On his return to Cambridge in the May term of 1858, Ernest and a few other friends who were also intended for orders came to the conclusion that they must now take a more serious view of their position. They therefore attended chapel more regularly than hitherto, and held evening meetings of a somewhat furtive character, at which they would study the New Testament. They even began to commit the Epistles of St Paul to memory in the original Greek. They got up Beveridge on the Thirty-nine Articles, and Pearson on the Creed; in their hours of recreation they read More's "Mystery of Godliness," which Ernest thought was charming, and Taylor's "Holy Living and Dying," which also impressed him deeply, through what he thought was the splendour of its language. They handed themselves over to the guidance of Dean Alford's notes on the Greek Testament, which made Ernest better understand what was meant by "difficulties," but also made him feel how shallow and impotent were the conclusions arrived at by German neologians, with whose works, being innocent of German, he was not otherwise acquainted. Some of the friends who joined him in these pursuits were Johnians, and the meetings were often held within the walls of St John's.
I do not know how tidings of these furtive gatherings had reached the Simeonites, but they must have come round to them in some way, for they had not been continued many weeks before a circular was sent to each of the young men who attended them, informing them that the Rev. Gideon Hawke, a well-known London Evangelical preacher, whose sermons were then much talked of, was about to visit his young friend Badcock of St John's, and would be glad to say a few words to any who might wish to hear them, in Badcock's rooms on a certain evening in May.
Badcock was one of the most notorious of all the Simeonites. Not only was he ugly, dirty, ill-dressed, bumptious, and in every way objectionable, but he was deformed and waddled when he walked so that he had won a nick-name which I can only reproduce by calling it "Here's my back, and there's my back," because the lower parts of his back emphasised themselves demonstratively as though about to fly off in different directions like the two extreme notes in the chord of the augmented sixth, with every step he took. It may be guessed, therefore, that the receipt of the circular had for a moment an almost paralysing effect on those to whom it was addressed, owing to the astonishment which it occasioned them. It certainly was a daring surprise, but like so many deformed people, Badcock was forward and hard to check; he was a pushing fellow to whom the present was just the opportunity he wanted for carrying war into the enemy's quarters.
Ernest and his friends consulted. Moved by the feeling that as they were now preparing to be clergymen they ought not to stand so stiffly on social dignity as heretofore, and also perhaps by the desire to have a good private view of a preacher who was then much upon the lips of men, they decided to accept the invitation. When the appointed time came they went with some confusion and self-abasement to the rooms of this man, on whom they had looked down hitherto as from an immeasurable height, and with whom nothing would have made them believe a few weeks earlier that they could ever come to be on speaking terms.
Mr Hawke was a very different-looking person from Badcock. He was remarkably handsome, or rather would have been but for the thinness of his lips, and a look of too great firmness and inflexibility. His features were a good deal like those of Leonardo da Vinci; moreover he was kempt, looked in vigorous health, and was of a ruddy countenance. He was extremely courteous in his manner, and paid a good deal of attention to Badcock, of whom he seemed to think highly. Altogether our young friends were taken aback, and inclined to think smaller beer of themselves and larger of Badcock than was agreeable to the old Adam who was still alive within them. A few well-known "Sims" from St John's and other colleges were present, but not enough to swamp the Ernest set, as for the sake of brevity, I will call them.
After a preliminary conversation in which there was nothing to offend, the business of the evening began by Mr Hawke's standing up at one end of the table, and saying "Let us pray." The Ernest set did not like this, but they could not help themselves, so they knelt down and repeated the Lord's Prayer and a few others after Mr Hawke, who delivered them remarkably well. Then, when all had sat down, Mr Hawke addressed them, speaking without notes and taking for his text the words, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" Whether owing to Mr Hawke's manner, which was impressive, or to his well-known reputation for ability, or whether from the fact that each one of the Ernest set knew that he had been more or less a persecutor of the "Sims" and yet felt instinctively that the "Sims" were after all much more like the early Christians than he was himself—at any rate the text, familiar though it was, went home to the consciences of Ernest and his friends as it had never yet done. If Mr Hawke had stopped here he would have almost said enough; as he scanned the faces turned towards him, and saw the impression he had made, he was perhaps minded to bring his sermon to an end before beginning it, but if so, he reconsidered himself and proceeded as follows. I give the sermon in full, for it is a typical one, and will explain a state of mind which in another generation or two will seem to stand sadly in need of explanation.
