Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - London by Day and Night, by David W.Bartlett, 1852 - Chapter 17 - Pulpit Orators

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CHAPTER XIV. [-sic-]



    AMONG the pulpit orators of England the Rev. Dr. Hugh McNeile of Liverpool occupies a distinguished position. He is often in London-so often that his peculiarities are well known to all Londoners. He has for many years been the minister of St. Jude's Church, Liverpool, with a splenid salary, and is greatly beloved by his congregation.
    His chief characteristics are a tremendous energy, strong decision of character, and great enthusiasm and warmth of heart, so that he is at times almost under the influence of fanaticism. Yet such is the stern honesty of his character, that few men in or out of Britain, possess a more attached circle of friends.
    He is impulsive, and although such men do sometimes err, they are far more likely to be right than those who, lacking any heart, never achieve great things for the cause of Right, nor are ever propelled by their enthusiasm (having none,) in a wrong direction.
    The whole of Dr. McNeile's life has been spent at war with the Catholics. He is a member of the Established Church, and as a minister of that church in Liverpool, where the Catholics arc exceedingly numerous, he has received many provocations, and we dare say himself given some. At any rate he has fought for fifteen years withoutĚ any respite, [-276-] and is as ready for battle to-day as he was fifteen years ago He is fond of excitement, partly perhaps from habit, but would die a martyr to his faith, readily, if the sacrifice were required.
    In the pulpit he looks more like a son of Vulcan than a minister of the Prince of Peace, and one is reminded while looking at him of the celebrated Methodist Minister, Peter Cartwright, of Illinois, who often left his pulpit to silence disturbances with his brawny fists. When Dr. McNeile rises to speak, you are awed by his powerful physical appearance; he is tall and stout, with broad shoulders - and muscular arms, while his great, sloping forehead, white as snow, contrasts finely with his dark hair. His eyes are expressive of genius, while his whole face has the look of a man whom all the powers of Europe could not drive from a position he had taken conscientiously. He speaks best extemporaneously, and then when roused and excited he pours forth a torrent of fiery eloquence, lashes his victim without mercy, and generally carries his audience with him. While speaking, his gesticulation is always stately and in keeping with his character, for although a man of great enthusiasm, yet he always wears a look of dignity.
    He is a famous controversialist - in fact he has always been in controversy with somebody, and scarcely a noted paper in the land of Britain is there, which has not at one time or another either attacked him, or published letters from his pen. He is said to be a hard-working, laborious man, and his looks testify to the fact. He is a great favorite with the ladies, yet has little of the beau in his character. He is so intensely sincere, that even his enemies respect him, while his friends half worship him.
    He is mainly powerful when combating Error. He has none of that outbursting, loving eloquence with which the celebrated Thomas Binney of Weigh House Chapel, wins men from sin over to purity and peace.
    [-277-] A good anecdote which occurred in his early life illustrates his decision, and religious honesty of character. A rich bachelor-uncle of his gave him to understand, that if he would marry a young lady who was a favorite of his, he would bequeath to him a property worth over $300,000. The young lady was very beautiful and attractive, but lacked what to him was worth more than everything else - true piety. He therefore refused to accede to his uncle's wish, married a poor but worthy and pious young lady, and lost the property.
    But while he is so honest, it cannot be concealed that his fervor and zeal for truth often lead him into excesses. During the exciting controversy in reference to the establishment of a Catholic hierarchy in England, he was in a state of fearful agitation, and in his pulpit called for the punishment of death upon those priests who administered the confessional; but when time had cooled his brain he frankly asked the pardon of his audience for allowing himself to enunciate such a horrible sentiment. The apology illustrates his character, for he frankly acknowledges, when convinced that he has done wrong.


