Friday 14 February 2014

Old orthodox Dissenters and Unitarians in 19° Century London

Aggressive Unitarians.

It is not often that Unitarianism is aggressive, or that it seeks the heathen in our streets perishing for lack of knowledge.  Apparently it dwells rather on the past than the present, and prefers the select and scholarly few to the unlettered many.

  Most Unitarian preachers lack popular power; hence it is that their places of worship are rarely filled, and that they seem tacitly to assume that such is the natural and necessary condition of their denomination.  It is with them as it used to be with the old orthodox Dissenters in well endowed places of worship some thirty or forty years ago.  Of them, I well remember one in a leading seaport in the eastern counties.  I don’t believe there was such another heavy and dreary place in all East Anglia, certainly there never was such a preacher; more learned, more solemn, more dull, more calculated in a respectable way to send good people to sleep, or to freeze up the hot blood and marrow of his youthful hearers.

  Once and but once there was a sensation in that chapel.  It was a cold evening in the very depth of winter.  There was ice in the pulpit, and ice in the pew.  The very lamps seemed as if it was impossible for them to burn, as the preacher in his heaviest manner discoursed of themes on which seraphs might love to dwell.  All at once rushed in a boy, exclaiming “Fire, fire!”  The effect was electric — in a moment that sleepy audience was startled into life, every head was raised and every ear intent.  Happily the alarm was a false one, but for once people were awake, and kept so till the sermon was done.  It is the aim of Mr. Applebee in the same way to rouse up the Unitarians, and in a certain sense he has succeeded.  He has now been preaching some eighteen months in London, in the old chapel on Stoke Newington Green, where, for many years, Mrs. Barbauld was a regular attendant, and where long the pulpit was filled by no less a distinguished personage than Burke and George the Third’s Dr. Price; the result is that the chapel is now well filled.  It is true it is not a very large one; nevertheless, till Mr. Applebee’s advent, it was considerably larger than the congregation.

  Before Mr. Applebee came to town he had produced a similar effect at Devonport; when he settled there he had to preach to a very small congregation, but he drew people around him, and ere he left a larger chapel had to be built.  I take it a great deal of his popularity is due to his orthodox training.  It is a fact not merely that Unitarianism ever recruits itself from the ranks of orthodoxy, but that it is indebted to the same source for its ablest, or rather most effective ministers.

In the morning Mr. Applebee preaches at Stoke Newington; in the evening he preaches at 245, Mile End.  It seems as if in that teeming district no amount of religious agency may be ignored or despised.  In the morning of the Sabbath as you walk there, you could scarce fancy you were in a Christian land.  It is true, church bells are ringing and the public-houses are shut up, and well-clad hundreds may be seen on their way to their respective places of worship, and possibly you may meet a crowd of two or three hundred earnest men in humble life singing revival hymns as they wend their way to the East London Theatre, where Mr. Booth teaches of heaven and happiness to those who know little of one or the other; nevertheless, the district has a desolate, God-forsaken appearance.  There are butchers’ shops full of people, pie-shops doing a roaring trade, photographers all alive, as they always are, on a Sunday.

  If you want apples or oranges, boots or shoes, ready-made clothes, articles for the toilette or the drawing-room, newspapers of all sorts — you can get them anywhere in abundance in the district; and as you look up the narrow courts and streets on your left, you will see in the dirty, eager crowds around ample evidence of Sabbath desecration.

  I heard a well-known preacher the other day say it was easy to worship God in Devonshire.  Equally true is it that it is not easy to worship Him in Mile End or Whitechapel.  The Unitarians assume that a large number of intelligent persons abstain from attending a religious service on Sundays in the most part “because the doctrines usually taught” are “adverse to reason and the plain teaching of Jesus Christ.”  Under this impression they have opened the place in Mile End.

  In a prospectus widely circulated in the district, they publish a statement of their creed as follows:
  •  1. That “there is but one God, one undivided Deity, and one Mediator between God and man — the man Christ Jesus.” 
  •  2. That “the life and teachings of Jesus Christ are the purest, the divinest, and truest;” His death consecrating His testimony and completing the devotion of His life; his resurrection and ascension forming the pledge and symbol of their own.
  •   3. “That sin inevitably brings its own punishment, and that all who break God’s laws must suffer the penalty in consequence;” at the same time they “reject the idea with abhorrence that God will punish men eternally for any sins they may have committed or may commit.”

  Such is the formula of doctrine, on which as a basis the Unitarian Mission at Mile End has been established, and to a certain extent with some measure of success.  It is charged generally against Unitarians that they have no positive dogma.

  The Unitarianism of Mr. Applebee has no such drawback.  He has a definite creed, which, whether you believe it or not, at any rate you can understand.  In the eyes of many working men, that is of the class to whom he preaches at Mile End, he has also the additional advantage of being well known in the political arena.  As a lecturer on behalf of advanced principles in many of our large towns he has produced a very great effect.

  I confess I have not yet overcome the horror I felt when I saw at the last election how night after night he spoke at Northampton on behalf of Mr. Bradlaugh’s candidature.  Surely a secularist can have no claim as such on the sympathies of a Christian minister.  Yet at Northampton Mr. Applebee laboured as if the success of Mr. Bradlaugh were the triumph of Gospel truth, and as if in the pages of the National Reformer the working men, to whom it especially appeals, might learn the way to life eternal.  But Mr. Applebee is by no means alone.  In Stamford Street Chapel and in Islington you have what I believe the Unitarians would consider still more favourable specimens of aggressive Unitarianism.
- p. 205 - p 209 from The Religious Life of London by J. Ewing Ritchie
Release Date: June 16, 2010  [eBook #32844]

Language: English

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The Project Gutenberg eBook, The Religious Life of London, by J. EwingRitchie 
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