John Fawcett was born on 6 January 1740. Orphaned at age 12, he gained an appreciation for Scripture, and for Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, from a young age, but it was under the ministry of George Whitfield in 1755 that he came to faith. He joined a Methodist church, but three years later transferred membership to a Baptist congregation. He was baptised in 1758 and shepherded into ministry in 1760. He preached his first public sermons in 1763.
On 18 December 1763, he was invited to preach at Wainsgate Baptist Church. He was invited back with such frequency that he and his wife, Mary, moved there in May of 1764. He was formally hired and ordained as the pastor of Wainsgate in July 1765.
The church experienced tremendous blessing under his ministry so that the building could not accommodate the crowds that gathered to hear him preach. Eventually, among other improvements, a gallery was constructed to accommodate overflow. He became such a popular preacher that he was invited to preach for famed Baptist minister John Gill in London when Gill’s health was deteriorating. He was well-enough received in London that, when Gill died, a call was extended to him to serve as pastor in Gill’s stead.
By this time, John and Mary had added four children to the family. While the church in Wainsgate had experienced revival under his ministry, it was a poor community—one historian described it as a community of “farmers and shepherds, poor as Job’s turkey; an uncouth lot whose speech one could hardly understand, unable to read or write”—which could not adequately meet his financial needs. He earned the equivalent of R5,500 ($380) per month. Prudence dictated that he accept the call to the more financially stable London church, which he did. He preached his farewell sermon and later that week loaded the wagon for the journey to London.
As they were bidding farewell to the church, Mary told John that she could not bear to leave the community they had come to love. John agreed and together they announced that they had changed their minds and would stay in Wainsgate. He remained there for 54 years, and it was in conjunction with his decision to stay there that he wrote the words of the beloved hymn “Blest Be the Tie that Binds” (originally, “Brotherly Love”).
Blest be the tie that binds
our hearts in Christian love;
the fellowship of kindred minds
foreshadows that above.
Before our Father’s throne
we pour our fervent prayers;
our fears, our hopes, our aims are one,
our comforts and our cares.
We share our mutual woes,
our mutual burdens bear;
and often for each other flows
the sympathising tear.
When for a while we part,
this thought will soothe our pain:
In Christ we still are joined in heart
and we shall meet again.
From sorrow, toil and pain
and sin we shall be free,
and perfect love and friendship reign
through all eternity.
The song well describes the bond that Christian love produces between brothers and sisters in Christ. It tells of the unity that God produces in the community that is committed to keeping in step with the Spirit. John and Mary knew what it was to feel this kind of love for their brothers and sisters at Wainsgate, and it is this kind of love that God, through his Spirit, wants to produce in the local church.
John’s words were almost prophetic, for he would come to know in years following the writing of this hymn what it mean to long for reunion with lost loved ones. Between 1774 and 1785, he would lose a son, a daughter, his mother, and four close friends, including James Hartley, one of the friends (and his closest mentor) who was influential in bringing him to embrace Baptist theology. These losses would produce in him a more fervent pastor’s heart.
John went on to found a ministry academy, through which he was influential in establishing a new generation of Baptist pastors. He was later offered the position of President of the Baptist Academy in Bristol, but declined in order to maintain his local church ministry and mentorship of new pastors. He died in 1817 at the age of 78, but his voice remains heard today wherever his many hymns are sung.