[From H Stowell Brown, Notes of my Life, 1888]
THE Independent Church in Douglas was in low water. The minister, Mr. Harrison, asked me to lend him a hand, and I did so for some half-dozen Sunday evenings. The chapel was crowded, and I began to feel that I could preach. In the north end of Douglas there was a small Methodist chapel which had been closed, and was to be let or sold. A few friends rallied round me, and we began to negotiate for the empty chapel. It was in the month of March; I was just about to complete an agreement with the trustees, when I received a letter which entirely altered my course, and brought me to Liverpool, where I have lived and laboured ever since.
On a dark and stormy night in the month of March, 1847, I crossed from my native town of Douglas in the Isle of Man to Liverpool. I had received an invitation to preach in Myrtle Street Chapel on the following Sunday. The letter conveying that invitation was written by a gentleman whom I did not know then but whom it was afterwards my happiness to know for many years, and whom I shall often have occasion to mention in this narrative. I need indeed scarcely say that any account of my life and work in Liverpool, associated as it must be with the history of Myrtle Street Church, would be very incomplete without more than one allusion to my recently departed friend, Mr. Godfrey. I say I did not know him when I received that letter; to the best of my recollection I did not know any person in this town. I had often passed through Liverpool, but was not at all acquainted with it; I did not know of the existence of Myrtle Street Chapel, or of Myrtle Street itself; I had never heard of any Baptist chapel in the town. I remember that some years previous to the time I am now writing about, I was walking with a brother of mine, who then lived in Liverpool, who was a very devoted young Tory and Churchman, and a member of the Protestant Association, when we passed a building then quite new, which years afterwards I learned was Pembroke Chapel. Struck with the handsome appearance of the edifice, I asked my brother what it was, to which he replied, "Oh! its only some horrid schism shop." That was almost the extent of my acquaintance with Liverpool, with of course some knowledge of the name of Dr. Raffles when I received the invitation to preach there. On that day, the 27th of March, 1847, I came to Liverpool a total stranger!
I was a stranger not only to the Baptists of Liverpool, but to almost all Baptists anywhere. I had been a member of the denomination for rio more than twelve or thirteen weeks, and the only Baptist minister whom I knew was Mr. Forster, then of Stony Stratford in Buckinghamshire, and now of Hereford, who baptized me, and whose church I joined, I think, in the month of December, 1846. Him I knew, and one or two of his friends I knew, but that was the extent of my acquaintance with the Baptist body, when to my astonishment I received that letter signed by G. Godfrey, Surgeon, Liverpool. I called upon that good man in due time; he was the first member of my congregation I saw, and a favourable specimen, as many can testify. After entering into some explanations, and giving me to understand that they were wanting a pastor, he asked to be excused for telling me that I had been asked only as a supply, but that as to anything further of course he could not say. After more such information and explanation he proposed to accompany me to the place, that I might see it before having to preach in it. Now I, poor creature, had never, to my knowledge, seen any Baptist chapel save that at Stony Stratford, which is as proper an old barn of a place as ever was devoted to Christian worship. Judge then of my surprise when, as we reached the top of Hardman Street, my new acquaintance said, " There, sir, thats our chapel." I think if there had been a steamer that day bound for Douglas, I should have returned, even had it been through the fiercest storm that ever swept the Irish Sea. The idea of my preaching in such a place was almost too much for me. But when we had got the keys from our chapel-keeper, the inner glories of the place appeared to my rustic gaze something overpowering; and when at my good friends suggestion I walked up the pulpit-stairs and looked around me, I was almost stunned. For the information of my younger friends I ought to say that the chapel was then very different from what it is now; it was, I think I must admit, much handsomer. That I have spoiled it I frankly own. Yet even then my imprudent eye detected one contrivance that was not beautifulthe chandeliers that hung from the ceiling. Those who never saw them have reason to be thankful that they have been spared the sight of one form of ugliness which it would be hard to equal. Those chandeliers were like nothing else in the heavens above, or in the earth beneath, or in the waters under the earth. I do not know to whose singular genius the chapel was indebted for them. How shall I describe them? Nay, they are indescribable. Had one of them been hung outside the chapel I dont believe that any horse in Liverpool could have been persuaded to approach within a hundred yards of it. I will only say that one of them, the central one, weighed, I believe, a couple of tons. It was made fast to a windlass in the garret, and people who were rather nervous, and had a regard for their safety, very properly declined to sit beneath it, for had the chain snapped, it would have crushed through people, pews and floor, not stopping until it had buried its victims in earth. Another of these monsters not quite so heavy was hung right over the pulpit, and although I am not a particularly nervous man, I preached for years with the unpleasant thought that my life hung by a rapidly-rusting chain, and that one day I might be jammed into a mince-pie in the pulpit, in the very sight of a terrified and mourning congregation.
