There can be no doubt that in every century of the Christian era God raised up faithful men who have been "Torchbearers of the Truth" to their generation. God never leaves Himself without a witness! The names of many are not known to us, particularly those from the dark ages in the first millennium AD, but their record is on high. Our brother Bert Cargill has described the lives of honoured servants of Christ in more recent periods, from John Wycliffe in the 14th to John Bunyan in the 17th Centuries.
The Reformation and immediate Post Reformation periods covered in the previous articles were in the main "troublous times" and, as we have learned, a number of these noble witnesses to the truth suffered even to martyrdom. Moving forward chronologically, future articles will address the lives of men who lived in the 18th Century and we shall see that these men faced new and different challenges in being torchbearers. The fires of persecution were no longer burning in this country and threats of imprisonment, torture, or martyrdom had receded, but still there needed to be faithful men who would lift the torch of truth high in the face of rationalism and indifference.
In the transition to a new era, recognisably modern in various aspects, two political events of great significance had taken place. The first occurred in 1689, the year following the death of John Bunyan, and became known as the Glorious Revolution. After the death of Cromwell the monarchy had been restored and Charles II was crowned king in 1660. Charles died in 1685, and was succeeded by his brother James, Duke of York, who reigned as James II. James had previously made public his conversion to Catholicism, and his accession as a Catholic monarch caused grave concern and anxiety. It soon became clear that James was bent upon a policy of authoritarian monarchy and the restoration in Britain of the Roman Catholic religion. The birth of a son baptised with Roman rites as James Francis Edward Stuart (later known as the Old Pretender) on 10th June, 1688 hastened events which ultimately led to the flight of James, his wife Mary of Modena, and their infant son to France, and the coronation of William III and Mary II (elder daughter of James II by his first wife, Anne Hyde) as joint monarchs on 11th April, 1689. In the same year the Declaration of Rights limited the authority of the Crown, and an Act of Toleration secured religious freedom within certain bounds. It may be said that in the providence of God the groundwork was thus laid upon which rests the liberty to preach the gospel and to live and meet as Christians. That such liberty has been enjoyed in this country for over three hundred years is no guarantee that it will continue, at least in the long accustomed fashion. We should therefore not only cherish our liberties in the gospel, and pray for their continuance, but ensure that we make good use of them.
The second important event was the Act of Union in 1707 in terms of which the then Scottish Parliament ceased to exist. The Act enabled Scottish members to sit in the House of Commons and in the House of Lords at Westminster. It has been said that the union was a political necessity for England and an economic one for Scotland. To appreciate the former point a brief résumé of happenings after the accession of William and Mary is necessary. In 1701 the English parliament had passed the Act of Settlement, the purpose of which was to secure a Protestant succession of the Crown. Mary had died in 1694 and her husband William in 1702. The crown then passed to Queen Anne younger daughter of James II who became the last monarch of the House of Stuart. It was seen to be extremely unlikely that she would have a surviving heir, and in that event the nearest Protestant successor would be Sophia, Electress of Hanover, a first cousin to James II. (Sophia died in the same year as Anne, and her son succeeded to the throne as George I). The Whig party in England was determined that a Catholic Stuart would not succeed to the throne, but it was by no means certain that an independent Scots parliament would acquiesce in the choice of a Hanoverian successor to Queen Anne. It was feared that the loyalty of many Scots to the House of Stuart would lead to the Catholic son of James II becoming King James VIII of Scotland. This was the English imperative for the Union of Parliaments just over a century after the Union of the Crowns in 1603. It brought into being a United Kingdom with a constitutional monarchy for which a Protestant succession was secured. The Hanoverian kings were not universally popular but successive Jacobite rebellions failed to undo the result of the Union.
The political and religious temper of the 18th Century in Britain was set by the events briefly described above. During the Protectorate, Oliver Cromwell had expressed his desire for "a free and uninterrupted Passage of the Gospel running through the midst of us and Liberty for all to hold forth and profess with sobriety their Light and Knowledge therein, according as the Lord in His rich Grace and Wisdom hath dispensed to every man and with the same freedom to practice and exercise the Faith of the Gospel and lead quiet and peaceable lives in all Godliness and Honesty without any interruption from the Powers God hath set over this Commonwealth". The ideal of Cromwells aspirations may not have been fully realised, but the political and religious strife of the 16th and 17th Centuries had given place to more settled conditions. Dissenters, i.e. people who were not members of the established churches, still suffered discrimination in a number of respects, nevertheless there was now a significant measure of liberty for worship and witness excepting Roman Catholics. It was not until as late as the early 19th Century that the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed by Parliament during the Tory government of the Duke of Wellington.
As the 18th Century progressed, apathy and barrenness descended upon the spiritual and religious life of the nation. This was due, in part at least, to the influence and patronage of the nobility or landed gentry in clerical appointments in the established churches which could result in men of little ability or interest, or even unconverted men, filling pulpits. An example of the patronage of the local squire is caricaturised by the essayist Joseph Addison (1672-1719) in "Sir Roger de Coverley at Church".1 In tandem with the spiritual barrenness and poverty of much of the Christian ministry there rose a secular spirit in the public life of the nation which was unprecedented. Rationalism and atheism began to spread their baneful influence. It was the so-called "Age of Reason" when the writings of philosophers and free thinkers like David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau gained currency in the minds of many.
In the milieu of spiritual slumber and rationalism God was working in ways that would transform Britain and achieve long lasting results. A bright light already shone in the life of Isaac Watts who became known as "the father of English hymnody". His hymns gave utterance to spiritual emotions and aspirations in a way previously unknown in Britain, and by his death in 1748 he had penned over six hundred hymns, many of which remain well-known to the present. Numerous great hymn writers followed in his train so that by the end of the century Christian praise and worship had been greatly enriched. Furthermore, a fresh blaze of gospel truth was experienced through the labours of two men, John Wesley born in 1703, and George Whitefield born in 1714. By their prodigious labours the gospel was made known, and through the power of the Spirit of God multitudes were saved both in Britain and in America. It is interesting to reflect that God opened a wide channel of praise and worship for His people through a new richness of hymnology, and also met the spiritual plight of a multitude of souls in darkness by raising up the powerful gospel testimony of Wesley and Whitefield. The spiritual impetus of these times had a far reaching influence upon the lives of future generations. The cumulative effect of successive times of revival in Britain has placed enormous responsibility upon this nation which adds to the pathos of its moral and spiritual collapse in the second half of the twentieth century.
To be continued.
1 Selected English Essays chosen and selected by W. Peacock.