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CHAPTER IV.

THE BRITISH COLLAPSE, 1760–1801.

OF all the problems raised by the history of the Brethren, the most difficult to solve is the one we have now to face. In the days of John Wesley, the Moravians in England were famous; in the days of Robertson, of Brighton, they were almost unknown. For a hundred years the Moravians in England played so obscure and modest a part in our national life that our great historians, such as Green and Lecky, do not even notice their existence, and the problem now before us is, what caused this swift and mysterious decline?

As the companions of Zinzendorf—Boehler, Cennick, Rogers and Okeley—passed one by one from the scenes of their labours, there towered above the other English Brethren a figure of no small grandeur. It was Benjamin La Trobe, once a famous preacher in England. He sprang from a Huguenot family, and had first come forward in Dublin. He had been among the first there to give a welcome to John Cennick, had held to Cennick when others left him, had helped to form a number of his hearers into the Dublin congregation, and had been with Cennick on his romantic journey’s among the bogs and cockpits of Ulster. As the years rolled on, he came more and more to the front. At Dublin he had met a teacher of music named Worthington, and a few years later La Trobe and Worthington were famous men at Fulneck. When Fulneck chapel was being built, La Trobe stood upon the roof of a house to preach. When the chapel was finished, La Trobe became Brethren’s labourer, and his friend Worthington played the organ. In those days Fulneck Chapel was not large enough to hold the crowds that came, and La Trobe had actually to stand upon the roof to harangue the vast waiting throng. As Cennick had been before in Ireland, so La Trobe was now in England. He was far above most preachers of his day. “He enraptured his audience,” says an old account, “by his resistless eloquence. His language flowed like rippling streams, and his ideas sparkled like diamonds. His taste was perfect, and his illustrations were dazzling; and when he painted the blackness of the human heart, when he depicted the matchless grace of Christ, when he described the beauty of holiness, he spoke with an energy, with a passion, with a dignified sweep of majestic power which probed the heart, and pricked the conscience, and charmed the troubled breast.” It was he of whom it is so quaintly recorded in a congregation diary: “Br. La Trobe spoke much on many things.”

For twenty-one years this brilliant preacher was the chief manager of the Brethren’s work in England; and yet, though he was not a German himself, his influence was entirely German in character {1765–86.}. He was manager of the Brethren’s English finances; he was appointed to his office by the German U.E.C.; and thus, along with James Hutton as Secretary, he acted as official representative of the Directing Board in England.

In many ways his influence was all for good. He helped to restore to vigorous life the “Society for the Furtherance of the Gospel” (1768) remained its President till his death, and did much to further its work in Labrador. He was a diligent writer and translator. He wrote a “Succinct View of the Missions” of the Brethren (1771), and thus brought the subject of foreign missions before the Christian public; and in order to let inquirers know what sort of people the Moravians really were, he translated and published Spangenberg’s “Idea of Faith,” Spangenberg’s “Concise Account of the Present Constitution of the Unitas Fratrum,” and David Cranz’s “History of the Brethren.” The result was good. The more people read these works by La Trobe, the more they respected the Brethren. “In a variety of publications,” said the London Chronicle, “he removed every aspersion against the Brethren, and firmly established their reputation.” He was well known in higher circles, was the friend of Dr. Johnson, and worked in union with such well-known Evangelical leaders as Rowland Hill, William Romaine, John Newton, Charles Wesley, Hannah More, Howell Harris, and Bishop Porteous, the famous advocate of negro emancipation. Above all, he cleansed the Brethren’s reputation from the last stains of the mud thrown by such men as Rimius and Frey. He was a friend of the Bishop of Chester; he was a popular preacher in Dissenting and Wesleyan Chapels; he addressed Howell Harris’s students at Trevecca; he explained the Brethren’s doctrines and customs to Lord Hillsborough, the First Commissioner of the Board of Trade and Plantations; and thus by his pen, by his wisdom and by his eloquence, he caused the Brethren to be honoured both by Anglicans and by Dissenters. At this period James Hutton—now a deaf old man—was a favourite at the Court of George III. No longer were the Brethren denounced as immoral fanatics; no longer did John Wesley feel it his duty to expose their errors. As John Wesley grew older and wiser, he began to think more kindly of the Brethren. He renewed his friendship with James Hutton, whom he had not seen for twenty-five years (Dec. 21, 1771); he visited Bishop John Gambold in London, and recorded the event in his Journal with the characteristic remark, “Who but Count Zinzendorf could have separated such friends as we are?” He called, along with his brother Charles, on John de Watteville at Lindsey House; and, above all, when Lord Lyttleton, in his book “Dialogues of the Dead,” attacked the character of the Brethren, John Wesley himself spoke out nobly in their defence. “Could his lordship,” he wrote in his Journal (August 30th, 1770), “show me in England many more sensible men than Mr. Gambold and Mr. Okeley? And yet both of these were called Moravians...What sensible Moravian, Methodist or Hutchinsonian did he ever calmly converse with? What does he know of them but from the caricatures drawn by Bishop Lavington or Bishop Warburton? And did he ever give himself the trouble of reading the answers to these warm, lively men? Why should a good-natured and a thinking man thus condemn whole bodies by the lump?” But the pleasantest proof of Wesley’s good feeling was still to come. At the age of eighty he went over to Holland, visited the Brethren’s beautiful settlement at Zeist, met there his old friend, Bishop Anthony Seifferth, and asked to hear some Moravian music and singing. The day was Wesley’s birthday. As it happened, however, to be “Children’s Prayer-Day” as well, the minister, being busy with many meetings, was not able to ask Wesley to dinner; and, therefore, he invited him instead to come to the children’s love-feast. John Wesley went to the chapel, took part in the love-feast, and heard the little children sing a “Birth-Day Ode” in his honour {June 28th, 1783.}. The old feud between Moravians and Methodists was over. It ended in the children’s song.145145John Wesley, in his Journal, does not tell the story properly. He makes no mention of the Love-feast, and says it was not the Moravian custom to invite friends to eat and drink. The facts are given by Hegner in his Fortsetzung of Cranz’s Brüdergeschichte, part III., p. 6.

