Best of Blessings

The Gay Love Letters of Rev. John Church

Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

John Church (c. 1780–c. 1825) was a foundling, an infant who could barely toddle when he was laid at the steps of the Church of St John's in Clerkenwell, London, sometime between 1782–1784. He began his career as a Dissenting minister in Banbury, Oxford, but in 1808 he was accused of having sodomitical relations with several devout young men in his congregation. He was reviled in the streets, and there were fears the Meeting House would be burned down. He fled to Birmingham, from where he wrote apologizing to the elders: "I have done most foolishly – I have acted most imprudently . . . the boys tell a simple plain story, and you do right to believe them in what they say; and I own that I have been too imprudent, but I am not conscious of having done the actual crime; if any thing of that nature has been of which they speak, it must have been without my knowledge, when I was asleep, and supposing I was in my own bed with my wife." By 1809 he was in south London, serving as the regular conventicle preacher at the Obelisk Chapel, St George's Fields, where he became immensely popular. Church was an active member of the gay community – or madge culls, as they called themselves. In 1809 he performed the funeral services for Richard Oakden, a bank clerk who was hanged at Tyburn for sodomy, and in 1810 he was officiating in the Marrying Room of The White Swan in Vere Street, the most famous of the early nineteenth-century gay brothels. The regulars at The Swan included a coal merchant named Kitty Cambric, Miss Selina a police constable, Black-Eyed Leonora the Drummer of the Guards, Pretty Harriet the butcher, and James Cook the heterosexual landlord with whom Rev Church unwisely fell in love. The "gay parson" married many male couples, at ceremonies accompanied by "bridesmaids" in drag. Mock birth ceremonies were also performed at The Swan, where no doubt Rev Church baptised the wooden dolls that were produced. But his duties were short-lived, for The Swan flourished for only six months before it was raided, and many members of the Vere Street Coterie were pilloried and imprisoned, and two were hanged. Church himself escaped detection until 1813, when an anti-gay newspaper campaign was mounted against him. Even his wife was beaten up, and threats were made to burn down the public house she kept. Church's notoriety caused his flock to double in size, and increased earnings enabled him to build his own church. He managed to evade prosecution until 1816, when he was sentenced to two years' imprisonment for attempted buggery. He was regarded as a martyr by the women in his congregation, who regularly supplied him in prison with fine food and drink. He took the opportunity to write his autobiography, wherein he called himself "A Child of Peculiar Providence", and preached to an assembly of one thousand supporters upon his release. He remained a popular preacher for the next five years, but seems to have succumbed to drink, and possibly died around 1825. The following letters were written to the young attendant named Edward (Ned) at the Obelisk Chapel, with whom he was in love. One of the many scandals involving Church was brewing at the time, and his enemies had succeeded in persuading Ned to testify that Church had made advances to him, though the case did not go to court.


3 March 1809

Dear Ned,
May the best of blessings be yours in life and in death, while the sweet sensations of real genuine disinterested friendship rules every power of our mind body and soul[.] I can only say I wish you was as much captivated with sincere friendship as I am but we all know our own feelings best – Friendship those best of names, affection [w]hose sweetest power like some powerful charm that overcomes the mind – I could write much on this subject but I dare not trust you with what I could say much as I esteem you – You would consider it as unmanly and quite effeminate, and having already proved what human nature is I must conceal even those emotions of love which I feel[.] I wish I had the honor of being loved by you as much and in as great a degree as I do you, Sometimes the painful thought of a separation overpowers me, many are now trying at it but last night I told the persons that called on me that let them insinuate what they would I would never sacrifice my dear Ned to the shrine of any other friend upon earth – and that them who did not like him should have none of my company at all[.] I find dear Ned many are using all their power to part us but I hope it will prove in vain on your side, the effect that all this has upon me is to make me love you ten times more than ever, I wish opposition may have the same effect upon you in this particular but I fear not, however I am confident if you love me now or at any other time my heart will ever be set upon you nor can I ever forget you till death. Your leaving of me will break my heart, bring down my poor mind with sorrow to the Grave and wring from my eyes the briny tears, while my busy meddling memory will call to remembrance the few pleasant hours we spent together, I picture to my imagination the affecting scene the painful thought, I must close the affecting subject 'tis more than my feelings are able to bear – My heart is full, my mind is sunk I shall be better when I have vented out my grief Stand fast my dearest Ned to me I shall to you whether you do to me or no, and may we be pardoned, justified, and brought more to the knowledge of Christ. O help me to sing –

When thou my righteous Judge shall come
To fetch thy ransom'd people home,
May I among them stand,
Let such a worthless worm as I,
That sometimes am afraid to die,
Be found at thy right hand.

