A Story of Dunbar

Methodist Recorder Article - Winter 1894

The Building of the Church
” He scarce had need to doff his pride, or slough the dross of earth;
Even as he trod that day to God, so walked he from his birth;
In simpleness, and gentleness, and honour, and clean mirth.”

In sight of the sea and within sound of the waves stands the little Methodist church at Dunbar, its plain, white-washed walls and high windows keeping the secret that inside is written on door and rostrum and pew.

Over a hundred years have the walls stood there, looking across the Castle green to the shore where the rocks are piled and the pools are deep. Over a hundred years have they listened in silence to the cry of them that go down to the sea ; but now the red and gray tablet on the inner wall breaks the silence in words that tell of the young man who, ” as a brother beloved, was for three years minister of this church, and who was drowned while bathing in the sea, August 10th, 1892.”

It was on a September evening in 1889 that John N. B. Holdsworth, “a man from the President’s List,” entered Dunbar, his first circuit. He was not expected, and there were no officials at the station to receive and induct him into his new charge. Unnoticed he passed up the street, his slight figure and eager boyish face giving no hint of the power that was destined to move the whole town. In less than half-an-hour after his arrival he stood in the church that even in its decay was the church of his heart, as in its beauty it was to be the scene of his life-work.

When on the following Sunday the young minister stepped from the musty little vestry and fronted his people, his thrill of pride was mixed with a humorous dismay. Besides his father, and three other members of his family who had accompanied him to Dunbar, his congregation numbered only seven.

The seven were faithful souls who had stood by the ruined church and the dying cause; and who were ready to stand, by the minister even while they shook their heads and murmured “Ichabod ” because of ” the laddie” that the Conference had sent to them. When the laddie stepped from the pulpit and went down the aisle, waiting at the door with a smile and a grip of the hand for each, the members forgot their Ichabod and remembered the youth of Timothy.

” My son,” said the old father who three years later was to enter with his son upon a higher ministry; “my son, you have here a cause that is almost dead; it will not be easy work to revive it.”

“No; but it will be worth doing,” said John Holdsworth. “I begin my ministry with a congregation of twelve. I will fill the church before I have done.”

” You did not see all your congregation,” said his sister. “If you had sat in the pews you would have been more than satisfied with the number of 4 beasties’ that were there to hear you.” , The young man’s eyes twinkled. “I know. The wainscot is full of them, and the boards are all worm-eaten. We must have the place restored. When you come to Dunbar next year you will see a braw new kirk, and a congregation not made up of beasties.” ” Will your twelve members rebuild the church, and fill it?’ his sister asked. ” The town will rebuild it; and the town will fill it ! ” he answered.

The idea took hold of him, and by the end of September he had matured a scheme that caused the faithful to shake their heads over its audacity. Restore the church ! Why, the members had not yet got over the outlay of cleaning it! Restore the church-when the pews were empty Sabbath after Sabbath ! “Find your congregation ere you meddle wi’ the kirk,:; said the people. “Make the church attractive, and you will find the congregation,” answered the minister.

But his pleading was all in vain. The old eyes could not see through the medium of young enthusiasm. The church was good enough for those that had known no other. There were no members ; there was no money. ” I will get both,” said the minister; and he set to work alone.

There are no minutes of the meetings in which he developed his scheme.

They were held in his study between himself and his Master; and the records are known only to the angels who listened to the prayers in which John Holdsworth pleaded for the dying church in Dunbar.

The first official record of the restoration scheme bears entry November, 1889, when he hit on the ingenious idea of making a post-card collection, by means of which £86 10s. 5d. was eventually subscribed to the building fund.

He wrote with his own hand every letter he sent out, and he sent out hundreds, until the entire Methodist Connexion was riddled by his requests for help. These letters were written in the intervals of pastoral work and sermon-making, and in the hours he took from sleep ; and the formula he used was so beaten into his weary brain that one night, kneeling at prayer, he repeated it word for word, beginning, “Dear Lord, I beg to lay before you the needs of the Wesleyan Church at Dunbar,” and ending, “Yours faithfully, John N. B. Holdsworth, minister.”

