Bold as a Lion

How many chapel teas over the years have begun by singing the grace, ‘Be present at our table, Lord’? The author of that verse, John Cennick (1718-55) is the subject of a new biography by Peter Gentry and Paul Taylor.

The first four chapters of their book trace Cennick’s life, following him from his childhood in Reading via conversion at the age of 19 to an evangelistic ministry, first with the Wesleys, then with George Whitefield and finally with the Moravians. This carpenter, shop-keeper and unqualified surveyor-turned lay preacher proved to be an effective evangelist, establishing new societies linked to Whitefield’s connexion in Wiltshire in the early 1740s and Moravian ones in Northern Ireland several years later. Four more chapters take a thematic approach, examining Cennick’s theology, his preaching, his hymns and his relevance for today. There are several pages of illustrations, extra information in four appendices, a bibliography and an index.

Cennick’s chequered career illustrates the tensions within the evangelical revival in its early years. He was uncomfortable with John Wesley’s teaching on Christian perfection, and felt more affinity with Whitefield’s moderate Calvinism, but resigned his post as pastor at Whitefield’s London Tabernacle because of the vociferous antinomianism of some of the members. The revival was an uneasy alliance of Wesleyans, Calvinists and Moravians, and Cennick managed to belong to all three groups in less than ten years!

Peter Gentry and Paul Taylor have produced a readable biography of an interesting and perhaps under-appreciated character. They are not afraid to express their own opinions, whether of Reading (‘a nice enough little town’, p.13) the theology of some of the Moravian leaders of the 1740s (‘this ridiculous hotchpotch’, p.56) or the present plight of the Church of England (‘these present days of schismatic upsets in our national Church’, p.22). There is some extraneous material here, for instance a good half of the chapter on Cennick’s hymns is wasted on discussing the history of hymnody from the Old Testament onwards, and there are some questionable interpretations (like ascribing the Thirty Years’ War to a Jesuit conspiracy, p.50). Overall, however, the authors’ admiration for their subject shines through, as do John Cennick’s sincerity and Christian commitment.

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