IT was a rare old chapel. I wish it could have remained forever as I used to know it: let me see if I can sketch it with my pen. When I was a boy of twelve, I made this drawing of the back of the old meeting-house. I have been welcomed at a farmer’s table on the promise of making a picture of his house. I am rather glad that this pencil memorial was preserved by my dear Aunt Ann; but I must now, forty-five years after, use the pen on the same subject.
The pulpit was glorious as “the tower of the flock.” Over it hung a huge sounding-board: I used to speculate as to what would become of grandfather if it ever dropped down upon him. I thought of my Jack-in-thebox, and hoped that my dear grandpapa would never be shut down and shut up in such a fashion. At the back of the pulpit was a peg to hold the minister’s hat: inside, there was room for two, for I have sat there with grandfather when quite a little boy; but I guess that two grown-up people would have found it “quite too small enough,” as my Dutch friend puts it.
Just below, and in front of the pulpit, was the table-pew, wherein sat the elders of the congregation, the men of gracious “light and leading.” There Uncle Haddon generally stood, and gave out the hymns and the notices; and from that semi-sacred region was raised the block of wood by which to the singers upstairs the meter of the hymn was made known, — Common, Long, or Short. There were big tomb-stones forming the bottom of this large pew, which took its name from containing the table, on which were spread the bread and wine on days when they had the ordinance: I think that was the correct phrase when our good folks intended “the communion.” I don’t remember hearing them style infant baptism “the ordinance”; but I suppose they thought it to be one. A few had qualms upon the question, and were baptized quietly at some Baptist Chapel.
The pews in the middle were mostly square in form, and roomy. Those on either side were aristocratic, and lined with green baize, for the most part very faded. In some cases, brass rods carried up little curtains, which made the family pew quite private, and shut out all sights but that of the grave and reverend senior who dispensed to us the Word of Life. There were flaps inside the pew so as not to lose the space where the door opened, and flaps for the poor to sit upon in the aisle outside of these pews; and when the time came to go home, there was such a lifting up and letting down of flaps, and flap-seats, within the pew, and without the pew, as one never does see in these degenerate days. A little boy on a hassock on the floor of one of these holy loose-boxes ought to have been good; and no doubt was as good there as anywhere, especially if he had a peppermint to suck, and nobody to play with.
I cannot forget the big clock which had a face outside the chapel as well as one inside. When his long body had been newly grained, he seemed a very suitable piece of furniture for a nice, clean, old-fashioned Puritan meetinghouse.
If I am rightly informed, the veteran time-keeper was bought by the miller, and is now upon one of his sheds. To what strange uses we may come at last!
The people were mainly real Essex: they talked of places down in “the Shires” as if they were quite foreign parts; and young fellows who went down into “the Hundreds” were explorers of a respectable order of hardihood. They loved a good sermon, and would say, “Mr. Spurgeon, I heard you well this morning.” I thought the good man had preached well, but their idea was not so much to his credit; they judged that they had heard him well, and there’s something in the different way of putting it; at any rate, it takes from the preacher all ground of glorying in what he has done. They were a people who could and would hear the gospel, but I don’t think they would have put up with anything else. They were as apt at criticism as here and there one: some of them were very wise in their remarks, and some were otherwise. Well do I remember an occasion upon which the preacher had treated “the tares” after the manner of the East, and was altogether right in so doing; but they said, “He wouldn’t know a tare if he saw one. It was painful to hear a man talk so ignorant. To say that you couldn’t tell wheat from tares when they were a-growing was ridiculous.” The rustic critics were wrong for once; but on matters of doctrine or experience, you would have found them quite a match for you.
I do not think our folks were anything like so superstitious and weak as the peasants I came to know ten years after in Cambridgeshire. Tales of white wizards and witches were unknown to my juvenile mind; though I heard enough of them when my age was between sixteen and twenty. Then one of my best workers told me that a witch had dragged a cat down his naked back by its tail: he did not show me the marks, but he fully believed in the feline operation. We cannot forget that in the village of Hedingham, which is not more than five miles from Stambourne, a murder was committed so late as 1865, which grew out of popular belief in witchcraft. The old men I talked with, as a little child, were, I am sure, far above all such nonsense; and upon many a Biblical, or political, or ecclesiastical, or moral subject, they would have uttered great and weighty thoughts in their own savory Essex dialect.
There were, no doubt, in Stambourne a few rough fellows who did not go to any place of worship; but those who came to the meeting-house were the great majority, and the plain, practical, common-sense sermons which they heard had lifted them out of that dense superstition which still benumbs the brains of too many of the East Anglian peasantry.
