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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Robert Hall and John Foster

By William Buell Sprague (1795–1876)

[Born in Andover, Conn., 1795. Died at Flushing, N. Y., 1876. Visits to European Celebrities. 1855.]

I REACHED Bristol some time on Saturday, and the most important point which I had to settle on my arrival was, whether Mr. Hall was in town, and would preach the next day. I had two introductory letters to him—one from Rowland Hill, and one from an intimate friend of his in London, to whom I knew he was under great obligations; so that I felt tolerably strong in calling, as I did, Saturday night, to pay my respects to him; and yet, had I known as much before as I did afterwards, of his extreme aversion to seeing company, I scarcely think I should have had the courage to seek an introduction to him. He received me courteously, but told me that he was suffering extreme pain, as, indeed, he had been during the greater part of his life. He was rather shabbily dressed; but with such a commanding person and countenance as he had, he could well afford to be; for it must have been a singular eye that would have been detained by his dress, let it have been what it might. His face has been made so familiar to everybody by numerous engraved likenesses, that it would be needless to attempt to describe it; and yet the most perfect portrait of him that I have seen is not so perfect but that the original, as it has always lain in my memory, casts it into the shade. Having ascertained that he would preach the next morning, I took my leave of him, promising, however, to see him again at his house, early in the week.

I went the next morning to Broadmead Chapel, to hear him preach. It was, by no means, a large building; nor was the congregation, in point of numbers, anything like what I had expected; though I understood it was select, and had in it an unusual proportion of intelligent men. One of the tutors in the Baptist Theological Academy at Bristol performed the introductory services, and it was not till they were singing the second time, that Mr. Hall walked into the pulpit. His gait was slow and majestic; and if I had known nothing of him before, I should have needed nobody to assure me that he was some extraordinary personage. He rose and announced his text in the most unpretending manner that can be imagined, and in so low a tone that I found it difficult to understand him. For several minutes there was no material improvement in his style of elocution—he kept pulling the leaves of his Bible, as if he were a book-binder, engaged in taking a book to pieces; and his eyes were steadfastly fixed in one direction, as if his whole audience were gathered into one corner of the room. I said to myself—“If this is Robert Hall in England, I greatly prefer to meet him as I can in America; for I had rather read his writings, than merely hear his unintelligible whispers.” Presently, however, the scene began to change; and his voice, though still low, became distinctly audible. For the first fifteen or twenty minutes, he said nothing which would have led me to inquire who he was, if I had not known; for the last twenty-five or thirty, it seemed to me that he said scarcely anything that could have been said by another man. It was like an impetuous mountain torrent in a still night. There was not the semblance of parade—nothing that betrayed the least thought of being eloquent, but there was a power of thought, a grace and beauty, and yet force, of expression, a facility of commanding the best language, without apparently thinking of the language at all, combined with a countenance all glowing from the fire within, which constituted a fascination that was to me perfectly irresistible. As he advanced to the close of his discourse, the effect upon my nervous system was like the discharge of artillery; and though I was completely wrapt with wonder and admiration, I was not sorry when he said—“Let us pray.” I shall, perhaps, be less suspected of extravagance in this statement, when I say that Robert Hall’s own people regarded this as an extraordinary performance; and one of his intelligent hearers told me that I might have heard him for years, and not have chanced to hear so fine a sermon.

At the close of the service, observing that Mr. Hall passed into the vestry from which I had seen him come, I ventured, after a moment, to step in and pay my respects to him; and I found him stretched out upon two or three chairs, with his pipe already in his mouth; and I was assured that he always smoked up to the last moment before going into the pulpit. He introduced me to several of his friends, and especially to a Dr. Stock, who was just at that time a good deal talked about for his having recently renounced Unitarianism. He requested me to come and see him the next day, and said he should beg me to go home with him then, but that he was so much exhausted after preaching, as to be unfit for any conversation.

When I called upon him after dinner, on Monday, I found him lying down upon chairs, and literally writhing in agony. After a few minutes, he called to his wife for his accustomed opiate, laudanum, and took three hundred drops, and after a short time, poured out as much more, and drank it as if it had been water. I found that he had made arrangements to take me to the house of a friend to pass the evening, where there was to be a small party, and among them the celebrated John Foster. This was to me an evening of great interest. Foster was there, and he and Hall bore the chief part in the conversation, each rendering the other more brilliant. Foster expressed to me the opinion that Hall was unquestionably the greatest preacher in the world; and Hall told me that Foster was the best model of an ancient philosopher now extant. Foster was a tall, stately, and somewhat rough-looking man, given to saying weighty, and sometimes witty things; and though he was, on the whole, a remarkably fine talker, he was certainly greatly inferior both in fluency and in brilliancy to Hall.