Christian Brethren and Brook Street Primitive Methodists

Churches and Chapels by Atticus (Contents)

All over, there are many who consider themselves Christian brethren; but the number taking up the name specifically, with a determination to stick to it denominationally, is small. In all large towns a few of this complexion may be found; and in Preston odd ones exist whose shibboleth is “Christian Brethren.” We had a spell with them, rather unexpectedly, on a recent “first day” – “Christian Brethren” always call Sunday the first day. And it came about in this way: we were on the point of entering a Dissenting place of worship, when a kindly-natured somewhat originally-constituted “pillar of the Church” intercepted our movements, and said, “You mustn’t come here today.” “Why?” we asked, and his reply was, that a fiftieth-rate stray parson, whom “the Church doesn’t care for” would be in the pulpit that day, and that if we wished for “a fair sample” we must “come next Sunday.” We didn’t want to be hard, and therefore said that if “another place” could be found for us, we would take it instead. Violent cogitation for five minutes ensued, and at last our friend, more zealous than erudite, conjured up what he termed, “them here new lot, called Christians.” We had heard of this section before, and at our request he accompanied us to a small, curiously-constructed building in Meadow-street. At the side of the doorway we observed a strangely-written, badly-spelled sign, referring to the different periods when the “Christian Brethren” met for worship, &c.; and above it another sign appeared, small and dim, and making some allusion to certain academical business.

Hurrying up fourteen steps we reached a dark, time-worn door, and after pausing for a moment – listening to some singing within – our guide, philosopher, &c., opened it, and we entered the place with him. The room was not “crowded to suffocation;” its windows were not gathering carbon drops through the density of human breathing; there were just fourteen persons in the place – four men, three women, two youths, a girl, and four children. A Bible and a hymn book – the latter, according to its preface, being intended for none but the righteous – were handed to us, and our friend want through the singing in a delightfully-dreadful style. He appeared to have a way of his own in the business of psalmody – sang whatever came into his head first, got into all manner of keys, and considering that he was doing quite enough for both of us, we remained silent, listening to the general melody, and drinking in its raptures as placidly as possible. Prior to describing either the service we witnessed, or the principles of those participating in it, we must say a word in reference to the building.

It stands on the northern side of Meadow-street, between sundry cottage houses, retiring a little from the general frontage, and by its architecture seems to be a cross between a small school and a minute country meeting-house. It was originally built in 1844 by Mr. John Todd of this town. He started it as a chapel on his own account – for at that time he had special theological notions; and probably considered that he had as much right to have a place of worship as anybody else. We have been unable to ascertain the primal denominational character of the building; the founder of it is unable to tell us; all that we have been able to get out of him is, that the place “had no name,” and all that we can, therefore, fairly say is, that he built it, and did either something or nothing in it. Mr. Todd did not occupy it very long; he struck his colours in about a year; and afterwards it was used by different Dissenting bodies, including some Scotch Baptists, on whose behalf the building was altered. Originally it was only one story high; but when the Baptists went to it a second story was added, and, having either aspiring notions or considering that they would be better accommodated in the higher than the lower portion of the building, they went aloft, leaving the ground floor for individuals of more earthly proclivities.

Two years ago Mr. Todd sold the building, and about six months since certain Christian Brethren hired the top room for “first day” purposes, week day work being carried on in it by an industrious schoolmaster. Like the Quakers, Christian Brethren are a “peculiar people.” They believe more in being good and doing good than in professing goodness formally. They recognise some forms and a few ceremonies; but vital inherent excellence – simple Christianity, plain, unadorned, and earnest – is their pole-star. They claim to be guided in all their religious acts solely by the Scriptures; consider that as “the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch,” their followers have no right to assume any other name; think, baptismally speaking, that whilst there may be some virtue in sprinkling and pouring, there can be no mistake about absolute immersion, inasmuch as that will include everything; think baby baptism unnecessary, and hold that none except penitent believers, with brains fairly solidified, should be admitted to the ordinance; maintain that, as under the apostolic regime, “the disciples came together on the first day of the week to break bread,” Christians should partake of the sacrament every Sunday; call their ministers “evangelists;” hold that at general meetings for worship there should be full liberty of speech; that worship should be perfectly free; and that everything should be supported on the voluntary principle.

