Fire from Heaven
An extract from Paul Cook's book
The years 1792-1795 were ‘days of the Son of Man’ in Yorkshire generally. Many believers in the Leeds, Halifax, Bradford and HuddersŪeld circuits looked back to that era as the time of their union with Christ.
In Sheffield, ‘the presence and power of God was unusually felt, and there was a cry among the people’. Prayer meetings multiplied and people were regularly converted in them.
John Moon describes a meeting held in the chapel when a woman was brought under such distress of soul that she began to cry aloud for mercy. The Methodists in Sheffield at that time were not used to this sort of thing. Moon himself was unwilling to entertain anything which interrupted the normal order. Reluctantly he handed over the conduct of the meeting to the local preachers and made his way to the gallery to deal with the distressed soul.
He recounts that after a hymn one of the local preachers engaged in prayer, at which instant ‘the power of God in a wonderful manner Ūlled the place. The cries of the distressed instantly broke out like a clap of thunder from every part of the chapel’, drowning the voice of the man who prayed. All over the chapel, sinners were crying out for mercy and Ūnding the salvation of God, so that ‘cries for mercy and thanks for pardoning love, ascended in a wonderfully mixed, but grateful incense, before the heavenly throne’.
All normal procedures had to be set aside as the curious made their way to the chapel to witness this astonishing work of God, many of whom were themselves seized with conviction as soon as they entered. The meeting continued until two in the morning; and John Moon estimated that as many as 70 found peace with God. The work continued with very great power for three days during which: ‘…100 persons or upwards, struggled into the gracious kingdom of our God and Saviour; besides a number that were now alarmed with a sense of their danger; husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and servants, not knowing the change that had taken place in each other; during these opportunities, we exulted together in the love of God, and admired the power of changing grace’.
William Bramwell was appointed by the July 1794 Conference to the Sheffield circuit. Under his ministry the revival continued and increased in power. James Sigston, his biographer, describes the effect of his labours: ‘The embers of love were kindled all around: when he visited the societies, he found them “striving together for the furtherance of the gospel”. Opposition was broken down, lukewarmness was destroyed, and a holy vision was maintained, and the work of God in the town and country broke out in a flame of life, and power, and zeal … wherever he went, visible signs and wonders were wrought in the name of Christ: and in the course of the first year, 1,250 members were added to the society!’
In the following two years, 1795-1797, as many as 1,700 to 1,800 were added to the society. It has to be remembered that the population of Sheffield at that time would have been barely 30,000. So amazing was this work of God that people came from many different parts of England to witness it.
In 1794, thousands were awakened and converted in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Revivals broke out in almost every society in the Leeds circuit, where 2,000 new members were added in that one year alone. In Halifax 700 professed conversion and were able to give clear and distinct accounts of the work of God upon their souls.
William Bramwell, who had been greatly used by God in the Nottingham revival of 1798-1801, was appointed to the Leeds circuit in 1801. Revival broke out again under his preaching. Within the Ūrst year the membership of the society increased by 371 members. The surrounding area was even more powerfully awakened than Leeds itself. Bramwell, writing from Leeds to a friend, the Rev. Zechariah Taft, on November 30 1802, was able to comment: ‘We had such a work in one street as I have seldom seen; many amongst those who were the worst are now become the best’.
No doubt the reader can think of notorious streets and estates in his own area over which he would rejoice to report a similar happening. Humanly speaking, it is inconceivable, but let us not forget how God works. Again, it is ‘“Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit”, says the LORD of hosts’.
In the autumn of 1805 an outpouring of the Spirit took place among the Methodists in Bradford. We are told ‘the doors of the Octagon Chapel were scarcely ever closed for more than ten weeks by day or night, often a full congregation retiring to Ūnd an equally large company awaiting entrance’. 900 new members were received into fellowship before the year’s end.
In 1807 the early beginnings of Primitive Methodism had taken place at Mow Cop in Staffordshire where their Ūrst camp meeting was held. There were some mighty men of prayer among them. One of these was a quaint character from the East Riding of Yorkshire by the name of John Oxtoby. Born in 1767 near Pocklington, he had lived for 37 years hating religion and indulging in every form of wickedness. But in 1804 he was awakened and came under a terrible conviction of sin. After suffering great agonies of soul he was wonderfully converted. In 1824 he entered the work of God full-time, and we are told he did so ‘like a boxer wanting to give a knock-out blow to Satan’. Much could be written about this remarkable man, who became known as ‘Praying Johnny’ because, as Joseph Ritson expressed it, ‘his power lay in the spiritual realm and there he was indeed a prince of God. Six hours each day he usually spent on his knees and in this way he girded himself for his amazing conquests’.
One of the most memorable of these was the manner in which he ‘took’ Filey for the Lord by prayer in 1823. Filey, a Ūshing village in the East Riding, was noted for its wickedness and pagan practices. Attempts had been made to establish a work there by the Primitive Methodists in Bridlington, but the work had proved fruitless and a proposal was made to abandon it. John Oxtoby objected. ‘What will the people say about praying and believing?’ he interjected. ‘Let me go.’
When he reached Muston Hill and viewed Filey in the distance, he fell upon his knees in a dry ditch and began to agonise with God. A miller passing that way thought he heard two men arguing. But it was only one man praying. He was engaging in ‘the argument of faith’ with his God. Eventually God gave Oxtoby the assurance that his prayers were answered. He ‘rose in faith’ and exclaimed, ‘It is done, Lord! It is done! Filey is taken! Filey is taken!’ So he descended into the town: and it was taken!
Oxtoby believed that ‘the Lord gave me 80 souls while I was praying in the ditch this morning’. He preached through the village and in the house of a Mrs. Gordon, the wife of a coastguard officer and ‘one of the most remarkable and useful women Primitive Methodism produced’.
50 of the 80 were saved. A great revival swept the town which completely transformed its moral and spiritual tone and laid the foundations of a powerful church which continued in strength into the 20th century. Many of the Ūsher folk became shining examples of virtue in contrast to the slaves of vice which once they had been.
The statistics of the 40 societies of Primitive Methodism in the Yorkshire Wolds, published 50 years later, gives the membership of the Filey society as 269, with a regular congregation of 600 — as large as the Beverley congregation. Such is the power of true revival.
As we have observed, the general outlook of the Wesleyan Methodists in the early decades of the 19th century, before Charles Finney’s ideas began to inßuence evangelical life in this country, was that when the work of God languished they needed to seek by earnest prayer a sovereign intervention of God.
In the period 1816-1820 the Wesleyan Methodists saw an increase in membership of only one per cent each year, far less than the population growth. They knew something was wrong — the blessing and manifest presence of God had departed from them. They called a fast day for special humiliation and prayer for the revival of the work of God. This was followed in 1821 by a widespread revival which added 9,000 members to their churches. The Methodist Magazine of 1821 reported extensive revivals throughout the country. In Liverpool 30 to 50 conversions were taking place weekly; and in Sunderland a great reviving had added many to the societies — one chapel alone received 100 new members. In the following year, 1822, at the Methodist Conference it was reported that 12,000 new members had been added to the churches.
In the early 1820s local spontaneous revivals in Baptist, Congregational and Methodist churches were so numerous that they ceased to be reported as unusual events. God had come to his people in answer to their prayers.
This article is a slightly edited extract from Fire from Heaven by Paul Cook, recently published by Evangelical Press (Ŗ8.99, ISBN 978-0-85234-709-6), and is used with permission.