Plants for the Poor (part of the Window Gardening Society) in Millwall
It has been a while since I posted an excerpt from the Reverend Free and his very entertaining book Seven Years Hard published in 1904. The Reverend undertakes his missionary work with enthusiasm, however he often despairs about his congregation and the world at large at the beginning of the 20th century.
In the following excerpt the Reverend contemplates his lack of success of attracting the locals into his church.
Christianity does not ” count ” in the East End. There are eminent exceptions to the rule, but that is the rule. The average East-ender’s indifference to, and ignorance of, Christianity and all that appertains to it are almost beyond belief In my early days at Millwall it was an impracticable feat to secure at any religious service a ” quorum,” if I may be allowed the expression. Try how we might, we could not succeed in “gathering together” even the “two or three.” It would be impossible to exaggerate the heart-sinking that would seize me when, on arriving at our temporary chapel on Sunday mornings, I would discover half-a- dozen tiny children, hand in hand, waiting for the doors to open. ” There’s our congregation ! ” I would say, not without bitterness. It seemed to me so strange and terrible that Christianity should be considered no religion for strong men and kind women.
In view of religious backwardness or shyness, one of my evangelists proposed a series of extremely simple mission services. I heartily concurred and provided him with some thousands of handbills. With these he called personally on several hundred families, from most of whom he obtained a definite promise to come to his first meeting. The good man was new to the East End, and was full of hope that he would have a crowded house. When the great evening arrived, his congregation numbered exactly twelve persons, eight of whom were regular church-goers.
Our Window Gardening Society caught on amazingly, and enormous quantities of seeds, bulbs, and plants were distributed gratis to its members. In the third year of its existence, I inaugurated an annual service, which thirty stalwarts entered into a solemn league and covenant to support, seeming really anxious to show their appreciation of the encouragement given them to cultivate flowers. ” We shall have thirty, anyhow,” observed my wife, brightly. On the appointed day we got two.
This appalling irreligiousness is one of the things it takes so long to understand. I had a notion, founded on previous experience, that a well-known man, who was both earnest and unconventional, might draw. So I invited the Rev. J. L. Lyne, the ” Llanthony Monk,” to come and stir us up. At that very time, this popular preacher was attracting immense crowds of men in the middle of the day at St. Sepulchre’s, Holborn ; but, although I advertised him unstintingly, a mere handful of people came to hear him. Millwall declined to be drawn even by his shaven pate and sandalled feet.
Apropos of Mr. Lyne’s visit, a significant story reached me. About half-an-hour before the advertised time of the meeting, one of my choirmen remarked to his brother — “I must be off, Sam. Father Ignatius is preaching to-night. There’s sure to be a fearful crush.” ” Fearful crush ! ” echoed Sam. ” Do you know Milhvall, Alf ? Why, if the Queen was advertised to do a skirt-dance, there wouldn’t be fifty people to see her.”
Well do I remember the preparations I made for the first anniversary of the dedication of St. Cuthbert’s. I invited several clergymen to preach ; I worked the choir up to tackle a special anthem ; I advertised our proposed doings on huge posters. Dedication day arrived. It was a magnificent evening. I was jubilant. ” The weather won’t keep people away,” said I to myself; ” I positively believe we shall have a congregation.” When the hour of service struck, there was not a solitary soul in church. Everybody, including the choir, had scampered off to see a procession a mile away.
Nor were we Church folk peculiar in our failure to get people interested in Christianity. At one time a determined effort was made by the Salvation Army to attract a crowd in the West Ferry Road. The men stood in the doorways, smoking their pipes with unstudied indifference ; the women foregathered at convenient corners, nursing their babies and discussing the latest scandal. A long-legged boy swung down the street, shouting, ” Are you saved ? Come to Jesus ! ” A woman cried out, ” Wy, ‘ere’s the Army now ! ” and a neighbour added, with a shrill squeal that was intended for a laugh, ” Well, I’m blest ! Let ’em all come ! ”
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