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Testimony in High Places: The Conversion of Bertram Wodehouse Currie*

  • John Powell

The role of religion in history is an inherently difficult topic. Historians have rightly approached it with caution. Nevertheless, excessive caution has sometimes impaired our understanding of both individuals and broad historical developments. Ignoring personal religious experiences, especially when they have followed deliberate conversions, may be more dangerous to the truth than imperfectly assessing those experiences. I am not proposing an interdisciplinary approach, although that too is needed. Rather, I am suggesting that the religious experience of individuals be more fully incorporated, where possible, into traditional historical writings. It is in this spirit that I here examine the 1896 conversion, from agnosticism to Catholicism, of the influential London banker, Bertram Wodehouse Currie.

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An early version of this paper was delivered at the Sixty-fifth Annual Meeting of the Southwestern Social Science Association, Dallas, Texas, March 1987.

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1 Mary Douglas argues persuasively that modernization need not inhibit either religious experience or inquiry. See ‘The Effects of Modernization on Religious Change.’ Daedalus 111 (1982): 119.

2 Gladstone to Louisa Currie, 7 May 1897, in Currie, Recollections, 1:x; Arthur, Godley, Reminiscences of Lord Kilbracken (London: Macmillan, 1931), pp. 165166; Arthur, Elliot, The Life of George Joachim, First Viscount Goschen, 1831-1907, 2 vols. (London: Longmans, Green and Company, 1911), 2: 283; Arnold, P. Kaminsky, The India Office, 1880-1910 (New York, Greenwood Press, 1986), p. 203, n. 20.

3 Fulford, Glyn's, p. 201.

4 For further details see Fulford, Glyn's, pp. 207-217; Recollections, 2: 218-226; correspondence between Currie, Gladstone, and Algernon West, 13-26 August 1892, Gladstone Papers, British Library, Add. MS. 44515, ff. 141-295.

5 Coombe Warren was built in 1868 by John Galsworthy senior. It was later immortalized in The Forsyte Saga by his famous son, who spent his first seven years there. James, Gindin, John Galsworthy's Life and Art, An Alien's Fortress (New York: Macmillan, 1987), pp. 2324; Mabel, E. Reynolds, Memories of John Galsworthy (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1936), pp. 1314.

6 Testimony. For the complete text of Currie's testimony, see appendix.

7 Currie, A Memorial, pp. 2-3.

8 Testimony. Although Louisa Currie's 83-page A Memorial deals almost exclusively with the final four months of Bertram Currie's life, it is impossible to determine from its pages exactly when and where he was received into the church. ‘We are expected in Mount Street,’ she wrote. ‘Father Eyre saw me at once. I left B. with him, and went into the church, and there remained before the altar of the Sacred Heart, making acts of hope and acts of petition, that the favour that had been so long and so earnestly implored, might be granted.’ Pp. 26-27.

10 For a survey of the various explanations of conversion, see Walter, E. Conn, ed. Conversion, Perspectives on Personal and Social Transformation (New York: Alba House, 1978), particularly Robert H. Thouless, ‘The Psychology of Conversion,’ pp. 137147.

11 Edward, Norman, The English Catholic Church in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), p. 1. Note G.I.T. Machin's review in the English Historical Review, 102 (1987): 244245.

12 James, Varieties, pp. 229-230.

13 Philip, Yancey, ‘The Crayon Man,Christianity Today, 6 February 1987, pp. 1718.

14 Louisa Currie to Kimberley, 7 February 1897, Kimberley Papers, Norfolk and Norwich Record Office, 15/K2/21.

15 Louisa Currie to Gladstone, 6 May 1987, Gladstone Papers, British Library, Add. MS. 44525, ff. 199-200; Gladstone to Louisa Currie, 7 May 1987, in Currie, Recollections, IX.

16 Currie, A Memorial, pp. viii, 49-50.

17 Kimberley recorded in his memoirs, for instance, that a ‘strong sense of duty’ has been the'touchstone’ of his life. Kimberley Memoirs, Rosebery Papers, National Library of Scotland MS.10186, p. 281. George Russell echoed the view of most when he wrote that Kimberley was ‘one of the most high-minded men I ever knew.’ Russell to 2nd Earl of Kimberley, 8 April 1902, Kimberley Papers, Norfolk and Norwich Record Office 15/K2/21.

18 Currie, A Memorial, pp. v-viii; Currie, Recollections, introduction.

19 The two testimonies are recorded together in Currie, A Memorial, pp. v-xi.

20 Currie, A Memorial, p. 17.

21 James, Varieties, p. 197.

22 Hubert, Jedin and John, Dolan, eds. The Church in the Industrial Age, transl. Margit Resch (New York: Crossroad, 1981), pp. 2425.

23 René, Kollar, ‘Conversion to Roman Catholicism and the Challenge to Ecumenism’, Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 23 (1986): 277278; Norman, The English Catholic Church, pp. 364-372; Derek Holmes, J., More Roman than Rome: English Catholicism in the Nineteenth Century (London: Burnsand Oates, 1978), pp. 218223.

24 Testimony.

25 Parspartis, Side-Lights, pp. 467-468.

26 Testimony; Hussey Packe, Diary, 3 November 1872, Packe Papers, Leicestershire Record Office MS. 1749 2/9; Parspartis, Side-Lights, pp. 468-469.

27 Parspartis, Side-Lights, p. 469.

28 Testimony. Even before his conversion, Currie had had a ‘beautiful little chapel’ built at Minley Manor, the Currie home on Bagshot Heath. Currie, A Memorial, p. 20.

29 Currie, A Memorial, p. 17.

30 Ibid., pp. 43-44.

31 Ibid., p. 18.

32 Agatha, Ramm, ‘Gladstone's Religion,The Historical Journal, 28 (1985): 327.

33 Gardiner, A. G., The Life of Sir William Harcourt, 2 vols. (London: Constable, 1923), 1: 273279.

34 Robert, Rhodes James, Rosebery, A Biography of Archibald Philip, Fifth Earl of Rosebery (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1963), pp. 219221.

35 Arthur Godley to Rosebery, 24 April 1907, loose in Currie, A Memorial, National Library of Scotland. See Rosebery's annotation on p. 76.

36 Currie; Recollections, 1:x.

37 Kimberley, Notebook of Quotations [1886-1902?], Kimberley Papers, Norfolk and Norwich Record Office, 15/K2/12.

38 James, Varieties, p. 498.

* An early version of this paper was delivered at the Sixty-fifth Annual Meeting of the Southwestern Social Science Association, Dallas, Texas, March 1987.

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British Catholic History
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