Chapter I. The Early Life of E. J. Peck "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me."
IN Caesarea, Cornelius and his household were seeking the truth. In Joppa, God was preparing Peter to impart the truth. Saul, on the road to Damascus, was in great need of sympathy. Inside Damascus, God was taking away the fears and doubts of Ananias, so that he might give the sympathy needed.
Far away in Northern lands the Eskimos were waiting for the Gospel, silently yet eloquently making their claim on the Church of Christ. Thousands of miles away God was preparing the messenger who was to go to them carrying the tidings of salvation.
Edmund James Peck was the chosen instrument.
He was not by any means the first missionary from Christendom to the Eskimo race, for the Moravians have laboured long with great devotion among the inhabitants of the Greenland and Labrador coasts.
He was not even the first representative of the Church Missionary Society to come in contact with the Arctic wanderers. Bishop Bompas, Bishop Horden and others had visited them at various points, but no one had hitherto devoted his life to them.
A brief sketch of his life previous to his call to a most arduous and self-sacrificing work will be instructive, as showing what means God chooses for the preparation of a Peter or an Ananias in these days.
Edmund James Peck was born on April 15, 1850. His parents at this time lived at Rusholme, near Manchester. His father was an energetic, conscientious, straightforward man, occupied in a linen factory. His mother was a sweet, happy Christian woman, whose influence was largely exercised upon her son. Edmund was the eldest of the family. There were three other children, a boy and two girls, making up, to borrow Mr. Peck's joke, a bushel of them. When the eldest child was seven years of age the family moved to Dublin. About three years after their arrival at the Irish capital the mother died. Her death, as is the death of every good mother, was an irreparable loss to the family, but she lived again in at least one of her children."
Soon after this, young as he was, Edmund Peck manifested a spirit of fearlessness and a desire for truth in matters of religion. He was surrounded by many Roman Catholics, and noticing among other things their great neglect of the observance of the Sabbath, though only eleven years of age, he would speak to some of them about it, and express a decided opinion that a religion which did not bring forth the fruits of holiness must be worthless in God's sight. In other ways also, especially in conversation with his father, the same kind of attitude was evident. And though this zeal for God was lost for some years afterwards in a careless life, it is interesting as pointing to the real bent of his character, and proving the truth of the old adage that "the child is father to the man."
When he was thirteen years old another sore trial befell the boy--the death of his father. Speaking of that time, he says: "The most vivid and sorrowful picture of my life was when I stood by the open grave of my father, with the tears rolling down my cheeks, as I remembered that I was now left utterly orphaned in a lone, lone world." Perhaps this was a foreshadowing of his future loneliness in a world of ice.
But help was at hand. Edmund Peck had attended the church of St. Matthias; he had also been a member of the Sunday School of that church. The clergyman was the Rev. Maurice Day, afterwards Bishop of Cashel, and he interested himself so that the lad was enabled to enter the navy. The kindly action of this clergyman made a deep impression on the boy's mind. Many years later, he had the great pleasure of meeting him again. The Bishop was the chairman of a meeting in Dublin for the Church Missionary Society, at which his former Sunday School scholar was one of the speakers. Their joy was great and mutual.
After having been received on board the guard-ship, H.M.S. Ajax, lying at Kingstown, Edmund Peck was very soon drafted to the training ship, Impregnable, stationed at Plymouth. Here he arrived on January 12, 1865, and remained until May 12, 1866. Then he joined H.M.S. Caledonia, which was under orders for the Mediterranean. It was in the Great Sea of the Old Testament, amid the historic surroundings of the ancient world, that the spiritual life of the future missionary was awakened and fostered.
At the end of about two years he was laid low with Mediterranean fever, and was brought very near to the gate of death. In the weeks of prostration that followed, one of the ship's officers used to come and see him frequently; and though we do not hear of these visits causing the patient more than passing pleasure, we can hardly doubt that they had a permanent effect. As he returned to a slow convalescence, the young sailor began to read a Bible which his sister had given him when they parted. Illness had awakened him to his need of spiritual and eternal things, and, in his own words, he "made great efforts to secure peace to his soul." These efforts, however, were in vain, for they were made in his own strength only, and "in the energy of the flesh." Mr. Peck concludes the review of this portion of his life with the expressive sentence, "While weakness lasted, I went on in what I may term the trying-to-be-a-Christian state."
