Monday 27 April 2015

The Methodist Martyr: William Seward

The Methodist Martyr: William Seward 1702-1740

We go back to the early days of Methodism, to speak of a man who was a friend and supporter of Howell Harris, of Charles Wesley and in particular of George Whitefield.  We shall also touch on divisions that can arise among believers, and talk about using our abilities in God’s service.  

William Seward was born at Badsey in the Vale of Evesham in 1702.  That makes him a near contemporary of a number of men who were to be greatly used by God in Wales, England and North America during the eighteenth century, and whose influence lasts to this day. Consider some of those born during the first quarter of the eighteenth century:

William Seward
Badsey, Vale of Evesham
John Wesley   
Epworth, Methodists
Jonathan Edwards
Charles Wesley
Epworth, hymn writer
Daniel Rowland
Llangeitho,Calvinistic Meth
Howel Harris
Talgarth, Calvinistic Meth
George Whitefield   
Gloucester, Caerphilly
William Williams
Pantycelyn,Calvinistic Meth
David Brainerd
Connecticut, journal
Samuel Davies
Virginia, hymns, Princeton

  William Seward went to London as a young man, where as a successful stockbroker he acquired considerable wealth. He married at the age of 30, but his wife suffered from various ailments and died four years later in 1736. Seward was a generous benefactor of the poor, he supported the London charity schools, and gave to Badsey Church the Altar Table (still in use), a clock, and the box pews. All these gifts are recorded on the charity board which hangs in the ringing chamber of Badsey church, where he had been churchwarden. In Acts 11 we read that the Antioch Christians sent gifts with Paul and Barnabas to assist the Judean believers at a time of famine. We all need to ‘work out our salvation’, that is to express one’s salvation in works, such as by concern for others and support of mission work.  Yet such deeds, good and selfless though they may be, cannot earn us merit with God or incline Him to have mercy on us. George Whitefield later told Seward that he felt that those years of charitable giving were not an effect of the new birth but rather in preparation for conversion itself. Through his benevolence Seward came into contact with several of the early Methodists, young men recently touched by the Holy Spirit. Howel Harris and Daniel Rowland had been converted separately in 1735, while Charles and John Wesley came to real faith within a few days of each other in May 1738.

Charles Wesley, then aged 30, was instrumental in Seward’s conversion.  In November 1738 Wesley had described 36 year-old Seward as a ‘zealous soul knowing only the baptism of John’, but a week later he noted that Seward testified faith, and was present at the conference of Oxford Methodists.

In his journal Seward wrote ‘I cannot sufficiently praise God for bringing me out of darkness into his marvellous light … this is  a faith I never felt before Mr Charles Wesley expounded it to me. I cannot but always honour him as an instrument in God’s hand for showing me the true way of salvation by Jesus Christ.

A few months later Seward was with Whitefield on 8 March 1739 when he first met Howel Harris in Cardiff - Whitefield’s first words to Harris were: ‘Do you know your sins are forgiven?’

William Seward’s eldest brother Henry still lived at Badsey, and before he came to strongly oppose the Methodists he permitted Whitefield to preach there.  Whitefield wrote in his diary in April 1739: ‘went to Badsey and preached in Mr Seward’s brother’s yard’.  In all, Whitefield preached at Badsey on three consecutive days, on the third occasion to "a weeping audience".

Being a widower, in 1739 Seward could accompany Whitefield (who was to cross the Atlantic 13 times) on his visit to America – at a time when New England was on the verge of the Great Awakening. To publicise the forthcoming meetings Seward provided information and extracts of Whitefield’s writings to newspapers and booksellers. Seward also supported Whitefield financially, selling £2,000 of South Sea stock so Whitefield could purchase land in Pennsylvania for an orphanage in Savannah. Jonathan Edwards wrote Nov 1739 to Whitefield ‘I desire that you and Mr Seward would come directly to my house’, but Whitefield was not able to until Oct 1740. 

This support of Whitefield was much to the annoyance of brother Henry Seward, who blamed the Methodists, and especially Charles Wesley, for what he perceived to be his brother’s  ‘downfall’.

Seward’s return from America increased the tension between Whitefield and the Wesleys, who did not care for his published ‘Journal of a voyage from Savannah … to England, so Seward became estranged from Charles Wesley.

