What Is Eccentricity?
UGHT I NOT TO BE very timid in speaking upon eccentric preachers when I am somewhat sarcastically requested by an anonymous letter writer to look at home? I do look at home, and I am glad that I have such a happy home to look at. Trembling has not seized upon me upon receiving my nameless friend's advice, for two reasons; first, because I am not horrified by being charged with eccentricity, and secondly, because I do not consider myself to be guilty of that virtue or vice, whichever it may be. Years ago I might have been convicted of a mild degree of the quality, but since so many have copied my style, and so considerable a number have borrowed my discourses, I submit that I am rather the orthodox example than the glaring exception. After having lived for a quarter of a century in this region, I am not now regarded in London as a phenomenon to be stared at, but as an old-fashioned kind of body, who is tolerated as an established part of the ecclesiastical life of this vast city. Having moved in one orbit year after year without coming into serious collision with my neighbors I have reason to believe that my pathway in the religious heavens is not eccentric, but is as regular as that of the other lights which twinkle in the same sky. I have probably done my anonymous correspondent more honor than he deserves in taking so much notice of him; indeed, I only mention the man and his communication that I might bear witness against all anonymous letters. Never write a letter to which you are ashamed to put your name; as a rule, only mean persons are guilty of such an action, though I hope my present correspondent is an exception to the rule. Be so eccentric as to be always able to speak the truth to a man face to face. And now to our subject.
To force up one poor nipperkin of water!
Broad ocean labors with tremendous roar
To heave a cockle-shell upon the shore.
Mr. Muchado is still engaged in whipping his creams into a froth of the consistency of half a nothing; and we may hear the Rev. Mr. Pretty-man in many a pulpit exercising the art of spread-eagle to a coterie who do not suspect him of eccentricity, but consider him to be the model divine.
Not in words only are the high-fliers comparable to masses of floating cloud, but in doctrine they are equally beyond all comprehension. They are philosophical gentlemen, superior persons of special culture, though what has been cultivated in them, except an affectation of learning, it would be hard to say. They confuse those whom they ought to confirm, and stagger those whom they should establish. Bishop Blomfield tells us that a certain verger said to him, "Do you know I have been verger of this church fifty years, and though I have heard all the great sermons preached in this place I am still a Christian." Now, are these dealers in words and dreams to fix the center? If so, we intend to be eccentric; and blessed be God we are not alone in that resolve, for there are others who join with us in the opinion that to be studying the prettinesses of elocution, and the fancies of philosophy, while men are perishing around us is the brutal eccentricity of a Nero, who fiddled while Rome was burning and sent his galleys to fetch sand from Alexandria while the populace died for want of bread. If the center is to be up in the clouds, let a few of us who care for something practical stop down below and be regarded as eccentric. It is an odd thing that some men prefer to speak upon topics of which they know nothing, and from which no benefit can possibly arise, while themes which might edify are disregarded. Timbs tells us of an eccentric "Walking Stewart," who had perambulated half the world but would never talk of his travels, preferring to descant upon "The Polarity and Moral Truth," whereon he spoke so wildly that no one could make head or tail of it. Like this departed worthy, certain men are most at home when they are all abroad, and most important when their subject is insignificant. We do not choose their center, for it is far more suitable for will-o'-the-wisps than ministers of the eternal word. When all souls are saved and all mourners comforted we may venture to discuss recondite theories, but not while graveyards are filling with those who know not God.
