Part III - The Unity of the Spirit
20 - Changes
IN the winter of 1844 died Mr. Thomas Nunn. "A fortnight before his death he had the heaviest conflict he ever had in his life; but as his end approached he was so comforted he said he had never expected that the Lord would deal so gently with him. "Is this death?" he asked; "How peaceful and quiet! How happy! Let me lean my head on your shoulder; the Lord reward you all for your troubles"; and he breathed his last in his chair; none perceiving when."
The last record of those meetings held at Mr. Nunn's house is in a letter from Matilda to her nephew Joseph Benson, in October 1842. She says, There was a large meeting at Mr. Nunn's last Thursday evening. The conversation was very instructive, particularly what was said on the subject of abiding in Christ, which Mr. Burrell began with, and Mr. Nunn for a time carried on, and Mr. Bourne when it was dropped caught up again, and which then ran through the whole meeting. Many things were said concerning it: - What it is to abide in Christ; the effect it produces in our hearts - hatred to and departure from sin; the love of God and the nearness of access to Him which it brings us; the curse that remains upon all who are not in Christ; the impossibility of any being united to Him who were not given Him by the Father before the foundation of the world; then the secret workings in the mind of all such as are His; their frequent fears, especially lest they should not be among that blessed number; their restless anxiety to find a sure testimony from the Lord that they may know their names are written in heaven; and if they get that testimony how they rejoice in it, and if they lose it how they mourn in secret before God, and cry till He again hears them and shows them His salvation".
These things had become very real to Matilda. A few weeks later, writing to Mr. Bourne's eldest daughter she said, "Oh what extreme darkness all those passages of Scripture which speak of God's light shining into the soul were to me, before I had any experience of what that light of life could mean! But when the Lord was pleased to fulfil them in me, and make Himself known to me as my Saviour and my Redeemer, then I knew that no words could be too strong, or even strong enough, to express the great reality of what I felt. . . . Give my most affectionate remembrances to your father: my heart is with him in what he is doing at Pulverbach".
Catharine, too, looking back when these meetings had come to an end writes, "I have often compared the instructions we received to those which the pilgrims received at the House Beautiful, and have felt it might be said that we were shown Moses" rod, the sling and stone with which David slew Goliath, the hammer and nail with which Jael slew Sisera, Jacob's ladder, the golden anchor, and the pitchers, trumpets, and lamps with which Gideon put to flight the armies of Midian. These things and many more, set forth the spiritual instruments by which the servants of the Lord have done so many mighty works, even "wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight", and so on".
Catharine's life now took an unexpected turn. She was "for the first time in her life attacked by a serious illness". It was a gradual paralysis which affected her whole system. [Would we call it polio nowadays?]. She appears to have been able to get about but the most grievous aspect of it to her was deafness, which slowly increased upon her. "This affliction cutting her off, as it did, from the outward hearing of the Word, and the conversation she so much valued and really delighted in (for she would enter into the subject of religion always with the deepest interest), was for many years through temptation, a galling trial to her, rendering her path peculiarly lonesome". She still moved about from London to Hertford or to Pulverbach, but experienced much heaviness of heart. She says, "I felt I must search the Scriptures night and day if I might find hope in the mercy of God; and this I often found in such words as these - "Who knoweth if He will return and repent and leave a blessing behind Him?", feeling as if God repented of the evil He had thought to bring upon me. And once about this time a letter from Mr. Bourne reminding me of Stephen's steadfast looking up into heaven and seeing the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, reached my heart and brought me composure and peace."
It was given to Catharine, however, to be a messenger of peace to poor Martha Burgwin at Habberly down the valley. Martha says, "Miss C. Gilpin called upon me, and some things she said kindled in my heart, and what she left me to read [Would it be some of Mr. Bourne's letters?] was blessed to me. She invited me to come to her house. This, after a few months, I did. I had to go secretly on account of my husband, he was so prejudiced. I was knit to the Misses Gilpin after their conversation to me: and whenever I could get over to Pulverbach it was refreshing; but I was so tried I hardly knew what to do, and often had to retire to my bedroom alone. Once my husband provoked me so bitterly that I said within myself, "The more I pray the worse it is". Then this word came, "Will ye also go away?" and I said, "No, Lord, wilt Thou hold me?". I was so ashamed of myself, for the Lord's mercy was sweet to me. When I first came to hear the preaching at Churton I came by stealth. The Lord did not seem to bless that journey. I thought I had come in a wrong spirit, and the enemy tormented me about it. I have felt these words at different times respecting my lone path, "What I do thou knowest not now, but thou shall know hereafter", and these. "Be still and know that I am God."
