MR. BENNETT'S resolve to enter the ministry was a departure from the traditions of his family, for among his ancestors not a single cleric can be found. Perhaps his career was shaped by his election to a Studentship. A much larger proportion of those who were on the foundation of colleges took Holy Orders in those days than is at present the case, when few of the Fellows become clergymen.
At first, however, he went as "Usher "to his old school. The word implied at that time one of the assistant masterships, and this position he held from 1826 to 1828. He was ordained Deacon at the Chapel Royal on March 2, 1828, by William Howley, then Bishop of London, and soon to be Archbishop of Canterbury. Mr. Bennett's "title" for ordination must have been his mastership, since he was not at that time licensed to any curacy.
On August 21 of the same year he was married to Mary Concetta Franklin. She was the daughter of Sir William Franklin, M.D., Kt. of the Hanoverian Order, "Principal Inspector-General of Army Hospitals," by his wife Concetta Tricanj, a Sicilian lady. After the death of Lady Franklin, Sir William resided in London with Mr. and Mrs. Bennett until his death in 1833. Mrs. Bennett is recorded to have sung extremely well, and it is a tradition in the family that, when on summer evenings the windows in Wilton Place were open, a crowd used to assemble in the street to listen to her singing.
It was not till June 6, 1830, that Mr. Bennett was ordained Priest. The ordination was at S. Paul's Cathedral, and the Bishop of London was now Blomfield, with whom we shall have a great deal to do in this history. Mr. Bennett was now licensed as curate to "Oxford Chapel," which has since received the name of S. Peter's, Vere Street. The "Minister "of the said chapel was the Rev. John Perceval, and, as Mr. Bennett's stipend was but £60 a year, it is probable that the tradition that at this time he took pupils is correct.
In August he removed to the more important curacy, Holy Trinity, St. Mary-le-bone (so he always writes the word), and before long he was face to face with work of the most serious and terrible nature. The Asiatic Cholera had come.
Originating in Bengal as far back as 1817, this, according to the "Encyclopaedia Britannica," "perhaps the most severe and fatal.of all diseases," slowly and relentlessly pursued its way along the usual course, through Persia, Asia Minor, Russia, to the Northern and Central parts of Europe. It arrived at Sunderland in 1831 and broke out in London in January, 1832.
The outbreak was the occasion of Mr. Bennett's first publication--
"A sermon on the necessity of prayer, particularly at the present period of GOD'S visitation. Preached in Trinity Church, St. Mary-le-bone, Sunday, Feb. 26, 1832."
His subject is that of his text, "That men ought always to pray and not to faint." Better advice could not be given, even from a purely natural point of view. Probably of no epidemic is it more true that fear of the disease kills at least as many as the disease itself does, or predisposes to catch it. What better safeguard, then, than reliance on God, and how better gain that reliance than by prayer?
It will be conducive to clearness if we here continue and complete the story of the Cholera, and of Mr. Bennett's work with respect to it. It came again in 1849, following the same course. It was more deadly than before. Half the cases were fatal. Some clergy had fifty funerals of its victims in a week. In that year Mr. Bennett was Perpetual Curate of S. Paul's, Knightsbridge, and we may well give his own description of the outbreak--
"In the Autumn of that year, 1849, it pleased the Almighty to visit the Metropolis with a pestilence which carried to their graves thousands of our fellow-citizens; and in our own parish, and especially among the poor of S. Barnabas', there was a great mortality; the sickness and distress out-weighing even the actual deaths that occurred. I saw the distress and lamentation of the living, and no one could tell, even in the rudest health to-day, whether to-morrow he might not be a corpse."
It is interesting to note that Mr. Bennett's first cousin, Canon Renaud, then Curate of S. Thomas', Salisbury, was wont to give just the same sort of description of the terrible outbreak in that city: "When you shook hands with a man at night you did not know whether you or he or both would be dead before morning."
In this epidemic also, as before, Mr. Bennett urged prayer as one of the great means of helpfulness. He put forth a form of prayer for private use, and this, which contained prayers for the departed, was, as we shall see hereafter, a cause of trouble between him and his Bishop.
