As with many early Methodist lay preachers, John Nelson had humble origins. Born in 1707 in the North of England, he became a stone mason like his father, and this craft enabled him to support his wife and family throughout his ministry.
His spiritual pilgrimage began with his response to the preaching of George Whitefield, then John and Charles Wesley. His friends tried to discourage him, declaring that they “would be glad to knock Mr Wesley’ s brains out, for he would be the ruin of many families if he were allowed to live and go on as he did”.1 But Nelson answered the call of Christ on his life, becoming one of the most dedicated early Methodist preachers.
A good example of his dedication was in the fall of 1743 when he accompanied John Wesley to the West of England along with another preacher, John Downes. Passing through Bristol and Gwennap 2, they lost their way before reaching the town of St. Ives late at night, and Downes came down with a fever. This meant that Wesley and Nelson had to sleep on the floor.
“He had my great-coat for his pillow, and I had Burkitt’ s Notes on the New Testament for mine … About three in the morning Mr Wesley turned over, and, finding me awake, clapped me on the side saying: ‘ Brother Nelson, let us be of good cheer: I have one whole side yet, for the skin is off but on one side.’ ”3
All of this was commonplace for early Methodist preachers, but there were twoa spects of Nelson’ s ministry that were unusual.
The first was in May 1744 when an attempt was made to “press” him into the army. In those days many recruits for the army and navy consisted of men who were in debt or were charged with a criminal offence, and the charge against Nelson was that he was disturbing the peace with his preaching.
For several weeks he was imprisoned and forced to march with one of the regiments. What eventually led to his release was the response to his preaching from the soldiers. The officers of the regiment threatened him with a severe whipping if he continued, but he told them: “It is better to obey God than man! I believe it is the will of God that I should preach.”He was finally released on 27 July.
The other unusual aspect of his ministry was that his wife, Martha, often accompanied him on his journeys. This meant that she shared the risks of his ministry, and in November 1755, she and some other Methodist women were pursued by a mob. When they turned to face them, the men in the mob retreated, but the women continued to threaten them. “They saw that she was big with child, yet beat her on the body so cruelly that they killed the child in the womb, and she went home and miscarried directly. This treatment she had reason to remember to her life’ s end; but God more than made it up to her, by filling her with peace and love.”4
John and Martha died a few weeks apart in 1774, the epitaph on their gravestone reading: “And He was pleas’ d, as you may see, by death not long us parted be … until again He us restore a life to live, and die no more.”
Photo courtesy of the Rev Dr David Lowes Watson
1 An extract from John Nelson’s Journal was published in 1767 by Farley & Co. Bristol, and is included in Wesley’s Veterans: Lives of Early Methodist Preachers, ed. John Telford. (London, 1912), 3:12.
3 Nelson’s Journal, P80.
4 Nelson’s Journal, P86.
We continue our series of paired articles on early Methodist preachers from the UK and Singapore, aiming to trace the movement of the Holy Spirit in grassroots evangelistic preaching, reminding us of the evangelistic fervor of Methodism worldwide, and demonstrating the fruitfulness of the Gospel when preached with spiritual power and integrity. The previous installment was published in MM Feb 2016 (P20-21). As you read the biographies of our Methodist forebears, may you too be inspired to preach the Gospel – not only within the church, but going beyond to reach our community.
The Rev Dr David Lowes Watson –is an eminent Wesleyan scholar, author and Methodist minister of the Tennessee Conference, the United Methodist Church, USA. He was keynote speaker at the Aldersgate SG 2014 Convention.