1744 — 1833.
IT is not our design to write a life of Rowland Hill, but merely to sketch an outline portrait from the “eccentric” point of view. As a preacher Mr. Hill was the child of John Berridge, whose church he attended while he was a student at Cambridge, riding over to Everton every Sabbath to hear him.
From that veteran he no doubt learned that freedom and simplicity of language which always distinguished him. He also associated much with John Stittle, one of Berridge’s converts, and a man of very marked individuality, who preached in Green Street, Cambridge for many years.
Their intimacy may be gathered from the incident recorded by William Jones : — “On one occasion, when Mr. Hill was on his way to Duxford, to preach for the Missionary Society, he suddenly exclaimed, ‘ I must go to Cambridge, and see the widow of an old clergyman, who lives there, for I have a message to leave with her.’ He was urged not to go, but he was firm to his purpose. He spent a short time with the venerable widow, and reached Duxford just before evening service. On entering his friend Mr.
Payne’s house he said,’ Dear me, I quite forgot to leave the message with the widow,’ and seemed almost determined to return to Cambridge. He, however, remained during the service, and on being asked whether the message he had forgotten was important he replied, ‘Yes, sir, I wanted the old lady, who will soon be in heaven, to give my love to Johnny Stittle, and tell him I shall soon see him again.’” Mr. Hill’s first preachings were of an itinerant character. He was glad of a church, and equally delighted with a meeting-house; but the village green, a barn, an assembly room, or a hovel were all used as they were offered. He was not reared in the lap of luxury as a preacher, nor was he surrounded by the society of unmingled aristocracy, so as to be guarded from every whiff of the air of common life. He mingled so thoroughly with the people that he became the people’s man, and for ever remained so. With all the highmindedness which ought to go with nobility he mingled an unaffected simplicity and benevolence of spirit, which made him dear to persons of all ranks. He was thoroughly a man, thinking and acting for himself with all the freedom of a great emancipated mind, which bowed only at the feet of Jesus; but he was essentially a child-man, a Nathanael in whom was no guile — artless, natural, transparent, in all things unaffected, and true. He once said of a man who knew the gospel but seemed afraid to preach it, “He preaches the truth as a donkey munches a thistle — very cautiously : ” this was exactly the opposite of his own way of doing it.
His fixed places of ministry were Surrey Chapel, and Wotton-under-Edge.
He facetiously styled himself “Rector of Surrey Chapel, Vicar of Wotton, and Curate of all the fields and lanes throughout England and Wales.”
Surrey Chapel was called by many “The Round-house,” and it was reported that its form was chosen by Mr. Hill that the devil might not have a corner to hide in. The locality is described by Berridge “as one of the worst spots in London, the very paradise of devils.” It was hard by the assembling ground of Lord George .Gordon’s Protestant rowdies, and was m many respects an unsavory spot, and therefore so much the more in need of the gospel The spacious structure was the center of philanthropic, educational, and religious work of all kinds, and it would be difficult to find a building from which more beneficial influences have emanated.
At Wotton, Mr. Hill lived in what he called “a paradisiacal spot,” having his house near the chapel, and lovely scenery all around. He says of the village, “This place, when I first knew Gloucestershire, was filled with brutal persecutors; since they have been favored with the gospel they have been wonderfully softened.” We visited the place with great interest, and were taken to the spot where dear old Rowland would sit with his telescope and watch the people coming down the neighboring hills to the meeting, and would afterwards astonish them by mentioning what he had seen. Both in London and in the country he was the universal benefactor, and mixed with all sorts of people. In London he might be teen in the streets with his hands behind him, gazing into the shop windows, and in the country the cottages and the cornfields were his study. A friend told me an anecdote which I have not met with in print. When at Wotton he heard of a woman who was noted for her sausages, and therefore called in upon her, and bought a supply. “Now, my good woman,” said he, “how is it that you make such good sausages?” “Why, sir,” said she, “I think it is a gift from the Almighty.” Mr. Hill shook his head at this, and began to repent of his bargain, as well he might, for the articles turned out to be stale. He told the story afterwards as an instance of how people try to pass off their bad goods by canting talk, and as a proof of the fact that fanaticism is often in alliance with knavery, “A gift from the Almighty!” said he, “and yet the produce of this precious gift is good for nothing.” We give this as an instance of the manner in which he turned every little incident to good account.
Our friend Mr. Charlesworth, of the Stockwell Orphanage, has written a life of Rowland Hill, which in our judgment surpasses its predecessors in giving a full length portrait of the good man, and as this is readily to be had, we refer our readers to it. We remember reading an article in one of the reviews of the day in which Mr. Hill is abused after the manner of “the Saturday.” It did us great good to see how those who were before us endured the tongue of malice and survived its venom. It is clear from many remarks made by contemporary writers, and especially from the way in which one of his biographers has tried to take the very soul out of him by toning down his wit, that he was regarded by many serious people as a good brother whose infirmity was to be endured, but to be quietly censured. Now, we are not at all of this mind. Mr. Hill may have allowed his humor too much liberty, perhaps he did, but this was better than smothering it and all his other faculties, as many do, beneath a huge feather-bed of stupid formalism. When we hear our long-visaged brethren condemning all mirth, we remember the story of holy Dr. Durham, the Scotch divine, who wrote a commentary upon Solomon’s Song, and another upon the Revelation. His biographers say of him that he was so grave at all times that he very seldom smiled, much less laughed, at anything. We wonder if he had any children? What kind of father must he have been? But here is the story in the old-fashioned language in which we find it. The Revelation Mr. William Guthrie, minister at Finwick, met with Mr. Durham at a gentleman’s house near Glasgow, some time before his last sickness, and observing him somewhat dull, endeavored to force him to smile and laugh, by his facetious and pleasant conversation. Mr. Durham was somewhat disgusted at this innocent freedom of Mr. Guthrie, and displeased with himself that he was so merry. When Mr. Guthrie, according to the laudable custom of that family, and at their desire, prayed, he showed the greatest seriousness, composure, and devout liveliness. When he rose from prayer, Mr. Durham tenderly embraced his friend, and said to him, “0 William, you are a happy man; if I had been so merry as you were before you went to pray, I should not have been serious, or m a frame for prayer, or any other religious exercises for two days.” This occurrence led Mr. Durham to judge more leniently of his lively brethren, and our trust is that it may have the like effect upon any sour person who may chance to read this little book.
Mr. Hill’s name is very sweet in South London, and if you chance to meet with one of his old hearers, it will do your heart goo(t to see how his eyes will sparkle at the bare mention of his name. He made religion a delight and the worship of God a pleasure; yea, he made the very memory of it to be a joy for ever to the hearts of the aged as they recall the days of their youth when Rowland Hill — dear old Rowland Hill as they like to call him — was in his glory.