My interest in Gideon Ouseley was first aroused when I came across this incident in his biography, written by John Hughes (1876). (Hughes later became a Methodist minister).
‘On a raw November evening Ouseley preached at the corner of the street where we lived at Portarlington. After preaching, he came into our house for refreshment and to wait until it was time to preach in the chapel. He took a seat in the little back room at dusk. A turf fire played fitfully and there was no other light.
‘I crouched in an obscure corner, and Mr Ouseley thought he was alone. He took off his cloak and hat and exclaimed, “My blessed Master!” He wiped the perspiration from his head and face. He then poked the fire, and spread himself out before it.
‘After musing a minute, he started to weep. Tear after tear rolled down his rugged cheeks. He repeated in a low but distinct voice the first two verses of the hymn, “Thee will I love, my Strength, my Tower”, smote his forehead with his big hand in a self-accusing way and then repeated:
“Ah, why did I so late Thee know,
Thee, lovelier than the sons of men?
Ah, why did I no sooner go
To Thee, the only ease in pain?
Ashamed, I sigh, and inly mourn,
That I so late to Thee did turn”.’
Each year the Methodist Conference specified the area of Ouseley’s labours for the forthcoming year. In 1801, for example, he and Charles Graham were allotted the province of Ulster, but conference noted ‘Charles Graham and Gideon Ouseley are allowed to travel through the south and west of Ireland whenever they judge it proper’.
In 1807 he was allocated counties Sligo, Mayo and Galway; from 1813 – 1818 counties Antrim and Londonderry. From 1819-22 he had a roving commission as a general missionary. At the end of 1819 he recorded that he had travelled on horseback about 4,400 miles and reported that ‘it had been the most prosperous year for the conviction and conversion of Roman Catholics’ that he had seen in his 20 years of itinerant ministry.
In December 1822 he wrote that he had completed six mission tours in the five months since July. Two covered Wicklow and Wexford, in the south east; the third, county Meath; the fourth, Westmeath and Longford; the fifth, Kildare, Laois, Offaly and Tipperary; the sixth, Meath, Cavan, Tyrone, Armagh and Monaghan.
What of the results? After the first year of itineration in 1800, Thomas Davis, superintendent of the Clones Methodist circuit, said that God had added 746 members to the societies in his circuit. He said of Graham and Ouseley, ‘The mighty power of God accompanied their word with such demonstrative evidence as I have never, or very rarely, heard of’.
It was the same in many other parts. By 1805, when conference decided to dissolve the Ouseley-Graham partnership, the increase in Methodist membership was over 7,000, or 43 per cent, indicating a Methodist membership in Ireland of just over 23,000 in a total population of about 4.5 million.
Many of these converts were saved out of the spiritual bondage of Roman Catholicism. They were numbered in hundreds, sometimes thousands, although emigration to the USA and Canada reduced, and in some years cancelled out, any net increase in the Irish Methodist societies.
Finally, what of Gideon Ouseley as a controversialist? With his defined task as evangelism amongst the Irish-speaking population, it was unavoidable that he had to combat the widespread errors and superstitions of Rome.
With the general public he was never aggressive, though he could speak sharply to self-important priests. Even when pointing out papal errors, he could speak winsomely.
When preaching in the fairs, he would often quote variously from the Latin Vulgate, the Roman Catholic Douay-Reims English version, the King James version and 17th century Bishop William Bedell Irish version. He did this to show that the doctrines he preached were not unique to Protestant Scriptures, but plain in all three languages, even in versions approved by the Roman Catholic Church.
He was happy to debate with seriously minded priests. Once when in discussion with an elderly priest, a much younger cleric, fresh (and brash) from Maynooth college, asked the old priest why he was debating with a heretic. The old man rounded on him, ‘Because Mr Ouseley is a gentleman, which you, sir, are not!’
On another occasion, with no prior notice, he accepted a challenge to debate with an intelligent priest, Father Glin, at Eyrecourt, county Galway. Glin was confident that he could get the better of him. After two hours, Ouseley had showed with masterful dexterity the principal errors of the Church of Rome.
Glin called at the house the following morning and said to the host, ‘These Methodist preachers are queer fellows’. The son of the house owner, who had witnessed the debate, asked him, ‘But what did you think of your own argument?’ Father Glin replied, ‘If it was not for a bit of bread, I would never celebrate mass again as long as I live!’
Pièce de résistance
Gideon’s pièce de résistance was his book Old Christianity against papal novelties. Old Christianity came about because one John Thayer, a priest from America, promised ‘to answer the objections any gentleman would wish to make, either publicly or privately, to the doctrine he preaches, and if anyone can convince him that he is in error, he will publicly and solemnly abjure it, and recant his present belief, as he has done the Protestant religion in which he was educated’.
In response to this challenge, Gideon wrote a series of nine letters disproving the key tenets of Roman Catholicism. Mr Thayer’s promised answer was never produced either in private or public. Ouseley’s nine letters are the substance of his book, which runs to 400 pages.
In these, Gideon attacks the claim that Roman Catholicism is the original, unchanged, apostolic religion, showing that over the centuries Scripture has been progressively set aside by Rome and replaced by absurd, unbiblical dogmas.
