BILLY BRAY (1794-1868)
Evangelist and Preacher
This account of the life of Billy Bray is taken from ‘Billy Bray, the King’s Son’ by F. W. Bourne. It was first published in 1871, just three years after Billy’s death, and is itself taken from Billy Bray’s journal. I have mostly quoted directly from the book because there is no better way of telling about someone than to have direct quotes from the subject and from those that knew him.
Billy was born at Twelveheads, near Truro, Cornwall on June 1st 1794. At that time, Twelveheads was only a collection of a few thatched cottages inhabited by tin miners. Billy’s father died when he was young, so he went to live with his grandfather who became a Methodist in one of John Wesley’s early visits to Cornwall. At the age of seventeen Billy left home to go to Devon. Away from the Godly influence of his family, he fell into evil ways. He says, “I became the companion of drunkards, and during that time I was very near hell.” He got into many drunken scrapes and got fired from the tin mine where he was working for being insolent to the captain of the mine.
At this time tin and copper mining and fishing were the main industries of Cornwall and parts of Devon. Tin miners often did not earn very much and it could be a dangerous occupation, but it was work. Billy was a man of great wit and repartee and this would have been magnified in his bouts of drunkenness, He went to live in a beer shop and relates, “there, with other drunkards, I drank all night long. But I had a sore head and sick stomach, and worse than all, horrors of mind that no tongue can tell. I used to dread to go to sleep for fear of waking up in hell; and though I made promises to the Lord to do better, I was soon as bad or worse than ever. After being absent from my native county seven years, I returned a drunkard.”
By this time he was married with children and his wife had to put up with most of their money being dissipated on drink. On one occasion he went out to get coal, but on the way home he stopped at a beer shop and got so drunk his wife had to come to wheel the coal home. His conscience tormented him during the day and dreams terrified him at night. God was certainly on his case! He then picked up a copy of John Bunyan’s “Visions of Heaven and Hell” that gave him a strong desire to be a better man. His wife was a back slider as well and he wanted her to become converted so that she could show him how to do it.
Billy woke one morning at 3.00am thinking that if he waited for his wife to be converted he might never get saved, so he got out of bed and knelt in prayer for the first time in years. He was determined to be saved and found that the more he prayed the more he wanted to pray. The next day was payday and he joined his friends at the alehouse where they would habitually eat, drink and get drunk. Billy described himself as being ‘the worst of the lot, I was the wildest, most daring and reckless of all the reckless, daring men.”
On one occasion his blasphemy was so bad that his wicked friends said that his oaths must come from hell, for they smelt of sulphur. But things were different now, he actually went home sober, to his wife’s surprise. He told her that he would never get drunk again and he never did. The next day Billy read the Bible and Wesley’s Hymn Book and prayed all day. He cried to the Lord for mercy.
On Sunday morning he went to the church of the Bible Christians, but nobody came to the service because it was raining so hard. This might have put off a lesser man, but he persevered. (William O’Bryan was not happy with the institutionalisation of the Methodists and in 1815 he broke away and formed what later became known as the Bible Christians. He was not the only one; several groups broke away from the Methodists after John Wesley’s death.)
All day Sunday and Monday morning Billy read and prayed; even in the mine: “all the while I was working I was crying to the Lord for mercy” and he went home “asking for mercy all the while.” The next day passed in the same manner; he hardly ate anything and he was up all night praying. The following day he constantly cried out for mercy; sometimes he felt that he would never receive it, but he would call the devil a liar and would continue in prayer.
Finally that night he had breakthrough. He said to the Lord “You have said, ‘they that ask shall receive, they that seek shall find, and to them that knock the door shall be opened,” and I have faith to believe it. In an instant the Lord made me so happy that I cannot express what I felt. I shouted for joy. I praised God with my whole heart for what He had done for a poor sinner like me, for I could say, the Lord has pardoned all my sins.” This was in November 1823.
Billy was a Bible Christian for over forty years. His first convert was his wife who came to the Lord a week after he did. He would go around telling everyone how happy he was and whatever the Lord had done for him He could do for anyone that would seek His face. Many came to a saving knowledge of Jesus through Billy Bray. Once he was telling some of his friends that they were in danger of going to hell, but they called him a fool. However, an old friend of his told them to leave him alone because he knew Billy when he was a drunkard and now he was a good man. Billy started to pray for his friend, and one day when he was praying in a field, the Lord told him that his friend would soon be saved and he was.
