New Church Worthies
Rev. Dr. Jonathan Bayley
of Failsworth, An Early Shield amongst the People against Infidelity
AFTER the excitement of the great French War had sunk down, in 1815, and the wild expenditure of money for war purposes had collapsed into depression of trade and VERY BAD TIMES, the spirit of disaffection became very general indeed, and the wide spread of ill-will to Church and State disposed the people, especially in Lancashire and Yorkshire, to gather readily, and listen in great numbers, to infidel lecturers.
The clergy, probably from conscious weakness, were very timid, and did not appear and reply to these people; and the result was that largely the populace were like sheep without a shepherd, and unbelieving orators were to a great extent regarded as invincible. Two lecturers who became very notable at that time, in the North of England, between 1820 and 1840, were Richard Carlile, and an apostate clergyman, the Rev. Robt. Taylor, who styled himself the "Devil's Chaplain."
These people would defy the clergy, and invite ministers and the professors of religion to come and discuss with them openly; and as no one appeared, for a time, it seemed to many that religion was not defensible.
The speakers on such occasions were listened to by hundreds and thousands, and in the unhappy state of the times, and with many glaring political abuses and absurdities unreformed, infidelity made rapid strides. They would scoff at God, the Bible, and the most sacred themes.
At length a New Churchman, Mr. Thomas Wilson, in the vicinity of Manchester, a silkweaver, at Woodhouses near Failsworth, began to attend these infidel meetings, and discuss on new grounds the statements made there. He showed that the lecturers could be perplexed and defeated when they were properly met.
This was hailed with welcome by religious people in general, and after some time, whenever an infidel champion appeared in Lancashire, Mr. Wilson would come, to the delight of the friends of religion, examine his statements, and show that they had no force at all against religion if properly understood.
When I was quite a young man, at the Temple, Salford, it was announced that the greatly lauded infidel, R. Carlile, of London, and Thomas Wilson were to have a full discussion at Middleton, on scepticism. It was to take place in the open air, on the parsonage ground near the parish church. I went, with a company of young religious New Churchmen from Manchester, to listen to the debate, and was somewhat disappointed when the parish constable appeared, after two speeches only on each side had been delivered, and stopped the meeting. However, I had an opportunity of noticing and forming an opinion of the two speakers. Carlile was a gentleman somewhat below the middle height, moderately intelligent in his appearance, fluent and flippant, but with no signs of depth of thought. Wilson was tall, over six feet, manly, massive, and evidently thoughtful; with great quiet and good-humoured force and depth indicated in his whole appearance.
He spoke calmly and slowly, evidently with great deliberation, and clearness of perception. He aimed chiefly to show that the position of an unbeliever has no rational basis.
He would say the IDEA of God exists, and has existed everywhere with human beings. It is either taught by NATURE, OR IT IS NOT. If taught by nature, the unbeliever must admit its truth, because NATURE is in his estimation the TEACHER of TRUTH. If it is not taught by nature, then it must be derived from a CAUSE ABOVE NATURE, THAT IS, GOD. And, therefore, the existence of the idea of God proves that God exists, and that He has given a revelation, since THAT IDEA HAS BEEN REVEALED. If the sceptic replied that the idea of God was born in the imagination; and, like many other imaginary things, might be false; Mr. Wilson would reply that the imagination never created anything. It could only picture, it might be clearly, or it might be dimly or obscurely, what did REALLY EXIST.
Imagination, Mr. Wilson would say, could picture an animal with the limbs of a lion, the body of a deer, the wings of an eagle, and the head of an elephant. But every one of these parts existed. He would call upon his antagonist to imagine an animal of parts which were none of them anywhere to be found. A man could not imagine a thing which neither in whole nor in parts had an existence.
Very droll attempts would be made sometimes to reply to this, but were easily discomfited by Mr. Wilson, and he would show they were only using the old absurdity, which infidels themselves ridicule in Christians of the old church as ridiculous and impossible, namely, to CREATE SOMETHING OUT OF NOTHING.
