Who Have Been Called Eccentric?
N THE PREVIOUS LECTURE we gained some little light upon the true meaning of eccentricity, and we discovered it in certain quarters where it is little suspected, while we saw many to be free from it who have been popularly charged with it. Let it not, however, be supposed that we shall attempt the justification of all eccentrics. We are sorrowfully compelled to concede to critics of the ministry that persons have entered it who have sadly disgraced our high calling. Men in all denominations have earned notoriety by being out of center morally and spiritually: these have deserved to be called eccentric in the worst sense. Now, while we stand up for the apostles, we expressly exclude Judas Iscariot. Find us a man who tries to attract attention by the affectation of oddity, who is a mere mountebank or mimic, and we have not a word to say in his defense, but we give him over as a dead horse to the dogs of criticism. They may rend him in pieces, and devour him if so they desire, for impostors and pretenders deserve the critic's sharpest teeth. Find us a preacher who obtains notoriety for himself by descending to buffoonery, and who goes out of his way to say smart things, and make jokes on sacred subjects, and we decline to be his advocate.
Tuning his voice, and balancing his hands,
How fluent nonsense trickles from his tongue!
How sweet the periods, neither said nor sung!
Still break the benches, Henley, with thy strain,
While Sherlock, Hare, and Gibson preach in vain.
O great restorer of the good old stage,
Preacher at once and zany of thy age!"
I say again that there is no knowing how far Henley deserved all this, but if report speaks truly he was a mournful instance of talent perverted to evil uses, and of self-conceit blown up to an amazing pitch. To such men the whip of scorpions, which Pope could handle so skillfully, was well applied.
Creatures of Henley's kind existed among the friar-preachers of the mediaeval period, whose ignorance and cunning were equally the ridicule of their contemporaries; though even among them there were true-hearted men whose singularities arose out of their zeal to do good. The genus of religious mountebank is not quite extinct at the present day, though seldom seen in such full development as in the friar period. Men of this order are generally known and read by the Christian public, and seldom gain either profit or honor from their wretched adventure; it were a pity that they should.
The miserable instances alluded to are often used as stones to throw at really gracious men, and the attempt to prove that all preachers are alike is repeated in the face of a thousand facts. Because some charlatans have been eccentric, therefore all eccentric men must be mere impostors; and this being taken for granted, the next thing to be done is to represent really sober-minded men as wild and singular, that so they also may be regarded as deceivers.
A reputation for eccentricity has been unjustly fastened upon many men by persistent falsehood. Throw enough mud and some of it will be sure to stick: upon this theory have good men been assailed. Whatever of originality and quaintness they have possessed has been grossly caricatured; and silly tales, the worthless legends of remote periods, have been revived and fathered upon them. It is interesting to trace the pedigree of a pulpit story, though it is not often possible to discover its actual parent: in fact, we believe that, like Topsy, many of these talcs have no father nor mother, but may say of themselves, "'specs I growed." The rise and progress of a current falsehood, if well studied, would reveal a sad page in human history. The same anecdotes occur from age to age, but they are tacked on to different men. In the days when hour-glasses were affixed to many pulpits, to suggest a limit to long-winded discourses, it was natural that wags should invent humorous stories concerning them. One of them is set forth in a print which represents Hugh Peters preaching, and holding up an hour-glass as he utters the words, "I know you are good fellows, so let us have another glass." It is probable that Peters never said this, and more than probable that if he did say something like it, the connection in which it was spoken set it in quite another light. However that may be, it was too good a story to be allowed to go out of use, and therefore it came to pass that in due time it was told with slight variation of Daniel Burgess, a celebrated Nonconformist divine, whose vigorous speech frequently made him enemies. Nor was this enough, for a very similar anecdote turned up a third time in a neighboring country, and this time it was a Presbyterian clergyman who used the expression, "Let us have another glass, and then"when preaching before the High Commissioner. Happily for Rowland Hill and Matthew Wilks the hourglass was out of date in their day, or else they would have been represented as saying the same thing. Liars ought to have good memories that they may recollect that they have already assigned a story to someone else. A particle of creative genius might also render their work a little less monotonous.
