4. The Penlee triumph
One of the most amazing works of God ever to take place in Cornwall was at Mousehole, the scene of the Penlee lifeboat disaster in December 1981. Mousehole today is a godless and materialistic community, but the exceptionally large Methodist chapel gives a hint of the mighty acts of God in the past.
The Methodist society at Mousehole had barely twenty members in the early 1770s. The first chapel was built in 1783 and greatly enlarged in 1813 to accommodate increasing congregations. The first great movement of God’s Spirit, however, occurred in February 1818.
Cries for mercy
William Carvosso records something of what he witnessed there: ‘I proceeded to Mousehole, where I rejoiced to see the mighty works of God displayed in convincing and converting sinners … In my usual way, I went preaching from house to house; and I believe God never blessed my feeble efforts more than at that time.
‘In one house I found a poor penitent to whose broken heart the Lord revealed his pardoning mercy. We fell on our knees, to give glory to God for what he had done. Her brother being present fell on the floor and cried aloud for mercy in an astonishing manner; and before I left the house, the Lord also set his soul at liberty.
‘In another house, while relating this circumstance, the arrow of truth reached the heart of a poor backslider, and she trembled as in the presence of God. The next morning I found her weeping for her ingratitude, and now made willing to return to her offended God.
‘There was a gracious work among the children in the Sunday school. None but those who have witnessed such a revival can form any idea of it. Some of them seemed as deeply convinced of sin as if they had been forty years of age; and after they had found peace, could give as clear an account of the work of grace in their minds as if they had been in the good way seven years. But it will require great care to rear these tender plants’.
These ‘tender plants’ were reared very satisfactorily and, ten years later in 1828, were visited again in an even more powerful work of God. The flood-tide of 1818 had ebbed a little, and Satan had been at work sowing discord within the church, so that some of the believers had become estranged from one another.
They were brought to repent of their disunity. This was followed by earnest prayer being offered to God to revive his work among them. The home prayer meetings increased so rapidly that they had to be transferred to the chapel. Soon hundreds were attending the prayer meetings, and the whole town was filled with a sense of the presence of God.
A new town
Within a very short time the movement spread to other towns and villages. In Mousehole alone, 200 people joined the Methodist society out of a population of 1,000. The character of the whole town was transformed, as blasphemers and immoral people were saved from their wickedness and brought into the joys of salvation. The main work was done over a period of four months.
William Carvosso gives his usual balanced account: ‘The prayer meetings were crowded by hundreds of attendants, and all the enquiry was, “What must I do to be saved?” Some of the most hardened sinners were cut to the heart, and cried aloud for mercy; and the work of God went forward with mighty power. The heavenly fire was carried to different villages and societies in the Circuit; and the thanksgiving of many redounded to the glory of God … Mousehole now appears like a new town’.
He refers to a decline in worldly conversation, a loss of interest in traditional amusements and recreations, a quickened interest in the Lord’s Day, and how even the children became more engaged in serious pursuits. He comments: ‘These little facts serve to show what a universal seriousness pervaded all ages and classes … The wonders of the Lord, daily displayed in the conviction and conversion of sinners, seemed to engross nearly the whole conversation of the place’.
The work of God in Cornwall from the 1790s until the 1830s, as we have briefly recounted it in this series of articles, was one of continuous revivals. Similar events were taking place in other parts of Britain.
Reformed Christians have much to learn from the Cornish revivals because, although they took place within Wesleyan Methodism where the prevailing theology was Arminian, their view of conversion and of the work of God overall was far more biblical than many of the views held by Calvinistic people today. This can be illustrated by considering just two issues.
They understood conversion
In the minutes of the Wesleyan Methodist Conference for the year 1821, at a time when God was adding thousands to the churches, the following resolution was subscribed by the preachers:
‘We again resolve with all plainness and zeal, to preach a free, present, and full salvation from sin; a salvation flowing from the mere grace of God, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, apprehended by the simple exercise of faith, and indispensably preparatory to a course [i.e. life] of practical holiness. And in this great work, our only reliance for success is upon the grace of the Holy Spirit; by whose inspiration alone it is that the gospel, in any instance, is rendered the “power of God into salvation”.’
