'I was born in the fire': the fervent faith of dancing preacher Billy Bray

Today marks the death of a 19th century Cornish preacher with fire in his belly and a liking for indecorous dance: a man known as Billy Bray.

Bray would gain a reputation as an exuberant and unconventional Methodist minister, but his origins were very different. For years he worked as a miner in Cornwall and Devon and was known as a riotous drunkard. In his own words, as Jonas Clark documents, he 'became the companion of drunkards, and during that time was very near hell'.

But much as John Wesley – the founder of Methodism – was transformed by a strange, 'heart-warming' encounter with God, Bray too had a spiritual experience that changed his life.

William Trewartha Bray, known as Billy Bray.Wikimedia Commons

A terrible tin mining accident brought Bray close to death, the kind of crisis that often reorients one's life. A friend gave him John Bunyan's Visions of Heaven and Hell to read. At the same time Bray had been conversing with his wife, a lapsed Methodist, and he longed for them both to discover or rediscover a true faith. At three in the morning in November 1823, he fell too his knees convicted of his sin, and cried to God for forgiveness.

Suddenly Bray was a new man in a new world: 'In an instant the Lord made me so happy that I cannot express what I felt. I shouted for joy. I praised God with my whole heart for what he had done for a poor sinner like me.'

This enthusiasm inspired Bray for the rest of his life: he urged people against a sullen and gloomy religiosity when they could experience a fiery, uplifting, unconventional faith. He became well known, started new Methodist chapels and evangelised Cornwall's mining community. The American philosopher William James called Bray 'an excellent little illiterate English evangelist', others knew him as 'God's man with a shout'.

Here are six quotes from Bray that capture his evangelical fervour.

1. If they were to put me in a barrel, I would shout glory out through the bunghole! Praise the Lord!

2. My comrades used to tell me that was no religion, dancing, shouting, and making so much-to-do, but I was born in the fire and could not live in the smoke.

3. I can't help praising God. As I go along the street I lift up one foot, and it seems to say, glory. And I lift up the other, and it seems to say, amen, and so they keep on like that all the time I am walking.

4. I could say, the Lord hath pardoned all my sins. I think this was in November, 1823, but what day of the month I do not know. I remember this, that everything looked new to me; the people, the fields, the cattle, the trees. I was like a man in a new world. I spent the greater part of my time in praising the Lord. I could say with David, 'The Lord hath brought me up out of a horrible pit, and out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings, and hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto my God.' I was a new man altogether.

5. He has made me glad and no one can make me sad. He makes me shout and no one can make me doubt. He it is that makes me dance and leap, and there is no one that can keep down my feet.

6. [On his deathbed] Glory! Glory, be to God! I shall soon be in heaven...When I get up there, shall I give them your compliments, doctor, and tell them you will be coming too?