There was a race of ministers in the Church of England in the last century, to whom, as far at least as our observation extends, there seems to be no present parallel. Toplady, Berridge, Romaine, Newton, and, at a somewhat later period, Hawker, were men who experimentally knew and warmly loved the truth of God - men, blessed in life and death, and though differing in gifts and abilities, as well as in their experience of the power of the Gospel, all honoured instruments of spiritual good to the church of Christ.
It is not for us to deny that there are men now in the Establishment who preach the truth, at least in the letter, and perhaps with some degree of usefulness; but where is Toplady's holy fervour, Berridge's gracious experience, Romaine's life and walk of faith, Newton's affectionate warmth and tenderness, Hawker's unction and savour? In a word, where is now the power of godliness that rested on, and specially marked out not only the men whom we have named, but others also, their less known fellow-servants and fellow-labourers in the gospel of the grace of God? The fire that glowed in their bosoms seems well nigh burned out; and now, amidst heaps of dead formality, and what is far worse, Jesuitical Puseyism, there remain here and there but a few ashes, in which one would fain hope there may be still some smouldering embers, though the flame, at least to our eye, is not very distinctly visible.
Among these saints and servants of God, who in the last century waved the banner of salvation from a Church pulpit, Dr. Conyers, of Helmsley, Yorkshire, may well find a place. As he left, we believe, no permanent record of himself by his writings, we are indebted partly to tradition, but principally to a funeral sermon preached on his decease by his intimate friend John Newton, for what is known of him. We therefore have but few materials from which to form a judgment of him, either as a saint or a servant of God; but if Newton's estimate of his grace and gifts be true, he would seem to have been "a burning and a shining light."
As we think it probable that many of our readers may not have seen the sermon, the following extract may not be unacceptable to them:
"When he entered upon his ministry at his beloved Helmsley in Yorkshire, he found the place ignorant and dissolute to a proverb. At this early period of his life he feared God, and he hated wickedness. With much zeal and diligence he attempted the reformation of his parish, which was of great extent, and divided into several hamlets. He preached frequently in them all. He encouraged his parishioners to come to his house. He distributed them into little companies, that he might instruct them with more convenience. He met them in rotation by appointment. In this manner, long before he fully understood that gospel of God which of late years he so successfully imparted to you, I have been assured that he often preached and exhorted publicly, or more privately, twenty times a week. These labours were not in vain. A great, visible, and almost universal reformation took place. About the time I am speaking of, a clergyman in his neighbourhood made very honourable mention of Mr. Conyers, in a letter to the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, (which I have seen in print,) as perhaps the most exemplary, indefatigable, and successful parochial minister in the kingdom; yet, in the midst of applause and apparent success, he was far from being satisfied with himself. He did what he could; he did more than most others; but he felt there was something still wanting, though for a time he knew not what; but he was desirous to know; he studied the Scriptures, and prayed to the Father of lights. They who thus seek shall surely find. Important consequences often follow from a sudden involuntary turn of thought. One day an expression of St. Paul's, 'The unsearchable riches of Christ,' engaged his attention. He had often read the passage, but never noticed the word 'unsearchable' before. The gospel, in his view of it, had appeared plain, and within his comprehension; but the apostle spoke of it as containing something that was unsearchable. A conclusion therefore forced itself upon him, that the idea he had hitherto affixed to the word gospel could not be the same with that of the apostle. From this beginning he was soon led to perceive that his whole scheme was essentially defective, that his people, however outwardly reformed, were not converted. He now felt himself a sinner, and felt his need of faith in a Saviour, in a manner he had never done before. Thus he was brought, with the apostle, to account his former gain but loss. The unsearchable riches of Christ opened to his mind, he received power to believe, his perplexities were removed, and he rejoiced 'with joy unspeakable, and full of glory.' He presently told his people, with that amiable simplicity which so strongly marked his character, that though he had endeavoured to show them the way of salvation, he had misled them; that what both he and they had been building was not upon the right foundation. He from that time preached 'Jesus Christ, and Him crucified,' as the only ground of hope for sinners, and the only source from whence they could derive wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. The Lord so blessed his word, that the greater part of the people who were most attached to him soon adopted his views, and many more were successively added to them."
