English Street Preaching in the 1700s

Taken from Arnold Dallimore’s epic masterpiece, George Whitfield, Vol. 2,


harrisDuring it’s early years Methodism experienced not only bitter verbal opposition but also severe physical violence. This was true in each of its branches– Harrisian,Whitfieldian and Weslyan– and we must notice a few of the many intances.

In January, 1741, at the town of Bala, Harris was savagely assaulted. The local clergyman, in what he called an effort ‘to defend the Church’, opened a barrel of beer on the main street and used it to entice a mob to attack the evangelist.

…The enemy continued to persecute him…striking him with sticks and staves, until overcome with exhaustion he fell to the ground…they still abused him, though prostrate; until one of his persecutors…perhaps apprehensive of a prosecution for murder if the abuse were prolonged, became his rescuer and…delivered him out of his enemies hands. ‘Though oft threatened [before],’ wrote Harris, ‘this was the first blood I had shed for Christ!’

But the violence that confronted Harris came to him also in London–even within the walls of the Tabernacle. His diaries report instances in which a howling, cursing mob beat on the doors of the Tabernacle during the service and, sometimes breaking them down, forced their way in and attacked the congregation with fists and staves.

Cennick recorded an instance in which as he and Harris were preaching in the Wiltshire town of Swindon:

‘…the mob fired guns over our heads, holding the muzzles so near to our faces that Howell Harris and myself were both made as black as tinkers with the powder…Then they got dust of the highway and covered us all over; and then they played an engine upon us, which they filled out of the stinking ditches. While they played on brother Harris I preached; and when they turned the engine upon me, he preached. This they continued till they spoiled the engine; and they threw whole buckets of water and mud over us.’

cennickA few months later the same mob, learning that Cennick was at the near-by village of Stratton, came upon him and his people, ‘armed with swords, staves and poles’.

‘Without respect to age or sex’ he writes, ‘the knocked down all who stood in their way, so that some had blood streaming down their faces, and others were…beaten and almost trampled to death…I got many severe blows myself.’

But the rank and file of the Methodist people were probably the ones who suffered most. For instance, an outsider penned the following account of a major incident in the mob action at the Society Whitfield had founded at Exeter:

‘The rioters violently entered the Methodist meeting-house, interrupted the minister [possibly Humphreys] with…obscene language, and fell upon him with…blows and kicks. They treated every man they could lay their hands on with such abuse and indignity as is not to be expressed.

But what is more than all, was their abominable rudeness to the poor women. Some were stripped quite naked. Others, notwithstanding their most piercing cries…were forcibly held by some of the ruffians, while other turned their petticoats over their heads and forced them to remain in that condition;…the poor creatures being afterward dragged through mud and dirt…One of the mob forced a woman up into the gallery, and attempted other outrages three different times.  After many struggles she freed herself, leapt over the gallery and so made her escape. Many, to avoid falling into the hands of this wicked crew, leapt out of the windows…to the endangering of their lives.’

The violence, however, which proved most significant was that which took place against Thomas Adams and his people in the Cotswolds town Hampton.

Adams had been converted under the occasion of Whitefield’s first visit to the town…. He became a powerful preacher and capable leader and a strong Society developed. But his work constantly faced vicious opposition and in July of 1743 he and his people met a particularly violent attack.

A mob of ‘one hundred strong’ stormed into his meeting-house, first on a Saturday evening and then on the Sunday morning. Adams manifested great courage, meeting their threats with the statement that he was willing, if necessary, ‘to deliver up [his] life for Jesus’ sake.’

Thereupon they forced him out of the house and cast him into a lime pit. After a time they drew him out and then threw him into a pond, wounding him severely.

Amid these conditions Adams needed Whitefield’s help. The mob, however, declared that if Whitefield appeared in Hampton they would make him their primary target. Nevertheless Whitfield hastened to Adams’ side and later reported:

‘No sooner had I entered the town than I heard the signals, such as the blowing of horns and the ringing of bells, for gathering the mob. My soul was kept quite easy…

I finished my sermon and pronounced the blessing just as the ringleader of the mob broke in upon us…one of them..called me a coward; but I told them they should hear from me in another way [he was thinking of taking the rioters to court].

I then went into the house and preached upon a staircase to a large number of serious souls; but these real troublers of Israel soon came in to mock and mob us.

But feeling what I never felt before, as you know I have very little natural courage, strength and power being given us from above, I leapt down stairs, and all ran away before me. However, they continued making a noise about the house till midnight, abusing the poor people as they went home, and…broke one young lady’s arm in two places.

Brother Adams they threw a second time into the pool, in which operation he received a deep wound in his leg. John Croom’s life, that second Bunyan was much threatened. Young WH they wheeled in a barrow to the pool’s side, lamed his brother and grievously hurt several others.

[George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-Century Revival, Vol. 2, pg. 161-166].


3 thoughts on “English Street Preaching in the 1700s

  1. Pingback: English Street Preaching in the 1700s | hipandthigh | Sermon Watch

  2. Pingback: So you think you are radical because you wear a t-shirt … | Reformed In Bama

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