THE MINISTRY OF JAMES CAUGHEY IN SUNDERLAND AND GATESHEAD IN THE 1840s
Though little known in the church today, James Caughey was one of the most notable evangelists in the mid-nineteenth century. His campaigns in Britain in the 1840s saw over 20,000 people receive salvation. One of the many influenced by his ministry was the young William Booth who heard him speak in the Wesley Chapel in Nottingham in May 1846. Though he had already been converted, it was hearing Caughey preaching night after night which stirred up the desire within William Booth to become an evangelist and see souls saved. Booth later wrote about Caughey:
He was an extraordinary preacher, filling up his sermons with thrilling anecdotes and vivid illustrations, and for the straightforward declaration of scriptural truth and striking appeals to the conscience, I had up to that time never heard his equal; I do not know that I have since.
For three months we were expecting him, during which time remarkable stories of the wonderful results that had attended his ministry elsewhere were continually reaching us, and for months before he came meetings were held to pray for a blessing on his labors. his visit was consequently the constant topic of conversation, and everybody was on the tip-toe of expectation when he arrived.
The result answered the anticipation. There were such crowds and rushes to hear the Gospel as we had never dreamed of seeing. There were wonderful meetings, wonderful influences, and wonderful conversions. Multitudes were saved, many of whom became the most useful members of the society. All this had a powerful effect upon my young heart. The straightforward conversational way of putting the truth, and the common-sense method of pushing the people up to decision, and the corresponding results that followed, in the conversion and sanctification of hundreds of people, made an ineffaceable impression on my mind, filling me not only with confidence in the power and willingness of God to save all those that come unto him, but with an assurance of the absolute certainty with which soul-saving results may be calculated upon when proper means are used for their accomplishment.
I saw as clearly as if a revelation had been made to me from Heaven that success in spiritual work, as in natural operations, was to he accounted for, not on any mere abstract theory of Divine sovereignty, or favoritism, or accident, but on the employment of such methods as were dictated by common sense, the Holy Spirit, and the Word of God. Quoted in George Railton – Twenty-One Years’ Salvation Army, 1891, p8
Caughey believed that God was calling him to visit England, but he didn’t go until he knew he had received the anointing he required. He spent several days seeking God, praying on his face in a field near Baltimore, until the fire of the Holy Spirit fell on him, and he leapt to his feet crying “I can go now!”.
In August 1846 Caughey came to the North-East where he ministered for six weeks, primarily in Sunderland, but also in South Shields and Gateshead. In the course of his ministry in the region, over 800 people were converted, and over 250 were sanctified (Caughey was a strong believer in Entire Sanctification).
Reports in the Sunderland and Durham County Herald speak of overflowing congregations listening with deep attention to his animated and impressive discourses. So deep an impression did his ministry make that when he came to leave he was presented with a petition signed by 800 people asking him to come back to Sunderland. His final meeting in Sunderland drew over 3000 people to Sans Street Chapel – in fact so many turned up that several hundred were stuck outside the building.
Though it is geographically outside the area covered by this site, the following account from a Nottingham newspaper gives something of the flavour of Caughey’s meetings:
The preaching of Mr. Caughey creates a very great sensation in the town; the chapel is crowded even in the aisles during every service, and at its conclusion numbers of penitents make their way to the communion-rails, near the pulpit, to seek, under the terrors of guilty consciences, benefit there. It was announced on Wednesday evening, that two hundred persons had given in their names as having received conversion under Mr. Caughey’s ministry since he came to Nottingham, and we believe his visit will not soon be forgotten. There is nothing in the manner in which the reverend gentleman commences the service to lead the reader to expect what is to follow. He gives out the hymn in a calm, easy, unappreciating style, and in a tone so conversational, that persons sitting in a distant part of the chapel find it impossible to gather the purport of his words. It is more with the air and tone of a man reading a paragraph from a newspaper to a select party than that of a preacher proclaiming an important message to a large congregation.
In his prayer, too, very few indications are given of the astonishing power he possesses over the mind; though it is not without its peculiarities. He lifts his hands towards heaven, and keeps them in that posture during the whole of his supplication, like Moses, when Israel fought in Rephidim; and once or twice, perhaps, at some point of deeper feeling clasps his palms together, and then re-elevates them into the same poetic attitude. But, generally speaking, his prayers have rather the tone of calm disquisition than address to the Deity; and nothing at all in them expressive of power, except when a gush of deep affectionate feeling makes its way through the mild tranquillity, or at rarer intervals flashes out for an instant the lightning which has been so calmly folded in its mantle of quiet cloud.