The last sentence shows how little confidence these men placed in the arm of the flesh; how little concern they had for technique or method; and how far from their thinking was any idea that some special ‘outreach’ is needed to reach the lost.
They believed that churches ought continually to be reaching out to the lost, and preachers making known the gospel at all times. Even more significant is their emphasis upon conversion as the result of a sovereign act of God, without which no human explanation or persuasion can avail.
God alone saves
They made a valid distinction between a sinner being awakened and being converted. When confronted by sinners desiring to be saved, they did not imagine that some simple gospel ABC was all that was required. Nor did they think they had any ability to deliver a sinner from the agony of his conviction and bring him to the assurance of sins forgiven.
They preached the gospel and enforced it with frequent exhortations, but having done this they left the sinner in the hands of God. The reason for such an approach is clear from the revival records. They regarded salvation not merely as the sinner coming to God in response to the gospel, but primarily as God coming to the sinner.
Nor did they believe that God could be made to come. This is why they left convicted sinners crying out for mercy and urged them to cry and cry again until God spoke peace to their souls.
The Methodists in Cornwall believed that salvation was entirely supernaturalistic. God alone could save a sinner, and he would do so when he was pleased to act and only then. This did not lead them to a position of passivity — the idea that man can do nothing and just has to wait for God to act.
They urged men to believe the gospel; but they went beyond this, and urged sinners to seek the Lord and to call upon him for mercy. They knew that those who were under true conviction would do this, and so demonstrate their true repentance. They also knew that God would hear their cry.
They understood true religion
The supernaturalism that distinguishes the Christian faith from all other religions was at the forefront of the thinking of these Cornish Christians. They expected God to visit them and deal familiarly with their souls.
This view prevailed throughout the Wesleyan Methodist societies in Cornwall in the early nineteenth century. They believed in a God who acts. They knew that the prosperity of their churches and their own blessedness depended upon God coming down and visiting them.
They believed that unless God worked they were powerless to achieve anything in his name. There is no evidence at this time that they arranged special evangelistic missions to reach the lost. Such missions were first introduced in England by High Churchmen.
What these Wesleyans looked for was the power of God coming upon the regular class-meetings and services, and when this happened the lost were saved (either in those meetings or subsequently through the revived testimony of the members). When God visited them, all their meetings became special.
The desires and aspirations of these Methodist believers were easily satisfied. They did not crave entertainment, but were hungry for God. And when God gave them the Bread of heaven they were satisfied.
In their zeal, they witnessed spontaneously to the saving power of Jesus Christ and visited the homes of their neighbours with warm desires to see them enter into the same spiritual blessings. They were their own publicity.
The greatest single hindrance to revival in our day is surely our failure to think in the biblical manner so characteristic of these humble Cornish Christians. The thought of divine visitations is so strange to us that, whenever we hear of a church experiencing the blessing of God, we ask exactly how things happened and then turn it into a ‘method’.
Like Charles Finney, we think of man’s activity as the key to God’s action. If we thought biblically, like Jonathan Edwards, we would see God’s activity as the key to man’s spiritual actions.
We need to get back to this New Testament way of thinking in terms of divine initiatives, the acts of God, power poured out from on high, and spontaneous evangelism arising from quickening of the Spirit. Without these, none of our labours can advance the kingdom of God in this sinful world.
We must call upon the living God, as these Cornish Christians did, with an urgency and insistence that will not be denied. The whole Bible teaches us the absolute necessity of this. The whole history of the church reinforces the lesson.
‘We have heard with our ears, O God, our fathers have told us, what deeds you did in their days, in the days of old … Arise for our help, and redeem us for your mercies sake’ (Psalm 44:1,26).