WILLIAM JAY, (1769-1853)
A History of Preaching
F. R. Webber

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William Jay was a man whose great fame as a preacher did not rest upon mere eloquence or dramatic ability, but upon the skill with which he presented religious truths in a clear, original and practical manner. He was born at Tisbury, near Salisbury, Wilts., where his father was a stone cutter. The younger Jay served for two years as his father's apprentice, and helped build Fonthill Abbey, near Tisbury. He studied at an academy in Marlborough, kept by Cornelius Winter, a Nonconformist clergyman. At the age of 16 William Jay preached his first sermon at Abington, near Stonehenge.

The story is often told of a sermon that he preached in a prominent church. Mr. Winter called him to his office one day and asked him to go to a place a number of miles away and deliver a letter to a prominent clergyman. William Jay did as he was told, and to his astonishment the clergyman said to him, "I did not know that Mr. Winter would send me so young a lad as you, but I have utmost confidence in his good judgment. You are to preach for me tomorrow." Jay begged to be excused, saying truthfully that he was not prepared, and had no idea that he was expected to preach. The prominent clergyman replied, "Here is my library, and it is at your disposal, and here are pens and paper. I am obliged to leave the city, but prepare your sermon and take my place tomorrow." Bidding the astonished lad farewell, he made his departure, locking the door of his study so that Jay could not follow him. The youth realized that he must do as he had been told, and he prepared his sermon and preached it on the following day. By the time he was 21 years old he had preached a thousand times.

In 1788, when but 19 years old, he was asked by Rowland Hill to preach for several Sundays in Surrey Chapel, London. So excellent an impression did he make that this led to an arrangement by which he preached annually at Surrey Chapel for over fifty years. For the first thirty years he preached for eight Sundays each year, then six Sundays at his own request, then four, and finally three.

Upon one of his first visits to London, he asked the names of London's most famous preachers. He was told that one of them was famous for his doctrinal preaching, a second for his experimental and a third for his practical sermons. "Have you nobody in London who combines these three qualities?" asked William Jay. Upon receiving a negative reply, he determined to prepare his own sermons so that they might contain in correct proportions these three characteristics.

After preaching for a time at Christian Milford and at Hope Chapel, Clifton, he was ordained in 1791 as pastor of Argyle Chapel, at Bath. This chapel had been built shortly before his coming, but owing to the failing health of Mr. Tuppen, its pastor, it had not yet been dedicated. Mr. Tuppen died and William Jay became his successor and served Argyle Chapel for the next 62 years. The chapel soon became too small for the growing congregation, and it was enlarged in 1804 and again in 1821, until it could accommodate the large congregations that Mr. Jay's preaching attracted. In 1810 William Jay's reputation was so great that Princeton awarded him an honorary doctor's degree. Mr. Jay thanked them courteously, but never made use of the degree.

William Jay's sermons are strongly textual. They are planned with great care, and so rich in quotations from the Scriptures that it has been said that a group of people on a lonely island, without a copy of the Bible, could compile a complete copy themselves, if they had a set of William Jay's collected sermons. Robert Hall declared that the man who buys a collection of William Jay's sermons buys a Bible at more than its usual cost.

Jay's preaching attracted people from every walk of life, and he became one of the most noted preachers of the first half of the nineteenth century. He took a lively interest in the London Missionary Society, and is said to be the only man who has been asked to preach the Society's annual sermon on five different occasions. . . .

Jay was one of the very few famous preachers who understood fully a point that has caused endless perplexity to men of every generation. He said, "Two grand truths have always seemed to me to pervade the whole Bible, and not to be confined to a few particular phrases, viz., that if we are saved, it is entirely of God's grace; and if we are lost, it will be entirely from ourselves." When men tried to speculate upon these things, it was Mr. Jay's custom to compare these two truths to the two ends of a long chain stretched across a river. We can see the two ends of the chain easily enough, but not the middle, for it lies under the water, and yet it is there. William Jay's collected works were published in twelve volumes during his lifetime. Together with his autobiography he published excellent accounts of a number of the famous preachers of his time. In his religious affiliation Mr. Jay was an Independent.

