One of the six missionaries who accompanied Thomas Coke to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1814, he was born in West Bromwich, the son of Jabez Ault a shoemaker. His ancestors had suffered in the Wednesbury riots of the 1740s and were friends of the Asburys. He showed an early love of books and is said to have read the Bible through six times by the age of seven. Though trained in his father's trade, he entered the itinerancy after four years as a local preacher. He was ordained by Coke in 1813, in preparation for the mission to Asia.
His wife, whom he had married shortly before embarking, died of consumption during the voyage. He wrote a hymn celebrating the arrival of the missionary party in Ceylon. He was posted to Batticaloa on the east coast of the island, then accessible only by sea, where his nearest compatriot, apart from a small garrison, was the Anglican chaplain at Trincomalee, further up the coast. Despite the isolation, appalling climatic conditions and a diet largely confined to rice and fish, he was soon preaching in Tamil and organising schools in the neighbourhood. The nature of his lone pioneering work was described by his colleague Thomas Squance: 'He rose at three or four o'clock in the morning, and did not retire before twelve at night; and all this time was employed in reading, writing, instructing children, or preaching. Few men, even in Europe, would be able to endure labour such as this.' He was taken ill with a fever early in 1815 and died less than a year after arrival, on 1 April. The Ault Memorial Building in Batticaloa, built in 1897, ensures that his work is not forgotten. Another commemorative plaque is at the Pettah Church in Colombo.
From a letter from Batticaloa to his mother:
‘I am not very pleasantly situated. I scarcely ever see bread. I have been housekeeper now nearly two months, during which time I have not had in my house, eiher Butter, or Cheese, Mutton, or Beef, or veal, or Pork, or in fact any meat at all… I have had no vegetables of any kind, except in Curry…All my Brethren are in very different Circumstances to myself; but this will only be for a time; we shall here pursue the Itinerant Plan as far as possible, This place cannot produce the Comforts of Life, or even the Necessaries of Life. Everything must come from the other side of the Island; and we have no way through the Interior of the Country, everything must be Carried round the Coast, which makes things very dear. I cannot get milk; there has been Scarcely any Rain for two years: the Cattle have died, and almost a Famine is apprehended on this Side unless we get Rain soon. This place has not long been in the possession of Europeans; it is but little removed from a savage State…
‘I dwell at present in a Hut, Mud Walls, thatched with Leaves; and no glass in my windows. When there small showers came down I had to run about from place to place to find a dry spot on the floor of my Hut, where I might stand to screen myself from the Rain… How I shall do if the approaching Monsoons be heavy I cannot tell. I am very much annoyed by the Insects in the night, I have seldom one good night’s rest. They sting very badly. Frequently in a Morning, or in the Night when I awake, I have some part bitten and swelled with considerable pain… I intend to build myself a small House soon, and to have a little Garden that will produce some vegetables &c. But I am afraid I cannot build till after the approaching Monsoons is past.’