As his health did not improve, he was invalided home to England in the autumn of 1868. After some time on furlough he was sent to Nelson's old flag-ship, the Victory. Speaking of this time, Mr. Peck says: "Many strange thoughts stirred within me as I looked upon that spot upon the Victory's quarterdeck where England's noblest naval hero fell fighting the battle which freed England from her foes. But little did I think at that time that the Lord would call me to a conflict mightier than that of earthly battles, because eternal destinies hang upon the triumphs of the host of God."
When drafted from the Victory he joined his old vessel, the Caledonia, though with a new crew. At this time there seems to have been some retrogression in the struggle for spiritual life. With returning health, as often happens, good resolutions grew weaker, so that we find him writing: "For a time, at least, I gave up private prayer and the study of the Scriptures." But the wanderer was not allowed to wander unwarned. "In the midst of life we are in death," and this is especially true in the case of a sailor. Dangers and accidents are always eloquent, even when we cannot hear the voice of ordinary passing events. One day he was ordered aloft with one of his shipmates. The latter got into the rigging a moment before him and a race upwards ensued. Suddenly a ratline gave way under the foot of his shipmate, who was dashed upon the deck a maimed, crushed mass of humanity. This roused thought in the one who was spared: "Why was it that I was spared? Why was I led to the opposite side of the rigging to that which my poor shipmate had taken? Why? Because God had a life-task for me to perform."
On another day, when a heavy sea was running, he was sent to the large wheel, which had three tiers of spokes. A mighty sea caught the rudder and wrenched the wheel from the grasp of all the men who held it, dashing upwards, against the deck above, one poor fellow who was on the weather side. We who were on the lee-side were saved from hurt. The injured man died soon afterwards as a result of the accident.
Whatever effect these and similar accidents had upon the young sailor at the time, they were brought to his remembrance later and used by the Holy Spirit for the guidance and moulding of his life. If it be true
That not a worm is cloven in vain,
That not a moth with vain desire '
Is shrivel'd in a fruitless fire,
Or but subserves another's gain,
how much more the sudden death of one with whom we are closely associated! God's voice is always to be heard by those who have ears to hear.
It was, as a matter of fact, some time after this, on board his next ship, the Excellent, that the pearl of great price was found. Mr. Peck says, "One evening, when reading i John v. 9-13, this glorious passage was made the means of bringing peace, perfect peace, to my troubled conscience. With what power and force did these words of God speak to my poor longing, trembling heart! What a mine of comfort they held for me, and still hold, not only for myself, but for all those who will accept them! "
Truly, the spirit breatheth where He listeth. We understand readily enough that the whispered breath may be wafted to the weary soul in the hush of the sanctuary; in the stillness of the prayer-chamber; in the solemn hours of the night. We understand the louder message of God being heard in the inspired voice from the Church pulpit or the pleading tones of the Mission Room. We can understand the awful call of God to repentance coming from the earthquake or the thunder as on Sinai. There is a certain agreement and harmony between them.
But we should be inclined to say that the confused discords of Babel were no surroundings for the Spirit of Pentecost. And yet it was a veritable Babel on board ship between thirty and forty years ago, in which the Holy Breath came into the life of young Peck and took possession of him.
There was no nook for quiet meditation where a seaman could be alone. Every place was public, every place was noisy. Here is a group playing a forbidden game of cards under cover of a barrier formed of piled-up "ditty boxes," a mess kettle, and other unshorelike obstacles. There is a man playing his banjo with his eternal tumma-tumma-tum-tum. In another part is a concertina in full swing playing "Jack's the Lad," while a score or more of step-dancers execute wonderful performances with their bare feet on the deck, their rough [soles sounding like the rasp of a knife being cleaned on a brick-dust board. In another part are seen two young fellows, locked in each other's arms in orthodox ballroom fashion, whirling gracefully round in the dreamy mazes of a valse, the music being hummed by the pair in turn.
Yet again a sombre-minded sailor chants dolefully that dreariest of all ditties, "Babara Allan," beloved of Jack years ago. Close by him, another tar with a hammer is whack, whacking a leather sole before clumping it, as well as any shoemaker, on to the waiting boot, and thus proving that "a sailor can do anything." A little knot of men is in hot and fiery argument over the Tichborne Case; another over the merits of a new gun. Here is a man writing to his sweetheart; another is making a twine cabbage-net for the mess; a third is mangling his washed clothes with the bottom of an enamelled basin or rolling-pin. The gangway is blocked here and there by men with fathoms of spun yarn and canvas-wrapped leaf-tobacco, "heaving" it into those huge cigar-shaped rolls much appreciated by sailors, envied and coveted by shore smokers-a hundred or two of men laughing, talking, skylarking; this is the scene into which the Gracious Spirit enters, and seeking out amid the din of that deck the young sailor who, defying all opposition, sits reading his Bible, whispers to him the word of peace and assurance.
