New Jerusalem Church

Churches and Chapels by Atticus (Contents)

De gustibus non est applies with as much force to religious as to secular life. People’s tastes will differ; you can no more account for them in church-naming than in kissing or child-christening; and that being so, let no pious piece of perfection dispute with the New Jerusalem brethren as to their spiritual gustation. If a man were virtuously inclined to pirate in his religious nomenclature the oddities of old Carey, who coined that finely flowing word “aldeborontiphoscophornio,” which is only a line ahead of that other stately polysyllable “chrononhotonthologos,” why let him do so, for somebody with more madness or wisdom than yourself will some day end or mend him. Let every man have his “cogibundity of cogitation,” and let people suit themselves about the names of their churches. Swedenborgians is the name commonly given to those who belong to “the New Church signified by the New Jerusalem in the Revelation.” They might have cut it shorter to be sure; and they might have had a less mystical but certainly not a cleverer man for their founder than the Swedish Emanuel.

No modern ever knew half so much, or knew it so oddly, as Swedenborg; and no one ever wrote so immensely on questions so varied and intractable. He knew something about everything, from toe nails to the differential and integral calculus, from iron smelting to star cycles, and in reading his works you might almost fancy, so familiar does he appear to be with spirits, that he had a quotidian nod from Michael and a daily “How are you, old boy?” from Gabriel. Emerson does well when he puts him down as the representative man of mystery; and when he calls him the mastodon and missourian of literature, he will have the concurrence of all unbiased scholars.

There are about 70 persons in Preston who care vitally for that ideal Church which St. John saw in Patmos – if New Jerusalemism, as delineated by the followers of Swedenborg, is its symbol. Only about 70 are connected as “members” with its physical temple in Avenham-road. More may be in embryo; several maybe hanging on the skirts of conviction, ready for a goodly plunge into reality; but that is the number of mortals at present associated with the “New Church signified by the New Jerusalem,” in Preston. All of them are earnest, the bulk are conscientious, and on that account entitled to respect. About a quarter of a century ago, a few sincere Swedenborgians met in an office down Cannon-street, which is now used as a gilding room by a modern Revivalist. They pushed “the cause” with a fair amount of energy, and increased, though by slow degrees, the number of their members.

During the period of their spiritual exercises here, the late Mr. Hugh Becconsall, a calm, benevolent-hearted man, got associated with them, and this was the means of bringing into fuller life the principles of Swedenborg in Preston. Mr. Becconsall’s thoughts were quickened and changed by them; he became a devoted and sincere believer in the new Church; attended its meetings in Cannon-street; was impressed with the idea that better accommodation was required for them; and finally decided to build out of his own pocket, and endow from the same source, a new church in Avenham-road. It was estimated that the cost of the church would be £1000, which Mr. Becconsall willingly agreed to pay; but religion has no aegis against “extras” – they will creep in, are irrepressible; and, in accordance with this fatal philosophy, the church in Avenham-road cost in the end nearly £2000, which he paid without even grumbling – a privilege all Englishmen have the right to exercise freely after they have paid the piper well.

The foundation stone was laid in 1843, very soon after which the Rev. James Bonwell, curate of Trinity Church, Preston, made a virulent attack upon Swedenborgianism and its followers. This gentleman, who was subsequently unrobed for immorality, charged both the ministers of the New Church party and all who listened to them, with the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, and uttered language implying a wish that the earth would open its mouth and swallow them up. The Rev. Augustus Clissold, M.A., formerly collegian at Oxford, who is the only profound scholar in England belonging to the New Church sect, ably answered him. There are many smart polemics but very few great scholars in the sect referred to.

Twenty-five years ago New Jerusalem Church, in Avenham-road, was opened, and the believers in it increased for some time afterwards. Anything new is fashionable, and a new church always gives an impetus to the number of its worshipers. Those assembling at the church created much curiosity, and not a little cynical criticism, at first. They even do so now. Ordinarily orthodox people look down censoriously upon believers in “the New Jerusalem,” and class them as a mysterious, visionary sect of religionists, given up to dreams, pious eccentricity, and self-righteousness. But they have, like other individuals, a reason for their belief; if it is madness there is method in it; and they are prepared to “argue the point,” and make a respectable disturbance if their creed is assailed. We shall not criticise their belief – neither praise nor condemn it – but just give its chief points for the benefit of unknowing ones. Here they are: they believe in a trinity, not of persons but essentials – love, wisdom, and power; they do not believe in the doctrine of faith alone, but of faith conjoined with good works; they do not believe in a vicarious atonement, but in a reconciliation of man to God; they don’t believe in a resurrection of the material body, but a resuscitation of the spirit immediately after physical death; they don’t believe in a physical destruction of the world by fire, but think that the world as it is now created will continue to exist – for ever; they have no faith in the Noachian deluge, and say that the sacred record of it refers to an inundation of evil and not of water; finally they believe that there will be marriages in heaven, – not wedding ring unions, not kissing, courting, and quarrelling amalgamations, but conjunctions of goodness with truth; and they have further an idea that there will be “prolifications” in heaven, not of crying children with passions for sucking bottles and sugar teats, but of truth and goodness.

Swedenborg, by whom they swear, believed in three heavens and three hells; they have a similar idea, and fancy that common place sinners, who think one heaven will meet all their requirements, and that one hell will be too much for their nerves, are wrong. New Jerusalem Church, in Preston, has a Sunday school beneath it – a place obtained partly on the celestial and partly on the Irish principle – by heightening the roof and lowering the foundations. The school is pretty well managed; but its scholars are not numerous; they number between 60 and 70, and there is no immediate prospect of an increase. The endowment of the late Mr. Hugh Becconsall realises £100 a-year for the minister – the Rev. E. D. Rendell, who has been at the church ever since its opening; and the investment of a sum of money by the late Mr. John Becconsall, of Ashton, who was a great believer in Swedenborgianism, brings in on his behalf £50 more. The minister once had a “call” to Accrington, where the doctrines of the New Church obtain a very large number of admirers, and in consequence of that call, which necessarily implied a better salary, as well as a wider sphere of action, five £10 notes were added to his stipend here. He was appeased by those said notes.

