William Cowper's Observations on Country Churches
Originally published in The Connoisseur, No. 134, THURSDAY, AUGUST 19, 1756.
|Delicta majorum immeritus lues,
Romane, donec templa refeceris
Ædesque labentes Deorum, et
Fœda nigro simulacra fumo.
The tott’ring tower, and mould’ring walls repair,
And fill with decency the house of prayer:
Quick to the needy curate bring relief,
And deck the parish-church without a brief.
"Mr. Village to Mr. Town."
"The country at present, no less than the metropolis, abounding with politicians of every kind, I begun to despair of picking up any intelligence that might possibly be entertaining to your readers. However, I have lately visited some of the most distant parts of the kingdom with a clergyman of my acquaintance: I shall not trouble you with an account of the improvements that have been made in the seats we saw, according to the modern taste, but proceed to give you some reflections which occurred to us on observing several country-churches, and the behaviour of their congregations.
"The ruinous condition of some of these edifices gave me great offence; and I could not help wishing, that the honest vicar, instead of indulging his genius for improvements, by enclosing his gooseberry bushes within a Chinese rail, and converting half an acre of his glebe land into a bowling-green, would have applied part of his income to the more laudable purpose of sheltering his parishioners from the weather, during their attendance on divine service. It is no uncommon thing to see the parsonage-house well thatched and in exceeding good repair, while the church, perhaps, has scarce any other roof than the ivy that grows over it. The noise of owls, bats, and magpies, makes a principal part of the church-music in many of these ancient edifices; and the walls, like a large map, seem to be portioned out into capes, seas, and promontories, by the various colours with which the damps have stained them. Sometimes, the foundation being too weak to support the steeple any longer, it has been found expedient to pull down that part of the building, and to bang the bells under a wooden shed on the ground beside it. This is the case in a parish in Norfolk, through which I lately passed, and where the clerk and the sexton, like the two figures at St. Dunstan’s, serve the bells in capacity of clappers, by striking them alternately with a hammer.
"In other churches I have observed, that nothing unseemly or ruinous is to be found, except in the clergyman, and the appendages of his persons. The ’squire of the parish, or his ancestors perhaps, to testify their devotion, and to leave a lasting monument of their magnificence, have adorned the altar-piece with the richest crimson velvet, embroidered with vine-leaves and ears of wheat; and have dressed up the pulpit with the same splendour and expense; while the gentleman who fills it, is exalted, in the midst of all this finery, with a surplice as dirty as a farmer’s frock, and a periwig that seems to have transferred its faculty or curling to the band, which appears in full buckle beneath it.
"But if I was concerned to see several distressed pastors, as well as many of our country-churches in a tottering condition, I was more offended with the indecency of worship in others. I could wish that the clergy would inform their congregations, that there is no occasion to scream themselves hoarse in making the responses; that the town-crier is not the only person qualified to pray with due devotion; and that he who bawls the loudest may, nevertheless, be the wickedest fellow in the parish. The old women too in the aisle might be told, that their time would be better employed in attending to the sermon, than in fumbling over their tattered Testaments till they have found the text; by which time the discourse is near drawing to a conclusion: while a word or two of instruction might not be thrown away upon the younger part of the congregation, to teach them, that making posies in summertime, and cracking nuts in autumn, is no part of the religious ceremony.
"The good old practice of psalm-singing is, indeed, wonderfully improved in many country-churches since the days of Sternhold and Hopkins; and there is scarce a parish-clerk, who has so little taste as not to pick his staves out of the New Version. This has occasioned great complaints in some places, where the clerk has been forced to bawl by himself, because the rest of the congregation cannot find the psalm at the end of their Prayer-books; while others are highly disgusted at the innovation, and stick as obstinately to the Old Version as to the old style. The tunes themselves have also been new set to jiggish measures; and the sober drawl, which used to accompany the two first staves of the hundredth psalm with the Gloria Patri, is now split into as many quavers as an Italian air. For this purpose, there is in every county an itinerant band of vocal musicians, who make it their business to go round to all the churches in their turns, and, after a prelude with the pitch-pipe, astonish the audience with hymns set to the new Winchester measure, and anthems of their own composing. As these new-fashioned psalmodists are necessarily made up of young men and maids, we may naturally suppose, that there is a perfect concord and symphony between them: and, indeed, I have known it happen, that these sweet singers have more than once been brought into disgrace, by too close an unison between the thorough-bass and the treble.
"It is a difficult matter to decide, which is looked upon as the greatest man in a country-church, the parson or his clerk. The latter is most certainly held in higher veneration, where the former happens to be only a poor curate, who rides post every sabbath from village to village, and mounts and dismounts at the church-door. The clerk’s office is not only to tag the prayers with an amen, or usher in the sermon with a stave; but he is also the universal father to give away the brides, and the standing godfather to all the new-born bantlings. But in many places there is a still greater man belonging to the church, than either the parson or the clerk himself. The person I mean is the ’Squire, who, like the king, may be styled head of the church in his own parish. If the benefice be in his own gift, the vicar is his creature, and of consequence entirely at his devotion: or, if the care of the church be left to a curate, the Sunday fees of roast beef and plum pudding, and a liberty to shoot in the manor, will bring him as much under the ’squire’s command as his dogs and horses. For this reason, the bell is often kept tolling, and the people waiting in the churchyard, an hour longer than the usual time; nor must the service begin till the ’squire has strutted up the aisle, and seated himself in the great pew in the chancel. The length of the sermon is also measured by the will of the ’squire, as formerly by the hourglass: and I know one parish, where the preacher has always the complaisance to conclude his discourse, however abruptly, the minute that the ’squire gives the signal, by rising up after his nap.
"In a village church, the ’squire’s lady or the vicar’s wife are perhaps the only females that are stared at for their finery: but in the larger cities and towns, where the newest fashions are brought down weekly by the stage-coach or waggon, all the wives and daughters of the most topping tradesmen vie with each other every Sunday in the elegance of their apparel. I could even trace the gradations in their dress, according to the opulence, the extent, and the distance of the place from London. I was at church in a populous city in the North, where the mace-bearer cleared the way for Mrs. Mayoress who came sidling after him in an enormous fan-hoop, of a pattern which had never been seen before in those parts. At another church, in a corporation town, I saw several negligées, with furbelowed aprons, which had long disputed the prize of superiority: but these were most wofully eclipsed by a burgess’s daughter, just come from London, who appeared in a Trolloppée or Slammerkin, with treble ruffles to the cuffs, pinked and gimped, and the sides of the petticoat drawn up in festoons. In some lesser borough towns, the contest, I found, lay between three or four black and green bibs and aprons: at one, a grocer’s wife attracted our eyes, by a new-fashioned cap, called a Joan; and at another, they were wholly taken up by a mercer’s daughter, in a Nun’s Hood.
"I need not say any thing of the behaviour of the congregations in these more polite places of religious resort; as the same genteel ceremonies are practised there as at the most fashionable churches in town. The ladies, immediately on their entrance, breathe a pious ejaculation through their fan-sticks, and the beaux very gravely address themselves to the haberdashers’ bills, glued upon the linings of their hats. This pious duty is no sooner performed, than the exercise of bowing and courtesying succeeds: the locking and unlocking of the pews drowns the reader’s voice at the beginning of the service; and the rustling of silks, added to the whispering and tittering of so much good company, renders him totally unintelligible to the very end of it.
I am, dear COUSIN, yours, &c."