Commander of Heavy Artillery – William Romaine’s 300th

Courtesy: New Focus

William Romaine, courtesy: New Focus

William Romaine was born 300 years ago, 25 September, 1714 , in Durham, UK.

J.C. Ryle featured Romaine as one of his lesser known pastors in his Christian Leaders of the 18th Century, an excellent and approachable series of short biographical studies.

Romaine’s father was a Huguenot who’d taken refuge in England from persecution in Catholic France. After school, Romaine took an MA at Oxford, immersed in literature, and left a fine scholar and a well-read man.

From the time of Romaine’s ordination in the Church of England, he preached clear and unmistakeable evangelical doctrine. Unlike many clergy in his day, he had nothing to unlearn!

He was curate of Banstead, near Epsom, Chaplain to an Alderman of London, visiting preacher in St Paul’s Cathedral and other London pulpits. After this period, his bags were backed to leave London and return northwards, when an invitation to apply for the lectureship of St Botolph’s, Billingsgate – don’t you love the names – meant he was not lost to city ministry.

Soon after he also obtained the evening lectureship of St Dunstan’s, Fleet Street. But the Rector opposed him and the Churchwardens refused the many people who wanted to hear him easy access. Eventually the Bishop of London intervened, and for 46 years, Romaine retained this role and edified those who came to hear him.

To make ends meet, Romaine occupied various roles over the years, even as a Professor of Astronomy for a short time!

His well-known scholarship commanded respect as Assistant morning preacher at St George’s Hanover Square, one of the most prominent pulpits of London, in the West End. Yet his bold declaration of the gospel of Christ and denunciation of fashionable sins were uncompromising. Five years later the Rector kicked him out because the regular upper class pew-holders didn’t like the crowds attracted by his preaching.

He was into his fifties without a full-time position! Finally, he became chaplain to Lady Huntingdon, and, through her influence, was appointed Rector of St Anne’s Blackfriars, his first full time incumbency, which he occupied for 29 more years.

He was not an especially genial man, and could be irritable. He sometimes had to apologise for his abruptness. He was known to say to those who sought his counsel privately that he’d said all he had to say in the pulpit!

But as rector of a key London parish, Romaine became a rallying point for all in London who loved evangelical truth in the Church of England. With his undeniable learning he took up the cudgels against error and in defence of biblical truth.

At 81, Romaine was still preaching three days each week. During his final illness, he thanked a friend for a visit, saying that, “he had come to see a saved sinner”. He wanted the words of the publican (i.e. tax collector) to be found on his lips when he died: “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” Not long before his death in 1795, he commented to a friend from another denomination, “There is but one central point, in which we must all meet­ – Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

My limited experience with biographies from this earlier era shows they are often intensely interested in a person’s last words, finding them indicative of the convictions that drive a person. Ryle reports that the last words Romaine said to the host of the home where he was being nursed, was that, “He [Jesus] is a precious Saviour to me now.” And to the Lord, he was heard to say, “Holy! holy! holy blessed Jesus! to thee be endless praise,” not long before he breathed his last.

In his sketch of the leaders of 18th century evangelical awakening, Ryle likens the famous names of Wesley and Whitefield to spiritual cavalry crossing the countryside preaching.

But he said Romaine was a commander of heavy artillery, who held a citadel in the heart of the metropolis, London. Unlike the itinerants, Romaine could not preach old sermons. But, watched by unfriendly eyes, he taught, unflinchingly in the city, as he testified to the gospel of grace.

Ryle commented,

“Well it would be for the Churches, if in this respect there were more evangelical ministers who walked in the steps of Romaine. Grace and soundness in the faith, diligence and personal piety, are undoubtedly the principal thing. But book-learning ought not to be despised. An ignorant and ill-read ministry, in days of intellectual activity, must sooner or later fall into contempt.”

His friends and relatives intended to give him a private funeral, presumably in line with his wishes. But this proved impossible, since, Ryle, writes, “the many hearers of a minister who had preached the gospel in London for forty-five years could not be prevented showing their respect by following him to the grave. Scores looked up to him as their spiritual father. Hundreds venerated his character and consistency, even though they did not fully embrace the gospel he had preached.”

As a consequence his funeral became a very public one, with fifty coaches following the hearse from Clapham Common and a multitude on foot, with city marshals with their men dressed in ceremonial garb, ordered out by the Lord Mayor of London, riding the last leg from Blackfriars’ Bridge, before the hearse, escorting his body to the church.

He had died like a good soldier at his post.

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