Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Sermon-Monger Trade

A Lithographed Sermon
In Shaw's great play, Mrs. Warren's Profession, the Rev. Samuel Gardner has been visiting with his son Frank, an "entirely good-for-nothing young fellow." Also present in the scene is Frank's chum, Praed. Rev. Gardner eventually excused himself saying, "I must take the opportunity to write my sermon." The reverend having left the room, Praed said to Frank, "Curious thing it must be writing a sermon every week." Frank, who knew his father well, laughed and confided: "Ever so curious, if he did it. He buys 'em."

The trade in sermons in the Victorian church was a lucrative one. Purchasers were promised exclusivity in their county. There were sermons for all occasions: drought, great anniversaries, or local tragedies. The sermons were even lithographed in faux penmanship so that anyone close enough to see the manuscript from their pew would think for all the world that it had been handwritten by their beloved pastor. Once in the clutches of the "sermon-monger," the clergyman paid and paid, lest the matter be brought to law and his secret exposed. According to The Oxford Handbook of the British Sermon, the "cool impudence of the vendors [was] exceeded only by the transparent folly of the clerical customers." 

All Saints, Cople, Beds.
In 1861, the Rev. Henry East Havergal, Vicar of All Saints, Cople, Bedfordshire was taken to court for twenty sermons, at the cost of two shillings, sixpence apiece. The sermons had been written by the Rev Henry Rogers, a retired clergyman with offices at 7 Little Tower Street, London. Interestingly, no such clergyman appeared on the Church list but "Rev. Rogers" was well known in the trade. Rev. Havergal had been in Cople since 1847. A singer and musician, he had actually built the church organ. He sang. He rang the bells. But, he found himself "totally unable to write three sermons a week." Behind in his payments to "Rev." Rogers, Havergal decided to face him down “for the sake of warning his brethren and exposing a wolf in sheep's clothing.” 

"Rogers" did not actually appear in the Sheriff's Court in London but was represented by his literary agent. Mr. Marchmont insisted that it was a purely business transaction; the sermons were provided as requested and payment was due. These were simple "stock sermons," well suited to the needs of a country vicar and the charges were very reasonable; a sermon for a Bishop - and Marchmont knew of one - would cost as much as £5! The "extraordinary disclosures" produced as much laughter as anything else and in the end, poor, brave Rev. Havergal was ordered to pay the full amount due plus the court costs. His parishioners found no fault with his cribbed sermons; he remained there until his death in 1875.

The revelations of such sermon manufactories were troubling, to some. A writer in The Saturday Review called it a matter of trust between shepherd and flock, joking, "We have hitherto slept in dreamy but entire confidence in the integrity and authenticity of our spiritual adviser."

Another "sermon-mongering" clergyman, the Rev. Richard Marsh Watson, was involved in a much more outrageous scandal in 1877. His story is told in Clerical Errors, A Victorian Series, Vol 2, now available exclusively thru and

Thursday, February 8, 2018

"Unpleasant Rumours" in Cornwall

Constantine is a "picturesquely situated and usually quiet Cornish village." The church of St. Constantine enjoys a commanding position with excellent views. The Rev Francis Robert Hole had arrived in 1875 and, for a decade, his "exertions" were credited for the restoration of the church tower and the enlargement of the surrounding churchyard. The vicar and his wife were justly proud of the vicarage garden offering "shady walks, quiet nooks for study, talking, and whispering lovers." The garden wound through a secluded ravine, amid rocks, ferns and a small pond. On Sunday morning, 24 January 1886, the Rev. Mr. Hole made a determined effort to drown himself in that pond.

For the previous three weeks, there had been "unpleasant rumours" in Constantine linking the vicar with a local schoolgirl as young as twelve years of age. The Rev. Mr. Hole insisted the charges of misconduct were false and requested the Bishop of Truro to hold a formal inquiry, which was pending. But that Sunday morning, when the vicar personally rang the bell at eight for the Communion service, no one came to church. The obvious rebuff left the vicar "greatly agitated," said his wife. But she had not seen him leave the vicarage later that morning. Near noon, a manservant, checking on the livestock, heard splashing from the pond. The weather was quite cold and the pond was partially iced over. A human hand could be seen above the water. The servant was able to drag a gasping and weak Rev. Hole from the pond and then ran for help. The rescuer was horrified on his return to see the vicar once again in the pond. Again, the clergyman was pulled from the water and, this time, carried home where Dr. Haswell had arrived from Helston. “I did it in consequence of the rumors about me,” the vicar told him.

The Rev. Hole would recover. A report that he had also swallowed vermin poison was contradicted. The terrible drama of that Sunday morning was "the chief and almost the sole topic of conversation" across Cornwall. It was a crime to attempt suicide and the vicar of Constantine, still appearing pale and unwell, appeared before the Falmouth magistrates on 5 February. Rev. Hole made no statement and the magistrates dismissed the charge. The Cornish papers denounced the "sensational statements" carried elsewhere and reported that "expressions of sympathy are to be heard from all sides" for Hole and his family in "their hour of trouble." By 18 February, the Cornish Telegraph reported that "the rumours which caused the vicar of Constantine to attempt suicide are false."

The parishioners began to return to St. Constantine. A fund was started to help defray the vicar's medical and legal expenses. But in March, the Rev. Mr. Hole resigned. He sold up all his furniture. A devoted bee-keeper, he also auctioned "his fine stock of hives." A curate was assigned to Constantine but soon the unoccupied vicarage was the "very picture of desolation."

A new vicar arrived in 1887. By that time, the Rev and Mrs. Hole had found their new home in distant Manitoba, a prairie province in western Canada. He served there for many years as a "pioneer priest."

The rate of suicide among the Victorian clergy was a
great cause for concern. The story of the Rev. Joseph Weedow of Yorkshire is told in the first volume of Clerical Errors, A Victorian Series. NB: Volume 1 is available for Kindle readers only. Volumes 1 and 2 are sold exclusively through and