It is interesting to note here that in 1847 Mr. Bennett had pointed in a sermon on the Irish Famine, preached on the National Fast Day, to the "Sins of Church and People "as the cause of God's visitation. The sins for which we were punished by that awful famine were (he thought)--
"our pride and hardness of heart, our neglect of Ordinances (such as Daily Service, Holy Communion, Fasts and Festivals) and our strife and divisions."
So now in a similar strain of thought, in 1849, he preached and published a sermon, in two parts, on "God's Judgment in the Pestilence," pointing to the cruelties of the poor law and to the ill-treatment of the children in the factories (which last were very terrible) as among our national sins. Once more he pointed out the sins of the time in 1854, in a sermon for the "Patriotic Fund," in the days of the Crimean War, speaking of our want of charity, excessive greed of gain, and the drunkenness and brutality of the lower orders. Thus Famine, Pestilence, and Sword had in these few years punished us, and in each case he drew the same lesson, God's anger at our national sins.
In the face of the terrible mortality of the Cholera he was hard at work in his parishes. Not content with the form of prayer which he had put forth, he obtained the permission of the Bishop to have the Litany daily, to appoint a day of Fasting and Humiliation in S. Paul's parish, and to use the Commination Service on that day. Accordingly he appointed Wednesday, September 19, for that purpose.
The work, too, was carried into the homes of the sufferers with the greatest self-devotion.
"During the Cholera of 1849, the clergy of S. Barnabas' might be found at all hours by the bedside of the sick and dying, not only administering the consolations of religion but also assisting in kind offices for the sick; giving them their medicines and incurring personal danger by rubbing their cold and cramped limbs, watching for hours by their pillows, and exhibiting those fruits of holiness which can only emanate from a pure love."
Such is the account of the work given by the eye-witnesses in a letter refused by the Times but inserted in the Morning Chronicle in 1850, and with these words we may well close our narrative of Mr. Bennett's work in those fearful times of pestilence.
In 1833, the year memorable as Newman's era for the commencement of the Oxford Movement, Mr. Bennett changed his curacy from Holy Trinity to All Souls, Langham Place, that church whose queer spire terminating in nothing but a point gives the beholder such an uncomfortable feeling of being about to be impaled upon it. He continued there as Curate till 1838, but was in 1836 appointed Minister of Port-man Chapel, now called S. Paul's, Portman Square. For two years, therefore, he held both appointments.
A letter from his brother, G. A. Bennett, to their mother at the Cape of Good Hope, describes him at this time. It is dated Naas, Ireland (where G. A. Bennett was engaged on the Ordnance Survey), February 17, 1838.
"Perhaps you will expect some account of the Norton Street folks, so I will give you one. William is very popular with all who know him, whilst his conduct as a clergyman has made him most highly esteemed by his parishioners and congregation. His evenings as well as mornings are all devoted to study and business. For the five weeks I was there we scarcely saw him in the drawing-room five times. The result of his solitary studies is, however, worthy of the sacrifice, for his sermons are certainly the best I have heard preached, and his impressive manner, quite apostolic, lends to his reasonings a powerful effect."
The difficulties encountered, the opposition from bishops and mobs with which those who attempted to improve the services were met in the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century are to us in these days a matter of absolute wonderment. That a white surplice in the pulpit instead of a black gown should excite the feelings of a mob to a riot, as at S. Sidwell's, Exeter, and that the magistrates should take the side of the mob, is a thing now quite incomprehensible.
To understand, therefore, in a degree, the trouble which Mr. Bennett and others had in this part of their work, it is necessary to give here a picture in a few words of the state of things in the Church in the early part of the nineteenth century; and this is the more interesting because we are able to describe the then existing customs from Mr. Bennett's own voluminous writings, which have also the merit of being the words of a contemporary eye-witness of those things, of which he so justly complains.