Where, then, is the center to be found? Am I directed to yonder vestry? I beg pardonsacristy. If you will open that door, you will perceive a considerable number of cupboards, presses, and recesses. Where are we? Is this a milliner's shop, or a laundry, or both? Those linen garments reflect great credit upon the washerwoman and ironer; but the establishment is not a laundry, for here hang black gowns, and white gowns, and raiment as fine as Joseph's coat. And what a variety! Here, young man, fetch the ecclesiastical dictionary! Here we have an alb and an amice, a cope for the parson, and a corporal for the bread and wine, andwell, there's no end of the concerns! We are not well instructed in the terminology of these drapery establishments, but we are informed that these things are not to be treated with levity, seeing that therein abideth much grace, which ministereth to the establishment of the saints. In truth, we have small care to linger among these resplendent rags, but assuredly if the center of gravity lies with gentlemen who thus bedizen their corporeal frames, we prefer to be eccentric, and dress as other male humanities are wont to do. It has seemed to us to be needful to discard even the white necktie. While it was the ordinary dress of a gentleman, well and good; but as it has grown to denote a personage of the clerical sort, or in other words, has become a priestly badge, it seems best to abjure it. This may be done the more readily because it is also the favorite decoration of undertakers and waiters at hotels, and one has no wish to be taken for either of these deserving functionaries. Some young preachers delight in cravats of extreme length, and others tie them with great precision, reminding us of Beau Brummel, who produced miraculous ties, because, as he said, he gave his whole mind to them. I was much aided in the summary dismission of my tie by an incident which happened to me when I first came to London. I was crossing the river by a penny steamboat, when a rude fellow said to me, "How are you getting on at Hitchcock's?" I could not imagine what he meant; but he explained that he supposed I was in the drapery line, and was probably at that eminent firm. He tried hard to find out where I was serving, and when I gave him for answer that I knew none of the houses in the City, and was not in the drapery, "Then," said he, "you're a Methodist parson"; which was a better shot by far, and yet not quite a bull's-eye. Having no desire to be lifted into the clerical order, or to claim any distinction above my fellow church members, I dress as they dress, and wear no special distinguishing mark. Let men of sense judge whether this is one-half so eccentric as arraying one's self so that it is hard for spectators to guess whether you are a man or a woman, and very easy to say that your garnishing is not manly, but ostentatious, and oftentimes meretricious and absurd. The center is not here. They that wear soft raiment are in king's houses, but the King of kings cares nothing for the finery and foppery of ecclesiastical parade.
According to common talk, the center of the circle is fixed by the dullest of all the brotherhood, for to be eccentric means with many to have anything over half a grain of common sense, or the remotest favoring of humor. Have anything like originality, anything like genius, anything like a sparkle of wit, anything like natural whole-souled action, and you will be called eccentric directly by those who are used to the gospel of Hum-drum. The concentric thing with many is to prose away with great propriety and drone with supreme decorum. Your regular man says nothing which can by any possibility offend anybody, and nothing which is likely to do anyone good. Devoid of faults, and destitute of excellencies, the proper preacher pursues his mechanical round, and shudders at the more erratic motions of real life. Far be it from us to depreciate the excellent brother, his way is doubtless the best for him, yet are there other modes which are quite as commendable though more likely to be censured, If you will be as dry as sawdust, as devoid of juice as the sole of an old shoe, and as correct as the multiplication table, you shall earn to yourself a high degree in the great university of Droneingen, but if you wake up your soul and adopt an energetic delivery, and a natural, manly, lively, forcible mode of utterance, all the great authorities of that gigantic institution will say, "Oh dear, it is a pity he is so eccentric." Common sense decidedly objects to have the center for an eagle fixed by an owl, or the circle for a waxwork figure forced upon a living man.
