The British Library retains one published sermon of the Rev. George Ainslie, Rector of St Peter’s Church, Walworth, in the mid-nineteenth century. The bound copy is signed by the Rev. Ainslie to his “affected friend” Samuel Smith, M.A. It was preached to his congregation at St Peter’s, on the morning of Sunday 24th September 1837, on relinquishing the Ministry of that District. The message was written down word for word as it was delivered.
The sermon, delivered by a man assured he is about to depart from his flock for good, is on the well known text of Philippians 4 v 8. “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”
After a brief exposition of each clause in the verse, he exhorts the flock to embrace them. Ainslie then deals with the first word in the text. Like the Apostle it was finally that he must appeal to them on this theme. He had been their beloved pastor for seven years, and they had gathered together within the walls of St Peter’s on so many joyous as well as sorrowful occasions. His ministry unto them was drawing to a close, and indeed within a week he was to hand over to another’s care that which he so long had treasured.
He makes no statement of the actual circumstances that brought about his imminent departure, or induced him to “quit a sphere of duty, in all respects but one, more satisfactory and congenial to my desires.” That “one” exception, to what was otherwise so perfect a calling, he found alone “in the overwhelming nature of the services I had to perform, and for which each day’s experience told me I had not sufficient strength either of mind or of body.”
Perhaps he could not cope with the child mortality rate, with its constant stream of infant burials and the overwhelming grief that undoubtedly caused. Or the general poverty and suffering all around him in an area which was fast becoming known as the Walworth slums. He had now been called, he felt, “to a different sphere of duty, one in which by God’s help, I trust I may be able to advance the cause of Christ and strive for the salvation of the souls entrusted to me, without the fearful conviction that I am daily leaving much that should be performed still undone, whilst I yield to those better qualified for so arduous a post as this, the task I have but inefficiently though heartily fulfilled here.”
He further urges those he leaves behind, to alleviate the condition of their poor neighbours, especially during the cold winter months “when the pangs of poverty are most acute”, and not to fail in cheering the destitute and friendless. These were days when there was no ‘welfare state’ as we know it today, and relief more often than not came from good old Christian charity. New poor laws had also taken effect and great workhouses had sprung up in every parish, bringing scenes of degrading cruelty and indescribable horror.
“Having been much in the abodes of wretchedness I am indeed competent to declare how through your exertions many deserving families, the sorrowing widow, the neglected orphan, have been year after year comforted and relieved when but for such a systematic distribution, they might have been utterly disregarded. Such have been the benefits resulting from your charity amidst the crowded population of this vicinity, from the alteration lately made in the laws I cannot but fear that the ensuing winter may witness an increase in distress, and though I feel also confident that you will be ready, as formerly, to aid the children of want, it would have ill become me to withhold now my word of approval from the plans we have so repeated and successfully pursued.”
The humble pastor thanks his fellow-labourers at St Peter’s, especially those who formed the Visiting Society in the district, “though verily they have their reward without the dross of my poor acknowledgments.”
The liberal offerings collected at St Peter’s had continued to feed and fire the less fortunate in the locality for over a decade, proving the great generosity of spirit and practical Christianity of the believers. But of all the various charities connected with Ainslie’s ministry at this favoured church, there was one that was most dear to his heart – the Sunday Schools. “I might almost call it the youngest child of my affections.” he said. And he could not but bring this great work before them, continuing, “If only to proclaim the regret with which I give up my connection with it, and all its ties of interest, and bequeath it to you as an institution of fair promise, if not already of abundant fruitfulness.”
Although he was leaving these Sunday Schools in their infancy - only the second year of existence having begun in 1836 – they were in such a healthy condition that justified the expectation of a long career of usefulness. “May the Almighty bless and further the efforts of all who strive to make them so; indicating that most precious of all sciences, the knowledge of God the Saviour, and of His Holy Word in the yet untutored mind, and implanting in the breast of many a neglected but enquiring child, those truths which will improve hereafter of inestimable price, and which, for such friendly interference in our part, perhaps, would never be attained. It cannot be denied, that in this age when the seeds of error are industrially scattered abroad to the hindrance of the true, and pure and heavenly doctrines of Christianity, all who love the Lord in sincerity should join in their attempts to train up the little ones, over whom they can exercise control, in the knowledge and fear of God, in the nurture and admonition of the Lord; and what a help it is to such a work to have an assembly like this of ours in which the day appointed for the rest and refreshment of soul, is made available to its real and lasting improvement, and the heart becomes imbued with the first holy principles of a spiritual life! For the sake of him then who has said ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not’, for their sakes, who are enriched by your instruction, for your own, for mine, brethren, think on these things and fulfil my joy as you strive thus to reveal the source of eternal and incalculable joy to others.”
Ainslie repents if he has caused any offence, or brought discredit to his office. He was clearly a very sensitive man and of exceeding humility and charitableness. Although worthless in his own sight, he displayed an immense love for Christ’s kingdom in Walworth, visiting the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and keeping himself unspotted from the world.
Postscript: In the end Ainslie’s departure from his beloved parish turned out to be quite brief. He made a welcome return to St Peter’s Church in 1839, founding the day school, and continuing in the work until 1848. How glad he would be to know that a hundred and sixty odd years later St Peter’s Anglican Church and its associated School would still be in existence. But then how sad he would be to see how far we have departed from that “most precious of all sciences, the knowledge of God”. A knowledge and science that is on too few present day teachers list of principles.
Copyright: Jack McInroy © 2010