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Charles Vorley (1767 – 1837)

This memoir of Charles Vorley is reproduced by permission from the Bedfordshire Magazine, 1951 volume 3 issue 17.


Probably few Bedfordshire people of today know the name of the Reverend Charles Vorley, but a hundred and twenty years ago it was familiar to a large number of the inhabitants of Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire.  What, then,, can be said of Charles Vorley, and in what way can he claim our attention today?  We know that he was born in 1767 and died on October 23rd. 1837.  He is mentioned in Dr. John Brown’s John Bunyan, There is an interesting tablet to his memory in the Baptist Meeting at Carlton, as well as his tombstone in the adjoining burial ground, and 1 have been informed that he was a member of the Strict Baptist Chapel at Irthlingborough before he became the pastor at Carlton.  These may seem scanty pieces of information, and so they are.  If these were all the facts to which we had access, there would be no point in continuing; but we can learn something of Charles Vorley as he must have appeared to those who knew him and heard him declare the Gospel week by week. Recently my grandmother gave me two small books which were written by Charles Vorley, and it was these which caused me to look more deeply for facts about him.  They bear the following titles: The Alphabet of Religion : or Lessons for a Christian’s Whole Life (1836), and The Child’s Catechism in Original Verse (no date).  Before considering them, let us glance at the tablet to Vorley’s memory in Carlton Meeting:

Sacred to the Memory of the
Rev. Charles Vorley,
41 years the beloved pastor
of this Church,
who died October 23d, 1837,
aged 70.
He was a man of strong native talent,
cultivated by reading
and meditation;
primitive simplicity of manners,
eminent in prayer,
doing the work of an Evangelist,
living above the world,
a frequent
and faithful preacher of the Gospel;
his end was peace,
resting on the Rock of Ages
for Eternal Life.

His hand the good man fastens on the skies,
And bids earth roll, nor heeds her idle whirl.

Vorley, then, strove to make the most of his talents in the service of God and his fellows.  His two small books show him to have been a man of some imagination and ingenuity.  Although no doubt produced first and foremost for the use of his flock, they must have circulated more widely.  Some of his congregation would be unable to read. and few of them would have been people of advanced education. so it was important to give them ideas and thoughts which could easily be memorised.  This is what Vorley did.  In both The Alphabet of Religion and The Child’s Catechism he offered his people simple instructions which could be committed to memory with very little trouble.

Like many similar publications of those times these works strike us as curious and quaint in many ways.  Their whole background seems far removed from the context in which our lives are set.  But for all that men like Vorley did have profound insight into men’s minds long before the days of intricate study in the sphere of psycho-analysis. The Child’s Catechism consists of sixteen small pages.  There are 45 questions in prose with answers in very simple verse

Q. My dear child, who made you?

A. God. who made the solid earth,
Gave all kinds of creatures birth.
Made the sky, and form’d the sea,
This great Being formed me.

Q. Does the law of God require any thing inconsistent with human happiness ?

A. Equity the law demands,
Rectitude of heart and hands,
Did our lives therewith agree
Happy creatures we should be.

Q. Have not the weak strength enough in Christ?

A. Yes, in Jesus they shall find,
Strength to conquer foes combin’d,
Strength their duties to perform,
Strength to weather every storm.

Some of the answers reveal clearly the theological outlook behind the whole work, and there is a marked similarity to the hymns and poems for young children of Isaac Watts.  For example, Watts wrote:

There is a dreadful hell
And everlasting pains;
There sinners must with devils dwell.
In darkness. fire. and chains.

and Vorley wrote:

Yes, there is a dreadful hell,
Where the foes of God must dwell.
Bound in everlasting chains,
Fill’d with most tormenting pains.

The resemblances are-not always so marked, nor are the other verses so vigorous in their references to hell and those other subjects which are so readily seized upon by those who criticise the theology of the Puritan divines.  Throughout Vorley’s work here and in the other book there is the deep sense of the majesty, the sovereignty, the glory of Almighty God, which one would expect from a high Calvinist.

