On the ridge of hills which divide Lancashire from Yorkshire there is a cluster of huge sandstone rocks, called, by local tradition, Robin Hood’s Bed. Standing on these rocks, with the face towards the setting sun, an irregular dale stretches out on the north-west side, about ten miles in length, bounded by broken ravines and uplands, the highest point being Knoll Hill, the south opening out into an extensive level plain. This valley cannot, like those of Savoy, Italy, and Egypt, boast of producing corn, and oil, and wine, but it can show many stupendous smoking obelisks, that for height leave Pompey’s pillar, and Cleopatra’s needle immeasurably behind. The tillers of the soil on these flats and slopes count not their acres by hundreds, yet their small patches of grazing land yield to the industrious husbandman a moderate income. This depression among the hills, from its farms or factories, claims no special notice, but the historian will yet mark it out as a place of some celebrity. In those days many of the inhabitants of this valley, as in most parts of England, were in great spiritual darkness. Places of worship were few and far between; books were rare things; Sunday or other schools, except in favoured places, did not exist; not one in fifty could read, and where the people assembled for worship, that they might be able to sing, the hymns were read out in two lines, and sometimes only in one. At one of these gatherings, two young married country women believed in the Lord Jesus Christ and were saved, and one of them was the wife of Abraham, better known as Ab’, the subject of this narrative. With intense earnestness she told her husband, and besought him to seek for pardon and peace, that they might rejoice together. He heard her with astonishment, and trembled from head to foot. A few days after, a minister came to preach in the neighbourhood, and she urged her husband to go, but could not prevail. Putting the child in the cradle, she requested him to rock while she went out. She ran to the service, but the thoughts of her child disturbed her, and before it was over she ran back. Ere she got home, the baby had waked up, and began to cry as loud as a three months’ old baby could cry. Her giant of a husbandÂ—a giant in bone and statureÂ—lifted the little thing out of the cradle, and began to walk across the floor, quietly swinging it up and down, saying,Â—”Husht, chilt,* Husht; do husht; bless thee, chilt, do be quiet, for I cannot bide to yer thee cry. Husht, wilt tha? Bee bo! bee bo! bee bo! When thi mother corns whoam, winnot I thrash her. Boo be! boo be! husht, chilt, do husht; tha makes me sweat.” Just then the mother arrived, and taking hold of the child, said, “He, lad, I wish tha had heard yon mon preach; tha never yeard nought like it; no, never, I wish tha had goan!”
The way in which this was spoken softened down the ire of her tall husband, for his conscience had begun to trouble him. He knew his wife was daily praying for his salvation, and he had several times promised he would go to chapel sometime. One evening, without telling her of his purpose, he went to Union Street Chapel, in Rochdale. The place was crowded, but he got into one comer, with eyes and ears open, and he that night witnessed scenes and heard words that stirred his soul, and alarmed his guilty conscience. During the singing of one hymn he was wrought to such a pitch of agony that he called out “Murder! murder!” not knowing what he said. In this state of mind he set off towards home. It was a stormy, winter evening; the snow was piled up in large drifts, covering high thorn hedges, and in many places blocking up the road. He cared little for the storm; on he went until he began to ascend a by-lane behind Norden, then falling on his knees, with his face against a wall of snow, he began to cry for mercy. Long he knelt, and long he criedÂ—cried until his hot breath melted a hole in the drifted snow. God heard that cry, saw his sorrow for sin, and spoke peace to his soul. Up he sprang, and lifting both hands, clapped them over his head, and shouted for
B’ay; then rushed on through every obstacle. On arriving at home, he threw wide open the door, and again shouted,Â—”Lass, lass, aw’m** saved! aw’m saved! God has saved my soul in a snaw-drift! Glory! Glory!”
Did Abraham’s after life confirm the rapturous declaration of that evening? Did it manifest to beholders that the change was genuine? Yes, it did. It was not the mere outburst of an excited imaginationÂ—a momentary flash of wildfire,Â— ecstacies of the new birth. He had heard men preach, who preached for souls, and the gospel of Christ was the power of God to his salvation. Oaths and curses gave way to prayers and praises, and taproom brawls to chapel songs, and louder songs have hardly ever come from mortal throats.
