The English Peasant/William Huntington
A Peasant Preacher.
(Golden Hours, 1873.)
Few men have been more abused or misrepresented than William Huntington. Crabbe openly satirizes the Peasant Preacher in his "Borough;" but his style of painting was too conscientious to misrepresent very considerably. It is Southey and Macaulay, however, who have given currency to the true notion of his character usually entertained. It consists in what Carlyle calls "The fanatic-hypocrite theory." Fanaticism is so vague a charge, so entirely dependent for its meaning on the maker of it, that I leave it to the facts of Huntington's life to show how far it is true or false. But as to hypocrisy, no one with the slightest sympathy for the struggles of the human soul, unless he is already prejudiced, can read Huntington's remarkable autobiographies and believe him a hypocrite. John Sterling, the friend of Maurice, of Carlyle, and of Julius Hare, thus writes to the latter concerning him:—
"I read last night a small volume by W. Huntington, S.S., called 'Heaven taken by Prayer.' Seldom have I been more astonished, all my impressions of him having been derived from a dimly remembered and most scurrilous and coxcombical article (unless I do it great injustice) of Southey's in the Quarterly Review, and from an anecdote quoted out of Matthews the comedian's life, which on such an authority I do not credit. This little book shows him as the worthy compeer of Bunyan, and there is any one in history whose sincerity I could less easily doubt. His narrative is one of the most deeply affecting and heart-seizing I ever saw, and he seems to me to be 'a Cobbett with a conscience.' In that additional idea, by the way, what a world of difference lies. The book would have charmed Coleridge, the fourth volume of whose literary remains I have just looked through."
Some modern philosophers would have us believe that the Conscience is a thing formed by the code of morals—by the notions of right and wrong current in the society into which we are born. That such notions deeply affect the Conscience is plain, but if they were its origin, it would rest satisfied in them, which it never can.
Nothing, for instance, is more certain than that Huntington's Conscience could not be satisfied with the code of morals, with the notions of right and wrong which obtained in the society into which he was born; that it impelled him to seek quite another code—even God's right or wrong. And yet if we glance at the condition of that society, we shall see at once how deeply its notions of right and wrong gave form and character to his conscience, its manifold evils intensifying those peculiarly dark views of God's relation to the world which his early experience and his inherited tendencies inclined him to take.
It was the end of an age. All society was in dissolution. Lust, murder, robbery, and atheism sat enthroned in Europe. "Since the reign of the Roman emperors profligacy had never been conducted in so open and undisguised a manner as under Louis XV. and the Regent Orleans. All that we read in ancient historians, veiled in the decent obscurity of a learned language, of the orgies of ancient Babylon, was equalled if not exceeded by the nocturnal revels of the Regent Orleans, the Cardinal Dubois, and his other licentious associates." Paris set the fashion, London was not far behind. Not only lords, but ladies of the first families were openly dissolute in their conduct. A state of society which could produce a Duke of Queensberry must have fallen to the lowest pit of corruption. For there were few noblemen indeed who were not drunkards, gamblers, or licentious. As to the clergy, they followed the prevalent fashion, and none but a Methodist thought it incongruous in a minister of the Gospel to play at cards, follow the hounds, or drink deep. What London society had become Hogarth's prints reveal. One has only to look over a few of them to feel heartsick at the dissoluteness, the hardness, the cruelty, into which all classes seem to have fallen.
Corrupt as society was in London, it professed itself shocked at the barbarism of other parts of England. Ever since the war with France, in the early part of the century, heavy protective duties had been enacted to cripple the enemy's commerce. The result had been the demoralization of the dwellers on the south-east coast. Respect for laws divine and human was rapidly losing ground, not only among them, but far into the interior. Smuggling was organized on so vast a scale that large capitalists entered into it. The whole population gradually got mixed up in the traffic, until they began to see no wrong in it. In the wilder inland districts, such as the Weald and the New Forest, storehouses were established, and lines of transit organized to the metropolis. Daring spirits found it a far more profitable and an infinitely more exciting employment than honest labour. Honest labourers felt no scruple in adding to their miserable incomes by acting as guides to the illicit convoys over the Downs, through the miry lanes of the Weald, or the leafy shades of the New Forest. The lawlessness was frightful, The coastguard had a terrible time of it. Fights were common. Drunkenness, licentiousness, idleness, infected the whole population. From smuggling to highway robbery was a short cut. These were the days of Dick Turpin and Jack Sheppard, of Jonathan Wild and Claude Duval.
In the very centre of the district thus demoralized, in a state of society thus verging on dissolution, William Huntington was born. Under what circumstances he came into the world, and in what a miserable manner he passed his childhood, he thus relates:—
"The place of my nativity is Cranbrook, in the Weald of Kent. The house in which I was born lies between Goudhurst and Cranbrook. If a person walks from Goudhurst to Cranbrook on the main road he comes to a little green. About a quarter of a mile from that green, on the high road, is a place called the Four Wents, where four roads or ways meet. At that place are three houses—a farmhouse on the left hand, and two small houses on the right. In the first of these small houses on the right hand is the place where my mother brought me forth to see many an evil day. My father was a day-labouring man, who worked for seven or eight shillings in the winter, and in the summer for nine shillings a week, which is but a small pittance to keep a family. My mother bore eleven children, of which number I am the tenth. My parents being very poor, and receiving no support from the parish, we children fared very hard, and indeed seldom knew what it was to have a belly-full of victuals above once in the week, which was on the Sabbath day, when we were allowed to know what a bit of meat was. But it often happened that rent, or some other debt, was to be discharged, and on such accounts no meat could be procured. These barren Sabbaths were mourning days indeed to us young ones; but to our sorrow, they frequently came. Suffering with hunger, cold, and almost nakedness, so embittered my life in my childhood, that I often wished secretly that I had been a brute, for then I could have filled my belly in the fields."
In all his writings he is singularly careless of dates. However, we learn from the parish register at Cranbrook that he was born February 2nd, 1745.
To add to the wretched lot to which the poor child was called, a bar-sinister was on his birth. He was not the son of William Hunt, his reputed father, but of Barnabas Russel, the farmer for whom the ill-used man worked. Perhaps this was the reason that he was not baptized until he was nearly six years of age, but left a little outcast heathen in name as well as in fact.
Farmer Russel so far recognised his duty as to get him into the Free School. Here he learnt to write a little, and to read in the New Testament, but he was never taught to cast accounts.
He had previously learnt to read at a dame's school, and it was standing at her knee, or at that of her old man, that he says he first heard about God Almighty, as one who took note of children's sins. This idea, he says with a grim, unconscious humour, "stuck to my conscience a great while; and who this God Almighty could be I could not conjecture; and how He could know my sins without asking my mother I could not conceive. At that time there was a person named Godfrey, an exciseman, in the town, a man of a stern and hard-favoured countenance, whom I took notice of for having a stick covered with white figures, and an inkbottle hanging at the button-hole of his coat. I imagined that man to be employed by God Almighty to take notice and keep an account of children's sins; and once I got into the market-house, and watched him very narrowly, and found that he was always in a hurry by his walking so fast; and I thought he had need to hurry, as he must have a deal to do to find out all the sins of children. I watched him out of one shop into another all about the town, and from that time eyed him as a most formidable being, and the greatest enemy I had in all the world, and would shun him if possible; but if he happened to meet me unawares in turning a corner, you might have struck me down with a feather; I hung down my head, bowed and scraped till I could get out of his sight, and then I fled when none but conscience pursued. This man was a terror to me a long time, and has caused me to say many prayers."
Gradually he learnt more of this great God, but only sufficient to make him terribly afraid.
"Punishment for sin I found was to be inflicted after death, therefore I hated the churchyard more than all the ground in the parish; and it was a rare thing to catch me there in the dark. I would travel any distance round about, rather than drag my guilty conscience over that enchanted spot."
When about six or seven years old he went to work with his mother's husband, who was a good man, but doubtless took a most melancholy view of life, as well he might. The work was threshing corn, and when the winnowing day came, which occurred about once in three weeks, the farmer allowed them a dinner. If it rained no winnowing could be done, and there would be no dinner.
As the boy sat watching the clouds, the thought, he says, "came into my mind, that God did everything contrary to people's desires; and that if I prayed for a fine day, it would surely rain; but if I swore I knew it would rain, then it certainly would not. I obeyed this wretched temptation, and swore several dreadful] oaths that I knew it would rain, and it cleared up and rained not. So the 'father of lies' appeared to speak the truth. We dressed the corn, and I got my dinner." This fatahsm and devil-worship was probably shared by many beside himself. However, the Light that was in him struggled with the darkness which was gathering thick as his nature developed with increasing years, and he came more and more under the influence of the tone of thought around him. When he was about eight years old he learnt his first lesson in the power of prayer.