I remember reading with some amusement of Lorenzo Dow, who is reported some sixty years ago to have slipped down a tree in the backwoods, in order to illustrate the easiness of backsliding. He had previously pulled himself up with extreme difficulty, in order to show how hard a thing it is to regain lost ground. I was all the more diverted because it has so happened that this pretty piece of nonsense has been imputed to myself. I was represented as sliding down the banisters of my pulpit, and that at a time when the pulpit was fixed in the wall and was entered from behind! I never gave even the remotest occasion for that falsehood, and yet it is daily repeated, and I have heard of persons who were present when I did so, and, with their own eyes, saw me perform the silly trick. It is possible for a person to repeat a falsehood so many times that he at length imposes upon himself and believes that he is stating the truth. Here is the original tale, extracted from Mr. Taylor's "Model Preacher ":
"A man once went to Vincennes, in the United States, to hear Lorenzo Dow preach on backsliding. He said, 'An immense concourse of people assembled in the woods, and waited for Dow's arrival. Finally he made his appearance, and at the time all expected the sermon he arose, climbed up a smooth sapling, and cried out, 'Hold on there, Dow; hold on.' He soon slid down to the ground, and put on his hat and left. That was all the sermon we heard that day."
If this was all the sermon it certainly left a great deal for the hearer to work out, and it reminds us of the Welsh preacher who, with almost as little speaking, forcibly brought a great question before his people. He ascended the pulpit on the Sunday morning, looked around him and said, "My brethren, I shall ask you a question which neither you nor I can answer 'What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?'" When he had thus spoken he left the pulpit, walked down the aisle, and went home. If the hearers did not think that morning it was no fault of his. I wonder that some one has not told this story of me; perhaps they think it too good.
It was reported of Mr. Rowland Hill that on one occasion having saved up sufficient money to buy a chest of drawers his wife appropriated the amount to purchase therewith a new bonnet. To punish her for this misappropriation of household goods Mr. Hill is described as having exclaimed on the following Sunday, "Here comes Mrs. Hill with a chest of drawers on her head." It is truly marvelous that this anecdote should have lived even for an hour, for Mr. Hill was of honorable family, and possessed considerable property. The purchase of any number of chests of drawers or bonnets would have been a matter of small consequence to him; and besides, he was so attached to his wife, and a man of such excellent breeding, that no such language could have been used by him under any supposable circumstances. When Mr. Hill heard of the story he said, "It is an abominable untruth, derogatory to my character as a Christian and a gentleman: it would make me out a bear." Across many of the stories which were printed concerning himself he wrote with his own hands the words, "A lie;" and truly there are others of us who might wear out our pencils in doing the same. What need is there of all this invention? We have faults enough without imputing to us more than we have committed. Men who are really eccentric furnish quite enough remarkable and singular incidents in the course of their lives, and if the actual singularities were criticized there would be no room for complaint; but wherefore all this delight in lies?
A minister who is much before the public has need to be thick skinned, and to exercise to a very high degree the virtue of longsuffering. It may help him if he will remember the conduct of good Cotton Mather, a man remarkable for the sweetness of his temper. On one occasion, having taken a prominent interest in the political concerns of his country, he received a large number of abusive letters. All of these he tied up in a packet, and wrote upon the cover, "Libels. Father, forgive them." No man of God need be astonished at slander, as though some strange thing had happened unto him, for the best servants of God have been subject to that trial. Mr. Whitefield truly said, "Thousands of prayers are put up for us, and thousands of lies are spread abroad against us." Of himself, concerning his tour in Scotland, they said, "Wherever he went he had a gaping crowd around him, and had the address to make them part with their money. He was a pickpocket, and went off to England with a full purse, but with a ruined reputation among all except his bigoted admirers." This was falsehood itself.
I commend to young preachers when they are tried in this fashion the wise and weighty words of Thomas A'Kempis:
"My son, take it not grievously if some think ill of thee, and speak that which thou wouldest not willingly hear.
"Thou oughtest to be the hardest judge of thyself and to think no man weaker than thyself.
"If thou dost walk spiritually, thou wilt not much weigh fleeting words.
