1798 was the year of the Irish rebellion against English rule, with Ireland in the grip of violence.
When Gideon was away on his gospel travels, Harriet was left at home; and it may have been the thought of danger to her that caused them to move to Sligo, a traditionally Protestant town.
There he came into contact with the Methodist superintendent minister, William Hamilton. The two men grew in mutual respect. Hamilton himself was a man with a missionary heart, a rough spoken but powerful preacher, with a striking way of fixing truth in men’s hearts.
Dr Thomas Coke
Friendship with Hamilton was to have a life changing influence in Gideon’s life. In 1799 the Irish Methodist Conference was held in Dublin. The president of the conference was Dr Thomas Coke. Originally a curate in the Church of England, Coke was dismissed by a new rector because of his evangelistic endeavours. A fervent supporter of John Wesley, he became one of Wesley’s right hand men and was regarded by some as his successor.
Coke was a man of great missionary vision; he died in 1814, aged 67, en route to Ceylon to start a new mission there. In view of the recent unrest in Ireland, he urged the 1799 conference to send out Irish-speaking evangelists to travel through the land.
Two men, well known and qualified for the task, were quickly nominated: Charles Graham and James McQuigg. A third was needed and, on the spur of the moment, William Hamilton suggested Gideon Ouseley.
Bear in mind that at this time Gideon was a freelance evangelist, not even recognised as a local preacher by the Methodists. But Hamilton’s judgment was trusted and Ouseley was accepted, though he was neither present nor knew he had been proposed!
When, out of the blue, he received the letter of appointment he was amazed but delighted, accepting it as from the Lord. So he was received without the recommendation of any district meeting or examination of his doctrinal views.
He devoted himself without reserve to serve the Lord. He was to work with Charles Graham, 12 years his senior. Graham soon gave his opinion: ‘Mr Ouseley is, I think, one of the best Irish preachers I ever heard’.
They remained together for six years, first given liberty by conference to traverse the whole land, and then allocated a specific area year by year. They preached in markets and fairs, and spoke to individuals and groups of people they met while travelling. In the fairs they often preached on horseback, wearing a black velvet cap as a sort of uniform.
The priests were furious and did all they could by threats, curses and physical violence to prevent their folk from listening, sometimes driving them away with blows from riding whips. It is hard to realise the stranglehold that Roman Catholicism had in Ireland until the last years of the 20th century.
In Ouseley’s day Ireland was under English rule, which was deeply resented. By depicting English as the language and Protestantism as the heretical religion of an occupying force, it was easy for the Roman Catholic clergy to instil a superstitious fear and smoldering hatred of everything English and Protestant. The genius of Dr Coke’s scheme was to preach the gospel to the people in their own tongue, rather than the inherently provocative ‘language of occupation’.
Opposition fomented by the priests made it a hazardous business to preach the gospel. On one occasion we read: ‘When Ouseley began to speak, it was the signal for a general shout. They tied kettles to the tails of dogs and drove them among the crowd.
‘For the moment Ouseley was silenced, but, rising above the din, Graham’s voice thundered out, “It is all in vain for the sons of Belial to try to uphold the devil’s kingdom … The Lord Jesus has resolved on its ruin, and down it must come!” The eyes and ears of the people were once more on the missionaries, who in spite of a few disturbers were allowed to continue’.
At one time, Ouseley came to preach in the town of Granard. There an old man picked up a handful of dirt and threw it over the heads of the people right into Gideon’s face. When he had wiped his mouth out, he asked the gathered crowd, ‘Now, boys, did I deserve that?’
‘No, no’, they all cried. Then the old fellow tried to do the same again, but William Hamilton who was there with him records that ‘the people fell on the man, and you would think they were trying to kick twenty devils out of him’.
In 1812 Ouseley visited Loughrea. As they approached the town, he was seized with a foreboding that they would be attacked. So he sought official protection. An army sergeant accompanied them through the crowded street, but, even so, a furious mob gathered, curses and missiles were hurled at them, and preaching was out of the question.
At Westport, while he was addressing a crowd in the market place, he was assailed by a priest who incited another man to strike the missionary with a hard black peat — rendered all the harder because it was frozen — which left a severe bruise on the side of his face.
On a lighter note, Gideon had a conversation with a man returning from a pilgrimage to Ireland’s holy mountain, Croagh Patrick, colloquially known as ‘The Reek’. When Mr Ouseley met the man, he asked where he had been.
‘To the Reek,’ he replied. ‘What were you doing there?’
‘Looking for God, sir’. ‘Oh, what part of the hill did you expect to find him on?’
The poor fellow was baffled by this question, ‘I did not think of that, sir’. Mr Ouseley then asked him, ‘Where is God?’, to which he replied, ‘Everywhere’.
And now Gideon came to the point. ‘When the sun is up, where in Ireland is the daylight?’ Of course, the pilgrim replied, ‘Sure, sir, it is everywhere’.
‘So then, it is around your own cabin as much anywhere else. Would it not, then, be strange for you to go 50 miles and bruise your poor feet looking for the daylight?’
The man thought for a moment. ‘Oh, the Lord help us, sir! Sure, I never saw the foolishness of it before. I will never take another pilgrimage!’
One day Gideon joined a wake where the priest was saying the mass — in Latin, a tongue unknown to many of his hearers — but well known to Gideon. He knelt down amongst the congregation and, at every passage that had a distinctly scriptural or warning aspect, he would give an extempore translation into Irish, adding impressively, ‘Listen to that!’
At the end, he rose up and urged them to seek peace with God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and then rode away. The crowd asked the priest, ‘Father, who is that? Who is he at all?’ ‘I do not know’, said the priest. ‘He is not a man at all. Sure, he is an angel. No man could do what he has done’.
Some time later, Gideon met a peasant on the road and said, ‘My dear man, would you not like to be reconciled to God and have his peace in your heart, and be clear before the great Judge when he comes to judge the world?’
‘Oh, glory to his name, sir’, the man replied. ‘I have this peace in my heart; and the Lord be praised that I ever saw your face’.
‘You have? What do you know about this peace, and when did you see me?’
‘Don’t you remember the day you were at the burying, when the priest was saying mass?’ ‘I do very well. What about that day?’
‘Oh sir, you told us then how to get that peace, and I went … to Jesus Christ my Saviour, and got it in my heart, and have had it here ever since’.
To be concluded
Stephen Ford is pastor of Lordshill Baptist Church, Snailbeach, Shropshire