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  ― 143 ―

11. At Meeting.

STROLLING, on a bright August morning in 1857, along one of the two streets of Wollongong—that beautiful, bustling “Australian Brighton” (the bottom of a well, methinks, would be almost as handsome and lively a watering-place)—I came upon a little edifice of the Florid Haystack order of architecture, evidently fresh from the hands of the bricklayers.

An inscription in front informed me that this was the “Congregational Chapel;” a brace of bills intimated that the “Opening Services” of the said chapel were that day to take place, and a stream of entering worshippers indicated that this inaugural ceremony was just about to begin.

Partly influenced by the gregarious instinct that prompts men, as well as muttons, to follow a flock of their fellows; partly because I found from the placards that Mr. Cuthbertson was going to preach, and had a desire to hear myself the clerical celebrity of whom I had heard so much; and partly—to tell the honest truth—because I saw some good-looking, amongst the grave-looking, faces of the inflowing throng, pretty Piety in flop hats mixed with the hirsute Holiness in bell-toppers, and corpulent Christianity in coalscuttles, demure damsels as well as grim deacons and solemn old Dorcases,—I starched my countenance up to the due degree of decorum, and went in, also.

The chapel was soon filled with young and old—with a superabundance, indeed, of the former; for children in arms squealing like pigs in an Irish packet, and somnolent two-year-olds falling off benches, in rapid succession, with resonant thuds and subsequent lamentation, are by no means aids to devotion (once, during the sermon, the preacher, after a vain attempt to drown the noise of a brazen-lunged brat, was compelled to retire from the amœbean contest, and sit down, dead beat, until the little nuisance—still lifting up its voice on high, hurling back a triumphant defiance—was ejected from the premises. Why do people take babies to church, chapel, and the play? They can derive no profit or pleasure from discourse or drama, and prevent grown-up folks from deriving any either—the plaguesome little puppies in the manger!)




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Enter a triad of divines: First, the local pastor, a meek little man, ungowned, with a smirk of mild complacency upon his face at the sight of such a multitude in his meeting-house—reminding one, altogether, very much of Tiny Tim's papa, when presiding at his Christmas festivities. Secondly, Mr. Beazley, with a blanched and mournful brow, and a thoughtful eye at the bottom of which there lurks a very genuine look of love—far seemlier visage for a priest of the “Worship of Sorrow” than a Spurgeon's coarse, conceited, unintellectual countenance, a-blaze with circus-clown grins at his own comicalities about—the Cross of Christ. Last, Mr. Cuthbertson, “in canonicals,” like his predecessor.

But that is almost the only point of outward resemblance between the two; for Mr. Cuthbertson is tall, portly, full-faced—bordering on the jolly. If a little rosier about the gills, and a dozen years older, he would make a capital old-fashioned, orthodox rector; one of those succulent successors of the Apostles with a weakness for plum-pudding and pluralities, possessors of first-rate port and professors of sober piety, knowing in horses, stern foes to heresy; dabs at whist, cribbage, and backgammon; and able, when occasion calls, not only to expound a knotty text, but also, to pound a saucy tinker.

Of course I merely mean that Mr. Cuthbertson looks like one of these ruddy religionists, in process of development. I acquit him of all things uncomplimentary in the above category of qualities and accomplishments; and, also, of one thing complimentary—to wit, horsemanship; for I never yet saw a nonconformist minister that didn't ride like a tailor. Dissenting colleges, no doubt, turn out men of excellent head and heart: so do the Universities, but their men know, also, how to use their feet and hands. Whilst the budding nonconformist divine is blearing his eyes over Baxter and Owen, the sucking episcopalian is doing his best to bump a rival boat, getting four runs for a hit, or galloping after the hounds—and yet, after all, manages to pass the “Voluntary” without discredit. I cannot help thinking that the latter system of training is the better—at all events, for clergymen who intend to come out hither, where you must know how to sit a horse, and saddle him, too. I once saw a worthy presbyterian preacher—not a hundred miles from Hinton—“divesting,” as he phrased it, “his steed of its paraphernalia” for the first time; and his initiatory proceeding was the unbuckling of the—bit, which he carefully deposited in the rack. He then unfastened the crupper, but left it dangling from the tail of his astonished charger, which, most certainly,

—never in that sort
Had handled been before.




  ― 145 ―

Unfortunately, at this stage of the “divesting” operation, a grinning stable-boy made his appearance, and prevented the amiable but somewhat awkward evangelist—who evidently laboured under the impression that the position of halters was reversed at the Antipodes—from mooring his nag “stern on” to the manger by means of “this very singular piece of leather—it isn't every one, my dear sir, that would have discovered its use.”

But no more of this nonsense, for the service has begun. (Why, by the way, do the congregationalists stand up to pray. Are they too independent to kneel even before their Maker?)

I love the Liturgy, and detest, as a rule, extemporaneous prayers. Nevertheless, although I try hard, I am unable to pick a hole in Mr. Beazley's. There is in what he says none of that irreverent chatting with the Supreme that too often makes such prayers—to my mind, at least—mere blasphemies. The Omniscient is not told every second minute that He knows this and that—just as we talk to a failing old gentleman whose memory we wish to refresh without flatly calling it in question. The Almighty is not treated like a good-tempered listener whom a bore seizes by the buttonhole to inflict his weariness upon: prosy preaching that would make mortals yawn if given in a sermon, is not economically converted into sham supplication, considered quite good enough for the ears of God.

