Ca. 1820s Autograph Letter Signed by Novice British Evangelist J. A. Roberts.
“Poor wretches they could not strive so away they flew…”
“For the first week I seemed (as in truth I was) a stranger in a strange Land… ” Circa 1820s letter from evangelist or preacher J. A. Roberts written to his “Brethren,” reporting on his difficult first preaching trip to Devonshire in southwest England. Roberts writes in a small dense hand.
Basing himself in Sidmouth in Devonshire, Roberts describes his difficulties in getting there and his experiences preaching and visiting new chapels. His use of the term “chapel” for a local church congregation appears to suggest he is not a cleric of the Church of England (Anglican). Roberts begins with a nautical metaphor for his work as a traveling preacher:
After having been here three sundays I take this opportunity of writing to you. You may be assured that I have not much time to spare for it takes all my labor to keep out of shallow water & often when under ful[l] sail a sudden gale nearly upsets me for I have not only to see that my keel is sound but that my riggin[g]s are in proper order. 5 times a week is a strong pul[l] on me who have [sic] not been accustomed to much preaching & whose stock of half finished sermons did not amount to a dozen but hitherto I have been helped. …for the first week I seemed (as in truth I was) a stranger in a strange Land.
You ask how did I get here & what kind of journey I had. Why I spent every cold night with a drunken sailor by my side, so cold, that I could not get any sleep. But however I got to [indistinct] by 5 o’clock Friday evening & there I found a horse waiting for me. After waiting a little set off on horse back with my portmant[ea]u tyed behind. I had not gone a mile at a good trot before it got lo[o]se one side so that I was oblidge [sic] to ride with one hand holding the bridle & stick & with the other hand before me leaving it to the horse as I did not know a step of the way. So dark that sometimes took the road for a wall & sometimes the hedge for the road…the horse began to fling. Thinks I, I shall be over his head. I suppose the fellow found the luggage behind, not very agreeable. I then was oblidge to let it go & I to hold him in with both hands & over it went on one side & by his kicking the shins broke & away he went leaving it behind. …at last got t o Sidmouth by 7 o’clock which is a very pretty place…& I think it is a very promising cause here for what render [sic] it very agreeable the generality of the member of the church are young consequently capable of being moulden [moulded] according to the spirit of the Pastor & I certainly think Mr. Ward would like it for it far exceeds my expectations if I consider the town, the church…, or the chapple [sic] which is a very neat place.
It appears that Roberts is a new preacher; his mission appears to be less than a month and he is traveling without his “black waistcoat & gaiters,” traditional religious garb:
[H]ow did you act the first Sunday you say? First of all I put on the gown never had such a thing on my back before but it was too long that when I went up the pulpit stairs I had on it & with some disconcertation [sic] I got in at the pulpit door. However I preached 3 times that day morning & evening. I pleased those who are called the old Friends (Aston will explain who they are) but in the evening I gave them strive to enter &c & I believe not one of them has been to hear me since. Poor wretches they could not strive so away they flew but the wensdays [sic] following one of them had his wings clip[p]ed his false measure being burnt in the market place. You see the fellow could not strive to be honest much less to be religious. I have seen Cornwall & as far as I can understand he is not settled. I went last thursday 15 miles from Sidmouth to set a chapple opened when I believe he is to preach. Turnbull[?] preached in the morning in manner & matter like Mr. Booth exactly.
Other names mentioned include “Rev. T. Smelt,” “Mr. Coholly,” “Mr. Hughes,” and one “Martin Acton” who may be involved in something scandalous involving two girls and a promise; Roberts writes: “I can’t tell you in the letter lest any body sh[oul]d see it.”
The name Rev. J.A. Roberts is found in two English religious periodicals, from 1823 and 1832; these references are quite likely the present letter writer. In the former, Roberts is seen preaching at the opening of the new Hope Chapel (“Independent connection”) in Weymouth, Dorsetshire in southwest England.¹ In the latter periodical, he is listed as collecting missionary contributions in Wiltshire County in southwest England.² This latter periodical also provides some biographical information on him. Roberts, described as living in Warminster, Wiltshire County, is mentioned as having resigned after eight years “…his charge of the congregational church in that town, with the intention trying a voyage to America, for the improvement of his health, which has for a lengthened period rendered his pulpit services painful to himself.”³
Description: Ca. 1820s Autograph Letter Signed by Novice British Evangelist J. A. Roberts.
[Likely Sidmouth, Devonshire, England. Ca. 1820s?]. [1½]pp. Quarto leaf. Manuscript in a very fine hand. Folds; small loss at one corner margin, one closed tear at center, else very good.
Notes 1. Rev. William Bengo’ Collier et al., eds., The Investigator; or, Quarterly Magazine (London, Jan. 1823), p213. 2. The Evangelical Magazine and Missionary Chronicle. 1832. (London, March 1832), p131. 3. Ibid., p115.