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TEA AND EXPERIENCE.
I was walking the other day in one of the pleasant
western suburbs, and rashly sought a short cut back ;
when, as is generally the case, I found that the longer
would have been much the nearer way home. Before
I knew it, I was involved in the labyrinths of that
region, sacred to washerwomen and kindred spirits,
known as Kensal New Town; and my further progress
was barred by the intervention of the Paddington
Canal, which is spanned at rare intervals in
this locality by pay-bridges, to the great discomfort of
the often impecunious natives. There was not even
one of these at hand, or my halfpenny would have
been paid under protest; so I had to wander like a
lost sprite among the network of semi-genteel streets
that skirt that most ungenteel thoroughfare, the
Kensal New Town Road, and forthwith I began to
find the neighbourhood papered with placards, announcing
a " Tea and Experience Meeting" at a local
hall, under the presidency of the Free Church pastor,
for the following Monday evening. Bakers' shops
bristled with the handbills, and they studded the multitudinous
pork butchers' windows in juxtaposition with
cruel-looking black puddings and over-fat loin chops.
I determined I would go, if not to the tea, certainly
to the " Experience," for I like novel experiences of
all kinds: and this would certainly be new, whether
edifying or not.
I got at length out of the labyrinth, and on the following Monday ventured once more within its mazes, though not exactly at six o'clock, which was the hour appointed for the preliminary experience of tea. I had experienced that kind of thing once or twice before, and never found myself in a position of such difficulty as on those occasions. In the first place I do not care about tea, when it is good ; but loathe it when boiled in a washhouse copper, and poured out from a large tin can, of which it tastes unpleasantly. But, then again, the quantity as well as the quality of the viands to be consumed was literally too much for me. I might have managed one cup of decidedly nasty tea, or what passes muster for such, but not four or five, which I found to be the minimum. I could stomach, or secretly dispose of in my pockets, a single slice of leaden cake or oleaginous bread-and-butter ; but I could not do this with multitudinous slabs of either. I never went to more than one tea-meeting where I felt at home, and that was at the Soirée Suisse, which takes place annually in London, where pretty Helvetian damsels brew the most fragrant coffee and hand round delicious little cakes, arrayed as they are in their killing national costume and chat-[-75-]tering in a dozen different patois. I had a notion that tea at Kensal New Town would be very much less eligible, so I stopped away. Perhaps I was prejudiced. The tea might have been different from what I expected. The experiences certainly were.
I got there about half-past seven, having allowed an interval of an hour and a half, which I thought would be sufficient for the most inveterate tea-drinker, even among the Kensal Town laundresses, should such happen to be present. I took the precaution, however, of bespeaking a lad of fifteen to accompany me, in case any of the fragments of the feast should yet have to be disposed of, since I knew his powers to equal those of the ostrich in stowing away eatables, especially in the lumpy cake line. Arrived at the hall, however, I found no symptoms of the tea save a steamy sort of smell and the rattle of the retreating cups and saucers. Whether "to my spirit's gain or loss," I had escaped the banquet and yet got in good time for the subsequent experiences.
A motherly-looking woman stood at the door, and gave me a cheery invitation to come in. She looked rather askance at my boy, but finding him properly convoyed by my sober self, she admitted him within the portal. A good many young gentlemen of a similar age were evidently excluded, and were regaling themselves with pagan sports outside. The hall was partially filled with respectable-looking mechanics, their wives, and families, there being more wives than [-76-] mechanics, and more families than either. Children abounded, especially babies in every stage of infantile development. Many were taking their maternal tea ; and the boys and girls were got up in the most festive attire, the boys particularly shining with yellow soap. Most of the mammas wore perky hats, and many had follow-me-lads down the back, but all were exceedingly well-dressed and well-behaved, though evidently brimful of hilarity as well as cake and tea.
At the end of the hall was the inevitable platform, with chairs and a large cushion spread over the front rail for convenience of praying ; since the " experiences" were to be interspersed with sacred song and prayer. Two gentlemen - I use the term advisedly - mounted the rostrum, one a long-bearded, middle-aged man, in a frock coat, who was the pastor, and another an aged minister, superannuated, as I afterwards discovered, and not altogether happy in his worldly lot. He was very old, grey-haired, and feeble, with a worn snit of clerical black, and a voluminous white tie. He sat humbly, almost despondingly, by the side of his younger brother in the ministry, while the latter delivered a merry little opening address, hoping all had made a good tea; if not, there was still about half a can left. Nobody wanted any more; so they had a hymn from the "Sacred Songster," a copy of which volume I purchased in the hall for twopence halfpenny. The tune was a martial one, well sung by a choir of men and [-77-] women to the accompaniment of a harmonium, and bravely borne part in, you may depend upon it, by the whole assembly, I verily believe, except the babies, and one or two of these put in a note sometimes. The hymn was called, "Oh, we are Volunteers!" and was very Church-militant indeed, beginning thus :-
Oh, we are volunteers in the army of the Lord,
Forming into line at our Captain's word;
We are under marching orders to take the battle-field,
And we'll ne'er give o'er the fight till the foe shall yield.
