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"A Goodly Heritage" (9): Fresh Awakenings

J Brown, Peterhead

The nation of Israel was to witness remarkable consequences when the Spirit of the Lord began to move Samson at times in the camp of Dan between Zor-ah and Esh-ta-ol (Judg 13.25). In the present dispensation of His dealings with men, God still acts sovereignly, and the Spirit of the Lord has from time to time moved men of His choice during the course of the Christian era. The outcomes of such divine initiatives, in many respects, have been no less startling than those of Biblical times.

Throughout the history of the church there have been men who became dissatisfied with conditions in the ecclesiastical bodies of their day, so that a desire for reformation and renewal has been a recurring theme. There were times, especially in the Middle Ages, when abuse and corruption became rampant to a degree that cried out for correction, but always it was fresh study of the New Testament that made plain just how far existing well-entrenched practices and precepts were removed from those of the apostolic age. Such understanding did not come in the blinding flash of a moment. The dawning was often gradual, but slowly realisation stirred in hearts, and longings would deepen for a return to the simplicity of New Testament teaching and practice.

Pre-Reformation Centuries

Our knowledge of the pious men and women of earlier centuries who sought a return to Biblical Christianity is fragmentary. And this is not surprising, for we can hardly expect ecclesiastical authorities, who were determined, for their own reasons, to stamp out people regarded as heretics, to preserve honest and unbiased reports of those whom they persecuted and suppressed. It is known, however, that the Paulicians, so called because of their focus on the Pauline epistles, arose in the middle of the seventh century and quickly spread through Asia Minor, Armenia, and adjacent provinces. In the lengthy and severe persecutions in the reign of the Emperor Justinian it is thought that thousands were martyred for their faith.

The line of faithful testimony reappeared in the twelfth century in the region of Languedoc, where the Albigenses flourished in the south of France, and the Waldenses in the valleys of Piedmont in northern Italy. The bitter persecution they suffered, and the implacable hatred of the Papal authorities towards them, may serve as a guide to their character and beliefs. These noble Christians were accused of gross "heresies" and such "offences" as opposition to infant baptism, to the mass, celibacy, crucifixes, transubstantiation, and the efficacy of prayers for the salvation of the dead. The memory of their sufferings inspired this fine sonnet from the pen of John Milton.

Avenge, O Lord, Thy slaughtered saints, whose bones
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold;
E'en them who kept Thy truth so pure of old,
When all our fathers worshipped stocks and stones,
Forget not: in Thy book record their groans
Who were Thy sheep, and in their ancient fold
Slain by the bloody Piedmontese, that rolled
Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans
The vales redoubled to the hills, and they
To heaven. Their martyred blood and ashes sow
O'er all the Italian fields, where still doth sway
The triple Tyrant; that from these may grow
A hundredfold, who, having learned Thy way,
Early may flee the Babylonish woe.

As at Smyrna many were faithful unto death, now they wear a crown of life! Possibly others survived, perhaps in remote and secluded regions and, under the over-ruling hand of God, maintained a noble witness to the truth of Scripture known by them. They ought to command our admiration and respect!

The Reformation and afterwards

The history of the Reformation and of later spiritual movements nearer to our own time is better known to us. The translation of Scripture directly from the original tongues into modern European languages, and the advent of the printing press, made Bibles available to lay persons in unprecedented numbers, and greatly aided the recovery and spread of truth. The achievements of the heroic William Tyndale gave strong impetus to the Reformation both in England and Scotland, and the later publication of the King James Version of the English Bible proved to be of incalculable benefit to the English speaking people of Britain and North America. The Puritans of the seventeenth, and the evangelists of the eighteenth centuries, made their significant contributions to the knowledge and enjoyment of the Word of God, and in consequence many were able to rejoice in a clearer understanding of Scripture than had probably been known since sub-apostolic times. The expanding legacy of revival included the beginning of world-wide missionary endeavour in the late seventeen hundreds. The story of some of the pioneer missionaries has been told in recent articles.

The labours of John Wesley and George Whitefield had been consolidated in the British Isles by a veritable galaxy of notable preachers, the majority of whom were Church of England clergy. Yet not many more years were to pass before fresh shoots would spring forth in Britain and Ireland, from a generation of men of the nineteenth century. One may enquire why it should be that relatively soon after stirring revival, such a strong need for renewal should have been experienced. The answer to that question lies in what these men observed as they compared existing ecclesiastical arrangements with what they found as they studied the New Testament. Perhaps four key and connected issues arose, though not, of course, all at once.

(1) The existence of National Churches established by law

(2) Formal links between Church and State

(3) Sectarian divisions created by dissent from the National Churches

(4) Distinction made between clergy and laity.

The achievements of the Reformers and their successors had been huge, yet matters relating to church gathering, ministry and service had not been fully addressed. This is not to detract from their achievements, for our view looking back must be moderated by the conditions and circumstances of their lifetimes.

National Churches linked to the State

In the religious crises of the sixteenth century leading Reformed clergy had looked to the secular powers for protection, and this had been forthcoming from authorities who saw political and financial benefits in a break with Rome. This, allied to the strongly held concept of "a Christian state" resulted in the emergence of National Churches. The Church of England had adopted an episcopal form of church government. Scotland, notwithstanding much dispute, differed in favouring a Presbyterian system. However, in both countries the National Church was established by law, and enjoyed the patronage and favour of the State which in return held certain powers, for example in respect of Church appointments. Links between Church, the Crown and Parliament were more potent, and certainly more visible, in the Churches of England, and of Ireland where the Anglicanism had been established under English rule. For example, the monarch was (and remains) the Supreme Head of the Church of England, and a number of her Bishops, the "Lords Spiritual", held seats in the House of Lords. The English parliament enacted legislation in the reign of Charles II, known as the Test Acts (not repealed until 1828), that required a person to receive communion in the Church of England as a pre-condition for holding public office. Further, oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy were required including declarations against the doctrine of transubstantiation, the mass, prayers to saints, and other matters.

Subsequent to the events of the "Glorious Revolution" of 1689 and the accession of William III and Mary II, an Act of Settlement was passed, designed to secure Protestant succession to the throne. The Sovereign now had to swear to maintain the Church of England and, after the Act of Union in 1707, the Church of Scotland. These successive measures were all considered necessary to strengthen bulwarks against Roman Catholicism, the fear and dread of which was very real while England felt threatened by a severely authoritarian and Catholic monarchy in France, and continuing Jacobite intrigue at home. Anything other than a National Church, effectively an adjunct of the body politic, was inconceivable to the majority of people in those days.

We recognise that the New Testament gives no support to such an ecclesiastical structure, but knowledge of the history of the period helps us to understand why such arrangements had come about. Against this background we can move on to consider how and why there would be "fresh shoots" of renewal in the nineteenth century.

To be continued.


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