Howard A. Barnes, Bromborough, Merseyside
Walter Thomas Prideaux (W.T.P.) Wolston (1840-1917), who died 100 years ago this year, has left us a wonderful example of a believer who was able to lead a busy life in full-time employment, whilst, at the same time, being very active in the Lord’s work. For more than forty years he was busily engaged in his medical practice in Edinburgh, and also heavily involved in preaching, writing, and editing, and it is said that for many years he preached the gospel somewhere, to somebody, every day. At the same time his conversion story is a great encouragement to believing parents who are praying that their wayward children would be saved. Wolston himself noted later, ‘It is an inestimable boon for a man to have a praying mother and much, I know; mine prayed for me. But for twenty years I knew nothing of the grace of God, nothing whatever!’ 1
Wolston was born on the 6th of September 1840, in Brixham, a busy fishing and naval port in Devon, England, thirty miles from Plymouth. He was born into a Christian family, but grew up to be quite rebellious. On leaving school he joined a solicitor’s firm in Brixham, intending to enter the legal profession. He admitted later that, at the time, he was ‘a most thorough-going young worldling, deeply immersed in its pleasures and its sin . . . I had meant to be a lawyer at that time; and although this did engage my attention in office hours, my heart was far more in everything that concerned the world and its enjoyments than anything else’.
At the age of twenty, he left home in December for London to further his legal studies, intending to return home over the Christmas holidays to fulfil a number of engagements in connection with a ‘Glee Band’, in which he was a prominent singer, performing in music halls. However, shortly afterwards he got saved, and it happened as follows. On his first Sunday in London, a fellow-lodger, an engineering student called Tom, also from Devon, suggested that they go and listen to Richard Weaver (1827-1896), the famous coal-miner preacher, that night preaching in the Surrey Theatre in Blackfriars Road. Henry Pickering later said of Weaver – who was largely uneducated and had been a feared boxer – ‘a greater God-made preacher has not been known in living memory’.
Wolston, who said of his thoughts at the time, ‘Sunday is really an awfully dull day for an unconverted man’, went along, and joined the 3,500 other people in the theatre. Weaver read Mark chapter 5 verses 25-34, and then preached on the woman with the issue of blood, and how she simply touched the hem of Jesus’ garment in faith. Wolston was quite affected that night, but it was only after hearing Charles Stanley preach the gospel the next Sunday, having been urged to do so in a letter from his mother, that the light dawned in his soul, and Walter Wolston was saved!
Charles Stanley (1821-1890) was the leading evangelist among the Exclusive Brethren during the nineteenth century, having preached his first sermon at fourteen. He became famous for his ‘C. S. Tracts’. He had been known to Wolston for ten years or so since Stanley stayed in the Wolston family home while preaching the gospel in the area. He spoke to Stanley in the inquiry room after the meeting, and, after Stanley pointed out various scriptures, Wolston got saved. He would later say to a group of students in Edinburgh, ‘There is not a man in this hall tonight, who was more deeply immersed in the world, in its pleasures, its sin and its enticements, nor a more downright, out-and-out slave of the devil, than the man who speaks to you tonight. Yet in one hour God saved me’, but, ‘I went home that night to my lodgings as happy as a man could be. I was forgiven, saved, emancipated, taken out of darkness into light, brought from distance into nearness. I knew it, and enjoyed it. My soul began to cry out under the sense of the favour of the Lord, and of the love of the Lord; for I had the consciousness that my Saviour had made atonement for my sins, and had washed them all away in His blood’. He immediately witnessed to Tom, who got saved the following evening.
Straightaway, Wolston wrote to the leader of the Glee Band in Brixham, telling him that since leaving home he had been converted, that the Lord had put a new song into his mouth, and, although he was willing to fulfill his promised engagements, he could now only sing about the Saviour who had done so much for him. Not surprisingly he was excused his commitment! The band-leader refused to read his letter to the other band members as Wolston had asked; he just told them that Wolston had gone wrong in his head. Wolston later commented, ‘I had not gone wrong in my head, but I had got right in my heart’.
On being saved, he immediately threw himself wholeheartedly into the Lord’s work, and soon changed career direction and trained in medicine in London. In 1864, feeling the Lord’s call to Scotland, Wolston left behind lucrative possibilities in London and moved north to Edinburgh. His first job was as a house surgeon in the Old Edinburgh Infirmary. Afterwards, he established his own private practice in the city. The Journal of the British Homoeopathic Society, 1894-5, noted that ‘Wolston, Walter Thomas Prideaux, M.D.Edin., M.R.C.S., Physician to the Edinburgh Homoeopathic Dispensary, 46, Charlotte Square, Edinburgh’, had been granted his membership of the British Homeopathic Society in 1877, and reported that he was one of the three homeopathic doctors practising in Edinburgh at the time. Interestingly, another Exclusive brother, Dr. Edward Cronin (1801-1882), was a pioneer in homeopathy in England, being the fifth-ever homeopathic practitioner in the country, after returning from being a medical missionary in Persia and India, helping Anthony Norris Groves.