But in all new converts, especially such ardent souls as Abraham’s, the old and new man have often desperate battles. Old tempers and old habits fight hard to keep their place, or return after being driven out, and nothing but watching and prayer can defeat them. This neglected, the house is empty, the wicked spirit, bringing others more wicked, will come back, and the last end of that man will be worse than the first. Abraham had many of these conflicts between grace and sin. One of his besetments was hunting. At the cry of the hounds he would leave his work, and run half-naked up hill, down dale, shouting and howling louder than the bay of the dogs or the huntsman’s horn, the boldest of all the Four-legged or two-legged animals, yelling, panting, and blowing to catch the little, beautiful, timid, trembling hare, and called it ‘noble sport.” The sport often ending amongst ale pots, rum casks, and in sore bones.
After his conversion, he one day heard the hounds. He tried to keep back, but tried in his own strength, which always fails. Away he went, over hedge and ditch, shouting loud as ever. Several of the old hunters laughed heartily when they saw him. One of them called out, “Amen, Ab’, amen!” Ab’ was very dejected that evening when he returned home. He knew he had disgraced himself; he durst not look his wife in the face; he became so miserable, that he went down to Rochdale to ask the minister, Mr. Bodie, what he must do. The minister told him to pray for more strength, to resist all temptation to any sin, and God would help him. After that he halloed to the hounds no more.
To see a giant of a man, married and a father, who could not say his A, B, C, would seem strange to the children of our Sunday schools now, but so it was with Abraham. He got a little spelling book, and went amongst his neighbours to get some one to teach him to read, but none of them could. There was only one Sunday school in the neighbourhood, and it was three miles away.
This first Sunday school was begun by James Hamilton of Rochdale, in 1784, in a room down in the White Bear Yard. Mr. Hamilton wrote to Robert Raikes for instruction about Sunday schools. Mr. Raikes advised him to get the children together, and teach them to read and write, and, as often as possible, take them to some place of worship. Mr. Hamilton began the first Sunday with six scholars, and the second with thirteen. An acquaintance of his, John Croft, asked him why he took the children into his tin shop on the Sabbath, and when informed that it was a Sunday school, he requested permission to become a teacher. The ninth Sunday there were twenty-three scholars, and then, as recommended by Mr. Raikes, they took them in procession to the parish church. When they got to the door, the beadle, with his red collar and long black staff and silver knob, sternly refused them admittance. James Hamilton told him it was a Sunday school, and they must be admitted. This enraged the mighty beadle, and he took out the hand-cuffs; at the sight of which John Croft took to his heels, down the one hundred and twenty-two steps, but Hamilton stood firm. The beadle then shut and locked the door, and ran to the vicar, old Dr. Wray, to tell him that two men had brought a lot of dirty children that they called a Sunday school, and were determined to go into the church, and he was determined they should not. The Vicar, scratching his wig, said,Â—
“Put them in some corner, out of sight.”
It would be a large comer that would hold that same school now, for it numbers twelve hundred, and many thousands more are taught in the valley, not only to read, but their way to a better world.
But if Abraham could not then read, he had the organs of both tune and sound, and could sing with uncommon power. I remember him when I was a boy in the school,Â—a school and place of worship built by several who, like Abraham, had received the
gospel, all helping with hand and pocket,Â—he was then about fifty years of age, and sat in one corner of the singing pew with his face towards the pulpit, his mouth and ears open to catch the words. He was not the leading singer, but he did lead with a vengeance. Clarionets and fiddles, bassoons and trumpets, all had to go at his speed, often to the mortification of the professionals. High above all instruments sounded his voice. He sang aloud for joy. Many said that Abraham’s religion was all noise and sound, but I thought he had more religion than all the people in the chapel.
After his conversion, he joined the church at Bagslate, and in the week evenings met in class with Samuel Standing of Tenter House, and several years after, the church having greatly increased, he was requested to take charge of a class himself.
Abraham knew nothing of circumlocution; his sententious, terse, and pointed speeches in the love-feast and class, both before and after he became leader, were retailed throughout the neighbourhood, and are remembered by many to this day. He was always serious, and however others might laugh at his laconics, he himself was in sober earnest. Amongst many other rough, wicked, and daring characters that were gathered into the church from the hills and valleys of Norden, was his brother Joseph. Seeing him in one of their meeting he shouted out,Â—
“Eh, Joe, lad, what a mercy it is that thee and me are here. Before God saved our souls, we were both wild as March hares, and ragged as filley foles. If the grace of God had not stopt us, we met o’Bin in hell, brunning’ like two breek.”***
One evening, in his class, he said,Â—
“Friends, my soul is filled as full of love as a shoddy bag. As I coom oer’t fields aw shewted glory so lewd that sheep and kews all stared at me. I shewted lewder than when I went o’ huntin’, for I had far more need to shewt the praises of Jesus Christ than shewt after dunlin’ dogs.” [As I came over the fields I shouted glory so loud that sheep and cows all stared at me. I shouted louder than when I went a hunting, for I had far more need to shout the praises of Jesus Christ than shout after hunting dogs.]
