George Brealey (1823-1888) was born into a Christian home. But as a teenager, an unbelieving uncle introduced George to alcohol, profanity, and fighting.
In 1841, one Sunday afternoon, George’s mother found her 18-year-old son in a saloon playing cards and drinking himself drunk with two others. Falling on her knees right there, she pleaded with God for her wayward son. Where argument failed, her prayers succeeded. Turning to his companions, George said, “Goodbye, mates, I shall never enter this place again.” “What,” they replied, “you going to turn ‘Methody’? He’s afraid of his mother.”
Normally this taunt would have been enough for him to attack. Instead, he quietly replied, “I’m not afraid of my mother. I love her too well, but I am afraid of God and of my sins. Will either of you go to hell for me?”
“No,” they replied, “we don’t want to go for ourselves, much less for you.”
“Then don’t laugh at me for turning around and trying to escape.” He left with his mother, and soon after was converted.
In 1844, at the age of 21, he married Susan Gibbings, a devoted believer, and began a business in Exeter. For a few years, the concerns of business and family crowded the Lord out. But God shook him out of his spiritual lethargy by the suicide of a neighborhood drunkard called “Old Evans.” George had the job of cutting down the corpse from the stairway where Evans had died. He “gazed into the distorted features of the man who had lived and died within a stone’s throw of his own door–lived a life of evil and he had not warned him, died in his sin and he had not offered him the gospel–the terrible thought of his accountability to God and his responsibility to his fellow men pressed so crushingly upon him, that there and then he resolved to give himself afresh to God and His service with a determination never relinquished or relaxed.”
Calling this his “second conversion,” he wrote, “His love had killed my earthly desires, and I was ready to be His slave because He had made me His free man.” One proof of the change was his use of time. He trained his body to get by on five hours of sleep to allow time for his job and for door-to-door witnessing. His constant prayer was that God would use him.
H. W. Soltau, Samuel Wreford, and Henry Dyer encouraged George to distribute gospel tracts at fairs and races in and around Exeter. He went at it with a vengeance, giving out thousands in a time when tract distribution was a novelty. Undaunted, he withstood some unique challenges.
Once a perturbed clergyman, who was not so drunk that he couldn’t stay in his saddle, charged him and before the astounded crowd who had come to hear George preach, threatened to horse-whip George for trespassing in his parish! Preaching and witnessing in the streets of Exeter, he had a special burden for “the poor slaves of drink.”
In 1853, George composed an original, sensational and rather crude gospel tract entitled “Who is the Culprit?” The cover pictured a man hanging from a gallows. He distributed it at public hangings in Exeter. This macabre specimen of English literature was just the beginning of several tracts he produced. The “culprit” tract was used at the execution of a man from the Blackdown Hills. Interestingly, George went to live near where the murder occurred and lived in the house that the convicted murderer had owned. Having lived in the area for some time, he was asked by a woman to come and pray with her aged mother. She was in misery, “because,” she said, “I don’t know where I am going. ‘Tis all dark. I don’t see my way.”
He asked her what she wanted to see. She replied, “I want to know where I am going.” I told her, “Some are going to heaven, and some are going to hell. Those who go to heaven are those whose sins are washed away in the precious blood of Jesus, and who have received Him as their only Saviour; and those who go to hell are those who do not accept, but reject the blessed Saviour.” After some explanation, she said, “Make it plainer, that I may take it.” Silently asking the Lord to help her, I said to her, “I was passing this morning a crossroad, and I read these words on a pillar, ‘On this spot Mr. B was murdered by G S–, who was executed at Exeter for the horrid crime.’ Now, suppose G S–had been tried at Exeter, and found guilty, and condemned to be hanged, and someone had come forward and said, I will be hanged for G S–; and suppose the law would allow such a thing to be done, what would the judge have done with G S–?”
Just then the old woman exploded in agony. Wringing her hands, she sobbed, “My poor George! my poor George! There was nobody to take his place and he had to be hung.”