"I also remember to have once heard a person say that all things were possible with God; which words I secretly treasured up and pondered in my heart; and as I had great desire at that time to live in the capacity of an errand-boy with a certain gentleman in the place, it came into my mind that, if all things were possible with God, it was also possible for Him to send me to live as a servant-boy with Squire Cooke; though at the same time he had a boy who I believed was well approved of. Notwithstanding this last circumstance, I privately asked God, in an extempore way, to give me that boy's place; and made many promises how good I would be if He granted me this request. For many days I privately begged of God this favour, which nobody knew but God and myself, till now I relate it. I believe I went on in this way of praying, sometimes under a hedge, or on my bed, for a week or two; and I thought, if God granted me this favour, I should know whether all things were possible with Him or not. Having prayed for many days, and finding no likelihood of an answer, I readily concluded that there was no God; and therefore I had no cause to be so afraid of sinning, nor had I any occasion to pray to Him any more. Accordingly I left off praying for some time, and then began again, till at last I left off entirely. Some few days after this, there came a man to my father's house and said, 'William, Squire Cooke wants a boy; why don't you go after the place?' I said 'John Dungy lives there.' He answered, 'No; he is turned away.' I asked for what. He replied, 'Old Master Coley, the oysterman, went there a few days ago to carry some oysters; and while the old man was gone with a measure of them into the house, the boy robbed the pads, as they hung on the horse while he was tied up at the gate; and the mistress, seeing him, discharged him for it.' To my astonishment I got the place, and the bargain was struck at twenty shillings per annum. For many days and weeks an uncommon impression about the power of God lay fresh on my mind."
Half starved, his utmost wish had thus been to get a place, and so fare better, but now, no longer troubled on that account, he did as young rustics mostly do—fell in love. The affection was mutual, and so intense on his part that in after life, referring to it, he says, "She shot me through the heart, and killed me to all but herself; and I believe I could have served as many years for Susan Fever as Jacob did for Rachel."
Under the influence of this attachment he determined to learn a trade, and so apprenticed himself to his brother-in-law, who was a gun-maker; but the man drank so hard that he ruined himself and his business, and his apprentice had to try his fortune elsewhere.
Out of employ and getting ragged, his sweetheart's parents began to look coldly upon him, and were anxious to break off the match. In the sequel the lovers fell into the sin so frequent among their class; probably they hoped that when the result became known it would lead to marriage. However, neither the father nor the parish authorities would consent, so the young man was summoned before the magistrates, and ordered to pay a regular sum for the maintenance of the child.
In order to drown the trouble he was in, he now gave himself up to dissipation, and amongst other things learned to dance. Falling, however, dangerously ill, he thought he was about to die, and that if he did, he would certainly be lost. When he recovered he vowed that he would never dance again, but for some time conscience gave him no peace, hardly allowing him to sleep at nights. At last he determined to leave Cranbrook, as the weight about his neck prevented him making any way.
From this time for years his life was one continued scene of change and trouble, sometimes one occupation, sometimes another; driving a hearse at Tunbridge Wells, then working at Arundel and at Chichester; then at Epsom, at Riverhead, at Low Leyton. His life, in fact, was that of the ordinary field labourer on tramp, sometimes sleeping in the open air, and on one occasion going without food for three days and three nights together.
This sort of existence brought on a severe illness, which overtook him at Danbury, in Essex. However, a good Samaritan in the shape of the hostess of the "Bell" had pity upon him, and nursed and fed him as if he had been her own child.
Soon after he recommenced his wanderings he found himself in Kent, and the fear came upon him that he should be arrested for the debt now due to the parish of Cranbrook, and thrown into prison. Whereupon he thought that he would change his name from Hunt into Huntington, so that they might not find him out But like the former sin, of which this was indeed the corollary, he was severely punished for the deceit, since, after he had been long accustomed to it, and probably thought no more about it, it was discovered and exposed, and used as a handle against his fame as a public preacher. It gave him the appearance of an impostor, an appearance which an unusually sincere life and the passing away of a whole century has never entirely worn off.
And as so often happens, the fear which led to the deception was, after all, baseless. Susan Fever had already married some one else, and it would appear that soon after he had tidings of her death.
In the same year that he changed his name (1769) he married a native of Dorset—Mary Short, a hardworking, religiously disposed woman, two years older than himself. She told him that she would make a good man of him, which no doubt was one reason why he married her.
However, his domestic life began sadly enough. He lamed himself and fell ill, and soon got so low in the world as to want food. To add to his trials, his firstborn, a little girl, suddenly died.
The accumulation of trouble which had thus befallen him forced home upon him the conviction that the continued misfortune which had now dogged his steps for years was owing to his sins. He felt that he had neither known, feared, loved, nor served God as he ought.
Had Huntington lived three hundred years earlier, he would have talked his wife into letting him go and cast himself at some monastic gate, begging admission on any terms, so that he might once and for ever quit the world. But his spiritual conflict was not to be fought out in a convent, but in a cottage; not in the grave- like silence of a stony cell, but amidst a thousand domestic cares, in a close chamber, with nothing to hide his agony from wife and little ones but an old curtain behind which he could pray. Nevertheless he followed in the wake of the great mediaeval spirits, and, according to the manner of his day, forsook the world. He was naturally of a cheerful turn of mind, and fond of jovial society: but now he determined to give up all companionship; and, that he might the more thoroughly carry out his resolution, removed from Mortlake, where he was working, to Kingston, preferring to walk a dozen miles a day rather than run the risk of being entangled again in bad company.
He became very regular at church, had daily prayer with his wife, and learnt several little prayers to say as he walked to and from the scene of his labour. But to his dismay he found that the more he tried to act rightly, the more he felt inclined to do wrongly. This continual struggle brought home the sense of sin so terribly to him, that he fell into the deepest gloom and despair. "Molly," he cried out to his wife, "I am undone for ever; I am lost and gone; there is no hope nor mercy for me. You know not what a sinner I am; you know not where I am, nor what I feel!"
Hell became to him the one great reality. It swallowed up every other thought. He envied the horses and cattle, because they had no judgment-day to fear; he wished that he had never been born. For a long time he was tempted to throw himself into the Thames.
The interest and peculiarity of Huntington's struggles lies in the fact that it was due in no way to human influence. No fellow-sinner had reproved him; no Mr Evangelist had ever said to him, "Flee from the wrath to come;" no Vicar-General Staupitz had told him to look alone to Jesus; no holy Monica was praying for him.
He was so ignorant, that though he had lived twenty-six years in a so-called Christian land, he did not know where Christ was born. As to other people's doings or thinkings, he knew nothing about them, nor, indeed, to his great harm, did he at any period of his life seem to wish to know. It does not appear that he had ever heard of John Bunyan at this time; as to Luther, he may have heard the name, but that was all. Doubtless in his trampings over the metropolitan counties he had met with Methodist preachers; but it does not seem that he had ever listened to any. Besides, he was born in a locality and amongst a people over whom Methodism never has been able to obtain much influence, and with tendencies which made him one of its greatest opponents to the end of his days. And it so happens that at this very time he regarded them with horror, as deceivers who came to draw ignorant people from the Church, wolves in sheeps' clothing, wretches that would hasten the end of the world. He was loth to meet them, and wondered King George suffered them to preach.
So far from listening to such unauthorised preachers, he was most devout in going to church, waiting with hungry soul and open ears for the least scrap of information which should relieve his burdened spirit. He went from church to church "to find a minister who could point out the way to him wherein God, in His justice, could save a sinner;" but not a word did he hear that could help him. He had so deep a reverence for the clergy, that it never entered into his mind that perhaps, after all, it was "like people, like priest; "but he came instead to a curious conclusion, worthy of note as suggestive of the extraordinary ideas ignorant people may be entertaining. He says, "As I went mourning home from one of these church-goings, it came into my mind that the clergy knew which way God could save sinners, but that they would not tell us, lest we should get as wise as themselves; that they had learned the path, but their keeping us ignorant of it was on purpose to keep us close to the Church."
