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An Odd Preacher.
The saltimbanque has always, in most ages, been treated with a certain reverence, and his performances relished by a large and respectable class. Tumbling in one shape and another—now gross, now refined, now artfully disguised and made stately as a minuet, but still tumbling—has always been acceptable, and even necessary. As a part of the curriculum of the moyen de parvenir it is all-important. The raw sensationalism of our time is a development of tumbling. Gymnasts, and rope-walkers crossing Niagara, are tumblers in the strictest and most natural sense. Novelists tumble, tragedians of nasal and husky utterance tumble extravagantly, orators tumble, and preachers tumble; these latter most irreverently.
It was not indeed likely that, with the circles of sensation spreading wider and wider every hour, so conspicuous “a stand” as the pulpit should escape. So desirable a locality, protected by the reverence due to the situation, elevated above the surrounding multitude, with a respectful silence enforced by the situation, and a semblance of a decent attention,were precious advantages, rarely to be offered under any other conditions. From time immemorial, therefore, saltimbanques, clumsily disguised in gown and bands, have scrambled up over the rails of the pulpit, laid down their carpets, and performed a selection from their répertoire. And their programme is treated with indulgence; for there are people who find the saving of their souls, so as by sermons, tedious, and who are not disinclined to have the process lightened by pleasant jests and antics. It needs not to look very far in our own time to see what indulgence can be granted to such pranks, and how far a person styling himself a minister of the Gospel can go on ingeniously adapting street-slang to his purposes, convulsing his Tabernacle with indecorous hilarity. The trick, however, is stale enough. A pleasant Jesuit—and there have been more pleasant and humorous Jesuits than the world is aware of-wrote a witty and entertaining novel to satirise the familiarities which had then grown into a fashion with the Spanish preachers. Most travellers, and most readers of travels, know what curious illustrations and freedom of style foreign preachers are given to; which must be set to the account of Continental habits and vivacity, and is in a very different spirit from the profane irreverence just alluded to. The adventures of the famous Friar Gerund de Campazes are well known to all readers of the Gil Blas style of humour, and are full of burlesque examples of what should be avoided in preaching
It no doubt surprised his congregation when the preacher commenced gravely, “I deny that there is in God unity of essence;" and while they were gasping at this scandalous doctrine, it was reassuring to have quietly
added, “Thus saith the Arian; thus saith the Manichæan." That other preacher, too, was ingenious, and certainly original, who burst out with, “ Fire ! fire ! fire! the house is on fire! Water, sirs, water! for the world is burning! (Quis dabit capiti meo aquam.) Now, sexton, toll the bells. (In cymbalis bene sonantibus.) For to toll for the dead and to toll for fire is the same." These are w
may be styled conceits. It is curious that in the very year this odd book came out there should have have been an obscure Yorkshire parson—a prebend of York Minster, and vicar of a little country parish-entertaining his Sunday congregations with sermons conceived very much after this grotesque pattern.
This was a tall, lank, and straggling figure, ill fitted together, and singularly odd in appearance,-a strangely-formed face, twinkling eyes, a sly mouth, and a nose “shaped like the ace of spades.” This was Parson Sterne,--Parson Shandy, presently to write a sort of English Pautagruel romance, which was to convulse the town. But he was now obscure, and was entertaining himself and his parishioners with weekly bursts of Shandeism in the pulpits of his little churches of Sutton and Stillington. As all the fashionable world presently subscribed for these sermons, and most of the bishops put down their names for copies, it will be no harm to look back and see what manner of pulpit-oratory was fashionable about one hundred years ago.
Shall we enter one or other of these sacred edifices on some Sunday when the vicar himself is about to preach, and hearken to one of these odd discourses; while the Yorkshire congregations, who have come, according to their degree, in the family-coach, or in the clumsy “white chapel,” or upon the back of the heavy Yorkshire “ Punch," are disposed, in smart Sunday uniform, down the aisles? Here, in his own pew, is the surly lord of the parish, Squire Harland, with whom the vicar was not upon terms, but who went no doubt for the glory of his family-sitting, and to growl and grumble at dinner over the queer
tricks of his enemy, that parson, in the pulpit; while conspicuous in the Stillington congregation were the faces of the Croft family, the firmest of Mr. Sterne's many firm friends, and to whose enduring affection he testified after a nearly thirty years' trial. Both Harlands and Crofts, descendants of the enemy and his friend, still sit in the pews at Sutton and Stillington.
