William Huntington (1745-1813)

'the coalheaver', - an eccentric preacher

William Huntington by Domenico Pellegrini
William Huntington by Domenico Pellegrini

An introduction to the subject of this article has been provided on this website under Did you know as follows: -
"A wave of religious fervour, independent of the established churches, swept through the country in the 1770s. Many new chapels were founded, like the one which William Bugby built in 1779 in the working-class district of Prospect Place. His son, another William, preached a stern Calvinist doctrine here. Other Epsom seekers crowded around William Huntington SS of West Ewell. When they asked what the initials stood for, he answered 'Sinner Saved'"

The Quarterly Review, Vol. 24, in 1821 explained that Huntington had been
"persuaded to hear one of Whitefield's fiery Calvinists preach at Richmond. It happened to be one of the most intolerant of that intolerant class; a personage whose uncouth name was Toriel Joss, and who is celebrated among his brethren for what they call the holy indignation with which he opposed the proposal of an union between the Arminian and Calvinistic Methodists...

His ordination, such as it was, was performed by Toriel Joss, with the assistance of other persons equally competent to that office, Toriel declaring before the whole congregation, that William Huntington had certainly received a call from God, and that he should never be at a loss to prove it, while he was in possession of a Bible; he then told him to take his axe and go to work."
His association with the district dates back to 1767 when he had worked at Epsom for some months. In 1775, when almost 30 years of age, he moved from Sunbury to Ewell as described in an extract from The Collected Works of the Reverend William Huntington : -
"After I had been three weeks out of employment I heard of a place at Ewell, in Surry: which I went after, and engaged in. It was with a gentleman that manufactured gunpowder. I agreed for eleven shillings per week in the summer, and ten shillings "in the winter; and procured a ready furnished room in an old thatched house on Ewell Marsh, if with propriety it might be called a furnished room, at two shillings per week. I was obliged to pawn all my best clothes in order to defray the remaining expenses which attended my wife's lying-in, owing to my being out of employment; and to hire a cart to carry my personal effects, which were but few, to Ewell. When the cart set us down on Ewell Marsh on the Monday morning, and I had paid the hire of it, I had the total sum of ten pence halfpenny left, to provide for myself, my wife, and child, till the ensuing Saturday night! But though I were thus poor, yet I knew God had made me rich in faith; and these words came on my mind with power; 'He multiplied the loaves and fishes to feed five thousand men, besides women and children. We went on our knees, and turned the account of that miracle into a prayer, beseeching the Almighty to multiply what we had, or to send relief another way, as his infinite wisdom thought most proper. The next evening my landlord's daughter and son-in-law came up to see their mother, with whom I lodged, and brought some baked meat, which they had just taken out of their oven, and brought for me and my wife to sup along with them. These poor people knew nothing of us, nor of our God. The next day in the evening they did the same; and kept sending victuals or garden stuff to us all the week long. We had not made our case known to any but God; nor did we appear ragged, or like people in want; no, we appeared better in dress than even those who relieved us: but God sent an answer to our prayer by them, who knew not at the same time what they were about; nor did I tell them till some months after. While we were at supper I entertained them with spiritual conversation. After supper I went to prayer with them, and prayed most earnestly for them. And God answered it; for he sent the woman home deeply convicted that night: nor did her convictions abate till she was brought to see Christ crucified in the open vision of gospel faith, and to receive peace and pardon from Christ for herself. Some time after this, God began to work upon the husband also; and then I related the fore-cited circumstance; at the hearing of which he told me how it was impressed on his mind that I was in want of victuals; and his wife found fault with him for thinking so, and bringing it to me, saying, 'The people are better to pass than we are'. But he contradicted her, and insisted on her doing as he desired."

Huntington claimed that his first convert was a neighbour, Ann Webb wife of Samuel. Another of his converts, John Pavey, wrote long after, "I often call to mind the sweet conferences we held together at that highly favoured spot, Ewell Marsh, when your glory was fresh in you".

Reportedly, "he preached, and without misgiving, two or three times every week. Crowds flocked to listen, mainly out of curiosity; but they complained that, instead of conventionally confining himself to theology, he was apt to stray from his subject and to inveigh against dishonesty, drunkenness, and profanity. In short, he was personal".

Having been ordered to work on a Sunday, he gave up his position at Ewell and moved on to Thames Ditton. In 1778 he was summoned before the magistrates at Kingston, as one who had intruded himself into the parish of Ditton without having gained any legal settlement. However, his influence had now so increased, that someone in the metropolis hired two lawyers to defend him, and he left the court triumphant.

In 1779 he was first invited to preach in London, supplying the pulpit of a chapel in Margaret Street, Cavendish Square. William Huntington's name was also the first to appear as the minister conducting baptisms in the 1779 register for "Bugby's Chapel", Prospect Place, Epsom.