In May 1740 Whitefield wrote to John Wesley that ‘the work of God is carried on here (and that in a most glorious manner) by doctrines quite opposite to those you hold’.

After meeting with Howel Harris at Cowbridge, they preached together in the open-air to hostile crowds in South Wales; often Howel Harris would translate into Welsh what Seward had said.  But opposition could be violent. The previous year (October 1739) in Newport, Gwent, John Wesley attempted to preach to insensible and ill-behaved people, who cursed, blasphemed and threw refuse (no mains drainage then). A verse usually omitted from the hymn ‘Ye servants of God, your Master proclaim’ refers to such opposition:

Men, devils engage, the billows arise,

And horribly rage and threaten the skies,

Their fury shall never our steadfastness shock

The weakest believer is built on the Rock.

August 1740 William Seward visited Badsey, where there were sharp disagreements with his brother Henry.  He went to Abergavenny on 3 Sept where he was joined by Howel Harris. On 6 Sept at Caerphilly Howel Harris preached in Welsh, then they held meetings at Cardiff and Cowbridge. On 9 September 1740 in Newport they encountered the hostility of the mob in the market place, where they were roughly treated, and Howel Harris’s coat sleeve was torn off.  Later that day to Caerleon they prayed and sang for about half an hour as an unruly mob gathered.  Rotten eggs, dung and even a dead cat were flung at them.  A large drum was beaten to drown out their preaching.

Seward recorded in his journal: ‘The noise drowned our voices till at length I was struck with a stone, brickbat or some other hard substance upon my right eye which caused so much anguish that I was forced to go away to the Inn and put an end to my discourse. It was given to me to pray all the way for the poor people and especially for the person who struck me. Brother Harris continued to discourse for some time after, and the other brethren declared their testimony against them’.  Seward had intended to proceed to Pontypool but the condition of his eye demanded immediate attention.

In New England, George Whitefield was preaching for 10 days at Boston.

In Wales Harris & Seward went on to Usk, with one of the brethren leading Seward’s horse, as he was in much pain from the damage to his right eye; there they could use the town hall and hold peaceful meetings.  On 11 Sept they moved on to Monmouth: it was the day of the race meeting, with many local gentry present.  Harris’s preaching was unpalateable for the crowd - soon stones, plums, walnuts and a dead dog were being flung at the two evangelists, and again a drum was brought out to drown their preaching.  Seward commented to Howel Harris ‘Better endure this than hell’. 

Consider the courage of these men who felt their message was so pressing that they were constrained to declare it in spite of open hostility.  When visiting Swansea, on Sunday afternoons Howel Harris would stride into the midst of revellers at Dyfatty, to preach in an area known for immorality, drunkenness and prize fighting, near where Cruglas chapel used to stand.  On one occasion some gentry induced a drunk to fire a pistol at Harris. It missed, and the assailant later fell asleep in a limekiln where he was overcome with the fumes and died.

Back to the autumn of 1740: while Harris stayed in Wales, William Seward went into Gloucestershire, receiving a good reception at Coleford, Mitcheldean, Gloucester and Stroud, and enjoying a Methodist fellowship feast at Upton-on-Severn.

But at national level the rift between Whitefield and the Wesleys was widening, fuelled by remarks in Seward’s published journal. Octavius Winslow later wrote in 1858 ‘The history of religious revival proves that all real spiritual awakenings of the national mind have been those in which God, and not man, has been the prime mover.’

Attempts were made to heal the rift by Charles Wesley, who met with Seward on 25th Sept and again on 30th, but to no avail.  Charles Wesley wrote to Whitefield ‘the well-meaning Mr Seward has caused the world to triumph in our supposed dissension, by his unseasonable journal. Your zealous indiscreet friends, instead of concealing any little difference between us, have told it in Gath.’  Seward commented ‘these trials caused me great oppression – my soul is exceedingly sorrowful.’

William Seward crossed back into Wales, meeting Howel Harris at Erwood, and was at Trefecca with him on 12 October.  On Monday 13 October he addressed hundreds at Brecon on the Beatitudes.  On Wed 15th he set off for Hay-on-Wye, intending to meet up with Harris again at Abergavenny: but that was not to be.

