Lowly Heroes and Heroines of Primitive Methodism - The Unpolished Gem
Transcription of Sketch in the Primitive Methodist Magazine by Chas. H. Boden
A popular preacher of the last generation was wont to say, “You may educate a stone by removing its incrustations and polishing it into facets, so as to render it fit to sparkle in the diadem of an aristocrat, or bedeck the crown of earth’s highest dignitary. You may educate a weed until it becomes a beautiful flower, and animal instincts so as to bring their possessor to the border-land of mind; but there is an education which transcends the animal – it is soul-education. This can only be effected by the operation of the Divine on the human, consisting, as it does, in soul-purification, transformation, and culture by the application of religion.” Amid the many subjects of this process whose path I have crossed was one familiarly called Tommy Mason. His home was in Leicester. Leicester, an ancient town on the eastern banks of the River Soar, received its name from King Lear eight hundred years prior to the Christian era, and subsequently was a settlement of pagan Rome. It was for a long time dominated by the papacy and swarmed with friars. There were Augustine friars, Black, White and Grey friars, Penitential friars, etc. Tradition says the faggot and stake were frequently seen in the old High Cross Street. It afterwards became what it now is – a stronghold of Protestant Nonconformity. The subject of our present sketch lived in Wharf Street, about equidistant from the “Holy Bones,” viz., the ruins of the temple of Janus; and the remains of the Abbey of the Black Canons, where Wolsey, the haughty prelate, disgraced and spirit-broken, retired to die.
Our hero wrought at an iron foundry. He was a broad-set, well-built man, about five feet seven inches high, with strong features, strong passions, strong will, and strong voice – a man whose force of character rendered him capable of accomplishing much good or evil. In early manhood he adopted the latter course of life. He had a good Methodist mother, who did not live long enough to see her prayers answered, but, having given to God a life of reliant obedience, died amid the silent joys which are its accompaniment, exulting in the vision of angels preparing her immortal crown, then plumed her wings and rose to the presence of the source of perfection. The last prayer for him had quivered on her lips, but her prayers were answered ultimately.
The time, place, and manner of conversion vary. The ordinary spot is the sanctuary. But the dim religious light from stained-glass windows, the Gothic arches, the marble ?oors, are not essential to the salvation of a soul just on the door-step of hell. This was once impressed upon me very strongly at a lovefeast in a very rugged part of the forest of Charnwood. The preliminaries over, one rose and said, “I was converted under that pulpit ;” another said, “I was converted when thrashing in a barn,” a third, an old woman of near eighty years, said, “I was converted about a week ago; as I was going upstairs I suddenly felt my sins forgiven.” Then a young woman, veiled and in deep mourning, followed, saying with smothered sobs, “I gave my heart to God by the deathbed of a dear mother. She asked me to meet her in heaven, then looked up and whispered, ‘Yonder’s my house, my portion fair.’ I fell on my knees and promised to meet her there. When I rose she was gone,” she then sat down amid universal sobs and tears. The time, place and manner of our hero’s conversion differed from these, yet he was a brand plucked from the burning. He spent years in trying to correct the errors of the past, and to live at new and well-regulated life.
I first met with him at old George Street Chapel, an unpretentious structure, seating about nine hundred people. It was the parent chapel. Other denominations had places of superior type, but it is questionable if any one was a centre of greater religious power. Their pulpits could boast of the Rev. James Mursell, of Dr. Legge, and others of unquestionable eloquence, but John Verity had preached here, and John Oxtoby, known as “Praying Johnny,” had prayed here. He never could preach, but in prayer he was mighty, and in realistic faith was almost without an equal. There was one thing of which no other place could boast, viz., its crowded congregation. Its every lettable sitting was ticketed with the name of its occupier. For months, persons occupied free sittings until one was at liberty. The reason was not far to seek; it was one of the most energetic missionary churches I ever knew. It had four missioning bands, each of which at five o’clock had its half-hour’s cottage prayer meeting. Then the four bands spent half-an-hour in the streets. It was inspiring to sit in the pulpit and hear them coming from all points, singing the songs of Zion, and if there was one singing
“Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night,
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray;
I woke, my dungeon flamed with light;
My chains tell off my heart was free,
I rose, went forth and followed Thee,” —
you could judge who was leading it. He loved these open-air services; in fact, he was the fruit of such labours. It occurred on one beautiful summer’s evening; some of the fathers on whom ridicule was powerless were out missioning, when, either by accident or the guidance of a superhuman hand, they stopped against the prison wall, which, although much in the style of a mediaeval castle, strengthened by towers at intervals, with its walls enclosing several acres, was the centre of much misery. Tommy, unknown to them, was an inmate. The day’s work on the tread-wheel was over; he sat in his cell, sullen, obdurate, vindictive, the iron entering his soul. Evil habits involved him in their coils. One present suggested they should give the poor fellows inside a verse, so they sang,
“Come, ye sinners, poor and needy,
Turn to the Lord and seek salvation yet.”
