Born JUNE 1, 1794
It was payday. What would Billy Bray, a mine worker known for his vices, do? Would he squander his earnings at the tavern and wander home drunk as usual? Or would his plea the night before for God to save his soul matter? When he got home that night, Billy was sober, with his pay in his pocket. He went on to become one the most transformed men and most effective local evangelists of his day.
Billy was born in Twelveheads, a village in Cornwall, England. His Methodist grandfather raised him. On the threshold of adulthood he moved to Devonshire. While there, Billy started drinking. In 1818, he returned to Cornwall and went to work in a tin mine. He admits in his journal he was known for drinking and fighting and regaling other miners with vulgar stories. He adds that he did other things he’d rather not tell.
He came across the book Visions of Heaven and Hell by John Bunyan. It convicted him. He’d married Johanna, who had been a person of faith in her youth. He asked her about the joy of living for God. She answered, “No tongue can tell what they enjoy who serve the Lord.”
THE BEGINNING OF UNENDING JOY
Billy wanted to repent that night, but he felt ashamed to pray in front of his wife. They went to bed. Three o’clock in the morning, he got out of bed, fell on his knees, and gave his life to God. Following a struggle a few days later, Billy came home from work, forgoing supper to spend time calling on God. He prayed, “Thou hast said, ‘They that ask shall receive, they that seek shall find, and to them that knock, the door shall be opened,’ and I have faith to believe it.”
A transformation took place. Abundant joy replaced his fears. He described how he felt: “I was like a new man in a new world. I spent the greater part of my time in praising the Lord… I told all I met what the Lord had done for my soul.” Billy’s joy increased when his wife rededicated her life to God.
In the mine, Billy’s co-workers no longer heard him swear or tell ribald jokes. On payday, he no longer joined them at the tavern. He quit smoking. At the start of a workday, surrounded by the other miners, Billy prayed aloud for their safety. He boldly witnessed to his fellow miners, some of whom came to Christian faith.
He joined a congregation known as the Byranites, also called Bible Methodists because they carried their Bibles under their arms. His enthusiasm however, exceeded theirs. The new Billy Bray sometimes shouted praises to God, leaped with joy or danced a jig. Although without formal education for the ministry, his name was added to the roster of those allowed to exhort from the local pulpit. God blessed his messages. When the enthusiastic lay preacher spoke, people turned to God.
Billy built three chapels during his life. Here are anecdotes he tells about each of them.
The first one he called Bethel. He cleared the ground and hired masons to build the walls. When it was time for the door and windows, he needed a horse to pull the timber to the building. He borrowed an animal that had a reputation for stubbornness. In God’s service, the animal was nothing but docile.
“Three Eyes Chapel”
To build his second chapel, Billy worked on the church during the day and in the tin mine at night. After its construction, he needed a pulpit. He attended an auction where he saw a cupboard he planned to convert. But, he was outbid. He later saw the cupboard being carted uphill to the home of its new owner. Billy followed it. The man who’d bought it, seeing it was too big to get through his front door, announced he would break it up into firewood. Billy stepped forward offering to buy it from him if the man would cart it to the chapel. He agreed. God had provided again.
When that chapel was finished, others came to call it, “Thee Eyes” because it had three windows. On the second Sunday of services at Three Eyes, Billy told the congregation,”You know I did not work here about this chapel in order to fill my pocket, but for the good of the neighbors, and the good of souls.” That morning, two women repented of their sins. Billy responded with, “Now the chapel is paid for already.”
“Great Deliverance Chapel”
Billy oversaw and participated in the construction of his chapels. He also went into nearby communities to raise money to purchase supplies and pay workmen. For his third building, he persuaded the miser of a town into giving a donation, which others called a miracle. He visited another village that depended on fishing. It had been a poor year for catching fish. While Billy was there praying, God provided a very large catch. Some of the residents gladly contributed toward his new chapel.
Billy passed away in 1868 in the same cottage where he was born 73 years earlier. His tombstone in a church yard in Baldhu, England describes him in part as having, “sancified wit, Christian simplicity, fervid faith and many self-denying labours.” His Three Eyes Chapel still stands (see photo).
LET ME KNOW: How has Billy’s story informed, encouraged, or otherwise helped you? I welcome your comments.
Sims, Albert. An Hour with Billy Bray, fifth ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing.
Bourne, F. W. The King’s Son. London: Bible Christian Book Room, 1897. http://archive.org/details/kingssonormemoir00bour.
- Wright, Chris. Billy Bray in His Own Words. Godalming, England: Highland Books, 2004. http://www.highlandbks.com/downloads/bray_ex.pdf.