Town churches were no doubt kept in pretty good material condition, but their arrangement was not that of a building intended for the worship of God, but for the worship of a sermon. Though a familiar sight of our boyhood to the elder among us, the then arrangement of such churches is now happily so rare that a description of it will show from what we have been delivered by the efforts of Mr. Bennett and other workers like him. In the midst of the church, and often exactly in front of the altar, stood a huge "three-decker." In the lowest platform sat the clerk, to whom was committed the task of making all responses, and who also gave out the metrical psalm from "Tate and Brady," often chosen by himself, and often unsuitable. In the middle stage the prayers were preached more or less impressively to the people, and thus turned into "an oblique sermon." From the top of this erection a moral essay, excellently worded, was perhaps monotonously droned, as in Hogarth's picture, perhaps grandiloquently declaimed, according to the mental twist of the minister. The churches were "Sunday preaching houses, not houses of prayer!" Around this central object of admiration, and facing (so far as they possessed any direction) towards it, were placed private pews highly rented. They were often square with seats on every side. The poor sat anywhere or, more truly, nowhere. Huge galleries surrounded the church and blocked the windows. "Pit, boxes and gallery" described a church as accurately as a theatre, and contained "not so much a congregation as an audience."
In the country churches the state of things was even worse. Many of them had been white-washed internally by unusually energetic churchwardens in times past, but had now, owing to the neglect from which they had long suffered, become encrusted with patches of green mouldiness on walls and floor. Too often the rain came in through the roof. The squire entrenched himself in a lofty family pew, which sometimes contained a table and a fireplace and was sometimes so arranged in a gallery that if the doctrine delivered were not to his taste, or he felt disposed for a nap, he could close a window and thus shut out all distasteful or disturbing sounds. The small deal table which did duty on rare occasions for an altar, and equally served as a desk on which to write the' entries in the register--a matter, by the way, frequently neglected altogether--was covered with an ancient and faded piece of baize which in its better days had been green or red. The old fonts were not unfrequently made use of in the parson's garden as receptacles for flowers, while a small earthenware basin served for baptisms in the church. Holes in the floor sometimes caused an unintended bow or prostration to the altar. The whole place, full of discomfort and damp, was suggestive, and no doubt often productive, of rheumatism and catarrh.
Outside, the church was often half buried in the accumulated mould of centuries, which reached to the sill of the patched-up windows. The churchyard was full of tombstones leaning at various angles with the ground and seeming to bear traces of a recent earthquake. To this dilapidated condition of their churches all were so accustomed that no one was surprised nor shocked. A church decently arranged and cared for was highly to be suspected of Popery.
The services were such as suited these surroundings. The parson, habited in a dirty, ragged surplice, conducted a duet with the clerk, a duet with which no one interfered in any way. It seemed to be no business of any one else.
The congregations, Mr. Bennett tells us, did not condescend to pronounce a syllable of the psalms, during the recitation of which by the parson and clerk they sat down and conversed amicably with one another. They did not even trouble to find the places in their Prayer-books, but "attended to the service with a lounging and non-chalant air." The more devout, but not more instructed, went to the opposite extreme and repeated even the Absolution after the clergyman, "thus absolving themselves." Kneeling was an obsolete practice, and most were contented with an attitude of squatting and bending forward.
If there was a crowded congregation to hear some fashionable preacher, the altar and the font, even at S. Paul's Cathedral, were used as receptacles for hats, cloaks and walking sticks. This irreverence, however, was not confined to the Church of England, and the writer has seen the same treatment, even of the Altar of Our Lady, in churches of the Roman schism!
The methods of conducting the services were in agreement with the general neglect. The Holy Communion was performed by a rector and curate, who lounged on two fat cushions on opposite sides of the "table," and appeared to be in agreeable conversation. Words which happened to be displeasing to their theological propensities were omitted. The Elements were administered to a "railful" at a time, the words, with the substitution of "you "and "yours "for "thee" and "thine," being said once for all. The Remainder was left to the clerk to wash out and dispose of as he pleased. Sometimes half a loaf is said to have been consecrated. Three Celebrations a year was considered enough for a country place; one a month for a town parish. In not twenty churches in England was there a weekly Communion; not even in Westminster Abbey. If there was no actual Celebration, the first part of the Service for Holy Communion was read in the desk. The oblation of the element of wine consisted in drawing out from under the altar a black bottle which had been inserted into a pewter flagon.
