1902 Encyclopedia > Robert Hall

Robert Hall
English pulpit orator

ROBERT HALL, (1764-1831), one of the greatest of English pulpit orators, was born May 2, 1764, at Arnsby near Leicester, where his father, a man whose cast of mind in some respects resembled closely that of the son, was pastor of a Baptist congregation. Robert was the youngest of a family of fourteen. In infancy his physical powers were so feeble that until two years of age he was unable to walk,, and, although his expression and gestures indicated great mental vivacity, he was equally slow to acquire the faculty of articulate speech. It even appears that he had learned to read before he was able to imitate spoken sounds, his nurse having taught him the letters of the alphabet and the formation of words from the inscriptions on the tombstones of a churchyard adjoining his father's dwelling-house. When once the interest in this exercise had loosened his reluctant tongue his progress was remarkably rapid, and before he had attained his third year the fluency of his talk gave some indications of his future oratorical eminence. While still at the dame's school his passion for books absorbed the greater part of his time, and in the summer it was his custom after school hours to retire to the churchyard with a volume which he continued to peruse there till, nightfall, making out the meaning of the more difficult words with the help of a pocket dictionary. From his sixth to his eleventh year he attended the school of Mr-Simmons at Wigston, a village 4 miles from Arnsby

There his precocity assumed the exceptional fcrm of an intense interest in metaphysics, partly perhaps on account of the restricted character of his father's library; and before he was nine years of age he had read and re-read Jonathan Edwards's Treatise on the Will and Butler's Analogy. This incessant study at such an early period of life seems, however, to have had an injurious influence on his health, and may have been partly the cause of the disease from which he experienced such suffering in after life, and symptoms of whose existence began at this time to manifest them-selves. Occasionally he was already troubled with intense pain in the back, and after he left Mr Simmons's school his appearance was so sickly as to awaken fears of the presence of consumption. In order therefore to obtain the benefit of a change of air, he stayed for some time in the house of a gentleman near Kettering, who with an impropriety which Hall himself afterwards referred to as "egregious," prevailed upon the boy of eleven to give occasional addresses at prayer meetings. As his health seemed rapidly to recover, he was sent to a school at Nor-thampton conducted by the Bev. John Ryland, where he remained a year and a half, and " made great progress in Latin and Greek." On leaving school he for some time studied divinity under the direction of his father, and in October 1778 he entered the Bristol academy for the pre-paration of students for the Baptist ministry. Here the self-possession which had enabled him in his twelfth year to address unfalteringly various audiences of grown-up people seems to have strangely forsaken him; for when, in accordance with the arrangements of the academy, his turn came to deliver an address in the vestry of Broadmead Chapel, he broke down on two separate occasions and was unable to finish his discourse. On the 13th August 1780 he was set apart to the ministry, but he still continued his studies at the academy; and in 1781, in accordance with the provisions of an exhibition which he held, he entered King's College, Aberdeen, where he took the degree of master of arts in March 1785. At the university he was without a rival of his own standing in any of the classes, distinguishing himself alike in classics, philosophy, and mathematics. He there formed the acquaintance of Mackintosh (afterwards Sir James), who, though a year his junior in age, was a year his senior as a student, and who be-came attached to him " because he could not help it." While they remained at Aberdeen the two were inseparable, reading together the best Greek authors, especially Plato, and discussing, either during their walks by the sea-shore and the banks of the Don or in their rooms until early morning, the most perplexed questions in philosophy and religion. The interest of their conversation seems to have lain more in the difference than the agreement of their opinions; but their controversies, so far from causing any even temporary estrangement, tended only to cement more closely their friendship and to deepen in each the respect for the mental and moral qualities of the other.

