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FIFTY YEARS IN COUNTRY CIRCUITS.
BY THE REV. J. LANCASTER BALL.
On the morning of January 27th, 1815, a young man took his seat on the top of a stage-coach at Devonport, bound for Southampton. He had left his home the day before, a farm-house well known to the Cornish Methodists of that time, and was on his way to his first Circuit, whither he had been directed to go by the President, Dr. Adam Clarke, to supply a vacancy. A journey of two days and a night brought him to Southampton.
Of his life up to this, to him eventful morning, there remains in faded manuscript an autobiographical narrative: 'Some account of the dealings of Divine Providence as developed in the life of T- -W- -'; the title reminding us, as does also the tenor of the narrative, of the style of the dear old Arminian Magazine, which will never lose its charm to the ears and hearts of 'the people called Methodists.' The first few paragraphs, it is true, betray the influence of a later taste in magazine biographies, which insisted on a prosy, moralizing introduction, consisting in this instance of excellent, though trite reflections on the doctrine of a particular Providence. But emerging from these, we come to a direct and simple story of a boyhood spent in a village where 'the people knew nothing of vital piety or of salvation by faith'; where there was no family worship, no religious communion, and, except at Church on Sunday, no prayer or reading of the Scriptures; and of parents moral and honourable, who yet at that time knew not God. It relates in detail how the Methodists, 'a people about whom were told many scurrilous tales,' became better known when they began to preach in the parish; how among the earliest converts was the writer's elder brother; to the great chagrin of his parents, who, however, were not long subsequently 'brought to the feet of Jesus, and made happy in His love,' and then how the writer himself was led to experience the same blessedness.
The turning-point in his life, the religious decision which had led up to his present position as a candidate for the Ministry, is not traced to any sermon or service, but to 'a very serious conversation over the supper-table on a Christmas Day, on the subject of saving faith, between the Preacher and others': a happy combination it must have been, not too often met with in our day, of seriousness and Christian festivity. From that time his habits and his thoughts were changed, and instead of the gun by day and the cards in the evening,' which had been his chosen occupations when business permitted, he gave himself to prayer and to the reading of the Scriptures;
'began earnestly to seek the Lord, and after much seeking and almost despairing, these words were powerfully applied: "Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee." Then all his fears vanished, and he was filled with peace. It was no transient emotion; no
work of the imagination. A devoted and consistent life followed.
Several years had elapsed between this event and the date at which we have introduced him to the reader. He had been employed as an 'Exhorter,' ready to give a short, warm-hearted address at a Prayer-meeting, or to occupy, in case of need, some humble pulpit, or a stand behind a chair-back in a cottage a capital training for his next grade in public teaching-that of a Local Preacher. He had also for a long time conducted every week a Class which met four miles from his home, by which, besides the meditative and healthful walk, he acquired valuable practice in applying the teachings of the Gospel to the particular circumstances of human life.
Those years had been marked by diligent study at all available hours, and by some success in winning souls to Christ; but they had been perturbed by his being talked of' for the Ministry, which led to great searchings of heart and much prayer. He had had thoughts of entering into business, and securing 'a comfortable settlement in life'; but in the town to which he went with this view that Scripture was strangely impressed upon his mind: "Thou shalt not take thee a wife, neither shalt thou have sons or daughters in this place." And so it proved, and a series of providences thrust him out as a labourer into the harvest.
Such was the life behind that young man on the coach-top, and such the Divinity School from which he was now passing to the work of a Methodist Preacher. He was not a scholar; but he knew English, and the English Bible and the English people. He had, as attested by those who had known him all his days, a blameless character, a sound judgment, a genuine originality, and was not unacquainted with the ways of men. His strong point was the science of salvation. He knew the perils of sin, the sorrow of a convinced soul, and something of the devices of Satan; he knew, and was prepared to show to others, the way of deliverance through Christ Jesus.
Of the life before him he could form but very dim conjectures, but the Master had appointed to him a long, laborious and happy course. The records of it lie before the present writer in a heap of diaries (beginning where the connected narrative ends), in which, for nearly fifty years, there is almost literally 'no day without a line.' All his journeys and all his subjects of study, every sermon he preached and every meeting he attended, in fact-every day's engagements, are chronicled. It is not a journal of religious experience, beyond a brief sentence or a prayerful ejaculation here and there. It is of a thoroughly matter-of-fact character. Many entries in it seem trivial, and many details dry. His design seems to have been to watch over his time and to give account of it, as a journeyman does to his employer. He set himself to 'tell Jesus what he had done and what he had taught,' day by day.
From these old diaries, speaking out of the dust,' from which they have
been reverently raised, we may, if we can get the right focus, and with some aid from the recollections of others, gain a view of his life as a whole, grouping rather than particularizing such incidents as there are. 'A biography sketched in outline is often more true and more useful than one that occupies itself in minute details' (Dr. Farrar). The chief interest of such a general view of his life's work is that it will be found to represent also that of the rank and file of the Methodist Preachers of his day: it is a fair specimen of the general tenor of life then pursued by the Ministers of country Circuits, especially in the South-West-Hampshire, Somersetshire, Cornwall, Devon,-during the period which it covers. In his character too, though strongly marked in its individuality, he was a good type of his brethren. These men, single-minded and self-denying, with frames inured to labour and souls aglow with zeal, were the strength of the Connexion. Our diarist, until in advanced age he became a member of the Legal Hundred, never attained any Connexional office or honour higher than the Superintendency of a Circuit, which, however, he regarded as a real primitive bishopric. His Circuits were, with few exceptions, very much alike. He was never appointed, nor desired to be, to what it has been usual to call 'important Circuits.' But to him, throughout life, his own Circuit for the time being was the most important in the kingdom.
Its centre was generally a market-town, sometimes one of the small cathedral cities; quaint and curious places usually, with antique streets, where was much silence at most times and much vociferation on the market-day. There is no great difference in the outward aspect of most of those old towns even to this day, though the railway system has roused some of them from the sleep which they had slept for centuries, each under the shadow of its great castle or venerable minster. They still contain a large proportion of the most comfortable homes in England. Pure air and good garden-spaces are great considerations. Their lovely scenery and historical antiquities are attractions. to many. Most respectable people can find society enough in them of their own class, and as much excitement is obtainable as is good for mind or body. But during the former half at least of the period now under review, there were disadvantages not trifling to a Minister young or old. In the matter of accessible libraries of any value, there was often a painful blank. The manners and habits of the middle classes, in which his private companionships must chiefly lie, had not then toned down to the decorous level which now leaves so little to distinguish between the denizens of country towns and those of great cities. Moreover, the leading Methodists in such localities, if well-to-do and not so much under a social ban as formerly, were yet not likely to have acquired large views as to what was needful for the comfort of a Minister and his family.
Around our Evangelist's Circuit-town, within a radius of sixteen or twenty miles, were other towns, villages and hamlets, in which services were regularly held in chapels, or in kitchens, or in rented rooms. Sometimes such places numbered more than forty; but the average number on his Plans, from beginning to end, was twenty-two. Adding all his Circuits together, we find