On January 7, 1874, he was transferred from the Excellent to H.M.S. Hector, the guardship in Southampton Water, and here he formed a friendship with John Martin, sailmaker, Sydney Watson, carpenter's yeoman, and Tom Yeadle, seaman. These four eventually came to be like-minded in spiritual things, and so were also inseparable, meeting together night after night for prayer and praise. But they could not remain satisfied with mutual edification. They must offer their good things to others also. Referring to these days, Mr. Peck writes: "A little band of the Lord's people, being thus brought together, we were almost immediately led to try and do something for our unconverted shipmates. Very soon we had interested one or two more seamen to join us, men for whose conversion we never ceased to pray. Then as the days went on, and our little nightly gathering grew more and more precious, we divided the hour spent, making the definite study of the Bible a part of the exercises; for each felt the need of feeding in the green pastures.'"
But they were not allowed much peace outwardly. They were hunted about constantly from place to place by many in authority who seemed to take a pleasure in persecuting them. Among their bitterest enemies was a ship's corporal, who, though he drove them like partridges, was forced to give an unwilling testimony to the effect of their meetings. The corporals' mess was cleaned and cared for by a smart but ungodly lad, who held the rating in the ship of first-class boy. This lad came down on one occasion to a meeting which was being held in the seclusion of the carpenter's store room. He was decidedly impressed, and this proved to be only the first of many gatherings that he afterwards joined. For he came again and again. Whether he was truly converted or not was not manifest, but certainly his whole life was changed. One night, as three of the band of men were emerging from the storeroom, their old enemy the corporal saw them, and beckoned them to him. As they ranged up close to his table, he said: "What in the name of fortune do you do down there with the fellows? They go down devils and come up saints." The words speak for themselves, and prove that God was manifested in these humble but happy gatherings.
The petty persecutions directed against these men, who had banded themselves together for devotion and spiritual edification, after a time became so constant that they could find no cave of Adullam as a permanent refuge. Accordingly they summoned up courage enough to make an official application for a spot where they might meet, "none daring to make us afraid," and in response to their appeal they were granted the use of one of the bathrooms. What precious times they spent there; how sweet their memory still! One of these evenings stands out vividly to this day. The iron room is about twelve feet by nine; along three sides are massive iron baths, surmounted by huge pipes, and great glittering brass cocks. The deck under foot is covered with three-inch wooden gratings, sodden with water which, swayed with every motion of the vessel, rushes up over the men's bare feet. There is a general sense of cold, chill damp pervading the place, but it does not damp or chill the ardour of the little band of ten or a dozen sailors gathered there. The little company are pitched (the Americanism "fixed-up" would be perhaps an appropriate word) in all sorts of odd positions; some are seated on their low ditty boxes (ten inches long, eight wide, seven deep, their size) placed on the wet deck gratings; some perch upon the cold, damp iron edge of the long baths; some stand leaning against the rough iron plates of the walls of the room. The gathered drops on the iron plates overhead and on the plates which form the sides of the room, make the whole place a kind of "nautical dripping well." All the men have Bibles in their hands, and there is a look of eager interestedness upon the faces. The subject of the Bible Reading is "Heart Religion," the place of reading the latter part of Deuteronomy v., and the early part of the next chapter.
"Listen to these words again, chums," says the old sailmaker as he repeats his reading. I have heard the voice of the words of this people, which they have spoken . . . they have well said all that they have spoken. O, that there was such an heart in them, that they would fear ME, and keep MY commandments always."
"Ah, chums," he goes on, "it makes all the difference whether a man has a head or a heart religion. Head religion is like moonlight; that is pretty and cold, and romantic like, good for courting couples and for pictures, for poets and book-writing fellows when they want to make a pretty scene, but it has no notion of melting ice or warming the earth. And it is just like that with head religion--there's no warmth, no life in it. There ain't ne'er a one of us here as would be so green as to hold our hands out to the moon to warm them; but there are folks foolish enough to try and heal broken hearts, and to warm their cold souls with head religion. Then when they find it is all a failure, they blame God and the Bible. They say there's nothing in any religion, it's all a farce, and they'll have nothing to do with it. Poor things! They're woow-blind, or they would see the truth as God tries to teach it all through the Bible, that ' it is with the heart man believeth unto righteousness.'"
