Wightman, John (1811-1882)
Lowly Heroes and Heroines of Primitive Methodism - The Fallow Ground Labourer
Transcription of Sketch in the Primitive Methodist Magazine by Rev. Chas. H. Boden
When the wicked man turneth away from his wickedness, and the unrighteous man from his thoughts, and doeth that which is lawful and right, he shall save his soul alive;” nor shall the blessings attendant on such an attainment accrue to himself alone, but a string is touched, the vibrations of which shall be felt by others throughout all time, and to the utmost limit of Eternity.
Such a work was instituted by a godly band of enthusiastic Christian workers who had come imbued with the power of the: Spirit, fresh from secret devotion, to enter the arena of conflict with the powers of darkness.
At a camp-meeting at Quorndon in the year 1832, a fine sample of manhood of about twenty-two years of age, broad-set and leonine in appearance, formed an item in the congregation. He was one of those men who needed neither affix nor prefix to give or increase the influence of the name he so honourably bore — a name lovingly cherished in the memory of thousands, and the influence of which did not expire with his death. A previous votary of pleasure, he was attracted by the singing of some early Primitives. Several “sons of thunder” were appointed to hold a camp-meeting not far from his residence, amongst whom were W. Thomson, Reece, Price, Pryor, Rlchardson, and other locals on whom descended “cloven tongues.” Whilst preaching proceeded, an awakening took place, conviction came to him like the flash that lights up a valley in the darkness of a midnight storm. Thus to him was revealed life as the threshold of heaven or hell. Possessed with this awful idea he went to dinner, but the effect of the sermon had destroyed all sense of hunger. In the afternoon the idea still possessed him; and during a sleepless night he felt the eyes of the great Task-master were upon him. For several weeks such were his experiences, intensifying with the flight of time, until one Sabbath morning he started for the river Soar with the deliberate intent of hurling himself “anywhere — anywhere out of the world,” but, as some would say fortunately, or others providentially, he encountered a friend with whom he returned homeward. On the Monday evening subsequent to this, one of the camp-meeting preachers was again appointed at the place, and he was induced to attend. During the service he was made a terror to himself. Immortality and accountability stared him in the face, and he lingered to pray. The preacher, the penitent, and the class-leader decided not to leave the sacred spot until he was converted. The struggle continued until long after the midnight hour, when the black whirlwind of despair passed by and heavenly splendour shone around him. The venerated Pryor, of truly apostolic succession, took him home for the remainder of the night lest the “Old Devil should trip him up before morning.” Until breakfast time they talked, cried, prayed, and rejoiced together. Our hero was there and thus indoctrinated, and lest he should be moved, his name was duly registered in Pryor’s class-book. From the age of twenty-two to nearly seventy-one years he laboured whole-heartedly and without reserve, obedient to the command of Him who said, “Break up the fallow ground, sow to yourself in righteousness, and reap in mercy.”
It was the opinion of many that his proper vocation was in the ministerial ranks. His preaching was not a pyrotechnic display, but was one of blunt common sense. It was a message of vital concernment to his hearers. There was always the cross in the foreground, and death, judgment, and eternity formed the background of the picture. In those days local preachership meant hard work, and such he found it. Loughborough Circuit was nearly one hundred miles in, extent, comprising Sileby, Hinckley, Oakham, Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Church Gresley, and the Leicester Circuits. To sustain so wide-spread a circuit meant proportioning the effort to the work before them, and. so our brother often found it, frequently spending his day of rest in a walk of thirty or forty miles, and preaching three times, thus willingly expending in God’s work the strength of his vigorous constitution. His preaching always carried conviction with it. Sinners were often crying for mercy all around, and nothing less than this would satisfy his yearnings. This was the sort of man the Connexion delighted to honour. For some years he was a member of the General Committee, and was in several instances appointed as a member of District Meeting and Conference.