"It is no small wisdom to keep silence in an evil time, and in thy heart to turn thyself to God, and not to be troubled by the judgment of men.
"Let not thy peace depend on the tongues of men; for whether they judge well of thee or ill, thou art not on that account other than thyself. Where are true peace and true glory? Are they not in God? And he that careth not to please men, nor feareth to displease them, shall enjoy much peace.
"From inordinate love and vain fear ariseth all disquietness of heart and distraction of the mind."
Dr. Campbell once told me the following story:On one occasion, when Mr. Wesley was preaching, he said, "I have been falsely charged with every crime of which a human being is capable, except that of drunkenness." He had scarcely uttered these words before a wretched woman started up and screamed out at the top of her voice, "You old villain, and will you deny it? Did you not pledge your bands last night for a noggin of whisky, and did not the woman sell them to our parson's wife?" Having delivered herself of this abominable calumny the virago sat down amid a thunder-struck assembly, whereupon Mr. Wesley lifted his hands to heaven, and thanked God that his cup was now full, for they had said all manner of evil against him falsely for Christ's namesake. After this we feel reconciled to the idle tales which buzz about us, annoying us for a small moment, but doing no great damage.
I would fain hope that some untruthful representations of good men are the accidental results of mis-reports. In these days when reporters must furnish brief accounts of public speeches, it is almost impossible for them to do the speakers justice, for in their hurry they hear inaccurately, and in their brevity they give of necessity but a partial report. Now, the omission of a single sentence may make a speaker appear very absurd and eccentric. Of this we have a notable instance in the case of our beloved friend Mr. C. A. Davis, of Bradford. His is a sweet, poetical, well-balanced mind, and yet one would not think so from the newspaper report of a late speech at our College meeting. He is reported to have said of us, "May every hair of your head be a wax candle to light you into glory, and may you be in heaven ten minutes before the devil knows you are dead." Assuredly this looks very outrageous as it stands; but let me personally vouch for its connection. Our friend said that he wished that he was able to express his love to us, and his hearty desires for us, and that he envied the enthusiastic ingenuity of a poor Irish woman who in thanking her benefactor exclaimed, "May, etc." Now, the reporter in this case was a friend to us all, but probably the exigencies of the printing office knocked out the previous sentences, and there stood the Catholic benediction in all its exuberance. I am somewhat amused that certain papers should abuse my brother Davis for this, for he is one of the most quiet, orderly, and correct speakers that I know of, and I congratulate him upon gaining a reputation for eccentricity by mere accident.
Do you not think it very hard that some of us can never utter a playful sentence without being criticized? Often would I speak familiarly to my dear friends, and unbosom myself, as a man might in the midst of his family, but
And faith he'll prent it."
This is a sore oppression to a true-hearted man who does not care to be for ever under restraint. I sympathize thoroughly with Archdeacon Tillorson when he said, "It is surely an uneasy thing to sit always in a frame, and to be perpetually on your guard; not being able to speak a careless word, or to use a negligent posture without observation and censure. Nothing but necessity, or the hope of doing more good than a man is capable of doing in a private station, can recompense the trouble and uneasiness of a more public and busy life." The injustice of the matter is that what a man does but once in a playful moment,and what poor slave among us does not sometimes play?is bandied around as if it were a fair specimen of his whole life. A man in a walk chases a rare butterfly, and straightway is regarded as a mere boy who wastes his time in catching flies. But is this fair? Is it not a practical lie? For my own part, I have so long lived under a glass case, that like the bees that I have seen at the Crystal Palace I go on with my work, and try to be indifferent to spectators; and when my personal habits are truthfully reported, though they really are not the concern of anybody but myself, I feel utterly indifferent about it, except in times of depression, when I sigh for a lodge in some vast wilderness, where rumors of newspaper men and interviewers might never reach me more. Would not some of our hearers be rather more eccentric than their ministers if they were hunted and reported as we are? May heaven spare them the affliction.
