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 My Days and My Ways

An Autobiography

by Robert Roberts


CHAPTER  TWENTY:  Dr. Thomas at Work.


It is impossible to exaggerate the charm of Dr. Thomas’s company under our own roof (though it was but a lodging house roof).  He was a totally different man from what his writings prepared us to expect.  These writings were so pungent, so vigorous, so satirical, and had such a sledge-hammer force of argument and denunciation that we looked for a regular Boanerges – a thunder-dealer, a man not only of robust intellect, but of a combative, energetid, self-assertive turn, whose converse would be largely spiced with explosive vocables.


Instead of this, he was quiet, gentle, courteous, well-mannered, modest, absolutely devoid of affectation or trace of self-importance.  His calm, lofty, cordial reverence for the Scriptures was very edifying to us, after several weary years of contact with drivellers and blasphemers; and his interest in all circumstances pertaining to the fortunes of the truth of which we had to tell him was very refreshing after a toilsome course of solitary labour in a cause that all our neighbours pitied us as fools for taking up.  It was so gratifying and so strengthening, too, to have his fireside answers to the various scriptural questions we had to propound.  “Let me see,” he would say, “where is that passage?”  and would turn it up, and then proceed in his dignified and incisive way to “open to us the Scriptures.”  Household matters and business shrank into their proper smallness in his company.  It was truly a “little heaven below”, the like of which we have rarely since experienced in the rugged journey of probation.


He had not been long in the house before there was one little matter of business that I brought up for consideration.  I had become treasurer of the various contributions that had been raised to defray the Doctor’s travelling expenses.  I made the fact known to him with an intimation that it would be such a pleasure to me to hand over the amount.  The Doctor proceeded to state particulars, with note-book and pencil in hand.  There was this and there was that and the other, car fare, cup of coffee, porter dues, etc., etc.  He had not gone far in the list when I stopped him.  “Oh, brother Thomas,” I exclaimed, “I cannot possibly humble you to go through these particulars.  I had no intention of asking them.  Here is the money that has been contributed. It is all yours.  If there is anything over so much the better.”  And I passed over a handful of gold.


The Doctor was evidently gratified to have the matter settled in that way.  It is the right way.  To make the service of the truth an affair of cheeseparing niceties is to do a handsome thing ver unhandsomely.  There is such a thing as “sowing sparingly,” as Paul intimates.  “There is that scattereth and yet increaseth.”  Liberal arrangements foster liberality.  Parsimony in the service of God tends to paralysis and death.  Men are never parsimonious where the heart is engaged.  Let it be politics, business, courtship or pleasure, the purse opens easily when zeal is at work.  Extreme thrift in arrangements for the glory of God or the comfort of His people is evidence of extremem moderation of spiritual affection.  We have once or twice been frost-bitten in this matter.  Frigid question:  How much was the railway fare?  Answer” 2s. 9 ½ d., paid literally on the spot with a chill, without a consideration of many undefinable expenses besides railway fare incurred.  Well, the heroism of the truth can endure all things, and even be sorry that the truth’s friends, in the general blight of poverty, should have to pay so much as 2s. 9 ½ d.  But it is pleasant to see the liberal devising liberal things.  Love and good works are “provoked” by such a manifestation.  The other is liable to make the mercury fall.


It was not long before we made many enquiries concerning the Doctor’s past life.  It is natural to be interested in a man’s history when you are interested in his work, especially when, as in this case, the history of the man was the history of the work, and that the most important work under the sun, the history of the recovery of the knowledge of God’s own truth in this dark and evil priest-ridden and atheism-desolated age.  Our questions elicited so much interesting information that the idea occurred to me to take it all down in shorthand.  I asked the Doctor to go back again and repeat the story from the beginning, which he willingly did –I putting the questions to him.  I took his answers down as he spoke them.  This process extended over a good many sittings until I had in my possession a tolerably complete story of his life.  The afterwards enabled me, in sorrowful days to come, to write a life of Dr. Thomas, which I could not otherwise have done.  I, indeed, began the publication in a certain form before the Doctor’s death.  I published a transcript of my shorthand notes in a series of articles in the Ambassador, somewhat to the Doctor’s annoyance I fear.  He said I should have waited till he was dead; but that what could not be cured must be endured.


The Doctor arrived about the middle of the week.  Our first meeting was on the following Sunday.  I had engaged the Philosophical Hall (as it was then called), the principal public hall of the town, for the Sunday evening, and one or two evenings during the succeeding week, and again on the following Sunday; and I now recall with chagrin the extraordinary bill  with which I had caused  the walls to be placarded, due to the exaggerated estimate I had formed of the Doctor’s lecturing polemics.  I had drawn it so as to include every form of error, and to interest all classes of the community, with the result of drawing next to none.  I do not remember its wording, but the general purport was to the effect that Dr. Thomas, the author of Elpis Israel, would visit Huddersfield and deliver a course of lectures, in which he would confute atheism, expose spiritualism, everthrow popular theology, confound pretensions of the State Church, and make manifest the unscriptural character of every form of dissent.  It was a real young man’s bill.  I could see the Doctor winced under it.  No wonder, as I now see things.  Even then, when I came to understand the Doctor’s style of lecturing, I felt a mistake had been made; but there was nothing for it but to go through with it, notwithstanding the character of burlesque that more or less attached to the performance under such an announcement.  The Doctor modestly and composedly did his part.


