London: Skeffington, 1890.
MY FIRST CURATETHE REV. SAMPSON SLIMMER.
"Ceux qui parlent beaucoup ne disent jamais rien."
"Ibit eo quo vis qui zonam perdidit."
AFTER some debating with myself on the circumstances of the parish of S. Peter's, Mulworth, and the character of my parishioners, I concluded that it would be desirable to gain the services of what is termed a popular preacher.
Not that I am in favour of clergymen seeking after popularity, or of people going to Church for the purpose of doing homage to an individual preacher. Such would, of course, be pernicious to the spiritual life of both. The preacher-hunting Church-goer is in danger of substituting the praise of man for the praise of God; the popularity-hunting preacher is in still greater danger of ministering over-much to the worship of Self.
Still I felt that there was need of a stirring up of more vitality and religious energy among us. I was aware of my own shortcomings, and want of power to fulfil the office of a "stir-up" preacher. I had no pretensions to oratory. My sermons, although carefully prepared and delivered from manuscript, were, generally speaking, quiet expositions on the Gospel, Epistle, or one of the lessons; from which I endeavoured to deduce one or more homely thoughts, with the hope that some of my people would carry them away into their daily lives.
And yet, somehow, it appeared to me that I failed to get hold of many of my people. I was reading lately of a young French curé who was dissatisfied with the results of his labours and sermons. He consulted a thoughtful old man of his congregation on the subject. "What," he asked, "is my fault? Where am I to be blamed?" "Your fault is this," was the reply"you are too well understood." This saying, I think, is applicable to some English as well as French clergymen. Some of us are too simple, too well understood. Possibly it was the case with me.
For all this I could not change my style. I could not force myself to use language "not understanded of the people." Among our poor there was, of course, great ignorance. Even the well-to-do and educated parishioners had but a scanty notion of Church doctrines and principles. I venture to say that some of our Sunday School children could have answered questions on Bible and Prayer Book better than even our Churchwarden. What, I asked myself, was the good of using high-flown language to old Betsy, our washerwoman, or to old Timothy, our Clerk, whose sum-total of Christian duty appeared to consist in saying "Amen" at the end of the prayers, and nodding assent at the end of the sermon? And how could I employ abstruse argument with people whose logic ranged little above the calculation of interest or the sale of goods?
However, we needed a Boanerges. And even should he thunder Greek metaphysics, and storm with bristling syllogisms, why all the better, if by so doing he would open a breach to the citadel and shrine of our beingthe heart and the will.
It was at this juncture that I heard of and had a correspondence with the Rev. Sampson Slimmer. He was on the point of leaving another Curacy, and his Rector wrote to me to say that in the event of Mr. Slimmer coming to me I should find in him a most energetic fellow-helper. Mr. Slimmer enjoyed a considerable reputation as an extempore preacher, and this reputation had reached our parish long before he thought of coming himself. He had had already considerable experience in parish work, and was no longer a very young manthat is, he approached forty.
Our interview was satisfactory. Owing to Mr. Slimmer's age and capabilities I thought it right to offer him a larger stipend than is usual. He bowed his thanks, and accepted the Curacy of S. Peter's.
Now as Mr. Slimmer is one of the leading characters of my little book, more than that, one of the heroes of the town of Mulworth, I shall endeavour to describe his general aspect, leaving my reader to come to a conclusion regarding his disposition from my narrative of our intercourse.
Mr. Slimmer's appearance was, without being exactly attractive, somewhat remarkable. He was a man you would notice even in a crowd. Although his features were commonplace and of Saxon type, there was a certain air of gravity about his forehead which gave the impression of profound thought. This was enhanced by the artistic style in which he dressed his hair. It was long and clustering, and brushed upwards and backwards, as if its additional weight were too great for the already heavily loaded brain. His complexion was sandy; his nose short and his mouth largean orator's mouth, according to what I have been told. His hands were large, and, like his cheeks, inclined to be fleshy. His manner might be considered a little brusque; he had a fidgetty habit of snapping his index finger on to the table; this, I supposed, was owing to the restless energy of his mind.
