The Scouring of the White Horse
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One thing more I wish you to notice about the Jewish feasts; they had all the same character, all were God’s feasts – not one or two religious feasts, as we should say, and the rest national, but all God’s feasts, and all national also. There is no hint in the Bible of any distinction; all feasts ordained for the nation are God’s feasts, and their feasts also.
Now such feasts – such rejoicings before the Lord – as these, you can see at once must have had no slight influence on the nation which kept them. Accordingly we find them interwoven with every fibre of the national life: sometimes kept as God’s feasts – as He had said they were to be kept – in humbleness and thankfulness, in breaking bonds and forgiving debts; often, as though they had been not his but the devil’s feasts, in persecuting prophets and slaying righteous men; and no doubt also, as the natural consequence, in debauchery, gluttony, and hard and usurious dealings with one another; in oppression of man-servant and maid-servant, the widow, the fatherless, and the stranger. But in whatever way the feasts were kept they were always exercising a great power over generation after generation.
I have begun by talking to you about the Jewish feasts, my brethren, because I want to speak to you about our English feasts; and I think if we understand their feasts we shall very likely learn some lessons about our own which may do us good. Now we English, my brethren, as a nation, have neglected this matter of feasts too much. We have very few days on which we rejoice as a nation – in fact the Queen’s birthday is almost our only national holiday, and this day we keep as Englishmen, and not as Christians; while the feasts which we keep as Christians, and not as Englishmen (such as Christmas, and Easter, and Whitsuntide), have for this very reason lost much of their worth for us; which we shall recover, when we begin to keep them again, not the less as Christians, but more as Englishmen.
It is my earnest hope and prayer that we may mend in this matter, and that the great Christian festivals and the Queen’s birthday may so become all, and more than all, to us and our children, which the Passover and Pentecost were to the Jews. But that it may be so, we must, in this as in all other matters, begin mending at home, in our own families, and our own parishes. And so, my brethren, let us to-day think about the feasts which we keep who live in this parish, in the Vale of White Horse, who worship in this church.
We all know well enough what these feasts are. First, there is our village feast, a day set apart in every year which is specially the feast day of this parish, and of all who belong to it. Then there are our harvest homes, which are not parish but family festivals; when the farmer and those who have worked with him, rejoice together over the garnering in of the fruits which God has given. Lastly, there is the feast which does not come every year, but at longer intervals, the feast of Scouring the White Horse, which is not the feast of one parish, but of the whole country side.
A few words as to the meaning of these feasts of ours.The first is the commemoration of the opening of this parish church, and its dedication to the worship of God. Your harvest homes you know the meaning of as well as I. The third is the commemoration of a great victory, won a thousand years ago by the king of this country against an army of heathen invaders. I remind you of these things because they have been too much forgotten, and we never can rightly use our feasts till we remember them better.
Well, now, remember what I have told you about the Jewish feasts, or rather take your Bibles and look for yourselves, whether I tell you the truth, when I say, that our feasts are just such feasts as those which you read of there. The feasts of the Jews were all either feasts in remembrance of the dedication of the Temple, or of thanksgiving for the good gifts of God, or of commemoration for some great national deliverance.
And ours are the very same. Do not think I am dealing unfairly with you in comparing our country feasts to the great national feasts of the Jews. It is not unfair to compare small things with great: families, parishes, nations, must stand or fall by the same laws. A society cannot do evil or good without reaping the fruits thereof, whether it be very small or very great. Do not think that I ought to speak of the great Christian festivals, Christmas and Easter; they are better understood and kept, though very badly as yet. I believe I am taking the right way to make you understand and keep these world-wide Christian feasts properly by bringing you down to these common insignificant feasts of ours, which we, the members of this parish and congregation, have power over; which we can make good or evil; for the use or abuse of which we shall be called to account by God.
For “thus saith the Lord,” to us as He said to the Jews, “these are my feasts.” They are his, my brethren, whether we like it or not; they are his, though we may try to make them ours, and so make them the devil’s. There is no neutral ground, no escape from the hard fact. Let us see now if we cannot accept them, and use them as his. Let us see whether they will be less or more to us if we do so. We shall find the trial worth making, I think, in the end.
They are his feasts: how, then, can we come to them as his guests – guests who will be pleasing to him, who will use his feasts as he would have us? For if we go to a man’s feast, the first thing we have to do is to go in such a temper and such a dress as will make us acceptable guests; and shall we do less as the guests of God?
