On any reckoning William Huntington was a remarkable man. Born into a poor family in the Weald of Kent in 1745, he knew little save trouble, poverty and, ultimately, spiritual distress, until he reached the age of twenty-nine. Speaking of those years, he refers to himself as 'an awful rebel' and 'an ignorant fool'. All this changed in 1773 when he was found, as he tells us by 'a precious Saviour'. 'I do now know what the Bible means by being born again,' he wrote to his parents.
There must be repentance, Luke 13:3; and a conversion, before we can say Jesus Christ is our friend, Matthew 18:3; Acts 3:19; and this repentance my blessed Saviour gave to me ... Oh, my dear father, mother and brethren, may you find him to be such a friend to you as he is to us!1
Overflowing with the joy of such a discovery, Huntington the next year began to preach despite all his apparent disadvantages: 'When God sent me out I was friendless and defenceless; poor to an extreme, and illiterate to the last degree; without a Bible or book of any kind; and I laboured hard for bread ... I was sent into dark corners where there was no light nor truth2 ... He gave me great understanding in his word, which I never had before, so that I was astonished at myself.' This ministry he carried with great vigour in independent chapels in different parts of Surrey while continuing, for the most part, to support himself and a young family. For fourteen months he was a 'smutty coalheaver', carrying coal for Thames barges. In 1782 he moved to London where he was soon followed by such crowds that a new building, Providence Chapel in Titchfield Street, was built for him. As well as preaching there for the next twenty-seven years, he became the author of about one hundred books and was regularly to be found preaching in other parts of the country. On one itinerary we find him writing to a friend from Newark upon Trent: 'You would stand astonished to see the troops from all quarters that come to hear ... I stand astonished to see how God has blessed my books ... I do believe that was the Lord to make me a Bishop at large, that I should preach and be followed throughout the nation.' 3
Many conversions were said to have marked his preaching and numbers testified of how, having been under legal bondage, and lacking assurance of salvation, they found deliverance through his ministry. His church was said to have 900 members.4 A number of ingredients entered into that popularity. He held up the Bible as the sole authority and quoted it so much from memory that men called him 'the walking Bible'. He spoke plainly and personally, contrasting 'real religion' and heart-experience with the mere words of the formal Christianity which he regarded as all too prevalent. He held up Christianity not as a system of duties but as a feast to be enjoyed, and that enjoyment he constantly related to the person of Christ:
Real religion consists in a pure and heavenly mind, a purged and peaceful conscience, and gospel affections going out after a dear Redeemer5... The doctrine that is according to godliness, is, Christ in his divine attributes; Christ in his office-character; Christ in the different branches of his finished salvation; and Christ in that near relationship that he stands in to us poor sinners, such as Father, Saviour, Redeemer, Brother, Bridegroom, and Husband. The power of godliness is, the Spirit of Christ in us; the gain of godliness is, to have God for the portion of our souls. All religion must lay in communion and fellowship with God and his dear Son.6
By now Huntington had ceased to resemble the labourer who had worked on barges beside the Thames. In 1798 his changed circumstances were such that he took a house with a fifty-two acre farm near Hendon, and its distance from his chapel led him to acquire his own carriage (the equivalent of a Rolls Royce or a Bentley today). So that no one could think that such equipage was merely rented, he had, he says, 'every panel of the coach, harness and blindfolds of the bridles' embossed with his initials and favourite insignia, 'S.S.' (Sinner Saved). 'People wondered,' writes Ebenezer Hooper, 'at the grandeur of one once so poor', but the owner saw it as a means to 'show the Philistines what God has done for the Coalheaver'.7 Wonder was to increase when, after the death of his first wife, Huntington married the widow of Sir James Sanderson (Member of Parliament and a Lord Mayor of London), who was twenty years his junior. By that date (1808) Huntington was said to have an income of 'about £2,000 per annum'8 quite apart from that of his wife.
