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The Velvet Cushion

By John Cunningham

London: Printed for T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1814.

Chapter VII.

The Vicar, however, though not proud of himself, was proud of his cushion, and therefore felt too much anxiety to know its history, after its expulsion from the establishment, not to seat himself to his memoir as early as he conscientiously could. Having entered on his task, he read as follows--

'I confess, Sir, such is the love of novelty, and so heartily tired was I of the cold-blooded divines of the days of Charles and James, that I was not very sorry to find the hour of my dismissal arrived. As I traversed the streets under the arms of one of the pew-openers, I indulged in many flattering visions as to my future life. Who could say--Cromwell had risen, to the throne, and why should not I become the cushion of the Crown itself--get into Parliament, or carry the mace of the speaker--or, if unable [70/71] to reach those honors with which I was acquainted, attain to some unknown dignities?' No one, I believe, expects to be injured by a change of circumstances. But, Sir, imagine my horror, in the midst of these fairy dreams, to be plumped down on the counter of a shop, adorned without by the sign of the three golden balls, and which I soon found to be the shop of a pawnbroker. He received me, most carefully examined me, and having scrupulously pointed out those blemishes with which, alas, the vender was too familiar, bought me for ten shillings. Then, having affixed to me a ticket, marked one pound, and so situated as exactly to conceal the mutilated part, he exalted me, among many other pieces of reduced finery, to the windows. Here, although my ancient splendour was somewhat in eclipse, enough remained to attract the eye of many a passenger. Multitudes eyed, felt, and measured me, but all thought me too dear. But for this circumstance, [71/72] I was once on the brink of being translated to a Jewish synagogue. Once, had I been an inch larger, the dowager of a baronet would have bought me for a lap-dog. Once, the manager of a country theatre coveted me (for these gentlemen are apt to think little of breaking a commandment), for the council scene in Cato. At length, an elder of a dissenting congregation having been delegated by his brethren to the important office of introducing a cushion into a pulpit, hitherto unpolluted by such velvet vanities, took courage, put me into a Hackney coach, and laid me in triumph, once more upon a vestry table.

'I soon found where I was. Indeed, the days of the Protector had both given me a taste of my new friends, and left me, I fear, notwithstanding the real worth, piety, and talents of very many of them, with some little prejudice against them. But, however, as it is the duty of Cushions as well as men to be contented, I endeavoured to [72/73] reconcile myself to my new situation. But, indeed, Sir, this was not easy. To past, were added new injuries. Not only did I carry about me some ancient testimonies of Puritanical irreverence for Cushions; but I found every day, that the general contempt for forms extended itself to every thing connected with the exterior of public worship. As I once said, that even the Cushion of a Catholic was venerable in his eyes; so, if you can believe me, it seemed almost a matter of indifference to my new proprietors, whether I was trampled or preached upon.'

"My dear," said the Vicar, quickened to the remark, perhaps, by his almost superstitious reverence for the Cushion itself, "I venture to say this was wrong. Those who insult the forms of religion, are in imminent peril of learning to despise religion itself. A man who laughed at my surplice, would soon laugh at me." The old Lady, as the surplice happened to be the work of her own hands, was [73/74] marvellously sensible of the force of this illustration, and almost wondered that a world should survive in which men were found to laugh at either. The old Gentleman proceeded to read--

'When I arrived, Sir, the elders of the Church happened to be assembled to sit in judgment upon the character of their minister, against whom, I found, capital misdemeanors were alleged. He was charged with preaching a written sermon--with wishing for a service on Christmas-day--with prefacing a sermon with the Lord's Prayer--with suggesting the propriety of kneeling in prayer.--From the tone of authority assumed by the judges, I soon discovered that they, and not he, were the real ministers of the Chapel. He was a sort of organ, of which they were to change the barrel, fill the pipes, and manage the keys at their pleasure.'

"Bad again," said the old Vicar. "I hope I am not proud, my love."--"I am [74/75] sure you are not," said she. "But," continued he, "I should almost as soon lay down my office as my independence. I now mount my pulpit as an ambassador from heaven to earth--have no reason for fear, and no temptation to flatter. I strike at the vices of my parish, and strike the harder, as I know them to be the more prevalent. As far as I can see, this said dissenting minister was meant for a more independent Church. But let us read on--"

'After a sitting of a few hours the conclave rose, but not till, after much warm discussion, a resolution had been passed to dismiss the minister. "Like children," said the Vicar, "throwing their physic out of window."

'Here (he proceeded to read), I supposed the matter would have ended; but I then knew little of the facility of separation when the habit is once formed. The key-stone of unity once removed, the building shivers at a mere touch. The [75/76] The very next day the minority determined to secede with their ejected minister; and, within six months, a new Chapel frowned upon the old one, from the opposite side of the street; and, before the plaister was yet dry, the rheumatic congregation listened to the history of their neighbour's intolerance.'

