William Lockhart

William Lockhart

William Lockhart was a famous evangelist in the 19th Century, so much so that he was included in the book "Twelve Famous Evangelists by James Stephen (recently republished by Ambassador Publications), along with Wesley, Whitefield, Moody, Torrey, Spurgeon, and William Booth. He was referred to as "The Young Men’s Evangelist," because as we will see later he was greatly used in reaching such for Christ. As with John Hambleton and Reginald Radcliffe (also from Merseyside) he is included in the section 'Merseyside's Great Evangelists.'

William was born in Kircaldy in 1835, but his family moved to Merseyside in 1847 when he was 12 years of age. They settled in Birkenhead, and he was partly educated in Birkenhead and Liverpool. Although he had a Christian upbringing it wasn’t until he was 20 years of age that he was converted, and was baptised when 22 years old at Myrtle Street Chapel by Hugh Stowell Brown (see "Others who have inspired our city") and became a member of that church. Before long he was taking a men’s Bible class in the Baptist Chapel in Birkenhead (Grange Baptist Church) where his family attended. He was a keen sportsman and captained Birkenhead Park Cricket Club and became quite famous throughout England, and had the reputation of being the best wicket keeper in the country.

Founding of the YMCA in Birkenhead

One day on the Ferry Boat to Liverpool where he worked a colleague suggested the formation of a YMCA and a preliminary meeting was held in 1859 to consider this. It was formed shortly afterwards and Lockhart became the elected honorary secretary. It was here that he met Charles Web from Claughton. He soon began attending meetings held by Mr Web in a schoolroom in Claughton on Saturday evenings for the purpose of pleading for an outpouring of God’s Spirit on the neighbourhood. With great nervousness he preached the gospel for the first time to the unconverted who started attending in January 1860 to a very attentive congregation. He had a great fear of pride and prayed that God would keep him humble and an instrument in His hands. He continued to preach every week both at Claughton and then to other mission rooms. He always had an attentive congregation many of whom were in tears. He spent much time in prayer, and before every service would kneel down and like a little child would cast himself upon God, conscious that without His help he would fail. Virtually every week people were getting saved, and then in April 1860 he wrote to a friend that a great awakening had taken place in Claughton Village with God manifesting himself in an extraordinary way. He said that virtually the whole village had become anxious about the state of their soul. An account of this move of God is given in the previous chapter. After a period in Scotland and witnessing the revival going on there, he returned to Birkenhead more than ever zealous for souls. He wrote a letter to every member of the YMCA expressing his concern for their spiritual welfare.

Argyle Rooms and Birkenhead Theatre

In a letter to a friend he told him how his heart yearned for the young men of Birkenhead, so in November 1860 he advertised a meeting that he was going to hold in the Argyle Rooms for the purpose of giving a talk. Many thought that it would be about cricket, so it was packed with many having to be turned away, nearly all of them being young men. At this meeting he gave a clear gospel message for 1hour 20 minutes – there was never seen such an audience in Birkenhead before. Many looked thunderstruck and some laughed, but they soon settled down, and listened attentively. He very much felt his own weakness and inadequacy. This became a great subject of conversation in both Liverpool and Birkenhead, and numbers came to Christ through it. At this meeting a reporter was present with a pencil in his hand to take notes, but he failed to write anything and at the end of the meeting sought God for salvation. The following month he hired the Birkenhead Theatre for the purpose of taking special services on Sunday evenings. It was not long before 500 people were attending these services, including some from the cricket club, with many finding Christ as Saviour. By the end of 1860 he had spoken 76 times and had addressed many thousands of people. Many young men were saved and sought his company. In his Merchant’s Office in Liverpool he had a little room partitioned off from the rest which formed a sanctuary to those who visited him there. A number of the converts were in the habit of dining together in Castle Street where a table reserved for them was known as "Amen Corner" because of the custom of giving thanks and they would spend their lunchtime speaking of the things of God.

