James Francis

The Life And Ministry Of James Francis

The Sower 1895:

By D. A. Doudney, D.D.

The life of this good man was so full of incident that we regret he was unable to comply with our oft-repeated wish that he would commit particulars of the same to paper. It appears that he was born in the parish of St. Giles, Cripplegate, London, on the 8th of November, 1765. His father was a godly man, and very strict in his discipline. James, when a boy, attended the means of grace to the extent of four distinct services a day, and, under the influence of a fiery zeal, thought himself very religious, and on the high road to heaven. But his good brother George (for some years a minister of Snow’s Fields, Borough of Southwark) saw the delusion, and thus accosted him, “James, you are in the gall of bitterness, and the bond of iniquity; and, notwithstanding all your religion, if you die in the state you are now in, you will be damned.” This mightily offended the young Pharisee, and he retorted, “That’s my look-out, and not yours; you mind your own business, George—that’s enough for you.” But it went like a dagger to his heart, and stuck to him for two years, till God was pleased to meet with him under the ministry of that dear man of God, William Romaine. At St. Dunstan’s, and elsewhere, he closely attended and evidently fed under this Christ-exalting ministry, the effect of which was so clearly manifest in his latter years. So fully was he led to discover the completeness of Christ’s redemption work, and so blessedly had he found Him a Refuge and an Antidote, amid all the sorrows and perplexities of a lengthened pilgrimage, that it was good, heart cheering, to hear the dear old man testify of Him, under whatever trials or exercises he found those among whom he mingled labouring. An evident entering into, a kindly sympathizing with the trial; then a pointing up on high! This was the character of the man.

When a young man, he formed a most unhappy alliance; his wife was a perfect vixen, and for forty long years was he destined to be united to her. One of her last acts, in the agonies of death, was to raise herself in the bed, and give him a violent slap in the face. Speaking of this trial, he used to say, “I thought it would never have an end. I used to wish my head had been placed before a cannon’s mouth and blown into a thousand pieces, rather than to have been permitted to marry such a woman.”

The children of God, however, established and highly favoured and blessed, are not all submission—not all contentment; they have their mingled feelings, their regrets, and so forth. We mention this to convince such as may have any similar trials, that their case is not a solitary one. But we pass on. For many years the dear man was in the depths of poverty; a young family, but little work as a shoemaker; provisions high; a scolding wife at home, neighbours looking shy abroad, and scarcely clothes to cover him withal. “Nay,” said he, “I was obliged to wear an apron to cover my rags. My soul dark; I knew not which way to look for help; and in a fit of desperation or despair, I directed my way towards Hampstead Ponds (in the vicinity of which he lived), fully bent upon throwing myself in. But as I crossed the fields, these words came to me, and kept sounding in my ears, ‘What are you going to do? —plunge yourself into eternal misery? In due season you shall reap if you faint not.'” He paused—stopped—returned, and was mercifully prevented from putting his intention into execution.

He was signally favoured in visiting the sick. Faithfulness and plain, straightforward dealing were prominent characteristics. Religion was not, half-a-century ago, so fashionable as it is now. There were then marked men, persecuted women, openly, where now-a-days the same enmity is manifest in a more private manner. Not a small measure of this had the dear tried saint to contend with. However, it was astonishing, amid it all, in what secret respect he was held. He was a marked man, but he was a valued-man. He was an upbraided man, but he was an envied man.

When sickness or calamity come upon a worldly man, he will frequently be the first to send for the advice, the aid of, it may be, his persecuted neighbour. There was a gardener, a middle-aged man, who lived in the neighbourhood of Francis, a regular plodding, money-getting man. Sundays and week-days were all one with him; he in his garden, and his wife at the wash-tub or the ironing-board. This man, being much exposed to the weather, took cold, and, fearing expense, neglected it, and took cold upon cold. The result was it settled upon his lungs, and when the doctor was sent for, it was too late. ”The doctor says that the cold had fixed upon my lungs and that die I must,” said the dying man to Francis, “and as I have heard that you are a very good hand at visiting people that are sick or going to die, I have sent for you to read and pray with me, and whatever your charge is, I will pay.” Here was a pretty speech, with a witness! “It came like death to me,” said the dear old man; “I scarcely knew how to reply.” However, he made some kind of answer, adding that money in such matters was out of the question. “No, indeed,” said the dying man, ”no. Every man is paid for his labour, and so ought you to be; and if you will not consent to be paid for it, I will not let you come at all.” Worse and worse! as blind as a bat and as dead as a corpse! Well, the old man thought it best to let the sick man appear to have his own way; so he read and went to prayer; but if any of our readers know what it is to pray by the side of a dead man, they will certainly not envy poor Francis’ feelings, nor be very likely to fall under our Lord’s admonition about making long prayers.

