A Review of The Autobiography of an Eminent Lancashire Preacher
Comments by Dr. David Mowbrayf
The request to write a review of the recent reprint of John Kershaw’s Autobiography was reluctantly declined by the writer of this article; but he felt able to offer a testimony. Wholly ignorant of the author, and scarcely conversant with the milieu of the Autobiography, the writer is in no way competent to write a formal review.
But upon an ordinary minister, in a downtown parish of a northern industrial city, the life and message of Kershaw fell as a reviving dew and a sweet benediction from heaven itself. My simple, heartfelt narrative is as follows:
Some years ago I received a faded volume, with covers held together by sticky tape, yellowing pages and set out in uninviting Victorian type. “JOHN KERSHAW” was written on a piece of binding-tape. But that name meant nothing; and I confess I put it in an attic cupboard. I had plenty on hand and did not feel drawn to this tatty book.
Before Christmas I read a short review of the reprinted edition, made in anticipation of the centenary of Kershaw’s death this year.
So the name was revived in my thoughts. But I still had no time or inclination to dip into it then.
However, during my convalescence following a bad attack of the then widespread ‘flu in January, I suddenly felt an urge to take out his book. With some effort I climbed flights of stairs to rummage in the attic cupboard till I found it. I settled down to half an hour’s perusalÂ—but it became a gripping three hours’ spell. For three days did nothing but eat, sleep and read Kershaw with a pencil in hand.
The opening lines secured my attentionÂ—”I was born at Lower Fold, Healey, in the parish of Rochdale, and county of Lancaster, on the 25th of August, 1792″Â—for up here in the North, there is a strong sense of belonging; and I have often passed through some of those grim mill towns on both sides of the Pennines. This, together with a recollection of some history of Industrial Revolution England, provided a vivid backcloth against which to read this remarkable spiritual narrative.
One was immediately struck by the native power and vitality of the author’s style. Allowing for one who had scarcely any formal education, this of itself was a significant achievement. The clear, strong and commanding English is sustained right to the end. It is simple, yet lit up with epithets and aphorisms which touch depths of divine truth and personal experience. The author had a gift of expression commensurate with his narrative.
I may not dwell on the details of the progress of a poor, ignorant wayward boy in the appalling social and spiritual darkness of those days. The story is easy to follow, and I need not recount it. I wish to mention aspects of the author’s life, experience and message which were used of God to be the instrument of an inward revolution touching the present writer’s personal heart and ministry.
In so far as I had any “image” of that fellowship of churches to which Kershaw belonged it was formed of those scraps of impteenth-hand opinions, distortions and tendentious traditions by which most of us form our impressions of smaller and lesser-known bodies of Christians, or of anyone and anything in general. We are all victims of ignorance of the truth about people and things.
One finds these half-truths and distorted images in Evangelical circles where men have never troubled to read the sources and impartially appraise the facts for themselves. So, I inherited a vague impression of the Strict Baptists as a narrow, bigoted, intense, highly subjective company of people with small premium on theological study. Moreover, there seemed to be the insinuation that they were a deviation from the mainstream of true Reformed and Puritan doctrine and piety, tending to “Hyper-Calvinism” (whatever that may mean!) and their enemies hinting at ‘antinomianism”. In some quarters their independency and
practice of believers’ baptism by immersion were seen as further liberrations.
With this as the background image of the Strict Baptists, I was prepared for anything! But let me add that I was a comparative newcomer to Reformed doctrine and “felt” religion, trying to sort but, appraise and assimilate the many aspects of this new sphere of experimental truth.
The first and paramount effect of reading Kershaw’s Autobiography was to clarify, galvanise and implement so much and so many of the truths to which I had of recent years been introducedÂ—and that in a dynamic, inward and experimental way. Here was a presentation of Christianity which was so richly in the spirit, as well as the letter, of the New Testament. Many other authors of the Reformed and Puritan tradition I had read, but never one crystallised and pressed home to my heart in a deep and lasting manner the essentials of Apostolic religion as did John Kershaw, and with prejudice aroused by the half truths circulated, I was amazed to find that an outstanding feature of this maligned man was his holy life and unquestioned uprightness.
As to the charge of being Hyper-Calvinist: if that term means “going beyond Calvinism”, then I am no expert judge. I can only say that I have found nothing of vital truth or experience which went beyond what I have learned of Calvin’s Christianity, and am still learning. I suspect that this term of opprobrium is applied to certain Baptist and Independent preachers and writers rather as a generally derisive epithet.
From his earliest years, Kershaw showed himself to be a man of close walk with God and holiness of life. Any charge of his tending towards “antinomianism” is so far from the plain facts (it being evident that his life and witness were the reverse of being conducive to Antinomianism) as to be impossible to substantiate, and such a charge only serves unconscionably to put a premium on that evil. Kershaw and those like spirits who served the Church of Christ, within the fellowship of Strict Baptists, were conspicuous equally by the Grace of the doctrines as the doctrines of Grace. They did not compromise with the truth as it is in Jesus, but they fulfilled the Apostolic injunction of 2 Timothy 2:24-25; and saw many a glorious fulfilment of verse 26 in return. Let critics of Kershaw apply the simple dictum of the Master, “By their fruits ye shall know them”.
