Spiritual Pride and Honest Humility in G.K. Chesterton’s “The Hammer of God”

Of the many symptoms and manifestations of pride—disobedience, stubbornness, willfulness, boastfulness, vanity, presumption, arrogance—spiritual pride does not express itself in such visible, noticeable ways as these other attributes. In Chesterton’s short story “The Hammer of God” the Reverend Wilfred Bohun enjoys the reputation of a holy Anglican priest who lives an austere life of self-denial and sanctity. Though the common impression of the village regards the clergyman as a devout man who spends hours on his knees in prayer and contemplation, an ascetic who “seemed to live for nothing but religion,” some observers attribute Wilfred’s devotion to the church as a fondness for Gothic architecture more than worship of God. Comparing the spiritual Wilfred to his licentious brother Norman, the village blacksmith ascribes the priest’s solitary life in the belfry to “a morbid thirst for beauty which sent his brother raging after women and wine.”

Wilfred’s brother, Col. Norman Bohun, lives the decadent life of a libertine with a notorious reputation for enticing married women with his bold advances. In Wilfred’s eyes, Norman’s life is a scandal, and the priest disdains the colonel for his hobby of “blasphemy” while the colonel mocks the priest’s hobby of religion as “folklore.” Warning Norman of the dangers of philandering with the blacksmith’s wife, Wilfred threatens him with the wrath of God’s judgment: “But if you do not fear God, you have good reason to fear man,” reminding Norman of the jealousy of the formidable blacksmith, “the biggest and strongest man for forty miles around.” Scornful of his brother’s immoral life and ashamed of the way Norman has dishonored the ancient aristocratic family name of the Bohuns, Wilfred dissociates himself from his brother to protect his own respectable image of pious clergyman from the stigma of a dissolute brother known for adultery. Not long after this brief exchange between the two brothers, the prophetic words of Wilfred prove correct. A cobbler comes to the church to report the strange, unexplainable death of Colonel Norman, and Wilfred reveals both shock in hearing the sudden news and horror in seeing the crushed skull, a head smashed to fragments even with the protection of a helmet.

As the villagers surround the dead body and speculate about possible suspects for the murder, the motive for the crime, and the circumstances attending the death, several characters offer their theories to identify the criminal and explain the reasons for this inexplicable tragedy. The most likely candidate for the murderer, argues Gibbs the atheist cobbler, must be Simeon the blacksmith, a jealous man infuriated and provoked by Norman’s dalliance with his wife. The doctor disagrees, claiming that not even the strongest blacksmith could have delivered such a death blow, one that would require “the hand of a giant” because “the skull was smashed to bits like an egg shell.” The inspector notices the size of the hammer lying beside the broken skull and ponders why a powerful man would use a small hammer to perpetrate a brutal murder. Father Brown also is mystified by the thought of a small hammer cracking the skull of the victim into many fragments. The doctor proposes another possible theory: the only person who would use a small hammer to commit a violent murder is “the kind of person that can’t lift a big hammer,” implying the possibility of the blacksmith’s wife as the murderer: “Nine times out of ten the person who most hates the wife’s lover is the wife.”

While these statements sound plausible, they do not explain all the facts in the case. Father Brown raises one objection: no woman using a small hammer could kill a man, crush his skull, and shatter the captain’s iron helmet. As Father Brown remains unconvinced about the various speculations he has heard, he concludes, “No man but an idiot would pick up the small hammer if he could use a big hammer”—a statement that elicits Wilfred’s proposition that the village idiot, old Joe, might have cause for revenge against the colonel—“a criminal who cannot be brought to the gallows.” Habitually mocking Joe by throwing pennies into his open mouth, Norman ridiculed the village idiot enough times to provoke Joe’s unthinking reaction with the violent blow, one delivered by a person strong enough to smash a skull and a helmet with a small hammer. Wilfred feels confident the case is closed and the murder has been solved, especially when Simeon the blacksmith arrives on the scene, testifying with the evidence of eye witnesses that he was not present in the village during the time of the crime, and “My hammer hasn’t any wings that it should come flying half a mile over hedges and fields.”

These last words pique the interest of Father Brown who quickly deduces that the force which dealt the fatal blow to Norman’s head is not a large hammer, a small hammer, or a hammer with wings. It is not God’s thunderbolt from the sky as Simeon the Calvinist suggested but “a matter of physical science,” the force of gravity. Using this clue, Father Brown asks Wilfred if he can visit the church situated on a steep hill where the spire emerges like the summit of a mountain. Viewing the lofty heights from where Wilfred stands and looks below and sees the people of the village as “insects,” Father Brown observes that looking downward from great distances above invites spiritual pride: “Heights were made to be looked at, not to be looked from,” and he adds, “I mean that one’s soul may fall if one’s body doesn’t.” He continues his moral reflections by remarking that a world of difference separates a priest who prays on his knees and looks up at the altar and the priest who stands above and looks contemptuously at the people below—the difference between humility and pride. Living above on the hill and gazing from the lofty niches in the belfry, Wilfred “fancied he was God,” and “he thought it was given to him to judge the world and strike down the sinner.” When Wilfred asks Father Brown how he solved the riddle of the murder and wonders if he is some devil, the priest’s answer puzzles him: “I am a man … and therefore have all devils in my heart.” Wilfred’s spiritual pride rationalized that he was ridding the world of a pestilence—an insect—by dropping the hammer from the heavenly realm of the church on a sinful brother deserving of punishment.

The Catholic priest understands fallen human nature, the effects of original sin, and the marks of the seven deadly sins. Pride has both its visible signs and its subtle forms. The spiritually prideful man acts “holier than thou,” imagines he is God, determines good and evil, and decides who lives and who dies. Because Wilfred is in holy orders, dwells in the ethereal regions of the niches in the belfry and the spire, and spends hours in prayer rather than flirting with married women like his brother, he assumes that he is pleasing to the Lord by his spotless life. Unlike Father Brown, however, he does not acknowledge that all men are sinners in need of contrition, repentance, and confession. Wilfred exempted himself from the pleasures of the flesh but never examined his conscience for spiritual pride. Because he set himself apart from the world and avoided the sins of gluttony (alcoholism) and lust Norman committed—the pride “outside the heart” to use Chaucer’s distinction in “The Parson ‘s Tale”—Wilfred ignored the other devils that Father Brown mentioned, especially the secret pride “inside the heart.”

While Rev. Wilfred violates Christ’s command, “Judge not, that you be not judged,” fixing on the carnal sins of his brother but ignoring his own spiritual vices, Father Brown assumes no airs of superiority in hearing the confession of Rev. Wilfred and in granting him absolution, promising “I will seal this with the seal of confession.” While Wilfred condemned his brother in a cruel, unforgiving way, Father Brown tempers justice with mercy, explaining that Wilfred did not implicate the blacksmith or the blacksmith’s wife in the crime but attempted to blame it on poor Joe who would go unpunished: “You tried to fix it on the imbecile, because you knew that he could not suffer.”

The cure to spiritual pride is humility, the virtue of Father Brown. He does not pretend to know the identity of the murderer when he remains in a state of ignorance. He does not pose as pure, perfect, and sinless when he recognizes the hundred devils that plague him and all men. He does not look down from a superior position above and see his fellow men as insects but looks above from the attitude of prayer on his knees and sees his own weakness and fallibility in need of God’s grace. Thanks to Father Brown, “The Rev. and Hon. Wilfred Bohun” descends from the sublime heights of spiritual pride and comes down to earth with honest humility as he approaches the inspector and declares, “I wish to give myself up; I have killed my brother.”

Mitchell Kalpakgian

By

Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian is a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children's Literature.

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