However, I was glad to have him, and after staying at the Rectory for a week, he adjourned to the Curate's lodgings.
As Mr. Slimmer's speciality consisted in his preaching, I shall dwell more particularly on his aspect in that vocation. As a reader he was emphatic, perhaps a little too much so for my quiet taste. In the Exhortation he laid particular stress on the words "Dearly," "pray," and "beseech;" in the General Confession on "erred," "strayed," and "lost." But as a preacher he was more than emphatic; he was histrionic.
I, naturally, awaited his first sermon with solicitude. I had some fear lest it would be too far above our heads. It certainly was extremely fluent. Words came at willthey rushed over each other like an avalanche. But I failed to follow the sequences, and I noticed that there were some defects in grammar and pronunciation. The thoughts of the sermon were either too deep or too subtle for my intellect to penetrate. When, according to my custom, I endeavoured to recall the points, they had escaped my memory.
Most of the congregation were, however, greatly struck with the sermon. Mr. Wagstaff, our Churchwarden, cordially shook hands with Mr, Slimmer, and warmly thanked him for his "grand discourse;" and Mrs. Daniel, whom we all regarded as an oracle on such matters, pronounced Mr. Slimmer another Demosthenes.
Up to the time of Mr. Slimmer's coming, it had been customary for Rector and Curate to share the work of Church and Parish as equally as possible. We read the services and preached alternately. Mr. Slimmer, however, did not fall in with this arrangement, and owing to his peculiar powers I thought it right to defer to his wishes. He occasionally preached twice on Sunday; he generally preferred taking the evening sermon. Whenever he felt unable or disinclined, I took his place.
Notwithstanding this want of uniformity, it was obvious enough that Mr. Slimmer had many more hearers than had I. A large and ever increasing congregation listened with rapt attention to his bursts of eloquence; a comparatively small one gave but a listless regard to my little expositions. My Curate was a huge cannon; I but a pop-gun.
Still, for a time, I could not make out how the people knew who was to be the preacher. We did not advertise or give notice of the fact. And yet, Sunday after Sunday, ere the rostrum was mounted, the seats were filled or only half-filled according as Curate or Rector should preach. Strangers from other parishes came to our Church. They seemed to be gifted with presciencethey slipped out after the third collect when my turn came to preach; they remained for Mr. Slimmer.
One Sunday evening, partly from curiosity and partly because I had prepared a sermon on the duty of worship, I resorted to a manoeuvre by which I hoped to entrap the deserters. Pretending to think that Mr. Slimmer looked tired, I asked him to read the lessons, while I took the service; his absence from the reading desk would, I trusted, be regarded as a signal that he was to occupy the pulpit. My stratagem failed; the usual stampede occurred; I was justly ridiculed for my artifice.
The mystery was at length explained. Mr. Slimmer always had a glass of water placed on the pulpit for his use. The glass was a tell-tale; it had as great a charm for the people as a mirror has for a young ladyit kept them in their seats.
Mr. Slimmer availed himself of the glass two or three times during the course of his sermon; he also used his pocket-handkerchief to mop his heated forehead after one of his outbursts. The pauses which ensued at these periods were effective. There is an eloquence in silence.
I was weak enough again to have recourse to an expedient. One evening I had the glass placed on the pulpit for me. The result was merely to delay the egress until the last verse of the second hymn; during which I made my way to the pulpit.
After that I inwardly resolved to be guilty of no more artful dissimulation.
Mr. Slimmer was, at times, refreshingly original in the deductions he drew from his text, or perhaps I should say, skilful in discovering a text which suited his sermon.