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Following is one of William Jay's sermons.

"The Throne of Grace"

"Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace,
that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in a time of need."
Hebrews 4:16

How can we enter his presence or approach his infinite Majesty? Why, blessed be his name, he fills the mercy seat, he is on a throne of grace, and we are allowed and even commanded to come to it boldly. But it is necessary for us to know what this boldness is. And we may be assured that it is not audacity, rudeness, or a trifling freedom.

We have sometimes heard persons address God in a manner which they would not dare to use to a fellow creature of their own level, much less to a superior. Such persons would do well to compare scripture with scripture. For what is the language of the Bible in other places? "God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, and to be held in reverence by all those around Him" [Ps. 89:7]. "Do not be rash with your mouth, and let not your heart utter anything hastily before God. For God is in heaven, and you on earth; therefore let your words be few" [Ecc. 5:2].

They would also do well to remember the nature of the business in which they are engaged; for if we are imploring mercy and grace, common sense will tell us that the boldness we are allowed to indulge can be only the boldness of a penitent and a suppliant. Now an encouragement to beg is surely not a license to offend. Prayer and insolence are of ill accord.

This boldness, then, arises from nothing in ourselves, but purely from the goodness of the Being we address. And it consists principally in a persuasion that we are freely authorized to come, and may confidently hope to succeed.

What a change is made in the view and feelings of a person by conviction of sin! Sin was once nothing in his view. But now that he is awakened to consider--and enlightened to perceive--its nature and consequence, he feels sin to be the greatest evil. Before, when he could not be made to fear, now he can scarcely be induced to hope. Knowing his desert, and judging himself under the influence of human and guilty feelings, he finds it difficult to believe that God will receive him. But till he does believe this, he will not--he cannot--come to him aright. Therefore God has made provision to excite and sustain the confidence of self-condemned sinners.

He has revealed himself not as implacable but as full of pity and compassion, "as the Lord God gracious and merciful" [Joel 2:13]. He has commended his love towards us, "in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" [Rom. 5:8]. The conclusion is not more justly drawn than it is infinitely encouraging: "He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?"

We come unto God through Jesus, and our enlargement and consolation in the duty of prayer will be in proportion to our knowledge of the mediator and our reliance upon him. It is here that our hopes take their rise: "We have boldness and access with confidence through faith in Him" [Eph. 3:12]. And again, "having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is His flesh, and having a High priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water" [Heb. 10:19-22].

We also have exceeding great and precious promises: "God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" [John 3:16]. "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD [Yahweh], and He will have mercy on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon" [Isa. 55:7].

To illustrate these promises, and to banish every fear springing from the unworthiness and guilt that would hinder our application to him, he has been pleased to add a succession of examples. Some of these are derived from the most vile characters; but vile as they once were, they "were washed," they "were sanctified," they "were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God" [1 Cor. 6:11]. Among men, the chief offenders are always made examples of justice. But here in the Bible they have frequently been made the examples of mercy. Civil governors are afraid to pardon the most criminal lest they should operate as encouragements to others. But here they are designed to be precedents: "For this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all long-suffering, for a pattern to them who should hereafter believe on Him to everlasting life" [1 Tim. 1:6].

This boldness takes in not only a confidence of success, but also a holy liberty in our addresses to him, expressive of intimacy and privilege. Are we Christians? Then we come not as strangers and foreigners but as fellow citizens with the saints and the household of God. We have not received the "spirit of bondage again to fear," but the "Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, Abba, Father" [Rom. 8:15]. Other monarchs can be approached only at certain times, and in certain cases, and with certain formalities. But you may call upon him at all times and in all circumstances. You may make known to God your requests in everything. He deems nothing too little to spread before him. And you are not required to keep at a distance, but allowed to come even to his seat, to order your cause before him, to fill your mouth with arguments, to put him in remembrance, to plead with him, and to persevere and not let him go except he bless you! [Gen. 32:26]

Having considered the manner in which we come to the throne of grace, let us now observe the purposes for which we come. These are to obtain mercy and to find grace. These blessings are wisely connected together by the apostle; and there are too many people who try to separate them. They would be saved from hell but not from sin. They wish to be pardoned but not renewed. They would have mercy but not grace. But be not deceived; whom God forgives he sanctifies and prepares for his service.

