James Fitzjames Stephen.

Critical and miscellaneous essays online

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of Franklin — auested by the surrender on one
occasion of all the contents of his purse at a
** charity sermon," and by the Quaker's reAisal
to lend more to a man who had lost his wits-
did not prevent his investigating the causes of
this unwonted excitement ** I came," he says,
** by hearing him often, to distinguish between
sermons newly composed and those he had
preached oAen in the course of his travels.
His delivery of the latter was so improved by
frequent repetition, that every accent, every
emphasis, every modulation of the voice was
so perfectly timed, that, without being inte^
rested in the subject, one could not help being



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BTEPHEirS MI8CmjLANE0U8 WRITINGM.



pleased with the discourse— a pleasure of
much the same kind as that received from an
excellent piece of music"

The basis of the singular dominion which
was Uius exercised by Whitfield during a pe-
riod equal to that assigned by ordinary calcu-
lation for the continuance of human life, would
repay a more careful investigation than we
have space or leisure to attempt Amongst
subordinate influences, the faintest of all is
that which may have been occasionally exer-
cised over the more refined and sensitive
members of his congregations by the romantic
Bceiiery in which they assembled. But the
tears shaping ** white gutters down the black
faces of the colliers, black as they came out
of the coal pits,*' were certainly not shed under
any overwhelming sense of the picturesque.
The preacher himself appears to have felt and
courted this excitement. ''The open firma^
ment above me, the prospect of the adjacent
fields, to which sometimes was added the so-
lemnity of the approaching evening, was," he
says, ** almost too much for me." But a far
more efiectual resource was found in the art
of diverting into a new and unexpected chan-
nel, the feelings of a multitude already brought
together with objects the most strangely con-
trasted to his own. Journeying to Wales, he
passes over Hampton Common, and finds him-
•elf surrounded by twelve thousand people
collected to see a man hung in chains, and
an extempore pulpit is immediately provided
within sight of this deplorable object On
another similar occasion, the wretched culprit
was permitted to steal an hour from the eter-
nity before him, while listening, or seeming to
listen, to a sermon delivered by Whitfield to
himself and to the spectators of his approach-
ing doom. He reaches Basin gstroke, when
the inhabitants are engaged in all the festivi-
ties of a country fair, and thus records the use
he made of so tempting an opportunity. ''As
I passed on horseback I saw the stage, and as
I rode further I met divers coming to the revel,
which afiected me so much that I had no rest
in my spirit, and therefore having asked coun-
sel of GKkI, and perceiving an unusual warmth
and power enter into my soul, though I was gone
above a mile, I could not bear to see so many
dear souls for whom Christ had died ready to
perish, and no minister or magistrate to inter-
pose ; upon this, I told my dear fellow-travel-
lers that I was resolved to follow the example
of Howell Harris in Wales, and bear my testi-
mony against such lying vanities, let the con-
sequences to my own private person be what
they would. They immediately assenting, I
rode back to the town, got upon the stage
erected for the wrestlers, and began to show
them the error of their ways."

The often told tale of Whitfield's contro-
versy with the merry-andrew at Moorfields,
still more curiously illustrates Uie skill and
intrepidity with which he contrived to divert
to his own purposes an excitement running at
high tide in the opposite direction. The fol-
lowing is an extract from his own narrative of
the encounter.

" For many years, ttom one end of Moor>
Atldt to the other, booths of all kinds have