Then one or two prayed, after which came two or three short addresses. These were not like that of the friar on the horse-block in High Cross Street, who, after his oration on the curative properties of relics, said, “Now, lordlings, unbuckle your purses and drop your money into my box,” and lifting up a tooth of the Virgin Mary, said, “Whoso sacrificeth to this tooth shall never have the toothache any more.” Those uncultured preachers told of one Jesus, who could allay the throbbings of an aching heart, whose peace was to be obtained “without money and without price.” They could not preach like the eloquent Massillon, who, in the presence of their dead king, surrounded by the rank, wealth and chivalry of France, exclaimed, “There is nothing great but God,” nor soar in those lofty regions of thought, into which the silvery tones of Saurin conducted his audiences, but their preaching was that of light, life, and power, and the demonstration of the Holy Ghost. How many felt that power is unknown, but it shed al lurid flame on one life and, like electricity setting fire to a pile of sulphur, caused it to smell like the smoke of the bottomless pit. Agitated by strong emotion, conscience told him he was a wretch, that he had the face of a wretch, the heart of a wretch, the life of a wretch, that not even the angel of mercy would have a tear to shed for him; he was a wretch ripe for destruction, and merited such a doom. His experience may be summed up in his own words, “Forgotten things came to my mind. I thought of my good old mother on her knees – in her grave, and in heaven, and of myself in prison. I rolled about on my plank bed, wondering if there was any remedy. Could I be forgiven? They had told me of Jesus; was my sorrow of any use? I was overwhelmed. I lay in hopeless dejection. At last big tears stood in my eyes. I got off my plank and knelt down. Now, for the first time, I prayed. There was no Pharisee about it, it was all publican. Then the thought occurred to me, I wonder if my mother sees me, and burying my face in my hands, I prayed — ‘Oh, my God, I once had a praying mother. I turned a deaf ear to her. Now she is dead: I wonder if she knows about this. 0 God, if it be possible for her to see what is going on down here, let her look down on me. I am going to alter.’ The struggle nearly broke my heart. How long I knelt and prayed in the dark cell I don’t know, but it seemed a very long time. I then rose from my knees, lay down and fell asleep, and in my sleep —
‘Methought I saw One on the tree
In agony and blood,
Who fixed His languid eye on me,
As near the Cross I stood.’
When the bell rang I got up, and felt a new man. At length my sentence was completed, and I was set free. On the first Sunday night after my release, l crawled into a dark corner at old George Street. The people didn’t pass out without condescending to see me. They didn’t drive me to sin again by curling their lips with” contempt, but dear old Daddy Goodrich came, and putting out his hand, said, ‘My brother, I am glad to see you.’ Fancy, ‘brother!’ ‘My brother, I am glad to see you!’ it went down me to my very toe-ends; l couldn’t stand it. I burst into tears. He called Michael Billings and Francis Warner, and I told them about it. Their eyes filled with tears. They invited me to class, and they sang, ‘Praise God for what He’s done for me.’ Thus. I was fairly launched as a Primitive Methodist”.
