IT is said by Mr. Wakeling, in his "Oxford Church Movement," that "few could compare with Mr. Bennett as a preacher."
In the days when he commenced his ministry manuscript sermons were the rule and "extempore" ones the exception, at any rate in churches. By the time he finished his ministry it is probable that the opposite was the case. In spite of some advantages which manuscript sermons have, he had so strong a feeling of the advantage of the other method, in the case at least of those to whom it is given, that he said to the writer, "If I had my time over again I should preach extempore from the beginning," and that he could have done so effectively we have seen in the history of the sermon on the Day of Judgment at S. Barnabas'.
But the curious method which he adopted in writing his sermons produced exactly the effect of an unwritten discourse. They were usually written on sheets of paper about the size of foolscap once folded. In this sized sheet there were very few lines, perhaps ten or twelve, of very large handwriting which could be easily read. A number of peculiar marks above or under each word indicated the exact emphasis and the way in which it was to be pronounced, the whole proving the immense pains which he thought right to bestow on this part of his work,--another lesson for us in days when so many get up into a pulpit but half prepared, and naturally produce no effect. "It 'pays,' "said James Lonsdale to the writer,--"It 'pays' to take pains with your sermons." And undoubtedly those who do so are the most ready when the necessity for a really "extempore" address arises. But of Mr. Bennett's MS. no one saw anything. It is said that he threw down in the pulpit each sheet as delivered, nor did he seem to look at his MS. at all. The black eyes were on you, as you listened, all the time, and every one knows the effect of the preacher's eye on them in arresting and keeping attention.
The result of this method was that you heard every word distinctly, and that every word, as well as the whole sermon, told. In addition to this, his grave, serious, impressive manner, "quite Apostolic," as his brother said, had an immense power, and the pause which he sometimes made--expressive silence--gave time for the point just made to sink into the minds of his hearers.
And to these characteristics it must be added that his style of composition was always clear and lucid, and that the arrangement of the whole sermon was always definite, and therefore easy to be remembered.
A little reminiscence of the writer may here be added. He was with Mr. Arthur Baker, Rector of Addington, Bucks., on an occasion when Mr. Bennett was preaching at S. Alban's, Holborn. Mr. Baker was author of a very thoughtful volume, "Sermons on Holy Joy," and, unless memory deceives, editor of The Ecclesiastic. His enthusiasm over Mr. Bennett's sermon was boundless.
One or two of his sermons may be picked out for specimens. There is an admirable one in his "Miscellaneous Sermons," published in 1840, "The Messenger and the Message," on Judges iii. 20, "I have a message from GOD to thee." He first speaks of the messengers, i.e. the clergy, of their being messengers, and of the character they need, and of their "succession" to those immediately sent by Christ. Then he comes to those to whom the message is sent, of whom he treats thus--
"If you are a careless, thoughtless man, frivolous in your character, slumbering and sleeping in your journey, 'I have a message from God unto thee.' 'Awake, thou that sleepest, and Christ shall give thee light.' "
In the same way he speaks to the profane and vicious; to the weak; to the Pharisaic; giving to each the message from Bible words; and so, too, to the repentant sinner and to the sincere lover of God.
The whole passage is most suggestive for a preacher to make use of for a complete sermon, and the text exactly expressed his own feeling in preaching. He had a message to deliver.
Again, the outline of his addresses at the London Mission of November, 1869, which he printed with a dedication to the Cowley Fathers, is a most admirable one. 1. The Soul. 2. Sin. 3. Repentance. 4. Conversion. 5. Self-examination. 6, Confession. 7. The New Life. 8. The Call. 9. The Answer. 10. The Work. 11. Too late.
They were preached at S. Paul's, Knightsbridge, for which church he was most suitably chosen as preacher.
The last sermon which he wrote, and which he was not destined to deliver, shows as much clearness of thought and as lucid a composition as any previous one. It is called "Children of GOD," and the point of it is that the reality of our being such depends on what our lives and conduct are.
