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My Days and My Ways

An Autobiography

by Robert Roberts


CHAPTER  TWENTY-TWO:  Dr. Thomas and the American Civil War ---- Advises Birmingham.     


In the letter from Dr. Thomas appearing at the close of the last chapter, mention is made of our having removed to Birmingham.  This rather anticipates the course of the story.  At the time that letter was written, the removal to Birmingham had taken place; but not until a considerable time had elapsed after the circumstances that led the Doctor to write after much delay.  The insertion of the Doctor’s letter overruns the narrative by nearly a year.  We must go back again.


On the Doctor’s completion of his tour in England, he paid us a second visit.  The war between the Northern and the Southern States was in full swing, and was running mainly in favour of the South, greatly to the Doctor’s gratification. 


As we read him the morning telegrams, announcing Federal reverses and Confederate successes, he would say with emphasis: “That’s right; that’s right.”  His sympathies were with the South on several grounds.  His friends were mainly in the South, and comprised several planters, who though owning slaves, were men of an open generous hand, under whom the coloured people were better provided for than in a state of freedom.  Then he had an idea that the institution was not of the unscriptural character contended for by extreme abolitionists, but conformable in some respects to the state of society existing in the days of Abraham, and 1,500 years later in the days of Paul.  Finally, he had a partiality for the state of society existing in the South, which he considerable presence of an English aristocratic element derived from the early settlers.


We differed from the Doctor somewhat in these views, but our agreement on scriptural things was so fervent that our divergencies on American politics made no sensible ripple.  He earnestly hoped the South would roll back the Northern invasion, while our wishes were for Northern success.  But we all felt it a matter of indifference by the side of Israel’s hope.  Let Christ come and take the government, and all would be well on all questions.  Therefore we could leave personal views on an ephemeral question in abeyance.


Still, it was just a little bit of a difficulty.  The reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin when a boy had powerfully influenced me against the Legrees of the South; and I had as yet had none of that personal contact with the blacks and whites of the American continent that  tends to modify the ardent impressions derived from the story, so that my own natural bias in favour of human freedom thus strengthened, and the strong pro-Northern paper politics of The Huddersfield Examiner, with which I was connected, made me feel I had something to regret in the Doctor’s Confederate sympathies.


If the truth had not been as mutually powerful as it was, the difference would have cooled off our sympathies.  As it was, it absolutely made no difference.  The whole world was to us an evil world, lying in wickedness, which the Lord would shortly break up and re-fashion in His own way.  Therefore a surface difference as to two section of it, for the moment locked in deadly strife, was absolutely without appreciable influence.


Before leaving us, Dr. Thomas advised me to go to Birmingham if I could arrange it.  He said there was a wide field for the truth there.  There was not only a large population, but circumstances specially favouring religious independence.  The people were mostly radical in politics, and were not priest-ridden as in other parts.  An interest had been aroused in the truth by his lectures, but there was no one to follow it up.  If I went, he thought something might come of it.  The place was central for the whole country, and it would be a good fadiating point of operations.  I admitted the force of all his suggestions, but considered the difficulties in the way were insuperable.  First of all, I felt that the little ecclesia developed in Huddersfield, now numbering 12 or 13, had a claim on my presence.  (As to this, the Doctor thought the claim of a larger place would be greater.)  Then, I was in actual employment in Huddersfield with non inviting in Birmingham, which appeared to me in the language of Providence to say “stay in Huddersfield.”  (As to that, the Doctor considered the claims of the truth an equal indication of Providence, and in the matter of employment, there was employment to be had in Birmingham as well as Huddersfield; it was an affair of looking out.)  My next objection was not so easily dealt with, and the Doctor had no more to say.  I told him that there were no weekly papers in Birmingham, but all daily; and that the experience I had had of daily paper work in Edinburgh convinced me it would be impossible to serve the truth on a daily paper, on account of the entire devotion of time and strength that if called for.  I had, in fact, as good as resolved never to accept an appointment on a daily paper, but to confine myself to weekly work all my life.  Here the matter stopped, and was left over for the decision of circumstances, which often break into the nicest programme.


