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John Smith
A Biography from the British Messenger

John Smith was the spiritual father of John Hunt, the apostle of Fiji, and of thousands of others. His memoir, by Richard Treffry, Jr., author of the Eternal Sonship of Christ, has been the means of stirring up to more holiness and usefulness William Lamb of Wakefield, and others not a few. It is the life of one who singled out for himself the noblest object that can engage the mind of man—the glory of God in the salvation of souls—and gave himself up unreservedly to its accomplishment.
He was born at Cudworth, near Barnsley in Yorkshire, January, 1794. His parents were both pious. His father was a leader and local preacher among the Methodists. When between eight and nine years old he was awakened to concern about his soul by means of a sermon on Psalm 144:15: "Happy is that people whose God is the Lord." But his serious impressions soon passed away; and from fourteen to eighteen years of age he was remarkably wicked—a ringleader in vice. He gave up attendance at the house of God, cursed, gambled, wrestled, attended prizefights, and mimicked those who prayed at prayer-meetings for the sport of his ungodly companions. His parents continued to pray for him, and the Lord had mercy on him. In the spring of 1812, when he was eighteen years old, there was a time of great religious earnestness at Cudworth, his native town. Among others, a cousin of his was converted. At this time John was at Barnsley, at business. One Sabbath he came over, and when he saw what had been done for others his mind was much affected. His mother talked to him, and when he was about to leave to return to Barnsley, she said to him, "John, you are wandering about in search of happiness, but you will never find it till you turn to God." He and his companion had not proceeded far on their journey when Smith suddenly stopped, and with a deep groan exclaimed, "I am resolved to lead a new life." They returned to Cudworth to attend the prayer-meeting that was to be held there that evening. The meeting concluded, but he had obtained no peace of mind. With a number of others he went to his father's house, where the meeting was continued. God showed him the love of Christ, and His willingness to receive him, prodigal as he was, and to fall on his neck and kiss him; and that night he found peace in believing. O parents! learn from this never to cease praying for your children, however wicked they may be. Perhaps far away in some other land, long after you are dead, God may write upon their hearts the lessons you taught them in their youth, and they may cry, "God of my father, of my mother, have mercy upon me!"
In his after-life John Smith was remarkable for his firm faith in God's great willingness to save the worst of sinners—for his love for prayer-meetings after public worship—and for his urgency upon sinners to receive Christ now, and be saved upon the spot; and perhaps the circumstances of his own conversion may be traced in these things.
On the day after his conversion he read about thirty chapters of his Bible; and from this time onward God's book was his delight, and seldom was there a day on which he did not commit some of it to his memory. He was accustomed to retire to fields and woods, and other places of concealment, to pray for a larger supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. One day, soon after his conversion, being under peculiar temptation, he retired into a cavern, where he continued in prayer till he felt such an overshadowing of God's presence as quite overwhelmed him. He took many opportunities also of talking to those who had lately been his companions in wickedness about their souls, telling them what God had done for him, and urging them to abandon their sinful ways. Two of them he had the happiness of bringing to Jesus. Several persons soon became interested in him, and he was placed at school at Leeds with a view to the Wesleyan ministry, in the twentieth year of his age.
At Leeds he was most attentive to his studies, regretting exceedingly that he had not a larger stock of knowledge. By-and-by he was asked to address a congregation, but from timidity could scarcely be induced to do so. At length he was persuaded. His text was Prov. 18:24: "There is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.'' His embarrassment was most painful. After having proceeded, with great difficulty, for some short time, he was compelled to tell the congregation that he could not address them any longer, and he sat down in deep distress. His want of suitable expressions seemed to be the cause of his failure; and for several years afterwards he was often straitened in his pulpit labours from the same circumstance.
