John Hambleton (1820-1889) was raised in the seaport city of Liverpool, England. His saintly mother was one strong link in the events leading to his conversion. “I shall never forget the lovely way she used to place her hand upon my head, and talk about that peerless Person who was ‘God manifest in the flesh,'” he recounted.
But as a teenager he rebelled against his upbringing. With his peers he became an openly depraved delinquent. At sixteen he ran away from home to enter the theater, and travel England, Australia and America as an actor, theatrical manager, adventurer, and gold digger.
The way home began in 1850 in a saloon in Geelong, Australia, when a fellow actor ridiculed the Bible. Everyone joined the laughter except John. Unable to shake off the impressions of his mother’s consistent, Christ-like example and teaching, he spoke out to defend the Bible and Christianity. “In my own heart,” Hambleton observed, “I believed every doctrine of the Christian faith, though I was a rejecter of Christ and a neglecter of God’s great salvation.”
The California gold rush drew men of Hambleton’s type. Hearing about the fortunes to be had, he left Australia to go digging for something to satisfy his heart. But he would not find it in the muck of the placer.
San Francisco was going through wild times. The laws allowed people to carry out, tax free, any gold they picked up, panned, or dug. Fortunes were made and lost overnight in the gold fields. Hambleton narrowly escaped alive. “Careless of fatigue, hunger, and disappointment, we pursued our way over wild and desolate tracts of country, where nothing met the eye but vast prairies, from which there arose immense mountains, capped with snow, and slopes that were wooded with trees of enormous growth. Of course we had to endure many hardships, and often to suffer the pangs of hunger, thirst, fever, and fatigue, to say nothing of peril of robbers, and the rowdyism of some desperate characters in our own party. But what did we care for all this so long as we could reach the point of our ambition, and find the precious gold upon which our sordid hearts were set?”
He almost died several times, at least once each by drowning, stabbing, shooting, thirst, and disease. At his lowest, his “friends” went to dig a grave while he lay nearby under a tree. He did look grim. “As I lay upon that grassy couch, apparently upon the eve of death, my soul trembled as conscience suggested the question, ‘Where will you go when the end comes?’ Then the scenes of my past life rushed with fearful imagery through my mind. I thought of the home I had deserted, of my mother’s heart I had broken, the talents I had I abused, the grace of God which I had despised and rejected. And then I thought of the just retribution of the wicked and of the awful eternity, when impenitent sinners such as myself shall reap ‘for ever and ever’ what they have sown in time.”
God had his attention, but John did not yet see the way of salvation. He recovered physically, but was still not a new creature.
Circumstances came together for him to sail back home. After seventeen years absence, he stepped onto the dock at Liverpool on April 1, 1857. His quest for any relatives seemed futile. Finally he found his sisters.
Before his mother had died years previously she asked her daughter to write a declaration of her prayer of faith. John’s sister produced the paper. One of her declarations read that God would save her prodigal son John, and bring him back to Liverpool, that he might become “a preacher of the gospel.”
Determined to change, John tried the route of self-effort and for weeks he strove, struggled, vowed and resolved his way into a “Slough of Despond.” Thankfully, during this time he went to a bookstore and bought a Bible. In despair of saving himself, he saw the Saviour he needed while reading John chapter 3 and 5:24.
Once he knew he was at peace with God, he wanted the same for others. “At the first my knees trembled like Jeremiah, but God directed me to His Word, saying: ‘Thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee; and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak. Be not afraid of their faces, for I am with thee to deliver thee.'”
Reginald Radcliffe, the Liverpool lawyer, was an early encouragement to the new believer. The market place was John’s brief apprenticeship in open air work. He and a dock worker named Edward Usher rented the Teutonic Hall for gospel services. It was happy work. A considerable number claimed to have been converted. Then, “with a shilling between them,” he went traveling in the Name of the Lord.
