Thursday, November 23, 2006

Dr. John Alexander of Norwich: III.

John Alexander was soon settled as a student at the Hoxton Academy. Then, as now, churches often contacted theological colleges requesting that students might be sent to preach for them. Today many students have cars, or they may make a quick train journey to the church. In the 1810s public transport meant either a coach and horses or a steam packet if your destination was near enough to a port.
In 1817 the church meeting at the Tabernacle, Norwich, wrote to the Hoxton Academy asking for a student to come to preach to them for two successive Lord's Days, including Easter. The Hoxton Academy passed the request to John Alexander, a good student and the son of a remarkable minister.

The Tabernacle, Norwich (the picture shows it shortly before demolition in the mid twentieth century), had been founded in the great revival of the 18th century by Rev. James Wheatley, presumably an Anglican clergyman, who had been associated with John Wesley in the West Country. While labouring in Wiltshire, Mr. Wheatley fell into serious sexual sin, and in June 1751 the Wesley brothers were forced to expel him from the Methodist Connexion.
Deeply grieved, and filled with remorse, Wheatley left Wiltshire and wandered across the country to Norwich. A penitent man, he entered the city. Seeing a soldier on guard outside one of the city's many inns, Wheatley asked him if he knew any religious people in the city. The soldier replied that he did - the Puritans, as they were still called.
Norwich was and still is to an extent, a city that presented a great appearance of religion. It was said that the city had a church for every Lord's Day of the year, fine Medieval edifices with solid towers. It had two Quaker meeting-houses as well, and dissenting churches Congregational, Baptist (Particular and General) and Presbyterian denominations.
The appearance was deceptive. Most of the Anglican pulpits were teaching mere morality, the Quakers were quite inward-looking, the Particular Baptists and Congregationalists were at a low ebb, the General Baptists were struggling with heresy, and the Presbyterians had yielded utterly to heresy and denied the deity of Christ and the personality of the Holy Spirit.
But there few 'Puritans' kept up the truth. His spirit moved within him, Wheatley joined them. They asked him to preach, and he began by preaching at the gates of the Castle, then a prison.
The Holy Spirit came in mighty power. Many of the worst of the people of the city were converted. Thousands attended Wheatley's street-preaching, and a society of nearly two thousand two hundred people was formed from the converts.
Satan came too, and persecution increased. The society was forced to build a huge wooden tabernacle at Timberhill, near the Cattle-market. The persecutors, calling themselves the Hell-fire club, met at a nearby inn, the Bell Hotel.
The rioters descended on the Tabernacle during a meeting. They wrecked the wooden Tabernacle, injured many of the congregation, and nearly killed Mr. Wheatley, only prevented by the personal intervention of the mayor.
The Hell-fire club stirred up the people with an unreasoning partisan bigotry for the Church of England, and the Baptists and Congregationalists also suffered from their fury. Men were beaten up, women raped, for being Dissenters or Methodists. Public order threatened to break down completely, and yet the cry of this mob was "Church and King! down with the meetings!"
If we really want revival (and we should) we ought to consider these things.
When some semblance of order had been restored Wheatley and his people decided to put up a permanent building. A piece of land was purchased in Bishopsgate, close to the river, and the prominent local architect Thomas Ivory (1709-1779) was engaged to design what was to be the largest chapel in Norwich. Externally quite plain, it had a splendid mahogany pulpit and seating for several thousand. George Whitefield preached at its opening.
Rev. Robert Robinson, author of 'Come Thou Fount of every Blessing' was connected with the Tabernacle before he became first an Independent, then a Baptist.
Sad to say, Wheatley fell into sin again, and resigned his ministry. In 1858, at Wheatley's request, the society entered into connexion with John Wesley. This was a huge mistake. Founded on Calvinistic principles, taught by men like Whitefield, the people could not stand the strident Arminianism of Mr. Wesley's men. On one occasion, when one of Wesley's preachers tried to ram Arminianism down their throats, members of the congregation raised an outcry, running up and down the gallery stairs crying "heresy!"
The people of Norwich have never been afraid to speak their minds!
Shortly before he died, Wheatley withdrew the church he had founded from Wesley's oversight, and in 1775 it came into the hands of the Countess of Huntingdon. She sent students from her college at Trevecca to supply the pulpit.
The first settled pastor there was Mr. Mark Wilks, who was a gifted preacher. In due time he became a Baptist and set up a church nearby, taking several members of the Tabernacle congregation, who had also become Baptists, with him.
It was to this church, meeting in a magnificent building which had echoed to the voices of the great leaders of the revival of the 18th century, that John Alexander was sent on Good Friday, 1817. What awaited him was a church that was suffering trials and difficulties.
Of which more, God willing, next time.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

What year was the Tabernacle demolished? I seem to remember that it was its bicentenary.

10:07 pm  

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