IN THE RURAL VALLEY OF THE AXE there are several assemblies within a radius of about six miles from the charming village of Musbury, which owe their existence to a remarkable work of God, the story of which we believe will not only be of great interest to our readers but also most helpful to all who will take its lessons to heart.
In 1839 a son was born to one of the principal fanners in the area, a wealthy man named Wills who farmed four hundred acres. This man was a firm adherent of the established Church and Vicar's Chief Warden, and naturally Walter was brought up in the ways of the Church and duly became a regular communicant. Even at that early age he took full advantage of the opportunities his position of life afforded him of enjoying such pleasures of the world as were available in the countryside in that now far off day. In after years he was often heard to say that he 'had tried the world, had danced with the girls all night and returned home to have coffee with his parents in the morning'.
Although his conduct was not regarded as at all out of place, and although he had never heard a clear gospel message, at about i6£ years of age he became deeply concerned about his state before God. It could only have been a direct and inward work of the convicting Spirit of God, who had His own sovereign purpose in the life of this promising lad. He became so serious and anxious that his parents were disturbed and called in the local doctor, whose advice was to send him away for a change to an uncle in another part of the country. Walter was unwilling to go, protesting that his trouble was spiritual and not physical or mental. This no one seemed able to understand, and the vicar, as well as a clergyman from a neighbouring parish, could only seek to persuade him that a regular communicant like himself had nothing to worry about. This was no help to the convicted lad and his condition grew worse until in agony of soul, unable to sleep, he took to walking the fields at night praying for light and peace.
After this had gone on for nearly twelve months he felt that he could stand the strain no longer. In this frame of mind he went one morning into what was known as The Eleven Acre Field to look after some cattle, but his spiritual burden was so heavy that he sank to his knees and told God that if He did not reveal Himself to him, he would have to end it all. When recounting the scene in after years he always declared that he saw a light from heaven as clearly as ever Paul did on the Damascus Road. He thereupon yielded his will to God and although he had no clear idea of the way of salvation, he knew that he had bowed to God's will and peace came into his heart. It was such a real experience to him that he could not leave what had become a sacred spot until he had taken a stake and driven it into the ground where he had knelt.
Remembering his parents' terrible anxiety on his behalf, he forgot the cattle and raced home, and rushing up to his mother embraced her affectionately saying, 'I've found a new joy - you need not worry any more about me'. The poor woman, far from being relieved, thought that her worst fears had been realized, and whilst detaining her son, sent a servant to tell her husband to get the doctor at once. When he arrived, he declared that this was exactly what he had warned them of - the lad was suffering from acute religious mania and must be sent to a Home at once. Young Wills tried to explain to the doctor that now at last he had found peace and all was well, but he would not be persuaded, and urged removal to a Mental Home. Walter pleaded for a few days respite to prove that he was now at rest in his mind and that there was no further cause for anxiety. On promising to attend church regularly he was allowed to remain home, but in addition to attending church he instinctively took up reading the Bible and as the Lord granted light on what he read he began to see the way of life more clearly. Shortly afterwards, at the end of a church service, a baby was brought to be 'baptized', and young Wills stood by his father watching the ceremony. Although he had never questioned it before, he seemed to realize suddenly and quite clearly that this was not what he had learned from Scripture and he there and then protested to the Minister - 'This is all wrong - I was baptized but I was going to hell'. It is not known how this protest affected the father, but it is not difficult to imagine. Remarkably enough, on the way home to lunch, he noticed with surprise and delight an old lady outside her cottage, sitting in the sun and evidently reading a Bible. After lunch he told his parents he would be out for the afternoon, but they were not to worry, he would be in time for the evening service. He made his way to the old lady's cottage and astonished her with his request to be allowed to read the Scriptures with her. They became so absorbed in the study of God's Word, all so new to him, that the afternoon was gone before they realized it. It was too late to make his way to the farm for tea so he accepted an invitation to have a little food at the cottage - he often recalled that it was unbuttered bread. With his appetite for spiritual food quickened he decided to stay on for further study instead of going to the service.
When he failed to turn up for tea, his father notified the police that his son was missing, and then made his way to the service, from which we may judge his own staunch Churchmanship and his growing impatience at his son's eccentricities. On coming out of church he found Walter waiting dutifully for him; the police were informed that everything was alright and father and son walked home together. The explanation given for his absence did nothing to abate his parents' impatience, for they were very upset to learn that he had so demeaned himself as to be a guest at 'the poorest house in the parish'. To go to a poor old widow for guidance was to disgrace the dignity of the family. 'If you wanted instruction' said the father, 'why didn't you go to the Vicar who is the proper one to consult ?' As might have been anticipated, the reply was 'He couldn't help me when I was in soul trouble, and he would not be able to help me now that I want to learn more'. He was forbidden to go again, but he replied that he had promised to do so the next Wednesday and must fulfil his promise - 'After all, we only read our Bibles ; what harm can there be in that?' Although very annoyed, the father seemed to have sensed that there was nothing to do but to give grudging consent.
The following Sunday morning the programme was repeated. The lad went with his parents to the service in the morning, but repaired to the humble cottage for the afternoon. Again the reading became so absorbing, that the idea of going to the evening service was given up. The aged saint and the young convert went on to read of Paul's activities in proclaiming the gospel in the open. This was something new to a young man whose only idea of preaching had been connected with church services, but it appealed to him strongly, and he exclaimed 'I would like to do what Paul did'. No doubt the old woman was taken aback by the bold suggestion, but she quickly assured him that if he would preach in the village, she would stand by him. Accordingly, the strangely assorted couple repaired to a convenient spot, outside the village Post Office, where the young man began to tell the astonished villagers about the gospel so far as his limited grasp would allow. At this moment, his parents came along from the Church, and were horrified to see their son making a spectacle of himself. They passed him with an aloof and disdainful air, but when the son got home, the father took him to task for this rash escapade. 'Now, look here' he said, 'if you want to be a parson, be one; I'll send you to a college.' This did not appeal to the lad, whose mind was now beginning to resort instinctively to the Scriptures for its precedents. 'Paul did not go to college after he was converted, and I don't intend to.'
That first open air meeting was fruitful. A villager named Harvey was convicted by the little he had heard, and that night could not sleep. His wife got anxious about his strange demeanour, and in the early hours of the morning aroused a neighbour to get the doctor. She could not say what was wrong, and the neighbour protested that he must have some¬thing to tell the doctor. The man, hearing this, interjected, 'It's no good to get the doctor, get young Wills to come to see me'. The neighbour, sensing the situation, made his way to the farm at about two o'clock in the morning, and aroused the farmer by throwing stones at his bedroom window. His angry demand that the man should go home only brought out the reply that Harvey was in a dreadful state and needed Master Walter. The father must have wondered where all this sort of thing was going to lead, but he grumblingly called the lad, who forthwith went to see Harvey. At three o'clock, the old man found peace through faith in Christ, and lived for some years bearing evidence of the reality of his conversion. He became so attached to young Wills that he was known until the day of his death as Walter Wills' sheepdog. The next Sunday the little open-air band consisted of three. The witness commenced in this way was continued every Sunday evening for many years; fifty years, it is believed. The little cottage now became a Bible Class for three, and before long, informal meetings were held every Sunday morning and evening at which several villagers attended, some of them being soundly converted. They prayed constantly for the conversion of Mr. and Mrs. Wills.
The story of the parents' conversion and the progress of the work of God In the area will be told in our next issue.