Dr. Wolston was ‘universally acknowledged to be a skillful and kindly Christian doctor’. At the same time he rented halls and theatres for gospel preaching himself and urged others to preach also, saying, ‘Conversion is just like scarlet fever; it is infectious. If you get converted yourself, you tell others of your new-found joy, and others will get converted also’. He had a particularly great influence with young men, and frequently lectured Edinburgh University students on spiritual subjects. It was on the last night of such a gospel series for young people that he gave his testimony, as afterwards recorded in booklet form. 2 In this testimony he wrote, ‘I have been seven-and-thirty years converted, and I find that my portion gets better every year. Christ is dearer, and heaven is nearer, and the gospel is sweeter every year’.
In 1906 Wolston published The Evangelist’s Hymnal, a collection of 536 gospel hymns, which, over the years, has been reprinted more than seven times. Its publishers claim that over 91,000 copies have been sold, and it is still in print, and used!
Wolston was greatly blessed in that his wife, Mary – about three years younger than him – fully supported him in his gospel work, and was also busily engaged in writing gospel tracts, anonymously signing herself ‘X’ at the bottom of her tracts, saying that she didn’t want to ‘go before her husband’. Her tract titles included Homeward Bound, Light at Eventide, Saved, Snow Water, Wash me and then I Shall be Whiter than Snow, and Too Good for Jesus.
Wolston was the editor of God´s Glad Tidings magazine, afterwards renamed The Gospel Messenger, for forty-five years, and he wrote many excellent gospel booklets. He also produced nine volumes on spiritual subjects, which have been helpful to many, these too, like the gospel booklets, can be read online at Stempublishing.com. 3
Wolston generally steered clear of the controversies in the Exclusive Brethren following the death of J. N. Darby, but eventually he joined the group called the Glanton Brethren, who represented about 16% of the 730 Exclusive assemblies from whom they broke away. Wolston justified his position in a 32-page booklet, called “Hear the Right”: Narrative of facts written at the time of the Glanton Division, Alnwick and Glanton, Edinburgh and London, 1908.
When Wolston retired from his medical practice in 1909, he fulfilled a long-held ambition to visit Australia and New Zealand. While he was in Australia, characteristically, he busied himself with a number of public gospel meetings in Brisbane and elsewhere. He was described at the time as ‘the venerable missioner’. 4 The (Brisbane) Telegraph September 11th, 1911, advertised meetings at the Centennial and Albert Halls on ‘Eight lectures on the Holy Spirit’s Activities’, and ‘Night Scenes of Scripture’, and his final talk in Brisbane was on ‘The Lord’s Second Coming’. Special twenty-minute talks for businessmen were held in the YMCA Reception Hall in Brisbane, on such subjects as ‘Building from the bottom’, discussing the new birth as the best foundation, and ‘Faith, what is it and what it does’. Similar public meetings were later held in Adelaide and Melbourne. 5
Afterwards, he visited Norway twice, but during his second visit in February, 1915, he had a stroke and was left paralyzed. He was brought home to Weston-super-Mare, where he lay helpless for two years. A few weeks before he died he had another stroke and was left in a coma. On 11th March, 1917, he went to be with the Lord. As one obituary at the time well remarked, ‘at the age of seventy-six, the good doctor made his appointment with the great Physician, who forgives all our iniquities and heals all our diseases’.
1 W. T. P. Wolston, No Man Can Serve Two Masters or How I Found the Lord, http://bibletruthpublishers.com/no-man-can-serve-two-masters-or-how-i-found-the-lord/walter-thomas-prideaux-wolston/seekers-for-light/w-t-p-wolston/la61286 . Many of the other quotes in this article are drawn from this source.
2 See Note 1.
3 The present writer first came across Wolston’s writings in Night Scenes of Scripture, but he also wrote many more, viz., Simon Peter: His Life and Letters, Young Men of Scripture, Another Comforter, Behold the Bridegroom, Forty Days of Scripture, Seekers for Light and The Church.
4 Brisbane Courier, August 29th, 1911.
5 The Register (Adelaide), Thursday 29th February 1912, and (Melbourne) Punch, February 29th, 1912.