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Church history

1 September 2010 | by Paul Cook

The great harvest

If you visit Bala this summer, give some time to seeing the places associated with the preaching of Thomas Charles. He was the minister in the town from whom Mary Jones obtained her Bible. And he was one of the founding members of the British and Foreign Bible Society. But in 1791 a glorious revival broke out. ‘Nothing could be heard from one end of the town to the other, but the cries and groans of people in distress of soul.’ Later Charles commented:
I could hardly believe my eyes sometimes, when I see in the chapel those who were the most faithful servants of Satan, weeping in great distress under a sense of sin and danger, and crying out for mercy.

John Wesley died that same year; and with him the power of the great eighteenth-century revival faded as did the effects of the labours of George Whitefield, William Grimshaw and men such as Howell Harris, Daniel Rowland and others. But what happened in Bala in the 1790s marked the beginning of a new movement of the Spirit of God, one which was also taking place in the Midlands, the north of England, Cornwall and Scotland.

A new awakening

It has often been thought that spiritual awakenings which took place between 1791 and 1840 were the after-effects of the eighteenth-century revival. This is a misrepresentation. The earlier revival was of a pioneering nature, mainly establishing preaching centres in somewhat diverse parts of the country. The men God used were generally ordained ministers of the Church of England. The revival which followed in the early nineteenth-century was almost entirely nonconformist in character. The established church, apart from the Anglo-Catholic element, was largely in an extremely worldly condition, whereas the Dissenters (Baptists and Congregationalists), who were little affected in the eighteenth-century revival, were wonderfully awakened in the later revival.

The Particular Baptists in Wales are an example of this. Bypassed during the eighteenth-century revival, they were set free from the deadening influences of High Calvinism and experienced a marvellous expansion. In 1790 there were forty-eight Particular Baptist chapels in Wales, most of which had been established by the unashamed process of drawing away adherents from the Calvinistic Methodist and Independent (Congregational) churches. A glorious converting work began, however, towards the end of the eighteenth-century, so that by 1851 there were 456 places of worship – a tenfold increase over sixty years.

But what was happening in Wales was also taking place throughout the nation. A new awakening was beginning to gather thousands into the churches established by the Methodists during the eighteenth-century revival. Many of the dissenting churches which had been bypassed in the revival were quickened. The number of their congregations more than doubled between 1800 and 1830. Samuel Pearce of Cannon Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, had been aware of approaching revival in the Baptist churches and wrote in 1798:
Prayer meetings in numerous places are well attended… and the members in several churches have been more than trebled within five years; in one church a hundred were added in two years.

Fresh movements of the Spirit produced ‘new wine’ which could not be contained in the ‘old bottles’. In the early nineteenth-century the Wesleyans were unable to tolerate some of their number in the Potteries who had been powerfully baptised by the Spirit. Primitive Methodism was born; and in the first fifty years many of the working class were brought into the kingdom of God. One of their future leaders, William Clowes, was spiritually arrested in a pub in Barton-on-Humber. There is an evangelical church in the town today, meeting in what was an old public house, which some of us like to think was the very place!

The Great Revival

George Smith, the Wesleyan Methodist historian described the revival which broke out in Redruth, Cornwall, in 1814 as ‘one of the most remarkable and extensive revivals of religion ever known in this or any other country’. It affected the whole peninsular beyond Truro and became known as ‘The Great Revival’.

A sense of God began to fall on upon the people in the early weeks of 1814. At a prayer meeting in February eight found peace with God. The following night many more were seized with conviction of sin, and after much agony of soul and importunate prayer they sought and found refuge in Christ. The spiritual alarm soon became widespread. Hundreds in Redruth and the surrounding area were brought under deep spiritual concern. Men and women and young people who had lived godless lives began to call upon God for mercy. Numbers were soon rejoicing in forgiveness of sins through the merits of Jesus Christ.

2,000 were converted within the first week of the revival. In only a few weeks from the beginning of the revival an estimated 500-600 people were gathered out of the ungodly world into the kingdom of God. People of all types and social classes were added to the Methodist societies. The fruits of righteousness soon appeared in the lives of many who had led immoral and degraded lives. The Methodist circuits west of Truro increased from a membership of 9,405 in 1813 to 14,616 in a period of five months. Forty-five years later a writer testified to having visited many mature Christian people in old age, converted in the Redruth revival, who had shown by a long and consistent life that they had not received the grace of God in vain.

The word spread rapidly

In the evangelical revival of the eighteenth-century a way for the gospel was opened up into areas where there had been little true knowledge of God. Groups were formed for Christian fellowship and prayer. The gospel was preached widely; but the period of phenomenal ingathering when a gospel witness was established in almost every town and village of our land came in the first half of the nineteenth-century. Spontaneous revivals broke out all over the British Isles in varying degrees of divine power: sometimes limited to certain towns and denominations, whilst at other times, such as in 1822, sweeping the nation.

Dip back into past records and wonderful events come to light as, for example, in Yeadon, not far from Leeds/Bradford airport. 500 were added to the society in 1806 alone. Another revival broke out in Yeadon in 1834. The Methodist Magazine of 1834 contains the details. Conviction of sin was so widespread that business was suspended for several days in some workplaces. People were weeping in the streets over their sins. So great was the number of penitent souls that prayer meetings were held from morning to night in the chapel. The movement spread to Guiseley and Rawden. 600 were converted in Yeadon alone.

Since the 1904 revival in Wales there has been a tendency among evangelicals to represent revival in a somewhat mystical manner. Instead of rooting our understanding in New Testament doctrine it has been regarded as something different from the regular operations of the Holy Spirit, and all sorts of fantasies have been associated with it. But revivals are an intensification of the workings of the Spirit through the gospel. They differ from what is accepted as normal, not in essence but only in degree of power and extent of influence. And we need to beware that our desire for revival does not divert us from more important considerations such as the need for repentance and a passion to please God in everything.

Paul E.G. Cook is the author of Fire from Heaven: Times of Extraordinary Revival.

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