In 1816 he was sent to York to assist the Wesleyan ministers there. He was now in the twenty-third year of his age, and was in no respect distinguished. His talents were generally considered below mediocrity. He was not a popular preacher, nor was he extraordinarily zealous. But during the nine months that he was in York a great change came over him. He hungered and thirsted after righteousness, and he was filled. He became still more prayerful and Bible-reading, redeemed every opportunity for study and usefulness, and God opened his mouth and gave him a tongue of fire. The friendship of the Rev. John Nelson, one of his senior companions in the ministry, seems to have been signally blessed for his good. An intimate friend writes:—"Previous to his coming to York he appeared to have studied the artificial science of sermonizing rather than the divine art of winning souls to Christ. In his intercourse with Mr. Nelson he got his mind fully enlightened as to the grand design of the Christian ministry, and as to the manner in which it was most likely to be accomplished.'' We will give a few extracts from his letters to his parents at this time:—"I never was more sensible of the necessity of experiencing the truths of the gospel in order to preach them successfully to others. A conscious salvation is absolutely necessary. I have been much encouraged with seeing and hearing that the Lord condescends to work by me. If it please the Lord to use me, He has a right to me. He shall have all; body, soul, time, talents—All. I am reconciled to God by the death of His Son: I am seeking to be conformed to the image of my Saviour: Christ is precious to me at this moment. . . . I have heard Mr. Nelson preach some such sermons as I never heard before. I never see my littleness as a preacher under any man so much as under Mr. Nelson. He has the unction. This makes him great. . . . My soul is alive to God. Of late the Lord has revived His work in my soul, especially in private devotion. Mr. Bramwell once said, 'If you wish for any great and lasting blessing, expect it in private.' Never was I more fully convinced of the absolute necessity of personal holiness of heart and life. I long to see souls converted to God. I want more sympathy. I drag my cold and hard heart to Mount Calvary; if the bleeding Lamb cannot melt and warm it, nothing can. I want more of the dying love of Christ shed abroad in my heart. Lord, help me. If Thou canst use me, here I am at Thy disposal. Sanctify me wholly—soul, body, and spirit—and preserve me blameless to the coming of the Lord Jesus. . . . The Lord has been exceedingly kind to me this day; I have had some precious seasons in private. Never did I feel more, never, I think, so much of the power of God as at the prayer-meeting to night." This last extract is a specimen of many similar ones in his life, showing that in his experience, as in that of all Christians, a time of refreshing in public was preceded by special visitations in secret. Christ's promise still holds true, "Enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father, which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth is secret will reward thee openly" (Mat. 6:6).
In 1817 he was removed to Barnard Castle, also in Yorkshire. Shortly after his arrival the Rev. John Nelson sent him a characteristic letter—"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!"'
While at Barnard Castle, when engaged one day in prayer, two texts of Scripture were brought home to his heart with peculiar power. One was Prov. 3:5: "In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths." The other was Matt. 6:33: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you." None but those who have somewhat similarly heard the voice of God can form an idea how they soothed and stimulated Him.
Having first revived the labourer, the Lord blessed his labours. At the beginning of 1818 he writes—"The people in Barnard Castle are alive to God. We want a shower of heavenly blessing. Ride on, my God! may every house be visited, and every heart feel thy power! . . . Blessed be God, He is doing great things for us at Barnard Castle. On Sunday last, four souls got into liberty; on Tuesday night, at the prayer-meeting, seven more. Many, I believe, are awakened, and I expect the work will go on. Of late I have had some precious seasons, both in public and private. I want more of the spirit of prayer. There is nothing like getting filled with the Spirit before we go to the house of God, and then pleading with God in the presence of His people. Oh, let us go on in the name of the Lord, and expect present effects; yea, let us be restless for the salvation of souls. We shall not labour in vain. What condescension in God to use such unworthy creatures in the accomplishment of His designs! The walls of Jericho fell at the blowing of rams' horns." In 1818 he was removed to Brighton, the southern coast of England being thought more favourable to his health, which latterly had not been very good. A great blessing attended his labours in Brighton. Arrived there, he wrote—"I wish to be useful. By the grace of God I will aim at souls. The people here seem very kind, but the place is very gay." One of Mr. Smith's principles was that the world was to be blessed through the agency of the Church, and that no signal manifestations of divine power in awakening and conversion were to be expected except through a quickened state of piety among believers. He therefore longed, and laboured, and prayed for increased desire after holiness, and for the spirit of prayer and extraordinary effort among the people of God. Wherever these were largely bestowed, he expected that the conversion of sinners would soon follow. And wherever there were no conversions, he thought that the Christians there must be in a cold and lukewarm state.
