Cannon Street Independent Chapel

Churches and Chapels by Atticus (Contents)

Forty-four years ago the Ebenezer of a few believers in the “Bird-of-Freedom” school, with a spice of breezy religious courage in their composition, was raised at the bottom of Cannon-street, in Preston; and to this day it abideth there. Why it was elevated at that particular period of the world’s history we cannot say. Neither does it signify. It may have been that the spirit of an irrepressible Brown, older than the Harper’s Ferry gentleman, was “marching on” at an extra speed just then; for let it be known to all and singular that it was one of the universal Brown family who founded the general sect. Or it may have been that certain Prestonians, with a lingering touch of the “Scot’s wha ha’e” material in their blood, gave a solemn twist to the line in Burns’s epistle, and decided to go in

for the glorious privilege
Of being Independent.

Be that as it may, it is clear that in 1825 the Independents planted a chapel in Cannon-street. Places of worship like everything else, good or evil, grow in these latter days, and so has Cannon-street chapel. In 1852 its supporters set at naught the laws of Banting, and made the place bigger. It was approaching a state of solemn tightness, and for the consolation of the saints, the ease of the fidgety, and the general blissfulness of the neighbourhood it was expanded. Cannon-street Chapel has neither a bell, nor a steeple, nor an outside clock, and it has never yet said that it was any worse off for their absence. But it may do, for chapels like churches are getting proud things now-a-days, and they believe in both lacker and gilt.

There is something substantial and respectable about the building. It is neither gaudy nor paltry; neither too good nor too bad looking. Nobody will ever die in a state of architectural ecstacy through gazing upon it; and not one out of a battalion of cynics will say that it is too ornamental. It is one of those well-finished, middle-class looking establishments, about which you can’t say much any way; and if you could, nobody would be either madder or wiser for the exposition. Usually the only noticeable feature about the front of it – and that is generally the place where one looks for the virtues or vices of a thing – is a series of caged-up boards, announcing homilies, and tea parties, and collections all over the north Lancashire portion of Congregational Christendom. It is to be hoped that the sermons are not too dry, that the tea saturnalias are neither too hot nor too wet, and that the collections have more sixpenny than threepenny pieces in them. The interior of Cannon-street Chapel has a spacious and somewhat genteel appearance. A practical business air pervades it. There is no “storied window,” scarcely any “dim religious light,” and not a morsel of extra colouring in the whole establishment. At this place, the worshippers have an idea that they are going to get to heaven in a plain way, and if they succeed, all the better – we were going to say that they would be so much the more into pocket by it. Freedom of thought, sincerity of heart, and going as straight to the point as possible, is what they aim at. There are many seats in Cannon-street Chapel, and, as it is said that hardly any of them are to let, the reverend gentleman who makes a stipulated descent upon the pew rents ought to be happy. It is but seldom the pews are well filled: they are not even crammed on collection Sundays; but they are paid for, and if a congenial wrinkle does not lurk in that fact – for the minister – he will find neither the balm of Gilead nor a doctor anywhere. The clerical notion is, that pew rents, as well as texts; must be stuck to; and if those who pay and listen quietly acquiesce, then it becomes a simple question of “so mote it be” for outsiders. The congregation at Cannon-street Chapel is made up of tolerably respectable materials. It is no common Dissenting rendezvous for ill-clad screamers and roaring enthusiasts. Neither fanatics nor ejaculators find an abiding place in it. Not many poor people join the charmed circle. A middle-class, shopkeeping halo largely environs the assemblage.

There is a good deal of pride, vanity, scent, and silk-rustling astir in it every Sunday, just as there is in every sacred throng; and the oriental, theory of caste is not altogether ignored. The ordinary elements of every Christian congregation are necessarily visible here – backsliders and newly-caught communicants; ancient women duly converted and moderately fond of tea, snuff, and charity; people who cough continually, and will do so in their graves if not closely watched; parties, with the Fates against them, who fly off periodically into fainting fits; contented individuals, whose gastric juice flows evenly, who can sleep through the most impassioned sermon with the utmost serenity; weather-beaten orthodox souls who have been recipients of ever so much daily grace for half a life time, and fancy they are particularly near paradise; lofty and isolated beings who have a fixed notion that they are quite as respectable if not as pious as other people; easy-going well-dressed creatures “whose life glides away in a mild and amiable conflict between the claims of piety and good breeding.” But the bulk are of a substantial, medium-going description – practical, sharp, respectable, and naturally inclined towards a free, well got up, reasonable theology. There is nothing inflamed in them – nothing indicative of either a very thick or very thin skin. Any of them will lend you a hymn book, and whilst none of them may be inclined to pay your regular pew rent, the bulk will have no objection to find you an occasional seat, and take care of you if there would be any swooning in your programme. Clear-headed and full of business, they believe with Binney in making the best of both worlds. They will never give up this for the next, nor the next for this. Into their curriculum there enters, as the American preacher hath it, a sensible regard for piety and pickles, flour and affection, the means of grace and good profits, crackers and faith, sincerity and onions, benevolence, cheese, integrity, potatoes, and wisdom – all remarkably good in their way, and calculated, when well shaken up and applied, to Christianise anybody.

