We are often told that right doctrine should have a practical
effect. Henry William Soltau (1805-1875) lived to show us how that is
done. He was the second son of George Soltau, a prosperous merchant of
England's port city Plymouth. His father was a godly Anglican, and an
energetic civic leader. He worked to establish the Plymouth Free
School, where the Bible was taught as an elective, and while a member
of the Town Council, George Soltau opposed the building of the theater.
He died at age forty-four. From his death-bed he had a vision of all
his six children reaching heaven. Henry's mother was a resolute, pious,
caring woman and Henry was devoted to her.
When preparing to go to Cambridge, Henry studied under a private
tutor, Samuel Wilberforce. This was the future Anglican Bishop
Wilberforce, third son of the man who successfully campaigned to
abolish the slave trade in the British empire--William Wilberforce.
Entering Trinity College, in 1825, Henry took his degree in 1827.
In those years he often heard Charles Simeon and other popular
evangelical preachers. But it seemed to him that "faith in the merits
of Christ and doing one's duty" were so mingled that he never
remembered hearing a clear presentation of the gospel preached. It was
a period similar to our own when the evangelicals were so enmeshed in
"cultural relevance" and "political reform" that Christ's agenda of
rescuing individual souls from perishing in their sins was taking a
sideline to social betterment. Henry did what he was told. He
endeavored to "do what was right," observed formal religion, gave to
charities, and read the Bible. But he had no peace.
He proceeded to study at Lincoln's Inn, and was afterwards called to
the Chancery Bar. He read widely. Beside interest in the natural
sciences, he studied Hebrew in order to understand the Old Testament.
But his concerns for his soul's future seemed to be swallowed whole by
the attractions of London society. He was a lawyer, "a Cambridge man,"
with wealth and influence in high places. We don't know that he was
ever a gross or base sinner. He was fascinated by "innocent
amusements." He loved the opera. He was attractive, and witty. His
sparkle and charm made him a walking social event, and he could think
too. But all that being said, Henry Soltau was empty without Christ.
By January, 1837, he had grown weary of his round of pleasure. A
letter from home said his mother was not well, and when a second letter
came, Soltau packed his large traveling bag. The letter was not
alarmist, but somehow he felt that his mother was really dying and he
would not see her alive. As the coach journey ended and he dismounted
at Plymouth, his uncle was there to meet him with the news that it was
over. Faced with a stinging loss, he went to his home like a man being
taken to his execution. Falling to his knees in front of his dear
mother's coffin that night, he prayed as if he had never truly prayed
before, "Lord, if Thou dost not save me, I am lost for ever!"
There had been a courtroom incident God used to awaken Soltau, but I
do not know any of the particulars. Shortly after his mother's passing
he heard Captain Percy Hall speak on the four leprous men who sat
outside the gate of Samaria in 2 Kings 7. Hall was a startling man. He
had risen to the rank of Navy commander but resigned for conscientious
reasons. He was a year older than Soltau. "Of a very independent
temperament, the Captain did nothing by halves. He sold all his
valuable possessions, and had everything in common with the poorer
brethren (Acts 4:32). He had been a 'dandy' in his unregenerate days"
so to show that fashion no longer ruled, he would purposely mess his
hair and crumple his linen cuffs. At that time he was trekking through
the region, preaching the gospel to the poor.
Hall led Soltau into the light of God's grace to bankrupt sinners.
The change was so great that a relative said: "You are like the man in
the third of Acts, walking and leaping and praising God."
When he returned to London with his "peculiar opinions" his old
companions politely shunned him. He soon gave up his legal practice and
moved to Plymouth with his sisters. There he discovered other
Christians like Percy Hall. Later, in his booklet, They Found it
Written, he enthused about this movement that "has no parallel in the
whole history of the Church of God, because in no other instance has
the Word of God (freed from all tradition) been taken as the guide of
those who have sought a revival in the Church of God."
In leaving the Church of England, and casting in his lot in 1837
with the believers at Ebrington Street, like many others in the
congregation, Soltau was cut off from most of his family. It was a big
step, and a high price. Unshaken, he applied his study habits to the
Scriptures and was soon occupied in gospel campaigns to out-of-the-way
hamlets of western England.
The superstition and ignorance that prevailed in those places is
described in George Brealey's biography, Always Abounding. Soltau went
where sin abounded, and saw how grace did much more abound. Soltau's
son said, "Multitudes were saved, and gathered around the Word of God.
Schools were opened, and the Word of God had free course and was
glorified." In 1838, Soltau and Mr. J. Clulow opened a printing and
publishing company called the Bible and Tract Depot in Plymouth. They
published The Christian Witness and quantities of literature were
scattered abroad. It appears that in all the busyness of these days,
Soltau was married.
