Joseph Spoor — aflame for God
One of the north of England’s most outstanding Primitive Methodist ministers was Rev. Joseph Spoor (1813-1869). His biography (The earnest preacher, by Rev. E. Hall) was published in 1874.
Joseph was born in Whickham, to the south west of Newcastle. His father worked the coal-carrying barges on the River Tyne.
As a boy, Joseph was, like his companions, rough-living — engaging in swearing, brawling, gambling and drinking. With friends, he would sometimes disrupt local Christian meetings and ridicule believers.
At that time, a zealous but highly eccentric Wesleyan Methodist minister called Hodgson Casson was stationed in Gateshead’s Methodist circuit.
Many colourful tales are told about Casson’s ministry. For example, a village in his area had resisted all attempts to gain a foothold for the gospel and Casson determined to meet the challenge head-on.
Walking through the village one day, he came across a woman washing her doorstep. To her astonishment, he walked straight past her into her house, exclaiming, ‘This is the house!’
She ran behind him crying, ‘What is the house for?’
‘This is the house, for me to preach in!’
‘I’ll have no preaching here. I’ll let you know about preaching in my house!’
Whereupon Casson fished some strong cord out of his pocket, threw one end over a ceiling beam and fastened it. He then grabbed a chair, stood on it and proceeded to tie the other end of the rope around his neck.
The woman rushed out into the street shouting that a crazy fellow was about to hang himself in her house. People soon rushed into her cottage and the room was full. Casson calmly got off the chair, put it against the door to stop anyone escaping and began to preach!
Several were converted that day; and the gospel did indeed gain a foothold. We must note that the nineteenth century narrator declares that he cannot commend Casson’s methods on this occasion!
Crowds were attracted by Hodgson Casson’s ministry, and among those who flocked to hear him were 13-year-old Joseph Spoor, Spoor’s sister Jane, and Thomas Jobling (later, a missionary secretary for the Primitive Methodist Connexion). All three were converted to Christ under his ministry.
The newly converted youngsters were filled with zeal and rejoiced, prayed and read the Scriptures together. They would walk miles to Wesleyan love-feasts and special services, singing together as they went.
But their evangelistic fervour drew unfriendly criticism from some older Wesleyans; and the upshot was that they became Primitive Methodists. All three were to become deeply committed and valuable Primitive Methodist (PM) workers.
In December 1830, the 17-year-old Joseph Spoor was appointed as an exhorter in the Newcastle PM circuit. In 1832, he was sent by the PM church to evangelise the area between Morpeth and Rothbury. The six months that followed were so unproductive that he nearly gave up Christian work, but he moved to Hexham and there his evangelistic efforts were crowned with success.
Joseph Spoor became known for his earnestness and faith. It was his prayer life, says one commentator, ‘that made his face shine and his words burn’. Frequently, as he met people on the road, he would draw them into conversation about their souls.
He would get them to kneel by a road or in a field and pray with them. ‘Conversational preaching’ was a notable feature of Primitive Methodist evangelism at this time and highly successful among many poor illiterate and labouring people.
In 1833, while aged 20, Joseph was sent to the village of Brompton, near Northallerton in north Yorkshire. Soon Brompton was brought under deep spiritual concern and the Spirit’s influence spread to nearby localities. The theatre at Northallerton closed to plays but opened to PM meetings; many were converted.
Spoor moved his evangelistic work to the nearby village of Appleton Wiske. Someone closely associated with him then describes him as being so powerfully moved by his passion to save souls that it interfered with his eating and sleeping. Often when preaching ‘it seemed as if it would draw him out of the pulpit’.
An astonishing local awakening broke out in this way. At the close of one Sunday evening service a young woman spoke with Spoor of her concern for her parents and two brothers and asked him to breakfast with her family next morning. Spoor agreed to go, provided she privately spent an hour that night praying for the family, as he also would. This was readily agreed.
At breakfast next morning, they sensed the powerful presence of God. Asked to lead the family in prayer, Joseph began to plead with God for them. ‘While I was pleading,’ he said, ‘I felt something heavy fall upon my feet, and heard bitter and loud cries for mercy. I looked and saw it was the mother. I went on, keeping hold of mighty faith in prayer; and in a few minutes, the father fell upon the floor, roaring aloud for salvation’.
The eldest son, who was in the weaving shop abutting the house, on hearing the noise opened the door to look in. Spoor began to pray for him also, and he fell into the room prostrate and, along with his parents, began to cry for God’s mercy.
The noise brought the other brother to the room to investigate. The divine power seized him, and he fell down, joining his parents and older brother shouting aloud under conviction of sin.
The neighbours, hearing the commotion, came to investigate. They first looked in at the window and then opened the door and came in. While gazing at the extraordinary scene they too were seized with conviction of sin and thrown to the floor.
Other neighbours ran through the village telling everyone what was happening. Many crammed into the house, while others stood awestruck at the door. All who actually entered the cottage were overwhelmed by the sense of God’s holy and mighty presence and prostrated to the floor.
And, all this time, Joseph Spoor continued praying personally with distressed men and women, and leading them into a believing view of Jesus Christ as their Saviour from sin and into the joyful liberty of the children of God.
Soon, some were exulting in new love for God; others were weeping tears of penitence for their sins; others were shouting and wrestling in prayer. There they were, old and young, rejoicing, crying and shouting aloud; the scene in the cottage beggared description.
Towards noon, Joseph’s physical strength began to falter and other Methodist workers were called in to help in the spiritual battle.
After some refreshment, Joseph set off to preach at the next appointed place, but now accompanied by the band of ‘recruits’ enlisted that morning. As they walked, they sang together and had short prayer meetings by the side of the road.
On the way, Spoor spoke to a man about salvation and though the man at first shrugged it off as of little importance, Spoor’s urgent and burning words found their mark.
They formed a ring round the man to pray for him. Then he began to pray, until there by the open road he found Christ too; and they all shouted for joy. The convert later became an active and longstanding local preacher.
Just before Joseph Spoor began to minister in Brompton, the number of PM church members there had been 220. The next quarter-day figures reported that Brompton’s PM membership had increased to 376.
The revival continued until ‘hundreds were brought out of the slavery and misery of sin into the life and bliss of the gospel’. And all this began when Joseph was just 20 years old!
This account reminds us that, while circumstances and culture will inevitably vary from era to era, what is needed for God to bless his work is the faithful preaching of the gospel, the earnest prayers of God’s people, and the outpoured blessing of the Spirit of God working in people’s hearts — nothing more and nothing less!
To be concluded