the local history of Stoke-on-Trent, England

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'When I Was a Child' - autobiography of Charles Shaw
a first hand account of life as a child worker in the North Staffordshire
Potteries in the I840's


Chapter 24
Local Preachers: How I became one 

next: Closing Incidents
previous: The pursuit of knowledge under difficulties

The next important movement in my life was taken -when I began to prepare to become a local preacher.
The local preacher is no insignificant factor in our national life, and what he has done in our English religious life for more than a hundred years has never yet been fully realised or described. Perhaps it never can be fully described in sufficiently vivid detail and living force. But unquestionably he has been an immense power in the best life of the nation among its humbler classes. He has carried "sweetness and light" where only bitterness and darkness would otherwise have prevailed. He has fertilised activity and aspiration in "hard times," and amid scantiness and ignorance and injustice in many provinces of our industrial and social life. Villages and small towns, in former days, found him almost the only herald of better things, such as they could understand. He spoke in his own language the wonderful works of God. 

The worst men and women heard of a mercy which could embrace even their condition of despair. The social leper knew that even he could be made clean, and felt the warm breath of a love, through a human brother's voice and heart, which drove away the chill of his hopelessness. Men were drawn away from the ranks of devilry and recklessness to which their hard lot in life had often driven them. The poor heard of riches unsearchable which could be obtained without money and without price, and whose enrichment brought them free-dom and hope and joy such as the world knew not of. In "the waste howling wilderness" of their " mean lives " they heard of a " Promised Land" to which they could travel by a path which shone brighter and brighter unto the perfect day.

These views and voices sent a charm through their lives, and lifted them into "societies" whose fellowship was at once a source of safety and an ever - recurring inspiration. Multitudes who would have been evil forces in the State, and sources of degeneracy in their social centres, were rescued from these dread possibilities, and if they did not become the purest and highest exemplars of virtue and grace, were yet forces " which made for righteousness." Their influence went for national stability in times of tumult and unrest, and probably did more to "exalt" the nation than many other loudly boasted movements. If there is a true, deep conservatism in the pursuit of goodness, deeper far than any political party ever gives, then these multitudes stood on the side of orderly development in our national progress.

While they looked up to heaven as their final goal, they shed a sweeter sanctity upon the common things of earth. I must say that, though I did not belong to the Primitive Methodist body, I saw most of its activity in Tunstall, my native town, and in the district round about. This was the first great and successful centre of Primitive Methodism. It was there that Hugh Bourne and William Clowes first began to work. I once heard both these men in a Great Camp Meeting held in " Booth's Field," then a large unoccupied piece of land, but now in the middle of the town.

I saw the spell these men cast upon the multi-tudes to whom they spoke, by their simplicity, their rough energy, softened by their all-pervading compassion and their great theme. These men themselves, in a sense, were never anything but local preachers. They went far and wide into other localities, but they carried with them the dominant mark of the local preacher. There was nothing clerical about them. They were simply " sinners saved by grace," telling in homely language how it had been done. This " telling how it had been done " was the source of their commanding power and their simple eloquence. This had no accent of culture, so that between them and the ordinary local preacher there was no gulf. They stood on common ground. They sought common aims, and the common people loved to have it so. 

For this reason they were ever welcome in all the villages and towns of the district. The people not only "took knowledge of them that they had been with Jesus," but understood their language and were subdued by their influence. So " the word of God grew and multiplied." I knew some of their local preachers to be men of the humblest position and abilities. I don't wish to make any invidious comparison with other Methodist bodies. They had local preachers too, humble both in position and ability, and whose devotion and self-sacrifice were beyond praise, but the Primitive Methodists, as I knew them, took in men as local preachers of a lower degree in both elements, but their wonderful success showed they were " owned " both by God and the people.