Biographers, who are themselves but slenderly acquainted with a work of grace, are almost sure to slur over a good experience, and suppress, cast out, or soften down all its salient points and primest features. A deep law-work looks to them like so much lunacy, and a striking deliverance to border on enthusiasm, or to arise from some peculiar mental organisation or preternatural excitement; and therefore out it goes lest it should prejudice people's minds, or what is worse - the sale of the book. This valley is too deep, and this hill too high. Level them to the usual smoothness and evenness of the ordinary turnpike-road. People will get frightened if you lead them to think that it is necessary to feel any terrors in religion, or experience any joys. You may just hint that there have been now and then good people who have been very much tried and distressed, and, as they thought, very much comforted; but their mind was not quite evenly balanced, and besides that, they were peculiar cases, out of the common line of things. It is in this way that many writers of the lives of God's peculiar people manage to rub out the most striking points and blessed features of their experience. "Paint me just as I am - with all the warts on my face," said Oliver Cromwell to a court-painter who was meditating a handsome likeness of the great Protector. Religious biographers, like the court-painter, would soften down or leave out what they think are warts on the faces of God's people; but what are really the best and most marked features of their experience. We strongly suspect that this has been the case with the account left us of Dr. Conyers, and that there was a deeper, clearer, and more powerful work upon his conscience than Newton was either aware of, or has softened down lest it should terrify the people to whom he preached his funeral sermon.
The following account from another source, though much softened down, carries in its bosom some strong hints that the Lord handled the conscience of Dr. Conyers more severely and blessed him more sensibly and powerfully than Newton's funeral sermon represents.* Newton says nothing of any work on his conscience previous to his reading Eph. 3:8, but the following extract from another work shows the matter quite differently:
*The following extract of a letter of Dr. Conyers to Lady Huntington will show that the kingdom of God had been set up in his heart:
"I hope I shall meet you in heaven; we shall ail nothing there - nothing can keep us asunder there. O thou adorable Lord Jesus, hasten thy kingdom! My heart just pants after that blessed time when all the elect of God shall be gathered together - when I shall see Him whom my soul loves eye to eye. I humbly beg your prayers that I may be strengthened through grace, and, happily triumphant over every evil, may gain an admission into my heavenly Father's kingdom."
"On reading Luke 6:26, 'Woe unto you when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets,' a flash of conviction darted into his soul. He was honoured by general approbation; the rancorous fury of calumny had not interrupted his repose, nor had he to contend with the virulence of persecuting opposition. He was, therefore, apparently included in the tremendous denunciation. Yet hoping, by additional punctuality in the discharge of his duties, to calm his mental perturbation, he conducted himself with great propriety, fasted more frequently, and used sometimes, at the altar in the church, to sign with his own blood, in a most solemn manner, his resolution to devote the remains of his life to the service of God, and to render himself acceptable to heaven by peculiar sanctity."
Depend upon it there was something pretty deep at work in his conscience when, in that most solemn spot as he considered "the altar in the church," he signed a covenant with his own blood to live to the service of God.
His deliverance also shines forth more clearly in the following extract from the same work:
"While reading the lesson for the day in the public service at the Church, the expression of St. Paul (Eph. 3:8), 'The unsearchable riches of Christ,' made a deep impression upon his mind. On this Scripture he was involuntarily led to reflect - 'The unsearchable riches of Christ' I never found! I never knew that there were 'unsearchable riches in Him!' Accustomed to consider the Gospel as extremely simple and intelligible, he was surprised that the apostle should assert that the riches of Christ were 'unsearchable;' immediately he concluded that his sentiments and experience must be entirely dissimilar to those of the apostle. Deep convictions accompanied these reflections, and his trouble was not a little increased by considering that if he himself was wrong in the fundamental articles of religion, he must also, by his mode of preaching, have misguided his flock, to the great prejudice of their souls. At length the sorrowful sighing of the prisoner was attended with success, and on the 25th of December, 1758, while walking in his room, in a pensive frame, he was led to contemplate those two passages of Scripture - Heb. 9:22, 'Without shedding of blood there is no remission,' and John 1:7, 'The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin.' The mists of ignorance were instantaneously dissipated, and finding that he could centre his hopes in the atoning blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ, he became the immediate partaker of real ineffable joy."
