|the local history of Stoke-on-Trent, England||
'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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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