A Mr Ashworth gives us a picture of what Billy was like. “He was one of those happy, unselfish men who love everybody and with simple earnestness he spoke to all – rich or poor – about the love of Jesus. He glorified in religious revivals and he shouted for joy when he heard of souls being saved anywhere.” Billy was known by some as ‘silly Billy” because he appeared to be such a fool, but in fact he was full of the joy of the Lord. He would shout and leap about for joy at the slightest provocation, which must have looked a little strange to people – hence ‘silly”. I believe that he was filled with the joy of the Lord and with His love in a mighty way on his conversion, and from then on he just poured it out on people.
Another eyewitness account of his nature is from William Haslam who wrote the following in his autobiography (the first half) “From Death to Life.” He is writing about his first meeting with Billy Bray in 1852. I include it here, almost in full, as it is a wonderful account.
“When all the people who dwelt on the hill (where his church was) were converted, there came upon the scene a very remarkable person, who had evidently been kept back for a purpose. This was none other than the veritable and well-known Billy Bray. One morning while we were sitting at breakfast, I heard someone walking about in the hall with a heavy step, saying ‘Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!’ On opening the door I beheld a happy looking little man, in a black Quaker cut coat, which it was very evident had not been made for him, but for some much larger body. ‘Well my friend,’ I said, ‘who are you?’ ‘I am Billy Bray,’ he replied, looking steadily at me with his twinkling eyes; ‘and be you the parson?’ ‘Yes I am.’ ‘Thank the Lord! Converted are ye?’ ‘Yes thank God.’ ‘And the missus inside, be she converted?’ ‘Yes she is.’ ‘Thank the dear Lord!’ he said, moving forward. ‘Be there any maidens (servants)?’ ‘Yes there are three in the kitchen.’ ‘Be they converted too?’ I was able to answer in the affirmative; and as I pointed towards the kitchen door when I mentioned it, he made off in that direction and soon we heard them all shouting and praising God together. When we went in, there was Billy Bray, singing joyfully. We then returned to the dining room with our strange guest, when he suddenly caught me up in his arms and carried me around the room. I was so taken by surprise that it was as much as I could do to keep myself in an upright position till he had accomplished the circuit. Then he set me in my chair, and rolling on the ground for joy, said that he ‘was as happy as he could live.’ When this performance was at an end, he rose up with a face that denoted the fact, for it was beaming all over. I invited him to take some breakfast with us, to which he assented with thanks. He chose bread and milk, for he said, I am only a child. I asked him to be seated and gave him a chair; but he preferred walking about and went on talking all the time. He told us that twenty years ago, as he was walking over this very hill on which my church and house were built (it was a barren old place then), the Lord said to him, ‘I will give thee all that dwell on this mountain;’ Immediately he fell on his knees and thanked the Lord and then ran to the nearest cottage. There he talked and prayed with the people and was enabled to bring them to Christ; then he went to the next cottage and got the same blessing; and then to the third where he was equally successful. Then he told ‘Father’ that there were only three ‘housen’ in this mountain and prayed that more might be built. That prayer remained with him and he never ceased to make it for years.”
Sixteen years later his brother wrote to him to say that a church was going to be built on the hill with a vicarage and school and Billy was almost beside himself with joy. “In 1848 when the church was completed and opened, he came on a visit to Baldhu and was greatly surprised to see what a change had taken place. There was a beautiful church, a parsonage, with a flourishing garden, and also a school room, with a large plantation and fields around them. He was quite ‘mazed’ for he never thought that the old hill could be made so grand as that! However, when he came to the service in the church, his joy was over; he came out ‘checkfallen’ and quite disappointed. He told ‘Father’ that that was nothing but an ‘old Pusey’ (A Puseyite was an Anglican who was very close to being a Catholic). He had got there and that he was no good. While he was praying that afternoon, ‘Father’ gave him to understand that he had no business there yet and that had come too soon and without permission. So he went back to his place at once, near Bodmin and continued to pray for the hill. Three years later his brother wrote again and this time to tell him that the parson and all his family were converted (see William Haslam on this site for an account of this), and that there was a great revival at the church. Now poor Billy was most eager to come and see for himself but he obtained no permission, though he asked for it every day for more than three months. At last one wintry and frosty night in January, just as he was getting into bed, ‘Father’ told him that he might go to Baldhu. He was so overjoyed that he did not wait till morning, but immediately ‘put up’ his clothes again, ‘hitched in’ the donkey and set out in his slow going little cart. He came along singing all the way, nearly thirty miles, and arrived early in the morning.”
