Born in Elswick, Lancashire to wealthy Christian parents William Bramwell, became an outstanding evangelistic preacher ministering in a number of Wesleyan circuits.
While apprenticed to a currier his passion for the truth led him to serious Bible study, resulting in his conviction and conversion. Disappointed with the lack of fellowship amongst the Anglicans and deeply impressed by reading John Wesley’s works, he decided to join the unpopular ‘Wesleyan devils.’ Thereafter he devoted himself to the service of Christ and preached with extraordinary power for the rest of his life.
He also exercised the gift of ‘a word of knowledge’ sometimes revealing, with amazing accuracy, the private details of those to whom he ministered. The bulk of his revival ministry was in Yorkshire, Nottingham, Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford, Sunderland, and etc. He saw genuine awakenings everywhere he went. His policy was to expect a revival and he would devote himself to prayer until the blessing came.
This book is a brief but powerful introduction to the life of this extraordinary man.
WILLIAM BRAMWELL, like many of the earlier Methodists, came from a godly and severe Church of England family. His father was a farmer in the Fylde district of Lancashire, and the boy received the simple education provided in village schools in the eighteenth century. The year of his birth was 1759, and at the age of sixteen he was sent to business in Liverpool. He was, however, an abnormally serious boy, and was so horrified at the dissipation of Liverpool that it was not long before he found his way back to his father's farm. He was then apprenticed to a currier in Preston. He was what we should consider today morbidly scrupulous, and was in the habit of accusing himself of subtle sins which he tried to conquer by fasting and other mortifications. The story of the discomforts which he felt it his duty to inflict upon himself is pitiful and rather absurd, but it must be remembered that that sort of thing had at one time a considerable vogue, and that the Fylde was then, even more than now, a predominantly Roman Catholic district. At this time some one lent him the writings of Wesley, but, after some deliberation, the young ascetic returned them saying he dared not read them, 'as he was fearful of the tendency which they would have to destroy his religion.' He was quite right. His religion wanted destroying, and Wesley would certainly have done it. A Preston Methodist, Roger Crane, took a great deal of trouble with the youth, and tried to persuade him to attend Methodist preaching, but at last Bramwell confessed that his father had exacted a promise from him that he would not hear any of this 'despicable community.' How Bramwell finally came under the influence of Methodism is rather a curious story. Near his master's shop lived a wicked old woman whose profanity was a great trouble to Bramwell. He wrote her a letter in which she was plainly warned that her destiny was to burn in hell. Deeply affronted, she called round to tell Bramwell he was 'a Methodist devil.' With a smile, Bramwell turned to a fellow workman, and said 'Robert, did you ever hear the people called Methodists?' And the upshot was that the two went to a small house where the Methodists held services, finding not more than a dozen persons there. Very soon Bramwell became a member of the Methodist Society.
This was a great annoyance to his parents, but Bramwell would not turn back. Wesley happened about this time to come to Preston, and Bramwell met him and derived great help from his visit. He was appointed a class-leader, and soon afterwards a local preacher. He was passionately in earnest from the first, and under his preaching there were some remarkable conversions, one of the earliest being that of Ann Cutler, a woman who became eminent for holiness and usefulness.
Not long after his conversion he felt called to the ministry, but so impressed was he with the solemnity of this vocation that he passed through long agonies of prayer and self-searching under the stress of his inward conviction of a call. Meanwhile he remained for some years in business at Preston, and laboured unceasingly as a local preacher.
When the Liverpool circuit was enlarged and a request was made for an additional preacher, Wesley wrote to Bramwell requesting him to take up the work. He at once obeyed, but his Preston friends were so afflicted by the loss of this pillar of their work that they succeeded before long in persuading Wesley to send the young preacher word that he must go back home. Bramwell took this as a providential indication that he was not to be a minister. He therefore commenced a business for himself, took a house, and arranged for his marriage. At this point, however, another strong man intervened. Dr. Coke tried again and again to induce the young man to go to Kent as a minister. At last he agreed to go on condition that Dr. Coke would secure Wesley's consent to his being married when he returned from the South. In the winter of 1785, therefore, Bramwell, having purchased a horse and a pair of saddle-bags, made his way over the three hundred miles from Preston to the Kent circuit. Here he gave himself up to evangelism with a fervour prophetic of the burning zeal which was to make his name so famous. On one occasion, for instance, seven men were to be hanged in public at Maidstone, and Bramwell went over and insisted on preaching to the mob drawn by this horrible fascination. Some shouted, 'Knock the fellow down! Kill him!' but at last he contrived to preach.
In July 1787 he returned to Preston and married Miss Byrom. Almost simultaneously the Conference appointed him to Lynn. In those days to go from Preston to Lynn was a great undertaking, and Bramwell and his wife had each some little property which they wished to settle before leaving home. So the young preacher wrote to Wesley, reminding him that he had promised Dr. Coke not to hinder his marriage, and asking for a more convenient circuit. Other older men backed his request, but Wesley was too much of the captain to listen to that sort of thing, and Bramwell remained appointed to Lynn. However, he did not go; he stayed at Preston. It looked once more as if his career as a minister was doomed, but it so happened that the man appointed to the Blackburn circuit, of which Preston was then a part, died on his way to the circuit. Wesley, with characteristic magnanimity and humility, at once appointed the recalcitrant Bramwell to fill the vacancy.
