Of the three most powerful preachers England has ever produced, only two are well known. The first is George Whitefield and the third is Charles Spurgeon – but who is the man in the middle?
Whitefield is commonly regarded as ‘one of the greatest figures in modern evangelism’ and is rightly celebrated in Arnold Dallimore’s two-volume biography, first published in 1970. Spurgeon was the prince of preachers. Many would agree with Carl F. H. Henry who called him ‘one of evangelical Christianity’s immortals’. But what preacher stands between these two heroes?
Divine power and glory
Lady Huntingdon wrote of him with godly enthusiasm – ‘The crowds that follow him wherever he is called to preach, overwhelm me with astonishment, and gratitude to the God of all grace, who hath endowed him with such gifts. He boldly proclaims the doctrines of the cross, and the word of the Lord runs and is glorified in the conversions of multitudes.
‘Dear Captain Joss told me above a hundred awakened souls, the fruits of his preaching, have been received into the Tabernacle Society … I have attended him at Blackheath and Kennington, where the Lord blessed his testimony in a very remarkable manner. Thousands and thousands attended, and the most awful and solemn impressions seemed to pervade the vast assemblies.
‘Excepting my beloved and lamented Mr Whitefield, I never witnessed any person’s preaching wherein there were such displays of the Divine power and glory. May he who hath raised up this second Whitefield, with talents and zeal so distinguished, make him eminent in his day and generation [and] crown his message with success’.
Worthy is the Lamb
This ‘second Whitefield’ of whom the Countess spoke was Rowland Hill, the brother of Richard Hill, author of Pietas Oxoniensis. He took up Whitefield’s mantle when that great man died in 1770, just as Elisha took up Elijah’s.
Rowland Hill was born at Hawkstone in Shropshire on 23 August 1744. He was educated at Eton, where he was converted – mainly through the influence of his brother Richard. He went on to study at Cambridge University, where he formed a ‘religious club’ not too dissimilar to Wesley’s holy club at Oxford.
At Cambridge he started to preach with great fervour and stirred up no little persecution. His yearning was to have ‘a heart totally given up to God’s service; I then know that however weak I may be in myself, God’s power shall be manifested in me. I long to see myself nothing, and Christ all, to learn by experience that glorious song, Worthy is the Lamb’.
After leaving Cambridge, he had difficulty getting ordained, but that did not stop him preaching the gospel of Christ with power and success in many parts of the country. Whitefield’s death on 30 September 1770 was a great loss to Rowland and deprived him of a wise counsellor and friend.
Edwin Sidney was convinced that only one man had ‘caught the fire of [Whitefield’s] zeal, possessed similar powers of eloquence, and was actuated by the same self-denying and disinterested spirit’. That man was Rowland Hill.
Whitefield’s followers certainly flocked around Rowland. They ‘owned him as their leader, and acknowledged that their drooping cause was revived through his instrumentality, both in London and in various parts of the kingdom. His appearance in every place was the signal for revival’.
The thrilling scenes that attended his gospel preaching in Yorkshire are described in one of his letters to his sister Jane, and will serve as a good general example. ‘On Sundays large numbers went away for lack of room, while those that remained enjoyed “the sweetest waterings” that ever could be wished for.
‘Old professors were so touched that they wept uncontrollably, while whole families of children were awakened to such an extent that they spent the night agonising for the blessings of the Lord.
‘Christians were abundantly blessed and overpowered with grace, and particularly with the spirit of supplication and thanksgiving, [so] that they continually prayed or praised, unable to sleep in their beds for the joy of the presence of the Lord’.
According to Rowland, the greatest mercy was that many were ‘pricked at the heart, who before knew nothing of the Lord. In short, all in Leeds bear testimony that they scarce ever remember such an outpouring of the Spirit of God’.
After his marriage and ordination, a chapel was built for him at Wotton-under-edge in Gloucestershire. It was capable of holding 700 persons and it became his regular summer residence. However, it did not stop him from fulfilling what he believed to be his commission – to preach the gospel wherever he went.
‘Had I a thousand lives’, he said, ‘I trust they would be spent in the Lord’s blessed work. I dare not be fettered by human laws, while I am under a divine command to “preach the gospel to every creature”, and “to spend and be spent for Jesus Christ”.’
Several rich London businessmen were deeply affected by Rowland’s preaching and were eager to support him in building a permanent place of worship. After much prayer for divine guidance, Rowland and his friends thought St George’s Fields, one of the most deprived districts of Southwark in South London, would be an ideal location to build a chapel.
At length they decided to erect a building and call it Surrey Chapel (it seated about 2500). Rowland’s supporters were not only willing to contribute towards the project, but to let him spend the summer months (June – October) either travelling or at his home in Wotton, happy for him to appoint supply preachers to feed the flock during his absence.
Glory in the Godhead
At the opening of Surrey Chapel he preached from 1 Corinthians 1:23-24. ‘Christ crucified is the subject of the Bible; and this Bible we conclude to be the word of God. I have already hinted that this is the only subject which I mean to know among you …
‘We will glory in the Godhead of our Saviour, and gladly lay it as the grand foundation stone of the gospel, upon which our superstructure is built. We will make this place to resound with the honours due to his eternal and ever-blessed name, as King of kings and Lord of lords’.
Many wonderful and extraordinary events occurred in and around the chapel, and many striking conversions. So much so, that when a distinguished minister preached one of the closing sermons at the chapel (the old building being about to be turned into a commercial warehouse) he said, ‘I believe there have been more souls saved in this chapel than there are bricks in these walls’.
Even to old age
Rowland’s life was preaching. Even into his seventies he was preaching at least four times a week to his people in London and five times when in Wotton. In a letter he spoke of one of his preaching tours:
‘Old as I am, I am just returned from a long missionary ramble; but I feel I am getting old. Oh that I may work well to the last!’ Even in his old age he felt disconcerted if, on his journeys, he did not find a pulpit ready for him each evening.
‘Ever since my Master has put me into office’, he wrote, ‘I have ever esteemed it my duty to remember his admonition – “As ye go, preach”.’ When invited to houses along his route, his general reply was, ‘I shall be happy to come to you if you can find me a place to preach in’.
The last time Rowland preached was on Sunday 31 March 1833, his text being 1 Corinthians 2:7‑8. Although exceedingly feeble, he preached for nearly fifty minutes. The outline of this sermon reads rather like a confession of faith, as he mentions his conversion when a boy at Eton and the success of his early ministry.
His final appeal to the sinner is both typical and striking – ‘How will you escape if you neglect so great a salvation? You say you hope to come to Christ by and by. By and bys are not with you; you may be struck dead before your by and bys come. God be praised, we can say, “His arm is not shortened that it cannot save”; it is stretched out, even now’.
All life and fire
Eleven days after this sermon, at about twenty‑five minutes to six on Thursday evening 11 April, without a sound or a struggle, Rowland slipped into the presence of his Lord, whom he had served so faithfully for so long.
And so the man who had followed in the footsteps of Whitefield, a preacher described as ‘all life, fire, wing, force’, kept the torch burning for another in that long line of spiritual giants – the unforgettable Charles Haddon Spurgeon.
Oh that God might once again, in his grace, raise up men to follow them – in proclaiming the same gospel in the same power!