An early death at the age of thirty-six in 1755 deprived John Cennick of the renown enjoyed by the other great preachers of the Evangelical Revival. He is relatively little known apart from a few of his 750 hymns, such as ‘Children of the heavenly king’ and ‘Lo! He comes with clouds descending’ (subsequently much amended). But like Charles Wesley in his early years, Cennick was better known as an outstanding preacher than as a hymn writer.
A new and thoroughly researched biography of Cennick by Peter Gentry and Paul Taylor entitled Bold as a lion is to be warmly welcomed therefore.
Both authors have Arminian leanings but this does little to diminish their admiration for Cennick – whose biblical Calvinism was akin to that of George Whitefield. Chapters in each volume of Arnold Dallimore’s biography of Whitefield first kindled a strong affection for Cennick in the heart of this reviewer.
As one of the leaders of the Evangelical Revival, Cennick’s winsome life and effective gospel preaching well merits this further biography. Helpfully divided into two sections, historical and theological, and including a chapter on his hymns and poems, the book is attractively illustrated by maps and colour photographs.
The authors have made excellent use of source material and included many interesting details. But for them to suggest that those who adopted the Calvinistic view of election did not also believe in salvation through repentance and faith (pp.31,51f) is historically inaccurate and theologically untenable. Cennick would have strongly disagreed!
Hopefully, this aberration will not prejudice potential readers against an otherwise admirable book.
Cennick could be described as the first lay-preacher of the Evangelical Revival. Although his early education was meagre, he was soon recognised by Whitefield and Wesley for his obvious ability and preaching gift. He preached first in Kingswood (Bristol) in June 1739, where he had gone at the request of Whitefield to take charge of a school for colliers’ children. The power of God resting upon him was such that he was soon preaching to thousands with great effect.
He quickly dissented from the perfectionism of the Wesleys, and in May 1741 Whitefield appointed him as his lay assistant, leaving him in pastoral charge at Moorfields Tabernacle in London. In the years 1741-44, his herculean labours in Bristol and London were greatly prospered, and he also preached widely in Wiltshire and Gloucestershire, establishing many religious societies.
The spiritual qualities of the early Moravians attracted him, and in 1745 he aligned himself with them. But he was little affected by their more extreme emphases. In May 1746 he ventured to Dublin where large numbers were converted under his preaching.
Early hostility had the effect of attracting even greater numbers and he preached to thousands in the open air. Of the building he used regularly for meetings we read, ‘Cennick … had to climb through a window and creep on the heads of his people to the pulpit’.
In the late 1740s he extended his endeavours to the north of Ireland where he established a permanent base for himself and his family. Over the last seven years of his life he is reputed to have established 220 societies there. Worn out by his ceaseless toil, he died on a visit to London on 4 July 1755.
Love for Christ
There was something about the children of the Evangelical Revival that set them head and shoulders above believers today. They knew a dimension of spiritual life to which most of us are strangers.
It comes out in the life of John Cennick – a depth of spiritual experience, a joy in God, a love for Christ, a compassion for the lost, an uninhibited zeal for God. It is all there, as it was in the lives of the Wesleys, Whitefield, Grimshaw, Ingham, Selina, Harris and countless others.
Cennick’s great hymn, ‘Jesus, my All to heaven is gone’, throbs with it, and ends with these vibrant words:
Now will I tell to sinners round
what a dear Saviour I have found!
I’ll point to thy redeeming blood,
and say, ‘Behold, the way to God!’
What was the key?
What was the key to it all? It would appear to be the place they gave to the person and work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. In an address to ministers, Cennick expressed it thus: ‘I wonder exceedingly how some men can read the scripture constantly, and yet altogether neglect the gift of the Holy Spirit; for there is scarcely any prophet that has not mentioned the promise of him; and we can scarcely open the New Testament but we find Jesus and all his servants confirming the blessed doctrine.
‘How frequently is it repeated – The Holy Ghost shall come – He shall be in you – He shall abide with you for ever – He will lead you into all truth – Your Heavenly Father will give his Holy Spirit to them that ask him – Ye shall receive the Holy Ghost – And indeed none are the children of God, and Christ’s disciples who have not him in their hearts. See Romans 8:9; 1 John 5:13; 2 Corinthians 13:5’.
Sharing the life divine
The same emphasis comes out powerfully in the hymns of Charles Wesley:
Send us the Spirit of thy Son
to make the depths of Godhead known,
to make us share the life divine;
send him the sprinkled blood to apply,
send him our souls to sanctify,
and show, and seal us ever thine.
So shall we pray, and never cease,
so shall we thankfully confess
thy wisdom, truth, and power, and love;
with joy unspeakable adore,
and bless, and praise thee evermore,
and serve thee like thy hosts above.
The Charismatics with all their emphasis on spiritual gifts have actually neglected the Holy Spirit himself – as is evident from their hymns. And the Calvinists, with all their love of theological precision, have lost this dimension of biblical Christianity. We need to recover it. It is to be hoped that this easily read biography will encourage us to do this, and that the book will secure a wide distribution.