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"A Goodly Heritage" (35): The Great Awakening in Britain

J Brown, Peterhead

18th Century Britain

By the standards of modern times, life in the 18th Century was hard and often short. Nevertheless through the course of that century gradual changes and improvements were brought to the lives of people in Great Britain and Ireland. The Agrarian Revolution, already well underway, increased food production, both from crops and livestock. This sustained a steady increase in population, particularly after 1740. The estimated population of Great Britain in 1700 had been 6.5 million. The first official census of 1801 counted a population of 10.5 million, with that of Ireland being circa 5 million.

The benefits of improving efficiencies in agriculture gave impetus to the emerging Industrial Revolution in the latter part of the century, and to increasing urbanisation. In the view of eminent philosophers and economists of The Enlightenment such as the Scots David Hume (1711–1776) and Adam Smith (1723–1790), mankind was set fair to emerge from the shadows of superstition and religion to a better life guided by science and rational thinking. That view ignored spiritual and eternal realities. Consider this quotation from Adam Smith, author of Wealth of Nations: "Virtue is more to be feared than vice, because its excesses are not subject to the regulation of conscience". Yet in an irreligious age of increasing atheism and materialism, there was ample empirical evidence to dispute that assertion. Consciences were often seared and silent, and the lives of many, both rich and poor, were scarred and ruined by profligacy and vice.

Moral and Spiritual Needs

A vivid commentary of society in early 18th Century Britain can be seen in the engravings of William Hogarth (1697–1764). These pictured life in London which had become by far the largest metropolis in Europe with a population of about 700,000. Whilst its very size and teeming life tended to highlight society's ills, similar problems existed in provincial towns and cities. A famous engraving entitled Gin Lane depicted a horrific scene, in the foreground of which a drunken woman allowed her baby to fall to its death. This was supposed to be based upon the notorious instance of a woman who strangled her infant so that she could sell its clothes to obtain money to buy gin. Various series of engravings illustrated moral lessons e.g. A Rake's Progress, and Industry and Idleness. Others were satirical.

The spiritual needs of the populace were hardly met by the established churches. Many clerical positions were merely sinecures, and the wide use of patronage in the appointment of clergy resulted in many incumbents being totally unfitted for their posts. Among other doctrinal errors Deism had been adopted by many intellectuals. Deists taught that men could only know God by creation and observation. They wholly rejected the fact of revelation and the divine inspiration of Scripture. Many sermons preached were merely bland philosophy. The eminent jurist Sir William Blackstone visited all the major churches in London and has been quoted as stating: "I did not hear a single discourse which had more Christianity in it than the writings of Cicero".

The Grace of God that bringeth Salvation

Having described the moral and spiritual gloom that pervaded the country, it is a joy to record the immense power and grace of God that transformed the lives of multitudes by revival "in the midst of the years" (Hab 3.2). The revival in North America had its counterpart in the Old Country and an early feature of that revival was open-air preaching in which Howell Harris in Wales and George Whitefield became pioneers. Following his first visit to America Whitefield found that many churches were closed to him and he simply concluded that if he was barred from pulpits he would preach to folk wherever they would gather to listen. Out of doors services, called conventicles, had been a practice of the Scottish Covenanters of the previous century particularly in South-West Scotland. These services in which Covenanting ministers preached to their flocks had been held in remote or secluded places for fear of the authorities. Whitefield's open air evangelism in towns and in the countryside was altogether new and many of those who listened would never otherwise have heard the gospel preached. From the beginning he experienced a real power, but this was not without much prayer and study. An early instance was in February, 1739 at Kingswood Hill near Bristol where Whitefield, only 25 years of age, preached to around 200 rough and ready miners. Soon he was preaching to huge congregations that could never have been accommodated in a church building. Large numbers were professing salvation and proving their reality in changed lives. Many in the religious establishment scorned and ridiculed the poor and unlettered folk who heard and believed the gospel, but as in the days of the Lord's ministry the Father had "hid these things from the wise and prudent, and...revealed them unto babes" (Mt 11.25; Lk 10.21). A favourite preaching location was just outside London at Moorfields where supporters of the work later erected a wooden building for preaching. There was no designated time for the service but whenever he began to preach multitudes came to hear. In July, 1741 Whitefield made the first of numerous visits to Scotland. In Glasgow many were brought under conviction, and at nearby Cambuslang he preached for an hour and a half to his largest ever congregation, estimated to be 100,000. Scotland was spiritually awakened as she had not been since the days of John Knox. Whitefield was so moved that he cried out, "May I die preaching". Finally he did!

The Lord graciously moved in the life of John Wesley at a most opportune time. He had returned from his short stay in Georgia in February, 1738 disappointed and downcast, but on 24th May of that year he was saved in a Moravian meeting house in London while listening to Martin Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. It was a transforming experience. Soon after he preached a sermon on personal salvation through faith, followed by another concerning God's grace "free in all, and free for all". Wesley was at first reluctant to preach in the open air but on 2nd April, 1739 he began to follow Whitefield's example. One characteristic of Wesley's preaching was his declaration of the assurance of salvation. He taught that with the forgiveness of sins there should also be experienced the assurance of that truth. Through a long ministry he travelled the length and breadth of the country. He enjoyed robust health and was indefatigable in his labours. The Lord used his preaching as a means of blessing to many souls.

Whitefield and Wesley were itinerant evangelists, but the Lord also raised up a considerable number of evangelical clergy whose ministry was in the main within their own parishes.¹ A notable example was William Grimshaw of Howarth where revival broke out in 1742. The Lord blessed his earnest preaching, and before long his congregations had so swelled that hundreds were standing in the churchyard. This was replicated in many parts of the country. The conversion and commitment of Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, resulted in the gospel being preached to many of the aristocracy among whom some were saved. Not surprisingly, in such stirring times there was an outpouring of praise and thanksgiving to God. The joy and vibrancy of personal salvation experiences were expressed in the many evangelical hymns written by Charles Wesley. Such were well suited to congregational singing. Our hymnology was further enriched by the compositions of William Cowper and John Newton.

In Retrospect

From a spiritual standpoint the 18th Century was bleak and barren in its beginning. Yet from the 1740s onwards the power of revival impacted upon the life of the nation in that unprecedented wave of blessing called the Great Awakening. The term is appropriate, for the country really was awakened from its spiritual slumber. Some historians have suggested that its lasting influence preserved Britain from revolution as experienced in France at the end of the century. Whether that be so or not, it is certain that there were eternal results and that a legacy of evangelism, theology and hymnology has remained for the benefit of later generations.

To be continued.

¹ Articles on some of these godly people appeared in Torchbearers of the Truth during 2011.


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