One instance will show La Trobe’s reputation in England {1777.}. At that time there lived in London a famous preacher, Dr. Dodd; and now, to the horror of all pious people, Dr. Dodd was accused and convicted of embezzlement, and condemned to death. Never was London more excited. A petition with twenty-three thousand signatures was sent up in Dodd’s behalf. Frantic plots were made to rescue the criminal from prison. But Dodd, in his trouble, was in need of spiritual aid; and the two men for whom he sent were John Wesley and La Trobe. By Wesley he was visited thrice; by La Trobe, at his own request, repeatedly; and La Trobe was the one who brought comfort to his soul, stayed with him till the end, and afterwards wrote an official account of his death.

And yet, on the other hand, the policy now pursued by La Trobe was the very worst policy possible for the Moravians in England. For that policy, however, we must lay the blame, not on the man, but on the system under which he worked. As long as the Brethren’s Church in England was under the control of the U.E.C., it followed, as a matter of course, that German ideas would be enforced on British soil; and already, at the second General Synod, the Brethren had resolved that the British work must be conducted on German lines. Never did the Brethren make a greater blunder in tactics. In Germany the system had a measure of success, and has flourished till the present day; in England it was doomed to failure at the outset. La Trobe gave the system a beautiful name. He called it the system of “United Flocks.” On paper it was lovely to behold; in practice it was the direct road to consumption. In name it was English enough; in nature it was Zinzendorf’s Diaspora. At no period had the Brethren a grander opportunity of extending their borders in England than during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. In Yorkshire, with Fulneck as a centre, they had four flourishing congregations, societies in Bradford and Leeds, and preaching places as far away as Doncaster and Kirby Lonsdale, in Westmoreland. In Lancashire, with Fairfield as a centre, they were opening work in Manchester and Chowbent. In Cheshire, with Dukinfield as a centre, they had a number of societies on the “Cheshire Plan,” including a rising cause at Bullock-Smithy, near Stockport. In the Midlands, with Ockbrook as a centre, they had preaching places in a dozen surrounding villages. In Bedfordshire, with Bedford as a centre, they had societies at Riseley, Northampton, Eydon, Culworth and other places. In Wales, with Haverfordwest as a centre, they had societies at Laughharne, Fishguard, Carmarthen and Carnarvon. In Scotland, with Ayre146146The cause in Ayr was started in 1765 by the preaching of John Caldwell, one of John Cennick’s converts. It was not till 1778 that Ayr was organized as a congregation; and no attempt was ever made to convert the other societies into congregations. as a centre, they had societies at Irvine and Tarbolton, and preaching-places at Annan, Blackhall, Dumfries, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Kilsyth, Kilmarnock, Ladyburn, Prestwick, Westtown, and twenty smaller places. In the West of England, with Bristol and Tytherton as centres, they had preaching-places at Apperley, in Gloucestershire; Fome and Bideford, in Somerset; Plymouth and Exeter, in Devon; and many villages in Wiitshire. In the North of Ireland, with Gracehill as a centre, they had preaching-places at Drumargan, Billies, Arva (Cavan), and many other places.

