Established religion satisfies the minds of some, but the hearts of the multitudes frequently go hungry. We are often told of the imminent death of the Church of England (now apparently just six years away, according to Tim Thornton, Bishop of Truro), and it appears that the Roman Catholic Church is in an open and declared state of civil war, as the Benedictines range themselves against the Franciscans and each side excommunicates the other as they vie to expose the Antipope. Some say these disputes are about orthodoxy and truth, but more perceive them to be concerned with the strength of numbers and naked assertions of political power. In these human conflagrations and institutional decay, you don’t often hear (or read) much about the corruption of the heart or the convulsions of personal sin.
In contending against formalism and external religion, revival meets a human need for intimacy. The hymn writer William Williams observed: “To discover why it goes against the grain of professors to speak well of God, it is because their religion is only in their minds, and has never yet ascended to their hearts.” Jonathan Edwards corroborates this: ‘True virtue or holiness has its seat chiefly in the heart, rather than in the head,” he wrote. And John Wesley recorded in his journal:
About quarter to nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt that I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine…
He began to testify openly of what he “now felt in his heart”, preaching an “assurance that God’s forgiveness is available to all: the power of a new life could be had for the asking”. Such an intensely personal revival leads to the communication of the necessity for an emotionally fulfilling experience. As Wesley preached, emotion swept the crowd, with spontaneous singing, confessions of sin, convulsions, and “dropping down as dead”.
Although such charismatic events are often a consequence of revival, they may also become a cause as they induce a spiritual longing in others for the same experience. In Cambuslang, Scotland, William M’Culloch’s biographer sources his longing for revival in the stories emanating from England and Wales, and his noting of the style of George Whitefield, which consequently produced similar ‘hysterical’ manifestations to those experienced by Wesley. Wesley himself was massively influenced by the pietist Moravians, whose spirituality was founded principally on discipline, close fellowship, missionary zeal, compassion and simplicity. While Whitefield clearly influenced M’Culloch, he was himself a successor to Theodorus Freylinghuysen and a product of the Great Awakening in America. This is an illustration of the influence of one generation on the next, and of success breeding success (notwithstanding the central role of the Holy Spirit in breathing new life onto the Church).
The theological emphasis needs to fall once again on the guilt of humanity, and thence salvation through the redeeming work of Christ. The focus needs to become the cross and the experience of conversion. In the words of Whitefield: “…tell them they must be regenerate, they must be born again, they must be renewed in the spirit…in the inmost faculties of their minds, ere they can truly call Jesus Lord, Lord, or have any share in the merits of his precious blood.”
Ryle also recalled the realisation of “my own sinfulness, Christ’s preciousness, the value of the Bible, the need of being born again…”. As a consequence of these teachers and pastors repenting of their own sin, contemporary accounts refer to “unexpected and instantaneous conversions, accompanied by the physical and spiritual operations of some overwhelming power upon the minds and bodies of the parties so converted”.
There was an absolute need to accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour, after which the believer is encouraged to be disciplined and to submit to sanctification by the Holy Spirit. There was enthusiasm and separateness, with increased interest in and production of books of sermons, devotional works, instructional guidance, tracts and biographies. And the hymns of the likes of Watts, Newton and the Wesleys were marked by simple, accessible tunes for the congregation, which were to be sung “with heart and soul”. Wesley’s intentions from the start went beyond the evangelisation and discipleship efforts with which his name is chiefly associated: his and Whitefield’s early sermons show they regarded the moral reformation of the country as a high priority. The Wesley method was to effect reformation not of opinions, but of tempers, emotions, passions and lives. John Wesley told the assembled Oxford dons in 1738 that only the doctrine of salvation by faith could “give a check to that immorality which hath overspread the land as a flood”. The discipline process insists on integrity of character – honesty, temperance, industry and thrift.
While revival is most evident in the individual heart, and thence the corporate life of the church, the most memorable profoundly affect the society. Jonathan Edwards asserts that the deepest heartfelt revival produces “high affections”, consisting in “high acts of love; strong and vigorous exercises of benevolence”. An awareness that revival growth leads to further growth necessitated planning and systematic organisation. This period of revival was marked by a need to construct chapels in profusion in town and country, and they were thronged with worshippers. Since ordained priests and bishops were both finite in number and (largely) indifferent or negative to revival (pretty much as now), there evolved a strong lay element, emanating from the realisation of the equality of all men before God – an individualism which was fused in the context of Romanticism, which brought to masses of men a new individual liberty to decide their own fate and destiny.
Organised meetings moved beyond the walls of church buildings, as itinerant evangelism challenged the paternalistic parishes of Anglicanism. And so they must again. If the people will not come to church, the Church – the family of God – must go out to the people. Leave the lethargic bishops to pore over decline, and let the overbearing cardinals fight like ferrets over which pope is more infallible. We must hold our prayer meetings in our homes or in pubs, and go out into our streets, villages, towns and districts – not to pontificate and preach, but to listen to the binge-drinkers, hug the depressed, feed the hungry and help the homeless. They will ask the questions. They might even sense the heart of love which motivates.
We are accountable to God for the way we use our gifts, time and opportunities. We can wait for holy leadership and make excuses for our indolence and inaction, or we can just get on with it.