Arthur Augustus Rees (1815-1884) was a popular evangelical preacher.
Arthur was the seventh and youngest child of John Rees, a Carmarthen landowner, and his wife Anne Catherine née Vander Horst, the daughter of the American consul in Bristol. Arthur’s childhood was unsettled. His father lived for some time in France, whilst his mother remained in Britain. His mother does not appear to have been particularly interested in him; between the ages of five and thirteen he was ‘tossed about the country at various schools.’
His father had been a naval officer and indeed was present at the battles of Camperdown and Copenhagen. When he was thirteen, Arthur followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the Royal Navy as a first-class volunteer. He stayed in the navy for five years, serving first in the eastern Mediterranean and then mostly in Portuguese waters. As he was rather headstrong, he sometimes clashed with his superiors and was several times flogged. He left the Navy in 1833, following one of these confrontations in which he was told by his captain that he was not fit to be on a ship.
It is uncertain what Rees did after he left the Navy. He had a good singing voice, and was able to play the guitar. He appears to have spent time in London on the fringes of the theatrical world. However, in 1834 or 1835, he experienced an evangelical conversion. He studied his Bible, adopted a more serious approach to life, and became a ‘thorough-going’ Christian. Over the next few months, he taught himself Latin and Greek. Some Bristol clergymen were impressed enough to raise funds for him to attend St David’s College Lampeter.
Rees was admitted as a student on 1 March 1836. His contemporaries included Henry James Prince, the youngest son of a West Indian plantation owner. Rees and Prince were closely associated for the next three years; they were at the centre of a group of earnest Christian students, ‘the Lampeter Brethren.’ Despite the college authorities’ disapproval of their exaggerated piety, Rees was elected Hannah More scholar in 1837 and Butler scholar in 1838.
After he graduated, Rees seems to have spent some time in Prince’s home in Bath; he also met his future wife, Prince’s sister Eleanor. Rees received an invitation to work in the north-east of England, his Lampeter tutor, Alfred Ollivant, having recommended him to the Rector of Sunderland, Rev. William Webb. He was ordained curate in 1841, and seems to have spent most of his time in a daughter church, St John’s Chapel, rather than the more respectable Parish Church of Holy Trinity. For a while, things went well; he was popular and his working-class congregation grew in size. However, he appears not to have been of the most diplomatic. After he preached to the rather more refined congregation at Houghton-le-Spring, there were complaints about some of his uncompromising language. When the bishop of Durham, Edward Maltby, investigated, Rees had to admit that he had delivered the sermon extempore. The bishop ordered him to write out his sermons in full and forbad him to preach outside his own parish. Although Rees was still ordained priest the next month, his rector’s patience was soon exhausted. Nine months later, he was given three months’ notice. Three thousand people are said to have attended his farewell service.
Rees and Eleanor returned to her home in Bath. The Rector of Walcott St Swithin asked him to be responsible for a recently acquired chapel in Thomas Street. Rees took up his duties with ‘zeal and energy … specially among the poorer population.’ However, the bishop of Durham, refused to endorse his appointment. Despite the protests of the rector and congregation, Rees was evicted from his role.
Rees gave vent to his feelings by publishing a pamphlet, Solemn protest before the church and nation of the Rev. Arthur A. Rees, late minister of Thomas Street Episcopal Chapel, Bath: against his virtual ejection from the ministry of the Church of England, (T. Noyes, 1844). He eventually realized that he was ‘born to be a dissenter,’ although he always preferred to be called nonconformist.
Rees soon returned to Sunderland, away from the area where his increasingly notorious brother-in-law was operating. In the north-east, he was welcomed back by many of his former parishioners. Having inherited some money from his father, he was able to build a new, undenominational church. Bethesda Free Chapel, Sunderland, opened in March 1845; unlike most chapels of the time, there were no seat rents. Rees worked there until his death in 1884. Initially, he used the prayer book and preached in a black gown. However, he quickly became more nonconformist. George Müller, one of the founders of the Brethren movement, baptized him as a believer by total immersion. Twelve hundred of his congregation followed Rees’ example by being baptized. Rees also adopted the Brethren practice of holding communion each week on Sunday mornings. However, he had a reputation for being autocratic; he was known locally as ‘the pope of the North.’ The form of church government he adopted tended towards Presbyterianism. He was a strong proponent of apocalyptic views, relating his theories to the rise and fall of Napoleon III in France.
Rees’ friends included a number of other leading evangelicals, among them C.H. Spurgeon, F.B. Meyer and D.L. Moody. His pamphlet, Reasons for not co-operating in the alleged Sunderland revivals, (Wm. Henry Hills, 1859) opposed women, and in particular Phoebe Palmer, preaching in the Sunderland revival meetings. Catherine Booth’s response, Female ministry: women’s right to preach the gospel (1861) was one of the great feminist tracts of the 19th century. In contrast, Rees’ chapel was one of the first to host Moody’s English mission in 1873. The term gospel song is said to have originated with him, as he described Moody’s soloist and hymn writer, Ira D. Sankey, as singing the gospel.
Rees died in April 1884. He was described as ‘one of the most energetic, active, persevering, and successful ministers in the North of England.’
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