We go on to Mr. Bennett as a catechizer. In this he was perhaps the greatest of his generation, and for this he was always famous, so much so that twice in the Knightsbridge days Prince Albert (as he was then called) came to listen. It seems, indeed, that Mr. Bennett was the originator of "Children's Services," which he began at S. Paul's. But this was merely Evensong, not a special service. "Crowds of people used to come to this service," says Mr. Hampton, and they came from all parts of London.
"Besides the choir there were at least twenty of the ordinary congregation who sat in the front rows of seats. The Church Catechism was the basis of the teaching. Mr. Bennett, after the Second Lesson, stood on the lectern steps and explained the meaning of each sentence. We had to take notes and write out the texts, which had to be learnt by heart for the following Sunday, when each in turn was questioned. Sometimes we had as many as a dozen texts to learn, besides the divisions of the subject, of which we had made notes. I recollect the distress of the ladies if they could not make sufficient notes or get down the texts correctly."
At Froome the same system was carried out. Mr. Bennett had compiled a manuscript book of questions on the Catechism in the S. Barnabas' days, and copies of this book, but slightly improved, were put into the hands of the teachers in the Sunday schools. The next Sunday's work was given out at the end of the teaching, and each teacher had to have his or her class one day in the week and teach the lessons and texts for next Sunday. The children were prepared to answer such questions as he put to them from the book.
"This course of catechizing covered a period of two years," says Dr. Mortimer, "and Mr. Bennett insisted that every child who was confirmed in his parish should have passed through this course. This did not apply to grown-up candidates for Confirmation, but it often told very hardly upon the older children."
But he did not always confine himself to the Catechism. On June 25, in the Octave of 1873, he gave the children a little sermon, by way of question and answer, about Gardens. Each of them had a little garden,--of course their Soul. In it were sometimes weeds, sometimes flowers. Weeds had a tendency to grow apace and to disperse their seeds around, but so by God's grace had also the flowers. The plants must be watered by God's grace. The weeds must be eradicated.
In the Octave of 1883, as he was not very well, the only part he took was the Children's Service on the Sunday afternoon, when he made them a sermon. His texts were S. Matt. ii. 17 and 1 Sam. iii. 3. He told them of the terrible calamity which had just taken place in Sunderland, where 182 little children had been killed by suffocation through a rush down a narrow staircase. Some of these were old enough to commit sin, and were suddenly taken away. The same thing might happen to some of them. Three points were essential in good children. The first was truth: like John the Baptist. The next was obedience: as in Samuel. The third was reverence, which is a mixture of humility and submission. This was exemplified also by the patron saint of their church at the Baptism of Christ. They should show reverence, first to parents and next to others, by good manners. But the second was far, far greater--the reverence towards Almighty God. The foundation of all was Love. During this address he kept up the attention of the children by asking questions and by making them continue the texts which he began to quote.
Again, on S. John the Baptist's Day, 1884, he spoke to the children on the words, "In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct thy paths." His outline was the words of the text, "Acknowledge," "Ways," and "Paths."
"His wish," says Mrs. Compton, "was to have all sorts and conditions of children assembled at these Sunday afternoon catechizings, and no one who ever heard him catechize could forget the power and charm of his method and manner. No hesitation or vagueness of teaching, but the one lesson with its leading points carefully defined and impressed. His eye seemed to take in every child, and each was obliged to attend and listen. His manner with children was most gentle and sweet, but he did not spare reproof or correction if needed, and then the very gentleness of his anger was most impressive."
