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 and 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 and 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, however it was not anything Billy enjoyed doing. 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 he 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 the surprise of his wife and 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 and 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 and 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 H e had done for a poor sinner like me, for I could say, the Lord has pardoned all my sins.’ This was in November 1823.