Fire from heaven: William Bramwell and his ministry
Modern Methodism bears little resemblance to the Methodism that sprang from the Evangelical Revival of the 18th century, as those whose lives had been transformed by the Christian gospel were formed into societies.
The revival had waned well before John Wesley’s death in 1791 but from the early 1790s, and for a period of fifty years, a second evangelical awakening took place. Spontaneous revivals broke out all over the British Isles in varying degrees of divine power – usually limited to certain towns or denominations but at times sweeping the nation.
Most of these revivals have been forgotten, and yet a tenth of the population of our land was gathered into the Nonconformist churches in this period. So we ought to know about them, and the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Bramwell is a good time to begin.
Prayer and preaching
By his fervent preaching in the Wesleyan Connexion, Bramwell was responsible under God for the conversion to Christ of thousands of ungodly people.
Born in Elswick, near Preston, in 1759, Bramwell was brought up in strict conformity to the Church of England. God began to work in his life from the age of seven with strong convictions of sin.
These continued until his conversion in his late teens, when he was given a deep certainty of the pardoning love of God while taking the Lord’s Supper in the Anglican church. But an absence of spiritual fellowship in that church caused him to join the Methodists.
Although he had established his own tannery business, he became uncertain about his future. Did God want him to be a preacher? He spent thirty-six hours in a disused sandpit pleading with God about this.
Eventually the call of God came with great clarity, and this was soon recognised by the church. Winding up his business, he left his family and fiancée for eighteen months and journeyed to Kent to begin a probationary period as a Methodist preacher. He was twenty-six years of age.
Two things became notable in William Bramwell’s life – prayer and preaching. His ministry was greatly used by God in the conversion of sinners and the building up of believers. With a zeal for righteousness, he urged sinners to repent, and believers were exhorted to seek holiness of life.
He believed with the Wesleys that full sanctification had to be sought from God as an experience subsequent to conversion. He cried to God for this in his own life.
He later described what happened subsequently. ‘While I was sitting with my mind engaged in various meditations concerning my present affairs and future prospects, my heart now and then lifted up to God, but not particularly about this blessing, heaven came down to earth; it came to my soul.
‘The Lord for whom I had waited came suddenly to the temple of my heart; and I had an immediate evidence that this was the blessing I had for some time been seeking. My soul was all wonder, love and praise’.
We must distinguish between the reality of a spiritual experience and the interpretation a believer puts upon it. Bramwell’s experience was clearly a divine anointing upon his call to be a preacher. As the Methodist historian George Smith wrote, ‘Such a baptism of the Spirit was a rich preparation for the various trials and privations which a Methodist minister was called to endure in those days’.
The policy of the Methodists was usually to appoint preachers for periods of two years to circuits of churches, before moving them on. Having married in July 1787, Bramwell was appointed in the following year to the Blackburn circuit where he suffered a measure of persecution not uncommon in those days. In 1789 he was appointed to the Colne circuit and many were blessed under his preaching.
Disputes and revival
In 1791, at the age of thirty-two, the Methodist Conference directed him to Dewsbury where the circuit had been torn apart by disputes and the societies were in a sad spiritual state. There he gave himself to incessant prayer for revival.
After ‘a year of hard labour and much grief’, Bramwell wrote in his journal, ‘As I was praying in my room, I received an answer from God in a particular way, and had the revival discovered to me in its manner and effects. I had no more doubt. All my grief was gone; I could say, “The Lord will come; I know he will come, and that suddenly”.’
And so it proved. A wonderful spirit of prayer was given to the people. Many of the most prejudiced yielded to God. Great numbers sought the mercy of God and received an assurance of salvation in Jesus Christ.
The Methodist Conference moved Bramwell to the nearby Birstall circuit in 1793 where a revival had broken out the previous year. At the Christmas ‘love-feast’ the Spirit was poured out in a very remarkable manner. Many were clearly awakened and ‘not less than fifty obtained redemption through the blood of Jesus Christ’. In the two years that Bramwell was in the circuit the membership doubled.
A local man, Thomas Pearson of Gomersal, described how his own village was affected: ‘He came to us full of faith and of the Holy Ghost. His powerful preaching and fervent prayers were so mighty though faith that the stoutest-hearted sinner trembled under him … the truth and power of God wonderfully prevailed.
‘My class [meeting] soon increased to sixty members; and all ranks and degrees of men began to attend the preaching. Every place of worship in the neighbourhood was crowded’.
The glory of God
In 1795 he was sent to serve the Sheffield circuit of churches. The city then had a population of about thirty thousand. In the two years Bramwell was there, seventeen to eighteen hundred were added to the societies.
People travelled long distances to witness this work of God. Satan is always active at such times and attempts were made by some to ‘mix false fire with the true flame’. But God had given Bramwell a gift of discernment, and the stratagems of Satan were overcome.
Of his work in Nottingham from 1798-1801 he observed, ‘I never saw more glorious displays of divine power than in this circuit’. At one society meeting a respected local preacher recorded:
‘Mr Bramwell engaged in prayer, when he appeared to lay such hold on the Almighty as to prevail with him for a blessing. The glory of God descended on all the society present in such a powerful manner as I never before experienced. Many were so affected, that at the conclusion of the service, they could not come down the gallery stairs without assistance’. That was the beginning of the good days at Nottingham.
And so his work continued: in Leeds, Wetherby, Hull, Sunderland, Liverpool, Sheffield again, Newcastle and finally in Salford. Although he had learnt to read the Scriptures in the original languages of Hebrew and Greek, he never allowed his learning to divert him from his main task. ‘They are the best preachers who bring souls to God’, he said, and this he did wherever he went.
But his preaching was costly. To a friend he disclosed, ‘The Lord knows, I die a death every time I preach; I do not know how I have lived so long’. And to a fellow minister he confided, ‘I frequently tremble exceedingly before I go into the pulpit … Yet when I am labouring to speak a little, I am frequently so much over-powered by the divine presence that I would not leave my work for all the world … Go on, my dear brother, pray, preach, purge and plant’.
That kindly exhortation epitomised the man. He had great understanding of people and deep human sympathies. His personal self-denial and love of people were expressed in his tireless visitation of the sick and needy.
He found time to write frequent letters of counsel, comfort and exhortation, and he did not forget the needs of his son and daughter. In the summer months he rose regularly at 4.00am to engage with his Maker in prayer.
His health began to decline in his fifties, and he experienced increasing weariness. For years he had been anticipating and preparing himself for the coming glory. In a letter to his daughter in 1811 he wrote, ‘I have had striking views of the blessed state – it is all my desire’.
The end came suddenly. He had been attending the Methodist Conference in Leeds in 1818, and staying at the home of his friend, James Sigston. He left in the early morning of 13 August to catch a coach back to Manchester, but collapsed in the lane and died shortly afterwards.
A month later, a memorial sermon was preached nearby when nearly ten thousand gathered to give thanks for this humble servant of God.
Paul E. G. Cook
Paul Cook’s book on revivals during this period will be published shortly by Evangelical Press.