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More Than Notion

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Date February 7, 2018

I returned to the countryside of Shropshire on Sunday, January 7. Just as a year earlier, I was to preach for the congregation at Lordshill Baptist Church near Minsterly, at Snailbeah, pastored by my friend Stephen Ford.

We were hoping that we could use the old building but the heavy rain had turned the pathway to it into a slough. The foundation stone of this chapel was laid on 1 May, 1833, and and the large building was completed on 30 September. The chapel opened on the first of October that year. It has a minister’s house attached to the side of the chapel, and has its own burial ground. The chapel is reported to have been enlarged in 1873. The congregation was small and elderly during the closing decades of the 20th century but it kept faith and it met for years in one of the buildings erected in connection with the lead mine workings of the area. But in the last years it has seen an encouraging growth and it has begun to use the old building again as the room they have been meeting in for so long has become too small. However, much work remains to be done on the Lordshill chapel.

But the services on this particular Sunday were held in Snailbeach Village Hall, a very attractive room, light and warm. There were almost forty of us in the morning and over forty at the afternoon meeting, half of the congregation consisting of young people. All the basic necessary elements of worship are there without even a loudspeaker or recording facilities. All the middle sections of the hymns were sung unaccompanied by the piano, the King James version was read, and the old great hymns sung.

The Lordshill chapel is significant in Christian history in Shropshire as one of the places referred to in Mrs. Alexander’s book, More Than Notion. The book appeared in the early sixties and its commendation by Dr. Lloyd-Jones encouraged its sales. He wrote,

I am delighted to hear that there is a call for a second edition of this excellent book and am most happy therefore to write a word of commendation for it. It came into my hands almost accidentally. I had never heard of the author but the moment I began to read I was gripped and deeply moved.

There are some books of which it can be said that to read them is an experience, and one is never the same again. The extracts out of the lives of these various people who came in varied ways to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ are, at one and the same time, convicting and encouraging. Some were poor and ignorant, others well-placed socially, and learned and cultured but all came to the same glorious experience.

In reading about them one is shown the vital difference between a head knowledge of the Christian faith and a true heart experience.

In recommending it to the congregation at Westminster Chapel on a Friday night I said that it should be made compulsory reading for all theologians especially, but it will prove valuable also to those who long for a vital Christian experience.

Many who have read it as the result of my recommendation have testified to the blessing they have received. In one church known to me the reading of the book by one man led to a prayer-meeting such as they had not experienced before.

In these superficial and confused days I thank God for a book such as this and pray that He may bless it to countless souls.

I was reading a book of history essays recently, not about the Christian church about a period and individuals who were much admired by the writer. He wrote this phrase, ‘let us soak in the ambiance of a bygone age.’ Well, we have to avoid hot tub religion while still being inspired by the works of divine grace in past generations. To maintain a balanced view of history is one challenge. Learn from the past. Live in the present. Look to the future.

One of the outstanding characters in the book More Than Notion is Sukey Harley (Who was born Susan Overton at Prolley Moor, a hamlet in Shropshire on the Long Mynd about 1780, and was buried in Pulverbatch in 1853 where she had lived for 37 years). Grace Holding has summarized her life as following:

Her father died when she was only three, the last but one of a large family. Hunger and ignorance made her ‘a very wild, unruly child.’ As soon as she was old enough Sukey served in a farmhouse where her bent for hard work made her appreciated.

She married early, her husband Charles being a farm labourer and unlike Sukey was a quiet, steady man. After the birth of their only daughter they moved to Dorrington and then to Ryton, where we are told, ‘we kept two pigs; we had enough and to spare; no lack of this world’s goods… I made acquaintance with all the idle, frivolous girls in the village hooting and bawling, shouting, gammocking and romping… On the Sabbath morning we used to collect together in a large barn, dancing and revelling, and fooling away the time. I was a very good tuner on the fiddle, and they used to dance. This is the way my Sabbaths were spent.’

In spite of her ‘gammocking’ Sukey realised that two of her churchgoing neighbours ‘had got something that I had-na got, this was it that troubled me. I began to think there must be a God; then I thought, these women know that God.’ Sukey went to church with them, but was unchanged by the experience. ‘One day I was fluttered about two little pigs. I could-na’ get them into the sty. I cursed and swore at them as usual.’ Contrasting herself with the two neighbours Sukey was ‘tossed to and fro. The reason I don’t know God is because I cannot read. Then I thought I must have a new prayer – These words clapped into my mind: – ‘Lord lead me to the true knowledge of thy dear Son,’ I never heard that God had a Son yet these words came into my heart. It was the prayer God taught me himself, no one else taught me.’

