REVIVAL CONFERENCE, AND MATTHEW HENRY’S PULPIT
Iola and I went to the annual conference of the Reformation and Revival Fellowship on November 20 in Swanwick. The details of the history of the Fellowship can be read in a fascinating report given by James Wood a couple of years ago and reported on the Banner of Truth website. There were 75 present at the Conference this year, an increase over the 2005 number.
Four of us spoke; Mark Webb of the Olive Branch Bible Church in Mississippi gave three addresses from John 14, 15 and 16. They were quite outstanding, moving, enlightening, encouraging and rebuking. I think they will live in our memories for a long time. Gary Nixon of Darlington spoke of evangelism amongst his fellow gypsies both in Romania and in the UK. His enthusiasm was infectious; his experiences on this journey to full-orbed biblical Christianity have been salutary. It has meant a lonely road as his own community has displayed its hostility to his message of God’s free grace, and this response has been perplexing to him. He said, “For years our small group has been wanting a Gipsy reformed meeting. We tried it once but everyone had to leave after a while to work around the world. Now it seems there’s a greater need. I am constantly asked by the few who would consider themselves to be under my pastoral care, and reformed, to hold meetings, mainly for Bible Studies which we already have, and outreach for the unsaved, which we don’t have.” May God guide them.
I spoke three times on New Wineskins, The Making of a Revival Preacher, and Revival through Encouragement. I was helped in all three messages but particularly in the first one on man’s ruined state. Jim Wood wrote to say, “I was personally very affected by your sermon on Tuesday morning: the Lord dealt with me as a consequence. We are all profoundly grateful. Thank you with all our hearts.” It is strange how the biblical message of man’s utter ruin because of our sinful natures can touch us so deeply, and we can ‘enjoy’ hearing the analysis and then be encouraged at the divine provision of pardon through Son and Spirit and their work. What diminution of our love for God comes from the dilution of man’s depravity.
Another speaker was an old retired Dutch missionary Jacques Teeuwen (whose son John is the pastor in Needingworth, St Ives, Cambridgeshire) who had been invited on the strength of a recent talk he had given in a church. He showed pictures of his labours in Papua New Guinea forty years ago. There was an amazing work of salvation at that time and place. Thousands of men and women turned from cannibalism and constant feuding to embrace Christ. The pictures of these people before and after submitting to Christ were particularly striking.
There was not a single dud session; I believe that there was a special work of the Spirit of God present throughout the whole time, a warm affection building up among the people. The great hymns were sung with tuneful earnestness. If it had lasted a day longer I would have become weepy. There were days in the past when Dr. Lloyd-Jones spoke at these conferences when something of a holy humbling atmosphere developed. I can thank God I was there this year; the conference was for me a model of what conferences can and sometimes do achieve in personal reviving and renewal.
We had the delightful privilege of taking Mark Webb and his wife Linda with us for a few days. We first went to Chester staying the night in a Bed and Breakfast. The next morning I had arranged to meet Ron Glen who is one of the elders in the Matthew Henry Memorial Church in Blacon just outside Chester a mile from the Welsh border. Matthew Henry is the Puritan author of a beloved commentary on the Bible. He lived from 1662 to 1714. His grandfather was ‘keeper of the orchard’ at Whitehall, London, and he took his father’s Christian name for his surname ‘after the Welsh manner’. The earlier surname was Williams. Philip Henry, Matthew’s father, achieved fame as a nonconformist minister and diarist. He was particularly noted for his ‘purity of spirit and transparency of character’. When a youth of 17 he witnessed the execution of King Charles 1 outside the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall (Jan 30, 1648) and records the matter as follows:
‘On the day of his execution I stood amongst the crowds in the street before Whitehall gate, where the scaffold was erected, and saw what was done, but was not so near as to hear anything. The blow I saw given, and can truly say with a sad heart. At the instant whereof, I remember well, there was such a groan by the thousands then present as I never heard before and desire I may never hear again. A troop (of soldiers) immediately marched from Charing Cross to Westminster, and another from Westminster to Charing Cross, purposely to disperse and scatter the people; so that I had much ado amongst the rest to escape home without hurt.’
