Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Evangelical revival

This is a huge subject and this post only scratches the surface.

Historical context
The Evangelical revival began in the 1730s in the context of developments in Britain, Europe and the American colonies. These included the relative decline of Old Dissent (Baptists, Independents), the dominance of High Church and Latitudinarian elements in the Church of England, the influence of German pietism in the form of the Moravians and the work of the revivalist preacher Jonathan Edwards in Massachusetts. More controversially, some historians have seen the Enlightenment as a key influence.

From the 1670s Pietism became a new force within German Lutheranism, springing from unease at the inadequacies of the established church. The Pietist minister Philipp Jakob Spener, who worked at Strasbourg and Frankfurt, was concerned to work through the existing structures of church life to bring back a more personal religion to the Lutheran world. This involved encouraging the laity to form devotional societies (collegia pietatis) for prayer and study. The pietists were much helped by the hymn writer Paul Gerhardt (Wesley learned German so that he could translate pietist hymns into English).

Pietism found a base in the new university of Halle (founded 1694), which would train thousands of pastors.

The Moravians
One group which did separate out of the pietists had an influence out of proportion to its size. The Moravians (the Unitas Fratrum) traced their origin to the 15th century Hussites in Bohemia and Moravia. During the 16th and 17th centuries they survived as a movement though persecuted by the Counter-Reformation and suppressed by the Peace of Westphalia.

In 1722 a group of families adhering to the tradition of the Bohemian Brethren fled Moravia and settled on the estate of Spener’s godson, Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf (1700-60), a nobleman and civil servant from Saxony. The Herrnhut community became the mother community of what was to be the Moravian Church, and the centre of Moravian work all over the world. In 1732 the first Moravian missionaries left Herrnhut to work among the black slaves in the West Indies.

The Moravians came to London in 1734 en route to mission work in the American colonies, and made contacts that led to the formation of the Fetter Lane Society. In 1735 they began work in Georgia among the dispossessed German Protestants who had taken refuge there.

The British Revival

Wales: In Wales, paradoxically, a sustained campaign of Anglicization generated a thoroughly Welsh, dissenting religious revival. Griffith Jones (1683-1761) worked for the SPCK to set up schools in Wales; Howell Harris (1714-1773) began itinerant preaching immediately after his conversion; he repeatedly sought ordination but was refused.

Scotland: The Established Church in Scotland was the Presbyterian Church. It faced a continual crisis over the issue of lay patronage, which led to schisms from the Kirk. It treated the Highlands as a missionary area, then one third of the population of Scotland.
In February 1742 a revival began in Cambuslang, south-east of Glasgow. In mid-July George Whitefield arrived there and 20,000 appeared there the day before communion. The following month 30,000 turned up.

England: The political context is very important for understanding the Evangelical revival in England. During Walpole’s long period as Prime Minister there was a deep revulsion at what was seen as the corruption of political life. Religious disaffection at Walpole’s failure to accept any programme for church reform merged with Tory ‘country’ traditions. By the 1730s there were a number of ‘religious societies’ of disaffected Anglicans, mainly in places of anti-court sentiment, such as London, Bristol and Newcastle. These showed a remarkable capacity for absorption and they quickly drew in the Moravians.

The Methodists
The first prominent Methodist was not John Wesley but George Whitefield (1714-70), who was converted in 1735, three years before Wesley, and who at the time of Wesley’s conversion was already using open-air preaching to dramatic effect.

John Wesley (1703-91) was born to parents who were politically divided. Both were Tories but Samuel accepted William as King and Susanna did not. The Anglican Church he knew as a young man was dominated by the Latitudinarians. As a result he started off his religious career with a High Church viewpoint out of step with the main establishment. He entered Christ Church, Oxford (a High Church stronghold), in 1720. He and graduated in 1724. In 1728 he was ordained priest. In 1729 he returned to Oxford to fulfil the residential requirements of his fellowship. There he joined his brother Charles and others in a religious study group, the ‘Holy Club’, one of a number of societies of devout young men. These societies were concerned with the ‘reformation of manners’ – attacking swearing, blasphemy and Sabbath-breaking. The ordered lifestyle and High Church piety of the Oxford club earned them the nickname ‘Methodists’.

Following his father’s death in 1735 Wesley was persuaded by the Jacobite Colonel, James Edward Oglethorpe, founder and governor of Georgia, to oversee the spiritual lives of the colonists and to missionize the Indians as an agent for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. While travelling out there he and Charles were much impressed by the piety and courage of the Moravians, who were also travelling there. Wesley’s stiff High Church piety antagonized many of the colonists, and many quarrels broke out. The worst concerned a naive attachment to the niece of the chief magistrate of Savannah. In December 1737 Wesley virtually fled from Georgia.

Back in London he met a Moravian, Peter Böhler, who convinced him that what he needed was simply faith. On 24 May 1738, he attended a Moravian mission in Aldersgate - an experience that was a turning point for him. It added a Protestant Evangelical fire to the Anglican Catholicism of his youth.

