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Dr. Horton

( Originally Published 1907 )

WHEN you enter the church at Lyndhurst Road you are conscious if you happen to be sensitive to " atmosphere "—of a certain subdued note of expectancy. The impression grows as the service advances. There is a breath on the face of the waters the subtle breath of personality. Perhaps the key is minor, appealing, poignant. The preacher is in the grip of some strong emotion which colours hymn and prayer and lesson, peeps out from the little fable he addresses to the children, and is fully revealed in the sermon. It is as though he has come from some sudden vision of the world's wickedness and the world's wrong. It is visible and audible. He hears the world thundering by to destruction in a frenzy of luxury and pleasure and heedless riot. The rush of motor-cars and the clatter of wheels on Haverstock Hill break in on the tense strain. They are like the voice of the doomed world drowning the cry of the prophet. He leans forward with outstretched hands, pleading, pleading. He is torn with bitter agony. His voice is shaken by the tumult of his feelings. A moment more, and the tense bow must break. But he draws himself up, closes the Bible, and the troubled sea sinks down in the calm of a hymn and the peace of the benediction. Outside some one touches you on the shoulder with a light greeting. It is like the breaking of a spell.

Or perhaps it is a bright morning in spring. The song of birds is heard on the heath, and out in Golder's Hill he has seen the snowdrops bursting from their winter prison the first syllables in the poetry of the year, the heralds of the pageant of the earth. And his heart sings with the glad tidings of the new birth. He has seen the finger of God in the woodlands. He has heard the voice of the eternal by the sea-shore. He has picked up a shell, and found in it thoughts that do lie too deep for tears. For the earth is filled with the whispers of the Most High.

I find letters from God dropped in the street, and each one is signed by God's name.

And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoever I go others will punctually follow for ever and ever.

And, full of this gracious assurance, the service flows on golden wings to a golden close. The rush of motor-cars and the clatter of wheels break in on the melody; but not harshly nor discordantly. Almost they seem like a part of the universal song of the reawakened earth.

But a day comes of bitter self-abasement. He is bowed down with the sense of failure, due, you will discover, to some quite small. and isolated incident. He is stricken with remorse, with the passion of weakness and futility. A word, a breath, has set all the chords vibrating to the miserere. The sorrow of the world is his, and the sin of the world too, for what has he done to alleviate the one and wash out the other? He is the unfaithful servant. He is the bringer of a message which he has failed to deliver. The world is deaf because he has not unstopped its ears; the world is blind because he has not unsealed its eyes. He stands, like Whittier, in the presence of his soul and arraigns it like a felon.

Dr. Horton is the type of the poet-prophet in the pulpit. He has the poet's intensity of vision, the poet's quick emotional response, the poet's imaginative fervour. Tennyson said of Swinburne that " he is a tube through which,all things blow into music."

It is the music of the senses, poured from old Triton's " wreathed horn." Dr. Horton is a voice through which the emotions of the soul issue in impromptu passion, now " breathless with adoration," now flaming with wrath. He draws from a direct well of inspiration. He comes, as it were, from some journey of the soul, filled with a message which is not his own a message urgent, tyrannical. He has seen a vision, and hurries from the road to Damascus to proclaim the thrilling tidings. He is consumed with the agitation of the spirit and cannot rest till the vision is revealed.

It is this emotion that makes his appeal so poignant, so disquieting in its intensity, so healing in its more placid moods. You cannot be indifferent under him. He touches you to the quick-to a responsive passion of revolt or acceptance. His whole message is a challenge to you—you personally, you alone. It is you to whom the moment has come to decide between the " bloom and blight," you for whom " The choice goes by for ever 'twixt that darkness and that light." You shall make the choice here and now. You shall not escape. He will not let you go until you have chosen either for " The goats upon the left hand, or the sheep upon the right."

There is in this overmastering urgency and this swift changefulness of mood a certain loss of sustained power. He does not see life steadily or whole, and lacks the fundamental quietude of spirit that would give harmony to the varying moods. And this subjection to the emotion reacts upon his thought, which is sometimes singularly narrow and at others as broad as the heavens. He is, in a word, not so much a thinker as a spiritual impressionist. He sees truth, as it were, by flashes of lightning where others arrive at it by the slow operation of intellect, and if the truth, as he sees, is sometimes a little out of drawing, that is usually the case with impressionism. A sermon by Dr. Hunter delights you by its mental power. It is the appeal of the mind to the mind. Dr. Horton's is the appeal of the heart to the heart. He has a feminine fervour and impatience of fetters. He surrenders himself to his emotion, and soars with wings. He does not argue; he proclaims. An incident, a phrase, a thought has opened a sudden window into the spiritual world, and he is unconscious of all save the vision.