Those now worshipping in Meadow-street are the first “Christian Brethren” we have had, regularly organised, in Preston. How they will go on we cannot tell; but if present appearances are any criterion, we are afraid they will not make very rapid progress. They have about ten “members” at present; when the “baker’s dozen” will be reached is a mystery. The executive business of Christian Brethren is managed by deacons; but the diaconal stage has not yet been reached in Preston. There are branches of the body in Blackburn, Southport, Bolton, &c.; but none exist in Lancashire north of Preston. The brethren here have no Sunday-school; but the establishment of one is contemplated, and it may be in time fairly attended. What the number of attendants will be we can’t tell, but this may be fairly said – that if each of the ten members happens, in the lapse of time, to have 12 children, and if all are sent to school, 120 scholars will be raised, and that this would constitute a very good muster for a small denomination.

But we must return to the subject. After the singing, which our friend so improved – and he continued “in the werry same tone of voice,” as poor Sam Cowell used to say in his “Station Porter’s” song, through every hymn – a bearded, mustached, and energetic young man (Mr. W. Hindle), originally a Methodist town missionary, at one time connected with Shepherd-street Ragged School, Preston, and now an “Evangelist” belonging the Christian Brethren, labouring at Southport, Blackburn, &c., but generally engaged for Sunday service at Preston, read several verses from the Bible; then be prayed, his orison being of a free and wide-spreading type; and afterwards he asked if any “brother” would read from Holy Writ. A pause followed, doubt and bashfulness apparently supervening; but at length a calm, thoughtful gentleman got up, and went through sundry passages in Isaiah. The singing of a hymn succeeded, and Mr. Hindle then asked if “another brother” would read. A gentleman, spectacled, with his hair well thrown back, and very earnest, here rose, and having put a small Bible upon a little table in front, and taken up a larger volume which the minister had been perusing, diced into Corinthians, and gave a tolerably satisfactory reading.

The minister then commenced discussing certain antithetical points in St. Paul’s writings, and next asked if “two or three brethren” would engage in prayer. Thirty seconds elapsed, and then one of the brethren made a prayer. The sacrament – bread and wine – directly followed, and after a purse, suddenly pulled out from some place by the minister, had been sharply handed round for contributions, a serious young man gave out a hymn, which the company genially sung. More speaking ensued: but the minister had it all to himself. He said – “Will any brother speak; now is the time; if you have anything to state utter it; lose no time, but say on.” Never a brother spoke; eye-squeezing and thumb-turning, and deep introspection followed; and in the end the minister rose, took his text from three or four parts of the Bible, and gave a lengthy discourse, relieved at intervals with genuine outbursts of eloquence, relative to Christian action and general duty. He seemed to have a poor notion of many Christians, and somewhat fantastically illustrated their position by saying that they were, spiritually troubled with consumption and apparently with diabetes! – were continually devouring good things, constantly wasting away, and doing no particular good amongst it at all. We felt the force of this; but we didn’t ejaculate; quietness, except on very excited occasions, being the rule here. His discourse lasted about 30 minutes, and it was well and forcibly delivered. At the conclusion two or three of the Brethren came out of their circle – they were all round a table before the parson – and shook hands with us.

We shortly afterwards retired, leaving our “musical” friend engaged in a hot discussion with the parson as to the propriety of certain observations he had made in his sermon. How the matter was fought out we cannot tell. The Brethren assemble every Sunday morning and evening in the building; sometimes they have a Bible class meeting on a Sunday afternoon; and occasionally a week night service. They are a calm, devout, forlorn-looking class; are distinctly sincere; have strong liberal notions of Christianity; seem to love one another considerably, and may at times greet each other with a holy kiss; but they don’t thrive much in Preston. In time they may become a “great people,” but at present their status is small. Ten Christian Brethren up 14 steps may grow potent eventually; but they may, figuratively speaking, fall down the steps in the meantime, and so injure the cause as to defy the influence of theraputics.

A few words now as to Brook-street Primitive Methodist Chapel, which we visited the same day. This is a tiny building, and appears to stand in a dangerous region. On one side all the windows are continually shuttered, so as to prevent the mischievous action of stones, and in front the door is railed in closely so as to frustrate the efforts of those who might be inclined to kick it. The chapel, which is also used for Sunday school purposes, was built in 1856. It is a very humble, plain-looking edifice externally; and internally it is equally unassuming. You get to it collaterally, through a pair of narrow doors, which bang about very much in stormy weather. The roof is supported by two iron pillars, with which a tall stove pipe keeps company. In the centre there are 16 pews, each capable of holding three persons, and a large pew which will accommodate six. Rows of small forms run down each side. Those on the left are used by men and boys; those on the other side are principally patronised by women and little children, some of whom are too young to engage in anything but lactary pursuits.

