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A House Not Made With Hands: (4) Damnable Barngoers

How the story began

 ...continued

 

 

 

That spring, on his weekly expeditions to market, William fell in with a lively crowd from Frisby-on-the-Wreake and they began discussing the Methodist travelling preachers who had recently visited the village.

"They're naught but rabble, those tub-thumpers," sneered one fellow. "They've no place in church and no place out of it."

"Nay, lad," replied the shepherd among them, "there are them as go to the meetings to make trouble and them as go to listen."

"Damnable barngoers, the vicar calls 'em," piped up the goatherd. "He's no time for 'em, that's for sure."

"Old Wragge's no time for anyone who can't invite him to table," grumbled the burly stockman, "unless you've an itch to be matched in a hurry without licence or banns. He does a fine trade in that!"

 



"Tis my belief," owned the shepherd boldly, "there's summat in what them gospellers say. Sam Letts is a changed man since he heard the Call. He don't rustle sheep and turkeys nowadays and he gives a tithe to the poor."

"That's more on account of his stint in jail," said the first speaker of the errant rat-catcher. "Swore blind to the judge he thought they was rats!"

"Look at Josh Bell, he's the same. Stopped beating his missus and never touches strong liquor."

"And we all know how filled with the spirit he was afore he heard the Good News!" quipped the stockman.

At this, the whole company roared with laughter and the sceptic condemned himself if he knew what the world was coming to when a man couldn't reach for the broomstale to keep his own house in order.

 



Just then, a pretty lass who had earlier caught William's attention fell into step beside him. She had twinkling eyes the colour of flax flowers and a blaze of copper-gold hair rippling from a filigree-trimmed cap which was one of three dozen she had made to hawk at market.

"I do know one thing," she offered shyly, "Mother's been able to make ends meet since she trusted the Lord. She don't need to lean on the Parish any more."

"And has she turned a Methodist?" William was intrigued.

"We all have," the girl told him. "Mother took us along to the Green, my three sisters and me - we didn't want to go, what with the stone-picking and thistle-cropping to do and the potatoes to plant for Mr Bowley - but we went and the preacher had us spellbound. Most particularly, I mind him sayin' that the Kingdom of Heaven was within every mortal person and that if we looked to that first, we'd not want for anything else again."

The young man's heart was strangely warmed by this artless testimony which his mother would eagerly have endorsed. Whilst he had the greatest respect for the Good Book and had tried to live by its precepts, was honest, hardworking and considerate of his fellows, he knew that he lacked the true spark of witness. His companion glowed with an inner assurance he did not possess.

 

  A House Not Made With Hands

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A House Not Made With Hands: (3) A Mystical Ingredient

How the story began


...continued




François André Vincent 1798



"Plough a straight furrow, lad," William's father would counsel. "Fix your eye on the far side and never look back."

The cultivation of crops and the tending of beasts ran in George Cooper's blood. Both his own and his wife's families had been farmers for generations so that William could not fail to possess an easy affinity with the land.

William loved the rolling Wreake Valley with its winding watercourses, lush meadows and plains where sheep might safely graze. On his return from Melton Mowbray market, footsore and weary from goading the stock, he would marvel at the curious transparency of the air around Rotherby whose cottages snuggled under the square-towered church like chicks about a mother hen. His mother had been Hannah Fletcher, a Syston maid born and bred, whom her husband had carried off to Rotherby after their wedding on All Fools' Day, 1746. It had long been a joke that George had put his head in the noose on so inauspicious a day! That very month, news had reached them of the Jacobite defeat at Culloden in the Scottish Highlands. Bonnie Prince Charlie's hopes of the Crown had been dashed. The Hanoverian redcoats had butchered the Stuart forces and gone far beyond the call of duty in laying waste the Gaelic way of life. Having next to no idea what they were fighting for, half of them, they had sorely punished the brazen-faced clansmen, but the Prince had cunningly slipped through their fingers and gone scuttling back to France. It seemed that Protestant and Catholic had been forever at each other's throats and William, who was given to pondering these matters, was at a loss to fathom why those who proclaimed one Lord could not live in reasonable harmony.

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By now, the third George in succession was on the throne. He was German, of course, but unlike his predecessors, spoke English as well as any Charterhouse schoolmaster. He distrusted the nobility for their ambiguous values and preferred to consort with simple mortals. Farming fascinated him. He had a model farm at Kew for the instruction of the young Princes in his overflowing nursery. When he went to take the air at Weymouth, he loved to linger over a breakfast of boiled ham and oatcakes in the kitchen of some local farmhouse while he and the overawed tenant mulled over the problems of good husbandry.

