A Letter From A Father
When I was in my twenties, my paternal grandmother gave me a brief article concerning a letter written by the English novelist, Charles Dickens (1812-1870) to his youngest son when he left home in 1868 to join an older brother in Australia. In the letter, Dickens wrote as follows: “I put a New Testament among your books for the very same reason, and with the same hopes, that made me write an easy account of it for you when you were a little child. Because it is the best book that ever was or will be known in the world.”
I have misplaced the article from my grandmother and have regretted such deeply. Such being the case, imagine the delight that filled my soul when, during a visit to a used book store in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh, I came across a volume, The Life of Our Lord, by Charles Dickens! It was written during the years 1846-1849 for his children and was not published until 1934. The manuscript was sacredly guarded as a precious family secret for eighty-five years and was not given approval for publication until Dickens’ youngest son, Sir Henry Dickens, did such in his will. Sir Henry died in 1933. Sir Henry’s widow and children, through a majority decision, assumed the right to permit its publication, and The Life of Our Lord by Charles Dickens was given to the world. This Limited Edition of 2387 copies was published by Simon and Schuster in 1934.
During his lifetime, Dickens refused publication of The Life of Our Lord, because he “felt that it was a personal letter to his own children, and feared that a public disclosure of so intimate a document might involve the possibility of attack and defense of his deepest religious convictions” (vii). In another letter to John M. Makeham, who had accused him of irreverence in a passage in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dickens wrote: “I have always striven in my writings to express veneration for the life and lessons of our Saviour, because I feel it; and because I rewrote that history for my children–everyone of whom knew it from having it repeated to them–long before they could read, and almost as soon as they could speak” (v-vi). Charles Dickens wrote his simplistic account of the life of Jesus (The Life of Our Lord) at about the time he wrote his popular work, David Copperfield. At the time when The Life of Our Lord was finished (1849), Dickens had eight children ranging in age from twelve to four, except Sydney who, at the time, was two years old, and Henry Fielding (Sir Henry), who was born in January 1849. Dickens decided to write his narrative of the life of Christ to answer his children’s questions about religion and faith.
Dickens’ wife’s sister, Georgina Hogarth, in a letter to Mrs. James T. Fields, recorded the attitude of Charles Dickens toward this work, The Life of Our Lord. She wrote:
I must tell you about the beautiful little New Testament which he wrote for his children. . . . He wrote it years ago, when his elder children were quite little. It is about sixteen short chapters, chiefly adapted from St. Luke’s gospel, most beautiful, most touching, most simple. . . . I used to read it to the little boys in MS. before they were old enough to read writing themselves. . . . After his death the original Ms. became mine. . . . It was one of his private papers, which were left to me. So I gave it at once to Mamie, who was, I thought, the most natural and proper possessor of it, as being his daughter. (viii-ix)
Dickens’ The Life of Our Lord begins with the following:
My Dear Children, I am very anxious that you should know something about the History of Jesus Christ. For everybody ought to know about Him. No one ever lived, who was so good, so kind, so gentle, and so sorry for all people who did wrong or were in any way ill or miserable. . . . And as He is now in Heaven, where we hope to go, and all to meet each other after we are dead, and there be happy always together, you never can think what a good place Heaven is, without knowing who he was and what he did. (3)
The narrative concludes with reference to the Ascension of Jesus and includes the following:
. . . And while they gazed into the bright blue sky . . . two white-robed angels appeared . . . and told them that as they had seen Christ ascend to Heaven, so He would, one day, come descending from it, to judge the world. When Christ was seen no more, the Apostles began to teach the People as He had commanded them. . . . [T]hey wandered into all countries, telling the People of Christ’s Life and Death–and of the Lessons he had taught–and baptizing them in Christ’s name. (120)
Some of Charles Dickens’ final words in his unique letter to his children include the following:
Wherever they [i.e. the disciples of Christ] went, they were persecuted and cruelly treated. . . . [O]ne man named Saul . . . who had held the clothes of some barbarous persons who pelted one of the Christians named Stephen, to death with stones, was always active in doing them harm. But God turned Saul’s heart afterwards . . . as he was traveling to Damascus to find out some Christians who were there, and drag them to prison, there shone about him a great light from Heaven; a voice cried, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me!” and he was struck down. . . . When they raised him, they found he was blind; and so he remained three days, neither eating nor drinking, until one of the Christians (sent to him. . .) restored his sight in the name of Jesus Christ. After which, he became a Christian, and preached, and taught, and believed with the apostles, and did great service.
They took the name of Christians from Our Saviour Christ. . . . Nothing would silence them, or terrify them . . . for they knew that if they did their duty, they would go to Heaven. . . . [T]housands upon thousands of Christians sprung up and taught the people and were cruelly killed, and were succeeded by other Christians, until the Religion gradually became the great religion of the World. (121-23)
The last paragraph of what Dickens called this “easy account” of the life and lessons of Our Savior for his (i.e. Dickens’) children contains the following appeal to his children:
Remember!–It is christianity To Do Good, always–even to those who do evil to us. . . . It is christianity to be gentle, merciful, and forgiving, and to keep those qualities quiet in our own hearts, and never make a boast of them . . . humbly trying to do right in everything. If we do this, and remember the life and lessons of Our Lord Jesus Christ . . .we may confidently hope that God will forgive us our sins and mistakes, and enable us to live and die in Peace. (123-24)
This classic volume from the prolific English novelist concludes with two simple children’s prayers, one of which closes with the sentiment: “. . .[P]reserve us all, this night, and for evermore, through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN” (128). As great a writer as Dickens was, he was even greater as a father because he taught his children about the greatest life ever lived and He who lived it–Jesus Christ.
That Your Joy May Be Full
Dickens, Charles. The Life of Our Lord. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1934.