Early Methodist pastor
A Brief Biography
Abstract: John Nelson (1707-1770) was considered one of the foremost pastors of the early Methodists during John Wesley's time. Originally working as a stone mason, he eventually worked full-time sharing the news of full salvation in England. He suffered much persecution from those who were opposed to Wesley's understanding of the Christian life, and was also strongly opposed by the Moravians. Reading his story, one better understands why John Wesley and Count Zinzendorf parted ways.
Learn more about John Nelson's Persecution
A quotation on Preaching:
"Always go sword in hand, and beg of God the power of the Spirit, while you raise it to His glory. Now is your time to play the man. Do not study until your head aches. Lay your plans, short but clear; look always for divine aid, and after you have spread the net, close it with great care, that you may there and then bring some to shore. Preach, in the Holy Ghost, and before you dismiss your audience offer them salvation now. Never lose sight of present salvation, nor of God who is to work it. Give Him all the glory. Should any attempt to praise you, turn immediately to God, 'Lord, I am thine, save me!"
Learn about his friend John Smith (Another famous Circuit Rider of the early days)
It is well known to those acquainted with the history of Methodism, that John Wesley was at first strongly opposed to any man preaching who had not been Episcopally ordained. Leaving Thomas Maxfield in charge of the London society, Mr. Wesley went into the provinces. A complaint was forwarded to him, that Mr. Maxfield had begun to preach. Mr. Wesley hastened back to stop this irregularity. When he reached home, his mother perceived that his countenance was expressive of dissatisfaction, and enquired the cause. 'Thomas Maxfield,' said he abruptly, 'has turned preacher, I find.' She looked attentively at him, and replied, 'John, you know what my sentiments have been, you cannot suspect me of favouring readily anything of the kind. But take care what you do with respect to that young man; for he is as surely called of God to preach as you are. Examine what have been the fruits of his preaching, and hear him yourself.' He did so. His prejudice bowed before the force of truth, and he could only say, 'It is the Lord; let Him do what seemeth Him good.'
The acceptance of Mr. Maxfield as a preacher was soon followed by the labours of another layman, respecting whose course of action Wesley had scarcely any option. This person was John Nelson, a stonemason of Yorkshire. For thirty years he travelled as a Methodist preacher, on various circuits, and to the benefit of thousands. He was a man of a sound understanding, of great courage, and deep piety.
His Birth, Wicked Younger Days, and Conversion
John Nelson was born at Birstal in October, 1707. His father was a good man, and read the Scriptures in his family. John became impressed with religious feeling and conviction at a very early age; but his father dying while he was yet young, he had no one to guide his mind, or direct his steps; he grew up addicted to almost all kinds of sin, and was eventually married without any change of life.
During the whole of his wicked career, he was filled with deep conviction, sometimes amounting to great alarm and distress. At length, feeling convinced that he was not likely to break off his sinful habits in his native place, he left it. After bidding his wife an affectionate farewell, with her consent he sought new fields of labour; and after working awhile in various places, he ultimately reached London. He soon afterward heard Mr. Whitfield preach, was very much delighted, but not saved. He attended the public worship of nearly every denomination, not excepting Roman Catholics and Quakers, in search of rest and peace, but found neither. He at length heard Mr. Wesley preach at Moorfields, of which he gives the following account. 'His countenance struck such an awful dread upon me, before I heard him speak, that it made my heart beat like the pendulum of a clock; and when he did speak, I thought his whole discourse was aimed at me. When he had done, I said, "This man can tell the secrets of my heart; he hath fully described the disease of my heart, but he hath not left me there, for he hath shown the remedy, even the blood of Jesus." Then was my soul filled with consolation through hope.'
Opposition on the Grounds of Fanaticism
Tested on His Sabbath-Keeping
So great was the change that was wrought in him, and so much was he filled with the Holy Ghost, that the persons with whom he lodged became alarmed, and ordered him to quit his lodgings at a day's notice. He was now working for a master who had a contract under the Government, and on the first Saturday after his conversion, the foreman ordered him to come on the Sabbath and look after some men who were to work on that day. This he at once refused to do. He was threatened with immediate dismissal, but calmly replied, 'I cannot help it, though it may be ten pounds out of my way to be turned out of my work at this time of the year, I will not willfully offend God; for I had much rather want bread; nay, I would rather see my wife and children beg their bread barefoot to heaven, than ride in a coach to hell.' As the result of his steadfastness, the Sabbath work was not done, neither was he discharged, but more fully trusted and valued. Having found salvation, he was not satisfied to remain in London, and leave his family and friends in Yorkshire ignorant of the way of salvation and careless in their sins. While at the Lord's table in St. Paul's, he was deeply impressed that he ought to return home, and although it involved loss of money he resolved to go back, and tell his family and neighbours what the Lord had done for his soul.
