(1) The Foundling
John Church's origins are obscure. He was found, sometime between 17821784, when but an infant who could barely toddle, on the steps of the Church of St John's in Clerkenwell (or, by another account, the Church of St Andrew in Holborn). Unable to locate his parents, the elders of the parish church sent him to the Foundling Hospital, where the nurses took him in hand and gave him the appropriate name "John Church". Johnnie came out at an early age. When he was only nine years old, the good nurses became alarmed at discovering that he was playing forbidden games with the other orphan boys. The Governors of this worthy institution thought "that it was prudent to apprentice him out at that early age, to obviate the possibility of the contagioun [sic] spreading among the rest of the boys who partook of that charity". He was accordingly apprenticed to a gilder in Blackfriar's Road (or, by another account, to a gilder in Great Portland Street) for an eleven-year indenture, during which time he served as virtually a domestic servant.
When he was about fifteen he fell in love with a younger girl who came to serve the same family. When they found out that he was having relations with her, he was punished by being locked in a coal bin which he later recalled in his autobiography as a frightening and traumatic experience. Eventually he appealed to a magistrate for the successful release from his legal bondage. For a while he worked for a composition ornament maker in Tottenham Court Road, and during his spare time he began practising how to preach the gospel. In short order he became a Sunday School teacher in Tottenham Court Chapel, and for several years he was a member of various groups of itinerant dissenting ministers the Baptist Society, the Expounding Society, the Westminster Itinerant Society. He even founded the Fitzroy Sabbath School on Cleveland Street (a street that would become notorious for its gay brothel in the late nineteenth century). In 1801 he married the daughter of a Mr Elliott from Hampshire, and in due course she would bear him six children though the time he spent at home with his wife was limited by his duties as a wandering preacher.
At Tottenham Court Chapel he met a devout young chap named William Webster and promptly fell in love with him. He and Webster and another candidate for the priesthood (whose name is not recorded) hired out a garret in the Soho district, in a whorehouse on Orange Street run by Old Mother Barr. There, using a chair as a pulpit, the three men practised their oral delivery. Old Mother Barr and the ladies of the house often varied their routine by going upstairs to sit and listen, for it was a marvellously convenient way of edifying their souls. Sometimes a hearty blacksmith or lusty grocer's boy would mistakenly enter the wrong room, only to receive a sermon instead of certain other pleasures that had been anticipated.
Eventually Church became friendly with Rev. J. L. Garrett, a Professor of Natural Philosophy, whom contemporaries referred to as "a notorious Sodomite". This generous-souled sodomite obtained for Church a living as the minister of the parish church of Banbury, north of Oxford. This lasted for several years until August 1808, when the Banbury elders heard rumours that Church had been "sodomitically assaulting" several of the devout young men in his congregation. The particulars of this case said to be "of a very scandalous nature" are only vaguely recorded. Though Church seemed to have had a regular boyfriend at Banbury, who acted as a porter during his travels, he also had made friends with "several buckish young men", whom he enjoyed watching while they bathed naked in the river, and in whose company he passed his time into the unseasonable hours of the night. Church was very popular in the Banbury area, particularly at Kingham, where he once took liberties with the two sons of the host who regularly sheltered him on his journey. And he took indecent liberties with his young hairdresser and a young grocer.
The report quickly spread, and such was the popular indignation, that it was found necessary to keep the Meeting- house shut up as both that and the persons who had attended it were in danger, from the insults of the enraged people of the town; the people were hooted and shouted at in the streets, and branded with the opprobrious name of S[odo]m[ite]s; the same was written upon the doors, walls, and window-shutters of the place of worship, and fears were entertained that the Chapel would have been burnt or pulled down.
