Unitarian Chapel

Churches and Chapels by Atticus (Contents)

There is something so severely mental, and so theologically daring in Unitarianism that many can’t, whilst others won’t, hold communion with it. Unbiased thinkers, willing to give all men freedom of conscience, admit the force of its logic in some things, the sincerity of its intentions in all, but deem it too dry and much too intellectual for popular digestion. The orthodox brand it as intolerably heretical and terribly unscriptural; the multitude of human beings, – like “Oyster Nan” who couldn’t live without “running her vulgar rig” – consider it downright infidelity, the companion of rationalism, and the “stepping Stone to atheism.” Still there are many good people who are Unitarians; many magnificent scholars who recognise its principles; and if “respectability” is any proof of correctness – this age, in the obliquity of its vision, and in the depth of its respect for simple “appearances,” says it is – then Unitarianism ought to be a very proper article, for its congregations, though comparatively small, are highly seasoned with persons who wear capital clothes, take their time from the best of watches, and have ever so much of what lawyers call “real and personal” property. Men termed “Monarchians” were the first special professors of Unitarianism. They made their appearance between the second and third centuries, and, if Tertullian tells the truth, they consisted of “the simple and the unlearned.” Directly after the Reformation Unitarianism spread considerably on the continent, and Transylvania, which now contains about 56,000 of its followers, became its great stronghold.

Unitarianism got into England about the middle of the 16th century; and many of the Presbyterian divines who were ejected during the century which followed – in 1662 – gradually became believers in it. In England the Unitarians have now about 314 chapels and emission stations; in Scotland there are only five congregations recognising Unitarianism; in Ireland about 40; in our colonies there are a few; in the United States of America the body has 256 societies; in France, Germany, Holland, &c., the principles of Unitarianism are pretty extensively believed in. Some of our greatest thinkers and writers have been Unitarians: Milton was one, so was John Locke, and so was Newton. In different ages there have been different classes of Unitarians; in these days there are at least two – the conservative and the progressive; but in the past the following points were generally believed, and in the present there is no diversity of opinion regarding them, viz., that the Godhead is single and absolute, not triune; that Christ was not God, but a perfect being inspired with divine wisdom; that there is no efficacy in His vicarious atonement, in the sense popularly recognised; and that original sin and eternal damnation are in accordance with neither the Scriptures nor common sense.

The origin of Unitarianism in Preston, as elsewhere, is mixed up with the early strivings and operations of emancipated Nonconformity. We can find no record of Nonconformists in Preston until the early part of the 18th century. At that period a chapel was erected at Walton-le-Dale, mainly, if not entirely, by Sir Henry de Hoghton – fifth baronet, and formerly member of parliament for Preston – who was one of the principal patrons of Nonconformity in this district. Very shortly afterwards, and under the same patronage, a Nonconformist congregation was established to Preston – meetings having previously been held in private houses – and the Rev. John Pilkington, great uncle of W. O. Pilkington, Esq., of the Willows, near this town, who is a Unitarian, was the minister of it, as well as of that in Walton.

In 1718, a little building was erected for the Nonconformists of Preston on a piece of land near the bottom and on the north side of Church-street. This was the first Dissenting chapel raised in Preston, and in it the old Nonconformists – Presbyterians we ought to say – spent many a free and spiritually-happy hour. Eventually the generality of the congregation got into a “Monarchian” frame of mind, and from that time till this the chapel has been held by those whom we term Unitarians. The “parsonage house” of the Unitarian minister used to be in Church-street, near the chapel; but it has since been transmuted into a shop. One of the ministers at this place of worship towards the end of the last century, was a certain Mr. Walker, but he couldn’t masticate the Unitarian theory which was being actively developed in it, so he walked away, and for him a building in Grimshaw-street – the predecessor of the present Independent Chapel there – was subsequently erected. The edifice wherein our Unitarian friends assemble every Sunday, is an old-fashioned, homely-looking, little building – a tiny, Quakerised piece of architecture, simple to a degree, prosaic, diminutive, snug, dull. It is just such a place as you could imagine old primitive Non-conformists, fonder of strong principles and inherent virtue than of external embellishment and masonic finery, would build. It can be approached by two ways, but it is of no use trying to take advantage of both at once. You would never get to the place if you made such an effort. There is a road to it from Percy-street – this is the better entrance, but not much delight can be found in it; and there is another way to the chapel from Church-street – up a delicious little passage, edged on the right with a house-side, and on the left with a wall made fierce with broken glass, which will be sure to cut the sharpest of the worshippers if they ever attempt to get over it. What there really is behind that glass-topped wall we are at a loss to define; but it is evidently something which the occupier of the premises apprehends the Unitarians may have an illicit liking for? If they want to get to it we would recommend the use of some heavy, blunt instrument, by which they could easily break the glass, after which they might quietly lift each other over.