Great excitement was created in the village; his neighbours came in great numbers to hear him. He worked at his trade during the day, preached to the people in the evening, And many of them were savingly converted to God.
Sharing the New Faith
The religious condition of the country was at that time most deplorable. The court of England was corrupt to its very core, and the people were too faithful imitators of a bad example. Popery was intriguing, Dissenters were declining, and the Church was full of fiery and drunken feuds. Reformers like the Methodists were needed. John Nelson could not sit calmly by and see his own family and neighbours borne by this swift current of iniquity to destruction without some effort to save them. True, he had received no Episcopal ordination, nor up to this time any request or authority from Mr. Wesley to preach, but higher authority was not lacking, and he felt, 'Woe is me, if I preach not the Gospel.' He was filled with the deepest anguish concerning the work, and one time, Jonah-like, fled from the house when the people were gathering to hear him, and so great was his distress that he wished to die. For an hour he lay on his face on the grass in bitterness of soul, until the Lord's sufferings on his behalf, and His merciful dealings towards him, were brought to his mind, and filled him with shame and grief. He came home, found the people still waiting around the house. He preached to them, and two men were savingly converted. 'The new faith,' as it was called, produced not only great excitement, but also strong opposition, amounting in some instances to personal violence. That a man should have the temerity to assert that 'he knew his sins were forgiven,' was held by the recognized religious teachers of the neighbourhood to be the very essence of religious blindness and presumption.
John Wesley's Visit
About the year 1742, to his unspeakable joy, Mr. Wesley visited Birstal, stayed at his house, and preached several times in the neighbourhood. Mr. Wesley was scarcely less gratified with the visit than was Nelson. His mind was enlarged with the love of God and man. Here was a preacher, and a large congregation, many of whom were happy partakers of the faith of the Gospel, raised up through the instrumentality of this unordained preacher and stonemason. He therefore fully acquiesced in the order of God, and rejoiced that the thoughts of God were not as his confined thoughts. In reading John Nelson's journal, it is hard to say which is most to be admired, the strength of his understanding, unassisted by human learning; his zeal for the salvation of souls; or the injuries and oppressions which he suffered from those who knew not what spirit they were of. From this time he ceased to work regularly at his trade, but went from place to place with the story of the cross.
Circuit Journies and Persecution
He visited Leeds, parts of Lancashire and Cheshire, and several places in the north of Lincolnshire. The journeys were long, the roads bad to travel, and the accommodation frequently very poor indeed. A large portion of the population was intensely hostile; eggs, stones, and sticks were the favourite weapons of the unruly mob, and yet in the latter county, at Epworth, Grimsby, and the intervening villages his success was truly glorious. Mr. Wesley now sent for him to London; he obeyed the call, and with him took a long tour right through Cornwall. During this journey they had to pick the blackberries from the hedgerows to satisfy their hunger, and slept for nights together on the hard boards. One morning, about three o'clock, Mr. Wesley turned over and exclaimed, 'Brother Nelson, let us be of good cheer, I have one whole side yet, for the skin is but off one side.'
The hand of the Lord was with them, however, in a very remarkable manner, and in almost every place they had large congregations, and numbers of souls saved. The illness of his wife induced him to return home; she had been seriously injured by a mob of women near Wakefield. He found her better than he expected, but from the injuries she then received she never fully recovered.
His Bivocational Calling
For some time he returned to his trade; hewing stone by day for earthly structures, and in the evening preaching the word of life, and thus preparing polished stones for the Church of Christ. His zeal for God and determined efforts to save men filled the sons of Belial with rage. The publicans especially saw their craft was in danger. The clergymen of the neighbourhood were seriously annoyed both with his doctrine and irregular methods of procedure, so they united their forces to rid the country of this 'pestilent fellow.' Their scheme was worthy of Belial himself. It was to get him declared a vagabond, pressed as a soldier, and sent off to the army.
Persecution and Being Pressed Into Military Service
One day, while at work, he had premonitions of coming trouble, but the words of Isaiah greatly comforted him, 'I, even I, am He that comforteth you: who art thou, that thou shouldest be afraid of a man that shall die, and of the son of man which shall be made as grass?' The same night, while preaching to an orderly congregation at Adwalton, the deputy constable, who was an alehouse-keeper, pressed him for a soldier. He was taken before the commissioners at Halifax, who refused to accept bail or hear anything said in his favour. When he asked them to allow his neighbours to speak to his character, one of them said, 'Here is your minister, and he has told us of your character, and we will hear no more.' The commissioners had evidently condemned him before they saw him.