Mrs. Reginald Radcliffe says, “It was laid on the hearts of Hambleton and his friend to go into Lancashire, and preach the gospel to some of the great populations in the towns and villages. I remember well, when they started they were going to trust God for everything. So with very little in their pockets, and hearts full of faith, they set off from Chatham Place. Mr. Radcliffe accompanied them out of town, as they went afoot. Before parting they stepped over a hedge, knelt down in the field, and commended each other and the work of God into His own keeping. Some weeks after, when they returned, they both stood up before me, and said, ‘Look at us; we are better dressed than when we started, and have lacked nothing.'”
Better still, God had blessed their words to many souls. We are often told that God wants faithful servants, not necessarily successful servants. But Hambleton was both faithful and successful. The most notable success in his ministry was the men he trained. Wherever we see him, he was pushing another servant out into the work.
He had urged Richard Weaver to launch out. And when the revival stream which began flowing in 1859 was at high tide, Henry Moorhouse was converted in 1861. Henry came into touch with Richard (Undaunted Dick) Weaver, John Hambleton, Edward Usher, Reginald Radcliffe, and Joshua (Fiddler Joss) Poole. And there were others besides these. Sometimes these men filled fourteen rented theaters in London on one Sunday night to herald out the gospel.
When Henry Moorhouse left auctioneering to preach the gospel, the first man he went looking for was John Hambleton of Liverpool. Under Hambleton’s wing, Henry quickly grew in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Hambleton gave young Henry the “sink or swim” approach in learning how to preach the gospel. Together they entered on an evangelistic tour through the provinces. These men did their evangelizing without a fixed salary, or human promise of support. They spoke about “depending on God.” It meant not depending on any denomination, organization, sect, society, or committee. John Hambleton was fearless, willing to do God’s will at all costs. He did not make his attainments a standard of Christian fellowship, and no Christian ever accused him of being a sectarian bigot. He loved God’s people, and they knew it.
Hambleton, Usher and Moorhouse attended the tercentenary festival honoring William Shakespeare at Stratford-on-Avon. Needing a text for one of his banners, Hambleton was supplied with the right words one night as he lay awake and heard Henry talking in his sleep (which he often did). “There I stood with a board, on which was printed, ‘Christ for me! Christ for me!’ and the poor people were singing so happy.” Moorhouse paused, and then added, “Praise the Lord! Mercy’s free!” He quieted down and slept till morning. So it was that “Christ for me! Praise the Lord! Mercy’s free!” became Hambleton’s text for use at the Shakespearean festival.
The drama of hearing Hambleton in full stride transfixed the people. That day he was a man with a message. The text made a startling impression. People were stirred, and fruit gathered.
Together Weaver and Hambleton were Boanarges for that age. Henry Pickering described Hambleton’s preaching partner as a man with peculiar unction. With such “spiritual electricity…a greater God-made preacher has not been known in living memory. The moment he began to speak–at least in his palmy days–he sent a power and reality through the hearts of the thousands who thronged to hear him. You felt God was there. The Spirit was working. The Bleeding Lamb, of whom he loved to sing, was the center, and eternal issues were at stake.”
Usher, Moorhouse, and Hambleton came to Dublin in 1862, and an eighteen-year-old named Thomas John Barnardo heard things from the converted actor that he never knew before. Days later after speaking with his brother, he entrusted himself for time and eternity to our Lord Jesus. This brilliant young man went on to study in Edinburgh, Paris, and London. There in 1866, a destitute boy–commonly called a “street arab”–took him to where eleven others were sleeping on the roof of an iron building under the stars. Dr. Barnardo opened his doors to these waifs. His mottos became, “Admit first–inquire afterwards,” and “No destitute child ever refused admission.” For forty years he ran the “Barnardo Homes,” housing almost 67,000 runaway or abandoned boys and girls. In fishing terms, Barnardo was a big catch.