He would add: Nothing, cannot be conceived. Wrong implies that there is a right, a bad thing implies there is a good, error in religion implies there is a RIGHT IN RELIGION. At other times, Mr. Wilson would show that it was a necessity of the human mind to conclude that every effect must have A CAUSE, and that every REAL CAUSE must be adequate to produce the effect. He would illustrate this by the case of a little child, who was told to lift an object greatly too large and too heavy for its power. The child would at once say, I CAN'T. This would imply two things. The object could not lift itself; and, secondly, it could only be lifted by one who had the power to do it.
He would proceed to show that men, and all things around them in the universe, are effects; not a man has made himself, nor a single thing produced itself.
These things, he would say, could not be the eternal cause; for they are all effects, and none of them, as can easily be shown, have existed from eternity. But there must be AN ETERNAL CAUSE. Had there ever been NOTHING, nothing would still have been. For in NOTHING there is no maker, and nothing out of which to make anything. Everything too, he would add, is the product of intelligence; for it makes a man intelligent when he studies, and perceives something of their beauty and order.
Everything also, when we understand it rightly, has a good object to serve; even wild beasts show us the cruelty of wild passions, and so are subservient to use.
Hence there must be Wisdom, Order, and Benevolence, and these Infinite in the Eternal Cause, and these are the essence of Humanity, and therefore the Eternal Cause must be an Infinite Divine Man in first principles; and when it was required, by the necessity of His creatures, His love, which had caused Him to give His Word, as it was needed to manifest His Truth, would cause Him in fulness to reveal himself, when that was needed, and be the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, the Divine Man in last principles—the First and the Last.
The clear, steady, and cogent way in which these rational and yet spiritual views were put forth and illustrated by a man of the working classes, respected by all who knew him, with no gainful or professional object to serve, but only for the sake of truth and the good of all, gave him such weight, that often when an infidel speaker would observe him to enter the room the lecturer would bring his discourse to a close, and plead some engagement to conclude the proceedings.
Mr. Wilson, in his early manhood, had carefully read the writings of the unbelievers, Voltaire, Volney, Paine, and others chiefly known and read at that time, and for a while thought there was much truth in them; but profounder reflection, and the principles of the New Church, manifested their utter weakness, and filled him with a sacred courage to, meet unbelievers everywhere and overthrow them.
When he was twenty-one, he was taking a Sunday walk in the neighbourhood of Blakeley, a village we have mentioned in a previous sketch, where his family resided. A friend who was going to assist in the New Church choir at some special service of Mr. Boardman, invited him to accompany him, and he would have a musical treat. He went, and enjoyed the music; but the sweet, earnest wisdom of good Richard Boardman was a greater treat still. He went again and again, without the inducement to hear the music, and began to read book after book, until he became a New Churchman; and in due time he had the happiness of finding his father, a shrewd, intellectual man, whom I also knew well at a later period, and his sister also, equally delighted in his books and equally convinced with himself.
In 1811, when Wilson was twenty-three, the family removed to Woodhouses, near Failsworth, many miles more distant from Middleton, but they continued to attend Middleton with tolerable regularity.
He soon after this commenced his discussions with open assailants of the truth wherever they came across his path, and first in his own village of Woodhouses, which contained quite a hotbed of them. He convinced and interested a certain number, and commenced a reading meeting among them, first in his own house, to study the writings of Swedenborg.
This meeting continued for ten years. His fame for clearness and ability in dealing with infidels became well known, and one Sunday, in 1824, he appeared at Middleton after the service had begun, and was observed by Mr. Boardman, who conceived the idea that the time was come to draw his young friend out, and without further ado announced that "Thomas Wilson will preach in this place of worship to-night"; and then went on with his discourse.
At the end of the service, Wilson walked up to the good old man, and enquired in his smiling, humorous, quiet way, "Do you know what you've said this morning?" "Oh, yes," replied the other, with a smile, "I said Thomas Wilson will preach tonight, and so he will."
Wilson had come unprepared, but he preached his first sermon that night; it was on the Trinity, and was much appreciated. I have had the story from both worthy men, and I don't know which enjoyed it most, but Wilson added, "You see I was thrown into the water to sink or swim, and I've been doing my best ever since."