A change was pending now in the life of Mr. Bourne. On his return from Pulverbach and Hertford in 1844 a feeling came over him that he was now set aside as a useless and fruitless branch. Two years before he had said in a letter to Mr. Burrell, The poor people of Shropshire seem very ardently to desire my company amongst them once more. My prayer is "If Thy presence go not with me carry us not up hence". The fear of refusing to give my labour where the Lord calls for it, and the fear of going without the approbation of the Lord, bear very heavy upon me at times; and I am sure I have need of your prayers and the prayers of the rest of the friends that I may never be like the disobedient prophet, but may walk very tenderly before the Lord".
Now, he wrote in his diary, "I told the Lord of my great love to the people at Pulverbach and Hertford, and said, "Lord, Thou hast made me faithful, and I have still a longing desire to tell Thy people of Thy faithfulness and truth, but I feel now shut out from all hope of ever being profitable to any." While I was thus mourning, it was kindly whispered in my heart, "Have patience and you will see an opening by and by"." One or two things seemed to half open towards him and then closed. "I heard," he says, "of some of the colliers at Pulverbach about to leave that place for want of work, and to go to the neighbourhood of Abergavenny. Finding that there were amongst them some of the families whom I loved in the Lord, I began to feel my heart drawn out to go and see them; but I presently found that this also was not the way appointed of the Lord, but I must wait and watch further."
Not many days after this Mr. Bourne heard of the sudden illness and presently the death at thirty-five, of Mr. E. C. Willoughby, of Sutton Coldfield, in Warwickshire, and how at his end he had most earnestly warned his relatives of the dangers of a false profession of religion. The friend who told him pressed him to go and set before them the truth as the Lord should enable him. Mr. Bourne had been thinking much of Samuel being sent to anoint one of Jesse's sons to be king, and how one after another was presented, looked the likely one, and was rejected. And now he felt it powerfully, "Arise, for this is he". Much conflict followed as to how he could step in there. Mr. Burrell said to him, with great tenderness and affection, "Be sure you have clear work in this affair". After much prayer he went, held one or two meetings, first in an upper room, and presently in the large hall of Mrs. Willoughby's charming house. (She had been a Jeffreys before her marriage.)
This continued from May to October, when Mrs. Willoughby gave up her home, and Mr. Bourne returned to London. But such had been the stir that he was soon invited again, a large upper room found for him, and in a very little while a chapel was built at Maney, a village close to Sutton Coldfield. The anxiety expressed by Mr. Willoughby on his death-bed that the truth should be preached in his town induced one of his relations to offer 200 towards building the chapel, and "it pleased God", writes Mr. Bourne, "to move our kind friend Mr. Maddy [who had lived with the Bourne family, you will remember, as a tutor for years] to buy the ground adjoining the chapel and build a cottage for our accommodation".
Mr. Bourne then left London and lived as Pastor of Maney Chapel until his death eight years later.
And now a little about Mr. Willoughby. Born in 1810, of an aristocratic family, he "was debarred from inheriting his old family estates by a singular concurrence of "accidents", so at fifteen he entered the Law. He was very delicate, having asthma, and of exceptionally tender conscience. Once, instead of doing some office work on Sunday, as apparently his master expected of him, he sat up most of Saturday night and rose early on Monday morning to finish it, yet was so reserved and timid that he could not bear his action to be commented upon. In 1839, when he was twenty-nine, he married into the Jeffreys family, and came into contact with one or two - Charles and Henrietta among them - who were partakers of the power of the truth. Soon after his marriage he began family prayer, and was very earnest in spirit. In about 1842, he visited his uncle, Charles Jeffreys, at the house in Dorset Place, London, where the young Bengal officer, Francis, had died. While there he saw the little account that had been written about this. He opened the booklet at night, and read it all through with most serious attention. He found fervent prayer awakened in his heart that he might be a partaker also. He never forgot that time, but referred to it on his death-bed as a period when he found real access to God. The next morning he had a long talk with Charles, telling him all the difficulties of his life and earnestly asking his prayers.
