Victorian London - Publications - Humorous - Lights and Shadows of London Life [by James Payn], 1867 - Vol. 2 -  Chapter 17 - A Popular Preacher

[back to menu for this book ...]




I AM not a successful person, and I don't like a person that is so. When I am told of people who have caught the public ear or eye - an actor who draws full houses, a barrister who affects juries to tears, a poet who reaches a second edition, anybody, in short, who has done more than I have done - I feel a very natural antipathy for him, and adopt one of two courses: I deny that the thing is true; I have been to the theatre, and was the only creature in the stalls; I have been to the Old Bailey, and was convulsed with merriment at the pathos of the learned gentleman; I happened to know the publisher, and he confessed to putting "second edition" upon all after the first fifty copies. [-202-] Or else, admitting the success, I deny that it is deserved ; the actor is a stick, the counsel is a pump, the poet is a fool. I find this practice, as a general rule, to be soothing to myself, as well as pleasing to my friends; the majority of whom also have been unfortunate in life, having merits that have never been appreciated, genius that has been ignored, and yearnings that have never come to anything.
    Picture, then, our indignant sentiments when we heard of a certain reverend gentleman - one Boanerges - getting fifteen thousand people to listen to him in the open air. This, of course, was a frightful exaggeration; but then if there were only ten thousand? or even five thousand? Some of us were clergymen ourselves, and were, reasonably enough, excessively outraged. Well, we did what we could; we heard it from the best authority that there were barely fire hundred in his chapel, and that each of those received a four-penny-piece for going there; that after the first day's preaching the novelty of the thing went off, [-203-] and so did the congregation; that poor Boanerges was a seventh-day wonder which only lasted a week. The report then spreading that a gigantic place of worship, such as had not been heard of since Solomon's Temple, had been actually projected for the express purpose of accommodating Boanerges's hearers, followed by the certain news that one of the finest music-halls in London had been found insufficient for his audience in the meanwhile, and that the very largest of all had been engaged instead-then, I say, we altered our tactics. Boanerges was (then) a Mormon, a Shaker, a Jumper, a Latter-day Saint. He belonged to the Agapemone, denied the rotundity of the earth, was in favour of a plurality of wives, habitually preached standing upon one leg, emphasising with the other upon the reading-cushion, and held dramatic dialogues with Adam, with Moses, and with Nebuchadnezzar. We were confirmed in this line of proceeding by the religious newspapers, who, upon the occasion of a frightful accident occurring in his crowded congregation, [-204-] asserted roundly that it served them, time sufferers, right. " No man," said one of them, "is justified in collecting large assemblies who has not the power of controlling them"- upon an alarm of fire, for instance; after which it went on to describe what its Archdeacon Stratecote would have done in a similar emergency. Anti-Boanerges tracts also were published, with strange interrogatory titles - "Who is Boanerges?" "Why is Boanerges popular?" "Who is the Chief Heretic of To-day?" Not, of course, that we, or the newspapers, or the tracts cared sixpence what Boanerges was or was not, but on account of the fifteen thousand persons, more or less, who still kept going to hear him. People one meets at dinner-parties began to go; some of whom - Wilkins, for instance, a young man without a proper sense of respect for his superiors - thought fit to oppose my sentiments.
    "Any man," I had observed, "who degrades himself to act the buffoon, will get thousands to come and see him do it."
   [-205-] "There are more buffoons in the world than spectators, retorted Wilkins.
    "Sir," said I, in a manner which is considered to be like that of the great lexicographer's, "there are not. I maintain that if a man choose to play the actor in his pulpit upon the Sabbath-day, he will fill his house."
    "Nay; but we know not a few of those also," persisted Wilkins, " who have still several pews to let. I don't want to exalt my man unduly, but he shall not be sat upon."
    "Sir,'' said I, "did not this person address a man from his pulpit who happened to come into his chapel out of the rain, and stigmatise him as 'an umbrella Christian?' Did he not on one occasion imitate a badger? Did he not, on another, run down his pulpit stairs, to illustrate the swiftness of a fall from grace; and toil up the same slowly, to picture the difficulty of repentance'? Did he not call the established clergy 'dumb dogs?' Did he not?"
    "Perhaps he did, and perhaps be did not," said [-206-] Wilkins; "I have heard you say he did, often enough: now, do you come with me next Sunday to hear him and judge for yourself."
