|Administrative History||Cumming, John (1807-1881), minister of the Presbyterian Church of England, was born at Fintray, Aberdeenshire, on 10 November 1807. He was educated at Aberdeen grammar school and, from 1822, at the University of Aberdeen, where he studied under Professor Duncan Mearns, who inspired his strong allegiance to the established church. He graduated MA in 1827, and continued his studies at the Divinity Hall. During this time he spent his vacations working as a tutor. From 1826 he had a post with a family in Kensington, and attended the Regent Square Presbyterian Church, where Edward Irving, the minister, was then at the height of his preaching fame. Cumming was called one Sunday to preach to the small congregation of a sister church, Crown Court at Covent Garden. Here he so impressed his hearers that in August 1832 they invited him to become their pastor. He was duly ordained and inducted to the church to which he devoted all his working years. His attachment to it was further confirmed in 1833, when he married Elizabeth, the daughter of James Nicholson, one of the elders of Crown Court. They had seven sons and four daughters.|
During his ministry Cumming transformed Crown Court. The church was redecorated in 1834, extended in 1841, and finally rebuilt in 1847, at a cost of £1500. He established Sunday schools and ragged schools for local children, which were reputedly attended by over 16,000 children. For the initial conversion of a neighbouring stable into a school, opened in 1836, he raised £146. He also established an elders' prayer meeting, and set up a library for children.
Cumming continued to place much faith in established churches, and participated in a movement among the Scottish churches in England to form an English presbyterian synod of the Church of Scotland. The general assembly rejected their motion, and advised them to form an autonomous synod, which they did between 1836 and 1842. Cumming, however, retained his attachment to his native established church, and during the Disruption controversy was consistently opposed to the formation of the Free Church. In 1837 he published An Apology for the Church of Scotland, which won the approval of the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of London, and he met the events of 1843 with a plethora of pamphlets. In 1865 he attended the general assembly in Scotland in order to plead for inclusion in the Church of Scotland, but he was once again unsuccessful; this amalgamation did not take place until 1934.
Cumming's enthusiasm for established forms of worship led him to reform the liturgy of his own church. He regarded most contemporary Scottish services as uninspiring, and undertook the republication of ‘Knox's liturgy’, the Book of Common Order, of 1561. He appointed a singing clerk and prepared a collection of hymns for the use of his congregation. His theology, too, lacked the strict Calvinism of some of his fellow Presbyterians: he was much influenced by John McLeod Campbell's interpretation of the atonement, and held a profound sacramental belief.
Cumming was, however, a keen opponent of both Tractarians and Roman Catholics, as his Lectures for the Times, or, An Exposition of Tridentine and Tractarian Popery (1844) showed. In 1838 he engaged in a public debate on doctrine with the Roman Catholic lawyer, Daniel French; both sides claimed the victory, and the published report of the event went through several editions. To mark it Cumming was presented with a polyglot Bible by admirers from Hammersmith. He was also active during the Maynooth controversy of 1845: he lectured for the Protestant Reformation Society, of which he was a prominent supporter. He appeared at meetings to protest at the ‘papal aggression’ of 1850, and pursued a correspondence with Cardinal Wiseman on the subject of the ‘persecuting clause’ of the archiepiscopal oath. In 1868 he requested permission to attend the ecumenical council summoned by Pius IX, which was inevitably denied.
Preaching, however, was the central feature of Cumming's ministry. His performances in the pulpit soon started to attract a large congregation—on average, about 500 people—to his church, and he was popularly viewed as the inheritor of Irving's mantle. In 1847, while Crown Court was being rebuilt, the church moved to Exeter Hall. Here his services were attended by up to 4000 people, and the police had to be employed to control the crowds as they left the hall. His appearance in the pulpit was imposing: a contemporary commented that his figure was ‘tall and well-formed’, with a high forehead swept by ‘a flow of dark hair’; ‘the whole head is a type of intelligence, from which shine a pair of dark, flashing eyes’ (Penny Pulpit, 2, 1858). His congregation included many figures from the peerage and social élite, who no doubt appreciated his attachment to the established churches of England and Scotland. In 1862 George Granville Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, second duke of Sutherland, and his wife invited Cumming to their Scottish residence to preach, and in 1866 he gave a sermon at Dornoch Cathedral in the presence of the prince and princess of Wales.
While the Sutherlands patronized him, and Lord Frederick Hamilton described his preaching admiringly as ‘one long chain of reasoned argument’ (quoted in Cameron), Cumming found much less favour in intellectual circles. Tennyson, whose mother held Cumming's books as her favourite reading, thought him a mountebank, and satirized him in the poem ‘Sea Dreams’. Thackeray believed him to be ‘a bigot, a blasphemer … the world would be horrible if he and his could have his way’ (Ray, 3.439). But the most remarkable critique of Cumming and his works came from George Eliot, who published a withering article in the Westminster Review of October 1855. In it she condemned the ‘bigoted narrowness’, ‘unscrupulosity of statement’, and ‘lack of charity’ towards his religious opponents which Cumming exhibited in his literary works. She wisely avoided attributing these characteristics to him in his private life, as his endeavours among the poor of his parish were extensive.
Cumming rested from his labours during brief holidays and weekly trips to a cottage near Tunbridge Wells, where he occupied himself with bee keeping. Lord Frederick Hamilton recalled Cumming visiting his mother, the duchess, rather imprudently carrying in his pockets the bees which he intended to exhibit to her. Letters which he had published in The Times under the pen name Beemaster were the basis of his Bee-Keeping (1864).
Both Cumming's preaching and his written works became increasingly dominated by his prophetic interpretations. Much impressed by what he saw as human progress, both mechanical and moral, and deeply interested by geological and scientific discoveries, which he interpreted in the apologetic vein of P. H. Gosse, Cumming turned to study of the books of Genesis and Daniel. The result of his research was the prediction that the second coming would take place in 1867. This theory was expounded in works such as Signs of the Times, or, Present, Past and Future (1854) and The Great Tribulation, or, Things Coming on the Earth (1859), the latter of which was satirized in Punch. The passing of 1867 was attended by no greater tribulation than the Reform Act, and this, combined with the alleged discovery that within two months of his predicted date for the end of the world Cumming was negotiating an extension of the lease on his house for a further twenty-one years, lowered the preacher's reputation considerably. Undeterred, Cumming continued to pursue the prophetic vein in later publications, including The Seventh Vial, or, The Time of Trouble Begun (1870).
By now Cumming's ministry and church were experiencing a considerable decline. His congregation shrank to an average attendance of fifty, and from 1876 Cumming himself suffered some ill health. He was much affected by his wife's death in September 1879, and in the July of that year he resigned. On retirement he received an annuity of £500. He died on 5 July 1881 at the Manor House, Chiswick, and was buried at Kensal Green cemetery. He was noted for his preaching and prophetic fervour by both admirers and critics, and though typical in many ways of the evangelical clergyman of his generation, he was exceptional in the breadth of his involvement in contemporary religious activities and enthusiasms.
Rosemary Mitchell, ‘Cumming, John (1807-1881)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
[accessed 06 Sep 2007: http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/6897]
|Custodial History||Historic Collections was initially approached regarding this potential deposit in October 2003 by Andrew Nicol, Archivist at the Scottish Catholic Archives. Prior to his current position, Andrew was appointed by the Business Committee of Crown Court to survey the Church's printed, archival and object holdings with a view to making proposals and recommendations for their long-term preservation.|