Green is a favourite colour here. The inside of the pews are green; portions of the walls are green; some of the windows are similarly coloured at the base; the music stands in the orchestra are green; and there is a fine semi-circular display of green at the back of the pulpit. At the south-eastern corner there are sundry pieces of old timber piled up; at the opposite side there is a cupboard; and over the entrance numerous forms, colour poles, and a ladder are placed. These constitute all the loose ornaments in the chapel. About 150 persons can be accommodated in the place. When we visited it – the time was rather unfavourable, owing to the roughness of the weather – sixty-six persons, exclusive of the choir and the parson, were in it.

The congregation is a very poor one, but it is singularly sincere and orderly – is not refined but devout, is comparatively unlettered but honest. There is neither silk, nor satin, nor diamond rings, nor lavender kids, in the place; a hard working-day plainness, mingled with poverty, pervades it; but there is no sham seen: if the people are poor, commonly dressed, noisy – if they effervesce sometimes, and shout “Hallelujah” with a fiery joyfulness, and pray right out, as if they were being ship-wrecked or frightened to death, why let them have their way, for they are happy amongst it. Their convictions are strong, and when they are at it they go in for a good thing – for something roughly exquisite, hilariously pious, and consumingly good. They don’t mince matters; are neither dainty nor given to cant, but shout out what they feel at the moment whatever may become of it afterwards. Sunday services, prayer meetings, and class meetings are held in the chapel regularly. The pulpit is occupied by various persons. The minister stationed at the place is the Rev. J. Hall – colleague of the pastor at Saul-street Chapel – but he only takes his turn in it. A strong-built man, plainly attired, earnest, and not so given to flights of violent fancy as some preachers, had charge of the pulpit during our visit. His style was homely, and in his easier periods he had a knack of putting his left hand into his breeches pocket, and talking in a semi-conversational Lancashire dialect style. He dilated for thirty minutes upon the horn-blowing at Jericho, the siege, the wall-falling, and the sin of Achan; and then wound up by telling his hearers – drawing the moral from Achan’s fate – that if they did wrong they would be sure to be found out. The sermon was quite equal to the bulk of homilies given in Primitive Methodist Chapels, and it seemed to go right home to the congregation. The plundering of Achan was well told, and when it was announced that he was stoned with stones, and then burned, the congregation sent up a mild, half-sighing groan, shaking their heads a little, and apparently determining to do right as long as ever they lived.

The music at the chapel was strong, and, remembering the nature of the place, satisfactory. Three men, three young women, and a boy managed it. The women sometimes drowned the men; the boy often got into a shrill mood; but the men finally reached the surface, the women quietly subsided, the boy toned down his forces somewhat; and on the whole the singing was well done. After the sermon there came a prayer meeting. We determined to see it out, preserving that quietude and respect which one ought always to evince towards those believing in the great cardinal points of Christanity, however peculiar may be, the modes of their expression. Only about twenty-five, who assembled on the southern side of the chapel, joined the prayer meeting. The proceedings were of a most enthusiastic, virtuous, hot, and bewildering character. Singing, feet-beating, praying, hand-clapping, and reciprocal shouting constituted the programme. One elderly man went fairly wild during the business. He shook his head, doubled his fists, threw his arms about, ejaculated with terrible rapidity and force, and appeared to be entirely set on fire by his feelings. A thorough craze – a wild, beating, electrifying passion – got completely hold of him for a few minutes, and he enjoyed the stormy pulsations of it exceedingly. At the end somebody said, “Now, will some of the women pray?” Instantly a little old man said, “God bless the women;” “Aye,” said another, while several gave vent to sympathetic sighs. But the women were not to be drawn out in this style; none of them were in the humour for praying; they didn’t even return the benediction of the little old man by saying “God bless the men;” they kept quiet, then got up, and then all walked out; the last words we remember being from a woman, who, addressing us, said, “Now, draw it mild!”