Here is now the long strange figure of the celebrant, making for his pulpit, with that odd spasmodic gait, his gown fluttering behind, and the curious Voltairean smile on his face. The long lean figure then gets out his papers and begins. Those must have been strange and bewildering discourses for the congregations : in parts utterly unintelligible to the Yorkshire yeomen ; in parts as entertaining as Tristram. How acceptible now would be even a tradition of the manner and gesture with which he coloured his speech ; the fashion with which he suited the Shandean action to the Shandean word! Yet, from the abrupt transitions
in print, the dashes, the turns, the breakings-off, we may be almost sure that his voice and delivery reflected all the starts and spasms of his manner. Did he keep“ his body swayed and bent forwards, just so far as to make an angle of eighty-three degrees and a half upon the plane of the horizon, which sound orators know to be the true persuasive angle of incidence" ? and which was the attitude into which Trim fell instinctively when about to preach his famous sermon On Conscience? The Vicar of Sutton was not likely to be trammelled by such artificial rules, and had not much esteem for the orthodox angle; for “in any other angle you may talk and preach, 'tis certain, and it is done every day," and most frequently on those Sundays and festivals at Stillington and Sutton, where the lean body bent over the pulpit-edge, and the long arms swung in utter defiance of conventional rules.
No wonder that Mr. Gray, who had not heard him preach, but had read his sermons when they first came out, wrote to his friend that "you often see him tottering on the verge of laughter, and ready to throw his periwig in the face of the audience.” And, with the comic twists and dramatic turns, audience is perhaps a fitter word than congregation. We may conceive the Reverend' Laurence one Sunday gravely giving out his text from Ecclesiastes vii. 2, 3 : “ It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting;" and then, while the congregation is settling itself to hear this wholesome counsel fortified, the Voltairean lips assume a curious smile, his eyes twinkle, and he starts at once with, “That I DENY!" What looks among the Yorkshire squires and their daughters! Then he goes on, “But let us hear the wise man's reasoning upon it. Sorrow is better than laughter'--for a crackedbrained order of Carthusian monks, I grant ; but not for men of the world.” He goes on to ask, “ Do you think, my good Preacher," &c. Which pleasant familiarity must have sadly scandalised the serious portion of the congregation. More surprised must they have been on other Sundays, when he began solemnly from Romans, “Despiseth thou the riches of His goodness, knowing that the goodness of God leadeth to repentance?' So says St. Paul And Ecclesiastes viii. 11: Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.' Take either as you like it, you will get nothing by the bargain.”
Or on another Sunday, when he began quoting from Samuel," "Shall not Shimei be put to death for this ? It has not a good aspect. This is the second time Abishai has promised Shimei's destruction; once when
.. Shimei cursed David : “ Let me go over and cut off his head. This had something at least of gallantry in it.”
Or on another occasion, when he selected the singular theme of "the Levite and his concubine" for the Sunday's entertainment, treating it with an easy and courageous familiarity that must have confounded his rustic hearers. “For he arose and went after her," said Mr. Sterne, “having his servants with him, and a couple of asses. And when the father of the dam
sel saw him, he rejoiced to meet him. A most sentimental group, you'll say. And so it is, my good commentator. The world talks of every thing."
No doubt he had been reading the diverting adventures of the Spanish friar, Fray Gerundio di Campazes, and the droll precedents and common forms of sermons to be found there. This work, only translated during the very year that Tristram made its appearance, he must have met as he tumbled over the books of his friend Stevenson, who knew nearly every European language that boasted a literature, and was not likely to be without so racy and humorous a chronicle.
From this Sutton pulpit came such foretaste of Shandy, that it must have been real entertainment to have been listening. Such odd conceits and illustrations; nor did it matter from what well, mundane or sacred, he drew them, so that they came to hand easily. “A haughty and an abject temper are much nearer akin than they will acknowledge,” he said one Sunday; "like poor relations, they look a little shy at one another at first sight; but trace back their pedigree, they are but collateral branches of the same stem.”
