We good people of the Harrismith Methodist Church would never have taken Mrs Brunsdon to court for her singing! Sure, her singing was awful, but church would have been duller and there would have been less giggling and less to skinder about without her. She would bellow off-key and at her own pace, sniffing loudly from time to time and gazing all round the church mid-hymn; sometimes through her glasses, sometimes over her glasses; sometimes turning right round to see who was behind her. The sniffs would put her behind, so soon she’d be a few words and then a few lines behind but no way she would play catch-up. She got her money’s worth, singing every single word. In fact, our Mom Mary Methodist, the organist, would wait for her, as would we all.
Not so the Methodists in Lumberton, North Carolina USA. They were considerably displeased when William Linkhaw sang hymns very loudly and very poorly. Deviating from the correct notes, he continued singing well after the congregation reached the end of each verse. On one occasion, the pastor simply read the hymn aloud, refusing to sing it because of the disruption that would inevitably occur. The presiding elder refused to preach in the church at all. Upon the entreaties of a prominent church member, Linkhaw once stayed quiet after a particularly solemn sermon. But he steadfastly rejected the repeated pleas of his fellow congregants to remain silent altogether, responding that “he would worship his God, and that as a part of his worship it was his duty to sing.”
In their defence it must be noted that some of the better congregants of Lumberton Methodist – like us in Harrismith – found Linkhaw’s singing hilarious, but the bitter lot won out and decided to show him! They had the law hand down a misdemeanor indictment against Linkhaw, charging that he had disturbed the congregation. Obviously the LumberMeths had never heard Jesus’ clear instructions in his sermon that we ‘Turn The Other Tympanum.’ Or if they had, they were ignoring him! No wonder Ghandi reputedly said, ‘I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.’ And if he didn’t he should have, as ‘Christians’ were mismanaging both his countries at the time: India and South Africa.
The case went to trial in August 1872. Several witnesses, including the church’s pastor, testified that Linkhaw’s singing disturbed the church service. One witness, being asked to describe the way in which Linkhaw sang, gave an imitation of it, singing a hymn in Linkhaw’s style. He provoked what the court described as “a burst of prolonged and irresistible laughter, convulsing alike the spectators, the Bar, the jury and the Court.” Witness testimony also showed, however, that Linkhaw was a devout and spiritual man, and the prosecution admitted that he was not deliberately attempting to disrupt worship. Linkhaw asked the court to instruct the jury that it could not find him guilty unless it found intent to disturb the service. He was right, but the judge rejected his request, ruling instead that the jury only needed to determine whether Linkhaw’s singing actually disrupted the service. The jury found Linkhaw guilty, and the judge fined him one penny.
William was not gonna take this lying down. He appealed the judgment to the North Carolina Supreme Court; the case was heard in 1873 and the court unanimously set aside the verdict. It accepted the jury’s ruling that Linkhaw had indeed caused a substantial disturbance. It also agreed that intent can generally be presumed when the defendant could have anticipated his actions. However, the court observed that the prosecution had expressly admitted that Linkhaw had no malicious intent. The justices therefore held that the presumption, being contradicted by uncontested evidence, did not apply. The court issued a writ of venire de novo, nullifying the jury’s verdict.
Well! We of the Harrismith Methodist Church liked our Mrs Brunsdon and we did not take her to court. We instead thought like the 1873 Supreme Court that since she was attempting in good faith to worship, she could not be subjected to criminal penalties. And we also thought thus:
“Although the proof sure did show / Ms Brunsdon’s voice was awful / us judges found no valid ground / For holding it unlawful.”
“While LumberMeths grumbled / and acted all nefarious / us Harrismithians benevolently / Thought it all hilarious.”
“If all things bright and beautiful / the Lord God made them all / Then sniffs and squawks discordant / Are welcome in the hall.”
“Old Brunsdon raised the rafters / some congregants did cringe / But she was screeching to her Lord / so we laughed, we did not whinge.”
I’ll stop now.
OK, one more:
“Some thought that they could bellow / in holy tones so fine / but ‘oo’s to know what the Mighty One / regards as a voice divine?”
I mean, how do we know the Good Lord likes it when he hears the famous Three Fat Blokes Shouting (some call them The Three Tenors)?
The first poem at the end paraphrased and Harrismith’d from The Green Bag – self-described as “A Useless, but Entertaining Magazine For Lawyers.” Second and third limericks sommer made up.
skinder – gossip; juicy
sommer – just because;