What a wonderful account this is of the extraordinary Billy Bray. A small man, full of joy, full of love and obedient to the will of God and what joy he must have felt at seeing such an answer to prayer. Billy is a real example of someone who followed the Biblical injunctions to ‘Rejoice in the Lord always,’ to ‘Pray without ceasing’ and ‘In everything give thanks.’ Billy became an official preacher for the Bible Christians about a year after his conversion. He would go around the county preaching in the chapels; no name was more familiar to people at that time than Billy Bray’s.
On one occasion he went to preach at the opening of a chapel, but the crowds were so big that he had to preach in a field. To him the devil was very real; one witness quotes Billy as saying, “Now friend Maynard; let us pray a minute before we go or else the devil will be scratching me on the way. If I leave without praying this is the way he serves me; but when I get on my knees a minute or two before leaving I cut his ould claws and then he can’t harm me; so I always like to cut his claws before I go.”
The Cornish enjoyed their services loud; they were never happier than when they were shouting, dancing and singing in church and they were not disappointed at Billy’s services for they reflected his personality. He would not tolerate ‘deadness’ on a meeting. A good friend of Billy’s who joined the Methodists and became a preacher for them did not approve of all the shouting. However he had a dream that convinced him he was wrong and as Billy commented, “he has done with the doubters and is got up with the shouters.”
Billy was also a man of complete faith that his ‘Father’ would supply all his needs both personally and for his ministry. The Lord told him to build three chapels; only the one at Kerley Downs still exists today. The following is an abridged version of his story of how the one near Gwennap was built; it is fairly typical of how the Lord used Billy to accomplish His purposes.
“The Lord put it into the heart of a gentleman to grant me a piece of land; and after we had dug out the foundation, we wanted stone to build with (the ‘we’ is probably Billy and his son.) The Lord put it in my heart to go down by the railway and try to raise stone. Some one had been there before and their quarry was poor. We went to work on an untouched piece in the middle and the dear Lord helped me as He said. Some wondered to see what a lot of stone we got out. I worked in my ‘core’ at the mine all the while I was raising stone; and as I was living a great way from the place where I was building the chapel, the Lord helped me again by putting it into a gentleman’s heart to give me five shillings a month while I was raising stone for the dear Lord’s house. When the masons were set to work I had no money in hand and so I had to go again to the bank of heaven by faith. At this time the Lord sent someone to me who said, ‘You will want timber, lime and slate will you not?’ So he told me to go to his stores and have what I wanted. When the masons wanted money I went round collecting and the friends were very kind and gave me money (he went all around the west of Cornwall.) I went on to St Ives, which was a small place about the year 1838, to find a good man named Bryant. Friend Bryant told me that I had come to St Ives at a very poor time, for there was but little fish caught that year and some of the people were almost wanting bread. ‘It was poor times,’ I said, ‘with Peter when the Lord told him to let down the net on the other side of the ship.’ Brother Bryant missed, for I had come at a very good time, as the event proved. We went up to the Wesleyan Chapel; there were a great many lively members and we had a good meeting. We prayed to the dear Lord to send some fish and He did. After the meeting was over, we went into a coffee house to get a little refreshment; then we began our meeting and continued it till midnight, praying to the Lord to send in the fish. As we came out of the meeting there were the dear, poor women with pilchards on their plates and the fish were shining in the moonlight. The women were smiling and we were smiling; and no wonder, for the dear Lord put bread on many shelves that night. We asked the women what fish was taken and they told us that many boats had taken ten thousand and some twenty thousand. They rested on Sunday and left it till Monday before they went about their fish. Some of the fishermen said to me, ‘Now you shall have some money for your chapel; and if you will get a boat and come out we will give you some fish.’ A friend got a boat and rowed me to the place where the fish were. The fishermen dipped up the fish and threw them into our boat.”
He sold the fish and raised £6.75 for his chapel. The Lord intervened many times to help Billy build the three chapels. Billy had a wife and seven children. He preached most Sundays and had a full time job as a tin miner, yet he found time to build three chapels. He did not ignore his calling because he had no time; he made time. Notice also how he did not delay the work until he had the money to complete the chapel; he stepped out and the Lord equipped him with everything he needed as he needed it.
