Reminiscences of Great Preachers: Through Memory’s Sunset Air
Some “Spiritual Trojans,” and the Jubilee Conference
Transcription of an Article in the Primitive Methodist Magazine by A Septuagenarian
Of Primitive Methodist preachers whose sermons have deeply impressed me I can only name a few; they chiefly in the North of England. Only a few, I say, remain with indistinctness of definition and spiritual power. It may be a bold thing to say, yet I venture to say it, Primitive Methodism in the century of its history has had no preacher to surpass the Rev. Thomas Greenfield in purely expository preaching. Not many knew their Greek Testament as familiarly as did he, and he was nearly as familiar with his Hebrew Bible. No one doubted his equipment who knew him, but he did not carry his heart upon his sleeve. He was so genial in soul, so mentally alert, so modest about his own acquirements, so devout in spirit, so ready to assist a learner, and added to all, his pawky humour was simply delightful. Could he have given himself to church affairs and to the cultivation of the arts of oratory he would have been in the front rank of conspicuous ministers. But every man in his own order. I never think of him without recalling the scene in the Stockton District Meeting when he preached what I may call the official sermon on the Sunday forenoon in Paradise Place Chapel. The preacher was more than himself; God’s Spirit spake in him and by Him, his very countenance was lit up; he was a plain man, but as I gazed upon him I could but think of the angel-face of Stephen. He was also a quiet man, but he let himself go now and his voice rang out and filled the place. I am not over addicted to what Othello calls the melting mood, but I felt my eyes moisten, and all over the place was the sense of the presence and power of God; the congregation was moved as the trees of the forest are swayed by the wind; not by eloquence, for in the popular sense there was none: ‘‘The wind bloweth where it listeth.”
Another man who never did himself justice in public estimation was William Graham. I say quite advisedly that he packed more acute and original thinking and more apposite and telling illustration into his sermons than any preacher I ever listened to, and I ought to know, for at one period I heard him frequently and knew him intimately. How I deplored his lack of the gift of popular utterance, but for this very few ministers of my acquaintance would have out-distanced him. Not many men knew English literature better than he did, or could appraise it better; if his range was wide his grasp was thorough.
Everyone who knew Rev. Hugh Gilmore will agree with me that his personality was strong and fascinating; no scene could be dull where Hugh Gilmore was. On the platform he would dominate a meeting, even with an unfriendly element in it, with remarkable skill, and could move it to laughter, or tears, or indignation, indeed, he could carry his audience with him into any mood. In the pulpit he held his congregations by the same delightful spell. Those who heard him once wanted to hear him again.
In this brief enumeration I have kept the first to the last. It was my great privilege to know Rev. Henry Hebbron during the early part of his superannuation. We lived in the same town; ten minutes would take me from my house to his, so that I got to know him and his most excellent wife very well. But perhaps some young reader may say, “Henry Hebbron! who and what was he? I have heard of many notable preachers, but this Mr. Hebbron is not even a name to me.” I can only pity my young friend; he was born too late; and, alas for human fame, sixty years ago this name filled the North of England Primitive Methodism. He was a man of large build, with noble head and oval face; he was of florid complexion, with remarkable mobility of facial expression; his very face and eyes spoke. I heard him on several occasions preach with great power. The substance of the sermons did not attract me, but the spiritual power of the preaching did. In a long life I have witnessed platform speakers transporting a public meeting, but I at once give the palm to Mr. Hebbron in this; his ready wit, his power of vivid description, his tender pathos, and the spiritual influence he carried with him, made him one of the heroes of his time, and I count it an honour to have known him.
Jubilee Conference 1860
But I now recall some of the scenes of what I may call a great historic occasion: the Jubilee Conference of 1860 held in the then newly erected Jubilee Chapel, Tunstall, in which I sat as a deeply interested spectator. What an eventful fifty years from 1810 to 1860. What a great work had God wrought by the fathers of the Connexion. “Spiritual Trojans,” I have heard them called, or “God’s athletes,” as the early Christians called those who served memorably and suffered much. Their heroic service is well set forth in the deeply interesting “History of the Connexion,” by Rev. H. B. Kendall, B.A.
