Cooke, C. Hanbury (Jack)

The Boy Preacher

Christian Messenger 1904
Christian Messenger 1904

Transcription of Sketch In the Christian Messenger by W. Jones Davies

The object of this sketch is not to boom a youth, who is already popular enough, but to give those readers of the MESSENGER, who live away from the great centres of population, and who have not had the opportunity of either seeing or hearing him an idea of the character and work of this modern phenomenon. That he is a phenomenon all who have heard him will readily admit – even those who ignore the spiritual source of his power, and dislike the unusual and the notorious most; and the crowds that come to hear him night after night are evidence that his drawing power does not lie alone, nor chiefly in the fact that he is a boy, but in the remarkable things to which he gives utterance, and the wonderful way in which they are said.

Jack Cooke is not a preacher in the conventional sense of the term, for he rarely takes a text, but usually selects some theme such as “The Bible,” “Time,” “Sin,” “Christ,” “ Salvation,” “Faith,” etc., which he unfolds in quite an unusual way. His treatment of these subjects is neither topical, anecdotal, nor exegetical (for his use of Scripture quotations is meagre), but reflective and philosophical. Sometimes running off into hazy speculations and fine-spun theories, but ever coming back to the main idea, which is still further unravelled and made to scintilate with fresh light. It must be confessed that he is not always clear, and his drift, sometimes, difficult to discern, but in spite of some incoherency the effect of his words upon the audience on the whole is often electrical. His addresses manifest the mind of a full-grown man, rather than that of a youth, for there is a culture, breadth, and depth of conviction about them quite unusual in one so young. His thoughts are clothed in chaste language, and adorned with many a beautiful epigram and finely turned phrase. His flow of language is torrential, never hesitating for a word, defying the efforts of the reporters to take down his addresses verbatim. His voice is mellifluous, but not powerful, well modulated and full of sweet cadences. His manner is dignified and serious, sometimes intensely serious, and there is no trace of flippancy or lightness from beginning to end.

The address lasts from thirty to forty minutes, sometimes more, and holds the listeners rivetted from first to last. Not that all is grasped that he says, for often the range of his discourse is on a level far above the unpractised hearer; but the personal magnetism of the youth, his sweet voice, serious tone, and rapid utterance, hold those who fail to understand – as music captivates people who may be unskilled in the art. The meetings and addresses have a cumulative quality in them. Beginning quietly, they grow in interest and intensity, until, when the end is reached, and the final appeal made, the effect is often magnetic and mighty; and as a result many are moved to testify their willingness to lead a better life, and sufficiently wrought upon to leave their seats and enter the enquiry-room. One of his greatest gifts is the power to make his audiences see and feel the folly and sinfulness of sin, following the wrong-doer into his retreats and subterfuges; compelling him to come forth into the light of the holy Lord and to tremble in the presence of the Divine.

I shall not soon forget a service, where the greater part of the audience consisted of professing Christians, in which he so revealed the sinfulness of the human heart, that the whole congregation seemed ready to cry out: “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” After that service an official in my church, a man good and true, said to me, “He made me feel a greater sinner in the sight of God than ever I felt before.” But there is no attempt to work upon the feelings of the people, or to unduly excite the emotions, and there is quite an absence of sensationalism in manner, matter, and method. The appeals are to the reason and conscience and through them to the heart.

One address I heard him give was upon the mission of Christ in the world. He said Christ’s life and work are a great whole (every part being an addition to that which preceded it) which have had the effect of revolutionising the world’s history and turning men’s thoughts heavenward. By Christ’s life truths that were known to men before, passed out of the realm of the human and became Divine truths, and so were filled with a new light, and transfigured as by the rays of the noon-day sun; and were invested with a new power, indeed, with Divine omnipotence. Hence by Christ the love and wisdom of God were brought within the reach and compass of the minds of the poorest and simplest. Jesus came to make God possible for all, and only through Him could men see God and come nigh to God. Hence those who reject Him cut themselves off from God and from eternal life.