In 1810 Providence Chapel was burned down. In under a year a new chapel was built at a cost of some £10,000, raised by his congregation, but Huntington's work was nearly done. He died on 1 July 1813 and was buried behind Jireh Chapel, Lewes, where his grave can still be seen. Fifty-four years after his death, William Stevens, who had sat under his ministry for 'about seven years', wrote: 'I bless God that I ever heard or knew him, and that I possess all his works. I have never found any like them, nor have I ever heard any minister like him since his death.' Others were to go beyond Stevens in their words of praise. Thomas Wright, his twentieth-century biographer, wrote, 'That Huntington was the greatest preacher of his day is indubitable', and he quotes Henry Cole who believed that the preacher at Providence Chapel bore 'the greatest testimony to the power of God's salvation' ever given in Britain. 9 But Wright, thought that Lady Sanderson 'idealized him' when 'she regarded him as a teacher greater than any who had moved on the earth since the days of Paul.' 10
By this point it may well be that some readers will be wondering why they never so much as heard of Huntington. Others who have heard the name may be curious why, supposing only half of what is said of him by his admirers is true, he is not much better known. The fact is that, with few exceptions, the writers who have formed our views of evangelical history have not been favourable to 'the immortal coalheaver'. Some have simply ignored him. Others give him merely passing comment. James Bennett in his classic History of the Dissenters refers to him as 'the arrogant pretender' and says he was unworthy of a memorial 'among the excellent of the earth'.11 The Rev John Venn was a contemporary of Huntington's in London and both men actually died on the same day. A letter from his father in 1796 told him not to be worried by the opposition of 'Huntingtonians' because 'their hatred is much to be preferred to their praise'.12 How are such widely different estimates of Huntington to be explained? We think that question and the answer to it is sufficiently important and instructive to merit attention.
In brief the answer usually given is that Huntington was regarded by the opinion-formers as an Antinomian whereas a minority who revered him treated the charge as wholly unjust. The latter ask how a man who preached as he did could be called an Antinomian: 'Be diligent in the means of grace,' he would say, 'be often at your Bible in times of leisure from business, be fervent in prayer however withstood: God loves a diligent Christian, God loves an importunate beggar...' Real grace, he would warn, always makes a man a better husband, a better employer or a better servant.
Extended controversy in this area is pointless as it turns on different definitions of the word 'Antinomian' (anti-nomos, literally, 'against law'). An Antinomian, in the usual sense of the term, is one who sets aside the ten commandments as a rule of life for Christians. (All true Christians accept the truth that obedience to the moral law is not the way to life). Defenders of Huntington have said that he did not set aside the law for Christians, he only held that it was insufficient. In reply critics have claimed that is an evasion: the issue is whether the ten commandments, as summed up in their true sense by Christ as love to God and love to our neighbour, are binding upon all men, believers and unbelievers. Huntington said explicitly: 'A rule of divine life the decalogue can never be ... Divine life came from another fountain and is kept up by another rule.' 13 Ebenezer Hooper, by no means unsympathetic to Huntington, says that 'in many controversial works' he 'defended what was at that time, a novel and peculiar doctrine, that "the Law is not a rule of life to a believer;" by which he unavoidably incurred the name of Antinomian.' The same writer, commenting on a remark that Gill and Huntington were 'two of the greatest authors that have lived since the days of the Apostles' observed: 'Gill certainly would not have supported Mr. H.'s favourite dogma, for he held "that denying or setting aside the Law of God as a rule of life and conversation was properly speaking DOCTRINAL ANTINOMIANISM".' 14
Given that Huntington held up Christ and that he did not encourage any form of loose living, does the conclusion that he erred on the above subject justify the way in which most evangelicals have treated his ministry? We believe it does not, and that were Stevens' words true that his 'views regarding the ten Commandments were the first and sole cause of the offence he gave', some mystery would remain. There were other grounds of offence and to these we must proceed.
