In the May issue of Evangelical Times, Michael Haykin (A Cloud of Witnesses) dealt with the ministry of William Mitchel 1662-1705. He also referred to his cousin David Crosley 1660-1744. Providentially, that article has an important bearing on this series, since it underlines that things were better during the neglected years than have hitherto been admitted.
The importance for us of the work done by Mitchel and Crosley lies in the fact that it has been almost entirely neglected. Ryle, in his Christian leaders of the eighteenth century, dismissed Nonconformity as being in no better state than the Church of England.
When he comes to William Grimshaw he refers to ‘Haworth, the parish in which Grimshaw set up the standard of the cross … a less promising field could hardly be imagined’.
However, a biography of Grimshaw (Epworth Press, 1963) refers to Baptist churches in Yorkshire in 1743 and adds: ‘Grimshaw’s area [was] the fountainhead, the scene of the apostolic labours of William Mitchel and David Crosley’.
Their labours were, indeed, apostolic. When Mitchel died in 1706, he and Crosley had the care of some forty preaching places in Yorkshire and Lancashire, mostly Baptist. One of them was in Haworth itself.
Mitchel and Crosley were successful evangelists and church planters. Haykin refers to ‘lasting fruit’. Churches were established, and these themselves founded other churches.
George Whitefield acknowledged these labours in his foreword to Crosley’s famous sermon on Samson: ‘He is a man and I am only a babe in Christ’. In a letter to Crosley, he salutes him as ‘A good soldier of Jesus Christ and far my elder brother in our common Lord. I honour you and rejoice to wash your feet’.
Ryle was not the first to neglect the ministry of Mitchel and Crosley. According to the list attributed to Daniel Neal of the Free Churches in England and Wales in 1715 and 1716, there were no Baptist churches in Yorkshire at that period, but Skeat, in his History of the Free Churches, remarks: ‘Neal’s history is not correct in all particulars’.
Referring to Mitchel and Crosley, Skeat continues: ‘There was a prejudice at this time, as at the time of the “Rothwell controversy”, against recognising any assembly as a church which was not presided over by a regularly established pastor, and not many Baptist churches in the early part of the eighteenth century could boast of such men’.
This takes us to the heart of the matter, and leads us straight to another neglected figure, Richard Davis, the subject of the ‘Rothwell controversy’.
Richard Davis was called to labour as a Congregational minister at Rothwell, Northamptonshire, and was ordained in 1689.
According to historians Bogue and Bennett: ‘His zeal in the exercise of his office knew no bounds. His labours were most abundant; and to his own personal exertions he added the help of the gifted brethren of his church, whom he sent round the country in every direction, to call sinners to the knowledge of the truth. It was an age of regularity; and practices so uncommon stirred up many adversaries …
‘Not satisfied with performing the duties of the pastoral office … at Rothwell, he added the character of an itinerant too: and extended his journeys eighty miles, in every direction around the place of his abode.
‘His converts became members of his church: and as they lived at a distance, and could only attend on particular occasions, they had religious meetings among themselves for prayer, for conversation, and for preaching, as opportunities were afforded. That they might enjoy these in the greater abundance, he called forth the most intelligent members of his church into action, and employed them in itinerating within his extensive circle.
‘In itinerancy Mr Davis was not the first in his day. Several non-conformist ministers spread their labours over the county in which they lived, and some made stated preaching tours of considerable extent.
Sent forth to preach
‘But to Mr Davis must be assigned peculiarly the practice of calling in the members of the church so abundantly to his aid, and making use of their exertions in advancing the work, which he had begun.
‘This … gave singular offence to his brethren, especially those of the Presbyterian order, who were at that time by far the most numerous denomination of the dissenters. It was one of their charges against Mr Davis that he sent forth a swarm of tailors, weavers, dyers, shoemakers, and farmers to preach.
‘A regular education for the ministry was considered by the Presbyterians as a qualification almost indispensable. Among the independents this idea did not prevail, and there were ministers among them who had not enjoyed any advantages of a literary kind.
‘Of those lay-preachers whom Mr Davis sent out, several afterwards became pastors of churches formed from the societies, which he had collected in the towns and villages in which he was wont to preach.’
This prejudice against anything ‘irregular’ comes out in The London Manuscript. After a detailed description of every Presbyterian and Congregational church in London, the author adds a short abstract of the present state of the Baptists.
No description is given of any congregation, but their number was growing. It also records that the people ‘are generally of lower stations in life. They have but few young men trained up for the ministry, but many or most of their preachers are tradesmen, or have been so… There are amongst them preachers of the meanest of the people and of as mean abilities, yet some of them are honest souls and have been of service in their stations’.
Baptist churches were growing in number, but this has been overlooked by careless statistics. When all the lists are put together it appears that some omit areas which others include, and vice versa.
The Great Awakening
The generally accepted view is that the eighteenth-century revival came as a ‘bolt from the blue’; that it was independent of what had been going on previously; and that it left ‘dissent’ untouched for years.
However, Dr Kenneth Dix draws attention to work going on among the Baptists alongside the Methodists in the early days of the awakening. He says: ‘I believe the work among Baptists and Independents is to be seen as a part of this movement and not as the fruit of it’.
He makes the point that in 1741 in Bourton, where Benjamin Beddome was the pastor, forty people were brought to repentance at the same time.
He continues: ‘In … 1753 the Particular Baptist Church at Olney covenanted together, promising, “To be maintaining in every manner of way, and in the face of all opposition whatever, the Doctrines of free grace or the faith once delivered to the Saints”.
‘But they were also concerned “for the spread and furtherance of the Gospel and increase of the knowledge of Christ in the world”, and they agreed to set apart any man with gifts to the work of the ministry, “to preach the Gospel where ever God … opens a door for him, praying for his success and wishing him God speed”.
‘Now, the church book which contains the choice covenant … I have briefly quoted, also relates how thirty years later a young man was set apart for the work of the ministry. His name, William Carey. In other words, the fruit of the 1790s had its roots deep in the years, which have been all too lightly passed by.’
Dr David L. Wykes of the Dr Williams Library states that ‘during the half century preceding the Great Awakening, which is generally neglected by historians, the evangelical Church thoroughly prepared the population to anticipate, recognise and improve upon a sudden outpouring of God’s grace’.
Lessons for today
We have all heard of John Wesley, but not Richard Davis. We probably know the name of William Grimshaw, but few know the name of William Mitchel (but for the article by Michael Haykin).
Are we prepared to be like these unknown and unheralded men, if this is God’s plan? The disciples entered into the labours of others (John 4:38). In the same way, the great men of church history have benefited from the faithful and hidden labours of others.
Is it important to us to be taken notice of? Are we like Diotrophes who loved ‘to have the pre-eminence’? Or are we ready to support others in the work of God? The human heart cries for attention – the Spirit points to Christ.
When we get to glory we will see the Lamb upon the throne and join with the angels singing his praise. We will realise then that everything God did on earth was to draw attention to his dear Son, in one way or another. We will gladly give him the glory.
The Great Awakening was a genuine revival. But it was preceded by a genuine preparation and characterised by Christ-exalting preaching.
Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘Jesus, the name high over all’ includes the challenging words: ‘Tis all my business here below to cry, Behold the Lamb’. Let us follow Wesley’s example and gladly spend and be spent, whether we are recognised or not.