Evangelical revivals of the 18th Century
by Michael A. G. Haykin
2. George Whitefield and friends
ast month’s article on the Great Awakening (the first of this series) ended with the prayer for revival of two Congregationalist ministers — Isaac Watts (1674-1748) and John Guyse (1680-1761).
Yet, amazingly, the revival for which they prayed did not originate among the English Dissenters — the heirs of Puritanism and the leading evangelical movement of the seventeenth century.
It arose rather in a body that had actually persecuted the Puritans — the Church of England. This can only be seen as a display of God’s sovereignty!
The first flames of revival in the British Isles appeared in Wales — 1735 saw the conversion of two men who would lead the revival in Wales, Howel Harris (1714-1773) and Daniel Rowland (1711-1790).
George Whitefield was converted that same year. He, more than any other figure, was regarded by the eighteenth century as the leading evangelist of the Evangelical Revival.
Whitefield was the youngest son of the proprietor of an inn in Gloucester. At school he had been unremarkable, and when his older brother took over the inn he became a servant there.
But his mother longed for something better for her son. Her persistence and the kindness of friends enabled him to enter Oxford University in December 1732.
Here he met John Wesley (1703-1791) and his younger brother Charles (1707-1788), later co-leaders in the revival.
Whitefield was converted in the spring of 1735, ordained a deacon in the Church of England in 1736, and preached his first sermon.
Within months of this sermon he was in great demand as a preacher, as he spoke on justification by faith, the new birth and repentance.
However, such preaching was not well received by most Anglican clergy, and churches began to be barred to him. Undeterred, Whitefield took to the open air.
On 17 February 1739 on the outskirts of Bristol, he preached to a group of coal miners, who lived in dire poverty without any church nearby. Around two hundred attended that service.
Yet within weeks, Whitefield was preaching some thirty times a week to crowds of 10,000 or more!
Sinners called to repentance
Whitefield described his ministry among the miners in classic terms: ‘Having no righteousness of their own to renounce, they were glad to hear of a Jesus who was a friend of publicans, and came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
‘The first discovery of their being affected was to see the white gutters made by their tears which plentifully fell down their black cheeks, as they came out of their coal pits.
‘Hundreds and hundreds of them were soon brought under deep convictions, which, as the event proved, happily ended in a sound and thorough conversion.
‘The change was visible to all, though numbers chose to impute it to anything, rather than the finger of God.’
Another description comes from the same period, when many others flocked to hear Whitefield preach: ‘As … I had just begun to be an extempore preacher, it often occasioned many inward conflicts. Sometimes, when twenty thousand people were before me, I had not, in my own apprehension, a word to say either to God or them.
‘But I never was totally deserted, and frequently … so assisted, that I knew by happy experience what our Lord meant by saying, “Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water” [John 7:38].
‘The open firmament above me, the prospect of the adjacent fields, with the sight of thousands and thousands, some in coaches, some on horseback, and some in the trees, and at times all affected and drenched in tears together, to which sometimes was added the solemnity of the approaching evening, was almost too much for, and quite overcame me.’
Reasons for revival
Revival had come to England! And no man contributed more to that revival than Whitefield. Over the 34 years between his conversion and his death in 1770 in Newburyport, Massachusetts, it is calculated that he preached around 18,000 sermons.
Actually, if one includes all the talks he gave, he probably spoke about a thousand times a year during his ministry. Moreover, many of his sermons were delivered to congregations of 10,000 or more — sometimes 20,000.
Why did this revival come? Firstly, there was a growing hunger among Christians for the outpouring of God’s Spirit in revival, as their attempts to bring about moral reform had met with little success.
From the 1690s to the 1710s, for example, various societies were formed in London and its suburbs to counteract such vices as drunkenness and prostitution.
By the 1720s, however, these efforts were fading, and some of those involved became convinced that moral reformation would not transpire until God poured out his Spirit in revival.
In the words of Daniel Neal (1678-1743), a Congregationalist pastor and historian: ‘The blessing of God, and the influence of the Holy Spirit are absolutely necessary to the reformation of the wicked world’.
Neal urged believers to pray fervently for an outpouring of the Spirit of God.
Preaching great truths
Secondly, there was the nature of the preaching prior to and throughout the revival. It was centred on the great truths which God had singularly blessed at the time of the Reformation — the fallen nature and sinfulness of men and women; the vital need for them to experience the new birth and be made right with God by faith in the crucified and risen Lord; and the exaltation of Christ alone as the way to God.
Joseph Williams, a Congregationalist layman sympathetic to the revival, heard Wesley preach in Bristol in early October 1739 and wrote:
‘I came to Bristol: and hearing, in the afternoon, that Mr. Cha. Wesley was preaching in the Brickfield … went to hear him.
‘I found him standing on a table-board, in an erect posture, with his hands and eyes lifted up to heaven in prayer, surrounded by, I guess, more than a thousand people; some few of them fashionable persons, both men and women, but most of them of the lower rank of mankind.
‘I know not how long he had been engaged in that service before my coming, after which he continued therein scarce a quarter of an hour, during which time he prayed with uncommon fervency, fluency and variety of proper expression.’
Williams continues: ‘He then preached about an hour in such a manner as I have scarce ever heard any man preach: i.e. though I had heard many a finer Sermon … yet, I think, I never heard any man discover such evident signs of a vehement desire, or labour so earnestly, to convince his hearers that they were all by nature in a sinful, lost, undone, damnable state.
‘That, notwithstanding, there was a possibility of their salvation, thro’ faith in Christ; that for this end our sins were imputed to him, or he was made sin for us, tho’ he knew no sin … in order that his righteousness might be imputed … to as many as believe on him.
‘And that none are excepted, but such as refuse to come to him as lost, perishing, yea as damned sinners and trust in him alone, i.e. in his meritorious righteousness, and atoning sacrifice, for pardon, and salvation …
‘This is the method Infinite Wisdom hath chosen for reconciling the world unto himself, and that whosoever believeth in him shall certainly receive remission of sins and an inheritance among them that are sanctified.
‘All this he backed with many texts of Scripture, which he explained and illustrated, and then by a variety of the most forcible motives, arguments and expostulations, did he invite, allure, quicken and labour, if it were possible, to compel all, and every of his hearers, to believe in Christ for Salvation.’
Anointed by the Spirit
Thirdly, one final source points us tothe fundamental reason for the revival — the anointing of the Holy Spirit upon the preachers and their hearers. This is a letter Howel Harris wrote to George Whitefield in 1743, giving his friend a classic description of the eighteenth-century Evangelical Revival.
‘The outpouring of the blessed Spirit is now so plentiful and common, that I think it was our deliberate observation that not one sent by him opens his mouth without some remarkable showers.
‘He comes either as a Spirit of wisdom to enlighten the soul, to teach and build up, and set out the works of light and darkness, or else a Spirit of tenderness and love, sweetly melting the souls like the dew, and watering the graces;
‘Or as the Spirit of hot burning zeal, setting their hearts in a flame, so that their eyes sparkle with fire, love, and joy; or also such a Spirit of uncommon power that the heavens seem to be rent, and hell to tremble.’
The revival was ultimately a sovereign work of God the Holy Spirit — one that could not be manufactured or conjured up by man, let alone controlled.
The Spirit anointed and blessed the labours of various preachers and enabled them to see such a great work of God — a work that reshaped British society on both sides of the Atlantic.