Now if I must tell you frankly what I felt as I looked round the place standing in the pulpit that morning; I felt deeply thankful that I was asked merely as a supply; that I was not to be in the responsible, and, as I then felt for me, utterly ridiculous position of a candidate for such a pulpit. And I afterwards had reason to be thankful that such were my feelings. I preached badly enough, I know, but my preaching would have been a good deal worse if I had had the slightest idea that I was anything but a sort of makeshift or stopgap. Believing that I was only this, I felt that no one would care much to criticise my appearance, my manner, or my discourses I should be heard and forgotten; no opinions would be formed either one way or the other, and there the matter would end. At all events I can .most truthfully say, that when I stood in that pulpit, the idea of my ever being the minister of Myrtle Street Chapel did not cross my mind, and had it been suggested to me I should have dismissed it as a wild and foolish dream,
The Sunday came, a most eventful Sunday; but happily, I did not know how eventful it was likely to be. I do not take credit to myself for great humility, I only take credit for a moderate amount of common sense ; but having only just begun to preach, and being a total stranger to almost the whole denomination, it was a most unlikely thing that I should forthwith be regarded as even a candidate for the pastorship. And in this spirit, willing to do my duty, but really very little concerned whether I gave satisfaction or not, I went to Myrtle Street Chapel on that Sunday morning. I had preached about a dozen sermons, certainly not more; out of that dozen there were not more than four that I could dare to preach again. There was one, however, which, let me confess it, I was weak enough to regard as a remarkable performance, and a remarkable performance indeed it was. I then thought it by far the best in my slender stock; I have since thought that it must really have been the worst. I wonder it was not my ruin, for there were faults in it numerous enough, glaring enough, and bad enough to destroy any young mans prospects in the ministry. There might be between four hundred and five hundred people in the chapel that morning; I do not think more, for the chapel would hold a thousand people. The weather was cold and damp, and an altogether unknown person of the name of Brown was to occupy the pulpit. Half-full the chapel might he or thereabouts, and there was I, a pale, thin, rawboned youth, and less regardful of my personal get-up than I am now, and that is saying a great deal.
If I had had any idea that any pew in that assembly was watching with a critical eye, and listening with a critical ear, having in view ideas of the choice of a pastor, I should have trembled like a leaf and been so afraid of making mistakes that I should have made nothing else; but though I was not very happy, I was composed and cool, sustained by the firm belief that was there only for the day. I had committed well t memory my puerile sermon, which, as I have said, was enough to extinguish a man. Somehow or other I hav preserved it, though it ought to have been destroyed long ago; but it has escaped the flames which have consumed many hundreds of my discourses, and I found it the other day in looking up some old papers, With the ambition that is distinctive of young preachers I had chosen a great and glorious text, one from which I should now almost shrink with a deep feeling of inability to treat it as it ought to be treated. But to a young preacher nothing is too great, too difficult, too mysterious, or too sublime. I took for my text the solemn words uttered by our Lord on the Cross, "It is finished." Perhaps in point of doctrine the sermon was not so bad. But oh, the attempts to be eloquent, grand, impressive, powerful, the figures of speech, the rhetorical flourishes! I think that I have some credit now for a plain and homely style; there was little sign or promise of it then. Imagine me now in such a lofty style as this. Addressing the stars, I said : "Are there no mysteries among you, ye stars of night? Have ye no inhabitants who are the object of a Creators love? Wherefore, then, do ye hang upon His arm and roll around His feet? Wherefore do ye raise your useless heads above the waves of space like fishes wandering in the Arctic Sea?" And then addressing Death, I cried out: "No, Death, thou hast conquered one world, but think not to stretch thy sceptre beyond its boundaries; think not to speed thee on thy blackening wings to fairer worlds on high; think not to scatter thy poisonous darts among the hosts of heaven!" And then I asked these interesting questions about the world: "\Vherefore was this den of traitors suffered to continue in existence? Wherefore was not this world driven from the universe, and sent reeking into some region of the illimitable void, and doomed to wander for ever in the realms of blackest night ? " But, perhaps, the climax of the sublime was reached when I exclaimed: "Oh, how would Satan have exulted had he beheld the forceps of Gods wrath grasping the world by its poles and hurling it into hell I" Then by a wonderful change of metaphor I said: "No, Satan, thou hast wrecked this world upon the rocks of sin, but thou shalt not drown its people in the gurgling waters of eternal death." And again changing the metaphor, but still addressing my old enemy, I said "Yes, thou who art as a young lion, thy prey is groaning in thy teeth; yes, here cometh the second Daniel who shall deliver the sheep which thou hast seized," I had not been preaching five weeks before all this awful nonsense had escaped these foolish and inexperienced lips. There was, of course, a peroration of corresponding brilliancy. "It is finished ; blessed proclamation: earth listened to the sound, and trembled while it listened! Heaven heard the all-potent words, and gathered up its clouds and looked cheerfully on the earth again, and the clouds rolled themselves away like the smoke of battle when the fight is ended ! It struck on Satans ear" (you see I could not leave him alone), "it struck on Satans ear, and he turned pale to hear a voice laden with the destruction of his power. It ran through the armies of the angels, and a shout of victory rang through the courts of heaven, and was answered by deep groans from hell !" And so with a cordial invitation to the morning stars to sing together, and to the sons of God to shout for joy, this brilliant discourse was brought to an end.
