9. Coxe Feary and the awakening in Bluntisham
Coxe Feary (1759-1822) sustained a long pastorate in the village of Bluntisham, about fifteen miles north of Cambridge, England. He was raised in the Church of England, but during his teens became dissatisfied with the irreligious conduct of worshippers at the parish church.
He considered attending a Baptist church in a nearby village — perhaps the work at Needingworth, which had been founded in 1767. But he found the church consisted of ‘narrow-minded’ hyper-Calvinists, who pronounced ‘destruction on all who did not believe their creed’.
For a while he attended a Quaker congregation in Earith, another nearby village, because their views accorded with his belief in the freedom of the human will and the saving merit of good works.
In 1780 he read James Hervey’s Theron and Aspasio (1755), a massive defence of Calvinism. The book greatly challenged Feary’s religious notions and he was deeply disturbed by its arguments.
Offended, he put the book down without finishing it. But two years later he felt constrained to pick it up again and give it a fair hearing. The result was his glorious conversion.
He was seized with a passion for the salvation of the lost in his village. For instance, he wrote the following plain words to a neighbour in 1783: ‘I must beg you to attend to the Scriptures, and to pray to God that he may enlighten your mind by his Holy Spirit, that you may see the gracious privileges contained therein.
‘They, my friend, are the only rule for us to walk by — they testify of Christ — point him out as the only procuring cause of a sinner’s acceptance with God, and his enjoyment of eternal felicity.
‘He hath made peace through the blood of his cross, and through that blood we have redemption. It is with regret of mind, my friend, that I think of your carelessness, for I have a great desire for your everlasting welfare, which has been my chief motive for writing to you.
‘Therefore, examine yourself impartially — consider how your affairs stand with God, and see if you have an interest in the merits of Christ; for if you have not (I dare not flatter you) you are in a state of death.
‘I hope, therefore, you will say: “What must I do to be saved” I shall reply: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved”.’
The awakening in Bluntisham took place during 1784-1785. By 1784 Feary was sitting under the evangelical preaching of Henry Venn (1724-1797) at Yelling, about ten miles away.
That same year he came across the works of George Whitefield (1714-1770) in a bookshop in St Ives. What is amazing is that he had never heard of Whitefield or his remarkable ministry.
So taken was he with the sermons of the great Evangelist that, the very same evening, he read one of them — ‘What think ye of Christ?’ — aloud to a small gathering of shepherds and farm labourers in his house.
It must have made an impact, for the following evening a man of means in the village, a certain John Kent, arrived with several others requesting Feary to read another sermon. Flustered by the group, and afraid of being considered ‘a Methodist preacher’, Feary refused.
But the impromptu congregation would not take no for an answer and Feary relented. A poor woman was so deeply moved by Whitefield’s words that she urged Feary to read yet a third time at her house the following evening.
Feary agreed on the condition that she would tell no one. But the thing could not be hid. When he arrived at the house it was packed with neighbours.
Feary continued reading sermons in that woman’s home throughout the winter of 1784-1785. In the spring of 1785 they had to move to a larger home to accommodate the numbers attending.
A genuine spiritual awakening gripped the village, as many were moved to ask that old, but utterly vital, question: ‘What must I do to be saved?’ This work of revival laid the foundation of the Calvinistic Baptist work in Bluntisham.
Eventually, Feary ran out of sermons to read. So it was that he ventured to expound a section of Scripture himself.
A barn had been fitted out for the congregation by John Kent and, on 28 December 1786, Coxe Feary and twenty-five other believers joined together to form a Congregationalist church.
They came from a number of the surrounding villages, including Colne, Somersham, and Woodhurst. Feary was chosen as their first pastor.
Over the next few years, friendship with Robert Robinson (1735-1790), the well-known Baptist of Cambridge and author of the hymn ‘Come, Thou fount of every blessing’, led to Feary’s embracing of Baptist views.
But it may also have been this friendship which led Feary to imbibe deistic ideas, for in his final years Robinson did not maintain a firm grasp on orthodox doctrines.
Feary recalled this period of his life — the early 1790s — thus: ‘I appeared infatuated with a desire of wild speculations which … soon produced a kind of scepticism, which led me to look on all Christian experience as enthusiasm [fanaticism], and was ready to treat it with the utmost contempt, as cant and hypocrisy.
‘This brought a damp upon my soul, chilled my affections for God, and love for the souls of my people. In this state of mind, my devotional exercises were, at times, very formal and flat.
‘Preaching became dry, and I believe very uninteresting. No conversation suited me, but that which turned upon Politics or Theological controversy. In short, I appeared to myself to be making rapid strides to Infidelity and Deism.’
It is amazing that a man who had known revival at the beginning of his ministry should sink to such depths! But by the close of 1791 Feary had become alarmed at what was happening to him.
He was brought, he said, ‘to lament my case before God, who very justly might have given me up to strong delusions to believe a lie, as a sure sign of future destruction.
‘But, adored be his holy name, he has caused the riches of his grace to be manifested in me, the chief of sinners, by bringing me back to his fold again.
‘I am, beyond the shadow of doubt, confident, that salvation is entirely of grace, and that Jehovah will have mercy because he will have mercy.’
A useful preacher
Eighteenth-century Calvinistic Baptists, like many of their fellow Dissenters, regarded preaching as the preeminent aspect of public worship. But not everything that went by the name of preaching pleased them.
They wanted plainness and simplicity in preaching. Hercules Collins (d.1702), the pastor of Wapping Baptist Church, London, from 1676 till his death, explained: ‘Rhetorical flashes are like painted glass in a window, that makes a great show, but darkens the light…
‘The Prophets and Apostles generally spoke in the vulgar and common languages which the ordinary people understood: They did not only speak to the understanding of a king upon the throne, but to the understanding of the meanest subject.’
Writing in the autumn of 1802 to a friend studying at the Bristol Baptist Academy (the only Baptist seminary in England at the time) Feary counselled: ‘I hope you make a point of studying two sermons every week, that you disuse your notes as much as possible in the pulpit, and that you constantly aim to be the useful, more than the refined, preacher’.
Feary explained that he was not advocating the use of ‘vulgar’ speech or common slang in sermons. Rather, he wanted his friend ‘to commend [himself] to every man’s conscience in the sight of God, and to the understanding of [his] hearers’.
In other words, his sermons should be easily understood by all his hearers, so that he would be a ‘useful’ preacher and ‘an able minister of the New Testament’.
Such a minister was Feary. After his death in 1822, Newton Bosworth (1776-1848), a well-known Baptist of the era who eventually emigrated to Canada, said of him: ‘Mr. Feary was in many respects, an extraordinary man.
‘The moral reformation which, by the blessing of God, he effected in his native village, and its neighbourhood, and which must have afforded him, in the retrospect, unspeakable delight, is an event to which under all its circumstances not many parallel cases can be adduced.
‘Without education, except in the slightest elements of it … he produced a most remarkable and permanent change in a great part of the population around him; commencing his labours without a single follower, continuing them, with an ardent, yet well-tempered zeal, amidst alternate hopes and fears, successes and discouragements, and ending by the formation of a flourishing church and congregation — the latter amounting to seven or eight hundred persons.
‘If, as Scriptures assure us, “he that winneth souls is wise”, Coxe Feary’s reputation as a wise man cannot be disputed.’