It was perfectly fitting that the Jubilee Conference should assemble at the Church’s birthplace, and for the same reason, only with stronger emphasis, it will be a fitting thing for the Centenary Conference to meet at the same place. But between now and then a great work will be done as the outcome of Christian enterprise and Connexional loyalty. But I revert to the Jubilee Conference. The Rev. John Petty was President that year, and well do I remember with what tact, firmness, and kindliness he held the reins. As to the business and debates my memory is practically a blank. Two events, however, made this Conference memorable to me: The Foundation Stone Ceremony on Mow Cop on the Saturday afternoon, and the Sunday afternoon service in the Jubilee Chapel. The walk from Tunstall to Mow Hill was a pilgrimage to me; I was possessed by a spirit of reverence; I had no desire to talk, I lived in the past. The day was more than fine, it was radiant and the view from the hill-top was most striking, but I was absorbed with thoughts of that historic Camp Meeting – Shubotham’s “whole day’s praying ” and what came of it, but I was soon aroused from my reverie by the service; the foundation stone of a larger chapel was to be laid.
On the platform stood the President, Rev. J. Petty, next Rev. Philip Pugh, Superintendent of Tunstall Circuit, a man of outstanding mental gifts and endowments, Rev. Thomas Guttery, who became one of the foremost preachers of the Connexion, and others, of whom I can only name Rev. Jeremiah Dodsworth, Alderman W. Hodge, of Hull, who was to lay the stone, and his brother Mr. Samuel Hodge. The two brothers not only devised liberal things, they did them in many parts of the Connexion. Mr. Dodsworth’s address was suited to the special occasion, and punctuated with effective pleasantries, one of which was the recalling of the circumstance that he assisted those two merchants to count their first net gains when they commenced business, which when counted only came to a few shillings.
Every Primitive Methodist knows what a “high day ” the “Conference Sunday” is, but few such Sundays have been “ higher” than this one; only “the day” will show how many were born into the better life. After a very fine forenoon adverse weather drove us into the chapel in the afternoon, which was packed with people from far and near – an expectant, enthusiastic crowd. The tension of feeling was obvious. I fail to recall who the earlier preachers were, but between three and four o’clock Mr. Dodsworth was called upon. It was no easy task to take hold of such an excited assemblage and lift it to a higher level, but he was equal to the great occasion. It was soon perceived that he had that host of people in the hollow of his hand. I was familiar with the name of Mr. Dodsworth as the author of an eminently readable book, “The Better Land,” much in vogue at that time; as a popular preacher and a successful minister, yet I had never seen his face till this Conference, nor did I ever see him afterwards. There he stood, perfectly self-possessed, looking out upon that sea of eager faces, but the blush on his cheeks told how intensely the inner fires were burning. In a clear, ringing voice, yet in varying, sympathetic tones, he read his long text, that classic passage in Isaiah, “And an highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called, the way of Holiness,” etc. It is impossible to write a description of a sermon like this in cold blood, when every sentence is burnt in fire, yet you could not speak of it as original or profound, it was neither. Reading it in cold print you would lack the double equation of the preacher’s bodily presence and the vitalising energy of the Holy Spirit. All that I dare attempt to say is to note a few of the leading points and the issue. (1) It was a raised way– a highway. (2) It was a Holy way for holy travellers, not for the unclean. (3) It was an unmistakable way– a plain man, even a fool could not err therein. (4) A perfectly safe way– no violent beast could molest or destroy. (5) It was a triumphant way. The travel-stained wayfarers come to Zion singing songs; they are supremely blest and happy; sorrow and sighing are fled and gone. This may be called commonplace, but as it came from him it was lit up with supernal fire, it was the loftiest eloquence – the eloquence, as some one has said, which scorns to be eloquent; and judged by its power of persuasion it was one of the most eloquent sermons I ever heard. The pent-up emotions of the crowd were ready for expression, if not explosion, and the explosion came. A spark will ignite highly combustible material. The spark came in a simple, unintentional way; the more effective on that account. The stroke was truly and in the best sense dramatic. Raising his voice and extending his right arm he exclaimed, “There shall be no toll-bars on the King’s Highway!” Such a burst of “Hallelujahs” from hundreds of voices I never heard: everybody was moved; a wave of divine power swept over the entire assembly; one gentleman, “a grave and reverend seignior,” a dignitary from a well-known city, sitting near me was so moved that his eyes filled. It was a memorable day. A true Jubilee Day. May such days never cease from Primitive Methodism, lest it cease to be PrimitiveMethodism.
“Lord God of hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget, lest we forget!”
Primitive Methodist Magazine 1907/351
Note: The sub-headings have been included by the transcriber and are not part of the original article.