"I went upstairs and down again, (said he) backward and forwards in my room, clapping my hands for joy, and crying out, 'I have found Him - I have found Him - I have found Him, whom my soul loveth,' and for a little time as the apostle said, 'whether in the body or out of it I could hardly tell.'" - Life and Times of the Countess of Huntington.
Now just compare the few words at the end of the above extract - what we may call "the sweet little bit" written by himself, with the account given by the writer. Look how the court-painter comes in with his miserable brush to soften down and paint out the strongest features of the work of grace. "At length the sorrowful sighing of the prisoner was attended with success." "Walking in his room in a pensive frame he was led to contemplate." Why, the man durst not say "God heard his cries and groans;" nor that "the Holy Ghost applied two passages of Scripture with divine power to his soul." And yet no doubt it was so, for all his "contemplating" the word of God, from Genesis to Revelation, would never have brought such peace and joy into his soul as he himself speaks of.
We often see, at least it was frequently seen in those days, that the Lord wisely permitted those whom he meant to teach by his grace, to do all that they could previously do in the strength of self. Berridge, for six years at Stapleford, and for two at Everton, laboured with all his might to work sanctification into the hearts and lives of his parishioners; but to his surprise and grief, "the wicked continued wicked still; the careless continued careless still." So Conyers found it at Helmsley. Though he washed them well with nitre, and took much soap, yet the Helmsley leopards would not change their spots, nor his Yorkshire Ethiopians their skin; nor could he, with all his toil, pull his parish or indeed himself to the top of Labour-in-vain Hill. When, however, having himself experienced the power and sweetness of sovereign grace, he began to preach what he himself had tasted, felt, and handled of the good word of God, the blessed Spirit condescended to apply the word to the hearts of many of his hearers, and to gather out a goodly number of living souls. After labouring some years at Helmsley, Mr. Thornton, the well-known benevolent London merchant, of whom John Newton said, "that the Lord had given him, (like Solomon,) largeness of heart as the sand on the sea-shore:" and whose sister he had married, presented him with the living of St. Paul's, Deptford. This step, John Berridge, in a letter to Mr. Thornton, condemned as altogether wrong. "It has been a matter of surprise to me" he writes, in a letter to Mr. Thornton, "how Mr. Conyers could accept of Deptford living; and how Mr. Thornton could present him to it. The Lord says, 'Woe to the idle shepherd that leaveth his flock.' Is not Helmsley flock, and a choice flock too, left - left altogether; and left in the hands not of shepherds to feed, but of wolves to devour them? Has not lucre led him to Deptford, and has not a family connection overruled your private judgment?"
But man in all these matters is but a short-sighted being. Dr. Conyers did not enjoy much comfort or happiness at Deptford, from a constitutional infirmity; and if Mr. Thornton was induced to remove him near London, with a view of greater usefulness than at Helmsley, the same infirmity must have much disappointed him likewise.
