THIS story begins in the remotest depths of Shropshire at a place called Pulverbach. It lies under the ridge of the Longmynd. Just as up on those moors on a hot summer day a fire will sometimes burst out with no apparent cause, so in the days of Napoleon certain local people suddenly received amazing experiences of a religious character.
The first to be affected was a rough farm-girl named Sukey Harley. And just as sparks from a moorland fire are carried along by the wind and start fires in other places - so the sparks of true religion spread to other lives. The fire was kindled in the neighbouring rectory. Parson Gilpin belonged to a family famous for its piety. There was a Gilpin who had been known as 'the Apostle of the North'. He had barely escaped a martyr's end by the timely death of 'Bloody' Mary. Another Gilpin was among the army of Puritan ministers who were driven out into the wilderness on Black Bartholomew Day, 1662. But this Gilpin now worked at the treadmill of formal religion and it was among his daughters that the vital spark was kindled.
Things began to happen. Other lives were touched. Two of them were artists, one of whom was a French aristocrat. He saw a vision of Christ in his London lodgings and eventually succeeded Huntington as pastor. The other artist, a deacon in the same Church, used to travel the country teaching art in the noble families. He also instructed the little company of believers at Pulverbach - but not in art. There was also the parson's son, also a clergyman like his father. He found that the new wine would not go into old bottles and finished up as the minister of a humble conventicle in the town where he was formerly the Vicar! Then there was the gay and careless Bengal officer who needed a mortal illness to bring him to his senses.
Incidents such as these were written down by the Gilpins and others. They were printed at various times during the nineteenth century, there being eleven books in all. The author and her husband visited the tiny Shropshire hamlet and explored the neighbourhood in search of additional gleanings of information which she has cleverly woven with excerpts from the books in such a way as to form one connected story.
From the historical point of view this book covers a small facet of the minor revival of religious experience which had begun with the ministry of William Huntington (www.williamhuntington.net). Indeed it was among the members of the coal-heaver's flock that these Shropshire believers found others with experiences like their own. They joined no denomination but were content to be called simply Christians.
Under the leadership of humble weavers such as William Gadsby and John Kershaw, scores of gatherings similar to the one at Pulverbach sprang up in certain areas of the country. Although these believers were mainly to be found among the very poor there was always a sprinkling of the gentry. Just as in Huntington's congregation there were lords and ladies, so among the pastors there were at least three, William Tiptaft, Frederick Tryon, and J. C. Philpot, who like Bernard Gilpin had seceded from the ministry of the Church of England. The movement gained momentum and has persisted to the present time and now numbers some four hundred congregations scattered up and down the country. It is said that these people still value the same kind of religion as that which came to Pulverbach.
The publishers of this book are convinced that it will be of special value at the present time. The last few years have seen a widespread revival of interest in the doctrinal side of religion. People are beginning to return to the Bible. The writings of the Reformers and the Puritans are selling as paper-backs. There are Calvinists in our Universities. Something has seemed to be stirring but as yet without tangible results. It is almost as if we have reached the end of a beginning. Many seem to be like hounds at fault and to be asking 'where do we go from here?'. It is axiomatic that healthy Christianity consists of doctrine, experience, and practice. Religion should go from the head to the heart and from the heart to the hand. It is in the matter of getting doctrine into the heart that this book may prove of value. It is not possible to read of what happened to these early nineteenth century believers without one's own religion being tested. Some who are at present perfectly content with the religious ideas they have, may find on reading this book that they are only infants in Christianity. They may even be brought to question whether they know anything of true heart religion at all!
The subject material of this book presented some intractable problems. First, there was the verbosity of these people. Then there was the similarity of many of the experiences described. This led to a similarity of expression in their writings. Present day readers could almost have been forgiven if they had concluded that the faith depicted in the book depended on a certain phraseology and that experimental religion is the whole of Christianity. By a judicious pruning of adjectives, by the introduction of descriptive matter, and by arranging the various extracts so that they make a connected whole, the author has, we believe, produced a book which retains what was valuable in a readable form.
The publishers were convinced from the first moment they set eyes on this manuscript that it ought to be attractively produced. While there are certain readers who because of their interest in the subject matter would buy the book whatever its format, it is obvious that it would be likely to do more good among the ordinary public if it had a pleasing dress. It is with the view of making the book live for the general reader that we have commissioned a set of twenty-four illustrations by L. F. Lupton.
THE FAUCONBERG PRESS,