As to this supposed center of the circle, which we have tried in vain to settle, it may be as well to remark that it is not fixed, and never can be fixed; for climes and times and circumstances involve perpetual change. Some hundred or more years ago Mr. John Wesley stood on his father's grave to preach in Epworth churchyard, and he was thought very eccentric for proclaiming the gospel in the open air; as for Mr. Whitefield, he was considered to be demented, or he would never have taken to the fields. Our Lord and his apostles had long before preached under the open heavens, and, persecuted as they were, no one in those days called them eccentric because of that particular practice; and, to show how the ideas of men have changed again, no one is now considered to be eccentric for open-air preaching, at least, not in these regions. I might preach standing on a gravestone to-morrow, and none would blame me. Yes, I forgot, it must not be in a national graveyard, or I should be liable to something dreadful. We must neither stand on an Episcopal tombstone nor be laid under one with our own funeral rites. Those orthodox worms which have fattened on correctly buried corpses so long, would be taken ill if they fed on bodies over which the regular chaplain has not asked a blessing. This care for the worms is to my mind rather eccentric, but let that pass, it will soon be numbered among the superstitions of a dark age. As times roll on, that which is eccentric in one era becomes general and even fashionable in another. The costume and general cut of a preacher of Queen Elizabeth's day would create a smile if it should be copied under the reign of Queen Victoria, and even the knee breeches, silk stockings, and silver buckles which I have myself seen upon my venerated grandfather would create many a smile if they were to reappear at the next meeting of the Congregational Union. "The nasal twang learned at conventicle" was once regarded as the holy tone of piety, and yet the man who should use it now, if he were an Englishman, would be thought an odd being. Indeed, much of the oddity of the famous Matthew Wilks lay in that particular habit; he made you smile, even when speaking with all solemnity by the strangeness of his voice, and yet I never heard that our Puritanic ancestors were otherwise than grave while listening to the same peculiar form of utterance. Time was when it was accounted one of the outrageous deeds of a certain Jack Hanway, that he actually walked down a street in London on a rainy day, carrying a new-fangled kind of round tent to keep off the wet; yet no one quotes this action now as a proof of extreme eccentricity, for umbrellas are as common as mushrooms.
The following incident, which happened to myself, will show the power of race and climate in producing the charge of eccentricity. A Dutchman, who from the very orderly style of his handwriting, and the precision of his phrases, should be a very exemplary individual, once wrote me a sternly admonitory letter. From having read my printed discourses with much pleasure he had come to consider me as a godly minister, and, therefore, being in London, he had availed himself of the opportunity to hear me. This, however, he deeply regretted, as he had now lost the power to read my sermons with pleasure any more. What, think you, had I said or done to deprive me of the good opinion of so excellent a Hollander? I will relieve your mind by saying that he considered that I preached exceedingly well, and he did not charge me with any extravagances of action, but it was my personal appearance which shocked him. I wore a beard, which was bad enough, but worse than this, he observed upon my lip a moustache! Now this guilty thing is really so insignificant an affair that he might have overlooked such an unobtrusive offender. But, no, he said that I wore a moustache like a carnal, worldly-minded man! Think of that. Instead of being all shaven and shorn like the holy man whom he was accustomed to hear, and wearing a starched ruffed collar all round my neck, about a quarter of a yard deep, I was so depraved as to wear no ruff, and abjure the razor. His great guy of a minister, with ruff and bands and gown, and a woman's chin was not eccentric, but because I allowed my hair to grow as nature meant it should, I was eccentric and frivolous and carnal and worldly-minded, and all sorts of bad things. You see, what is eccentric in Holland is not eccentric in England, and vice versa. Much of the eccentric business is a matter of longitude and latitude, and to be quite correct one would need to take his bearings, and carry with him a book of costumes and customs, graduated according to the distance from the first meridian.
