[b]The second Whitefield[/b]
[i]by Tim Shenton[/i]
Rowland Hill, the preacher
God is amongst us
Tim Shenton tells of incidents in the life of Rowland Hill, the preacher.
On Sunday June 16 1771 Rowland Hill preached at Dursley to huge crowds, and that evening he went for the first time to Wotton-under-edge, Gloucestershire, which was to become his favourite summer residence.
The people there behaved with remarkable attention and stood in great crowds under the market place as he preached from Ephesians 5.14. My soul upon the whole was much at liberty, and the people seemed much revived, said Rowland. An old lady from a very respectable family in the town, who was awakened under Rowlands ministry, was very fond of describing his first visit to Wotton.
She was sitting at tea, when a relation suddenly came in, and said, Ann, the baronets son, who goes about preaching, is now under the market house.
Are you sure it is the baronets son himself?
Yes, that I am, for I saw his brother, Mr. Richard Hill, not long ago, and he is so like him, I am sure he is of the same family.
Upon this she accompanied her friend out of curiosity to see and hear the stranger, little thinking of the alteration his preaching would be the means of producing in her own views of herself and of her Saviour. One man who stood by her seized a stone and was going to throw it at Mr. Hill; but another who was near him laid hold of his arm and said, in the broad dialect of Gloucestershire, If thee dost touch him, Ill knock thy head off, when the assailant dropped the stone, and the people all became quiet, overawed by the solemnity of the subject, and the earnestness of the preacher. Afterwards Rowland travelled on to Bath, where he preached a very offensive sermon, yet much blessed.
In Gloucestershire the effects of his sermons were unpredictable. In his diary he wrote a variety of comments: Few dry eyes among them, certainly God is amongst us, all things go on gloriously here, a humbling dry time to my own soul, a small dead unaffected audience, and so on. After preaching in a yard at Cheltenham, he commented, What miserable work it is to preach to the rich! His main opponents on this tour were the people of Devizes, who pelted him with eggs and stones, and followed him to the next village, where many poor simple people were longing to hear, but some of the Devizes persecutors spoilt the opportunity by molesting us as much as they could. He was similarly treated at Marlborough, where he spoke on the green to a very rude and rebellious congregation, who laughed even at the mention of the text they pelted me with stones and eggs, but through mercy I was not hurt.
Picking up the snake
On one occasion in this area he preached on a village green to a large crowd, who became very wild and threw every kind of missile at him. His subject was the power of the shield of faith to quench the fiery darts of the evil one, and just as he was speaking of the attacks of Satan, one member of the crowd released a live snake into the congregation to frighten the women and interrupt the worship. Rowland bent down and quietly picked it up in his handkerchief, convincing his hearers that their fears were groundless. He placed it beneath his feet and said, This is one of the darts of the wicked one, but faith enables me not to fear. His assailant was so impressed by the preachers calm manner, that he listened carefully to the remainder of the sermon. Afterwards he went up to Rowland and acknowledged his offensive behaviour, and became a devoted Christian for the rest of his life.
A more exaggerated account of this story has been passed down. According to one biographer, three snakes were thrown at Rowland. One coiled on his arm and another fastened around his neck. Rowland said:
Perceiving at once that they were harmless, I merely took them off, and threw them behind me away from the crowd in attendance; some of the people immediately drove away the sinner, and the result was increased attention and several conversions to God. Soon afterwards the rebel came again to hear me; and he that would have alarmed me by serpents, was himself rescued from the old serpent, and became for many years a steadfast follower of the Lamb of God.
What is certain is that many years after Rowland had preached in the market place at Devizes, he was the means of leading a young man to Christ, who became a minister of the gospel and who for more than 30 years successfully preached the saving grace of Jesus in that very town.
It was probably on his way to Plymouth in August 1771 that he stopped at Wells and from there wrote a long letter of encouragement to his friend Thomas Pentycross, who had recently been rejected for ordination by Rowlands old friend, the prelate of York, R.H. Drummond. (The letter is wrongly dated 1770.) Rowland related his own experience, and the successes he was enjoying, before urging Penty-cross to consider working in Bristol.
At first, when they began to reject me (for ordination), I was coward enough to conclude that unless I went forth overlaid with black, the very colour of the devil, I never should prevail; but blessed be God that every days experience more fully proves to me that all my fears were nothing but deceit...
The poorest of the poor, and the vilest of the vile, is the only character that at all times I mean to claim as my own, while, at the same time, may I be enabled to give all the glory to the power of triumphant grace, that in any measure helps us to go forward. Thousands and thousands attend all about these parts, and the evident power of great grace is abundantly amongst us. We have more than enough daily before our eyes, fully to convince us that no human garb, or human authority, shall ever be wanting, when the power of the gospel is present to heal. Upon the whole, every days experience more fully satisfies me that all things that have ever hitherto happened, have been entirely for the best.
Rowlands only and ardent prayer for his friend was that God would abundantly baptise him with the Holy Spirit first fit you for his will, and then teach you what it is. If your eye is but simple, he said, and your heart indeed devoted to God, no doubt you will not long be left in the dark. He then gave Pentycross a most cordial invitation, along with multitudes of others, to preach the gospel in Bristol. The harvest in these parts is truly very great, and our labourers are but few. Multitudes of fresh places are lately broken up, and promise wonderfully for established works, and it only grieves us that we cannot attend even half of our calls. As an incentive, he referred to dear Captain [Torial] Joss, a zealous follower of Whitefield, who had been preaching in Gloucestershire to huge congregations, even larger than Whitefield used to gather. The last time he preached at Hampton Common 15,000 attended. He closed his letter by mentioning an invitation he had recently received from Mr. Keene to preach at the Tabernacle and Tottenham chapels.
From Wells, Rowland travelled on to Plymouth and its neighbourhood and preached to immense congregations, though he was much distressed by a letter he had received from certain influential people forbidding him to preach in their parts. In opposition to this discouragement he welcomed a letter from Berridge, dated October 20 1771, in which his friend urged him on in his work. Go on, and fear nothing but your own heart. You are in the high road to everlasting honour, pursuing the very track of your Master, and highly favoured by him
Keep on praying and preaching. Let nothing stop you. Rowland returned to Bristol before embarking on a tour of South Wales, where he concluded his ministry for 1771.
This extract is taken from a new biography of the Rev. Rowland Hill (1744-1833), The Second Whitefield by Tim Shenton, which is being published by Evangelical Press this month.
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