About nineteen years prior to his death the sphere of his labours became considerably enlarged by an appointment as town missionary in Nottingham. There was a Divine hand in this, “For man ordereth not his own steps.” God’s purposes are most easily read when realised. Trade had been against him for several years he had not half employment, and would have left the village for some better commercial centre could he have born himself away from the little chapel in which he was converted. He had attended Boston District Meeting by appointment, and on the return journey called at the house of an old friend and fellow-labourer employed on the Nottingham Town Mission. His friend told him of a vacancy on their staff, and inquired if he knew one by whom it could be effectively filled. On returning home he asked a brother local preacher if he knew any one suitable to fill the vacancy. To this question he received an affirmative reply condensed into one emphatic word, “Yourself.” Pressure was brought to bear on him from other quarters, consequently he applied, and was accepted, subject to the following proviso: that he must have one night per week for his class, and an occasional Sabbath at his own disposal. His true value was soon discovered, and it was left discretionary with him to visit and work at will. The confidence thus reposed was never abused. He was soon very extensively known. He often smiled at the inquiries made for him. The knocker of his door was generally warm, and at that door a variety of inquiries elicited a diversity of replies. One said, “If you please, does Mr. Wightman the missionary live here?” Another, “If yer please, does Mr. W. the minister live here?” By others he was designated, “The magistrate,” “the constable,” “the policeman,” and street arabs often turned on all steam as they moved along with all possible rapidity, crying one to another, “Here’s Mester W. the bobby coming!”
Powerful as was his influence in the street, it was exceeded by his power in house-to-house visitation. He put conscience into his work. His district was one of the poorest and most degraded, but money-supplies from gentlemen aided him considerably in carrying out his philanthropic work. He would enter the houses of those whom Whitefield called “the devil’s outcasts,” read the Scriptures, give suitable advice, and leave a tract or leaflet which he asked them to read. In this department he was very successful. He usually called it “laying hold of God.” His power in prayer was mighty. He once said to me, “I have just succeeded in bending one stubborn stick. The first time I went he looked thunder and lightning, and when I offered to pray he said, ‘You woun’t pray here,’ to which I replied, ‘I’d better finish now, I’m on my knees.’ I did lay hold. On getting up I said very kindly, ‘Thank you, Master.’ The next time he sat down on a stool, the next time he slipped on one knee; now he’s one of my converts and a good worker.”
His were like angel-visits to the sick, and were never vainly sought at mid-day or midnight; he was always ready to —
“Rescue the perishing,
Care for the dying,
Tell them that Jesus
Is mighty to save.”
For this work he was in every way fitted, and eminently successful therein. He was one of nature’s lion-hearted sons, and yet possessed the tenderness of a child.
He received numerous letters from broken-hearted friends in which his attention was called to pitiful cases of degeneracy, and his help earnestly besought. He would then seek out a thread which once discovered was never let go until the end was reached. To accomplish this he would pursue them to their haunts, entering without trepidation dens of infamy, where life itself was in danger, places the very walls of which were scented with brimstone, and thence he would rescue the victims, disposing of them safely in the bosom of the families from which they had strayed. His description of these re-unions was truly touching, tears flowing freely as he spoke. Such rescues as these were very frequent. Some he placed in homes of refuge at Nottingham, Derby, Lincoln, or Leicester, from which they were introduced to domestic service and a reputable life. As some twenty of these cases occurred yearly, and the work went on for a period of twenty years, we have an aggregate of six hundred cases, many of which were more tragic than any found in Ashworth’s “Strange Tales.” If his pen had been as ready as his tongue was fluent he might have written volumes, but he was no penman. He could only give the stories effectively when his enthusiasm was kindled; then the flow of his pathetic eloquence would carry you away until you were shaken with emotion. Once the writer, in company with him, was passing the window of a large and respectable shop, when he said, “The missis there is one of my gels, as respectable as any tradesman’s wife in the town.”
One gentleman subscribed £10 yearly to the Mission on condition that he attended the Magistrates Court, where he acted under their direction in compromising petty cases. Where neighbours had quarrelled or husbands and wives had decided that the authorities should settle their differences by fine or imprisonment, he often, by magisterial authority, effected a satisfactory compromise.
His work was multifarious. As illustrating another side of it, I give the following instance in point. It relates to two persons who had lived together for years in an unmarried state, the man always saying he had not the money to meet the expenses, which had been the cause of “nagging and snagging” between himself and spouse. At length the dissension proceeded from words to blows. The police thereupon interfered, and he was summoned to appear before the magistrates, by them styled the “Beak.” The woman became his counsel, and pleaded that he be not sent to prison. The magistrates then said, “Mr. Wightman, do you think you can do anything in this case?” “Your worships, I will try if you desire me,” was the response. Having retired to an adjoining room, he gave them, as was his wont, “a good talking to.” Each blamed the other. Adopting his own language, “I said to her, ‘You don’t want him to go to prison,’ when she cried hysterically, and broke down. Then I said to him, ‘You see, she loves you. You are willing to make it up if she is?’ and tears came into his eyes. Then, taking her by the hand, and leading her up to him, I said, ‘Come now, kiss her like a man.’ As he was coming she met him more than half way, threw her arms round his neck, and there was such billing and cooing! They promised to be married, and I promised to find the money. On re-entering I told their worships that we had settled the case, and they were to be married as soon as possible. To make the story short, I begged the preachers services and the money for a dinner, and they were married this morning. I have just come from the wedding, and they seem as happy as two turtle-doves.”
