A review by J C Philpot of ~
Recollections of the late William Huntington, together with Selections from his Writings, Anecdotes, Remarkable Incidents, &c.
By William Stevens, one of his Hearers. - (February, 1869.)
Few men have had to encounter such a storm of contempt, slander, enmity, and opposition as that eminent servant of God of whom these Recollections are given to the public by one who was well acquainted with him, and who, like most of those who sat and had profited under his ministry, entertains undiminished for him the warmest affection and deepest respect. The only doubt amongst those who despised and hated him was whether he were a fanatic or an impostor; and some very quietly and curtly settled the doubt to their own full satisfaction by pronouncing him both. This seems to have been the opinion of the late Lord Macaulay, who, in his "Essay upon Lord Clive," speaking of the mysterious horror with which the peasantry of Surrey looked on the stately house which he was building at Claremont, brings in, in a very malicious way, what he must have read in Mr. Huntington's "Kingdom of Heaven Taken by Prayer." These are the exact words of the brilliant, though not always truthful, essayist:
"Among the gaping crowd who drank into this frightful story (viz. that the reason why the walls were made so thick was to keep out the devil) was a worthless, ugly lad of the name of Hunter, since widely known as William Huntington, S.S., and the superstition which was strangely mingled with the knavery of that remarkable impostor seems to have derived no small nutriment from the tales which he heard of the life and character of Clive."
Now, it is not necessary to point out the misrepresentations contained in this passage. "Ugly" he might have been, for he himself tells us that "pride itself could never persuade him to think that any such thing as beauty had ever fallen to his share, and that his being destitute of this vanishing shadow had been matter of grief to him in the days of his vanity." Yet, it seems a strange idea to condemn a man for his face, which he did not make himself, and which is at best but a mere outside shell that may encase a beautiful kernel. But "worthless" he was not, at least at the time when he heard the story about Lord Clive, for he was then suffering persecution from his fellow-workmen, and loss of employment from his master because he would not work on the Lord's Day; nor was he "a lad," for he was a married man with two children; nor was he at any time after he made "a profession of godliness a knave," for no man lived more honestly or paid his debts more honourably, almost starving himself in the days of his poverty that he might owe no man anything; nor was he "an impostor," for he knew in whom he believed, and had both a testimony in his own conscience and the consciences of those who knew and loved the truth that he was an upright, highly favoured servant of the Lord.
This, however, is only a vain and feeble specimen of the reproach and calumny which were heaped upon him from all quarters, reaching him even after his death, and spread all over the world, through the wide diffusion and universal admiration of Lord Macaulay's writings. But in his case there was this peculiar feature, that his greatest opponents and most violent calumniators were the preachers and professors of his day. There were, no doubt, peculiar reasons which drew forth an enmity against him and a storm of contempt and scorn by which few have been assailed as he was. His views of the Law, at that time novel, his bold declaration that it was not a rule of life to believers, his strong and stern denunciation of the legal preachers of his day, the keen way in which he ripped up their arguments in his controversial writings, and the uncompromising language in which he laid bare their erroneous views, unmasking at the same time their profession and showing how ignorant they were not only of the truth of God but of any saving light in their own souls, provoked their wrath, and goaded them almost to madness. Knowing nothing for themselves of the sweet liberty of the Gospel, of a revelation of Christ, of a living faith in his Person and work, or of any union or communion with him, and resting all their hopes, if not professedly, yet really on a broken Law, or at the utmost on the bare letter of the word, they were naturally stung to the quick to see all their religion brushed away by him as a spider's web. He took away their gods, and what had they more? He broke up their idol, and with it fell both their countenance and their hope.
What course was then left to them? If they wrote against him, he was as a controversialist so unrivalled in his knowledge of Scripture and the use of it, so acute to discern the whole state of the argument, so keen in his dissection of their legal views, so fearless in his attack, and so thoroughly persuaded that God was with him and would stand by him, that none of his opponents could stand before him. We are free to admit that he did sometimes mingle his own spirit in his controversial writings with that Spirit of grace and truth by which he was undoubtedly led; but he himself, who knew best his own spirit, would not allow this, and we shall, therefore, leave the point.