Around the time that in New England, 26-year-old George Whitefield was visiting 37- year-old Jonathan Edwards at Northampton, Massachusetts (writing ‘Mr Edwards is a solid, excellent Christian… I think I have not seen his fellow in all New England’). At Hay-on-Wye William Seward started preaching outside the castle, along with a few supporters. In his journal he wrote that night ‘On Wed 15 Oct came to Hay and attempted to discourse a little from the town; but after singing and prayer and discussing for a few minutes, the minister of the parish and several justices of the peace, with many other clergymen, came and demanded my silence, and stirred up the people against me.’ Local gentry incited crowds to throw missiles, and church bells were clanged. Seward was struck on the back of the head by a large stone hurled at close range, and this caused serious injury.  He was carried away by his friends to safety, but his condition deteriorated. While he lay critically injured, Whitefield preached four times for Edwards in Northampton, Massachusetts (October 17-20).   One of Seward’s final journal entries is ‘oh, that I may lay down my head and fall asleep in the arms of my Lord’.  That wish was granted when he died from his injuries on 22 October, thus becoming the first Methodist martyr.

Howell Harris’s response to the news: ‘Heard that my dear Bro. Seward has gone to heaven…recollecting Bro. Sewards’s work and simplicity and especially his being buffeted with me with dung … it was more than I could bear, my heart is almost broken’.

John Wesley: ‘the surprising news of poor Mr Sewards’s death was confirmed. Surely God will maintain his own cause. Righteous art Thou, O Lord.’

Charles Wesley: ‘I  was exceedingly shocked with the news of Mr Seward’s death; but he is taken from evil; rescued out of the hands of wicked men’.

William Seward’s death particularly affected George Whitefield, for Seward was the major financer of the planned Savannah orphanage, but his family prevented any more of his money being used for such purposes.

He is buried near Hay, in the village churchyard at Cusop (6 for chiming).  That church has a memorial tablet                  

In memory of William Seward Born Badsey, Worcestershire 1702

He devoted himself to the cause of Christ in the great Evangelical Revivals in England, Wales and America.

He was a friend and supporter of John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield and Howel Harris of Trefeca.

He was injured on a preaching tour in South Wales in the autumn of 1740 and died a week after he had spoken to hostile crowds in Hay.  He is buried in this churchyard.

‘For me to live is Christ and to die is gain’.

‘Canys byw i mi yw Crist a marw sydd elw’.

At the same time as Seward was killed, in New England the reception of one evangelist in October 1740 in Connecticut was very different, as recorded by Nathan Cole, a farmer:

“It pleased God to send Mr Whitefield into this land and my hearing of his preaching at Philadelphia, like one of the old apostles, and many thousands flocking after him to hear the gospel and great numbers converted to Christ…..Then one morning all on a sudden, about 9 o’clock there came a messenger and said Mr Whitefield preached at Hartford and Wethersfield yesterday (Wed) and is to preach at Middletown this (Thurs) morning at 10 o’clock.  I was in my field, at work, I dropped what tools I had in my hand and ran home and ran through the house and bade my wife to get ready quick to go and hear Mr Whitefield preach at Middletown, and ran to my pasture for my horse with all my might, fearing I should be too late to hear him. I brought my horse home and soon mounted and bid my wife ride as fast as she could and not stop or slack, for we had twelve miles to ride in little more than an hour.

“On high ground I saw before me a cloud or fog rising, I thought at first it was from the great river, but as I came nearer the road I heard a noise something like a low rumble of horses’ feet coming down the road, and this cloud was a cloud of dust made by the running of horses. It arose some distance in the air, over the tops of the hills and trees, and when I came near I could see men and horses slipping along in the cloud like shadows – a steady stream of horses and riders scarcely a horse more than a length behind another, all of a lather with much sweat… We went down with the stream, I heard no man speak a word but everyone pressing forward in great haste. When we got to the old meeting house there was a great multitude – it was said to be 3,000 or 4,000 people. I turned and looked to the river and saw ferry boats bringing over loads more people.  All along the 12 miles I had seen no man at work in his field, but all seemed to be gone.”


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