A poor man in his class that had been some time without work, and had several of his family sick, expressing his gladness that the Lord had promised to deliver in the day of trouble, Abraham replied,Â—
“If theaw had to tak thy troubles un poverty to some big mon, un ax him to help thee, theaw would have to go to th’ back dor, un mind ih’ dog kennel; a sarvant would ax wot theaw wanted, then tell another sarvant, then th’ butler, then th’ maister; un he met be engaged, un thee toud to co’ again some time else; but when theaw brings thy troubles to Jesus, theaw art not stopt we yard durs, dog kennels, sarvants, nor butlers, but theaw may go streight to Him, un He will mak thee welcom. Glory! glory! glory!
(If you had to take your troubles and poverty to some big man
and ask him to help you, you would have to go to the back door and mind the dog kennel; a servant would ask what you wanted, then tell another servant, then the butler, then the master; and he might be engaged, and you would have to go again sometime else;
but when you bring your troubles to Jesus you are not stopped by yard dogs, dog kennels, servants nor butlers, but you may go straight to Him and He will make you welcome.]
One of his members, who was prospering in worldly things, spoke of the difficulty of keeping humble, Ab’ replied,Â—
“I am the most humble, and think of God best, when me stomach’s empty, un aw think sometime God lets it be empty to keep me reet [right], till I’m better rooted and grounded,”
At one church meeting several thought that there were signs of a revival, and that prayer meetings ought to be held. One speaker said it would only be a burning of candles to no use. Ab’ said,Â—
“Candles against souls! candles against souls! that caps all. A soul saved is worth o’th candles it’ world. I’ll find candles! I’ll find candles!”
After Abraham joined the church, one weakness long troubled him: he was hot-tempered, soon provoked, and could say stinging words, and so grieved many. He had often to mourn and weep over this failing. He would sometimes confess his infirmity, and ask his friends to bear with him. Referring to his grievous fault in one meeting, he said,Â—
“Friends, I think my temper mends a bit. Th’ donkey kicked milk cans off yesterday, un I did not fly in a passion; aw’v seen th’ day when aw should o’ kilt [killed] it on th’ spot.”
That he had much to try his temper must be admitted. His good, little wife soon presented him with a pack of hungry children,Â—seventeen in all. Cotton weaving was then their principal support, for he was not then a farmer, and it was one continued struggle for very existence. The scanty, well-patched, but clean clothing of father, mother, and children, as they appeared in the chapel and school, told of thrift and poverty. What a mercy to those children that their parents were Christians; that they were led by them from their childhood to the Sunday school and the house of God; led not driven,Â—taken, not sent. Many parents drive and send their children to a place of worship, but go not themselves. Such parents need not be surprised if the child, in after life, should copy the example, and reject the precept; and it is well for families attending the sanctuary, when the pew and fireside harmonize. When all the religion is in the church on Sunday, and none at home on Monday, it is a poor look out for the young ones, or the old ones either.
My long residence in the town has never lessened my love for the country; the restless toils of anxious business find a healthy antidote on the mount and in the wild wilderness,
Where tiny streams sing their soft songs
To shining pebbles.
To climb the smooth or rugged steep, that brings to view the outstretched landscape, where distance fades, and sky and mountain meet, gives to over-wrought nerves, morbid feelings, or languid circulation, new life and active energies.
This love of rural walks and country scenes has often led me to our neighbouring hills and dales. In one of these walks I found myself climbing amongst the purple heath and sheep tracks of Rooley Moor and Hungry Hill. I cared little for food when I set out, but about two o’clock in the afternoon, while passing over the last-mentioned and right-named hill, I felt an intense desire for a good dinner. Seeing the roof of a house below my feet, I descended, hoping to find it the home of some hospitable person. Passing through a stone stile, and entering the open farm yard, I was quite delighted to find it was Bank House, and the home of the now Old Ab’. The aged man sat on a saw-block, with an axe in his hand, chopping rotten branches into firewood, on the stump of a tree. He was without hat or coat, and his vest wide open. Accosting the old man, I said,Â—
“Could you furnish me with a little bread and butter-milk, sir, for I am very hungry?”
“Ah, we con. Your i’th’ reet shop, for win just churnt, un aw think there’s bits o’ butter in yet, un that will mend it.” [Yes, we can. You are in the right place for we have just churned, and I think there’s a bit of butter still in it, and that will improve it.] He then called aloud, “Ann, Ann, get this gentleman some milk and bread.”