"My young friends," said Mr Hawke, "I am persuaded there is not one of you here who doubts the existence of a Personal God. If there were, it is to him assuredly that I should first address myself. Should I be mistaken in my belief that all here assembled accept the existence of a God who is present amongst us though we see him not, and whose eye is upon our most secret thoughts, let me implore the doubter to confer with me in private before we part; I will then put before him considerations through which God has been mercifully pleased to reveal himself to me, so far as man can understand him, and which I have found bring peace to the minds of others who have doubted.
"I assume also that there is none who doubts but that this God, after whose likeness we have been made, did in the course of time have pity upon man's blindness, and assume our nature, taking flesh and coming down and dwelling among us as a man indistinguishable physically from ourselves. He who made the sun, moon and stars, the world and all that therein is, came down from Heaven in the person of his Son, with the express purpose of leading a scorned life, and dying the most cruel, shameful death which fiendish ingenuity has invented.
"While on earth he worked many miracles. He gave sight to the blind, raised the dead to life, fed thousands with a few loaves and fishes, and was seen to walk upon the waves, but at the end of his appointed time he died, as was foredetermined, upon the cross, and was buried by a few faithful friends. Those, however, who had put him to death set a jealous watch over his tomb.
"There is no one, I feel sure, in this room who doubts any part of the foregoing, but if there is, let me again pray him to confer with me in private, and I doubt not that by the blessing of God his doubts will cease.
"The next day but one after our Lord was buried, the tomb being still jealously guarded by enemies, an angel was seen descending from Heaven with glittering raiment and a countenance that shone like fire. This glorious being rolled away the stone from the grave, and our Lord himself came forth, risen from the dead.
"My young friends, this is no fanciful story like those of the ancient deities, but a matter of plain history as certain as that you and I are now here together. If there is one fact better vouched for than another in the whole range of certainties it is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ; nor is it less well assured that a few weeks after he had risen from the dead, our Lord was seen by many hundreds of men and women to rise amid a host of angels into the air upon a heavenward journey till the clouds covered him and concealed him from the sight of men.
"It may be said that the truth of these statements has been denied, but what, let me ask you, has become of the questioners? Where are they now? Do we see them or hear of them? Have they been able to hold what little ground they made during the supineness of the last century? Is there one of your fathers or mothers or friends who does not see through them? Is there a single teacher or preacher in this great University who has not examined what these men had to say, and found it naught? Did you ever meet one of them, or do you find any of their books securing the respectful attention of those competent to judge concerning them? I think not; and I think also you know as well as I do why it is that they have sunk back into the abyss from which they for a time emerged: it is because after the most careful and patient examination by the ablest and most judicial minds of many countries, their arguments were found so untenable that they themselves renounced them. They fled from the field routed, dismayed, and suing for peace; nor have they again come to the front in any civilised country.
"You know these things. Why, then, do I insist upon them? My dear young friends, your own consciousness will have made the answer to each one of you already; it is because, though you know so well that these things did verily and indeed happen, you know also that you have not realised them to yourselves as it was your duty to do, nor heeded their momentous, awful import.
"And now let me go further. You all know that you will one day come to die, or if not to die—for there are not wanting signs which make me hope that the Lord may come again, while some of us now present are alive—yet to be changed; for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, for this corruption must put on incorruption, and this mortal put on immortality, and the saying shall be brought to pass that is written, 'Death is swallowed up in victory.'
"Do you, or do you not believe that you will one day stand before the Judgement Seat of Christ? Do you, or do you not believe that you will have to give an account for every idle word that you have ever spoken? Do you, or do you not believe that you are called to live, not according to the will of man, but according to the will of that Christ who came down from Heaven out of love for you, who suffered and died for you, who calls you to him, and yearns towards you that you may take heed even in this your day—but who, if you heed not, will also one day judge you, and with whom there is no variableness nor shadow of turning?
