John Butterworth was pastor of the Baptist Church in Coventry 1753-1803. This account of his spiritual experiences is taken from a book on local Baptist history by Miss 1. Morris. It was in the Cow Lane Chapel, where this church met from 1793, that William Gadsby was baptized in the year the building was opened. By this time the Pastor was very infirm and a Mr. F. Franklin conducted the baptism.
John Butterworth’s father, Henry Butterworth, was a descendant of the family which owned Butterworth Hall, near Rochdale, but he was himself a village blacksmith at Goodshaw. He had five sons, four of whom became pastors of Baptist churches: Henry at Bridgnorth, Lawrence at Evesham, James at Bromsgrove, and John at Coventry. The Coventry minister had four sons and one daughter. The eldest son, John, and the daughter, Ann, both joined the church in Coventry. The second son. Henry, became a wealthy timber merchant in the town, and he also had a son named Henry, who was eminent as one of Her Majesty’s Law Publishers of Fleet Street, and to whose memory a stained glass window is to be seen in the choir of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The third son, James, went to Birmingham, and afterwards to London. Joseph also went to London, and he became a member of Parliament for Coventry in 1812.
John Butterworth wrote a diary, and the quotation of some extracts from it will give a good idea of the man in his early life. He says:Â—
“My conscience was frequently awakened, and many resolutions I formed of living a holy life, but a few days or a week would wear off these impressions, and worldly things occupied my mind, so that the older I grew, the more wicked I became, though I was not averse to hearing the word and attended stated ministrations of it. We had at least two miles to go to worship, and occasionally four or five, and as that country is mountainous, I was entertained with the different
objects presented to my sight, and pleased with the walk, though frequently glad when the service was ended. As near as I can recollect, I was then about fifteen years of age.
We had frequently heard of the Methodists and read of their preaching in the fields, and particularly that Mr. Whitefield often preached to 10,000 people, or more, at Blackheath and other places. About 1745 they came into our country. Mr. Wesley was published to preach near New Church, in Rossendale, at 5 o’clock one morning. I went to hear him. He had a numerous auditory, and preached from Romans 3.22: For there is no difference,’ etc. I was struck with his discourse, and became a constant hearer of the Methodists when they came their rounds, and also attended their private meetings, yet I still attended Mr. Ashworth’s ministry at other times. One day I thought of the holy conduct of a Thomas Foster, a member with Mr. Ashworth, who was neighbour to us and frequently visited my father. He, my father, and several more persons held a meeting of prayer and conference weekly, and would speak from some text of Scripture. Thomas Foster was very kind and liberal to the poor, though his property was very moderate. He was also fluent in prayer, and always appeared to be in a spiritual frame. This excited me to beg of God to give me His Holy Spirit in a manner I had never done before, and from that time I made conscience of daily prayer.
I now took a review of my past life. I reflected upon our careless manner of singing Psalms and Anthems, making a solemn mockery of God therein. I never after joined with my old companions, but immediately left all my worldly connections, and applied myself to the worship of God. This was such a change as I had never experienced before. I had never felt such an impression as at this time of the importance and excellence of godliness.
I had been a constant reader of books and had a taste for improvement of knowledge, and being in a book society I had the advantage of reading a variety of books both on divinity and science. I read several of Dr. Watts’ works. I learned shorthand, and often copied some of Mr. Burkitt’s Comments, and was disposed to religion, but still it was only in speculation, without real heart-work. I believe I was generally esteemed a religious character, but it was far otherwise in fact.
The same night, after the workings of mind respecting Mr. Foster, I went to hear one John Nelson, a Methodist preacher, a man who had gone through much persecution, had been pressed for a soldier, but notwithstanding many threatenings, maintained his integrity, and often reproved both men and officers for their profanity, and in time obtained his discharge. He preached from Matthew 8.2: ‘Lord, if Thou wilt. Thou canst make me clean,’ and many were affected under the discourse. I thought they all seemed more affected than myself, that the discourse seemed to have no good effect on me. The hardness of my heart had always been my trouble, and because of this all the sermons I had heard were ineffectual. I returned home with a heavy spirit, crying to God that
He would take away my heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh.
