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John Wilson: Apostle to Woolwich

John Wilson Street in Woolwich has become synonymous with the murder of Lee Rigby. The Baptist minister it names was one of the most significant and longest serving 19th century church leaders, Israel Olofinjana discovers

Last Thursday (22 May 2014) was exactly a year since the terrible murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich. The world was shocked as it watched a soldier being hacked down in broad daylight by two terrorists. While the perpetrators have been served life imprisonment, conversations still continue as to how we can stop our young people from being radicalised. 
John Wilson tribute
A tribute to John Wilson in The Baptist Times shortly after his death in 1939. Click on the image to bring it up as a pdf. JC Carlile was the Baptist Times editor and a personal friend  

The horrific attack took place in Wellington Street, near its junction with John Wilson Street. While I am glad that justice has been served to the two perpetrators, I have been trying to find out more about the person the latter street was named after.  

Part of the reason for this search is because I recently became the pastor of Woolwich Central Baptist Church, a church one could say was founded by the Revd Dr John Wilson.

John Wilson was one of the most significant church and public leaders in 19th century England. As the pastor of Woolwich Tabernacle (which merged together with Conduit Road Baptist in 1969 to form my church, Woolwich Central Baptist), John exercised leadership influence across this country and particularly in Woolwich. And it was to recognise his immense contribution to society that the main street in Woolwich was named after him.

John exercised pastoral ministry and leadership over Woolwich Tabernacle for 61 years (1877-1938), making him the longest serving Baptist minister in one pastorate. Before today’s megachurches in Woolwich (such as New Wine Church, seating about 3,000, and Woolwich’s own Pentecostal cathedral Christ Faith Tabernacle, led by Apostle Alfred Williams) there was Woolwich Tabernacle which sat about 2,500 people in the 19th century. Who then was this John Wilson?

He was born in May 1854 near Forfar in Scotland. His parents feared God and believed that their ten children were gifts from God to be trained for God’s kingdom. Although he was brought up in a Christian family, nevertheless during his teen years he had lots of questions.

He was invited to a YMCA meeting where he listened to the stories of Christian young men and realised that they possessed what he wanted. He studied the Scriptures at the home of the YMCA manager and later described his conversion experience; “That morning I saw dimly as in the distance the light that led to the gate, the Cross, and the Kingdom of God.”

He began ministering by distributing books house to house and preaching, and was inspired and captivated by the preaching power and personality of the American evangelist DL Moody.

John attended Spurgeon’s new college in London, and after ministering in Chiswick and Launceston in Cornwall John was sent to a needy church in Woolwich, serving as their student-pastor while studying. Woolwich as an area was very different from his previous countryside assignments, and was much needier than he had imagined, with lots of slums, lodging houses and crowded bars. Their chapel was so dilapidated that one day the floor even gave way and a member of the congregation fell through into a grave! John continued ministering in these difficult conditions, and after finishing his studies in 1877 became the full- time pastor there. 

An incident occurred in 1878 that became a turning point in John Wilson’s ministry at Woolwich. The S.S Princess Alice sunk, losing about 600 people including the captain. It was a national calamity and many members of John Wilson’s church were bereaved by the shipwreck. John conducted the mass funeral, young and inexperienced as he was (although on later reflection he realised he should have involved other ministers in the area). He had the tremendous responsibility as well as opportunity to conduct the funeral service for 300 people. He prayed for the right words of comfort and hope to say and God helped him.

Since holding the mass funeral John became not just the pastor of the Baptist church at Woolwich but of the whole Woolwich Arsenal area, and people began to talk about him and attend his church. The church continued to grow until the chapel was overcrowded, and even in a new church building with bigger facilities they were soon also filled to overcrowding, having to build galleries and hold two services to accommodate the numbers.

He started a conversational Bible class which proved very successful. He invited politician as well as preachers to speak on different subjects, covering various issues facing people in Woolwich and London in general. This included Trade Unions, the family, economics, business, health, apologetics, missionary movements, church history and poetry. These lectures became a meeting point for the churched and un-churched, and became so successful that they moved to Woolwich’s assembly rooms which could seat about 800 people, though soon about 900 were attending! Many of these people later started attending the church and a number of them rose to influential positions in society.

The church continued to grow and planted other churches and mission stations in New Beckton (across the river Thames) and elsewhere. They soon outgrew another building and decided they needed to build a Tabernacle to meet the increasing numbers.

Members of the church as well as people from outside gave money, but it was not enough. A member of the church then miraculously inherited a large legacy and gave this large sum. In total the Tabernacle was built with £14,000, all contributed by members of the church as well as people in society who believed in the leadership and ministry of John Wilson. The new Tabernacle building was opened and dedicated on 8 July 1896 by Thomas Spurgeon (CH Spurgeon’s son).

John Wilson was very committed to Woolwich, to the extent that he rejected lots of lucrative positions in places such as Oxford University. He was also a prominent member of the Baptist denomination, but so great was John’s love and commitment to Woolwich as an area that when he was asked to be the principal of Spurgeon’s College, he refused the offer.

John’s name became as synonymous with Woolwich as Spurgeon’s was with London. John Wilson was truly an apostle to Woolwich as he served the people of Woolwich Arsenal and the Dockyard. Beyond his church John engaged with various issues that faced an average working class person during the industrial revolution, of which Woolwich was an integral part.

John also worked with the Mayor of Woolwich and the civil authorities, and was awarded an MBE for services among the troops at Woolwich during World War One.

In 1937, his Diamond Jubilee (60 years as pastor in Woolwich) was an occasion for joyous celebrations, with the council as well as the church celebrating for a period of 16 days. Eminent theologians and ministers of the day attended the celebration such as Dr Campbell Morgan (1863-1945), former senior pastor of Westminster Chapel, London.  During this occasion John Wilson was enrolled as a Freeman of the Borough of Woolwich.

In 1939, at the ripe age of 84, Rev Dr John Wilson passed away at his home in Charlton survived by his wife, two sons and three daughters.

John Wilson is an example of a public leader who engaged and connected with his community. The issues facing the society of his time became his issues and that of his church. He exercised an incarnational ministry that touched people spiritually, politically, economically and socially. Today we need more public leaders like John Wilson, prepared to move beyond church walls and meet the real needs of the communities around them, and inspire others to do the same.

Israel Olofinjana is the minister of Woolwich Central Baptist Church 

Marguerite Williams, John Wilson of Woolwich, Marshall, Morgan & Scott Ltd, London, 1937.
The Glasgow Herald, 9th January 1939.
Israel Olofinjana, 29/05/2014
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