Nelson, John (1)
Nelson, John (1)
an eminent Methodist lay preacher, was one of the ablest of the assistants of the Wesleys in their evangelical movement in the last century. He is generally acknowledged the chief founder of Methodism in Yorkshire, a portion of England in which it has had signal success down to our day. Nelson was born near the close of the 17th century. He was the descendant of humble but honorable parentage, and was early apprenticed to a stone- mason, a trade at which he became proficient, and at which he worked nearly all his life, even in the midst of his evangelizing labors. He was converted under the preaching of John Wesley in 1711, at Moorfields. Nelson's home was in Bristol. He had led an upright life from his youth, and had at the time of his conversion an humble but a happy home, a good wife, good wages, good health, and a stout English heart. He had long been distressed by the sense of moral wants which his life failed to meet until the light came under the preaching of Wesley. The sad and trying days of Nelson are thus narrated by his biographer: "Something he believed there must be in true religion to meet the wants of the soul, otherwise man is more unfortunate than the brute that perishes. Absorbed in such meditations, this untutored mechanic wandered in the fields after the work of the day, discussing to himself questions which had employed and ennobled the thoughts of Plato in the groves of the Cephissus, and agitated by the anxieties that had stirred the souls of Wesley and his associates at Oxford. His conduct was a mystery to his less thoughtful fellowworkmen. He refused to share in their gross indulgences; they cursed him because he would not drink as they did. He bore their insults with a calm philosophy; but having as 'brave a heart as ever Englishman was blessed with' (Southey), he would not allow them to infringe on his rights; and when they took away his tools, determined that if he would not drink with them he should not work while they were carousing, he fought with several of them until they were content to let him alone in his inexplicable gravity and courage. He also went from church to church, for he was still a faithful churchman, but met no answers to his profound questions. He visited the chapels of all classes of Dissenters, but the quiet of the Quaker worship could not quiet the voice that spoke through his conscience, and the splendor of the Roman ritual soon became but irksome pomp to him. He tried, he tells us, all but the Jews, and hoping for nothing from them, resolved to adhere steadily to the Church, regulating his life with strictness, spending his leisure in reading and prayer, and leaving his final fate unsolved. Whitefield's eloquence at Moorfields, however, attracted him thither, but it did not meet his wants. He loved the great orator, he tells us, and was willing to fight for him against the mob, but his mind only sank deeper into perplexity. He became morbidly despondent; he slept little, and often awoke from his horrible dreams dripping with sweat and shivering with terror. Wesley came to Moorfields; Nelson gazed upon him with inexpressible interest as he ascended the platform, stroked back his hair, and cast his eye directly upon him. 'My heart,' he says, 'beat like the pendulum of a clock, and when he spoke I thought his whole discourse was aimed at me.' 'This man,' he said to himself, 'can tell the secrets of my heart; he has shown me the remedy for my wretchedness, even the blood of Christ.' He now became more than ever devoted to religious duties, and soon found the peace of mind he had so long been seeking. He records with dramatic interest the discussions and efforts of his acquaintances to prevent him from going too far in religion. They seem to have been mostly an honest, simple class like himself; they thought he would become unfit for business, and that poverty and distress would fall upon his family. They wished he had never heard Wesley, who, they predicted, would 'be the ruin of him.' He told them that he had reason to bless God that Wesley was ever born, for by hearing him he had become sensible that his business in this world was to get well out of it. The family with whom he lodged were disposed to expel him from the house, for they were afraid some mischief would come on either themselves or him from 'so much praying and fuss as he made about religion.' He procured money and went to pay them what he owed them, and take his leave; but they would not let him escape; ' What if John is right, and we wrong?' was a natural question which they asked among themselves. 'If God has done for you anything more than for us, show us how we may find the same mercy,' asked one of them. He was soon leading them to hear Wesley at Moorfields. One of them was made partaker of the same grace, and he expressed the hope of meeting both in heaven. With much simplicity, but true English determination, he adhered to his religious principles at any risk. His employer required work to be done during the Sabbath on the exchequer building, declaring that the king's business required haste, and that it was usual in such cases to work on Sunday for his majesty. Nelson replied that he would not work on the Sabbath for any man in England, except to quench fire, or something that required the same immediate help. His employer threatened him with the loss of his business. He replied that he would rather starve than offend God. 