James Caughey was an Irish-born emigrant to the United States who was converted in the times of revival in 1830-31 in the ‘Burned-Over District’ and soon after ordained to the Methodist ministry. He experienced powerful revivals in Canada but it was his revival labours in Great Britain during the 1840’s, for which he is most well known.
His early ministry fitted him for the work that was yet to come. Ordained as an elder in the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1836 he was groomed in revival practices and camp meetings. In July 1839 after reading and studying about the need of the power of the Holy Spirit in preaching he experienced a personal baptism of the Spirit.
His powerful preaching soon attracted invitations from farther afield and from 1841-1847 he was led to minister in England, mainly among the midlands and north among the Methodists. During this time he earned the title ‘King of Revivalist Preachers.’ It was during this time, when preaching at Nottingham, that William Booth was converted under Caughey’s preaching.
Caughey was a seasoned revivalist with a forceful personality, a sharp mind, a ready wit and an irresistible eloquence. His commanding height, keen eyes and strong features gave him a great pulpit presence. His preaching was simple and orthodox but shot through with insights and persuasive applications to his hearers. He effectively employed the American ‘altar call’ to bring is hearers to a decision for Christ but would also move around the hall passionately inviting sinners to the penitents bench to find freedom and forgiveness.
He claimed over 20,000 converts during this time, nevertheless he found himself out of favour with the ‘High Church’ party within Methodism who frowned upon his conversion contrivances and ‘mushroom converts.’ The more ‘common’ approach to the masses was far too demeaning for the socially advancing Wesleyan establishment. Respectability always was the enemy of revivals.
On his return to America his fame had gone before him, mainly through his ‘Letters’ describing the success of his labours in England. This resulted in innumerable invitations to preach the north-eastern United States as well as in Canada.
He returned to England for a further two years, in 1857, again reaping a great harvest of souls. There were two further visits in 1860 and in the mid-60’s.
He was a great revivalist preacher who is almost totally unknown or ignored, being overshadowed in revival history by the revivalist giant, Charles Finney before him and the towering D. L. Moody afterwards. But Caughey’s influence on the British church was far in excess of both of these men. His unique contribution was enormous. He was mightily used to fan the smouldering embers of a church which had lost its fire and had no memory of its primitive vibrancy. His converts were mainly from the unsophisticated middle and working-class masses. His emphasis on the second work of grace or ‘entire sanctification,’ along with Walter and Phoebe Palmer, did much to conserve the fruits of his evangelistic work and paved the way for the holiness and Pentecostal movements.
Bibliography: Richard John Carwadine, Dictionary of Evangelical Biography 1730-1860, 1995; Earle E. Cairns, An Endless Line of Splendour, 1986.