Brenda S. Cox
(Bonus Material for Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England)
Soon, my upcoming book, Fashionable Goodness: Christianity in Jane Austen’s England will be available! It will be available on Oct. 20 from Amazon! The Kindle version can be pre-ordered now and the print version will be available soon. This is part of a series of “bonus materials” for that book, which all of you readers can enjoy.
The Countess of Huntingdon, one of the very few Methodists among the nobility in the 18th century, supported the Methodist movement by building homes around the country and attaching chapels to them, meant to be private chapels but open to the public. (See chapter 22 in Fashionable Goodness.) Contemporaries described the services in her lovely chapel in Bath, which still remains (now the Museum of Bath Architecture).
Horace Walpole, fourth Earl of Orford, in a letter in 1766 described a service at the Countess of Huntingdon’s Chapel in Bath. John Wesley was preaching, in the first year after it opened [explanations added in brackets]:
“My health advances faster than my amusement. However, I have been to one opera, Mr. Wesley’s. They have boys and girls with charming voices, that sing hymns*, in parts, to Scotch ballad tunes; but indeed so long, that one would think they were already in eternity, and knew how much time they had before them.
“The chapel is very neat, with true Gothic windows (yet I am not converted); but I was glad to see that luxury is creeping in upon them before persecution: they have very neat mahogany stands for branches [candle holders], and brackets of the same in taste. At the upper end is a broad haut-pas [raised platform] of four steps, advancing in the middle; at each end of the broadest part are two of my eagles**, with red cushions for the parson and clerk. Behind them rise three more steps, in the midst of which is a third eagle for pulpit. Scarlet armed-chairs to all three. On either hand a balcony for elect ladies. The rest of the congregation sit on forms [benches]. Behind the pit [at the opposite end of the church], in a dark niche, is a plain table within rails; so you see the throne is for the apostle. [In other words, the preacher was more important than the Communion table.]
“Wesley is a lean elderly man, fresh-coloured, his hair smoothly combed, but with a soupcon of curl at the ends. Wondrous clean, but as evidently an actor as Garrick [David Garrick, famous actor of the 1700s]. He spoke his sermon, but so fast and with so little accent, that I am sure he has often uttered it, for it was like a lesson. There were parts [superior qualities, skills] and eloquence in it; but towards the end he exalted his voice, and acted very ugly enthusiasm [emotional preaching]; decried learning, and told stories, like Latimer, of the fool of his college, who said, ‘I thanks God for everything.’ Except a few from curiosity, and some honourable women, the congregation was very mean [lower class]. There was a Scotch Countess of Buchan, who is carrying a pure rosy vulgar face to heaven.”
Services in the Bath Vineyards Chapel followed the Book of Common Prayer, like other Church of England services. Walpole mentions balconies for the “elect ladies,” the upper-class women who attended. He probably did not know about a curtained seat near a side door called “Nicodemus’s Corner.” This was a seat for bishops so that they could be “smuggled” in to hear the Methodist preachers without anyone knowing they were there. Ministers rotated through, coming for a few weeks or months at a time to preach at the chapel.
Another unfriendly visitor a few years later, in 1772, sat in one of the special seats, and recorded in his diary that he and his companions were “placed in vestry just near the door” along with two deacons of the chapel; and a merchant from Bristol and his wife, maid, and noisy child. He described his impressions of the service:
“The prayers read by one Mr. Sheppard (a little ugly man), the sermon on I Philip 21 by Mr. Shirley [the Countess’s ordained cousin] – an empty unmeaning discourse on a spiritual acquaintance with Christ, which yet he defined not but in a strange vague manner as that it was being blest by God’s Free Grace and a spiritual acquaintance with Christ and much more unmeaning stuff of the same sort—seemed to say good works were nothing and that this spiritual acquaintance with Christ was not to be attained by reflection, study, reading, or indeed any other means, that a sober prudent man would take to obtain it, but by some whim or caprice of God, who should (without why or wherefore) take an unaccountable predilection for some devilish sinner or worthless prelate, and give it to him.
“After his main discourse he concluded in giving about 20 minutes account of Mr. Adey [a converted sinner who had just died at Bath]. . . However I was made amends for all the stuff [I had heard]. . . by the singing. They have a book of hymns of their own composing which I perused, the poetry very middling indeed but most sweetly sung. They chant or rather sing the 95th Psalm and the Hundredth. . . [And also sang] 2 Funereal Hymns of their own composing; the voices were sweet and the tune slow, solemn, sweet and affecting to a great degree.”
The Chapel was for a time very popular among the people of Bath. The singing was a great attraction, as it was much livelier than the staid psalm-singing of most churches. But people mainly came to hear the great preachers who took turns filling the pulpit—George Whitefield, John Wesley, Rowland Hill, Henry Venn, Martin Madan, John Fletcher, William Romaine, and others. Walpole mentions many of the nobility who would go in groups to hear the preachers there. Most seem to have gone out of curiosity, but some were converted.
The chapel was supported by subscriptions of people who paid a regular fee for their seats, and by a small admission fee for those who came in at the front, near the pulpit. Entry to the lower door was free.
The members ran Sunday schools for poor children (see chapter 32 of Fashionable Goodness) nearby from the 1780s on, first for boys, then another school for girls.
The chapel in Bath, built in 1765, united with Trinity Presbyterian Church in 1922, which worshiped there until 1981, when they united with the Bath Central United Reformed Church in Argyle Street. That church, built in 1789, had been an Independent chapel, which split off from the Countess of Huntingdon’s Chapel, and the popular preacher William Jay ministered there in Austen’s day. In 1992 the Countess of Huntingdon Chapel became the Building of Bath Museum, now the Museum of Bath Architecture.
* Hymns: The Countess loved hymns, and produced a hymnbook of 231 hymns that she personally selected. Many of the tunes were written by Benjamin Milgrove, who sold “fancy goods” and toys in Bond Street in Bath and was the precentor (music leader) and organist at the Chapel. There was an organ above the Communion table. Other hymns were set to music by Giardini and Handel, whom the Countess knew. The hymnbooks included a wide variety of hymns, written by all the major writers of the day, including Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, John Newton, William Cowper, Augustus Toplady, Count Zinzendorf of the Moravians, and many others.
** The eagles were on lecterns, or stands supporting the Bible. According to one expert (Curl), the eagle symbolizes the Word of God because the eagle can supposedly fly directly into the sun without closing its eyes, so it is like the Bible, leading us to God with our eyes open. Another expert (Barr) says that eagles symbolically carry the gospel on their wings to the ends of the earth.
Horace Walpole, Letter to John Chute, Oct. 10, 1766. Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, Yale Edition, vol. 35, 118–119.
G. Medd, Trinity Presbyterian Church (Formerly Countess of Huntingdon’s Chapel): A Bicentenary Record, 1765–1965 (Bath, 1965), n.p. Pamphlet. Main source of information in this appendix, besides the letters.
James Steven Curl, A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 252. (on the eagle)
James Barr, Anglican Church Architecture: With Some Remarks Upon Ecclesiastical Furniture (Oxford: J.H. Parker, 1843), 61. (on the eagle)
Trevor Fawcett, Voices of Eighteenth-Century Bath (Bath: Ruton, 1995), 135–6, quoted from Baker, Diary, 249–251, Nov. 15, 1772. (“Another Visitor” section)