But these scraps give no adequate idea of the whole, for the truths spoken were put in so many different aspects and illustrated and illuminated by so many beautiful similes and choice phrasings, that the effect upon the audience was like that of an ever-changing kaleidoscope upon the astonished vision. There is little wonder that crowds gather to listen, both in London and the provinces, and in America. Some of the largest buildings have been engaged in the towns visited, but these have invariably filled to over?owing, and while many attend out of curiosity, many also remain to pray; many hundreds, indeed thousands, having been converted through his instrumentality. Nor is his work ephemeral in character, but stands the test of time. Pastor Cuff, of the Shoreditch Tabernacle, says that six hundred and ten professed to find Christ in the mission, and that the greater part of the number have joined the church, and in addition every agency in the church was quickened. By their fruits let them be known.

I have been asked the question: “How do you account for Jack Cooke?” And the only reply is “I cannot account for him on any ordinary hypothesis.” Of course it is easy to say that it is because he is filled with the Holy Spirit. But it is impossible to forget that many another youth is so filled, but who, nevertheless, cannot speak as he can; and moreover, the Spirit must have material upon which to work and a channel for his operations. If this be not so, then why is not every Spirit-filled person an orator? Nor must it be forgotten that the world has seen phenomenal youths before and in different spheres. Boys with wonderful memories, who blindfolded will tell the total of a sum, added up and down and across of a hundred figures. Boys who could read Latin and Greek at seven, and play and compose music like Handel at eight, and write a poem like Kingsley at four. But we call these gifts, not inspirations.

The psychologist would offer probably this explanation. Jack Cooke has an abnormally large field of sub-luminal consciousness, from which incursions are made into the realm of active consciousness; and that his mental apparatus and powers of utterance are under the control of these sub-marginal forces. Not that he speaks hypnotically, or that his words are trance-utterances, but that they are of the same order as these, and if they were only pushed a little further back from the waking consciousness, would be trance-utterances, or the “gift of tongues.” While such an explanation may not wholly account for the phenomena (for the sub-conscious life must have some inciting cause stirring it up to activity), yet it is far more feasible than to attribute them to memory as some have done. But the fact that the boy never repeats his discourses is a sufficient reply to this. Like other speakers he repeats his themes, but those who have heard him over a hundred times say that they have never heard the address twice over alike. There is also a spontaneity about him that suggests that his utterances do not come from memory, but from the deeper depths of the soul, like waters from a spring.

We have had boy preachers like Spurgeon, who began to preach when fifteen years of age; and like the Revs. Joel Hodgson and Danzy Sheen in our own church. But these carefully prepared their discourses, and their efforts may have been called preaching. But it is different with Jack Cooke. His discourses are not sermons, but themes philosophically treated, delivered with great spontaneity, and apparently without previous effort; for he seldom prepares a sermon specifically, and often extemporises upon a subject given to him by the audience. He is not a close student. He reads, but neither the quantity nor the quality is of an unusual kind, nor are his habits of life in any way abnormal. His manner in private is simple and pleasant. He is fond of an argument in which he can hold his own, and may be described as a bright, sweet, natural, high-minded youth. He is fond of walking, riding, bicycling, and other out-door exercises, and spends much of his time in the open air, and seldom enters the building where his services are being held until it is time to give the address. These habits, no doubt, greatly assist in keeping him in good health under the stress and strain of his exacting public life. He appears frail as he stands on the platform, and a sympathetic listener cannot help wondering how long he will be able to bear the pressure; and If there will not be a speedy collapse. But he has more endurance than he appears to have.

Of this the following incident, which happened in connection with his mission in Grimsby, testifies. He failed to catch the last through train from Manchester on the Saturday night, so had to get as far as the next train would take him in the direction of his destination. This landed him at Retford at one o’clock in the morning in the dead of winter. He then mounted his motor-bicycle and set off towards Grimsby without knowing a yard of the road. It was too dark to see the finger-posts without climbing them and striking a light, and too late to make inquiries at either cottage or farm, for all the inmates were sound asleep; consequently, he wandered miles out of his way. His lamp eventually burned out, he also punctured a tyre of his machine, so had to walk the last ten miles of the journey, arriving at six a.m. on the Sunday morning. But after these experiences he gave during the day three of his remarkable addresses, and went through the whole mission as if nothing had happened.

