A FATHER IN ISRAEL
An Account of the Life of Mr. G. J. Collier
by his grandson, Paul G. Watts.
My grandfather, Gilbert John Collier, was born at the turn of the present century, on the 14th February 1900. He died peacefully and in full assurance of faith in Christ on the 11th April 1984. By the end of his life, therefore, he had witnessed the reigns of six British monarchs and had participated in two great world wars. It had been a period of unprecedented change in almost every sphere of life.
He was a man of natural intelligence, warmth, and candour; a keen observer of life, a loyal patriot, and a contender for values which had long been tried and proved. He was a minister of the gospel, with short periods of intermission, for 67 years, and he Pastor of ‘Bethel’ Strict Baptist Chapel, Linslade, Bedfordshire, for 42 years. He also completed, in 1960, a career in banking. Respected among his business associates and neighbours, he was also greatly loved by his family, his people at Linslade and his friends.
So far there seems little, perhaps, to justify an account of his life. If we measure greatness, as many do, in terms of fame or popularity or wealth or status, then he was not a great man and his life of little interest or appeal to those beyond his immediate family and friends. There are those, however, who are distinguished in a different way. They are the subjects of God’s distinguishing grace. Their lives have been touched by the gracious hand of the living God. They have been men and women of faith and conviction. There are spiritual blessings to acknowledge and there are important lessons to learn in the record of their lives. Although their sphere of influence may appear limited, there are things which have been accomplished in and through them which are of eternal consequence. Almighty God is to be glorified as we review His work in their lives. What greater privilege is there than to have dealings with the Most High God? What higher calling than to be an ambassador for Christ, a minister of the everlasting gospel? On completion of 25 years of his pastorate my grandfather was persuaded to produce a little booklet to mark
the occasion. He entitled it Between Mizpeh and Shen and in his introduction wrote so characteristically:
“…there is so little on the credit side and so much to record of failings and sins. To draw a veil over all might be the better course to take, and rely upon the frailty of the human memory to complete the process of elimination … But there is a duty;
and that is to acknowledge the multitude of mercies, the support and forgiveness received throughout by an unworthy servant of the best of Masters, and therefore this little work is attempted. It is with the hope that the result may be to the glory of the Trinity, to whom, if there is anything accomplished, all honour is due.”
It is, I trust, in the same spirit and with the same intent that I embark now upon this little memorial to him. Much of my information is gathered from a record of his life which, as an octogenarian and at the request of his family, he spoke into a tape recorder. If, as I have cause to include excerpts from this in what follows, its tone is conversational the reader will understand.
His father, Daniel White Collier, was a miller, the manager of a flour mill in Peterborough at the time of Gilbert’s birth. His mother, considerably younger than her husband, was the daughter of a solicitor from Hitchin. He was their first child;
three others were to follow, two sisters and a brother. In his Father’s family there was a strong tradition in the milling trade and also a history of connection with chapels of Baptist persuasion. His paternal grandfather laboured for 44 years as pastor of South Lane Baptist Chapel at Downton in Wiltshire.
One of his earliest memories was of a procession passing by on the occasion of the coronation of King Edward VII. The most significant experience of his childhood, however, occurred in 1907. At the beginning of that year he caught scarlet fever and had to be isolated in a santorium. Separated from his mother for the first time it was a disturbing experience for a seven year old. Many times have his own children, grandchildren and even great grandchildren listened wide-eyed as he has told the story in his own inimitable way – the scarlet blanket, the horse-drawn carriage, the dreaded sanatorium, the wooden brick thrown through the hospital window during convalescence and the appeasement of Matron’s wrath by an immediate confession of guilt. It was shortly after his return home from the sanatorium that he had the following experience.
