The Lords Spiritual

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/December 19, 1910

Whatever the scope of the program to be put through by the victorious English Liberals in the first parliament of George V, it is certain that an overhauling of the House of Lords will be its most conspicuous feature, and whatever the exact extent of that overhauling, it is extremely likely that the lords spiritual will be handled rather severely.

An Incurable Conservative

The chief argument urged against the House of Lords in the long campaign now drawing to a close has been the fact that it is incurably Conservative. The hereditary peer, whatever the expressed will of the country, nearly always votes with his order. Even when his peerage is new and his own early sympathies, as a commoner, were on the Liberal side, he tends to grow steadily more safe and sane as he ages, and his son and grandson are practically sure to be uncompromising Tories.

So much for the temporal peers. The Lords spiritual are even worse, though they sit merely ex officio and cannot transmit their honors to their sons. The bishops’ bench, in truth, is the veritable Masjid-al-Haram of Conservatism. It is there that all reforms, for hundreds of years, have found their bitterest and most determined foes; it is there that all of the ideas which the Liberals view with greatest disgust and horror are most valiantly and uncompromisingly defended. The bishops, in brief, hate radicalism and its changes with a deadly hatred, and radicalism, with the chance offering, will not hesitate to give them in retaliation their death blow as lawmakers.

The Bishops In The Lords

At the present time 27 English bishops have seats in the House of Lords and 26 of them have votes. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Bishops of London, Winchester and Durham, like the law lords, are peers for life by virtue of their offices. So is the Bishop of Sodor and Man, though he has no vote. The remaining 21, all of whom have votes, are the senior bishops of the realm, in the order of their appointment. This leaves about 10 English bishops without seats in the upper chamber—the 10, that is to say, of most recent appointment. Ireland and Scotland, being without established churches, send no spiritual peers to Parliament.

The objection to the bishops, as voiced by the Liberals in recent years, is twofold. In the first place, as has been said, they are hunkerously conservative and have consistently opposed all social, industrial and governmental reforms, even when proposed by a Conservative House of Commons; and in the second place they are violent partisans of their church and have sought, through thick and thin, to insure its prosperity at the expense of the Jews, Catholics and Noncomformists.

This fidelity to the established church, of course, is not unnatural, and if all Englishmen, or nearly all, were adherents of that church it would be approved by public opinion. But the established church has been steadily losing ground in the United Kingdom for a century, and at the present time, it is probable, it represents but a minority of the people. Therefore, a protest has grown up against its further exercise of political power, through the medium of its representative bishops, particularly since that power is always exercised in a manner extremely offensive to dissenters.

Against All Toleration

At the beginning of the last century, when a movement was begun for the removal of the civil disabilities then attaching to Jews and Catholics, the bishops opposed it with a degree of energy amounting almost to ferocity. But one man among them, the Bishop of Norwich, was on the side of toleration and progress. In 1821, when the first bill for the relief of the Catholics came from the Commons, 25 bishops voted against it, and it was beaten. In 1824, when as somewhat less radical measure came up, they voted against it again. Even in 1829, when an enraged lower house forced the Lords to give way, 19 bishops still held the fort. As minor bills came up in the years succeeding, clearing away various small disabilities that remained, they mustered votes against every one.

Against the Jews they showed a similar inveterate enmity. In 1833, when the House of Commons passed a bill giving the Jews the common rights of free citizens, the Archbishop of Canterbury led a bitter attack upon it in the Lords and it was defeated there, with 20 episcopal votes against it. During the 35 years following the lower house passed measure after measure for the relief of the Jews, but all of them were slaughtered in the upper chamber and the bishops bossed the job. Not until 1858 was an adequate act finally forced through the Lords, and even then 17 bishops voted against it.

The Methodists and other Nonconformists found them just as hostile. When the Commons passed an act, in 1812, allowing dissenters to be married according to their own rites, 23 bishops voted against it in the Lords. Twenty-two years later they defeated a bill permitting dissenters to take degrees at Oxford and Cambridge; in 1870 they voted against it again, but this time it passed. So late as the early eighties they tried to make it unlawful for dissenters to maintain burial grounds or to bury their dead, with their own rites, in consecrated ground.

Foes To All Progress

Not only upon religious and semi-religious questions have they shown an inhuman orthodoxy. When the criminal statutes of England were being overhauled, a century or more ago, and the number of capital offenses—once no less than 150—was being slowly reduced, the bishops voted against nearly every such reduction. They opposed the Reform bill of 1831 and battled against universal manhood suffrage. They voted against the first public schools bill in 1839 on the ground, as the Bishop of Oxford said, that “they could not expect that those who were assigned by Providence to the laborious occupations of life should be able largely to cultivate their intellects.” When the first bill restricting child labor was passed by the Commons but one bishop voted for it in the Lords. In 1830 and 1842 the bishops cast their votes unanimously against bills for the relief of the starving working class. When the first bill against cruelty to animals was brought into the Lords seven bishops were present and all voted against it. Not a single bishop voted for the repeal of the core laws. Not a single bishop has ever taken the lead in any great social, economic, industrial or educational reform.

(Source: University of North Texas, Microfilm Collection)

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