At last he thought it would do him good if he received the Sacrament. So he set off to speak to his clergyman, but not finding him at home he went to the clerk. This worthy proposed adjournment to the public-house, where they might arrange the matter over a glass of rum and water. As the old clerk staggered out of the beer-shop into the dark night, he gave the poor man this advice: "Don't," said he, "go to my master, or to any other parson, but," pointing with his finger up to the stars, "go there; if I was in your case I would go there."
Next Sunday he humbly waited after service, and when all the quality had partaken, his old friend motioned him to the communion table. However, he came away with all his guilt and distress just as great as when he went, and began to think that religion, instead of making him better, every day made him worse. His body got weaker and weaker, so that he had hardly strength enough to go about his work, while his mind was more and more harassed, so that he became peevish and ill-tempered, a burden to his wife as well as to himself.
But he was not left without teaching. Every now and then the Divine Light burst in upon him, and flooded his soul with joy; but dark clouds of unbelief rose again, and he sank into a deeper night than before.
Early in his narrative he describes with great beauty one such moment of Divine illumination:—
"Going one morning to my labour, groaning under the perilous state my soul was in, and I think as completely miserable as any mortal could be and live, it came suddenly into my mind, 'I wonder in what part of the world Jesus Christ was born?' though at that time I had no more knowledge of Him, who He was, or what He came to do, than one of the Arabs in the deserts of Arabia.
"I was wondering where He was born, and it came into my mind that He was born in the East, because our clergy turn their faces to the East when they read their creeds. I then looked from point to point eastward; determined to be sure to dart my eyes, if possible, straight to the spot, if I darted them slowly round two quarters.
"However, when my eyes came to the sun, which was just then risen above the hills, I felt such a love and spirit of meekness flow into my soul, from the thoughts of Christ's name and birth, as I never had felt before.
"I burst out, and wept so loud, that I believe a person might have heard me at a distance of twenty or thirty rods. And although I had at that time no idea of what Christ came to do, or what He died for, yet I had an amazing sense of His sufferings on my heart, which filled me with love to Him, and I pitied Him in my soul, and found a great dislike to the Jews for using Him so cruelly; still, however, I remained profoundly ignorant of the benefits of His cross."
On another occasion he was at Kingston Church, listening to the anthem, when the sweet music so carried him above all his despair that he could not tell whether he was in the body or out of it.
While this internal conflict was going on he was often the mark for the gibes and mockings of his fellow-workmen; so much so that he was glad to accept a gardener's place at Sunbury, and so ease himself from this annoyance.
He was aware that the man whose successor he was to be had cut his throat, after robbing his master; but he was much cast down when the old woman in charge of the house took him up into the chamber where the unhappy man had slept, and after dilating on the circumstances, and pointing out the marks on the floor, she told him that this was the room he was to occupy, and the bed upon which he was to sleep.
It is impossible to do justice to the terrific struggles the soul of the poor gardener now went through. The prey of violent temptations by day, the thought of sleeping in the same apartment in which Satan had already conquered a fellow-mortal took away sleep at night. At last the battle became so sore, and his despair so great, that he sat down and seriously meditated making terms with the fiend. But as the thought came upon him, a profound fear of God, he says, took possession of his soul, utterly destroying the potency of the temptation, so that he arose and went into the garden to his labour. As he worked he began to pray; and as his eyes involuntarily rose to heaven he saw a rainbow spanning the firmament. "There is a God, and the Bible is true!" he exclaimed. "God's Word says, 'I will set My bow in the cloud,' and there it is; my eyes now see it: there is a God, and God's Word is true!"
The memory of that rainbow encouraged him for a time, and he became still more earnest in his endeavours to keep from sin. He determined again to take the Sacrament, and to fit himself for it; and to do battle against the enemy he fasted so continuously that his stomach began to reject all kinds of food. This second attempt on his part to approach the Lord's table led to worse results than before. He was overwhelmed with the thought that if a man sinned after he had received the Sacrament there was no help for him. Driven to desperation, he determined to give up religion altogether; he would crush this accusing conscience, and live as other men. Accordingly, he turned into the alehouse, sought company, went to a review, did all he could to throw off his fears, saying to himself, "If I am damned, I shall not be damned alone; the great part of mankind will bear me company."
In this dissolute course he persisted for weeks, until he met with a man who made him a present of a manuscript sermon. He took it home, opened it, and this was the text—"For Tophet is ordained of old; yea, for the king it is prepared; he hath made it deep and large, the pile thereof is fire and much wood; the breath of the Lord, like a stream of brimstone, doth kindle it."
As the unhappy sinner read the sermon his hair stood on end, and such was his terror that he thought for a few minutes he was really in hell. In his remorse for his late misconduct he says, in his strong way, that "he thought he should have torn the flesh from his bones." He stripped himself, knelt down, and vowed that if God would pardon this act of wilful rebellion, he would never again enter a public-house in Sunbury.
It was shortly after this, on that very walk home from a visit to the new mansion which Lord Clive was erecting for himself, and in referring to which Macaulay has made so many mistakes, showing his ignorance of Huntington's real life and character, that the idea of the doctrine of election first broke in upon his mind. His companion had heard Whitefield, Romaine, and other great preachers in London, and they, he assured him, said that only the elect would be saved and none else. "Then," said Huntington, "there is no cause to try for salvation." "No," rejoined the other, "you can do nothing if you do."
Soon after this he was looking over a prayer-book, when he came upon the Articles. He had never noticed them before, but now he read them; and sure enough there was the doctrine of election plainly and fully expressed.
So he got his Bible, and began to look all over it, with a view to see if it was there also. To his surprise, the more he read, and the more he searched, the more he found about it, until at last it seemed to him written everywhere.
Happily, he was not left long to ponder on this doctrine; only just long enough to make it a step in his deliverance. For at this time it did nothing more than make him feel man's utter impotency and his entire dependence on the grace of God for salvation. It stopped once and for ever all resolutions, vows, fastings, and other vain efforts at making himself righteous. It led him one more step down into the deepest, darkest dungeon of despair; the belief that he himself was not, could not be, one of the elect, and that therefore for him there was no salvation.
It was near Christmas 1773, he was standing on a ladder pruning a large pear-tree; a whole stream of thought was passing through his soul. He reviewed all the struggles he had been through; how he had resolved, and how he had broken his resolutions; how hard he had tried; how he had battled and prayed, and all in vain; how diligently he had read the Scriptures, but how impossible it had been to make them agree; how great had been the fight, and how thorough the defeat. He recalled the facts of his life, especially the stigma on his birth. The offspring of adultery, how could he possibly be among the elect? "Oh," he cried in his agony, "that I was a brute, a reptile, or an insect! Oh that I could sink into non-existence!—that death temporal could but finish all! Oh that there were no judgment to come! But I know there is and a final doom fixed; and I shall shortly know the worst of it; for I am almost mad and almost dead!"
As he thus sank in utter despondency, and the very lowest depths seemed to be reached, suddenly a great light shone in upon his soul, and he thought he saw two rays lighting up this awful doctrine upon which he had been pondering. One ray seemed to light up all the commandments, threatenings, and curses; the other all the promises and divine invitations. The vision was so dazzling, so powerful, that it seemed to take away his senses; and in terror he descended from the ladder, crying out, as he looked every way, and saw nothing but the vision, "What is it? what is it?" Immediately, he says, he heard a voice saying, in plain words, "Lay by your forms of prayer, and go and pray to Jesus Christ; do not you see how pitifully He speaks to sinners? "He goes on to say:—
"I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but went to my little tool-house to pray; yet I cannot remember that I had at that time any faith in the Saviour, or expectation of being heard or answered; to all appearance I was sunk too low for that. I rather thought this vision was to bring me to a final end. Therefore I trembled in myself, and was almost desperate, fearing that I should shortly sink under that awful line of dreadful threatenings and curses.
"When I came into my little tool-house, to the best of my remembrance I did as I usually had done; that is, I pulled off my blue apron, and covered my head and face with it; for I was like the poor publican, I could not even look up to God; I was afraid He would damn me if I offered to do it.
"I kneeled down and began to pray extempore, in the language of one desperate, precisely thus:—'O Lord, I am a sinner, and Thou knowest it. I have tried to make myself better, but cannot. If there is any way left in which Thou canst save me, do Thou save me; if not, I must be damned, for I cannot try any more, nor will not.'
"The very moment the last sentence had dropped from my lips, the spirit of grace and of supplication was poured into my soul; and I forthwith spake as the Spirit gave me utterance. I immediately prayed with such energy, eloquence, fluency, boldness, and familiarity as quite astonished me; as much as though I should now speak Arabic, a language that I never learned a syllable of. And the blessed Spirit of God poured the sweet promises into my heart from all parts of the Scriptures in a powerful manner, and helped my infirmities greatly by furnishing my faltering tongue with words to plead prevalently with God.