In many cases a more severe sentence might have been passed but for his interposition, and occasionally the guilty well-nigh escaped. In one instance, a young woman of respectable parentage fell. She was several times reclaimed, and as often drifted away. At length, for robbing her master she was committed for Assize-trial. The father and step-mother implored him to attend the trial at Leicester. The judge summed up against her, and it appeared as though the sentence might be very heavy, for the verdict was, “ Guilty.” On being asked what she had to say, she besought that a gentleman in court might be allowed to speak for her. Mr. W. was then sworn; he said, “My lord, she has been a very foolish girl,” then after an expressive pause resumed, “but she has had a step-mother.” The shot told on the court. The sentence was light, but the ire of the stepmother was both hot and heavy. This he appeased by saying, “Well, it got her it light sentence, and I said nothing against you. I am glad the judge did not inquire, for I should have had to say her conduct to you had been very bad.”
There were other sections of work which had claims on him, and how he found time for their performance I fail to see. Twice every Sabbath he was the life of a large ragged-school, and at night, every third week, preached to the aged and infirm, and occasionally at the Refuge. At times he occupied the pulpits on his circuit plan, nor did he ever fail in the fulfilment of his duties as a class-leader. He did a work angels might have envied.
On the morning of the 4th of June, 1882, the end came. Though he had felt no bodily illness, without a lingering groan he passed away. On the morning of that Sabbath which was to culminate in the Sabbatism of Heaven, he rose apparently well as usual, and subsequently called at the house of his honorary superintendent – a solicitor in the Park, who was from home. As he sat in conversation with the lady he fell from his chair, thus being privileged with a death nearly allied to translation. He used to say,“ Sudden death is sudden glory.”
The testimony of the lady at whose house it occurred was given to a friend, who inquired, “Were you not much shocked and afraid of entering the room?” on which she replied, “Oh no, l deem it a great honour that God should have allowed so good a man to find my home the entrance-gate to heaven.” The testimony of the presiding Alderman at the Magistrates’ Court the next day on the subject was given in terms of highest laudation. But yet more appreciative was that given by those for whom he had given his life. Tears and smothered sobs arose from the crowd gathered round the door whence he was borne never to return. The crowd was considerably augmented as the cortége moved to the resting-place of the dead.
Around the narrow, dark house of clay bare-headed hundreds congregated, consisting of all sorts and conditions of men. There were clergymen and cabmen, justices of the peace, and policemen; there were members of the Church, and votaries of the world; there were ladies of high refinement and women with faces carved and inlaid with crime. And when I read the solemn sentences, “We therefore commit his body to the grave, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of a resurrection to life everlasting, through our Lord Jesus Christ,” eyes unused to weep swam in tears. Ragged school children wept aloud. An elegantly-attired lady gave way to uncontrollable sorrow as the earth rattled on the coffin-lid, but we all felt —
“There’s a deathless fame,
A spirit that the smothering vault shall spurn;”
and in our hearts we said:—
“He his gone into peace, he has laid him down,
To sleep till the dawn of a brighter day;
And he shall wake on that holy morn,
When sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”
John born on 28 April 1811 and was baptised on 5 May 1811 at Annesley, Nottinghamshire. His parents were William and Hannah.
Census returns identify the following occupations for John.
- 1861 lace machine worker and Methodist local preacher
- 1871 town missionary
- 1881 town missionary
He was married to Ann (abt 1810-1849). Ann was buried at Quorn, Leicestershire on 6 May 1849. Census returns identify two children.
- Jane (abt1842-1900) – married William York, a labourer, in 1866
- Ellen (b abt1844) – a machine hand (1871)
John married Eliza Caldwell (1833-1917) in late 1851 in the Barrow on Soar Registration District, Leicestershire. Census returns identify four children.
- John (1862-1918) – a lace manufacturer (1911)
- Anne Eliza (1865-1918) – a lace mender (1891); married John Alfred Simpson in 1901
- William (b abt1867) – a warehouseman (1891)
- Alice Mary (1868-1943) – a lace manageress (1911)
John died on 4 June 1882 at Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, and was laid to rest on 6 June.
Primitive Methodist Magazine 1884/628; 1901/278
Census Returns and Births, Marriages & Deaths Registers