Daring the vacation between his last two sessions at Aberdeen, Hall acted as assistant pastor to Dr Evans at Broadmead Chapel, Bristol, and three months after leaving the university he was appointed classical tutor in the Bristol academy, an office which he held for more than five years. Even at this period his extraordinary eloquence had excited an interest beyond the bounds of the denomination to which he belonged, and when he preached the chapel was gene-rally crowded to excess, the audience including many persons of intellectual tastes. It would appear, however, that, in the case of Mr Fuller, Dr Ryland, and other theo-logical authorities, his exuberant intellectual energy and his outspoken expression of tolerance for certain aspects of Socinianism caused trembling to be greatly mingled with their admiration; and ultimately, suspicions in regard to his orthodoxy having in 1789 led to a misunderstanding with his colleague and a part of the congregation, he in July 1790 accepted an invitation to make trial of a congre-gation at Cambridge, of which he became pastor in July of the following year. From a statement of his opinions contained in a letter to the congregation which he left, it would appear that, while a firm believer in the proper divinity of Christ, he had at this time disowned the cardinal principles of Calvinism—the federal headship of Adam, and the doctrine of absolute election and reprobation; and that he way so far a materialist as to " hold that man's thinking powers and faculties are the result of a certain organization of matter, and that after death he ceases to be conscious till the resurrection." It was during his Cambridge ministry, which extended over a period of fifteen years, that his oratory was most brilliant and most immediately powerful. At Cambridge the intellectual character of a large part of the audience supplied a stimulus which was wanting at Leicester and Bristol, but besides this his physical powers were then at their best, and were still un-affected by the constant pain which already so severely tested his powers of endurance and rendered the discharge of his duties such a marvellous triumph of will. Above all it was not till near the close of this period that his intellectual pathway was crossed by the shadow of mental derangement, and an element of weakness and uncertainty introduced into his career which for some time clouded the horizon of his hopes and perhaps placed a permanent check on his highest form of intellectual enterprise. While at Cambridge he gave to the world some of the more important of the few and small publications which, although those who were his constant hearers have affirmed that several of his imperfectly reported sermons convey a juster inqires-sion of the usual character of his oratory, are the only correct and properly authenticated records of his style of thought and composition. His first published compositions had a political origin. In 1791 appeared Christianity con-sistent with the Love of Freedom, in which he defended the political conduct of dissenters against the attacks of the Rev. John Clayton, minister of Weighhouse, and gave eloquent expression to his hopes of great political and social ameliora-tions as destined to result nearly or remotely from the sub-version of old ideas and institutions in the maelstrom of the French Revolution. In 1793 he expounded his politi-cal sentiments in a powerful and more extended pamphlet entitled an Apology for the Freedom of the Press, which at once obtained an extensive circulation, and doubtless to some extent aided in the formation of that public opinion which has given birth in England to the present remarkable era of gradual and unswerving political progress. On account, however, of certain asperities into which the warmth of his feelings had betrayed him, and his conviction that he had treated his subject in too superficial a manner, he refused to permit the publication of the pamphlet beyond the third edition, until the references of political opponents and the circulation of copies without his sanction induced him in 1821 to prepare a new edition, from which he omitted the attack on Bishop Horsley, and to which he prefixed an advertisement stating that his political opinions had under-gone no substantial change. His other publications while at Cambridge were three sermons^—On Modern Infidelity (1801), Reflections on War (1802), and Sentiments proper to the present Crisis (1803). From his first attack of insanity, which occurred in November 1804, he recovered so speedily that he was able to resume his duties in April 1805, but a more severe recurrence of the malady rendered it advisable for him on his second recovery to resign his pastoral office, which he did in March 1806. On leaving Cambridge ho paid a visit to his relatives in Leicestershire, and then for some | time resided at Enderby, preaching occasionally in some of the neighbouring villages. Latterly he ministered to a small congregation in Harvey Lane, Leicester, from whom at the close of 1806 he accepted a call to be their stated pastor. In the autumn of 1807he changedhis residence from Enderby to Leicester, and in 1808 he married the servant of a brother minister. His proposal of marriage had been made after an almost momentary acquaintance, and, according to the traditionary account, in very abrupt and peculiar terms ; but, judging from his subsequent domestic life, his choice did suffi-cient credit to his penetration and sagacity. His writings at Leicester embraced various tracts printed for private circula-tion; a number of contributions to the Eclectic Review, among which may be mentioned his articles on " Foster's Essays " and on "Zeal without Innovation"; several sermons, includ-ing those On the Advantages of Knowledge to the Lower Glasses (1810), On the Death of the Princess Charlotte (1817), and On the Death of Dr Ryland (1825) ; and his pamphlet on Terms of Communion, in which he advocated intercom-munion with all those who acknowledged the " essentials" of Christianity. In 1819 he published an edition in one volume of his sermons formerly printed. On the death of Dr Eyland, Hall was invited to return to the pastorate of Broadmead Chapel, Bristol, and as the peace of the congre-gation at Leicester had been to some degree disturbed by a controversy regarding several cases of discipline, he resolved to accept the invitation, and removed there in April 1826. About this period the malady—renal calculus —which had for many years rendered his life an almost continual martyrdom, and whose influence he had triumphed over with such marvellous fortitude, began to show signs of indirectly obtaining the mastery over his vigorous con-stitution ; and henceforth increasing infirmities and suffer-ings, which rest and change of scene could do little to alleviate, surrounded with deepening external gloom the spirit whose cheerfulness and peace they seemed to leave almost totally uninjured. Gradually the inability to take proper exercise, by inducing a plethoric habit of body and impeding the circulation, led to a diseased condition of the heart, which resulted in his death, February 21, 1831.