At Blackburn he suffered persecution. One man used to set bulldogs upon him, and many a fight did the young preacher wage with an iron-shod stick on these ferocious creatures. He was often wounded, and all through life he retained a horror of dogs. From Blackburn he went in 1789 to Colne. During these four years in Lancashire he was laying the foundations for a remarkable ministry. He was very generous, both he and his wife parting with their property to help the poor. He had the happiness of children in his home; and we read, with reminiscences of the Wesley family, that 'he determined to break their wills at an early period, and not suffer them to cry aloud in his presence after they were ten months old.'
It was in Yorkshire that Bramwell spent most of his life, and won his great name; and we therefore follow him with deeper interest when, in 1791, just after 'Wesley had died, he crossed the border and went to live at Dewsbury. Several times in his life it was his lot to be stationed where there were hot and disastrous disputes disturbing the Church. He was an admirable man to be placed in such difficulties.
He was indisputably holy, a man of most extraordinary power in prayer, always fervent, perfectly guarded in speech, and utterly free from a partisan spirit. At Dewsbury the trustees had appointed a minister of their own, and the chapel had been lost to Methodism. Bramwell declared that he could not find in the circuit 'one who experienced sanctification,' and that there were very few who were clear as to the forgiveness of sins. It will be found that, to the end of his life, wherever he went his first inquiry was about those who 'experienced sanctification,' and it would be to miss entirely the lesson of Bramwell's life if we did not thoroughly examine his teaching and testimony on this part of Christian doctrine. It will be better, however, to deal with the subject by itself later on. The new minister at Dewsbury at once set on foot prayer-meetings held at five o'clock in the morning. Be sent for his friend, Ann Cutler, to come and help him. These two were giants in prayer. In the early hours of the morning they were, each of them alone, wrestling mightily in prayer. They never ceased. Week after week, month after month, they prayed on, till they broke down the great frost that had gripped the Methodists of Dewsbury. His first year Bramwell described as 'a year of hard labour and much grief,' but in the second there came a great revival. He became immensely popular. But that does not mean anything sinister. This popular preacher kept on, undeviatingly, with his praying; he visited constantly from house to house; he lived a very strict life, and he ruled the church with a severe discipline; he preached constantly the conversion of sinners and the sanctification of believers.
In 1793 he was appointed to Birstall. In a few months Birstall was swept by revival. But here there arose an unhappy state of things, of which Bramwell was to have fuller experience in the future. He had a colleague who disapproved of revivalism, and thought it his duty to oppose what was going on. Under his influence the leaders also held aloof. It was not long before this difficulty was surmounted, but it occupied a much larger place in Bramwell's life than that of a mere passing incident in the Birstall circuit. Further on we must return to this, when we come to sum up the work of Bramwell as a revivalist.
To Bramwell revivalism was genuine hard work. Just before he left Dewsbury a friend, the Rev John Kershaw, stayed in his house for six months. He gives the following account of some of Bramwell's exertions: 'Ionce accompanied Mr. Bramwell from Dewsbury to Wakefield in the afternoon, for the purpose of assisting the Rev. Richard Reece in holding a watch.night. Mr. Bramwell preached. We continued the service, as usual on those occasions, until the New Year was ushered in. After taking some refreshment we rode home, the parish clock striking one as we passed along the street. It was more than two o'clock when we retired to rest. The next morning (the Sabbath) he was in his closet at half-past four o'clock--near his usual hour--pouring out strong cries and tears to God. We breakfasted at our accustomed time, seven o'clock. He walked about two or two and a half miles to preach at nine, and afterwards renewed the tickets of a pretty large class. From that place he walked about three miles further; dined, preached, met two or three classes, and preached again. Afterwards he travelled upwards of two miles more on foot, and preached a fourth sermon. This done he returned home, walking five miles back. He then sat down to supper, ate his meat with gladness and singleness of heart, and with cheerfulness also. Having finished his repast, he rose from his seat exclaiming, "Brother Kershaw, I could do it all over again. I am almost as fresh as I was in the morning." The next day he was in his closet at his usual hour-four o'clock.'
In the closing years of the eighteenth century Sunday night after-meetings for prayer were very unusual in Methodist chapels. They were not indeed 'unknown, for Alexander Mather says, in a description of the revival which was appearing in various parts of the North, 'The preachers everywhere, after the usual services, held prayer-meetings: all who could conveniently remain united to implore a general blessing: and the Lord, with had inspired the desire, granted their requests.' One of the places where these prayer-meetings were established was Sheffield, and the Methodists of Sheffield believed that their prayers were answered when William Bramwell, an entirely unknown young man (for in those days fame came slowly, especially to the young), was sent to live amongst them in 1795. Sheffield was an enormous circuit. The Rotherham circuit had just been cut out of it, and in 1797 the Doncaster circuit was formed, but after these two important reductions of its area it still had sixty-six places on its plan, in addition to Norfolk Street Chapel, which was the head of the circuit. Carver Street Chapel was still ten years off when Bramwell was appointed to Sheffield.
In the months immediately before Bramwell's arrival there had been quite a notable movement. One of the ministers was so overjoyed that he declared his belief that the millennium was at hand. The new minister, however, was rather seriously disappointed. Writing, soon after his arrival, to a friend and fellow minister, Joseph Drake, he says, 'Ibelieve God has sent me here, but I cannot yet tell why. We have house, friends, and everything that we want in this way: yea, there is an uncommon sociability among the people, and apparently much plainness and simplicity. But real religion, the image of God, is everywhere much wanting. Ever since I came I have been among the Derbyshire hills, except the first night of my arrival, when I preached in Sheffield. The Societies in the fortnight ride are small; and after diligent search (for I have met the Societies at every place) I have not found one person that knows the virtue of Christ's cleansing blood. Yet there is great friendship; and it appears I am received by the people with much respect. I have had the Lord with me this fortnight at several places. Almost every night there has been a shaking among the people; and I have seen nearly twenty set at liberty. I believe I should have seen many more, but I cannot yet find one pleading man. There are many good people; but I have found no wrestlers with God. My wife has been at all the meetings in the town whilst I have been out: but no work of God is visible. All is quiet; and, I believe, nearly all the people are peaceable and kind. Indeed there is everything but depth of religion. They tell me there are at least three thousand hearers at the chapel on the Sunday evenings.'