The following extract will show what havoc in a man's own comfort, and a minister's labours, a loose string, as it were, in the system can make in that frame of ours which is so wonderfully and curiously made:
"He had a continual hurry and flutter upon his spirits, the effects of which were unaccountable to those who knew not the cause. Taken in different views, he might be considered as very happy or very uncomfortable at the same instant. In the most important sense, he was a happy man. He had peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, enjoyed much of the light of his countenance, and had no perplexing doubts respecting either his acceptance in the Beloved, or his perseverance in grace. Yet, through the agitation of his spirits, he spent his days, and almost every hour, in trepidation and alarm. The slightest incidents were sufficient to fill him with fears, which, though he knew to be groundless, he could not overcome. But upon no occasions did he suffer more from these painful feelings, than when he had public preaching in prospect. When he met his people at home, he usually found pleasure and liberty, unless he observed some new faces. But the sight of a stranger, especially if he knew or suspected him to be a minister, would sometimes distress him greatly and almost disable him from speaking. It may seem very extraordinary that a man of the first abilities as a preacher, highly respected, and honoured with eminent usefulness, should be intimidated by the presence of those who were much his inferiors. But such was his burden, which neither reflection nor resolution could remove. Perhaps there have been martyrs who approached the rack or the stake with less distressing sensations than he has frequently felt when about to enter upon his otherwise delightful work.*
* John Newton, though a good man, was not deeply exercised either as a saint or as a servant of God. He might therefore have misunderstood, for we may be sure he would not have misrepresented, Dr. Conyers' exercises about preaching; but as it was not so much the feeling of standing up in the name of God which terrified him as the sight of a stranger, we are inclined to think that it was more an infirmity of nerve than soul exercise which filled him with such apprehensions.
But the Lord did not leave his flock at Helmsley as Dr. Conyers did. As his successor by law was not his successor in grace, those of his people who attached no sanctity to gothic windows, and valued the presence of God more than the consecration of a bishop, abandoned to the moles and the bats the walls and roofs of the parish church under which they had hitherto sat, and erected a chapel which, as the good hand of the Lord was with them, they subsequently enlarged. A greater minister than Dr. Conyers (may we say, without disparagement, than ten such!) preached in the chapel to about six hundred hearers, gathered, no doubt, from a wide circuit, thirty years after Dr. Conyers left the open heaths and wild moors of Yorkshire for the smoke and stir of Deptford. Need we add that we mean "the immortal Coalheaver," to whose name and memory we set up in our last Number a faint tribute of affectionate respect and admiration? Mr. Turner, better known by his late residence, Sunderland, and much esteemed both as a preacher and writer by those who love experimental truth, being recommended to Helmsley by Mr. Huntington, laboured there for some years; and after his removal to Sunderland, occasionally visited it during the greater part of his ministerial life.
And now our friend, Mr. Tiptaft, who was led in the providence of God to pay the friends there a visit, has been induced to publish a sermon which was preached in that chapel, and from the preface to which, in addition to other sources, we have borrowed a few particulars of the preceding sketch. The following extract tells, in a few simple words, how he was induced to send the sermon forth:
"The following sermon, being written more than two months after it was preached, may be considered rather as the substance of it. An aged friend, with whom I was staying, said he should like to see the sermon in print. I felt life and power in my soul whilst preaching, and some of the friends expressed that they were favoured in hearing; but I did not think of publishing the sermon till I received a letter from Hull, from Mr. S., requesting me to send him my reasons for leaving the Church of England, and any of my sermons I might have, as he had tried to obtain sermons of mine in London, and was disappointed. This request from Hull, with similar requests at different times, and the desire of my friend to see this sermon in print, which had not been expressed of any other, although I had preached many sermons previously in the chapel, induced me to send the sermon to the press."