It was not till he came to the end that he realised what he had done. ” But I knew the Lord would understand,” he said, in telling the story afterwards, ” and it was as good a prayer as any I could have prayed, so I did not take it back.”

It was impossible for his earnestness not to communicate itself to his members. One who knew him better than most writes : – “On the roughest of rough nights he might have been seen heading a singing band that could hardly be heard above the din of the storm, or seen bareheaded preaching in the street with an earnestness that was the very substance of his soul. Soon they began to have conversions ; conversions that meant less company in the public-house, an attempt at decency in wretched homes, and shoes, a n d clothes, and food for helpless children.”

In the very first months of his work his personal infuence had begun to tell, and the seed at the love he afterwards reaped had been sown in many a heart. ” 0or Minister,” was the phrase taking the place of ‘the laddie;” and the bare-footed bairns that he gathered round him in the Sunday School were talking at home of the minister that was “an awfu’ man for the sea.”

They knew him down at the shore by this time ; and the silent fishers had begun to look out for the thin-faced, eager lad that could tell wonderful stories of the rocks, and the stanes, and the buckies; and that understood as well as they did the proper seasons for herring, and haddock, and crab.

He was not like the ministers of shore tradition. He asked them more about their hopes of a good haul than about their hopes of heaven; and was apparently more interested in the boats and tackle and in their empty stomachs than in their souls. Besides, there must be some good in a man that never forgot the name of a boat or a bairn, and was quick to ask for either when anything was wrong. They forgot that he was a minister, and only remembered that he was a man with them. But there was less swearing and drinking down at the shore; and, when the Sabbath came round, love for the man drew them to the kirk to hear the minister preach.

John Holdsworth had a genius for men, and out of the oddest, roughest materials he built his human Church One of these men was known to have “taken a stick” to a high official of the district but in the minister’s hands he was like a lamb. One of his colleagues writes : “I never saw so much work done with the same kind of material. The Church ! — it was John ; that was the long and the short of it. It was just a hedge of thorns but under his cultivation it bore wonderful fruit, more redolent and precious than the citron of the groves.

It was about this time that a queer odour of fishing-gear conquered the musty smell in the church ; and that an irate member insisted on removing the cushions from the pews that “werena intendit for fishers’ bairns.” It was about this time too that the sermons were all about the sea and ” The voice of the Lord that is in the great waters and a little later that the bairns came to the church shod and decently clad. The minister had interested his friends, and had persuaded them to send him cast-off garments. These were mended and altered by other friends who could not give material, and so a clothing society was formed for the needy children. He was constantly to be found visiting in the fishers quarter, where the folk and the bairns, the dogs and the cats all knew him ; and many a knotty question he had to decide, from the drowning of a kitten to the marriage of a daughter. After a time they ceased to consult him about the kittens and puppies. He would never hear of the drowning of any creature, however large the family ; and his kind landlady still tells how he filled his room with stray cats that sat on his shoulder and covered his Sabbath coat with hairs. He had a queer selection of “beasties” in his rooms ; for whenever a strange sea creature was caught, or a rare shell brought up from the depths, it was saved and sent to him with presents of haddies or kippers by his sea-going friends.

But while he built up the animate Church he never lost sight of the restoration scheme. ~ His enthusiasm had spread beyond his own church into the town, and every sect had become interested in the fight for existence that the plucky little Methodist meeting – house was making. By this time his own members to a man – though not, perhaps, to a woman – were with him, and much self-denial and quiet heroism were being shown by the Methodist people for the sake of the cause. They saw it growing every week. The membership had increased from twenty to seventy; every Sunday night the church was filled to overflowing ; the influential members of other Churches had gathered round with sympathy and help. There was no doubt that the minister could do what he had promised.