been erected for mountebanks, players, pupped
shows, and such like. With a heart bleedung
with compassion for so many thousands led
captive by the devil at his wilU on Whit-Mon*
day, at six o'clock in the morning, attended by
a large congregation of praying people, I ven-
tured to liA up a standard amongst them, ia
the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Perhaps theis
were about ten thousand in waiting, not for
me, but for Satan's instruments to amuse theai.
Glad was I to find that 1 had for once, as it
were, got the start of the devil. I mounted my
field pulpit; almost all flocked immediately
around it; I preached on these words— ^ As
Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,
dice. They gased, they listened, they wept,
and I believe that many felt themselves staof
with deep conviction for their past sins. All
was hushed and solemn. Being thus encoa-
raged I ventured out again at noon. The whole
fields seemed, in a bad sense of the word, tQ
white, ready not for the Redeemer's but for
Beelzebub's harvest. All his agents were it
full motion. Drummers, trumpeters, meny^
andrews, masters of puppet-shows, exhibitioiis
of wild beasts, players, dtc, all busy in ente^
taining their respective auditors. I suppose
there could not be less than twenty or thirty
thousand people. My pulpit was fixed on the
opposite side, and immediately, to their grett
mortification, they found the number of their
attendants sadly lessened. Judging that, hkt
8t Paul, I should now be called, as it were, lo
fight with beasts at Ephesus, I preached fnm
these words, 'Great is Diana of the Eph^
sians.' You may easily guess that there wu
some noise among the craftsmen, and ihtt I
was honoured with having a few stones, dir^
rotten eggs, and pieces of dead cats thrown tt
me, whilst engaged in calling them from their
favourite but lying vanities. My soul was
indeed among lions, but far the greatest part
of my congregation, which was vary lar^e,
seemed for awhile turned into lambs. This
Satan could not brook. One of his choiee^
servants was exhibiting, trumpeting on a huge
stage, but as soon as the people saw me in my
black robes and my pulpit, I think all to a man
left him and ran to me. For awhile I wu
enabled to lift my voice like a trumpet, aod
many heard the joyftU sound. God's people
kept prajring, and the enem/s agents made a
kind of roaring at some distance from oar
camp. At length they approached near, and
the merry-andrew got up on a man's shoul-
ders, and, advancing near the pulpit, attempted
to lash me with a long heavy whip seTeral
times, but always with the violence of his
motion tumbled down. I think I continued ia
praying, preaching and singing (for the noise
was too great to preach) for about three hoarb
We then retired to the tabernacle, with »y
pockets full of notes from persons brought
under concern, and read them amidst the
praises and spiritual acclamations of tho^
sands. Three hundred and fifty awakened
souls were received in one day, and I believe
the number of notes exceeded a thousand."

The propensity to mirth, whieh, in common
with all men of robust mental constituuon,
Whitfield possessed in an unusual degree.



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was, like every thing else belonging to him,
compelled to minister to the interests and
success of his preaching; but however much
his pleasantries may attest the buoyancy of
nis mind, it would be difficult to assign them
any other praise. Oscillating in spirit as well
IS in body, between Drury-Laue and the ta-
beroacle, Shuter, the comedian, attended in
Tottenham Court Road during the run of his
saccessful performance of the character of
Ramble, and was greeted with the following
apostrophe — ^"And thou, poor Ramble, who
hast so long rambled from Him, come thou
also. Oh ! end thy ramblings, and come to
Jesas." The preacher in this instance de-
scended not a little below the level of the
player.

In the eighteenth century the crown of mar-
tyrdom was a prize for which Roman Catho-
lics alone were permitted to contend, and
Whitfield was unable to gain the influence
which be would have derived from the stake,
from a prison or a confiscation. Conscious,
however, of the importance of such sufiferings,
he persuaded himself and desired to convince
the world, that he had to endure them. The
bishops were persecutors, because they re-
pelled with some acrimony his attacks on
their authority and reputation. The mob were
persecutors, because they pelted a man who
insisted on their hearing him preach when
they wanted to see a bear dance, or a conjurer
eat fire. A magistrate was a persecutor, be-
cause he summoned him to appear on an un-
founded charge, and then dismissed him on
his own recognisance. He gloried with better
reason in the contemptuous language with
which he was assailed, even by the more de-
corous of his opponents, and in the ribaldries
of Foot and Bickerstafif. He would gladlv
have oartaken of the doom of Rogers and Rid-
ley, if his times had permitted, and his cause
required it; but the fires of Smithfield were
put out« and the exasperated Momus of the
fair, with his long whip, alone remained to do
the honours appropriated to the feast of St
Bartholomew.