When sinners were not converted under his ministry, he would spend days and nights almost constantly on his knees, weeping and pleading before God, and especially deploring his own inadequacy to the great work of saving souls. He was accustomed to say that a preacher ought to have restless solicitude on the subject of fruit; that God demands this of us; and that wherever it is found, it will secure His approbation. The senior minister at Brighton, Mr. Calder, testifies—"I have often seen him come down stairs in the morning after spending several hours in prayer, with his eyes swollen with weeping. He would soon introduce the subject of his anxiety by saying—'I am a broken-hearted man; yes, indeed, I am an unhappy man; not for myself, but on account of others. God has given me such a sight of the value of precious souls that I cannot live if souls are not saved. O give me souls, or else I die!'"
He usually read twelve chapters, or the whole of a Scripture book in a day, and committed a portion of it to memory. Mr. Calder says—"He would frequently remark to me, in relation to any work of a generally interesting character, 'Yes, it is very good, I have no doubt; I shall be glad to read it at a future period if the Lord spare my life; but I must read my Bible more. I must devour God's book, or how can I know His mind? I do not legislate for others, but I must be allowed to follow my own views on this subject.'" There is no doubt that the aptitude with which he could use the sword of the Spirit was one of the causes which contributed to his wonderful success as a minister.
Regarding his preaching, Mr. Calder remarks—"Of that species of preaching which only produced intellectual pleasure he had a holy abhorrence. 'They achieve nothing, sir,' he would say. Perfectly capable as he was of appreciating what was refined and intellectual, a sermon which achieved nothing, however characterized by taste, argument, eloquence, or even abstract theology, was to him merely as the play of the painted fly in the sunshine, whose parent is a worm, and whose life is a day."
But besides doing the work of the pulpit he visited every family, and sought to bring the unconverted to Jesus. Mr. Calder says— "His ceaseless concern for the children and servants of our people was attended with glorious results. My house was frequently the scene of holy triumph; for if a visit was paid to me by any of the children of our friends, they became the objects of his peculiar regard. He would ingratiate himself into their favour, and find no rest till they obtained mercy of God."
While living at Brighton, he visited other places, where many were brought to Jesus through his labours. We shall mention only a single instance. One evening he preached in London, at City Road Chapel. The whole of the preceding afternoon he spent in earnest prayer for the divine blessing upon the meeting. When speaking he had great power and freedom, and when he was afterwards engaged in prayer, the Holy Spirit descended in an unusual manner. Many were believed to be
converted then. No wonder he said—"Oh, if we were always filled with the Holy Ghost before we go to the house of God, we should see signs and wonders!"