Baptism, for which a fee was often illegally demanded, was treated in like manner. Prayers which expressed Regeneration were omitted. There was no assembly of the faithful into which the baby could be received; often there was no font, and probably in many cases no water even reached the child. If the infant of a grandee was to be christened, "this interesting ceremony "was performed at home, amid a select circle who afterwards "sat down to a superb dejeuner." When the Prince of Wales was baptized, the altar at Buckingham Palace was ornamented with a magnificent Communion Service of gold and with eight massive golden candlesticks. What these had to do with Baptism it puzzles the mind to conceive, but such was "Ritual," in A.D. 1841; At S. George's, Hanover Square, the "font" consisted of "a basin, which was drawn out by an ingenious piece of machinery, from--where does the reader think?---from beneath the altar, and the baptism took place within the Communion rails."
Of the Marriage Service two-thirds were often omitted. Half the Service was passed over at the burial of a poor person, and the body was not carried into the church; but if the deceased was a rich person, he was supposed to merit the whole ceremony.
Churchings were performed in the presence of the clerk only; sometimes in the vestry by the fire; occasionally in the lady's bedroom!
Bishops consecrated churches and ordained candidates to the ministry without any celebration of the Holy Communion. It is credibly recorded that on one occasion the candidates for the priesthood were examined by the chaplain in a cricket field between the innings!
Confirmations were held once in three years; the candidates were confirmed in rows at a time, the words being said once for all. Preparation for that ordinance consisted of a brief conversation with the "parson," who rather assumed than inquired into the fitness of the candidates.
No "Saints' Days "were kept. Nearly all churches were closed from Sunday to Sunday. Catechizing was unknown. Lent was unnoticed. Daily service which had been said in forty-nine churches in London in 1714, was in 1846 said in only sixteen. Church bells were rung now and then, and ringers held drunken orgies in the belfry.
Doctrine was a matter of indifference. The preacher of a Visitation sermon taught mere Deism, yet the Bishop proposed the health of the preacher! The Primate held that he himself had no right to an opinion on a point of doctrine which was before the Privy Council!
The Prayer-book was incompletely printed; and pamphlets advocated its deliberate mutilation in order to conciliate dissenters and infidels. Arnold wished the churches to be used in turn by all "denominations."
"Bishops left enormous fortunes made out of pluralities. Salvation consisted in obedience to Acts of Parliament. Such zeal as existed was wild, reckless and ungovernable."
The architecture of such churches as were then built was of a deplorable order; debased Gothic, with windows of hideous tracery, or a queer adaptation of a sort of Norman work.
These records, taken almost entirely from Mr. Bennett's own writings at the time, may give us two useful thoughts: that we need not despair of our own later days, and that since the Church of England has survived such things her "Truth and Office "(in Dr. Pusey's words) are amply proved. Unless she had the Holy Spirit within her she must have succumbed.
Any improvement on all this was "Popery." One clergyman was denounced to his Bishop for "ribbons in the Service books with cardboard crosses on them"; another for "wreaths over the chancel arch." When Hook went to Coventry in 1828, evening service, frequent Communions, services on Saints' Days, lectures in Lent, classes for lads,--all these were new.
There was then plenty to be done in the way of restoring decency to our services, and Mr. Bennett very early in his life began this work.
But one of his first attacks was on the Desecration of Sunday, which was then as frequent as now. In when he was both Minister of Portman Chapel and also Curate of All Souls, an address was circulated by the clergy in S. Marylebone, "On the Better Observance of the Lord's Day." Mr. Bennett preached two sermons on this subject. He complained much of the neglect of the afternoon service. "There is not one-third of the persons at church then who are at church in the morning." Our experience in these days is just the opposite. Mr. Bennett's point was that we ought to come twice. It is a point still!
In the same sermon we have a graphic picture of the fashionables and their servants at church.
"How constantly we see in our churches in this metropolis the servant attending upon his master or mistress, carrying with him their Prayer-books and Bibles and waiting upon them to their pew doors; and then quietly and in the face of God and of the congregation retiring from the walls of the church as if he had no part nor lot in the matter of Christian worship! Whether this be the command or within the knowledge of the master, or whether it be the want of desire on the part of the servant to remain, I know not; but when we see a wealthy congregation enjoying the privilege of worshipping God, and yet no directions given and no supervision exercised that their household should enjoy the same privilege; when we see in the vestibules of our churches at the commencement of service and at the conclusion of service multitudes of domestic attendants waiting the commands of their masters, and yet during the service disappearing as a body from among us, I am sure you must agree with me that it is a practice totally antichristian in its spirit, and that it is one of the ways in which the Lord's Day is desecrated. I therefore humbly lay before you, my brethren, the necessity and the duty of providing and taking personal precaution that each member of your household have the opportunity of attending divine service as well as yourselves, knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven."
