The strength of character of this remarkable man was captured by J C Ryle in his Preface to Christian Leaders of the 18th Century. Using the simile of an army to illustrate the differing ministries of four spiritual heroes raised up by God in the evangelical revivals he wrote, "Whitefield and Wesley were spiritual cavalry, who scoured the country, and were found everywhere. William Grimshaw was an infantry soldier, who had his headquarters in Haworth and never went far from home. Romaine was a commander of heavy artillery, who held a citadel in the heart of the metropolis, and seldom stirred beyond its walls".
William Romaine was of Huguenot stock, his grandfather Robert Romaine having arrived in England from France shortly before the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in October, 1685 by Louis XIV. This Edict, issued in 1598 by Louis grandfather Henry IV, had protected the rights of French Calvinist Protestants often called Huguenots. It has been estimated that when the Edict was revoked around 400,000 Huguenots left France to settle in England, Holland, Prussia and North America. Robert Romaine settled with his family in the small north-east seaport of Hartlepool where William Romaine Snr became a well-respected corn merchant. He and his wife Isabella had nine children of which William, born in 1714 (the same year as Whitefield), was the second. The children were reared in a happy Christian home.
William received his early education at Kepier Grammar School, Houghton le Spring, which had been founded in 1557 by the Rector Bernard Gilpin, known as the Apostle of the North. It was a place of sound learning, and from there William went up to Hart Hall, now Hertford College, Oxford, which numbered William Tyndale and John Donne among its famous former students. Romaine made great literary progress and studied the Scriptures in their original languages in preparation for ministry in the Church. At the university he consorted with like minded scholars who followed and developed the views of one John Hutchinson (16741737) a High Church Anglican, who, from a mystical interpretation of Hebrew roots, taught that the Old Testament Scriptures embraced a complete system of natural philosophy and religion. Such views coloured the early years of Romaines ministry near Epsom and the controversies he engaged in during that period. He became a noted Hebrew scholar and published a new edition of the Hebrew Concordance and Dictionary of F Marius de Calasio (d. 1620) a learned professor of Hebrew at Rome. The new edition took ten years to complete and was published in four volumes. Romaines grasp of Old Testament doctrine is revealed by the following, written when he was only twenty-six years old: "The law of Moses pointed out by its types and emblems the person of Christ. Particularly it pointed him out by sacrifices which typified what he was to do and suffer for us. The necessity of these sacrifices proved the necessity of Christs sacrifice. And Gods requiring of them as necessary for redemption, proved also the necessity of our redemption by Christ; and therefore it is evident, that the law pointed out and proved the necessity of our redemption by Christ, and purification by blood".
In 1747 Romaine moved to London "strongly entrenched in notions of his own exalted abilities", but in the capital he was "neither noticed nor applauded". Yet, when on the verge of leaving to sail to Hartlepool, with his trunk on board the vessel, he met an utter stranger to him who promised to exert his influence to have Romaine elected to a vacant lectureship at St Georges and St Botolphs, Billingsgate. The meeting at that juncture was surely a providential intervention to ensure Romaines future ministry in London. It seems that at that time, in spite of his intellectual grasp of theology, Romaine was not yet converted, or at least did not enjoy the assurance of personal salvation. He gradually grew clearer through reading the Word and through prayer, until in 1749 he reached the crisis point later described by him writing of himself in the third person. "He has been attempting for many years to be something, to do something of himself, but could not succeed; disappointed again and again, yet he could not give it up, till God made him feel, in him, that is, in his flesh dwelled no good thing; and now he writes folly, weakness, sin, on all that is his own; not only clearly convinced that all fullness of good is in Jesus, but is also content that it should be in him." Previously, no lasting fruit from his labours had appeared, in spite of all his erudition and eloquence, but in that same year he began to preach in St Dunstans in Fleet Street to great effect with people crowding to hear him so that the congregations spilled out into the street. The ministry of the Established Church in London had reached a low ebb, with very little true evangelism, but Romaines bold uncompromising declaration of the gospel heralded a change for the better. It was desperately needed, for the religious and moral state of the greater part of the populace in London was utterly depraved. Drunkenness, gambling, sexual immorality and corruption were rampant. One of his first converts was a man named John Sanders who later became a state coachman of George III. Sanders heard as he used to say "to profit"; and received such a deep conviction of sin, and such a terror of the wrath of God due to it, that he was sometimes afraid even to sleep, for fear he would wake in hell.
Assisted by the influence of Lady Huntingdon and other friends, and in spite of opposition, Romaine was elected Rector of the Parishes of St Anns and St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe at Blackfriars in 1766. This curious name was derived from its proximity to the Kings Great Wardrobe, a building purchased by King Edward III in 1359 to house his state robes. The church had been destroyed in the Great Fire of London, but rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren, the plain brick rectangular building with a tower being the last of his city churches. Romaine continued at Blackfriars for the remainder of his life, close to thirty years. Ryle wrote of this period: "As rector of a London parish, Romaine became a rallying point for all in London who loved evangelical truth in the Church of England. Man after man, and family after family, gathered around his pulpit, until his congregation became the nucleus of a vast amount of good in the metropolis. His constant, unflinching declaration of Christs whole truth insensibly produced a powerful impression on mens minds". It became his custom to preach on the first day of each year on texts which he proposed as a motto for that year. In 1794 it was the God of hope, "from whom believers in Christ may hope for all possible good, and to be saved from all possible evil". Many of his sermons were published, for example Twelve Discourses upon the Law and the Gospels, in which he expounded the distinction between the law and the gospel. Notable among his other published works was the trilogy The Walk of Faith, The Life of Faith, and the Triumph of Faith, the last volume appearing in 1795 shortly before his death. He normally preached four or five times every week and regularly visited the poor and sick of his parish. Time was precious to him as needed for reading, meditation and prayer. Not a moment to be wasted! Worldly pleasure was abhorred! In a rare occurrence he was invited to a house where, after tea, the lady of the house asked him to play cards to which he made no objection. The cards were brought out and, when all were ready to begin playing, Romaine said, "Let us ask the blessing of God". "Ask the blessing of God!" said the lady in great surprise. "I never heard of such a thing before a game of cards". Romaine then enquired, "Ought we to engage in anything on which we cannot ask Gods blessing?" This reproof put an end to the card playing. A good lesson on practical sanctification!
Romaine has been regarded as austere, and certainly he was unbending in his defence of the truth, but he was utterly devoted to Christ, and when discoursing upon His excellencies it was said that his countenance was illuminated with a majestic and pleasing smile. He enjoyed good health into old age, walking quickly and vigorously right up to the end of his life. His last Sunday evening preaching was on Trinity Sunday, 31st May, 1795 on 2 Corinthians 13.14: "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all". On 26th July he departed in the Triumph of Faith.
To be continued.
Much interesting information was found in "An Iron Pillar" The life and times of William Romaine by Tim Shelton.