[Taken from Manx Wesleyan Church Record 1893]
[published in two instalments (March & April 1893) - Radcliffe would have been an impressionable sixteen year old in 1832, it is not clear however if the description was a memory of an actual service or put together some 60 years later from memory of several later sermons - it is also not clear as to intended audience, it reads at times as if Radcliffe was trying to use Aitkin as an example in the training of Preachers]
BY Rev. WILLIAM T. RADCLIFFE.
The time of this episode begins about 1832, the year of the first cholera visitation. In the Island it was a time of unusual religious impression. Death was often sudden. You might meet the funeral procession to-day of one with whom you conversed on the Pier yesterday. The year became one of religious revivals, daily prayer meetings, full congregations, many converrsions amongst the Manx people, and much prosperity in the work of God.
In a previous paper, I have noted the old Methodist Circuit plan, on which appeared the name of Mr Aitkin as a preacher, between the names of the Circuit Ministers and the list of Local Preachers. Mr Aitkin was a conspicuous labourer in the Methodist revival of the time. The sketch of him and his ministrations is limited to his Insular Methodist life, omitting more than a reference to his previous clerical life in the Established Church, and to his ministry after retiring from Methodism for other spheres of action. About the epoch named, a new religious life had stirred his soul, (not without some indebtedness to Methodism), had transformed him into a mighty gospel preacher, and had made him a burning and shining light. Within the framework of the proposed parenthetical interval, let us study the famous preacher and his method and some lessons resulting.
First mark him in the pulpit. Even before he announces the first hymn, the air is electric, and the crowded Thomas-street congregation, though on a week-night, awake in expectation. The preacher is tall, commanding, clerical in garb, of earnest look, with hair far from being cropped in modern fashion, by and bye waving around as he becomes impassioned in address. How the voice startles in the number of the first hymn ; tones of thrilling power and ample range, rich in pathos, well under command while rising from the tender to the terrific, with a personality that may suggest a John Knox, or an Irving whose enthusiasm was there spoken of, and with something to suggest Scotland in the speech. With evangelical light and life, with resources of scholarship glowing with pentecostal fire, with an enthusiasm easily capable of excess as some might imagine, with natural powers of oratory seldom equalled, with the gown and bands of a clergyman, and, strangely enough, with the snuff-box on the pulpit ledge for occasional use, with abundant rhetorical resources as well - you have before you a man to whom you feel you must listen. Hear him as he reads out the hymn at first through all its verses. It is a lesson in elocution, if the sacred occasion allowed the thought. How the deep spiritual meaning as well as the poetic beauties come out in stereoscopic distinctness. The reading equals in light and impression many a sermon. Then comes the verse by verse, or rather, I think, two lines at a time as of old. That hymn makes it impossible to be listless. I name what seemed to be favourite hymns. Mark the mystery and submission of his tones:
"God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform," &c
The poet Cowper loses nothing by the recital. How the last line rings out in assurance, "He will make it plain !" How triumphant he becomes in manner and voice as he gives out that other hymn,
"Jesus, the Conqueror, reigns,
In gloriuos strength arrayed," &c.
How rapturous hope finds expression in the hymn whose first lines are,
"O, joyful sound of gospel grace !
Christ shall in me appear," &c.
And if you once heard him read out in tones of penitent agony, the lines and hymn,
"O, my offended God,
If now at last I see," &c.,
you could never forget them.
These are but examples and illustartions of his manner in the hymns of the service.