Church immediately fled to Birmingham when the story broke, and wrote an apology to his former host: "I have done most foolishly I have acted most imprudently . . . the boys tell a simple plain story, and you do right to believe them in what they say; and I own that I have been too imprudent, but I am not conscious of having done the actual crime; if any thing of that nature has been of which they speak, it must have been without my knowledge, when I was asleep, and supposing I was in my own bed with my wife". He further promised "to forsake the company of the young" in favour of the company of "the aged and grave", if only they would let him return. But the Managers of the Chapel, as reported by Samuel Hall in a letter dated 7 March 1810, made a thorough enquiry into the affair, with the result that Church was sent a missive containing "positive orders never, on any account, to return to Banbury again". Although a full report against Church was drawn up, the deacon Mr Lambert refused to sign it for fear he would lose £17 Church owed him. But a letter was nevertheless sent to the constabulary, and Church hurriedly sent a letter to Banbury giving instructions for sending his wife and children (a girl had been born that year) and belongings "by the first coach to London; she knows where to find me in town". He and his family then secluded themselves in the country until things passed over.
Church eventually returned from this ignominious solitude, but no sooner had he settled down at Chapel Court in The Borough, Southwark, than his former friend Garrett publicly accused him of sodomy, perhaps for reasons of petty spite. Church was again forced to flee the scene. But the matter was again forgotten, and he returned to settle finally as the regular conventicle preacher at the Obelisk Chapel, St George's Fields. The Chapel derived its name from the presence nearby of an obelisk in the centre of St George's Circus. The obelisk survives it was removed to the corner of the grounds of the National War Museum in August 1905, and returned to its original site in 1997, all cleaned up and restored and bears on its four sides these inscriptions: "Erected in XI. Year of The Reign of King George the Third MD CCL XXI / The Right Honourable Brass Crosby Esquire Lord Mayor / One Mile from Palace Yard Westminster Hall / One Mile XXXX Feet from London Bridge / One Mile CCCL Feet from Fleet Street". Church lived in Great Dover Street nearby.
The Rev John Church's would-be boyfriend at this time was the young attendant at the Obelisk, a certain Edward B (his last name has been expunged from the court records) who lived at 3 Rodney Street in The Borough. All we know about their relationship which lasted exactly four months is contained in two letters from Church to his "Ned" (dated 3 March and 13 March, 1809). From these we may infer that Ned rejected Church's advances, possibly because of more legal troubles which seemed likely to involve Ned. These two documents are rather astonishing testimonials affirming the power of love, and since Church has never gotten into the history books, I would like to quote them at some length (despite the difficulties of his unpunctuated style):
I can only say I wish you was as much captivated with sincere friendship as I am but we all know our own feelings best Friendship those best of names, affection those sweetest power like some powerful charm that overcomes the mind I could write much on this subject but I dare not trust you with what I could say much as I esteem you You would consider it as unmanly and quite effeminate, and having already proved what human nature is I must conceal even those emotions of love which I feel[.] I wish I had the honor of being loved by you as much and in as great a degree as I do you . . . Sometimes the painful thought of a separation overpowers me, many are now trying it but last night I told the persons that called on me that let them insinuate what they would I would never sacrifice my dear Ned to the shrine of any other friend upon earth . . . I find dear Ned many are using all their power to part us but I hope it will prove in vain on your side . . . Stand fast my dearest Ned to Me I shall to you whether you do to me or no, and may we be pardoned, justified, and brought more to the knowledge of Christ.
A number of people perhaps were attempting to blackmail Church, or simply to discredit him, and in a few days following this letter they apparently persuaded Ned to turn informer. The secret was let out because Church apparently refused to pay the money, and this prompted his reply de profundis to Ned:
I never, never thought you would deceive me O what an unhappy man am I; the thing that I most feared is come upon me, no excuse can justify such apparent duplicity; O my distress is great indeed. O my God! what shall I do? O Christ! O God! support me in this trying hour, what a night am I passing through, I cannot sleep, tis near three o'clock; . . . I have lost my only bosom friend, nearest dearest friend, bosom from bosom torn, how horrid. . . . How the Philistine will triumph, . . . all will rejoice, and I have lost my friend, my all in this world, except the other part of myself, my wife and poor babes . . . what shall I do for matter [i.e., a sermon] for Sunday; O that I could get someone to preach for me; how can I lift up my head . . . . Miserable as I am, I wish you well for ever, for ever. I write in the bitterness of my soul which I feel. May you never be cursed with the feelings I possess as long as you live. What a day I have before me; I cannot go out of my house till Sunday morning. How can I conceal my grief from my dear wife? how shall I hide it? what shall I say? I am miserable, nor can I surmount the shock of it all.