The first thing, then, we have to consider is the temper, the state of mind in which we should go to our feasts; and here, as I said before, the Bible tells us all we want to know. The temper which he required of the Jews, he will require of us. At his feasts we have specially two things to do, to remember and to rejoice. To remember the loving-kindness which he has shown to our fathers and to us, in delivering us many a time from the hand of enemies who were stronger than we; in giving us a Church, where for many hundred years the prayers of generation after generation had gone up to him, the God of all truth; in giving us the rich increase of his earth, year after year. Remembering these things, then, we are to keep the feast in humility, for our own unworthiness; in thankfulness, for his tender care and unbounded love.
And we are also to rejoice before him, as members of a family, of a parish, of a country; thinking, therefore, of others, and not of ourselves; making up quarrels, exercising hospitality to all according to our means, seeking to do kindnesses to all who need them, to our debtors, to the oppressed and unfortunate amongst us, to the widows, the fatherless, and the stranger; and in all ways strengthening and deepening the bond which binds us to one another, and to him.
This, my brethren, is the temper and state of mind which he required of the Jews of old, and which he requires of us at these times especially. Think what our feasts would be, what our whole lives would be, if we tried to remember and to rejoice before the Lord thus.
If we come to his feasts in this temper, my brethren, it matters comparatively little what our outward acts of rejoicing may be. If our hearts are right towards the Lord of the feast and to one another, our dress and actions are surely right also, or will soon become so. Nevertheless, this is a matter of plain, practical importance, and I am not going to shrink from it. I wish to consider with you, how we keep his feasts and our feasts now; whether our method of keeping them is a true expression of that temper and spirit in which they ought to be kept, whether any thing better can be suggested.
On these points, as I said above, we have not the same help which we had before. We know very little of how the Jews rejoiced; we may be sure that we are not meant to copy the little we do know, such as the eating of a lamb roasted whole with unleavened bread. It is left for us to find out, and to do, such acts as may be done by those who are humble, and thankful, and loving in heart, towards God and towards each other.
Now there is one thing which one sees at once is wanting in our celebration of these feasts. In the times when they were established, it was the chief act of them, that which gave meaning to them, and kept alive that meaning. We have neglected and disused it, and so they have become all but meaningless to us, mere seasons in which we are to enjoy more pleasures than in ordinary times. This thing which we have forgotten is public fellow-worship, and it ought to be restored as soon as possible. At the yearly meetings of many of your benefit and other clubs, the members go all together to the church, and there worship before attending to their business and their pleasure. Why should not a parish do the same? I know nothing which would so easily and so effectually raise the tone of our village feast as the regular celebration of worship on that day, in the Church, the dedication and consecration of which, to the worship of God, was the cause of the holiday.
In one respect I believe that we are, to some extent, still keeping the feast as we ought. I believe that on that day young people who were born in the parish and have left it, make a point, if possible, of getting back to see their fathers and mothers, and friends, and to revive old associations, often bringing with them part of their wages or some present; that many of the silly quarrels and feuds which have arisen during the year are then set to rest; that the residents in the parish make some exertion to welcome their visitors hospitably, and that a general kindly feeling is common throughout the parish. I believe that this is still so, to some extent; but I fear that it is becoming less and less so. My brethren, all this is right, and true, and honest; this is the way to keep God’s feasts; you can’t go too far in this direction (except by spending more money than you can afford, which is always wrong). But the more you can deepen old family and local ties on these occasions, the more you can heal up quarrels, and forgive debts (both other debts, and money debts – remember that there is no duty more insisted on in God’s Word than this of forgiving money debts at these times), and exercise hospitality one to another without grudging, the more will you be keeping God’s feasts as he would have you keep them.
Then there are the sports for which prizes are given. There is no need to specify them all, and I shall therefore only speak of the one which is considered the most objectionable – which many people think should be stopped altogether – I mean wrestling. Whatever I may say on this will apply to all the rest. Now, my brethren, are wrestling matches a proper way of keeping God’s feasts? That is the question we have to answer.
The object of wrestling and of all other athletic sports is to strengthen men’s bodies, and to teach them to use their strength readily, to keep their tempers, to endure fatigue and pain. These are all noble ends, my brethren. God gives us few more valuable gifts than strength of body, and courage, and endurance – to you labouring men they are beyond all price. We ought to cultivate them in all right ways, for they are given us to protect the weak, to subdue the earth, to fight for our homes and country if necessary.