I must say the marvel has grown through all the years of my life that the men I remember could do so much in their time. It must have been that they carried a "consecration" truer than was ever carried by the dogma of " Apostolic Succession." If England had never had its local preachers, and had been left only to the high-claiming "successors of the Apostles," I hesitate to say what would have been the condition of England in the stormy revolutions which swept over Europe, and what would have been its lack in purifying and uplifting forces if these had not been so zealously disseminated by the local preachers in almost all quarters of our country. I said it had never been told what the local preacher has done in our English religious life, and time would fail, and power too, for any man to tell of " brother" Smith, and Brown, and Jones, and Robinson, who through faith and self-sacrifice did so much to win a good report by a devotion as beneficent in its issues as it was lowly in its operation. I must confess here, in the first place, that I have been led away from my direct purpose in this chapter by my admiration for a body of men who have done such widespread and fruitful work in our nation's life. 

Of this work and that of our Sunday school teachers I know no movements of high self-help on the part of humble classes of the people comparable to theirs in any age or nation. If the nation retains such moral virility as this in the future, and if the passion for athletics does not drain this away, then our country will carry the assurance of its own stability and progress in its own spiritual pursuits. The second reason for going away from my direct purpose in this chapter is, that my admiration has deepened through all the years of my life for the Primitive Methodists, as I knew them in my youth. The breath of their intense activity and their fervent simplicity, which were so near to me from childhood to my young manhood, have been about me like an atmosphere all through my life. Their wonderful prosperity as a denomination has been no surprise to me. They laid hold of the primal source of Divine Power from the first, as the disciples did on the Day of Pentecost. They trusted neither in ecclesiasticism nor learning. These matters were incidental and secondary. Their supreme resource in all their work was found in the promise, "the Holy Ghost shall teach you in the same hour what ye ought to say."

I must now more directly relate how I became a local preacher. Indirectly, and all unconsciously, my connection with the Mutual Improvement Society was leading to this. I had become connected in my youth with the Methodist New Connexion Sunday School, and from the gracious impulses received from my teacher, George Kirkham, I gained a strong religious bent in my early youth. This inward bent had been strengthened by all my associations with the Sunday school and the chapel. At the last this feeling was brought to full expression and form by what was called "a Revival," a spiritual awakening which spread over the Hanley Circuit, of which Tunstall was a part.

My connection with the Mutual Improvement Society fostered regular habits of study, as far as possible, and gave me increasing power of expression. These things were noticed, as they usually are in Methodism at large, and it was suggested by friends that I should prepare to take the position of a local preacher. These suggestions changed somewhat the course of my study. I began to read more in theology, but lacked resources and guidance. By some means I became possessed of Dwight's Theology, a book not at all adapted to one as crude as I was. Whatever else it may be, it is not a satisfactory " handbook " of theology. 

I was soon afterwards lent Richard Watson's Institutes, but for elementary guidance in theology for one like myself, an office-boy in a lawyer's office might as well have been told to read Coke upon Lyttleton. I then read Dr Cooke's Theology, but in all I found diffuseness, rhetorical amplification and elaborate arguments ; in fact, everything but such a precise and simple statement of matters as I then needed.

My theological studies were therefore somewhat bewildering and uninforming. I am afraid I learnt more in this direction from Milton's Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, and Dick's Christian Philosopher, and Gilfillan's Bards of the Bible. My theology therefore was made up of a very curious blend. It had less of dogma in it than imagination and rhetoric. So I kept well away from definitions in my first sermons and dealt much in description. In this way I could go up Mount Moriah with Abraham, and freely describe what probably he never saw.

I could stand with Moses overlooking the Red Sea, and sway his rod over that sea, in imagination, with a mastery and sublimity he never thought of under the burden of his responsibility. I could ride in Elijah's chariot of fire, and describe too the Great Day of Wrath, with rolling thunders and falling mountains, and the cries of sinners to be hidden by them. I could do this too with a faith as real as if all were visibly passing before my eyes. No film of doubt had then settled upon " the eye of faith." That eye was then as a clear mirror, responsive to every image from Genesis to Revelation. All was true from "the bottomless pit" to "the heights of glory." No critical faculty in relation to faith had begun to grow. It had not even the promise then of " first the blade and then the ear." There was just faith's simplicity and supremacy of assurance, and I have yet to learn, in later years, after much reading of "learning" and of books, that there is anything under these heavens more truly heavenly. I have come more and more to believe that the child-trust taught by our Saviour is the one bright, pure and peaceful centre of our life on earth.