As one continues to read this Narrative the intellectual stature of the author increases. He was the antithesis of the academic theologian; the marvel is that this untutored lad from among the ”dark, Satanic mills” came to learn so much pure doctrine. His
intellectual force was remarkable. Just two illustrations will suffice:
As a young man, before entering the ministry, he entered a deep understanding of Psalm 68:18. His account of that experience shows his theological grasp, for here is a home-made exposition of the Incarnation by one taught only of the Holy Spirit (pp. 105-109,1870 edn;pp. 92-95, recent edn.). A little later, very early in his ministry, he made a most brilliant defence of Sovereign Grace and Limited Atonement (pp. 144-146,1870 edn.; pp. 128-130, recent edn.).
Meeting with Dr. John Duncan
One of the most moving incidents recorded is that of his meeting with Dr. John Duncan in EdinburghÂ—surely one of the most mighty intellects of the Free Church of Scotland and master academician. Dr. Duncan’s unashamed abandonment of pride in his learning, brings himself on a par with the unlettered preacher from Rochdale:
“I was enabled to go to the feet of Jesus as a little child,” said Dr. Duncan, “and beg him to teach me, as I was a poor, ignorant sinner, by His Spirit and His word. The Lord graciously heard my prayer, and, after showing me that I could not be justified by my own doings, revealed Himself unto me as my Saviour and Redeemer; and I can say with the Apostle Paul, I received it not of man, neither was I taught but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
“We spoke of Scott’s Force of Truth… Also of John Berridge . . . The conversation with this man I hope never to forget” (pp. 353-4, 1870 edn.; p. 326, recent edn.).
They were both one as “beggars poor at Mercy’s door”, and this was a lesson which the present writer needed to learn. Aye, it is one that all ministers need to learn every day; for the temptation to trust in the wisdom of words and pride of knowledge is deep-seated, and specially acute for students of the 20th century.
There is a frank and most valuable testimony concerning Kershaw’s first introduction to the doctrine of Election (pp. 48ff. 1870 edn.; pp. 38-44, recent edn.). He tells how, as a young Christian, he first came to hear of this truth and of his “hatred and indignation that rose up in my heart against it” (p. 50,1870 ed.; p. 40 recent edn.). But, he continues, “I was mercifully prevented from lifting up my voice against the God-glorifying, soul-humbling, and heart-enlarging doctrine of election” (p. 50,1870 edn.; p. 40, recent edn.). Then he tells how his cousin recounted an exposition by William Gadsby, and recommended a book to help him, ELISHA COLES on God’s Sovereignty. Kershaw’s entrance into the light of this cardinal truth, and its transforming benefits, found an echo in
the heart of this readerÂ—who had himself been a late entrant into the experimental truth, and had tasted the bitterness of opposition both within his own heart and of others. Subsequently, I obtained a copy of this, to me, unheard-of author, Elisha Coles, and have found it all that Kershaw testifies.
The depth, power and appetite of Kershaw’s new life as a regenerated soul sent him on a quest for a fellowship of believers of like mind and experience. There is a telling paragraph which reveals his own inner mind, and by implication indicates that congregations of such people did exist. I could not help contrasting this with both the kind of evangelical Christianity that is looked for and that prevails today:
“I never felt any spiritual union of soul to the minister and people of Hall Fold Chapel. They were in those days a very formal body of worshippers. Their conversation was mostly upon worldly subjects, which did not suit me. As the Lord, I trust, was powerfully working in my soul by His Holy Spirit, I wanted to hear something of the gracious dealings of the Lord with His people, and the marks and evidences of those that were born again, of the inward conflict between the flesh and the Spirit, of the fears and temptations that were peculiar to ‘poor worm Jacob’ and the ‘men of Israel’, and of the mournings, hungerings, and thirstings of the poor in spirit (Matt. 5:3-10). My soul was in earnest, so that the form of religion would not do for me. I wanted the life and power of it, and not to be a Christian in name only, but in deed and of a truth” (p. 58, 1870 ed.; p. 48, recent edn.).
In reading that pregnant paragraph, I found that it clinched for me feelings and unformed longings. And so it was that, again and again right through to the end of the volume, this spiritual giant galvanised my own aspirations and helped to fulfil them.
One of the dominating subjects of urgent, vital concern in the church at large today is the very doctrine and polity of THE CHURCH. There is much confusion as well as passionate dedication to certain ideals. All who are concerned with this supremely important theme could profitably study Kershaw’s Autobiography. Few pastors have held a single, life-long ministry with the same congregation for over half a century; and this rich rare pastorate, in lays when there were so few material, social and cultural advantages, provides an almost unique example for close study of a model ministry.
