William Dawson, 177311841
R. WILLIAM DAWSON, the Yorkshire farmer and Methodist preacher, should be mentioned among the eccentrics, but not on account of any great use of wit in his preaching. Gross falsehoods were forged concerning him, and he was made to appear as a mere comic actor by the ribald world, but there was nothing about his preaching to deserve it. He was apt at repartee, and there was a slight mixture of drollery in his sermons, but he was mainly distinguished for his wonderful dramatic power, by which he made everything stand out before the people's eyes, and thus created the deepest impressions. In a note from Dr. Osborn to us, that gentleman says: "Wit was not Dawson's specialty, it was the intense activity and fervor of his imagination, with a basis of sound doctrine and sound character, which was the source of his power, and a mighty power it was." In a brief sketch of Mr. Dawson, by Mr. R. A. West, we read the following description of his outer man, which lets us see the farmer and the preacher combined:
"I first heard Mr. Dawson from the pulpit in the year 1828. His apparel and demeanor struck me as unclerical. True, he wore a black coat and vest, and a white neck-cloth, but his lower extremities were encased in a pair of drab breeches, and he wore what are technically called 'top boots,' such as are, and were at the time, universally worn in England by substantial farmers as a part of their Sunday or market-day attire. He crossed the floor of the chapel on his way to the pulpit with a rolling gait, as though he were .traversing a ploughed field, with a hand in each pocket of his drabs, half whistling, half humming the air of a good old Methodist tune. Of this he was apparently unconscious, for his eyes were turned downward in a reverie, and he seemed shut in from all surrounding objects. In all my subsequent knowledge of him I never saw a repetition of the mood."
He was always natural and farmer-like; the smell as of a field that the Lord had blessed was upon him, and the multitude delighted to hear him. His power in setting an illustration before his hearers will be seen from the following: "Preaching on the returning prodigal, Mr. Dawson paused, looked at the door, and shouted out, after he had depicted him in his wretchedness,' Yonder he comes, slipshod! Make waymake way make way, there.' Such was the approach to reality, that a considerable part of the congregation turned to the door, some rising on their feet, under the momentary impression that some one was entering the chapel in the state described. In the same sermon, paraphrasing the father's replying to the son that was angry, and would not go in, he said: 'Be not offended; surely a calf may do for a prodigal, shoes for a prodigal, a ring and a robe for a prodigal, but ALL I have is THINE,.' As to the more striking effect, when pointing to the door, similar results were produced when referring to the Witch of Endor. His picturing took such hold on the imagination, that on exclaiming,' Stand bystand by! There she is!' some of the poor people inadvertently directed their eyes downward, where his own eye was fixed, and the spot to which he was pointing, as if she were about to rise from beneath their feet, and become visible to the congregation."
The next extract is part of a peroration of a sermon from Revelation 6:7, 8, "And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see," etc. "'Come and see,' then, the awful condition of an unsaved sinner. Open your eyes, sinner, and see it yourself. There he is in the broad road of ruin; every step he takes is deeper in sin; every breath he draws feeds his corruption; every moment takes him farther from heaven and nearer hell. Onward, onward he is goingdeath and hell are after him quickly, untiringly they pursue himwith swift but noiseless hoof the pale horse and his pale rider are tracking the godless wretch. See! see! they are getting nearer, they are overtaking him." At this moment the stillness of the congregation was so complete that the ticking of the clock could be distinctly heard in every part of the chapel. Upon this, with a facility peculiarly his own, he promptly seized, and without seeming interruption. Leaning over the pulpit in the attitude of attention, and fixing his keen eye upon those who sat immediately before him, he continued in an almost supernatural whisper, "Hark! hark! that swift rider is coming, and judgment is following him. That is his untiring footstep! Hark!" and then imitating for a moment or two the beat of the pendulum, he exclaimed in the highest pitch of his voice, "Lord, save the sinner! save him! Death is upon him, and hell follows! See, the long arm is raised! The final dart is poised! O my God, save himsave himfor if the rider overtakes that poor sinner, unpardoned and unsaved, and strikes his blow, down he falls, and backward he dropshell behind him, and as he falls backward, he looks upward, and shrieks'Lost! lost! lost! Time lost; Sabbaths lost; means lost; soul lost; heaven lost! ALL LOST, and lost for ever!' Backward he drops; all his sins seem to hang round his neck like so many millstones as he plunges into the burning abyss. 'Come and see.' Lord, save him! O my God, save him! 'Come and see.' Blessed be God! The rider has not overtaken him yet; there is time and space yet for that poor sinner: he may be saved yethe has not dropped into hell. 'Come and see.' The horse and the rider have not overtaken you yet; there is, therefore, an 'accepted time,' there is a 'day of salvation'! 'Come and see.' There is God the Father inviting you; God the Father commanding you; God the Father swearing he has no pleasure in your death, but in your life. There is Jesus Christ come to seek you. He has Cravelied thirty years to save you. He is dying on the cross. With his outstretched arms he says, 'Come unto me, and I will give you rest.' 'He that believeth in me shall never die!'" The effect was so overwhelming that two of the congregation fainted, and it required all the preacher's tact and self-command to ride through the storm, which his own vivid imagination had aroused.
Those must have been stirring services in which his hearers audibly responded to his appeals. On one occasion when he exhorted his hearers to give their hearts to the Lord, he added, with his hand on his breast and his eyes towards heaven, "Here's mine." A voice from the gallery called out, "Here's mine, too, Billy!"
Preaching at Ancoats, Manchester, on Judges 8:4,"Faint, yet pursuing," every eye seemed at one time suffused with tears; and when people and preacher were craned up to the highest pitch of feeling, a momentary pause ensued, during which the clock struck twelve, and broke the stillness that reigned, like the hammer on the bell at a watch night, on the departure of the old year. In an instant he darted his eyes to the front of the gallery, and personifying the timepiece, said"You may speak, clock, but I am not done yet." Though no apparent expectation existed on the part of the auditory that he would close his discourse with the hour, yet it had all the effect of reviving disappointed hope, and threw a gleam of sunshine into every countenance.
William Dawson was a man by himself. When nature formed him she broke the mould, but we could have wished that she had given us at least another after his manner and order. Of his power in witty answers we will only give one specimen, and then close our notice. The following dialogue was held between Dawson and a fault-finding gentleman.
Gentleman. "I had the pleasure of hearing you yesterday."
Mr. Dawson. "I hope you not only heard but profited."
Gent. "Yes, I did; but I don't like those prayer-meetings at the close. They destroy all the good previously received."
Mr. D. "You should have united with the people in them."
Gent. "I went into the gallery, where I hung over the front, and saw the whole, but I could get no good; I lost, indeed, all the benefit I had received during the sermon."
Mr. D. "It is easy to account for that,"
Gent. "How so?"
Mr. D. "You mounted the top of the house; and on looking down your neighbor's chimney to see what kind of a fire he kept, you got your eyes filled with smoke. Had you entered by the door, and gone into the room, and mingled with the family around the household hearth, you would have enjoyed the benefit of the fire as well as they. Sir, you have got the smoke in your eyes."