Henry Soltau became a prominent Bible teacher and an elder in the
growing Plymouth assembly. W. H. Cole described listening to him, "Mr.
Soltau was the first, I think, who taught the meaning of the types and
sacrifices of the Old Testament*, and as he unfolded the teaching of
those symbols concerning the manifold perfection of the person and work
of the Son of God, a peculiar awe brooded over the assembly, impelling
to the silent worship of Him of whom he discoursed. The strain was
solemn, calm and clear; his voice a deep tone, yet melodious, as it
seemed almost to sing of salvation and the glories of the Saviour. He
was withal a great preacher of righteousness."
Between 1845 and 1848, a severe period of testing came to the
assembly in Plymouth. Perhaps the most upsetting to Soltau was to
discover that for several years he had been working closely with and
supporting (sometimes defending) B. W. Newton and then to discover that
Newton was a heretic. Paul told us there must be factions, that those
"which are approved" may be recognized (1 Cor. 11:19). It appears that
the shakedown in Plymouth caused Soltau to believe that his influence
had been nullified by his mistake.
After publishing a lengthy confession of his errors, Mr. and Mrs.
Soltau moved to Exmouth, where they recuperated for three years from
that morbid and unnerving time. In 1851, William Hake (R. C. Chapman's
co-worker) offered Soltau a teaching position at the school in
Bideford, where Hake was headmaster. The Soltaus then moved to nearby
Northam, and continued there for ten wholesome years. One young man he
tutored, William J. Lowe, would become an able Bible teacher and an
assistant to John Darby in his translation work. Interestingly, Mrs.
Soltau had not been scripturally baptized (believer's baptism had not
been unanimously taught at the Plymouth assembly) so when three of the
girls were converted, it was Robert Chapman who baptized Mrs. Soltau
and the girls in the river that ran through Bideford.
In 1861, they moved to Exeter where Henry Soltau produced his books
that did so much to open up the biblical teaching of the tabernacle in
the wilderness, the priesthood and the Levitical offerings. His books
are "must reading," and most books on the subject published in the last
century are heavily indebted to Soltau. But the little book, The Soul
and Its Difficulties: a Word to the Anxious, was the one that he liked
to hear about. It had a large circulation, and when reports came of how
it was used by God, Soltau rejoiced. When he could not travel for
health reasons, he would hear that his little book was constantly on
In 1860, he began losing his eyesight, and even feared total
blindness, but he recovered somewhat, and was able to continue
travelling alone and reading a Bible with large type.
Soltau visited London, speaking at the Freemasons' Hall; Glasgow,
Birmingham, Hereford, Teignmouth, and Dublin. In Exeter in 1866, he met
the evangelist, Samuel Blow, who said of Soltau's preaching, "As I
listened, each word seemed to fall like a hammer, leaving a lasting
impression...I frequently came across persons who had been converted
while listening to him preaching in the open-air or at riverside
By 1867, his health was caving in. That autumn he preached in
London, and on the last Sunday spoke six times. One of those meetings
was in the open air, in Soho Square, within sight of the places that a
fashionable young lawyer spent his time thirty years ago. Soltau
pointed to where that man had lived, then how he was converted, and how
life has since been filled with happy service for God. Shortly after
that day he was paralyzed by a stroke. He never spoke again publicly.
In 1870, he moved to Barnstaple to end his days near R. C. Chapman.
When the end came, on the first of July, 1875, he had been unconscious
for weeks, but at the last he lifted his head, his eyes opened, and the
smile of heaven shone from his face. Without a sigh or gasp he made his
In all, the Soltau's raised three sons and six daughters. All were
converted at an early age, and later gave themselves to the Lord's
service. He maintained an active interest in the Lord's work in the
regions beyond, especially where his children worked. One was a leader
in the M'Call Mission in France, Henrietta spent her life helping at
the China Inland Mission headquarters in England. Son Henry went to
Burma and China as a medical missionary and served with Hudson Taylor.
Henry was also an honorary Secretary of CIM. All of them were a credit
to their parents. Henry Soltau was a wise and tender father. What he
taught in public he practiced at home, saying "First yourself; then the
home; then the Church; then the world."
Materials for this article taken from:
Pickering, H., Chief Men Among the Brethren, Loizeaux, 1918
Beattie, David J., Brethren: The Story of a Great Recovery, John Ritchie, 1939
Peterson, R., Robert Chapman: A Biography, Loizeaux, 1995
Books by Henry Soltau:
The Tabernacle, the Priesthood and Offerings
The Soul and Its Difficulties: a Word to the Anxious
The Stroke of a Stick, (which we have never seen)
The Brethren, Who are They, What are their Doctrines? also known as They Found it Written