Therefore I say that wrestling, inasmuch as it is a severe trial of strength, temper, and endurance, may be, and ought to be, one of many right and proper ways of rejoicing before God at these feasts. And I say to any man who has strength for it, and can keep his temper, and carries away no vain or proud thoughts if he wins, and no angry or revengeful thoughts if he loses, play by all means. No doubt there are men who ought not to play, who ought to abstain wholly from these games, as some men ought to abstain wholly from drink, who cannot use such things temperately, which is the more worthy and manly way – men so constituted that these sort of games rouse all that is brutal in their natures, others who become braggarts and bullies from success in them. To such men (and each of you can easily find out whether he is such a man) I say abstain wholly.
Having said this, brethren, I must add that great changes should be made in the conduct or management of these games. They should never, on any pretence or plea whatever, be left in the hands of publicans. You should always endeavour to play in sides (as is, I believe, the most common custom) for your county or your parish, and not for yourselves, as you are much more likely in that way to play bravely and fairly. Money prizes should be if possible avoided, for money is the lowest motive for which men can undertake any work or any game. And lastly, every one of you should exercise his whole strength and influence in putting down at once all brutality and bluster and foul play.
As to the rest of the amusements, the visiting shows, the eating and drinking, the dancing and music, I believe them all in themselves to be lawful and right in the sight of God, and fit things to do when we are rejoicing before Him. But, my brethren, I do not think them lawful and right, or fit things to be done before anybody but the devil, when they end in such scenes as, I fear – as I know – they often do end in at our feasts. No wonder that the feasts are falling off year by year; that they cease to interest decent and respectable people who used to care about them, when they are deliberately turned by some into scenes of drunkenness and profligacy, which can scarcely be surpassed amongst savages and heathens.
I need not dwell on this, for you all know well enough what I mean. You all know, too – the voice within you tells each of you plainly enough – the moment you are going beyond the proper limits in these matters. It is no use to lay down rules on such subjects. Every man and every woman must be a law to themselves. One can do safely what would ruin another. And here again I say, as I said before, the use of these things is right and good, and what God approves of, who in his infinite love has given us the power of enjoying all these things, and the things themselves to enjoy – music, and dancing, and pleasant company, and food and drink. The abuse of them is of the devil, and destroys body and soul.
I beseech you all to think of what I have said, and endeavour, each in your own way, to retain, or to bring back, if necessary, God’s feasts into your own parishes. You, old and grown-up men and women, by living soberly and righteously; never making mischief, or quarrelling; treating your children with forbearance and love, doing your own work, and helping others to do theirs. To you young men, I say, as Solomon said, rejoice in your youth; rejoice in your strength of body, and elasticity of spirits, and the courage which follows from these; but remember that for these gifts you will be judged – not condemned, mind, but judged. You will have to show before a Judge who knoweth your inmost hearts, that you have used these his great gifts well; that you have been pure, and manly, and true.
And to you, young women, I can but say the same. Beauty, and purity, and youth, and merry light hearts, and all the numberless attractions which have been poured upon you, are tremendous influences for good or evil, – gifts for which you will have to give an account. Rejoice in them; use them freely; but avoid, as you would death itself, all rivalry with one another, all attempts to exercise power over men you do not care for, every light thought, and word, and look. For the light word or look is but a step from the impure, and the experience of the whole world is telling you
But now to conclude. You may ask, how are we all to keep these things in mind? how, when we are all met together to enjoy ourselves, can we be ever on the watch for this evil, which you say is so near us? You cannot, my brethren; but One is with you, is in you, who can and will, if you will let him.
Men found this out in the old time, and have felt it and known it ever since. Three thousand years ago this truth dawned upon the old Psalmist, and struck him with awe. He struggled with it; he tried to escape from it, but in vain. “Whither shall I go then,” he says, “from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee then from thy presence? If I go up to heaven, Thou art there: if I go down to hell, Thou art there also. If I take the wings of the morning, and reside in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there also shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.”
Is any of us stronger or wiser than the Psalmist? Is there any place for us to flee to, which was not open to him? My brethren, had we not better make up our minds to accept and acknowledge the truth, to which our own consciences bear witness; that, not only in heaven, and in hell, and in the uttermost parts of sea and earth, He is present, but that in the inmost recesses of our own hearts there is no escape from his Spirit – that He is there also, sustaining us, pleading with us, punishing us.