“I was playing by myself one day in the garden when something happened which I believe had an effect upon the rest of my life. This experience has never completely been erased or the significance and sense that I felt at that time has never quite departed from my mind or thought for any length of time and I give details of this which I verily believe was the evidence of the quickening work of the Divine Spirit. I was crossing the lawn. I can see the spot now. In fact I have been back to this spot several times and asked permission of the occupants if I could go and stand in the middle of the lawn at the rear of the house. And each time I have felt a sense of awe. Suddenly I was stopped with an awful sensation that God was there and that the ground beneath my feet was but a thin crust and beneath that there was hell. I felt in awful danger as if I would most certainly fall into that dreaded place. I remember standing transfixed while three solemn facts seemed to be embedded in my heart and mind-first, that I was a sinner, and second, that there was a God, and third, that I had a soul. None of these three things had ever had any bearing or impact whatsoever upon my mind up to that moment of time. I had, of course, been brought up in a home where the name of God was frequently mentioned. Worship in the family home was held daily and my father must of times have referred to himself and others in their need as sinners. And yet I never knew until that moment that I was a real sinner and that there was a real God and I had a never-dying soul. I fled from the spot and ran round to the front of the house where at the corner of a bay-window was a laurel bush which afforded a complete hiding place. I had hidden in play many a time. No-one could possibly see me except they looked downward from the window above. But as that was not likely at this particular time I thought I could get away from every eye. I stood in this place for a very great length of time. It seemed almost as if I was there for hours, only daring to go out after promising God I would keep His law- and I was determined to do it. I prayed to God to help me keep His law, thinking in my blindness and ignorance that thereby I should escape the punishment! knew now I so justly deserved. I dared not speak of this to any person. I read my Bible and expected some help would be forthcoming in the ministry… but nothing threw light on my feelings which after a time gradually diminished, although the effect has never left me. Later on I tried to speak to my father but I had the feeling that he thought it was only the imaginations of a child. I think this has made me sympathetic towards the young who may be enquiring after God perhaps
for some similar reason that I was enquiring at that time … I really needed a Guide, a Guide who was to lead me in His own time into the precious realities of the salvation that He Himself gloriously and wondrously procured.”
Here, then, was the beginning of a real work of God. What an encouragement to those who are parents to continue in prayer for our own children! What a reminder of the need for sensitivity in answering their enquiries! And what evidence here of the sovereign and effectual nature of the calls of the Hoy Spirit of God! That which He begins must continue and be completed; and how clearly we who follow on can see this in the lives of those who have now finished their course.
Of his schooldays my grandfather had this to say:
“I went for a short time to a Ladies’ Preparatory School. It was run on old-fashioned lines. We learned pot-hooks* and the dunce was relegated to a corner with the traditional hat on the head. Daily warnings were administered about running into the road, for it was so dangerous because of the horses…I soon went on to a more sophisticated school which had as its head a Congregational Minister, a stern man. At this school I found a number of boys with whom I could make friends, and they were boys from Strict Baptist homes. There was at that time a flourishing body of such people in Peterborough and many of the leading tradesmen belonged to this particular church and people. Our maid was courting a young man who went there. I formulated a very great respect for these people who seemed so solid and substantial. A modern grammar school being opened in Fletton not far from where we lived, I moved there and became a foundation scholar. This was in 1911, another year of high significance, both nationally and personally. King George V was crowned and the summer was exceedingly hot. The Edwardian era was over. People held high expectations for the future. Two General Elections in one year had now been carried out with much heat and excitement, with the reform of the House of Lords being the burning issue in one of them. The public generally settled down to hopeful expectations of prosperity; few there were who could see the gathering clouds of war which were to burst upon this nation in but three years time.”