Themes on the Alphabet The Alphabet of Religion bears no author’s name on the title page, nor any explicit indication that it was actually written by Charles Vorley.  Nevertheless, there is other evidence that it was Vorley who wrote it.  On the flyleaf of my copy there is some writing which tells us that the book was given to Charles Vorley’s granddaughter, Lydia Ann Abbott, by his wife, Mary Vorley, on April 12th, 1845, and in the same handwriting immediately below the title is added: ‘by Charles Vorley, late minister of the Gospel at Carlton, Beds.’ In its way The Alphabet is more ingenious than The Child’s Catechism, especially in the final verse.  The author takes twenty-five texts from the Bible. each beginning with a different letter of the alphabet (as in many other alphabetical series the letter X defeated Vorley), and a brief meditation is given upon each text:

A sk and it shall be given unto you Matt. vii, 7.
B elieve on the Lord Jesus Christ Acts xvi, 31.
H umble yourselves I Peter v, 6.I ncline your car Isaiah lv, 3.
N eglect not the gift that is in thee I Tim. iv, 14.
T rust in the Lord at all times Psalm lxii, 8.
U se hospitality I Peter iv, 9.Y ield yourselves unto the Lord II Chron. xxx, 8.
Z ealous of good works Titus ii, 14.

In the preface Vorley insists that ‘ true religion consists in some- thing more than a bare assent of the understanding to certain general truths, however scriptural or orthodox.’ ‘Religion,’ he asserts, ‘must be the business of everyday ; it must be internal, practical, and permanent.’

He points out that in arranging his list of texts alphabetically, he is following the example of the 119th Psalm, which is divided into several parts, agreeing with the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet, each part beginning with the corresponding letter in the alphabet.  ‘The order of the English alphabet has been followed in the present instance,’ he says, ‘ that the subjects may be the more easily retained in the mind, even by those who have to complain of very weak memories.’ There is no room here for quotations from The Alphabet, but at the end of the book Vorley gives what he calls ‘The Recapitulation,’ in which he summarises the whole work in verse

Come now, my soul, attentively review
These Scripture lessons, which all tend to shew
That true religion, seated in the heart,
Will yield support and happiness impart,
In youth, in age, and in a dying day,
When earthly joys all fade and flee away.
Spirit Divine, by thee may I be led
My alphabet to learn, from A to Z.

A sk, saith the Lord to his insolvent poor,
B elieve. and knock, and wait at mercy’s door;
C ommit thy way to God; thy all resign,
D elight in him, daily on him recline;
E xamine well thy deeds, thy motives too
F ight in the cause of him who died for you;
G lory in him, make him thine only trust;
H umble thyself, lie prostrate in the dust;
I ncline thine ear; God’s mind with ardour seek
J udge not, be not severe, be mild, be meek;
K eep guard against thy wretchedness within,
L ooking to Christ, who saves from hell and sin;
M use on his word, which points the way to heaven
N eglect no talent which the Lord has given
O bserve his statutes. willingly obey ;
P raise him with gratitude from day to day.
Q uench not. do not the Spirit’s work annoy
R ejoice in Christ, the one great source of joy
S tand fast in truth. and in your conduct too,
T rust in the Lord in all you have to do
U se hospitality to friends and foes ;
V ow in the strength of God, and pay thy vows.
W atch thine own heart, and watch the hand of God,
Y ield to his will, when laid beneath his rod ;
Z ealous for him, who bought thee with his blood.

There is little more to add. I have been unable to discover many details of his ministry at Carlton, though it is worth noticing that the Church Book reports that the 150 members added to the church during his pastorate enjoyed ‘ much peace, unity, and prosperity.’ A small painting of Vorley, given to me quite recently, has a faded piece of paper stuck to the back of the frame. It records that ‘Mr. John Jenkinson of Kettering preached Vorley’s funeral sermon on Oct. 27th, 1837, on the text “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts vii, 59).’  With this peaceful note we come to the end of this brief account of a man who must have been very influential in the country round about Canton. His descendants still live there; some lived until recently in the house which, according to Dr. Brown’s John Bunyan, was given to Charles Vorley by a great-granddaughter of Bunyan, ‘Madam’ Bithrey. Since Vorley was a great-great-great grandfather of mine, the reader will understand my interest in his history and place in the great tradition of Bedfordshire Dissenters.

© Copyright : Graham Ward. All rights reserved.