We know it by the regret we feel for time wasted and opportunities neglected; by the loathing coming back to us, time after time, for our every untrue or mean thought, word, or deed; by every longing after truth, and righteousness, and purity, which stirs our sluggish souls. By all these things, and in a thousand other ways, we feel it, we know it.
Let us, then, come to our feasts owning this, and giving ourselves up to his guidance. At first it will be hard work; our will and spirits will be like a lump of ice in a man’s hand, which yields but slowly to the warm pressure. But do not despair; throw yourselves on his guidance, and he will guide you, he will hide you under his wings, you shall be safe under his feathers, his faithfulness and truth shall be your shield and buckler.
The ice will melt into water, and the water will lie there in the hollow of the hand, moving at the slightest motion, obeying every impulse which is given to it.
My brethren, the Spirit of God which is in every one of us – the Spirit of truth and love unchangeable – will take possession of our spirits, if we will but let him, and turn not only our feasts into feasts of the Lord, but our whole lives into the lives of children of God, and joint-heirs of heaven with his Son.
The earliest authentic historical notices of the White Horse are, so far as I am aware, —
1st. A Cartulary of the Abbey of Abingdon, now in the British Museum, of the time of Henry II., the exact date of it being, it is believed, A.D. 1171. It runs as follows: “Consuetudinis apud Anglos tunc erat, ut monachi qui vellent pecuniarum patrimoniorum qui forent susceptibiles, ipsisque fruentes quomodo placeret dispensarent. Unde et in Abbendonia duo, Leofricus et Godricus Cild appellati, quorum unus Godricus, Spersholt juxta locum qui vulgo mons Albi Equi nuncupatur, alter Leofricus Hwitceorce super flumen Tamisie maneria sita patrimoniali jure obtinebant,” &c.
2dly. Another Cartulary of the same Abbey, of the reign of Richard I., which runs as follows: “Prope montem ubi ad Album Equum scanditur, ab antiquo tempore Ecclesia ista manerium Offentum appellatum in dominio possidet, juxta quod villa X hidarum adjacet ex jure Ecclesi? quam Speresholt nominavit,” &c.
3dly. An entry on the Close Rolls, 42 Ed. III., or A.D. 1368-9: – “Gerard de l’Isle tient en la vale de White Horse one fee,” &c. See Arch?ologia, vol. xxxi. p. 290. Letter from William Thoms, Esq. to J. Y. Ackerman, Esq., Secretary.
Coming down to comparatively modern times, it is curious that so little notice should have been taken of the White Horse by our antiquaries. Wise, in his Letter to Dr. Mead (1738), which has been already quoted from in the text, regrets this, and then adds: “Leland’s journey does not seem to have carried him this way, nor does Camden here go out of the other’s track; though he mentions, upon another occasion, and by the bye, The White Horse; but in such a manner, that I could wish, for his own sake, he had passed it over in silence with the rest. For his own account is altogether so unbecoming so faithful and accurate an author, insinuating to his readers that it has no existence but in the imagination of country people. ‘The Thames,’ says he, ‘falls into a valley, which they call The Vale of White Horse, from I know not what shape of a Horse fancied on the side of a whitish Hill.’ Much nearer to the truth is Mr. Aubrey, however wide of the mark, who, in the additions to the Britannia, says: ‘I leave others to determine, whether the White Horse on the Hill was made by Hengist, since the Horse was the arms or figure in Hengist’s standard.’ The author of a ‘Tour through England,’ is a little more particular, though he leaves us as much in the dark about the antiquity and design of it. ‘Between this town of Marlborow and Abingdon, is the Vale of White Horse. The inhabitants tell a great many fabulous stories of the original of its name; but there is nothing of foundation in them, that I could find. The whole of the story is this: Looking south from the Vale, we see a trench cut on the side of a high, green hill, in the shape of a horse, and not ill-shaped neither; the trench is about a yard deep, and filled almost up with chalk, so that at a distance you see the exact shape of a White Horse, but so large, as to take up near an acre of ground, some say almost two acres. From this figure, the Hill is called in our maps, White Horse Hill, and the low or flat country under it the Vale of White Horse.’ (See pp. 30, 31.)
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