Baptist witness in Dublin went back to the Cromwellian era to 1653, when through the ministry of Thomas Patient (d. 1666), the first Calvinistic Baptist meetinghouse was built in Swift’s Alley. The church grew rapidly at first, and by 1725 this church had between 150 and 200 members. A new meetinghouse was put up in the 1730s. By the time that Pearce came to Ireland in 1796, though, the membership had declined to roughly forty members. Pearce’s impressions of the congregation were not too positive. In a letter he wrote to William Carey in August 1796, the month after his return to England, he told the missionary:
There were 10 Baptist societies in Ireland. They are now reduced to 6 and bid fair soon to be perfectly extinct. When I came to Dublin they had no meeting of any kind for religious purposes. . . . Indeed they were so dead to piety that, tho’ of their own denomination, I saw and knew less of them than of every other professors in the place.
This opinion does not appear to have dampened his zeal in preaching. A Dublin deacon wrote to a friend: “We have had a Jubilee for weeks. That blessed man of God, Samuel Pearce, has preached amongst us with great sweetness and much power.” And in a letter to a close friend in London, Pearce acknowledged:
Never have I been more deeply taught my own nothingness; never has the power of God more evidently rested upon me. The harvest here is great indeed; and the Lord of the harvest has enabled me to labor in it with delight.
This passionate concern for the advance of the gospel in Ireland is well captured in a sentence from one of his letters to his wife, Sarah. “Surely,” he wrote to her on June 24, “Irish Zion demands our prayers.”
“who can tell what god might do”
In the three remaining years of Pearce’s earthly life, he expended much of his energy in raising support for the cause of foreign missions. He informed Carey in the fall of 1797:
I can hardly refrain from repeating what I have so often told you before, that I long to meet you on earth and to join you in your labors of love among the poor dear heathens. Yes, would my Lord bid me so, I should with transport obey the summons and take a joyful farewell of the land that bare me, though it were for ever. But I must confess that the path of duty appears to me clearer than before to be at home, at least for the present. Not that I think my connexions in England a sufficient argument, but that I am somewhat necessary to the Mission itself, and shall be as long as money is wanted and our number of active friends does not increase. Brother Fuller and myself have the whole of the collecting business on our hands, and though there are many others about us who exceed me in grace and gifts, yet their other engagements forbid or their peculiar turn of mind disqualifies them for that kind of service. I wish, however, to be thankful if our dear Lord will but employ me as a foot in the body. I consider myself as united to the hands and eyes, and mouth, and heart, and all; and when the body rejoices, I have my share of gladness with the other members.
One of the meetings at which Pearce preached was the one that saw William Ward (1769–1823)—later to be an invaluable coworker of William Carey in India—accepted as a missionary with the Baptist Missionary Society. Those attending the meeting, which took place at Kettering on October 16, 1798, were deeply stirred by Pearce’s passion and concern for the advance of the gospel. When Ward wrote to Carey about the meeting, he told his future colleague that Pearce had “set the whole meeting in a flame. Had missionaries been needed, we might have had a cargo immediately.”
Returning to Birmingham from this meeting, Pearce was caught in a heavy downpour, was drenched to the skin, and subsequently developed a severe chill. Neglecting to rest and foolishly thinking what he called “pulpit sweats” would effect a cure, he continued a rigorous schedule of preaching at Cannon Street as well as in villages around Birmingham. His lungs became so inflamed that Pearce had to ask Ward to supply the Cannon Street pulpit for a few months during the winter of 1798–99. By mid-December 1798, Pearce could not converse for more than a few minutes without losing his breath. Yet still he was thinking of the salvation of the lost.
At this time, Great Britain and France were locked in the titanic Napoleonic War, which would last into the middle of the second decade of the next century. This war was the final and climactic episode in a struggle that had dominated the eighteenth century. France and Great Britain had fought each other in wars in every decade but one since the 1680s. Not surprisingly, there was little love lost between the British and the French. For example, Samuel Carter Hall (1800–1889), a man of letters, recalled one of his earliest memories as a young boy when his father would put him on his knee and give him three pieces of advice: “Be a good boy, love your mother, and hate the French!”
But Pearce was gripped by a far different passion from those that gripped many in Britain and France—his was the priority of the kingdom of Christ. Although Pearce was desperately ill, he wrote a letter to Carey telling him of his plans for a missionary journey to France. “I have been endeavouring for some years,” he wrote,
to get five of our Ministers to agree that they will apply themselves to the French language, . . . then we [for he was obviously intending to be one of the five] might spend two months annually in that country, and at least satisfy ourselves that Christianity was not lost in France for want of a fair experiment in its favor: and who can tell what God might do!
God would use British evangelicals, notably Pearce’s Baptist contemporary Robert Haldane (1764–1842), to take the gospel to French speakers on the Continent when peace eventually came, but Pearce’s anointed preaching would play no part in that great work. Yet his ardent prayers on behalf of the French could not have been without some effect. Prayers for the conversion of the unsaved are never lost.