The primary grief Church expresses in this letter is over the loss of a friend, though this involved in some way the besmirching of his character. There is no record of any arrest or prosecution, so the loss of reputation may have been in a limited circle after all. There is a faint suggestion of blackmail, which he perhaps paid to Ned, for he retained his position at the Obelisk for nearly ten more years. In the event, he certainly surmounted the shock, for by November he was an active member of a gay coterie. On 16 November he performed the funeral services for Richard Oakden, a bank clerk who the day before had been hanged for sodomy at Tyburn (on 20 September, Oakden had been convicted of buggery with Thomas Seager or Seagur [see Newspaper Reports for 1809]). After the funeral, the hearse and coach returned to the Hat and Feathers public house kept by Mr Richardson in Gravel Lane, where Church and company partook of a jovial feast in honour of the dead. (For Oakden, see News Reports for September and November 1809.)
(2) Molly Chaplain
On a number of occasions Rev Church married three or four male couples simultaneously, and the nuptials were consummated by the "bridesmaids" as well as by the marriage partners. If these madge culls ever engaged in mock birth ceremonies such as those performed in the early eighteenth-century molly houses, the Obelisk Preacher no doubt would have administered the baptisms. The White Swan was of course a brothel, and undoubtedly a great deal of lighthearted fun figured largely in the proceedings of the marriage ceremonies in its Chapel. However, in view of the strong and positive views Church held about homosexual love, it would be unwise to dismiss his participation as merely humorous or mischievous. Homosexuality had been justified before by reference to ancient pagan times, but Rev Church's letters to Ned reveal the first stirring of a specifically Christian gay pride in the early gay subculture, and I have no doubt that he felt he was making the correct Christian response to two men in love.
He may or may not have had reservations about the lascivious side of the coin. The Swan was undoubtedly more bawdy than the average gay pub or club, as noted in the previous chapter. Church was relatively indifferent to the charms of the regulars such as Miss Selina the police constable, Black-Eyed Leonora the Drummer of the Guards, or Pretty Harriet the butcher, and unwisely fell in love with the landlord himself. James Cook, like Church, was married, but unlike Church he was not bisexual. In May, Church asked Cook to take a pleasant walk with him; Cook said he had to wash up first, and instead left Church in the parlour with Kitty Cambric, the Queen of Bohemia, and Mr Ponder (another Drummer in the Guards), while he went to bed, as his tastes did not lie in that direction. After a two-hour wait, Church knocked at his chamber door and said, according to Cook:
if I would but speak to him, he should go away happy, I found I could not get rid of him, so I went down stairs[.] he said well, Sir, I hope your nap has done you good, I said I dont know, dont bother me, he said I was very cross to him, I told him there was other men without me, if he wanted to preach, not to preach to me about crossness. He said well if that was the case he was very sorry he had offended me, I told him he had not offended me nor pleased me, but as I was not well and the less any one talked to me the better I liked it. He said if I was but friends with him, and shake hands with him, he should go away happy. Mr Yardley said I never see such a fellow as I was, for I had affronted every body that came to the house.
Soon after this, the Swan was raided, and Church would not see Cook for the next two years, while the latter served his prison sentence. As noted in the preceding chapter, Cook attempted to blackmail Church soon after his release, but failed. He nevertheless told his horrid little tales, and in April 1813 Rev Church, who had not been implicated in the Vere Street Coterie until now, found himself the subject of a smear campaign waged by the editor of The Weekly Dispatch. This newspaper began by publishing several accounts of Church's activities in Banbury many years ago, and went so far as to interview Mr and Mrs George and Frances Gee, the keepers of the cake shop in the New Cut, above which Church and his wife had lived for one and a half years. According to the Gee's, Church "would be frequently out almost all hours of the night, and would lie in bed till ten o'clock in the morning. Several times he and his wife would have skirmishings and fighting between themselves, while their children would be left to run about the streets out of school hours, and allowed to keep company with children that would swear in our hearing most shockingly". The Gee's observed that "fawning on young men, that was his chief delight", but even these pious shopkeepers had to admit that Church "always paid the rent".
