Presbyterian and Free Gospel Chapels

Churches and Chapels by Atticus (Contents)

“Who are the Presbyterians?” we can imagine many curious, quietly-inquisitive people asking; and we can further imagine numbers of the same class coming to various solemn and inaccurate conclusions as to what the belief of the Presbyterians is. Shortly and sweetly, we may say that they believe in Calvinism, and profess to be the last sound link in the chain of olden Puritanism. They do not believe in knocking down May poles, nor in breaking off the finger and nose ends of sacred statues, nor in condemning as wicked the eating of mince pies, nor in having their hair cropped so that no man can get hold of it, like the ancient members of the Roundhead family; but in spiritual matters they have a distinct regard for the plain, unceremonious tenets of ancient Puritanism – for the simplicity, definitiveness, and absolutism of Calvinism.

Some persons fond of spiritual christenings and mystic gossip have supposed that the Presbyterians who, during the past few years, have endeavoured to obtain a local habitation and a name in Preston, were connected with the Unitarians; others have classed them as a species of Independents; and many have come to the conclusion that their creed has much Scotch blood in it – has some affinity to the U.P. style of theology, and has a moderate amount of the “Holy Fair” business to it. The most ignorant are generally the most critically audacious; and men knowing no more about the peculiarities of creeds than of the capillary action of woolly horses are often the first to run the gauntlet of opinionism concerning them. The fact of the matter is, the Preston Presbyterians are no more and no less, in doctrine, than Calvinists. In discipline and doctrine they are on a par with the members of the Free Church of Scotland; but they are not connected with that church, and don’t want to be, unless they can get something worth looking at and taking home.

Historically, the Presbyterians worshipping in Preston don’t pretend to date as far back as some religious sects, but they do start ancestrally from the first epoch of British Presbyterianism. Their spiritual forefathers had a stern beginning in this country; they were cradled in fierce tomes, said their prayers often amid the smoke of cannons and the tumult of armies; and maintained their vitality through one of the sternest and most revolutionary periods of modern history. In the 17th century they were, for a few moments, paramount in England; in 1648 nearly all the parishes in the land were declared to be under their form of church government; but the tide of fortune eventually set in against them; at the Restoration Episcopacy superseded their faith; and since then they have had to fight up their way through a long, a circuitous, and an uneven track. Their creed, as before intimated, is Calvinistic, and that is a sufficient definition of it. They believe in a sort of universal suffrage, so far as the election of their pastors is concerned; and if they have grievances on hand they nurse them for a short time, then appeal to “the presbytery.” and in case they can’t get consolation from that body they go to “the synod.” We could give the history of this sect, but in doing so we should have to quote many “figures” and numerous “facts” – things which, according to one British statesman, can never be relied upon – and on that account we shall avoid the dilemma into which we might be drifted.

It will be sufficient for our purpose to state that in 1866 a few persons in Preston with a predilection for the ancient form of Presbyterianism held a consultation, and decided to start a “church.” They had a sprinkling of serious blood in their arteries – a tincture of well-balanced, modernised Puritanism in their veins – and they honestly thought that if any balm had to come out of Gilead, it would first have to pass through Presbyterianism, and that if any physician had to appear he would have to be a Calvinistic preacher. They, at first, met privately, and then engaged the theatre of Avenham Institution – a place which had previously been the nursery of Fishergate Baptism and Lancaster-road Congregationalism. From the early part of January, 1866, till September, 1867, they were regaled with “supplies” from different parts of the kingdom. When they met on the second Sunday – it would be unfair to criticise the first Curtian plunge they made – 14 persons, including the preacher, put in an appearance; but the number gradually extended; courage slowly accumulated, and eventually – in September, 1867 – the Rev. A. Bell, a gentleman young in years, and fresh from the green isle, who pleased the Preston Presbyterians considerably, was requested to stop with them and endeavour to make them comfortable. Mr. Bell thought out the question briefly, got a knowledge of the duties required, &c., and then consented to stay with the brethren. And he is still with them; hoping that they may multiply and replenish the earth, and spread Presbyterianism muchly.