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"It came to pass that, after I had been wrestling in this manner for about the space of a quarter of an hour, behold, Jesus Christ appeared to me in a most glorious and conspicuous manner, with all His body stained with blood! He appeared in His aspect as one greatly dishonoured and much abused, and yet inclined to pity me. I turned my eyes from Him, but He pursued me, and was still before me. I fell to the ground, and lay on my face, but could not shun the sight. I never before saw sin in such a light as I then did.
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"The sight and sense of sin which I had in the sight of a slaughtered Saviour filled my soul with indignation against myself and my sin, and caused my bowels to sound with unutterable love, pity, and compassion towards my highly-injured God and Saviour. My murmuring was completely slain at once, and I cried out, 'Oh, I cannot bear it! Oh, send me to hell, to my own place, for I deserve it! I cannot, I will not complain. Oh, send me to hell! I did not know till now that I had been sinning against Thy wounds and blood! I did not know that Thou hadst suffered thus for wretched me! I did not know till now that I had any concern in crucifying Thee! I cannot beg mercy of my suffering Lord and Saviour. No; send me to hell, for I deserve it. Oh, I will never complain, for I know that my complaining would be unjust'
"The more I strove to avoid Him, the nearer He approached; the vision opened brighter and brighter, and the impression was made deeper upon my mind; and the more I condemned myself, and tried to creep into darkness from His sight, the more He smiled upon me, and the more He melted, renewed, and comforted my soul. When I found I could not shun Him nor shut out His dissolving beams, I arose from the ground and went into the garden. Here I found all my temptations were fled; my hard thoughts of God, and the dreadful ideas I had of Him in His righteous law, were dissipated; my sins, which had stood before me during so many months, with their ghastly and formidable appearance, had spread their wings and taken flight, as far from me as the east is from the west, so that no bird remained upon the sacrifice.
• • • • • • • •
"Thus sin, Satan, death, destruction, horror, despair, unbelief, confusion, and distraction struck their flags, and were routed, vanquished, and slain, before the triumphant Redeemer's divine artillery, displayed from that wonderful armoury, the mystery of the cross, where God and sinners meet.
"I went into the tool-house in all the agonies of the damned, and returned with the kingdom of God established in my heart. happy year! O happy day! blessed minute! sacred spot! Yea, rather blessed be my dear Redeemer, who 'delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling.'"
He now tried to go to work, but for that day at least it was impossible.
"Jesus Christ had come; it was the year of jubilee with me, and the earth must bring forth of herself, for I could not till the ground. The servant was now freed from his master, and my hands were delivered from the pots. My soul had got on the wings of a dove; she had fled to keep holy day, and I was determined to keep holy day also. I therefore left the garden, and went to Sunbury-common, where I could walk as many miles as I pleased without being molested; and there I blessed and praised God with a loud voice, without anybody listening to the glorious converse which I held with my dear Redeemer.
"When I came there I was amazed, for the whole creation appeared in such embroidery as I had never before seen. 'His glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of His praise.' Indeed, 1 could not compare myself to anything, unless it was to one who had been shut up in a dark cell from the moment of his birth till he arrived at the age of twenty or thirty years, and then was turned into the world on a glorious sunshiny day, and placed on an eminence, where he could survey the greatest part of the world at one view."
When he came home in the evening, "I went," he says, "into the house laughing, crying, and saying to my dear Redeemer, 'I have heaven enough. What can heaven be more? What can it add to this? I desire no other heaven; I have enough.' I took the Bible down to read, and as soon as I opened it was so amazed, that I did not know it to be the same book; the glorious light shone in all the dark and obscure passages, for the day-dawn and the day-star had risen in my heart.
Few ever exercised faith more simply and entirely than Huntington now began to do.
Not long after the great event lately recounted had taken place, he left Sunbury, and took a situation as gardener to the owner of the powder mills at Ewell. His wages were to be eleven shillings in summer, and ten shillings in winter. As he had been obliged to pawn his best clothes to get money to move his goods, he had to live very closely at first in order to save enough to redeem them. Indeed, his capital in hand was simply nothing, for on arriving at his new abode on Monday, he found that he had just tenpence halfpenny left to provide for himself, wife, and child until Saturday evening.
But having tested the power of prayer, and being, as he says, rich in faith, he knelt down, and besought his God to send him relief.
"The next evening," he relates, "my landlord's daughter and son-in-law came up to see their mother, with whom I lodged, and brought some baked meat, which they had just taken out of their oven, and brought for me and my wife to sup along with them. These poor people knew nothing of us nor of our God. The next day in the evening they did the same; and kept sending victuals or garden stuff to us all the week long. We had not made our case known to any but God; nor did we appear ragged, or like people in want; no, we appeared better in dress than even those who relieved ]is; but God sent an answer to our prayer by them, who knew not at the same time what they were about, nor did I tell them till some months after." Then it was that this good neighbour told him that he had been impressed with the idea that they had no victuals, although his wife scouted the notion saying, "These people are better to pass than we are."
In order to save the money for the clothes, which, with interest, came to nearly forty shillings, they had, as I have said, to pinch and live very close. So they took to eating barley bread, suggested by reading the passage, "There is a lad here with two barley loaves and a few small fishes." "If," said Huntington to his wife, "the poor Saviour and His Apostles ate barley bread, surely we may."
Notwithstanding the saving thus effected, the effort at getting the clothes out of pawn was so great that they sometimes lived upon nothing else but their barley cakes. His fatherly heart yearned over his little child, and he was much distressed to think she should have to suffer on his account. However, he relates in his "Bank of Faith" how food was provided for them in a very wonderful manner. Looking out, as he did, for the direct help of God in all things great and small, he got the habit of making daily observation of the judgments, mercies, and providences of God. His relation of these events in his "Bank of Faith" has brought upon him the utmost indignation and contempt. Southey says, "There is nothing like it in the whole bibliotheca of knavery and fanaticism." And yet Southey, I imagine, would not have objected to Dr Arnold's assertion of the special providence of God as manifested in an event of such proportions as the break-up of the Napoleonic power by the unprecedented severity of the winter of 1812. But when it comes to Divine interposition on behalf of a poor labouring man and his family, the result appears so inadequate to the grandeur of the power exercised, that it strikes him as incongruous and absurd. But this is as unreasonable as it is contrary to the teaching of the Gospels.
William Huntington may well be called a representative, typical man. In him the character of the peasant of the great Weald of Surrey, Sussex, and Kent is most forcibly expressed. A man of intense individuality, and therefore very independent in thought and action, very obstinate in his own opinions, and most indomitable in carrying out his own plans; his profound reverence for all that was above him rendered him naturally a firm believer in the Divine order of things, just as he found it around him. No Tory of the Tories could possibly have been more so. He accepted, without a doubt, the glaring disparities of life—the destitution and starvation of some, the plethoric wealth of others—as agreeable to the Divine intention, and regarded all liberals and reformers as "lovers of rebellion," and "men given to change." In the King, the Church, and the Squirearchy it was natural to him to believe. And if he turned upon the clergy, and spoke slightingly of the services of the Church at this period of his life, it was in that bitterness of spirit with which a child turns upon indifferent and careless parents, the bitterness of one who feels he has been defrauded of a father's and a mother's love.
Withal he had been tempted, and had fallen into exactly the sins of his people. Confusion of ideas concerning courtship and matrimony, with the burden and sorrow accruing therefrom; want of confidence in other men's good intentions; and suspicion leading to deceit,—such, we have seen, had been his temptations, and these too were the temptations of the peasant of the Weald.
An earnest-hearted, long-suffering people, capable of becoming very dark, ignorant, besotted, and depraved, or of rising to a grandeur and nobility of faith, such as all the crackling fires of Smithfield could never burn out,—these people now began to find in their fellow-peasant one who expressed their deepest thoughts.
His first hearers were the man and his wife who had welcomed him so kindly to Ewell. They invited him to come into their cottage and talk to them. Others came, but he was not satisfied to go on before he had taken the advice of the minister of a Methodist meeting he now attended at Kingston. His teacher thought it right to deter him by drawing a picture of the responsibility of any one who attempted the work of preaching. This greatly distressed and alarmed him. Moreover, he fancied the people at the chapel looked coldly upon him. They could not understand him, and were afraid of him.
