John Cennick (pronounced ‘Kennick’) was born on December 12, 1718 to Quaker parents who brought him up in the Church of England. At age nine he was impacted by the words of his dying aunt, “Last night the Lord stood by me and invited me to drink of the fountain of life freely and I shall stand before the Lord as bold as a lion”. John knew that he did not have such a confidence. In his autobiography he tells of the burden of sin that had come upon him, and how he sought to find peace of mind by “fasting, running, eating acorns, leaves of trees and grass”.
From the age of 13 he made eight unsuccessful trips to London looking for work. He gambled and idled away his small income. At age 16 he came to the point of desperation.
He tells us that he went alone to a church to pray, and there … “I believed there was mercy for me … I heard the voice of Jesus say: ‘I am thy salvation’.”
When he refused to play cards he was told about another “stupid religious fellow” like himself. That other man introduced Cennick to John Wesley. Cennick also read George Whitefield’s Journal and sought out the famous preacher. Thus he joined the Wesleyan Methodists.
For a while Cennick assisted John Wesley in teaching the children of coal miners at Kingswood, and he engaged in open-air preaching alongside Howell Harris.
At Swindon, “a mob gathered … they brought horns, guns and a fire engine, besides the usual clubs, stones, eggs, dung, rotten fruit and dead animals. They fired the guns over the preachers’ heads so close that the faces of both were ‘as black as tinkers.’ They covered them with dust from the highway and then the fire engine sprayed them with filthy water from the ditches. While they were deluging Harris, Cennick preached, and when they changed to Cennick, Harris took up the talking …” (Gospel in Hymns, page 112).
Such was Cennick’s passion for souls that he endured outrageous opposition in his open air preaching, including five years in Wiltshire, where hecklers tried to drown his voice by beating drums and pans and setting dogs barking by swinging a cat in a cage. They even hurled dead dogs at him.
After the famous split between Wesley and Whitefield, Cennick sided with Whitefield’s Calvinist Methodists, becoming overseer of Whitefieldian Methodism during Whitefield’s tours of America.
But in 1745, during a visit to Germany, he joined the Moravian Brethren and was ordained to their ministry. He then preached with great success in Dublin, Ireland, but when he decried the adoration of the Virgin Mary he was mobbed by outraged Catholics. Yet in other Irish cities people welcomed him eagerly, seeking his blessing on their homes.
Clergymen complained that their churches were empty because everyone had gone to hear John Cennick. In response Bishop Rider replied, “Preach Christ crucified and then the people will not have to go to Cennick to hear the Gospel.”
John then pastored one of the Moravian churches in London. Of the 500 hymns he wrote, few are found in today’s hymnbooks.
Charles Welsley’s “Lo, He comes with clouds descending”, seems to be a revision of Cennick’s earlier effort, and Cennick’s delightful children’s hymn, “Children of the Heavenly King”, is still sung today.
But there are two choruses, sung at countless church suppers and camps, which both came from Cennick’s pen:
Be present at our table, Lord;
Be here, and everywhere adored;
Thy creatures bless, and grant that we
May feast in Paradise with Thee.
We thank Thee, Lord, for Jesus Christ,
And for the blood He shed.
We thank Thee for His risen life,
And for our daily bread.
He took ill with a fever while riding to London, arriving exhausted and delirious. The Moravians nursed him for a week as his mind wandered. He died on July 4, 1755, only 36 years old, leaving a wife and two children.
This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com