Musbury, Devon - 2
In our previous issue we recorded the remarkable story of the conversion of a farmer's son, Walter Wills, at the age of 17. Now follows the story of how God continued to work after the conversion of his parents.—Ed.
EVERY SUNDAY THEY PRAYED for Mr. and Mrs. Wills, and after two and a half years the wonderful change so impressed the father that he condescended to attend the once-despised poorest cottage in the village, where he soon found his son's Saviour. The mother was converted shortly after¬wards.
Immediately upon his conversion the father said 'We must build a chapel'. He was a man of action, as well as a man of his word, and it was very little time before his farm wagons were hauling stone from Shoothill Quarry for the building. By this time several men had been attracted to Christ, and were anxious to do something to help, although their means were extremely slender. Among them were three or four men who worked on a large estate near the quarry, and every evening they would each carry home a stone the two and a half miles from the quarry to the chapel site. Two others were a carpenter, Rockett, and a mason, Partridge, who did a great deal of the work whilst Mr. Wills provided the material. The work was well done and the building is strong today. Recently a new window was needed, and the carpenter who was called in said he had never seen such good work in his life. 'You can't pull the joints apart', he said.
Bible study had revealed quite clearly the truth about believers' baptism, and this was practised from the start, soon to be followed by the simple observance of the Lord's Supper. It is difficult for us to realize the break this was with the firmly entrenched tradition, or with what freshness and joy the simple scriptural order was found to bring the believer into a liberty undreamt of before, but perhaps too lightly valued by many who have been brought up amid these privileges.
At this time Walter Wills did most of the preaching, chiefly, no doubt, because no one else suitable was available. It did not occur to people in those days that 'everybody must have a turn'! They were content to leave the preaching to those who were fitted and called by God for it, as Wills undoubtedly was. As time went on the Lord raised up other capable men whose fellowship in ministry was welcomed.
Such was God's blessing on the work that the little company soon numbered about sixty. There would be a Sunday School in the morning at ten o'clock, followed by the Lord's Supper at eleven, sometimes continuing until one o'clock, the believers showing no anxiety to precipitate the close of the meeting. There would be another Sunday School in the afternoon, and then a Prayer Meeting at six o'clock, preparatory to the Gospel Service, which would be followed by another Prayer Meeting for blessing upon the gospel, and this would often go on until nine o'clock.
Our informant who was born on the farm and lived there for many years attended the Sunday School and received sound, if uncultured, spiritual education from the converted Harvey, and remembers crowded meetings, when twenty to thirty would have to stand outside - the hall, gallery and schoolroom being filled to capacity.
He has vivid recollections of a conversational Bible Reading in which Wills remarked that the time would come when the Word of God would go out from Jerusalem as God's governmental centre. An old sailor questioned the feasibility of this, seeing that it would take weeks for orders to reach some parts of the world. Wills' response was to put his hand on the lad's shoulder and say 'It is quite possible that by the time this lad is as old as we are, people will be able to sit by their firesides and receive news from distant parts'. Probably this was regarded with incredulity - what would these folks have thought if he had ventured to predict that people would be able to see events taking place hundreds of miles away?
Just about this time, railway companies, of which there were then several, developed the idea of special excursion trips, and the day came when the conservative Devon countryside was scandalized by the introduction of a Sunday excursion from London to Seaton on the south coast. Wills, who did a great deal of gospel work in the open air and in cottage meetings, took horse and trap to preach to the crowds coming off the train. His earnestness met with little appreciation, the probability being that in those early days Sunday excursionists were more sensitive in their consciences than their present-day successors, and their resentment at being reminded of the claims of God expressed itself in hurling more substantial things than abuse at the preacher. Personal violence was often threatened but this soldier of the Cross was not easily deterred. Local people were less incensed but could not resist playing countrymen's tricks on his horse and trap parked in a field on the outskirts. However, the preacher welcomed signs that the Spirit of God was at work too, as soon became evident in the number of local people who were brought to Christ. Although, as a result of open-air work and cottage meetings, the Lord used His servant to the establishment of assemblies at Axminster, Axmouth, Colyton, Beer and Lyme Regis, he resisted the suggestion of forming an assembly at Seaton on the grounds that there were at that time no men qualified to exercise shepherd care. Remarkably enough, there was one formed in this town many years later, as a result of two young Christians coming back after the first world war, having learned while in the Army the true ground of gathering for the Lord's people.*
Naturally enough, the help and advice of Mr. Wills was often sought by Christians in the assemblies which he had helped to found and there is no doubt that his labours over the years produced a profound effect on the work in the district. One example of his activities is connected with a special gospel campaign which was being conducted at Thorncombe, a little assembly some six miles away. After a week's meetings at which there had been no blessing, the preacher was obliged to return home at short notice, and there was little time to get another preacher. A man rode to Musbury requesting Wills to fill the breach and he arrived just in time to start the meeting, and his first words as he announced the opening hymn were 'Don't sing unless it is true of you'.
This remark had a profound effect and people were visibly wrought upon as he proceeded to pray. Four were converted that night, and as a result of the whole campaign sixteen were baptized, of whom all but one stood firmly.
When the full story of this wonderful work of God is unfolded at the judgment scat of Christ, who can doubt that alongside the honoured name of Walter Wills will be the name of an obscure and poor widow (now remembered by very few) Mrs. Susan James, who when there was no Aquila played the part of Priscilla alone ?
* See " Precious Seed," Sept.-Oct., 1955, Vol. 7 No. 4 Page 118.