The day being fine, I sat down on a strong stone bench beneath the window, on one end of which stood two inverted large cans, used for carrying milk to the town. Ann, his aged partner, very soon brought me a nice white loaf, a pat of fresh made butter, and neat jug of rich yellow buttermilk, which made me think I was “i’th reet shop.” Just then a large sheep dog came bounding from the barn, barking in rage and fury, his hair behind his neck standing straight up; but the old farmer shouted out,Â—
“Come ewt, dog; come ewt, will ta?” [Come out, dog; come out, will you?].
I thought now is my time for opening conversation, for I longed to begin with the old man, so I said,Â—
Let dogs delight to bark and bite,
For God hath made them so.
The old man paused from breaking chips, and without lifting up his head, observed,Â—
“Is not that election, sir; Is not that election? But happen yo’ don’t care aught about it.”
“It is one of Watt’s songs for children,” I replied. “Watts was a sweet singer for young and old.”
“Which is best poetÂ—Watts or WesleyÂ—do you think? Some say one, un some say another. Wot do you say? Dun yo know Wesley once preached in this house, standin’ i’th old oak staircase? But
happen yo don’t care about if?” Old Abraham again observed.
“Well, sir,” I replied, “I think the Lord raised up and inspired both Wesley and Watts to write hymns for His children. Millions that are gone home to brigher climes, have sung them. Watts wrote more for meek, timid, doubting, but true Christians, who feel their weakness and unworthiness,Â—who fearing to say too much, often say too little. These sing from his hymns,
When I can read my title clear
To mansions in the skies,
I’ll bid farewell to every fear,
And wipe my weeping eyes.
The moment I finished this verse, Abraham started up from the saw-block, and called out,Â—
“Ann, Ann, do coom ewt lass, un yer this mon talk. My wife’s a timid Christian, but, bless her, hoo’s a good un.” [“Ann, Ann do come out lass, and hear this man talk. My wife’s a timid Christian, but, bless her, she’s a good one.”]
Ann came to the door with tears in her eyes. She had heard all, for she was in the porch, looking on and hearkening, but he did not see her. Going on with my comparison, I observed,Â—
“Wesley wrote for bolder and more daring Christians,Â—men whose ardent souls were best stirred by strong, nervous language, such as,
My God I am Thine, what a comfort divine,
What a blessing to know that my Jesus is mine;
In the heavenly Lamb, thrice blessed I am,
And my heart it doth dance at the sound of His name.
Before quoting that verse I had risen to my feet, to give it all the force I possibly could. The old man stretched himself, with the axe in one hand and the chip in the other, then raising them straight up over his head, and looking up into the clear, blue sky, with all his might he shouted,Â—
“Glory! glory! glory! that’s me, that’s me; my God I am Thine for sure. Glory! glory! and our Ann’s Thine too; but hoo does not make as big a noise about it as I do.”
While the old farmer was so lustily shouting, the sheep dog began scampering about the yard yelling and barking, while Ann, the dear aged partner of his joys and sorrows, laughed through her tears.
Before leaving, and while I stood betwixt the two aged pilgrims, with our faces towards the valley that stretched out to Tandle Hills and the Yorkshire boundaries, I gave out one of those hymns I knew they could both sing; looking into the calm, serene heavens, we all sang togetherÂ—
There we shall see His face,
And never, never sin;
And from the rivers of His grace
Drink endless pleasures in;
Yea, and before we rise
To that immortal state,
The thoughts of such amazing bliss
Should constant joys create.
The old man stopped singing, and sobbed for joy; his dear old wife joined me in tremulous voice. To us all it was a moment of deep, unspeakable bliss,Â—a bliss which none but Christians know.
As I passed out at the gate to resume my walk, they both watched me ascend the hill, and the last words I heard were,Â—
“God bless you, us who yo are; yo an stirred up my old soul above a bit.”
[God bless you, who ever you are; you have stirred up my old soul more than a little].
Abraham’s religion was not all noise and sound. The blessing he found in the snow drift, fifty years before, safely guarded him through a long life, and now he, with his faithful Ann, are with the other Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the spirits of just men made perfect, enjoying that amazing bliss of which we that day sang.
*Local dialect; Husht chilt: Hush child; bide: bear; yer’.hear; wilt tha: will you; thi:
your; corns wtioam: comes home; winnot: will not; tha: you; goan: gone.
***might have been in hell burning like two brands.