There are extant seventy-five of the ser-
mons by which Whitfield agitated nations,
and the more remote influence of which is
still distinctly to be traced, in the popular di-
rinity and the national character of Great
Britain and of the United States* They have,
liowever, fallen into neglect; for to win per-
Bianent acceptance for a book, into which the
principles of life were not infused by its author,
IS a miracle which not even the zeal of reli-
rious proselytes can accomplish. Yet, infe-
rior as were his inventive to his mimetic
powers, Whitfield is entitled, among theologi-
cal writers, to a place, which if it cannot chal-
lenge admiration, may at least excite and
reward curiosity. Many, and those by far the
vorst, of his disconrses, bear the marks of
careful preparation. Take at hazard a ser-
noo of one of the preachers usually distin-
piished as «*vangelical, add a little to its
ength, and subtract a great deal from its point
ind polish, and yon hare one of his more
elaborate performances— conunon topics dis-
cussed in a common-place way; a respectable



mediocrity of thought and style ; endless varifti
tions on one or two cardinal truths — ^in shori^
the task of a clerical Saturday evening, exa>
cuted with piety, good sense and exceedina
sedateness. But open one of that series of
Whitfield's sermons which bears the stamp of
having been conceived and uttered at the
same moment, and imagine it recited to my
riads of eager listeners with every charm of
voice and gesture, and the secret of his unri-
valled fascination is at least partially disclosed.
He places himself on terms of intimacy and
unreserved confidence with you, and makes it
almost as difficult to decline the invitation to
his familiar talk as if Montagne himself had
issued it. The egotism is amusing, afiection-
ate and warm-hearted; with just that slight
infusion of self-importance without which it
would pass for affectation. In his art of rhe-
toric, pfersonification holds the first place ; and
the proaopopma is so managed as to quicken
abstractions into life, and to give them indi-
viduality and distinctness without the exhibi-
tion of any of those spasmodic and distorted
images which obey the incantations of vulgar
exorcists. Every trace of study and contri-
vance is obliterated by the hearty earnestness
which pervades each successive period, and
by the vernacular and homely odioms in which
his meaning is conveyed. The recollection
of William Cobbett will obtrude itself on the
reader of these discourses, though the pre-
sence of the sturdy athlete of the ** Political
Register," with his sophistry and his sarcasm,
his drollery and his irascible vigour, sorely
disturbs the sacred emotions which it was the
one object of the preacher to awaken. And it
is in this grandeur and singleness of purpose
that the charm of Whitfield's preaching seems
really to have consisted. You feel that you
have to do with a man who lived and spoke,
and who would gladly have died, to deter his
hearers from the path of destruction, and to
guide them to hohness and peace. His gos-
siping stories, and dramatic forms of speech,
are never employed to hide the awful realities
on which he is intent Conscience is not per-
mitted to find an intoxicating draught in even
spiritual excitement, or an anodyne in glowing
imagery. Guilt and its punishment, pardon
and spotless purity, death and an eternal exist-
ence, stand out in bold relief on every page.
From these the eye of the teacher is never
withdrawn, and to these the attention of the
hearer is riveted. All that is poetic, grotesque,
or rapturous, is emplojred to deepen these
impressions, and is dimissed as soon as that
purpose is answered. Deficient in learning,
meagre in thought, and redundant in language
as are these discourses, they yet fulfil the one
great condition of genuine eloquence. They
propagate their own kindly warmth, and leave
their stings behind them.

The enumeration of the sources of Whit
field's power is still essentially detective*
Neither energy, nor eloquence, nor histrionio
talents, nor any artifices of style, nor the most
genuine sincerity /ind self-devotedness, nor all
these united, would have enabled him to mould
the religious character of millions in his own
and future generations. The secret lies deeper*



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tiioitgh not vtry deep. It consisted in the na-
ture of the theolo^ he taught— in its perfect
simplicity and universal application. His
thirty or forty thousand sermons were but so
many variations on two key-notes. Man is
guilty, and may obtain forgiveness ; he is im-
mortal, and must ripen here fur endless weal
or wo hereaOer. Expanded into innumerable
forms, and diversified by infinite varieties of
illustration, these two cardinal principles were
sver in his heart and on his tongue. Let who
would invoke poetry to embellish the Christian
system, or philosophy to explore its esoteric
depths, from his lips it was delivered as an
awful and urgent summons to repent, to be-
lieve, and to obey. To set to music the orders
issued to seamen in a storm, or to address
them in the language of Aristotle or Descartes,
would have seemed to him not a whit more
preposterous than to divert his hearers from
their danger and their refuge, their duties and
their hopes, to any topics more trivial or more
abstruse. In fine, he was thoroughly and con-
tinually in earnest, and, therefore, possessed
that tension of the soul which admitted neither
of lassitude nor relaxation, few and familiar as
were the topics to which he was confined.
His was, therefore, precisely that state of mind
in which alone eloquence, properly so called,
can be engendered, and a moral and intellec-
tual sovereignty wpn.

