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England - Three Memorable Pulpits

( Originally Published 1910 )

THAN the three men who once spoke their message from these three pulpits it would be difficult to name a trio having so little in common. John Cotton was not farther re-moved from Thomas Arnold than he, in turn, was from Henry Edward Manning. Yet each of the three was included under the elastic designation of a minister of the Church of England.

Than these three pulpits, too, it would be impossible to cite an equal number so typical of the history of the church to which they belong. As surely as the rostrum of John Cotton is representative of Puritanism, and that of Thomas Arnold eloquent of a liberal theology, so is the pulpit of Henry Edward Manning reminiscent of the high-church half-way-house to Rome. If the ecclesiastical historian should ever require visible symbols of the three main streams of opinion in the Church of England, and, subsequently, in the religious life of America, he could not wish for more felicitous or appropriate illustrations than these three pulpits. Both chronologically and from the standpoint of most constant use, the pulpit of John Cotton has undoubted claims to priority. As the picture will show, it is still so fresh in appearance that it is difficult to credit nearly three centuries have passed away since it was placed in the position it still occupies in the parish church of Old Boston. This is not the pulpit from which John Cotton delivered his earliest sermons to the Boston people. His election as vicar took place in 1612, and for eight years he continued to use an old rostrum of which all traces have been lost. In 1620, however, he was provided with this new platform, which, in its hexagonal shape and general scheme of decoration, is a fine example of Jacobean work. Some of the carving is of an earlier date, belonging, as it does, to the time of Queen Elizabeth. The dark oak is skilfully relieved with decorations in gold, and it will be noticed that the panels are entirely innocent of those symbolical letters or designs so frequently seen on modern pulpits. The treads of the staircase appear to be modern, but otherwise the rostrum is unchanged from that far-off generation when, for some thirteen years, it was constantly occupied by the person of John Cotton.

Few pulpits, in that or any other age, can have had such hard wear as this. The modern custom which leaves the pulpit unoccupied and silent for a hundred and sixty-five hours in each week would have been repugnant to the nature of the unwearied John Cotton. In the nature of things, he was found in his rostrum twice every Sunday, his appearances on those occasions not being limited to the stinted hour-and-a-half of modern times, but extending over five solid hours. In addition to those two lengthy services on Sunday, he regularly preached four times in each week, and also indulged in " occasional services at which he would consume six hours in prayer and exhortation ! A note-taker who was present at one of these protracted services observed that " there were as many sleepers as wakers, scarce any man but sometimes forced to wink or nod." Verily, the Puritan divines were aptly named " painful preachers," and it may not be unreason-able to charge to their account something of that " length of face and general atrabilious look " which Lowell detected in the portraits of men of their times.

Notwithstanding the prominent part he played in the early life of New England, it may be questioned whether the pulpit of John Cotton possesses a tithe of the human interest which still attaches to the simple rostrum of Thomas Arnold. Partly, no doubt, this may be due to the fact that John Cotton failed to find such a sympathetic biographer as fell to the lot of Thomas Arnold ; but a more potent cause may be found in the reflection that while Cotton's theology is of the dead past that of Arnold is not far removed from the living faith of the present.

What an immense debt the world owes to the Rugby of Thomas Arnold has not been, and perhaps cannot be, fully tabulated. It may be possible to appraise to some extent the measure of his influence acting through the life-work of such men as Arthur Stanley, Thomas Hughes, Arthur Clough, and his own illustrious son, Matthew Arnold ; but the hundreds of scholars who, without achieving fame, carried the elevating influence of their great school-master into diverse walks of life represent an indebtedness of which history can at the best take only imperfect account.

By the unanimous testimony of his pupils, it was from the pulpit of the school chapel at Rugby that Arnold exercised most potently both his genius as a scholar and his exalted character as a Christian teacher. Before his day, the headmasters of public schools in England had not made a practice of preaching regularly to their scholars ; it was only on special occasions that the boys had a discourse addressed to them; but Arnold's habit of delivering a sermon every Sunday afternoon is now universally followed. As with other innovations at Rugby, he felt his way slowly. At first, he limited his addresses to about five minutes ; but during the last fourteen years of his life his exhortations took the form of a set sermon of some twenty minutes' duration, and the discourses so delivered are still regarded as the best models of that type of preaching.

No boy left Rugby without retaining an indelible memory of the Sunday services in the school chapel. One pupil, who preserved throughout his life a living recollection of Arnold the preacher, has recorded that to the lads who heard him the impression of the man counted for far more than his words. " He was not the preacher or the clergyman who had left behind him all his usual thoughts and occupations as soon as he had ascended the pulpit. He was still the scholar, the historian, and theologian, basing all that he said, not indeed ostensibly, but consciously, and often visibly, on the deepest principles of the past and present. He was still the instructor and the schoolmaster, only teaching and educating with increased solemnity and energy. He was still the simple-hearted and earnest man, labouring to win others to share in his own personal feelings of disgust at sin, and love of goodness, and to trust to the same faith, in which he hoped to live and die himself." The same witness tells how the lapse of years failed to dim the picture of that band of eager youths who, Sunday after Sunday, " sat beneath that pulpit, with their eyes fixed on him, and their attention strained to the uttermost to catch every word he uttered ; " and another records concerning Arnold's sermons how he used to " listen to them from first to last with a kind of awe," and was often so impressed that on coming out of the chapel he would avoid his friends in order that he might slink home to be alone with his thoughts.