The genteel portion of the congregation principally locate themselves in the side seats running from one end of the chapel to the other; the every day mortals find a resting place in the centre and the galleries; the poorer portion are pushed frontwards below, where they have an excellent opportunity of inspecting the pulpit, of singing like nightingales, of listening to every articulation of the preacher, and of falling into a state of coma if they are that way disposed. The music at this place of worship has been considerably improved during recent times; but it is nothing very amazing yet. There is a curtain amount of cadence, along with a fair share of power, in the orchestral outbursts; the pieces the choir have off go well; those they are new at rather hang fire; but we shall not parry with either the conductor or the members on this point. They all manifest a fairly-defined devotional feeling in their melody; turn their visual faculties in harmony with the words: expand and contract their pulmonary processes with precision and if they mean what they sing, they deserve better salaries than they usually get. They are aided by an organ which is played well, and, we hope, paid for. The minister of Cannon-street chapel is the Rev. H. J. Martyn, who has had a good stay with “the brethren,” considering that their fighting weight is pretty heavy, and that some of them were made to “have their way.”

Frequently Independents are in hot water concerning their pastors. In Preston they are very exemplary in this respect. The Grimshaw street folk have had a storm in a tea pot with one of their ministers; so have the Lancaster-road Christians; and so have the Cannon-street believers; and the beauty of it is, they generally win. Born to have their own way in sacred matters, they can turn off a parson, if they can’t defeat him in argument. And that is a great thing. They hold the purse strings; and no parson can live unless he has a “call” to some other “vineyard,” if they are closed against him. On the whole, the present minister of Cannon-street Chapel has got on pretty evenly with his flock. He has had odd skirmishes in his spiritual fold; and will have if he stays in it for ever; but the sheep have a very fair respect for the shepherd, and can “paint the lily” gracefully. A while since they gave him leave of absence – paying his salary, of course, whilst away – and on his return some of them got up a tea party on his behalf and made him a presentation. There might be party spirit or there might be absolute generosity in such a move; but the parson was no loser – he enjoyed the out, and accepted with Christian fortitude the gift.

The Rev. H. J. Martyn is a small gentleman – considerably below the average of parsons in physical proportion; but he consoles himself with the thought that he is all right in quality, if not in quantity. Diminutive men have generally very fair notions of themselves; small men as a rule are smarter than those of the bulky and adipose school; and, harmonising with this regulation, Mr. Martyn is both sharp and kindly disposed towards himself. He is not of opinion, like one of his predecessors, that he assisted at the creation of the world, and that the endurance of Christianity depends upon his clerical pivot; but he believes that he has a “mission,” and that on the whole he is quite as good as the majority of Congregational divines. There is nothing pretentious in his appearance; nothing ecclesiastical in his general framework; and in the street he looks almost as much like anybody else as like a parson.

The education of Mr. Martyn is equal to that of the average of Dissenting ministers, and better than that of several. He is, however, more of a reader than a thinker, and more of a speaker than either. On the platform he can make as big a stir as men twice his size. His delivery is moderately even; his words clear; and he can throw a good dash of imagination into his language. In the pulpit, to the foot of which place he is led every Sunday, by certain sacred diaconal lamas, who previously “rub him down” and saddle him for action, in a contiguous apartment – in the pulpit, we say, he operates in a superior style, and he looks better there – more like a parson – than anywhere else. He is here above the ordinary level of his hearers; if it were not for the galleries, minute as may be his physiology, he would be the loftiest being present; and if he wishes to “keep up appearances,” we would advise him to remain in the pulpit and have his meals there. Casting joking overboard – out of the pulpit if you like – it may be said that Mr. Martyn as a preacher has many fair qualities. It is true he has defects; but who has not? – unless it be a deacon; – still there is something in his style which indicates earnestness, something in his language, demonstrative of culture and eloquence.

His main pulpit fault is that he “goes off” too soon and too frequently. In the course of a sermon he will give you three or four perorations, and sometimes wind up without treating you to one. There is nothing very metaphysical in his subjects; sometimes he wanders slightly into space; occasionally he exhausts himself in fighting out the mysteries of faith, and grace, and justification; but in the ordinary run of his talk you can get good pictures of practical matters. He is a lover of nature, is fond of talking about the sublime and the beautiful, conjointly with other things freely named in Burke’s essay, can pile up the agony with a good deal of ability, and split the ears of the groundlings as the occasion requires. He can get into a white heat quickly, or blow his solemn anger gradually – wind it up by degrees, and make it burst at a given point of feeling. He is a better declaimer than reasoner – has a stronger flow of imagination than logic. There is nothing bitter or mocking in his tone. He seldom flings the shafts of ridicule or irony. He constructs calmly, and then sends up the rocket: he draws you slowly to a certain point, and then tells you to look out for “it’s coming.” His apparatus is well fixed; he can give you any kind of dissolving view. His ecstacies are rapid and, therefore, soon over. The level places in his sermons are rather heavy, and, at times, uninteresting. It is only when the thermometer is rising that you enjoy him, and only when he reaches the climax and explodes, that you fall back and ask for water and a fan. Taking him in the aggregate we are of opinion that he is a good preacher; that he goes through his ordinary duties easily and complacently. He gets well paid for what be does – last year his salary exceeded £340; and our advice to him is – keep on good terms with the bulk of “the brethren,” hammer as much piety into them as possible, tickle the deacons into a genial humour, and look regularly after the pew-rents.