From the period of their denominational birth up to now the Preston Presbyterians have worshipped in the theatre of the Institution, Avenham – a place which everybody knows and which we need not describe. There is nothing ecclesiastical about it; the place is fit for the operations of either lecturers, or preachers, or conjurors; and it will do for the inculcation of Presbyterianism as well as for anything else. The leaders of the Presbyterian body are looking out for a site upon which a new chapel may be erected, but they have not yet found one. By-and-bye we hope they will see a site which will suit their vision, will come up to their ideal, and, in the words of Butler, be “Presbyterian true blue.” The members of “the church” number at present about 112; and the average congregation will be about 200. It includes Scotchmen, Irish Presbyterians, people who have turned over from Baptism, Independency, Catholicism, and several other creeds, and all of them seem to be theologically satisfied.

There ought to be elders at the place; but the denomination seems too young for them; as it progresses and gets older it will get into the elder stage. There is no pulpit in the building, and the preacher gets on very well is the absence of one. If he has no pulpit he has at least this consolation that he can never fall over such a contrivance, as the South Staffordshire Methodist once did, when in a fit of fury, and nearly killed some of the singers below. The congregation consists principally of middle and working class people. Their demeanour is calm, their music moderate, and in neither mind nor body do they appear to be much agitated, like some people, during their moments of devotion.

The preacher, who has been about six years in the ministry, and gets £250 a year for his duties here, is a dark-complexioned sharp-featured man – slender, serious-looking, energetic, earnest, with a sanguine-bilious temperament. He is a ready and rather eloquent preacher; is fervid, emphatic, determined; has moderate action; never damages his coat near the armpits by holding his arms too high; has a touch of the “ould Ireland” brogue in his talk; never loudly blows his own trumpet, but sometimes rings his own bell a little; means what he says; is pretty liberal towards other creeds, but is certain that his own views are by far the best; is a steady thinker, a sincere minister, a tolerably good scholar, and a warm-hearted man, who wouldn’t torture an enemy if he could avoid it, but would struggle hard if “put to it.” Like the rest of preachers he has his admirers as well as those who do not think him altogether immaculate; but taking him in toto – mind, body, and clothes – he is a fervent, candid, medium-sized, respectable-looking man, worth listening to as a speaker of the serious school, and calculated, if regularly heard, to distinctly inoculate you with Presbyterianism. It is as “clear as a bell” that he is advancing considerably the cause he is connected with, and that his “church” is making satisfactory progress.

There is a Sabbath school attached to the denomination. The scholars meet every Sunday afternoon in the Institution; and their average attendance is about 90. As a denomination the Presbyterians are pushing onwards vigorously, though quietly, and their prospects are good. To the Free Gospel people we next come. They don’t occupy very fashionable quarters; Ashmoor-street, a long way down Adelphi-street, is the thoroughfare wherein their spiritual refuge is situated. If they were in a better locality, the probability is they would be denominationally stronger. In religion, as in everything else, “respectability” is the charm. We have heard many a laugh at the expense of these “Free Gospel” folk, but there is more in their creed, although it may have only Ashmoor-street for its blossoming ground, than the multitude of people think of. They were brought into existence through a dispute with a Primitive Methodist preacher at Saul-street chapel; although previously, men holding opinions somewhat similar to theirs, were in the town, and built, but through adverse circumstances had to give up, Vauxhall-road chapel. In the early stages of their existence the Free Gospellers were called Quaker Methodists, because they dressed somewhat like Quakers, and had ways of thinking rather like the followers of George Fox. In some places they are known as Christian Brethren; in other parts they are recognised as a kind of independent Ranters.