Soon, however, things altered. Writing to the same friend in December he says, 'There is a revival in most places and in some of them it is a great one.' Norfolk Street Chapel became so crowded that 'hundreds could not enter.' And this was the case' every Sunday morning.' Another letter written in the same month shows that the tide was flowing strongly. 'I have been employed in giving tickets to about twelve hundred people in Sheffield.. . . Many members have found sanctification. I have not met, I think, above three classes in which some have not obtained deliverance-sometimes five and more. Last Sunday both chapels were filled, and at Garden Street, after preaching, the power of God descended. A cry went through the gallery. I left many in distress. I cannot tell what numbers received mercy.'
Three months later he writes: 'A great work is still going on-we are obliged to try vast numbers. We use every means to know the wheat, and to preserve it, in the early period of its growth, from the tares. I hope that in this we shall be directed. Every day souls are awakened and converted in the distant parts of the circuit, and a great number in Sheffield have received sanctification and live in its enjoyment.'
After another interval of three months his report is: 'The work still goes on and deepens exceedingly in this circuit; souls are yet brought to God every day. Some remarkable conversions have lately taken place amongst the aged. . . But I see Satan laying plots every week to hinder and destroy.' At the end of this wonderful first year of Bramwell's Sheffield ministry it was found that the number of church members had increased by 1,250.
Whilst he was in Sheffield there was much painful controversy over the question of administering the Holy Communion in Methodist chapels. The Conference was so sorely perplexed that on one occasion it resorted to the weak method of drawing lots as to its decision. But upon the whole Methodism was then, as it seems always to be, progressive and liberal, but cautiously and slowly. The country was passing through a ferment of Radicalism, largely under the fascination exerted by the French Revolution, and Methodism found its Radical Rupert in Alexander Kilham. He poured scorn on the somewhat mincing steps with which the 'Society' (not yet, by far, daring or caring to call itself a Church) advanced towards independence, and after sundry somewhat stormy adventures was eventually expelled from the Methodist ministry. The younger ministers were all more or less suspected of harbouring Radical tendencies, and they thought it wise to draw up a humble memorial to their elder brethren assuring them of the unabated loyalty of young Methodists. In common with the rest, Bramwell was considered to be one of the malcontents. Whether this suspicion was in his case well-grounded it is not easy to say, but Kilham found in Sheffield some very substantial support, and it was said that a thousand members in that city seceded to the New Connexion.
Probably the feeling against Bramwell sprang from another source. All his life he was very fearful about the spiritual condition of the Methodist preachers. One of the dangers of extremely earnest evangelists lies in this direction. Often they find it impossible to keep out of their minds the suspicion that their brethren are not as earnest as they should be. Only a day or two before he died Bramwell returned from a session of Conference, and sat down wringing his hands and crying, 'Lord, have mercy upon us! It is all over with us!' Many times he solemnly declared that 'the glory had departed.' It was this apparently constitutional fearfulness which prompted him to write a letter, whilst in Sheffield, to every superintendent minister. Let us remember that the man who wrote this letter was well under forty years of age, and a minister of only some twelve years' standing, and perhaps we may understand the fact that he brought on his unlucky head an avalanche of obloquy, and that by some he was scarcely forgiven to the day of his death. The whole need not be given, but part of it was as follows:
'DEAR BRETHREN,--My mind has been so deeply impressed with the present state of our Connexion, and I feel such an anxious solicitude to avert every impending evil, that I am compelled to break through the barrier which my deference to your superior judgement would create; and faithfully, yet affectionately, to make this one solemn appeal to you all.
'I have long been penetrated with the liveliest sorrow at perceiving an evident decline of that burning zeal, that active perseverance, that vital holiness, that lamenting love, which actuated the first Methodist preachers: and which enabled them victoriously to triumph over every obstacle. Having their heads filled with a sense of the important undertaking, the fire burning iii their own hearts, and swallowed up by love for souls that were bought by the Redeemer's blood, they scorned to lose a moment in disputing about external forms: they deprecated every strife but the noble strife of excelling each other in enlarging the Redeemer's Kingdom. Alas! my brethren. We have entered into their labours, but have we retained their spirit?'
It is a long letter, all in the same tone, and we will be content with picking out a few more sentences.
'We are fully satisfied that it is not church government, or any other outward form, which causes the present agitation and division: but that God has a controversy with us as a body. We want the power of religion among ourselves.'
'We may be proud, passionate, envious, malicious, covetous, self-willed, brawlers and triflers, given to jesting, yea, tipplers, and yet remain travelling preachers.'
'We may lose our first love, zeal, faith, patience, hope, yea, every grace-and yet go round the circuit, carrying about the ghost of a preacher, "who, being dead, yet speaketh?"'
'Brethren! Brethren! Is it not time that something should be done to reform ourselves? Have we not for years been labouring for forced unity and external peace, debating on forms and shadows, and thereby departing more from our centre?'
One cannot read all this without amazement. Perhaps it was true. Perhaps the staid and hard-working superintendents ought to have bowed meekly under the rod laid so lustily across their shoulders by the stripling from Sheffield. But as a side-light on the simple, unsophisticated, unworldly enthusiasm of Bramwell himself it is supremely interesting.