"My dear young friends, strait is the gate, and narrow is the way which leadeth to Eternal Life, and few there be that find it. Few, few, few, for he who will not give up ALL for Christ's sake, has given up nothing.
"If you would live in the friendship of this world, if indeed you are not prepared to give up everything you most fondly cherish, should the Lord require it of you, then, I say, put the idea of Christ deliberately on one side at once. Spit upon him, buffet him, crucify him anew, do anything you like so long as you secure the friendship of this world while it is still in your power to do so; the pleasures of this brief life may not be worth paying for by the torments of eternity, but they are something while they last. If, on the other hand, you would live in the friendship of God, and be among the number of those for whom Christ has not died in vain; if, in a word, you value your eternal welfare, then give up the friendship of this world; of a surety you must make your choice between God and Mammon, for you cannot serve both.
"I put these considerations before you, if so homely a term may be pardoned, as a plain matter of business. There is nothing low or unworthy in this, as some lately have pretended, for all nature shows us that there is nothing more acceptable to God than an enlightened view of our own self-interest; never let anyone delude you here; it is a simple question of fact; did certain things happen or did they not? If they did happen, is it reasonable to suppose that you will make yourselves and others more happy by one course of conduct or by another?
"And now let me ask you what answer you have made to this question hitherto? Whose friendship have you chosen? If, knowing what you know, you have not yet begun to act according to the immensity of the knowledge that is in you, then he who builds his house and lays up his treasure on the edge of a crater of molten lava is a sane, sensible person in comparison with yourselves. I say this as no figure of speech or bugbear with which to frighten you, but as an unvarnished unexaggerated statement which will be no more disputed by yourselves than by me."
And now Mr Hawke, who up to this time had spoken with singular quietness, changed his manner to one of greater warmth and continued—
"Oh! my young friends turn, turn, turn, now while it is called to-day—now from this hour, from this instant; stay not even to gird up your loins; look not behind you for a second, but fly into the bosom of that Christ who is to be found of all who seek him, and from that fearful wrath of God which lieth in wait for those who know not the things belonging to their peace. For the Son of Man cometh as a thief in the night, and there is not one of us can tell but what this day his soul may be required of him. If there is even one here who has heeded me,"—and he let his eye fall for an instant upon almost all his hearers, but especially on the Ernest set—"I shall know that it was not for nothing that I felt the call of the Lord, and heard as I thought a voice by night that bade me come hither quickly, for there was a chosen vessel who had need of me."
Here Mr Hawke ended rather abruptly; his earnest manner, striking countenance and excellent delivery had produced an effect greater than the actual words I have given can convey to the reader; the virtue lay in the man more than in what he said; as for the last few mysterious words about his having heard a voice by night, their effect was magical; there was not one who did not look down to the ground, nor who in his heart did not half believe that he was the chosen vessel on whose especial behalf God had sent Mr Hawke to Cambridge. Even if this were not so, each one of them felt that he was now for the first time in the actual presence of one who had had a direct communication from the Almighty, and they were thus suddenly brought a hundredfold nearer to the New Testament miracles. They were amazed, not to say scared, and as though by tacit consent they gathered together, thanked Mr Hawke for his sermon, said good-night in a humble deferential manner to Badcock and the other Simeonites, and left the room together. They had heard nothing but what they had been hearing all their lives; how was it, then, that they were so dumbfoundered by it? I suppose partly because they had lately begun to think more seriously, and were in a fit state to be impressed, partly from the greater directness with which each felt himself addressed, through the sermon being delivered in a room, and partly to the logical consistency, freedom from exaggeration, and profound air of conviction with which Mr Hawke had spoken. His simplicity and obvious earnestness had impressed them even before he had alluded to his special mission, but this clenched everything, and the words "Lord, is it I?" were upon the hearts of each as they walked pensively home through moonlit courts and cloisters.
I do not know what passed among the Simeonites after the Ernest set had left them, but they would have been more than mortal if they had not been a good deal elated with the results of the evening. Why, one of Ernest's friends was in the University eleven, and he had actually been in Badcock's rooms and had slunk off on saying good-night as meekly as any of them. It was no small thing to have scored a success like this.