In 1820 he was married to Miss Ellen Hamer, and was removed to Windsor. Here he commenced a daily prayer-meeting at five o'clock in the morning, and a similar meeting after the Sabbath evening preaching. He preached, also, frequently out-of-doors when the weather permitted. Many souls were converted. While in Windsor he went to London, and laboured among the soldiers. In a short time nearly seventy were believed to have obtained pardon. He also paid a visit to his former station—Brighton; and on the Sabbath evening the Spirit of God descended with great power on the congregation. Fifteen or sixteen persons, it was thought, obtained pardon and peace. On the following day he attended the quarterly meeting at Lewes, and in the evening preached. His subject was the love of God to man. For himself, he said in his own pathetic style, he did love God, and he intended to get to heaven. He then appealed to the people whether they would go with him. Pausing, as for a reply, there was, of course, profound silence, and every heart seemed filled with the deepest emotion. Then turning to his friend Mr. Calder, he said, in a thrilling tone—"Brother Calder, will you go to heaven?" As well as he could articulate for weeping, he replied—"By God's grace, I will." "Hear him," said Mr. Smith with a loud voice, "he says he will—amen; and now, for all of you, God is here to receive your vow, and help you to fulfill it." The effect was magical: awe appeared to rest on every spirit, and multitudes testified that they had never before observed such an impression from simple and anointed eloquence.
About midsummer, 1822, he went into the High Wycombe circuit to preach some occasional sermons. One Sabbath morning, when the congregation was assembled, he had not arrived at the chapel, and several persons were dispatched in different directions to seek him. After the lapse of a considerable time, he was found in some solitary place out-of-doors, forgetful of all time, wrestling with God in prayer for His blessing upon the services in which he was about to engage. The result may be anticipated. Throughout the day his mind appeared to be peculiarly impressed with the Divine love and willingness to save; and in one of his sermons he repeatedly, and with extraordinary vehemence, cried out, "He is willing! He is willing! He is willing!" Many on that occasion had a blessed experience of God's willingness to save them; and numbers of others were awakened from their carelessness. If eloquence be "vehement simplicity" as some one has defined it, John Smith was truly eloquent
He seems to have had a most vivid idea of God's purity and holiness; and that aspect of sin which most deeply affected his own mind was its rebellious and treasonable character. Often from the pulpit and elsewhere he was accustomed, with a voice which almost faltered when he approached the subject, to exclaim, "God is dishonoured in his own world." He not only presented perdition to the sinner, with the hope of rousing him, but because he felt with peculiar force that it was proper that an impenitent sinner should be lost. Horror seemed sometimes to take hold of him on account of the wrongs which the Creator sustained from His creatures. But along with this vivid sense of God's holiness, he had an equally vivid tense of His unspeakable compassion. Accordingly he was displeased when persons prayed as if God were unwilling to bless; or when they spoke of unbelief as a mere infirmity. “It is an abomination," he said, "when men talk as if they were more willing to bless, than God." To anxious inquirers he often said, "Not long will the Almighty have to wait for you!"
While stationed at Windsor, his health began to give way. His brother ministers agreed to expostulate with him about overworking himself, and appointed one of their number to be the spokesman, the others being present. When the matter was put before him, Mr. Smith burst into tears, and sobbing with grief, replied, "What you say is all correct; I ought to put restraint on myself: but oh, how can I? God has given me such a sight of the state of perishing souls that I am broken-hearted, and can only vent my feelings in the way I do, entreating them, to come to God, and pleading with Him to come upon and save them." Still weeping, as if in an agony, he continued, "Look round you, my brother; do you not see sinners going to hell! and when I thus see and feel it, I am compelled to act." To such a statement there was no reply.
In 1822 he was removed from Windsor circuit to Frome. His success here was wonderful. Hundreds of souls appear to have been converted in a short time. And we need not wonder at it when we get a glimpse of his private life. Mr. Treffry, his biographer, says, "After the family worship of the morning, which Mr. Smith usually prefaced by several hours of private devotion, he returned to the exercises of the closet, and sometimes on his knees, and often on his face, wrestled with God, till not unfrequently a considerable part of the floor of the study was wet with tears. In his unreserved disclosures of feeling to his friend Mr. Clarkson, he once remarked that he was sometimes engaged in prayer for two or three hours before he enjoyed that unrestricted intercourse with Heaven which he always desired, and which he generally succeeded in obtaining." Another of his friends testifies: "Often when I have gone to his house with those who were seeking salvation, I have interrupted his devotions, in which he would be engaged for seven or eight hours at a time. He occasionally spent the whole night in prayer."
