Project Canterbury

The Velvet Cushion

By John Cunningham

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

Chapter XI.

The Vicar and his lady were not long before they returned to the manuscript, and read as follows:

'I will not detain you. Sir, over the next stages in my history, nor even with describing to you the exact circumstances by which, when the Methodists started up in the middle of the eighteenth century, I found my way to one of, their earliest pulpits. But, of what I saw and heard on this new and somewhat giddy eminence, you will expect me to say something. For a time, then, I own that I was, on the whole, much gratified. You well know, Sir, my love for the Reformers. How, then, was I pleased to see some of those doctrines which seemed almost to have sunk under ground with those holy men, now springing up within the walls of a little methodist chapel. [124/125] I will not say that they sprang up alone, or without a few tares scattered among them by the hands of their new cultivators. But, it must be confessed, that the very first leaders of the methodists, if men of somewhat coarse taste, and untempered zeal, were men both of talent and piety. For a season, at least, their preaching offended against little, except good breeding. They generally avoided disputable ground, and insisted on the fundamental points of religion, in bold, vehement, eloquent, practical language. They called themselves Churchmen, and I really believe they loved the church. Great was the impression produced by them. Many of the Clergy started, as from a dream, and buckled on their ministerial armor. I have seen, Sir, the church-walls dripping with the condensed breath of the almost countless congregations. I have seen the tears of penitential sorrow scooping out to themselves white channels in the [125/126] dingy faces of poor colliers, whose minds before were as dark as the pits they inhabited. I have seen thousands who, as the early Christians brought their books of magic and burned them, cast all their sins and sorrows upon the altar of God, and found that flame consume them all. Great, indeed, as I said, was the effect produced; but, alas! so great as, among many other far better results, to turn the heads of the preachers. For, now, Sir, mark the change. Soon the respect for the church ceased. Soon one of the most common topics of pulpit raillery and amusement was the universal profligacy of the clergy. Soon the widest breaches were made in church discipline. Soon enthusiasm usurped, to a great degree, the throne of sober piety. Uneducated men were introduced into the pulpits. A desire to excite, to inflame, to harrow up, to revolutionize, combined itself, to say the least, with the desire to convince. Coarse and fanciful [126/127] interpretations of scripture abounded. Something very like miracles were assumed to have been wrought in favour of the new system. And the whole issued in a sort of dislocation of the church; which, though not rapid or palpable enough to alarm the unwary, threatens, perhaps, more than any other cause, to destroy the church, and, in the end, to bury religion in its grave.'

Here, the old Vicar, as though he beheld the precise picture painted in the memoir--his own little church sinking into dust, and religion, in the act of suffocation, just peeping out of one of the graves, clasped his hands together in utter dismay. "My dear," said he, in an agony of grief, "I have had this vision before my eyes a thousand times; and though I daily, on my bended knees, thank God for all the profligates reclaimed by the methodists, in common with other labourers; for their toils and triumphs among the poor idolaters and [127/127] slaves; and for the sort of stimulus they have given to our good mother the Church; yet I fear, such is the character of the religion they too often disseminate, and such their depreciation of church ministers, that they will ultimately ruin the church they undertake to save."

"Is it right for you, my love," said the old lady, "to condemn either the character of their religion, or their conduct towards its ministers, when old Betty tells me they preach precisely your doctrines, and even pray for yourself every Sunday of their lives?"

"As to the entire resemblance of our doctrines," replied the Vicar, "either I or Betty must be mistaken. For their prayers I thank them; and may their God and my God so hear and answer them, as to make me better. Their favourable opinion of me (he continued, smiling,) must, I fear, be set down among their errors of judgment. But let us [128/129] hope that so charitable a mistake will be forgiven, and that it may be less of a mistake every clay. Still, whatever be their approbation of me, I should even less deserve it than I do, if I suffered it to bribe me into a dishonest applause of them. I must plainly say, that I have an objection both to the character of their religion, and to a part of their practice. To their religion, I object that it has usually more of impulse, noise, excitement, of 'fits and frames' than I find either in the Bible or the Liturgy. And to their practice I have this objection, that they too often teach the people to suspect and undervalue their ministers--to require a fresh one every week. There was a time, my love, when a good clergyman was regarded as the general father of his flock--when all their wants, wishes, fears, hopes, doubts, and plans were laid before him--when the sheep followed his voice, and the voice of a stranger would they not [129/130] follow--when, if he kept to his Bible, they would cleave to him. Now, this sort of filial feeling is gone. They have shepherds many, and fathers many. The preacher in the church is deserted, at least at one part of the day, for the preacher at the meeting. The people, when they should be learning, are criticising; and refuse to profit from any minister till they have settled which is the best."