About ten years ago, the Preston Free Gospel people got Mr. James Toulmin to build a chapel for them in Ashmoor-street; they having worshipped up to that time, first at a place on Snow-Hill and then in Gorst-street. He did not give them the chapel; never said that he would; couldn’t afford to be guilty of an act so curious; but he erected a place of worship for their pleasure, and they have paid him something in the shape of rent for it ever since. The chapel is a plain, small, humble-looking building – a rather respectably developed cottage, with only one apartment – and we should think that those who attend it must be in earnest. The place seems to have been arranged to hold 95 persons – a rather strange number; but upon a pinch, and by the aid of a few forms planted near the foot of the pulpit, perhaps 120 could be accommodated in it.

There are just fourteen pews in the chapel, and they run up backwards to the end of the building, the highest altitude obtained being perhaps four yards. A good view can be obtained from the pulpit. Not only can the preacher eye instantaneously every member of his congregation, but he can get serene glimpses through the windows of eight chimney pots, five house roofs, and portions of two backyards. In a season of doubt and difficulty a scene like this must relieve him. There are about 30 “members” of the chapel. The average attendance on a Sunday, including all ranks, will be about 50. The worshippers are humble people – artisans, operatives, small shopkeepers, &c. A few of the hottest original partisans were the first to leave the chapel after its opening. There is a Sunday school connected with the body, and between 40 and 50 children and youths attend it on the average. Voluntaryism in its most absolute form, is the predominant principle of the denomination.

The sect is, in reality, a “free community.” Their standard is the bible; they believe in both faith and good works, but place more reliance upon the latter than the former; they recognise a progressive Christianity, “harmonising,” as we have been told, “with science and common sense;” they object to the Trinitarian dogma, as commonly accepted by the various churches, maintaining that both the Bible and reason teach the existence of but one God; they have no eucharistic sacrament, believing that as often as they eat and drink they should be imbued with a spirit of Christian remembrance and thankfulness; they argue that ministers should not be paid; they dispense with pew-rents; repudiate all money tests of membership – class-pence, &c.; make voluntary weekly contributions towards the general expenses, each giving according to his means; and all have a voice in the regulation of affairs, but direct executive work is done by a president and a committee. The independent volition of Quakerism is one of their prime peculiarities. If they have even a tea-party, no fixed charge for admission is made; the price paid for demolishing the tea and currant bread, and crackers being left to the individual ability and feelings of the participants.

Service is held in the chapel morning and evening every Sunday, and the business of religious edification is very peacefully conducted. There is a moderate choir in the chapel, and a small harmonium: The singing is conducted on the tonic sol fa principle, and it seems to suit Mr. William Toulmin, brother of the owner of the chapel, preaches every Sunday, and has done so, more or less, from its opening. He gets nothing for the job, contributes his share towards the church expenses as well, and is satisfied. Others going to the place might preach if they could, but they can’t, so the lot constantly falls upon Jonah, who gives homely practical sermons, and is well thought of by his hearers. He is a quaint, cold, generous man; is original, humble, honest; cares little for appearances; wears neither white bands nor morocco shoes; looks sad, rough and ready, and unapproachable; works regularly as a shopkeeper on week days, and earnestly as a preacher on Sundays; passes his life away in a mild struggle with eggs, bacon, butter, and theology; isn’t learned, nor classical, nor rhetorical, but possesses common sense; expresses himself so as to be understood – a thing which some regular parsons have a difficulty in doing; and has laboured Sunday after Sunday for years all for nothing – a thing which no regular parson ever did or ever will do. We somewhat respect a man who can preach for years without pocketing a single dime, and contribute regularly towards a church which gives him no salary, and never intends doing. The homilies of the preacher at Ashmoor-street Chapel may neither be luminous nor eloquent, neither pythonic in utterance nor refined in diction, but they are at least worth as much as he gets for them. Any man able to sermonise better, or rhapsodise more cheaply, or beat the bush of divinity more energetically, can occupy the pulpit tomorrow. It is open to all England, and possession of it can be obtained without a struggle. Who bids?