He tells us that "God gave him so uncommon a spirit of meekness, at his first setting off to preach that he found himself rather too tender to declare the whole counsel of God." "I was more fit," he says, "for the character of a nurse than for that of a soldier. But when these Arians came to tear up the very foundation of my hope, that spirit of meekness gave way to a fiery zeal. When I came in private before God, my soul was overwhelmed with contrition; but when I got into my pulpit, I was clad with zeal as with a cloak."
As, then, his opponents could not overthrow his testimony on grounds of Scripture and truth, and as they had nothing to say against his life and conduct, for that was most circumspect and exemplary, they turned all the current of their reproach against his views upon the Law, as if by them he had removed the very foundations of morality. Not knowing in and for themselves the constraining love of Christ, the sweet and sacred influences of the Holy Spirit, the springing up of godly fear as a fountain of life, or anything of that sacred power whereby the child of God is led into all holy obedience to God's will and word, and kept from evil that it may not grieve him, they set up an image as a mark for their arrows, which was nothing but the imagination of their own mind. Every young sprig of divinity, as he speaks, had a word against the Antinomian, against his horrid doctrine, his dreadful views, his licentious sentiments, and what a wide door his preaching and writing opened for all ungodliness. It was impossible to convince these men of their mistake. They were honest, many of them, as far as they went, but in levelling their arrows against his doctrines it was not so much the doctrines themselves as the consequences which they in their ignorance drew from them that they attacked. They did not see that the Law for which they so zealously contended was a ministration unto death and not unto life, of condemnation not unto justification, of bondage not unto liberty, and that its fruits and effects were not to produce obedience unto holiness, but to provoke and irritate the carnal mind and thus stir up and put power into sin, so as to deceive and slay the soul under it. Now, Mr. Huntington, on the contrary, held that the Gospel, in its truths, promises, and precepts, was the rule of life in the hands of the Spirit; and that from it and not from the Law flowed not only pardon and peace but holiness in heart, in lip, in life.
We are great admirers of Mr. Huntington's writings. From his works and those of Dr. Owen we have derived more instruction, edification, encouragement, consolation, and we may add conviction, counsel, reproof, and rebuke, than from any other source, except the word of God; and indeed it is because the writings of these two eminent men are so in harmony with the Scriptures, so breathe the same spirit, and are so impregnated with the same heavenly wisdom, that they are so profitable to those who know and love the truth. The Spirit of God speaks in and through them, because what they wrote they wrote under his special influences, and out of the treasure of a good heart brought forth those good things which make them so weighty and so valuable. Mr. Huntington's greatest work is probably his "Contemplations on the God of Israel;" but for our own private reading we prefer his "Posthumous Letters" to any of his other writings. In them we see the man just as he was in his private moments before God; in them he pours forth to his various correspondents the treasures of wisdom and grace with which he was so largely endowed and blessed. There we see him not as a warm controversialist, nor a keen disputant provoked and irritated, as he sometimes unduly was, by the slanders of his enemies, or the errors of the day, against which he contended with such earnest zeal; but we see in them the breathings of a tender, kind, and affectionate spirit, mingled with such openings of the Scripture and the various branches of living experience as made them full of instruction and edification. As a letter writer he strikes us as unrivalled. Even apart from the subject of his letters, the ease, flexibility, originality, strength, and variety of his language is something marvellous. You never find in them anything dry, dull, and prosy; you are never wearied with long, obscure phrases and periods from which it is hard to extract sense or meaning; but his language flows from his pen with all the freshness and clearness of a summer brook, so transparent that you can see at once to the bottom, and as free from mud and mire as when it first gushed out of the hill side. As his correspondents were very numerous, and as they were in different stages of the divine life, his Letters, taken as a whole, touch upon and unfold every branch of living experience, from its first movements in conviction to its fullest joys in deliverance and consolation. Some of his correspondents were very young, both in age and experience. Some, like Mr. Charles Martin, for instance, had only just begun to set their faces Zionward; some had been long and deeply exercised with trials and afflictions; some were contending with sharp and powerful temptations; and some, like himself, after having been much favoured and blessed, were engaged in a perpetual conflict with a body of sin and death, had to labour under the weight of a daily cross, and to endure hardness as good soldiers of Jesus Christ. Now, as he had travelled all these paths, and knew for himself more deeply than they did the various exercises, desires, sensations, feelings, sorrows, and joys of a believing heart, and was favoured with a most wonderful gift in unfolding from the Scriptures and his own experience every feature of the divine life, he could suit his letters so as to meet the case and state of every correspondent. There is, therefore, we believe, scarcely a feeling, a sensation, or a movement of divine life in the heart which he has