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Charles Webster Leadbeater 1854-1934 
A Biographical Study
by Gregory John Tillett
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Chapter 3: The Anglican Ministry

            Leadbeater said he was led to enter the ministry of the Church of England by the influence of his mother, a disciple and friend - so he said - of the eminent Tractarian, Dr Edward Pusey.  But, if the inspiration came from such a High Church source, one is led to wonder why it found its fulfilment in a Diocese and in a Parish neither of which was High Church, let alone Anglo-Catholic.  The explanation lies in the sources of influence available to establish Leadbeater, lacking a University degree or even a good education, in the Church.

            Leadbeater's father's sister, Mary, had married William Wolfe Capes, an eminent churchman in the Diocese of Winchester.  Capes represented almost everything the Established Church represented in the nineteenth century. [1]  Born in 1834, he was educated at St Paul's School, London, and Queen's College, Oxford, of which he became a Fellow and Tutor, and subsequently Reader in Ancient History.  Ordained in 1868, he was appointed Rector of the Parish of Bramshott in the Diocese of Winchester in 1869, remaining there until 1901.  He spent a minimum amount of time in his parish, being heavily involved in the life of Queen's College, and later of Herford College, of which he was also a Fellow and Tutor.  In addition to his


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ecclesiastical and academic duties, Capes was also a noted author, producing learned works on the early Roman Empire, Stoicism, university life in ancient Athens, and on the works of Livy.  Capes was an extremely wealthy man, and the older residents of Bramshott still refer to large areas of their town as "Canon Capes' land".

            The Parish of which Capes was Rector was under the patronage of Queen's College, Oxford, and all the Rectors and Curates - with the exception of Leadbeater - were graduates of that College.  Bramshott lies nine miles from Petersfield in Hampshire, and in 1878 had a population of 1,411.  The Church, dedicated to St Mary, was built in 1872 at a cost of two thousand two hundred pounds, and then seated three hundred people.  Until 1900 women sat in the north aisle, men in the south, and families and children in the nave.  The Rector received an annual income of eight hundred and twenty pounds, plus the Rectory.  A school had been built in 1833, and was nationalized in 1871;   by 1880 it had sixty pupils.  Canon Capes had also built four houses for his curates.  His influence on the parish was such that the history of Bramshott describes his time there as "the age of Canon Capes". [2]

            One can assume that Leadbeater and his mother went to live in Bramshott at Capes' invitation some time


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before he was to be ordained;  Jinarajadasa in a biographical note in the archives of the Esoteric Section of the Theosophical Society at Adyar says Leadbeater was in Bramshott for eighteen months as a lay reader whilst completing preparations for his ordination. [3]  There was a certain amount of reading to be done.  In the Diocese of Winchester at that time candidates for ordination were required to be graduates of the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Durham or Dublin, or to be "Literates".  Literates were candidates for ordination who lacked a University degree and were admitted on special application.  They were required to pass a preliminary examination, and to satisfy the Bishop and his chaplains of their suitability.  The examinations were held twice yearly, at Easter and in October;  presumably Leadbeater sat for his examination in October, 1878, since he was ordained to the Diaconate in the Parish Church of St Andrew, at Farnham, on St Thomas' Day, December 21, of that year, by the Right Reverend Edward Harold Browne, D.D., Lord Bishop of Winchester.

            The preliminary examination consisted of six sections covering the Old and New Testaments (the latter in Greek), the Creeds and the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, the Prayer Book, "selected portions" of ecclesiastical history, and a chosen work from an ecclesiastical writer in Latin.  In 1878 the examination


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covered the Book of Psalms, the Gospel according to Mathew, and Corinthians I, together with the history of the Church to the time of the Council of Nicaea, and the history of the English Church 1625-1662, and the Commonitorium of Vincentii Lerinensis. (4]

            Having been ordained Deacon, and after paying a fee of thirteen shillings and seven pence, Leadbeater was licenced as Assistant Stipendary Curate in the Parish of Brarnshott, charged by the Bishop with "preaching the Word of God, and in reading the Common Prayers and performing all other Ecclesiastical duties" belonging to his office.  His annual stipend was to be one hundred and twenty pounds, paid quarterly, and he was directed to reside in the parish.  Stipendary assistant curates were traditionally placed in charge of a Parish when the Rector was responsible for a number of parishes, but by 1878 assistant curates were almost entirely appointed to large parishes to assist the incumbent, who paid their stipends, assisted by grants from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners and associations like the Society for Promoting the Employment of Additional Curates.  By 1873 the average stipend for an assistant curate was one  hundred and twenty-nine pounds five shillings and eight pence.  Leadbeater's income was somewhat less than he might have expected to receive, especially considering the wealthy parish into which he had been appointed.  He lived with his


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mother in a cottage, "Hartford", about a quarter of a mile from the small village of Liphook, just outside Bramshott.   The house had been built by Capes in 1861 as a residence for a curate. [5]

            On St Thomas' Day, 1879, after serving a year as Deacon, Leadbeater was ordained to the Priesthood in St Andrew's Church, Farnham, by Bishop Browne.  Thirteen other Priests and sixteen Deacons were ordained that day, amongst them John Wallace Kidston, B.A., M.A., B.C.L., a graduate of Queen's College, Oxford, who was also appointed Curate of Bramshott.  Initially Kidston lived in a house in the same road as "Hartford".