"This special awakening was by no means followed up as it should have been," (it is Bernard writing). "About this time the world began to enchant him, and he was beguiled to seek rest where he could not find it. Finding an accession to his means, he bought a very pleasant house and grounds, which, with domestic comforts and the society of many friends to whom his house was open, became his idols. He was aware that these things, especially worldly society, brought deadness into his heart, and he would often say he ought to break it off, for among many bad consequences it made him powerless in family prayer - indeed ashamed of it. He presently gave up extempore prayer, and only used written forms for a time. He became increasingly afraid of conversing on religion, and such as tried to reason him out of his convictions of ignorance and lack of real feeling by strings of texts became acutely painful to him. His bondage increased as outward things flourished, and he would often say, "Every outward prospect is fair about me, but emptiness and vanity are still written upon all".
"After about two years he got a gradual rise to hope in his spirit, and again occasionally was able to pray in his family. Encouraging portions of Scripture seemed to really fasten on him; one such being, "They shall never perish, neither shall anyone pluck them out of My hand". A friend called that day, to whom he spoke earnestly on those words, clenching his hand with deep feeling, and enlarging on the strength of the expression. Still he never felt satisfied. Though he often now rejoiced, it was with fear. He clung to hope. He used to say, 'surely, surely, those promises are for those who need them, for instance, such as I am. They are not there to deceive us".
In 1844 his asthma got worse and his professional business proved too trying for him. Some months later when a consultation of physicians took place, his case was declared hopeless. He considered the decisiveness of this opinion as a peculiar blessing from God to awaken him to spiritual diligence. A friend [perhaps Mr. Bourne?] who had written seriously to him now had a reply in which he said, "Your letter has made a sad hole in my comfort which only God can heal. Surely I am in some degree the smoking flax".
"Then Charles Jeffreys was asked to come and talk with him. Charles was reserved at first, but soon found out the earnestness and simplicity of his nephew's spirit, and exhorted him to take hold of that hope and press on. Later he felt he had no discovery of the forgiveness of his sins nor could understand how it could be made clear. But he sought for it and felt its necessity. One day, after being very quiet he broke out, "I cannot see my sins now! I have not been able to see them all day! They are gone - all pardoned !". For a long time before this he had complained of great distraction in prayer, and complete deadness "in it, but now life, love, and spiritual liberty operated freely and he continually said, "May I be kept close, close to Christ".
"Once he said, "What floods of tears should be shed in these last times by us who are universally made to believe that the devils are as it were dead or asleep, whereas they are ruling with most horrible tyranny, taking the name of Christ and his saints to establish their own ends. This is done to deceive the weak". He would continually caution his wife to endeavour, if possible, that the people of the town should have someone to declare faithfully the truth, and on no worldly account whatever was she to be content herself without a faithful ministry either there at Sutton Coldfield or elsewhere. He declared that all had been mercy throughout (though he had suffered much pain). But towards the end he had another sharp conflict (after saying the Lord had healed that 'sad hole in his comfort"), and great awe filled his spirit as he prayed, "Oh, I am in the dark. I cannot see how it will be. Pray hard! Pray vehemently. Pray that I may keep close to Him". His changes were rapid and repeated, and at the end he said, "The Lord has drawn me through the strait gate!". He grew weaker and passed away April 6th, 1845, aged thirty-five.
"On his tomb at Sutton Coldfield is engraved a verse of Cowper's substituting the word Christ for God. He repeated this verse with unforgettable power a few days before his death -
Christ shall rise and shining o"er you Change to day the gloom of night. Christ the Lord shall he your glory, Christ your everlasting light."
It might interest some readers for mention to be made here of a visit Mr. Bourne paid within these years to Birkenhead. Many years earlier his cousin, Mr. Timothy Bourne, had been a member of Mr. Burrell's congregation, but had since moved North. He was a merchant of Liverpool who lived in Birkenhead, and he invited Mr. Bourne there, and hired a room for a meeting. This was in Hamilton Street, off Hamilton Square, the Town Hall square of Birkenhead in whose fine houses many Liverpool merchants lived, walking down to the ferry to cross the Mersey to their offices. Mr. Timothy zealously published his cousin's coming and asked many to come and hear. Mr. Bourne felt many tokens of the Lord's merciful favour in taking him there, but found that very few attended, and presently he writes, "I may yet hope that there will be found some even of the respectable merchants that have heard me here that will prove to be His people. But these rich ones speak and walk too freely, and therefore I fear that they will in the end profit very little. I perceive that rich people will show themselves independent both of God and man; they suppose they have full liberty to hear when and where they like and to think for themselves. "Money is a defence". These things try me, yet the Lord often gives me patience, and makes me very watchful that life may be kept up in my own soul".
