The Oaks Explosion

near Barnsley;
Some Account of the Lord’s Dealings
with one of the late volunteers.

Many indeed are the lessons taught by this sad event; lessons which have been dwelt upon by others. But on each of my visits to the pit, one lesson has been deeply impressed on my own mind. As I stood over the dying and the dead buried deep in the sulphureous pit, I felt how forcibly the condition of these poor men illustrated the condition of this whole world, buried in darkness and sin; and as I thought of those below, I felt that nothing short of raising them out from among the dead, could possibly be good news. The living were as helpless as the dead to save themselves from that terrible deep. I looked at and talked with the men who were brought up in the last cage. In fifteen minutes later, each of those men would have been a burnt and blackened corpse. The rope that was let down with its cage to the bottom, had brought them up to the top. Faith is God’s rope — His gift, and it never breaks. But I desire to keep to the one lesson so impressed on my heart, that it can never be forgotten, and it is this, that just as raising these poor miners out of the pit was the only remedy; so through Jesus, resurrection from among the dead is God’s only salvation.

I had been reading the word of God with some of these miners only a few days before the explosion (one of them little thought that he would so soon barely escape from so terrible a death). He was one of the last batch drawn out. I was very much struck with a question one of these miners put to me. He said, “Will you tell me, If man is really so bad that he cannot get out of the pit of sin; how is he to be judged for not doing what he can’t do?” Well, I certainly should have been surprised, as I walked about the Oaks pit bank only a few days after, if I had heard any person casting a shadow of blame on those poor men, because they did not get out of the pit. Clearly they could not. How could they climb up 300 yards of that dark pit shaft? Nay, could they stand? No one would believe me, that there was a person in the pit alive, though I begged to be allowed to go and give a signal down the pit. Many hours after, one man was got out alive; but he had to be fetched out. Oh! how my heart beat, during those terrible hours, for one dear to me in Christ, down so deep below; and I felt how utterly useless it would be, even if a message could have been heard below, to have told them to do their utmost to get out of the pit. You see this, my reader, do you not? Could an engineer in his senses have proposed any such plan of deliverance? No. Again I repeat, If there be no raising them up out of the pit, then there is no remedy. Now I fully admit man’s moral condition to be as bad. His case as helpless and desperate. Nay, I wish to show that Scripture views him exactly in this position. “Every mouth stopped and all the world guilty before God,” or subject to the judgment of God. (Rom. 3:19.) “The scripture has concluded all under sin.” (Gal. 3:22.) For 1500 years man had had the fullest opportunity of getting out of the pit of sin if he could, and especially had one nation been tried. They had the oracles of God, they had the law of God; but the law was a ladder far too short to reach the top of the shaft. If man could have climbed to the topmost commandment, this could not have raised him out of that depth of sin, and death, into which he was fallen. It could never give him sweet life out at the top. No; man’s utmost effort only proved this — that there was no remedy, no salvation, but by being raised out of the pit.

Let us now look at 1 Corinthians 15, and I think you will say with me, that nothing could more strikingly illustrate God’s way of salvation, than this awful explosion. This chapter, you notice, from verse 1, is the gospel that Paul preached, and the gospel by which they were saved in those days. But have you ever noticed that in this gospel, as stated here, there is not one word about what the sinner is to do to get out of the pit of sin? No; Paul has a better gospel than telling man to do what he cannot do, as the old man said at the reading meeting. Do you not see that, my reader? It is not man being judged for not doing what he cannot do. But this gospel is altogether about what another has done, in coming down into this pit of sin, that He might seek and save that which is lost.

You could not blame one of those miners in the pit for not climbing out when they could not; but what would you say when the cage was let down, and the noble volunteer going down at the price of his own life, and then the lost miner says, “I won’t be saved.” Ah! this is the question: Does Jesus stand on the pit bank, asking man to climb out, and then judge him to everlasting perdition, because he does not do what he cannot do? or, has He come down to the bottom, in infinite love? And thus, my reader, if you perish everlastingly, it is because you refuse to be saved.

But let us look a little more closely at the chapter. How simple and how glorious the gospel of God. The very first foundation-truth of the gospel is this, “Christ died for our sins, according to the scriptures.” Is this anything I have done for Him? Oh! how deep has He descended for me, down to the very place in the pit where I was! “Made sin for us” — “Died for our sins.” Do look at the cross. This is not your climbing out of the pit! It is Jesus coming into the pit to save you by His very death. Have you got fast hold of this first fact? Paul does not begin with what you are to do for Jesus, but with what He has done for us. He does not say that Christ kept the law, and left us an example how we might climb up the law, and get out of the shaft. He was perfect holiness itself, or He would not have been a fit volunteer to die for our sins. (Lev. 1, Heb. 10.)