A still more important topic we pass over
silently, not as doubting, or reluctant to ac-
knowledge, the reality of that divine influence,
of which the greatest benefactors of mankind
are at most bat the voluntary agents ; but be-
cause, desiring to observe the proprieties of
time and place, we abandon such discussions
to pages more sacred than our own.

The efiects of Whitfield's labours on suc-
ceeding times have been thrown into the
shade by the more brilliant fortunes of the
ecclesiastical dynasty of which Wesley was
at once the founder, the lawgiver, and the head.
Yet a large proportion of the American
churches, and that great body of the Church of
England which, assuming the title of evangeli-
cal, has been refused that of orthodox, may
trace back their spiritual genealogy, by regu-
lar descent from him. It appears, indeed, that
there are among them some who, for having
disavowed this ancestry, have brought them-
selves widiin the swing of Mr. Phillio's club.
To rescue them, if it were possible, from the
bruises which they have provoked, would be
to arrest the legitimate march of penal justice.
The consanguinity is attested by historical re-
cords and by the strongest family resemblance.
The quarterings of Whitfield are entitled to a
conspicuous place in the evangelical scutch-
eon; and they who bear it are not wise in
being ashamed of the blazonry.

Four conspicuous names connect the great
field-preacher with the evangelical body, as it
at present exists in the Church of England.
The first of these, "Btjxfj Ye^n, exhibited in a
svstematic form Uie doctrines and precepts of
IM evangelical divini^ in a treatise, bearing
fte insignificant title of the << New Whole Duty
of Man/* He was the founder of that ** school
of the prophets," which has, to the present



day, continued to flourish with unabated or in*
creasing vigour in the University of Cambridge,
and the writer of a series of letters which have
lately been edited by one of his lineal descend-
ants. They possess the peculiar and rerj
powerful charm of giving utterance to the
most profound affections in grave, chaste, and
simple langtiage, and indicate a rare subjec-
tion of the intellectual, anC sensitive, to the
spiritual nature— of an intellect of no common
vigour, and a sensibility of exquisite acnteness,
to a spirit at once elevated and subdued by de-
vout contemplations.

He was followed by Joseph Milner, who, hi
a history of the Church of ChrisITfraced, from
the days of the Apostles to the Reformation,
the perpetual succession of an interior socie^
by which the tenets of the Calvinistic Method-
ists had been received and transmitted as a
sacred deposit from age to age. A man of
more spotless truth and honesty than Milner
never yet assumed the historical office. But
he was encumbered at once by a theory, and
by the care of a grammar-school ; the one an-
ticipating his judgments, the other narroving
the range of his investigations. His "appara-
tus" included little more than the New Testa-
ment, the Fathers, and the ecclesiastical histo-
rians. To explore, to concentrate, and to
scrutinize with philosophical scepticism, the
evidences by which they are illustrated and
explained, was a task un suited alike to bis
powers, his devotion, and his taste. He has
bequeathed to the world a book which can
never lose its interest, either with those who
read it to animate their piety, or with those
who, in their search for historical truth, are
willing not merely to examine the prooft, hot
to listen to the advocates.

John Newton, most generally known as tht
fViend and spiritual guide of Cowpcr, has jet
better claims to celebrity. For many years
the standard-bearer of his section of the Angli-
can church in London, he was the writer of
many works, and especially of an autobiogra-
phy, which is to b« numbered amongst the
most singular and impressive delineations of
human character. A more rare psychological
phenomenon than Newton was never subjected
to the examination of the curious. The cap-
tain of a slave-ship, given up at one time to all
manner of vice and debauchery, gradually
emerges into a perfect Oroondates, haunted to
the verge of madness by the sentimental
Psyche, but is still a slave-trader. He studies
the Scriptures and the classics in his cabin,
while his captives are writhing in mental and
bodily agonies in the hold. With nerves of
iron, and sinews of brass, he combines an al-
most feminine tenderness, and becomes sno-
cessively the victim of remorse, a penitent, a
clergyman, an eminent preacher, an author of
no mean pretensions in verse and prose, be*
loved and esteemed by the wise and good; and
at an extreme old age closes in hononr, peace,
and humble hope, a life of strange vicissitudes,
and of still stranger contrasts. The position
which he has the courage to challenge for
himself in the chronicle of his party, is that of
an example of the salutary influence of their
principles on a man once given up to reckles



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nilt His friends and followers, with more
discretion, and at least equal truth, assert for
him the praise of having consecrated his riper
and declining years to tibe practice of pure and
undefiled religion ; and to the inculcation of it
with all the vigour of his natural disposition,
tempered hy a composure and adorned by an
elegance, the most remote from his primitive
character.