He was taken from Halifax to Bradford, and there thrust into a most loathsome dungeon, without either food or drink. Various appeals were made to the captain to allow Mr, Nelson more comfortable lodgings, but they only enraged the wicked fellow, and he threatened to break the head of one of the soldiers who appealed to him. He was taken from Bradford to Leeds. Here hundreds flocked to see him, for the news had spread far and wide that the 'Methodist preacher was pressed for a soldier.' While standing in the streets at Leeds, Nelson says, 'A jolly, well-dressed woman came up to me, and put her face almost to mine, and said, "Now, Nelson, where is thy God? Thou saidst at Shent's door, as thou wast preaching, thou wast no more afraid of His promise failing, than thou wast of dropping through the heart of the earth.” I replied, “Look in the 7th chapter; of Micah, and the 8th and 10th verses.”’
At York, he says, 'It was as if hell were moved from beneath to meet me at my coming. The streets and windows were filled with people, who shouted and huzzaed, as if I had been one that laid waste the nation. But the Lord made my brow like brass, so that I could look on them as grasshoppers, and pass through the city as if there had been none in it but God and myself.'
Like Paul at Ephesus, John Nelson fought with beasts at York. Not a few shewed him great kindness, but others treated him with great asperity. Some of the petty officers poured upon him contempt and insult, and finally ordered him off to prison because he would not desist from preaching.
Sunderland, the final rendezvous, was reached. Here they determined to compel him to put on the uniform of a soldier. He answered, 'You may array me as a man of war, but I shall never fight. I cannot see anything in this world worth fighting for. I want neither its riches nor honours, but the honour that cometh from God only; I regard neither its smiles nor its frowns; and have no business in it but to get well out of it. The captain ordered the Sergeant to pull off Mr. Nelson's coat, and put him a red one on. When done, he exclaimed, 'You see the Scriptures cannot be broken where it saith, “If they do this in the green tree, what will they do in the dry?"' 'What do you mean?' they asked. He said, 'The soldiers took Jesus, and stripped Him, and put a scarlet robe upon Him, and mocked Him, as you have treated me His servant, this day, for speaking His word. He, indeed, hath the greater condemnation who delivered me into your hands; but I pray God forgive you all.'
Shortly after, through the influence of Mr. Wesley, Lady Huntingdon, and others, he obtained his discharge, but only after a substitute had been found, and without the slightest acknowledgment of the injustice or illegality of his impressment. The motto of magistrates, clergymen, and military officers seemed to be, 'No justice for a Methodist.'
His Last Twenty-five Years
He continued to labour with great success in different parts of England for several years, but from 1750 to 1770 no journal was kept.
John Nelson as a man is represented as lively, active and strong, of great resolution and undaunted courage. As a Christian his experience was clear and scriptural. His life appeared to be one continued act of faith. He knew whom he had believed, and boldly declared a knowledge of sins forgiven, when such assurance was regarded as blindness and presumption. As a minister he was 'a workman that needed not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.' The trumpet from his mouth gave no uncertain sound. 'Ye must be born again,' was a common topic with him. He was equally at home in pointing the penitent to 'the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world,' and declaring to the believer that 'the blood of Jesus cleanseth from all sin.'
A Final Testimony
Mrs. Fletcher bears the following testimony: 'He was an extraordinary man for tenderness of conscience, watchfulness over his words, and especially for self-denial and rigid temperance. He made it a rule to rise out of bed at twelve o'clock, and sit up till two, for prayer and converse with God; then he slept till four, at which time he always rose. Many of his friends at Leeds observed him to be more lively, both in preaching and conversation, a few days before his death, than ever. The last day of his valuable life he dined with a friend in Leeds, and felt a return of the gout in his stomach. When he came home to the preaching-house where he resided, he was seized with a loss of sight, and violent retching, which ended in apoplexy and removed him to glory.'
J. F. P.
Taken from the Primitive Methodist, May 1884, (London: Kent and Company), pp. 276-279.
"I was advised not to preach a sermon by several of my neighbors; but I told them I durst not leave off preaching, for any thing that man could do unto me. They replied, “You should consider that you have a wife and children, and that your wife is now big with child; and if you be take from them, what can the poor woman do, or how must she provide for her children?” l said, “Let God look to that; if wicked men be sufficient to take away my life, for calling sinners to the blood of Jesus, the Lord, whose servant I am, will be a husband to the widow, and a father to the fatherless. And were I assured I should be banished or put to death for preaching, and my wife and children beg their bread barefoot, I durst not leave off; for the words of our Lord pursue me, ‘He that loveth father or mother, wife or children, or his own life, more than me, is not worthy of me; and he that would save his life shall lose it; and he that will lose his life for my sake shall save it.’ Therefore, pray for me, but do not tempt me to sin against my own soul.” (Read more journal entries on his marriage and wife)