OPENING THE BIBLE CHRISTIAN MISSION ON THE ISLAND
The first agent was a young woman by the name of Mary Toms who was a native of Tintagel in Cornwall. She was a Wesleyan Methodist until she heard Mr O'Bryan preaching in Plymouth and in this service, she came to understand that God wanted her to work among Bible Christians. She became the first missionary to the Isle of Wight, having met Captain Caws who persuaded her that there was much work to be done in the Island. The Bible Christian Conference of 1823 was held at Stoke Damarel and on the day it closed, July 29th, Mary Toms set sail from Plymouth for the Isle of Wight and arrived at West Cowes about 10pm. There was none there to meet her and there was not a person in the place she knew. It was with considerable difficulty that she secured a place to sleep that night and when she did, it would appear from the circumstances that the Lord had most to do with it. The place was very full of people, it being regatta week. The person who at last took her in, was a Mrs Pooke, the wife of a Wesleyan shoemaker. The following Sunday, she went to East Cowes for the purpose of preaching in the open air, alone without a single person on whom to rely for help. The weather was most inclement, wind and rain, but having obtained the loan of a chair on which to stand to deliver her message, she started to sing -
"Come ye sinners, poor and wretched,
Weak and wounded, sick and sore,
Jesus ready stands to save you,
Full of pity, joined with power,
He is able,
He is willing, doubt no more."
Numbers of persons gathered round the young woman to hear what she had to say. There was a novelty about it and the service caused much interest and excitement. True, some laughed and others scoffed, but others were serious and in that service started a great widespread religious awkening and converting power that thousands are blessing and praising God for today. The young evangelist announced that she would conduct another service the following day in the open air if the weather was favourable and, if not, and anyone grant the loan of a room, it would be held under cover. A woman hearing the power of the truth she had heard and was in a great distress of mind because of her sins, offered a room in her house. This offer was accepted, but when the time came, the crowd was so large to hear this "woman preacher" that all the rooms in the house were not sufficient to accommodate them all. The only alternative, therefore, was again to preach in the open air, which was gladly accepted, and at the end of the service, many people were found to be seeking the Saviour for salvation. Among them was a man who had come to the meeting with a rope, having vowed that he would, at the close of the service, put this rope around the preacher, with a noose, and then drag her into the flowing tide. But the Spirit of God so impressed on his mind during the delivery of the discourse, that he not only had to abandon his wicked project, but became truly penitent and received the Lord Jesus as his Saviour. He became one of the preacher's truest friends. There were also present at that service, a lady and gentleman who had been too proud ever to hear a Dissenting brother preach, but went out of curiosity to hear this Dissenting sister preach. They were so impressed with what they heard that many times after, they greatly befriended her. It was quite striking in those days to see a lady, with fine ribbons and long waving feathers, attending the preaching of, and standing by, the person of a 'Bryanite' evangelist, holding the books and rendering what other help she was able. Mary Toms soon had more invitations to preach in other parts of the Island than she could accept.
It was this overload of invitations that persuaded Mrs O'Bryan and Eliza Jew to come to the Island so soon after Mary Toms as they did, i.e. about six weeks after her. Arriving at East Cowes from Southampton at 9am, they of course made enquiries after Mary Toms and at last reached the house where she had lodged, only to be told that she had gone to Wootton Bridge. Off they went to find her, only to be told that she was most likely with a friend in Ryde. They walked on to Ryde but did not find her there so they resolved to walk to Newport. They had not had anything to eat since breakfast, but some distance outside Ryde they had a drink of water and felt refreshed. Some people before leaving town could have afforded to pay for a good square meal but these two good souls only had 10 shillings between them and not a friend, as far as they knew, in the whole Island at whose house they would be welcome to partake of the most frugal meal without paying for it. Before they reached Newport, Mrs O'Bryan became very fatigued and her legs became so swollen that she had to rest by the wayside, take off her boots and put her slippers on. They reached Newport, however, about 8pm and were kindly received and entertained by a Mr Wickenden, only to then be told that Mary Toms had gone to Havenstreet to preach. They were ready for supper, having walked 16 miles. Mrs O'Bryan wrote to her husband 'I felt truly thankful that the Lord had given me strength to walk so many miles on cold water, on a warm sunshiny day, and that I did not feel it tedious'.
When Mary Billing came to the Island in March of 1824, She had just as much difficulty to find where the preachers were, as those sisters had. All these early missionaries acknowledged the great kindnesses that were shown them. One of them said ' The Cornish are proverbial for their kindness to strangers. I do not think that the very best of them exceeds the kindness of the people in general in this Island' Mrs O'Bryan and Eliza Jew had returned from the Island in 1823 and in the following year, the preachers were William Bailey, William Strongman, Mary Billing and Mary O'Bryan. Mary Toms had married a Mr Warder of Grading, but keenly continued her preaching in a local sphere and helped to carry forward the work she had so successfully started. In less that one year from the opening of the mission, some 250 people were in Christian fellowship on the Island.
It will be seen that the pioneers of the Bible Christian Connexion were. for the most part, women. This was so marked a feature, especially at first, that some of the people would ask whether there were any men in the denomination, while others would boldly declare that it was altogether a woman's cause. During the first years of the mission, one of the sisters writing to Mr O'Bryan for another evangelist to be sent, wrote "You need not be afraid to send a man, for we have many good friends here who will not see the cause come down". These women preachers did not find it all sweetness or plain sailing as they carried on their sacred work. One of the early female preachers was so criticised that there was a notice posted throughout a certain parish with the following heading "Beware of the doctrine of Martha Toogood". It can be easily guessed who the leaders were in this opposition. It was a serious matter with some, when these women evangelists could draw larger numbers to hear them preach than the clergy could.
The Rev. James Thorne had the honour of forming the first Bible Christian Society in the Isle of Wight on Oct 3rd, 1823. He says in his journal " I went on board the Cowes Packet at about 11 and arrived at the Isle of Wight at about one". He travelled from Portsmouth to Ryde, having previously come from London to there. "I walked to Newport" he adds " having my portmanteau to carry. I lay down for an hour and a half and then walked to Rookley Corner and preached to an attentive congregation, who filled the little house, from Matt 11 v. 28. After preaching, I gave the congregation a brief sketch of my life and Christian experience, and proposed forming a class. Three gave their names - James Herridge, Jane Herridge and Leah Wight, and several others seemed serious. This is the first society that has been formed in the Island by us. I slept at the house; the person's name is Attrill. James and Mary King, their daughter Ann, and Robert Moses of Wroxall, joined the following night at Godshill. The two elder Kings had promised Mary Toms before, so that, properly speaking, they were the first two who joined the society.