PHILIP FINCHETT’S FIRST SERMONAN ECHO OF THE GREAT RAILWAY STRIKE
Philip Finchett was an ambitious young man. It was said that he had some ability, but it was a recognised fact that this ability was a long, long way behind his ambition. That, however, did not discourage Philip. Possibly he was ignorant of the fact. He had read that young men should be ﬁred with a worthy ambition in life. Great and illustrious men had said that, and Philip wanted to become great and illustrious. His ambition was to become a famous preacher. He felt that he had the power within him to inspire the people with beautiful ideals and to arouse them to worthy and noble actions.
When he went to church, or to chapel, he often experienced a sense of disappointment. To him the preacher never reached a lofty standard. He was a man who was barren of ideas, or he expressed those ideas badly. He had ‘no soul’ in him. On such occasions Philip felt that he would like to have helped him. He would like to have shown him how to do it. Nay, though he was only an unemployed lay preacher himself, he would like to have done it for him. But he never got the chance.
He attended the services, almost regularly at the chapel in the village where he dwelt. He was never absent except when the opportunity presented itself for him to hear some well-known preacher. Then he would travel far to drink in the wisdom of these learned men and to study their manners. In this matter he was sufﬁciently broad-minded to include all denominations. He had heard robed bishops of the Established Church and unrobed bishops of the non-Established Church. He had read all that he could about the great divines of the past, and he longed for the time when he could emulate or surpass them. But the time was a long while in coming.
It came unexpectedly. He received an invitation to take the evening service at a village chapel some ten miles away. He was transported with joy. He was about to accept the invitation at once, but he reﬂected that custom and dignity demanded that he should defer answering the communication for a few days. Still there was no doubt about the answer. It was the supreme moment of his life, perhaps the turning-point of his career. He already saw, in imagination, the congregation divided into groups after the service, and each group praising the sermon, and all feverishly asking who this eloquent preacher might be. Sometimes his vision extended further than that, and he saw himself stationed in London, with a reputation and a following not less than those of Spurgeon, Parker, or Campbell. He knew that he would have to work hard. He knew that he would have several jealous rivals, but that was nothing. His course was clear, and victory certain.
In due course he accepted the invitation, and was soon completely absorbed in preparation. Text after text was selected and rejected. Some were too common and some were too narrow in their application. He wanted plenty of room for the imagination to soar. It was strange how he had known so many and remembered so few. He was almost getting into despair when he came across the passage — ‘And there shall be a new heaven and a new earth.’ That was the text for him. That would give scope for his oratorical powers and let his most delightful fancies play. He would contrast the old with the new, and what a picture he would draw. And how beautifully he would paint the new heaven! Ah! how the people would linger on his words. How real it would all seem to them. He would make a home in the new heaven, and on the new earth, for the new religion. What a glorious theme it was. His fame was as good as made already.
Each night he took a walk in the country and there he held forth to the birds and the beasts, of the wonders of the new heaven and the new earth. As he warmed to his subject his voice rose above the noise of the cattle, and above the whistling of the winds, as he depicted the horrors of the old world and the beauties of the new. His arms shot upwards and forwards, and swung about with remarkable rapidity. The horses and the cows began to run, the fowls made haste to ﬂy, and the winds seemed to rush ownard as though in fear.
One evening Farmer Booth was enjoying a quiet smoke in his yard, and viewing with satisfaction the yield of his crop, when he heard an unusual noise, and, turning round saw the frightened cattle galloping from the ﬁelds, whilst in the distance a man was gesticulating wildly and shouting excitedly, as if he were driving them away. The farmer sent his dog after him, but Philip, divining his message, thought it prudent to retire as swiftly as possible.
This episode, however, did not unduly interfere with his outdoor rehearsals. He simply changed the venue. Instead of the ﬁelds he conducted his exercises in the lanes. Here he secured the enthusiastic attention of the children, who gazed with wonder at his eccentricities.
Meanwhile the eventful day approached. He began to wonder whether he should write and read his sermon, or whether he should rely upon his inexhaustible ﬂow of thought and language. His only doubt was that, this being his ﬁrst attempt, he might be a little nervous, and consequently not quite so logical as he usually was. Under the circumstances it might be wise to write the sermon and hold it in reserve. He had heard it said that some of the best public speakers and preachers did this. So he wrote it.
At last everything was ready and he awaited the day with conﬁdence. He consulted a railway guide and selected a train which was due to arrive in sufficient time to allow him to take his bearings and measure the acoustic properties of the chapel. Unfortunately the Great Railway Strike interfered with his arrangements. There would be no trains that week-end. The chapel authorities wrote to him wishing to know if, under the circumstances, he would be able to fulﬁll his engagement; and he replied that it would take more than a railway strike to prevent him carrying out his promise.