"My love," said the generous Vicar, "this must be a little highly coloured. Our friend here, you must remember, is very high Church. At least, whatever may be the tendency of dissent, I am willing to believe, such is not its general history. Open a sluice indeed, and the water flows; and, give the tempers a vent, they are almost sure to break out. But let us go on--"

'I, as you may suppose, Sir, continued with the old congregation, the new one not being ripe for any such extravagancies. Nor, indeed, was I any great favourite here. I did hear it whispered, that I should never have been introduced, [76/77] but for an ill-tempered remark made upon the chief member of the congregation, as he rolled past in a remarkably well-cushioned carriage--about the 'ark of God dwelling in tents.' Here, however, I was placed; and to shew you what use I made of my circumstances, I will give you a very slight sketch of our congregation and ministers during the time I stayed.

I found that the Chapel had been erected at a period when the Clergyman of the parish happened to love sporting far better than preaching. The people who, however wanting in religion themselves, quickly perceive any deficiency in their clergy, soon quitted the Church. And as the dissenting minister preached orthodox doctrines in a spiritual and zealous manner, as moreover for a time, the service was gilded and rendered palatable, by the introduction of a large proportion of the Church prayers--the wandering flock sought food in these foreign pastures. And, in the [77/78] first instance, they seemed to gain by the exchange. Many of the ignorant were taught, many of the profligate reclaimed--and many of the miserable comforted. During this period, the mass of the congregation were poor. Soon, however, some of the poor becoming rich, obtained an ascendancy in the congregation, and finding one an orthodox, and others a practical religion troublesome to them--ejected, first one minister, and then another, as contending parties prevailed; oscillating for a long time between a fiery Antinomian and a frozen Socinian. For a long time the struggle between flame and frost was doubtful; but, at length, as the weight of influence lay on the side of the Socinians, heterodoxy prevailed. One consequence of this was, that the piety and morals of the pulpit both declined. The next was, that the congregation declined as fast as the doctrines. Socinianism thinned it like the plague. And at last, except that I, and an old man and woman [78/79] who were stone deaf remained, the words 'My brethren' were absolutely superfluous.'

"My love," said the Vicar--"this fact is worth a thousand arguments. The 'Common people heard (Christ) gladly.' Socinianism never fails to drive them away. A religion without a Saviour is the temple without its glory, and its worshippers will all desert it. No man in the world has less pretensions as a preacher than myself--my voice, my look, my manner, all--"All excellent," said she--"Nearly as bad as possible," said he; "and yet, I thank God, there is scarcely a corner of our little Church where you might not find a streaming eye, or a beating heart. The reason is--that I speak of Christ; and, if there is not a charm in the word, there is in the train of fears, and hopes, and joys, which it carries along with it. The people feel, and then they must listen."

The old Lady, though she differed [79/80] from the Vicar as to his notion of his own voice and manner, quite sympathized with him in all his enthusiasm "upon the glorious theme on which he had now entered. A humbler spirit scarcely ever breathed. This humility had carried her to the foot of the cross of Christ, and she seemed to stand there like one of the women who had followed him to his crucifixion. I have seen her hang upon her husband's lips, when he dwelt upon this topic, as if she was listening to the song of the angels--"To you is born this day, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord." In Church, it was their darling theme--at home, their continual feast. The sacred name of a Saviour never failed to quell a rising difference, to bind up a wound, to dry up a tear, to shed a sort of sunshine over all their prospects. I shall never forget the emphasis with which she replied to his last, sentence--"Yes, my dear--they feel, and I feel, and if we did not all feel, the [80/81] stones themselves would cry out If my feelings ever languish, I call to mind our poor Catholic, who, as you well remember, when her priest had prescribed some penance for her sins, after hearing you, burst into the vestry, crying, 'that is the Saviour I want.' We all want him, and God be praised, we may all possess him." The old man's heart burned within him as she talked, and he now felt what indeed he had felt a thousand times, why he loved his wife.

"But," said he, "to return to the memoir--what a striking history of dissent we have here. In two or three generations, you see the orthodoxy of this Chapel freezing into Socinianism. And this particular history would, I fear, serve for the history of many other Chapels. Socinianism or Arianism now fills the pulpits once occupied by Howe, Owen, or Baxter. Could they return to earth, they would find their lamps burning, not in the once-cherished meeting, but in the [81/82] despised and deserted aisles of the Establishment. The over-anxious zeal of their followers soon spent itself. The volcano burnt out, and too often loft behind it nothing but the ashes of infidelity. Who ever heard of a dissenting society recovering itself--of their dead in faith walking again? But, in our Church, the dead do walk. At the present moment, a flame of religion has sprung up from the grave in which she was entombed at the Restoration, and walks abroad in many of the churches and colleges of the land. But, my dear, I am talking myself, when I had much better be reading the memoir." And so he took up the manuscript again, and read as follows.