The year 1911 was always remembered by him largely because of an incident which occurred that summer in which he learned a vital, if painful, lesson. He was to accompany his father on holiday to the Isle of Man. A railway strike had caused
some alteration in arrangements. Delayed by this he and his Father stayed at home over the weekend and, his father being free from his normal duties at chapel, they had an unexpected opportunity to attend a Strict Baptist chapel in Market Deeping. The minister preached from the words: “And he came where he was” (Lk. 10.33). His father had a wonderful time of blessing and was much affected. The stillness and reverence of the service and the whole occasion deeply impressed the boy. On the journey home a heavy thunderstorm and a bolt of lightning which struck the road a short distance ahead brought thoughts about the reality of death and eternity. When, at length, father and son set off on their holiday journey this is what took place:
“Our first stop was at Melton Mowbray where we had to wait for half-an-hour. My father bought a card and sat down to write to mother. I said tell her we have arrived safely.’ He sternly rebuked me, but I treated it very lightly, and added the awful words. There is nothing to stop us and it will save us having to do so when we get there.’ This is seventy years ago and yet I ;an hear those words now. We continued the journey, soon forgetting all about the incident. On alighting at Nottingham, our next place of change, my father was instantly paralysed down his left side and could hardly walk. I did, however, manage to drag him into the express which was going to Heysham. He gradually grew worse and I was in a dreadful state of anxiety. A stranger in the compartment saw how ill my father was and got out at Chesterfield and saw the Station Master. When our train drew into Sheffield station there was a stretcher waiting to carry my father to Sheffield hospital. I spent one of the most gloomy days of my life in a hospital waiting room – like a prison. Oh the thoughts that went through my mind! At last I was told I was to return home and after a terribly painful parting with my father, I left for the station. As I passed through Melton Mowbray station the words came cascading into my mind: “THERE IS NOTHING TO STOP US”. God had stopped us and, oh, the awe that I felt and also the reality that I felt in that God and His sovereignty and His power. The doctrine of God’s sovereignty had never been communicated to me by men and yet from this very moment it was a truth that firmly embedded itself into my heart and has remained with me ever since. I saw that God, whom I had so grossly offended, was able to do all things. This was vital truth:
I could never again doubt that this Almighty God had everything absolutely under His control. It seemed to me that in learning the truth of God in such a way, it ensured that jt
never afterwards would be just a nominal tenet. It changed my outlook on things, even at that early age.”
The truth of the sovereignty of God was further brought home to him by two national events: the sinking of the S.S. Titanic, for which such extravagant claims had been made;
and the tragic failure of the Scott antarctic expedition. Ever interested in the lessons of history my grandfather would often pass on to the generations following his perception of such events.
As a result of his father’s illness – he was never able to work again – family circumstances were considerably altered. The maternal grandfather paid for him to go to public school. These were days marked by a loss of parental influence and a decline in spiritual interests, but things were shortly to transpire both nationally and in his circumstances which would bring him to recognize his complete dependence upon God:
“The world was becoming very attractive; material things were expanding before my eyes. In society affluence was the order. All of a sudden the first world war broke out, followed by feverish activity, the youth of the day seeking to become involved. Young men in their thousands besieged the recruiting establishments; young women sought instant training as nurses; boys at school offered to defend bridges, railways. The fever grew daily … All this was immensely exciting to a boy of fourteen who little realized at that time the terrible ravages of total war. But the euphoria was short-lived:
for, as the month of August went on, the situation became more and more grave. The German army had broken the defences of the Belgian fortification system and were sweeping relentlessly onward towards French soil. Newspapers were practically the only means of information and each morning brought to light a situation which seemed threatening to the very existence of our nation. Paris, it was said, was in peril. The French government was hastily preparing to move to Bordeaux. Feeling desperate in my mind I sought the Lord, the Almighty One who had stopped me after my boasting. ‘Will the same God hear me – He that can change this terrible situation Â– He that can stop the German Army and save our nation? Will He do it?’ I prayed as never before, and all day waited, heavy with anxiety. That morning the papers were at their depth of hopelessness, the tone exceedingly grave. The following morning the tide had turned. My prayers were heard. Need I have doubted? God was proving again He was Sovereign Lord. The British Army found themselves right
opposite a gap between the German armies. When the desperate order was given to turn and advance to save Paris, into this gap went the ‘contemptible’ British Army, and penetrated the enemy ranks. It was a decisive event, a turning point. This God is my God’, I said, ‘I will serve Him for ever.'”
He completed his school life at the end of 1915 and returned home to find his father on the point of death:
“I packed my bags and went home to Peterborough. Putting the bags down as I entered the house I went straight up to my father’s room. He was sitting by a fire and said to me earnestly, ‘I have been looking forward to your coming home’. He then spoke for about twenty minutes with earnest counsel and spiritual exhortation and asked me to help him into bed. As he lay back he said:
I’m a poor sinner and nothing at all
But Jesus Christ is my All and in All.
He then became unconscious and died the next day, Christmas Eve, 1915.”