His reading of Scripture betrays even less of power than his prayer; it is not performed without a certain subdued feeling; but there is a peculiar oft-hand style with it, and a certain tone of dramatic appreciation, without any great apparent solemnity or reverence in the delivery. It is not till he prepares to name his text, that any extraordinary power is manifested; he generally prefaces it with some observation on what he has felt during the day, or since he entered the pulpit; or with an appeal to a certain character whom he prophesies to be in the congregation. Then, indeed, it becomes plain, however the prejudiced visitor may have doubted it before, that the man is in earnest—terribly in earnest; and that every word he says he both feels and believes.
On Tuesday night, when the preliminary parts of the service had been gone through, and the Bible lay open before him, instead of taking his text, as it was natural to expect he would, he startled the congregation by a searching appeal to some backslider, whom he individualized as present among them; and in his manner of doing this showed great knowledge of human nature, and an intimate acquaintance with the subtleties of the mind. Such a character, if present in the place, unless his heart were triple brass, must have been struck as with a thunderbolt. Of the heart indeed his dissections are masterly; he is evidently well versed in its anatomy. As he represented a certain character, a backslider perhaps, or a defrauder, or a profane person, many eyes seemed fraught with the anxious inquiry, “ Is it I?” until at length, as the lineaments of the portrait become clearer and more distinctly defined, the shrinking look and trembling frame declared in unmistakable language, “It is I!”
In his manner of looking at a text there is something original; ingenious and unexpected terms are given to The different parts of it; and as each is illustrated, it tells with surprising power upon the congregation. This effect is heightened by a certain abruptness of delivery, which, scorning all preface and apology, rushes instantly to its point, and takes possession of his hearers by storm. His eloquence, too, is not an even uninterrupted flow of words, but his speech is forced out in jerks of great intensity, with an interval between each burst. It must be allowed that his style is highly poetical; not that he indulges in fine unusual words and strings of epithets; there is no attempt at display of this kind ; simple and plain, his style is yet remarkable for its poetic effectiveness; and to this he owes a considerable portion of the influence he exerts over his hearers.
On Tuesday night, the force with which he imaged a fold of sheep, to illustrate the conduct of the newly converted mind, was singular; it was not only quite evident that every word he said, he saw visibly before him, but he made his hearers see it too; the swine prowling about the fold and leering at the flock, manifesting no desire to be numbered among the sheep, was forcibly contrasted with the lamb which went bleating around to spy an entrance, and at last, when the door was opened by the shepherd, darted in. The effect of such passages as these was very much increased by the minister’s appropriate attitudes and gestures; not his mouth only but his eyes and hands, and his whole person combining to give utterance to his eloquent thought. Every scene he drew was visibly before the eyes of the congregation; where he pointed with his hand, they looked; and the vacant air in front of the pulpit which he chose as the canvass on which to paint his vivid designs, was evidently no longer a vacancy to his hearers, as was quite manifest from the fixed stare with which they gazed into it. When he spoke of angels as hovering over the people, and occupying the ring enclosed by the gallery of the chapel, and invented conversations which he said they might be then holding with respect to certain individuals in the place, the silence that prevailed among the people was profound: they scarcely dared to breathe, and seemed as if they really were hearing the rustling and flapping of the invisible wings. But as this picture was allowed to fade away, and an appeal to the feelings of the people followed; and when the solicitude of the souls of the departed after the eternal welfare of their friends below was dwelt upon, a universal sob burst from the assembly, and even the faces of the rugged and weather-beaten men were illuminated by the reflection of the lamps in the water upon their cheeks. At times this emotion assumed a more frantic character, shouts, groans, and all manner of pious ejaculations rising from all parts of the house, until the preacher’s voice became inaudible, and the whole place resounded with the wailings and cries.
The arrangements were extremely well ordered and efficient; during the prayer-meeting which succeeded the service, numbers of persons were observed in all parts of the chapel, who had been appointed to lead up to the communion-rails those who were desirous of being publicly prayed for; and as they obtained assurance of what they sought, led them out orderly at the vestry door. Quoted in Harold Begbie – The Life Of William Booth Volume 1, 1920, p10-13
In spite of the excellent response to Caughey’s meetings and the growth experienced in most of the churches he visited, Caughey was unpopular with the leadership of the Wesleyan Methodist church. The Wesleyan’s under the leadership of Jabez Bunting were seeking respectability and wanted to avoid any excesses of enthusiasm. In 1847 the Wesleyan Methodist Conference asked Caughey to leave Britain and return to America. Though Caughey would return again in later years his ministry never again had such an impact on the British church.