Here the good old man tucked his book under his arm, rubbed his hands together with an almost boyish glee, as he continued: "Hallelujah! for the sunshine--God's sunshine--the joy of the Lord! Why, look here. The other night when that little chap was singing his ditty on the upper deck, 'I love the merry sunshine,' you remember how everybody clapped him, and encored. I could not help wishing that a few of them would learn to love God's heart-sunshine. Thank God, He has made it so easy to have heart religion! Everyone has the power to trust, to believe."
A few more words from John Martin, and on they read: "And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand."
"What does that mean?" asked a young sailor. "How can we carry religion on our hands?"
"Well, the idea comes to me like this," replied another: "If a gent has a regular tip-top ring, a diamond, or something like that, he's not only not ashamed of it, but he takes good care that everyone shall see it. You'll see, he'll stick out his finger when he lifts up his glass of wine to his lips; an' if he's twistin' his moustache, somehow you don't see the twist of the hair, but you do the twirl of that diamond. And it strikes me that God means to say to us, if our religion is worth anything people will see it as readily as though it was a diamond ring bound upon our finger."
Then, with a smile at the young sailor who had made the inquiry, the expounder continued: "Don't you remember, chum, when you an' me was shipmates in the C-----, and we went ashore together at Madras, how we saw the different sects of Hindoos with their castemarks in their foreheads, and how proud they were of them, and how plainly the marks showed up to everyone? "
"Right yer are, I remember! But what's that got to do with religion on the hand?" said the young sailor.
"Nothing to do with the hand," replied the other. "But that same verse has something about the foreheads, too," and, lifting his Bible, the seaman expositor read, by the light of the lantern which swung from the ceiling, "And they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes." "That is plainer still, chums; a fellow might lose his hands or hide them in his pockets, but with God stamped on his brow, I suppose everyone will know he is born again."
It will be seen from this faithful description of this meeting, which is but a sample of many like it, that though the men who were gathered together may not have had much critical knowledge of the Book of the Old Testament which they read, they had nevertheless grasped the simple truth of God's love, and realizing this they could give back love and praise to Him who had made them new creatures in Christ Jesus.
Besides the sustaining of spiritual life there was another result in the case of Edmund Peck and one other member of this little society of godly men. These two determined to improve themselves from the educational point of view. Morning after morning they were up and dressed and at their studies by four o'clock. The first half hour or so was spent in private devotion and Bible reading. After that they would read and-write for the cultivation of the mind and intellect. But just as the meetings of the original four men for spiritual edification found a wider expansion when they began to invite their shipmates to join them, so there was a similar result in this more secular matter. The two friends found so great a delight in their books that it became their increasing desire to share their privileges with others. So they began to cast about in their minds for some plan of action. After much thought and prayer as to what they should do for their shipmates, they decided to send a few pounds to London to their friend, Mr. Wm. Cheshire, Engraver, of Holborn Viaduct, and of Stirling Villa, Sutton, Surrey, asking him to lay the money out in suitable books for lending to the crew.
There was a ship's library, of course, on board the vessel, but it was a very small affair, and very dry, and very, very stale, so that scarcely any one thought of asking for a book. (Things in the Navy, in this respect, have somewhat improved, but in those days, a ship's library was an Ezekiel's Valley, "full of dry bones.")
On receipt of the letter and postal orders for two or three pounds, Mr. Cheshire was so delighted with their notion that he started off to see Mr. Samuel Partridge, of the well-known Paternoster Row firm. Showing that good man the letter, he asked: "If two man-of-war's men can do this much out of love for the souls of their shipmates, I feel that some of us who are Christians and in the book trade ought to help them a little. What will you do, Mr. Partridge? "
"Do!" said that gentleman. "I'll do this; For every pound's worth of books you can get in the Row gratis, I'll add a pound's worth at the same rate."
Mr. Cheshire called upon other publishers, and two others specially helped him, Messrs. Shaw, of 48, Paternoster Row, and Mr. Haughton, author of Heaven, and How to Get There, and other kindred books.
The price of books thirty years ago bears no comparison with that of to-day. They had supposed that a parcel in size about two feet by one would have been about the kind of thing they should receive; their surprise when the parcel actually came was beyond all expression. The vessel was lying off Cowes at the time, in attendance upon her Majesty, who was at Osborne. The case was addressed to Sydney Watson, carpenter's yeoman, and he was summoned on to the quarterdeck one afternoon, and was asked what that huge case contained which was alongside, and addressed to him, and who gave him permission to order goods to that amount, since he was not entitled by rank to have any box on board other than his tool chest?