Then came the chorus, repeated after every verse :-
Come and join the army, the army of the Lo rd,
Jesus is our Captain, we rally at His word :
Sharp will be the conflict with the powers of sin,
But with such a leader we are sure to win.
The poor old minister offered up a short prayer. The pastor read the 1st Corinthians, chapter 13, and explained briefly what charity meant there; adding that this gathering was very like one of the Agapae of the early Christians - a remark I had not expected to hear in that assembly. Then there was another hymn, " Beautiful Land of Rest," when it did one good to hear the unction with which the second syllable of the refrain was given :-
Beautiful land of rest.
After this the "Experiences" commenced in real
earnest. Brothers and Sisters were exhorted to lay
aside shyness and mount the platform. Of course no
one would do so at first; and the poor shaky old
minister had to come to the rescue.
[-78-] He told us, at rather too great length, the simple story of his life - how he was a farmer's son, and had several brothers "besides himself." He had to learn verses of the Bible for his father, which used to go against the grain, until at last, instead of being "a wicked boy," he took up religion on his own account. He began to be afraid that, if he died, he should go to "a bad place," and therefore started saying his prayers. His brother George used to push him over when he was praying half-dressed in the bedroom, or occasionally vary proceedings by stirring him up with a sweeping brush. At last he found out a quiet place under a haystack, and there retired to pray. The old man drew a perfect picture of the first prayer thus offered, and told us he could remember every little detail of the spot, and the great oak tree spreading its branches over it. "Here I am," he said, "a poor old pilgrim on the bright side of seventy now, and yet I can remember it all. I say the 'bright' side, for I know it is a bright home I am soon going to." Then he told us how God took his wife from him and all his worldly goods, and he was quite eloquent about the comfort his religion was to him now as he went to his little lonely lodging. He drew next too truthful a picture of the state of things he saw around him in Kensal New Town - mothers with infants in their arms crowding the tavern doors ; and finished up with a story, of which he did not see the irrelevancy, about a fine lady going to the "theatre," [-79-] and saying how much she had enjoyed the anticipation, then the play itself, and, lastly, the thought of it afterwards. She was overheard by a faithful pastor, who told her she had omitted one detail. "No," she said, " I have told you all." "You have told us how you enjoyed the thought, of the theatre, and the performance, and the recollection of it afterwards; but you have not told us how you will enjoy the thoughts of it on your death-bed." Of course the "fine lady" was converted on the spot, as they always are in tracts; and the good old fellow brought his long-winded narrative of experiences to an end by-and-by, the pastor having omitted to pull his coat-tails, as he promised to do if any speaker exceeded the allotted time. "The people were certainly very attentive to hear him," and one man next my boy expressed his satisfaction by letting off little groans, like minute guns, at frequent intervals. Then another hymn was sung, "The Beautiful Land on High," which, by the way, is a favourite with the spiritualists at their " Face Séances." I half expected to see a ghostly-looking visage peep out of some corner cupboard, as I had often done with my spiritual friends - that being another experience which I cultivate with considerable interest and curiosity. The hymn being over, a black-bearded, but soft-voiced man, in a velveteen coat, got upon the platform, and told us how the chief delight of his life was at one time making dogs fight. When the animals were not [-80-] sufficiently pugnacious of themselves, his habit was to construct an apparatus, consisting of a pin at the end of a stick, and so urge them to the combat, until it proved fatal to one of them. It was, he said, dreadful work; and he now considered it the direct machination of Satan. Another favourite pursuit was interrupting the proceedings of open-air missionaries. One day after he had done so, he went home with a companion who had taken a tract from one of the missionaries. He had a quarrel with his "missis." "Not that missis sittin' there," he said, alluding to a smart lady in front, "but my first missis." In order to show his sulks against his missis, he took to reading the tract, and it soon made him cry. Then he went to chapel and heard a sermon on Lot's wife being turned into a pillar of salt. He was a little exercised by this, and saw the minister in the vestry, but soon fell back into bad habits again, singing canaries for 10s. 6d. a side. As he was taking his bird out one Sunday morning, the bottom of the cage came out, and the canary escaped. This he looked upon as "God's work," since it caused him to go to chapel that morning. His conversion soon followed, and he applied to that circumstance, in a very apposite manner, the Parable of the Prodigal, concluding with a stanza from the well-known hymn-
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform.