    W. J. Fox is not flow, we believe, a pulpit orator, but when we first entered London a few years since he was so, and we venture to give a slight sketch of him here. He is a member of Parliament, and one of the finest scholars in England. He has made shipwreck of his religious belief, and is known even flow as the "infidel-preacher."
    He used to preach in a church in Finsbury Place, and his sermons were, considered in a literary point of view, master pieces. In person he is very short, yet fat and heavy. His face is white, and his hair very black, while his eyes shine like stars. There is a peculiar melancholy upon his face which has a singular appearance.
    [-278-] When in the pulpit he used no action while speaking, nor in the House of Commons, nor at a mass-meeting of his constituents. Yet such is the force of his chaste and stately eloquence, that few ever are glad when he has done speaking. There is a fascination in his words which captivates every refined ear. He was quite as likely, when in the pulpit, to choose his text from Watts' hymns as the Bible-from Shakspeare as from Watts. His religious belief good men deplore, while they admit, that personally he is a man of good morals, and his chaste eloquence all lovers of pure English must admire. He was years ago a warm friend of William Hazlitt, the republican essayist, and they sympathized with each other in their peculiar religious sentiments.
    He is a thorough advocate for Reform, and is a tried friend of the people. No money could ever bribe him to devote his brilliant talents to the cause of the aristocracy, and this should make those men, who, professing stern religious principles, have nevertheless betrayed the people of England, blush for shame.
    Mr. Fox does not often speak in Parliament, but when he does speak he is listened to with flattering attention. He is the originator of a National Education Scheme which Richard Cobden is now supporting, and the object of which is to give the ignorant masses a common-school education.
    There are many distinguished clergymen in London whom we might sketch, and yet we are inclined to think that there are not now many brilliant pulpit orators in Britain. The splendid Robert Hall is no more and Chalmers is gone, and Clarke. The celebrated Melville is well known, for he has imitators this side of the Atlantic; the Hon. and the Rev. Baptist W. Noel is also widely known, and is truly an impressive pulpit orator.
    The Rev. John Angell James, of Birmingham, is quite often in London, and is well known throughout America by [-279-] his published works. He is an impressive speakers but is by no means an orator. His style of speaking is not declamatory, but peaceful and convincing. He is devoid of fine gesticulatory action, is indeed too inactive in the pulpit, but notwithstanding that, he can hold an audience in strictest silence for hours There is an indefinable charm in his sermons - they are so complete, so finely illustrated, and so interesting.
    The Rev. Dr. Harris is at the head of a Collegiate Institution just out of London, and is widely known and distinguished for his metaphysical powers. As a pulpit orator he ranks well, but his sermons are chiefly valuable for their deep thought and research. A portion of Dr. Harris' early history is full of thrilling interest. While residing many years ago in a seaport town, he became exceedingly attached to a young and beautiful widow. Her husband was a mercantile gentleman, and had gone out to China on business, but the vessel iii which he took passage was wrecked, and every soul on board lost. She went into mourning for him, and manifested every suitable respect for his memory. She mourned his death sincerely and intensely. But at length she met Dr. Harris, who was struck not only with her beauty, but with the loveliness of her character. She requited his affection - they became engaged - and were eventually married.
    A few months after the marriage, they went down one morning before breakfast to the sea-side for a walk. As they approached the water, they saw that a ship from some foreign port lay in the offing, and a small boat was approaching them from it. As soon as it came near enough to render the persons in it recognizable, the young bride fainted away. She had discovered her first husband in the boat! The story soon was told he was wrecked in the China Seas, was thrown upon an island, where he subsisted for some time, and at length made his way to China. A long time elapsed before he could come back to England - to find his wife the [-280-] bride of another. The wretched woman only recovered from her fainting fit to go raving mad, and though everything was done for her which science and affection could suggest, she expired in a few weeks in great mental agony. Her death was in reality a mercy, not only to her, but to the two gentlemen whose wife she was.
    Dr. Harris is a devout Christian, and a man of large thoughts and liberal ideas. He is well fitted for combating infidelity in all its phases.


    Having sketched the portrait of Dr. McNeile, the celebrated Episcopal pulpit orator, we will close the chapter with a like sketch of the most popular dissenting minister in London - the Rev. Thomas Binney.
    Having heard much of his singularly effective powers of oratory, we went one morning to hear him at the Weigh House Chapel, near London Bridge. The church was large and commodious, and we saw that Mr. Binney at least had the power of attracting large audiences. At about eleven o'clock he walked up the pulpit stairs and took his seat. He is one of the finest men we ever looked at, in his personal appearance. He is tall, and sufficiently corpulent to look dignified and substantial. His head is a splendid one, especially the forehead, which is gigantic. His eyes are beautiful black, and expressive. His face is full, and his thoughts appear as plainly upon it as if they were written there. His hair is dark, his arms large and strong, and his whole physical appearance prepossessing. There was a peculiar look and motion, an odd uneasiness, which betokened eccentricity in the orator. When he arose to read a portion of Scripture, there was an exceeding awkwardness in his manner. He read touchingly a beautiful Psalm ; his voice was remarkably sweet - at times so femininely soft, that we were surprised . [-281-] As he read on, his face grew radiant with smiles, and before he was half through, we wondered why we never before had seen the exquisite beauty of the Psalm. So it is with genius ever - it not only creates but discovers beauty. This pulpit orator discovered wonderful beauties in what he read, and pointed them out to his hearers. Then he quietly closed the volume, and said in almost a whisper, "Let us pray." It was a short, opening prayer, but was full of touching fervor. His face, which is at all times exceedingly expressive, now looked as if heaven were dawning upon it. Now sunny and summery as a morning of June, and then suddenly changing to gloom and sorrowfulness. Now expressive of a childlike faith, and again bursting into the daring of a man's trust. Now quivering with pathos, with tears beaded on his eyelids, then suddenly bursting into a holy smile - it was strange. The audience was hushed as the grave; not-a cough, not a loud breath disturbed the silence, until the prayer was ended, when there was a storm of coughing and clearing of throats. At last - after the singing - the preacher arose, shrugged his shoulders, and with many awkward movements, commenced his sermon. There was something of drollery in his first few sentences, both in sentiment and expression, but it was clearly not affected. So on he went, preaching a good sermon, using fine language, but we were not entranced or stirred up by his eloquence. We were concluding that we were disappointed and buttoning up our coat ready for returning home, thinking the service near its end, when without the slightest premonition, the reverend orator burst into one of the most brilliant, thrilling, burning perorations we ever heard. His face beamed with a holy light his words gushed forth fountain like, brilliant, striking, and beautiful. At first his eloquence was almost agonizing it was so fervid, so tremendous in its effects. The power of his oratory was vast, and it swept over his audience like a tornado. We were taken by sur-[-282-]prise - it came upon us like a storm of lightning and thunder; but soon there was a clearing off, and the sun came out clear and calm, and gloriously beautiful. At first his face and manner had been dark and repulsive, but now tears dropped from his eyes, and gems of beauty and sweetness from his lips, and his audience, though used to him, leaned forward and wept like children.
    Mr. Binney was born at New-Castle-upon-Tyne, and was first settled at Newport, in the Isle of Wight, but afterwards removed to the Weigh House Chapel, in London. A few years ago he lost his wife by death, and for a long time after, his health was miserable from melancholy. During this time he visited America, resuscitated his drooping health and spirits, married a second time, and is now the most popular pulpit orator in London. In conversation he is agreeable though when we saw him he was bitter in some of his references to America, principally because of her "temperance bigotry," and her "pro-slavery opinions." The reason of the former remark is, that Mr. Binney, though an excellent man. is fond of his wine!

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