I then experienced a longing after holiness, a desire to be holy as God is holy. I hoped to live without sin, which I then thought was attainable in this life. I used to govern my thoughts daily as much as in me lay, and these words impressed my mind: ‘Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.’ I found great freedom in secret prayer, but had not yet attempted to pray in public. I was much pressed to this, but was unwilling to engage. Through much entreaty I was at length prevailed upon, but was in great confusion and concluded I would not attempt again. After some time, I thought it was very desirable to enjoy a gift for public prayer. How else could prayer meetings be maintained? Accordingly I besought the Lord to bestow that talent upon me for the glory of His name. Soon after this I felt an inclination to be engaged when called upon. We had a prayer meeting before public worship at the Baptist chapel which I attended, and being asked to pray, I complied, and found equal freedom as in private, and herein I found God to be a prayer-hearing God.
The doctrine of assurance of faith and of knowing our own sins pardoned, was much insisted upon by the Methodist preachers. This I wanted to know, for I was not certain that I was a subject of grace, but I determined to be in the way of earnest prayer, and attendance on all the means in my power. I sometimes thought I would not cease praying, nor hold my peace till the Lord should speak peace and pardon to my soul, and give me assurance of His favour. One night I resolved to continue all night till God appeared, but about 2 o’clock sleep overtook me, and my resolution was broken. I have often thought that there was too much self-labour in all this, if not presumption in dictating to God. I still found unbelief a great burden, laboured hard to believe, but could not, for indeed I was ignorant of the nature of faith, not knowing that it is a lost sinner’s casting the load of his sin upon Christ for pardon and acceptance with God.
One morning I was deep in thought on this subject, reasoning with myself why I was still in unbelief, when these words dropped upon my mind:Â— ‘By grace ye are saved through faith, and that, not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.’ This word ‘gift’ revolved in my mind. A gift, thought I, is not merited, if it were, it would be a debt, and not a gift. I had leaned all along towards the doctrine of merit, and of obtaining grace by good works, but now I saw faith to be an undeserved gift, and that God might bestow it on my vilest neighbours, and leave me in my moral duties without faith. This led me to think that there was some truth in the doctrine of election, and that it was not upon foresight of faith and obedience, but of pure sovereignty, and that faith and obedience were the fruits and effects of election, and not causes thereof. My sentiments began to change from Arminianism to Calvinism.
One evening I was reading in the Bible, and cast my eyes upon these words of our Lord, in John 6.47: “Verily, verily, I say unto
you, he that believeth in Me hath everlasting life.” I was struck with that passage. It was as if spoken within me. I did immediately believe that Jesus Christ was a suitable, precious and almighty Saviour. I trusted in Him alone for salvation, and therefore in Him I had everlasting life… .I went to bed that night with a joyful heart. I was transported with the love of Christ, and thought how wonderful and astonishing it was that Christ should be my Saviour, and not only mine now, but mine for ever! This was about my nineteenth year, in the bloom of youth and health.
But some time after this I fell into a sore temptation, with which I was exercised for three months together, and which greatly affected my health. It came upon me in the following manner:Â— One day going to meeting these words dropped upon my mind, ‘If ye be without chastisement whereof all are partakers, then ye are bastards and not sons.’ These words, I thought, were spoken to me, for I had no chastisement nor affliction either in body or mind! Then surely, thought I, the root of the matter is not in me, and I fear I have not had true repentance… .I cried to God day and night, but He hid Himself, and I was troubled.
day I was reading in a book called The Marrow of Modern Divinity, a sentence from Luther was quoted which was this:Â— ‘I would run into the arms of Christ if He stood with a drawn sword in His Hand.’ This thought came bolting into my mindÂ—so will I tooÂ— and those words of Job occurred: ‘Though He slay me yet will I trust in Him.’ My burden dropped off. My soul was filled with joy and peace through believing in Christ, a venturesome believing, as Mr. Belcher calls it….
