Swaddling John and the Great Awakening

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 5 (Sept/Oct 2010), Volume 18

Patron of the Moravian Brethren, Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf (extreme right), receiving a copy of the 1749 Act of Parliament from George II that secured protection for Moravians in Britain and its colonies. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Patron of the Moravian Brethren, Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf (extreme right), receiving a copy of the 1749 Act of Parliament from George II that secured protection for Moravians in Britain and its colonies. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Dublin in the 1740s was a Protestant city, and one that was alive to the hair-splitting controversies that stirred up the non-conformist world. Arminians, Baptists, Bradilonians, Muggletonians, Quakers, Socinians and Unitarians all found a ready audience. Into this cacophony came John Cennick, a young evangelical preacher of magnetic power, who brought with him the practices of the Moravian Brethren and who has left a lively account of his experiences. Although the wave of religious enthusiasm among Protestants known as the ‘Great Awakening’ is usually associated with John Wesley, it was ‘Swaddling John’ Cennick who first brought this revival to Ireland, a year ahead of Wesley. Today, Cennick’s legacy rests with the active Moravian congregations in Northern Ireland, but it was in Dublin that he began his ministry.

Self-righteous and lacking in irony
Cennick’s memoirs describing his Dublin activities between 1746 and 1749 are packed with incident, and give a glimpse into the religious preoccupations of the early Georgian age. But he is not one of the world’s great diarists; in fact, he is more of a Pooter than a Pepys. Given his strong convictions, the self-righteous tone and lack of irony are not surprising, but his childish glee at overcoming an opponent, his ingenuous recounting of prophecies about himself and his evident self-satisfaction with his powers all point to a rather smug and unreflective character.
His single-mindedness also limits his perception of his surroundings. He makes no observations on the physical state of the city, which was then undergoing one of its major periods of development. The population of Dublin was about 130,000 and increasing rapidly, largely owing to an influx of mainly Irish-speaking Catholics into the Liberties, though Catholics were not yet in the majority. If working in the midst of a large Catholic population was a novel experience for Cennick, he doesn’t elaborate on it. Catholics were not his target audience; while he welcomed them to his meetings, he aimed to revive the fervour of the saved, not to proselytise.
Cennick recounts how in 1745 some Dublin Baptists on a visit to London, being moved by his ‘powerful effects and manner of preaching the gospel’, pressed him to come to Dublin. Though initially reluctant, since ‘I must confess, I had entertained a strong prejudice against the whole Irish nation and people’, he eventually agreed. He was still allied to the Methodists, but being held up for two weeks by rough seas was, he believed, a sign from Providence for his direction:

‘In that time I spent many heavy hours alone . . . and shed many tears on account of being disappointed. After I had been twice aboard and spent one whole night out in vain and the wind had twice changed when they had just got in the anchor and became directly against us, I c[oul]d not help think but that Our Saviour’s time was not come, or that perhaps I sh[oul]d be first intirely into the Brethren before I sh[oul]d undertake this visit.’

So he returned to London, and gave his ‘farewell discourse to the Methodists on Dec 1st and came wholly among the Brethren’.

Committed himself to the Moravians
Cennick deepened his commitment by travelling to Moravian communities in Germany, where he stayed until the following May, ‘but there was no day passed wherein I did not think on Ireland, and always felt my heart melt with eagerness when I thought of going thither’. With the blessing of the Moravians’ spiritual leader, Count Zinzendorf, he headed back directly to Ireland, and with only the obligatory delay at Holyhead for a fair wind:
‘On Tuesday 3rd June I landed in Dublin. I shall never forget what I felt as I first stepped ashore. I could not refrain from tears, but I prayed the D [Lord] to stand by me in this strange country where I was now alone and not suffer me to come in vain.’
His hosts had arranged for him to use an old meeting-house in Skinner’s Alley (now Newmarket Street), off Cork Street, in the Liberties. Cennick’s first audience on 4 June 1746 comprised 150 people, but as word of his preaching spread the crowds grew.
‘I preached twice daily, & the crowds were so great that those who hear must be 2 or 3 hours before the time else they could not get in, and tho’ all the windows were taken down that people might hear in the Burying Ground Yards &c yet multitudes were obliged to be disappointed. On Sundays all the Tops of Houses near us, all walls and windows were cover’d with people, & I must get in at a window & creep over their heads to the pulpit if I would preach . . . Some curious people at several times counted the congregation and found it generally more than a thousand & once 1,323.’
Inevitably there was controversy and mockery. A reference to the Babe ‘in swaddling clothes’ was not understood by some of his audience, and from then on Cennick was known as ‘Swaddling John’. When Wesley arrived in Dublin the following year, even the children in the street greeted him with ‘swaddler’, and the name survived into recent times as a derogatory reference to members of evangelical sects.
In an intolerant age, Moravians were noted for their lack of doctrinal dogmatism, and Cennick was concerned to avoid arousing denominational passions. He declined an invitation to preach in the Baptist meeting-house to avoid incensing the opposing ‘new-light’ and orthodox elements he knew were there. On another occasion he was annoyed to discover that a colleague had distributed tracts advocating adult baptism:
‘This was a manifest hurt to the souls, and made many, especially such as were come to us of the Popish and Church of England religions, think we intended to make them all Baptists . . . and tho’ he did all in his power to convince them to the contrary yet many went intirely away.’