Men with strong natural gifts but little or no actual training for the work of the ministry have sometimes been used to do much good in serving the gospel, Brownlow North and D. L. Moody are examples. More rarely do such men succeed when they enter upon the regular charge of a pastorate — John Bunyan was one of the eminent exceptions. But when men of little education, and lacking the support and counsel of older, experienced colleagues, take on the permanent teaching of one congregation, there is the strong probability of danger. The probability becomes a certainty where such an individual is more ready to trust his own independent judgment than he is to be guided by the best Christian literature. Here lay much of Huntington's trouble. His disdain for books — 'dead men's brains' — was proverbial. He had no time for men 'filled with head notions from commentators', men of 'borrowed knowledge'. 'I defy the world to produce any book that I have plundered, except the Bible ... nor have I one commentator in my possession; nor was I ever the owner of one, nor ever intend to be.' 15
The reader of Huntington will find good experimental material on some subjects in his pages, he will also find what amounts at times to a farrago of nonsense which claims the support of the text of Scripture but with a meaning which no one conceived before him. His knowledge of the letter of Scripture was greater than his understanding of it. Instead of plain, straight commenting, such as he might have learned from Matthew Henry, he all too often wanders into an allegorical sense. 16 One of his hearers who said that 'Christ was beautifully set forth and exalted' in his sermons, also concluded that 'his greatest fault' lay in spiritualising Scripture. 17 There has been a general criticism that his teaching lacked scriptural balance, and this has been conceded even by his admirers. Perhaps the area of doctrine where this is most apparent is his Calvinism. Such priority did he give to this that he believed that no one could have the faith of God's elect without believing in election. For the Reformers, followed by Whitefield (who quoted John Bradford on the subject), the 'grammar school of faith and repentance' is to be distinguished from 'the university of election and predestination'.18Because a Christian never gets past the grammar school it would be a great mistake, in their judgment, to say he cannot be a Christian at all. Huntington made that mistake and remained in it life-long. It is one thing to believe that 'eternal election' and 'absolute predestination' are starting points in the counsel of God but quite another to make them such for the believer and the preacher. Huntington carried his Calvinism to a degree which left little room for human responsibility. He dismissed 'free-agency' as strongly as he dismissed 'free-will'. He offered no criticism of this dialogue: "'Man can do nothing" ... "Then," said I, "what will become of us?" "Why," said he, "the elect will be saved, and none else." "Then," said I, "there is no use to try for salvation." "No," said he, "you can do nothing if you do."'19 Those who were by no means his enemies noted his proneness to omit 'practical exhortation, invitations and warnings'.20 It was no accident that after his death many of his followers found their home in hyper-Calvinistic chapels.
This is not, however, all that has to be said on the negative side. The sensation which Huntington caused, both in admirers and in critics, has to be related to the way in which in him the miraculous and the extraordinary became near common-place. His conversion account, for a start, is akin to that of the Apostle Paul, 'in the full blaze of the sun-beams'. Christ spoke to him by audible voice. 21 Like Paul, also, he was given at another time an 'open vision' of heaven.22 These claims might be more acceptable if they were not followed by so many other claims of direct divine intervention. It is by a voice in a dream that he is shown that he is not to be baptised; that he is told how a debt is to be paid; that he learns that he is to remove to London and so on. Of a particular attack on his ministry he told his congregation, 'God had shewn me this, nine months before it happened, in a dream.' 23 Even his understanding of Scripture was sometimes due to dreams. On the phrase 'hour of temptation' in the book of Revelation, he tells us, he 'was much exercised for five years, until the Lord told me upon my bed, "This is the hour of temptation".' 24
Allied with this kind of 'supernaturalism' was Huntington's frequent manner of deciding upon his sermons, or rather, as he would say, of how he was given them. In 1785 he wrote: 'I have often been without a word on my mind till within a few minutes of going into the pulpit; when, in answer to a few petitions, I have got matter enough to last me an hour and a half: and it was poured in as fast as I could pour it out'. Not infrequently we read in his published sermons such words as, 'the text never struck my mind till last night going to bed'. Thomas Wright believed that his getting of his message in a 'minute' in the vestry immediately before a service remained a frequent experience for him, and quotes him as saying, 'then the Blessed Spirit preaches'.25 Maybe this last-minute illumination is also the reason why he remained 'silent as a statue' while the hymns were being sung, 'to prevent any dissipation of mind from the solemn view of his subject.' 26
We do not doubt that preachers are sometimes given extraordinary help and we have no business to throw doubt on all such experiences. But when uninspired men want to turn the extraordinary into the normal there is good reason to believe that something is seriously wrong and Huntington himself supplies the evidence to confirm that fear. He was, he did not hesitate to tell his hearers, a prophet. Stevens defends the claim on the grounds that he meant no powers of prediction 'only that the expositions he had given of scripture prophecy would be found to be correct'.27 But as Hooper has documented, this defence cannot be sustained and he quotes three of 'many instances' of Huntington's predictions which were soon proved wrong by events. 28 As for his scheme of prophetic interpretation, the whole had collapsed by the time Hooper wrote in 1871 for Huntington was sure of a glorious millennium 'before 1870'.29
There is no good reason to doubt the meaning of the inscription which Huntington ordered for his tombstone:
Here Lies the Coalheaver; Beloved of God, but Abhorred of Men,
The Omniscient Judge, at the Grand Assize,
Shall Ratify and Confirm this, to the Confusion of Many Thousands;
For England and its Metropolis shall Know
'That There Hath Been a Prophet Among Them.
