Britain was involved in a number of conflicts around the world that divided opinion at home. There was widespread concern over the extraction of confessions and information by torture. Europe was pursuing huge trade agreements with China, at unprecedented levels.
London was the focus of government attempts to improve security, due to varied threats. In a troubled world, tensions between Russia and Turkey were escalating. All these things were of major concern in the early 1780s!
However, it will not have escaped your notice how similar these headlines are to ones we have recently been faced with ourselves.
Why do I draw your attention to the similarities? Because it was during the 1780s that a group of men in the Northamptonshire Baptist Association were convinced of the need for a widespread calling on the Lord in prayer.
In spring 1784, John Ryland Jr. received a treatise, written by Jonathan Edwards, entitled An humble attempt to promote explicit agreement and visible union of God’s people in extraordinary prayer for the revival of religion and the advancement of Christ’s kingdom on Earth, pursuant to Scripture promises and prophecies concerning the last time.
Sent to him by the Scottish Presbyterian minister, John Erskine, he was deeply moved by what he read. This saw Ryland share it with two friends and fellow-pastors, John Sutcliff (Olney) and Andrew Fuller (Kettering). These men had a common concern for the truth of the gospel and the cause of Christ at home and abroad.
They saw the need of the hour and also had experienced some tokens of the Lord’s blessing, which encouraged them to seek him for more. They were sure that Edward’s biblical arguments, concerning the beauty and benefits of united prayer for God to move, would strengthen the churches and bring glory to God.
Fuller was due to preach at the annual meeting of the Northamptonshire Association that June. On his way to the meeting in Nottingham he had to cross many areas that had been flooded.
There was one particular area that was so flooded that he was about to turn back. It was at that point that a local man, who knew how deep the water was, encouraged him through and assured him of safety. The waters rose above Fuller’s saddle, but, taking the local man at his word, Fuller passed through.
This experience prompted him to preach at the association meeting on 2 Corinthians 5:7, ‘We walk by faith, not by sight’. During that sermon, the impact of Edward’s Humble attempt was clear, when he exhorted the congregation: ‘Let us take encouragement, in the present day of small things, by looking forward, and hoping for better days.
‘Let this be attended with earnest and united prayer to Him by whom Jacob must arise. A life of faith will ever be a life of prayer. O brethren, let us pray much for an outpouring of God’s Spirit upon our ministers and churches, and not upon those only of our own connection and denomination, but upon “all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2).’
At the same meeting, Sutcliff proposed that the churches of the association establish monthly prayer meetings for the outpouring of God’s Spirit and the consequent revival of the churches in Great Britain.
This was embraced by the 16 churches represented at the meeting, and was also included in a circular letter for all the churches in the association. Sutcliff wrote: ‘Let us plead with God the many gracious promises of his Word, which relate to the future success of his gospel.
He has said, “I will yet for this be inquired of by the house of Israel, to do it for them, I will increase them with men like a flock” (Ezekiel 36:37). Surely we have love enough for Zion to set apart one hour at a time, twelve times in a year, to seek her welfare’.
There was this conviction that the reversal of any decline among them and the church of Jesus Christ at large, could not be accomplished by human means and zeal, but only by the Spirit of God. They knew that great movements of God were preceded and accompanied by the concerted and constant prayer of the Lord’s people.
The Lord did indeed do great things both at home and abroad in the years that followed. There was great advance in taking the gospel to the ends of the earth and great blessing in the UK. What an encouragement and challenge for us today!
It has been a blessing to hear of similar prayer meetings taking place in the north of England and elsewhere. It has been encouraging to hear of God’s kindness to local churches across the land and tokens of blessing that he has granted us in difficult days. Yet, there is also an awareness that we are not yet experiencing the outpouring of blessing as in earlier days.
The challenge remains, ‘What priority do we give to prayer in our own lives and in the lives of our churches?’ Very often prayer is the first thing to be squeezed out or set aside in our busy schedules.
Are we looking only to human means to build the church? Do we have enough love for Christ and his cause to give ourselves to seek God’s face?
The days are difficult for sure, but our God is still able to do exceedingly abundantly, and is yet willing to be inquired of. Will we make prayer a priority?
Jonathan Stobbs is pastor of Penzance Baptist Church, Cornwall