In 1829, Mr. Wilson delivered a course of six lectures at Failsworth, a few miles from Woodhouses, and these interested a number of people, some of them worthy members of the Wesleyan Society, and they were led to read, and ultimately to determine to form a New Church Society and to begin with a Sunday School.
The friends at Woodhouses had outgrown the private house in which they had so long met, and obtained permission to occupy the village school, where I once preached to them. This was in 1839.
In 1841, the New Church people in both places united to have a definite position of their own in Failsworth, and Mr. Thomas Robinson, an earnest, sincere, worthy New Churchman, nephew of Mr. Wilson, had begun to be very useful among them.
The school was opened on the 15th of September, 1841, and I had the pleasure of officiating on the occasion. In a few years their steady working together filled their school to overflowing, and they determined to have a larger building, and to have it erected at their own expense, with the assistance of their friends. This was in 1847. And on this occasion I was permitted again to aid and encourage them, and was delighted to find they had done so well. Their Sunday School contained, according to their last report, 377 scholars and 52 teachers. In 1849 they commenced a Day School, and with a noble school house, and excellent teachers, it has flourished also, and numbers 490 children.
The Failsworth Society has contained among its members an interesting body of sincere, plodding, worthy Christians, steady and kindly disposed, who have done a great amount of spiritual work. They are men worthy of all esteem, but their success and their comfort would have been largely augmented if they had had a true, active, spiritually-minded man as their minister years ago.
They have hundreds upon hundreds of children and young people about them, but they report only 59 members. They have abundance of raw material for a Society ready to their hand, but it wants forming, directing, and guiding by a shepherd whom all would respect and love. He would find a group of steady, excellent New Churchmen, who would be shoulders, arms, and hands for him; but he must be a pastor after the Lord's heart, who would feed them with knowledge and understanding.
Nothing can be a substitute for the Divine arrangement of the ministry. The Lord guides and aids men through men, whom He fills with His Spirit for the purpose, and who become, not hirelings, but true shepherds, laying down their lives for the sheep.
One of the worthy old members, John Rydings, the poet, whom I knew well and highly esteemed, wrote of Thomas Wilson, when, at the Lord's time, in November, 1850, aged 62, HE WENT HOME, these very expressive lines, full of genuine feeling:
"Behold New Salem's happy state,
Her grandeur, how Divinely great."
Oh, yes, his love for her was strong,
And, for her welfare, he has laboured long:
Thousands of miles, all weathers, day and night,
On foot he's gone to spread her holy light.
She was his favourite theme; where'er he went,
To strengthen her, his last, best strength was spent;
Her powerful truths his armoury supplied,
And fighting in her glorious cause he died.
We close our sketch of the noble and venerable Thomas Wilson, whose career and its results at Failsworth we have very briefly described, with the concluding remarks given in the obituary account prefixed to his published lectures. Of him, it was said by the Rev. D. Howarth: "Last, though not least in importance, is the fact that our friend endeavoured to make the doctrines and truths of the Word HIS RULE OF LIFE, and the success of his endeavours was strikingly manifest in the fact, that neither in life nor in death had he any fear of death. In the full vigour of health, he would sometimes speak to the following effect, when the subject was being named: Death is not worth thinking about; life is the only thing worthy of thought. If we think rightly of life, we need have no concern about death. In the last short illness, indeed the only illness of moment he ever suffered, a friend called to see him, and while speaking of the course of lectures Mr. Wilson was then engaged in delivering at Hulme (Manchester), hinted that he thought he was overworking himself for the church, and would thus shorten his days. His reply was in effect: 'I think much good may be done at this crisis, by making known the doctrines of the New Church, by lectures, discussions, or otherwise, as there is now great agitation in the Christian world, and if, by trying to accomplish this good, I should shorten my life a few years, I do not see that it matters much.' In less than two days afterwards the final summons from his Lord and Master arrived, and then, with the most peaceful composure, he said, 'Now I am just ready to go,' and immediately breathed his last."
His remains were interred in the same grave as his father's, at the New Jerusalem Temple, Middleton, in connection with the Society through which they, when living, had received those doctrines in the dissemination of which they had done almost more than the ordinary share of duty.