If I could only have known this before, what maelstroms, what "moors" and "fens" and "crags" and "torrents" would have been avoided ?

I have one or two of my early sermons left, and I don't know at which most to be amazed, their rhetoric or their faith, but I do know which I most admire.
Whatever was the secret of it, I have this most distinct recollection, that middle-aged and old people most admired my sermons. Whilst young folks could smile, the older ones always listened and looked. Benedictions in Methodist circles were more common in those days than now, and I used to get my share of them. And somehow they cheered and sustained, and led to stronger resolves to deserve them. They were not like the flimsy flatteries of a later time. They didn't stop in the ear and sing like a syren. They went into the very heart. They warmed its very blood, and they inspired a mood, an upward look, to which flattery never yet lifted a human soul.

I well remember preaching in a place called " Hot Lane," just outside the town of Burslem, one Sunday afternoon. I don't know why the place was called Hot Lane, but it was very hot for me that afternoon. The service was held in a cottage, and a very humble one too. I remem¬ber part of the congregation was made up of four or five hens, quietly parading about on the hearth. The cottage was fairly well filled with people in years, who could not attend the more distant chapels. The pulpit was a chair with a step on the bottom part of its back legs, and with a board to fit on the top of its back.

This was my first visit, and while I was nervous, I could see my congregation was curious. They saw "the lad," and they were evidently eager to hear him. I got through the opening part of the service very well, for the brother who led the singing was hearty and apt in his choice of tunes, and there was a refreshing rain of "answers" all over the cottage. 

I took for my text words which will seem strange to modern eyes as the text of a mere boy. They were, however, "The great day of His wrath is come, and who shall be able to stand ? "
While dealing with this appalling theme in some lurid rhetoric and vivid realism, I came to a sudden stop. I might have been stunned by a piece from one of the falling rocks I was describing. 

While looking dazed at the faces near me, the singing brother of whom I have spoken jumped to his feet and said in a cheery voice, "Come, friends, let us sing while our young friend finds hisself." His tone and manner, and the long hymn he and the people sang, enabled me to find myself and to finish my sermon, and the great day with which I was dealing. 

If all the methods by which local preachers have been evolved could be described, though the pursuit was serious enough, the incidents would make a rich theme of comicality.
Gargoyles and Gothic architecture go together, and they may be taken as symbolic of the laugh-able and serious minglings seen in human life.

I must give a personal and social phase in local preaching. There was one altogether pleasant and recurring episode in a local preacher's life—that was when he had an appointment some five or six miles away in the country on some spring or summer day. Supposing him to be a young potter, he has been moiling late and early in the dust of a potter's workroom all the week. He has breathed the thick, heavy smoke in the air, and through its black canopy has hardly ever seen the sun while he has been about. But on Sunday morning he starts off to his "country appointment." He knows he is going to be the guest of a rubicund, jolly, big-hearted farmer, but who is as devout as he is hearty.

The morning is bright and the air is sweet. As the pale-faced young preacher walks along country lanes and through field paths he meets the fragrance of flowers, which makes his nostrils expand with joy. His eye brightens with the sight of hedgerows shimmering in dewy green and the fields decked with flowers. He is in a devout mood within himself, in view of the work before him. He is in a gladsome mood by all things without.
It seems to him as if heaven and earth were pouring into his soul their best and highest in-fluence, and to enter the Lord's house in due course to see there a the beauty of holiness " seems to him the fitting issue of such a morning.