THE SINGING AT STAMBOURNE MEETING-HOUSE.
The prayer-meetings during the week were always kept up; but at certain seasons of the year grandfather and a few old women were all that could be relied upon. It occurred to me, in riper years, to ask my venerated relative how the singing was maintained. “Why, grandfather,” said I, “we always sang, and yet you don’t know any tunes, and certainly the old ladies didn’t.” “Why, child,” said he, “there’s one Common meter tune which is all, ‘Hum Ha, Hum Ha,’ and I could manage that very well.” “But how if it happened to be a Long or Short meter hymn?” “Why, then, I either put in more Hum Ha’s, or else I left some out; but we managed to praise the Lord.” Ah, shade of my dear old grandsire! your grandson is by no means more gifted as to crotchets and quavers than you were, and to this day the only solo he has ever ventured to sing is that same universally useful tune! Even that he has abandoned; for audiences are growing either more intelligent or less tolerant than they used to be.
My grandfather once ventured upon publishing a volume of hymns. I never heard anyone speak in their favor, or argue that they ought to have been sung in the congregation. In that volume he promised a second, if the first should prove acceptable. We forgive him the first collection because he did not inflict another. The meaning was good, but the dear old man paid no attention to the mere triviality of rhyme. We dare not quote even a verse. It may be among the joys of Heaven for my venerated grandsire, that he can now compose and sing new songs unto the Lord. When we say we dare not quote, we do not refer to the meaning or the doctrine: in that respect, we could quote every line before the Westminster Assembly, and never fear that a solitary objection would or could be raised.
The Stambourne style of singing led me into trouble when I returned to my home. The notion had somehow entered my little head that the last line of the hymn must always be repeated, and grandfather had instilled into me as a safe rule that I must never be afraid to do what I believed to be right; so, when I went to the chapel where my parents attended, I repeated the last line whether the congregation did so or not. It required a great deal of punishment to convince me that a little boy must do what his parents think to be right; and though my grandfather made a mistake in that particular instance, I have always been grateful to him for teaching me to act according to my belief whatever the consequences might be.
I recollect, when first I left my grandfather, how grieved I was to part from him; it was the great sorrow of my little life. Grandfather seemed very sorry, too, and we had a cry together; he did not quite know what to say to me, but he said, “Now child, to-night, when the moon shines at Colchester, and you look at it, don’t forget that it is the same moon your grandfather will be looking at from Stambourne;” and for years, as a child, I used to love the moon because I thought that my grandfather’s eyes and my own somehow met there on the moon.
Outside the Meeting, near that long side, which was really the front, there stood a horsing-block. Ladies went up the steps, and found themselves on a platform of the same height as their horse’s back. It was a commendable invention: how often have I wished for something of the sort when I have had to climb my Rosinante! To me, this horsing-block was dear for quite another reason. The grand old lime trees shed their leaves in profusion, and when these were swept up, the old chapel-keeper would ram a large quantity of them under the horsing-block. When I had pulled out about as many as fitted my size, I could creep in; and there lie hidden beyond fear of discovery. My friend, Mr. Manton Smith, has written a book called Stray Leaves, and another which he has entitled More Stray Leaves; I entered into his work before he was born. So good was the hiding-place, that it remained a marvel where “the child” could be. The child would get alone; but where he went to, his guardian angels knew, but none on earth could tell. Only a little while ago, my dear old Aunt Ann said, “But, Charles, where did you get to when you were such a little child? We used to look everywhere for you, but we never found you till you came walking in all by yourself.” The horsing-block was the usual haunt when there were leaves, and an old tomb would serve at other times. No, I did not get into the grave; but it had a sort of altar tomb above it, and one of the side stones would move easily, so that I could get inside, and then by setting the slab of stone back again I was enclosed in a sort of large box where nobody would dream of looking for me. I went to the aforesaid tomb to show my aunt my hiding-place; but the raised altar was gone, and the top of it, with the name of the deceased thereon, was laid flat on the ground. Some of the side-stones, which formerly held up the memorial, were used to make door-steps when the buildings were put into their present state of repair, and the top stone was made to occupy the same space, only it lay flat upon the ground, instead of being raised some two feet above it.
Still, I remembered well the place, and what the tomb had formerly been.
How often have I listened to the good people calling me by my name! I heard their feet close to my den, but I was wicked enough still to be “lost”, though the time for meals was gone. Dreaming of days to come befell me every now and then as a child, and to be quite alone was my boyish heaven.