The sermon, if, dropping the natural partiality of a friend, we may express our opinion of it with the freedom of a reviewer, strikes us as resembling a picture which must be examined closely and minutely, and looked at again and again from various points of view, before what it represents, with all the nice lines and touches that give it force and truth, comes fully out. Sometimes we read a sermon, think it very good, admire the language and expressions, and pronounce it an excellent discourse; but, somehow or other, we never care to look at it again; or, if we do, almost wonder how we could have liked it so well at first. At another time, we meet with a sermon of quite a different stamp, glance hastily over it, think little of it, and lay it down. But perhaps under some trial or temptation, or under some peculiar frame of mind, we take up the same sermon again, and then it opens up to us in quite a new light, and appears to read quite differently. The more we then look at it, read, and study it, the better we think of it; and the more the solid substantial truth of God appears to shine forth in it. This, we think, is much the case with Mr. Gadsby's sermons that were taken down and published in "The Penny Pulpit." We think little of them perhaps at the first reading, and they seem hardly worthy of his great name and reputation as a preacher. But when we read them a second time, their weight and solidity, which escaped us at the first reading, come to view. Compare one of Mr. Gadsby's sermons with one of Mr. Spurgeon's best, and poor old Gadsby's language seems tame and flat compared with this bright youth's flash and glare. But read Gadsby again, and you will see that his sermon is like the gold of a sober wedding ring, and the other like the rings on the finger of a Jewess - mere Birmingham jewellery, the gold gilded brass, the diamonds Bristol stones.
In the sermon before us there are no brilliant periods, no poetical language, no striking figures, no quotations from Shakespeare; in a word, nothing of that tinsel oratory which attracts admiring crowds, and almost turns a chapel into the theatre. Read carelessly, and merely glanced through, the sermon may not seem to be very striking. But let it be read carefully and prayerfully, and every sentence weighed and examined as in the court of conscience, and it will be found solid and weighty, and very discriminating and heart-searching. The sentences are for the most part short and pointed; and the way to read it properly is to take them one by one, and hold them to the heart as if so many dagger points. Read in this way the opening sentences:
"What a solemn consideration it is that we all have never-dying souls! A little time will sweep us all into the grave, and where will our souls be? We are fit to die, or we are not. All that die without the grace of God in their hearts are sure to be in hell. Is my soul quickened? Am I born again? Has my soul longed to know and feel the cleansing blood of Jesus? Are my sins pardoned? Am I justified freely by God's grace? What is my real state before God? What a solemn subject is death with eternity in view! Who amongst you all here present have real and blessed evidences that your souls are quickened, and that you are not dead in trespasses and sins, that you have been led to seek Christ sorrowing, and Christ has been found, and you can express how precious He is to your souls, and how much you love Him? You that are careless about your souls, with no real desires for mercy and pardon through the blood of Christ, if you live and die as you are, where will your souls be in a thousand years, in a million years, and for ever and ever? If you die destitute of grace, you will hear, when standing before the judgment seat, 'Depart, ye cursed, into everlasting fire;' and those blessed with grace will hear, 'Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.'
In the same way how separating and probing are the following sentences? Exeter Hall would be soon stripped if these sharp, short questions sounded as a trumpet in the ears of its present crowds, who are more admiring the oratorical powers of a man than longing to experience the mighty power of God:
"The most important matter with us is, what are we? By the grace of God have we been stopped in our blind zeal as Pharisees, or have we been plucked as brands out of the fire, as profligates? Can we hope that the grace of God hath quickened us? Are we in the narrow path to life? How dwelleth the love of God in us? Can we hope that by grace we have broken hearts and contrite spirits? Can we tell what God has done for our souls? Are we anxious to say with David, 'Come and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what he hath done for my soul?' The Scriptures do not give any encouragement to those professing religion who have no soul trouble; they are out of the secret; they fear not God, nor will he show unto them His covenant for their comfort and encouragement. 'If the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?' If you are not amongst those who are calling upon God to bless their souls, or amongst those who are calling upon their souls to bless God, I would by no means deceive you. Such are strangers to vital godliness, whether they profess religion or not. If they profess, they have the form without the power - a name to live whilst dead in sin; for if your souls were really quickened, you would surely pray and cry for mercy, and would earnestly ask God to bless your souls. There is a great difference between a babe in grace and a father in Christ; but both are safe as they stand in the glorious covenant of God, ordered in all things and sure."
We can only add our sincere desire that the God of all grace would bless the sermon preached at Helmsley, as much as He blessed that which was preached in the Great Church, Abingdon, on Christmas Day, 1829, the fifth edition of which has been lately sent abroad by the same publisher.