It remains to give an outline of his many writings. They were some of them ephemeral and only written for "the times." But touching as they do on so many of the controversies of the day they have all of them an historical interest and form an essential part of the literature of the great Movement. He was, indeed, ready with his pen at any crisis in the Church, and "crises "were but too frequent through the greater part of his life. In all his writings there is always a clear arrangement, a lucid style and weighty arguments. Only occasionally there is the sign, in hurried composition, of the busy life of a parish priest. In his attacks he often rises to a powerful invective and sarcasm or a rush of eloquence, or sometimes to a flight of ridicule. And both in arrangement and in style he shows himself a master of the art of rhetoric. His letters to Lord John Russell, his preface to "The Last Sermons at S. Paul's and S. Barnabas'," his reply to the charge of the Bishop of Bath and Wells, are examples of his power in writing. Many of his pamphlets reached a considerable number of editions. As Mr. Wakeling says, he "put the Tractarian theology into a popular and readable form."
In his works may be, of course, traced that gradual development of his belief, already spoken of, which he shared with the other leaders.
His first venture was the publication of a sermon on the cholera. "The Necessity of Prayer, particularly at the present period of God's Visitation." This was in February, 1832, when he was "Curate of Trinity Church, St. Mary-le-bone." Then came, in 1837, the sermons on the Marriage Act, which reached 2000 copies in a few months.
After this he essayed his more ambitious work on "The Eucharist."
Next came, in 1838 and 1840, his "Sermons on Miscellaneous Subjects," and a sermon in aid of the North London Provident Dispensary, teaching the virtue of thrift.
In 1841 there was the sermon on "The Apathy of the Public in the Responses," which throws so curious a light on the then customs of the rich in church.
The "Guide to the Holy Eucharist" followed in 1841, and in 1842 a series of lecture-sermons on "The Distinctive Errors of Romanism," preached in Portman Chapel.
In 1843 appeared his "Psalter," already described. In 1843, also, he put forth the first volume of "Letters to my Children." This volume was "On Church Subjects," and in 1850 he issued the second volume which was "On Moral Subjects."
Another series of lecture-sermons was printed in 1845: "The Principles of the Book of Common Prayer."
In 1845 Newman was received into the Church of Rome, and on this event Mr. Bennett printed a sermon "On the Schism of certain Priests and others lately in Communion with the Church." Two years later, as we have seen, he had to bewail the "Apostacy" of his Curate, Mr. Chirol, and put forth a sermon with that title, which went through eight editions.
His pastoral letter of 1846, asking for £15,000 to build S. Barnabas', we have already described.
In the same year he pointed out the duty of the State to provide for the education of the children of the poor. The pamphlet, "Crime and Education," was of 118 pages.
The Irish Famine of 1847 called forth a sermon on "Sins of the Church and People." In the First Appendix he defends the celebration of the Holy Communion on days of fasting, and in the Second Appendix points out the utter disregard of the rubrics and of decency in the conduct of the services which was shown by many of the clergy. The sermon was preached on the National Fast Day, March 24, appointed on account of the Famine.
The fresh outbreak of the cholera in 1849 was the cause of a sermon on "God's Judgment in the Pestilence," and we have narrated the uproar which ensued on his putting forth a form of prayer for use at that time containing prayers for the departed.
The Gorham judgment produced, in 1850, a pamphlet consisting of two sermons on the unending question of Church and State, and the continual encroachments of the State on the province of the Church. At the end are printed protests and petitions to the Queen and the Archbishops, claiming the right of the Church to settle her own doctrine and discipline.
After the consecration of S. Barnabas' he edited, with an introductory preface, the sermons preached at the Octave. His first letter to the Prime Minister, his "Last Sermons at S. Paul's and S. Barnabas'," and his three farewell sermons at his leaving S. Barnabas', have been already described, as well as his farewell letter to his parishioners.
The attacks on his appointment to Froome produced his pastoral letter to the people of Froome and his second letter to Lord John Russell.
During the Crimean War a fund called "The Patriotic Fund," which still exists, was started, and Mr. Bennett preached a sermon on its behalf. The chief point of interest in this is his quotation from a contemporary newspaper of a description of the celebration of the Holy Communion "in a picturesque and lonely spot on the south side of Varna Bay," on "a glorious morning, in view of the Euxine, August the 27th, 1854," before the commencement of the great war.
