Who was Gideon Ouseley? He was an early nineteenth century evangelist in Ireland, given a roving commission by the Irish Methodist conference. He had a particular calling to preach the gospel in the Irish Gaelic language, to a predominantly Roman Catholic peasant population.
As a Methodist, he was of course Arminian — sometimes belligerently so! There is a good biography about him by William Arthur, an Irish Methodist minister of a slightly later age; and also helpful material in Charles Cruickshank’s three-volume History of Methodism in Ireland.
Gideon was born 24 February 1762 at Dunmore in County Galway. His family was of Anglo-Irish descent. His parents, John and Anne, owned a substantial estate in Dunmore. Gideon was the middle of three children.
John Ouseley was a deist with a cold, lifeless religion. He refused to attend church, but still planned for Gideon to be a parson, as he considered it a good profession! Gideon’s mother was different. She was probably a true believer and did all she could to shield her children from their father’s cynical views. She was a regular churchgoer along with her children.
There were good books in the house, including Puritan works, and she encouraged Gideon to read these. As a boy he was hard-working and studious, and seems to have had a photographic memory. He absorbed much useful information long before he was converted.
Gideon was privately educated, initially by an elderly Roman Catholic priest. He gained a good general education, a fine grasp of Latin and an acquaintance with the writings of Roman Catholic authors.
The priest was unable to teach him Greek, which was a condition for admission to Trinity College, Dublin. So fresh arrangements were made for Gideon to be educated alongside his two cousins William and Gore Ouseley, both of whom went on to have scintillating diplomatic careers. It would be Sir Gore Ouseley, as Britain’s ambassador to Persia, who would present Henry Martyn’s Persian translation of the New Testament and Psalms to the Shah.
So Gideon was of the gentry, but he was no snob. He mixed freely with the Irish peasants and was fluent in Irish Gaelic. As a young man, he experienced times of seriousness and spiritual anxiety, but was too wild to be thought of as a clergyman.
For a time, the family moved to Green Lawn farm, in County Roscommon, and there young Gideon fell in love with a woman about his own age, Harriet Wills. They married in 1782.
Harriet had been touched by the gospel, though not converted, during a visit to Bath, possibly to the Countess of Huntingdon’s chapel. As a result, she became serious-minded about Christian things. Her father had bestowed on her a house and property. However, the validity of the deed was disputed, and, although Gideon was convinced that the deed was in order, he refused to go to law, so the inheritance was lost.
Gideon and Harriet returned to the Dunmore estate, which was a good thing, since in Roscommon, Gideon had become connected to a wild and dissipated ‘fast set’. The return severed this connection, but one evening, Gideon encountered two acquaintances having a friendly struggle, in which one was trying to force the other to return to the public house.
One of them had a loaded shotgun and, in the scuffle, it went off. Gideon, who had not been involved in the horseplay, received the discharge on the right side of his face and neck. It was a serious accident, which could have been fatal. As it was, he was permanently blinded in the right eye and that side of his face was badly disfigured.
His recovery took a long time, and as his devoted wife Harriet nursed him, she read to him from books of a challenging religious nature. His conscience was stirred to see the evil of his sin and he resolved to live a better life. He discovered, however, that this was not so easy. But now the decisive period in his life was approaching.
It was early 1791. There was a military barracks in Dunmore, and a detachment from the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards was stationed there. Some of them were Methodists, who under the direction of an officer, hired the public room in Dunmore’s inn to hold religious meetings.
This was such a novelty that many, including Gideon, came along to see what was happening. Although he knew a good deal in his head about Christianity and the Bible, Gideon went to the inn in great scepticism, prepared to denounce the proceedings. But, as he watched and listened, he became convinced that the soldiers were sincere and nothing they said contradicted the teachings of the Church of England, teachings with which he was well acquainted.
Gideon became seriously concerned about his soul. He held long conversations with the officer and with a Methodist minister, John Hurly, who preached at the meetings. One evening at the conclusion of the service, an invitation was given for any who were ‘seriously disposed’ to stay behind for the class meeting.
Gideon was suspicious of this ‘innovation’, but his spiritual concern got the better of him. ‘I will wait and see what they are about, but if I find any juggling or freemason’s tricks among them, I will have nothing to do with them’, he said.
Many years later he explained what happened. On a Sunday morning in May 1791, he went to his room determined to stay there until he found peace for his troubled soul. He threw himself on the floor and groaned and cried for mercy. To his amazement he felt an increasing hardness of heart, and thought, ‘Am I ever to be saved? O Lord God, is there no mercy for me?’
At length, as he renewed his earnest cries to the Lord, he became convinced of the need for his complete and immediate submission to God. ‘Lord, I submit, I submit’, he cried.
Then he thought of Jesus the Saviour as his Saviour. ‘I saw Jesus the Saviour, who gave himself for me. The hardness of my heart all passed away. It melted at the sight of that love of God to me, and I knew — yes I knew — that God had forgiven me all my sins. My soul was filled with gladness and I wept for joy’.
Immediately and instinctively, Gideon wanted to tell others what God had done for his soul. Being well known in Dunmore, his conversion was quickly reported and it attracted much interest and controversy.
The Anglican curate preached an angry sermon against Methodism. At its conclusion, Gideon stood up in his pew and told the curate that the doctrines he had called rank nonsense were those of the Bible, the Church of England and the Prayer Book, and that the curate’s sermon contradicted passages in the very liturgy he had just read! The curate was furious; the rector threatened proceedings in the bishop’s court, and Gideon’s father threatened to disinherit him.
Gideon started to witness to others in an informal way. He conversed with friends, relatives, acquaintances and anyone else who would listen, pressing them to seek and trust in Christ. Harriet was converted in this way about a year later.
Soon Gideon felt he must preach. However, he knew neither how to begin a sermon, nor how to carry it on. He put it like this: ‘A voice said, “Gideon, go and preach the gospel.” But I would plead, “Lord, I am a poor ignorant creature. How can I go?”
‘Then it would come to my mind, “Do you not know the disease?” “O yes, Lord, I do.” “And do you not know the cure?” “O yes, glory to Thy name, I do.”
‘“Go then, and tell them these two things, the disease and the cure; never mind the rest. The rest is only talk”.’
So Gideon set off on lengthy evangelistic excursions. He spoke in the native Gaelic, which was mostly unknown to Protestant ministers. He told the people the state they were in, lost and dead in sin; that no effort of man, nor service of the church, could help them; and that only God, through Christ, could save them.
The priests told the people to pay no attention and that Gideon had lost his senses. But some of the people replied, ‘If you would hear him, sir, you would find there is good sense in every word he says’!
Stephen Ford is pastor of Lordshill Baptist Church, Snailbeach, Shropshire.