Mr. Bourne was there six weeks. Later in the same year Charles Jeffreys left London and removed to Birkenhead. He preached in that same room for four years with much spiritual unction and power but very little (apparent) success. In 1851 he emigrated with his family to New Zealand.
January, 1848, was a sad month up in Shropshire. Samuel Hughes lost two little girls by death on the same day, and in his little book of hymns and spiritual songs he has written a very touching poem about the event.
At the Rectory, old Mr. Gilpin died, aged ninety years and ten months, and very soon the house had, of course, to be vacated. (A descendant of Rebecca Hughes can still show the Rector's desk lamp that was given as a memento to Rebecca, and sundry samplers that were the relics of those earlier days.) The poet brother Charles left the district, Mercy and Jane took a house in the village, and Margaret travelled down to Norton and lived with Frances.
It seems possible that this arrangement, instead of being a comfort was an added trial to Frances. As has been noticed, the name of Margaret never figured alongside Mercy and Jane, and although she travelled North to her relations at Scaleby, notably after the shock of Elizabeth's accident, we read nowhere of her going south to Matilda or Bernard. Had she been in heartfelt sympathy, even if unable to enter into the controversy, we should surely have found an indication somewhere of this. But there is none, and we are left to wonder if her silent orthodoxy and possible shrinking from them helped to weight down the burden of those days. If so, it would not be the first time that silence and disapproving looks, quite apart from argument, have been used by the Lord for the discipline of His children, though He may bring both sides out of it all triumphantly, as He did in this case eventually. For Margaret emerged in her old age with a precious testimony of being one of His family, and is included in the Six Sisters of the Memoirs.
But to return to 1848. It looks as if on the death of her father she preferred to live with her clergyman brother-in-law rather than with her unorthodox sisters. The reason one wonders if this was an added trial to Frances is because there seems no alleviation whatever to her great burden. Later that year the diary reads, 'seldom have I felt more oppressively burdened than on this day, myself so weak and helpless to meet the painful difficulty and opposition in my way. I had to fall before the Lord with the cry of the children of Israel, "O Lord, I am not able to come before this great multitude". I was given a firmness which seemed like a strength beyond my own, and a cleaving to the truth which had caused the division so heart-rending".
Now comes a little comfort. As the Lord brought Mr. May-dwell to be a support to Bernard in his distresses, so He granted Frances the sweetness of having her son Charles home from London. He now began his practice as an architect at Yeovil, which was not far distant, and he and his mother were "closely united in spirit". Over the years Frances had, in her quiet way, made some real friends to whom she could talk, and presently we read, "For some months past I have been particularly impressed to entreat the Lord to make manifest His true people in this place and effectually to call them out of darkness into His marvellous light".
She now made visiting a matter of much prayer, and one of her sons leaves the tribute that 'she was herself made a great blessing to many, especially to the poor of Christ's sheep in the neighbourhood in which she resided". It was not easy to her. She says "I cannot describe the ignorance I feel on these occasions as to knowing the right thing to say, and the fear lest I should speak without the Lord's help and direction and blessing; and yet with this feeling of self-inability and ignorance I am pressed to go, and encouraged to seek His help; and though with no clear and powerful persuasion that He does hear and answer my request, yet I cannot deny a secret whisper to my heart, which gives me just sufficient help and none to spare for the thing before me. I have felt a great awe upon my spirit of the majesty of the Lord, as if He were near and at work in the hearts of some of our people".
