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Robert Southey and Millenarianism: Documents Concerning the Prophetic Movements of the Romantic Era, Edited by Tim Fulford

From Robert Southey, The Life of Wesley, and the Rise and Progress of Methodism, 2nd edn, 2 vols (London, 1820), II, pp. 319-24.

1.        Among the converts to Methodism at this time were Mr. Berridge, vicar of Everton, in Bedfordshire, and Mr. Hickes, vicar of Wrestlingworth, in the same neighbourhood. These persons, by their preaching, produced the same contagious convulsions in their hearers, as had formerly prevailed at Bristol; and though time had sobered Mr. Wesley’s feelings, and matured his judgment, he was so far deceived, that he recorded the things which occurred, not as psychological, but as religious cases. [1]  They were of the most frightful and extraordinary kind. An eyewitness described the church at Everton as crowded with persons from all the country round; ‘the windows’, he says, ‘being filled, within and without, and even the outside of the pulpit, to the very top, so that Mr. Berridge seemed almost stifled with their breath; yet’, the relater continues, ‘feeble and sickly as he is, he was continually strengthened, and his voice, for the most part, distinguishable in the midst of all the outcries,— When the power of religion begun to be spoke of, the presence of God really filled the place; and while poor sinners felt the sentence of death in their souls, what sounds of distiess did I hear! The greatest number of them who cried, or fell, were men! but some men and several children, felt the power of the same Almighty Spirit, and seemed just sinking into hell. This occasioned a mixture of various sounds; some shrieking, some roaring aloud. The most general was a loud breathing, like that of people half-strangled, and gasping for life; and, indeed, almost all the cries were like those of human creatures dying in bitter anguish. Great numbers wept without any noise; others fell down as dead; some sinking in silence, some with extreme noise and violent agitation. I stood on the pew seat, as did a young man in the opposite pew, an able-bodied, fresh, healthy countryman; but, in a moment, while he seemed to think of nothing less, down he dropt, with a violence inconceivable. The adjoining pews seemed shook with his fall: I heard afterwards the stamping of his feet, ready to break the boards, as he lay in strong convulsions at the bottom of the pew. When he fell, Mr. B. and I felt our souls thrilled with a momentary dread; as, when one man is killed by a cannon-ball, another often feels the wind of it.—’ Among the children who felt the arrows of the Almighty, I saw- a sturdy boy, about eight years old, who roared above his fellows, and seemed, in his agony, to struggle with the strength of a grown man. His face was red as scarlet; and almost all on whom God laid his hand, turned either very red or almost black’.

2.        The congregation adjourned to Mr. Berridge’s house, whither those who were still in the fit were carried: the maddened people were eager for more stimulants, and the insane vicar was as willing to administer more, as they were to receive it. ‘I stayed in the next room’, says the relater, ‘and saw a girl, whom I had observed peculiarly distressed in the church, lying on the floor as one dead, but without any ghastliness in her face. In a few minutes we were informed of a woman filled with peace and joy, who was crying out just before. She had come thirteen miles, and is the same person who dreamed Mr. Berridge would come to his village on that very day whereon he did come, though without either knowing the place or the way to it. She was convinced at that time. Just as we heard of her deliverance, the girl on the floor began to stir. She was then set in a chair, and, after sighing a while, suddenly rose up, rejoicing in God. Her face was covered with the most beautiful smile I ever saw. She frequently fell on her knees, but was generally running to and fro, speaking these and the like words: ‘Oh, what can Jesus do for lost sinners! He has forgiven all my sins! I am in Heaven! I am in Heaven! Oh, how he loves me, and how I love him!’— Meantime I saw a thin pale girl, weeping with sorrow for herself, and joy for her companion. Quickly the smiles of Heaven came likewise on her, and her praises joined with those of the other. I also then laughed with extreme joy; so did Mr. B. it was more than he could bear; so did all who knew the Lord, and some of those who were waiting for salvation, till the cries of them who were struck with the arrows of conviction, were almost lost in the sounds of joy. Mr. Berridge about this time retired; we continued, praising God with all our might, and his work went on. I had for some time observed a young woman all in tears, but now her countenance changed: the unspeakable joy appeared in her face, which, quick as lightning, was filled with smiles, and became a crimson colour. About the same time John Keeling, of Potton, fell into an agony; but he grew calm in about a quarter of an hour, though without a clear sense of pardon. Immediately after, a stranger, well dressed, who stood facing me, fell backward to the wall, then forward on his knees, wringing his hands, and roaring like a bull.— His face at first turned quite red, then almost black. He rose and ran against the wall, till Mr. Keeling and another held him. He screamed out, ‘Oh, what shall I do! what shall I do! Oh, for one drop of the blood of Christ!’ As he spoke, God set his soul at liberty: he knew his sins were blotted out; and the rapture he was in seemed too great for human nature to bear. He had come forty miles to hear Mr. Berridge.