not touched upon or described as no other but he could do, and this with a life and power, a clearness, decision, certainty, and authority which carry with them an indescribable influence that seems to penetrate into the inmost soul. We read them again and again, and ever find something in them to instruct and edify the soul, strengthen faith, confirm hope, or draw forth love. He seems to have been singularly fond of writing to his friends, and would sometimes spend nearly a whole day in his little cabin in this use of his pen. Where he felt union, it was strong. There were few, perhaps, comparatively speaking, who had crept into his heart; but if once there, they were there for ever. Those who spoke of him as harsh, austere, and stern, only knew him as opposed to errors and evil doings. They knew nothing of the man as spending hours and days in prayer and meditation, on his bended knees, before his dear Lord and Master, with flowing eyes and a broken heart. They knew nothing of his confessions in secret, his earnest wrestlings, or of the sweet union and communion with which, in answer to them, he was blessed and favoured.
And there was much in his peculiar position as a public character which misled their judgment of him. He lived at a time when our country was in the greatest peril that it ever was since the Revolution of 1688. France was, or had lately been, in the throes of her first Revolution of 1789, in which, with the overthrow of ages of corruption, and the sweeping away of that feudal system which had filled the land with oppression on the one hand, and misery and beggary on the other, there was hidden under the pleasing words "Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity," a spirit which afterwards broke out in the destruction of everything sacred, and the eventual crushing of liberty itself. This spirit of the French Revolution passed over into England, mainly through the writings of Tom Paine; and as there was still a great deal of the old feudal system in this country, with its evils and corruptions, it spread itself like wildfire among all ranks. So subtle was this spirit, it so allied itself with what were called "The rights of man," and put forth liberty with such great swelling words as its main object, that very few saw the deceit, and hailed it as the dawn of a glorious day in which all tyranny and oppression would cease, and the voice of freedom alone be heard like the turtle in the land, or the angelic salutation to the shepherds be realised. Burke was the only statesman of the great Liberal, then called the Whig party, who had a clear insight into the true meaning and real spirit of that Jacobin doctrine which in France, ripened into the Reign of Terror, and all the terrors of the guillotine. Mr. Huntington as a preacher, like Burke as a statesman, was gifted to see into and denounce from the pulpit and from the press, this Jacobin spirit which had spread itself widely through the whole dissenting body, and had infected very many of his own church and congregation. It would require a volume (and a most interesting volume it would be, if a writer should ever arise sufficiently gifted to unfold the state of England at this critical period) fully to explain all this. Suffice it to say, that never at any period of our history since the Revolution has England been in greater peril from intestine strife, weak ministries, corruption in every department of the State, and a gigantic enemy on the opposite side of the Channel ready to invade our shores with an overwhelming force.
But enough of this. The only reason why we have touched upon these points is to show that those who would understand the position which Mr. Huntington occupied as a public character, standing in the very front of the battle, and with fearless boldness denouncing the Jacobin spirit, and insisting upon obedience to constituted authority, can only do so by some acquaintance with the history of the period. If ever his life should be written, of which we see little prospect, it must be by one who can not only enter into his views and experience, character and position as a man of God, but is well acquainted also with the history of a period the recollection of which has much passed away, but which has left deep and permanent traces behind it on the present generation. Much of the bitter feeling which was manifested against him flowed from this source, for it was a point on which he was very determined both in word and action, especially after the fire had broken out in his own congregation through the preaching of a minister in his pulpit who had come up from Devonport, then called Dock, and of whose views as well as character and conduct he was at the time ignorant.*
* We have heard that a near relation of this minister, who was at Devonport during the time that Mr. Huntington was preaching there, and who knew his character, was so troubled in mind about it that he was obliged to get up in the middle of the night and knock at his bedroom door, which, after some delay, Mr. H. opened; and when he had heard what he had to say and witnessed the trouble of his mind, he sent him off to order a postchaise and four to be ready at 4 o'clock next morning, into which he put himself, and travelled up at the same speed all the way to London. Whether this anecdote be true or not, and we believe it to be, true, it is well known that he left Dock abruptly, and came to London, when he found it too certain that the Jacobin spirit had spread like a fire through his congregation. In the book before us, Mr. Stevens alludes to this, and says that he heard it from the lips of one of his members whom he knew well that the person to whom we have alluded was the preacher's own son. Mr. Stevens adds, "I believe this was the greatest ministerial trial he ever had, for the person to whom I have referred as my informant knew that he would sit in his vestry, called 'The Cabin,' and weep for hours on account of it."
