John Wilson was one of the most significant church and public leaders in 19th-century England.
As the pastor of Woolwich Tabernacle—which merged together with Conduit Road Baptist in 1969 to form Woolwich Central Baptist where I serve as pastor— Wilson exercised leadership influence across the United Kingdom and particularly in the community of Woolwich.
In recognition of his immense contribution, the main street in Woolwich was named after him.
Marguerite Williams wrote an excellent book about Wilson in 1937 titled “John Wilson of Woolwich,” from which I’ve drawn much of the details that follow.
Wilson was born in May 1854 near Forfar, Scotland. Although he was brought up in a Christian family, during his teen years he had lots of questions.
He was invited to a YMCA meeting, where he listened to the stories of Christian young men and realized that they possessed what he wanted.
He studied the scriptures at the home of the YMCA manager and became a Christian, which he described as follows: “That morning I saw dimly as in the distance the light that led to the gate, the Cross, and the Kingdom of God.”
He began ministering by distributing books house to house and preaching, having been inspired and captivated by the preaching power and personality of the American evangelist D.L. Moody.
Wilson enrolled in Charles Spurgeon’s new college in London and was the pastor of several rural churches before being sent to a needy church in Woolwich, serving as their student pastor while completing his studies.
Woolwich as an area was very different from his previous countryside assignments.
The facilities were dilapidated and the community was much needier than he had imagined, with lots of slums, lodging houses and crowded bars.
Wilson continued ministering in these difficult conditions. After finishing his studies in 1877, he became their full-time pastor.
When a British ship sank in 1878 and 600 people died, it was a turning point in Wilson’s ministry at Woolwich. It was a national calamity and many members of his church were bereaved by the shipwreck.
Wilson conducted the mass funeral, young and inexperienced as he was. He had the tremendous responsibility, as well as opportunity, to conduct the funeral service for 300 of the deceased.
As a result, Wilson became not only the pastor of the Baptist church at Woolwich but also of the whole Woolwich area.
More people began to attend his church, which grew until the chapel was overcrowded.
They moved to a new church building with bigger facilities, but soon they were also filled to overcrowding.
Galleries had to be built and two services conducted to accommodate the numbers.
Wilson started a conversational Bible class, which proved very successful, in which he invited people to speak on different subjects, covering various issues facing people in Woolwich and London in general.
These included trade unions, the family, economics, business, health, apologetics, missionary movements, church history and poetry.
These lectures became a meeting point for the churched and unchurched; they became so successful that around 900 people were attending weekly.
Many later started attending the church, and a number of them rose to influential positions in society.
The church continued to grow, planting other churches and mission stations, and soon had to build a new church to have sufficient space for all the members.
After a fundraising campaign, the new building was opened and dedicated on July 8, 1896, by Thomas Spurgeon, Charles Spurgeon’s son.
Wilson engaged with various issues facing the working class during the Industrial Revolution; he also worked with civil authorities to improve the community.
Wilson was very committed to Woolwich, to the extent that he rejected lots of lucrative positions in places.
He was also a prominent member of the Baptist denomination, but so great was Wilson’s love and commitment to the community that when he was asked to be the principal of the Baptists’ Spurgeon’s College, he refused the offer.
Wilson pastored Woolwich Tabernacle from 1877 to 1938, making him the longest serving Baptist minister in one pastorate.
Wilson’s name became as synonymous with Woolwich as Spurgeon’s was with London.
Wilson’s ministry was recognized in the United States; Baylor University awarded him an honorary doctor of divinity degree in 1907.
In 1937, his 60th anniversary as pastor was an occasion for joyous celebrations lasting 16 days.
Eminent theologians, ministers and community leaders attended the events. He died the next year at the age of 84.
Wilson is an example of a public leader who engaged and connected with his community by exercising an incarnational ministry.
We need more leaders like him, prepared to move beyond church walls to meet the needs of the communities around them and inspire others to do the same.
Israel Olofinjana is the minister of Woolwich Central Baptist Church in South East London and the director of the Centre for Missionary from the Majority World. He is Nigerian, coming from a Pentecostal background, and is the author of several books, including “Turning the Tables on Mission: Stories of Christians from the Global South in Britain.” A longer version of this article first appeared on his blog and is used with permission.
Israel Oluwole Olofinjana, a Yoruba Nigerian coming from a Pentecostal background, is the founding director of Centre for Missionaries from the Majority World, author and editor of several books, and an ordained and accredited Baptist minister. He is the pastor of Woolwich Central Baptist Church, a multi-ethnic, multicultural inner city church in south east London. Israel is an Honorary Research Fellow at Queens Foundation in Birmingham, UK.