And the next fact Paul states is that “he was buried.” Forsaken of God on the cross, now dead and buried. He could not do more than this, but He did it, and by doing it He is now crowned with glory. “He rose again the third day according to the scriptures.” This is the last fact stated, on which the whole question of salvation rests. And still not a word about man’s doings or efforts. No mixture of doing and believing. It is a work done that true faith believes.

And now as everything hangs on the fact of the resurrection of Christ, how carefully the apostle states and proves that event. He tells who saw the risen Lord from among the dead: “above five hundred brethren at once,” and most of these alive at the time this epistle was written. I do not think I can tell you with this pen how forcibly I felt these words, as I preached on the Lord’s day after the explosion at the pit bank from this very chapter. As I looked at the smoking pit, I felt if there be no resurrection of these poor men out of this awful pit, then indeed is there no hope. Now this is precisely what the apostle is teaching here. If there be no resurrection, no raising man out of the pit of sin and death; if Christ be not risen, the firstfruit, the pledge of this, then there is no remedy for man whatever. And the gospel is false, and faith is vain. Yes, the apostle states this frankly and fully. Read carefully 1 Corinthians 15:12-19. This is plain enough, is it not? He has no more thought of a gospel that gradually improves man’s nature in sin, than I had a thought of the barest possibility of the improvement of the condition of those poor sufferers in the pit, with all its old works full of gas. Oh! if you had stood with me and seen and heard the thud and roar of that explosion on Lord’s day at five p.m., and such a belching out of black smoke, you would indeed have said, There is no help but out at the top. And the Scripture presents no other hope, no other gospel, than through Jesus the resurrection from among the dead, in the deep pit of sin.
It was thus the apostles preached. I fully grant it is very difficult to believe this in these days. Most of what we hear, and read, is so different from this gospel of resurrection, that the word of God seems to be made of none effect by the traditions of men. Some are going back to that system of rites and foolish ceremonies, and repetition sacrifices or masses, which deny the everlasting value of the one sacrifice of Christ; some occupied with fine music, some with mere human eloquence and intellect; others say they are going to get out of the pit of sin, by sorrow and forsaking, as if a man could forsake it when three hundred yards deep. Now where is the use of all this, when the pit is on fire, and explosion follows explosion? And there is no denying that this is the case. Take down the page of history and explore the old works of the pit, and tell me, Is not sin-damp everywhere? Whether we look at the history of nations or of individuals, this terrible sin, like fire-damp in the pit, is ever exploding. Just think of the miner walking in the midst of gas in the pit, perhaps within a few feet of a natural gasometer, and in his hand the flame that may fire the mine. Is not man like this in the midst of a world of sin, carrying in his own nature the sin that at any moment may explode in terrible iniquity?

When once the miner is dead in the pit, all human aid is at an end. But it is just at this point where God in His gospel begins. Man in his activities is seen in the Epistle to the Romans to be utterly powerless for good or to get out of the pit. And in the Ephesians man is looked at as dead in trespasses and sins. There also we have the same gospel of resurrection. The exceeding greatness of the power of God in raising Christ from the dead as Head and representative of His body, the Church, is shown in the first chapter. Then the riches of God’s mercy and greatness of His grace in saving us, by raising us up from among the dead in Christ, and making us sit together in Him in heavenly places. Thus you see it is all resurrection out of the pit.

The Christian knows well God’s purpose was not to bless us in earthly places, in this smoking pit. But He has blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ. This was clearly God’s thought from eternity, that Christ should not only be the firstborn from among the dead, the first raised out of the pit of death; but that He should be the firstborn among many brethren. I repeat, it was not God’s thought to improve man’s nature in the pit; but to give him an entirely new place with Christ out of the pit. And the beginning and the securing of all this, was the raising up of Christ from the dead. And hence the apostle shows that if Christ be not risen, ye are yet in the pit, in your sins, and there is no hope. “But now is Christ risen from the dead, become the firstfruits of them that slept.” And thus, just as certainly as all are dead in Adam, so surely shall all that are in Christ be made alive. Thus the believer is reckoned, even now, dead with Christ and raised from the dead with Christ. For since Christ, who died for his sins, is raised from the dead for his justification and life, he is really now one with this risen Christ. Thus his sins are forgiven. The very sin of his nature not reckoned, but reckoned righteous in Christ. He is thus so really justified from all things, that he has peace with God. As I asked the men drawn last out of the pit, “Are you not really out? you cannot hope to be drawn up — you are up;” even so the believer is raised out with Christ and is justified. “By grace ye are saved” is as true, as it was true, that by the drawing up of the cage those ten men were drawn out.