Here I take leave to say that there should be greater caution in believing silly stories about ministers of the gospel, and a far greater reluctance to repeat them. They have enough to bear without being made a laughingstock before the world, for matters of which they are perfectly innocent. Taken as a body, they are probably less guilty of anything outré, than any other set of men; in fact, they are too apt to freeze into a cold, professional propriety: and therefore it is on all accounts unwise by exaggeration and falsehood to damp exceptional fervor because it may be attended with vivacity of spirit and originality of style.
Still there have been eccentric men, and names occur to us with which the epithet is fitly connected. Who are they? I will not dwell on Robert South, a masterly preacher, some of whose pungent expressions are almost as forcible as they are ferocious. I shall do no more than mention such personages as Dean Swift and Laurence Sterne, and I shall only allude to that witty and worthy person the Reverend Sydney Smith, for these gentlemen, with all their genres, were not overdone with gospel, and would scarcely care to be mentioned in connection with the worthies whom I shall more largely speak upon. Neither will I dwell upon the eccentric persecutors who roared and raved against Methodists and revivalists from their pulpits, except that one of them deserves "honorable mention."
"Samuel Roe, a Bedfordshire clergyman in the last century, and vicar of Stoffold, in that county, was a specimen of that inconsistent, but not uncommon character, an enthusiast against enthusiasm. Without any extraordinary capacity or attainments, he might have lived without notice, and have died without remembrance, had he not signalized himself by a proposal for preventing the further growth of Methodism,a proposal as full of genius as it was of humanity. But this amiable and benevolent man shall be heard in his own words: 'I humbly propose to the legislative powers, when it shall seem meet, to make an example of the tabernacle preachers, by enacting a law to cut out their tongues, as well as the tongues of all field teachers, and others who preach in houses, barns, or elsewhere, without apostolical ordination or legal authority.'" [Larwood's Book of Clerical Anecdotes.]
I shall almost entirely confine myself to good men and true, who have really edified the church of God and led sinners to repentance.
To begin at the Reformation period, I should single out first and foremost grand old Hugh Latimer. The miter upon his head did not quench either his zeal or his wit. Is there any reformer whose name strikes with such a homely sound upon the English ear as that of Latimer? We admire Cranmer and Ridley and Hooper, and the rest of them, but we love Latimer. There is something so genuine, and as we proudly say, so thoroughly English about that honest servant of God, that whether he kisses the stake in death or rebukes kings in his life, our hearts go out towards him. Yet he was not only homely, but at times so odd and quaint in his speech that for a bishop he must be regarded as very eccentric. Did he not talk of that woman who could by no means be made to sleep till she begged them to take her to the parish church, where she had so often slept the sermon through, for she felt sure she should sleep there? Did he not tell his hearers a queer story of the countryman who thought that Tenterden steeple was the cause of the Goodwin Sands? Listen to such talk as this:"I will tell you now a pretty story of a friar to refresh you withal. A preacher of the Gray Friars preached many times, and had but one sermon at all times, which sermon was of the ten commandments. And because this friar had preached this sermon so often, one that heard it before told the friar's servant that his master was called Friar John Ten-Commandments; wherefore the servant showed the friar his master thereof, and advised him to preach of some other matters; for it grieved the servant to hear his master derided. Now, the friar made answer saying, 'Belike, then, thou knowest the ten commandments well, seeing thou hast heard them so many a time.' 'Yea,' said the servant, 'I warrant you.' 'Let me hear them,' saith the master.' Then he began' Pride, covetousness, lechery,' and so numbered the deadly sins for the ten commandments. And so there be many at this time which be weary of the old gospel; they would fain hear some new things; they think themselves so perfect in the old, when they be no more skillful than this servant was in his ten commandments."