But before the public effort, cam the breaking of bread in the morning.  This was the first time we were to hear the Doctor open his lips in a set address, and we looked forward to it with great expectations.  We had given up our effort in the Spring Street schoolroom, and had not got another meeting place, and were holding our meetings in brother Rhodes’ bakehouse by the side of his dwelling-house.  This was a somewhat grimy room, in which there was a roomy baker’s oven at one side, a darkened window on the other, a long table under the window, a baker’s batch-trough in the middle of the floor with a lid over it, and four walls blackened with smoke.


In this room Dr. Thomas delivered his first address in England to an audience of six or seven persons seated round the batch-trough, overspread with a white tablecloth, on which were displayed the emblems of the Lord’s death.  Never have I listened with such greedy attention to human utterances as I did when Dr. Thomas rose, in compliance with invitation, to address the feeble company assembled.  He first of all read the beginning of the 17th chapter of Genesis.  The reading was of itself a treat unutterable. It was not merely that the enunciation was melodious and clear, but there was an inflection and emphasis which of itself seemed to convey the whole sense of the word without comment.  To hear Dr. Thomas read a chapter was of itself as good as a lecture.  What the Doctor said after the reading has now passed from my mind, but I felt entranced.  This was not due to rhetoric, for, strictly speaking, the Doctor had none.  His style of discourse was plain and earnest, and by current standards would be considered common-place.  It was  the matter that was powerful.  I was in complete sympathy with all that was written in the Scriptures, and to hear these Scriptures read and made to speak in such a capable and confident way, made me feel almost in the presence of the sublime realities themselves.


But the public lecture in the evening was the great attraction.  We were wondering what sort of an audience there would be.  We had put out 100 posters on the walls, 1,000 handbills, and advertisements in the paper.  We thought it possible we might have a crowded house.  Alas!  It is not the intrinsic quality of things that draws, but the surrounding, the extraneous, the adventitious –that which has to do with social affinities and temporal interests.  Get hold of the men that work on the social and the temporal; the public will cross the entrance-hurdle like a flock of sheep.  But if you have nothing to show but those things that are of eternal moment –things truly intellectual and moral –things spiritual and noble –things high and lofty and lasting –you spread your feast in vain.


It was not altogether in vain on this occasion.  Still, the audience was a poor one.  The hall was not half filled, and those who were present were scattered all over the place in a sparse and chilling way.  Brother Rhodes occupied the chair, and having been well known in the town for 20 years as the leading atheist in the district, his presidency did not modify the chills of the occasion.  He told the audience he had been privileged to discover a way of believing the Bible without doing violence to his reason, and that others might enjoy the same privilege; the lecturer had been sent for and would now address them –or something to that effect.  The Doctor then rose and read the 1st chapter of Hebrews, making expository comments as he proceeded.  We expected a rousing lecture.  We did not get it.  We did not get al all what is currently understood as a lecture.  There was no formal elucidation of any proposition or proving of anything in particular.  It was a process of “reasoning out of the scriptures.”  He digressed from the topics of Heb. 1 to other parts of the scriptures to which that led him.  It was all rich and good, and to those who knew the truth, splendid; but as regards the public, we felt it was all over their heads, and made them wonder what all the stir was about and “what the fellow was driving at.”  We returned home with somewhat subdued feelings.


My employer (the editor of the Examiner) and his lady were present.  I had made glowing representations as to what might be expected, and I felt considerably taken down.  There was no real cause for disappointment, because the genuine thing was all there.  Only in its bearing on the public, I felt there was failure.  Subsequent experience did not alter this feeling.  Occasionally, by a spurt, the Doctor made a good rousing effort in his public lectures, but on the whole, there was an absence of that orderly method that is essential to secure the attention of the unenlightened to divine verities in an age like this.  The fact is, the Doctor had no enthusiasm towards the public.  Experience had cooled it down.  He went through his work as a matter of duty, and did not care to come out of Bible methods in presenting Bible things to a public audience.


The week-night meetings were not much better attended.  At these, there were some questions, and a new mortification came to us in the Doctor’s apparent want of readiness in dealing with these on the spur of the moment.  This was due to the quality manifest in his lectures.  He could not readily or quickly marshal his forces.  He was choke full of matter in its correctest form, but he required  time (and no trammels) to bring it out to its full advantage.


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