her intellectual sympathies, we may gather, were not less wide than her spiritual, so far as the meagre opportunities of the age gave them scope. Monasteries were then the sole depositories of knowledge, and the sole schools of learning. The religious house with which she was connected was twofold. There was a side for women and a side for men—an arrangement not uncommon in those ages. The chivalry of their Christianity and their race gave the precedence to women. Hilda ruled over both. Her house was a great training school for the clergy. Not less than five of her pupils46 became bishops of important sees— two of York, one of Dorchester, one of Worcester, and one of Hexham. This last was the famous S. John of Beverley. What wonder that all who came near her saluted her with the endearing name of ' Mother'? a title not as yet, it would seem, given by virtue of their office to abbesses of religious houses, but specially accorded to her, as we are told, by reason of her signal piety and grace. She was indeed a 'Mother in Israel.'
Nor is it only as a school of theology, a nursery of clergy, that her house demands our respect. Here English literature was cradled. The earliest of English poets, Caedmon, the forerunner of Chaucer and of Shakespeare, of Spenser and of Milton, of Wordsworth and Tennyson and Browning, received under Hilda the training and the inspiration which transformed him, like Amos of old, from a simple cowherd into a prophet and teacher of men. If English poetry, in its power, its variety, its richness, surpasses the poetry of any other nation of the modern, perhaps even of the ancient, world, if it be one of God's most magnificent literary gifts to mankind, then we must contemplate with something like reverential awe the house where it was nursed in its infancy.
Did I exaggerate when I classed Hilda among the chief makers of England in the childhood of the English nation? Do not the facts which I have mentioned justify the estimate? Nay, her position was dimly apprehended, even by those who lived near her own time. The story is told by Bede47, how shortly before her birth her mother dreamt that she found unexpectedly a brilliant necklace in her bosom of such dazzling glory that its lustre penetrated to all parts of Britain. The dream was not a dream.
But Hilda does not stand alone. She was a type, albeit the highest type, of a numerous band of women, more especially in early times, queens and princesses, who realised the prophetic foreshadowing, and became nursing mothers of their own Israel. Shall we forget that the two ancient universities of this land both trace back their spiritual descent to women of royal blood —Oxford to S. Frideswide, and Cambridge to S. Etheldreda? And may we not here note the coincidence that the reigns of three female sovereigns, Elizabeth, Anne, Victoria, mark the three most signal epochs in the history of English literature?
We do well to step aside from time to time from the interests of the present, and record our grateful remembrances of bygone saints and worthies. The oblivion of the past is not a sign of enlightenment. It is rather a token of self-conceit, and self-conceit is blindness. In vain we flatter ourselves that we are giants, because we have a wider range of view than our fathers. We are but the dwarf seated on the giant's shoulders. The progress of mankind is built up on the achievements of successive generations.
But at no time is this lesson more opportune than now. We are met to-day for the consecration of a building which we intend for the chief sanctuary and home of the spiritual work in this district. How can we duly express our thanksgiving for the past? Clergy and laity have worked energetically together. No difference of opinion has disturbed the harmony of action. Liberal gifts have flowed in from all sides. The fabric has been raised far sooner than our highest hopes had foreshadowed. In structure and completeness it surpasses the standard which we had held before our eyes when we commenced. This day's work is the crown of your joy. But, though the crown of your joy, it is only the beginning of your responsibility. The visible edifice is only the scaffolding of the invisible. The energy hitherto directed to the erection of the material fabric must now be concentrated on the spiritual—the building piled up of the souls of men and cemented by faith and love, the temple not made by hands, the sanctuary eternal in the heavens. This henceforward will be the task of you all alike. But meanwhile what form shall our congratulations take? To whom shall the praise be given? Not unto us, O Lord, but rather unto those heroic spirits of the past, the fathers and mothers in Israel who have sown that we might reap; rather unto those silent and faithful workers in successive ages, unknown and unrecorded, who have laboured patiently that we might enter into their labours: rather unto these, and yet not even unto these, except in a lower degree. 'Not unto us,' nor yet unto them, * O Lord, but unto Thy name give the praise.' 'The Lord hath been mindful of us, and He shall bless us. He shall bless the house of Israel.'