There is a genre of Christian biography which delights in recording the doings and sayings of eccentric preachers, and William Trewartha Bray – Cornish miner and Methodist local preacher, small, spare and wiry of build – falls into that category.
If his name is mentioned, most people know little if anything about him beyond the occasion when he said, ‘If they were to put me into a barrel, I would shout Glory! out of the bunghole’. There is, however, much more to this servant of God than some of his more remarkable sayings.
He was born in 1794 near Truro, in Cornwall, at the village of Twelveheads which consisted of a Methodist chapel and a few thatched cottages inhabited by tin miners. Billy’s grandfather joined the Methodists when John Wesley was in Cornwall. His father died when Billy was very young, and he lived with his grandfather until he was 17, when he left and went to Devon.
There he embarked upon a life of drunkenness, fighting, theft, blasphemy and other sins, narrowly escaping imprisonment and sometimes death. He returned to Cornwall after seven years, but was tormented by an accusing conscience and terrifying dreams.
His wife Joanna had been converted when she was younger, but had also turned back from following the Lord. Billy commented that, ‘There were some who professed to be converted before I was, but who did not love… us enough to pray with us and tell us we were going to hell’.
A new man
By 1823 Billy was wishing to live a better life, and the day came when, instead of going to work, he took a Bible and Wesley’s Hymns, went upstairs, and spent the day in reading and prayer. Days and nights of seeking followed, and found him with little appetite for food, until he found peace with God in November 1823. ‘I was a new man altogether’, he discovered.
A zeal for personal witness and evangelism was immediately born within him, his wife being the first to respond, followed by many converts. His children, brother, mother and uncle all became believers.
Such was his exuberance that he became noted for his eccentric behaviour, jumping, dancing, shouting and singing for sheer happiness in the Lord. His wit sparkled, but he had the wisdom to hold it back when he sensed that someone was merely curious about it or was simply seeking to be amused.
In 1824 he became a local preacher among the Bible Christians, one of the branches of Methodism — though at times he worked also with Wesleyans and Primitive Methodists. The Bible Christian movement arose in Devon in the early nineteenth century.
According to R. Pike’s book on the Bible Christian movement, ‘The first members were country folks. Farmers, their labourers, and tradesmen, almost entirely composed the early societies. The early Bible Christian preachers were men of natural simplicity, with a homely speech and independent views. They had the original thought of those who owe more to Nature than to books… It will be seen at once that the Bible Christian denomination… was in no sense a split from the parent body.
‘The only organic connexion between the Bible Christians and the Wesleyan Church was the slender one of a godly layman, who was cast out from Methodism because of an irregularity which was entirely to his credit … a man whose only crime was an irregular evangelism, and who had attested his love for his Church by giving the plot of land on which the chapel at Luxulyan was built’.
It is no part of this brief article to unravel the reasons for William O’Bryan’s departure from the Wesleyan fold, beyond identifying the West Country body of Christians among whom Billy Bray was brought to faith in Christ and in which he spent the decades of his service for his divine Master.
Billy Bray’s preaching attracted crowds from among rich and poor, young and old, worldly and pious, and many were converted. Preaching would be followed by exuberant worship with singing, praying, shouting and dancing, ‘scenes that were frequently to be witnessed when Cornish people got what they called “victory”’.
He defended the style of his meetings saying, ‘I was born in the fire and could not live in the smoke’. His fame as a preacher spread throughout Cornwall. In personal work he was characterised by insight into people, and forthrightness mingled with tact.
His mother gave some land at Cross Lanes, and, partly through his own manual labour, he got a chapel built on it, despite opposition from some Christians who deemed it the wrong situation, and despite temptation to stop building.
But ‘the Lord soon revived his work, and we gathered a great many members. A large new chapel has been built since. … I have seen at one time fifty down asking for mercy, and mercy they had.’
Despite his underground work at the mine, and being scheduled to preach somewhere or other each Sunday, he was soon instrumental in the building of another chapel, at Kerley Downs, also later enlarged, and a third at Carharrack.
His religion was practical also in other ways. Despite his own poverty, he often shared what little he and his family had with folk who were poorer still. He visited sick and bereaved. A friend commented, ‘He could not keep two hats two days if he knew a brother in Christ in want of one.’
He once found two small children, a boy and a girl, whose mother had died and whose father had run away. He added them to his own four children, and he and Joanna brought them up in their own family till they could earn their own living.
Even his wife was at times afraid they would be reduced to the workhouse and was downcast at his generosity to others amidst their own poverty — a poverty nonetheless shared by many believers at the time, and by preachers. His joy in, and devotion to, the Lord were thus balanced by his love and service for others.
His spirituality went to the roots of his being. It was his practice to fast from Saturday night until 4 or 5 o’clock on Sunday afternoons. He sometimes endured reproach and opposition from fellow miners for standing against dishonest work practice in the mine. His work involved a repeated risk of death in mine tragedies.
Trials of faith
Of his two sisters one had such chronic mental problems that she was a severe trial to Billy’s faith and patience. He had to resist temptations to swear, to lie, and even to commit suicide. The Devil was very real to him. After a long illness, his wife died whilst he was absent from home.
He was a staunch teetotaller, opposing moderation and zealously advocating only total abstinence. He was also strongly opposed to smoking, and himself gave up the pipe he loved, and also gave up chewing tobacco. He opposed bazaars for the raising of funds for religious work; the use of unconverted people in church choirs; and conformity to worldly practice, even the growing of long beards.
Wickes’s book on the Bible Christian movement in the West Country comments (page 36) that, ‘The Bible Christian ministry would have soon floundered under a huge burden of preaching engagements had there not existed the supportive body of unpaid part-time local preachers. The most famous of these preachers can only be Billy Bray. … Billy soon became a household name throughout Cornwall because of his witty sayings, his humour and his simple faith’.
His theology was thoroughly Wesleyan: Christ died for all: all were genuinely invited to receive salvation through faith; but those who refused the gospel would end up in hell.
Thy undistinguishing regard
Was cast on Adam’s fallen race;
For all thou hast in Christ prepared
Sufficient, sovereign, saving grace.
The world he suffered to redeem;
For all he hath the atonement made;
For those that will not come to him
The ransom of his life was paid.
Wesley’s Hymns #39
He believed in the Wesleyan doctrine of entire sanctification, and on the day he believed he experienced it he commented, ‘After the meeting was over, all around me seemed so full of glory that it dazzled my sight. I had a joy unspeakable, and full of glory’. Whatever one makes of this theology of sanctification, the experience wrought a life-long change within him.
His voice retained its cheerful, pleasing character until the end, and he continued his long journeys for preaching, and frequent services, with fasting and prayer. His final word was ‘Glory!’ He died in May 1868. Truly, the memory of the righteous is a blessing.
David M. Young was for many years director of the Albanian Evangelical Mission. www.primitivemethodism.com
Bourne, F. W. (1904) The King’s Son; or, a Memoir of Billy Bray Compiled largely from his own Memoranda (London: Bible Christian Book-Room). Quotations in the above article are from this book.
Pike, R. (1941) The early Bible Christians (London: Epworth Press)
Wickes, M. J. L. (1987) The Westcountry Preachers: a History of the Bible Christians 1815-1907 (Bideford: published by the author)