Street preachers are part of the furniture of Brixton – commonly seen (and most certainly heard) outside the underground station or in the market. But many an al fresco evangelist has also spent time inside the nearby prison.
One such person was a man of ‘extraordinary’ and ‘imposing’ appearance who came before the court at Union Hall in Southwark in September 1821. He was of large stature, beyond middle-age dressed in a coarse shirt and old trousers with a large coat fastened around his waist by a leather belt. He wore no shoes or stockings. A long bushy beard hung down to his breast.
He had been found in the streets the previous evening being pursued by a great mob. An officer had arrested him. The magistrate asked him where he had come from:
“Which part of America?”
“The State of Massachusetts.”
“What brought you to England?”
“The Lord called me.”
“What did you come for?”
“Yes, to prophesy.”
“I believe we must send you to our bridewell at Brixton. We have one prophet there already.”1
“I know nothing of him; I know nothing but Christ.”
The man, it transpired, had been a successful farmer, but four years earlier had been called by the Lord. He left his house and his land, his wife and his children. He took nothing with him – no money or even shoes. He travelled through the United States, preaching to those who would listen and baptising those who believed. He ate no meat and drank only water and milk. He accepted no money and never thought of the following day, believing the Lord would always provide for him. He believed the second-coming would happen in his lifetime – though its date had not been revealed to him – and that he would travel to Jerusalem to meet Him.
In the previous autumn he had been offered free passage on a ship leaving Philadelphia for Ireland. He had arrived in England the following March. He told the court that the evening before he had been at a prayer meeting, after which a number of people had followed him and shouted. They had done him no harm and he had made no complaint about them but the officer had taken him and cast him into prison.
The magistrate said the best means of providing for the prisoner was to send him to the house of correction at Brixton. But he gave directions he should be kindly treated.
1 Probably a reference to John Thomas, a home-grown prophet who was committed to Brixton for repeatedly preaching in public. There he would have the opportunity, said Mr Chambers the magistrate, in the intervals of work, to mend the morals of the inmates.