We see in Hope Chapel, Rochdale, a ministry and a pastorate as close to the New Testament pattern as anything available in England in the 19th century. The whole book is a commentary on a near-apostolic ministry, and one cannot even begin to give examples; they abound on every page. The period, the customs and the ethos of Industrial Revolution England were far removed from the first century Roman world; but the raw needs of God’s humble poor are essentially the same. Kershaw’s congregation and personal ministry are a powerful exposition of 1 Corinthians 1: 17 to 2: 16. One reader, at least, has found a mine of practical pastoralia in Kershaw’s Memorials.
It makes heart-warming and heart-searching reading to follow the patient, prayerful and pure-hearted labours of this rugged, unlettered weaver’s boy from his unpromising beginnings to an honoured conclusion of 52 years’ ministry under the smoking chimneys and deep poverty and ignorance of industrial Lancashire -clogs an’ all! We watch the formation of the first nucleus of a church, under the strong leadership of an inexperienced young man. He had no teaching or training but that given by the Holy Spirit, and the occasional sight of one of the notable preachers. One stands amazed at the way in which – oh yes, through many ups and downs, triumphs and setbacks – the minister grows with his people in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man. The interaction of each upon the other in positive, gracious mutual benefit is moving to behold. Would that the same process was experienced at the same depth in ministries today. There is a strength, vitality, wholesome ruggedness and refreshing objectivity which contrasts with the widespread subjectivity of so much modern evangelical religion. Kershaw and the prevailing spirit of his church are in the Puritan succession. Gadsby’s Selection of hymns embodied the vigorous Biblical doctrines, ethics, and devotion which continued the tradition of Watts, Newton, Hart, Berridge and their fellows.
But over and above such considerations as we have noted, and vital as they were, it is the personal life and walk of the man that shines as a beacon set on a hill. The grace, meekness, magnanimity and plain godliness of Kershaw mark every aspect of his long and fruitful ministry.
There is a touching episode relating to a Mr. Stephens whose preaching of “Sandemanianism” was a great trial to Kershaw. Yet, he writes graciously about a man whom he felt to be an enemy of the Gospel. He applauds his moral character; and gladly visited Mr. Stephen’s sick members when asked. This is typical of him. His gift of grace and tact were not infrequently sought by churches where there was trouble.
A Begging Case
“The begging case” was an institution that the reader had not come across before. It was an exacting exercise for pastors of poor churches. “It requires great firmness, patience, and perseverance, and much of the wisdom of the serpent and the harmlessness of the dove, to go out with a begging case,” writes Kershaw (p. 234,1870 edn.: pp. 213-4, rcent edn.). He gives us a full and frank account of his (for those days) courageous expedition, cap in hand, to the south of England on behalf of his struggling mill folk who could scarcely feed and clothe themselves, leave alone build extensions for the chapel. I found his detailed autobiography of this extended itinerary one of the most revealing sections. The real man shines through the pages. His actions and reactions portray a minister of rare depth and maturity of New Testament Christianity.
The first lesson we preachers learned was “A text taken out of its context is a pretext.” This is true of all life.
It is the opinion of one recent writer that Andrew Fuller and Spurgeon represent the mainstream of Puritan Baptist tradition, and that John Kershaw, John Warburton, J. C. Philpot, etc., were a deviation. But I am doubtful whether in the realm of “felt” religion we can cut and dry history in this fashion. John Kershaw lived in a distinctive milieu with its own local, desperate needs. John Kershaw was a man of flesh and blood and human limitations like the rest of us. God raised him up at that time, and in that place, for those people: and he must be appraised in the light of his faithfulness to Scripture and his times. He must not be judged in comparison with Spurgeon and his milieu or the Free Church of Scotland and its national culture, temperament and needs in the 19th century.
I have already mentioned Kershaw’s memorable encounter with Dr. John Duncan. The differences between these two men, and the churches, and races, and deepest needs which they represent, could be listed and an essay written to prove that they were mutually exclusive! But one is impressed by the essential affinity between these two men. And I, for one, find that I can now read authors of the Kershaw tradition and those of the true Rutherford-Covenanter tradition without making any adjustment to my mental wavelength.
Finally, there is a saying that “the whole of anything is more than the sum of its parts”. So with personalities and ministries. Take any minister and isolate the various aspects of his life, and you can denigrate him as you wish. But look at him as a whole man, honestly and positively: let the full, overall life and ministry make their natural impact – then you have done justice to the facts.
The amazing truth emerging from this man’s life is that he became so rich and balanced a personality and minister out of the pinched and poverty-stricken environment of Industrial Revolution Lancashire of 1800. One has only to get under the skin of some today in industrial Leeds who remember the slump and depression of the 1920s and 1930s to gain a little insight into the cramping, enervating and almost dehumanising effects of unending poverty, ignorance, disease and natural sin.
For what it is worth to bear this witness I found in John Kershaw a very model of a Christian minister: remarkably balanced: making up in rare spiritual depth and insight what he lacked in breadth. And when all is said and done, it is what a man shows himself to be in his last hours that forms the truest, wholly uninhibited and incontrovertible testimony to his life, doctrine and works. Let the reader turn to this part of John Kershaw’s autobiography, and he will see for himself how the title page (if he has the 1870 edition) is well inscribed.