"Does all this," asked the old lady, "alarm you for the church?"

"I confess," he answered, "it does. These children of ours serve us as the Hindoos do their irrecoverable or even sick parents. Instead of binding up their wounds, they throw them into the Ganges. This is not humane, or even decent; and if it were, surely we are not bad enough to be given over."

"And if the church falls, my love, what will become of the Methodists?" "I will, in return, my dear, ask you [130/131] a question. If the branches, angry at the seeming inactivity and fruitlessness of the stem, were to succeed in bringing it to the ground, what would happen to the branches?"

"Why, exactly, my love, what will happen," she said, "to my young chickens if I do not get them under the hen before sun-set. So off she went to her little brood.

Whether the image of the hen and chicken, because her own, at once convinced the good old lady, I am unable to say; nor can I say whether the project then rushed into her head, of hatching an egg, which should produce a bird, which should produce a quill, which should, in her dear husband's hand, produce an essay, which should convince all the methodists in all the world, of the duty of returning to the wing of the mother church. Certain it is, that she, at that instant, did order Betty [131/132] to set a goose in a favourite corner of the hen-house, which did soon fulfil at least a part of the wishes of her sanguine mistress.

That the Vicar himself may have taken something of a similar resolution may perhaps, be inferred from the following lines which were found after his death written on the first page of his folio edition of 'Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity,' with this title prefixed.


And is our country's father [Hooker] fled,
His car of fire can none recall
Be--here his sacred spirit shed,
Here--may his prophet mantle fall.
Fain would I fill the vacant breach,
Stand where he stood the plague to stay
In his prophetic spirit preach,
And in his hallowed accents pray.


It is not that on seraph's wing,
I hope to soar where he has soared;
This, this the lowly claim I bring,
I love his church, I love his Lord,
[133] Hove the altar of my Sires,
Old as my country's rocks of steel;
And as I feed its sacred fires,
The present Deity I feel.


I love to know that, not alone,
I meet the battle's angry tide;
That sainted myriads from their throne
Descend to combat at my side.
Mine is no solitary choice.
See here the seal of saints impress'd;
The prayer of millions swells my Voice,
The mind of ages fills my breast.


I love the ivy-mantled tower,
Rock'd by the storms of thousand years;
The grave whose melancholy flower
Was nourished by a martyr's tears.
The sacred yew, so feared in war,
Which, like the sword to David given.
Inflicted not a human scar,
But lent to man the arms of heaven.


I love the organ's joyous swell,
Sweet echo of the heavenly ode;
Hove the cheerful village bell,
Faint emblem of the call of God.
Waked by the sound, I bend my feet,
I bid my swelling sorrows cease;
I do but touch the mercy seat,
And hear the still small voice of peace.

[134] 6.

And, as the ray of evening fades,
I love amidst the dead to stand;
Where, in the altar's deepening shades,
I seem to meet the ghostly band.
One comes--Oh! mark his sparkling eye,
I knew his faith, his strong endeavour;
Another--Ah! I hear him sigh,
Alas! and is he lost for ever?


Another treads the shadowy aisle,
I know him--'tis my sainted sire--
I know his patient, angel smile,
His shepherd's voice, his eye of fire;
His ashes rest in yonder urn,
I saw his death, I clos'd his eye;
Bright sparks amidst those ashes burn,
That death has taught me how to die.


Long be our Father's temple our's,
Woe to the hand by which it falls;
A thousand spirits watch its towers,
A cloud of angels guard its walls.
And be their shield by us possess'd,
Lord, rear around thy blest abode
The buttress of a holy breast,
The rampart of a present God.

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