There is a fantastic book by J C Ryle called Christian Leaders which I’d put in my top five must reads. The meat of the book is a series of eleven biographical sketches of the key preachers of the eighteenth century revival in the UK – the days of George Whitefield and John Wesley.
One of the lesser known figures who Ryle sketches is James Hervey. The whole chapter is very well worth reading all through but what really struck me is how he was used by God despite his much lower physical capacity compared to some of his contemporaries.
Hervey was born around the same time as Whitefield and Wesley. Like Wesley (and many of the other revivalists) he was a clergyman before he was a Christian (still quite possible today). It was largely through the friendship, letters and sermons of Whitefield that Hervey was finally converted from self-righteous moralism to a joyful acceptance of the death and righteousness of Christ. He joined the small ranks of those who preached a humble, bold, plain, strong, glorious gospel that had been all but lost in England.
But while Whitfield and Wesley travelled tens if not hundreds of thousands of miles in their itinerant ministries, Hervey didn’t move far from his birthplace his whole life. While Whitefield and Wesley preached an absolutely astonishing number of sermons – sustaining a rate of around 1000 times a year for decades – it was all Hervey could do to preach once a week to his church.
Whitefield and Wesley were clearly given by God immense physical capacities. Ryle, speaking of Whitefield says:
“One cannot but stand amazed that his mortal frame could, for the space of near thirty years, without interruption, sustain the weight of…long-continued, frequent, and violent straining of the lungs… Who… would think it possible that a person… could speak in a single week, and that for years, in general forty hours, and in very many weeks sixty and that to thousands; and after this labour, instead of taking any rest, could be offering up prayers and intercessions, with hymns and spiritual songs, as his manner was, in every house to which he was invited.”
In contrast Hervey:
“Willing as he doubtless was to go forth into public and do the work of an evangelist, like his beloved friend Whitefield, his delicate health made it quite impossible. From his youth up he had shown a decided tendency to pulmonary consumption [T.B.]. He had neither voice nor physical strength to preach in the open air, address large congregations, and arrest the attention of multitudes, like many of his contemporaries. He saw this clearly, and wisely submitted to God’s appointment. Those whom he could not reach with his voice, he resolved to approach by his pen. From his isolated study in his Northamptonshire parish he sent forth arrows which were sharp in the hearts of the King’s enemies.”
Doing what he could
Notice – he wisely submitted to God’s appointment. He accepted his physical capacity. But that didn’t mean he resigned himself to uselessness or used his lack of capacity as an excuse for laziness. He looked at what he was able to do – write for the kingdom – and he set himself to write books (to reach the public) and letters (to reach individuals) packed with the doctrines of grace.
“Delicate and weak as he always was, his pen was very seldom idle, and he was always doing what he could. The work to which he devoted himself required a large measure of faith and patience. He laboured on uncheered by admiring crowds, and unaided by the animal excitement [adrenalin] which often carries forward the wearied preacher. But while health and strength lasted he never ceased to labour, and seldom laboured in vain. Hundreds were reached by Hervey’s writings, who would never have condescended to listen to Whitefield’s voice.”
And like all good writers he was a great reader – especially eating up the works of the Puritans (the seventeenth century evangelicals).
“The ways of God’s providence are mysterious and truly instructive. If Hervey had not been kept at home by ill health, he would probably never have had time for much reading. If he had not had time to be a reader, he would never have written what he did.”
When Hervey did preach he made it count:
“The published sermons of James Hervey are very few in number. It is much to be regretted that we have no more of them. The few published are so extremely good, both as to matter and composition, that one feels sorry he did not give the world a hundred more of the same sort. Of course, he could never be a popular preacher. His weak health, feeble voice, and delicate constitution, made this impossible. He often lamented his inability to serve his people better in the pulpit, comparing himself to a soldier wounded, bleeding, and disabled, and only not slain. He would frequently say, “My preaching is not like sending an arrow from a bow, for which some strength of arm is necessary, but like pulling the trigger of a gun ready charged, which the feeblest finger can do.” This remark was most true. But [despite the lack of striking delivery his sermons] were always full of excellent stuff, excellently put together.”
What Hervey’s physical weakness could not prevent was his holiness, generosity, kindness and gentleness. In fact, as with the Apostle Paul (2 Cor. 4:7-11; 12:7-10) his weakness accented the grace and power of God and, mixed with the gospel, produced a beautiful humility.
“He never considered himself as James Hervey, the celebrated writer, but as a poor guilty sinner, equally indebted to divine grace with the lowest day-labourer in his parish. To two malefactors condemned to be hanged, he said: “You have just the same foundation for hope as I must have when I shall depart this life. When I shall be summoned to the great tribunal, what will be my plea, and what my dependence? Nothing but Christ. I am a poor unworthy sinner; but worthy is the Lamb that was slain. This is my only hope, and this is as free for you as it is for your friend and fellow sinner James Hervey.” On publishing his famous Fast-day Sermons, he observes: “May the Lord Jesus himself, who was crucified in weakness, vouchsafe to work by weakness, or, in other words, by James Hervey!” When near his death he wrote to a friend: “I am fearful lest I should disgrace the gospel in my languishing moments. Pray for me, the weakest of ministers and the weakest of Christians.”
In fact he did not in any way disgrace the gospel in his death. It’s a feature of Ryle’s Christian Leaders (and of many of the old Christian biographies) that he devotes several pages to the final hours of each man’s life. The point comes through clearly that these guys died well. For Hervey in particular his physical weakness had been a preparation for this passing to glory:
“His life had long been a continual struggle with disease; and when his last illness came upon him, it found him thoroughly prepared. Invalids have one great advantage over strong people, at any rate a sudden accession of pains and ailments does not startle them, and they are seldom taken by surprise. The holy rector of Weston Favell [Hervey’s parish] had looked death in the face so long that he was no stranger to him; and when he went down into the cold waters of the great river, he walked calmly, quietly, and undisturbed. Those glorious evangelical doctrines which he had proclaimed and defended as truths while he lived, he found to be strong consolations when he died.”
Where he died at the age of 45 these were some of his last words (from Psalm 73:26):
“Though my heart and my flesh fail, God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.”
Lord God give us grace to follow Hervey in his love for Christ and for others, his heavenly mindedness and earthly usefulness, his deep appreciation of the doctrines of grace and of his own weakness, his acceptance of his physical limitations but also his selfless labours with all the strength that you did give him.