Martyn Lloyd-Jones often said that he went to the eighteenth century for a spiritual tonic, for it was an age of remarkable revivals in the English-speaking world. Now, usually when we think of these revivals, we tend to have in mind the enormous crowds eager to hear Whitefield. But there were other smaller awakenings, equally glorious. One such took place in a village called Bluntisham about fifteen miles north of Cambridge, where a man named Coxe Feary (1759–1822) sustained a long pastorate born in the fire of this revival.
Feary had been raised in the Church of England, but during his teens became dissatisfied with the irreligious conduct of those who attended worship in the local parish church. He initially thought of attending a Baptist work at a nearby village—it may well have been that at Needingworth, which had been founded in 1767. But, in his own words, he found the church consisted of “narrow-minded” hyper-Calvinists, who pronounced “destruction on all who did not believe their creed.” For a while he attended a Quaker congregation in Earith, another nearby village, because their views were in accord with his belief in the freedom of the human will and the saving merit of good works.
In 1780 he read James Hervey’s Theron and Aspasio (1755), which was a massive defence of biblical Calvinism. The book was a frontal attack on Feary’s religious notions and he found himself deeply disturbed by the book’s arguments. Offended by the work, he put it down without finishing it. Two years later, though, he felt impressed to pick the book up again and give it a fair hearing. The result was glorious, nothing less than his conversion.
The awakening of Bluntisham, 1784–1785
By 1784 he was sitting under the evangelical preaching of the evangelical Anglican minister Henry Venn at Yelling, about ten miles away. That same year he came across the works of George Whitefield, the greatest evangelist of the eighteenth century, in a bookshop in St. Ives, where he had gone on market day. What is amazing is that he had never heard of Whitefield or of his remarkable ministry. So taken was he with the sermons of the great evangelist that the very evening he had purchased them he read one of them aloud to a small gathering of shepherds and farm laborers in his house.
An impression must have been made on some of those working folk that night by his reading of this sermon—Whitefield’s “What think ye of Christ?”—for the following evening a man of means in the village, a certain John Kent, turned up with a number of others to hear Feary read another sermon. Flustered in the presence of so many, and afraid he might be considered “a Methodist preacher,” Feary refused to read. But the impromptu congregation would not take no for an answer. So, Feary consented. A poor woman was so deeply taken by Whitefield’s words that she urged Feary to read yet a third time at her house the following evening. Feary agreed but only on condition that she would tell no one about it. But the thing could not be hid and God the Father was at work, drawing men and women to Christ (see John 6:44). When he went to the house the following evening it was filled.
In fact, Feary continued reading sermons in that woman’s home all through the winter of 1784 and 1785. In the spring of 1785 they had to move to a larger home to accommodate all of the people who were coming. Revival gripped the village, as numbers in the village were moved to ask that familiar question asked repeatedly in the revival era of the New Testament, “What must I do to be saved?” (see, e.g., Acts 16:30).
A church is born
It was in this work of revival that the foundation of the Calvinistic Baptist work in Bluntisham was laid. Eventually Feary ran out of sermons to read, having gone through all of Whitefield’s as well as those of Hervey. So it was that he ventured to expound a section of Scripture himself. A barn had been fitted up for the congregation by John Kent, and on December 28, 1786, Coxe Feary and twenty-five other believers joined together to form a church. They came from a number of the surrounding villages, including Colne, Somersham, and Woodhurst. Feary was chosen as their first pastor and faithfully led the flock God had gathered, eventually some eight hundred souls, till his death in 1822.
After his death, Newton Bosworth a well-known Baptist of the era who eventually ended up emigrating to Canada, said of him:
Mr Feary was in many respects, an extraordinary man. …Without education, except in the slightest elements of it,…[by God’s grace] he produced a most remarkable and permanent change in a great part of the population around him; commencing his labours without a single follower, continuing them, with an ardent, yet well-tempered zeal, amidst alternate hopes and fears, successes and discouragements, and ending by the formation of a flourishing church and congregation.
Bosworth further observed that, if, as the Scriptures assure us, “he that winneth souls is wise” (Proverbs 11:30), then the claim that Coxe Feary was truly a wise man cannot be disputed.