His ministry in Liverpool and the Wirral

William Lockhart became a popular speaker in the Wirral, but in 1861 we find him moving over to Liverpool also and holding large meetings in Hope Hall addressing several hundred people each week, with numbers coming to Christ. He was still continuing his meetings at the Birkenhead Theatre with all the young men talking about "the revival." Seeing so many coming to Christ he wrote to a friend in February 1861 soliciting his prayers that he would be clothed with humility saying that the enemy was seeking to puff him up, something he was really struggling with. This was followed by large meetings held in Rock Ferry, with numbers of conversions, some of them being in great distress. In the meantime the meetings in Hope Hall had risen to 1000 people, nearly all of them being young men, with many enquirers. In March 1861 he spoke at a meeting in Bromborough and said that he had never seen people listen so eagerly in all his life. He felt as though he was speaking to men on the gallows. In April 1861 somebody was converted from Bootle who invited him to hold meetings there, which were held shortly afterwards with good results.

The revival in Scotland

In May 1861 he went to Scotland for a rest but it was not long before we find him speaking to large crowds with good results. So intense was the concern of those present in one place that some, unable to control their emotion cried out in the church. Many of the invitations he received came from those who had been associated with him in Liverpool, or had been converted though his ministry. In Ayr a great impact was made and it was said that he was the greatest evangelist to visit there. A greater impact still was made in Glasgow where he preached to thousands with many conversions. One person commented that as soon as he fell on his knees and engaged in prayer one saw and felt at once that this was a man whom God had met, a son of God clothed with spiritual power. Wherever he went crowds of up to 5000 attended, with at times whole neighbourhoods being stirred up and as he put it "many, many anxious souls."

Return to Liverpool

On returning to Liverpool in October 1861 he found that Reginald Radcliffe was holding special meetings in Hope Hall, and he joined in with him. God was really moving with many people anxiously enquiring how they could be saved. Strong men lay helpless on the forms overwhelmed by spiritual concern. A committee was subsequently formed in order to promote the work that God was doing through Reginald Radcliffe, William Lockhart and others, and they took Hope Hall and entrusted the services to Lockhart’s management. Under the auspices of the committee meetings were arranged in large and central places and many notable speakers were invited to take part. These all came together throwing all their energies into the revival movement.

About the same time as the above was happening he had to consider whether he should go full-time as an evangelist, because he had been greatly used to win souls, or whether to stay in business. He was in fact invited to be a paid evangelist with "The Carrubers Close Mission. This was something that he struggled with for some time because he had an inner longing to go through the country to preach, especially to young men. However, in it all he felt strongly that his call was to settle in Liverpool. His influence amongst the merchants of Liverpool was considerable and in fact many were Christians with numbers of them carrying a pocket Bible around with them. Most of his preaching engagements were henceforth in Liverpool and Merseyside and he availed himself of holiday seasons to undertake more distant engagements. Over the coming years many invitations came in from all around the North of England often speaking in the open air, public halls and theatres, as well as places of worship. Some of his favourite places were Birkenhead Park, and Lime Street Lamp. He was a very strong advocate of open-air meetings as being a great means of reaching the masses of the population. Very many, he said, received their first impressions through preaching in the open air.

Hengler’s Circus

In the "Sword and the Trowel" October 1881 the story was related how Spurgeon whilst ministering one day gave out the challenge "can none of you young men do something for religion in the places where you live" - an arrow shot from his bow at a venture. It lodged deep in the heart of a young man present at that meeting by the name of William Lockhart. He returned to Liverpool and began the work in Hope Hall, and then an outreach work in Hengler’s Circus, then located in Newington, off Bold Street. When relating this story to Spurgeon some years later it made a deep impression on the great man, causing tears to pour down his cheeks.