I love to meet amongst them now,
Before thy gracious feet to bow,
Tho' vilest of them all;
But can I bear the piercing thought,
What if my name should be left out,
When thou for them should call.

Learn these two verses by heart and then I will write two more, as they are expressions of [my] mind['s] fears sensations and desires – I must close, I long to see your dear face again, I long for Sunday morning till then God bless you.
          I remain unalterably thy dear thy loving friend,
                    J. Church

c. 12 March 1809

Dear Sir,
Is this thy kindness to thy once professed much loved friend, surely I never, never did deserve such cruel treatment at your hands; why not speak to me last night in James-street when you heard me call, Stop! stop! Ned! do, pray do; but cruel, cruel Ned, deaf to all intreaties – O why was I permitted to pass the door of Mr Gibbons when you and West were coming out Why was I permitted to tramp up and down the New Cut after you; I only wanted to speak one bitter heart breaking painful distressing word, farewell; I only wanted to pour my sorrows into your bosom, to shake hands with you once more, but I was denied this indulgence. I never, never thought you would deceive me – O what an unhappy man am I; the thing that I most feared is come upon me, no excuse can justify such apparent duplicity; O my distress is great indeed. O my God! what shall I do? O Christ! O God! support me in this trying hour, what a night am I passing through, I cannot sleep, tis near three o'clock; alas! sleep is departed, how great my grief, how bitter my sorrows, the loss of my character is nothing to the loss of one dearer to me than any thing else. O let me give vent to tears, but I am to too much distressed to cry O that I could. I feel this like a dagger; never, never can I forgive the unhappy instrument of my distress in Charlotte-street[.] Why did my dear friend Edward deceive me! O how my mind was eased on Wednesday night; alas, how distressed on Thursday. I have lost my only bosom friend, dearest dearest friend, bosom from bosom torn, how horrid. Ah, dear Suffolk court, never surely can I see you again. How the Phillistines will triumph; there, so would we have it; how Ebeir, Calvin, Thompson, Edwards, Bridgman, all will rejoice, and I have lost my friend, my all in this world, except the other part of myself, my wife and poor babes; never did I expect this from my dear E— B—, O for a calm mind, that I might sleep till day light; but no, this I fear will be denied me. How can I bear the piercing thought, parted; a dreadful word, worst of sensations, the only indulgence, the only confident, the only faithful, the only kind and indulgent sympathising friend, to lose you. O what a stroke; O what a cut, what shall I do for matter for Sunday; O that I could get someone to preach for me; how can I lift up my head. O Sir, if you have a grain of affection left for me, do, do intreat of God to support me; this is a worse affliction than the loss of my character nine months ago. A man cannot lose his character twice. O I did think you knew better; I did think I had found one in you that I could not find elsewhere; but no, the first object presented to you seen suddenly, gained your mind, gained your affections; and I, poor unhappy distressed I, am left to deplore your loss. O for submission, but I am distressed; woe is me. O that I had never, never known you, then I should never feel what I do; but I thank you for your company hitherto, I have enjoyed it four months exactly, but this is over for ever. miserable as I am, I wish you well for ever, for ever. I write in the bitterness of my soul which I feel. May you never be cursed with the feelings I possess as long as you live. What a day I have before me; I cannot go out of my house till Sunday morning. How can I conceal my grief from my dear wife? how shall I hide it? what shall I say? I am miserable, nor can I surmount the shock at all. I have no friend to pour out my sorrows to now, I wish I had; I am sorry you are so easily duped by any to answer their purposes, my paper is full, my heart is worse; God help me; Lord God support me! what shall I do, dear God! O Lord! have mercy on me, I must close; this comes from your ever loving, but distressed
                    J. Church

SOURCE: Religion & Morality Vindicated, Against Hypocrisy and Pollution; or, An Account of the Life and Character of John Church the Obelisk Preacher, Who Was Formerly A Frequenter of Vere-Street (London, 1813).

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