Thursday, April 29, 2021

Black Country Living Museum, Dudley

In motion and at rest, 2: Delivering the good news

The idea of the Christian minister travelling around and preaching wherever he went is as old as St Paul. It was a practice taken up enthusiastically by John Wesley, who travelled widely and often preached outdoors, to large and appreciative crowds. No wonder, then, that many other Methodists followed in his footsteps and did the same. One way to travel was to use a wagon, caravan, or living van – call it what you will – pulled by a horse, which could act as mobile dwelling, means of transport, platform for preaching, or even tiny, mobile church in which to teach or preach to small groups. The Methodists (both Wesleyan and Primitive branches) used these vehicles in the 19th and early-20th centuries, and called them ‘Gospel cars’.

This one is in fact a replica that has found a permanent parking place near the boat dock at the Black Country Living Museum. It is painted dark blue, from which numerous blessings and Christian maxims painted in white stand out. Along the bargeboard at the front is emblazoned the name ‘Ebenezer No. 11’ – it’s one of a series, then, and calling it Ebenezer is a way of implying that it’s a much a chapel as any bricks and mortar building that bears the same name – a popular one among the Methodists in the 19th century.*

Inside, the gospel car is neatly kitted out with a stove, seating that can turn into bedding at night, and, in true chapel fashion, an organ. Or, I should say, a harmonium, an organ of a very particular sort, with reeds instead of pipes, and an air supply provided by the player as they pump away at a couple of foot pedals. In my childhood I remember seeing the inside of quite a few chapels (maybe some of them were ‘Ebenezers’ – I’m not sure), and before I was born, my mother played the harmonium in her small Methodist chapel in Lincolnshire. So maybe that’s why I didn’t feel at all alienated by this chapel on wheels and why I felt some sympathy for the person ‘on a mission’ and preaching to a handful or a crowd from the platform – framed by roof brackets carved with crosses – of a horse-drawn ‘Gospel car’.

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* A while back I had an email exchange with an old friend who’d been speaking to someone who thought that, because of his name, Dickens’s character Ebenezer Scrooge was Jewish. Brought up among nonconformists, who often called their children such names as Isaac or Leah, this had never occurred to me. There’s nothing in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, as far as I can see, that says Scrooge is Jewish. To someone like my mother, descended from both Jewish and nonconformist ancestors, such names were both ‘Jewish names’ and ‘Biblical names’, available for use by followers of either faith, and so were names like Salem, Zion, and Ebenezer, when used, as they were frequently, on Methodist chapels. 
Thanks to one of my regular readers (see Comments section) for reminding me that Ebenezer means ‘Stone of Truth’, in commemoration of a memorial stone set up by Samuel to mark the victory over the Philistines. Among other common chapel names, Salem means ‘Peace’, Bethel ‘House of God’, and Bethesda ‘House of Mercy’ or ‘Healing pool’. 


Chris Partridge said...

I have always vaguely wondered why nonconformists liked to call their chapels Ebenezer and your post finally prompted me to look it up. Apparently it means “stone of help“, the stone in question being erected by Samuel to commemorate a victory over the Philistines. So now I know – thank you.

bazza said...

I often associate those Old Testament names with cowboys who were often given names like Jedidiah. My wife and I are both Jewish and her name, Leah, contrasts with my 20thc working-class name of Barry!
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Philip Wilkinson said...

Chris: Yes, indeed. Thank you. I'll add a note to the post with this and some more meanings of popular nonconformist chapel names.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bazza: Thank you for your comment. I grew up in a family that went to nonconformist chapels, so buildings called 'Ebenezer' or 'Bethel' did not seem odd to me; neither did cowboys or others with Old Testament names. However, my mother's grandmother was Jewish, so although my mother was distant from her Jewish heritage, she was very respectful of it, and taught me to be so too.

George said...

Long ago, "Brother Jonathan" was slang for a Yankee, I think in the American sense of a New Englander. Off hand I can think of Benjamin Franklin, Ethan Allen, Israel Putnam, and Nathaniel Greene among New Englanders who achieved some prominence in the American Revolution. The first mayor of a unified New York was Seth Low, of New England descent. Diarmaid MacCulloch writes in The Reformation of the tendency from early for Protestants to name their children from the Old Testament. I believe he had the Calvinist strain chiefly in mind, and of course it was they who dominated New England.

This being America, there is only so much one can tell from a name. And this being America, you don't have to travel far to find a church with Bethel in its name--I think the nearest to me is within a twenty-minute walk. The nearest Ebenezer (African Methodist Episcopal in this case) might be a forty-minute drive in light traffic.

Philip Wilkinson said...

George: Thank you - very good point about this element of American naming...and good too to qualify it with the caveat that there is only so much one can tell from a name. True widely, but especially in the USA.

David Gouldstone said...

Also in Dickens, in 'Dombey and Son', there's the Rev Melchisedek Howler, specifically Christian.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Melchisedek Howler! I'd forgotten him. It's decades since I read Dombey and Son. About time I reread it really.

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

Ebenezers etc. of course abound in Wales. Whole villages are named after the chapels - Hebron, Bethesda, Bethlehem. I have lived in Ebenezer Street for over 40 years, though the grand old Ebenezer Chapel (Welsh Independents) was long ago taken down to accommodate the main road. It is also a hymn tune, but I'm not sure it was named from this Ebenezer. Wales manages some really unusual ones - Hephzibah, Ainon, Beulah, etc. Rehoboth indicates a chapel built to provide more room - usually the first to go with the decline in the chapels.