More homely still, if possible, is his talk about the various cheats of his own day:"I will tell you of a false practice that was practiced in my country where I dwell. But I will not tell it you to teach you to do the same, but rather abhor it, for those who use such deceitfulness shall be damned world without end. I have known some that had a barren cow, and they would fain have had a great deal of money for her, therefore they go and take a calf of another cow and put it to this barren cow, and so come to the market, pretending that this cow hath brought that calf, and so they sell their barren cow six or eight shillings dearer than they should have done else. The man which bought the cow cometh home; peradventure he hath a many of children, and hath no more cattle but this cow, and thinketh he shall have some milk for his children; but when all things cometh to pass, this is a barren cow, and so this poor man is deceived. The other fellow which sold the cow thinketh himself a jolly fellow, and a wise merchant, and he is called one that can make shift for himself. But I tell thee, whosoever thou art, do so if thou list, thou shalt do it of this price; thou shalt go to the devil, and there be hanged on the fiery gallows world without end. I tell you another false deed: I know that some husbandmen go to the market with a quarter of corn. Now, they would fain sell dear the worst, as well as the best, therefore they use this policy, they go and put a strike of fine malt or corn in the bottom of their sack, then they put two strike of the worst they had, then a good strike aloft in the sack's mouth, and so they come to the market. Now, there cometh a buyer, asking, 'Sir, is this good malt?' 'I warrant you (saith he) there is no better in this town '; and so he selleth all the malt or corn for the best, when there is but two strike of the best in the sack. The man that bought it thinketh he hath good malt, he cometh home. When he putteth the malt out of the sack, the strike which was in the bottom covereth the ill malt which was in the midst, and so the good man shall never perceive the fraud till he cometh to the occupying of the corn: the other man that sold it taketh this for a policy, but it is theft afore God, and he is bound to make restitution of so much of those two strikes which were nought [and] were sold too dear. So much he ought to restore, or else he shall never come to heaven, if God be true in his word. I could tell you of another falsehood, how they make wool to weigh much, but I will not tell it you."
Fancy the flutter among the lawn sleeves if a right reverend father were to talk in that fashion in these days. "Shockingly eccentric," would be the verdict of Canterbury and Winchester, and even of Sodor and Man.
Taking a great leap and coming down to modern times, we note the great religious revival under Whitefield and Wesley, and we askwho is the eccentric man here? The answer is that several might be so named, but among them all the chief would be John Berridge, of Everton. What a lump of quaintness that man was; but who thinks of him at the present moment without admiration? His portrait forces you to smile, and you cannot read his letters without laughing; but what a power was upon him to stir the souls of men and lead them to the Savior's feet. Mr. Thornton seriously admonished Mr. Berridge for asking in his prayer at Tottenham Court Road that the Lord would give his people no stale bread, but that which was baked in the oven that day. I fail to see the very serious impropriety of the prayer; but when Thornton says, "You once jocularly informed me that you were born with a fool's cap on; pray, my dear sir, is it not high time that it was pulled off?" I agree with the question. Still I have more sympathy with Berridge's answer"A fool's cap is not put off so readily as a night cap; one cleaves to the head and the other to the heart. Odd things break from me as abruptly as croaking from a raven." Berridge could not have lived if he had not found a vent for his spirits in witty sayings. He would seem to have had a fine, frank soul, which acted upon its impulses without the fear of what observers might say. Yet was he ever ready to confess his fault in the direction of excessive mirth, and on one occasion he traces it to his not being in the best physical condition. This may seem very absurd, but it is not: I have known seasons when suffering from neuralgia or depression my only hope of speaking at all has been found in taking off all the brakes, and allowing my mind to have full swing. The more my head has ached the more have I indulged in humor, or I should not have been able to speak at all. Here is the passage which I referred to, it is from one of Berridge's letters: "Laughter is not found in heaven; all are too happy there to laugh; it is a disease of fallen nature, and as such infested me sorely when sunk into the lowest stage of a nervous complaint. It forced itself on me without provocation, and continued with such violence as quite to overwhelm me; and nothing could check it but choking it, viz.filling my mouth with a handkerchief." Such fits were not frequent with him, although he was always radiant with smiles. I rather admire the pluck of the man that he could laugh when he was suffering so severely. The effect which the sight of Berridge produced upon the very sober mind of Andrew Fuller is well worth mentioning. He says: "I greatly admired that divine savor, which all along mingled itself with Mr. Berridge's facetiousness, and sufficiently chastened it. His conversation tended to produce a frequent, but guileless smile, accompanied with a tear of pleasure. His love to Christ appears to be intense. The visit left a strong and lasting impression on my heart of the beauty of holiness, of holiness almost matured."