But if he were despised and hated by his enemies, who in truth were the enemies of God, he was proportionately loved and esteemed by his hearers and friends. Indeed, the feeling entertained toward him by many of his hearers was almost idolatry. We remember hearing a good woman say, to whom he had been much blessed, that when she looked at his house, she almost worshipped the smoke that came from the chimney of his study. This she confessed was but idolatry, yet it showed the strength of her feeling. And, indeed, there was much in the man, independent of the grace that rested upon him and his wonderful gifts in the ministry, to make him the centre and object of the greatest esteem and affection. He was gifted with a noble, liberal mind, abhorring covetousness, and giving away his money with a most profuse liberality. Though born and bred in so low a state, yet he was one of nature's gentlemen; and we have heard from those who intimately knew him that there was a dignity in his person, manners, and appearance which commanded respect. He was also naturally of a warm, affectionate spirit, and in his conversation there was a playfullness, though no levity, and a humour without jesting, which made his company very pleasant. That he was most hospitable in his own house, we can see from his letters, in the invitations which he gives to his friends to come and make themselves at home with him; and when he saw and felt the grace of God in them, and he would have no other company or other companions, he would converse upon the things of God with such wisdom, tenderness, contrition, knowledge of the Scriptures, and so open up every point from his own experience, that it was most blessed to hear him converse. Not but that he had his angry, peevish fits; not but that his natural temper was not one of the sweetest and most equable; but at these seasons he kept much to himself, and fought the battle alone with his own spirit, with many prayers and tears before God.
We have had the pleasure and privilege of knowing at various times some of his friends and hearers, and what we have thus written about him has not been at a mere uncertainty, but been gathered both from what we have read in his writings and from what we have heard from those who knew him. And we are free to confess that we have generally found in his hearers and friends a savour, a life, a feeling after, where not full enjoyment of those divine realities, in which the power of vital godliness so much consists, that we have not found in others.
One of these attached hearers and friends is the author of the little work before us, which he has published, chiefly for the purpose of vindicating his name and memory by referring to his writings. He also furnishes much interesting information on various points, to understand which requires a little explanation of the names of persons referred to in his books. It will, therefore, be read with interest by those who esteem and love the memory of Mr. Huntington; and if it serve the purpose of leading to a wider and fuller extension of his writings, and the removal of any prejudice against them, it will, we believe, quite fulfil the intention of the writer, who in his preface thus speaks the desire of his soul:
"Should what is now collected be the means of producing a desire in the heart of any to know more of Mr. Huntington's writings, the labour will not have been done in vain. Yet my chief object has been to encourage the hope and strengthen the faith of the children of God. To him that doeth truth with God and his own conscience, and earnestly prays that his heart may be right in God's sight, the various and deep experience of divine teaching which these extracts contain may, by God's blessing, be profitable and consoling. In them is set forth the private religion of one who lived and walked with God in peace and equity. I have often said and I now declare it again, that no one can know what Mr. Huntington was as a man or as a Christian minister unless they are well acquainted with his writings, more particularly his correspondence. In the 'Posthumous Letters,' in the 'Contemplation on the God of Israel,' and other epistles to the late Mr. J. Jenkins, he freely lays open his consolations and the trials of his faith, both as a private believer and what befell him in his public ministrations."