Thomas Shaw, is a Methodist Minister, and a Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd (Ystoryer Methodysyeth). He’s the former general secretary of the Wesley Historical Society, editor of the Cornish Methodist Historical Association Journal, author of The History of Cornish Methodism, the Bible Christians, and many other local Methodist Church histories.
So, what sort of a man was Billy Bray? Certainly he was a Cornish Methodist and an eccentric, who despite his Wesleyan upbringing, became a Bible Christian and was in membership at Hicks Mill until he built Bethel Chapel close to his home; he became a class leader and local preacher.
After Billy Bray’s death his biography was written by Frederick William Bourne, a man of Kent, and a leader of the Bible Christians, who must have struggled hard to read through the three hundred pages of Billy’s rambling and badly written autobiographical reminiscences. It was on this manuscript and on the memories of some who had known him that he wrote his best seller, “The King’s Son; or A Memoir Of ‘Billy’ Bray”. First published by the Bible Christian Book-Room in 1871, the book went through many editions and reprints, and is still sought for and prized by many people around the world today. Realising that its main interest to many readers would be the fund of Billy Bray’s witty and humorous sayings and his accounts of his chapel building, Bourne gave them full place in the biography.
Who but Billy Bray, in early 19th century Cornwall, would have said: “Satan has his merry-men… I am a merry-man for the Lord Jesus Christ”? What other local preacher was known to dance for joy at every opportunity. “I was at home in my chamber t’other day, and I got so happy that I danced… so lustily that my heels went down through the planchen’ ” he said, and “As I go along the street I lift up one foot, and it seems to say ‘Glo-a-ry!’ and I lift up the other and it seems to say ‘Amen’.”
And what other local preacher would have justified his strange conduct with a theological statement, saying that if a man did not praise God he would not rise in the resurrection and that if he praised God only with his mouth, and not with his hands and feet as well he would be like those things carved on the tombstones, with swelling cheeks and wings – (cherubic angels). Billy’s congregations were certainly increased by people eager to hear his latest allusions, comments and peculiar analogies.
One day he met Canon Saltren Rogers on United Downs and they stopped for a few words which quickly turned to “church and chapel” and probably ended with a smile when Billy said: “You love a paice and quietness religion but I dearly love a noise.” It’s a preference that divides Quakers and charismatics today.
His last and unexpected word was spoken to his doctor in 1868 when he was dying. He asked him: “When I get to heaven shall I give them your compliments and tell them you are coming too?” Billy was sure of heaven and had no fear of hell because if they sent him there, he wouldn’t cease to praise the Lord and the devil would turn him out as quickly as he could!
His favourite name for God was Father. It is still remembered at Kerley Downs that he came into the chapel one day and found a child dusting the pews and said: “Cleaning Father’s House are ‘e?” He had more than one name for the devil – generally he preferred “Old Smutty Face” and when while walking along a lane he heard unearthly sounds coming from the hedge across the road, followed by a gloomy voice declaiming: “I’m the devil up here on the hedge,” Billy quickly replied, “I did not know thee wust so far away as that.”
He had many dislikes which he didn’t hesitate to make known, even in the pulpit.
He didn’t like flowers on women’s hats. In a pew at St. Blazey a few girls with imitation flowers in their bonnets were having some difficulty in suppressing their laughter at the preacher’s quaintness when he suddenly addressed them directly, “‘Tes the likes of you I’m praichin’ at, you gigglen maidens down there weth th’devel’s flowers in yer ‘ats.” Extravagance in dress was one of his concerns but he was pulled up on one occasion by a voice in the congregation which said: “What’s they two buttons on the back of your coat for Billy?” Billy who hadn’t noticed his tailor’s expression of extravagance, quickly pulled his coat round and tore off the offending decorations.
He didn’t agree with smoking – he said that he had never heard of a cottage where the smoke was encouraged to come out by the front door. He didn’t like men’s long beards – which were in fashion. When one offender said to him that they were natural, Billy countered with: “And do you suppose that heaven ever designed that everything should remain in its natural state? Do you prune your fruit trees, or allow them to grow wild, just as they please?”
And then there was his chapel building. In the days when Cornish miners built their own cottages – in extremity, overnight – Billy Bray built three chapels -Bethel, Kerley Downs, and Great Deliverance; not entirely with his own hands, of course, but no man among the builders worked harder than he did. He obtained stone from the quarry, reed from the farmers, wood from the mines and persuaded mine masons and carpenters and others to help him. He covered the cost of hired labour with subscriptions he had solicited. Some gave gladly, others with less enthusiasm and some refused to help at all. All this was done between “cores” at the mine.
His first chapel was at Bethel where his mother gave him a piece of land (an example of a Wesleyan giving land for a Bible Christian chapel). Billy himself raised the stone and engaged masons and a thatcher, and at the same time toured the neighbourhood seeking subscriptions. Even his neighbour’s mare, known to be an obstinate animal, seemed very happy to work for Billy.
He needed a pulpit for the chapel and found a three-cornered cupboard in a saleroom which he thought could be adapted. At the sale he was outbid and returned wondering why “Father” had not intervened to prevent that happening. In the end the successful purchaser could not get it through his door and resold it to Billy for a lower price than he paid for it and in addition carried it to Bethel for him.
At Kerley Downs he set about the work with the same determination. He asked the superintendent minister (the “pastor” in Bible Christian parlance) to call a meeting and form a trust. Again some helpers were employed but Billy was never far from the building site though he still had to find time to till his potatoes and, on Sundays, walk twenty miles or more to preach three sermons in the Bible Christian chapels.
Then came the third chapel – Great Deliverance, at Carharrack. At each place Billy became a trustee and at Great Deliverance his fellow trustees showed their appreciation of his services by giving him the privilege, without regarding the Bible Christian constitution, of having two votes at their meetings.
In what category can we place Billy Bray? Certainly not in any immediately recognisable 19th century group; Cornish Methodist miner, Bible Christian local preacher, evangelist – for although he belonged to all these, he didn’t quite fit in any of them.
On the wall at Billy’s Kerley Downs chapel are framed photographs of himself, and of the Rev. Dr. E. Gordon Rupp, at that time Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University of Cambridge, standing in Billy Bray’s pulpit. No greater contrast can be imagined than that between the two Methodists. It was when Dr Rupp was at Kerley Downs that with insight he placed the eccentric Cornish miner in the group to which he belonged. He reminded the congregation that God’s gifts to his church included some special kinds of people.
A recent writer, John Newton. has pointed out that Methodism like Eastern Orthodoxy has a tradition of “holy fools” – men and women who saw themselves, in St. Paul’s phrase, as “fools for Christ’s sake”. They often combined exuberant joy with marked eccentricity. Dr. Newton links Billy Bray with St. Seraphim of Sarov “whose life overflowed with joy… his eyes flashed, his step was almost that of a dance, and singing he went on his way, his thin white hair blowing in the cold wind”.
From time to time Billy Bray has been likened to a number of exemplary Christians and perhaps most happily to St. Francis of Assisi who once decided the way he and his companion Friar Masseo should go at a road junction by telling him to close his eyes and turn round and round “as children do” until they become dizzy, and then open his eyes and see what was written on the arm of the signpost directly in front of him. Billy Bray would have understood that – just as he would have danced with St. Seraphim. He belonged to the company of the saints – St. Billy of Baldhu.