On April 10, 1890, he announced that £250 had been raised towards the fund, and that an additional sum of £122 was needed to complete the work and free the church from debt ; and he would raise the money by means of a bazaar in August. This announcement took away the breath of the members. A bazaar ! among people who had already given their all ? Not even the most loyal could follow him there. There was much shaking of heads, and there were many words said in that meeting But a miracle had already been performed, and the impossible might happen. In the end they adopted the idea of the bazaar. Before the summer came in the interior of the church had been removed and a brilliant transformation effected. A generous Presbyterian friend had given two magnificent stained-glass windows and some valuable oak carving, including an alcove from St. Giles’s Cathedral. Another friend presented a third beautiful window, another a font; while yet another, in addition to many costly gifts, brought his exquisite artistic taste to weld old and new into a perfect whole. The new was stained into a semblance of age, the old was cleaned and restored, and a story is told of the hours the minister spent in adapting the ancient carving to its modern use. But, indeed, his hand was on every part of the building, he worked with the workmen, inspiring them with his own enthusiasm. Every day he was in the church ; and one day some visitors, seeking Mr. Holdsworth, were no little scandalised when a young workman in his shirt sleeves came forward, and announced himself as the minister. There was no task too lowly for him to do; on another occasion he was discovered, apron on knee, polishing the brass-work that was not bright enough to satisfy him. An old fashioned stove in the church took up room in the church which could ill be spared and was a great eye-sore to him. One day he was showing the alteration to a brother minister, and lamenting the lack of a vestry in which to hold a week- night service.

The visitor poked open the door of the stove with his stick – ” Why, Holdsworth, you could hold your weeknight services here.” He was immensely tickled, but while he laughed he meditated ; and the next winter he showed the same minister a well – furnished vestry and a new stove. This stove was not bought until he had scoured the country and visited important foundries to test the working of every good heating apparatus.

And on June 22, 1890, he opened the restored church ; now one of the most beautiful little churches in the kingdom. While the work of reconstruction, was proceeding the bazaar was not forgotten. It was well in process ; the members having put their hands to the plough would not look back. Every part of the work had been divided among willing helpers, and the minister had undertaken to provide a stall by himself. He had already collected money from friends far and near, and his family wondered how he would furnish a stall without a second application to those who had assisted him. But his ingenuity was not yet exhausted. He turned his attention to manufacturers and advertisers, and furnished his stall twice over.

Never was such a heterogeneous collection of articles seen at any bazaar. Soap, china, bonbons, toothpowder, photographs, brushes, cutlery, nails, fancy work, clothing, leather goods, perfume, boots, baby clothes, everything was represented, and everything was sold. The buyers wanted to “encourage the minister ; ” from the Duchess who purchased Dresden vases to the servant who bought his photograph to put on her mantelpiece.

The minister was abundantly encouraged ; and none who saw him will forget his happy face when, at the close of the sale, he announced that over £544 had been raised, and that the whole cost of renovation would be met by this sum. When his sister spent a Sunday in Dunbar, eleven months after he had first entered the town, she found as he had predicted a restored church, packed in pew and aisle and choir – even up the pulpit steps-with a congregation representing every Church in the town. On this occasion it was no easy matter for him to get down the aisle but no one stirred till the minister had made his way to the door. Then each rose and went for the greeting that was part of his ministry. “Did I no’ tell you we’d have a braw new kirk this year !” he asked gleefully that night.

The following months sped by all too quickly in the work in the town and neighbourhood. ” The world is my parish,” John Wesley had said. “The heart is my parish,” John Holdsworth echoed; and his parish knew him. By this time he was a familiar figure in the town, had become used to seeing him among the children on the shore, or arm-in-arm with a drunkard leading him home to his rooms. They saw him sitting up with a sick man, or playing with a sick bairn ; lending a hand to lift the dead struck down in the street, or first in the work of rescuing the shipwrecked. The house of mourning welcomed him, and his quick footsteps brought the first ring of hope to many a stricken heart. Children watched for him as he went along the street, and the kiss or the flower he threw to the baby as he passed often brought father or mother to church.