God had brought him to the murderer’s mother! Discovering the relationship between the two, and recovering from his own shock, he had the presence of mind to tell about the One who took the place of the guilty. The mother, the widow, and the son of the murderer all eventually came to Christ.
When Brealey began work in the Blackdown Hills in 1864, he asked God for a “body of iron and a soul of fire.” In summer he preached in the open air and in tents, and in winter in halls, school-houses, and cottages. He sought for souls as a greedy man mines silver. “I can’t stand that man’s look,” complained a stranger who had attended his preaching, “he reads a fellow through and through; he spots you in a moment, and you can’t get away from his eye.” Yet those same piercing eyes were often brimming with tears.
It has been suggested that he was like the districts in which he labored, blending “the bold and severe with the picturesque and beautiful.” He was a study in contrasts. He appeared brusque and hasty. He said what he felt, and was accused of harshness. People said, “What Mr. Brealey sets his mind to he’ll accomplish.” But his powerful physique, and strident will were tempered by a kindly hand on the shoulder and a mellow whisper of some of his uncommon sense.
Those “Hills” cover 400 square miles, dotted by farms and hamlets. They were also spotted with superstition. The people believed in and commonly practiced witchcraft. Conditions were wretched owing to superstition, ignorance, and drunkenness. In many cottages they had no idea of order or decency. A pan with potatoes was placed on the stone floor; the family squatted around it, eating their dinner with their fingers. Often there was not a chair in the house.
Initially he had a salary from an association of Christian friends. But as numbers professed to receive the Lord and the new believers searched the Scriptures, they saw that in apostolic times when men and women believed on Christ, they were baptized, and gathered together on the first day of the week to break bread. They wanting to act out what they had learned. Some who contributed toward the evangelist’s support objected, and threatened to withdraw their finances if he baptized the converts. “If I teach them absolute submission to the authority of the Scripture,” he said, “must I hinder them in their desire to obey the Word of the Lord? Am I not responsible to help them to obedience?” He gave up his salary and began to trust the Lord to supply his needs–a step he never regretted.
Farm laborers, servants, mechanics–all told of the wonderful things God had done. The worst characters, including a notorious witch were now “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed, and in their right mind.” This stirred the devil’s jealousy, and opposers banded together to crush the work. Newly converted employees were dismissed from work, some were physically assaulted, and others threatened with their houses being burned. It was no little comfort to know that, “It is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for His sake.”
The thatched cottage in which the meetings were held was soon too small. Within two years, 140 were baptized and received into fellowship. The work fanned out to other parts of the Blackdowns. Encouraged by the example of his friend, George Muller, schools and auditoriums for preaching were built, and adults and children were taught to read and write. Some of the converts went on to serve the Lord in China, India, Africa, and America.
After Susan died in 1882, he evangelized all across England, “Anywhere for Jesus I would go, and anywhere I would preach, provided I would be allowed to take the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth.” The older he became, the more he dreaded healing “the hurt of the daughter of My people slightly.” He said, “The buds in Nature develops best and quickest when unopened by the hand of man; God’s work is often spoiled by man’s hurry.” In the last message he preached, he said: “We shall never get out of the sight of the cross, and can never do without the blood; and, may I say, never was the cross of Christ or the blood of the Lamb more precious to my soul than now–make much of the cross, make much of the blood.”
In March, 1888, he was taken Home. James Wright (George Muller’s son-in-law and successor), and Thomas Newberry preached at his funeral. Henry Groves, writing about George’s passing, said, “Many fail to do anything because they will be doing something great. It was not so with our brother Brealey. God has left the lowly, yet honorable designation of Elisha, that he was “the man who poured water on the hands of Elijah”; that is, he was his servant, and by this he was known. He who has not learned to serve is unfit to rule, and he who despises little things will never be entrusted with great.”
Material extracted from the following books:
George Brealey Narrative of Facts, Volumes 1-17
Walter J.H. Brealey, Always Abounding
R.H.White, Strength of the Hills
Hy Pickering, Chief Men Among the Brethren