No human being, in fact, could be blamed for not seeing in this rough, unmannerly gardener, with his strange thoughts only half expressed, a great and powerful preacher.
But what could so wonderful an experience mean if he had not passed through it for others? Why, indeed, should he have been singled out for special teaching if he was not to teach his brethren? He had learned something which he believed was of infinite importance for them to know. That knowledge had come to him not from books, or even sermons, but, as he believed, by a heavenly vision and by the action of a heavenly Teacher. What more real call could any preacher have than this?
And if he wanted a human amen to the Divine message, he soon had it. His neighbours crowded into the little thatched cottage, and their testimony was expressed by one of their number, a poor unhappy woman, who was induced by her husband to come to the meeting. She went home, dreamt the world had come to an end, and that in her distress she cried out, "There is Light in Ewell Marsh!"
After a time he began to take a text, and the first he thus preached from was characteristic of his future style and theology. It was taken from the Song of Solomon—"A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed."
"After this," he says, "I found my heart like a springing well. The next morning passages of Scripture flowed in upon my mind, till I longed to pour them out; and various heads of discourse would naturally arise from various texts."
"When I left work I used to take my book and walk out into the corn-fields, sit down among the standing corn, and there read and pray, and talk to my Redeemer, who seemed to show His loving-kindness so conspicuously to me. In the lonely fields and under the hedges I used to continue till nine or ten o'clock in the evening, and it was like bathing in the river of pleasure. In the morning I generally arose very early, and had most delightful, soul-humbling times in prayer, which sent me to my labour in peace, knowing and feeling that all things stood fair between Christ and my conscience; when this was the case I knew all was well. Some of the sweetest hours that ever I enjoyed, or perhaps ever shall enjoy in this world, were at Sunbury in Middlesex, and at Ewell, in Surrey, where I had no friend but He that loveth at all times; no brother but He that was born for adversity; no father but the Father of Mercies, and God of all comfort; no spiritual neighbours but the elect angels; no mother but the heavenly Jerusalem; no fellowship but with the Father and the Son; no communion but with the Holy Ghost; no delights but in heavenly things; no teacher but the Almighty; no comforter but the Consolation of Israel; no amusements but in the covenant of grace; no constant companions but faith, hope, and charity. I had no hypocrite to ensnare and oppose me: no impostor to mislead me; no apostate to stumble me."
A preacher thus instructed, ignorant and unlearned though he was, could not be hid in a corner. It was not long before the whole parish seemed stirred up against him, so that when harvest came, and his wife joined the gleaners in the field, she was driven out with the taunt, "What! wives of the clergy go agleaning?"
His master, too, finding that some of the men began to refuse to work on Sunday, thought it was high time to get rid of him. So he had to leave Ewell, and went to Thames Ditton, where he got a situation as a coal-heaver at ten shillings a week. Here he commenced to preach, and soon found himself opposed far more roughly than he had been at Ewell. Persecution by the State had longed ceased, but persecution by the mob was what every unauthorized preacher had to expect.
Many efforts were made to destroy his little meeting. One anecdote he relates in his "Naked Bow of God" will serve to show the sort of persecution the mob were not only permitted, but encouraged to carry out against those whom they called Methodistical preachers. A woman who had a kitchen frequented by bargemen adjoining the room he used to preach in, having done her best to disturb the congregation, determined to lay a plot to turn them into the aggressors. She entered the meeting, struck one of the women, and then, some rising to turn her out, she cried Murder, whereupon the mob smashed the doors to pieces and attacked the meeting by burning asafœtida, and throwing dirt over those present. After breaking up the seats, the wretched crew smashed an entire window. The place being licensed, a warrant was procured, and some of the aggressors taken before the magistrates, but to little purpose, for it soon appeared with whose side these worthy guardians of law and order sympathized.
So the mob, meeting with such encouragement, adorned their hats with blue ribbons, and followed their victims home, the whole parish joining in the triumph; the bells being immediately rung, and Huntington's little cottage beset on all sides. His effigy was then burnt, and a blasphemous harangue delivered by way of a funeral sermon.
On another occasion a man, hoping to disturb the meeting, came into the room dressed in a woman's bonnet, petticoat, and black oilskin cloak, his face smeared with tallow and coloured with soot. Such practical jokes were not, however, so dangerous as the stoning with brickbats which now took place. Eve] window in the little room was smashed, so that they were obliged to brick them up and use candles. Finding these attacks did not daunt the Coalheaver, but that he still persisted, they determined to force their way into the room, and, as they phrased it, "pull the fellow out of his hole," and so effectually frighten him. Huntington was informed of the meditated outrage, and when the evening came, heard the allies coming together to the peal of the church bells. As he listened to the increasing din, and heard the oaths and halloos without, his heart sank within him, and he began to think it would be prudent to stay at home. But he says: "This word soon put my cowardice to flight—'He that will save his life shall lose it, and he that will lose his life for my sake and the Gospel's shall find it.' I then left my habitation, and went through the confused ranks of this enraged host to our place of worship, with no other armour than half a grain of faith in my heart, and a little Bible in my pocket."
His courage was rewarded by his complete deliverance, and the ignominious overthrow of the leading spirit in the plot. This man was an upper servant in a great family in the neighbourhood, and had been unexpectedly despatched to London that very day. He had ridden back hard that he might save his oath and execute his promise. But ere he arrived his horse threw him; he was taken to a public-house, too much hurt to be removed for many days.
The whole six years Huntington preached to the people at Thames Ditton he did so without fee or reward, although he was constantly in dire poverty. At such times he would have recourse to his only source of daily help. When his children were suffering at home from hunger and cold, he would pass the dinner-hour, during which his fellow-workmen were in the public-house, in the barge-tilt or cabin, telling God how his little ones wanted bread. On one occasion he says—
"I was now a fortnight or more out of work, which sorely tried me indeed; for it so happened that we were forced to put out little ones to bed one night without a supper, and their dinner was a very scanty one. When they saw me look into the cupboard, and shut the door again without giving them anything. they lisped out some very pathetic though broken accents, expressive of want, which touched my parental feelings very sorely, and took away my rest for that night.
"In this miserable situation I knew not where to go. If I left off preaching and ran from the work (as Jonah did), I should deny the Lord that bought me. Though I was willing to work, yet none would employ me on account of my religion; and if I stayed at home, my little ones were crying for bread."
He was relieved from this painful position by a friend who he went to see, offering him a guinea, a friend, however, who knew nothing about his distress, for Huntington had determined to say nothing about it, but wait and see what the Lord would do for him. This is one of innumerable instances which he relates in his "Bank of Faith" of the way in which his wants were provided for. Indeed, the road from coal-heaving and cobbling to the ministry was a terrible struggle for a man with a family. The more he preached, the less work of any other kind he could do; and the more, therefore, he was obliged to live by the free-will offerings of those who were taught by his preaching. For years he had no certain human resource; for everything great and small he needed, he depended on heavenly help. He accepted literally and simply the words of the Sermon on the Mount—"If God so clothe the grass, which to-day is, and to-morrow is cast into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?"
He now began to travel about, preaching in various parts of Surrey. In 1776 he was ordained the minister over a few people at Woking. How indefatigable he was in his work may be gathered from the following statement of his engagements one week:—
"I was to go to Woking and preach on the Lord's day morning, to Worplesdon in the afternoon, and from thence to Farnham in the evening; to preach at Petworth, in Sussex, on the Monday, at Horsham on the Tuesday, at Margaret Street Chapel on the Wednesday, and at Ditton on the Thursday evening; but before I could reach Ditton on the Wednesday I was so far spent that I thought I must have lain down on the road, yet with much difficulty I reached home; and then I had to go to London." It thus appears that in five days he preached seven times, journeying nearly 120 miles, chiefly on foot.
These prodigious labours, undertaken on so poor a fare as he had to content himself with, brought him into such a condition that he was obliged to gird his stomach with a handkerchief as tight as he could bear it, in order to gather strength to enable him to preach, as he sometimes did, three times a day.
At last his friends in London bought him a horse—as he believed, in answer to prayer. On this horse he took long journeys across the country, so that he was enabled to do much more with far less toil to himself.
In 1778 he was summoned before the magistrates at Kingston, as one who had intruded himself into the parish of Ditton without having gained any legal settlement. However, his influence had now so increased, that some one in the metropolis hired two lawyers to defend him, and he left the court triumphant.