The Sunday after this item appeared in the paper, a number of people gathered outside the Obelisk to argue Church's virtues. He was so stoutly defended by many of his parishioners that a riot ensued. One of the troublemakers was jailed for inciting the riot by urging the mob to set the Chapel afire. Editor Robert Bell of the Dispatch bailed out the prisoner, a certain Webster, who next day went to the magistrates to accuse Church of having sodomised his younger brother William ten or eleven years ago!
The younger brother was fetched, and a deposition was taken to the effect that Church had indeed sodomised him with his consent. Consent was irrelevant in the eyes of the law, and a warrant was issued for Church's arrest. Church appeared in court to post bail, remained to begin a libel suit against the Dispatch, and returned to preach that evening as usual. The Dispatch pursued its investigations, and in due course made it known that Church had made an advance to William Clark of Ipswich only last year. Clark was sent for, and produced the following deposition:
Having been called by providence to Colchester, I went to hear John Church preach in a barn, was invited to Mr Abbott's; was prevailed upon to sleep with John Church; I did sleep with him three nights; after being enticed to many imprudences, I was under the necessity to resist certain attempts, which, if I had complied with, I am fearful must have ruined both soul and body; the crime is too horrid to relate. P.S. This took place in March last, 1812. [Signed by Clark in the presence of Richard Patmore, J. Ellisdom, C. Wire and H.T. Wire as witnesses.]
But Clark of course did not bring forward this charge until six months after the alleged incident, and in the meantime he had accepted a £1 gift from Church. Two barristers examined the document and wisely advised that it could not be prosecuted after such a long interval of silence; the case was dropped. Not to be rebuffed by this legal setback, Clark's aged father came to London filled with indignation and fury, intent upon revenge. Immediately upon his arrival, he rushed into the Obelisk Chapel as a meeting was taking place, with two loaded pistols, one in each pocket, intent upon murdering the minister preaching from the pulpit. But in the excess of his agitation he fainted away, and was carried out and deposited in the street.
Church finally won his suit against the Dispatch, which was ordered to cease publishing its libellous reports. The Editor's last words on the issue were that "The chief duty of a Journalist is to check the progress of any public evil, by giving activity and force to the LAW OF OPINION, when the municipal law cannot reach the same". The Dispatch had already accomplished much of its real purpose, to boost its own circulation over its competitors: "The statement published in the two last numbers of the Dispatch respecting this person have excited a degree of public attention unexampled in the history of newspapers . . . it serves to shew, how large a mass of virtuous feeling prevails among the people of England".
During the period from 1 January to 12 July, 1813, Church was subjected to much public abuse. He became accustomed to seeing large placards on the street corners bearing such notices as "JOHN CHURCH, INCARNATE DEVIL", followed by detailed descriptions of his "Filthy Frolics in the Temple of Sodom". The following wretched verses are typical of the many broadside ballads which circulated at the time, titled "An Epistle From the Devil to his Friend and Follower John Church":
We are hypocrites both,
With his notoriety grew his fame, and soon Church's flock had doubled in size, bringing in more money. During a ten-week period in 1813 he founded and built a new chapel nearby, leaving himself £1,000 in debt, which he eventually paid off. The Surrey Tabernacle, known locally as the Obelisk Tabernacle, was opened in 1814, with Rev John Church as its first minister, and enlarged in 1838. In 1865 the building was sold to the Vestry of St George the Martyr, and the chapel was continued in a new building in Wansey Street, known as the New Surrey Tabernacle. (The site of the old chapel is now occupied by the Hunter Buildings (1899), opposite the Borough Polytechnic.) The foundation stone of the Tabernacle in Wansey Street was laid on 17 October 1864; it became the Baptist Chapel in 1920, then the Borough Synagogue in 1927. Pictures of the building with its beautiful classical facades are in the Newington Library archives, which also hold some of Church's sermons. The building was demolished in 1970. The only building left from Church's time is a former dairy at the corner of Borough Road and New London Road, bearing the just- visible sign painted over the bricks on its side wall: "Est 1810 fresh milk from the country."
