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22 May 2014

Serving Woolwich

Serving Woolwich

Photo credit: Ianmacm via Creative Commons

by Rev Israel Olofinjana

Today is exactly a year since the terrible murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich. The world was shocked as it watched a soldier being hacked down in broad day light by two terrorists just off John Wilson Street.

While I'm glad that justice has been served and the perpetrators have been given life imprisonment, conversations still continue as to how we can stop our young people from being radicalised.

I recently became the pastor of Woolwich Central Baptist Church, a church founded by Rev Dr John Wilson, so I've been trying to find out more about this person the street was named after. Rev Wilson was a significant church and public leader in nineteenth century England. As the pastor of Woolwich Tabernacle (which merged together with Conduit Road Baptist in 1969 to form Woolwich Central Baptist), he held wide leadership influence. The street name recognises his immense contribution to society.

Rev Wilson led Woolwich Tabernacle for sixty one years (1877-1938), making him the longest serving Baptist minister in one pastorate. It seated 2,500 people, so before today's mega churches in Woolwich, New Wine Church seating about 3,000 and Woolwich's own pentecostal cathedral Christ Faith Tabernacle led by Apostle Alfred Williams, there was Woolwich Tabernacle.

John Wilson, born May 1854 in Scotland, was brought up in a large Christian family with nine siblings, all being trained for God's kingdom. As a questioning teenager he listened to stories from Christian young men from the local YMCA, realising they possessed what he wanted. He describes his conversion: "That morning I saw dimly as in the distance the light that led to the gate, the cross, and the kingdom of God."

He began distributing books house to house and preaching, inspired by preachers such as American evangelist DL Moody. He attended Spurgeon's new college in London, and after ministering in Chiswick and Launceston in Cornwall was sent to a needy church in Woolwich, first serving as their student-pastor.

Woolwich was very different from previous countryside assignments, with slums, lodging houses and crowded bars. Their chapel was so dilapidated that the floor collapsed and a congregation member fell through into a grave. He became full-time pastor in 1877.

In 1878 the S.S Princess Alice sunk, losing about 600 people. This national calamity became a turning point for Wilson. Many in his church were bereaved and he conducted the mass funeral for 300 people, young and inexperienced as he was, and prayed for the right words of hope to say.

His conversational Bible class proved successful, as he invited politicians as well as preachers to speak on different subjects, covering various issues facing people in Woolwich and London in general. Topics such as Trade Unions, the family, economics, business, health, apologetics, missionary movements, church history and poetry. These lectures became a meeting point for the churched and un-churched, and the venue moved to Woolwich's assembly rooms and nine hundred were attending, many of whom rose to influential positions.

There was a need to build a Tabernacle to cater for increasing numbers, built with £14,000, and opened on 8 July 1896 by Thomas Spurgeon. The sum was contributed by church and community members, including one particularly large legacy.

Wilson loved and was very committed to Woolwich, to the extent that he rejected lucrative positions in places such as Oxford University and a role as principal of Spurgeon's College. John's name became as synonymous with Woolwich as Spurgeon's was with London.

He served the people of Woolwich Arsenal and the Dockyard and engaged with issues that faced an average working class person during the industrial revolution, of which Woolwich was an integral part. He was awarded an MBE for services among the troops at Woolwich during World War One. In 1937, his Diamond anniversary of being a Woolwich pastor, was an occasion for joyous community celebration for sixteen days. In 1938, at the ripe age of 84, Rev Dr John Wilson passed away at his home in Charlton survived by his wife, two sons and three daughters.

John Wilson is an example of a public leader connected with his community and the issues the people faced. He touched people spiritually, politically, economically and socially. Today we need, like Wilson, to be prepared to move beyond church walls and meet the real needs of the communities around us, and inspire others to do the same.

Israel Olofinjana is minister of Woolwich Central Baptist and director of the Centre for Missionaries from the Majority World.

The Alliance is committed to raising public leaders who will be voices for God in their communities. Visit www.thepublicleader.com to find out more.