The reader is now in a position to understand why the evangelical churches of Huntington's day viewed him with such concern. In the name of biblical religion he wielded too often not the word of God but his own alleged authority. He consequently found himself opposed not simply by a scoffing world but by many of the best men in the land. The Baptists he early alienated, being in controversy first with Caleb Evans, president of their academy at Bristol, then with John Ryland, one of the leaders of the Baptist Missionary Society, who would not allow Huntington the use of his Northampton pulpit. 30 Rowland Hill, who preached in London in the Whitefield tradition, was so offended with Huntington's writings that he would only lift one of his books with fire tongs. The Countess of Huntingdon's circle and the Anglican evangelicals viewed him with a common dismay. What Methodists thought does not seem to be on record but we may well surmise it from what happened on John Wesley's death in March 1791. Huntington lost no time in commemorating that event with a sermon purporting to be based on Isaiah 32:5-8 and entitled, 'The Funeral of Arminianism'. While 'bastard Calvinists' might 'lean toward him' (i.e., Wesley), Huntington wanted his hearers to understand that neither Wesley nor any Arminian would get to heaven: 'He was never converted to God, never born of God, nor commissioned and authorised by God.' 31 Methodism was of the devil, and revivals among them were as the destructive 'wind' named in his text from which believers must be preserved.
But how was Huntington to explain to his followers why contemporary Christianity was so lacking in the esteem due to him? He had an answer and it runs through his ministry: the contemporary churches were supplied with 'ministers of the letter and their empty oratory;'32
Former labourers preached Christ ... making hypocrites is the work of this generation;33Though he be high yet hath he respect unto the lowly ... These things the universal profession of the present day knows nothing of?34Go where I will, I see nothing but death, except in our own line;35I do not believe that there is one spiritual minister in London, nor do I know but three in the nation!;36I cannot find a soul that has either light, truth, or hope, but what God has given it to them by my books;37I found it very hard to be made to stand alone.38
Quotations of this kind could be multiplied and Huntington published letters sent to him which said the same thing. 'I heard almost every gospel preacher (as they are called) that I could find,' said one correspondent, 'but I never found any that profitted me but yourself.' 39 Such claims make sad reading. Certainly, in all generations Christ warns us that there is likely to be more religious profession than true spiritual experience. That England in 1800 had its share of orthodox formalism no one doubts, but to dismiss all the pulpits of a city which had such spiritual men as John Newton and Richard Cecil, Rowland Hill and Matthew Wilks (to name but a few of Huntington's contemporaries) surely justifies Caleb Evans' charge of 'fiery, ungovernable, ill-natured zeal and bigotry.' 40 Huntington credited Hill in 1800 with the absurdity of having preached against him for 'the last twenty-six years' and told him, on another occasion: 'The Gospel gives you no licence for such hard speeches as you utter against a servant of Christ, who you know far exceeds you in experience, power, knowledge, usefulness, and conversation.' 'Huntington,' 41 wrote Southey, 'was a sort of Evangelical Ishmaelite, and in that character considered himself at war, not only with the Church (of England), but with all sects and denominations.' Huntington knew the charge, and even gloried in it, while insisting upon its falsity, 'I have opposed none but imposters, hypocrites, heretics, devils, and sin.' 42
The fact is that Huntington had fallen into such isolation and narrow sectarianism that he was unaware of many evidences of the work of Christ which were occurring in his very life time. He failed to see the implications of his own admission, 'I know but little of the general profession of the present day.' 43The dawn of international missionary effort (with London at the centre), the Bible Societies, the Second Great Awakening in America, William Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect and their campaign for righteousness — all might have been things taking place in another world as far as he was concerned. He knew very little of such things and what did reach his ears he regarded with suspicion. 'I have heard much of the wonderful success of the gospel in America: but I have little faith in these good tidings'.44
Huntington's onslaught on almost all churches except his own had an inevitable consequence for many of his hearers. Trained to trust no one else, and admiring the preacher who spoke so much of his having special signs of God's favour, there developed among them a slavish acceptance of his words, amounting at times to a form of idolatry. And one other factor in his ministry promoted that danger. As is common among all leaders of sects, Huntington constantly identified his opposers as the enemies of God himself, and he threatened judgments not only upon them but upon any of his hearers who did not accept his words. Those who departed from him were 'visibly smitten of God'. 'If you are obedient to the word of the Lord, you shall acknowledge me to the end ... If you are sent to hell, I shall pursue you, and my testimony will stand against you.' 45 If Huntington judged that someone had preached against him he would readily tell his people and assure them of what the preacher could expect. So, referring to one who 'last Sunday sounded an alarm at church against Antinomianism', he says, 'but this falls upon the Holy Ghost, and he will revenge all such aspersions.' 46Of his final testimony, when he was dying, we read: 'He told us that heavy trials would soon come upon the church: when it would be made manifest that none could be saved but those who held fast what he had advanced.' 47 It is true that Huntington warned people against a blind reliance on himself but that was the inevitable tendency of much else that he said. His hearers were rendered deaf to all possible criticism of his ministry or actions. 48 His words were invincible: 'No weapon formed against the Coalheaver shall prosper.'49 Indeed his very person was irreplaceable: 'You will not have the Coalheaver long, and when I am gone you will not have another; I will take my light with me.'50
Two of Huntington's one-time associates, who revised their estimates of his ministry and printed some criticism, both drew attention to the question of his 'dictatorial dogmatism'.