The private manners of Hall were remarkably simple and unaffected; and if his method of expressing his opinions was frequently impetuous, and occasionally some what brusque and imperious, this was owing rather to his constitutional energy and straightforward impulsive honesty than to an overbear-ing and dogmatic temper. Though exercising his sarcastic powers with great unconstraint, he reserved his severity chiefly for errors which implied some kind of moral culpa-bility, and he was always careful to be respectful to true worth even when concealed or deformed by many superficial defects, or conjoined with humble rank or weak mental capacity. In reality few were more unassuming or unselfish or more continuously actuated by feelings truly charitable and benevolent. His mental absorption led to the con-traction of many minor eccentricities, one of which was a frequent obliviousness to the flight of time and a consequent inability to remember his engagements. Towards the close of his Cambridge ministry he acquired the habit of smoking, and from that time his pipe wTas his almost constant companion and one of his principal solaces in his bodily suffering. Indeed talk and tobacco may be said to have supplied his chief means of recreation. In his conversation the calibre and idiosyncrasies of his genius were better displayed than in any of the writings he has left us; and it is said to have exercised an even more captivating charm than did his finest orations. Its most striking characteristics were keen, biting, and original wit, and wild and daring imaginative flights.

Both physically and mentally Hall possessed a rare combination of qualities fitting him to excel as a public speaker. Hedid not attain success without effort and discipline, but the faults which hampered his capabilities were not of a formid-able character. He was of powerful and athletic build, and his great breadth of chest, while it lent an impression of massiveness to his bearing, indicated abundant capacity to sustain the kind of physical exertion which oratory entails. His voice was deficient in strength and volume, but exceptionally pure and melodious, and capable of being thoroughly interpenetrated by emotion. Its inadequacy in tone was also compensated for by its great flexibility, which enabled him by the momentum of rapid utterance to obtain all the vocal force necessary to the highest oratorical effects. According to Foster, his countenance " was formed as if on purpose for the most declared manifestation of power." The forehead was high and sloping, with well-arched brows, beneath which his dark and brilliant eye, in his more excited moments, burned and glowed with thought and passion. The lower part of his countenance indicated a vehement and headstrong temperament under the control of an iron will—doubtless powerfully reinforced by the strong moral sensibility which gave a peculiar elevation and dignity to features possessing no trait of grace or beauty. Perhaps the " stern, intense, and somewhat for-midable expression," which Foster referred to as wanting in the portrait accompanying his works, had its origin partly in his constant suffering.