New responsibilities were now thrust upon my grandfather and he sorely missed the wise counsel of his father. “Important lessons are learned in the pathway of experience”, he says, “and I began to be driven to the Lord for guidance”. Eventually arrangements were made for him to begin a career in Barclays Bank at Stevenage, near Hitchin, the home of his grandparents. He had hoped to follow his father’s trade and was somewhat resentful of what he felt to be the manipulations of well-meaning relations. However, he was to prove in all this the unfolding of God’s purposed for him. He was soon brought under the influence of a good ministry, that of William G. Harris of Salem Chapel, Hitchin. Of this he says:
“The remedy for sin was so much Mr. Harris’s theme, and the suitability of the Saviour for such who felt themselves under condemnation. I was surprised that not a few of the congregation complained that his ministry was so much about sin, but the more the opposition to the dear man, the more I felt an attachment to him. Eventually he found it impossible to continue and had to leave. With his removal I felt to be back in the place I was when my father died. Again, I was driven off man to the Lord. Before Mr. Harris left I went to him and made known the inner experiences of my soul. He received them very graciously and said I ought to consider baptism. I was therefore baptized by him which was about the last office he rendered in the place. It was a sweet and sacred time. I remember almost fearing sleep lest on awaking the sweetness of the Lord’s presence might have subsided. I felt I must tell my
colleagues the next day and, while the manager seemed interested and indeed affected, a Roman Catholic showed hostility. This man caused me heavy trial.”
His work in the bank was soon interrupted by the call to do National Service. He had greatly admired the exploits of the Royal Navy and attempted to enlist for sea service. A day in London for the purpose of making enquiries ended in a very unexpected and disconcerting way:
“After spending most of the day going from one department to another at Scotland Yard (for that was where enquiries had to be made in those days) I was suddenly mustered and marched off to Charing Cross Station by an officer in the Marines and put on a train for Chatham. I was in the Navy 11 had not intended precipitating entering just like that. I thought of my poor mother anxiously awaiting my return, but there was no way of getting in touch with her… It was really a rude shock to be plunged into such a crowd of men after the sheltered life I had lived up till that time. After a three months’ period of training I was drafted to a ship … It was a newly built mine sweeper, H.M.S. Harrow. The work done at sea was crowded with incidents. Scarcely a day passed without some narrow escape being experienced either from exploding mines or the enemy, but after the Battle of Jutland the enemy did not put in too many appearances, and we were left largely free to clear the sea lanes of mines. Trawlers were employed in clearing up floating mines, and that was done by firing machine guns in order to sink or explode them. I came very near death on one occasion when our ship was passing one of these trawlers firing at a clutch of mines. I was at that time high up in the Crow’s Nest, and the bullets were ricocheting off the sea and flying through our rigging, hitting part of the structure. I could hear their whine as they flew past. I felt strangely secure at this and at all times while engaged on these rather dangerous works. God’s sovereignty was a tower of strength and a wonderful refuge. What had been embedded in my heart at Melton Mowbray was standing me in wonderful stead now in the face of danger and hardship and difficulty. In the October of 1918 we were in a terrific storm at sea; our flotilla, consisting of six ships, was steaming for the Firth of Forth; the waves were so high that we could see the other five only at intervals, in spite of the tact that we were steaming in line about one hundred yards apart. After a few days for repairs we were off again, returning on the morning of November 11th. We had just anchored when a flag signal was hoisted on the Admiral’s station conveying the simple words, “THE WAR IS OVER”. The
pandemonium that broke loose was indescribable; having been to sea for three weeks we had no idea that the end was likely. In looking back one can see the wisdom of an overriding providence in an experience such as I had been through, and I believe it helped the formation of character… Early in 1919 I was demobilised from the Royal Navy, and this was expedited because I had a job of work waiting for me.”
Upon his discharge from the Navy he returned to Hitchin and to his work in the Bank. But he found things sadly different at the chapel where he had attended:
“A new minister, and those who had remained for various reasons during the war had established themselves and were in control of things, and the type of ministry was so far removed from that which prevailed when the previous minister was there. Change was the order, always away from the old paths. New theology was gaining ground. Higher criticism sapped the life of the churches. Many of the young men who had made a profession before they went to war now seemed to have lost their faith, and many turned their backs on all religion, there was no doubt that the wind of change was blowing. Old standards were being eroded and it became the order to cast doubt on the authenticity of the Bible. It was popular to mock at the old verities held so dearly by the people of God.”