About this time I had strong desires of preaching Christ to my fellow sinners… .Accordingly I prayed to the Lord to give me grace and talents for this important work, and at times I spoke a few words at our private meetings….
At last I informed a few friends that I would carry on a meeting at my father’s house next Lord’s Day in the afternoon. More people came than I had expected. However, with much diffidence, I attempted to speak from John 6.40. Before I had finished, my father and mother came from their meeting, much surprised to find me preaching. I was invited to preach again in the evening about a mile distant, and I complied. These words had been impressed on my mind:Â— ‘As every man hath received the gift, even so minister the same one to another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God’1 Peter 4.10.”
Here Mr. Butterworth’s account of himself suddenly breaks off, but this is enough to give us a clear idea of the earnest young man who came to be the minister of the church at Jordan Well,* and laboured there so faithfully for over fifty years.
He preached in Coventry first in 1751, was approved by the church, and on October 4th, 1752, he removed from Lancashire to Coventry. In the following May, 1753, he and his wife were
admitted into membership, and five months afterwards he was ordained as the pastor. At that time the church members numbered about ninety.
By the year 1799 the church at Cow Lane had drawn up a church covenant, which is somewhat similar to other confessions of faith compiled in the eighteenth century by Baptist churches in Lancashire, the home of the Butterworth family. This gives a brief but vivid picture of the doctrine, life and discipline of such a local church.
THE CHURCH COVENANT
“We whose names are hereunto subscribed, maintaining the important doctrines of three equal Persons in the Godhead, eternal and personal election, original sin, particular redemption, free justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ, efficacious grace in regeneration, the final perseverance of the saints, and the independency or congregational order of the churches of Christ, inviolably, and having received grace from Jesus Christ to the effectual quickening of our souls, are hereby convinced that it is our indispensable duty to show our loyalty and subjection to Him as to our King and Legislator, and therefore do agree to this covenant in manner and form following.
We do therefore now in the presence of God, the elect angels and men, solemnly covenant and engage to give up ourselves to the Lord, and to one another by the will of God, to be His for ever; and to walk together in all the ordinances of His house; jointly to endeavour to support the interest of Christ and maintain His gospel amongst us; as also to be diligent in our attendance on the same; to watch over one another in the Lord, and endeavour to strengthen each other in the work of God; to follow those things that make for peace, and promote love amongst ourselves, that so concord and unity may be maintained by us as a Christian church; and that each and every member amongst us shall enjoy all the privileges of God’s house, appertaining to them as such, without any manner of difference or distinction, that we may all be mutually edified and built up together in our most holy faith; admitting of none but such into our communion and fellowship who have been regularly baptised, that is to say, upon a profession of their faith in Christ, and performed upon them according to the apostolic and primitive manner.
And if any of our brethren shall act to the dishonouring of God, and wounding of His cause either by a slighting and disregarding of the ordinances of God’s house, or an ill deportment in the world, we will take cognisance of it, and as helped by the blessed Spirit of Christ, endeavour their recovery by those rules which Jesus Christ hath given to us in His word for that end. And if our endeavours shall be blessed by Him for the accomplishing of so happy an end, we will still continue to love and hold communion with such; but if, in the contrary, they shall be found to persist in sin, notwith-standing all our endeavours to reclaim them in a gospel evangelical
manner, we shall then proceed to exclude them out of our communion, according to the command and direction of Jesus Christ, the Head and Governor of His church, that so the house of God may be kept pure, and our peace and consolation be thereby secured. And with respect to anything of charge that will be necessary either for the support of the ministry amongst us, or otherwise, we do all and every one of us oblige ourselves to contribute to and bear a part of it, according to the ability the Lord hath given to and bestowed upon us, that we may not burden one another in any such respects. Yea, and all of us to endeavour, as far as in us lies, to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
These things, we, in the name of Jesus Christ, promise and engage to do, looking to Him for such a supply of grace and ability as may assist us in a performance of the same.”
* Where the church met prior to its move to Cow Lane.