            As a Curate, Leadbeater was responsible for many of the routine duties involved in parish life:  marriages, baptisms, funerals, conducting Morning and Evening Prayer, preaching, visiting the sick and conducting the Sunday School, as well as providing religious instruction for children preparing for confirmation.  It cannot have been a busy life, especially after the arrival of Mr Kidston, even with the long absences of Canon Capes.  But Leadbeater became increasingly involved with activities for children in the parish;  he taught singing, organized clubs, and groups for them, ran the Sunday School, and was also responsible for the Church school.  And he gathered about him a small group


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of boys with whom he developed especially close relationships, and this established a pattern which was to continue throughout his life.

            During his years at Bramshott, Leadbeater also developed another interest which was to continue;  the investigation of the supernatural.

            "Occasionally there would appear in some newspaper an account of the appearance of a ghost, or a curious happening in a haunted house;  and whenever anything of that sort came to my notice, I promptly travelled down to the scene of action, interrogated any witnesses that I could find, and spent a good deal of time and trouble in endeavouring personally to encounter the spectral visitant.   Of course, in a large number of instances, I drew a blank;  either there was no evidence worth mentioning, or the ghost declined to appear when he was wanted." [6]

            Undeterred by such difficulties, and becoming more and more involved in such research, Leadbeater was personally convinced of the existence of psychical phenomena.

            " ....among the wearisome monotony of many failures


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there came sometimes a bright oasis of definite success, and I personally collected an amount of direct evidence which would have absolutely convinced me, if I had needed convincing." [70]

            In addition to his interest in "spectral visitants", Leadbeater also undertook investigations into cases of "second sight", and travelled extensively in the Scottish Highlands examining instances and taking evidence. [8]   He said that this interest in the supernatural began when preparing young people for confirmation and found that orthodox theology could not provide the answers to their questions.  He had been led to wonder where the answers lay, and to explore many unorthodox theories.

            But he had not heard of spiritualism, despite its vogue in Victorian England, until he read an article in the Daily Telegraph by the Reverend Maurice Davies describing seances held by D.D. Home for the Emperor Napoleon III of France. [9]  This drew his attention to the techniques of table-rapping and moving.  Amazed by the claims in the article, Leadbeater read it aloud to his mother and expressed his doubts at what was alleged to have happened.  The article had concluded with a challenge to its readers:  Davies suggested that his claims could be verified by a gathering of a few friends in a darkened room at which hands


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were laid on a table, or on the brim of a silk hat resting on a table.  Davies claimed that either the table or the hat would begin to move, thus demonstrating the existence of "a force not under the control of anyone present".  Leadbeater and his mother decided to experiment that evening.

            "Accordingly, I took a small round table with a central leg, the normal vocation of which was to support a flower-pot containing a great arum lily.  I brought my own silk hat from the stand in the hall, and placed it on the table, and we put our hands on the brim as described.  The only person present, besides my mother and myself was a small boy of about twelve, who, as we afterwards discovered, was a powerful physical medium;   but I knew nothing about mediums then.  I do not think that any of us expected any result whatever, and I know I was immensely surprised when the hat gave a gentle but decided half turn on the polished surface of the table.  Each of us thought the other must have moved it consciously, but it soon settled the question for us, for it twirled and gyrated so vigorously that it was difficult for us to keep our hands upon it." [10]

            But more was to cope:  the hat began to rise in the air as


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they lifted their hands, and eventually the table went up with it.

            "Here was my own familiar silk hat, which I never before suspected of any occult qualities, suspending itself mysteriously in the air from the tips of our fingers, and, not content with that defiance of the laws of gravity on its own account, attaching a table to its crown and lifting that also.  I looked down to the feet of the table;  they were about six inches from the carpet, and no human foot was touching them or near them.  I passed my own foot underneath, but there was certainly nothing there - nothing physically perceptible, at any rate." [11]

            The table and the hat continued their performance, rocking vigorously, until eventually the hat was thrown off the table to indicate that the experiment was to be concluded.  Unlike the average spiritualist of his day, Leadbeater did not attribute these activities to visitations from beyond the grave, but only to some "new force":

            "I was not myself thinking of the phenomenon in the least as a manifestation from the dead, but only as a discovery of a new force." [12]


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            Leadbeater was thus led into spiritualism, and in the direction of a philosophy which would account for "strange new forces" without recourse to supernatural visits from the deceased.  But, for the time being, and stimulated by his own experiment, Leadbeater began to explore the growing literature of spiritualism, and to investigate mediums.  He attended innumerable seances, and while certain that there was "a certain amount of fraud and still more stupidity", he was convinced that at least some of the manifestations were supernatural, and some of them "due to the action of those whom we call dead."