To exhibit this, and his style of rhetoric, I append a short outline of one of his sermons, which created an unusual sensation, and certainly made an impression on my memory
The text was "Line upon line." "There is," he went on, "a thick black line which marks the map of Continental Europe. It is black enough round France, it thickens round Spain and Portugal, it is as black as hell itself when it envelops Italy. This thick black line is Popery! It makes five huge blots, which slur the soil of those lands. Mark those blots" (here he raised his left hand and stretched out his fingers). "The first is the biggest and blackest of all" (here he pressed his thumb) "it is Transubstantiation." The next four fingers were then tapped and pommelled in turn, until I feared he might injure them. They represented the other errors of Rome; winding up with the little finger, which symbolised the celibacy of the clergy. The denunciation of this last found favour with our spinsters, particularly, perhaps, as Mr. Slimmer was still a bachelor.
As there appeared to be no tendency to Romanism in our parish at the time, I could not discern the necessity for this controversial tirade.
The ordinary Sunday sermons were far from sufficient to slacken Mr. Slimmer's vigorous energy in polylogy (if I may coin a word). At his request I acquiesced to having a weekly prayer meeting in the schoolroom, on condition that he should conduct ,it, for I was no adept in this kind of work.
At these meetings the pocket-handkerchief did a two-fold service. While offering up an extempore prayer, Mr. Slimmer knelt upon it; standing up he used it as in the pulpit. Although not helping in these services I generally made one of the congregation. My feelings were sometimes tested by the unrestrainable unction of my Curate, especially when he prayed in a fervent voice for his "dear fellow-labourer."
This latter clause was altered one evening that I came late. I could not help supposing that he referred to me when he prayed for "the weak Shepherd at the head of the parish."
The circumstance recalled a somewhat similar one which happened in a certain mining district in Cornwall. One of the foremen, called "Captain Jack," held the position of chief haranguer to a dissenting body. Captain Jack unfortunately quarrelled with his lieutenant, old Simon Rodwick. The consequence was that Simon seceded to Anglicanism, and the two men, although employed on the same mine, did not speak to each other for months. The Captain was magnanimous; he wished for reconciliation; he determined to bring back the erring sheep; he was first to hold out his hand, which was warmly accepted. Upon this the Captain proposed that both should adjourn to his house and say a prayer. The two men knelt down side by side. The host improved the occasion; he prayed "that the miserable sinner beside him might be forgiven for his low, back-biting proclivities; he had deserted his calling and electionhe had been pitiful and meanhe had maligned his best friendyet there was mercy even for him." At the conclusion of the prayer the two men stood up, and Captain Jack produced a couple of glasses of ale, one of which he tendered to his companion. Poor old Simon gazed at it for a minute, and then said, "Look'ee 'ere, Cappen Jack, if I drinks this 'ere ale, may it choke me; and if iver ye sees me inside this door agin, I gives ye leave to call me all the rest of the ugly names ye can invent." I have dwelt on this little incident, a true one, by the way, because I am aware that even Church of England clergymen have sometimes adopted a similar mode of disturbing the consciences (or the tempers) of brethren with whose opinions they did not agree.
Although Simon Rodwick became a confirmed Anglican after the episode in Captain Jack's house, I did not desert Mr. Slimmer's prayer meetings. After all, he probably said but the truth. There are weak shepherdsperhaps I am one of themand yet I rejoice to know that there are strong ones to be found.
In a few months Mr. Slimmer's popularity had increased to such an extent that our Church was not large enough to hold the congregation. The "Mulworth Weekly Express" had paragraphs on his sermons; his photographs, taken in surplice, appeared in the stationers' windows; a local artist painted his picture to be hung up in the Town Hall.
Nor was his ability as a preacher the only merit in his favour. His indefatigable zeal, his care for the poor, were topics of conversation to which I was forced to listen; indeed, I was conscious by many an observation that my influence had become an inverse to his, and was on the wane. But the regard which the people had for Mr. Slimmer almost reached fever heat when he was seen carrying blankets to the poor. Widow Hawkins, his housekeeper, who, I suspected, had aims on his heart, told the neighbours that he went so far as to denude himself of the habiliments requisite for sleep.
