As he looked around him long ago King David wrote, "I have a goodly heritage" (Ps 16.6). As we look around us today and think about our great privileges and rich blessings, we too can surely say that. But we must not forget that where we are now is largely because of others who have gone before us, who carried forward the torch of testimony, and left us an example to follow. Over the coming months we intend to look at the lives and times of some more of them. Their devotion to the Lord in days much harder than ours is both an inspiration and a challenge.
Our Torchbearers of the Truth series during 2009-2012 recalled the courageous lives and costly convictions of those who brought the light of the gospel and the truth of Gods Word into the darkness of the changing 16th to 18th centuries. The spiritual and indeed the social progress of the past 300 years in the UK owes much to that great Reformation movement which eventually swept across a large part of Europe and spread far into countless regions beyond.
An earlier series, in 1995–2009, recalled many of Gods servants from the latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th, some within living memory. Their efforts locally and farther afield brought undoubted blessing to believers by their ministry and to unbelievers by their testimony, as they lived out their faith in the public eye, and spoke to us "the good word of God". That is why it was entitled Whose Faith Follow, a telling phrase which still reaches our hearts. The "goodly heritage" of the local churches to which we are privileged to belong has been shaped by such men.
But they in turn built upon what others had begun. It is time to look at these others now, to look at the wider movements of the Spirit of God during the eventful years of the 19th century. The field is large, the names numerous, the places and projects varied indeed, and we will have to be selective. But our heritage is a legacy of both their character and their efforts. Their ways and their words still echo in our gatherings and our practices. And this is not simply because of them, but rather because the things which they did and taught were founded upon the teaching of the Word of God. National, social and domestic conditions change rapidly, now much different from when they lived, but the principles of Scripture are timeless. They apply to us right on to "the end of the age".
The 19th Century
Recent centuries have all been marked by great changes, including our present one already. But the changes during the 19th century were so fundamental and far-reaching that we are still living in its aftermath although a hundred years and more have passed since it closed. From the viewpoint of the UK (which will be our main focus) it was the Victorian era. The British Empire was expanding rapidly, "Britannia ruled the waves", and by force or by influence imposed its style upon a large part of the world. At home the Industrial Revolution had well and truly come of age. Powered by steam generated from apparently endless supplies of coal, Britain was "the workshop of the world".
Expansion was rapid. Railways, factories, trade, cities, seaports and armed forces grew more quickly than ever and, for many, wealth increased to match. It was the century of grandiose building projects in the cities and in the country, with labour cheap and easy to obtain. But many aspects of Victorian society were truly appalling - the grinding poverty of working men and their large families, the squalor of crowded housing, child mortality at an awful level, health care hardly invented. In such conditions prominent individuals like Lord Shaftesbury, William Wilberforce, Elizabeth Fry and of course William Booth and George Müller made their mark.
The Place of the Word of God
A key factor in our story, however, is that the Bible was being read and studied more carefully than ever by more people than ever as literacy increased, thanks to an expanding educational system. As they read and studied the Word of God many began to question the tenets of established religion and church practice. They saw that the New Testaments teaching about the church and how it should function was different from what they were accustomed to. As they studied and discussed and prayed about it, many would leave established church bodies, often at great personal cost, and gather to the name of the Lord Jesus alone. Independent assemblies of believers began to gather in many places, of which Dublin, Exeter, Bristol, and of course Plymouth were only a few.
This is not to say that the established churches had completely departed from the faith. Indeed it is worth quoting from the Oxford Declaration of 1864, a result of discussions of 150 clergy and academics from these churches: "We…declare our firm belief that the Church…maintains without reserve or qualification, the Inspiration and Divine Authority of the whole Canonical Scriptures, as not only containing but being, the Word of God; and further teaches in the words of our Blessed Lord, that the "punishment" of the "cursed" equally with the "life" of the "righteous" is "everlasting". Clergy were invited to subscribe to this: 11,000 did so whilst 16,000 did not. Inevitably churchgoers were confused and misled.
Another digression and challenge had arisen: Darwins Origin of Species (1859) and then his Ascent of Man (1871) set alight an intellectual controversy which continues to this day. There were some attempts to accommodate what the Bible taught into this new science and its growing influence. Most created more problems than they tried to solve.
But the Spirit of God was truly moving in these islands. Following the earlier spiritual revivals led by the Wesleys and Whitefield, for example, there was a further and unprecedented expansion of gospel preaching, an evangelical awakening which would match the scale of the Reformation and build upon it. The growing towns and cities provided increasing opportunities for the Word of God to reach larger crowds than ever. This would be the century when large numbers of mission halls and churches (some to hold thousands) would be built everywhere and filled to capacity. It would be the century of great spiritual revivals at home, and pioneering, literally trailblazing, missionary endeavour abroad, facilitated in the providence of God by the infra-structure of an expanding empire "upon which the sun never set".
Our Goodly Heritage
From these times has come our goodly heritage. Here are some aspects which we intend to examine in more detail in the coming months.
• Several well-educated clergymen became convinced as they studied the Scriptures that the way forward did not lie in attempting to reform existing churches, but in separating from them to form independent autonomous local churches with no denominational title or affiliation and with no clergy/laity distinctions. Such churches based on the New Testament model are still multiplying worldwide.
• Fresh attention to Bible study and discussion also clarified distinctions between Israel and the church. This led to a foundational understanding of prophecy and dispensations with a specific focus upon the imminent return of the Lord Jesus. Books written from this period continue to assist Bible students.
• Worldwide mission became important. Men such as David Livingstone and William Carey were sponsored by Missionary Societies, whilst many more such as A N Groves went abroad independently as guided by the Holy Spirit. Past and present lists of missionaries from the UK and the USA for example show how fully the passion and example of these trailblazers has been followed ever since.
• Bible Societies and individuals gave impetus to the distribution and translation of the Scriptures, a vital and progressive task which continues to this day when it is reckoned that more than 7 billion copies of the Scriptures have been printed, the whole Bible translated into over 450 languages, and part of it (Marks Gospel) into over 2,370 languages. There is still some way to go however!
• With widespread fervent gospel preaching, remarkable revivals occurred in many parts of the country, for example in Northern Ireland and north-east Scotland in 1859 (the same year as Darwins book was published!), and elsewhere in subsequent decades.
• Many hymns with a sound Scriptural basis were written to add to existing collections from the likes of Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley and John Newton. We still enjoy singing these hymns at the Lords Supper and when the Word of God is taught and the gospel is preached.
Now, a goodly heritage like this is worth enjoying. And surely it is worth our best efforts to maintain it!
To be continued.