Preaching under the Elm Tree

Judith Ellis

The Elm Tree in Lower High Street
Elm Tree House and Lower High Street

In the late 1800’s the Elm Tree in Lower High Street was the frequently–used site for open-air gatherings. Joseph Arch came in 1872 to address local agricultural labourers, but more often the speakers were religious evangelists who used their voices to full effect, perhaps even ‘rabble-rousing’ in style. The disturbance was not welcomed by those living nearby, and eventually a complaint resulted in a court case and a question in Parliament.

 Evesham Journal    Saturday 9th June 1883:

On Wednesday evening a Gospel Temperance address was delivered by Mr Bruce (of the Weston Temperance League) in his usual effective style. The weather being favourable the meeting was held under the “Old Elm Tree”. There was a large number in attendance: several pledges were taken.

According to the Evesham Journal report, a Wesleyan Methodist Lay Evangelist, R. M. Kedward, was taken to court for continuing to preach loudly after being asked to stop one evening, having similarly preached on previous evenings.

Frederick Pethard made the complaint because two of his children were ill, as testified to by Dr Dewhurst, although the defence solicitor forced the admission that:

he was not aware that one of his boys, aged ten years, was at the service on Tuesday night, joining lustily in the singing. He did not admit that the service closed at nine o’clock. It had been the practice to hold services under the tree for many years. The Salvation Army were there most Sundays, and the Baptists held services there sometimes. These services, however, were not held so late as the one he complained of.

Mrs Pethard, said ‘she did not like this loud preaching. Defendant was not rude, but excitable. He used such a loud voice he drowned his own words.’

Witnesses were called on both sides and Kedward’s solicitor made an impassioned defence, but he was found guilty and refused to pay the fine, so he was sent to prison.

The question asked in the House of Commons of the Home Secretary referred to the part played by Rev. Canon Bourne, the local Church of England clergyman who ‘sat upon the Bench to judge the case, and that upon an adjournment being asked for by the evangelist, in order to secure legal assistance, and without hearing the evidence, Canon Bourne described the Wesleyan Evangelist as a street brawler…’

The Home Secretary declined to intervene, but it reflects the strong feeling at the time between the established church and the non-conformists, which also marked the political and social divide.

The following is an extract from The Life Story of Thomas Champness by Eliza M. Champness, published by Charles H Kelly, London, 1907.  The extract is from Chapter 24, pp 286-288. Champness was a noted 19th century Methodist missionary and evangelist.  Eliza must be his wife.

An arrest for preaching in Campden

On returning from the foreign tour [America, Japan, China, Australia, 1898-9] Thomas Champness at once resumed his work.  …  Not very long after his return he had a slight seizure, the nature of which alarmed his family, but which he refused to consider serious enough to put a stop to his work for more than a weekend.

We were staying a few days at Pipewell with our kind friends Mr & Mrs Riggall.  Our visit was ending and we were preparing to leave for the train, when my husband suddenly staggered and fell.  Though only for a few moments unconscious, he was for some time unable to move and it became certain that he could not go to his Sunday appointment.  He recovered, however, during the hours of Sunday and could not be persuaded that there was anything to this seizure to interfere with the fulfilment of his engagement to go down to Chipping Campden for a week of open-air services.

A few weeks previously one of our men, Mr Roderick Kedward, had been arrested for preaching in the open air in that old-world town and had been sent to jail, as he refused to pay the fine imposed by the magistrates.  The matter had come before Conference and would have been taken up by the Committee of Privileges, but for the fact of Mr Kedward’s mother being very ill and greatly troubled at the occurrence, so that we had been obliged to pay the fine and assent to his release.  Mr Champness at once said in the Conference that he proposed to go down to Campden and spend a few days there in open-air preaching, risking all consequences, and the Ex-President (Hugh Price Hughes) said that “if Champness was put in prison, he would follow on.”  When the time came, Mr Champness was really too ill to go, but he went; and to our surprise, strength was given to him and he went through with his programme with much success and blessing.  He took the precaution first to interview the chief constable, got sight of the latest revision of the by-laws and discovered how he could preach outside and yet be safe from the dangers of the law-breaker.  In his own words, as written for Joyful News, he tells the story:

Studying this by-law, I found that preaching could not be objected to, so long as the preacher did not ‘shout continuously’.  We could not ‘sing within a hundred yards of any dwelling-house, if the occupant objected’, so we determined we would have a service without singing.  There were a few boys under the tree which has been for generations the rallying-ground for open-air preachers.  We three [himself and two of his men] took our stand there.  I began to talk to the boys and managed to make them so interested that the men who were standing at the other side of the road came over to see what was the matter and when we had a number of adults I preached on the story of Naboth’s Vineyard, which has always been a favourite of mine in the open air;  it is as picturesque as it is powerful.  There were no complaints and the service passed off without any trouble.  The next evening my son Charles was with us and we four sang along the streets.  The by-law does not prevent this;  you can sing and talk as loud as you like, so long as you keep moving.  I want preachers who are in danger of being fined or imprisoned to remember this … It seems to me the right thing is to speak in one’s natural voice, without bawling and to do the singing while on the march.

So he went through that wonderful week, holding services each evening; and, as he said, the grace of God so over-ruled even his bodily infirmities that Satan must have been as disappointed as he was when he was permitted to afflict poor Job!

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