‘What is a ten miles walk?’ he said to himself; ‘I would do it if it were twenty. Besides, it will give me an excellent opportunity to rehearse on the way. Good! the Great Strike will turn out for me a Great Blessing. It is a pity, though, that I declined that invitation to tea. They might have renewed it when they knew that I intended to walk the distance. However, I will take a sandwich in my pocket, and I shall be able to step right off the ﬁeld on to the stage — I mean the pulpit.’
So it was all settled. The service was to start at 6-30, and he started out at 3 o’clock. It was a beautiful day, and Philip was in high spirits. He walked the ﬁrst two or three miles across the country quite easily, but the day was warm and he began to perspire. He frequently wiped his face and his neck with his handkerchief until the handkerchief became wet and he was obliged to hold it out in his hand to dry. As he could no longer keep the sweat from his starched collar it began to soften, and ﬁnally the starch disappeared altogether, and the collar hung in loose and ungraceful folds about his neck. He began to grow a little disheartened and just a little weary. But he plodded on.
Eventually he came to a clump of trees and he determined to have a rest at whatever cost. Besides, he was sheltered from the scorching rays of the sun, and in the quiet shade he might venture on a ﬁnal rehearsal.
‘Ah!’ he said, ‘how foolish I was to offer to walk all the way. They might have sent a motor car for me; possibly they would have done. But I never thought of that. What a fool I have been; and how shall I get back? Bah! I have no fear of that. When they have heard me preach they will vie with each other for the honour of sending me back in a taxi-cab. But, taxi or no taxi, I must have another rehearsal, so here goes.’ And forthwith Philip took off his hat and laid it on the ground. He pushed his ﬁngers through his hair in the approved manner, and stroked his chin. He adjusted his coat, stretched his waistcoat, looked at his watch, and commenced:—
‘Ladies and gentlemen — I beg pardon — I mean Christian brethren, my text speaks of a new heaven and a new earth. It does not mean a new heaven in the sense that we speak of a new coat or a new hat. No, my friends, it means — it means — ah! it means — now what does it mean? I thought I could have done without my manuscript, but I must have just one look at it. I am upset a little with the heat and the long walk. Now let me see what my paper says —.’
He pulled the manuscript out of his pocket and was proceeding to unroll it when he saw two men and a dog coming quickly towards him. He did not wait for a closer acquaintance with them, but, hastily replacing the papers in his pocket, he resumed his journey as speedily as appearances, without loss of dignity, would permit. The dog, however, followed him. So he walked faster. Still the dog gained on him, and yet faster he went. It seemed to be a very persistent dog. The walk developed into a trot, but even then the dog was not satisﬁed. It was now almost at his heels, so he started to run as fast as he could. He did not want to show fear, but he did not mind even that, if the dog could be kept at a respectable distance. But the pace was killing; he could not keep it up.
Suddenly an idea struck him. His sandwich! Why not throw it to the dog? Feeling in his pocket as he ran, he pulled out a small parcel containing the sandwich. At the same time he unconsciously pulled out his manuscript sermon which fell unnoticed upon the ground. The dog heeded it not, and Philip was ignorant of his loss. His thoughts were concentrated upon the sandwich. It was no use whilst it was tied in a parcel, and it was difﬁcult to untie it whilst he was ﬂeeing from the dog. By a supreme effort, however, he succeeded, and then, unwrapping the paper, he dropped the sandwich as he ran. The pursuit ceased at once. The dog seized the meat and allowed Philip to proceed alone.
But his plight was pitiable. His face was dirty and wrinkled with sweat. His collar and front were crumpled beyond recognition, and his shirt clung to his back with the greatest tenacity. One of his cuffs had deserted him and the other hung limp and disconsolate upon his wrist. He was not ﬁt to preach, now, if he ever reached the chapel.
By and by he came to a small stream. It was only a little stream, but its waters looked so cool and refreshing that he was tempted to linger by its pleasant banks. He thought of Rebecca at the well, and an unexpressed wish rose in his mind that some such fair creature might appear, with a can or a jug, so that he might get some water to quench his thirst. But, as there was no prospect of such a welcome assistant, he determined to help himself. He lay on the grass and succeeded in getting his mouth to the water. Oh! how delicious it was. He drank again. Unfortunately he had forgotten his silk hat, which seemed to have an objection to reclining in a horizontal position, for it tumbled headlong into the stream and sailed majestically away.
Philip gave chase as quickly as possible, but the hat had the advantage of a good start. It danced merrily along, colliding occasionally with stones and other obstructions, but veering round them and darting onwards afresh just as Philip was reaching forward to secure it. At length he overtook it, but in place of a glossy and beautifully brushed hat, there was a soft receptacle for dirt and water, and the silk appeared to have been brushed the wrong way, whilst the shape seemed to have suffered by its contact with various obstacles on the way. But it was all that Philip had, so he poured out the water and gently brushed the silk with his coat sleeve, and then put it on his head again.
