BY C. H. SPURGEON
IT was a rare old chapel. I wish it could have remained for ever 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 a drawing of the back of the old meeting-house: I give it on the opposite page. 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 tombstones 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.
The aisles were paved with bricks, and were generally sanded. Here and there a portion of a gravestone indicated how the floor of the old building was honeycombed with vaults and graves. There was no need to go to the parish church to encounter ancient dust. Bacillae and microbes were not dreaded in those days. There is no reason to believe that in later years any body or bodies were buried in the meeting-house: it sufficed to lay the departed within the hallowed enclosure of “the meeting-yard.” It was not absolutely essential that those whose souls inherited eternal life should leave their bodies beneath the feet of their descendants for the spread of death on the Lord’s-day.
On the right-hand side from the pulpit, there were two large doors which admitted a wheeled carriage into the chapel. There it stood with its shafts turned up out of the way, and the sick person comfortably housed. I don’t remember another instance of a person driving into the house of God, and continuing to abide in her chariot throughout the service. ‘The gallery went along the whole inside front of the meeting-house, and turned round a little way on each side. It was to me, as a child, an elevated, obscure, and unknown region. There were men with flutes who let the water run out at the ends of the tubes on the people below, and the clarionet man, for whom I had more esteem, because I could make some sort of noise when I blew through his instrument; but the fifes (why not fives?) always baffled me. The bassoon man was there, and the serpent, and the double-bass, and a lot more of them.THEY COULD PLAY. There’s no mistake about it. At least, it was almost as certain as that other undeniable fact, that our singers could sing. Well, it was hearty singing; and say what you like, it’s the heart in the singing which is the life of the business.
Besides those who could sing, we had about twice as many who could neither play nor sing; but excelled in sharply criticizing what was done by others.
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!
Those natural beams, which sprang from the walls to the ceiling, and were a kind of brackets and bearers for the roof, were all in keeping with the sacred edifice; and strange to say, even the whips, which often stood upright in the corners of the pews, seemed most proper and pious adjuncts of the scene. In my young days the place was full; and one wondered where two such congregations came from to make the morning and the evening to rejoice.
The school-room was a late addition, and never seemed to harmonize with the original structure. The great windows along the side of the chapel gave a fine architectural appearance to the building, and the green of the great lime trees outside, which was visible everywhere, was peculiarly restful to the eye. I have never seen a place of worship which put me in a more worshipful frame of mind: so much for the power of association. 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.
One Sunday night there was a great fright at my grandfather’s house: the grey pony had been stolen! It had been taken out of the stable, and the saddle and bridle, too; and the whole traveling gear was missing except the gig. Not long after, the criminal was detected, and received the due reward of his deeds. The crime was not so very great after all. A boy belonging to one of the few ungodly families had been sent to Ridgewell, to get some physic for his mother, or perhaps to call for the doctor himself, and it had occurred to him that he could ride the pony, and put it back again in its place before anyone came out of meeting to find him out. He was let off with the personal chastisement which two of my uncles had given him without reference to constable or magistrate. Rough and ready justice was cheaper for the country and for all concerned, than the law’s delays. Even the culprit was; more content with it than with being taken before Squire Gooch, or some other of the Great Unpaid.
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.
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, 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 hidingplace; 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?
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 spoke 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 week-day 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 mean 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, Reverend 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 working-men. “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.