The sermon raised still higher. His texts struck as marks of genius. In the review, some fall of them fall into a pastoral and homeletical system of Christian doctrine. I can recall some in natural order. "And no man could bind Him; no not with chains" (St. Mark, v. 3) : Satan's power over the natural man. The fruits of religious decision were set forth in a sermon on Acts xix 18-19, the burning of the Books at Ephesus : the moral, each sinner has his besetment and must put it away. One whom I knew, feeling that music had too much adsorbed his attention and hindered him in religion, next morning committed his secular music to the kitchen fire. One of his mighty discourses was on Christ's Atoning Sacrifice ; "Ye are to come to the blood of sprinkling," &c.," (Hebrews xii, 24). The loss of early opportunities was the theme of another sermon ; "Pray that your flight be not in the winter," (St. Matt. xxiv. 20.) one chief feature of his preaching was his terrific warning, with such texts as : "Watchman, what of the night ?" &c, (Isiah xxi, 11-12) ; and "What wilt thou say when He shall punish thee ?" (Jer. xiii, 21). In these come up the terrors of eternal retribution, nothing of conditional immortality, or of the larger hope held forth in the pulpit of Westminster Abbey in these last days by one who was then, perhaps a boy at King William's College [? Dean Farrar] No doubt he went too far amid these thoughts of terror, when he told his congregation that some of their relatives were in hell. After one of these discourses, a hearer not himself a pattern of religious earnestness, and hearing only for others, said to me, "My word; he did give it to them !" He could set forth the "Comfort ye, my people," in fulness and tenderness seldom equalled under the text (Isa. xxvi. 20), "Come, my people, enter thou inti thy chambers," &c., - and tell of consolation "until the indignation be overpast," in those days of cholera larm. The higher Christian life was also dealt with, I remember, under the text (Heb. vi. 1), "Therefore, leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection." Man's working with God was enforced under the text, "The sword of the Lord and of Gideon;" Man's failure in religious energy was illustrated under "What doest thou here Elijah ?" Instead of a logical unfolding of his text - which was his prevalent method, it was occasionally beautiful running exposition, as in a sermon on the Woman of Samaria at the well. A memorable passage in the sermon was on the words of Christ to the woman and her perplexity, "Go, call thy husband," and how conscience was aroused by the truth. One of his sublimest discourses was on "Death is swallowed up in victory." His funeral sermon on occasion of the decease of the excellent Captain Garrett, whom some will remember, was from the words, "Where is he ?" A noble exposition, full of the historic, was given under the text, "When the enemy shall come in like a flood," (Isiah lix, 19). The sermon on "I have a message from God unto thee," was one of the most characteristic. Much of the genius and character of his preaching appears in his choice of texts.
His style and method bore the marks of culture. The discussion was often original, the rhetoric all the orator should wish, the language English, fresh from the "well," "undefiled," too cultured to deal in hard words, the manner occasionally on the verge of extravagance, but usually with the true " abandon " of the eloquent. The trumpet gave no uncertain sound. With him, the Scriptures were handled in their full authority and inspiration. With most of the human elements of pulpit power, the sermon was often marked by "power from on high." Usually, the one great subject of the text bore him away. The day of minute exposition, taking things as they rise, had not come, nor of the less definite outline, logically, which in so many modern volumes of sermons disregard the immediate limits of the theme, and fails to stir with impressive unity. The fashionable "higher criticism" of the present day, with its denial of the supernatural and the miraculous and the inspired, together with its evasion of the righteous judgment of God in an eternal hell, would have had a poor chance with him. His preaching was to save sinners from the woe of perishing for ever. Dogmatic certainty, with evangelical thought marked a source of his power.
He had no pulpit manuscript. To him it would have been an Incumbrance. He even cleared away the Bible from the front ledge of the pulpit as soon as he had read out his text. He had too much of the orator, is well as of the evangelist, to be shut out from, what is often the best part of a sermon-the gracious inspiration the power have been found together. I have known some preachers of uncommon gifts, to whose ministry the pulpit manuscript seemed to help. John Harris, the author of "Mammon;" Melville of Camberwell, afterwards of St. Paul's cathedral, and deemed by Mr. Gladstone the most eloquent preacher he has heard, Thomas Chalmers, of Scotland, whose reading was more thrilling and stood in contrast to his somewhat hesitating extemporaneous remarks ; Cannon Liddon, whose sermon seemed the more powerful through its literary completeness. But these, and others, may justly be taken as exceptions. The general rule of power in oratory is not found in reading from the manuscript ; the preacher with downcast eye, his sermon in the M.S. rather than in the man. It is rather found in the discourse, with whatever degree of preparation -perhaps with a summary outline-but which still leaves the mind free amid carefully written and pondered thoughts and reading-to use what comes us the man is led into the heaven of unanticipated ideas. Evidently the M.S. would to Mr. Aitken have been a hindrance. It would have chained the eagle. It would have been contrary to his view as a man of natural eloquence, and as an Evangelist seeking to save souls from death. It may be fairly held that his example in thus preaching is worthy of careful study. A free manner, as in our famous Bishop Simpson, is an element of power. In fact, the pulpit M.S. is a sign of less careful preparation. Preparation of mind has been dispensed with, reading being a refuge from indolence, or the means of escape perhaps from other studies. I do not speak of a slavish preparation of words, but a- preparation in which the subject is mastered, and in perspective stands in its completeness as a temple-structure before the preacher's eye.
