An History of Birmingham Part 13

A scion of the Old Meeting, transplanted in 1748--The building cost about 700_l_. This society hath been favoured with two donations; one the interest of 800_l_. by the will of John England, in 1771: The other Scott's Trust, mentioned in another part.

This residence of divine light is totally eclipsed, by being surrounded with about forty families of paupers, crouded almost within the compass of a giant's span, which amply furnish the congregation with noise, smoak, dirt and dispute. If the place itself is the road to heaven, the stranger would imagine, that the road to the place led to something worse: The words, _Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way_, are here literally verified.--Pastor, the Rev. John Punfield.


Founded in Cannon-street, 1738. This hill of Zion is also hid from the public eye, but situated in a purer air.--The minister was the late Rev. James Turner.

Some trifling differences arising in the congregation, to which the human mind is everlastingly prone, caused discontent: Individuals began to sting each other, which in 1745, produced a swarm.

The destitute wanderers therefore, erected for themselves a small cell in Freeman-street, where they hived in expectation of harmony. Over this little society of separatists presided a journeyman woolcomber: What elevation he bore in the comb-shop, during six days of the week, history is silent; but having the good fortune to procure a black coat and a white wig, he figured on the seventh with parsonic elegance.

Whether _he_ fed his people best, or _they_ him, is uncertain; but whether they starved one another, is not. Disgust, which ever waits upon disappointment, appeared among them.

Though the preacher was certainly warmed in the shop, _with a live coal from the altar_; yet unfortunately, Sunday was the only day in which his _fire_ was extinguished; _then_ the priest and the people hit the taste of the day, and slumbered together; a priviledge never granted by a _reader_ to an _author_. Thus the boasted _liberty of the press_ submits to that of the pulpit.

This exalted shepherd dwelt upon the words of Paul, _He that preaches the gospel, ought to subsist by the gospel;_ and _they_ did not forget a portion in John, _Feed my sheep_. The word, he well knew, promised both wine and _oil_, but he was obliged to be satisfied with the latter.

Although the teacher might possess some _shining qualities_ at the combe-pot, he did not possess that of protecting his flock, who in 1752, silently retreated to their original fold in Cannon-street; and the place was soon after converted into a dwelling, No. 16, when for the first time it produced _profit_.

The growing numbers of this prosperous society induced them, in 1780, to enlarge the place of worship, at the expence of about 800_l_. in which is observable some beauty, but more conveniency.


In Bull-street. A large convenient place, and notwithstanding the plainness of the profession rather elegant. The congregation is very flourishing, rich, and peaceable. Chandler tells us, to the everlasting honour of the Quakers, that they are the only christian sect who have never exercised the cruel weapon of persecution.


We learn from ecclesiastical history, that the people in high life are always _followers_ in religion. Though they are the best leaders in political and social concerns, yet all religions seem to originate from the lowest class. Every religion is first obstructed by violence, passes through the insults of an age, then rests in peace, and often takes up the rod against another.

The first preachers of the christian faith, the short-sighted apostles, were men of the meanest occupations, and their church, a wretched room in a miserable tenement. The superb buildings of St. Peter's in Rome, and St. Paul's in London, used by their followers, were not within the reach of their penetration. They were also totally ignorant of tripple crowns, red hats, mitres, crosiers, robes, and rochets, well known to their successors.

The religion of a private room, soon became the religion of a country: the church acquired affluence, for all churches hate poverty; and this humble church, disturbed for ages, became the church of Rome, the disturber of Europe.

John Wickliff, in 1377, began to renew her disturbance: this able theologist planted our present national church, which underwent severe persecutions, from its mother church at Rome; but, rising superior to the rod, and advancing to maturity, she became the mother of a numerous offspring, which she afterwards persecuted herself; and this offspring, like _their_ mother, were much inclined to persecution.

Puritanism, her first born, groaned under the pressure of her hand. The Baptists, founded by a taylor, followed, and were buffeted by both.--Independency appeared, ponderous as an elephant, and trampled upon all three.

John Fox, a composition of the oddest matter, and of the meanest original, formed a numerous band of disciples, who suffered the insults of an age, but have carried the arts of prudence to the highest pitch.

The Muglitonians, the Prophets, the Superlapsarians, &c. like untimely births, just saw the light and disappeared.

The Moravians, under the influence of Zinzendorf, rose about 1740, but are not in a flourishing state; their circumscribed rules, like those of the cloister, being too much shackled to thrive in a land of freedom.

James Sandiman introduced a religion, about 1750, but, though eclipsed himself by poverty, he taught his preachers to shine; for he allowed them to grace the pulpit with ruffles, lace, and a cueque. Birmingham cannot produce one professor of the two last churches.

The christian religion has branched into more sectaries in the last two hundred years, than in the fifteen hundred before--the reason is obvious. During the tedious reign of the Romish priest, before the introduction of letters, knowledge was small, and he wished to confine that knowledge to himself: he substituted mystery for science, and led the people blindfold. But the printing-press, though dark in itself, and surrounded with yet _darker_ materials, diffused a ray of light through the world, which enabled every man to read, think, and judge for himself; hence diversity of opinion, and the absurdity of reducing a nation to one faith, vainly attempted by Henry VIII.

