The Methodists got a very strong hold in seaside places at the end of the last century, but during the long pressure of the great War the claims of religion were somewhat forgotten. Smuggling went on to an extraordinary extent and the consequent demoralisation was very apparent. The strict morality which the stern Methodists of the old school taught had been broken, and some of the villages were little better than nests of pirates. The decent people who lived inland were continually molested by marauding ruffians who came from seaside places, and to call a man a “fisher,” was to label him with a term of reproach.
On Saturday nights every Fisher Row was a scene of drunken turmoil, and on Sunday the men lounged about drinking, the women scolding, while the old-fashioned simplicity of life seemed to be forgotten altogether.
Grave countrymen shook their heads over the terrible change. Our village had become notorious for bad behaviour, and the old man who tried to keep up the traditions of religion was much distressed in his mind.
This local preacher was coming over the moor one fine summer night when the moon shone so as to make the sands and the trees round the village look splendid. The peacefulness of the night seemed to have impressed him, and he was occupied with his own grave thoughts.
As he passed the tavern the front door opened, and a waft of rank tobacco came out. Then came a little mob of fishermen, many of whom were cursing and swearing. Two of them began to fight, and the local preacher heard the thud of heavy blows. He stepped in amongst the crowd and tried to separate the fighters, but he only got jeered at for his pains. He was usually very civilly treated, but the men were in drink and could not discriminate.
The next day was Sunday, and as the evening dropped down there was a stir in the village, and a score or two of the villagers came out on the green. Three or four men took to playing pitch and toss, and the women got up little quarrels on their own account. A few big fellows walked towards the shore, and got ready the boats to go out fishing, for there was no respect shown to the Sabbath.
At seven o’clock the local preacher took his stand in the middle of the green, and remained there bare-headed until he had attracted attention. He began to pray aloud, and the villagers stood grinning round him until he had finished. He then asked the people to join him in a hymn, but this proposal was too comic, and the men and women laughed loudly.
The preacher, however, was not a man to be stopped by a little laughter. He actually did sing a hymn in a beautiful tenor, and, before he had finished, some of the men seemed rather ashamed of having laughed at all.
One of the leaders said–”Let us hear what this born fool has to say. If he makes very much noise we’ll take and put him in one of the rain-water barrels.” A poacher proposed that the dogs should be set on him; but, although this idea was received as a humorous contribution to the discussion, it was not put into practice.
The preacher began a kind of rude address. He picked his words with a certain precision, and managed to express himself in the dialect of the people to whom he was speaking. His enthusiasm grew, and at the end of a quarter of an hour he had obtained such complete mastery over the crowd, that individuals amongst the audience unconsciously imitated the changes of his face.
The man was really a kind of poet, and the villagers felt his power without exactly knowing why. When the preaching was over, the orator strode away home without speaking to anybody.