It was not long before he met the young lady who was to become his devoted wife for sixty one years. Miss Daisy Morriss, the daughter of a Strict Baptist minister. He began to attend “Bethel” Hitchin with her and found that the truths which he held so dear were being opened up and illuminated in the ministry. The contrast between the emphasis in this ministry and that at Salem Baptist chapel, and his new contact with people whose family life reflected real godliness, convinced him that the truth of the gospel was more consistently taught and practised here. On one occasion he went to hear Samuel Curtis of Southill who preached from “I have fought a good fight” etc. (2 Tim. 4.7,8). This text was to be a very significant one to my grandfather, especially at the end of his life. Now it was used to bring him to identify himself with the people among whom this gospel was preached. He settled at Bethel Chapel, Hitchin and on 3rd May, 1923 was married to the one who was to share with him so many joys and sorrows. We need now, however, to go back a little in considering his call to the ministry.
His Call to the Ministry
The vital qualification to be a minister of the gospel of Christ is a call, the commission of the Master Himself. It seems that often in the experience of those who receive this commission intimations are given beforehand, experiences are passed through which are as a preparation for the work which lies ahead. This was certainly my grandfather’s experience. As he looked back on it in later years he tended to feel that some of his earlier attempts to preach had been premature, but that in them he had learned many important lessons, not least his complete dependence upon the Lord.
The first indication was when, still quite a boy, a question was put to him by his father in the presence of a minister “How would you like to be a parson?” He replied with vigour ‘Certainly not!”, but immediately an inward voice, which seemed to him audible, spoke “You will be”. His natural
reaction was one of decided antipathy towards the idea. Shortly after his baptism, however, he received several invitations to preach in General Baptist chapels. He preached his first sermon at Stondon in Bedfordshire from John 20.27, ‘And be not faithless but believing”. He was then just seventeen years old. Of this experience he had this to say:
“The only thing that seemed clear was the text; that came with some power, but when I saw the people all looking at me as if I was a creature from another world I hardly knew how to hold on and was determined never to repeat the experiment. In spite of this distressing experience I just could not get rid of the exercise . . I feel now it was a direction rather than a commission, and an indication of what would be. I learned the value of waiting and weighing up things, and that Scripture was very much in evidence before my mind: ‘Prove all things’.”
His experiences in the Navy served to deepen both his inner spiritual life and his concerns about the ministry. Of this he .writes:
“I joined the Navy and was plunged into scenes and surroundings uncongenial and was soon at a loss to know how anything gracious could exist within. I was thrown into company where there was no fear of God. My state was wretched. I crept into secluded parts of the ship and cried to the
Lord for hours. At length I felt a sweet peace, the mind was calmed. Such a preciousness was felt towards the dear redeemer and a persuasion that I should come through the outward dangers for the purpose of telling of His goodness
and grace; and though it seemed a remote and impossible thing there was a persuasion that I should be brought to a realization of it.”
It is quite clear that he was being preserved and prepared for the work which lay ahead of him. Upon his return to civilian life he found, as we have seen, that he was being led into the communion of a Strict Baptist church. This was a period of much searching and a time in which the great truths he was to preach so graciously for so many years were firmly established in his heart. He benefitted greatly from the ministry of Mr. Curtis of Southill and would take every opportunity of hearing him preach. There was a time of special blessing just before Christmas 1920 making it a truly sacred season:
“It seemed a simple thing to do but it meant a lot at the time:
I took a piece of soap and wrote on the mirror, ‘God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.’ I entered into it as never before and perhaps not quite in the same way since.”