Mr. Rendell also lives rent free in a house adjoining and belonging to the church. Its situation renders the house very convenient; but a position more distant would not have been very harrowing if freedom from rent had accompanied its tenancy. The Church is built of stone, and has a neat appearance, but the approach to it is not very good. You have to mount a small flight of steps to get to it, and their gradient is so acute that if you should fall on them you would never proceed onward, nor lie still, but wend your way in a rolling manner to the bottom. Internally the church is one of the prettiest in Preston. It is not large; we don’t suppose it will accommodate more than about 250; but it is peculiarly neat and pleasing. The walls are painted and slightly ornamented; the windows are toned a little and bordered with elegant, well-finished designs; the chancel is fronted with a gothic arch painted in marble pattern and edged with gold; beyond there is a circular window, stained in bright colours. At each end there is a gallery – one which apparently contains nothing, whilst the other is devoted to the choir. At one side of the chancel arch there is a reading desk, which looks piously at a pulpit, made just like it, on the opposite side. Few churches have windows in the roof; but this has about four – at least they are circular lights, and, in conjunction with the side windows, make the place very bright and cheerful. At the bass of the chancel, beneath the gallery, and behind the communion table, there are several paintings, some, if not all, of which were executed by the minister, who has rather vivid artistic conceptions. In the centre there is an open Bible, and on each side the Decalogue, or something to that effect, for the letters, although in gold, can’t be seen very clearly at a distance. Flanking these are sacred figures, which are too small to be attractive at a greater distance than six yards. But in their aggregate the representations look well, and they give a good finish to the chancel. The seats are of various sizes; some will hold three persons, others four, and a few about six.

The church is not well attended; hardly half of it is occupied except upon special occasions. At present it appears to be a little better patronised than formerly; but even now the congregation is comparatively thin, and there will be no necessity for some time to do anything in the shape of enlarging the building. If anything is effected in this way during the present century one of two things will certainly have to happen – either three times as many as those now attending it will have to solicit admission, or those actually visiting it will have to grow three times as stout in their physiology. They are a quiet, pious-looking class of people who frequent the church. They may, like their great apostle, have seasons of inner rapture, and like him revel in the mysteries of the Arcana Coelestia, but if so they keep the thing very subdued. They never scream nor shout about anything, and would refuse to do so if you asked them. Many of them are elderly people, with decorous countenances; all of them, whether old or young, believe in good suits; very few of them are wealthy; none of them seem very poor. Calmness, with a disposition to find you a seat any time, and provide you with books, characterises them.

They have fixed services, embracing prayers, lessons, psalms, hymns, and chants. They have an excellent organ, which was given to the place by Mrs. Becconsall; and their music is “ever so fair.” Their services, on Sundays, are held in the morning and evening, and they can get to the latter much easier and in much better time than to the former. Once a month there is an afternoon instead of an evening service, the minister having to officiate for a few of the followers of Swedenborg at Blackburn, who can’t afford to pay, or won’t get, or don’t want, a regular expounder of their views. Mr. Rendell is a rather learnedly-solemn kind of gentleman. Originally he was a painter; but he had a greater passion for polemics than brushes, and was eventually recommended to, and admitted into “the Church” as a minister. He reads the scriptures and prays in black kid cloves, but he shows the natural colour of his hands when preaching. While conducting the preliminary service he wears a white surplice; in the pulpit he has a black gown. He looks very sacerdotal, coldly-clerical, singularly-sad in each place. His voice is deep toned and has a melancholy authoritative ring in it. He is fond of making critical allusions in his sermons; and is rather lengthy in his talk. Some of the old Puritans used to get to a “nineteenthly point” in their discourses, but Mr. Rendell has not reached that numeric climax. He can occasionally get to a fifth point, and then subdivide it, before giving that final “word of advice” which parsons are so enamoured of; but he never branches out beyond this stage. His style of preaching is easy; but it is very solemn. Occasionally he pushes a little Latin into his discourses and at intervals be graces them with morsels of Greek. He can be practical sometimes; can say a wise and generous thing at intervals; but he is often very mysterious, and has a large reverence for that which very few people can get at – “the spiritual sense.”

Mr. Rendell is an author as well as a preacher; he has dived into anti-diluvian history, and has tried to bring up mystic treasures from the post-diluvian period. Furthermore, he has written a prize essay on “The Last Judgment.” And in addition to everything he is the editor of “The Juvenile Magazine;” but the salary is only poor. Still he may console himself with the thought that he gets as much for his annual services on behalf of modern juveniles as Milton did for his Paradise Lost on behalf of all posterity – a clear £5 note. He has a sharp eye in his head, and there is an aristocratic reverentialness in his look. Learned he is in some things; but we are afraid he is too profound and sad. He has a good analytical faculty, and is a very fair polemical writer; but he is very solemn in tone – very serious, too wise-looking, and phlegmatic. His style of speaking has the ring of earnestness in it; and his delivery is accompanied with a tolerable amount of activity. If he were a little more buoyant, if he could put on a less learned and more cheerful look, and would not got so very grave in his style, he would be better relished. Polemically, he has done fair service for the denomination to which he belongs – done it sometimes in spite of Lily, and Linacre, and their descendants; and if he is not immaculate, he has at least the satisfaction of knowing that nobody else is, and never will be until they reach the real New Jerusalem.