Huntington, William (DNB00)

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HUNTINGTON, WILLIAM, S.S. (1745–1813), eccentric preacher, natural son of Barnabas Russel, farmer, was born in a cottage at the Four Wents, on the road between Goudhurst and Cranbrook, Kent, on 2 Feb. 1744-5, and was baptised at Cranbrook Church in the name of his putative father, William Hunt, a labourer, on 14 Nov. 1750. After acquiring the barest rudiments of knowledge at the Cranbrook grammar school, he went into service as an errand-boy, and was afterwards successively gentleman's servant, gunmaker's apprentice, sawyer's pitman, coachman, hearse-driver, tramp, gardener, coalheaver, and popular preacher. Having seduced a young woman, the daughter of a tailor at Frittenden, Kent, he decamped on the birth of a child, and changed his name to Huntington to avoid identification (1769). He then formed a connection with a servant-girl named Mary Short, with whom he settled at Mortlake, working as a gardener. Here he suffered much from poverty, and still more from conviction of sin. After removing to Sunbury he went through the experience known as conversion, which was precipitated by a casual conversation with a strict Calvinist. Huntington, after failing to obtain satisfaction from the 'Whole Duty of Man' or the Thirty-nine Articles, discovered in the Bible to his dismay convincing proof of the doctrine of predestination. About Christmas 1773 a sudden vision of brilliant light confirmed him in his belief (cf. the detailed account in his autobiography); after praying fervently for a quarter of an hour, Christ appeared to him 'in a most glorious manner, with his body all stained with blood,' and he obtained the assurance that he 'was brought under the covenant love of God's elect.' He thereupon ceased to attend the established church, and spent his Sundays in singing hymns of his own composing, in praying, and in reading and expounding the Bible to Mary Short. He afterwards joined the Calvinistic methodists of Kingston; but soon removed to Ewell, where his preaching was unpopular, and thence to Thames Ditton, where for a time he combined preaching with coalheaving or cobbling. Subsequently he depended for his subsistence on faith. His congregations did not permit him to starve, but their supplies were irregular, and Huntington was often in great distress. He regarded every windfall, however trifling, as a miraculous interposition of God. His curious work, 'God the Guardian of the Poor and the Bank of Faith,' gives a minute account of his manner of life at this period.

By degrees he extended the sphere of his ministry, going a regular circuit between Thames Ditton, Richmond, Cobham, Worplesdon, Petworth, Horsham, and Margaret Street Chapel, London, Providence providing him with a horse, horse furniture, and riding breeches. He found wishing sometimes a more powerful engine than prayer. Anticipating that his past history would sooner or later come to light, Huntington took the precaution of confiding the affair of the girl at Frittenden to his more devoted adherents, and appended to his name the letters S.S., i.e. sinner saved. The petty annoyance or persecution he suffered from those who resented his preaching he described in a book entitled 'The Naked Bow, or a Visible Display of the Judgments of God on the Enemies of Truth.' He there shows that various calamities which befell his enemies were divine punishments for small affronts offered to himself. In 1782, in accordance with what he regarded as a heavenly monition, he removed to London, and soon obtained sufficient credit to build himself a chapel in Titchfield Street, Oxford Market, which he christened 'Providence Chapel.' The place was consecrated in 1783, and here he officiated for more than a quarter of a century. On 13 July 1810 the chapel, which was uninsured, was burned to the ground. Huntington, however, easily raised £10,000 with which he built a larger chapel in Gray's Inn Lane, between Wilson Street and Calthorpe Street, taking care to have the freehold vested in himself. New Providence Chapel, as it was called, was opened for divine service on 20 June 1811. For the rest of his life Huntington derived a handsome income from his pew-rents and publications, had a villa at Cricklewood, and kept a carriage. He preached at his chapel until shortly before his death, which occurred at Tunbridge Wells on 1 July 1813. He was interred on 8 July in the burial-ground of Jireh Chapel, Lewes. His epitaph, composed by himself, was as follows : 'Here lies the coalheaver, who departed this life July 1st, 1813, in the 69th year of his age, beloved of his God, but abhorred of men. The omniscient Judge at the grand assize shall ratify and confirm this to the confusion of many thousands, for England and its metropolis shall know that there hath been a prophet! among them.' Mary Short died in Huntington's lifetime. Her death was hastened by gin and chagrin induced by a scandalous intimacy which Huntington formed about 1803 with an evangelical lady, Elizabeth, relict of Sir James Sanderson, bart., lord mayor of London in 1792. Huntington married this lady on 15 Aug. 1808. By Mary Short he had thirteen children, of whom seven survived. He had none by Lady Sanderson. She survived him, dying on 9 Nov. 1817.

In person Huntington was tall and strongly built, with somewhat irregular features, a ruddy complexion, light blue eyes, and an ample forehead, partially concealed by a short black wig. His portrait by Pellegrini (æt. 58) is in the National Portrait Gallery. His manner in the pulpit was peculiar. Action he had none, except a curious trick of passing a white handkerchief to and fro. His style was colloquial and often extremely coarse, but nervous and idiomatic. His doctrine was Calvinism flavoured with antinomianism, his method of interpreting scripture wholly arbitrary. He claimed to be under the direct inspiration of God, and denounced all who differed from him as knaves, fools, or incarnate devils. He predicted the total destruction of Napoleon and his army in Egypt, and the fall of the papacy about 1870. He seldom baptised, admitted to the communion only by ticket, and discountenanced prayer-meetings.

From the time of his settling in London he was a prolific writer, and was frequently engaged in acrimonious controversy. Among his antagonists were Jeremiah Learnoult Garrett [q. v.], Rowland Hill [q. v.], and Timothy Priestley [q.v.] In 1811 he published a collective edition of his works complete to the year 1806, in 20 vols. 8vo. They consist principally of sermons, epistles, and other edificatory or controversial matter. He continued to publish during his life, and six additional volumes appeared after his death, viz. (1) 'Gleanings of the Vintage,' 1814, 2 vols. 8vo; (2) 'Posthumous Letters' 1815 3 vols., 1822 1 vol. 8vo.

[The principal authorities are the autobiographical works mentioned in the text; Ebenezer Hooper's Celebrated Coalheaver, 1871; Facts, Letters, and Documents concerning William Huntington, 1872; obituary in Gent. Mag. 181-3; The Sinner Saved, a Memoir of the Rev. William Huntington, 1813; a savage article by Southey in the Quarterly Review, vol. xxiv.; Don Manuel Espriella's Letters from England, 1808 (cf. notice in Edinburgh Review, January 1808).]

J. M. R.