A Protestant Gentleman, Predestined?

cambridge org

He was a good man, in the old Scottish Presbyterian phrase, God-ward and man-ward. – Sir Walter Scott, The Antiquary

Leslie Hamilton Neatby who died in 1997 had been born in 1902. It is thus not much of a chronological exaggeration to place him in the reign of Queen Victoria, who died in 1901. Moreover, the circumstances of his childhood locate him securely in the Victorian era, for his parents, true Victorians, were the sole formative influence of his early life. They homesteaded in Saskatchewan, arriving from England in 1906. A precious part of their luggage, moved laboriously from one place to another by ox-cart, was the 3,000 books that were to form the core of the education the eight children received in the isolation of the Canadian west before the First World War. More than a love of literature was communicated to those children. The elder Neatbys, as non-conformists or “chapel,” professed a strict evangelical Protestantism which placed them outside the Established Church in the mainstream of Presbyterian Calvinism.

This upbringing produced a remarkably accomplished second generation, none of whom severed the bond which unites intellect and conscience. The most famous of them was Hilda, professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan and a member of several important governmental commissions. Her severe indictment of Canadian education, So Little for the Mind (Toronto, 1953), written with the collaboration of her brother Leslie, is still referred to, as it should be, by anyone interested in the improvement of education. The knowledgeable reader will recognize in the book principles which were formed in the farm house near Watrous, Saskatchewan, as the children listened to their father read from the classics of nineteenth-century English literature—Scott, Dickens, Thackeray—and then pursued in solitary self-reliance their own education far beyond what was offered in the tiny rural school they attended.

My acquaintance with Doctor Leslie Neatby went back to 1979 when we inaugurated a Friday ritual which began with an hour of reading Latin together. Afterwards there would be tea, sometimes in his apartment where his wife, a brother, and a sister would join us; but more often we drank our tea in the priests’ dining room at Saint Thomas More College, where our company consisted of academics who came to nourish mind and body. As the weeks succeeded one another and the Doctor’s stories became familiar, but never stale, my respect and appreciation increased. I came to recognize in him the embodiment of a form of Protestantism which I had never before comprehended nor, to be frank, had much wanted to. His witness to the principles of predestination, of the all-sufficiency of Scripture, and of the total depravity of fallen man led me to acknowledge that Protestantism in its unadulterated form had a breadth and a profundity which could create cultures and form societies.

The doctrine of predestination lay behind, I believe, the stoic morality which never failed to impress us as we witnessed Doctor Neatby’s response to life’s vicissitudes. Because God had from all eternity predetermined every event, nothing could happen that would discompose a Christian. Hence, Doctor Neatby never complained, whatever the provocation, including on one memorable day, the cancellation of a visit with his daughter and her family in Nova Scotia. I was the culprit in that I had forgotten about driving him to the airport, and when I rushed in too late to meet my obligation, I found him calmly reading in his room, the whole trip off. “Just as well,” he said placidly, “for it’s a lot of work for an old man.” He brought the same powers of accommodation to the fall that robbed him first of his easy walk and eventually of his mobility. Only the death of his beloved wife could shake his composure to the extent of eliciting from time to time a sigh and a quiet exclamation of “Poor Murdena.” When he asked me to suggest something he might read for consolation I unwisely recommended Cardinal Newman’s Anglican sermons, only to discover that they operated in a domain that was too remote from Doctor Neatby’s religious practice for him to profit from them.

Predestination was also, I believe, the source of his impressive integrity. It is impossible to imagine him uttering an untruth or compromising a principle in any matter trivial or great. Once it is granted that everything happens under God’s guidance, there is no need for a vain and foolish attempt to alter the course of events. I remember once when the conversation turned into Charles Dickens as, given Doctor Neatby’s interests, it often did. I naughtily quoted Oscar Wilde’s quip about Dickens’s excruciating sentimentality in The Old Curiosity Shop: “A man would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell.” There was general amusement in all but Doctor Neatby who turned towards me his solemn, almost lugubrious countenance and said, “Father Callam, I feel about that remark as you might feel at hearing a disparaging comment about one of your female saints.”

The second principle of Protestantism, its exclusive reliance on the Bible, instilled in my friend a respect and a love for the printed word. In his extreme old age, as his eyesight failed, various substitutes for reading were attempted: television, tape, recorders, head sets. He seemed incapable of mastering their use, a tribute I always thought to his affection for print rather than an instance of his inability to run a machine. His Bible—the King James version—was always at hand, but so were the works of the authors he had read and reread throughout his life. He could not be called an omnivorous reader, for he could not stomach or even comprehend contemporary writing, which he found crude and vulgar. But good literature of every genre seemed to shine for him with the reflected glory of Scripture itself. His primary study had been Latin and Greek antiquity. After receiving his doctorate from the University of Toronto in 1950, he taught at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. As his retirement approached, and with it a return to Saskatchewan, he developed his long-standing interest in the Arctic into an avocation, eventually publishing six books on the exploration of the Canadian north. But in conversation, it was the nineteenth-century novel that came to the fore, and Doctor Neatby would recite entire pages from one or another, such as the address to the jury of Serjeant Buzfuz at the trial of Mr. Pickwick or the exchanges between Bartle Massey and Mrs. Poyser from Adam Bede. The pages of Scripture might contain all that is necessary for salvation, but the commentary provided by worthy secular authors could be regarded as a delightful oveflow of the inspired text.

Of all the doctrines of Protestantism, the one I find most antipathetic is that of total depravity, according to which all man’s actions are contaminated by sin, even after he has experienced regeneration in Christ. This austere doctrine, too, was illuminated for me by the attitude of Doctor Neatby to the joys that came his way. He seemed surprised, almost incredulous, that a person such as himself, a sinner, I suppose he would have said, should know the love of a wife and daughter, should experience the joys of learning, should find friendship and support. He remembered his father shaking with laughter as, half-apologetically, he read the comic novels of P.G. Wodehouse. How could it be permissible or even possible for a sinner to enjoy that much amusement in this vale of tears? Doctor Neatby always seemed almost startled at any good fortune, from discovering a companion to share his interests to a finding a piece of cheese with his muffin at tea. It is simply more than we have any right to. Existence itself, like salvation, is a gift we can never deserve; but how wonderful to have received it.

In my exploration of Protestantism as exemplified in my friend I have learned that some of the elements that Reformed Christianity adapted from the mediæval Church could be reclaimed by us Catholics and so be restored to their full and natural setting. Predestination points to God’s providence; the role of Scripture, to revelation; and total depravity, to the generosity of God. Every Catholic will accept these in their authentic form as taught by the Church. It was my good fortune to rediscover them in a Presbyterian gentleman.