In a letter dated 6 October 1816, Church wrote to Mrs Hunter, a member of his congregation, and described himself as "a Child of Peculiar Providence". If ever man was fated to bear the cross, it was he. The trials and tribulations of his life were far from over. In 1816 new rumours had begun to spread, and he was indicted at the Surrey Assizes in Croydon, this time on charges of attempted sodomy upon the person of Adam Foreman. Foreman was a 19 year old servant at a house where Church was staying briefly, who accused him of coming to his bed during the night, placing his hand upon his privates, and pretending to be his mistress (feigning a woman's voice) in order to sleep with him. The weak defence of Church's attorneys was that Foreman could not have identified the molester as Church due to the darkness, and the court testimony consists mostly of arguments about the proximity of a street lamp outside the window. The trial and subsequent appeal for Church was never a man to give up lasted for one year and three months, which took its toll. "My mind was borne down with trouble, company was a burden, and I longed to retire from observation and all society".
On 17 August, Church was found guilty as charged, and a huge mob assembled outside his door carrying marrow-bones and cleavers. They threw mud and filth upon him, and burnt him in effigy with a straw figure dressed in a black silk gown with pictures of a "church" on either side. He was to be sentenced on 6 November, but this had to be postponed due to the recent death of Princess Charlotte, whose funeral was publicly celebrated on 18 November. On Sunday 23 November Rev John Church delivered his last sermon, on the text "Rejoice not against me, Oh mine enemy; though I fall, I shall rise". On 24 November he was sentenced in Westminster Hall to two years' imprisonment and £500 surety against his good behaviour upon eventual release.
Church served exactly 730 days of his term, in Newington gaol and then in Horsemonger Lane, pulling old rope to pieces. His female disciples considered him a martyr, and every day they came to his prison bars with delicious food, wine and spirits. He was well treated in prison, for he was daily attended by a young man who used to be an officer's servant. His quarters were reasonable, and he received all the books he requested. Although he was allowed visitors of friends and family, it was a time of dull aching sorrow, and he tried to sustain himself by constantly comparing his situation to that of the Israelites during the Babylonian Captivity. It was also a time for reflection, and he spent his time writing letters, sermons, and his memoirs, which were subsequently published in 1823 as The Foundling; or, The Child of Providence.
Finally he was freed, and on the night of his release he returned to the Obelisk to preach to an assembly of 1,000 persons, for he still retained the loyalty of numerous supporters. He had paid his debt and would not skulk away like a beaten dog. He held his head high and continued to preach at his church in Dover Street for at least the next five years, for even by mid-1822 "his Church is crammed whenever it is announced to be opened" [The Bishop! Particulars of the Charge against the Hon. Percy Jocelyn, Bishop of Clogher (London, c. 1822), p. 6]. But his preaching had grown sepulchral and guttural; his manner became feeble, as if he were a broken reed, and he was frequently overcome with drink.
Unfortunately the remaining course of his life is not documented. The last sermon he published appeared in 1824, and there are no more records of him being in the public eye, either as a preacher or as a defendant in further trials. I have not been able to locate a notice of his death; mortality records kept by dissenting churches are very incomplete. He would have been about 45 years old in 1824, and a natural death around this age would not have been entirely unusual, particularly for one subjected to such stresses of persecution and imprisonment. Had he actively continued his preaching career, it is likely that his sermons would have been published. Except for this anticlimactic disappearance from history, the documents of his life and writings are fairly abundant, and one must be grieved that Rev John Church has never been granted even a footnote in any historical study. He is not mentioned even in H. Montgomery Hyde's The Other Love, despite the fact that the public controversy surrounding Church's life is as illustrative of the hypocrisy of his age as was the Oscar Wilde debacle more than half a century later.
