|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
previous: Local Preachers: How I became one
Up to the time of my visit to Scotland I had rarely had the privilege of hearing much preaching, excepting from local preachers. Our church was one of those feeble ones which, but for their labours, could not have existed.
Some of these local preachers were men of mark in their sphere, and for working men, as most of them were, I have often wondered how they prepared to do what they did, considering their lack of time and the few opportunities of culture they had enjoyed. But some of them had a refreshing individuality, and in this feature they stand in contrast to the same class of men to-day. Two men stand out in my recollection as preachers of " high degree " —Dr Newton and Dr Beaumont. These celebrated men came occasionally to preach at the Wesleyan Chapel at Tunstall.
Of Dr Beaumont I have a much more vivid recollection. He, too, had a fine presence, but there was the play upon his face of far more varied emotions. His voice was peculiar at times, but it was a reservoir of many intonations which gave remarkable effects to many things he said. I heard him afterwards, and it seemed sometimes when these variations of voice came as if two or three men were in the pulpit.
Jubilee Chapel, Wesley Street, Tunstall - "the Mother Church"
I remember the text the first time I heard him. " Thus saith the Lord, The heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool," etc. I shall never forget the delivery of the words, " Thus saith the Lord," and then the marvellous change of voice in giving the following words. The first words were given in a loud tone of dominant proclamation, as if you must and should hear. The words which followed were delivered with a quiet, sustained majesty, which seemed to fill the congregation with awe, as if God Himself were in the " place," and " they knew it not" until that moment. From that moment, too, the preacher had the congregation in the hollow of his hand. I remember when I returned home I was asked what I thought of the preacher, and I instantly avowed I had never heard a preacher before. I found out afterwards, on several occasions, that Dr Beaumont captured his congregation in a few moments.
I remember one striking occasion of this in the Wesleyan Chapel at Burslem. The words of the text were, " And when He was come into Jerusalem all the city was moved, saying, Who is this?" He asked the question of the people in the body of the chapel, then of those to his right hand in the gallery, then of those in the front of the gallery, and then of those to the left of the gallery. This was done in changing voices, and with such eagerness that they seemed to come " like a rushing mighty wind " from a moving multitude. Then there was a pause. The stillness both astonished and awed, and from that moment the congregation was as clay in the hands of the potter.
With this Scotch journey before me my mind was full of expectation, but I was fortunate enough to realise more than I expected.
My first Sunday was spent in Glasgow. I failed to hear Dr Ralph Wardlaw, then one of the celebrities of that city. I heard, however, a Dr William Anderson, also a celebrity. I was specially struck with his mastery of his subject. He seemed to have it, as the saying is, at his finger ends. I was struck most, however, with the number and nicety of his divisions, and the circumstance that with each division and sub-division he took up a snuff-box which lay on the pulpit at his right hand. For the moment the preaching was suspended. The lid of the snuff-box was deliberately and gendy rapped, and as deliberately a pinch of snuff was taken with a soft hushing sound. When this was done, the theme or argument was resumed until another division came, with the deliberate details of the snuff-taking ceremony.
But Dr Guthrie was then in the height of his fame, and as a preacher was then the great attraction of the city. He was its most immediate and commanding attraction to me. On Sunday morning, with two friends, I was early at his kirk. But there was a momentary disappointment when I learned that his co-pastor, Dr Hanna, was the preacher. But the disappointment passed away as a light cloud when I came under the spell of the preacher. There was to me the same baldness in the service as I had experienced in Glasgow the Sunday before. But the preacher soon gripped me with his thoughtfulness and simplicity combined. These gave both inspiration and refreshment, and left upon me an unusual sense of elevation. I had never heard a sermon so well compacted and so full of suggestion, and all done with intense quietness.
I was very much struck by the entrance into this pew of a tall, powerful-looking man, who walked into it with his hat on, and who sat down before taking it off. He seemed to survey the great audience with interest, and seemed as if he had forgotten that he had his hat on. This gave a little shock to my Southern notions. He had, too, a walking stick which seemed big enough for a shepherd's crook. When he sat down he rested his chin on his hands, looking intently at his congregation. Then he put one of his hands into his waistcoat pocket and brought out a big snuff-box, and from this took what seemed to me a mighty pinch of snuff for each nostril. This made my first shock much deeper on account of the prominence given to the whole process.