THOSE who know well that remarkable assembly, the Wesleyan Conference, will agree that whilst its individual members may be men of very human passions, the Conference itself, in its corporate capacity, is astoundingly gentle and good-humoured and forgiving. It is always proud of any one who does a good thing well. And Bramwell, having been the soul of the Sheffield revival, was forgiven for his epistolary bomb-shell, and found himself promptly re-appointed for a third year, a trust which in those days was rarely reposed in young men; and after that, sent, as a mark of peculiar confidence, to Nottingham. This town had lost a large part of its members to the New Connexion, and, worse still, it had lost its chapel, so that the preachers had to preach in houses or in any sort of building that they could borrow. Led on by Bramwell the Methodists built Halifax Place Chapel. The story of this enterprise is very wonderful, and the reader should note the dates. On May 28, 1798, Bramwell, still a Sheffield minister, arrived on a fortnight's visit at Nottingham. Next morning his host told him that for nine months they had been seeking in vain for land on which to build a chapel, and Bramwell, according to his usual custom, immediately got his friends to join him in prayer on the matter. Then he set out to search the town, and came back declaring he had found a site. The supposed owner was at once asked if he would sell, 'and after a short pause that worthy gentleman said, "I will let you have it."' It was then discovered that the site Bramwell had seen and the site bought by the Nottingham people were not the same; but all was well, for Bramwell's site had already been refused to them, and the other they had never thought it any use to ask for. On Sunday, June 10, Bramwell preached, and told his congregation land was bought, and invited them to come and dig out the foundations. They came on the Monday morning, and on Wednesday, June 13, the first stone was laid. Mr. Tatham, the head of a long line of Nottingham Methodists, said, 'The foundation was dug out and cleared away by the extraordinary exertions of our friends, without any expense, during the two preceding days, although the rock in some places was ten, in other six, and in none less than three feet, below the surface of earth; but the joy of the Lord being their strength, every mountain became a plain.' The work, begun at such a high speed, was carried through in the same way, and on December 2-that is in less than six months-Dr. Coke opened the chapel. [This of course was a much smaller chapel than the present one on the same site-Halifax Place].
Bramwell, fervent evangelist that he was, did not greatly enjoy the chapel-building part of his work. 'I found things flat in Nottingham. Building chapels are hard times. I have found very few in this circuit that know anything about sanctification. God be merciful to us! 0 save us, both preachers and people!' Bramwell, however, was not the man to do only what he liked doing, and he took his full share of begging. Conference had arranged for collections in many parts of the country to help Nottingham and Huddersfield, the two towns that suffered most severely by the schism, and Bramwell travelled to various towns to plead his cause. He paid an unannounced visit to his old friends at Sheffield. 'The sight of him produced an astonishing and almost electrical effect upon the Society. The people could not sing, nor could their beloved minister preach or pray without the most powerful efforts and frequent interruptions. When the object of his visit was known, the people vied with each other, and seemed as if they would pour in their whole store. Their bounty was so lavish, that he had to restrain the feelings and limit the donations of many, till, oppressed with the torrent of love and gratitude, he suddenly left the town, to prevent the poor from exceeding the proper bounds of their benevolence.'
Bramwell remained in Nottingham three years, and witnessed a considerable revival throughout the circuit. At the opening of the nineteenth century the country passed through deep poverty, and in many towns there were serious riots. In Nottingham Bramwell gave away practically all he had, and provoked his people to great generosity.
In 1801 Conference was held in Leeds, and Bramwell was appointed one of the three ministers then stationed in that town. He was very joyfully welcomed by some, but there were others who feared that so earnest a revivalist would prove to be but a poor preacher. This, however, was doing Bramwell much injustice. He appears, indeed, to have been, from every point of view, a preacher of exceptional industry and power. He diligently studied the Scriptures in their original tongues, and he by no means despised the aid of learned commentaries. In the early hours of the morning, and right on till noon, he was regularly labouring at his Bible for the benefit of his congregations. Some of those who often heard him have left a record of their impressions. His friend, Henry Longden, of Sheffield, tells how he always insisted on justification, and sanctification, and faith. 'Yet,' he adds, 'he did not exalt these doctrines and depreciate others; he published every doctrine of the gospel. The style of his composition was peculiarly his own. His sentences were generally short and terse, containing much point, and calculated to convey instruction and conviction directly to the mind.' He had a powerful voice, and a strong and rather burly frame. He was decidedly unconventional, for when he had finished preaching he would there and then name a few persons in the congregation and ask them to pray, or he would himself sometimes break out into singing in the middle of his own prayer. His choice of texts was sometimes peculiar, and his expositions were now and then quaint and colloquial. One of his hearers says on one occasion, 'This free discourse was delivered in my native village, and knew that many people of frivolous minds, and others who were confirmed scoffers, attended our meetings for the sole purpose of carrying away everything which they could turn into ridicule. I therefore trembled, while Mr. Bramwell was preaching, lest the uncommon remarks which he made should become food for scorners, and furnish a fund of laughter for their wicked companions.' He then tells how the preacher awed the congregation by saying, 'If any person go from this place and attempt to scoff at the word of truth which he has heard, or the use which I have made of it-in the name of God I here charge that person to answer at the peril of his soul, for such an act of profanation, before the bar of the Great Judge of quick and dead.'