There was no absolute necessity for Mr. Slimmer's self-sacrificewe had a parochial clothing and blanket club.
One other incident of his generosity is worth recording. Meeting a badly-dressed rough in High Street, he accosted him with the question why he did not go to Church. The man replied that he had not a decent coat. "Then take this," said Mr. Slimmer, taking off his own, "I went to Church in that, and you can go now."
This occurrence was quickly communicated all over the town. Even Mrs. Daniel wept when she heard of it. As for me, I did not venture to express my opinion that he might have asked the rough to go with him as far as his lodgings. This would have been more decent, at least, than walking a hundred yards through the town in shirt sleeves.
It was with some concern that I noticed Mr. Slimmer's garments looked extremely shabby. He no longer wore the well-fitting suit in which he appeared on his first visit to me. Now his coat was threadbare, and his shoes were cracked. The small addition which I made to his quarter's stipend did not rectify matters. A rather worldly-wise friend of mine who, somehow, disliked Mr. Slimmer, was stopping at the Rectory about this time. Perceiving my anxiety regarding Mr. Slimmer's dress, he originated the following aphorism"The same kind of spirit will cause a man to dress well for display and badly for sympathy." To give weight to this he related an anecdote of a Roman Catholic priest somewhere in Ireland. This gentleman was anxious to have a large collection for some good purpose. To effect this he resorted to the following plan. He obtained a Franciscan cloak, a pair of well-worn shoes, and the services of a brother priest from a distant parish. He persuaded this good man to dispense with his ordinary garments for a few days, and don the cloak and shoes. The ruse was successful; a holy friar wearing no stockings, with a hay rope encircling his tattered robe, perambulated the parish. The sympathy of the warm-hearted Irish was excited; they heard he was to preach the following Sunday. There was an enormous congregation and a very large collection. The two jolly priests, clothed in their wonted apparel, had a good laugh over the business and their whisky-toddy that same Sunday evening.
But I am straying away too far from Mr. Slimmer, especially as he was not to stay much longer with us, and as I am about to bring this chapter to a close.
Scarcely a year had elapsed from the date of Mr. Slimmer's coming ere it was found expedient to build another Church in our town, and form a new parish by cutting off a part of S. Peter's. To this I assented, for in my opinion the more Churches we have the greater is the probability of religion spreading.
Funds were not wanting for the purpose. The list was headed by the Rev. Sampson Slimmer for fifty pounds, with a note that he would pay when he could. My name came next for a similar sum.
Miss Chandelier, a rich spinster of middle life, who occupied the largest pew in S. Peter's, endowed the new parish with a donation of £5,000. Arrangements were made for holding a bazaar. This I did not like; it seems to me that we should avoid a semblance of barter when raising money for the purpose of worship; the people should subscribe voluntarily. However, the young ladies of the town enjoyed it; they sold bouquets of flowers and other such trifles at a good price, and had the opportunity of flirting with the young men, which rather shocked Mrs. Daniel and my dear wife.
In time the Church was built. At Mr. Slimmer's suggestion it was called S. Agnes', Agnes was Miss Chandelier's Baptismal name. Mr. Slimmer was presented to the living of S. Agnes'. Not long afterwards I had the pleasure of uniting him in holy wedlock to Miss Chandelier. At this Mrs. Hawkins' feelings were wounded; she did not take a seat in S. Agnes'.
During the rest of my stay at Mulworth I often met Mr. and Mrs. Slimmer. They occasionally dined with us and we with them. S. Agnes' Vicarage is beautifully furnished, and its occupants are, perhaps, as happy as are many other married people. I noticed, however, that Mrs. Slimmer sometimes addressed her husband in a tone of asperity.
Mr. Slimmer gradually grew stouter, and, I fear, less active than of yore. His sermons, too, must have lost something of their wonted vigour, for many of my people who had deserted S. Peter's for S. Agnes', returned to the Mother Church; and, in time, my diminished parish resumed its earlier aspect, as if Mr. Slimmer never had been there.