Any person who has heard Mr. Aitken can realise how reading from the M.S. would have lessened his power, which sometimes rose into grandeur. Just imagine him with all written and read ; the eye, sometimes "in a fine frenzy rolling" in free address, now fixed on the M.S., the thrilling tones tamed down to the reading level, the impressive manner occasionally tending to the extreme in gesticulation, yet still a power on the great congregation, lost to what naturally comes of reading rather than speaking. Or, otherwise, the ancient manner, ludicrous if attempted -over
In his strong individuality he was apt to demur to the methods of others in Church work, with something original, perhaps, in his own. He refused now and then, the established and the conventional. He seemed impatient even of the conventional repetitions of the Lord's Prayer, often incorectly given by Preachers prone to ad something of their own - it was a pharaphrase and not a repetition. He seemed to see preferable methods of usefulness not found in the Methodism at whose altars his torch had been kindled. He deemed it right to publish in pamplet form an Address to the Ministers and people of Methodism, with the motto-text : "Cursed be he that doeth the work of the Lord deceitfully, and cursed be he that keepeth back his sword from blood." (Jeremiah xlviii, 10). Rightly or wrongly, the connexional effort was a loss of confidence as to his agreement with the system of Methodism, and not without anxiety, because of the great influence of his position without the ordinary restraints and guarantees of the Methodist Minister. In the issue there arose a community of his own first at Liverpool, then at Spitalfields; but organisation was not his forte, above all he was fitted to be an Evangelist, and he seems at least to have felt this when from his incumbency at Pendeen, in Cornwall, on to the end, he laboured in journeyings often to revive religion in the Established Church, and doing so on lines such as are now taken by his son, the Rev. W,H.H. Aitken, M.A., as a Chuch of England Evangelist.
The visits of Mr Aitken to the Island during his Cornwall life were always welcomed by his old Wesleyan friends. They still had pleasant memories of the past ; when, with more frequent appointments at Crosby than elsewhere, he filled Ellan Vannin with his fame as a preacher, and when, beyond the sea, his labours were welcomed throughout British Methodism. The Manx Methodists have always been catholic in sprit, being ever superior to what is narrow, sectarian and exclusive.
In the Manx interval of his ministry in Methodism he stood conspicuous, though, among many fellow workers in a sense alone. But the work of God was really as much indebted, if not more to these, some a little before the interval I have in view, others at the time. Among the Ministers Joseph Dunning, Samuel Broadbent, John Gick and James Shoar. Among the laity William C. Quiggin, Daniel Teare and a host of Manx Local Preachers, north and south ; and of the great body of zealous labourers in the vineyard of Ellan Vannin, Nelly Brannen the noblest of them all - a "Sister of the People" half a century before the idea entered Methodism. He was however, willingly allowed an exceptional position. From the Island he had access to the pulpits of British Methodism, where his preaching tours were extensive, followed on his return to Eyreton by narratives of Gospel success which reminded of the Acts of the Apostles.
He did not escape severe criticism by tongue and pen. The Manx Advertiser was no admirer ; and Dr Curran, in his meditations in his house and grounds in Peel Road, prepared a pamphlet of bitter criticism on Mr Aitken and his methods, but which was at once met by an answer entitled "Calumny refuted," written by an able pen in the North, and answering the arguments and accusations of the Doctor with a power which also made sore havoc of his mistakes in logic and English composition. With true wisdom, Mr Aitken acted on the Manx saying what in English would be - "Seem as if you did not hear" - "Lhig-ort na vel oo clastyn." The calumny perished ; the good work went on.