He replied that he had not yet seen the parcel, but that he and a chum certainly had sent for a few pounds' worth of books, to distribute on loan, to their shipmates in their messes.
The officer fumed, and said that the Government found all stores needed for the men, and that the owner could order the case to be sent ashore again, as it certainly should not come on board.
The carpenter's yeoman, dismissed from the presence of the irate officer, went to the gangway to see the parcel. It measured quite three feet each way--a stout, wooden case, iron-banded.
Passing down into the lighter on which it lay, he explained the difficulty to the man in charge, gave him a tip for his trouble, and asked him to request his manager at Cowes to let the case stay in his warehouse until he could get ashore, which would probably be the next day.
It was the commander who had refused permission for the case to come on board, and shortly after, when on shore, he was taken seriously ill with gout. This was the opportunity. Formal application was made to the next in command, and he readily allowed the box to be brought on the ship. They had to put a stout whip on the mainyard end to hoist the box (all nautical readers will understand this allusion), and after some considerable excitement the thing was housed in the store-room, though it only just passed down through the square of the hatch. The unpacking and sorting of that box was a wondrous time, for the contents were altogether beyond their conception of book wealth; and when, two days later, on the Sunday afternoon, immediately after dinner, the two chums carried a number of books, on loan, to each mess, their shipmates were as delighted as they were amazed. Only one thing was needed to complete the joy of that first distribution of loan literature, namely, the presence of Messrs. Cheshire, Partridge, Shaw and Haughton, that they might have seen how the sailors appreciated their kindness and generosity. That case of books proved an untold blessing to the ship's messes.
Interesting as are the scenes on this side of naval life, and tempting as they are to linger over, the narrative must hasten on to that which was in particular one issue of them. We glance at Mr. Peck's notes, and he takes up the story which links the Eskimos and their spiritual destinies with a British man-of-war:--
"About this time Tom Yeadle, the seaman gunner, informed me that he had heard from a clergyman, the Rev. T. Romaine Govett, Vicar of Newmarket, asking him to leave the Service and go, if possible, to Newmarket, as Scripture Reader. Tom Yeadle, for certain family and personal reasons, finding it impossible to comply with his friend's request, referred the clergyman to me (E. J. Peck), saying that he thought I might be able to go. After prayerful consideration and some correspondence with Mr. Govett, I was able--through the permission of the naval authorities, of course--to purchase my discharge, and I finally left the Navy on May 7, 1875, and went to Mr. Govett a few days after.
"The Rev. T. Romaine Govett was, in many respects, a remarkable man of God, and I could never, if I tried, tell all that I owe, under God, to his wonderful influence upon my life and thought.
"My time at Newmarket was chiefly spent in study, visiting from house to house and reading God's word to the people, holding cottage meetings, and doing what I could for the racing men and others engaged in the 'horsey fever,' and all of whom seemed to live only for pleasure and gain.
"I had conceived a desire to be a missionary, and the desire grew stronger every day, while Mr. Govett rejoiced to foster it, offering to help me forward in my project in any way possible to him. One morning he called me up into his study and informed me that he had thought deeply over my missionary wishes, so much so, that on the previous night he could hardly sleep, and spent much of the night in prayer and deep thought upon the matter. He also informed me that he had decided to write to the Church Missionary Society, Salisbury Square, and invite them to take me into their training institute. With feelings which I cannot describe I went up to London to see members of the committee, and after a very searching examination I was accepted for training, and entered the Society's preparatory institute at Reading in the latter part of 1875.
"I had been studying some months, when one morning I was startled by receiving a call to proceed to the Society's offices in London (Salisbury Square). On my arrival I was ushered into the presence of the Rev. H. Wright, and pointing to the shores of Hudson's Bay, he told me that Bishop Horden needed a man to go forward to preach the Gospel to the Eskimos. With the holy enthusiasm of the true missionary he reminded me that it might be the Lord's will to gather, through my instrumentality, a people from these inhospitable wilds to be sons and daughters of God.
"'Will you go?' he asked.
"Moved, doubtless, by the Holy Ghost, I immediately replied that I was willing to go. A short time was placed at my disposal to bid farewell to my loved ones, and to prepare for the voyage--a voyage, be it remembered, which can only be made once a year, at one special season. Mr. Wright and his family showed me not a little kindness, and it was from their never-to-be-forgotten home that I finally started for my port of embarkation in the beginning of June, 1876."