A brief extract from one of those memorable sermons the last Arnold gave - will, even though robbed of the preacher's living accents, reveal something of the lofty spirit of the speaker. It was on an early Sunday afternoon in June that he took his place in his pulpit for the last time. The school was on the eve of vacation, and he who had been for so many notable years its fearless guide and head was moved to utter these farewell words : The real point which concerns us all, is not whether our sin be of one kind or of another, more or less venial, or more or less mischievous in man's judgment, and to our worldly interests ; but whether we struggle against all sin because it is sin ; whether we have or have not placed ourselves consciously under the banner of our Lord Jesus Christ, trusting in Him, cleaving to Him, feeding on Him by faith daily, and so resolved, and continually renewing our resolution, to be His faithful soldiers and servants to our lives' end. To this I would call you all, so long as I am permitted to speak to you to this I do call you all, and especially all who are likely to meet here again after a short interval, that you may return Christ's servants with a believing and loving heart ; and, if this be so, I care little as to what particular form temptations from without may take ; there will be a security within a security not of man, but of God."

Within the walls which so often echoed to his earnest voice, and under the shadow of that pulpit from whence he impressed his noble character on so many youthful spirits, the body of Thomas Arnold was laid to its rest. And now, for the sake of that rare spirit, and because of the exalted elegy to his memory penned by his own son, Rugby Chapel possesses associations such as few sacred buildings can claim. Surely none who muse within its silent walls can miss the lesson of the poet-son of the great school-master :

O strong soul, by what shore
Tarriest thou now ? For that force,
Surely, has not been left vain !
Somewhere, surely, afar,
In the sounding labour-house vast
Of being, is practised that strength,
Zealous, beneficent, firm !

Yes, in some far shining sphere,
Conscious or not of the past,
Still thou performest the word
Of the Spirit in whom thou dost live,
Prompt, unwearied, as here.
Still thou upraisest with zeal
The humble good from the ground,
Sternly repressest the bad;
Still, like a trumpet, dost rouse
Those who with half-open eyes
Tread the border-land dim
'Twixt vice and virtue ; reviv'st,
Succorest. This was thy work,
This was thy life upon earth.

And through thee I believe
In the noble and great who are gone;
Pure souls honoured and blest
By former ages, who else
Such, so soulless, so poor
Is the race of men whom I see
Seemed but a dream of the heart,
Seemed but a cry of desire.

Wholly different is the interest attaching to the pulpit from which Henry Edward Manning exercised his ministry before he went over to the Church of Rome. It is to be found in the picturesque little church of Lavington, in the English county of Sussex, beneath the shadow of which Richard Cobden is buried. When Manning was appointed to, this rural living, the church was in a neglected condition, and the present structure, as well as the pews, furniture and pulpit, were designed and erected under his supervision.

Two critical phases in the career of the future cardinal are associated with Lavington Church. Under its roof he went through a ceremony which, if it had been lasting in its results, would have effectually prevented him from having been even a humble priest in the Roman Church. In the closing decade of his life, when he had nursed for many years his unaccountable hostility to Newman, one of Manning's supporters had declared, " Newman's conversion is the greatest calamity which has befallen the Catholic Church in our day." To this aspersion a friend of Newman retorted, " No, the greatest calamity to the Church in our day was the death of a woman." Of course this rejoinder was aimed at Manning, who, in his early manhood, had taken a wife to himself at the altar beside his pulpit in Lavington Church. That Manning resented the remark may be inferred from the fact that when he charged its supposed author with the utterance, he only replied, " I pity the man who repeated it to your Grace."

Less than four years after the marriage, Manning's wife died, and thenceforward, but especially after he became a Catholic, he carefully obliterated all traces of that episode from his life. References in his diary were all expunged ; letters belonging to that period were wholly destroyed ; an unfinished portrait for which Mrs. Manning had given but one sitting mysteriously disappeared ; and when, after he became a cardinal, the churchwardens of Lavington wrote to inform him that his wife's grave was falling into decay, his reply was: " It is best so; let it be. Time effaces all things. Manning never alluded to his wife after he went over to Rome. His candid biographer thinks the reason may have been that he was afraid the knowledge that he had once been married might have lessened the respect of his Catholic flock ; but, whatever the cause, the fact was so thoroughly obliterated that when he died few Catholics or members of the general public knew that the cardinal had once been a husband.

Apart from this episode, however, the chief interest in the pulpit of Lavington Church consists in the fact that it was from its vantage ground Manning preached his last sermon as a minister of the Church of England. During the last two or three of the seventeen years he ministered here his mind was greatly perplexed as to what path he ought to follow. At last, as the year 1850 waned to its close, he felt that he could not any longer retain his position in the English church. " I feel," he wrote, " that my foot is in the river. It is cold, and my heart is sad." A little later he told the same friend that he was " suffering deeply," adding, " I have not much to say about our dear home and flock. They are very sorry, and speak very kindly. What tender affections, and visions of beauty and of peace move to and fro under that hillside where I see it rise in memory. Nothing in all this life, except the Altar, can ever again be to me as Lavington." Perhaps, even after he be-came the famous cardinal, and moved at his ease among the great men who controlled the public affairs of his time, Manning, in his inner-most heart, often thought of that humble pulpit in Lavington Church, and wished that the crumbling grave in that village God's-acre had not so untimely claimed its beautiful victim.

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