Shortly after this he was confined to the house for some weeks with quite a severe illness. During the period of convalescence he read sermons to an elderly relation living with his mother. These sermons were from the Gospel Magazine and the Gospel Standard and were by J. J. West, J. C. Philpot and others. To him they were like a stream of refreshing water. He felt a strong desire to preach the doctrines of the Gospel should the Lord open the way. Eventually he was brought to speak before the Church at Hitchin and began to receive invitations to preach. It was a difficult pathway, however. There was considerable diffidence on his part and a fear lest, even now, he should have gone ahead of his God. Of this time he writes:
“Mortification, distress and discomfort of spirit was my experience until the Lord kindly brought the matter to a close and I wrote to the few causes telling them I felt to have gone before the time. The retracing was not overcome so easily: for eight years I suffered, sometimes sinking so low as to despair of any evidence of grace. At last in a time of great trial and distress, I said in my heart, ‘Lord, wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?’ when the words fell with such power, ‘If thou shalt return then I will bring thee again and thou shalt stand before me and if thou shalt take forth the precious from the vile, thou shalt be as my mouth.’ The lifting of my burden and the liberty I experienced was such that I could not describe. From this time exercises merged into leadings and leadings into exercises and after about two years a door was opened. Remembering
the former step, I refused at first to go but was in such a state of mind on its renewal, I begged a definite word of command which I humbly believe I received, ‘Say unto the righteous, it shall be well with him’. I thus ventured and felt a little approbation resting on it. I felt if it was of the Lord He would open doors. I was determined not to move but rather hide. Shortly after, on waking one Lord’s Day, a word came to the mind: I said I felt I could preach from that text. A few moments later a person knocked at the door with a message for me to go to a place where the supply minister had been prevented from coming. Such and many other things were of comfort in the hope that the matter was of the Lord.”
Thus we see in him so clearly the experience of all who are truly called to this work – a sense of the awesomeness of the task and an acute awareness of personal insufficiency. We think of the diffidence of the prophet Jeremiah: “Then said I, Ah, Lord God! behold, I cannot speak: for I am a child.”Writing of the ministry in his Between Mizpeh and Shen my grandfather had this to say by way of mature reflection:
“There is no occupation that can be compared with that of the ministry of the Gospel. Eternal Wisdom makes no mistakes in the choice and preparation of those appointed for the work. academic qualifications and human sanction, though esteemed by many, are not essential. The Holy Ghost must send and qualify the man and the proof of it will be the giving of ‘seals to the ministry and souls for the hire’. He alone knows the state of those who come under the Gospel and He appoints the experiences that will enable His ministers to meet the cases of those who are tried and cast down with many fightings and fears. No office is more honourable and none has such solemn responsibilities. Heights have their dangers as well as depths, while sweets and bitters form much of the portion of those the Lord calls to His work. But all are submerged in the vastness and glory of the subject: Christ. His Person as the God Man, His glorious office and work as His people’s Mediator and Redeemer, the unfathomable delights and treasures of His grace, the inexhaustible wonder and mystery of His all-prevailing intercession and the incomprehensible depth of His love – no mortal tongue can fully tell, yet it is ordained that human and not angelic lips should preach the everlasting gospel of His grace. It would ill become me to attempt to establish a relationship between my ministry and this great subject, or to deliberate on its consistency therewith, but it has been my cherished hope to be enabled to set forth the virtue of Christ’s dear Name. The fleshy
tables of the hearts of my people will bear evidence – if evidence there is – of how much this has been accomplished and eternity will reveal the reality and measure.”
EARLY EXPERIENCES OF THE MINISTRY
One or two of my grandfather’s experiences in the early Years of his ministry are of particular interest for the light which they throw not only upon his own character but also upon conditions at that time. He describes a very early preaching engagement at Market Deeping in the following way:
“I was to be entertained by a Miss Tryon, the daughter of the late Pastor who had laboured there for over sixty years, having seceded from the Church of England by resigning the living of St. James, Deeping, and building the chapel at his own expense. His daughter was a tall, stately lady of an aristocratic appearance, very decided in her views, respected by the villagers and loved by the congregation. Her inflexible procedure was a feature that much impressed me. The minister for the day was expected to proceed down the main street from her home to Chapel on foot, being accompanied by The lady on her tricycle. It was truly embarrassing for a rather nervous young man as I was to experience this first introduction to such austere behaviour. Should any have the audacity to be going in the opposite direction, then I would confidentially be informed in a clearly audible voice what the most probable destiny of their souls would be. Miss Tryon kept a shepherd’s crook at the Chapel and, sitting in one of the front pews, she would use it at times to haul out by the neck any erring male ‘lamb’ and seat him beside herself.”
Part of his schooling in the ministry came undoubtedly through the following experience:
“. . as for my preaching it could only be described as elementary, yet it was surprising that several of the elder saints could receive it, and showed warm encouragement. Although I did not use them in preaching, some notes have survived which were made in preparation, and these show an emphasis o