There is another aspect of the resurrection out of the pit. The Christian may say, But am I not, as a matter of fact, yet in this world of sin and death; or, as you say, this pit? And is not sin still in the pit and still in me? No doubt this is the case. And the Scripture distinctly recognizes this also; whilst on the principle of faith, we are reckoned dead with Christ and risen with Him, and thus justified from our sins by His blood, and justified from sin because dead with Him, and for ever justified in Him, because risen with Him. And whilst there can be no condemnation to them who are thus in Christ; yet as to our experience in the body, we still wait for redemption. And what is this redemption but the resurrection of this body? Concerning this very thing the apostle says, “Behold, I show you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” Thus when a man is converted to God, as to his complete justification in the risen Christ, why he is clean out at the top.
But as to his experience, for a little while he is like a miner, waiting for the moment when the cage shall be drawn out at the coming of the Lord. When the last cage was drawn out at the Oaks, it came up like a shot, and only just in time to escape the blast. O what a moment that will be when the whole Church of God, like the last cage, shall be caught up from this pit of darkness and sin to meet the Lord in the air, and so be for ever with the Lord! Ah! then, no more rude fiery blasts, for though, if in Christ, sin shall not have the dominion, yet the Christian, whilst sure of victory, gets some sore bumps in this dreary pit at times. No, then no more dust, and smoke, and choke-damp. Now the Christian, like the miner below, only breathes the air of heaven, let down to him from above. And it is well for good works to have its upcast, while faith draws its downcast.
I have always found that as the fire of love to Jesus and His flock has got low, the stream of fresh communion from my precious Lord has been interrupted and become weak. Indeed both go together. And what care is required in a pit to keep the works in order! and true, if saved, we cannot be too careful to maintain good works. But if I speak of salvation, when a man is seated in the cage, what has he to do, but to rest in the cage until he is drawn out at the top? Even so faith rests in Christ.
Now, my reader, if you will just carefully read over 1 Thessalonians, you will find that in those days, the Christian had no other hope than the coming of the Lord to take the Church out of this pit of sin. Let us then, in that sense, look up the shaft and wait for the Lord. It is no use building wood, hay, and stubble, in the pit. What is a Gothic building worth in a pit on fire? What is all the outward show of Christendom worth, when thus tested? Are you thus saying, My Lord delays His coming? or are you waiting for the Lord Jesus from heaven? And when the last soul is put in the cage, that is the blood-washed Church of God, and He calls it up with a shout, “For the Lord himself shall descend with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive, and remain, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” Blessed, for ever blessed, to those thus taken up! But what will it be to be left in the pit? Then will take place the last explosion of human wickedness and sin. Yes, if it were not for the certainty of this blessed hope, the knowledge of the judgments that are about to be poured upon the earth would be terrible. The poor miner might have said, If in this Oaks pit we only have hope, then of all colliers we are most miserable. And so the apostle says, If in this life only we have hope, we are of all men most miserable. Yes, as the fiery blast writes death on all below in the pit, even so has sin written death on all below in this world. But Christ is risen; and if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them that sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him.