Moreover, we may not forget that as in religion there have been times of persecution, and times of toleration, so has it been with the pulpit. At one date propriety ruled supreme, and men were doomed to instant ostracism if they passed beyond the settled line; while at another date a sort of Eccentric Emancipation Act is passed, and every man does what is right in his own eyes. At the present moment great latitude is allowed, and several persons are now saying and doing very remarkable things, and yet are escaping the charge of eccentricity. It is well for them that some of us lived before them, and for far smaller liberties were set in the pillory. For myself, I venture to say that I have been severely criticized for anecdotes and illustrations of the very same kind which I meet with in the very excellent discourses of my friend, Mr. Moody, whom I appreciate probably more than anybody else. Many dear, good souls who have heard him with pleasure would not have done so twenty years ago, but would have regarded him as very eccentric. As to Mr. Sankey's singing, of which I equally approve, would not that have been unpardonable even ten years ago? Would Ned Wright and Joshua Poole, and brethren of that order, have been tolerated in 1858? According to the rules which judged Rowland Hill to be eccentric, I should say that these brethren are quite as far gone, if not further, and yet one does not hear an outcry against them for eccentricity. No, the bonds are relaxed, and it is just possible that they are now rather too slack than too tight. It is, however, very curious to watch the moods of the religious public and see how what is condemned to-day is admired tomorrow. Such an observation has a great tendency to make a man rise superior to the verdict of the period, and choose his own path. To promote a manly, courageous course of action in such matters is our main object in delivering this lecture.
Let us, if we are ministers, do that which we believe to be most likely to be useful, and pay little heed to the judgments of our contemporaries. If we act wisely we can afford to wait; our reward is in a higher approbation than that of men; but even if it were not, we can afford to wait. The sweeping censures of hurried critics will one day be blown away like the chaff of the threshing-floor, and the great heart of the church of God will beat true to her real champions, and clear their reputations from the tarnish of prejudice and slander. The eccentricity of one century is the heroism of another; and what is in one age cast out as folly may be in the next revered as a wisdom which lived before its time. Well said the apostle, "With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man's judgment: yea, I judge not mine own self."
To return to our circle and concentricity: It would be a very great pity if the center of the circle could be fixed by a decree like that of the Medes and Persians, which altereth not. If we could settle once for all what is concentric and what is eccentric, it would be a very serious evil, for the differences of utterance and modes of address among God's ministers serve a very useful purpose. When Dr. John Owen said that he would give all his learning to be able to preach like the tinker, John Bunyan, he spake not wisely, unless he meant no more than to extol honest John; for Owen's discourses, profound, solid, weighty, and probably heavy, suited a class of persons who could not have received Bunyan's delightfully illustrated preaching of the plain gospel. No, Dr. Owen, you had better remain Dr. Owen, for we could by no means afford to lose that mine of theological wealth which you have bequeathed to us. You would have looked very awkward if you had tried to talk like the marvelous dreamer, and he would have played the fool if he had imitated you. It is pitiful to hear comparisons made between the different servants of the same Lord. They were made by their Master, the one as well as the other, and set in different spheres to answer his own designs, and the same wisdom is displayed in each. I heard the other day of a discussion which may have answered its design in educating youthful powers of debate, but intrinsically it was an idle theme; it was thisdoes the world owe most to the printing press or to the steam engine? The machines are alike useful for the purposes intended, and both essential to the world's progress, why contrast them? Why not as well raise a controversy as to the relative values of needles and pins? Robert Robinson, of Cambridge, had a terse, vigorous, and somewhat homely style of preaching, and I heard it asserted that it was more effective than that of Robert Hall, by whom he was succeeded, who was grandly rhetorical and overwhelming. Who is to judge in such a matter? Who in his senses would even tolerate the question? We claim for Robert Hall a master's seat in the assembly of divines, nor would we place Robert Robinson below him, for each man suited the condition of the church. We admire every man in his own order, or even in his own disorder, so long as it is really his own. He has some end to serve in God's eternal purpose, let him answer that end without carping criticism from us. Who are we, that we should even condemn what seems to us odd and singular? How many souls were won to God by Mr. Rowland