Yet, there was a seventh heaven above that: let me but hear the foxhounds, and see the red coats of their pursuers, and I had seen the climax of delight.
When the huntsmen did come down by Stambourne woods, it was a season of delirious excitement to others besides “the child.” At other times, all the women and children were solemnly working at straw-plait; but what they did when the fox went by I will not venture upon guessing, for I don’t remember what I did myself. The woods at the back of the chapel had a charming mystery about them to my little soul, for who could tell but a fox was there? As a child, when asked what I would be, I usually said I was going to be a huntsman. A fine profession, truly! Many young men have the same idea of being parsons as I had of being a huntsman, — a mere childish notion that they would like the coat and the horn-blowing; the honor, the respect, the ease, — and they are probably even fools enough to think the riches of the ministry. (Ignorant beings they must be if they look for wealth in connection with the Baptist ministry.) The fascination of the preacher’s office is very great to weak minds, and hence I earnestly caution all young men not to mistake whim for inspiration, and a childish preference for a call of the Holy Spirit.
I once learnt a lesson, while thus fox-hunting, which has been very useful to me as a preacher of the gospel. Ever since the day I was sent to shop with a basket, and purchased a pound of tea, a quarter-of-a-pound of mustard, and three pounds of rice, and on my way home saw a pack of hounds, and felt it necessary to follow them over hedge and ditch (as I always did when I was a boy), and found, when I reached home, that all the goods were amalgamated, — tea, mustard, and rice, — into one awful mess, I have understood the necessity of packing up my subjects in good stout parcels, bound round with the thread of my discourse; and this makes me keep to firstly, secondly, and thirdly, however unfashionable that method may now be. People will not drink mustardy tea, nor will they enjoy muddled-up sermons, in which they cannot tell head from tail, because they have neither, but are like Mr. Bright’s Skye terrier, whose head and tail were both alike.
Somehow, I don’t think our Sunday-school came to so very, very much. It was a great day when every child brought his own mug, and there was real cake, and tea, or milk and water, and an address; but that high festival came but once a year. Having been on one occasion pressed into the service when I was still a boy, but was in Stambourne on a visit, I felt myself a failure, and I fancied that some around me were not brilliant successes. Still, in those early times, teaching children to read, and to repeat verses of hymns, and to say the Catechism by heart, were a good beginning. Dr. Watts’s Catechism, which I learned myself, is so simple, so interesting, so suggestive, that a better condensation of Scriptural knowledge will never be written; and the marvel is that such a little miracle of instruction should have been laid aside by teachers. While I am writing, one question and answer come to me with special freshness: — “Who was Isaiah?” “He was that prophet who spake more of Jesus Christ than all the rest.”
At the distance of fifty-three years, I remember a little book which was read to me about a pious child at Colchester; I recollect Janeway’s Token for Children, and I recall the bad conduct of some juveniles of my own age, who not only kicked up a dust, but literally kicked the teachers.
Memory makes a selection as she goes along; and in my case, the choice of things retained is so miscellaneous, that I cannot discover my own character by their guidance.
The weekday school for the very juveniles was kept by old Mrs. Burleigh, and to that fane of useful knowledge I was sent. The only thing that I remember was that I heard a good deal of her son Gabriel, and therefore asked, as a great favor, that when he came home from the town where he lived, he might come and see me. I had my desire; but after all these years, I have not got over my disappointment. To see Gabriel! I don’t think I had absolutely reckoned upon the largest kind of wings; but wings certainly, or something otherwise angelic. To see only a young man, a youth in trousers, with no trace of cherubim or seraphim about him, was too much of a come-down. “What’s in a name?” was a question not yet known to me; but no one will ever need to ask me now. Names are mere labels, and by no means proofs that the things are there.
To come back to the old chapel, the best point about it was the blessing which rested on the ministry carried on within. The dew of the Spirit from on high never left the ministry. Wherever my grandfather went, souls were saved under his sermons. My own beloved father, Rev. John Spurgeon, constantly reports to me fresh instances of the old gentleman’s usefulness. ‘When I first of all became a preacher, there were persons who said, “I heard your grandfather, and I would run my shoes off my feet any day to hear a Spurgeon.” This was encouraging. Another told me that, to hear my grandfather once, made his wing-feathers grow a foot. He could mount as eagles, after being fed with such Heavenly food. “He was always so experimental,” was the summing-up of one of the most devout of workingmen. “You felt as if he had been inside of a man.” Buildings may perish, and new shrines may succeed them; but no earthly house will accommodate a sounder or more useful ministry than that of my grandfather.