I now turn to the Lord’s dealings with one of the late volunteers, the greatly esteemed underground steward of a neighbouring pit. For some eight years I had felt led to preach the gospel to the surrounding colliers in an old romantic quarry, in a small wood; but it was not until a few months before this sad explosion, that the opportunity occurred to do so. In fact, this summer I felt the Lord’s time had come. Many came to hear the word, and amongst others the volunteer, J. S. Well do I remember the grave and solemn attention with which he listened to the gospel. This led to preaching at other places during the evenings amongst the colliers, and one of these places was the pit where J. S. was underground steward. The preaching of a finished work, the security of the believer in the ever lasting love of Christ, and the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, gave great offence and caused much opposition and persecution, so much so that the preaching room had to be closed to satisfy the opponents of the gospel. But one man stood up in the crowd and opened his house for the preaching of the word: that man was J. S., the lamented volunteer. I have good reason to believe that the Lord blessed him, and all that were in his house. And from that time he and two others, his beloved wife, and a deputy of the same pit, whom the Lord had blessed by the preached word and tracts, spent many of their evenings in meditating over the word of God. And often when they were struck with different portions of the word, he would say, “Yes, but that word, ‘Verily, verily, I say to you, He that hears my word, and believes on him that sent me, has everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation, but is passed from death to life,’ that is the grand word for my soul.” It was the sweet certainty “has everlasting life” gave to his soul. I am told this incorruptible seed of the word, having entered, was ever present to his mind. His wife, and others from the neighbourhood, who had found peace in believing, took their happy places at the table of the Lord, gathered only in His name. Dear J. S. was deeply convinced that nothing else was right on earth, and often said so; but he had not as yet obeyed the Lord in that word “This do in remembrance of me.”

But nothing could satisfy him but that preaching that exalted Jesus risen from the dead. A marked change had been observed in his manner and conduct: evidence of the life he had in Christ. Only a few nights before the fatal explosion, he had spent two hours at a neighbour’s, speaking of the precious truth he had learnt. In short, he had, through the riches of the grace of God, heard the word of Jesus, and believed God who sent Him. He therefore surely had everlasting life. Have you, my reader, thus heard, and thus believed? The last time the deputy and he read the word together, only a few nights before the explosion, J. S. turned to Psalm 88, and seemed deeply impressed with the solemnity of the case of the poor boy who some years ago wrote this Psalm on a tin box when shut up to perish in a pit which had fired. In a few more hours these solemn words were true of him, “Counted with them that go down into the pit … In the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps … I am shut up and cannot come forth.” Oh! my heart was smitten as I stood over the pit, and could not believe he was dead. It is a remarkable fact, that those who knew him since he was saved, as one said, seemed to live with him in that dreadful tomb of death, until a certain hour of a certain day, when at one time (though we were apart), we each realized that he was now absent from the pit, present with the Lord. It is true, the triumph of Christ shall not be complete until his body is raised in glory. But, hush! while you contemplate the fact — absent from that dreadful pit, “present with the Lord.” Yes, we can even, because we loved him, rejoice that he is gone before. Now, yes, now with the Lord.

It was my painful duty to break the tidings to his beloved wife that there was no more human hope. Ah! then, that same One who went to Bethany was there. He who wept at the grave of Lazarus was there to sustain. Oh! that every widow of this sad explosion did but know this same Jesus! Yes, the same as when He said to them He loved, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Yes, that voice that said, “Lazarus, come forth,” shall soon call all who sleep in Him from the grave, wherever that grave may be. Oh! then, how complete the victory of Christ. May our hearts yearn for that fast approaching victory! We shall soon see the departed ones again. Can you say, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus?” I do bless God, that in the midst of so much rejection, the Lord did thus bring J. S. to himself. And I do ask the prayers of God’s people for the colliers of this dangerous district. Many are exposed to great danger — liable to the same terrible death. Surely they have a great claim on all who love the Lord Jesus, and especially on any whom the Lord may use in spreading the gospel amongst them. I could give some touching incidents of God’s preserving care, especially to one who, as I have said, has been brought to the table of the Lord. But I must conclude, with one more word to the reader. You may have felt this paper sets before you a very different gospel from the one you have heard, which is not another gospel; for it is no gospel at all to tell you to do what you find you cannot do. And it would not be gospel if you were only drawn half way up. I look up to heaven and I see Jesus crowned with glory, having died for my sins. Amazing grace! a glory that He could never have had, had we not been sinners sunk deep in the pit of sin. As was the depth into which He descended for us, such is the height to which He is exalted in glory. But, oh! my fellow believer, He as Jesus could not be there if the whole question of our sins were not settled for ever. On the cross, He said It is finished. Now He shows His hands and His side and says, “Peace to you.”

May God open your eyes to see, and break your heart in self-judgment to own the dreadfulness of sin, of which I have attempted to use this awful pit as a picture! But do not be deceived. Your sense of sin, however deep, cannot save you, any more than the terrible pain of the poor miner can help him out of the pit. Neither can your resolutions to amend help you out. It must be, as Paul puts it in the chapter we have looked at, Jesus alone, to whom be all honour and glory. Amen. C. S.