More curious still to hear the poetry of Shakespeare rolling from the pulpit, and that famous denunciation of the unmusical man, adapted ingeniously to the case of one without compassion. The familiar "pride that licks the dust” of Pope is then, perhaps, for the first time, introduced to the rustic ears, with allusion to heathen history," the beautiful instance in an anecdote of Alexander the Tyrant of Pheres ;" with reference also to Seneca and Epictetus, and a little story of one of the Roman emperors. Presently he treats the agricultural ears to a conceit which sounds very much in the rich key of old Fuller, in reference to that gift of sarcastic observation which is no more than “setting up trade upon the broken stock of other people's failings, the furthest extent of which is to be praised, as ne do some sauces, nith tears in our eyes.” Our bodies too, have need of pleasure, by way of relaxation; and, “like clocks, must be wound up at certain intervals. . . . Many are apt to turn giddy upon every little exaltation, always a curious spectacle ; for, in sober truth, it is but a scurvy kind of trick when Fortune, in one of her merry moods, takes a poor devil with this passion in his head, and mounts him at once as high as she can get him. For it is sure to make him play such fantastic tricks as to become the very fool of the comedy.” He is fond too of illustrating his discourse with allusions drawn from the stage. Courage is “like a Spanish soldier upon an Italian stage-a bladder full of wind. “Why should we need the promptings of vanity ?' asks the comedian, who is taught a part he feels not." Again : "when the whole DRAMA was opened, then the wisdom and contrivance of every part of it was displayed.” The good and evil in men's characters are often so mixed, it is hard to form a fair opinion: “The way the world usually judges is to sum up the good and bad against each other, deduct the lesser of these articles from the greater, and (as we do in passing other
accounts) give credit to the man for what remains
the balance." It often happens, too, that many reputations are “sent out of the world by distant hints,-noddell away, and cruelly winked into suspicion."
An affectation of piety is not sufficient, for not all the Weekly Preparations that were ever wrote will bring him nearer the point” (an allusion to a popular religious work of the day). An odd notion may be such a one as
would have got into the brain of a lean hectic chemist,” -two adjectives to be very fitly applied to the physique of the preacher.
In the confounding category of printed sermons of this date,- for every holy man printed his sermon “at the request" of the congregation, or some other body,—there was a class of divinity very vain and repelling, being mostly tesselated with quotations, and an empty parade of erudition. Such exhibitions, though he had his armory stored with such articles and ready to his hand, and could have used them with more skill and profit than another, Mr. Sterne disdained to imitate. Here was the golden text which hung before his eyes when he sat at his desk writing:
“To preach to show the extent of our reading or the subtleties of our wit-to parade it in the eyes of the vulgar, with the beggarly accounts of a little learning,—is a dishonest use of the poor single half-hour in the week which is put into our bands. 'Tis not preaching the Gospel, but ourselves. For my own part, I had rather direct five words point-blank to the heart."
And to this creed it must in justice be said that Yorick was always faithful.
Two of these sermons are of so eminently “Cervantick a cast,” that they might have been preached by young Tristram, supposing Mr. Shandy had sent him into the Church. One was on Shimei, a character in Samuel; the other upon “the Levite and his concubine,"—a subject which
' would seem to require a little very delicate treatment: the first full of extravagance and Sbandeism perfectly genuine, and which will well repay a few moments' consideration. . For, among other merits, these Parish Sermons of Mr. Sterne are marvellously short,—a wholesome precedent for long-winded divines. Some, indeed, will barely take up ten minutes slowly reading ; unless those dashes and starts and turns stand for so much dramatic business, and represent pauses and play of feature.
The fashion in which the career of Shimei is traced,—the odd comments and dramatic colouring with which it is set out,—is a perfect Shandean picture, which would be extravagant only for its perfect sincerity.
This Shimei, as is well known, reflects all the fortunes of David, according to the true temper of the world. As he is prosperous, he is forward; as he is unlucky, he reviles him. « The wheel turns round once more. David returns in peace;
and had the wheel turned round a hundred times, Shimei, I dare say, in every period of its rotation, would have been uppermost.” At which