ROTHERHAM'S REMINISCENCES - CHAPTER 2
CHAPTER 2. - THE ACCESSION OF QUEEN VICTORIA.
More about the Feltwell Wesleyans - The Prayer Meetings - My first Confession of Christ.
I recall our village celebrations on occasion of the accession of Queen Victoria. I was but young at the time, and, of course, quite unable to enter into the political elements of the situation. But I well remember how deeply I was impressed by the look on my mother's face - of immeasurable relief and satisfaction when it was announced that not a certain prince of the royal blood, whose accession would have meant unimaginable evils to the land, but the pure maiden Victoria, would ascend the throne. I also feel anew, as I think of it, the pulsation through the whole community of an intense, harmonious joy; showing itself for once in perfect unity of sentiment; so that for the time we were no longer Churchmen and Dissenters, Whigs and Tories, but simply English people, witnessing the dawn of a new era.
It may seem strange to say so, but our prayer-meetings at the Wesleyan Chapel, Feltwell, left deeper impressions on my mind than any other of our services. I can scarcely tell why; unless it was that several of our men, in society membership, were really gifted in prayer.
Amongst those who regularly took part in the weekly prayer-meetings there was Banham Shackles, a farm bailiff out of the Fen, who, kneeling down on the floor of the pulpit-pew, was accustomed to pray with such fervour that we used to wonder how his knuckles bore the blows which in rapturous unconsciousness they were made to endure; and there was another good man, whose surely recurring phrases were culled from John Bunyan; as when he omitted not to ask that in his dying hour he might be able to say. "Be of good cheer, brother; for I feel the bottom, and it is good." These were mostly farm-labourers in smock frocks. It abides with me as a fragrant memory to recall how, in their brave battles against the drowsiness inevitable after a week's outdoor toil, they
would stand upright in their places in chapel sooner than miss any of the sermon. I would sooner stand with them than slumbrously screen myself behind the pillar of a gothic edifice.
From the rank and file of members in Methodist "Societies" with their class leaders, the transition is easy to the "Local Preachers and Exhorters" appearing on the "Circuit Plan" - a position to which none are admitted until after trial and examination had.
When it is remembered that by the aid of a band of, say, thirty local preachers, two circuit ministers would suffice keep a score of chapels open for two services every Lord's Day, with Sunday School and class-meetings attached, some idea may be formed of the immense debt of gratitude which England and Wales especially owe to Local Preachers - a debt immeasurably enhanced in moral weight when it is remembered that this noble band of Christian workers knew nothing whatever of financial reward. My father, I know, never received more than hospitality to himself and his horse in acknowledgement of two sermons, and a journey of six to four-and-twenty miles, in his own conveyance, on a Sunday, extending to an average of forty Sundays in the year.
.Alluding once more to my father in his capacity of Wesleyan local preacher, I should like to add that never elsewhere did I feel so deeply during a "watch-night" service as once in Feltwell, when it fell to my father to officiate. I presume he delivered the customary address, but of that I recollect nothing. What I do remember is the solemnity of the silent moments before the clock struck twelve; and how it seemed like a voice out of the invisible when, at the stroke of midnight, he gave out the startling words:
"The arrow is flown! The moment is gone!
The millennial year
Rushes on our view, and eternity's here."
Assuredly we did not critically ask whether the "millennial" year and "eternity" were destined to rush on to our view simultaneously; though we have since deemed it worth enquiring whether the Wesleys had come to that conclusion. What we did in our juvenile way apprehend was the unutterable solemnity of the transition into the unknown.
Well, it was in this atmosphere that I made my first public avowal of decision for Christ. It came about thus. One of our Sunday School teachers, Mr. Hardman Prior, one Lord's Day in 1842, when I was fourteen years of age, tapped me on the shoulder, saying, "Joseph, I have consented to lead a class for young people: will you come?" Now to begin "meeting in class" is the first stepping-stone to membership in the Wesleyan Methodist "Church," then commonly called "Society." To this invitation I readily consented; and, in view of meeting in this "class," I began in earnest - after various earlier futile private beginnings and the burning of my diary of lone juvenile experiences - sought and found peace, through faith and prayer; and was thus able to make a cheerful commencement to the "class meeting" practice of telling my "experience" from week to week. Not long after I began engaging in prayer amongst my "class-meeting" associates, of which fact, I remember, the older members of the "Society" heard with pleasure.
For a while my experience as a young Methodist ran smoothly and happily on; but, after something more than a year, my mind came under a cloud; I can now see, for the simple reason that my "peace" was really based on feeling, and this quite naturally evaporated by the mere force of mental growth, in the course of which the reasoning powers became developed and emotionalism was gradually thrown into abeyance.
The mental darkness into which I entered lasted not less than a year and three-quarters. No praying, no struggling of spirit, no class leader's counsel, no sermon-hearing, could dispel it. Early and late, in business and out of it, on weekdays and Sundays, I sought "the pearl of great price" but found it not.
Of course, I now see that it was all wrong, because so needless. I can further see that it was the result of defective teaching and mistaken guidance. And, let me say it without offence to my paedobaptist friends, nine-tenths of the mischief was caused simply by one error: namely, that I was not in my fourteenth year immersed into Christ on my personal confession of faith in Him. Had that been done, I should
have been brought into covenant relation with the Saviour; by simple faith and intelligence I should have known that the promises were mine, apart from changeful feelings; and - always assuming a dutifully, godly walk - my feet would have been on a rock.
I can now assume an attitude towards the defective teaching which was morally impossible for me to take then. It was not possible for me then to diagnose my own condition or trace my trouble to its true source. My reverence for my Wesleyan teachers, and my profounder reverence for my beloved parents, utterly forbade it. That my Wesleyan leaders were earnest and honest is undoubted, but truth claims that "the weakness of God is stronger than men" and that those who know any divine teaching with assurance are bound to speak it out at all hazards and at all costs.
My deliverance came after nearly two years' bondage. Precisely how it came I am now unable to say. Probably a chief factor in bringing about the welcome transition was nothing more mysterious than improved health.
While yet in my teens, and in membership with the Wesleyan Methodists, I felt that I had received a Divine call to preach the Gospel. This impression I confided to my class leader, Mr. Gunstead. His reply, as I look back on the incident, causes me some amusement. For, amongst us Methodists, "a call to preach was considered a very solemn thing; and the conviction was general amongst us that if a man had been called to preach at all, why, then, he had been so called from all eternity. Judge, then, of my surprise at the time when Mr. Gunstead replied: "Well, Joseph, if you are not, I have no doubt you will be."
At any rate, my class leader entered sympathetically into the situation, and became my intermediary, through whom I was in due course invited to preach my first sermon at the hamlet of Methwold Hythe, about three miles from my home. I well remember the journey to fulfil this my first appointment, Mr. Gunstead walking on one side of the grassy lane and I on the other, both in reverent silence; I, in all probability, looking over my manuscript once or twice and filling up the intervals with ejaculatory prayer. It comes to me instinctively,
as the understood thing, that although the sermon was thoroughly prepared and probably fully written out, yet the MS. was allowed to rest in my pocket during delivery. The one thing I am certain of is that it was not read. That, in those days, would scarcely have been considered to be "preaching." I well remember my text: "Yea, doubtless, I count all things but loss, for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord" (Philippians 3:8).
Owing to ill-health, my preaching lingered; but It was probably in 1848 when I filled a number of appointments in the Ipswich Circuit, on one occasion walking out to Hadley, ten miles distant, preaching twice; and returning, still on foot, in time to attend the evening service in the Wesleyan Chapel, Ipswich.
JOSEPH BRYANT ROTHERHAM INDEX