Recently, a small sign has been fixed at the end of the passage, and from the letters upon it an inference may be safely drawn that the Unitarian Chapel is somewhere beyond it. To strangers this will be useful, for, prior to its exhibition, none except those familiar with the place, or gifted with an instinct for threading the mazes of mystery, could find out, with anything like comfort, the location of the chapel. Whether the people have or have not “sought for a sign,” one has at any rate been given to them here. A small, and somewhat neat, graveyard is attached to the chapel; there are several tomb-stones laid flat upon the ground; and in the centre of it there is a rather elaborate one, substantially railed round, and surmounting the vault of the Ainsworth family. The remains of the late W. Ainsworth, Esq., a well-known and respected Preston gentleman, are interred here.

At the northern side of, and directly adjoining, the chapel there is a small Sunday school, It was erected about 15 years ago; the scholars previous to that time having met in a little building in Lord’s-walk. The average attendance of scholars at present is about 60. The chapel, internally, is small, clean, plain, and ancient-looking. A central aisle runs directly up to the pulpit, and it is flanked with a range of high old-fashioned pews, some being plain, a few lined with a red-coloured material, and several with faded green baize, occasionally tacked back and elaborated with good old-fashioned brass nails. The seats vary in size, and include both the moderately narrow and the full square for family use. There are nine variously shaped windows in the building: through three of them you can see sundry things, ranging from the spire of the Parish Church to the before-mentioned wall with the broken glass top; through some of the others faint outlines of chimneys may be traced. The chapel is light and comfortable-looking. There seems to be nothing in the place having the least relationship to ornament except four small gas brackets, which are trimmed up a little, and surmounted with small crosses of the Greek pattern. At the west end, supported by two pillars, there is a small gallery, in which a few elderly people, the scholars, and the choir are deposited.

The body of the chapel will accommodate about 200 persons. The average attendance, excluding the scholars, will be perhaps 60. When we visited the place there were 50 present – 45 downstairs and five in the gallery; and of these, upwards of 30 were females. The congregation is quite of a genteel and superior character. There are a few rather poor people embraced in it; but nine out of ten of the regular worshippers belong to either independent or prosperous middle class families. The congregation, although still “highly respectable,” is not so influential in tone as it used to be. A few years ago, six or seven county magistrates might have been seen in the chapel on a Sunday, and they were all actual “members” of the body; but death and other causes have reduced the number of this class very considerably, and now not more than two are constant worshippers. There is neither sham, shoddy, nor rant amongst them. From one year end to another you will never hear any of them during any of the services rush into a florid yell or reduce their spiritual emotions to a dull groan. They abstain from everything in the contortional and ejaculative line; quiet contemplative intellectualism appears to reign amongst them; a dry, tranquil thoughtfulness, pervades the body. They are eclectical, optimic, cool; believe in taking things comfortably; never conjure up during their devotions the olden pictures of orthodoxy; never allow their nerves to be shattered with notions about the “devil,” or the “burning lake” in which sinners have to be tortured for ever and ever; never hear of such things from the pulpit, wouldn’t tolerate them if they did; think that they can get on well enough without them. They may be right or they may be very wrong; but, like all sections of Christians, they believe their own denominational child the best.

There are two services every Sunday in the Unitarian chapel – morning and evening – and both are very good in one sense because both are very short. There have been many ministers at the chapel since its transformation into a Unitarian place of worship; but we need not unearth musty records and name them all. Within modern memory there have been just a trinity of ministers at the chapel – the Rev. Joseph Ashton, an exceedingly quiet, unassuming, well learned man, who would have taken a higher stand in the town than he did if he had made more fuss about himself; the Rev. W. Croke Squier, who made too much fuss, who had too big a passion for Easter-due martyrdoms and the like, for Corn Exchange speeches, patriotic agony points, and virtuous fighting, but who was nevertheless a sharp-headed, quick-sighted, energetic little gentleman; and the Rev. R. J. Orr – the present minister – who came to Preston about a year and a half since.

Mr. Orr is an Irishman, young in years, tall, cold, timid, quiet, yet excellently educated. He is critical, seems slightly cynical, and moves along as if he either knew nobody or didn’t want to look at anybody. There is somewhat of the student, and somewhat of the college professor in his appearance. But he is a very sincere man; has neither show nor fussiness in him; and practices his duties with a strict, quiet regularity. He may have moods of mirth and high moments of sparkling glee, but he looks as if he had never only laughed right out about once in his life, and had repented of it directly afterwards. If he had more dash and less shyness in him, less learned coolness and much more humour in his composition, he would reap a better harvest in both pulpit and general life. Mr. Orr is no roaring will o’ the wisp minister; what he says he means; and what he means he reads. His prayers and sermons are all read. He is not eloquent, but his language is scholarly, and if he had a freer and more genial expression he would be better appreciated. If he were livelier and smiled more he would be fatter and happier. His style is his own; is too Orrible, needs a little more sunshine and blithesomeness. He never allows himself to be led away by passion; sticks well to his text; invariably keeps his temper. He wears neither surplice nor black gown in the pulpit, and does quite as well without as with them. For his services he receives about £120 a year and if the times mend he will probably get more. In the chapel there is a harmonium, which is played as well as the generality of such instruments are. The singing is only moderate, and if it were not for the good strong female voice, apparently owned by somebody in the gallery, it would be nearly inaudible – would have to be either gently whispered or “thought out.” The services in the main are simple, free from all boisterous balderdash, and if not of such a character as would suit everybody, are evidently well liked by those participating in them.