    I agreed to go. Horshair, who has been thirty years at the bar without stooping to any transaction with an attorney, and Humbleby, one of the most respectable of modern divines, offered to accompany us on the ensuing evening. We left all the arrangements to Wilkins. He said we must dine at four o'clock, iii order to be at the music-hall before the service commenced. This was very disagreeable to people of our years and position, and particularly as we could get nothing at the club till after six. We arranged, then, to meet at "the Wellington" at fifty-nine minutes past three; and Humbleby and I were there, punctual to the minute. There was some printed statements upon one side of the door, setting forth that upon Sundays no table could be served till after five o'clock ; we rang the bell, and found that even this hope was illusory, and that the earliest time of hope was half-past five.
    [-207-] Horshair and Wilkins kept us waiting in the east wind for near a quarter of an hour, during which my friend continuously observed that it served us both right, and that it was nothing more than he had expected. We then adjourned to a neighbouring chop-house, strongly recommended by our young companion, and partook of the very worst dinner that I have had since I was a schoolboy: much as wine was to be desired on such an occasion, and particularly for the stale fish, there was no wine to be got until six o'clock. During this melancholy entertainment, Wilkins observed that he hoped we were all right about Boanerges, for he was advertised to preach at so many different places that one could never be quite sure. Humbleby was speechless with indignation; hut Horshair and I gave the young man so much of our minds as to induce him to confess he was only joking. Immediately after cheese, we drove away in two hansoms to the music-hall; an hour's indigestion, turnpike-paying, and suffocation (for Wilkins would smoke) ensued before we reached [-208-] our bourne, which seemed to be a long blank wall in a perfectly empty street. An official person with his back against it informed us that Boanerges only preached there in the mornings; and that in the evenings he preached at his own chapel a mile or two off, in Southwark. Humbleby, who had quarrelled with Horshair coming along, immediately began to walk back again without any remark, and, as we afterwards discovered, had the misfortune to he garroted near to the South Western Railway Station.
    We three drove on to the chapel, the street in front of which was filled with masses of people. Horshair, not knowing that Humbleby had previously paid the cabman, discharged the entire account over again, from which circumstance much dispute arose between the two friends; but there was no time to lose in inquiries, if we were to hear Boanerges that evening. Though we formed ourselves into a solid square of three, we had much ado to keep our position in the crowd, and could not advance one step. The great iron gates in front [-209-] of the chapel were closed; but two strong currents of people were flowing in, by ticket, at the side- doors; "a thoroughly Calvinistic notion," as Horshair observed, whose forte, when disgusted, is sarcasm. Presently, the police let three great waves of outside folk through the main entrance, and then the inexorable iron closed for good: we were in the fourth wave next the bars. A deacon - one of those of whom Boanerges is reported to have said: "Resist the devil, and lie will fly from you; but resist a deacon, and he will fly at you "- here addressed us, and implored us to go away. "Mr. Boanerges himself has said that his chapel holds but twelve hundred to hear, and two thousand to suffocate; the two thousand are now in. Three streets off, there is good doctrine and a most respectable minister - Ebenezer Chapel, first turn on the left hand. This announcement was greeted by a general groan, the sentiment of which was "Boanerges aut nullus;" and not till the opening hymn - it sounded like a song of triumph - was raised by the fortunate inmates of the wished - for [-210-] place, did we in the street begin to melt away in twos and threes. In those unknown, ill-paved, unlighted, cabless regions, I claim credit for myself and Horshair that we did not do for Wilkins, who appeased us, however, in some slight measure by standing dinner - for we had had no dinner, in any high sense of the term - at the club.
    On the ensuing Sunday, Wilkins called upon me at breakfast-tune with two tickets: "Admission for Lord's-day mornings" to the temple of Boanerges. I glared at him for a moment or two, and then consented to go. It was a beautifully clear day; the gardens in which the music-hall was built were crisp with frost, and their ornamental waters sparkled in the sun; the scene was more like one in Paris than in London; and time vast throngs of ticket-holders among the statues and the arbours, and in front of the great model of the Russian stronghold, seemed pleasure-takers rather than church-goers. The music-hall itself, with its hundred windows and long gilded galleries, with its printed announcements of "Cloak-rooms," [-211-] "Refreshment-rooms," "This way to the stalls," and so on, which were suffered to remain in all their native profanity, contrasted strangely with the usual habitations of religion amongst us; two private boxes on either side the orchestra alone reminding one, by a sort of impious parody, of the grand old British pew. Upon the orchestra seats and fronting the vast assemblage, Boanerges' own particular flock were accommodated; and where the conductor's box was wont to be, was reared an enormous pen, by way of pulpit. How the folk kept flocking in! - for the most part well-dressed - there were scarcely any poor among them - and quite as many males as females; the majority, like ourselves, with curious, half-smiling faces; but a large minority, too, with very demure ones, in whose, chiefly feminine, hands were a Bible and a ticket neatly wrapped up in a pocket-handkerchief. These tickets, by-the-by, cost but twelve stamps for a course of four sermons, and, it is fair to state, go a very little way towards paying the hire of so vast a place, which is expected to be defrayed by [-212-] the voluntary contributions of the congregation at the doors. The body of the hall, and also the best seats in the galleries, were filled before the gates were opened to the general public, and the unticketed religious world rolled in upon us like a flood. In ten minutes, when the gates were closed again, there was not an empty seat to be seen. The whisper that threaded this great crowd dropped in an instant, and every man's head was bared, is if by magic, for we had come together, some of us, at least, to worship, and ho! there was the Preacher.