William Huntington depicted in the Providence chapel in Lewes, Sussex
William Huntington depicted in the Providence chapel in Lewes, Sussex

Additional details may be found in an edition of The Dictionary of National Biography (1885 - 1900), within the public domain: -
"HUNTINGTON, WILLIAM, S.S. (1745-1813), eccentric preacher, natural son of Barnabas Russel, farmer, was born in a cottage at the Four Wents, on the road between Goudhurst and Cranbrook 2 Feb. 1744-5, and was baptised at Cranbrook Church in the name of his putative father, William Hunt, a labourer, on 14 Nov. 1750. After acquiring the barest rudiments of knowledge at the Cranbrook grammar school, he went into service as an errand-boy, and was afterwards successively gentleman's servant, gunmaker's apprentice, sawyer's pitman, coachman, hearse-driver, tramp, gardener, coalheaver, and popular preacher. Having seduced a young woman, the daughter of a tailor at Frittenden, Kent, he decamped on the birth of a child, and changed his name to Huntington to avoid identification (1769) [His choice may have contained an allusion to the Countess of Huntingdon - after his marriage, he referred to Mrs. Huntington as 'The Countess" and it is reported that 'he frequently, in fun, conferred on her this title, glancing of course at the Countess of Huntingdon']. He then formed a connection with a servant-girl named Mary Short, with whom he settled at Mortlake, working as a gardener. Here he suffered much from poverty, and still more from conviction of sin. After removing to Sunbury he went through the experience known as conversion, which was precipitated by a casual conversation with a strict Calvinist. Huntington, after failing to obtain satisfaction from the 'Whole Duty of Man' or the Thirty-nine Articles, discovered in the Bible to his dismay convincing proof of the doctrine of predestination. About Christmas 1773 a sudden vision of brilliant light confirmed him in his belief (cf. the detailed account in his autobiography); after praying fervently for a quarter of an hour, Christ appeared to him 'in a most glorious manner, with his body all stained with blood', and he obtained the assurance that he 'was brought under the covenant love of God's elect'. He thereupon ceased to attend the established church, and spent his Sundays in singing hymns of his own composing, in praying, and in reading and expounding the Bible to Mary Short. He afterwards joined the Calvinistic methodists of Kingston*; but soon removed to Ewell, where his preaching was unpopular, and thence to Thames Ditton, where for a time he combined preaching with coalheaving or cobbling. Subsequently he depended for his subsistence on faith. His congregations did not permit him to starve, but their supplies were irregular, and Huntington was often in great distress. He regarded every windfall, however trifling, as a miraculous interposition of God. His curious work, 'God the Guardian of the Poor and the Bank of Faith', gives a minute account of his manner of life at this period.

By degrees he extended the sphere of his ministry, going a regular circuit between Thames Ditton, Richmond, Cobham, Worplesdon, Petworth, Horsham, and Margaret Street Chapel, London, Providence providing him with a horse, horse furniture, and riding breeches. He found wishing sometimes a more powerful engine than prayer. Anticipating that his past history would sooner or later come to light, Huntington took the precaution of confiding the affair of the girl at Frittenden to his more devoted adherents, and appended to his name the letters S.S., i.e. sinner saved**. The petty annoyance or persecution he suffered from those who resented his preaching he described in a book entitled 'The Naked Bow, or a Visible Display of the Judgments of God on the Enemies of Truth'. He there shows that various calamities which befell his enemies were divine punishments for small affronts offered to himself. In 1782, in accordance with what he regarded as a heavenly monition, he removed to London, and soon obtained sufficient credit to build himself a chapel in Titchfield Street, Oxford Market, which he christened 'Providence Chapel'. The place was consecrated in 1783, and here he officiated for more than a quarter of a century. On 13 July 1810 the chapel, which was uninsured, was burned to the ground. Huntington, however, easily raised £10,000 with which he built a larger chapel in Gray's Inn Lane, between Wilson Street and Calthorpe Street, taking care to have the freehold vested in himself. New Providence Chapel, as it was called, was opened for divine service on 20 June 1811. For the rest of his life Huntington derived a handsome income from his pew-rents and publications, had a villa at Cricklewood, and kept a carriage. He preached at his chapel until shortly before his death, which occurred at Tunbridge Wells on 1 July 1813. He was interred on 8 July in the burial-ground of Jireh Chapel, Lewes. His epitaph, composed by himself, was as follows : 'Here lies the coalheaver, who departed this life July 1st, 1813, in the 69th year of his age, beloved of his God, but abhorred of men. The omniscient Judge at the grand assize shall ratify and confirm this to the confusion of many thousands, for England and its metropolis shall know that there hath been a prophet! among them'. Mary Short died*** in Huntington's lifetime. Her death was hastened by gin and chagrin induced by a scandalous intimacy which Huntington formed about 1803 with an evangelical lady, Elizabeth, relict of Sir James Sanderson, bart, lord mayor of London in 1792. ['Rev. William Hunt Huntington of the parish of Hendon'] married this lady on 15 Aug. 1808 [by licence at St Marylebone]. By Mary Short he had thirteen children, of whom seven survived. He had none by Lady Sanderson. She survived him, dying on 9 Nov. 1817.