That there was such a cluster of those who truly loved the things of God becomes clear in looking at Mr. Bourne's Letters. In one to a friend he says, I have some correspondents in Somersetshire who greatly disheartened me by their goodness and darkness; but the Lord gave them an obedient teachable spirit, and they are become great comforts to me, and have attained to some very precious tokens of the Lord's favour". And in the summer of that year, 1848, he wrote, as he first did to Pulverbach, quite a pastoral letter addressed to "My dear friends, Mrs. Benson, Charles Benson, M. M. [a lady who presently opened her house for regular meetings], and the rest of the little flock at Norton-sub-Hamdon". He writes of "the redemption which is in Christ Jesus for the remission of sins", and says, "Unless we attain to some understanding in this, we cannot find communion or fellowship with the Lord; and however beautiful the Church prayers may be, they cannot reach our case unless Christ, the Resurrection and the Life, has raised us to a newness of life of which the world knows nothing".
But Frances's diary for June 1850 reads, "My trouble seemed to rend and tear me exceedingly. I wanted a more pleasant path. The next day I was relieved by a verse in Acts 27: "Falling into a place where two seas met, they ran the ship aground; and the forepart stuck fast and remained unmoveable, but the hinder part was broken by the violence of the waves". I felt no hope that what the Lord had wrought in my heart should remain unmoveable, but everything else should be broken. I thought for a moment I was willing to let everything that was dear and pleasant be broken so I might by the Lord's mercy escape at last safe to land; but this is soon covered when the storm arises".
Another entry reads, "I feel there is no refuge for me but to pour out my overwhelming trouble to the Lord, and somehow He does at times revive me with a hope that He will not leave me".
In September, 1851, she writes, "I have for these few days found in my heart an earnest desire that those who fear God amongst us should be gathered together on the Sabbath. I could not feel satisfied in my solitude. I feared I was becoming too much at ease under the desolate scattered condition we are in, when the Lord has appointed an ordinance that we should assemble together". A week or two later the thing was accomplished, and she writes, "I feel as if the Lord's hand has led me this past week to make arrangements for our assembling together, though so few in number. The case of Mrs. F. being so wonderfully delivered out of trouble has seemed to give me courage to pass through what additional trouble we may be called upon to suffer by this step. The Lord's truth is confirmed, and my heart has never before felt such earnestness for the prosperity of each member amongst us as I have felt this week, and especially for dear Charles, that the Lord would give him courage and power to utter the mercies of God to him. Oh how I have always shrunk from interfering in this step, and yet how have I been made this week to have a hand in it!"
And when this first meeting, led by Charles, was over she says, "The Lord has been better to us than our fears, and has been present to help our infirmities on this day, to meet together at the Rectory house for our Sunday afternoons for the first time!".
This arrangement, which must have caused a lot of talk in the village and neighbourhood, much sympathy for the Rector and much indignation at his wife, was altered after four months, and occasioned the following letter from Mr. Bourne, to "M. M." "My dear friend - I am sincerely glad that the Lord has opened your heart to open your house to His afflicted family, that they may hear the word of life. No doubt difficulties will arise; and taking up crosses requires stooping, which is always painful work. Nevertheless the Lord's presence counteracts all; and you cannot help calling to mind the innumerable mercies He has shown you and the small returns He asks at your hands. If there is any likelihood of spiritual profit Satan will with all his might oppose. You have been called with the rest to stand against the tide of errors. The Lord has shown you much mercy and has taught you to value it; you will therefore feel anxious that your neighbours may share with you in this great salvation. You are called to bear witness to that truth which the Lord has so often revealed to you. I hope and trust you will be a faithful servant, and a soldier that will learn to endure hardness and not turn back in the day of battle".
Frances hoped "the Lord would gather others to us", and says, "It seems wonderful how matters are arranged for us, and especially that Charles is so defended from rebuke and harm". And later she says, "I want it made clear to me that the Lord has appointed him to feed a few sheep in the wilderness, for truly I do fear being scattered again and left as a reproach. Lord, increase our love one to another; strengthen our weakness, especially mine - the weakest of all, and yet I fear I am looked up to. Oh, I sink at the thought, and then for a moment a little hope revives in me that we shall find good for all this. I was thankful in my heart that my way had been cleared to come out from those things which once appeared impossible to leave".
The Lord did bless this little Church, and Charles ministered very acceptably to a growing congregation. His work led him to live, presently, at Sherborne, fourteen miles away, but although this seemed an insuperable problem to his mother, Charles did not fail them. Whether he walked the distance, rode on horseback, or used a mail-coach passing through on Saturday and returning on Monday morning we are not told, but Frances had to say, I am astonished that his way is opened for us every week".