In 1779 he was first invited to preach in London, supplying the pulpit of a chapel in Margaret Street, Cavendish Square.
He had tried agricultural labour, gun-making, gardening, coal-heaving, and cobbling, without making the slightest progress in any one of them—hardly, in fact, getting a subsistence by them; but now he became a preacher he was able, in three years after his first sermon in London, to build a chapel on his own responsibility. He had never shown the slightest enterprise in any other walk of life, except perhaps when, in the ardour of love, he apprenticed himself to gun-making; but now this poor coal-heaver, with scarcely a penny in his pocket, had the courage to hire ground on the Duke of Portland's estate, in Titchfield Street, at a rental of £47 a year, and to set about erecting a chapel, relying for the means to supply the money entirely upon Him whom he loved to call his Divine Banker. Whether we call it faith or presumption, as a matter of fact, the money was forthcoming, the place was soon built, and named "Providence Chapel."
Once in London he rapidly rose in fame. By diligence and care he overcame his uncouth provincial dialect, and such crowds came to hear him, that in a few years he added a second gallery to the chapel, making it big enough to hold 2000 persons. He evidently regarded it as a sort of Ark, floating above the waters of a drowning world, and it was his humour to commence his letters "The Cabin, Monday morning," or "On board the Providence, Tuesday."
"I am here," he writes to a friend, "in my little cabin at the chapel day and night, and no spot is so sacred or so highly esteemed by me as this: it is to me Bethel, Mount Tabor, the hill Mizar. Many a heavy load have I cast off here, and many a heavenly ray, many a sweet foretaste of better days have I had in this little cot." His first effort in London had only been one among his many labours; but even when he finally settled there he never gave up his journeys into the country; on the contrary, he extended them to other parts of the land. In 1786 he spent six weeks at Bristol and Bath, preaching to crowded audiences, and to the colliers at Kingswood.
Probably, as a gardener or a coal-heaver, he had only been too glad when the hour came to throw down the spade or the sack; but now as preacher he never seemed able to rest. Every week he preached five sermons in London of unusual length, besides occasional ones elsewhere. While in the country, he mentions on one occasion preaching as many as thirteen times in nine days. As to time, he would not be limited, going on frequently for an hour and a half or two hours; and when on one occasion a man in the congregation happened to turn his eyes to the clock, he said, " We do not preach here by the hour."
He was at this time a tall, thin man, slight in figure, and wonderfully erect, considering he had spent thirty years of his life toiling in fields, in coal-sheds, or on the cobbler's bench. His dress was the reverse of slovenly. From an early time he had been particular about what he called his "parsonic livery." The intelligence displayed in his square massive forehead and finely arched brows was somewhat hidden by an ugly short-cropped black wig he wore. Otherwise his features were not specially handsome. The terrible struggles of his early life had left their mark on his countenance. It was stern, and wanting in that repose only observable in beautiful natures. There was, however, a fund of humour which broke out on occasion, and made him cheerful in society but it was slightly caustic, and as likely to wound as to amuse.
A clergyman, who regularly attended his ministry in later times, thus describes his manner in the pulpit:—"He never either raved or ranted, or even exerted his voice, which was clear and agreeable, and if it had ever been powerful, became softened in his later years. He laid great weight or emphasis upon the concluding words of his sentences, which made them very forcible." "Preaching," says Garnett Terry, who, in his day, was engraver to the Bank of England, and an impartial witness^ since he so far fell out with Huntington as to threaten him with an action for libel—"preaching," he says, "was with Huntington talking—his discourses were as story-telling. No labour in his art, no action; his was the agreeable style of preaching, for in speaking, as in writing, he seemed frequently to laugh in his heart. Engaging as was this last trait in him, both from the pulpit and the press, it was sometimes carried to excess, and displayed so as to act repulsively." He was generally so attractive, and his congregation so intensely interested, that the majority rose from their seats and stood, eager not to lose a word.
His memory was so good that in the latter part of his life he never used a Bible in the pulpit, yet he was never known to make a mistake in his text, or to be at a loss in quoting Scripture, always giving the book, chapter, and verse. The Bible, in fact, had been his sole school-book; from its continual perusal he had learnt to write and to speak in a style which makes him the worthy compeer of Defoe and Cobbett; on its glowing imagery the more poetic side of his mind had feasted, until he became so enamoured with it that he could not speak or write long without falling into an Oriental strain.
This tendency may be seen in the titles of some of his sermons, as "The Heavenly Work-folks and their Mystic Pay;" "The Colour of the Fields and their Fitness for the Harvest;" "The Apartments, Equipage, and Parade of Immanuel."
He pushed his own peculiar views to extreme lengths, and as a controversialist was wanting in all charity. A "perfect Ishmael, his hand was against every man, and every man's hand against his. He violently opposed John Wesley, and his whole system of divinity, and only agreed with him in politics. There were, in fact, very few ministers of any denomination in London with whom he could fraternize, or in whose preaching he had any faith.
This suspicion was thoroughly reciprocal, and, except by Romaine and two or three leading clergymen of the Evangelical school, he was generally regarded as a conceited, dogmatic, dangerous man.
That he was nevertheless capable of attracting even the noblest hearts, when they had not been previously offended by his self-assertion and bigotry, is clear by the way in which his writings have affected such readers as Sterling; and even in his own day there were men of the same stamp who heartily believed in and appreciated him.
Such was the pious and conscientious William James Brook, vicar of Brighton and chaplain to the Prince Regent. Mr Brook not only had an intense sense of the responsibility of his office, and fearlessly rebuked the license of that voluptuous circle of which the Regent was the centre and the Pavilion the scene, but preferring conscience and duty to the prospect of the most exalted usefulness, to say nothing of the high preferment within his reach, determined to resign his living.
This act he ascribed mainly to the influence of Huntington's books. He writes to him from Brighton in 1805:—
"I cannot longer delay expressing some of the feelings of my heart. It has pleased God in His manifold mercies to make you instrumental in bringing me out of my country, from my kindred and my father's house, by sending some of your books to me when my mind was first awakened, and I began to fall into trouble." He then relates the effect of hearing him preach in London; and then goes on to say, "Receive this, a slight token of the union and harmony my soul delights to find in every remembrance of you, as of one whom God pointed out as a guide some years ago."
Another minister who was greatly affected by him was Mr Algar Lock, who afterwards became his assistant. Mr Lock was in much distress of mind, and imagined he had committed the unpardonable sin. Walking down Cheapside, he was suddenly so overcome by his emotion that he seized hold of a lamp-post to save himself from falling. A little old woman, who sat close by Bow Church selling tapes, saw him, and detected at once from his look what was the matter with him. "Oh," said she, "you must go and hear the Coalheaver, sir; he is the man that will suit you; he preaches near here every Tuesday night." He went, and Huntington gave out the text, "All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men, but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men." "Let me out! let me out!" cried the unhappy man. But the crowd was too great; he was compelled to remain, and that night he was delivered from the fear which had so long oppressed him.
Others, men of widely different temperament, attended his ministry. Mr Peto, founder of the firm of "Peto, Brassey, and Co.," was one such. He was the builder of the Custom House, and the following story is related in connection with laying its foundation stone:—The ceremony was performed by the Premier of the day, the Earl of Liverpool; and when Mr Peto handed the mallet and trowel he was observed to offer a prayer. Lord Liverpool was much struck, and after the business was over learnt from Mr Peto that he attended the ministry of Mr Huntington. Next Sunday Lord Liverpool, and a number of persons with him, came to hear the Peasant Preacher.
Several of the servants in the royal household were members of the church of which Huntington was pastor; the Princess Amelia frequently came to hear him preach, and George III. himself was known to have read some of his books.
Such success would have turned the head of a hypocrite or a fanatic. That one whose birth was so ignominious, who for years had been a poor labourer, a gardener, a coalheaver, a cobbler, and at one time nothing more nor less than a tramp, should stand up in the metropolis of England, and not only have thousands crowding to hear him, but amongst them men of thought and rank, was enough to tempt the sincerest and most sensible of men to pride and self-exaltation. That Huntington did not become quite giddy with the glory of his position must be attributed to the same power which had enabled him to fight with his spiritual darkness until God gave him light, and which had upheld him when starvation stared him in the face, or persecution threatened to overwhelm him. Prayer, he writes in one of his works, "is the ascent of the heart to the Almighty, and its returns are the descent of Christ to the soul's help. Prayer is a defence against the spirit of this world—a bar to the inroads of vanity."