The Doctor attended several meetings with us before his departure.  We had exhausted our financial abilities in the first effort, and therefore had to confine ourselves to our own meeting place, instead of going into a public hall, with its attendant cost of rent and advertising.  This meeting place was probably the most extraordinary scene of spiritual effort in England at the time.  We had made several unsuccessful attempts to get a place during the Doctor’s absence, and at last resigned ourselves to take a little unoccupied shop in The Shambles, as the place was called at the time.  The Shambles was the name given to a kind of concealed square, consisting of several long rows of very small one-story low-roofed shops.  The square was built round by streets of houses.  It was a very quiet and melancholy spot, but little frequented by the meat buying public.  It was probably more used for killing than for selling.  The rows of shops have since been pulled down to make way for a proper market.  On the lower side of this enclosure we had engaged and fitted up one of the shops as a meeting place.  Many a pleasant breaking of bread and lecture meeting we held in it.  It was probably half the size of any ordinary kitchen, so that when we had a table in, there was no great accommodation for an audience.  We had a crowded house when thirteen were present.  In this place Dr. Thomas addressed several meetings.  At the first of them (on a Sunday evening), the Doctor having earnestly and effectively spoken for perhaps an hour and a half, I said if anyone present had any questions to ask, the Doctor would be happy to answer them.  I had not been authorised by him to say so.  I  went by the impression derived from the reading of his accounts of his tours in the States, and my reason for acting on the impression was that there were several present whom we had succeeded in privately interesting in the truth, but who still had difficulties which both they and I had looked forward to the Doctor’s visit as affording a supreme opportunity of having solved.  I had not reckoned with the Doctor’s sense of fatigue after patiently discoursing for so long a time, in such a small meeting; neither had I as yet learnt to enter into his unsanguine views of human nature.  I was deeply disappointed at the time, but afterwards I could make full allowance; and indeed on many other points, it was afterwards a matter of chagrin with me that I had the Doctor in my power (as it were) at a time when I was so little qualified by experience to know the needs of a hard-worked old man.  Such is life in its present imperfect state.


Nothing strikes me of a memorable kind during the year or more we remained in Huddersfield after Dr. Thomas’s return to America.  Some time previously, we had lost a second daughter at four months, (Lydia Jane) my wife’s literary and real names combined.   Afterwards we nearly lost a third child in the same way, this time a son –(Edward Augustus)—who, however, when apparently at the last point, gladdened us by a demand for some food that was being partaken of at the other side of the table.  This child would have been called John Thomas if clouds (soon dispelled) had not arisen.  In the temporary estrangement, we went afield and selected a name euphoniously blending English and Roman history –in which, however, there is nothing divine.  The bearer of the name grew safely up to manhood, and is now in the Metropolis, following the profession of his intended namesake.


Before we left Huddersfield, my wife’s sister and her husband came to live in the place; also my own sister, with her children.  Her submission to the truth at this time was a great joy.  The only other thing of any interest that I remember at this time was the advent to the town of a mesmeric lecturer of the name of Smalley, since dead.  His power over people was extraordinary.  Being connected with a public paper, I naturally came in contact with him, and had occasion to become aware of the reality of the power he possessed.  I was in the same house one evening, taking tea with some friends of his; and on passing behind my chair, without any previous notice, he passed his hand down my back, with the effect of imparting a shock that made my cry out.  It was exactly like the shock of a galvanic battery.  He had a power of drawing people from the audience by clutching the air with his hand towards them.  Some thought it was collusion; or at least willingness on the part of the subjects.  I determined to test this; and being with him alone in a large room in New Street, I went to the other end of the room and defied him to produce any effect on me.  He accepted the challenge and went to work.  I resisted him with all my might.  I felt his influence from the first wave of his hand, but kept it off for a time.  At every stroke, the power of the influence increased, until finally, it was as great as if he had pulled me by a rope tied round my middle.

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