I admire, too, the hearty way in which Mr. Beazley sings, instead of doing his praise by proxy, borrowing the larynxes of his congregation, whilst he sits mum and lazy in the pulpit; a fashion in vogue with most dissenting preachers. Perhaps, it would be better if he didn't wield his hymn-book quite so much like Winterbottom's bâton, but then, as he really is conducting, “setting the tunes” most vigorously, we'll waive the objection. However, this isn't intended for a sketch of Mr. Beazley; so just hinting to him that a gloved and an ungloved hand clasped high upon the breast look, to a distant spectator, ludicrously like the “Bashful Man's” inky shirt-front, I will pass on to Mr. Cuthbertson.

He has an excellent voice, when kept down to its natural key: deep, distinct, and mellow. When he raises it, along with the blast, we hear a little of the bray of the trumpet. I am not certain, but I fancy, that something like an almost-mastered Aberdonian accent bristles up occasionally in his utterances, like a ten-times cut-down Bathurst burr provokingly reappearing; but this, whatever it may be, is of very rare recurrence.

Mr. Cuthbertson punctuates his first few sentences with coughs—not springing, apparently, from the distressing, almost effeminate, tremor that


  ― 146 ―
characterises the exordiums of some eminent public speakers (James Parsons, of York, for instance) but introduced for the sake of emphasis, to call attention to the articulate speech that has gone before. The heh-hem reminds me somewhat of a pavier's pant—a weighty thought, instead of a heavy flagstone, having been just rammed down.

Some pastors must cost their congregations little fortunes for Biblebinding and pulpit-cushions; but Mr. Cuthbertson does not manifest his love for the Word of God by pitching into it, and strives to impress the listeners, not the velvet, before him. He uses very little “action:” what he does use is graceful and appropriate. Years ago I heard the gentleman whom the Wesleyans, I believe, call the “celebrated Dr. Beaumont;” and, for the life of me, I could not help laughing. He trundled his head exactly like a mop, as if he could in that way scatter on all sides the truths of the Gospel. From vulgar eccentricities of this kind Mr. Cuthbertson is very happily free; remembering, perhaps, that Mr. Pecksniff's horse, notwithstanding its high “action,” made very little progress.

So much for manner: now for matter. The sermon that I heard was a well-articulated discourse—a complete argumentative anatomy, incarnated in good, and often eloquent, English. There were no “harkings back” in the logic, and very few in the language. Only in three instances, I think, had the preacher to stop to take up a dropped verbal stitch. No unfortunate subject rushed frantically about in search of its predicate, popping into a dozen places where it had no business like a bewildered hotel-guest who has forgotten the number of his room. The greater portion of the sermon might have been reported word for word. (Not more than one sermon or speech in a thousand would bear, throughout, verbatim reproduction. The only speakers in this part of the world who ever appeared to me capable of standing that trying test were, I am proud to say, two friends of mine,—of very different styles of oratory, but each admirable in its kind:—Frank Fowler, who tells off his sparkling periods one by one, as if counting a rosary of brilliants; and the honourable member for Argyle, whose eloquence flows like the golden tide of Pactolus.)

The doctrine of the sermon, no doubt, was very orthodox; but with that I have nothing to do. Once or twice I thought the preacher waxed too philosophical, and shot above the heads of his audience: still he did not lose their attention. Gaping, they watched him go up into the darkness, as people gaze at a rocket. (It is good policy on the part of a pastor to give his congregation now and then something that they are unable to comprehend. They consider it a compliment somehow, and think much more highly of a man who can use such hard words, than they do


  ― 147 ―
of a poor, plain body who can only talk what any one can understand. If I remember rightly, it is De Quincey who relates how the ploughmen of Ottery St. Mary objected to the clergyman who succeeded Coleridge's father as vicar of the parish, that he did not give them any of the “immediate language of the Holy Ghost” in his sermons: his predecessor having been in the habit of interlarding his discourses pretty thickly with Hebrew, under that appellation. I have myself witnessed an amusing instance of this love for unintelligible learning. A pulpit neophyte, holding forth for the first time in a country Methodist chapel, suddenly found that his stock of ideas was exhausted. He paused, blushed, coughed—was about to rush. I thought, from the rostrum like that more celebrated “stickit” parson, Dominie Sampson. But no—this young gentleman knew a trick worth two of that. Pulling out a pocket Testament he gravely exclaimed: “Dearly beloved, I will now read you the chapter from which my text is taken, in the original Greek”—which, accordingly, he did, to the intense delight, if not remarkable edification, of his rustic hearers. They doubted of his capacity no longer. His defeat was converted into a triumph. We all know, too, what an enthusiastic burst of applause an untranslated scrap of Cannibalese invariably evokes at missionary meetings—I wonder whether the reverend and rattling linguists ever gammon us on those occasions: the gibberish they talk has often appeared to me somewhat monotonous in its sputter, to have such a variety of meanings as subsequently—considerably cooling the ardour of those who had admired it so warmly in its uninterpreted cacophony—are injudiciously attributed to it.)

Of the spirit of the sermon I may be permitted to speak, and it is a pleasant task to do so, because it was so Catholic. Mr. Cuthbertson evidently is not of opinion that what calls itself Christendom is, in fact, a great, gloomy, God-cursed Egypt, spangled with one solitary little Goshen, to wit, Independency. Notwithstanding his Calvinistic creed and anti-State-Church convictions, I don't think he believes that all deans must be damned—that he despairs even of the salvability of an Arminian beadle. Greatly to the disgust of a buckram Brownite who sat near me, and who shuddered at the episcopal title as a child shrinks from senna, Mr. Cuthbertson quoted, with high eulogy and hearty approval, from an Anglican bishop.

There was a “tea-meeting” after the service: commencing at two; but not being in the habit of taking my tea immediately after tiffin, I did not participate in that, perhaps, pleasing, but certainly premature festivity. Tea at two seems very much as if the day had put his toes in his pocket.

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