            Leadbeater was also engaging in spiritualist experiments with some of the boys in his parish.  In his volume of stories, The Perfume of Egypt, he recounts an adventure called "The Forsaken Temple" in which there is clear reference to his own work. [13]  The hero is living in a village and assisting the Rector with the choir and the Sunday school, and becomes particularly involved with two brothers, Lionel and Edgar St-Aubyn, who share his developing interests in spiritualism.  They are employed by him as "good physical mediums" in seances at his home.  There seems little doubt that Lionel and Edgar St-Aubyn were Leadbeater's two closest boys in Bramshott, James and Frank Matley.  The Matley brothers were taught, as were the boys in


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the story, music and singing by Leadbeater, and participated in seances with him.  James Matley left the only known account of Leadbeater's work in his parish.

            "When I first seem to know C.W.L. was one Saturday;  I was with two others boys, I suppose between nine and ten years old;  we had a dog and were going, with the aid of the dog, to catch a rabbit (I think the rabbit was fairly safe).   We met C.W.L. on the way, or rather he was with my brother on a small hill, and appeared to have been firing with a saloon pistol at some target;  he pointed the pistol at us and fired, and for fun I dropped down;  he having seen the real thing was I fancy not greatly alarmed.  The two came down to us and C.W.L. wanted to know what we were doing.   We explained and then C.W.L. told Frank that he thought it was time that I was taken in hand, and that he would find for me a nicer amusement than the one I had contemplated.  So there and then I was taken on, and from that time on we three were always together and became three brothers.  Only studies and such like interfered with our meetings, which were at 'Hartford.'" [14]

            Jim Matley and his brother used to spend all


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their spare time with Leadbeater:   in the evenings they learned songs or played euchre, on Saturdays they went for long walks or visited other towns, even Journeying to London on one occasion to attend the theatre, and occasionally boating on the River Wey.   Leadbeater also organized activities for other children in the parish, and established a branch of the "Union Jack Field Club".

            "I think it was a club in which you promised not to be cruel to any creature, and to report anything of interest that happened amongst the creatures about you.   Anyhow we at times with a crowd of boys would take walks into the Forest and across the Commons, collecting all sorts of specimens of natural history.  C.W.L. was of course a favourite with the boys, it was to these that he seemed to go and to have most to do with." [15]

            Leadbeater also established a branch of the Church Society, in which the members had to promise not to tell lies and to be "pure and good".  Meetings of the Church Society were held every fortnight, and the boys sang songs, told stories listened to readings, and then, consumed refreshments provided by Leadbeater, usually fruit, nuts, and cake.  Matley suggested that it was the refreshments as much as anything else which encouraged all the parish boys to try to get into


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the Society, and led to some jealousy with the children of the "fairly strong crowd of dissenters" who lived within the Parish.

            In addition to the Field Club and the Church Society, Leadbeater established a juvenile branch of the Church of England Temperance Society, which began in March, 1880, with James Matley as number one on the membership roll.  Leadbeater also had an interest in astronomy, and owned a twelve inch reflector telescope through which he used to gaze at the moon and stars, often spending the long summer evenings observing the heavens.  Occasionally he took some of his boys away on holidays, and on one trip took them to France;  he also taught them to swim, and organized various sports.  He was quite good at cricket and tennis.

            And, as Jim Matley recalled, Leadbeater also involved some of his boys in his developing interest in spiritualism.

            " ...C.W.L. used to go to a good few spiritualistic seances and one Easter we spent going to a number in London, to Mr Husk where the famous Irresistable [sic] was, also to Eglinton.  He had Husk down to "Hartford" one night for a seance;  I think


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that a Mr Crowther came as well as we three.  We had quite a good evening and lots of phenomena." [16]

            Leadbeater's interest in spiritualism increased after the death of his mother on May 24, 1882.  She was described in her death certificate as "Widow of Charles Leadbeater, cashier to railway contractors", and died from a chronic ulcer of the stomach which led to a haemorrhage into the stomach and bowels.  Leadbeater himself was present at her death, but for some reason he did not register it until June 28.   Like so many others who have been drawn into spiritualism, Leadbeater was encouraged to a deeper involvement after the death of a relative, and as a result of a feeling of meaninglessness and uncertainty in his life.