Oh, beloved, this is hard work, and makes us stand with amazement, and wonder how men can pray (as they term it) at any and at all times, and in the presence of any or every man; we must confess we cannot understand it.

But to return. The old man went again and again, until at length, tracing the ravages of the disease, he said to the dying man, “You are getting weaker, and I have visited you for so long a time, now what is the state of your mind in the prospect of death?” “Well,” replied the man, promptly, “I listen to all you read and say when you are here; and when you are gone, I read the chapter over again, and repeat as much of the prayer as I can remember; so that altogether I think I am a much better man than when you first came to me.” Here was a speech! What a convert! The old man stood amazed—perfectly confounded. But the Lord overruled the expression for good. Its ignorance—the total want of light which the dying man betrayed—excited the concern of his visitor, who had liberty given him to point out the man’s lost estate—the nature of a broken law—the enmity of the human heart against God and the things of God. The man listened and wondered; and when dear Francis went again the next day, he betrayed great restlessness and concern. His goodness was going, his badness began to appear to his own view. The work deepened; his anxiety increased, until it really and truly burst forth in the jailer’s cry, “What shall I do to be saved?” Now the old man, under the power of the Holy Ghost, began to preach Christ, and He that had ordered the blind eyes, spoke pardon and peace to the dying man’s soul, so that for many days he lay rejoicing in his Lord. But within the last day or two of his life darkness came on, the enemy was permitted to set in like a flood, and the poor man called all in question, fearing that he should perish after all. Francis felt this much, but believed the Lord, who had done so much for him, would assuredly again appear and set his soul at liberty. Going into his room, he beheld the poor man lying with a terror-stricken countenance, like one in despair; his eyes closed, his hands clasped, himself evidently in much mental suffering. The doctor was present, and said, “In less than an hour he will be gone.” “I felt it much,” said Francis. “I wanted the Lord to confirm the work—give further testimony that it was of Himself. I begged Him to break in. At length he said, ‘Oh, what shall I do?’ ‘You can do nothing,’ I replied; ‘may God help you to look to Christ.’ He again closed his eyes, and I saw from the movement of his lips that he was in earnest prayer. Presently a sweet beam came over the dying man’s countenance; it brightened wonderfully, and opening his eyes, raising and clasping his hands, he looked upwards, and exclaimed, ‘Oh, the blessings from above!’ (louder) ‘Oh, the blessings from above!’ (louder still) ‘Oh, the blessings from above!’ With the last words (said the old man) he seemed to breathe out his very soul. His hands dropped—his eyes closed—his head fell on one side on the pillow—and all was over.”

There, you visitors of the sick, where could there have been a more heartless beginning, and where a more blessed close? Be it your concern to wrestle more with the Lord than to argue or reason with the party himself. You can do more with the Lord than with the man.

Singularly striking were the leadings of the Lord’s providence in reference to this dear old saint. “One day,” said the old man, “I was greatly in want of a guinea; and my mind was directed to call on a certain person in the parish. It seemed madness to go to him, for every one was afraid of him, However, as I had to call upon him with a message, I went, and, as I expected, he flew into a most violent rage. I was really afraid he would kick me down the door-steps. But, strange to say, suddenly he turned round, and said, ‘Mind, it is not you I am scolding. Do you want a guinea?’ ”Here you see, reader, was the very sum the dear man wanted! Again, there was a neighbour—a butcher—who hated the old man on account of his religion most perfectly; but when the Lord, on one occasion, laid His afflictive hand upon Francis, this self-same persecutor sent him a daily supply of meat, and urged him to send whenever he was in want. At another time his scanty stock of furniture was seized and sold, but re-bought by certain kind-hearted persons and given him. Anon he had notice to quit his little habitation, wherein he had lived a number of years, because his penurious landlord had discovered that there was a certain chalybeate spring flowing beneath it. The spring, however, had failed, and the landlord had the mortification of offering the house to its former occupant, but in vain.

