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Triumphs of grace

June 2002 | by Faith Cook

Tommy Lee
Good soldier of Jesus Christ

by Faith Cook

‘We have done enough to make an end of him’ cried a voice, as stones, clods of earth and other missiles rained down on the young Methodist preacher. This was Thomas Lee’s first experience of that mindless brutality so often meted out to itinerant preachers in the early days of the eighteenth-century revival.

Undaunted by the pain, Tommy Lee afterwards confessed: ‘I never found my soul more happy nor was ever more composed in my closet. But,’ he admitted, ‘I did indeed reel to and fro, and my head was broken by a stone’.

Restrained from sin

Born in Keighley, Yorkshire, in 1727, Tommy had lost his mother at the age of four and was brought up in his uncle’s home in nearby Addingham. It was a good home by the standards of the time, and the boy was ‘carefully restrained from outward sin’.

Serious by nature, he was later to recognise an overruling providence in the circumstances of his childhood, and to acknowledge that God had frequently been working in his soul even then.

The thought of hell and eternal punishment would often fill the boy with panic. But in spite of his dread of such a destiny, the alternative of living to love and please God seemed unattractive to the youngster.

From the age of ten or eleven, however, the words ‘eternity’ and ‘everlasting’ so troubled him that he began to think that annihilation after death was a preferable option.

Nor was there any gospel preaching in that area of Yorkshire to enlighten the boy’s mind or to bring peace to his disturbed conscience.

Fading impressions

At the age of fourteen Tommy was apprenticed to the worsted trade, an industry for which the area was noted. And once more he found himself placed with a kindly family.

He began to read the Bible in his spare moments and even found delight in secret prayer. But as he grew to manhood these early religious impressions gradually faded.

Impatiently, he tried to shake them off completely, seeking his pleasure in the light-hearted society of his contemporaries. But try as he might, he seemed to find little satisfaction in the companionship he had now chosen.

Instead, he had only a lingering sense of shame as he discovered himself associating with young people whose conversation was blasphemous and unwholesome.

Gradual illumination

Unknown to Tommy Lee, a new work of God was unfolding in eighteenth-century Yorkshire. Itinerant Methodist preachers were beginning to penetrate areas near his home – areas where no proclamation of gospel truth had been sounded for many generations.

Most notably, the ministry of William Grimshaw in Haworth, only ten miles south of Addingham, was having a powerful effect on the entire vicinity.

To ease his troubled conscience, Tommy would occasionally join the crowds who flocked to Haworth each Sunday. Here the teenager would listen to the fiery preacher, but although deeply stirred he remained unconverted.

His noble resolutions to improve himself always seemed to fail for he knew nothing of the power of God in his soul.

Tommy Lee’s eventual conversion was not a dramatic event. It came rather in the form of a gradual illumination, as he listened more and more frequently to the Methodist lay preachers whose journeys, radiating outwards from Haworth, brought them ever nearer to Tommy’s home.

Heroic men

Heroic men they were, who sometimes scarcely escaped with their lives from the vicious mobs attacking them. As he listened to their message, Tommy began to find the Bible his increasing delight. While in the company of such men he felt a measure of peace unknown before.

At last he decided to drop his former companions and cast in his lot with these despised Methodists. ‘And blessed be God, from that hour I never had one desire to turn back’, he could write later.

In all likelihood, Tommy was actually converted at this time but he had no inward assurance of his acceptance with God. He remained tempest-tossed for more than a year.

Scarcely a day would pass without some fierce inner and spiritual conflict distressing him as he swung helplessly between doubt and hope. So great was his fear at times, of finding himself rejected at the last, that he would make promises to God.

He pledged that he would never count any suffering, affliction or sorrow too heavy if only he could receive an inner and unshakeable assurance of his acceptance by God. He spoke more truly than he knew.

Assured of salvation

Tommy struggled on, day after day, sometimes lifted up with fresh confidence only to be dashed with renewed uncertainties. But God had not forgotten him.

One day as he was at his regular employment, a strange impulse gripped his mind suggesting to him that at that very moment God might be willing to hear him pray. He later described the moments that followed:

‘I left my business immediately and went to prayer. In a moment God broke in upon my soul in so wonderful a manner that I could no longer doubt of his forgiving love. I cried, “My Lord and my God!” And in the spirit I was then in, I could have praised and loved and waited to all eternity.’

Assured at last of his own salvation, nothing could now hold Tommy Lee back from speaking freely to his friends and neighbours of their own need of a Saviour.

Encouraged by their response to his initial efforts, he began to venture further afield. All day he toiled at his business and each evening set off to one of the numerous villages dotted across the desolate moors surrounding his home – villages where no messenger of Jesus Christ had ever yet ventured.

Everywhere he went, even in his home village of Long Addingham, God was pleased to own his words to the conversion of those to whom he spoke.

Baptism of suffering

Although Tommy sometimes feared that he had no right to preach in this way, no one gave him greater support or took more delight in the ardour of this young man than the curate of Haworth.

When Tommy Lee at last decided to sell his business and give himself fully to the work of an itinerant Methodist preacher, Grimshaw had nothing but encouragement.

‘Go on’, he urged, ‘and be valiant in the work to which God has called you. Let us preach four times a day or thirty times a week, Tommy, whichever you please or can better bear. Our Master well deserves it’.

Such reassurance was timely, for it was not long before Tommy Lee was called upon to face his fiercest baptism of suffering. All he had suffered at was little compared with the cup of pain and indignity yet reserved for this earnest ambassador of Jesus Christ.

As he rode once more through Pateley Bridge, the mob spotted the preacher they had previously assaulted. Closing in on their prey, they pulled Lee from his horse, and as he lay on the ground helpless, repeatedly struck him against the stones.

Not content with such brutality, they hauled him by his hair to a nearby house and threw him against the stone stairs, injuring his back so severely that he could not walk without pain for many years to come.

Afflictions of the righteous

Even this was not enough. His tormentors then dragged the injured man to the sewer which carried effluent from the town to the river. Rolling him in the muck, they then threw him into the river.

Slowly and painfully Tommy inched his way back onto the bank and lay exhausted. The bullies had fled. As soon as he had regained enough strength, he remounted his horse and rode slowly to a friend’s home.

With his wounds bathed, Lee determined to ride on to a nearby village where he knew eager people were waiting to hear him preach. Using his bruised body to illustrate his own message, he spoke on ‘Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all’.

Realising the extent to which God was using his young friend, William Grimshaw recommended him to John Wesley for wider service, even though this would mean him losing Lee’s assistance in his own arduous toils.

Good old soldier

For nearly thirty years, Tommy Lee could be found preaching in distant parts of the land, including Newcastle, Edinburgh, Lincolnshire and Derbyshire.

But the personal cost was great, and before he had reached his sixtieth birthday Lee’s strength began to fail. An inflammation in his leg, probably the result of some injury received from a hostile mob, flared up. In 1786, Tommy Lee’s life of usefulness was over as he was taken beyond the range of insult, cruelty and torment for ever.

When John Wesley, himself a veteran of eighty-five years, heard of the death of his fellow-worker, he spoke sadly of the loss of this valiant preacher. Tommy Lee, he said, was ‘a good old soldier of Jesus Christ’.

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