Matthew Henry was born at Broad Oak, Flintshire, two months after his father had been ejected from his ‘living’ under the terms of the notorious Act of Uniformity (1662). As a youth he began the study of law at Gray’s Inn, London, but shortly experienced a call to the ministry of the Word of God, and entered without delay upon the pastoral charge of a congregation in Chester (1687). He also held monthly services in five nearby villages and preached regularly to prisoners in Chester Castle. His study was a two-storied summerhouse in the garden of his house. He remained in Chester for 25 years and then moved to Hackney, London (1712), but died two years later and was buried in Chester. He was twice married and had one son and nine daughters.
The history of Matthew Henry’s church is sad; it eventually became Unitarian; an orthodox group kept the faith for many years and influenced churches across that area and into the Potteries, south Manchester and Shropshire. The work died out. The original building of Matthew Henry was knocked down and the Unitarians put up another chapel in Chester, but that became delapidated and the Chester Council needed the land. So forty years ago there was a compulsory purchase of that Unitarian building and a church was erected for them in a new community on the hillside in Blacon. The suburb is pretty drab architecture, tower blocks, three storey groups of flats, some already being knocked down, unemployment, single parent families, wild teenagers. The church is dark brick, flat roof, uninspiring and inviting to vandalism – typical inexpensive ‘60s stuff. The roof leaks; boys can climb the walls and run over it and break in. It closed down soon after it opened; the Unitarians had no message or personnel for the toughness of modern housing estate work. For the last twenty years a group of evangelical Baptists have taken it over. There is no pastor; there are three or four men who can give a message. The church is being totally renovated at the present time; a new roof being the special feature and the adjoining Sunday School hall is being changed. So everything had been dumped within the place where they meet on Sundays. We five arrived and Ron Glen asked the dozen workmen enjoying their cups of tea if we could walk through their room to see the main meeting place.
It was a scene of temporary cold and chaos, but there against one of the brown brick wall stands, quite incongruously, Matthew Henry’s original pulpit and sounding board, in black mahogany-type wood. From that very pulpit he preached those sermons which h
e joined together and published over the years in his famous commentary on the Bible. The pulpit is just a symbol of old glory; it’s no longer used. They have a side lectern. High doctrine is needed to use a high pulpit, and high numbers in the congregation. There is a stained glass portrait of Matthew Henry which is seven feet high about five yards from the pulpit, but in such a neighbourhood, and with the fortress mentality needed to preserve the building from the vandals, it cannot be used as an actual window. So the glass is set in a windowless alcove, and is a dark outline. The opposite wall of the church commemorates what remains of the Unitarians with similar stained glass of the last of their preachers and also a few other of their archives like a clock and a communion glass in a case hanging on the wall.
Ron Glen couldn’t have been more helpful showing us around and explaining things to us. The church is trying in the modern way to reach the neighbourhood via contemporary songs accompanied by drums and guitars, with drama, leading a mothers and toddlers’ group. The century old church organ is going for a song; they have no use for it and want the space, and Linda Webb was very struck by the possibility of taking it to Olive Branch where the Bible Church is beginning a building programme. Mark was more sceptical; buying it would be the easy part – like the actual purchase of a horse – then the expenses begin. Dismantling and shipping it to Mississippi and rebuilding it there would be the challenge.
We left Chester for Wales staying one night in a promenade B&B in Llandudno and then driving through Snowdonia and seeing Caernarfon castle on the way home, finally arriving on Friday in Aberystwyth just before 5 p.m. What can you say about our delightful little town of 15,000 people and 8,000 students? The ‘most beautiful in the world?’ Mark and Linda Webb made suitable noises of appreciation. They were impressed with the promenade lining the sea, the Victorian buildings, the old college near the pier, the Cliff Railway, the harbour and pier. But to enter a Christian bookshop packed with the latest reformed literature from all over the world, and to meet a congregation of people who believe in God’s free grace and want it preached to them year after year were the most blessed discoveries of all. Mark preached to about 100 people in both services, in the morning on the parable of the lost sheep, coin and son. We came back and tuned in to digital radio Trans World Radio and heard the usual half an hour of Dr. Lloyd-Jones preaching from 1 p.m. for half an hour. It was gripping stuff. How enormously significant the Doctor’s ministry continues to be. In the evening Mark spoke on God having translated us from the dominion of darkness, bringing us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. After the service fifty people met and he shared something of his own pilgrimage and sang some songs he had written. His day was not over; back in the Manse students fired questions at him until 10.15. A fascinating and encouraging time in our church. On the 5.13 Monday morning train the Webbs departed for London, the Channel tunnel and hence to a night in Brussels. Then they left for Amsterdam, flying back to Memphis on Tuesday.