At the time of some riots, a number of special constables were sworn in. Poor Francis, though a remarkably short man, was among the number. As they were proceeding two and two by a certain route, Francis’ fellow, being much intimidated by the mob, who were immediately on his left hand, begged Francis to change places with him. “Scarcely had I done so,” said the old man, “before a cellar-flap over which I should have had in another minute to pass, gave way, and down went my companion, who was so much injured as to be laid aside for many weeks.”

It appears that the origin of our dear friend’s preaching was his meeting with a few friends in a room for reading and prayer. Here the Lord would sometimes open his mouth and having some short time after a call to speak to a few people at Banbury (if we mistake not), he had to sit up all Friday night to get his work finished in time for the morning coach. By the time he had completed his work and walked to the West-end, the coach was ready. “I had not time,” said the old man, “to get even a cup of coffee; so that, what with working all night, walking down from Hampstead, and taking no refreshment, I was completely overdone. I got upon the coach, and strove my utmost to keep my eyes open; for, sitting at the end of an outside seat, with my feet dangling, I felt sure I should fall off under the wheels if I went to sleep. At length, however, having just passed a certain milestone, I totally forgot myself, fell sound asleep, and when I awoke I found by another milestone that we had travelled eight miles during my sleep! I was altogether so struck with the circumstance, that these words occurred to my mind, ‘Is there anything too hard for the Lord?’ This furnished me with a text for the next day, and under that discourse the Lord was pleased to set a soul at liberty who had been long in bondage.”

By the time his wife died he was quite worn down, and most persons thought he would die. But a friend having invited him to Tring for change of air, the old man was induced to go. He was also placed on the list of the City Pension Society. In traveling to Tring, he said to his friend who accompanied him, “Now, if I die, write to so-and-so, and he will allow so many pounds out of the benefit club to bury me. Instead of which,” continued the old man, “when I got to Tring, and went to the chapel on the Sunday morning, after the minister had finished his sermon, he said, ‘My friends, Mr. James Francis will preach for me this afternoon.’ I looked up,” said he, “perfectly amazed. I—a dying man—attempt to preach! However, I was obliged to comply; and the chapel, which would hold eleven hundred people, was quite full. And instead of my dying and their bringing me home in a cart to bury me, there was a cart day after day to take me to some one or other of the neighbouring villages to preach.” Here he continued for about three months. Upon his return—the Lord having so evidently called him to labour in His vineyard—he laid aside “awl and lapstone,” being then nearly seventy years old, and thenceforward was employed as one of the Lord’s itinerants. How he was supported—the way in which the hearts of one and another were opened to him—was most gratifying.

In his prayers in the families among whom he would be frequently called to take up his nightly sojourn, there was conciseness and power. Though he had nearly attained unto the great age of fourscore years, he would invaliably return thanks to the Lord for having spared us another day or night (as the case may be) “of our short lives.” It was touching thus from an old man to be perpetually reminded of the brevity of human life. A clergyman who was present on one occasion, as soon as the company rose from their knees, remarked, “Would that one of our Cambridge men, who are so bigoted against Dissenters, had been present to hear that prayer.” Oh, how has the devil been outwitted, when we think of the dear saint coming to his grave in full age, instead of cutting short his days in Hampstead ponds! Did not the Lord—ever faithful and true to His Word—fulfill His promise, “In due time you shall reap if you faint not”? A few weeks before he died, he said to us, “I have no joys, but a solid peace and rest.” His tale, as to his public ministrations, seems to have been told for some months before he was taken home; and under the ministry of Arthur Triggs, he found food for his soul.

After he took to his bed, he passed through some dark seasons. But on one occasion, in reply to his nephew, he exclaimed with much energy, and a smile on his countenance, “Was it not for the support of that Gospel, I should be now of all men most miserable. I know in whom I have believed. He is my Rock, and He has promised that He will guide me and be with me through the dark valley of the shadow of death, and His rod and His staff they shall comfort me; and I know He will be true to His promise, for His Word never has failed, and never will.” He spoke of his funeral, and requested that a certain portion out of John’s Gospel might be spoken from by Mr. Foreman, as that was the portion under which he was set at liberty after many years’ bondage. He was confined to his room nine weeks. On one occasion he said, ”It sometimes takes a long time to bring the house down, but the Lord’s time is the best.” He remained perfectly conscious to the last, and almost imperceptibly fell asleep at 3.00 a.m. on July 13th, 1844, and was buried at Hampstead Church, on Sunday, the 2Ist.

James Francis (1765-1844) was a sovereign grace itinerate preacher. He was called into the gospel ministry late in life, but in short time earned a good report among the Lord’s people.