Some Local preachers I have known
Reminiscing about preachers in the North of England
Transcription of Sketch in the Christian Messenger by W.M. Patterson
Amongst the many local preachers I have known there are naturally some who stand out from the multitude – men of strong individuality, each possessing marked traits all his own, and each impressing me in a variety of ways, at different stages, and in connection with particular incidents. Memory fondles certain striking episodes, and as the years roll imagination casts over them a halo, making each provide inspiration in humdrum days and seasons of commonplace toil. It is a blessed thing to have lived in stir and stress and to have felt the spell of strong men.
How rapidly we move, even in the development of the community to which we belong as Primitive Methodists.
Some of the men with whom I have been associated in labour would be regarded as antique to-day. Before my mind’s eye there are personalities who were in the full flush of manhood, doing their life’s work with untiring zeal and glowing enthusiasm when the last century was little more than half spent. And yet, so has the change been wrought from then till now, that even to us they would wear an old world guise in gait and speech. How much more would this appear to the generation behind us! I can only speak of north-country men, of course; but take such examples as Robert Lisle of Lowick – Robbie Lisle, as he was called – Jamie Young of Ford Moss, John Pringle of Goswick, John Lowry of Gateshead Low Fell, Tommy Wanless of Cramlington, not forgetting Tommy Fenwick of Annfield Plain. Their dress, their mannerisms, their phrases, their entire selves, would either alarm, provoke the ridicule, or tickle the risibilities of many congregations now worshipping under the name of Primitive Methodist.
Antique, old-world, out of date – the last fragments of that race now fast disappearing – the late Alick Petticrew of Cullercoats, for instance – serve to tell us that that would be the judgment of the present-day Primitives. Lack-a-day! thirty or forty years hence, or less, and probably that same judgment will be passed upon us. But justice to the memory of these so-called “out-of-date ” labourers in the vineyard demands that our young men and maidens should know, and never forget, this great truth: these men were among the pioneers which made the change possible – the change which brought this better day, placing in the hands of this generation political freedom, a larger territorial scope on the face of the globe, more extended social and industrial advantages, a bigger share in the national purse, multiplied educational facilities, a wider culture, and improved means of worship and spiritual growth. Gratitude should at least impel the younger men and women to place their stones upon the Cairns of their dead spiritual ancestors.
Just a few reminiscences. Looking back something like forty years ago, I see at a camp meeting a small, spare man. “Pass a few swiftly fleeting years” is being sung. With one hand he grips and tugs the lappel of his coat as the notes fall; then he quickly stands erect as the notes rise. That was the thirty-fifth Spittal camp meeting he had attended, he said. He must therefore have been present at gatherings of that character there before Berwick Chapel was built in 1829. Robert Lisle’s face glowed on the day of which I speak, for before him stood an immense throng, comprising, amongst others, some hundreds of young people, full of gladness. There had been a great revival – such a spiritual resurrection as perhaps stands alone in the religious history of the ancient Border town of Berwick. The old man’s heart swelled up with a joy which made his countenance luminous. In the course of his business he drove around a large tract of the Border country, and had been telling the people in the villages and hamlets of the wonderful work God was doing at Berwick; but now he saw before him the full significance of the marvellous movement. Those were the days when Primitive Methodists believed in revivals – overwhelming floods of Divine power. Who dares tell me that these upheavals were only ephemeral spasms of emotionalism? Souls were born anew at Berwick in 1861 who are still actively engaged in Christian work in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Many others have gone home. I know they are safely folded.
Robert Lisle’s discourses were innocent of any claim to scienti?c arrangement. Logical sequence there was none, but it was a positive joy to the young people to hear him. The fragile, cheery man poured out snatches of experience, then verses of hymns and strings of quotations from psalm, or Gospel, or epistle, to exhort, to warn, and to assure of the pardoning mercy of God to the vilest sinner who repented and “turned to the Lord to seek salvation.” Robert Lisle might have no acquaintance with the literary authorities of his day, but he knew his Bible, the large and small hymn-books, and the shorter Catechism, though we were in the habit of assailing the Calvinism of the latter at that period with more zeal than knowledge. He read the Word of God daily, and at family worship would give Dr. Adam Clarke’s comments, Greek and Hebrew, and all the rest of it.