But Bramwell was anything but a mirth-provoking preacher. There have been such; it may be there still are; but this man was not one of them. People who listened to him when in his prime, that is to say during his Leeds ministry, have spoken with manifest awe of the painful solemnity with which he conducted his services. 'Such perhaps would be his agitation at times that his sermon would be taken from him, so that, without the immediate help of God, he could not preach at all.' Bramwell himself often speaks of the extreme nervousness with which he contemplated preaching to large congregations. 'Preaching,' he once said, 'is my cross.' 'But, after a few sentences have been pronounced, the inward pressure vanishes, and "that Eternal Spirit" (to quote the magnificent prose of Milton), "who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, sends out His seraphim with the hallowed fire of His altar to touch and purify the lips of His servant." Thus kindled, he plunges into his subject. It is difficult to hearken long to that earnest, exciting voice without feeling some perturbation of mind, pleasing or painful. You can scarcely gaze upon his solemn but animated countenance and glowing eye, without experiencing a kind of fascination. It is evident that he has some grand object before him, in which his whole soul is engaged. This man, you say, is in earnest; he is no hypocrite, no heartless retailer of the sublimest truths in the universe. He is a sincere believer, a genuine worker. He preaches, in fact (to use an expression of King James's)' "as if death were at his elbow."' The same observer whose words we have quoted gives a detailed account of one of his evangelistic sermons. To us it would seem grossly realistic. It deals with the end of the world-' The world in a blaze.' But though the phraseology, and even the thought, have passed away with the process of the suns, there is in the sermon the noble tenderness, the yearning, pleading passion which must never pass away unless the pulpit is to cease to be the power which calls men to salvation. 'The climax,' we are told, 'was one of startling grandeur, enhanced by the solemn, impressive delivery of the minister.'
His friend and biographer, James Sigston, was a schoolmaster in Leeds, and his judgement of Bramwell as a preacher is of much interest. He says that Bramwell was well versed in arts and sciences, could read the Scriptures in the original tongues, and knew French. He never preached without having a well-planned and carefully constructed sermon. 'That he had good natural talents,' says Sigston, 'is unquestionable; but the entire abandonment of the wish to shine was the most consummate victory he ever achieved over the flesh. He saw that the heart remained unchanged after the most studied harangues and eloquent orations. The weapons' he wielded were faith and prayer; and when he beheld Satan's kingdom falling beneath their powerful agency, he scorned all adventitious aids, considering them destructive of simplicity and effect.' A letter of Bramwell's to a young minister contains this advice: 'Keep to plain words, yet not mean ones. Strive to save souls in every sermon. They are the best preachers who bring souls to God.'
Whilst in Leeds Bramwell saw much spiritual prosperity. A class-leader and local preacher gives the following account of the work. ' At that time five classes met in High 'Street, St. Peter's; and the number of members added to them was very great. It appeared as if all the inhabitants of the place would soon be converted to God. Their minds were so much affected that those who had been the most profligate ceased to persecute, and many of them began to pray, while others were filled with surprise at what God had wrought. On perceiving this, as I was then the leader of two classes in the street, I visited every house between the top and bottom of the street, on both sides, and spoke as faithfully as possible to each family respecting the salvation of their souls. I found many, whom I little expected, to be truly awakened to a sense of their danger through sin, and engaged in seeking the Lord in secret. Several of this description were desirous of meeting in class with the people of God, that they might enjoy the communion of saints; but they had not been previously invited. Joy evidently glistened in their eyes when they heard that I was come to seek the wandering sheep, and to give them an opportunity of receiving religious instruction. Great numbers of them in those days forsook all their sins, and followed the Lord with purpose of heart.' It is no doubt to this that Bramwell refers in a letter: 'We have had such a work in one street as I have seldom seen; many amongst those who were the worst are now become the best.' Alas! High Street, St. Peter's, is still there, and would be much the better for a recurrence of the revival of those days.
In 1803 Bramwell removed to Wetherby, a country circuit near to Leeds, now merged in a more modern grouping of circuits. Here also came the revival, but Bramwell was much straitened in a circuit of little congregations. Perhaps his experience in that year gave point to a letter written from Wetherby to a brother minister in which he uses these prophetic words: 'I have for years seen the evil of subdivisions of circuits, and had strength to say to the Conference that we could not remain much Longer in this way. But it is worse and worse. Preachers are put upon the rack for temporals, while souls are perishing for hunger of the Word. I mean to say all my mind again on this subject; besides, it has an enervating effect upon us, and we become like other men. Iwould have you remonstrate by letter to the Committee, and tell them to unite the circuit again, and beg of them to do the same with many others. There are a number in the same situation.'
After one year at Wetherby, Bramwell went to Hull. We can gather from his letters to his friends that here also many souls were convert-ed. For instance: 'God is working here, and in the circuit, in the same way as before; but not so generally. At one country place forty have joined as members. Some are Roman Catholics, and among them a fine young man who was clerk to the Romish priest; this has given great offence.'
'I bless God. I grow in grace! I live in union with Christ, and am much nearer the throne. I am more than ever pursued by Satan: I fight daily, and hope to overcome. I see the Lord working in this circuit more than at the beginning, but the work is not general. Souls are saved; but oh, I want to see much greater things. I never had greater power in preaching. Pray, pray, pray for me.'
For some years at the end of the eighteenth century and at the beginning of the nineteenth, Methodism, especially in the North, passed through an extraordinary revival. Bramwell certainly bore a great part in this movement, and perhaps he, more than any other man, may be taken as the typical revivalist. But there were many great men in that day. In 1799 Jabbed Bunting entered the ministry, and though he is always remembered as the great Methodist statesman, it is said of his preaching that under it large numbers of people were often cut to the heart and cried to God for salvation. In the same year Robert Newton was received as a~ preacher on trial. Newton would not be classed perhaps as a 'revivalist,' but his preaching was constantly attended by conversions amongst his hearers. Another of the young men of Methodism was Richard Watson.