The trouble was that the old ways were changing fast. New techniques were being pioneered to make the growing of the nation's food more efficient. Over in Norfolk, Viscount Coke insisted on the importance of crop rotation. Did he imagine that cottagers could afford to let their strips lie fallow for one year in three? To cap it all, landowners were looking for new means of fattening their pockets. They preferred to see their affairs managed by a dozen large tenants than chase scraps of rent from scores of small ones. This meant that country people were having to turn to labouring and were losing a pride in tending their own patch. Everywhere, land was being enclosed by hawthorn hedges which cost good money to maintain and left little common where you could scratch out a living with a pig or a cow. Fodder had to be begged, bought or stolen.

William was used to hearing his parents discuss these things long into the night over a guttering tallow candle. They had had their share of hardships but had well survived. "Make no mistake, Will, the Lord always provides," his mother would declare, "though not without a vast deal of toiling and spinning from me!"



"How can you be sure?" he had probed as a youngster, though he entertained less doubt of her than of the Almighty.

She was pummelling dough at the time, her freckled brown arms powdered with flour. "Do I take bricks out of the oven when I bake a loaf? See this! Left in the warm for a couple of hours, twill be twice the size and more full of hot air than the vicar!” Hers was a mischievous heresy. While she had the deepest respect for the tenets of the Christian religion, a lively nature occasionally drove her to poke fun at the Church as an ecclesiastical institution.

"Is it magic, then?" asked her son, turning his bright face up to her.

"Little nippers ask too many questions and that's a fact."

"But is it?"

"Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn't. You might call yeast magic in a manner o' speaking. Tis like faith, like saying your prayers and believing you'll receive what you need."




Now that he had reached the age of twenty, William's contribution to the rent was substantial. He was a broad-shouldered youth of medium height with a mop of yellow hair tied back with twine, a skilful farmer with a propensity for book-learning. Before he was three, he had mastered the alphabet from a hornbook at his mother's knee and a year later was composing whole sentences upon his slate.

"Give over stuffing the boy's head with these clever notions," George Cooper cautioned. “It'll do naught to put bread on the table."

But Hannah thought she knew better. If God had given her son talents, he would not readily see them squandered.

 

continued...

 

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A HOUSE NOT MADE WITH HANDS
 

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A House Not Made With Hands: (2) Where The Spirit Leads

...continued 




"Ah, Leicestershire," sighed John Wesley as his mount kicked over a stony track, "where I always feel such liberty and see but little fruit!"


He had just taken his leave of the brethren at Markfield, the foothold of his ministry in the Charnwood Forest, when a flushed and breathless rider came galloping alongside. At once he recognised John Coltman, a hosier from Leicester with whom he had dined on several occasions. Not long ago the poor fellow had been gravely depressed and had tried all manner of remedies until the little preacher had laid hands on him and called down the blessing of the Heavenly Physician.

"Mr Wesley, sir, I heard tell you were abroad in these parts. Won't you come and speak to the good folk of the town?"

Wesley reached out and put a lightly consoling hand beneath his companion's elbow. "I don't wilfully neglect them, my friend. I must go where I'm most needed and the Spirit leads elsewhere. There's a deal of trouble brewing in the Border Country since Charles Edward Stuart landed on these shores."

"Ay, he'll do away wi' King George and turn us all into Papists!"





"He's a long way to go before that, thank God. But we must not underestimate the strength of Jacobite feeling. Tis an odd irony that we Methodists, as Dissenters from the Established Church, are oftentimes mistaken for Catholics. Our sect is everywhere spoken against."

"Then they suffer much in the North?"

"Praise God, they do!" beamed the wiry clergyman. "There's nothing to make the gospel thrive so much as persecution. The best Christians are to be found among the strongholds of the devil. Go and tell them in the town to pray for a happy outcome of these affairs and I engage to visit you on my return."

The comrades parted, the hosier to broadcast this heartening exchange, the man of God to reflect on the phlegmatic nature of these Midlanders. Many was the time he had passed through the county and expounded the faith in its villages, but the area did not beckon strongly enough and the town scarcely at all. They were peaceable folk, he knew, spinners and weavers whose grinding toil had brought a fair degree of economic stability to the region. Sometimes they would rise in the small hours, walking miles out of their way to hear his message before work began, but though they listened with interest, they were slow to respond. Materialism was their god and guide and they thought nothing of plundering every wagon that entered the town gates to sell its goods at inflated prices.

If only they could raise their heads above their wheels and treadles and glimpse eternity.

 
 



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