Smith, Sarah (nee Birchall) 1766-1822, of Englesea Brook
Pioneer of Primitive Methodism
Sarah Smith was a remarkable woman, and a huge inspiration. She shows just what can happen when one ‘ordinary’ woman, living in a remote corner of England, is faithful to God. Her actions had far-reaching consequences, and are remembered today at Englesea Brook Chapel and Museum of Primitive Methodism.
When she died in 1822, a farm labourer, James Clifton wrote her obituary for the Primitive Methodist Magazine, and Hugh Bourne himself added his own memories of her. Writing 60 years later, Thomas Bateman gives us an insight into her legacy.
‘Account of Sarah Smith’, by J Clifton, Primitive Methodist Magazine, 1823, pp37 ff
Sarah wife of Robert Smith of Englesea Brook, was daughter of Thomas and Sarah Birchall, and was born on Sunday March 2, 1766, at Barthomley in Cheshire. She was the youngest of four children; and, her mother dying when she was very young, she was early under the care of a step-mother. The father warned the children against evil, and particularly against dishonesty, though he never spoke of inward religion.
Sarah was put to school by a gentlewoman in the neighbourhood, where she learned to read and write. From a child she was addicted to vice above most other children. As she grew up she increased in the vices of the day, singing carnal songs, card playing, and other species of vanity. Yet in the midst of these things, she was not without convictions, the Lord alarmed her when alone. But, being ignorant of the things of God and the worth of the soul, she went on sinning with greediness. She lived in service at different farm houses for some years, till about the twenty-first year of her age, when she was married to Robert Smith, who now survives her. After her marriage she still lived in rebellion against God; being addicted to card-playing, reading carnal books, and the like.
She had no children of her own, but took in a child to nurse, and loved it as if it were her own. As the child grew up her affections were more set upon it; and as on this account, it had no proper correction, it grew up a troublesome boy; and often she had words with her neighbours on account of his disorderly conduct. When he was about eight years old,, the Lord took him away by a fever. This she looked upon as the greatest loss she ever had; and was filled with enmity against God on this account. Her enmity rose to such a height that she could scarce bear to see a woman with a child. Alas! What is human nature without the grace of God? For two years she never went to bed without a bundle of the child’s clothes; often awaking from terrifying dreams; and shrieking in an alarming manner. She almost fell into despair, and was scarcely capable of attending to her own little family affairs. Being invited she went to hear the Methodists at Mr Hatton’s at Park Lane, and was made sensible of her lost state the first time she heard them. This was about the year 1802. Her extravagance about the child was done away with, and godly sorrow worked in her heart; she saw herself as one of the chief of sinners; and she found shame to be a great besetment. Her distress was very great for many months. She found one hymn which she thought suitable to her state which was,
“Long have I seemed to serve the Lord,
with unavailing pain; etc”
Her soul was set at perfect liberty at Betley, while some friends were singing,
“The voice of free grace cries escape to the mountains.”
She joined the Methodist society at that place, and continued a steady member for some years.
After this, Divine Providence opened the way for bringing her talents more fully into action. Being at a preaching in Betley chapel, the preacher said, that believers should do all in their power to save sinners. On hearing this, she thought within herself, How many of my poor neighbours are in the same state I was in, without any means of grace at all? She invited the preacher to preach at her house, but he could not come. In a short time after this she met with Thomas Woodnorth. He accepted the invitation, and preached there about June 1811, and this was the first of the Primitive Methodist preaching at Englesea Brook. Numbers attended, the Lord blessed the word to many souls, and her husband began to see the need of salvation. She remained in the Old Methodist society until June 1812, when she united with the Primitive Methodists, and joined the class which met in her own house; and she and her husband went on hand in hand, a blessing which she had often prayed for. She sometimes said she thought there was not a greater sinner under the sun than she had been; and observed that she had spent the best part of her days in sin. She took in the preachers, and her heart’s desire was that others might find mercy. To me she often said, “James how good the Lord is in sending us food and raiment, and his word, and every other mercy.” She has been a great help to many, and to myself also. I can truly say, I never met with one in all respects, and on all occasions like her. She was truly a nursing mother to the lambs of Christ, and has been a blessing to many souls.
She was very diligent to persuade all she could to come to the means of grace. She was not backward to tell, either to rich or poor, what God had done for her soul. Often the Lord manifested himself to her soul in a wonderful manner while she sung:
“Arise my soul arise,
Shake off thy guilty fears; etc”
About the 20th of April 1822, she had a fall in coming down stairs, which injured the small of her back. She said to all she conversed with, that it would prove mortal; and so it happened. Ever after this fall, she had continual pain; and applied to a doctor, who was able to give but little relief. Often, when kneeling at prayer, she could not rise again without help. The last prayer-meeting, at which she ever met with us, she prayed till she was exhausted. The last time she met in class was June 23, 1822; when, (the friends said), she spoke so clearly of her acceptance with God, that it wonderfully affected all present. June 26th she took to her bed; and said, “What should I now do if I had my religion to seek!”
Not many visited her on account of the doctor giving it out that she had a very bad fever. She said there was no doubt on her mind, her evidence was clear, and her desire was that the work of the Lord might prosper; and that the house might still be kept open to the followers of Christ. She died July 8, 1822, aged fifty-six years. She fell asleep without a groan; and has left her partner and the church to regret the loss; but our loss is her infinite gain.