Adam Clarke and Joseph Benson were older, but were still full of power as evangelistic preachers. Gideon Ouseley also entered the ministry in 1799, and William (or 'Billy') Dawson became a local preacher in 1801. 'Sammy' Hick was already hard at work. With such men scattered about, it is no wonder there was a great revival. We have seen something of Bramwell at Sheffield, and Nottingham, and Leeds. The year 1805 closed with an extraordinary revival at Bradford in which, so we are told, 'the doors of the chapel for ten or twelve weeks were hardly ever closed day or night, one party of worshippers frequently waiting without till those who were within had finished the appointed hour of service. Hardly could a discourse be begun before it was interrupted by the sobs and prayers of awakened souls, and preaching had to give place to intercession. Love-feasts were held in the open air, as no chapel could accommodate the multitudes which flocked from the neighbouring circuits.'
If we take Bramwell's impressions as a correct reflection of facts, we must conclude that the revival was not altogether welcome to some of the ministers of Methodism. It is very difficult to judge. It has been already observed that Bramwell seemed to have a constitutional fearfulness, and one must not forget this in reading his lamentations over the coolness of some of his brethren in this matter of the revival. But probably there was some foundation for his fears. A hundred years ago there were not the perfect means of spreading information which lie ready to our hand to-day, and it was very easy for Leeds to have a distorted image of a man who was very well known in Sheffield, or for Hull to be far astray in its estimate of a man who had captained a movement in Nottingham. Moreover, the Church, as such, is very rarely the friend of revival. Ever since our Lord found that those who most feared and hindered His work were the leaders of the Jewish Church it has been the way of established and organized religion to suspect the irregularities of the reformer. John Hus and Martin Luther were the victims of the Church and not of the world, and it was usually the village parson who rang the big bell and headed the mob when John Wesley appeared to preach. And it is probably only too true that within ten years of Wesley's death the Methodist revivalist was met with some coldness and suspicion even in the bosom of his own evangelical Church.
Perhaps we may even be honest enough and modest enough to discern that this is still where our danger lies. It appears to be an ineradicable idea of the average Christian officer that revivalism is sheer and unordered emotionalism, that it has no rules, no method; that it requires little beyond stoutness of lungs and endurance of body; and that, most certain thing of all, any sort of preaching will serve its purpose.
It may be worth while therefore to consider Bramwell as a revivalist. He was that, not occasionally, but always. He never entered a circuit but he set himself designedly, from the first day, to 'get up a revival.' Let us see how he went about it.
He began by praying. There is something perfectly dumbfounding about Bramwell's praying. He always began at four in the morning, or in the depth of winter at five. It is in vain to plead that he went to bed early, for very often he did not. He held late after-meetings just as we do, but at four next morning he was at his prayers. From four to five he prayed for his wife and children, for his circuit, for his class-leaders, for the revival, and for many other things. It was known what he prayed for, because he prayed aloud, sometimes very much so, and any one could list en who cared to. At five he sometimes had a prayer meeting to attend. If not, he went on at home reading and praying, praying and reading, till his breakfast hour. After that he spent his mornings in hard study, often breaking off to pray. In the afternoons he always visited from house to house, and would never allow himself to leave any house without praying there. Often he followed the old fashioned pastoral habit of going out to tea, but he always stoutly refused to take any part in trivial conversation. One of his friends, Thomas Pearson of Gomersal, has given an account of his pastoral visits. 'When Mr. Bramwell preached at Gomersal, he generally remained all night at our house. It was his constant practice, as soon as dinner was over, to pray in the family, and then to visit the neighbours from house to house. In this way he generally called on seventeen or eighteen families before tea, and prayed with each of them. I was accustomed to invite a few of our friends to take tea with Mr. Bramwell in the afternoon. Affectionate inquiry was made into the state of each person's mind. They who had not received the blessing of justification were urged not to rest till they had obtained it; and they who were justified, not to rest till they were sanctified and made new creatures in Christ Jesus. After supper, he and I conversed some time about the affairs of the Church at large; he then prayed and retired to rest. Although Mr. Bramwell was greatly fatigued with the work of the day, and, when at our house, went to bed late (generally about twelve o'clock), he always rose the next morning at five, and prayed for particular persons by name, and for every society throughout the circuit.'
Another intimate friend of the Sheffield days gives a similar account. 'These visits were short and spiritual. If possible, he would have the whole family collected, and having ascertained their several religious states, he would pray for each by name. The rich and the poor were admonished: growing evils in families were destroyed in the bud: parents, children, and servants were taught their proper duty.'
It would be the easiest thing in the world to enlarge upon our changed circumstances, and to show that this sort of thing is quite impossible to-day; but let us first of all try to get a fairly complete picture of Bramwell. Let one more extract be given, more surprising to the modern mind than those already quoted. During Conference in the year 1804 Bramwell went to a hospitable house for tea. Before they sat down to the table 'Mr. Bramwell and the rest of his friends engaged successively in fervent prayer. At tea he ruled the conversation so that not a sentence concerning politics, the common topics of the day, the foibles of the neighbourhood, or any indifferent subject was permitted. The attention of the company was directed exclusively to the great concerns of their present and eternal salvation. It was not long before a person present advanced something irrelevant to the single aim which this man of God held so tenaciously in view; but he suppressed it immediately by exclaiming, "Now we are wandering from the point again."'
