1746 — 1829.
WHAT Rowland Hill was on one side of the Thames Matthew Wilks was upon the other. He came to London in 1775, and John Berridge took part in his ordination over the Tabernacle churches which had been gathered by Whitefield. He was a person of commanding appearance, of great shrewdness, and special singularity, and, like other worthy men, he has been much belied because a vein of humor was manifest in him. This matters little, since the good man led multitudes to Jesus, and was a faithful pastor to the flock which he gathered. He was one of the fathers of the London Missionary Society, the Evangelical Magazine, the Irish Evangelical Society, the Bible Society, and the Religious Tract Society in fact, from his great practical wisdom, he was called upon to be a leader in all kinds of Christian work.
Many an odd thing has fallen from his lips; as for instance when he wished to explain the text, “See that ye walk circumspectly,” he pictured a cat walking upon the top of a high wall covered with bits of glass bottles. We have heard this illustration quoted with ridicule, but we fail to see any objection to it. Let anyone watch a cat in such circumstances, and then find a better instance of circumspect walking if he can. We do not believe the tradition that he rebuked the head-dresses of the day by preaching upon “top (k)not come down,” which is a cutting from the text, “Let him that is upon the house top not come down”: but we have met a gentleman who said that he saw him hold up a small pair of scales when preaching from “Thou art weighed in the balances.” We do not wish to doubt our informant, but we think it probable that no actual scales were present, but that Wilks so imitated the holding up of balances and the act of weighing that in after years the memory became a little aided by the imagination, and actual scales and weights were supplied in the narrator’s mind.
Mr. Wisks’ anniversary sermon for the London Missionary Society was a very striking one. Certainly the text was remarkable enough. “The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead their dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto other gods, that they may provoke me to anger :” Jeremiah 7:18. “When the text was announced, in the midst of a crowded assembly, every eye seemed to express astonishment at the preacher’s choice. He had not proceeded far, however, in his undertaking, when the feeling of astonishment gave place to pure delight, when all seemed convinced that though the text was uncommon, it was by no means inappropriate. Having glanced at the idolatrous worship of the queen of heaven, the ardor of the worshippers, and the persons employed in it; he then said, ’I will contrast your objects, compare your ardor, and muster your agents.’ The appeal was admirably directed, and energetically sustained, and from the hearing and perusal of that part of it which referred to the agents, viz., the men, women, and children, arose the system of auxiliary institutions which now pervades the whole country, and combines in its support young and old, rich and poor; such an extraordinary effect has seldom, perhaps, sprung from the preaching of a single discourse. Irrespective, however, of its impression as delivered from the pulpit, it possesses considerable merit, as an argument and as a composition.”
Beyond a wretched little memoir and a few mere outlines of sermons, nothing remains of all the great and good things which were spoken by Mr.
Wilks, and the stories told of him relate to him rather as a man than as a preacher. My venerable friend Mr. George Rogers has given me the following note : — “Matthew Wilks was very comic in his appearance, in his voice, and in his language. Like Mr. Hill, he was sound in is gospel views, was very useful, and deservedly popular. He has called upon me, and frequently engaged me to preach for him at ‘both Tabs.,’ as he called them. He had a stern aspect, but a tender heart. Two incidents I may mention, which I received from a mutual friend of myself and Mr. Wilks, and which I believe to be authentic.
When John Williams was recommended to the London Missionary Society, and nearly all the directors were opposed to him, he found a determined supporter in Mr. Wilks, who even went so far in pressing the point as to be charged with being overbearing. When the debate was over, Mr. Wilks went into the room where Mr. Williams was waiting for the decision of the committee and said, ‘Well, young man, you have been accepted, but if it, had not been for my overbearing disposition you never would have got in.’
This was Williams the martyr at Erromanga. “A minister from the West of England having called upon Mr. Wilks, and informed him that he was in great distress of mind on account of debt; Mr.
Wilks said, ‘You are a great fool; you ought not to get in debt.’ ‘ Oh,’ he replied, ‘it gradually accumulated, and I could not help it. My wife was ill, and some of my children died, and my income is very small.’ ‘ How much do you owe?’ ‘ About £70? ‘Then you are a great fool. I want you to preach at Greenwich next Sunday.’ ‘Oh, I am too much dejected.’ ‘ But I say you must go, and I will send a note to the gentleman with whom you must dine.’ Returning to Mr. Wilks on Monday morning, he told him the gentleman with whom he dined gave him £10. ‘Well,’ said Mr. Wilks, ‘but you are a fool for getting into debt for all that.’ He then produced another £10, and said he had obtained that from another gentleman for him.
Observing him to be much affected by this, Mr. Wilks added,’ Still you are a great fool.’ He then produced another £10, called him a fool more vehemently than before, and thus continued to put £10 before him again and again and to scold him until the whole £70 was produced; and then he said, ‘Now go home, and don’t be such a fool as to get into debt again.’
This showed a great knowledge of human nature, for he thus kept the good man from being overwhelmed by the great and unexpected relief.”
But Mr. Wilks could be fearfully severe, and when he had doubts about the ability or character of a candidate for the ministry he showed no mercy. On one occasion he had badgered and brow-beaten a young man to such a degree that he was scarcely able to answer a single question. “Man, ” said Mr. Wilks, “you ’ll never be fit for the ministry: you seem to know nothing at all: can you tell the difference between me and Moses?” “Hoot, toot, Mr.
Wilks,” interposed good Dr. Waugh, anxious to release the young victim, “you should na’ put such a question as that to the lad; but if you like I’ll tell you the difference between Moses and you: Moses was the meekest of men .”
More genial was his mode of finding a wife for a brother minister. He sent him to the lady’s house with this laconic note : — “My dear madam, — Allow me to introduce to you my worthy friend, the Revelation Mr. A____ “If you ’re a cat You ‘U smell a rat! “Yours truly, “MATT. WILKS. ” The lady found it needful to request the gentleman to explain the letter; this led them into pleasant conversation, and into mutual admiration, which ended in marriage. The mystery of the cat and the rat was thus solved.
We may not imitate his drollery, but it would be a happy circumstance if all ministers as diligently read the Bible as he did, for he read it through carefully four times in the year. He was careful that his co-pastors and assistants were well remunerated, but he would only receive £200 a year himself, and of that he gave £100 away. He loved the poor, and his poor people loved him. His power over his members was very great, for it was founded in love. The common people heard him gladly, and among them he enjoyed a long and fruitful ministry. The works which he commenced have been perpetuated, especially the societies which he helped to inaugurate.
The Lord has thus enabled his work to endure the fiery ordeal of time, which is a severe test, causing many pretentious ministries to pass away as smoke. Call him eccentric if you please, but our prayer shall be to the Lord that we may share in the blessing which rests on the labors of Matthew Wilks. “Establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.”