Another prominent figure at that time was John Pringle – only a ploughman, a true type of the Border peasant. But to me he was as the prophet Amos, or as John the Baptist. Tall, gaunt, rugged, severe. A man who believed God, and had received a message from the Most High. The vision of the enormity of sin had stamped itself upon his inmost soul, while the further truth of salvation by living in Jesus and being holy was as clear to him as the sunlight. Had he been educated and disciplined he would have been a leader of men, for he had within him all the elements of men of the stamp of Wellington and General Booth. Most certainly, had he lived in the days of the Covenanters, he would have followed Leslie and Peden, and would have been unawed by Claverhouse, and sealed his, testimony with his blood.
Uncouth, was he? Rude of speech, clumsy in stride – a hind? Yes, well – what then? He was a man of power and a man of God. With all his limitations, and much that was unattractive, John Pringle’s influence was felt for miles around his dwelling-place, and had he had the opportunities of some, the whole nation would have known that he lived. At times the power with which he was endued from on high was resistless. I remember one such occasion. A narrow schoolroom, the walls coloured, a few ordinary forms, a bare deal table, a print hung up near the preacher containing the solemn words, “Every one of us must give an account of himself to God.” That was the place. A number of eager, simple, believing souls were gathered together on a Sunday morning. The peasant man conducting the devotions was enrapt. A great awe fell upon the assembly; every feeling was overmastered by the Real Presence. It was indeed, the vestibule of the Upper Temple – it was the Gate of Heaven.
John Pringle left us for another community. Then came the eclipse. And this is but a sample of thousands more. If ever an official of ours, be he young or mature, is tempted to make a change, let him first sit down and consider. God knows we are not an ideal people; but if any man has found the Lord among us and also a sphere of labour, if he is filling his opportunities with useful toil, and if God is acknowledging his work, he should pause long before he wrenches himself away from his appointed place.
From the borders of Scotland to North West Durham was a great contrast in the sixties so far as concerned Primitive Methodism. In the latter region I was cast amongst a people who provided at once material for study and pleasure. The characteristics were so different to the Presbyterianised atmosphere of Tweedside – not all advantageous, by any means. To me they were new and picturesque, and I was young and impressionable.
John Lowry had been at Shotley Bridge a short while before my arrival, at Consett, and the glow of the great work was still strong. George Charlton had preached there his great sermon on “The Incomparable sons of Zion,” of which old Mr. Brodie continued to speak with emotion. Great crowds then gathered at the annual visits of Samuel Antliff for the Primitives, and of John Rattenbury and G.A. Telfer for the Wesleyans. Thomas Smith had just preached the concluding sermons at the opening of Consett Chapel. Tommy Fenwick, Richard Brown, and Mark Halliday, were In their heyday, and Thomas Carrick was the greatest figure in the whole region. These are but a handful of the men of power.
My personal contact with John Lowry was very slight. I just remember one service when he frequently bent over the railing of the platform in Consett Chapel, shouting “glory, glory!” But I can bear testimony to the good work he did in the county of Durham. In Shotley Bridge, especially, there was joy at the mention of his name seven-and-thirty years ago. It is no disparagement to his memory to say that his educational outfit was bare, that he had no adventitious attractions. The poverty of his opportunities in this respect was great. He knew his lack. But he also knew the illimitability of the resources of his King. He was acquainted – it might be almost said, without irreverence, familiarly acquainted – with God. He told his Father what He had promised, and besought Him to redeem his promises. The chief aim of John Lowry’s mission was to win souls. He was in travail until that was accomplished. In an abandonment of agony he wrestled in his chamber – on the highway in the dead of night – and the opening heavens revealed the vision to his own spirit, and the gathering crowds of weeping sinners and rejoicing delivered ones manifested the victory of triumphant faith and grace.