Well, I had made a great fool of myself, but the fact was mercifully hidden from me. How shall I ever sufficiently admire or be sufficiently grateful for the patience and forbearance of such veterans as Mr. Godfrey, Mr. Pearce, and Mr. A. Brown! Why, I do believe that one of them actually thanked me for that stuff; not, I am very sure, because they could in the least admire it, but because with the courtesy which always distinguished them, they were loth to hurt my feelings. But I think that on that day at many a dinner-table I must have beenI deserved to bethe object of unsparing ridicule and convulsive laughter. Indeed I remember being a little disturbed during the service by seeing one gentleman holding his hand over his mouth, unable to keep a grave face. He told me afterwardsa long time afterwards thoughthat my impression was correct; he could stand a good deal, but the forceps grasping the globe by the poles was too much for him, and fairly bowled him over. I have often wondered since that the chapel was not all on a titter, nay that there were not even bursts of laughter. The most gentlemanly man might, I think, be fairly excused if the screaming apostrophes which I addressed to the stars, the angels, and death, had made him roar I Was it then on the strength of the impression produced by that discourse that I was ultimately chosen for the pastorate? No; let me rescue the Church from the suspicion of having acted in a manner so idiotic. I preached on the evening of that day. Perhaps the effort of the morning had tamed me and cooled me down ; at all events I was calmer and more sensible, although I preached on a text which quite as much as the other invited me to indulge in my propensity for the sublimely ridiculous and the ridiculously sublime.
But the discourse, so far as I can remember, for I have lost it, was not so skiey nor so starry as the other, and on that account was, I hope, rather better liked. And now, as I have made a very frank confession of my foolishness, allow me to say this also, that although I did not think my sermons mere rant or rubbish, still I was not proud of them. I did not think that I had played the fool, neither did I think that I had done any great thing. I was neither ashamed nor vain at the thought of my performance, but I do remember most acutely feeling, all through the day, that I was utterly unequal to the task of preaching as the hearers of good old Mr. Lister ought to have been preached to, and nothing surprised me more than when at the end of the evening service I was asked to preach again on tl1e following Sunday. To the credit of the deacons be it understood, that the invitation was given not because I had acquitted myself to their satisfaction, but because the gentleman who had been expected had written to say that he could not come. I rather think the gentleman was Mr. Tucker, then of Manchester, and to his sore throat I was indebted for another chance. I suppose that on the second Sunday I got on rather better. By that time too I had made the acquaintance of several members of the congregation, and had received much kindness from them in their hospitable homes, whereby I ventured to hope, but very faintly, that I might become a candidate for the pastorship of the church.
Four months afterwards I received a letter from my old friend Mr. Godfrey, stating that the Church had agreed to invite me upon a three months probation. Mr. Godfrey informed me how glad he was that no opposition had been raised, that the resolution had been carried quietly and silently. It was not a very enthusiastic vote of invitation. However, after thinking matters over, I resolved to accept it, and accordingly in the month of August 1847 I entered on my trial. The three months soon passed by, and then came the great question of election to the pastorate, which was settled in November by a resolution, not unanimous, which asked me to accept the responsible post. There was, however, a minority in opposition, and I have always been thankful that there was. It made me humbler, more careful, more industrious than I should otherwise have been. And those of my friends who were in the majority on that occasion will, I am sure, allow me to say that the minority, if small in number, included men who were by no means to be despised. It included two of the deacons of the Church, both of them very worthy men, one of them, I say it with no prejudice to the other, a remarkably energetic, intelligent, and able man. With very few exceptions the minority remained with us ; one or two of those who left, in the course of time returned, and I had the satisfaction of seeing that energetic, intelligent, and able man, who had resigned his deaconship, re-elected to that office, and honourably and usefully fulfilling its duties until his deeply lamented death. Almost without exception the members of that minority became very steadfast friends of mine, and there are few facts in the course of my ministry that I can look upon with greater pleasure than that which I feel when I think of this.
With thankfulness and joy I accepted the invitation. One of the greatest questions of my life was settled. Perhaps it was a bold and daring thing to do, but twelve months after joining the denomination, still almost a total stranger to district and members ; at the age of twenty-three, without any experience in pastoral work, with very little experience in preaching, with a very slender amount of knowledge, with about five-andtwenty volumes in a box as my library, with hardly any acquaintance with the world, to have either the courage or the audacity to take the prominent post in this great scene and centre of commercial life! My probation closed with the baptism of twelve candidates, among whom was our excellent friend Mr. Mounsey, a man of whom any Church would have reason to be proud, and who has from that day to this served the Church wiith a devotion, a fidelity, a common sense, and a practical efficiency that could not be surpassed, and ale very seldom equalled.