From this time forward he gave himself to the Church fully and without reserve; and no wonder, it had held out a helping hand, and he was grateful. Such was the story of his conversion. He had special attachment to open-air services. Although unobtrusive, he never shirked duty. He always had six chambers loaded, and his every shot hit the mark. At the lower end of Belgrave Gate, not far from his home, there were present a number of roughs when I called on him to speak. He at once stepped out, and for about ten minutes gave a characteristic address of great power. Some of his prominent expressions were as follows: “Sin never did me any good, but religion has. I used to have but two suits of Clothes – one I was born in, the other was not fit to wear. My uncle would not have kept it for me. I was often unwashed and unshaved on a Sunday when I worked for the devil. I never had much in my stomach. My pig was in the publican’s sty. Now l have as good a suit of clothes as any working man need have, and I don’t leave them with my uncle. l have not got many pictures on my walls, but I have two good sides of bacon and a ham or two instead.” Then clapping his pocket, he said, “I have got some of my hard-earned wages here.” A man whom his words had stung was beginning to sneer, when a rough woman, whose apron had been operating on her eyes, went up to him and said, “Be ashamed of yourself! I knew him, and it’s all true.”
After a good day we finished with an excellent lovefeast. Those were the days of frequent conversions. Just about that time we had four generations of gipsies converted at the same meeting. These consisted of a son and daughter, the father and mother, the grandmother, and great-grand-father. They usually wintered in a cottage, and had followed the procession. It was a delightsome picture. Talk of music and singing! it was enrapturing to hear them as they rose from their knees singing,
“My Jesus to know, and to feel His blood flow,
’Tis life everlasting, ’tis Heaven below.”
It was no mere animal excitement; for more than twenty years afterwards I was accosted in the market-place by a respectably dressed woman who proved to be of that fourth generation. From her I elicited the fact that the aged branches of the family had died in the faith. She and her husband were journeying to Zion. Over this, and kindred exercises of Divine mercy, Tommy rejoiced exceedingly.
Thus his earthly life glided on to extinction, and his end was as triumphant as his previous religious career had been; of which the following furnishes ample evidence. We were out missioning, and I suggested that we paid our friend a visit, which suggestion found a ready response. We sang to the place, formed a semi-circle in front of the house where he lay on what proved to be his death-bed. There I gave out Toplady’s magnificent hymn:
“Rock of ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side that flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Save from wrath and make me pure,”-
and looking up, saw him seated at the window wrapped in a blanket (his wife said he threatened to roll out of bed if they would not lift him out). We proceeded,
“Could my tears for ever flow,
Could my zeal no languor know,
This for sin could not atone;
Thou must save and Thou alone;
In my hand no price I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling.”
I looked up again; there he sat with eyes uplifted, and with arms of faith around the cross in which he gloried. We reached the next verse,
“While I draw this fleeting breath,
When my eyes shall close in death,
When I rise to worlds unknown,
And behold Thee on Thy throne,
Rock of ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.”
Again I looked, and never can I forget the sight. He seemed glorified; his face shone with angelic radiance. He had taken off his night-cap, and was whirling it about his head. With teeth clenched, eyes flashing, face beaming with a lustre it would require celestial language to describe, there he sat. The next day I called. I had scarcely crossed the threshold of his room when he exclaimed in tones of rapture, “Eh, out it was grand, I felt as though I wanted to drive my fist through the window and shout glory through the hole.” In about a week, the sigh which indicates the breaking of life’s thread was heaved, the ominous quiver which precedes the passing of the vital spark had trembled on his lips; the pallor which betokens that the spirit has reached the grey shadows of the vale between the visible and invisible, and entered on the path where none may linger, had settled on his face.
“And on that path high in the Heavens,
Along that roadway bright,
He and his princely convoy moved,
To the glitt’ring plains of light;
And they sang that night,
In their airy flight,
‘The darkness has vanished away;
Press into the glory,
Press into the light,
You have reached the perfection of day.’ ”
“Tommy” Mason was probably Thomas Mills Mason, born on 22 November 1811 at Leicester, Leicestershire, to parents John and Mary. He was baptised on 4 December 1811 at Leicester.
Census returns identify the following occupations for Thomas.
- 1841 moulder
- 1851 iron moulder
- 1861 iron moulder
He was married to Emma (b abt 1816). Census returns identify six children.
- Martha (b1836) – a cotton winder (1861)
- Thomas (b1840)
- Robert (b1842) – an iron moulder (1861)
- Samuel (abt1846-1914) – an engineer
- Harriet (b1848)
- Charles (b1850)
Thomas died in early 1870. This coincides with the stationing of Charles Boden in Leicester.
Primitive Methodist Magazine 1901/120
Census Returns and Births, Marriages & Deaths Registers