First, let us pray for mercy. And let us pray like those who know they greatly need it. You are truly guilty. You are charged with innumerable transgressions, and your consciences tell you that many of them are attended with circumstances of peculiar aggravation. Until these are pardoned, you are in a state of condemnation; and oh, what a doom is that which is denounced upon you by the law which you have broken. "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" [Heb. 10:31]. And you are continually liable to the execution of this sentence. You must die soon; you may die this very night, this very hour. And then it will be too late to cry for mercy. Be prevailed upon therefore to seek it immediately and earnestly: "Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Your loving-kindness; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions" [Ps. 51:1].

Second, let us pray for grace to help in time of need. We need this grace to mortify our corruptions, to sanctify our affections, to resist temptations, to overcome the world. It is this, and this alone, that can enable us to pursue our journey, to run our race, to accomplish our warfare, to endure to the end.

There are some times in which we peculiarly require the aid of divine grace. Prosperity is a time of need. Few know how to succeed. Fame and affluence have often had a baneful effect on the minds of good men. They have less dependence upon God and less communion with him. They have grown high-minded and have exhibited far less Christian charity. Let us therefore be wise, and remember that the wisdom which alone can preserve us consists in our fearing always, and in our praying "hold me up, and I shall be safe, and I shall observe Your statutes continually" [Ps. 119:117].

Affliction is a time of need. It matters not from what quarter the trouble springs; it is a trying time for the Christian. His desire is to "come forth as gold" [Job 23:10]. He not only wants support and comfort so that he may not faint, but he wants strength and preservation so that he may not sin. He wishes to glorify God and derive advantage from his crosses, so that he will be able to say, "It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes" [Ps. 119:71]. For all this he seeks the Lord, and what the Lord said to Paul he may apply to himself: "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness" [2 Cor. 12:9].

Death is a time of need. And it is an unavoidable one. It is, indeed, the last time of need, but it is also the greatest. It is new and untried. It settles everything forever. It is awful to let go our hold of earth, to give up the soul into the hand of God and enter eternity. The enemy also now uses all his force to distress; for there are two seasons in which he is peculiarly busy--when we are coming to Christ for grace, and when we are going to him for glory.

Now others may endeavor to banish this subject from their minds, but the Christian must think of it. And he will be concerned to die safely, as to consequences; honorably, as to religion; comfortably, as to himself, and usefully as to others. If those Christians who are now cast down were only assured that their sun would set without a cloud, they would be filled with strong consolation, bear cheerfully their trials, and look forward to every future scene with pleasure.

Now if this be our errand in prayer--if we are to pray that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need [Heb. 4:16], does it not follow as a fair inference from the subject that a prayerless person is destitute both of the mercy and grace of God? This is an awful truth, and it leads me seriously to ask you, Have you come to this throne? Have you ever prayed? Perhaps you have sometimes dragged yourself through the duty as a task; but did you ever feel it to be your privilege and your pleasure? Perhaps you have called upon God in the hour of sickness and danger; but as health returned, have you not dropped prayer little-by-little until you have lived entirely without God in the world?

Do you imagine you can acquire the blessings of mercy and grace in any other way but prayer? This is impossible. "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you" [Matt. 7:7]. Or do you imagine these blessings are not worthy of your pursuit? Alas, strange as it may appear, I suspect that this is the case. You are not prepared to give a due estimate to these advantages. You do not feel your need of mercy and grace. Otherwise surely you would deem them worth asking for. Or do you imagine that mercy and grace are not to be gained? There is no ground for such despair. "Therefore the LORD will wait, that He may be gracious to you; and therefore He will be exalted, that He may have mercy on you" [Isa. 30:18]. "Come, for all things are now ready" [Luke 14:17]. None are excluded; all are welcome.

Note: This sermon (condensed and lightly edited) was taken from Short Discourses to be Read in Families by William Jay.

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