Even though this happened 170 years ago we can learn a lot from Billy Bray. Billy did not just have faith in the Saviour for financial needs and for salvations; he also had faith to see people healed. F. W. Bourne’s book recounts a few instances of this. The book tells the story that one of Bourne’s friends remembers of how the Lord used him to bless Billy. He was holding some services at one of Billy’s chapels and staying in his home at the time.
“One morning after breakfast and prayer Billy went out but soon returned with two little children, a boy and a girl, one in each arm. He told us that ‘the mother’s dead and the father’s run away and left them on the stream and thought I’d bring them in and rear them up with ours.’ His wife remonstrated, saying ‘we have four of our own that you can only just maintain, and these must go to the workhouse.’ Billy answered, ‘the Lord can as well feed them here as He can in the workhouse.’ His wife was very downhearted at these two little strangers being thrust upon her and she having such a small income. I thought I would give Billy something and I found that I had £2.79 in my pocket. Seeing Billy’s wife in such distress I decided to give Billy 25p towards their maintenance. On receipt of it Billy said ‘there Joey, the Lord has sent 25p already.’ It was impressed upon my mind that I had not given enough and said, ‘Here Billy, give me the 25p and take 50p for the children.’ Billy replied, ‘Praise the Lord! Joey didn’t I tell you that the Lord could feed them here as well as in the workhouse , or to administer such reproof, counsel or warning as he deemed necessary.’ But I became more miserable and felt that I ought to give Billy more; and at last said, ‘Here Billy, the Lord is displeased with me, give me that 50p back and take £1.’ He began to praise the Lord and told his wife to shout ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord would provide!’ I tried to read but a feeling of wretchedness quite overcame me and I said, ‘Lord, what am I to do?’ and the answer was, ‘Give Billy more,’ and I told him that I had not given him enough yet. ‘Take another £1.’ Billy again shouted ‘Glory be to God! Cheer up Joey, the money is coming.’ I then asked the Lord to make me happy as I had only 79p left, but the impression was that I should still give Billy more. I then gave him 50p, but could not rest until I had given him all I had; but he refused to take the odd 4p, saying, ‘No brother, keep that to pay turnpike gates when you go home.’ Billy then said ‘Let’s have a little prayer,’ and while he was praying such a divine power rested on us such as I cannot describe, and I never expect such a blessing again this side of heaven.”
When Billy was not using his meagre resources to help the poor, he was visiting others to ask them to help. Then he would pass on the money or clothes to the poor and to the sick. He always kept the Sabbath; from early on the Lord placed him in a place of work where he never had to work on a Sunday. A friend of Billy’s describes him in this way “Billy was so completely absorbed with a desire to do good, so fired with zeal for the honour of his Divine Master, so full of pity towards his fellowmen, so saved from the fear of man which brings a snare and so impressed with a continual sense of God’s presence and favour, that without regard to position, rank, character or circumstances; he was ever ready to testify of the reality and blessedness of religion.” And, “He had such an insight into people, he had such a sense of times and seasons, he had such a power of putting the truth in an available form, that men could take it without hesitation and digest it.”
William asked Billy about his being constantly happy; Billy answered that we must be fools for Christ’s sake; that Christians like Mr Haslam, who had so much ‘book larning’, having so much to unlearn, were placed at a disadvantage, when compared with some others, “for some of us, you know, are fools to begin with.” He is not far wrong, many of us allow learning and theology to get in the way of Christ our Saviour; we need to use our heart far more than our head with in our relationship with Christ.
For a while Billy suffered from something like consumption and became very weak. He sent for a doctor and on his arrival said, “Now doctor, I have sent for you because people say you are an honest man, and will tell them the truth about their state.” After being examined, he asked, “Well doctor, how is it?” “You are going to die” was the reply. Billy instantly shouted “Glory, glory be to God! I shall soon be in heaven.” He then said “When I get up there, shall I give you their compliments, doctor, and tell them you will be coming too?”
Billy went to be with his Lord on May 22nd 1868, a few days short of his 74th birthday. He was buried in Baldhu cemetery. In so few pages I cannot do justice to such a man, so if you want to know more please read “Billy Bray, the King’s son” by F. W. Bourne. You can view the whole book on www.amcbryan.btinternet.co.uk/billy.htm and a recent book that includes more material from Billy’s journal. “Billy Bray in his own words” by Chris Wright published in 2004 by Highland Books. Also you might like to look at this website www.billybray.org