The origin and history of The Old Church Porch, which lasted from 1854 to 1862, have been given already. Much of it was evidently his own composition. The introduction and the conclusion of the whole are obviously his, and many articles are shown by their contents to be so. From The Old Church Porch were reprinted the articles called "The Church's Broken Unity," for which the introduction to the whole magazine forms the introduction also. Of these the last part, on Romanism, is attributed to Mr. Bennett, of the rest he is said to be editor only. The articles on Irvingism, as related in Liddon's "Life of Pusey," were written by Dr. Pusey at the request of the Dowager Duchess of Argyll, who had a sister inclined to Irvingism. She was at the time staying at Froome, and this probably suggested The Old Church Porch as the magazine for their publication. From The Old Church Porch were also reprinted "Tales for the Holy Seasons," which in advertisements are said to be "by the same author," i.e. by Mr. Bennett. After its first issue the whole was reprinted and was sold at the "Church Book Depository, Vicarage, Froome-Selwood." So manifold were the agencies which he kept going under his own eyes.
In 1857 came his book on behalf of Archdeacon Denison's propositions of Faith, and in the same year his second pastoral letter to the people of Froome.
In 1861 he issued his argument for the abolition of Church rates; and in 1866 his history of the old parish church of Froome.
In 1867 he contributed the article to Mr. Orby Shipley's volume, and in 1868 published his letter to Dr. Pusey, passages from which works formed the ground of his prosecution by the "Church Association."
In 1868, apropos of "Martin v. Mackonochie," he wrote "Obedience to the Lesser; Disobedience to the Greater," and in 1869 continued the same attack on the encroachments of the State by reprinting extracts from the "Remains of Richard Hurrell Froude," with a preface, under the title of "State Interference in matters Spiritual."
His sermons at the London Mission of 1869 were also printed, with a dedication to the Cowley Fathers.
Then, in 1871, he reprinted "Neale, on Church Difficulties," with a preface bringing the "difficulties" down to that year.
In 1873 Lord Arthur Hervey, his Bishop, delivered a charge at Froome, as well as elsewhere in his diocese, in which he thought fit to blow a counterblast to the teaching of the Catholic party, and his Lordship was even so rash as to challenge Mr. Bennett, when coming out of his church, to answer him. On this he wrote an examination of the Bishop's arguments and quotations, under the title of "A Defence of the Catholic Faith."
Next came, about 1876, "A Catechism of Devotion," which largely consists of an explanation of the ritual of the Church.
His next publication was the "Letter to the Priests of the English Church," written in the snowstorm of January, 1881.
In 1882 he published a pamphlet, "Foreign Churches in Relation to the Anglican," 'an essay towards reunion. We have described the view which he there takes of foreign chaplaincies.
One of his last efforts was a lecture on the French Revolution, delivered, and by request repeated, at Froome in 1885. This was not published, except by its reports in the newspapers.
