Sunday, 21 December 2008

An Iron Pillar (A biography of William Romaine) by Tim Shenton

This 450-page biography of a leading Anglican evangelical preacher of the eighteenth century is a detailed treatment of his life and times. Romaine was one of several outstanding preachers provided by Christ to help in the process of revitalizing his church during and after the Evangelical Revival in Britain that is linked to the activities of Whitefield and Wesley. This biography is a helpful addition to our reading of this period.

In the volume we meet many of these preachers and others. Indeed, the one defect I found with the volume was the regular inclusion of details of fringe characters (no doubt they were important figures in their own ministries or activities, but I did not find these snippets of information as essential for appreciating the life and times of Romaine). But I would not want that small negative comment to detract from the benefit of reading this fine book.

Romaine, who died in 1795, was born in 1714 to a devout and prominent Christian family in Hartlepool. He possessed a great intellect which was displayed in his university studies and also in the compilation of a Hebrew concordance and dictionary (unlike many, he increased in his understanding of Hebrew throughout his life!). He moved to London, hoping that his abilities would secure him an ecclesiastical position. Yet his godly family background and intellectual capability were not sufficient to make him an effective communicator of the faith. Contrary to previous accounts of Romaine’s life, the author provides persuasive evidence to show that Romaine was not only a cleric but also a preacher of evangelical doctrine before his conversion. His hearers were impressed by his lectures but their lives were not transformed.

The times in which Romaine and others preached was marked by immorality and drunkenness among the poor, scepticism among the rich, and dead orthodoxy in the national church (the doctrine of Christ’s imputed righteousness was particularly detested). One observer commented that when Romaine was converted, there were about twenty evangelical preachers in the Church of England; by his death there were about 300. This growth can be traced in part to the regular weekly time of prayer begun by Romaine and his friends to address this area of concern.
Once he was converted, Romaine’s preaching changed and he became one of the most earnest and effective evangelists of the period, with thousands being converted through his preaching. He quickly became a leader of the evangelical party in the Anglican church (he remained a committed Anglican throughout his life even when he was prevented by church authorities from using their properties to preach the gospel).

Further opportunities to preach came through Lady Huntington’s provision of places and other forms of support. Many believers were fed through his regular Bible expositions and he achieved the considerable feat of managing to preach through the entire Bible. He used the printed page, primarily sermons, to correct false opinions and provide guidance for many who could not hear him physically.

His commitment to Anglicanism did not prevent him ministering alongside preachers from the various non-Anglican Protestant groups, and he became a leader within English Evangelicalism in general.

As is the case with each of us, it is easy for our strengths to become our weaknesses, and this was the case with Romaine. His energy and determination were strengths when he was engaged in spreading the faith, but sadly they could make him stubborn and publicly foolish (as when he persisted in debating against the scientific discoveries of Isaac Newton and others) or zealously involved in popular but wrong movements (he vehemently and successfully opposed giving naturalization to Jews living in Britain). When he devoted his abilities to spreading the gospel and strengthening the faith of believers, he was a great tool in the Master’s hand; when he involved himself in other activities, his chosen actions were questionable. Despite these mistakes, he was used by his Master.

This volume deserves to be read by as many as possible. Ministers should read it because it describes a servant who was devoted to the calling of his Master and whose service was owned by his Master. Those interested in church history will discover fresh insights into a crucial period of British church life. Believers should read it in order to be stimulated to pray for revival. The features of the time in which Romaine and others worked for the Lord are very similar to our own: immorality in society, breakdown of family life, rampant poverty, and an ineffective church. It is well-known that these features were widespread throughout western Europe at the lifetime of Romaine. In France, they led to the horrors of the French revolution of 1789; in Britain, the Lord sent revival and enabled his church to begin changing a corrupt society. This interesting volume should challenge us to pray for a similar, if not a greater, revival.

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