'What hast thou done that thou makest such an ado about religion?' asked his employer; 'I always took thee for an honest man, and could trust thee with five hundred pounds.' 'So you might,' replied the sturdy Methodist, 'and not have lost one penny by me.' 'But I have a worse opinion of thee now than ever,' resumed the employer. 'Master,' replied Nelson, 'I have the odds of you there, for I have a much worse opinion of myself than you cal have.' The honest man was not dismissed, nor again asked to work on Sunday, nor were any of his fellowworkmen." Immediately after his conversion he wrote to his wife, who was in the country, and to all his kindred, explaining his new method of life, and exhorting them to adopt it. Soon after he went to visit them at Bristol, and was met with considerable opposition. But he was only the more encouraged to holy living, and faithfully studied the sacred writings to fortify himself in his new opinions. Ere long his friends were converted, and he held meetings in his house, reading, exhorting, and praying with such of his neighbors as would come to hear. The number soon increased so considerably that he was obliged to stand in his door in order to reach all who were within the house and in the yard. In a very short time the character of the community began to change; ale-houses were deserted, and six or seven converts made weekly. But not only the people had changed, Nelson himself had become another man; his sermons from being quite private had become public; indeed, he had become a preacher, and one of such power that Wesley, when hearing of the success attending Nelson's modest labors, set out at once to visit and direct him. Nelson was made one of Wesley's helpers, and the band of rustic followers one of his united societies. Thus Methodism started in Yorkshire, and thus opened the career of one of the ablest laypreachers in modern times. Nelson's labors were so successful that Wesley invited him to leave his home and assist in spreading Methodism in other parts of England, and soon he became almost as abundant in labors and sufferings as the Wesleys, and his influence over the working classes equal to that of John Wesley himself. Not even Whitefield possessed more power over the common people.
Indeed, "without Nelson and similar lay-preachers, Methodism could not have been sustained as it was. The souls which the leaders of the movement saved, were by these more carefully matured" (Skeats, pages 372, 373). Nelson's goodsense, cool courage, sound piety, and apt speech secured him success wherever he went. He spread Methodism not only in Yorkshire, but in Cornwall, Lincolnshire, Lancashire, and other counties. He was a man of such genuine spirit and popular tact that his worst opposers usually became his best friends. Like Wesley and Whitefield, he was persecuted and annoyed by the established clergy and their tools. His house at Bristol was pulled down; at Nottingham squibs were thrown in his face; at Grimsby the rector headed a mob to the beat of the town drum, and, after supplying them with beer, called upon them to " fight for the Church." Fighting for the Church meant the demolition of the house in which Nelson was living, and its windows were forthwith pulled down and the furniture destroyed (Nelson's Journal, page 92). But the preaching of the Yorkshire mason soon stopped all such proceedings. The drummer of Grimsby, who had been hired by the rector to beat down Nelson's preaching on the day after the riot, was one of the witnesses of its power. After beating for three quarters of an hour he stood and listened, and soon the tears of penitence were seen rolling down his cheeks. Such was Nelson's power over his audience. 'The clergy, determined to stay his influence, finally caused him to be impressed into the army, on his return to Bristol, as a vagrant, without visible means of living. Though he protested and tried to prove this charge unjust, he was yet taken and made a soldier. But even in his bonds Nelson did not cease to preach; and when he was forcibly compelled to wear the uniform, he boldly declared that he despised war, and that no one could ever compel him to enter any other service than that of the Prince of Peace, to whom he had dedicated himself. He remained a preacher even amid the din of arms, admonished his comrades against cursing and other sins, distributed tracts among them, and appointed prayermeetings. All this involved him in new sufferings and persecutions, and he finally sank in the midst of this ill-treatment; and when, in order to save his life, it became necessary to dismiss him in 1744, he again resumed evangelizing labors, but died before the close of that year. See Stevens, Hist. of Methodism, 1:136,176, 193, 205, 227, 249; 2: 153; Southey, Life of Wesley, chap. 14; Skeats, Hist. of the Free Churches of Eng. page 373; Hurst's Hagenbach, Ch. Hist. of the 18th and 19th Centuries, 1:453 sq.; Porter, Compendium of Methodism, page 43 sq. See also his own Journal.