For unflinching faith, simple goodness, and power in prayer, few men are better remembered than Tommy Fenwick of Annfield Plain. I cannot recollect ever having heard him called Thomas. It was too formal; it did not become him. His eccentricities were very marked, and occasionally his preaching was a great trial to his hearers. But his transparency of life, his implicit trust in his Saviour, his unquestioning assurance of his own acceptance in the Beloved, his childlike, lovable nature – rough, pitman though he was – gave him such a hold on his brethren and neighbours, that made men of high endowments marvel and envy. One talent he had and he used it. That talent was prayer, and larger men bowed at his feet when Fenwick prayed. It was this and the purity of his life which brought him into fellowship with such men as the late Dr. Blythe Hurst, the scholarly Vicar of Collierley; it was this that silenced the Sunderland quarterly meeting when it was discussing whether he should be allowed to occupy a place on its Circuit’s plan; it was this which induced the enormous crowds to gather at his funeral; it was this which has kept his memory fragrant In many a household at home and in the Colonies until this day.
George Charlton, the stalwart citizen, alderman and Mayor of Gateshead the fearless temperance apostle in the North requires a book. Why has it not been written? I must content myself with one fragment. It was the first time I had seen him or heard him. I am not certain whether it was in 1861 or 1862, but it was of those years, and it was Berwick Fair Day. There was a great temperance ado. Of course there was an open air meeting at the Town Hall steps – a famous place of assembly. Close by there was a noted public-house at that period, and the publican had prepared for a prosperous day. George Charlton was in his glory, In front of him stood a dense mass of people, and he had to be an audacious spirit who dared enter that public-house that afternoon. The publican was furious. A large quantity of cooked food would be thrown on his hands, and his extra stock of liquors would be unsold. Off he went to the Mayor, and made his complaint. His worship told him that so long as the crowd was orderly he could not interfere. In his extremity the publican engaged a German band to drown the speakers. The hundreds of young folk in the crowd were thrilled with excitement when the instruments blared. To their intense relief a hymn was announced. Months of street processioning had fitted the youngsters to give out volume of sound and they sang their lustiest. The band played, the huge choir sang. Denser and denser grew the immense audience. The fair was at its full height; the fun of the fair was a temperance meeting. Voices and instruments continued in competition. The excitement became contagious; onlookers caught It. and a rousing cheer announced the discomfiture of the band.
Of John Brown of Ancroft and Andrew Craig of Milfield, men of thought, who would; always be modern, I may not speak just now. They were meant for national service – at least we thought so – but God decreed otherwise.
Thomas Carrick still lives, thickly endowed with brain and voice; he has used both in the service of his Master, and Consett and Keswick alike, with widely other districts, own his power. That voice! And how he could manipulate its melodious tones – gentle and tender, the pleading pathos, the thundering warning. That imagination! Its pictures vivid, melting, or awe-inspiring. That poetic faculty! What visions it portrayed in rhythmic phrase. But I must stop.
What were the outstanding features of these men? They knew the written Word. What is more, they believed it, and they lived it. They did not question. With them to doubt was to be condemned. God was to them a reality. Salvation was a reality. The joy of the Lord was a reality. Self-denial and self- abandonment were the natural sequence of their profession of faith. And God honoured them. With many imperfections, some of them from the bottom stratum of British society – God magnified in these very earthen vessels His matchless love and power. It was ever thus with God. ’Twill ever be thus. Consecrated lives – whether of commonplace or gifted people – will shed a lustre and exert an energy which time will nourish and eternity expand.
Family and other information
Robert Lisle: Robert was baptised on 23 August 1804 at Thornton, Northumberland. His father was William. Robert was a tailor and draper.
Robert married Elizabeth Galbraith (abt1805-1876) on 13 June 1832 at Lowick, Northumberland. Census returns identify three children.
- Mary Jane (1835-1869) – married George Norman in 1862
- William (1837-1879) – a commission agent (1871)
- Margaret (1846- 1883)- married Rochester Brown, a butcher, in 1873
Robert died in early 1881 at Lowick, Northumberland.
George was born abt 1808 at Corbridge, Northumberland. He was married to Mary (abt1803-1880).
George worked as a butcher, although the 1861 census records him as a colliery agent.
George died on 15 September 1885 at Gateshead, Co. Durham.
He is commemorated by a drinking fountain in Saltwell Park, Gateshead, recognising two stints as mayor of Gateshead and founding the Newcastle Teetotal Society.
Christian Messenger 1903/203
Census Returns and Births, Marriages & Deaths Registers