"The greatest act of all is to set another before you", observed William Blake, the poet roughly contemporary with the preacher, and one hesitates to attempt a final assessment of Church's character. At the outset it must be granted that Church, as any person who is not a mere caricature of conformity, very likely was a man of contradictions and self-deception. If it is true that he once may have cynically remarked, "My old women would believe the moon to be made of green cheese, if I was to tell them so, and I must tell them something" (and his observation is very likely correct), it is equally true that his numerous sermons, mostly on the redemptive meaning of Christ's sacrifice, are explicated with both logic and conviction, and informed by genuine Christian fervour.
More importantly, all the evidence indicates that John Church was a sincere, perhaps even pious, man who believed that gay love was congruent with the Christian way of life. Some of his sermons, his letters, and portions of his autobiography are devoted to a discussion of the meaning and worth of friendship, though the references to the erotic potential of friendship are ambiguous. But the real hypocrites, he observes, are his accusers: "some degrade me to cover their own infamy; some from pharisaic principles; some to exalt themselves upon my ruin; some to please those above them, and some to gain money by it, which they have". Indeed, the editor of the Weekly Dispatch bragged about "the great increase of sale which this paper experienced on Sunday last and their continual demand for it ever since".
It is worth considering whether John Church acted in a manner that was imprudent, or merely natural. J. T. Gardener, who travelled to Kingham to investigate the Banbury charges, discovered that Church was in the habit, when retiring for the evening, of clasping a man or boy around the shoulders and saying "Come, now, you must be my bed-fellow to-night", for "he was apt to be troubled with a lowness of spirits in the night after the fatigue of walking and preaching". In response to the specific charges that he slept with two boys, Church wrote "I have done most foolishly I have acted most imprudently". Yet one feels that this handsome preacher, just under six feet tall, branded on the back of one hand by a hot wire, as were all orphans, acted in a manner instinctively affectionate and unselfconsciously frank, as noted by a Rev T A : "Mr. Church kindly put his arms round my neck and kissed me twice, and asked me politely to sleep with him".
I would not want to sentimentalise John Church's character, yet once we objectively examine the blatantly prejudiced attacks upon his virtue, we find little indication that he was ever "vicious" in spite of his "vice". His convincing argument throughout his autobiography is that he was fundamentally an innocent person, a man who was no more a sinner than all other persons. In marked contrast to the malicious pamphlet literature issued against him, Church never castigated the sins of the Cities of the Plain; he never attempted to refute specifically any of the charges that he was homosexual, and he never confessed any guilt about being a Child of Peculiar Providence. If we seek out the archetypal Christian hypocrite in this tale, such is not to be found in the person of Rev John Church, but in the person of Rev T. Latham, who replaced him at Banbury in 1808, and who coldly observed: "We commiserate "poor human nature", quite as deeply as the reverend Mr. Church, but, then, our pity is limited to natural sins".
NOTES: This chapter draws upon the following sources: The Infamous Life of John Church (1817); The Trial and Conviction of John Church (1817); The Sentence and Affidavit of John Church (1817); Rev. T. Latham, The Rod in Pickle (1817); The Trial and Conviction of that Infamous Hypocrite John Church (1817); Religion and Morality Vindicated (1813); [Robert Holloway], The Phoenix of Sodom (1813); William Benbow, The Crimes of the Clergy, or The Pillars of Priest-Craft Shaken (1823), pp. 19-21; The Weekly Dispatch, 18 April, 25 April, 2 May, 9 May, 1813; Morning Chronicle, 20 April 1813 et passim; and the autobiography and sermons of John Church: The Foundling; or, The Child of Providence (1823), The Morning of Spiritual Youth (1814), A Feast for Serpents (1813), The Thirteen Names of the First Patriarchs (1814), The Sacrifice of Life (1814), The Glorious Law-Giver (c. 1814), The Nature of a Gospel Church (c. 1814), The Living Letter (1814), Christ the True Melchisedec (1813). Oakden's trial is in the Old Bailey Sessions Book, No. X.25.
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