Again it may be said, nothing could be easier than to criticize this. To rule the conversation' is, in modem parlance, to make yourself a bore. No gentleman would do it today. But it is worth while to take note that this revivalist was not a gossip, not a scandal-monger, not a retailer of silly and self-laudatory anecdotes. He never relaxed his zeal, never sheathed his sword.
Bramwell's daily prayers occupied several hours. Under special circumstances, such as finding the circuit to which he had been appointed in a low spiritual condition, he made colossal exertions 'in prayer. When in Leeds he used to go now and then to Harewood, staying with Mr. Richard Leak, preaching at Alwoodley Gates. There was a wood adjoining Mr. Leak's house, and here Bramwell would bury himself in prayer, becoming entirely oblivious of the flight of time. Often he would pray on, in a loud voice, for four hours. At Hull he got from one of his friends the use of a room in a secluded part, and he would shut himself up to pray there for six hours at a stretch. And this was not spasmodic; all his life he prayed on this scale.
In his circuits he gave great attention to 'Bands.' As the institution is now obsolete, it should be explained that Bands were little companies of about three, who met regularly and dealt most confidentially and plainly with one another in matters of religion. A 'Bandmeeting' was a meeting in which the Bands combined, and Bramwell made great use of these Band-meetings.
At these, and in his public services, he urged with great earnestness the doctrine and experience of entire sanctification. Leaving this subject, however, but only for the moment, let us trace the revival of which Bramwell was so central a figure.
Revivals have been a perplexity from the days of John Wesley down to the Welsh revival of a year or two ago. The one thing that is always said is that they are confused and disorderly. This is undoubtedly, to some extent, true. In one of Bramwell's circuits his colleague could not endure the apparent disorders, and he felt it to be his duty to withstand the movement. But happily he soon felt himself able to support his colleague. Alexander Mather gives an account of what he saw at Hull. 'One hindrance,' he says, 'to such displays of the awakening power of God as were manifested in other places, was a too anxious attachment to decorum and order; and consequently a strong aversion to loud lamentations and cries, especially in the public congregation. However, this difficulty was surmounted, and in some degree we were willing to let God work upon the minds of the people which way He pleased, although we should incur the disagreeable reproach of being accounted enthusiasts. The circumstances of two or three persons praying at the same time, in different parts of the chapel, while some were encouraging the distressed, and others praising the Lord, occasioned some idle bystander to report that it was all confusion. But the seeming disorder, as matters then stood, was unavoidable, nor did any disagreeable consequences follow. There was nothing irrational or unscriptural in these meetings. It was perfectly natural for sinners who were overwhelmed with a sense of their sin and misery, to cry aloud for help to Him who is mighty to save; and on some occasions to be inattentive to every surrounding object. They cried aloud, for the disquietude of their souls, as if only God was present, and the sole spectator of their sorrows. When the answer of peace returned, it was no wonder if their joy was as excessive, for a time, as their preceding sorrow had been.' The wise and earnest men who were the leaders of this great evangelistic movement were not blind to these dangers. Bramwell issued the following rules' for the guidance of others.
1. Never let more than one person pray, or be heard to pray, at the same time.
2. Let all in the congregation, who feel what they utter, at the close of each petition say, Amen.
3. Never sing praise till the person engaged in prayer has concluded.
4. Persons in distress may be spoken to by others at the time of prayer; but with a low voice.
5. When a soul is saved (whether it be justification, sanctification, or backslidings healed), whoever becomes acquainted with the circumstance, let him make it known to the preacher, or the person who conducts the meeting, that the singers, with the whole congregation, may give thanks.'
To a friend in the ministry Bramwell writes,
'Hold no meetings altogether public, except preaching. Dismiss all who choose to go at the appointed time: and then meet the society, or have a prayer-meeting, as you may think proper.'
A letter to his intimate friend and valuable helper, Mary Barrett, should be quoted almost entire.
'I have long thought that your labour may be attended with greater and more lasting blessings in the following way. Suppose you were to conclude sooner in the evening, go to rest sooner, and sometimes meet all that would come in the morning. A number who receive good through your labours, and who love you, sink deep into sloth from your example of lying in bed. Not considering your labours, but following your practice as a plea, they afterwards sink a whole society. I think this may be prevented. Unless the people improve time they never can stand long; and the greatest means in the world is rising early, and spending some time with the Lord before worldly business commences. I want all your fruit to abide, or at least the greater part. Now as the great work of our salvation depends on our diligence, and as the people will look at our example, even years after we leave them, is it not possible that you) and all of us, may show this example to the Churches? But there can be no harm in trying; and this is the least you can do. First, to dismiss the people-all who choose to go after preaching. Then, to have what kind of meeting you choose, but to dismiss them again in an hour. Then to go yourself positively. If any remain in distress, leave the work in the hands of others. Retire, and as soon as you have got supper, go to rest, having previously published that you will meet all that will come, either in the chapel or in some house, in the morning. Let this be sometimes done; but never lie long in the morning, unless you be sick. You will stand your labour better by being often at it, than by being too long at the same time.'
