When Ruskin died in January 1900, the following pulpit appraisal was delivered by the Rev. William Knibb Burford (1861-1941), in a sermon at the Congregationalist Wicker Chapel, in Sheffield, of which he was pastor from 1888 to 1901. Rev. Burford’s testimony is an eloquent panegyric, but he does not shy away from Ruskin’s limitations and weaknesses. He starts by acknowledging the international context in which the news of Ruskin’s death was received—the events of what we now call the Second Boer War (1899—1902). The sense this oration gives of the different attitudes to Ruskin that prevailed over a century ago anticipate the range of views that persist today. Yet the Rev. Burford ultimately challenges us not merely to recognise the value of Ruskin’s teaching but to embody his values in the things we do and the way we do them.
I want to beg a moment or two, aside from the main course of this service, but not apart from the right use of public worship, in which to speak very briefly but with a full heart upon an event which, to me and to many, has almost outshadowed the tragic happenings in South Africa. Last night, whilst we were eagerly scanning the evening papers for news from the seat of war, we came upon an announcement which moved one’s heart almost as much as tidings of battle. It was with the deepest sorrow, if not with any shock of surprise, that we read of the death of John Ruskin, who passed away yesterday, at Coniston, amongst the lakes and hills and fells he loved so well. It is, of course, impossible at so short a call to speak lengthily to any purpose upon the life-work of the marvellous man whom God has just taken to his presence and rest. Those who have come under his spell and power, and who owe him the debt that I am gratefully proud myself to acknowledge, feel able to do little more at this moment than cry with one of old when his master was taken away. “My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and the horsemen thereof.” A little later I shall undertake the labour of love of speaking at greater length upon the character and work of the man for whom I have the profoundest admiration and love. And surely here in Sheffield—in the city upon which John Ruskin bestowed such munificent gifts—his death should be most mourned and his memory most honoured. The fame and the work of John Ruskin have a great future. More and more we shall recognise his greatness. More and more we shall realise that his message to this age was one of the wisest and noblest, and one of the most faithfully delivered of all the utterances of our latter-day prophets. I doubt not but that he will stand forth in that clear light which coming years will bring as the greatest teacher England has had in the century now at its close. This prophet was not without honour in his own generation. Thousands of thinkers and workers owned him as their leader. But the generous estimate has been confused by the eccentricities and oddities of him whose teaching, so sound and sane in essentials, has surface touches of what was quaint and even froward. I suppose that the main things many of us know about John Ruskin are that he denounced interest and abused the locomotive. The man in the street regarded him as an eloquent crank, whose role was that of saying absurd things in an interesting and eloquent manner. It is true, that he delighted to perplex stupidity and irritate mediocrity by paradox and irony. Perhaps, indeed, at times, he was too impatient of the public dullness, and had too little of that Apostolic genius of restraint and toleration which could “suffer fools gladly”. In his later days, too, his utterances were touched with a petulance and a despondency alien to the normal breadth and calmness of his mind. To the world at large, he seemed, latterly, too much of a Jeremiah waiting out dreary lamentations, or an Ishmael whose hand was against every man’s. His life was not without the pathos of the prophet whose report is not believed. But there is a growing company who call him, as far as man may be called, Master: who owe to him their finest inspirations and their highest aspirations: who behold a new Heaven and a new earth in the power of vision they have learned from him. There are disciples of this great modern master who count him one of God’s greatest gifts to the age, and judge his teaching to be one of the highest and holiest messages this generation can receive. We speak his name with pride and praise, and with devout thanks-giving to God not simply because he was the greatest modern master of English prose; not because of the jewelled preciousness of his style; not because there are pages of his which glow with riches and more solemn colour than the painted windows of those great churches in which his mind and heart worshipped so reverently; not because of his unparalleled genius as an expositor of the world’s great art; not because he knew nature and loved her as no other has done since Wordsworth; not because he opened windows in Heaven and made the earth Heaven’s gate, and was
“Priest to us all
Of the wonders and bloom of the world”;
Not even because he understood with perfect intuition and taught with eloquent lucidity, more than any one, the ethical foundation of all fine art, and the humility and reverence with which we should contemplate nature. We honour him, and thank God for his life work, because he witnessed with immortal eloquence on behalf of those virtues—the humilities and heroisms, the chastity’s and charities, the loyalties and sacrifices. When John Ruskin died a great prophet passed away, and one of the greatest tasks and opportunities of the new century will be the comprehension and adoption of those high truths which God sent him into the world to teach.