Thomas Russell was an evangelist and missionary of the Primitive Methodist movement in England and Ireland. He was born in Middlewich in Cheshire, and first came into contact with the Primitive Methodists in 1817. He became a full time travelling preacher (or missionary evangelist) in 1829. He endured persecution, hardship and personal tragedy with courage, perseverance and fortitude.
In 1830 he was falsely accused and unjustly imprisoned for preaching and sentenced to hard labour for three months, in default of payment for a £10 fine. For ten hours each day he and other prisoners had to endure rigours of being forced to push a large mill wheel to manually grind corn in half hour stints. For thirty minutes they were covered in sweat and every bone in their body ached. Then for the next half hour the prisoners pulled old ropes to pieces with their fingers and thumbs. And so the cycle repeated, half an hour on, half an hour off.
In prison he was hungry. In his journal he writes “hunger pinched severely, so that I often wondered why a human being could not eat the ground to pacify the cravings of hunger”. Soon he became ill, and was unable to stand at the mill wheel. The prison doctor was called, who simply exclaimed “Here he came to be punished, and here he must be punished.” So Thomas Russell was ordered to the wheel again, and he wrote that “I found that the scripture was true, ‘The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel’.” It was rough justice.
Thomas Russell was instrumental in the missions to Berkshire and Hampshire in 1830. He was passionate in prayer, and a powerful preacher whose hearers were often moved to tears. He preached courageously, facing stones, other missiles, and vehement opposition. The mission was highly successful and soon spread to neighbouring counties.
He was engaged to and married Elizabeth Smith, a female preacher in 1831, and they had a baby, Julia who died in 1835. Four months later his wife died, at the early age of 30. Nearly 2000 people attended her funeral. He writes “Thus I was deprived of a child and wife in a few short weeks … But in a few days I returned to my labours, though with nearly a broken heart”. As he processed his grief he continued in effective evangelism in the Staffordshire Potteries.
In 1838 after three years as a widower, he married Elizabeth Duke, a Primitive Methodist convert from the Weymouth mission. By July 1847, he was stationed at Guernsey in the Channel Islands when his second wife died leaving him with four children, the youngest of whom was very ill. He writes “Her mother had made a most triumphant end; yet I dreaded the loss of the child”. He found practical sympathy and support from friends in the islands of Jersey, Alderney and Guernsey.
In 1849 a cholera epidemic swept across England, and people died of this dread disease within days or even hours of the onset of symptoms. In one instance after preaching in Hartlepool market place, a woman was converted through Thomas Russell’s preaching, and died just twelve hours later. The epidemic was a significant factor for the increase in conversions across the country. Thomas Rusell and his fellow missionaries visited the sick and dying at great personal risk.
In 1855 he was sent to Portadown in Ireland. It was the last place on earth he wanted to go and his four daughters cried bitterly when they heard of the posting. They moved as a family to live in Ireland and, in spite of initial misgivings, he had a vibrant ministry there. Seven years later he was posted to the Yorkshire dales, but in the meantime his daughters had married in Ireland. He recalls that “though I went to Ireland with reluctance, I left it with regret”. He ministered in the Yorkshire dales for three years until 1865 when he transferred to St. Albans.
During his life the Primitive Methodist movement grew from a small revivalist group based in the English midlands, to a worldwide movement that had a significant impact on the lives of working class people and their communities. Thomas Russell was one of a second generation of preachers who continued what had been started by the pioneers, Hugh Bourne and William Clowes. Thomas Russell died in 1886, and is buried at Englesea Brook in Cheshire. We need men and women of faith, courage and perseverance like him today.
Quotations from The Writings of Thomas Russell, originally published in 1869 and republished by Tentmaker publications 2005.