In person Huntington was tall and strongly built, with somewhat irregular features, a ruddy complexion, light blue eyes, and an ample forehead, partially concealed by a short black wig. His portrait by Pellegrini (æt. 58) is in the National Portrait Gallery. His manner in the pulpit was peculiar. Action he had none, except a curious trick of passing a white handkerchief to and fro. His style was colloquial and often extremely coarse, but nervous and idiomatic. His doctrine was Calvinism flavoured with antinomianism, his method of interpreting scripture wholly arbitrary. He claimed to be under the direct inspiration of God, and denounced all who differed from him as knaves, fools, or incarnate devils. He predicted the total destruction of Napoleon and his army in Egypt, and the fall of the papacy about 1870. He seldom baptised, admitted to the communion only by ticket, and discountenanced prayer-meetings."
His obituary in a newspaper for 10 July 1813 was brief:- "On 1st inst at Tunbridge Wells, the Rev. William Huntington S.S., alias Hunt, a man whose name will be remembered while his truly humorous literary productions in prose and verse such as 'The Bank of Faith', 'The Kingdom of Heaven taken by Storm' &c. &c. shall continue to enrich the liberties of the curious, and excite the unqualified admiration of his devotees."

Huntington had been taken to 'the Wells' by Dame Elizabeth Sanderson during his final illness. Writing in The English Peasant, published in 1893, Richard Heath tells us "The funeral was such an one as had never before been witnessed in Sussex. The hearse which conveyed the remains of this peasant preacher through his native Weald was drawn with regal pomp by six horses. At Godstone it was met by vast numbers who had walked or ridden from London, until the procession reached a mile in length. All that summer's day the long black line wound its tortuous course up and down the hilly clay-bound roads of the Weald; for although it left the Wells early in the morning, it did not reach Lewes, its halting-place, until five o'clock in the afternoon...[However,] all that was specially identified with his name as the founder of a sect, soon withered away. There was the usual manifestation of hero-worship after his death, a fight for relics, a setting-up of memorials...[but] War soon broke out between Lady Sanderson, the trustees, and the dwindling congregation [of New Providence Chapel, Gray's Inn Lane]. The place was thrown into Chancery, and after a wretched existence of about twenty years it was sold by order of the Court, and became an Episcopal Chapel...[eventually becoming St Bartholomew's Church, it was almost entirely destroyed by bombing on 17th October, 1940].

As to what remained of his property, it was nearly all lost in Chancery suits. His eldest son did not get his legacy until twenty years after his father's death.

As it was with his own chapel, so was it with nearly every place he had established throughout the country. As soon as the ministers died who had been placed in them as pastors, they rapidly declined.

'Ichabod, Ichabod, The glory is departed!'

* On 1 June 1781 John Townsend had been ordained pastor of the Independent Chapel, Heathen (later re-named Eden) Street, Kingston. Forty years later, The Quarterly Review repeated, with some scepticism, Huntington's version of their relationship: -
"The Calvinistic preacher at Kingston when he heard that Huntington was beginning to set up as a teacher, gave him no encouragement to proceed; he read to him the chapter in Ezekiel about the duty of a watchman, and expatiated on the momentous responsibility of the office into which he was thrusting himself, with such force as almost frightened him out of his senses."
Rev. John Townsend
Rev. John Townsend
From "Memoirs of the Rev. John Townsend,
founder of the Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb" published in 1831.

Congregationalism in Surrey, however, presents a different picture: -
"From the first Mr. Townsend was opposed by the notorious Antinomian leader, William Huntington and his followers. This man (who lived in Kingston, and preached weekly at Richmond and Thames Ditton) attended the ordination, and criticised every part of the service. Mr. Townsend writes: 'Every effort was made by the party that could be devised to inculcate the whole church and congregation with their unscriptural sentiments, and with their more mischievous temper. Every new book written by their oracle, Mr.H., was circulated with the utmost avidity, and the most uncandid and illiberal construction was put on every sermon I preached; and some even of the most eminent of my hearers, in seriousness of spirit, and holiness of life, were maligned as Arminians and enemies of the Gospel'. So violent was the hostility of the party that Mr. Townsend had to appeal to the magistrates for personal protection. The end of it was that he was driven from the town, and in 1784 accepted an invitation to Jamaica Row, Bermondsey. There, too, he was assailed by the Antinomians, but eventually succeeded in inducing them to withdraw from the church."

** Re-interpreted by one of his detractors as "Sad Scoundrel"

*** Huntington tells us that "[Mr and Mrs Baker], myself, and my friend Chapman at Petersham, subscribed, and purchased a spot of ground in that neighbourhood, and erected a substantial tomb, under Mr. Chapman's direction; where we hope, if God permit, to rest together in the dust, till the archangel's trump shall silence that of the gospel, and proclaim an eternal jubilee to the covenantseed of the Son of God." Mary Short was laid to rest there - buried in Mr Chapman's vault in Petersham Churchyard on Monday, 15 December 1806 but her name did not appear on the tomb. She was entered in the burial register as Mrs Mary Huntington of Hendon, Middlesex. John Chapman had pre-deceased her on 18 January 1805, aged 61, and his relict Mrs Janet Chapman followed, aged 87, 15 November 1807.

Brian Bouchard © 2010
Member of Leatherhead and District Local History Society

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