    A middle-sized, unhandsome person, not above twenty-five years old at most, heavy-featured, rather flat-faced, straight-haired - but with what a voice! Without effort, without perceptible lift even, it filled that mighty temple with a volume of sound. A short opening prayer, somewhat remarkable for metaphor, was followed by a hymn, which a man with a tuning-fork gave out from the orchestra seats, and the select few thereon began to sing; it was one not well-known to us, or in [-213-] which most of the congregation could join, being selected from some dissenting psalm-book; but, even as it was, the aggregate of voices made up a most impressive harmony. The preacher subsequently referred to this when speaking of "the voice of many waters, and the voice of a great thunder, and the voice of harpers harping with their harps," as also to his own sensations at different times when under such influences; and indeed he seemed to well understand what modern divines have mostly yet to learn, that an example from their own experience, or drawn from the present circumstances of their audience, is worth a thousand metaphors from earth, and sea, and sky. Boanerges never missed an illustration because of its homeliness, and, leaving abstract virtues and vices to abstract men and women, addressed himself to folks of flesh and blood. "When I say Mammon, I don't mean idle dukes or greedy merchant-princes; my small adulterating shopkeeper, I mean you." And again, upon the importance of seeming trifles: "There is many [-214-] a man who will lose a thousand pounds without a murmur, and yet blaspheme about a shirt-button. In the prayer before the sermon, he touched upon the subjects at present interesting the national mind, expressing in a brief, rough manner, too, the healthy popular opinion upon most things. For the country, for the Queen, he prayed; for the confounding of despots, for the extinction of slavery, and for peace; and for the high court of parliament, "that it may do this coming session something, and not nothing, and that it may be vouchsafed, if it be but a little, wisdom." Before this prayer, he gave a short exposition of the hundred and third psalm, more remarkable for eloquence than learning, in which he rejected, somewhat violently, the eagle's renewal of its youth as a wicked fable, and limited the parallel to the ordinary process of moulting; then followed more singing, and then the sermon, which was taken from the Revelations. It is not of course my purpose to repeat it in this Journal, or in any way to deprive the Penny Pulpit of its lawful [-215-] prey; my only intention has been, and is ,to give a brief impartial account of the public preaching of a very remarkable man. Now that I have been to hear him, and since scarcely any of my acquaintance have had the same opportunity, I feel that there is something to be said for Boanerges as well as against him. He seems to me to be thoroughly in earnest, to have great command of language, and to know his way to the feelings of his congregation; at all events, he knows their weaknesses, and attacks them boldly, face to face, without any masked batteries whatever; while that great voice of his is rolling over their heads, there is not a sound to interrupt or weaken it; and when he pauses to refresh himself at his glass of water, a tempest of coughing and nose-blowing proclaims at once the willing patience and real attention of his hearers. I know many wittier men than Boanerges, and I know one or two as eloquent, but I know none who could have preached such passages as this man did without a trace of flippant profanity, and with all appear-[-216-]ance of religious earnestness: "The name that was written upon the foreheads of the saints - what was it? B for Baptist, do you imagine, my friend Bigot yonder? W for Wesleyan? C for Calvinist? E, perhaps, for the Establishment? It does not say so here. If you asked of the angel who keeps the gates of paradise whether there are any Baptists withinside, he'd shake his head. Any Calvinists?- he would not so much as look at you. Any of the Establishment? - he'd answer: "Nothing of the sort. They would all be there indeed, perhaps, my friends, but not in miserable sects and parties: they would be all Christians-saints. There were many such-I was almost going to write "hits" - striking illustrations during this sermon, the whole of which was upon that "very disagreeable but true doctrine, my friends - although indeed 1 am none of your strait-gate and narrow-way people - Election."
    Finally, if I had to answer that before-mentioned tract called " Why is Boanerges Popular?" I should answer, that he is so mainly because he [-217-] combines real eloquence with what Luther possessed, and Latimer possessed, and which no modern preacher, except Boanerges, perhaps does possess - earliest religious humour.