To recall the stirring days of that revival, to study such extracts from Bramwell's sermons as have been preserved, to read the letters and diaries of the time, must inevitably raise in thoughtful minds some serious questions. What are we to say, in the twentieth century, of this sort of thing? It is unquestionably gone out of the Churches. Here and there it remains, but, at any rate in England, there is very little of it. Methodism has become a numerous, a wealthy, a cultured and an influential Church; its buildings were never so large or so beautiful; it has its representatives not only in Parliament, but in the Cabinet and in the House of Lords. It counts amongst its members quite a large number of titled persons, and amongst its ministers at least some of the foremost scholars and reformers and public met in the country. It is a national, indeed an international, Church: the largest Protestant community in the world. Has it become inevitable that revivalism should cease to hold in that Church the great position it once held? This might be contended, and probably will be, with much reasonableness and earnestness. It may be argued that our main duty now is to provide, in the interests of the great multitude of members and adherents, the recognized and seemly opportunities for Christian worship; or to take our place in the comity of Churches as the exponents of doctrine and the defenders of the Catholic faith; or to train our children in the discipline of the Christian life and the responsibilities of the Christian Church. Of course these things do not exclude revivalism. They do, however, as a matter of fact, relegate it to a very subordinate position. No one could say that revivalism is excluded from modem Methodism; but, in the form in which we meet it in Bramwell's day, it does hold a very subordinate position. Men of name and prominence are not identified with it, nor are the Churches which are accounted the most important.
Yet England has, perhaps, as great a proportion of irreligious people new as it had a hundred years ago. At any rate the number is very large indeed.
Revivalism need not always be of the same kind. If we do not have awesome sermons now on, The Pale Horse and His Rider,' or if we seldom bear 'a cry go through the gallery; we may be just as much soul -winners as our ancestors were. Yes, we may be; but are we? Probably not by any means. Full chapels and churches are rare, we are constantly being told of a dearth of conversions, and there are many whose hearts ache over the heavy-driving wheels and the slow, slow progress of the evangelistic Church of Christ.
Can Bramwell, master of revivalism, the man who never failed, to whose call there always came before long the breath from the four winds,-ca.n he teach us anything? If he cannot, it means that the Church which has stood all through its history for evangelism no longer holds its distinguishing commission. It is by no means a piece of sectarianism which makes the Methodists feel that to them God has specially committed the care of the great instrument in the armoury of heaven which men call the revival. It is not arrogance; it is simple reading of history. But there is not very much evangelism of the Bramwell type left amongst us.
This may, or may not, be a reproach. It may be advance and development; ii may be that it is one more sign that God will not allow one good custom to become a tyranny. But, on the other hand, it may mean torpor, retrogression, absorption in second-rate matters, strength dissipated on 'mint and anise and cummin.'
A full discussion of this subject is not possible here. It would need to take into consideration the vast growth of population, the drifting asunder of employers and work-people, the increased wealth of the mass of the people, the rise of education, the spread of newspapers, the establishment of evening technical classes, the enormously swollen craving for pleasure, the creation of the social conscience, and many other such things.
And perhaps if it 'were possible to conduct a complete examination, the conclusion might be that we cannot reproduce in the twentieth century the scenes of the opening years of the nineteenth.
What, then, are we to do? What is to take the place of the old sort of revivalism? It is sheer despair which leads a man to say, as was said not long ago, that in the next revival we shall send into the slums, not a mission band saying, 'Come to Jesus,' but the medical officer of health with power to rase the slum to the ground. By all means let the medical officer of health try to abolish the slum, and let us all help him. But it is not the slum-dweller only who needs to 'come to Jesus.' Park Lane needs to come. And unless modern Christianity can feel at home in a revival it is a spurious counterfeit. There is nothing for man's salvation (and he cannot do without salvation) but Jesus Christ and Him crucified. And it will always remain true that the sight of Him will agitate the convicted sinner. To be born again will always involve throes and travail. We are in the same danger that Alexander Mather found at Hull, 'a too anxious attachment to decorum and order.' We ought to consider whether it would not be a blessing to ourselves, as well as a door of hope to the unsaved world, if we were swept and broken up by the strong gales of a new revival.
But shall we have to pay Bramwell's price? Is it possible for us, and necessary for us, to pray as he did? Shall we need to rise early, as he did? Perhaps not. Each man has to follow the leading of God, and it is not unfair to reckon Bramwell as an extreme man. But we must certainly be somewhere along his lines if we are to see the wonders he saw. And prayer is a very urgent question in these days. Many churches have no prayer-meetings, and many more have seen them dwindle down to next to nothing. The days of revival, moreover, have been days of fellowship. It was not always that Christians met and exchanged the relation of 'experience,' or gave their testimony'; yet the social element of religious life had full expression in some way or other. Our days are witnessing an anxious rediscussion of the obligations of Church membership, and it is found impossible to eliminate the demand for fellowship. But there are some who claim that common intercession and pleading is a valid, and the best, kind of fellowship. However that may be, in so far as prayer has fallen silent amongst us there will be, there can be, no revival.
But the wonderful thing about Bramwell was his own secret praying. If he asked others to join him, he meant to join him at the same time but not in the same place. When he prayed he shut his door. It is hard to know what are the personal habits of Christian people to-day, but we begin work as soon as we rise, we toil on all day, our evenings are crowded ;- when can we pray? That is a question every one must answer alone. But if we come to the conclusion that a few minutes are all we can find each day, we may be able to answer for it and justify ourselves, but revival does not come that way. Readers of the Life of Thomas Collins will remember how he also was a man of great persistence in prayer. Often his were early morning prayers, but the regular practice of his whole life-time was to secure an hour at noon for secret intercession.
Why should this be impossible now? We are burdened with multitudinous duties, we are caught in the race of life, we are bound fast to complicated organizations; but the men who would have the courage to cut out one hour each day and keep that for prayer would become the greatest evangelistic powers in the modern Church. Many sigh for revival, and are disappointed that its coming tarries so long. Perhaps this is the way in which we should reach it more swiftly and more surely than by any number of discussions and conferences.
Chapter 1. The Early Years
Chapter 2. The Revival
Chapter 3. The Prime of Life
Chapter 4. Entire Sanctification
We have included 2 of the 4 chapters.