This sensitiveness to impression, the faculty of seeing the infinite in the infinitesimal, has always characterised him. As a little boy at a dame-school he heard a lad of hard, bad face and blasphemous tongue answering the question, " Who gave you that name? " with the words of the Catechism, " My baptism, wherein I was made a child of God and an inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven," and the shock of that unconscious satire sealed the impressionable child for Nonconformity. And later, at Shrewsbury, he arrived, by the same sensitive response, at another far-reaching conclusion. He and two others, a Ritualistic Churchman and an Evangelical Church-man, anticipating the union of the Churches, established a prayer meeting in the study just before evening call-over. A flame of enthusiasm passed through the school, and the study became crowded. But persecution came. The world, symbolised by the rest of the school, blocked the passage, crowded the exit, cuffed, kicked, and cursed these daring innovators. The uproar reached the ears of the headmaster, who threw his cold protection over these young dissenters. " Some of us," he said, " may think that the prayers in chapel and in top schools are sufficient, but if there are boys that desire more and wish to pray together in their study, they shall not be interrupted." The invasion of authority in the sphere of religion was fatal. The persecution ceased, but so also did the prayer meetings, and young Horton's mind leapt to another truth that Christianity does not require the countenance or support of the State, and is only vital when it can defy persecution and is independent of the powers of the world.

He has the defects of the impressionist when he comes down into the world of affairs. He is perplexed by its ingenuities and cunning, impatient of its restraints, entirely unsophisticated, and without any of the worldly but necessary qualities of suspicion or distrust. It is surprising to learn that when, at Oxford, the invitation came to him to take charge of a new church at Hampstead, he was contemplating a career at the Bar. His mind would have fretted itself to death in the chill prison of legal forms and amid the dry detail of precedent. For of all the theatres of the world's conflict there is none so passionless and calculating as the law. And Dr. Horton is all passion and no calculation. Impulse governs him and governs him aright ; but in affairs he is at sea, and his impulse is checked and chilled by the calculations of others. Thus, as President of the Free Church Council, he wrote in the midst of the education controversy a powerful appeal for the secular solution. It was a critical moment. With courage he would. have carried the day, and that truth which came to him at Shrewsbury would have won an enduring triumph. But he was overborne by the counsels of worldly caution and recanted. Like all prophets, he is an indifferent politician.

"The defect of men of other days, " is the excess of their high qualities. They live in an atmosphere of unceasing spiritual exaltation. The strain is never relaxed. They would be more powerful if they were more earthly." There is some truth in the criticism. The soul needs its fallow seasons like the body. If it never descends from Sinai to the common ways of men it sacrifices some of its fellowship with life. It may even lead men astray on great human issues, as it led Dr. Horton astray in regard to the true inwardness of the Boer war.

And yet without that aloofness the peculiar value of Dr. Horton would be lacking. He is a voice crying in the wilderness of the world. Around him he hears the sound of the tumult of life, whirling in giddy mazes of pleasure about the gods of the market-place, shot through with cries of pain, watered with hopeless tears, and ringing with idle laughter. It is a world that has broken from the ancient anchorage. He sees it drifting over uncharted seas beneath a starless sky. We are

like corpses in a charnel,
Fear and grief convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm within the living clay.

And, filled with the sense of a sick world, he comes with the passionate reassertion of the faith as the only cure of its ills. Reform society by all means, he says to the Socialists; but the most perfect organisation will never make the world whole. For the Kingdom of God is within you, and outside that Kingdom there is no peace.

He is a Puritan engrafted with Oxford culture a Puritan with the atmosphere of a liberal scholarship and the graces of taste and sensitive feeling. Oxford has no more devoted son, and no better justification for opening her doors to Dissenters.

" In those days," he says, " it was good to be a Nonconformist at Oxford, for everyone was bent on showing that the position involved no disqualifications." Oxford gave him a Fellowship, and almost claimed him for her own. And out of that tender memory of his Oxford days springs the affection he always shows towards the Church whose system nevertheless seems to him so far removed from the essential principles of Christianity.

But the cool seclusion of Oxford, any more than the dry atmosphere of the law, could not have satisfied that urgent temperament. He was born to preach. One of his earliest memories is that of standing on a dining-room chair in his grandfather's house near Covent Garden Market, with his grandparents and certain guests and domestics for audience, and preaching, armed with a ball to hurl at any who should laugh. It was his grandmother who laughed first and loudest, and at whom, more in sorrow than in anger, he hurled his missile. The dream of the child was the true foreshadowing of the man his vocation the fulfilment of his mother's hope. " It shapes itself to me," he has said, " as the thought and the wish of my mother, wrought out silently in her heart, and carried, just as I was leaving school for the University, over into the land beyond death, and there working ceaselessly and effectually, so that it would not surprise me if at any time my eyes were opened, and I found that she, an invisible spirit, had remained by my side all the way to complete the purpose with which she started me on the journey."

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