Hengler’s Circus had previously been used for special services by the United Committee to which he belonged, but in 1865 he determined to take the place on his own responsibility. The first series continued for three months. In the following autumn the building was again taken for three months. The third and fourth series were both taken for six months. The services were very simple, but very solemn. Without the aid of any instrument, a voluntary precentor led the united singing of the congregation, and melody arose from many a contrite heart unused to praise. A distinctive feature of the meetings was the extensive and impressive reading of Scripture. In unbroken silence the large congregation would listen while long chapters were read with grave emphasis. In his list of ‘Circus Subjects’ there were ninety-nine addresses delivered there, including such titles as "Plenteous Redemption" "The coming of the Lord," and "Resurrection." It was at the beginning of the second season that he commenced the Circus Leaflets, which he published weekly, with a notice below of the service to be held the following Sunday. These little tracts were for the most part written by himself, and contained a brief statement of the gospel, enforced by some simple narrative or striking illustration. Thousands of these leaflets were distributed every week, either from door to door through the streets in the neighbourhood, or to the passers-by in the busy thoroughfares. Many persons were thus brought under the sound of the Word. At first there were about 1500 people attending the services but when this went down to only 1000 people, he became quite despondent and said that there must be more prayer, much more prayer. God did answer prayer and in time this increased considerably. One night a young man gave a Circus Leaflet to a tall strong man wandering along Berry Street, and asked him to go and hear Mr Lockhart. He did attend that Sunday and for several weeks after and then got saved, and he eventually became a winner of souls himself. The meetings attracted many people who never entered a place of worship, and sailors also landing in Liverpool were attracted in goodly numbers to this informal meeting house. One evening in the winter of 1867, an American who had landed in Europe for the first time that evening sought an interview with Mr Lockhart, bringing a letter of introduction with him. Mr Lockhart asked the stranger to say a few words in the Circus, which he did. This was the first address in England of somebody who was to become the greatest soul-winner of the 19th Century – his name D L Moody!

Toxteth Tabernacle

The circus meetings continued for four successive years, until he became aware that many of those who attended did not attend any place of worship between the seasons. He therefore sought out somewhere for them to gather in their own place. He didn’t want anywhere in the city centre, where there were plenty of churches. He observed that many of those who attended came from Toxteth Park so he sought out somewhere in that district which was not close to any other evangelical church. He eventually found one, being a disused Welsh Chapel, seating 1200 people in Beaufort Street. In May 1868 this was opened as Ebernezer Chapel, a Baptist Church, and a good number started attending. Open airs were held on the steps of a warehouse close by prior to the Sunday evening service, and he made himself available to anyone who wanted to speak privately with him. At the end of the first year he had a membership of 69 persons with 55 people having been baptised. After two years a new place of worship was found which was to become the famous Toxteth Tabernacle. As soon as the land was obtained C H Spurgeon preached the first sermon on that ground and laid the foundation stone of the new building. When the building was finished it was debt free, something that Lockhart insisted should happen. Over the next 10 years it built up from 122 members to 745 members, and in a census undertaken in 1881 it was listed as the largest Protestant Church, with 1200 attendants in the morning service.

To close let me mention a few other details with regard to William Lockhart and his ministry: -

  • In June 1866 he married Mary Jane Freeman and they lived at 137 Upper Parliament Street. She wrote the biography of her husband’s life.
  • People were regularly saved in his services with cases of men sobbing like children because of their lost condition.
  • Prayer meetings went on for up to 2 ½ hours with some staying beyond that to plead further with God.
  • He would not tolerate sin in their midst if this came to light, making the remark "how can God bless us if we are not walking before Him in holiness and sincerity. He would plead with the church that one hypocrite or evildoer might, like Achan, hinder the united work of the whole."
  • In April 1877 when Hengler’s Circus moved to West Derby Road, Lockhart engaged this for Sunday evening services.
  • George Muller was a frequent visitor to Toxteth Tabernacle.
  • He was a lifelong friend of Spurgeon and he often preached at the Metropolitan Tabernacle. They also often conferred together on the growth of unsound doctrine and the action that should be taken over it. Lockhart was chosen to deliver the address at a Memorial Service held in Liverpool when Spurgeon died.
  • Though he was only a layman he was a prodigious worker for the gospel. In one year alone he preached 275 times. – not bad for a layman. Prime Minister William Gladstone (whose brother Robertson Gladstone attended Toxteth Tabernacle) once asked him how he could stand up to the strain of preaching so many times, and that from the man who was running the country!

For a detailed biography of the life of William Lockhart please refer to my website www.1859.org.uk/the-people-god-used/william-lockhart