“He wasna oor minister, but he was the best minister we ever had,” said a member of another Church ; and so he came to be recognised as the minister of all who needed help. It would take too long to tell of the kindnesses that endeared him to the whole town ; of the uttermost unselfishness that marked ‘his whole life. Even casual visitors felt his influence, and he brightened their stay in Dunbar by teaching them the secrets of the quaint old town. He knew where all the best walks were; he could describe every inch of the rocks, and could show the pools where the gayest anemones grew, or the hill on which one could find the rarest mosses and heaths, or the stream where the biggest trout lay hidden.

And many a donation came to the church “in grateful recognition of Mr. Holds worth’s kindness.” During the second winter he entered largely into Temperance work. By his influence he put the licensing regulations on a legal basis, thereby earning the ill-will of the publicans who burned him in effigy, to his great glee.

So the quick months hastened by; and in the summer of 1892 the Sunday School-begun with half-a-dozen fisher laddies was so large and prosperous that it was able to buy a costly silk banner to head the annual procession of scholars. He had been almost three years in Dunbar, and the Conference had appointed him to remain a fourth year. Looking round at the beautiful church and the well-appointed vestries, the flourishing school and the earnest members, he said to one of the best loved of his people-“And now we must build a manse.”

But God had already built him a manse.

On Tuesday, August 9, he showed some visitors a favourite walk, stopping on the way to visit and pray with a bedridden woman. He left his friends early to keep a promise to play draughts with an invalid old lady. It was his last service. On the following day while taking his usual bath in the sea he was drowned. The story is well known ; and today voices are hushed and eyes filled as it is told in Dunbar.

They carried him home to his rooms where his Bible lay open at the death of Hezekiah. And at midnight while strong men prayed that they might die with him, and little children sobbed in their sleep, they bore him through the moonlit streets and laid him before the Lord in the little church that he had loved and fashioned with his own hands. Three days later the dawn of his birthday stealing through the eastern window fell upon the coffin in the chancel, and upon a great company of mourners that through the night had kept a solemn watch with him whose face they were to see no more. A few hours after and the town filled the church; municipal authorities, ministers of every denomination, all sorts and conditions of men. Some who had never seen him, but had heard of his work, had come from north and south to honour him. Some had walked many weary miles ; some were carried from their beds to the church, to gaze upon the boards in which he lay.

Then once more, according to beautiful use, the congregation paused, and, for the last time, the beloved young minister went down the aisle before them. Once more he waited at the door . and then, God’s peace resting upon him, he went his way to the spot, within a stone’s throw of which he had planned to build his manse. He had entered Dunbar silently and unobserved ; but now, going out in a deeper silence, the whole town went with him weeping- mothers with little children, boys and girls, and greyheaded men. Surely few men have won such love-so many tears.

His bed was laid three feet lower than usual by tender hands that gave their work to reach a stratum of pure white sand, because it would make ” a gay bonnie bed for the minister, he was siccan a man for the sea.” ” He’s no lyin’ wi’ his ain people, said one of the fishers he loved, “but he’s juist buried i’ the heart o’ all Dunbar.”

The darkness fell before his people would leave him to his sleep ; but the first mourner at his grave in the early dawn was one of the men who had burnt him in effigy a few moths before.

And now the children of the town have placed a tablet in his church, while the people of Dunbar have marked his place of rest with a granite monument “in loving memory of him who was all times their friend.” And on summer nights “the bairns ar aye aboot him,” kneeling on the grave to say their prayers ; while the flowers that brighten the ground through every season witness that the Church John Holdsworth built was builded on the love of his people.

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