'When I said, Sir, that religion flourished for a time in the congregation, I did not mean to say, that the religion, either in kind or in form, was quite to my taste--and you shall know why. In the first place, I seemed to perceive a [82/83] great want of solemnity in it. It was more like a transaction between man and man, than between man and his God. A sort of unholy familiarity with divine things prevailed. Here many an Uzzah laid his hand upon the ark.'

"And," said the Vicar, "if the men did not 'die' for this unhallowed rashness, yet the system suffered for it. I believe nothing has injured the cause of dissent more."

'Besides this,' he proceeded to read, 'there was a want of majesty in their religion. The church was too like a house. A kind of republican spirit ran through every thing, which denied even the King of Kings, the trappings of his throne, or the curtains of his sanctuary. Then, again, there was often something vulgar in their religion. Many of them seemed to think that piety superseded every other qualification; and thus, those sometimes preached the Gospel who could not read it.'

[84] "Just like Jeroboam," said the "who took of the lowest of the people, and made them priests of the Lord."

"Quite unlike the spirit of the true religion," said his lady, "which required the Jews to exclude every thing blemished from the altar." The old Gentleman had half a dozen more similes ready, but thought it best to read on.

'They used, indeed, to justify this practice by a reference to the first teachers of the Gospel. 'These were fishermen,' they said, but then they forgot they were inspired fishermen--fishermen endowed by miracle with a sufficient acquaintance with many languages, and an accurate knowledge of their own.--But, Sir, these were trifling defects in comparison of those to which I now advance. One capital blot in their public worship was, that they generally neglected to read the Scriptures. It is curious to observe, how extremes meet. The most violent Papists and Antipapists in their [84/85] public services alike interdicted the Bible,--Another great error was, their low estimation of prayer. They threw away your noble form of prayer, that the minister might pray as he pleased. The consequence was, that the people also heard as they pleased, which was often not at all. He prayed, and they looked about them. Prayer with them was a secondary object--the sermon, all in all.'

"As if," said the Vicar, "one great end of preaching was not to teach us to pray."

"As if," said his wife, "not prayer, but preaching, was the employment of angels."

"As if," rejoined the Vicar, "God had said-- My house shall be called a house of preaching, instead of ' a house of prayer"

"Perhaps," said the old Lady, "no one has had stronger temptations than myself to prefer the preaching to the prayers; and yet, my dear, I can truly [85/86] say, that--take away the liturgy, the solemn moments of intercourse with Heaven, the swell of united voices, and the concord of united hearts in prayer to God--take these away, and that bell which now so cheers my heart every Sunday morning, would lose half its charms for me."

"True, my love--all true," said the Vicar, "with the exception of your praise of me--take away the spirit of prayer, and, though the materials or even the splendour of the temple remain, the "glory" has "departed" from it. When I hear of the exultation of some good, though I humbly think, mistaken men, in the prospect of erecting dissent upon the ruins of the Establishment, I always think of the spectators of the second Jewish temple--the "people indeed (the thoughtless and blind populace), shouted for joy;" "but those who remembered the first temple--wept."

"Such a change is too bad even to [86/87] think of," said the old Lady, "and so, my dear, suppose you read on."

He did.--'I told you, Sir, that I was much given to reflection; and my prejudices, as I have also confessed, lying a little against dissent, perhaps I found out more objections to the system, than have occurred to some others. Two of these, I will mention. In the first place, then, one great maxim of theirs is, 'that every man must have entire liberty to worship God as he pleases.' Now, Sir, no dissenter ever gave men that liberty. Nor is it possible. Would he give it to an Atheist, who insisted in teaching his principles upon Westminster Bridge; or to any of those imposters who have called themselves Jesus Christ, and insisted upon divine honours being paid them?--Another favorite maxim of theirs is, 'that no man should be made to pay for religious instruction before he himself desires to have it.' This scheme seems to me to forget the corruption of human [87/88] nature--for how few would pay for instruction, who were able to avoid paying. The Establishment, on the contrary, remembers that man is fallen, forces him to provide the means, and trusts that the conversion may follow.'

Here the old Vicar put down his paper to think of these arguments. What his Lady did, in the mean time, it is impossible to say. All I know is, that, about half an hour after the time he may be supposed to have read this period, both were discovered by John, who, with some suspicion of the fact, looked gently in at the door, in a profound sleep. So he left them; and, as there is a break in the manuscript at this point, so will we leave them. Indeed, I do not know why any one should wish to disturb them. It was their high, though rare privilege, never to fall asleep without a well-founded hope that, if they never rose again in this world, they should awake in another and a happier. [88/89] Surely, if many had such a hope, we should have more good sleepers in the world. And I firmly believe, that every other prescription to ensure good sleep is useless, till this is taken.

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