Jack Cooke is now about 16 years of age, but he began his public career at the early age of ten in Manchester. His father (since deceased) was then a schoolmaster in that city; a man of fine appearance and considerable culture, who became converted after his family of eight children (of whom Jack is the seventh) were born. After this new spiritual experience he commenced holding services for Scripture-reading and prayer with his wife and children. After one of these services it was noticed that Jack had fallen back in his chair in a sort of trance. After a little while he came to himself, and, in reply to a question from his father, said, “Father, this thing is of God.” And by the wonderful way in which he answered questions put to him on the Scriptures, it was evident that a great change had come over him, and thus suddenly he passed from apparently an ordinary and uninteresting boy into a religious philosopher who could pour forth such wisdom as to astonish even educated people. His father began to conduct open-air services at Moss Side, at which Jack was invited to speak, and he did so without the least trace of nervousness. The following Sunday the father undertook that his son would speak upon any subject given, and answer any question that might be put to him. Many sceptics were in the crowd, who put to the boy some puzzling questions which he answered in such a way as to utterly silence them. His father said once, in my presence, that the boy’s greatest successes and most brilliant replies were when subjects were given him of which he had heard nothing before.

Living in Manchester at this time I attended a service in one of our mission-rooms at which the boy gave an address on “Love.” based on 1 Cor., xiii. The feeling I had then was that he was possessed by some older personality than his own who was speaking through him, for his words were far beyond his years. The same feeling came back to me when I heard him six years later; but in a less degree. The years, too, had made a difference in the quality of the discourse, there being a considerable advance in the depths of thought, spiritual insight, and lucidity of expression, and also he had a much stronger grip of his audience. Then he was a boy, and the effect was that of a boy, but now he is “a master of assemblies.” That these phenomenal powers are all the direct gifts of the Spirit I do not believe, but that the Holy Spirit is at work in and through him is unquestionable, for the fruits of his labours are the fruits of the Spirit; and such gifts as he possesses furnish a most facile medium for spiritual operations. That these gifts are Divinely controlled does not lie in their extraordinary character, but in the fact that they are used in ways acknowledged by universal religious judgment to be Divine. It is quite possible to use such gifts selfishly and against the kingdom of Christ, but here they are used for the advancement of the kingdom, and herein lies the truth that this youth is moved of God. It is an old saying that gifts are not graces, and they only become such when the motives are cleansed and the aims sanctified by the Holy Spirit of God. We may possess but few gifts, but the graces are open equally to all. Personally speaking, I have no doubt about God having called this youth into his service as He called Samuel and Timothy, and many others. And while it would not be wise to encourage the cult of boy preachers in a general way (for forced growths are usually weak growths) yet there are exceptions to all rules, and this is evidently one. If a youth can gather together crowds of interested people willing to listen to the deeper moral and spiritual truths in an age of wide-spread religious indifference, and lead them not only to think about higher things, but to will to do them, they are “signs” that God has called him to this work, and are the Divine “seal” upon what this boy is doing. It is easy to be critical of such phenomena, and not hard to show reasons why they should not be encouraged; but anyone coming under the spell of Jack Cooke’s personality will, instead of criticising, be more inclined to pray that God will keep the youth as pure, sweet, and free from guile as he is at present, and, that he may have increasing success in the holy task of leading men and women into the joys and sacrifices of the Christian life.

Family and other information

I have not been able to identify ‘Jack’ in census returns. Can anyone point me in the right direction?

References

Christian Messenger 1904/149

Note: The original article was not split into paragraphs. The setting of paragraphs is the work of the transcriber to aid reading of the article.

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