From this temptation it was a refuge for him to dwell constantly on the sovereign grace of God, to regard his elevation as utterly unmerited, and to say, "He raiseth the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, to set them among princes, and to make them inherit the throne of glory."
However, the tendency in him was so strong that, notwithstanding his opposition to all attempts on the part of a man to help himself, he found the necessity of self-mortification. Instead of the hair shirt and the flagellating whip, he fastened round his neck the collar of service, and engraved upon it S. S., the "Sinner Saved;" and further, published to the world all the degrading circumstances of his early history.
It does not seem much to give up the hope of being able to earn ten or eleven shillings a week, to be willing to risk so poor a pittance to obey a divine call; but little as it was, Huntington conceived that it was vastly rewarded. "For some few years before I was married," he writes, "all my personal effects used to be carried in my hand, or on my shoulders, in one or two large handkerchiefs; but after marriage, for some few years, I used to carry all the goods that we had gotten on my shoulders in a large sack. But when we moved from Thames Ditton to London we loaded two large carts with furniture and other necessaries, besides a post-chaise well filled with children and cats. But at this time God had given me such a treasure in my sack that it was increased to a multitude; we were almost a fortnight in getting away the stuff." This idea that the attainment of wealth and influence were marks of divine favour led him, as it has done thousands of his religious fellow-countrymen, into new temptations, bringing at last undreamt-of sufferings and degradations of a far more profound and enduring character than these he attempted to inflict on himself.
Like John Clare, and most men who have passed their early lives in the country, it was a great desire of his heart, when he found money began to flow freely into his treasury, to have a little farm. So in 1798, sixteen years after he had come to London, he took a house and farm at Hendon. He had taken no heed of the Apostle's word, "No man that warreth entangleth himself with the affairs of this life." Before he could take possession a troublesome lawsuit followed. It is to the removal of his furniture to this place, which was called Cricklewood House, that he refers in the extract above quoted.
His income at this time from the chapel is said to have been about £2000 a year, in addition to which he must have derived considerable profit from his numerous publications. People now, finding he was so well off, began to load him with gifts. Thus one sent him some guinea-fowls, another some barn-door fowls, another a goose and gander, another some turkeys, another a hive of bees; two or three persons sent him sheep and ewes and lambs, another a cow, while one person sent three hundred gooseberry and currant plants, fourscore standard trees, and would insist upon keeping his garden stocked in seeds and plants. Friends in the country, especially from Sussex, kept sending him malt and peas and oats. Presents in money came freely in, apparently just as he needed it; occasionally fifty pounds at a time. But not satisfied with loading their teacher . with all this wealth, some of his admirers were bent upon seeing him move about with as much magnificence as the greatest in the land. So one day up drove a fine new coach and a pair of horses, with the initials of his name and the initials of his state, "W. H., S.S.," emblazoned on the panels of the doors, on the pads of the harness, and on the blinkers of the bridles.
It was contrary to Huntington's nature and to his principles to hoard, so that he probably spent quite as quickly as he received. Not only did he freely invite his former friends and acquaintances to his house, and help his own poor relations; not only did he love to do real practical works of benevolence, such as setting men up in business; but remembering how delighted he had been when a poor man with an extra shilling, he could never hire a coach, or cross the river in a wherry, but he must pay double as much as any other man. When he travelled he would give the postboys half a sovereign; he was known on one occasion to have slipped a sovereign into a boatman's hand for merely taking him to look over a ship at Woolwich; on another he gave the same amount to a poor cottager for giving him and a friend a cup of tea. In keeping with such reckless munificence is the story told of his calling his little grand-daughter to him, and putting a handful of gold into her lap, just as if she had been a child of Crœsus.
Very abstemious himself, he loved to see his friends enjoy themselves. One Christmas his party numbered as many as a hundred persons. To have been born to unknown wealth, to have spent without a thought, to have allowed wasteful profusion to be the habit of his household, to have staved in hogsheads of wine and barrels of beer, and roasted oxen whole on every festive occasion; to have shared, in fact, with his neighbours all the good things God had given him, asking only in exchange that he should be lord paramount—that all should wear his colours, and shout "King and Church" till their throats were hoarse; and at last to have died leaving his estate beggared, the whole country-side debauched, and a name loved and enshrined in the hearts of the people as the best of landlords, and the only true gentleman of his race; such would in all probability have been William Huntington's career had he been born in one of the stately homes of England instead of in one of its miserable cots. Freely he had received, freely he gave. In William Huntington the Sussex peasant shows himself capable of a rude order of grandeur.
However, Huntington would never have risen to the point of being recognised as a type of the South Saxon peasant had not individuality been a marked feature in his character.
Having proclaimed from the housetops the wretchedness and disgrace of his early days, having bestowed on himself the title of S.S., as if it belonged alone to him, he now desired to set forth with equal prominence the honour and glory to which he had been raised. Not content, therefore, with merely appearing in decent garb, he wore the great shovel hat of a clergyman, and dubbed himself "the Doctor." Not content even with the grandeur of his carriage and pair, he actually hired two more horses, and drove about with regal pomp in a coach and four, a coachman and footman in livery, and a superb hammercloth, made of a tiger's skin with gilt claws.
Some may think he must have gone out of his mind. Nothing of the sort. We have only to reflect what had been the history of his life, how he had emerged from material misery, through spiritual darkness into spiritual light, and so to material honour, to understand what a temptation it was to a man of his egotism to display all his honours to the best advantage.
His habit of reflecting on William Huntington, of talking about William Huntington, his extraordinary character and experience, became to himself and to his followers an idol, which, if he truly was what he believed himself to be, must be shattered, and shown to be vanity. Romaine, who knew and appreciated him, when he had read the first part of "The Bank of Faith," made this prescient remark, "Self must be abased." And this was now about to be fulfilled in Huntington's last experience.
Among the people who attended his ministry was a certain Lady Sanderson. She was the daughter of one Lord Mayor, and the wife of another. Sir James Sanderson, her husband, was mayor in 1792, and for the support then afforded to Pitt's Government against the rising revolutionary spirit was created a baronet. This lady was a clever, engaging little woman, neat and careful in her ways. She was fond of hearing sermons, visiting prisons, and looking after orphans—in fact, she was both religious and philanthropic. To such a person it was a new sensation to go and hear the famous Coalheaver. She went in a slightly mocking spirit, as suited a person of her discernment, but somehow returned in a very different frame of mind. No doubt the preacher, with his power of spiritual analysis, had awakened some unusual thoughts concerning her own fair profession.
After several visits to Providence Chapel, she sent her serving woman to Mr Huntington's house to ask an interview, which was immediately granted. Notwithstanding his numerous engagements and love of meditation and retirement, the thought of this interesting little widow was continually before him, so that he frequently mentioned her in the letters he wrote during that month of July 1803. Poor man, all he was thinking of was the glory it would be to draw into the Gospel net this "lady of title" — for thus, in his old serf spirit, he writes when speaking of her.
However sincere Lady Sanderson may have been at first, it was clear in the end that it was not so much the preacher as the man who had fascinated her. The strong, deep-hearted coalheaver, so rough in his manners, so blunt in his talk, so genuine in his kindness, so spiritual in all his thoughts, had a wonderful attraction for this delicate little lady, accustomed to such a different style of man in the civic circle in which she had hitherto moved.
She hovered about him, was always calling at Cricklewood, would even stay there, to Mrs Huntington's great annoyance. For the latter, poor soul, was the first to learn that it was not all gold that glitters. She, the faithful wife for more than thirty years, the partner of her husband's trials, spiritual and temporal, the woman whom neither peevishness nor poverty could alienate, who had followed her master through all his manifold changes, strange and alarming as they must sometimes have appeared to her, had fallen the first victim to his prosperity.
Accustomed for long years to semi-starvation, the child probably of generations similarly starved, this unwonted plenty was too much for her—in fact, killed her. Still worse, her last days were saddened by this shadow of Lady Sanderson passing between her and her husband. Possibly that lady's business ability was of some use at Cricklewood House. At any rate her influence at last grew so great that in his preaching tours through the country Mr Huntington consented to travel about in her carriage. Of course this gave rise to much scandal, but he was too blind to perceive it, and if he had done so, would probably have felt a secret pleasure in setting the world at defiance.
His friends longed to warn him, but dared not. At last Brook came, saw the state of things, and with his usual courage and conscientiousness took the task on himself.
"Sir," said he, "you are surrounded with hypocrites, who are doing you injury; why encourage their company?"
