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JOHN CENNICK: A Motivated Ministry

By Roger Salter
Special to Virtueonline
September 9, 2022

Cut short thy work, my God!
And let thy kingdom come;
Thy number, Lord, accomplish soon,
And call thy chosen home!

The eighteenth century witnessed the rise of a galaxy of eminent Christian leaders in the Established Church of England. Bishop J.C. Ryle sketches the lives and ministries of eleven of these great men: a team equivalent in number to the members of an English cricket team. Cricket was the bishop's favorite sport, at which he excelled. Perhaps there was a good-natured significance in his limited selection of subjects for his compact biographical endeavors, although there was never anything trifling in the good Bishop's literary labors. His many published works are of great value in commending the gospel and in maintaining the Reformational character of the national church. His witness to the grace of God in Jesus Christ toward lost sinners is indispensable.

His treasured volume entitled Christian Leaders of the Last (Eighteenth) Century, first published in 1868, was fairly recently made available by Charles Nolan Publishers, Moscow, Idaho, 2002, and a brief account of a smaller number of these able servants of God has been published by The Banner of Truth Trust as Five Christian Leaders (see their online catalogue). A little gem of a booklet derived from Ryle's original work, and amending his title to Christian Leaders of the Eighteenth Century, was edited by B.C. Mowll, and published by The Protestant Truth Society of Fleet Street London. This collectable item is well worth watching for by happenstance, (or more properly by the order of Providence!) on secondhand book shelves and listings. Labored searching is not a must however, for it consists of greatly abbreviated excerpts [with minor editorial comments] from the titles aforementioned.

Ryle confined himself to men of the ordained ministry and his emphasis on the necessity of clerical faithfulness is fully justified. The 18th century is a favorite era in the minds of earnest Evangelicals, licensed and lay, (e.g. Martyn Lloyd Jones) who share in every member ministry in various vocations within the life of the church or beyond. Readers of Ryle will sense the responsibility that their heritage lays upon them, and the longing for divine power to be operative and felt among us will be heightened. Memory serves to suggest that across the entire Evangelical terrain of sincere Bible-loving Christianity, in the Britain of the eighteen hundreds, a considerable number of effective lay preaching ministries were vitally present.

John Cennick conducted one of these previously mentioned major ministries, as exercised by a humble layman, for the duration of his affiliation with Anglicanism (Interestingly, when George Whitefield first observed the preaching of the word by Cennick in Kingswood, Bristol, he disapproved for the very reason that the young schoolteacher, selected by the great evangelist himself for that role, had not been ordained. But after clear evidence of John Cennick's empowering by the Holy Spirit, Whitefield soon withdrew his objection). It is estimated that in terms of ability and recorded attendance to his preaching, in church and open air, Cennick is to be reckoned among the five most effective preachers of the Great Awakening. His personality was winsome, his temperament tender and sensitive, and his preaching as bold and courageous as the strongest of his exhortatory colleagues. He took many physical attacks and vicious blows during his preaching to vast crowds, and in Swindon, Wiltshire he was very near to the loss of his life from the intense fury of the mob. This gentle man was a brave heart and eloquent tongue for the cause of Christ and his gospel.

Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world!

When I my Saviour's kindness weigh, > Who could have looked when Adam fell,
And all his wondrous love survey; And joined himself to death and hell;
Lost in amazement, lo, I stand, That he might be again restored,
And bless his high, delivering hand Yet so it pleased our gracious Lord.

The justice of the eternal God, Jesus the sinful world beheld,
To appease his anger asked for blood! And all his soul with love was filled;
Not such as runs in common veins He loved our race, assumed our clay,
Could quench his wrath, or cleanse our stains. And bled to take our sins away.

The Father cast his wrath aside, All that in Christ should e'er believe
Healed Adam's breach, forgave his pride; Were saved, and suffered to receive
And sealed a covenant with man, The life divine in Adam lost,
In Jesus made e'er time began. The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

For this the Saviour gave his blood, He then his seed began to draw,
And thus the established covenant stood: The travail of his soul he saw;
Thus sealed, he, the life, giving word, He knew their number, so he strove,
"That man, by faith, might be restored". Till all should know his sovereign love.

Angels of God the mystery view,
For we are reconciled, and you
Gathered through Jesus into one;
We all at once shall share his throne.

John Cennick was born at Reading in the County of Berkshire on December 12th, 1718, and thereafter, when he was of suitable age, he was compelled by his mother to attend services each Sunday at the Church of St. Lawrence. His Christian nurture was Anglican, but from his childhood to his youth he admits to stubbornness, dishonesty and breaching The Lord's Day. He knew that his heart and deportment of life were not consistent with the will of God. He harbored a dread of dying unprepared for meeting with God. He alternated between vivid and distressing impressions of sinfulness and damnation, and energetic seasons of fruitless resolve to seek salvation through reformation of life and acts of devotion and self-denial. Dismayed at his recurrent temptations and failures he eventually gained, by grace, a genuine grasp of Christ as Savior, a moment of assurance which occurred in 1737 in some way at St. Lawrence's Church.

Subsequently hearing of George Whitefield, whose life of faith and usefulness he came to admire, Cennick prayed that the God whom he had come to know would facilitate a meeting with the preacher of note. Up until a connection between the two men took place through a mutual friend, John was employed as a land or property surveyor. It was George who recruited Cennick for the school he and Wesley had recently decided to establish in the West Country, and Cennick seems to have eventually moved on from the role of teacher to the children of the vicinity and act as expositor of Scripture to members of the local community.