It was always wise when going to such an appointment to go in good time, especially if thirsty, and more especially if hungry. And in the times of which I am writing all local preachers were not "well fed." New milk, curds and whey, and " butter of kine" were not to be seen and enjoyed every morning. Nor was the music of such a welcome to be heard every day, as when the farmer would say, " Come in, Brother Smith," or "Come in, my young friend, and welcome. Just have a mouthful before we go to chapel, and get a good drink of that new milk."
We talk sometimes about this and that "giving tone to a service." In those days of which I am writing tone was often given to a service by a good man's hospitality. Nor was this tone confined to the service or even the day. Many a pale-faced young fellow carried a bloom on his cheeks into the day following, from the country air and from the rich yet simple hospitality he had shared.

One man I remember was always anxious for his visitor to have a good supper, before returning home, of roast apples out of his own orchard, with a plentiful supply of bread and butter and milk.

One farmer in Cheshire would be delighted beyond expression if, when he asked you what you would have for supper before starting back home, you happened to say, " Toasted cheese, please." He would pat you on the back fondly, and say, " Now you've got some good sense. There is nothing better for a journey than toasted cheese." His question would be asked before the evening service, and when you got back you would be amazed at the " Benjamin's mess" of toasted cheese which would be set before you.

If I didn't " grow in grace " by these simple and hearty hospitalities, I grew in wisdom and observation. Such kindliness never checked the growth of the grace, while it did very much to brighter. many a monotonous course of life. 

The time came round when I had to preach my " trial sermon" before coming on "full plan," as the Methodist phrase puts it. To pass from " being on trial" to "full plan" is the sign and seal of your acceptance as a fully accredited local preacher.

This "trial sermon " gave security against the entrance on " the plan " of anyone who thought he could preach. The preacher's character was looked after in other ways. This was simply to see what sort of mental calibre the preacher had, and whether he had power or promise to deliver himself so as to edify and impress a congregation.

The trial sermon may have been " a strait gate " to some, but it has not been quite strait enough at times. Sometimes men have passed through with what, rhetorically speaking, has seemed like " a goodly Babylonish garment," but, " alas, Master, it was borrowed," or had even been " stolen." Yet sometimes even " borrowed plumes" have passed when the judges did not know the bird to whom the plumes belonged. This trial sermon was "a trial " to me.

My poor little study witnessed many a struggle to get at a subject, and to get at clearness when the subject was found. I consulted my old friend " the shoemaker," but I could get no more than generalities in counsel from him. The one note he pressed continuously upon me was, " Do your best." I only knew afterwards the emphasis he had put on the first word. 

Before I preached this trial sermon a most unexpected episode occurred. I had an invitation to pay a visit to Glasgow and Edinburgh, I should beforehand as soon have expected an invitation to go to Pekin. However, the way was open, and as my mind was alert and eager about preachers and preaching, I welcomed the opportunity to hear the great Scotch preachers of that day.

I shall relate in the following chapter what I saw and heard in Scotland, and I shall now close the account of my becoming a local preacher.

The trial sermon was not preached until after my return from Scotland. No doubt my visit had led to its being something different from what it would have been if that visit had not happened. However, I preached it, and in the discussion which followed, the most noticeable thing, as I was told, was that the superintendent minister said it was not my own sermon. In the history of preaching this was not a new incident. My old friend the shoemaker asked the minister if he could tell whose sermon it was ? He avowed he could not do this, but was sure it was not my own.

My friend was equally sure it was, and told the minister if he were to lock me up in a room with no book but the Bible, I could have written another as good. I once thought that a bold statement, but I don't now. I happen to possess the sermon yet, and if it was not my own, when I look into it, I wonder whose it was, and how I came to possess it. My shrewd shoemaker friend had evidently seen into its weakness when he said I could produce another as good. The minister, on the other hand, did not know of the inspiration I had brought back from Scotland. However, I was " passed on to full plan," and so was permitted to join a great brotherhood of lay preachers, whose account in social, national and religious matters is not the least glorious in the history of the nineteenth century.



next: Closing Incidents
previous: The pursuit of knowledge under difficulties




Related Pages..

Hugh Bourne and William Clowes - the birth of Primitive Methodism.

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