"If," replied Huntington, God has given you. Brook, discernment to see it, He has not shown it to me."
"Then," said Brook, "the time will come when you will assuredly find it so."
A second time and a third time he warned him, but only succeeded at last in thoroughly enraging him. Huntington told his friends that Brook was a hypocrite, and so turned his back on the most faithful friend he had.
It does not appear that Huntington at this time entertained any idea of marriage, but a year after (August 15, 1808) Lady Sanderson became his wife. If the seer had not been blinded Huntington would certainly have described the experience which now befel him under the simile of Israel going into captivity. In truth, both he and his admirers had fallen into idolatry. The great idol, William Huntington, S.S., must be pulled down, and share the fate of all other vanities. And now trouble followed upon trouble, disaster on disaster, until at last, in July 1810, came the utter destruction by fire of his beloved chapel, the scene of his triumphs, the monument of his greatest glory! Within two months death removed his only fellow-labourer. Next year witnessed the departure of Brook, and in the account given of the way in which Huntington received the news, we may learn the bitterness of his soul at this time.
He was walking in his garden, when his man asked him if he had heard anything from Brighton. "No," he replied. "Then," said the gardener, "I have to tell you, sir, that Mr Brook is dead." It was like a stab to the heart; he moved on without a word, but shortly returned, and with strong emotion said, "So Mr Brook is dead, is he, John? Well, mark this—James Brook is gone to heaven, and my house is a complete hell to me."
And he, too, was drawing near to his final account. Sad and dreary seem his last years. Occasionally a mournful word escapes him. But his outward prosperity continued great as ever. A new chapel had been built at a cost of £10,000. He removed to another house at Hermes Hill, Pentonville, his goods filling eight waggons this time! "How hardly shall they that have riches enter the kingdom of heaven."
However, he preached on, and there seemed no decay there though he was in terrible fear lest there should be.
More and more was he separated from his children and best friends; more and more was he driven into uncongenial society till he had a sort of little hermitage built in his garden, with thick walls and double doors and windows. But here he was not allowed peace. The idle boys who congregated in Copenhagen Fields used to throw stones at the windows, which so aggravated him that on one occasion he ran out and knocked a man down, and then immediately tried to atone for it by sending him a couple of guineas. In fact, he was often wretched, as many facts show. His wife was as close as he was generous, and she had almost, or, perhaps, even a stronger will than his own.
Nevertheless, he continued to preach almost to the very last. The last time he presided at the communion he spoke of the experience he had had of the love of Christ, and of Satan's temptations; "yet, after all," he said, "here am I, and the religion I received from God is not worn out, but I feel my work is almost done, my Master has told me so; but come life, come death, I am builded on the Rock—Christ." On the Wednesday evening following he preached his last sermon, from the words, "Remember how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast and watch."
In the following week he became so much weaker that his wife determined to hurry him off to Tunbridge Wells. He was put into the carriage, but was so ill by the way that he nearly died. One object was to get him next door to the lawyer's, as his worldly affairs were still unsettled.
What a satire it seems on his early life to have to recount that this man of faith, this man who had lived by simple trust in God for so many years, should in his last hour, instead of the calm repose and silent meditation he once enjoyed, have been worried by lawyers, perplexed by all kinds of worldly business, and driven in the end to have a will drawn up disastrous to the interests of his children and congregation.
Some of his children came to see him. He rose from his bed, and said he would sit up and sup with them for the last night before he died. "I am heartily glad to see you," he said to them. "I do love my children, and should have been glad to see them all here, if they could have come to see me."
The ruling passion was strong even in death, and after supper he discoursed for about half an hour on the words, "Blessed are the dead that die m the Lord." On the following evening (July 1, 1813), he quietly departed without a struggle.
The funeral was such an one as had never before been witnessed in Sussex. The hearse which conveyed the remains of this peasant preacher through his native Weald was drawn with regal pomp by six horses. At Godstone it was met by vast numbers who had walked or ridden from London, until the procession reached a mile in length. All that summer's day the long black line wound its tortuous course up and down the hilly clay-bound roads of the Weald; for although it left the Wells early in the morning, it did not reach Lewes, its halting-place, until five o'clock in the afternoon.
In silence the body was committed to the vault, which, indeed, was well, seeing there was none who could have spoken truly concerning him.
An inscription was placed on his tomb, which may be read to this day, an inscription dictated by himself a few days before his death, and which plainly shows that he passed away without being delivered from that spirit of Self which was the besetting sin of his life, and the ultimate cause of the failure of his work. For all that was of self, all that was specially identified with his name as the founder of a sect, soon withered away. There was the usual manifestation of hero-worship after his death,—a fight for relics, a setting-up of memorials. His coffee-pot fetched £16, his chair sixty guineas!
But the big chapel began to look very dismal after its light was extinguished. War soon broke out between Lady Sanderson, the trustees, and the dwindling congregation. The place was thrown into Chancery, and after a wretched existence of about twenty years it was sold by order of the Court, and became an Episcopal Chapel, and is now a district church called St Bartholomew's.
A few years since the remains of the pulpit from which he had preached to thousands, and the handsome mural tablet which for twenty years cried "Ichabod" to the few dejected worshippers who found their way into the deserted pews, were discovered hidden in the dust of a builder's yard—the pulpit too rotten for anything but firewood, the tablet alone being of value was cut up into slips for cheap mantelpieces!
As to what remained of his property, it was nearly all lost in Chancery suits. His eldest son did not get his legacy until twenty years after his father's death.
As it was with his own chapel, so was it with nearly every place he had established throughout the country. As soon as the ministers died who had been placed in them as pastors, they rapidly declined.
In Sussex chiefly, and a few other localities, has he any considerable following left. There, amongst his own people, the peasantry of the Weald, his doctrines and his books are still held in reverence, showing that he was a man who truly expressed the deepest thoughts of his people. For this reason, and for their intrinsic preciousness as real bits of spiritual autobiography, "The Bank of Faith" and "The Kingdom of Heaven" are treasures of great value, not only to religious England but to the whole Church.
The native elements of Huntington's character may not be attractive, but it cannot be admitted that its inconsistencies, let us say its startling incongruities, in any way render it unreal. On the contrary, it is one of the most genuine of lives. Inhuman as may seem his theology, he is most human in his life. The heart which can feel no interest in his struggles with sin and poverty, his battles with men and fiends; which cannot follow with sympathy the varying fortunes of the fight, until in the hour of deepest despondency the Deliverer appears; which is utterly revolted by his failings, his maledictory spirit, his pride, vain-glory, and ostentation, does not understand nor care for man as man. The heart, too, which repels the thought that a deliverance so wonderful could have been effected on behalf of such a man is not in full harmony with Christ's work in the world.
In the city of Jericho there were doubtless upright, noble-hearted men, generous, sincere persons, humble, pious souls, under whose roofs and in whose society the human heart of Jesus would have found rest and satisfaction. But He had not come to please Himself, or gratify His own feelings or affections; so, spying out the most despised, most loathed man in the crowd, the man who was lost to all sense of patriotism, had sunk to the condition of a mere hireling of the tyrant, the oppressor of his brethren for the sake of money—this pariah of society Jesus chose as the man at whose house He would abide, and to whom He would bring salvation.
And this despised Israelite, type of the most repulsive of characters, the usurious Jew, ready to sell all for gain, welcomes his Saviour joyfully, and stands up in the presence of his own people, men with natures as blunted to all refinement as himself, stands up and in his own way expresses his devotion to his Guest.
Even in the hour of his repentance and new-born love for all that is great and noble and holy, there is a certain tone of self-satisfaction, as if he would say to Jesus and those around, See how great a sacrifice I am about to make!
But the Saviour condemned him not. He knew that his faith, alloyed as it was with years of ignoble thinking and acting, was real, and that was enough.
But my purpose here is not to defend William Huntington, either as a man or a Christian, but to present him as an English agricultural labourer, struggling to develop what was in him without any help from his country—shut out, in fact, by his poverty from any share in the wealth of culture and experience England inherits from the past. We have no right to sit in judgment on such men, for they owe us nothing. We make England even appear to them the hardest of stepmothers, instead of the loving mother they have a right to expect. But England, tied and bound, robbed and enchained, is in need of their help. Some day her sons will not think everything gained, because the strong individual is free to tyrannise over the weak, and will begin to think it time that the country—that is, England herself—should be free. That will be a happy day.
- His portrait, painted by Pellegrini, an Italian artist, is in the National Portrait Gallery at Bethnal Green.