The last of the fathers of the Evangelical
Church was Thomas t^cott^ the author of many
books, and amongst these of a treatise called
the " Force of Truth," which records his own
mental history; and of a Commentary on the
Bible, in which the truth he sought and be-
lieved himself to have found is discovered in
almost every page of the inspired volume.
Scott was nothing less than a prodigy of auto-
didactic knowledige. Bred up in humble life,
with little education, regular or irregular, and
immersed from youth to age in clerical cares
(of which a well-filled nursery and an ill-filled
purse seem inevitable parts) he had neither
money to multiply books, nor much leisure or
inclination to read them. But he studied his
congregation, his Bible, and himselfl From
those investigations, conducted with admirable
sagacity, good faith and perseverance, he ac-
cumulated a fund of thought indigenous if not
original, accurate if not profound, which, con-
sidered as the gathering of a solitary mind, is
altogether marvellous. In the later editions
of his work, indeed, he interspersed such
learning as he had derived from subsequent
study. But, inverting the established order,
he seems to have published his own books
first, and to have read those of other men
aAerwards. Such a process, executed with
such zeal and earnestness, if aided by a vivid
imagination, would have rendered his specu-
lations instinct with breath and life ; if directed
by vanity, it would have ascribed to the sacred
oracles some wild novelties of meaning at jar
with the sense and spirit of their authors ; if
guided by mercenary views, it would have
brought diem into harmony with the opinions
of the orthodox dispensers of ecclesiastical
emoluments and honours. But imagination
in the mind of Thomas Scott was not merely
wanting, it was a negative quantity; and his
chariot-wheels drove heavily. The thirst of
praise or of wealth was quenched by a desire
as simple and as pure as ever prompted
human activity to promote the Divine glory
and the good of man. He would have seen
the labours of his life perish, and would have
perished with them, rather than distort the
sense of revelation by a hair's breadth from
what he believed to be its genuine meaning.
He rendered to his party (if with such a man
party can be fitly associated) the inestimable
service of showing how their distinguishing
tenets may be deduced from the sacred canon,
or reconciled with it; and of placing their
feet on that which Chillingworth had pro-
claimed as the rock of the Reformation.

Gradually, however, it came to pass in the
Evangelical, as in other societies, that the
sjrmbol was adopted by many who were stran-
prs to the spirit of the original institution ; —
by many an indolent, trivial, or luxurious
14



aspirant to its advantages, both temporal and
etemaL The terms of membership had never
been definite or severe. Whitfield and hii
followers had required from those who joined
their standard neither the adoption of any new
ritual, nor the abandonment of any established
ceremonies, nor an irksome submission to
ecclesiastical authority, nor the renunciation
of any reputable path to eminence or to wealth.
The distinguishing tenets are few and easily^
learned; the necessary observances neither
onerous nor unattended with much pleasurable
emotion. In the lapse of years the discipline
of the society imperceptibly declined, and
errors coeval with its existence exhibited
themselves in an exaggerated form. When
country gentlemen and merchants, lords spin
tual and temporal, and even fashionable ladies
gave in their adhesion, their dignities unin-
vaded, their ample expenditure flowing chiefly
in its accustomed channels, and their saloons
as crowded if not as brilliant as before, the
spirit of Whitfield was to be traced among his
followers, not so much in the burning zeal and
self-devotion of that extraordinary man, as in
his insubordination to episcopal rule and un«
quenchable thirst for spiritual excitement
Although the fields and the market-places no
longer echoed to the voice of the impassioned
preacher and the hallelujahs of enraptured
myriads ; yet spacious theatres, sacred to such



Online LibraryJames Fitzjames StephenCritical and miscellaneous essays → online text (page 51 of 83)