3.        ‘I observed, about the time that Mr. Coe (that was his name) began to rejoice, a girl eleven or twelve years old, exceeding poorly dressed, who appeared to be as deeply wounded, and as desirous of salvation, as any. But I lost sight of her, till I heard the joyful sound of another born in Sion, and found, upon inquiry, it was her, the poor disconsolate, gypsy-looking child. And now did I see such a sight as I do not expect again on this side eternity. The faces of the three justified children, and, I think, of all the believers present, did really shine: and such a beauty, such a look of extreme happiness, and, at the same time, of divine love and simplicity, did I never see in human faces till now. The newly justified eagerly embraced one another, weeping on each other’s necks for joy, and besought both men and women to help them in praising God’. The same fits were produced by Mr. Hickes’s preaching at Wrestlingworth, whither this relater proceeded; and there also the poor creatures, who were under the paroxysm, were carried into the parsonage, where some lay as if they were dead, and others lay struggling. In both churches several pews and benches were broken by the violent struggling of the sufferers; ‘yet’, says the narrator, ‘it is common for people to remain unaffected there, and afterward drop down in their way home. Some have been found lying as dead in the road; others in Mr. Berridge’s garden, not being able to walk from the church to his house, though it is not two hundred yards’. The person who thus minutely described the progress of this powerful contagion, observes, that few old people experienced any thing of what he called the work of God, and scarce any of the rich; and, with that uncharitable spirit, which is one of the surest and worst effects of such superstition, he remarks, that three farmers, in three several villages, who set themselves to oppose it, all died within a month.

4.        Such success made Berridge glorious in his own eyes, as well as in those of all the fanatics round about. He travelled about the country, making Everton still the centre of his excursions; and he confesses that, on one occasion, when he mounted a table upon a common near Cambridge, and saw nearly ten thousand people assembled, and many gownsmen among them, he paused after he had given out his text, thinking of ‘something pretty to set off with: but’, says he, ‘the Lord So confounded me, (as indeed it was meet, for I was seeking not his glory, but my own,) that I was in a perfect labyrinth, and found that, if I did not begin immediately, I must go down without speaking; so I broke out with the first word that occurred, not knowing whether I should be able to add any more. Then the Lord opened my mouth, enabling me to speak near an hour, without any kind of perplexity, and so loud, that every one might hear’. For a season this man produced a more violent influenza of fanaticism, than had ever followed upon either Whitefield’s or Wesley’s preaching. The people flocked to hear him in such numbers, that his church could not contain them, and they adjourned into a field. ‘Some of them’, says an eyewitness, ‘who were here pricked to the heart, were affected in an astonishing manner. The first man I saw wounded would have dropped, but others, catching him in their arms, did indeed prop him up; but were so far from keeping him still, that he caused all of them to totter and tremble. His own shaking exceeded that of a cloth in the wind. It seemed as if the Lord came upon him like a giant, taking him by the neck, and shaking all his bones in pieces. One woman tore up the ground with her hands, filling them with dust, and with the hard-trodden grass, on which I saw her lie with her hands clinched, as one dead, when the multitude dispersed: another roared and screamed in a more dreadful agony than ever I heard before. I omit the rejoicing of believers, because of their number, and the frequency thereof; though the manner was strange, some of them being quite overpowered with divine love, and only showing enough of natural life to let us know they were overwhelmed with joy and life eternal. Some continued long as if they were dead, but with a calm sweetness in their looks. I saw one who lay two or three hours in the open air, and being then carried into the house, continued insensible another hour, as if actually dead. The first sign of life she showed was a rapture of praise, intermixed with a small joyous laughter’. It may excite astonishment in other countries, and reasonable regret in this, that there should be no authority capable of restraining extravagancies and indecencies like these.

5.        Berridge had been curate of Stapleford, near Cambridge, several years, and now, after what he called his conversion, his heart was set upon preaching a ‘gospel-sermon’ there, which, he said, he had never done before. Some fifteen hundred persons assembled in a field to hear him. The contagion soon began to show itself among those who were predisposed for it: others, of a different temper, mocked and mimicked these poor creatures in their convulsions; and some persons, who were in a better state of mind than either, indignant at the extravagance and indecency of the scene, called aloud to have those wretches horsewhipped out of the field. ‘Well’ (says the fanatical writer) ‘may Satan be enraged at the cries of the people, and the prayers they make in the bitterness of their souls, seeing we know these are the chief times at which Satan is cast out’.—’ I heard a dreadful noise, on the further side of the congregation, (says this writer,) and turning thither, saw one Thomas Skinner coming forward, the most horrible human figure I ever saw. His large wig and hair were coal-black; his face distorted beyond all description. He roared incessantly, throwing and clapping his hands together with his whole force. Several were terrified, and hastened out of his way. I was glad to hear him, after a while, pray aloud. Not a few of the triflers grew serious, while his kindred and acquaintance were very unwilling to believe even their own eyes and ears. They would fain have got him away; but he fell to the earth, crying, ‘My burden! my burden! I cannot bear it!’ Some of his brother scoffers were calling for horsewhips, till they saw him extended on his back at full length: they then said he was dead; and indeed the only sign of life was the working of his breast, and the distortions of his face, while the veins of his neck were swelled as if ready to burst. He was, just before, the chief captain of Satan’s forces: none was by nature more fitted for mockery; none could swear more heroically to whip out of the close all who were affected by the preaching’. Berridge bade the people take warning by him, while he lay roaring and tormented on the ground. ‘His agonies lasted some hours; then his body and soul were eased’.

6.        It is to be regretted that, of the many persons who have gone through this disease, no one should have recorded his case who was capable of describing his sensations accurately, if not of analyzing them. Berridge and Hickes are said to have ‘awakened’ about four thousand souls in the course of twelve months. Imposture in all degrees, from the first natural exaggeration to downright fraud, kept pace with enthusiasm.

Notes

[1] The eyewitness accounts that follow are taken from John Wesley’s journal for 20 May 1759. See The Journal of the Rev. John Wesley A.M., 4 vols (London, 1827), II, pp. 429-35. BACK

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July 2012