For the Brethren, therefore, the critical question was, what to do with the societies and preaching-places? There lay the secret of success or failure; and there they committed their great strategic blunder. They had two alternatives before them. The one was to treat each society or preaching-place as the nucleus of a future congregation; the other was to keep it as a mere society. And the Brethren, in obedience to orders from Germany, chose the latter course. At the Moravian congregations proper the strictest rules were enforced; in most congregations there were Brethren’s and Sisters’ Houses; and all full members of the Moravian Church had to sign a document known as the “Brotherly Agreement.” {1771.} In that document the Brethren gave some remarkable pledges. They swore fidelity to the Augsburg Confession. They promised to do all in their power to help the Anglican Church, and to encourage all her members to be loyal to her. They declared that they would never proselytize from any other denomination. They promised that no marriage should take place without the consent of the Elders; that all children must be educated in one of the Brethren’s schools; that they would help to support the widows, old people and orphans; that no member should set up in business without the consent of the Elders; that they would never read any books of a harmful nature. At each congregation these rules—and others too many to mention here—were read in public once a year; each member had a printed copy, and any member who broke the “Agreement” was liable to be expelled. Thus the English Brethren signed their names to an “Agreement” made in Germany, and expressing German ideals of religious life. If it never became very popular, we need not wonder. But this “Agreement” was not binding on the societies and preaching-places. As the Brethren in Germany founded societies without turning them into settlements, so the Brethren in England conducted preaching-places without turning them into congregations and without asking their hearers to become members of the Moravian Church; and a strict rule was laid down that only such hearers as had a “distinct call to the Brethren’s Church” should be allowed to join it. The distinct call came through the Lot. At nearly all the societies and preaching-places, therefore, the bulk of the members were flatly refused admission to the Moravian Church; they remained, for the most part, members of the Church of England; and once a quarter, with a Moravian minister at their head, they marched in procession to the Communion in the parish church. For unselfishness this policy was unmatched; but it nearly ruined the Moravian Church in England. At three places—Woodford,147147At the special invitation of William Hunt, a farmer. Baildon and Devonport—the Brethren turned societies into congregations; but most of the others were sooner or later abandoned. In Yorkshire the Brethren closed their chapel at Pudsey, and abandoned their societies at Holbeck, Halifax, Wibsey and Doncaster. At Manchester they gave up their chapel in Fetter Lane. In Cheshire they retreated from Bullock Smithy; in the Midlands from Northampton; in London from Chelsea; in Somerset from Bideford and Frome; in Devon from Exeter and Plymouth; in Gloucestershire from Apperley; in Scotland from Irvine, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dumfries and thirty or forty other places;148148For complete list of the Brethren’s societies in Scotland, see the little pamphlet, The Moravian Church in Ayrshire, reprinted from the Kilmarnock Standard, June 27th, 1903; and for further details about abandoned Societies, see Moravian Chapels and Preaching Places (J. England, 2, Edith Road, Seacombe, near Liverpool). in Wales from Fishguard, Laugharn, Carmarthen and Carnarvon; in Ireland from Arva, Billies, Drumargan, Ballymena, Gloonen, Antrim, Dromore, Crosshill, Artrea, Armagh, and so on. And the net result of this policy was that when Bishop Holmes, the Brethren’s Historian, published his “History of the Brethren” (1825), he had to record the distressing fact that in England the Moravians had only twenty congregations, in Ireland only six, and that the total number of members was only four thousand eight hundred and sixty-seven. The question is sometimes asked to-day: How is it that the Moravian Church is so small? For that smallness more reasons than one may be given; but one reason was certainly the singular policy expounded in the present chapter.149149In all this, the object of the Brethren was to be true to the Church of England, and, to place their motives beyond all doubt, I add a minute from the London Congregation Council. It refers to United Flocks, and runs as follows: “April 11th, 1774. Our Society Brethren and Sisters must not expect to have their children baptized by us. It would be against all good order to baptize their children. The increase of this United Flock is to be promoted by all proper means, that the members of it may be a good salt to the Church of England.”


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