When I remember that there is credible information that in the space of about twelve months some four thousand souls were brought to Christ by his preaching, and that in the region wherein he labored his name is still mentioned as that of a great saint, I feel that there was nothing in the eccentricity of Berridge of which he needed to be ashamed.
Mr. Hill, whom Berridge calls "Dear Rowley," was hard at work for his Master when the old vicar was going off the stage, and well did he carry out the old man's advice,"Study not to be a fine preacher: Jerichos are blown down with rams' horns. Look simply unto Jesus for preaching food, and what is wanted will be given, and what is given will be blest, whether it be a barley or a wheaten loaf, a crust or a crumb. Your mouth will be a flowing stream or a fountain sealed, according as your heart is. Avoid all controversy in preaching, talking, or writing; preach nothing down but the devil, and nothing up but Jesus Christ."
With Rowland Hill we naturally associate Matthew Wilks, who kept the Tabernacle full while Mr. Hill crowded Surrey Chapel. Of both of these we hope to speak more fully further on. America in the time of her first formation produced back-woods' preachers of a rarely eccentric order, such as Jacob Gruber, William Hibbard, James Oxley, Peter Cartwright, and others of a brave fraternity of men who labored with the axe in their hands and the gospel on their ready tongues. The same country also gave us Father Taylor, the sailor preacher of Boston. However grotesque some of these men may seem we cannot but admire their readiness for service and their unconquerable courage. Think of going to a charge where the people write, "Be sure and send us a good swimmer, for he will have to cross no end of rivers." "George," said Bishop Asbury to George Roberts, "where are your clothes?" "Bishop, they are on my back." This man carried needle and thread in case of accident to his one set of garments. We cannot countenance the propensity of Cartwright for physical warfare. We trust it will remain a peculiarity confined to America for a preacher to be equally ready to fight or to preach. Some men may be all the better for being knocked down, but the knocker down will surely be all the worse. However, these members of the church militant were rough men dealing with rough men, and we are glad that we are not tempted in the direction of fisticuffs.
The Baptists among many others of lesser note have had Robert Robinson, of Cambridge, of whom Robert Hall said that he could say "what he pleased, when he pleased, and how he pleased," and John Ryland, of Northampton, whose force and naturalness sometimes carried him into eccentric regions.
Among the Methodists have sprung up William Dawson, Gideon Ousely, Squire Brooke, and others whose names will not soon be forgotten. Now, it strikes me that if we were bound to make out a short list of earnest and successful soul-winners we might be content to take the list which we have already made out. To say the least, it is remarkable that eccentricity and usefulness often go together. These wicked eccentric people, who are so frequently condemned, have nevertheless, it turns out, been among the most useful men of their times. Matthew Wilks' way of meeting objections to his whims and oddities was not a bad one. I am told that a deputation of his friends waited upon the old gentleman to expostulate with him for his irregularities of utterance; he was shocking many good people, and his advisers hoped that he would endeavor to amend. He said, "Well, gentlemen, if you have said what you have to say, I will get you to wait just a minute or two while I run up stairs." Mr. Wilks went up stairs, and brought down a long roll of paper, which he unfolded with due dignity. "Look at that." Yes, they looked at it. "Do you see the number of names?" "Yes." "Here is another roll for you. Look at this! Count those names! Here is number three, look at this! Now, gentlemen," he said, "you see all these names? Well, then, all these precious souls profess to have found the Savior and everlasting life through what you are pleased to call my whims and oddities; and if you will find a longer roll in the hands of those who have no such whims and oddities I will try and alter my ways to please you; but until then I shall certainly follow my own course." Common sense declares Mr. Wilks to have been right. We do not say that the end justifies the means, but we would venture to hint that means which have such an end need very little justifying.
Let those whose barren ministries are as proper and decorous as a row of gravestones complain of the oddities of those who bring thousands to Christ: as for us, we have no heart for fault-finding, and only wish, without imitating their eccentricity, to find out the secret of the success of these men, if by any means we might save some. Eccentric or not eccentric will be a small matter with us if men are delivered from the wrath to come and led to trust in Jesus by the word which we preach.