The Reverend Mr. Chess

Sep 16, 2009, 6:53 PM |

     For the past week or two (and in the weeks to come) I've been (will be) presenting a variety of blog entries concerning chess players of the latter part of the 19th century. I introduced Nellie Showalter and plan to do the same with her husband, Jackson and his nemesis Max Judd as well as the great Capt. Mackenzie. Others in America included J.E. Orchard, D.S. Roberts, Charles S. Martinez (I actually began somewhat earlier with entries on Napoleon Marache, Denis Julien and James D. Seguin).  But really, I've been concentrating on European chess: Arnous de Rivière, Jean Dufresne, Augustus MongredienHugh Alexander Kennedy, Saint-AmantHenry Thomas BuckleIgnatz Kolisch and Rev. C.E. Ranken. (I have pieces in the wings on the entire German school of chess - almost an entity all to itself).

    It's the last entry, that of the Rev. C.E. Ranken that brought me to this posting.

     The more you read about 19th century chess, particularly in England, the more the clergy seems to stand out, embossed on the pages of chess history. Throughout the history of the game, religious leaders, being more learned and often less pressed in the occupation of earning a living, have traditionally been great proponents of chess. But in the tournament age that began after the tournament at the 1851 London Exposition, it's curious to see how the clergy transitioned from, and reconciled with, chess as an intellectual, or even artistic, pursuit into a competitve one.  Yet there were many clergymen, not just playing chess, but writing about chess and promoting the competitive aspect.  Charles E. Rankin, as one of the editors of the British Chess Magazine was just one.  Rev. William Wayte was another BCM editor, while Rev. G.A. MacDonnell wrote numerous articles and published several books on chess. We all remember Rev. John Owen, one of the strongest players in London who his match lost with Morphy at pawn odds.  In a very short time I uncovered a host of names of chess-playing clergymen from club memberships and chess book subscriptions in the late 19th century: Rev. CE Ranken, Prof. (Rev) Wayte, Rev. TC Sanders, Rev. CJ Langley, Rev. AC Nealy, Rev. TH Archdall, Rev. C Gape, Rev. JH Plowman, Rev. FR Drew, Rev. AC Rowley, Rev. J Greene of Clifton, Rev. J Coker, Rev. Canon Deane, Rev. JF Welsh, Rev. GA MacDonnell, Rev. JH Sheppard, Rev. CH Cradock, Rev. Lister Issac, Rev. T Gordon ("Gamma"), Rev. H Steveaton, Rev. Augustus Padley, Rev. FC Blackstone, Rev. John Donaldson, Rev. Horatio Bolton, Rev. JB Vibert, Rev. A Locock, Rev. BN Batty (no relation), Rev. H Blane, Rev. John Owen.  There are undoubtedly many more.

 In the 1870  A Book About the Clergy,  John Cordy Jeaffreson wrote:
     "Of the diversions still popular with our clergy, chess is one of the very few which ' the cloth' favoured in old time. In clerical biographies of the Elizabethan period, and the later days of the seventeenth century, the reader continually comes upon passages that record in language of sympathy and approval the prowess of clerical chess-players. But Baxter and other Puritan divines of the Commonwealth period discerned evil in the game which prelates and deans, rectors and vicars, had played to their own delight and with the approbation of beholders from time immemorial. In ' A Letter from a Minister to a Friend concerning the Game of Chess' (1680)—a broadside preserved in the Harleian Miscellany—a conscientious and too scrupulous pastor, bewailing the faults into which an enthusiastic love of chess has betrayed him, observes, 'It hath not done with me, when I have done with it. It hath followed me into my study, into my pulpit; when I have (in my thoughts) been playing at chess: then I have had, as it were, a chess-board before my eyes: then I have been thinking how I might have obtained the stratagems of my antagonist, or make such and such motions to his disadvantage ; nay, I have heard of one who was playing at chess in his thoughts (as appeared by his words) when he lay a-dying. ... It hath wounded my conscience, and broken my peace. I have had sad reflections upon it, when I have been most serious. I find, if I were now to die, the remembrance of this game would greatly trouble me, and stare me in the face. I have read in the life of the famous John Huss, how he was greatly troubled for his using of this game a little before his death.'
     In the 'Christian Direction,' Baxter, reflecting on the influence of lawful and not necessarily immoral games, says, ' And when I observe how far the temper and life of Christ, and his best servants, was from such accusations, I avoid them with the more suspicion. And I see but few but distaste it in ministers, (even shooting, bowling, and such more healthful games, to say nothing of these and such others as fit not the end of recreation) ; therefore, there is somewhat in it that nature itself hath some suspicion of. That student that usedeth chess or cards to please his mind I doubt hath a carnal, empty mind; if God, and all his books and all his friends, cannot suffice for this, there is some disease in it that should be rather cured than pleased; and for the body, it is another kind of exercise that profits it.' "


from Chambers' Journal in 1894
Strong players, both London and provincial, not to speak of colonials, pay frequent visits. Simpson's ois a magnet which draws hither those who love chess. It therefore folows that many a clergyman, after attending a "May Meeting: at Exeter Hall, hard by, drops in for a quiet game.  And some clerymen play chess very well indeed, many being more at home at the chess-board than in the pulpit.


The BCM, in 1893, even reported about this telling event:
Chess In Wiltshire.— An interesting match was played at Trowbridge, on Thursday, April 6th, the county players being divided into Clergy and Laity, fifteen a-side. Only ten of the clerical players were county players, but these did so well that a few looses on the lower boards were immaterial to the result. Although in the middle ages, as now, the clergy were great chess players, it is doubtful whether in any other county the clergy could beat the rest. The Rev. J. F. Welsh and Mr. A. Schomberg had collected the players, and both sides were "whipped up" well. Score :—
     Rev. A. G. Ross             1  ½             Mr. H. J. King
     Rev. J. F. Welsh           1  ½             Mr. C. J. Woodrow
     Re». S. |. Buchanan     1                  Mr. A. Schomberg
     Rev. J. Phelps              ½  ½             Mr. J. Hinton
     Rev. C. Clarke              1                   Mr. E. Bradhehl
     Rev. E. Wells                1   ½             Capt. Martin
     Rev. L. A. Williams        1  0               Mr.  Leak
     Rev. R. E. Coles            ½                  Mr. A. Watson
     Rev. A. Law                  ½                  Mr. F. Sutton
     Rev. R. W. Hay              0  1               Mr. A. F. Sheehy
     Rev. E. Smith                1  1               Mr. R. E. Eyres
     Rev. C. C. Parker           0  1               Mr. G. Childe
     Rev. C. Wood                    1               Mr. A. Gregory
     Rev. F. J. Williams         0   0              Mr. C. Plaister
     Rev. A. E. Fenton          0   0              Mr. W. Burgess

                                The Rev.s won 14½ to 10½