He cut a sorry ﬁgure when he arrived at the chapel. He could scarcely persuade anybody that he was the person who was engaged to preach. They stared at him very suspiciously, and, as an excuse, they assured him that the service was about half over. Philip was disappointed, and begged to be allowed to take his place, so they said that he might take the sermon if he would wash and brush himself up a bit. He was directed to the vestry, where he proceeded to wash his hands and face. He feared to take off his collar lest he could not get it on again. When he had ﬁnished he looked rather more presentable, at a distance, but a closer inspection revealed a great contrast between his face and his neck. He had no time, however, even if he had the inclination, for a complete bath, as he was hustled into the pulpit and informed, in a whisper, that it was his turn to ofﬁciate.
It was a trying moment. He stood bewildered as he faced the congregation. He felt that they were all looking at his dishevelled appearance. Had they noticed, he wondered, his unwashed neck? Were they gazing at his dirty and crumpled collar? Why were they all staring at him? What had he done? Suddenly he remembered that they were expecting him to say something. They were expecting to hear him preach. He wiped his forehead with his dirty handkerchief, and made an effort to collect his thoughts.
“Kind friends,” he said, “I — I hope you are kind friends. I — I — I hope — that — that you will not—will not mind my—my disorderly appearance. I am — I am not disorderly, I can assure you. I am — I am a victim of the Great Railway Strike. I have walked ten miles to preach here to-night, and I am hungry, thirsty, and weary.”
A low murmur of sympathy went round the congregation as Philip said this, and he felt encouraged.
“But I do not complain,” he went on; “my cross is light compared to some. If I can speak a word of comfort and of hope to you I shall be satisﬁed. My text to-night is taken from the twenty-ﬁrst chapter of the Book of Revelation, and is the well-known phrase, ‘I saw a new heaven and a new earth!’” “Now, what do we mean by a new heaven and a new earth?”
Here Philip’s mind involuntarily wandered back to his rehearsal on the way and his unexpected breakdown at this point. What if he should break down again? Instinctively his hand sought his pocket for his manuscript, and a pallor spread over his countenance as it sought in vain. The manuscript was not there. Perhaps, in his hasty retreat, he had put it in the wrong pocket. He felt in all his coat pockets, but without success. A cold shiver seized him as he realised his situation. Suppose he had lost the manuscript. He dived both his hands into his trousers pockets to ascertain if it had strayed there; but it was not there. He even felt in the corners of his waistcoat pockets, but no sermon could be found. He returned to his coat pockets, but with the same result.
During this search Philip had naturally ceased speaking, and the congregation followed his movements with the greatest curiosity; and, as he travelled from one pocket to another, the suspicion gradually dawned upon them that he had lost something. Everybody became interested. He had at least succeeded in arousing the undivided attention of his hearers, and by the time that he had concluded his search everyone felt and knew, as well as Philip, that the sermon was lost.
Still he would not despair. With a tremor in his voice he began again:—
“As I was saying, what do we mean by a new heaven? — what do we mean by it? Yes, ladies and gentlemen — I beg pardon — I mean dear brethren. Dear brethren, what do we mean by a new heaven? Have we ever —? I ask, have we ever seen a new heaven? Have we ever, — have we ever — ?”
It was no use. His ready ﬂow of thought and language had failed him. In vain did he re-explore his pockets, whilst the congregation watched and pitied him.
The inevitable came. Pulling himself together with a great effort he said: “Dear friends, I hope you will bear with me. My disappointment is greater than yours. I have been most unfortunate. I have already told you that I had to walk here, a distance of ten miles. That is scarcely correct. Part of the way I had to run. I was pursued by a ferocious dog. Probably my sermon was lost during that race. I am deeply sorry, but it cannot be helped. May we close this service now by singing that beautiful hymn, ‘Lead, kindly light; amid the encircling gloom?’”
After the service Philip hurried to the vestry for his hat, and tried to escape from the building as quietly as possible. At the door two men were waiting to see him. They had a dog with them, and Philip recognised the dog as his competitor in the great race. The dog was friendly now, and looked up to Philip with a sort of gratitude for favours yet to come. The men had called to say that they had found a manuscript sermon on the way, and as a note on the cover stated that it was to be preached at Bank Top Chapel on that date they had decided to deliver it there when passing.
Philip thanked them for their kindness, and thrust the ill-fated sermon into his inside coat pocket. Going out into the street he noticed that the people were standing in groups, and that they watched him very curiously. He had no doubt that they were asking one another who the preacher was, but he felt that the question was not put in that spirit of admiration which he had hoped for.