There is no doubt that studying Church history can sometimes be a depressing business. Too often, human frailty and failure seem to hamper or thwart the work of God. But history also has much to encourage us. In particular, it provides us with innumerable proofs of the fact that our sovereign and all-powerful God can overrule human and satanic opposition, and use it to prosper the gospel. The history of the Church in the early centuries contains numerous examples of this. Imperial opposition to Christianity, and the consequent scattering of believers, was one of the most effective means of spreading Christianity throughout the known world. Nor are such events confined to the early church. Throughout the centuries, God has used opposition and attack for His purposes and to His ends.
Another example of this principle is provided in the revival of evangelical preaching in the middle of the 18th century. In those decades, a mighty work was done for God. In England, Ireland, and America the gospel rang forth with fresh clarity and renewed power. Many individuals were saved, and the character of nations was changed. And this happened, not in spite of, but, because of the opposition of the established church to the preaching of the gospel.
The Cromwellian Interregnum in English history (1649-1660) was marked by a dramatic change in the religious life of the nation. The established Church of England was shaken up, the episcopacy was suppressed, and a plethora of independent and separatist congregations sprang up throughout Great Britain and Ireland. The restoration of the monarchy under Charles II brought about a radical reversal. The episcopacy was re-established and, in 1662, the Act of Uniformity was passed, requiring ministers to submit to High Church Anglicanism and renounce the Puritan and Presbyterian elements that had prospered during the Cromwellian period. Over 2,000 ministers refused to take an oath to uphold this act and were removed from their positions in an event known as the Great Ejection. Those who continued to preach the gospel became the objects of official persecution – John Bunyan is perhaps the most famous figure to have been imprisoned at this time.
This ejection of those ministers who were most committed to the preaching of the gospel and the practice of Scriptural ecclesiology had a serious and negative impact on the character of the church. This was echoed in fashionable society. The lifting of the social restraints that had been imposed by the Puritans resulted in all manner of pleasure seeking. At the same time, the working class continued in spiritual darkness, disregarded by a church that was more concerned with social status than its responsibility to preach the gospel.
It was in this dark context that God began to move. The work that He would accomplish is associated particularly with John and Charles Wesley (1703-1791, 1707-1788) and George Whitefield (1714-1770). These men were instrumental in a great revival of the gospel on both sides of the Atlantic.
John and Charles’ father was Samuel Wesley, a clergyman who began his career as a Dissenting minister but who, ironically, is remembered for his opposition to religious non-conformity. Their mother Susanna was a remarkable woman. She gave birth to 19 children, of which nine died in infancy. She still found time to take charge of her children’s education. In addition, she held family devotions every Sunday, and these came to attract a large crowd from the surrounding area who were, like Susanna herself, dissatisfied with the lack of spiritual food provided from the pulpit of the local church. Like many a godly mother, Susanna had a vital impact upon her children. Her exercise to teach her children in her home had international effects that she little imagined.
The Wesley brothers both attended Christ Church, Oxford. While there, they were responsible for founding the Holy Club. This group was made up of young men who were dissatisfied with the low moral standards that prevailed in English society, and sought to live holy lives, marked by religious discipline. This desire made them conspicuous amongst the godless undergraduates, and because of their disciplined lives they became known mockingly as “Methodists.” Both of the Wesley brothers went on to become clergymen. At this stage, though, they were relying on the holiness of their lives for salvation, and knew nothing of the peace of salvation. It was only after a disastrous period in the newly established American colony of Georgia, and his return to England that John “felt [his] heart strangely warmed” as he listened to Luther’s preface to Romans being read. In the same month, May 1738, Charles was reading Luther on Galatians, and having found the One “Who loved me and gave Himself for me,” he was able to say “I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoice in hope of loving Christ.” Two days later he began writing the first of over 6,000 hymns.
George Whitefield was the son of an innkeeper, and went up to Oxford as a servitor, receiving free tuition in exchange for working as a servant for more wealthy students. At Oxford, he too became a member of the Holy Club. In 1735, after a lengthy struggle under the conviction of sin, Whitefield trusted Christ as Savior. Like the Wesleys, he was ordained and made plans to travel to Georgia. While he waited for his passage, he began to preach in London. He only stayed three months in Georgia, before returning to London. Here he found many pulpits closed to him by ministers and bishops who had little sympathy with his gospel preaching. It was this effort to stifle the preaching of the gospel that led to the remarkable work of God known as the Evangelical Revival in England and, in America, as the first Great Awakening.
Whitefield’s response to the closing of pulpits to him was simple, but to the respectable clergymen of the day, almost unthinkable. Shut out of the church in the village of Hanham, near Bristol, Whitefield began to preach in the churchyard. He had been gifted with a remarkably carrying voice, and his sermons quickly gathered enormous crowds, especially of local miners who had never before heard the gospel preached. Soon he was preaching in the open air throughout England. At a time when the population of London was less than 700,000, he attracted audiences of 20,000 to 30,000.
In 1738, Whitefield sailed once more to America, where he became parish priest in Savannah, Georgia, where he established the Bethesda orphanage. Before he left, he persuaded the Wesleys to join him in open air preaching. They were reluctant to take this step – John later admitted that he felt it “almost a sin” to adopt this means. But the brothers were eventually persuaded, and open air preaching became a vital part of the Revival that swept through Britain and the American colonies.
The Wesleys and Whitefield devoted their lives to the preaching of the gospel. Whitefield’s greatest work was accomplished in North America, especially in Georgia and Philadelphia. He was associated with Jonathan Edwards, the first great American preacher, who was born in East Windsor, Connecticut in 1703. John itinerated extensively throughout England and Ireland, travelling thousands of miles on horseback, proclaiming the gospel wherever he went. He also organized circuits of preachers, many of whom were not ordained ministers of the Established Church. This led, eventually to the formation of the Methodists. Charles Wesley, likewise, devoted his life to the gospel. He never formally left the Church of England. Though he travelled far less extensively than his brother, his hymns were widely used and had a profound impact.
The Evangelical Revival has many important lessons for us. It teaches us that social conditions are never so dark as to prevent God from working. It demonstrates the inestimable repercussions of a godly mother’s exercise. It underscores the value of a disciplined life made wholly available for the Master’s service. And it emphasizes the power of God to confound His enemies by turning their opposition against themselves.