From Dublin, these men ranged out into the south of Ireland. In Cork, Moorhouse and Hambleton were drowned out by a mob singing, “We’ll hang Garibaldi on a sour apple tree.” But Garibaldi was in Italy, and the closest enemies that mob saw were the two preachers who insisted that a free and full salvation came only through faith in the blood of Christ, not in ritual or ecclesiastical decree. Hambleton was a lionlike man. With no amplification system, or gorilla bodyguards, he stared down, outsmarted, overshouted and outlasted that ugly mob.
Near a racecourse, a gang instigated by an Irish Roman Catholic created a disturbance. Hambleton told the ringleader that he would allow him to speak if he would answer one question. Prodded on by his comrades, he stepped on the platform.
Hambleton asked, “Why did Cain murder his brother Abel?” That question seemed to reach out to that young man like the hands of an invisible giant. Stunned and shaken, he bolted from the platform in a panic, leaving Hambleton to answer his question and by it preach on sin, righteousness, and judgment.
On another occasion, the circus people thought business was suffering due to Hambleton’s preaching next door. Their clown volunteered to dress up in a bizarre costume, ridicule the preacher, and distribute circus handbills.
Hambleton knew how to fool a fool, “Look here, friends, and you will see two fools, one for the devil and the other for Christ. God made man in His own image, but look at that poor fellow there and see what Satan has done for him. By God’s grace I am a free and a happy man, serving a good Master, but that poor man is only serving the devil, and will only get the wages of sin, which is death. Yet the God he mocks sent His only Son to die on the cross to save sinners from eternal punishment, and I am here to declare the glad tidings that there is forgiveness of sins for all who believe in His most blessed Name.”
The jester shrank into the crowd, as if he had vaporized, but at the end of the day he rematerialized in front of the “converted actor,” to ask for prayer. The clown confessed, “I am wretched in my quiet moments.”
In 1879, Hambleton returned to Australia for a year, this time on a mission for the Lord. Edward Moyse, Harrison Ord, and Henry Rainey had also gone Down Under. These itinerant evangelists saw fruit in the gospel, and several large congregations of saints sprang up in Victoria and Tasmania.
In December of 1880, Hambleton made it to Henry Moorhouse’s deathbed back in England. “Calling to see him on Monday last, before he left us, I grasped his arms, as his face betokened that the enemy death was doing his last work. I said, ‘Harry, we shall soon meet up yonder.’
“He replied, while gasping for breath, ‘Sure, sure, sure!’ How plainly visible is the work of God in putting into such a little frail vessel as our brother such a treasure, showing us all that the excellency of the power is of God.”
Henry Moorhouse had introduced the idea of the Bible carriage in England, and Hambleton liked it. Hambleton was inventive, always looking for better ways to get the work done. The Bible carriage was a bookmobile, portable pulpit, and sleeping accommodation all in one. George Mueller had backed up this method of Bible distribution. In 1884, when Hambleton again sailed for Australia, he brought along a Bible carriage that had been manufactured by Mueller’s friends in Bristol, England. This Bible carriage would be widely used in Australia.
His last act of service was to pack a box of books for one of the Bible carriages, load it into a wheelbarrow, and walk it to the station 500 yards from his home. It was there in Geelong, Australia that he heard his homecall on December 8, 1889.
Hambleton used his magnificent voice, command of language, and ability to think on his feet in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales; in the open air, in tents, halls, chapels, and rented theaters. He took advantage of public executions, carnivals, circuses, fairs, and race tracks. He also engaged in Bible carriage work, as well as lecturing throughout the country on a large chart which he called “Ezekiel’s Tile.” An indefatigable soldier for His master, the one-time rebel became a servant, the actor proclaimed instead eternal realities, the prospector found the treasure more precious than “gold that perishes.”
Material in this article was gathered from:
Henry Moorhouse: The English Evangelist, J. MacPherson
Buds, Blossoms, and Fruits of the Revival, John Hambleton
The Converted Actor: A True Narrative of God’s Remarkable Dealings with the Late John Hambleton, E. H. B.