In those distant ages, the priest had great influence, with little knowledge; but in these, great knowledge, with little influence. He was then revered according to his authority; but now, according to his merit: he shone in a borrowed, but now in a real lustre: then he was less deserving; but now less esteemed. The humble christian, in the strictest sense, worked out his salvation with fear and trembling, and with tools furnished by the priest: he built upon his opinions, but now he lays a foundation for his own.

Though we acknowledge the scriptures our guide, we take the liberty to guide them; we torture them to our own sentiments. Though we allow their _equal_ weight, we suffer one portion to weigh down another. If we attend to twenty disputants, not one of them will quote a text which militates against his sentiments.

The artillery of vengeance was pointed at Methodism for thirty years; but, fixed as a rock, it could never be beaten down, and its professors now enjoy their sentiments in quiet.

After the institution of this sect by George Whitfield, in 1738, they were first covered by the heavens, equally exposed to the rain and the rabble, and afterwards they occupied, for many years, a place in Steelhouse-lane, where the wags of the age observed, "they were eat out by the bugs."--They therefore procured a cast off theatre in Moor-street, where they continued to exhibit till 1782; when, quitting the stage, they erected a superb meeting-house, in Cherry-street, at the expence of 1200_l_. This was opened, July 7, by John Wesley, the chief priest, whose extensive knowledge, and unblemished manners, give us a tolerable picture of apostolic purity; who _believes_, as if he were to be saved by faith; and who _labours_, as if he were to be saved by works.

Thus our composite order of religion, an assemblage of the Episcopalian, the Presbyterian, the Independent, and the Baptist; fled from the buffetings of the vulgar, and now take peaceable shelter from the dews of heaven.


I have already remarked, there is nothing which continues in the same state: the code of manners, habits of thinking, and of expression, modes of living, articles of learning; the ways of acquiring wealth, or knowledge; our dress, diet, recreations, &c. change in every age.

But why is there a change in religion? eternal truth, once fixed, is everlastingly the same. Religion is purity, which, one would think, admits of no change; if it changes, we should doubt whether it is religion. But a little attention to facts will inform us, _there is nothing more changable:_ nor need we wonder, because, man himself being changable, every thing committed to his care will change with him. We may plead his excuse, by observing, his sight is defective: he may be deceived by viewing an object in one light, or attitude, to-day, and another, to-morrow. This propensity to change might lead us to suspect the authenticity of our own sentiments.

The apostles certainly formed the church of Rome; but she, having undergone the variations of seventeen hundred years, St. Peter himself, should he return to the earth, could not discover one linament in her aspect; but would be apt to reject her as a changling.

The church of England has not only undergone a change since the reformation, but wishes a greater.

We should suppose the puritan of 1583, and the dissenter of 1783, were the same: but although substance and shadow exactly resemble each other, no two things differ more.

When pride sends a man in quest of a religion, if he does not discover something new, he might as well stay at home: nothing near the present standard can take. Two requisites are necessary to found a religion, capacity, and singularity: no fool ever succeeded. If his talents are not above mediocrity, he will not be able to draw the crowd; and if his doctrines are not singular, the crowd will not be drawn--novelty pleases.

Having collected, and brightened up a set of doctrines, wide of every other church, he fixes at a distance from all. But time, and unavoidable intercourse with the world, promote a nearer approximation; and, mixing with men, we act like men. Thus the Quaker under George III. shews but little of the Quaker under George Fox.

In two congregations of the same profession, as in two twins of the same family, though there is a striking likeness, the curious observer will trace a considerable difference.

In a religion, as well as a man, _there is a time to be born, and a time to die_. They both vary in aspect, according to the length of their existence, carry the marks of decline, and sink into obscurity.

We are well informed how much the Romish religion has declined in this country: three hundred years ago Birmingham did not produce one person of another persuasion; but now, out of 50,000 people, we have not 300 of this.

The Roman Catholics formerly enjoyed a place for religious worship near St. Bartholomew's-chapel, still called Masshouse-lane; but the rude hands of irreligion destroyed it. There is now none nearer than Edgbaston, two miles distant; yet the congregation is chiefly supplied from Birmingham.

If the Roman Catholics are not so powerful as in the sixteenth century, they seem as quiet, and as little addicted to knowledge; perhaps they have not yet learned to see through any eyes but those of the priest.--There appears, however, as much devotion in their public worship, as among any denomination of christians.


We have also among us a remnant of Israel. A people who, when masters of their own country, were scarcely ever known to travel, and who are now seldom employed in any thing else. But, though they are ever moving, they are ever at home: who once lived the favourites of heaven, and fed upon the cream of the earth; but now are little regarded by either: whose society is entirely confined to themselves, except in the commercial line.

[ILLUSTRATION: Birmingham Theatre, Hotel and Tavern.]

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