Before leaving Frome circuit he went to London, and laboured for a fortnight, during which time very many persons were believed to obtain salvation from guilt and sin through his instrumentality.
In 1825 he was appointed to Nottingham. Mr. Treffry, his biographer, was appointed at the same time to the same circuit, and became intimately acquainted with him. Shortly after going Mr. Smith spent a whole night in fasting and prayer that God would revive his work in the town and neighbourhood. Of his usefulness during the four years of his residence in Nottingham it is impossible to form any adequate estimate. "A gentleman intimately acquainted with the circuit," says Mr. Teffry, "and in every other respect qualified to form a correct calculation, states it as his opinion, that there are now in its societies not fewer than four hundred persons who were converted to God through Mr. Smith's immediate instrumentality. And if to this extraordinary number we add those cases in which his ministry was powerfully blessed to neighbouring circuits, and the other instances in which he was, in a still more extended, though less palpable and direct way, the instrument of good in his own circuit,—we have an amount of spiritual service as the result of one man's labour such as, in so short a period, has very rarely been surpassed"
Mr. Treffry says that he had great vigour of understanding, and that he was distinguished for his deep humility, and for his remarkable liberality, especially in reference to different schools of ministers. Wherever he saw a sincere desire to do good, though not in his own line, he hailed it with pleasure. "There never was an individual whoso character was more diametrically remote from that of the sour censorious Zealot." "It was difficult to determine whether his energy or his amiableness were the most striking." "I readily grant that he was sometimes wanting in prudence; but it was a rare thing indeed for that want to injure any but himself."
He seldom refused an invitation to a tea party, and delighted in "parlour preaching." His usual custom was, first, to give out a verse of a hymn, and to engage in prayer. Then he proceeded to inquire into the spiritual state of each in the room, and gave advice and prayed. Many were converted or stirred up to lire holier lives at these meetings.
In the pulpit, at the commencement, he usually spoke with great calmness and deliberation. But when he thought he had convinced the understandings of his audience, "he broke forth with a vehemence," says Mr. Treffry, "which I never saw equaled, and addressed himself to their hearts and consciences, alternately in terror and tenderness, determined, if possible, to save some. Sometimes I have heard him denouncing sin with words, and tones, and gestures positively terrific; and then, in a moment, his voice has faltered, and with a burst of tears he has proclaimed the
boundless mercy of God, and the infinite value of the blood of Christ."
In 1829 he was appointed to Lincoln. It was while in this circuit that he was the means of converting John Hunt—the apostle of Fiji. In no place was he more successful. A few months after he went there, he wrote, "Oh, how the Spirit has been poured out upon this circuit! It is spring in nearly every place. I think it certain that more than five hundred have been added since conference. It is God's good pleasure to save"
In every circuit in which he travelled, from the time he went to Brighton to the close of his life, God gave him many souls for his hire. And what was the secret of his success? The eleventh chapter of Hebrews gives the answer —His faith in God "Of all that he did or suffered, of all that he experienced or enjoyed, faith was the great, the animating principle." "If," said he, "a man were as black as a devil, and had upon him all the sins that ever were committed, if he would but begin to believe, God would raise him." "When I have been engaged in writing a letter, he has called out to me, Write in faith." "I have myself seen a whole congregation so perceptibly quickened in their devotions on his entrance into the chapel, though unperceived by every one, that it could be imputed to nothing but the earnest exercise of his faith; and I have found on inquiring whether it were not so, that he been employed in an act of faith for the people when he came in."
In 1831 Mr. Smith was appointed to Sheffield; but his health had been completely shattered previously, and he never preached even once in his new field of labour. After a very short residence in it he died of consumption, in November, 1831, aged 37.—"Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from henceforth, yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours, and their works do follow them.''—W. J. P.
Taken from the British Messenger, September 1, 1870, and October 1, 1870.