            Spiritualism, as Ronald Pearsall commented:

            " ...was tailor made for the nineteenth century.  Beneath the rationalism and the optimism of Victorian England, there was a wide feeling of unease.  God had been dismissed from His universe, and had left a yawning chasm.... Spiritualism was a haven for the repressed, the unsatisfied and the bereaved, and was held together only by commitment


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and a desire to believe." [17]

            Spiritualism had established itself in the latter half of the nineteenth century, stimulated by fascination with the phenomena produced by the Fox family of Rochester, New York, who from 1848 onwards produced a series of "inexplicable" rappings and other marvels.  It caught the interest of the age, and of Leadbeater.  Also in 1848 Catherine Crowe published a book that remained one of Leadbeater's favourites:  The Night Side of Nature was a mixture of myth, the supernatural and psychic phenomena.[18]  By 1852 the first medium had travelled to England from America, and began an enthusiastic interest in table rappings, ghostly knocks and seances.

            Essentially the appeal of spiritualism lay in its claim to provide practical proof of the immortality of the soul:  it could demonstrate that the "dead" did not die by making them available for consultation with the living.  It also promised answers to all manner of questions, since the dead were assumed to have transcended the normal limitations of human knowledge.  Accordingly, they could know all that the living knew, and everything else besides.  Such was the success of the phenomenon that by 1885 the first wholly spiritualist newspaper, the Yorkshire Spiritual Telegraph, had been established in England.


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            The earliest phenomena of spiritualism were table turning and rapping, a simple manifestation in which the sitters joined hands on the top of a table and were rewarded by inexplicable movements of the table, or mysterious rappings from beneath it.   This comparatively primitive technique gradually developed into the more sophisticated seance, a gathering of people centred on a medium, who would fall into a trance and be taken over by a spirit.  Seances produced all manner of phenomena:  messages via the medium, messages in which the spirit controlling the medium used the medium's vocal cords, direct voice messages (in which the spirit's voice was heard to come from another part of the room, or via a trumpet provided for that purpose), appearances of spirit forms, materializations and even the manifestations of a spiritual "substance" known as "ectoplasm".  Apports - material objects miraculously brought into the room - also occasionally appeared.  Various types of phenomena passed through phases of popularity:  one year, spirit photography, with shadowy forms materializing themselves onto sealed photographic plates;  another year, slate writing with messages appearing mysteriously on sealed slates.  Even levitation and conversations in the language of the Martians were not unknown. [19]

            In the same year as his mother's death and in the


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midst of his spiritualist explorations, Leadbeater joined the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, an Anglo-Catholic movement which had been founded in 1862 and dedicated itself to increasing devotion to the Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist.  The Confraternity was actively opposed by the mainly Protestant hierarchy of the Church of England, and operated in virtual secrecy.  It proclaimed a number of doctrines which, whilst not unknown in the Church of England today, were regarded as radical, even heretical, in 1882:  these included prayers for the dead, the use of Eucharistric vestments, the doctrine of the Sacrifice of the Mass, fasting Communion, and the Real Presence of Christ in Holy Communion. [20]  It remains a mystery as to why Leadbeater should have joined the Confraternity;  not only was he a Curate in a distinctly Low Church Parish, but he was also in the midst of explorations into spiritualism.  There was no branch of the Confraternity in the Diocese of Winchester, and so Leadbeater, who had become Priest Associate number 1331, was attached to the South Kensington Chapter. [21]

            The question of Leadbeater's theological knowledge and attitude is one which became important in later years, especially when he began his explorations of Christian origins and doctrine, and began work within what became the Liberal Catholic Church.   His preparation for


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ordination in the Church of England involved very little theological study as such, and his published works suggest a very limited understanding of either Christian doctrine in the general sense or of the teachings of the Church of England in particular.  He wrote two books concerned specifically with Christian theology - The Christian Creed, originally published in 1899 [22], and a work, never published in full, which in manuscript was called An Enquiry Into the Failure of Christianity. [23]  Neither indicates any deep understanding of Christian theology, and the latter, devoted to an attack on what he supposed to be traditional Christian doctrine, in fact considers only what theology might be found in extremely elementary forms of Protestantism.  What knowledge of more traditional theology he had, especially regarding the Greek phrasing of some doctrine in the Creeds, Leadbeater derived from a small nineteenth century study of Christology, Salvator Mundi, by Samuel Cox, to which he made frequent reference. [24]

            If Christian] theology was not his special interest, then spiritualism, its phenomena and philosophy, was quickly to become and to remain a virtual obsession with him, although under other names.


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Charles Webster Leadbeater 1854-1934 
A Biographical Study
by Gregory John Tillett
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