Now will I tell to sinners round,
I'll point to thy redeeming blood,
And say, "Behold the way to God!"

It so happened during an occasion of Whitefield's temporary absence from Kingswood in ministry elsewhere, that a sharp difference of theological conviction quickly emerged between Cennick and Wesley with reference to three crucial issues - the bondage and impotence of the fallen and sinful will (human helplessness), the matter of definite redemption (divine certainty in its effectuation), and Wesley's strange advocacy of Christian perfection (possible sinlessness of believers), a notion that Wesley qualified, modified and redrafted over the period of his long years of activity as preacher and Christian leader. The brothers, John and Charles Wesley, united in strict opposition to Cennick's popularly received proclamation of the gospel, while Whitfield offered his heartfelt support to his young and chosen assistant, who not only maintained support for Whitefield's teaching at Bristol, and especially among members of the large mining community there, but soon followed his mentor to London to partner the Teller of Gloucester at Whitefield's Tabernacle [Moorfields], in the compelling dual delivery of the message of salvation.

Cennick was entrusted with the leadership and primary ministry of the Tabernacle during one of Whitefield's extensive tours of east coast America, but internal squabbling and interminable controversy within the congregation and among its supporters, as well as the responsibility for the governing of the entire Whitefieldian branch of Methodism was too difficult for the mild-mannered assistant of Whitefield to cope with. It sapped his strength and diverted his attention toward the distractions of ill-behaved, contentious human behavior.

"For such duties, however, Cennick was little gifted by nature. Though unflinching before the mob and tireless in his zeal, he was natively a sweet and gentle soul. He had been at his best while under Whitrfield's leadership, but was ill at ease trying to fill his place. He was not equipped to take command of other men or administer a movement and could not exercise the firmness this situation required" (George Whitefield: The life and times of the great evangelist of the 18th century revival, Volume 2, Arnold Dallimore, Banner of Truth, page 232).

Although keeping in touch with George Whitefield throughout succeeding years, Cennick moved on from the Tabernacle and his beloved but "overheated home" in Anglicanism to the calmer climes of the Moravian Church where he ministered most profitably, establishing many godly and stable societies in England, after which we find God working wonders through him in Ireland, where again the heavy hand of Wesley forced his removal, this time from a hired Baptist facility where the Moravian congregation of Cennick was flourishing. Wesley used the vacated facility for himself. Nonetheless, the tireless perseverance in preaching of the former property surveyor altered the religious landscape of Ireland in the founding of many Christian chapels and fellowships.

John Cennick experienced extremely hard times in the latter years of his ministry with near poverty, declining health and depression. But always, through all his time of affliction, his faith and fealty to the work of the Lord remained loyal and firm. He had clearly over exerted himself in his admirable dedication to the preaching circuit. The example of Cennick aside, however, one wonders, while whole hearted dedication is called for, whether working to one's early demise is a responsible way of glorifying God. Ardent service of God is a gospel virtue, but would not concern for the nurturing of longevity in ministry also be a benefit to the flock and newly-evangelized regions further beyond? Necessary periods of leisure, and care of health also encompass the task of ministry, as exemplified in the sensible pastorate of Alexander Whyte, who retired to Ireland annually for rest and several weeks of sermon and lecture preparation by the sea at Connemara (also see the lesson learned by Dr. John Polkinghorne from the advice of his vicar, as mentioned by the eminent physicist in his brief autobiography, and description of his ministry, as a newly ordained curate in an Anglican parish).

Tireless work in parish situations may result in tiresome contact and communication with others. Evangelicalism needs to recognize that over-busyness does not procure divine favor (watch out for possible "works-righteousness" and the pressure to be seen as always active in self-justification before others-- there is to be sufficient stillness before God and the deep resourcing of the Word and Spirit) The crowded schedule adopted by some can seriously harm both care of family and the faithful by the lack of freshness. At its best Anglicanism cultivates the blessing of stillness in various forms: compulsory retreats and sabbaticals. Sadly, children of the manse and vicarage can be filled with resentment toward the faith. Cennick had a loving wife (Jane) and progeny (two daughters), but how he made allowances for them is hard to discern. The pastor is not an employee, but a divinely appointed encourager and enabler suffused with the word of God and the Spirit of God, and the attendant necessity is time to wind down, store up and stoke up before God, to the profit of the people. Self-organizing and priorities must be guided by God through sensitivity of conscience and sanctified reason. May grace set the pace.

John Cennick, an undoubted hero of the Great Awakening, endured much heavy battering throughout a full and industrious life. His physical fatigue, spiritual struggles and weariness of mind wore him down to crushing exhaustion. Much travelling and constant preaching had taken its inevitable toll on his constitution. "He went for the last time to Dublin, opened a new chapel in Booter Lane, and preached to a large congregation. He planned to cross to England, go to South Wales, Bristol and on to London. He crossed over to Holyhead, but by then was very ill with a fever; so he changed his plans and rode straight to London to his Moravian brethren at Fetter Lane, where he arrived after a journey of five days, on Saturday afternoon 28th June 1755, a dying man. He lay for a week in the vestry of the chapel in Fetter Lane . . . became unconscious, passing away at 7pm on 4th July 1755" (Broome see below).

He was thirty-six."

Preserve us in love, while here we abide;
O never remove thy presence, nor hide
Thy glorious salvation, till each of us see,
With joy, the blessed vision completed in thee.

For the early hymns of Cennick see "Life and Hymns of John Cennick" edited by J.R. Broome, Gospel Standard Trust Publications.

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