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A cloud of witnesses

July 2002 | by Michael Haykin

Samuel Pearce (1766-1799) Part 4

We have been looking at the remark-able zeal of Samuel Pearce for the salvation of the lost. We have considered two incidents in his life that reveal this zeal, and now turn to a third.

Invitation to Ireland

In July 1795, Pearce received an invitation from the General Evangelical Society in Dublin to preach at a number of venues in that city. He was unable to go until the following year, and he left Birmingham on 31 May.

After travelling through Wales and embarking from Holyhead, he landed in Dublin on Saturday afternoon, 4 June.

Pearce stayed with a Presbyterian elder by the name of Hutton, a member of a congregation pastored by a Dr McDowell. Pearce preached to them several times, as well as to other congregations in the city, including the Baptists.

Baptist witness in Dublin went back to the Cromwellian era, to 1653 when, through the ministry of Thomas Patient (d.1666), the first Calvinistic Baptist meeting-house was built in Swift’s Alley.

The church grew rapidly and, by 1725, had between 150 and 200 members. A new meeting-house was put up in the 1730s.

Irish Zion

By the time Pearce came to Ireland, however, the membership had declined to roughly forty. Pearce’s impressions were not too positive. In a letter to William Carey in August 1796, the month after his return to England, he told the missionary:

‘There were 10 Baptist societies in Ireland – they are now reduced to 6 and bid fair soon to be perfectly extinct.

‘When I came to Dublin they had no meeting of any kind for religious purposes … Indeed they were so dead to piety that, tho’ of their own denomination, I saw and knew less of them than of every other [kind of] professors in the place.’

This opinion does not appear to have dampened his zeal in preaching. A Dublin deacon wrote to a friend: ‘We have had a Jubilee for weeks. That blessed man of God, Samuel Pearce, has preached amongst us with great sweetness and much power’.

And in a letter to a friend, Pearce admitted: ‘Never have I been more deeply taught my own nothingness; never has the power of God more evidently rested upon me. The harvest here is great indeed; and the Lord of the harvest has enabled me to labor in it with delight’.

This passionate concern for the advance of the gospel in Ireland is well caught in one of his letters to his wife Sarah. ‘Surely’, he wrote on 24 June, ‘Irish Zion demands our prayers’.

Support for the BMS

In the three remaining years of Pearce’s earthly life, he laboured to raise support for foreign missions.

One of the meetings at which Pearce preached saw William Ward (1769-1823) – later to be one of the most valuable of Carey’s co-workers in India – accepted as a missionary with the Baptist Missionary Society.

Those attending the meeting (at Kettering on 16 October 1798) were deeply stirred by Pearce’s passion and concern for the advance of the gospel.

He preached ‘like an Apostle’, Andrew Fuller (1754-1815) later wrote to Carey. And when Ward wrote to Carey, he told his future colleague that Pearce ‘set the whole meeting in a flame. Had missionaries been needed, we might have had a cargo immediately’.

Neglecting to rest

Returning to Birmingham from this meeting Pearce was caught in a heavy downpour of rain, drenched to the skin, and subsequently developed a severe chill.

Neglecting to rest, and thinking that what he called ‘pulpit sweats’ would effect a cure, he continued a rigorous schedule of preaching, both at Cannon Street and in outlying villages around Birmingham.

His lungs became so inflamed that Pearce had to ask Ward to supply the Cannon Street pulpit for several months during the winter of 1798-1799.

By mid-December 1798, Pearce could not converse for more than a few minutes without losing his breath. Yet still he was thinking of the salvation of the lost.

Love for the French

At that time Great Britain and France were locked in the Napoleonic War, a conflict that would last into the second decade of the next century.

Not surprisingly, there was little love lost between the British and the French. But Pearce was gripped by a different passion – the priority of the kingdom of Christ.

In one of his last sermons, on a day of public thanksgiving for Nelson’s annihilation of the French Fleet at the Battle of the Nile (1798) and the repulse of a French invasion fleet off the coast of Ireland in 1799, Pearce observed:

‘Should any one expect that I shall introduce the destruction of our foes … as the object of pleasure and gratitude, he will be disappointed.

‘The man who can take pleasure at the destruction of his fellow men, is a cannibal at heart … but to the heart of him who calls himself a disciple of the merciful Jesus, let such pleasure be an everlasting stranger.

‘Since in that sacred volume, which I revere as the fair gift of heaven to man, I am taught, that “of one blood God hath made all nations” (Acts 17:26), it is impossible for me not to regard every man as my brother, and to consider, that national differences ought not to excite personal animosities.’

Mission to France

A few months later – when he was desperately ill – he wrote to Carey telling him of his plans for a missionary journey to France.

‘I have been endeavoring for some years’, he told Carey, ‘to get five of our Ministers to agree that they will apply themselves to the French language … then we [he was obviously intending to be one of the five] might spend two months annually in that Country, and at least satisfy ourselves that Christianity was not lost in France for want of a fair experiment in its favour: and who can tell what God might do!’

When peace eventually came, God would use British Evangelicals, notably Pearce’s Baptist contemporary Robert Haldane (1764-1842), to take the gospel to Francophones on the Continent.

But Pearce’s anointed preaching would play no part in that great work. Yet his ardent prayers on behalf of the French were not without effect. As Pearce had noted in 1794, ‘praying breath’ is never lost.

Sufferings

By the spring of 1799 Pearce was desperately ill with pulmonary tuberculosis. Leaving his wife and five children, he went to the south of England from April to July in the hope that rest there might effect a cure.

But absence from his family only aggravated his suffering. Writing from Plymouth to Sarah – ‘the dear object of my tenderest, my warmest love’ – he requested her to ‘write me as soon as you receive this’ and signed it ‘ever, ever, ever, wholly yours’.

Three weeks later he sent Sarah ‘a thousand and ten thousand thousand embraces’, and added poignantly: ‘may the Lord hear our daily prayers for each other!’

Sarah and the children had gone to stay with her family in Alcester, twenty miles or so from Birmingham. But by mid-May Sarah could no longer bear being absent from her beloved.

Leaving their children with friends, she headed south in mid-May, where she stayed with her husband until the couple slowly made their way home to Birmingham in mid-July. By this time Samuel’s voice was so far gone that he could not even whisper without pain in his lungs.

Closer to Christ

His suffering, though, seemed to act like a refiner’s fire to draw him closer to Christ.

‘Blessed be his dear name’, he said, not long before his death, ‘who shed his blood for me … Now I see the value of the religion of the cross.

‘It is a religion for a dying sinner… Yes, I taste its sweetness, and enjoy its fulness, with all the gloom of a dying-bed before me; and far rather would I be the poor emaciated and emaciating creature that I am, than be an emperor with every earthly good about him, but without a God.’

Some of his final words were for Sarah: ‘I trust our separation will not be forever … we shall meet again’.

He fell asleep in Christ on Thursday 10 October 1799. William Ward, who had been profoundly influenced by Pearce’s zeal and spirituality, well summed up his character when he wrote not long before the latter’s death:

‘Oh, how does personal religion shine in Pearce! What a soul! What ardour for the glory of God! … you see in him a mind wholly given up to God; a sacred lustre shines in his conversation: always tranquil, always cheerful… I have seen more of God in him than in any other person I ever met.’

At the heart of Pearce’s spirituality, both lived and taught, was the theological conviction that ‘real religion consists in supreme love to God and disinterested [i.e. impartial] love to man’.

Measured by this standard, there seems little doubt about the reality of Pearce’s Christian faith and spirituality. There is also little question of the challenge it poses to Christians today.

 

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