This eminent saint of God labored in England during the early history of Methodism. His biographer, Harvey Leigh, says: “Our brother was an extraordinary man in the importunity and prevalence of his prayers. What has been said of the strength and constancy of his faith may be said, with equal propriety, of his importunate and prevalent prayers; that is, he was second to none. In fact, we need not be surprised at this, for generally these two excellences walk hand in hand.
For some years he was known in the religious world to thousands by the singular name of ‘Praying Johnny.’ This epithet he justified in the whole of his conduct. His prayers were long and very fervent in his own closet. Mr. Bottomley, who was stationed with him in the Halifax circuit, says: ‘During the time of his stay at Halifax, he was much given up to prayer, and generally spent about six hours each day upon his knees, pleading earnestly with God, in behalf of himself, the church and sinners, whose salvation he most ardently desired.
“Frequently, when harassed by any particular temptation, when concerned about the temporal condition of any person in dangerous affliction, when under engagement to pray for one who was troubled with an evil spirit, when foiled some late attempt to do good, when travailing in anguish of mind for a revival of religion in the neighborhood in which he was laboring, and when deeply anxious to see the glory of the Lord revealed, he has spent many hours in the most decided abstinence and secluded retirement; and has sometimes, in this manner, devoted whole days and nights to God.
“In the public services of the sanctuary, John had great influence with God in prayer. In answer to the earnest breathings of his soul, a whole assembly has been moved as the trees of a wood are moved when shaken with a strong wind. A mighty shaking has been felt, and a great noise heard, amongst the dry bones. The breath of Jehovah has been felt, numbers among the slain have been quickened, and a great army has been raised up.
“A strange fact connected with the history of this good man, and strikingly illustrative of his close communion with God in prayer, and of the results of such communion, we shall here relate. When in Hull circuit, he visited Burlington Quay, and was rendered eminently useful.
When there, his home was with Mr. Stephenson, whose family was one of the most influential in the place. Their mercantile engagements were numerous; at home they carried on a considerable business, and were extensively connected with the shipping department. About the year 1825, Mr. Stephenson had a ship at sea, on a foreign and distant voyage, about the safety of which he and the family began to feel anxious. There had not been any tidings of the vessel extending over a period far beyond what they had expected. And what tended much to increase their solicitude, they had a son on board for whom they feared the worst — feared that they should see him no more. At this time Mr. Oxtoby was sojourning in the family, and was painfully concerned at witnessing their anxiety.
Pressed in spirit for them, and desirous to be the instrument of their relief, he fell back upon his usual and safe resort—special fasting and protracted prayer to God--
in which he besought the Almighty to give him an assurance whether the ship was really lost, or whether it would return home in safety. In his protracted travail, he clearly ascertained that the ship, which had been the object of so much solicitude, was not lost, but that it and the son for whose safety the family were so anxious, would, in due course, return in safety, and that all would be well.
This welcome intelligence he communicated to the anxious family; and did it with as much confidence as characterized St. Paul’s mind, when he uttered his noble speech to the embarrassed ship’s crew, while they drew near to the island of Melita, and, contrary to all human appearance, assured them that not a hair of their heads should perish. Rut high as our brother stood in the estimation of the family, and exalted as was their opinion of his extraordinary piety, and the power and prevalency of his prayers, yet his calm and positive assertions on this subject almost exceeded the powers of their belief; and though they did not distrust them, they staggered at them.
But John remained unmoved. He smiled at their doubts; reiterated his expressions of confidence; told them that God had ‘shown him the ship while at prayer;’ that he was as certain of her safe return as if she were in the harbor then; and that when the vessel returned, though he had never seen her, excepting when revealed to him in prayer, he should know her, and could easily distinguish her from any other. Time rolled on, John pursued his work, and the family remained anxious, when news reached them, one day, that the vessel was safe and on her way home.
It soon after arrived, at which time Mr. Oxtoby was about ten miles distant in the country. The Stephenson family were, however, so delighted with the occurrence—with the realization of all their devoted friend had uttered—with the accomplishment of what, to them, appeared like a prediction, and from which the good man had never wavered—no, not for a moment—that a gig was immediately sent for him, by which he was to return with the least possible delay.
When he reached Burlington Quay, Mr. Stephenson asked him if he should know the ship about which he had sought Divine counsel, providing he could see her. ‘I should,’ said John; ‘God so clearly revealed her, to me in prayer, that I could distinguish her among a hundred.’ Then they walked out on the pier, and on their left were many vessels, some near and some remote, floating at anchor in the spacious bay. Among them John looked, and exclaimed; while pointing in a certain direction : ‘That’s the ship which God showed me while at prayer. I knew she would come home safely, and that I should see her.’
We need scarcely add that in this he was correct; and that this last particular of the strange account filled Mr. Stephenson with overwhelming amazement.”
— Shining Lights
Touching Incidents and Remarkable Answers to Prayer - 1893
PDF Link to Harvey Leigh's Biography of Johnny Oxtoby