He went on as to their neglect of Sunday and of worship.
"What shall we say of those who have the six days of the week as well as the seventh at their perfect command; who are clothed in purple and fine linen and fare sumptuously every day; who live in kings' houses and are delicately apparelled; whose life is spent in heedless dissipation or in thoughtless enjoyment of the good things of the world on every day of the week equally; on whom the sixth or the seventh day rises with no difference of light; and to whom their table, their servants, their equipage, their daily festivities and banquetings are prepared with no pretence of any distinction between the Lord's Day and any other day?"
He also complains of the fashionable promenade in the Zoological Gardens, on Sundays,
"where it is the custom for the poorer classes to be purposely shut out in order that the rich and higher sort may in an exclusive manner meet together to see and to be seen."
In the second of these sermons he traces out the cause of the open shops and of the neglect of the day by the poor.
"There is hardly any sort of trade which is not, in some place or other, fearlessly carried on (on Sunday) in the face of day.
"One great cause we find to be the almost invariable custom of paying the wages of labourers late on the Saturday evening, which compels the purchase of food on the Sunday morning.
"Another great cause we find to be the indulgence of the wealthier part of the community in parties of festivity on the Sunday evening. ... It prevails among our very highest . . . our commercial men, our statesmen, and many persons connected with the legislation and government of the country. The ten or twenty cannot meet in the evening without as many or perhaps more being compelled to labour in the morning. The ten or twenty cannot sit down to the luxury of a rich man's feast without as many poor men being forcibly and laboriously occupied in its preparation."
All this was pretty plain speaking for a rich and fashionable congregation; plain speaking as much needed now as then. It must have surprised people accustomed to moral essays which had no practical application.
His peroration on the Sunday is worth repeating for its eloquence.
"We would not have you make the sabbath an onerous burden; we would not have you look upon God as a hard taskmaster debarring you from all the joys and blessings of His creation; we would not have you exact of yourselves or your families the tedious ceremonies of Judaism or characterize the day by a stern, unbending austerity. In that case the sabbath would be no blessing to man, the church bell would bring no sound of joy, and the quiet tranquillity of the day would be no foretaste of that rest that remaineth for the people of God. Your abstinence from the world should be your pleasure, not your sorrow. Your cessation from the drudgery of business and your stop to the avocations of your profession should be just the sources of this day's beauty and gladness, not of its severity. The din of worldly work, the inroads of worldly men, the noise and hurry of the market and the counting-house and the office have left you--and you rejoice, you do not grieve; the hallowed hour of quiet prayer, the solemnity of the assembled multitude, the audience you are now permitted to have with God, your family around you and your children at your knees--it is one teeming source of reverential and outbursting gratitude if your soul has one spark of religion in its being. Show me a religious man who does not love the sabbath, and you show me an anomaly which is inconceivable. Show me a man who says that he loves God and is not found to be an habitual observer of the fourth commandment, and I tell you that he is a liar and the truth is not in him. It is Isaiah who says, If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath and from doing thy pleasure on My holy day, and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the LORD, honourable, and shalt honour Him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words: then shalt thou DELIGHT THYSELF IN THE LORD. On this day, while we think of the great original creation of the Universe by the power and wisdom of God as commemorated in the law, we also dwell upon that far more important event, the new creation, the redemption of the world by JESUS Christ. On this day the Church of Christ first sprung into life and enrolled under her banners the souls of saints and martyrs to constitute His eternal kingdom. On this day Christ became the first fruits of them that slept, and arose from the dead to endless life and glory. On this day the Spirit of grace descended upon the Apostles and sent them forth miraculously gifted, baptized with fire, to preach the mysteries of the Gospel. On this day, and through this day, by the blessings which we receive from it, by the instructions which are imparted through the ministers of God's word, by the solemn prayer and the joyful thanksgiving, by the due participation in the sacraments of our blessed Lord, by the due memorial of His death and sufferings, by a due faith in His atoning blood, we hope and pray that we shall, as Christian men' pass from life to death, from death to our joyful resurrection, and from our joyful resurrection to eternal glory."