He then embarked on a lifetime’s mission throughout the British Isles in which he travelled over 200,000 miles and preached over 40,000 sermons. He quickly found that the ancient parochial structure of England was inadequate to his purpose and was not adapted to new population movements. In 1739 he was invited by Whitefield to come to Bristol and help preach to the colliers at Kingswood Chase. He came and found himself, much against his will, preaching in the open air. This enterprise was the beginning of the Methodist revival. Wesley was astonished at the dramatic results that followed, and the mass emotion of the crowds. Soon he was building up ‘societies’ which took the Oxford nickname, ‘Methodists’.

The Methodist society started at the Old Foundry, Moorfields, London and quickly spread to Bristol. As the new buildings went up the Methodists became institutionalized, though they were still part of the Church of England. Wesley always declared that the Methodists were a ‘society’ or a ‘connexion’ not a church but by the time of the great controversy with the Calvinists in 1771 Methodists numbered just over 26,000; by the time of his death in 1791 they were nearly 57,000.

In the early days of Methodism, Whitefield was better known than Wesley. It was he who first preached to the Kingswood miners. He established himself in London at the Moorfields Tabernacle (1741) and the Tottenham Court Chapel (1756).

The two men worked together for a while but as early as the 1740s differences surfaced over predestination. Whitefield and Selina Countess of Huntingdon (1707-91) were Calvinists. Whitefield became her chaplain in 1748. Following his death she set up her own chapels in the spa towns, Bath, Brighton, Tunbridge Wells. In 1768 she founded Trevecca College in Wales under the superintendence of Howel Harris for the training of ‘her’ clergy. In 1779 the Consistory Court in London disavowed her claim to appoint as many chaplains as she chose ; she therefore seceded from the Church of England and set up her ‘Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion’.

The Calvinist Methodists were only really successful in Wales. Their comparative failure in England can be ascribed in part by Whitefield’s failure to make legal provisions for his Connexion.

Wesley’s brand of Evangelical Arminianism was a distinct body of thought within Evangelicalism. His position within the Church was anomalous. What was the status of his congregations in Presbyterian Scotland? What about the law in England, which stated that all unauthorized religious buildings had to be licensed as Dissenting chapels? In 1787 Wesley reluctantly advised his societies that this had to be done.

A second, more serious force was pushing him away from the Church of England. Methodists in America found their work seriously affected when war broke out, and with the withdrawal of many Anglican clergy there was no-one to whom his followers could go to receive Communion. Accordingly in 1784 he took a stand on his own rights as an ordained priest of the Church of England to ordain men on his own initiative. With great inconsistency he was furious when the leaders of the American Methodists allowed themselves to be called bishops!

In 1784 Wesley drew up a Deed of Declaration; this appointed a Conference of 100 men (the ‘Legal Hundred’) to govern the Church after his death.

Do you want to read Wesley's sermons? Possibly not, but if you do, this website is the place to go to.

There is a useful timeline of Wesley's life here.

The Methodists aroused extraordinary hostility. In 1748, for example, Wesley received a physical battering at Calne when the local curate advertised for volunteers to attack him. The war waged on the Staffordshire Methodists in 1743 and 1744 was perhaps the most bitter of all such campaigns of intimidation. They were ‘irregular’, they conducted mass meetings, and they arose at a time of deep political controversy. Their class meetings subverted the existing hierarchical society. They had (from the 1770s) women preachers such as Mary Bosqanquet They arose at a sensitive political time. They were thought to be Jesuits in disguise. Very soon they were accused of Jacobitism. At the end of the 18th century, the time of the French Revolution, they were accused of Jacobinism.

They were constantly accused of superstition, credulity, extravagant behaviour. When James Boswell expressed belief in the second sight, the duchess of Argyll put him down with ‘I fancy you will turn Methodist’.

Public Advertiser, 28 Feb. 1774:
‘The Methodists have got such Hold of the weak Part of Mankind, that if any of these People meet with any Opposition or Contradiction, they think they have a Right to take away their own Lives; on Wednesday last one of these infatuated Men threw himself into the River in this Town [Brigg]; and notwithstanding the Remonstrances and Endeavours of several Persons present, obstinately drowned himself.’
Anglican Evangelicals
The awakening was wider than Methodism and included prominent clergy such as Samuel Walker of Truro and William Grimshaw of Haworth, who never adopted Methodist itinerancy. In Olney William Cowper and John Newton produced the Olney Hymns (1779). Newton’s Authentic Narrative (1764) provided the record of his conversion and his previous life as a slave-trader. In 1780 Richard Cecil took over the proprietary chapel of St John’s Bedford Row. These Anglicans were the spiritual fathers of the age of Wilberforce, whose conversion in 1785 marked a new development in the history of Evangelicalism.