The service was opened by Dr Hanna, and during this period the big man, who had so attracted my attention, disappeared. Soon after this I saw, with a start, this man ascending the pulpit stairs in his gown. Then for the first time I knew he was Dr Guthrie. I had conceived a slight repugnance for him as I had seen him at first, but not many words passed from his lips before all this was changed into an absorbing wonder.
I saw him the next day in the city with a number of children following him, taking hold of his hand, and if I had seen the angel who liberated Peter I could not have felt more of awe and of gratitude.
That week had a store of unexpected events and privileges for me. On the following evening, I think, I heard Sheridan Knowles, the dramatist, preach. I don't remember much about his sermon, except the robust earnestness with which it was delivered, but the dramatist was infinitely away from Dr Guthrie in dramatic action.
The night following, I believe, I attended a great meeting called to protest against the imprisonment of a Scotch lady, a Miss Cunningham, I think, by the Duke of Tuscany, for reading the Bible to some poor Italian peasants. I don't remember where the meeting was held, but it was in a very large hall. This was densely crowded, and the spirit of John Knox seemed to throb in every man and woman present.
But fifty years can dissipate many things. I have lived into a time when Miss Hobhouse, engaged in an equally merciful mission, through the uprising of an abnormal party passion, has been held back from that mission by England's Government, This, too, not only without a national protest, but she has been howled at and denounced even when gently telling the story of her gracious mission. How far we are from the Duke of Tuscany's time ; yet how near the spirit of his time. Truly, Freedom may come to its own and its own receive it not. Wrongs, though modern, can be as grim and terrible as ancient ones.
The week I spent in Edinburgh proved to be the one in which a great Peace Conference was held there in October 1853. I knew nothing of this until I got there, for newspapers were then comparatively rare, and pennies were not as plentiful as now. Moreover, I knew very little about newspapers then.
I attended several of the sessions of this Conference for two or three days. Men were there whom I have known better since than I knew before. Public life outside the Potteries was then almost unknown to me. The great event of the Conference, however, was its last meeting, held, I think, on the Thursday night. At that time rumours of war were heard, and afterwards there came the Crimean War.
I am giving matters here as I remember them ; I have read nothing about the meeting I am going to describe, or even the Conference. I am not writing a history, but simply my own recollections. I think the meeting must have been held in the same hall where the meeting to protest against Miss Cunningham's imprisonment was held.
I am not going to describe what he said. That can be ascertained elsewhere. I am only going to describe the effect as I saw its living expression. A short time after he began the audience was in his hands. Those peculiar, thrilling tones of his voice, as if a soft, weird, metallic vibration were among them, soon held the people spellbound.
I heard those tones many times afterwards, and never heard them from any other speaker. Humour, argument, the play of fine sarcasm, and high and earnest pleading followed each other, until the intensity of interest seemed almost too great to bear. Then came the peroration, sublime in its restraint, but carrying a most passionate appeal for peace. Then there came a most remarkable coincidence. Just as Mr Bright's peroration excited a storm of applause the guns of the Castle went booming over the city, as if applauding the eloquent apostle of peace. The fact was, that just then the Queen and Prince Albert and the Royal Family were entering the city on their return from Balmoral. It was an incongruous coincidence. Applause for such a purpose and booming of guns. But this is typical of much that goes on every day.
Things apparently near each other are yet separated by deep and awful gulfs. The resounding acclamations of a peace policy were followed in a few months by the roar of cannons to support a policy of war with Russia. So came the Crimean War, a war now seen to be as useless and as mistaken as it was disastrous. But the disastrousness of it lies fifty years away, though it brought the dread time when you seemed to hear the beating of the wings of the "angel of death" in almost every part of Europe. Distance, however, lends disenchantment to sorrow, and thus we can hear a great statesman of the present day say, that enormous tragedy of error was simply " putting money on the wrong horse." The language of the Turf suits now to pass over to a sort of comical limbo what was once an appalling and wasting conflict.
I am reminded again that the great protest against war was made in Edinburgh fifty years ago. Not only did it fail in its own day, but even with the useless tragedy of the Crimean War before us it has failed to keep us in the paths of peace. I have lived to see a war wildly welcomed mainly, and welcomed too, not against a great power which was clothed with the bad traditions of long hatred and villifying ignorance, as Russia was. There is the saving mercy we did not proclaim this war, but who will say it was not acclaimed as eagerly as if we had spoken the first word.
Verily, we need to look again into "the law of liberty," to wash our eyes in its beauty and justice, as did our forefathers " in the great days of old."
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