Another moustached man followed. He was ex-[-81-]ceedingly well-dressed, though he told us he
a common labourer. He had long given up his " 'art"
to God, but to little purpose until he came to this
chapel. " But there," he said, "down in that corner
under the gas-lamp, I prayed for the first time. I
prayed that God would take away my stony 'art and
give me a 'art of flesh, and renew a right sperrit
within me." From that time he led a new life. His
fellow-workmen began to sneer at the change, and
said ironically they should take to going to chapel
too. "I wish to God you would," was his reply. He
described the personal influence of the pastor upon him,
which strengthened the good resolutions he had formed,
and enabled him to say, "I will not let Thee go."
I could not help thinking, as I listened to the simple, earnest words of the speaker, that here was an element the National Church is too apt to ignore. The Roman Catholic Church would seize hold upon that man, and put him in a working men's guild or confraternity. The Free Church found him work to do, and gave him a chief seat in the synagogue, and an opportunity of airing his "experiences" on a platform. Surely better either one or the other, than sotting his life at a public-house, or turning tap-room orator. He ended by crying shame upon himself for having put off the change until so late in life, and added a wish that all the labouring classes could see, as he had been brought to see, where their chief interest as well as happiness lay.
[-82-] A tall man from the choir followed, and was considerably more self-possessed than the other two speakers. He told us at the outset that he had been " a Christian" for fourteen years. It was generally laid down as a rule, he said, that big men were good-tempered. He was not a small man; but until he gave his heart to God he was never good-tempered. He had, for thirty-two years, been brought up in the Church of England, but had found no conversion there. He had no wish to speak against the Church, but such was the case. He wandered about a good deal in those years, from Roman Catholic to Old Methodist chapels; but the latter settled him. He was attending a class meeting in Kensal New Town one night, and suddenly a determination came over him that he would not sleep that night until he had kneeled down and prayed with his wife, though it would be the first time he had done so for thirty-two years. When it came to bedtime his courage failed him. He could not get into bed; and he did not like to tell his wife why. "That," he said, "was the devil worritin' me." His wife said, "I know what's the matter with you. You want to pray. We will see what we can do." His wife, he told us, was "unconverted," but still she "throwed open the door" on that occasion. He never knew happiness, he said, until he came to Jesus ; and he added, "Oh, I do love my Jesus." He often talked to his fellow-workmen about the state of their souls, and they asked [-83-] him how it was he was so certain of being converted (a question I fancy others than they would like to have solved), and he answered them, "I feel it. I was uncomfortable before; and now I am happy. I don't wonder so much at the old martyrs going boldly up to the stake, because I feel I could do anything rather than give up my Jesus."
Hereupon the pastor, anticipating the departure of some of the assembly-for the clock was pointing to ten - announced a Temperance Meeting for the following Monday, and also said he should like the congregation to get up these meeting's entirely on their own account, without any "clerical" element at all, and to make the Tea Meeting a " Free and Easy" in the best sense of the word.
I went - shall I confess it? - to the experience meeting rather inclined to scoff, and I stopped, if not altogether to pray, at least to think very seriously of the value of the instrumentality thus brought to bear on such intractable material as the Kensal New Town population. The more cumbrous, even if more perfect or polished, machinery of the Established Church has notoriously failed for a long time to affect such raw material; and if it is beginning to succeed it is really by "taking a leaf out of the book" of such pastors as the one whose Tea-and-Experience Meeting I had attended. "Palmam qui meruit ferat."
Stiggins element, I must, in all justice, say there was none. The pastor was a simple but a refined and [-84-] gentlemanly man ; so was the poor broken old minister. There was no symptom of raving or rant; no vulgarity or bad taste. A gathering at a deanery or an episcopal palace could not have been more decorous, and I doubt if the hymns would have been sung as heartily. There was as little clerical starch as there was of the opposite element. Rubbing off the angles of character was one of the objects actually proposed by the pastor as the result of these gatherings ; and I really felt as though a corner or two had gone out of my constitution. If a man is disposed to be priggish, or a lady exclusive, in religious matters, I would recommend the one or the other to avail themselves of the next opportunity to attend a Tea-and- Experience Meeting at Kensal New Town.