A man who, as I read about his life, seems to me to have received unfair treatment, discouragement, and even opposition at the hands of other Christians, but who continued to serve God rather than to turn away from Christianity in bitterness, was William O’Bryan. It may be that you and I need to tread a similar pathway, though our calling may be quite different from his.
He was born in Luxulyan, Cornwall, in 1778. When he was a boy, his mother led him up aisle of a Methodist chapel to receive a blessing from Jon Wesley, who was then aged aged 80. Wesley prayed: “May he be a blessing to hundreds and thousands!”
In 1795, when he was 17, O’Bryan came to a deep commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ, and was soon taking part in local evangelistic outreach, inviting friends and neighbours to worship with the Methodists. At the time, in Luxulyan parish, there were only about nine Methodist members at Gunwen and a few more at Bokiddick.
(William O’Bryan, Wikimedia Commons)
In 1796 William’s father died, and he inherited a farm from him. A year or more later, with love for the Gospel, he gave land for the building of a Methodist chapel at Gunwen.
William felt an increasing conviction that God was calling him to an evangelistic preaching ministry. In November 1808 his first son Ebenezer died of spotted fever and was buried at Gunwen chapel. William had contracted the same fever, and he vowed to God that, if God would raise him up, he would go ahead and become a preacher. He recovered from the disease, and found great success in his preaching, being able to form a new Methodist society at Newquay, and to establish regular preaching at St Mawgan, St Mabyn, St Neot and St Eval. He concentrated on villages where there was no Methodism, and God gave him success where others had failed.
In 1810 applied to the Methodist authorities to become full-time preacher, but his application was rejected. Their main argument was his family commitments, and they told him to go home and continue part-time as before. But he felt he could not do that and still be obedient to God. He offered to live only on voluntary gifts, and not receive the regular pay which other ministers received. He was still strongly opposed, and in November a minister visited Gunwen chapel to exclude him formally from membership.
The chapel for which he had given the land was given over to the Methodists, as was the society he had formed at Newquay.
His desire was to preach the Gospel where he believed the people needed it most. In 1814 he gave up the business he had inherited and devoted himself to evangelism, as he had felt God required of him. The following year he went to north Devon, and discovered that the area was almost without other evangelical ministry. Avoiding any place with an existing evangelical ministry, he preached in the area around Shebbear and gathered converts together into societies on the Methodist pattern in many surrounding villages. By January 1816 there were 237 members; a year later there were 920; the work spread and growth continued from year to year, and by 1827 there were 8054 members. The people associated with O’Bryan took the name of Bible Christians, and they continued as a separate body till 1907, when, with a membership of over 32,000 people, they united with other similar churches in Britain.
If you read more of his life story, you will possibly conclude that he was a man with character defects. Some found it hard to work with him; he seemed to insist on his own way regardless of contrary wishes, decisions, or advice; he was rejected repeatedly by different people despite God’s blessing upon his labours; he was, it might seem, a leader who could work with others only if he was in charge. These things may be true: there are often two sides to the same story, the same disagreement. But it is almost as if some callings require such a personality. Think of Hugh Bourne and his conflict with William Clowes. Think of men and women who prepared for service in Albania whilst it boasted of being the first atheist state in the world, and of some who went into its ruined society after Communism fell in 1991 – a society where the drive to eradicate religion had been extreme that all religions were persecuted as illustrated in this slide:
The pastor of the only Evangelical church, Koci Treska, was imprisoned and tortured by the régime in 1948, having already been imprisoned ten years earlier by the Muslim King Zog and interned in 1940 by the Italian invaders. Missionaries who went to Albania in and shortly after 1991 were sometimes strong-willed independent workers with whom it was hard for others to be yoked together in planning and service. I am not, of course, comparing 19th century Devon with mid-20th century Albania, but I am taking a more extreme example to suggest that some situations seem to need such personalities, and that this includes some that are less stark than Albania was. If it is a defect, and if William O’Bryan shared it, who can gainsay God’s choice? As Charles Wesley wrote in his journal, “If God be not with us, who hath begotten us these?” (14th May 1741).
Even where a person sensing God’s call and direction evinces no such maverick or individualist characteristics, it seems to me that men and women whom God has raised up for a special and perhaps difficult task have often faced discouragement, opposition, expulsion, or simply not being taken seriously, from the hands of their fellow Christians, who ought, perhaps, to have recognised God’s call, blessing and favour on their desires and attempts to serve him. Think of William Carey; Hudson Taylor; Gladys Aylward – and I have no doubt the list could be greatly extended. When William Carey (1761-1834), who became a missionary to India, proposed that a meeting of Baptist ministers should discuss their duty to spread the gospel among the pagans, he was told, “Young man, sit down! When God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid or mine!” Yet he set out in 1793 for his years of missionary service in India.
William O’Bryan (in A new History of Methodism (Hodder & Stoughton, 1909))
But to return to William O’Bryan, it seems to me that God’s hand was on him, and that God’s Spirit was upon him. Many found Christ through his life and work. And as it seems to me was his case, so many others have undergone stubborn or unfair treatment, sometimes from people who hate God, sometimes from people who profess to serve God and consider themselves to be doing God a service in their opposition. It is always hard to bear; it can make you feel that God has deserted you or let you down; it can be bewildering. And it is especially hard to bear when this sort of treatment comes from people who profess to share your Christian faith. They may be minor men or women who have been granted positions of significant power or authority in God’s church which they lack the grace or wisdom to fulfil. They may even be people who have come into the work only through knowing you, and by your invitation, and they may even wish to oust you and take over or end your work. If this is your experience, you are not the first, nor I fear will you be the last.
Yet in history many have had to tread this pathway; in the Bible also. You – we – must learn to look to God, and not be deflected from following him by the wrong treatment others deal out to us. May the Lord help us!
Burgess, A (1959) The small Woman (Pan Books)
Hoad, J. (1986) The Baptist (Grace Publications)
Pollock, J. (1962) Hudson Taylor and Maria (Hodder & Stoughton)
Pyke, R. (1941) The early Bible Christians (Epworth Press)
Wickes, M. J. L. (1987) The Westcountry Preachers (printed privately, paperback, 104 pages)
Young, D. (2001) Mission to Albania (Christian Focus Publications and Albanian Evangelical Mission)
Young, D. (2007) Albania: the cost (Quinta Press)