Believe him, none but him, wrote Garnet Terry, and that is enough. If he aims thus to pin the faith of those who hear him, he will say over and over, As sure as I am born 'tis, etc ; or, I believe this, or I know that; I am sure of it, or I believe the plain English of it (some difficult text) to be, etc. When he adds, as he is wont, by way of fixing the point, Now you can't help it, or so it is, or it must be in spite of you, he does this with a most significant shake of the head, with a sort of beldam hauteur, with all the dignity of defiance. It is then he will sometimes observe, softening his deportment, I don't know whether I make you understand these things, but I understand them well.51
It is not for us to judge Huntington as to his motives and we have deliberately in this article set aside discussion of his private life and character. We hope that Andrew Fuller was wrong when he says that in all that he had seen of Huntington's publications, 'The object of the writer appears to have been to exhibit himself.' 52In our view what is amiss in Huntington is probably better explained in terms of a deep personal insecurity rather than an absence of love to Christ.53 But one other opinion relative to this matter needs to be brought in before we close. During the first half of Huntington's London ministry he was a contemporary of the evangelical leader William Romaine who died in 1795. Romaine was the only one of the well-known evangelicals whom Huntington commended.54Apparently he showed friendship to Huntington (as he also did to John Wesley) and words attributed to him have often been quoted by admirers of Huntington, 'God raises up such men as John Bunyan and William Huntington but once in a century.' This statement has been used as though it gave Huntington a near unique commendation but if we knew the context in which it was spoken we might well find that it was meant as a caution against other uneducated men taking on the role of preachers. No doubt Romaine did seek to encourage Huntington but he was not blind to the point to which Fuller drew attention. When asked his opinion of Huntington's book, The Bank of Faith (1785), he is said to have replied that there was too much of self in it, and, shaking his head, he went on, 'Self must be abased! Self must be abased!' Romaine was dead before the second part of The Bank of Faith was published but Ebenezer Hooper believed he would have found greater reason to complain of egotism in its pages. 55
Before I close let me comment on a final question. 'Why', it may be asked, 'take up the memory of this man who died so long ago?' In reply let me say that I have had, in a sense, close connections with Huntington over many years. He and I shared a vestry together at Grove Chapel for nine years, or, more exactly, I should say his life-size portrait in oils greeted me every time I entered that room. At the time I preached in pulpits well-known to him, acquired some of his books and saw a few lingering shadows of his influence. With the passing of the years I have often thought of him, but my conviction has grown that, whatever we can be thankful for in his ministry, it exhibited too many of those features which endanger the cause of the gospel. Pope-self remains alive. The credulity which can easily make the unwary the devotees of a gifted preacher — whether a high-Calvinist or anything else — is still with us. We grudge no one the help that they may find in some of Huntington's writings but he must be read, as all men must be read, with the deep conviction that we are to call no man 'Rabbi'. And what must concern us most is not the alleged failure of other Christians in humility but our own failures for as Henry Venn says:
The very best have abundant cause to think themselves vile: for it is notorious (whatever some may boast) that believers in Christ, one and all, are polluted, imperfect, inconstant — impatient of each other's infirmities, and scarcely able to be at peace among themselves; though they all experience, as they confess from day to day, the tender compassion of their Heavenly Father, under all their failures. 56