A great number of his sermons were also published "by request"; generally as separate pamphlets. "Calling upon God" was preached at S. Andrew's, Wells Street, on the Feast of Dedication, 1849; "Christ the Light of the World," on a dark night, probably a London fog, about Christmas, 1849; "The Church the True Interpreter of the Scriptures," an introduction to a Lenten course, at S. Paul's, in 1850; a sermon at the Feast of Dedication, Froome-Selwood, 1854, was printed with one by J. R. Woodford, afterwards Bishop of Ely; at Bordesley he preached, at the reopening of the chapel there, two sermons, "Christian Zeal "and "Holy Places"; at S. George's-in-the-East, on the first anniversary of the opening of the Mission Chapel, Calvert Street, two years before Bishop Tait's licensing of Mr. Allen caused the riots there; in 1865 he preached at the opening of the chapel which preceded S. Mary Magdalene's, Paddington; in 1867 he revisited his beloved creation, S. Barnabas', Pimlico, and preached on "Strangeness in Religion no Sign of its Untruth"; at S. Mary's, Prestbury, in 1869, he spoke on "The Transfiguration"; in the same year a sermon at S. Mary's, Batcombe, was printed as "A Tract for the Church"; a sermon preached before the synod of the S.S.C. at S. Peter's, London Docks, was printed by their desire in 1873; in 1874 he preached at Bovey Tracey on "The Church not the Parliament"; in 1883 he preached about a question then before Parliament--the permission by the State of incestuous marriage with two sisters in succession; in 1884 he published a sermon preached at Froome on the proposed memorial to Dr. Pusey, and pointed out the immense debt of the English Church to that veteran leader; others of his sermons were published or reprinted in "Last Words," by Mrs. Sidney Lear, who included the last sermon he wrote, but did not preach, "Children of God," which shows his mind and powers of composition as perfect as they had always been.
Another publication was the selection, in 1852 and 1853, of Lent and Advent readings from the Fathers. The first was done in conjunction with Dr. Pusey; possibly the second also.
A point which strikes the biographer as curious is the entire absence, in all his writings, of any allusion to two great controversies of his day. The first is that associated with the name of Darwin and with Evolution. I cannot discover that he ever mentioned this matter in any way, although it was supposed, till wiser counsels prevailed, to shake the foundations of the Faith. Whether it was that he was too cautious to express an opinion on a subject of which he knew nothing, and which he felt he had not the time to master, or whether he was farseeing enough to perceive that whichever way it might ultimately be decided, it was in no way contradictory to the creed of Christianity, it is clear that he carefully avoided the discussion, in which policy it is much to be wished that a good many others had followed his example. It is, however, not improbable that his friend, Dr. Pusey, told him privately, as he did the rest of the world in his splendid sermon, "Unscience, not Science, opposed to Faith," that there was no real opposition between Evolution and the Faith.
The other omission is the absence of any mention of the so-called "Higher Criticism," unless a very passing allusion to the "heresy of Dr. Colenso" can be considered to be such.
In all such movements as that in which Mr. Bennett was so much engaged, the influence of the lighter style of literature will always be considerable. In the Oxford Movement the stories, allegories, tales, put forth by Gresley, Paget, Munro, and perhaps most of all the beautifully told narratives of Dr. Neale, must have had an immense effect in drawing the minds of the young towards the Catholic view of Christianity; and Mr. Bennett, well aware of the power of such writings, even essayed a religious novel on his own account. But the MS., which still exists, shows that his powers did not lie in that direction, and it never saw the light. The story speedily degenerates into a mere dialogue about doctrine. But what was outside his own scope he was able to encourage in his lifelong friend, Miss Farrer, afterwards Mrs. Sidney Lear, and from 1848 to 1870 he edited many of her innumerable writings and tales, generally introducing them with a preface. The best known of all these were the "Tales of Kirkbeck, or the Parish in the Fells," of which there were three series; "Tales of a London Parish"; and, in another sphere, "Lives of Fathers of the Church"; and in yet another, a translation of "Fénélon's Counsels for those living in the World."
But even these things did not exhaust his activities, and we have mentioned that he is said to have been one of the originators of the Parish Choir, a magazine devoted to Church music, which began in 1846.
It is also said that he was editor of the Theologian, a review which began in 1844. It is possible that this may have been the case with regard to the first series, which terminated with the following year, but the way in which his works are reviewed, though attacked as too "Low Church," and in which he is personally praised in the New series, 1846, makes it impossible that he could have then been editor, unless he borrowed a leaf from the works of one who pronounced himself "great and good!"
In every one of his numerous writings he is always clear and definite, and both knows and tells what he means, thereby giving another lesson, and no unimportant one, to an age which mistakes vagueness for genius and imagines that paradox is profundity.