Remarks by Hugh Bourne
In the year 1811, we were called upon to labour at Englesea Brook, in Cheshire, which is about nine miles distant from Tunstall, in Staffordshire. The connexion was, at that time, in its infancy; and, in a short time Englesea Brook became one of the supports on the infant connexion. It rose into strength and flourished; and our late sister S Smith was active and industrious in the cause of the Lord.
For some years she taught a school with great success, in her own house. She prayed with the children, and endeavoured to instil piety into their minds. In this she had so much success that some said she taught the children nothing but how to pray; yet even these would acknowledge that the children made a more than ordinary progress in learning.
In the course of things she acted the schoolmistress in another respect. The preaching was usually on Sundays, at two o’clock in the afternoon; and she began a prayer-meeting on the Sunday evenings; and obliged the young people, in the society; to pray in public at those meetings; and, after some time she obliged some of the young people to preach occasionally on the Sunday evenings. In these proceedings, she not only used the severity of a schoolmistress, but occasionally the kindness of a parent; giving suitable advice, instruction, and encouragement. She succeeded in raising up six preachers, several of whom have been taken out to travel.
Many applied to her for advice, but the case of one pious woman was so extraordinary that when she heard it, she durst not speak one word on the subject. The case was this; a calamity happened in a family who were people of property. But good come out of it as it happened to open the way for the mistress of the house to attend the means of grace, and she was brought into the way of religion. When the calamity was removed, it was at the peril of her life if she continued to attend the means of grace. She applied to S Smith for her opinion whether it would be best for her to continue attending the means, or to give them up.
Sister Smith, (as she afterwards acknowledged), was greatly alarmed with the question, she said, “I knew her life was in danger if she continued to attend; and therefore I durst not say, Come. On the other hand, if she gave up the means, she might grow slack and endanger her soul, so that I durst not say, Do not come; – I was so frightened I durst not speak one word. However, after waiting a little Mrs D (as her name was) brought the matter to a conclusion by saying, “This life is but for a short time; the next is for ever. I had better lose this short life here, than to lose it hereafter, I will therefore attend the means of grace whatever may be the consequence.”
Sister Smith was both thankful and alarmed. She said to Mrs D, “You come to me for advice, but I had much more need to come to you; for you have a deal more firmness and courage than I have.”
Mrs D having fairly counted the cost, was firm as an iron pillar; and the God of all grace, after she had suffered a while, strangely made her way open to attend the means of grace; and, in a short time after, she departed this life in the triumph of faith.
Her husband believes that he saw her after her death. I heard him speak of it with abundance of tears. – He said she looked very bright, told him to repent, and instantly went away. It had a great effect on him for some time; but it cannot at present be said that he has hearkened to the warning voice.
The case of Mrs D was a strengthening to sister Smith, and she often spoke of it with thankfulness to Almighty God.
Extracts from ‘Reminiscences of the early days of the Primitive Methodist Connexion’, by Thomas Bateman, Primitive Methodist Magazine, 1881, pp551 ff
Talking about the Burland circuit:
Mr Darlington: ‘Mr Woodnorth came and preached here. He was taken ill, and could go no further. He told my father that if he would send me with him to a place called Englesea Brook, he would get another preacher and send me back with him to take his place. Accordingly we set out on that errand, and as there were no gigs or traps kept among farmers then, we had both to ride on the same horse. He took me to a family of the name of Brownsword.’ (At this time they kept a public-house at a place called Gorsty Hill, about half a mile from Englesea Brook. ‘Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?’ We shall see.) ‘They told us the son Thomas was engaged in the harvest at Weston Hall. The hall was a mile or more away, but being a large farm, it so happened that he was working in a field very near, to which we went, and found him among the reapers. On Mr W apprising him of our errand, he at once laid down his sickle, and we returned to the house. After a few preliminaries he put on his Sunday clothes, bid the family good-bye, mounted the horse behind me, and so we returned to Burland. I could not tell what sort of a preacher he might be, but I found he was a bad jockey. This was on the Friday, and on the Sunday morning I went with him to shew him the road to Stoneley Green, where he had to preach. The service was held in Mr Fenna’s building…
But Mr Brownsword hailed from Englesea Brook. This place deserves a passing mention; not because it was early missioned, and formed a key to this part of Cheshire, nor only because the mortal remains of Hugh Bourne, the sainted founder of the Connexion, lie there awaiting the resurrection of the just; but here was one of the schools of the prophets, an institute where a good female was both principal and divinity tutor…
[Bateman repeats details from the 1823 accounts]
At least four travelling preachers from her ‘institute’ came to labour in the Burland circuit. ‘There was Thomas Webb, a plain useful preacher, who laboured in several circuits, and held on his way until declining strength compelled him to seek rest; there was William Newton, the blind preacher, also with us for some time, but, in consequence of his loss in sight, he did not continue long in the ministry; then there was Thomas Brownsword and his sister Ann (afterwards Mrs Abrahams, of Burslem) – these two laboured hard and very successfully for many years. Now let this amount of good produced by Sarah Smith, a woman in the lower walks of life, be taken into consideration, and who can compute the mighty sum? Professors of religion, whether male or female, ‘go and do ye likewise’.