Hill's "eccentricities," as they called them, the judgment day alone will reveal. You have, doubtless, heard of the young man who was about to go to India, and a pious friend was very anxious that he should not leave the country in an unconverted state. He induced this young man to stay a week with him in London, and took him to hear a minister of much repute, a very able mana man of sound argument and solid thought, in the hope that perhaps something which he said would lead to his friend's conversion. The youth listened to the sermon, pronounced it an excellent discourse, and there was an end of it. He was taken to hear another earnest preacher, but no result came of the service. When the last night came, the godly friend, in a sort of desperation, ventured with much trembling to lead his companion to Surrey Chapel, to hear Mr. Hill, praying earnestly that Mr. Hill might not say any funny things; that he might, in fact, preach a very solemn sermon, and not say anything whatever that might cause a titter. To his horror, Mr. Hill that night seemed to be more than ever lively, and he said many quaint things. Among the rest he said that he had seen a number of pigs following a butcher in the street, at which he marvelled, inasmuch as swine have usually a will of their own, and that will is not often according to their driver's mind. Mr. Hill, upon inquiring, found that the aforesaid pigs followed the leader because he had peas in his pocket, and every now and then he dropped a few before them, thus overcoming their scruples and propensities. Even so, said Mr. Hill, does the devil lead ungodly men captives to his will, and conduct them into the slaughterhouse of everlasting destruction, by indulging them in the pleasures of the world. The sober gentleman who had brought his friend to the chapel was greatly shocked at such a groveling simile, and grieved to think of the mirth which his young friend would find in such a dreadful observation. They reached the door, and to his surprise the youth observed, "I shall never forget this service. That story about the pigs has deeply impressed me, for I fear it is my case." A happy conversion followed, and the critic could only retract his criticism in the silence of his own grateful heart. Well, then, let each servant of God tell his message in his own way. To his own Master he shall stand or fall.
If God moves a Rowland Hill to speak of pigs, it will be better than if he had descanted upon purling brooks, or blue-eyed seraphim. Taste may be shocked, but what of taste when men are to be aroused from the fatal slumbers of indifference! If you are living without Christ in the world, your state and condition are far more shocking in themselves than any arousing words can possibly be. It is sin which is vulgar and in bad taste; so they think who best can judge,the purest of our race and the angels in heaven. It disgusts me to see a man whom God's word declares to be "condemned already" giving himself airs, and affecting to be too delicate to hear a homely sentence from one who desires to save him from eternal wrath. He is coarse enough to despise the altogether lovely One, brutal enough to reject the gospel of love, and base enough to rebel against his Creator and Preserver, and yet forsooth he is a connoisseur in religion, and picks over every word which is spoken to him for his good! This spiritual prudery is sickening to the last degree.
I have given the story of Mr. Hill because it is a type of many which are considered to be eccentric and coarse, but which are not so at all, except to shallow minds. There is nothing essentially vulgar in an allusion to pigs any more than to any other animals, for our Lord himself spoke of "casting pearls before swine," and the apostle Peter alluded to the sow that was washed wallowing in the mire. Nor is there anything essentially coarse in the simile of the hogs following the butcher; in fact, it is less coarse than Peter's metaphor which we have quoted, especially when coupled with the dog's returning to his vomit. No creature, truly represented, is common or unclean. It is only a sort of Phariseeism of taste which makes it so. Real vulgarity lies in foul allusions and indelicate hints, and these are to be found among men of dainty speech, such as Laurence Sterne, and not among holy and homely minds after the order of Rowland Hill. Tinge your stories or your figures with dirt, Mr. Slopdash! and we abandon you: nothing which is indelicate can be endured in the service of a holy God. Come home to the heart in your own genial, home-spun manner, and I, for one, will delight in you, Mr. Slapdash! and bid you God speed. So much difference is there between slop and slap that it might furnish a theme for a lecture, and yet there is only the change of a vowel in the words. So may disgusting vulgarity and homely force wear the same aspect, and yet they differ as much as black and white. There is a charming poetry in many a simple figure which unsophisticated minds delight in. If a smile is raised it only shows that the soul is awake, and is pleased to be taught so plainly. Critics may take out their penknives to gore and gash, but honest hearts delight in the natural expressions, the instructive comparisons, and the heartfelt utterances of the earnest man whom the world sets down as