His gestures in speaking were few and simple, and his manner seemed to be naturally determined by his mental emotions without conscious purpose on his part. He gave the impression of thorough self-forgetfulness and absorption in his subject, and during the latter part of an oration of being wholly possessed and dominated by the thoughts and sentiments which he uttered. It is generally affirmed that in his spoken sermons his style was more easy, graceful, and various than in any of the sermons which he prepared for the press. In the latter the structure of the sentences is often formal and laboured, the rhythm artificial and monotonous; and idiomatic vigour is in some degree sacri-ficed to elegance and pomp. In the higher flights of his eloquence his language was, however, unsurpassed for purity and happy adaptation to the thought. Indeed one of his most remarkable gifts is said to have been his extempor-aneous command of a clear and felicitous vocabulary, which seemed to clothe every shade of his meaning with its appropriate expression, and whose musical cadences formed a not unimportant element in the fascination exer-cised by his oratory. It is true that in many cases his language had before he spoke undergone considerable mental elaboration, but he was nevertheless so little enslaved to his memory that, according to his own statement, he never entered the pulpit without omitting something which he wished to say and saying something which he wished to omit. In preaching his severe taste and deep sense of solemnity restrained every tendency to eccentricity or extravagance, and he never permitted his brilliant wit to emit even the faintest and most momentary sparkle. It may therefore be believed that on a secular platform his oratory would have been more racy and natural, and from the scope afforded for the free exercise of all his powers would have attained to a more varied perfection. In his occasional reviews his style is clear and pointed, but apart from this it is his sarcasm that chiefly conveys the impression of more than average ability. The predominant element of his eloquence was reasoning. His statements and propositions were animated with passion and illuminated by a vivid and rich if not strikingly powerful and original imagination ; but in no instance did passion or imagination seem to obtain the chief sway. It was generally not till towards the close of his sermon that the spell of his eloquence asserted its highest influenceover hisaudience. Then the various trains of thought through which he had been guiding them seemed to meet in an intense focus where reason, imagination, and passion were blended together, and in whose light the theme he had been expounding stood revealed in such vivid truth and beauty as to captivate for the moment every heart. But though stating truth chiefly in the form of reasoning, he constantly exhibited it rather in its moral than in its theological aspects. His eloquence was indeed morally more than intellectually powerful; and its moral purpose was besides achieved not so much by the direct inculcation of moral duties, or the detection and exposure of moral deformities, as by his unconscious exhibition of his own moral elevation and of the ardour and purity of his hopes and aims. Indeed in many of his sermons both the form and matter of his thought seemed to be determined rather by his own indivi-dual interest in his subject than by the consideration of the capacities and wants of his hearers. Though exhibiting a catholicity of spirit much in advance of his time, the range of his thought is completely included within the limits of traditional opinion. In treating of what he regarded as the cardinal truths of religion he is of course oratorically effective, but the dexterous and brilliant manner in which he wields the old controversial weapons does not com-pensate for their inherent inadequacy. He indulges too frequently in innuendoes against the moral character and motives of his opponents, and fails to sound the full depth of the speculative problems upon which he attempts to dogmatize. His sermons will always be esteemed by the student of English literature for their many passages of splendid and finished eloquence, but his theological writings as a whole are of course without that quaint interest attach-ing to representations of truth which though now old and effete originally exhibited it with the freshness and vividness of a discovery ; while on the other hand they have no suffi-cient colouring from modern tendencies to give to them a more than superficial value in relation to those phases of reli-gious thought which are predominant at the present time.

See Works of Robert Hall, A.M., with a Brief Memoir of his Life, by Olinthus Gregory, LL.D., and Observations on his Character as Preacher by John Foster, originally published in 6 vols., London, 1832 ; Reminiscences of the Rev. Robert Hall, A.M., by John Greene, London, 1832 ; Biographical Recollections of the Rev. Robert Hall, by J. W. Morris, 1848 ; Fifty Sermons of Robert Hall from Notes taken at the time of their Delivery, by the Rev. Thomas Grinfield, M.A., 1843 ; Reminiscences of College Life in Bristol during the Ministry of the Rev. Robert Hall, A.M., by Frederick Trestrail, 1879. (T. F. H.)

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