Catholics at his sermons
Cennick frequently mentions the presence of Catholics at his sermons, including priests. Though the Penal Laws were still on the statute books, active persecution of the Catholic clergy had abated and priests no longer found it necessary to hide their identity. Some priests were prepared to engage in polemics, but Cennick seemed reluctant to take the bait:

‘About this time a young priest nam’d Duggan wrote against me and intitl’d his pamphlet The Lady’s Letter to Mr Cennick. This our brother Geo. Mansergh answer’d in a pretty manner and as he had been educated in the College and his answer wrote in a good stile and pertinent it had a good effect & was read by many. The priest wrote again and call’d it The Lady’s Reply but I dissuaded Bro. Mansergh to write any more answers & so it dropped.’
And some priests, if not all, valued his efforts:

‘A priest of the Carmelite order . . . wrote to me as follows: “Rev’d Sir, I am the Clergyman that was with you this morning who takes the liberty to write a few lines . . . for I have firm belief in every word that comes out of your mouth. I have studdy’d years and am reckoned a tolerable preacher, but I never knew in all my peregrinations one that God has blessed with such talents as yourself. If you make any stay in this town, you will make as many conversions as St Francis Xaverius has made among the wild pagans.”
The Catholick Priests threat’ned their people under pain of excommunication to come to hear me, & one Father Lyons told one who lov’d us, That I was a Devil in a human shape, & no real man. Others looked upon me as a fine servant of Jesus Christ and would not forbid their people, or be brought to speak against me, and this was the case in all the religions.’

 

Physical intimidation

 

John Wesley—Cennick was one of Wesley’s first lay preaching assistants but doctrinal differences (and possibly some personal antipathy) caused a break. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

John Wesley—Cennick was one of Wesley’s first lay preaching assistants but doctrinal differences (and possibly some personal antipathy) caused a break. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

The popular response, however, was more physical than intellectual. The Catholic mob had been a feature of Dublin for some decades, and the feuding between the sectarian Ormond and Liberty factions was reaching its peak at this time. Within a few weeks of beginning his mission, his meeting was disrupted by ‘young gentlemen’ who ‘behav’d rude and drew their swords & broke in, making towards me as if they would do hurt’, but more serious were the largely Catholic crowds who gathered to harass his congregation:

‘. . . it was dangerous for our people to go out after the meetings were ended, not a few were hurt by blows, stones, swords &c and indeed it was surprising to see what multitudes gathered every evening . . . we were pelted with sticks, stones and bricks on all sides by perhaps 15 or 20,000 mobb.’
Even if his estimate of numbers is wildly exaggerated, the dangers were real enough, and an escort of ‘religious soldiers’ with swords drawn was needed to get him back to his lodgings. An appeal to the Catholic archbishop provided only a little respite, but it reveals the growing pragmatism of relations between the civil and Catholic authorities:

‘Mr Erwin a sheriff . . . waited on the titular archbishop & told him the mobs were chiefly of the romish persuasion and assured him the Government would not be pleas’d when that was known. The b[isho]p confessed it and promised if possible to prevent it for the future & the next Sunday orders were read from all the altars of all the popish chapels in Dublin forbidding any of their people to be present in any of the mobs at Skinner’s Alley on pain of excommunication. This . . . helped a little but it soon was worse than ever, and at last I could not walk the street without having 100 or 1000 after me.’

 

Over 200 societies established

 

The Moravian church on Kevin Street, which closed in 1959 owing to a shrinking congregation.

The Moravian church on Kevin Street, which closed in 1959 owing to a shrinking congregation.

By the autumn of 1747 Cennick counted over 520 adherents, two thirds of them women. An invitation to Ballymena led to his spending his remaining years in Ireland in the north, and within a few years there were over 200 ‘societies’ across five counties, leading to congregations that are still active today. It is notable, however, that his London superiors never assigned him overall responsibility for any of the congregations he founded. His talents, it seems, lay more in preaching and enthusing his hearers than in the detailed graft of administration to create self-sustaining congregations, and there are signs throughout his career of his efforts being dissipated owing to lack of follow-up.
The Dublin congregation, ejected from the Skinner’s Alley meeting-house by the Methodists, eventually secured a property in Big Booter Lane (now Bishop Street). For over 200 years these premises, with a new frontage erected on Kevin Street in 1917, served as their place of worship, until in 1959 the shrinking congregation made it no longer viable.   HI

Seán Boyle is an organisational psychologist with an interest in history.

Further reading:
G.M. Ditchfield, The evangelical revival (London, 1998).
J.E Hutton, History of the Moravian Church (1909), available @ http://www. ccel.org/h/hutton/moravian/.
I am grateful to Lorraine Parsons of the Moravian Church Archive in London for permission to view the Cennick memoirs.

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