My Days and My Ways
CHAPTER TWELVE: Public Effort at Huddersfield.
Perceiving that little was to be done by private efforts to interest even the most promising people in the truth, yet not hoping that anything effectual could be done in any other way, but in the simple determination to pursue the course of duty marked out by the truth itself, I began to look round to see if anything could be done for its public exhibition. The chief difficulty was the question of means. Halls could be got, but the hire was high, and the salary of the newly married people low. There was, besides, the cost of printing and posting. I do not now remember whether the Halifax brethren contributed anything in aid. I should think it likely, considering the favour with which they regarded the enterprise. At the same time they were so utterly poor that it is possible they could spare nothing but good wishes. At all events, the chief burden, if not the whole, lay with us as we intended.
I succeeded in engaging a schoolroom in an obscure corner – “Senior’s schoolroom,” if I recollect rightly – the last building on the left at the bottom of a lane which had no thoroughfare forward. All this may be changed now, as Huddersfield has altered so much. The lectures were to be once a fortnight, on Sunday afternoons, and eight in number. In due course the bills appeared on the walls, and were sent round by hand, in addition to an advertisement in the papers.
It was our first attempt, and was naturally the subject of some anxiety, even to the palpitating point. It was the depth of winter, and a very severe season – the snow lying deeply on the ground. When the day for the opening lecture came, we walked to the lane where the schoolroom was, near to the hour of meeting. How many would be assembled? My companion thought the place would be at least half full, considering the publicity that had been given. The state of the lane did not give us much promise. It seemed to us the snow was untrodden. Forward we went and reached the door. My wife pushed it open to discover her half-filled room. There was not a solitary soul in the place! This would have been damper enough in summer weather; in deep winter it was chilling to the freezing point – so far as the reception of the truth had to do with the spiritual temperature. It had a little to do with it, but not much. We had come to do a duty, and not to receive pleasure. So we walked in and took our seats at a table at the other end of the room.
We sat talking in the resonant emptiness for a short time, then the door was pushed open, and one or two entered, knocking the snow off their boots, and sat down. The state of things was not very encouraging to them, and it would not have taken many minutes to lead them to get up and go out again. But presently a few others came, till at last we had the half room-full anticipated by my companion.
I had made rough notes of the lecture to be given on “The Bible: what it is, and how to interpret it.” Shortly after the appointed time I rose and apologised for bringing them out in such inclement weather to listen to remarks on a subject which there were churches and chapels enough to deal with to their heart’s content. But the fact was the churches and chapels were off the track, and if men were to get on to it, they must try to help themselves; not only without help, but in spite opposition from the recognised teachers. The Bible was the track. Whatever of true religion there was in the earth at the present time was to be found there and there alone. It was a boast that the Bible alone was the religion of the Protestants, but this was not much more than a pretty saying. The Protestants perhaps intended the Bible to be their religion, but on examination it would be found that they were at variance with the Bible in its most fundamental principles. How this had come to be the case was not very difficult to see in view of New Testament prophecy and ecclesiastical history. Both of these points were elaborated a little. Then came the question as to the origin of the Bible and the mode in which it was to be studied and understood. The amplification of these features filled up the lecture. There was quite a fair attention to an inarticulate reedy voice not calculated to command a hearing, and whose hoppings from verse to verse and theme to theme must have increase the listening difficulty of the audience.
I had announced in a footnote on the bills that questions would be answered at the close of each lecture; I accordingly now gave out that any person so disposed was entitled to put questions. In response to this, a tallish, slim, wiry man
rose, whom I had got to know during my reporting duties as the arch-infidel of the town and neighbourhood. In a drawling, mock-respectful tone (as it seemed to me), he put a number of questions. Regarding the man as I did, I fear I answered with some degree of abruptness and acerbity. We make mistakes sometimes – perhaps not infrequently. It was true that this man had been the leader of local atheism for twenty years past; but it was also true (as I ascertained soon afterwards from his own lips) that he had begun to reconsider the question of religion, and had already made some progress in the direction not of a return to pulpit theology, but to the Bible, when the bills announcing the lectures appeared, and seemed on the face of them to promise just the help he wanted. This was a very encouraging beginning. In the sequel he became obedient to the faith, and walked as a worthy brother for about twenty years, when he died.
His history was a very sad one, apart from what may be in store for him in the great outcome of things upon the earth. His life was like one long, dull, wintry day. He was born in the workhouse, and struggled with difficulty all his life. With no education, but possessed of an active native interest in political and religious questions, he worked himself into a fair degree of acquaintance with men and things, and exercised a distinct local influence in the town and neighbourhood, through his ability as a public speaker and his uprightness of character. At the time he came into contact with the truth, he had found out the hollowness of the popular movements of the time, and had begun to thirst for a higher than man as the explanation of the great universe. “Can it be that we have no father?” This, he said, was the form in which the question pressed itself upon him. He was listening for an answer when the Bible was providentially opened to him in a way that he had not thought possible.
Before the lectures had got far through the course of their delivery, a change occurred which cause them to be hurried up, and led to our absence from Huddersfield for a time, and afterwards to our entrance upon a new and larger field of action. The American phrenologists, Fowler and Wells, visited Huddersfield, and lectured on phrenology for several weeks with the aid of a large platform array of pictorial and other illustrations. Their lectures excited great interest, and led to their being inundated with applications for private written delineations of character. They had three shorthand writers steadily at work taking down and writing these delineations; but the work was greater than they could get through, and they applied to me as one of the local press reporters to help them. I gave them my help as a matter of course, with the result that they proposed to me that I should become one of their permanent staff at a salary which was just about double what I was receiving.
The proposal was associated with the idea that when their visit to Britain was at an end, I should go with them to America, and settle in their employment in New York. This had a powerful charm for me from the fact that Dr. Thomas was in New York, and lectured every Sunday in that city, or neighbourhood, when not engaged on his travels. There was also the pleasing prospect of making an extended acquaintance with England in the course of the visits of Fowler and Wells to various cities. It was impossible that I could refuse such an offer.
My acceptance of it was not at all acceptable to the small company of brethren at Halifax. One of them went so far as to say that “I had surrendered to the one great devil’s temptation which every man had brought to bear upon him at some time or other in his life.” When I urged the plea that I should have extended opportunities of serving the truth opened out to me in the new sphere, a fraternal expletive made me acquainted with the pungent force and meaning of the word “Gammon!” I could not be diverted from my determination by the mere expression of disapproval, and accordingly gave notice to my employer that I should leave him in a month for the new line of life, of which he did not disapprove.
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