I missed an anniversary last year—the three hundredth anniversary of the death of William Mitchel (1662-1705). For many of my readers the name will be completely unfamiliar. But he is a great hero of my Baptist past. Mitchel was a tireless evangelist in the English Pennines from the Rossendale Valley in Lancashire to Rawdon in neighbouring West Yorkshire. He was born in 1662 at Heptonstall, not far from Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire. Nothing is really known about his upbringing. His conversion came at the age of nineteen after the death of a brother. Although he was genuinely converted, Mitchel played what he later regarded as the part of a Jonah as he sought to go into business as a clothier and become wealthy.
But God frustrated his worldly ambitions and drew him out as a preacher of the gospel. Within four years of his conversion, he began to preach as an itinerant evangelist. His cousin, David Crosley (1669-1744), a stonemason turned preacher, tells us that Mitchel’s aim in his preaching was to “chiefly set forth the exceeding rich and free grace of the gospel, which toward him had been made so exceeding abundant.” At the same time, we are told that his Christian life was one of unwearied diligence in “reading, meditation, and prayer.”
Mitchel would travel with Crosley and others over the Pennines, often during the night so as to reach preaching venues in towns and villages by early morning. Crosley remembered the toil it took to walk “many miles in dark nights and over dismal mountains.” But he also never forgot Mitchel’s “savoury and edifying” preaching that took place anywhere Mitchel could get an audience, “on mountains, and in fields and woods.” Though Mitchel was not a polished speaker, crowds would press to hear him. Many merely came out of curiosity, some came to scoff. But, later when their hearts and consciences had been impacted by Mitchel’s gospel preaching, they confessed, “the Lord is with him of a truth.”
According to the Second Conventicle Act (1670), part of the Clarendon Code designed to break the spirit of the Dissenters, what Mitchel was doing was illegal. This act forbade any one over the age of sixteen from taking part in a religious assembly of more than five people, apart from those sanctioned by the Church of England. The act gave wide powers to local magistrates and judges to “suppresse [sic] and disolve” such “unlawfull [sic] meetings” and arrest whomsoever they saw fit to achieve this end.
Mitchel was twice arrested under this law during the reign of James II (r.1685-1688), who succeeded Charles II in 1685. On the first occasion he was treated with deliberate roughness and spent three months in jail at Goodshaw. On the second occasion he was arrested near Bradford and imprisoned for six months in York Castle.
The enemies of the gospel who imprisoned Mitchel might have thought they were shutting him up in a dismal dungeon. To Mitchel, though, as he told his friends in a letter written from York in the spring of 1687, the dungeon was a veritable “paradise, because the glorious presence of God is with me, & the Spirit of glory & of God rests on me.” He is, of course, quoting from 1 Peter 4:14. He had been given such a “glorious sight of [God’s] countenance, [and] bright splendour of his love,” that he was quite willing to “suffer afflictions with the people of God, & for his glorious Truth.”
In another letter, written to a Daniel Moore during this same imprisonment, Mitchel told him he had heard that James II had issued a Declaration of Indulgence, which pardoned all who had been imprisoned under the penal laws of the Clarendon Code. But he had yet to see it. Whatever the outcome, he told Moore, “the Lord’s will be done, let him order things as may stand with his glory.”
This sentence speaks volumes about the frame of mind in which Mitchel had approached his time of imprisonment. He was God’s servant. God would do with him as he sovereignly thought best. And Mitchel was quite content with that, for, in his heart, he longed for his life to reflect above all God’s glory.
For access to these letters of Mitchel, I am indebted to the Local Studies Unit Archives, Manchester Central Library. The letters are kept in the Papers of Dr. William Farrer. Thanks are also due to David J. Woodruff of the Strict Baptist Historical Society who kindly provided me with a copy of the letters.