One would have thought that a man commended by Spurgeon (Sermons 1,538) would be better known among us than he is. Certainly his preaching sometimes produced extraordinary scenes, but he did not encourage excitement any more than Whitefield or Wesley. His own words are revealing: ‘We rejoice and work, not [only] as persons who have surrendered ourselves to God, but out of loving gratitude as those who have been changed by him to this end’.
Close to death
We first meet William Haslam in London during 1841. He is about twenty-three, an MA, and about to be married. After ordination he planned to settle down as an efficient country parson.
No doubt he would have done just that had not his fiancée suddenly died. The shock triggered off that nineteenth-century killer, tuberculosis. Three doctors gave him up for dead, one of his lungs being inoperative, and the other badly affected.
During his illness, however, he received a strong impression that he would recover, and by the spring of 1842 he felt well enough to accept the position of curate at Perran-zabuloe in Cornwall.
Nothing to give
His main achievements in this place were the restoration of the church building and the excavation of the lost 6-7th century British Church of St Piran, for which few modern reference books give him credit. His activities so impressed the Bishop of Exeter that he appointed Haslam to design new ‘Peel’ districts under the Church Extension Act.
Meanwhile, his parishioners were getting nothing spiritual, for the parson had nothing to give. Soon a feud sprang up between minister and congregation, and Haslam moved on.
He was offered Baldu, one of the new ‘Peel’ districts. It was a desolate, barren place, and he had to build a church, manse, schoolhouse and everything else that was needed. By now he had a new fiancée, and was about to be married.
What he did not know was that he was an answer to the prayer of that remarkable Cornishman, Billy Bray. Years before, Billy had been walking over this very ‘ungain’ place when ‘Father’ (God) said to him, ‘I will give thee all that dwell in this mountain’. At the time there were only three ‘housen’ in the place, and Billy prayed for more. How pleased he was when he learned that the place was being built upon, and a church was going up fast. He paid a visit, but was not impressed with the new parson’s preaching.
Building from the top
Haslam went to work with enthusiasm. The new parish of Baldu looked promising, yet there were a number of things which puzzled him. For example, one day while he was discussing plans for the new spire, an elderly lady who was sitting nearby in a wheelchair asked, ‘Will you build your spire from the top?’
It was an odd question, but it was not asked in jest. She meant something Haslam could not follow. He still went on ‘building from the top’, teaching people to live before they were born.
At last the beautiful church, with its supper-altar, candles, triptych, and coloured windows was ready, and the Priest of Baldu had arrived. At that time the doctrine of salvation by Christ alone was anathema to him, and he publicly flogged a schoolboy for daring to go into a nonconformist chapel and come out converted.
But for all this, he found that his own church tracts made less impression than those published by the Religious Tract Society. So he went along to the shop where they were sold. ‘I was ashamed to be seen coming out of the shop’, he wrote later; ‘and more so, because I had this large evangelical parcel in my hand’. Three people professed conversion through reading these tracts, and another returned one by John Berridge heavily marked. The sender wanted to know its meaning, which Haslam did not know himself.
A crisis came when his gardener, John Gill, was converted. He complained about it to his friend, Rev. Robert Aitken of Pendeen. ‘Well’, replied Robert, ‘if I were taken ill I certainly would not send for you … for you are not converted yourself’.
‘Not converted!’ exclaimed Haslam; ‘How can you tell?’
‘I am sure of it’, replied Aitken; ‘or you would not have come here to complain of your gardener. If you had been converted, you would have remained at home to rejoice with him’.
Aitken advised him, ‘If I were you, I would shut the church, and say to the congregation, “I will not preach again until I am converted. Pray for me”‘.
The following Thursday, Friday and Saturday passed, each day darker than the preceding one, until by the Sunday morning Haslam was in no state to take a service. Before he could make up his mind to cancel it, however, the church bells began to ring for morning service, and a congregation was gathering.
He thought he had better go along and read the morning prayer without preaching: ‘And while I was reading the Gospel, I thought, well, I will just say a few words in explanation of this … So I went up into the pulpit and gave out my text. I took it from the gospel of the day – “What think ye of Christ?” (Matthew 22:42).
‘As I went on to explain the passage … something was telling me, all the time, “You are no better than the Pharisees yourself – you do not believe that he is the Son of God, and that he is come to save you, any more than they did”‘.
He could not recall all that he said, but he later explained: ‘I felt a wonderful light and joy coming into my soul, and I was beginning to see what the Pharisees did not. Whether it was something in my words, or my manner, or my look, I know not; but all of a sudden a local preacher, who happened to be in the congregation, stood up and shouted out in the Cornish manner; “The parson is converted”‘!
The cry of the lay preacher was inflammatory, and immediately the whole congregation began to shout and praise the Lord, except a number of Haslam’s favourite churchmen, who quailed in terror. Instead of rebuking this extraordinary outburst, as he would previously have done, Haslam gave out the Doxology to make it more orderly.
When the noise subsided there were at least twenty people crying for mercy, among them three from the manse. Probably one of these was Mrs Haslam, for she appears to have been converted around this time. The news spread that the parson had been converted by his own sermon, and the church could not hold the crowd who gathered in the evening.
Haslam’s conversion occurred around October 1851, and it was followed by a revival, which continued for nearly three years. During some periods there were greater manifestations of power than at others. Of course, there was at times excessive emotionalism, but without doubt many were convicted of sin, and earnestly sought the Lord. Backsliders from far and near were restored.
Haslam was always afraid of any kind of outburst, which might be seen as brawling in church. Sometimes meetings went on all night, and at others the church would suddenly be thronged with people from miles away.
After a time Haslam accepted that these gatherings, without human hype or organisation, were from the Lord, and prepared for the coming harvest. Obviously all this was hot press, and the nineteenth century media did not fall short of their twenty-first century offspring in exaggeration.
Trusting Christ only
Haslam thought he would end his days at Baldu, but a rift opened up between him and his parishioners. He was not just a revivalist, but the locals wanted revival all the time, and rejected his teaching on the deeper things of the Lord.
Again he moved on and, for a time, with a family of seven and three servants, he lived on faith, preaching where invited. Then suddenly Lord Palmerston offered him a living in the diocese of Exeter. He accepted, but said: ‘I wondered whether God was tired of me! … I began to like living by faith, and trusting him only’.
We have covered only some fifteen years of Haslam’s life in this article. His subsequent ministries included Hayle, Bath, Buckenham and finally Curzon Chapel, Mayfair. Wherever he went sinners were convicted, and lives were transformed by the power of God, something the previous nine years of sacramental preaching never achieved.