He demonstrates that the sixteenth century Council of Trent contradicted both Scripture, and many of Rome’s own revered teachers and ‘infallible’ popes from earlier generations. The book’s power lay in Ouseley’s detailed knowledge of these old Latin writings. He not only asserted that the Council of Trent contradicted these men; he quoted them, chapter and verse. So nineteenth century Roman Catholicism was a ‘Johnny-cum-lately’ religion, bearing no resemblance to apostolic Christianity.
The titles of Ouseley’s nine letters were: ‘Extreme unction no sacrament’, ‘Infallibility destroyed’, ‘Purgatory a figment’, ‘Indulgences impieties’, ‘Transubstantiation an impossibility’, ‘The sacrifice of the mass anti-Christian’, ‘Worship of the host absurd and idolatrous’, ‘Half-communion a grievous sacrilege’ and ‘The latter-day apostasy’.
He doggedly exposed the fragility of Rome’s dogmas, often with biting sarcasm. His reasoning was close (and often tedious); his quotations voluminous.
Here is a sample from Ouseley’s seventh letter, ‘Worship of the host absurd and idolatrous’.
First, he outlines Catholic beliefs, that: by the priest’s consecration, the sacrament contains Jesus Christ himself corporally and wholly; Christ is corporally and naturally at God’s right hand, and also corporally, sacramentally and substantially present in the sacrament — and this is no contradiction between the two statements; the sacrament, thus containing Christ, must be supremely adored as God himself; the Catholic Church always so adored it; this adoration is no idolatry — although Christ did not institute the sacrament to be adored but eaten; he who dissents from any part of this belief is accursed.
Secondly, Ouseley attacks these beliefs in this way: a self-contradiction is impossible to God because it is falsehood and God cannot lie. Christ could not make his body to be simultaneously both in the bread and not in the bread. The disciples saw that Christ’s body remained notin the bread throughout the original Lord’s supper in the upper room, so Christ is not in the bread in any subsequent service either.
The disciples worshipped Christ, not the bread. Nor did Jesus ask them to worship it, but rather eat it. So neither Christ nor his disciples ever believed that Jesus himself was in the bread, even at the first Lord’s supper.
The remaining Catholic beliefs fall like a pack of cards. For Christ to be both in heaven and also in every sacramental wafer all over the world is self-contradiction. Since Christ is evidently not in the bread, worshipping it is to worship the creature rather than the Creator, which is idolatry. The assertion that the Catholic Church always adored the bread is a downright lie; the consecrated wafer was never adored prior to the year 1216.
To assert that such adoration is not idolatry is obviously untrue. To the declaration that, though Christ did not command the bread to be adored this should not discourage its adoration, Ouseley responds vigorously: ‘“The church commands you to adore the host; that is enough for you; you must obey the church.”
‘What! Can this be the church of Christ, that treats him, his example and his apostles with such contempt — that sets aside his commandments and substitutes her own, directing people into the broad road that leads to destruction?’
Finally, Ouseley savages the last proposition, that whoever dissents from the church’s view is accursed: ‘We have proved incontestably that the first six propositions are six falsehoods — combining to teach the highest wickedness, a crime ruinous to man and insulting to the Almighty — to give supreme adoration that is due to Him alone — to a priest-made Christ, that a mouse may run off with and eat up, or that the priest himself may eat, vomit up and eat again!
‘So then, all who will not believe these notorious lies commit idolatry, insult the God of heaven, and plunge themselves body and soul into the lake of fire, and are pronounced cursed and damned by the pope — Christ’s friend and vicar — and by the church! Hear this, ye Roman Catholics! Hear it with both your ears, and be wise!’
He then quotes copiously from Popes Innocent III and Gregory IX, Andradius, Cardinal Bellarmine and several others to establish his points, and adds supplementary arguments.
Gideon Ouseley lived to be 77. In his later years, the results of his nearly 40 years itinerant ministry, in the open air in all weathers, was evident in declining health. In May 1837, after a long spell of illness, he came to Enniskillen. In a 16-day evangelistic tour he preached 36 times, including eight times in the open air. But he was an old man, coming to the end of his course.
Gideon preached his last sermon at Mountmellick, on 10 April 1839. A dense crowd was there to hear him. The meeting lasted from 7.00pm until after 10.00pm. Twenty professed to be converted and were gathered into the Methodist society. He lived only another month.
An entry in the minutes of the 1839 Methodist Conference records: ‘He travelled and preached until within a few days of his lamented death. On 11 April he reached Dublin. On the 20th he became confined to bed; and, although his illness was accompanied with intense and uninterrupted pain, yet he never lost an opportunity of pressing upon his medical attendants, and others who visited him, the consideration of eternal things.
‘On 14May 1839, this great and devoted servant of Jesus Christ fell asleep, in the full triumph of faith and hope, in the 78th year of his age. “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord, from henceforth: yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours, and their works do follow them”.’
Stephen Ford is pastor of Lordshill Baptist Church, Snailbeach, Shropshire