One morning a fortnight later, Sukey shut herself into her bedroom ‘ I said with all my strength, ‘I will never open this door again till I know their God’. I stuffed the windows with all the old rags I could find; I could not bear the light; then I went down on my knees in the dark corner and began praying. – the Lord’s Prayer, and, Lord, lead me into the true knowledge of thy dear Son!’

‘I felt him come; it’s past my talking about! Such a wonderful time; it’s clean past telling. No words can express the feelings of my heart at this time, He showed me all my sins. Yes, that bit of pink ribbon I had stolen for my doll’s cap came upon me. He seemed to tell me all my sins were forgiven. I was so overwhelmed that I did-na’ know what to do.

‘Well, I went and unblocked the windows, cleared away all the dirty rags, and let in the blessed light of the sun, the glorious light, my Father’s light. I unbolted the door and opened it. I looked out: what a glorious sight! I saw my God in everything. All things were new to me. I was unbound, I was loosed.’

Her new faith soon evidenced itself. ‘I had a desire to read; I longed to read the blessed Word for myself. I got my little wench to teach me the letters; she used to grow sleepy, so I would give her two suppers of a night to encourage her; all the while I was praying to my God to enable me to learn.

‘She brought me on as far as this – God is love, God is light -. I thought, ‘My God is love, He is light. He can teach me himself.’ From that time I would take my book, and go down on my knees, and look up to my Heavenly Father, and beg of Him to teach me… and He did teach me.’

Sukey and her family shortly moved to the outskirts of Pulverbatch, where her lively faith met with opposition and resentment. ‘I used to attend the church. They used to pelt me with books from the gallery, and the farming men used to throw their sticks from the gallery at me below… so I left the church.’

The demonstrative Sukey and the unruly congregation were not the only problems for the Rector, the Rev. William Gilpin. Under then influence of friends and acquaintances elsewhere, several of the Gilpin children were to leave the worship of the established Church.

As a man who believed in discipline – formerly, like his father who founded Cheam School, he had been Headmaster there – he was overwhelmed by his vicissitudes. His daughters Jane and Mercy, with Sukey and her family and some ten others, began meeting in a cottage or farmhouse on the Sabbath while Charles and Margaret Ilpin accompanied their father to church as usual. ‘My poor, pious children are all such bigots,’ the Rector complained.

Sukey was always ready to ‘fight for her religion’ with zest, and the village witnessed many battles. She realised later that her efforts hindered rather than helped her cause. Her tongue remained in great evidence however. ‘They say, ‘Why, Sukey Harley has a changed heart, yet how she talks’. This is what I do. I fall down before God and wait, and never give up until He tells me what to say. I cannot speak until he comes.’

She faced many trials. In 1826 her cottage, 2 Harolds Bank, was burnt to the ground through another’s negligence. ‘I stood upon the causeway and kept looking at my burning house. I hardly dared look up to God for help.’ Then, ‘He strengthened me marvellously. I banged mite the burning house, I cared neither for flames nor falling rafters, nor timbers, nor yet for the devil my mortal foe, for my Saviour was with me.’

A neighbour who had seen the flames came running to her assistance, and together ‘we  soon got the house cleared. When all the goods were out of the house, and the roof fell in and the flames rose up, and the smoke, then I looked and wondered at it. Well, the folks, they fetched a wagon, and put all the things into it. I myself came down to Churton Square. I was soot, and black and smoke all over.’

In 1850 her husband Charles was taken ill and later placed in an asylum where she visited him every few weeks. That winter she left her isolated cottage for one much nearer to a meeting room which had by then been specially built in the village. She remained there for the last two and a half years of her life.

There is much that is sweet in the book but one of its emphases, quite unconsciously and without comment or analysis, is upon  the high experiences of God that some of the Christians of Shropshire knew. We must test claims to truth, and test ethics and evaluate experience. We need help to test the spirits. My own late wife Iola could not cope with the book. In fact, she stopped reading it, wondering whether she could be a Christian is this were the normal life of the believer. The book needs to be read alongside Alexander’s book on religious experiences and Jonathan Edwards on the Religious Affections.

I had such a happy Lord’s Day there and am glad to see a work revived in an area once known for the blessing of God it received in notable awakening ministries. There are many places like that which are part of our gospel history but which today, alas, are bereft even of an evangelical pulpit.

Of Further Interest

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    I returned to the countryside of Shropshire on Sunday, January 7. Just as a year earlier, I was to preach for the congregation at Lordshill Baptist Church near Minsterly, at Snailbeah, pastored by my friend Stephen Ford. We were hoping that we could use the old building but the heavy rain had turned the pathway […]

    price $17.10


    I returned to the countryside of Shropshire on Sunday, January 7. Just as a year earlier, I was to preach for the congregation at Lordshill Baptist Church near Minsterly, at Snailbeah, pastored by my friend Stephen Ford. We were hoping that we could use the old building but the heavy rain had turned the pathway […]

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