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The dungeon flamed with light

April 2003 | by Michael Haykin

In 1678 the Puritan preacher John Howe (1630-1705) delivered a series of sermons based on Ezekiel 39:29 in which he dealt with the subject of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In one of these sermons he said:

‘When the Spirit shall be poured forth plentifully, I believe you will hear much other kind of sermons, or they will, who shall live to such a time, than you are wont to do now-a-days…

‘It is plain, too sadly plain, there is a great retraction of the Spirit of God even from us; we not know how to speak living sense [i.e. felt reality] unto souls, how to get within you; our words die in our mouths, or drop and die between you and us.

‘We even faint, when we speak; long experienced unsuccessfulness makes us despond; we speak not as persons that hope to prevail … When such an effusion of the Spirit shall be as is here signified … [ministers] shall know how to speak to better purpose, with more compassion and sense, with more seriousness, with more authority and allurement, than we now find we can.’

If Howe felt that ministers in the 1670s lacked divine power in their preaching – and saw this as a sign that the Spirit of God was no longer blessing the Puritan pulpit as he once had done – how much bleaker was the situation by the time Howe died in 1705!

‘The dungeon’ – England in the eighteenth century

The final decades of the seventeenth century had seen a distinct decline in public manners and morals. Both public documents and private testimonies attest this fact. The London pastor Benjamin Keach (1640-1704), speaking in 1701, declared:

‘Was ever sodomy so common in a Christian nation, or so notoriously and frequently committed, as by too palpable evidences it appears to be, in and about this city, notwithstanding the clear light of the gospel which shines therein, and the great pains taken to reform the abominable profaneness that abounds?

‘Is it not a wonder the patience of God hath not consumed us in his wrath, before this time? Was ever swearing, blasphemy, whoring, drunkenness, gluttony, self-love, and covetousness, at such a height, as at this time here?’

Despite gospel-centred ministries, and various societies dedicated to moral reform, homosexuality, profanity, immorality, drunkenness and gluttony were widespread. And the next three decades saw little improvement.

Immorality rampant

The moral tone of the nation was set by its monarchs and leading politicians. George I (r.1714 to 1727) was primarily interested in food, horses and women. He divorced his wife when he was thirty-four and thereafter consorted with a series of mistresses.

Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745), prime minister from 1721 to 1742, lived in undisguised adultery with his mistress, Molly Skerrett, whom he married after his wife died.

English historian J. H. Plumb noted of aristocratic circles in the early eighteenth century that women ‘hardly bothered with the pretence of virtue, and the possession of lovers and mistresses was regarded as a commonplace, a matter for gossip but not reproach’.

Social conditions bleak

Social conditions were equally bleak. While many of the rich indulged themselves, the lot of ordinary people was quite different. For a variety of economic causes, the towns of England mushroomed in the eighteenth century.

The population of London more than doubled to over one million and by the end of the century it was the largest city in the western world. Many men and women came to these cities from rural poverty, hoping to find a decent living.

But housing could not keep up with the demand, and those who most needed shelter lacked sufficient funds to purchase it. Consequently, houses were desperately overcrowded.

In a large industrial centre like Manchester, for example, ten people living in one unfurnished room was common. The occupants would sleep close together on wood shavings for warmth.

Disease was rampant and smallpox, typhus, typhoid and dysentery made death familiar.

Escape in drink?

Many sought escape in drink. Beer had always been a central part of English life, but in the eighteenth century many turned to something far more potent – gin. By mid-century, eleven million gallons of poorly distilled gin were consumed each year.

In one area of London, for instance, 506 out of two thousand houses were gin shops. A contemporary novelist, Henry Fielding (1707-1754), estimated that gin was the principal means of sustenance for 100,000 Londoners.

The suffering that this brought in its wake is well illustrated by a news item from 1748: ‘At a christening at Beddington in Surrey the nurse was so intoxicated that after she had undressed the child, instead of laying it in the cradle she put it behind a large fire, which burnt it to death in a few minutes’.

In the light of the horrific moral and social breakdown of English society, it is not surprising that Thomas Secker (1693-1768), Archbishop of Canterbury and one of the better churchmen of the age, could remark in 1753 that ‘immorality and irreligion were grown beyond ecclesiastical power’.

The state of religion

When we turn to the religious situation of early eighteenth-century England, we find churches unable to cope with the dire moral and social situation. The dominant religious grouping was the Church of England, the established church of the land. But it was largely helpless when it came to dealing with social and moral problems.

First of all, the Church of England was primarily a rural-based denomination. Despite the population shift towards industrial urban centres, the Church of England stayed in the country.

Moreover, in the words of Plumb, its bishops were ‘first and foremost politicians, and politicians are rarely men of the spirit. There is a worldliness … about eighteenth-century [bishops] which no amount of apologetics can conceal. The clerical duties … were done only as political duties allowed’.

The worldliness of these bishops showed in other ways as well. Sir Jonathan Trelawny (1650-1721), Bishop of Winchester, used to ‘excuse himself for his much swearing by saying he swore as a baronet, and not as a bishop’!

Such men had neither the time nor the interest to promote church reform. Of course, the decadence of church leadership was by no means absolute; but the net effect of worldly bishops was to squash effective reform.

Idle and lazy

The clergy under these bishops also failed to see the seriousness of the situation. Far too many devoted themselves to anything but their ministries. Philosophy, biology, agriculture, chemistry, literature, law, politics, fox-hunting, drinking – all claimed the attention of these ministers. Few preached anything but dry, unaffecting sermons.

A diary kept by Thomas Turner, a shopkeeper from East Krathly, Sussex, criticised the ‘idle lazy way of preaching, which many of our clergy are got into, seeming rather to make self-interest the motive for the exercising their profession than the eternal happiness and salvation of men’s souls.

‘To which if we add the intolerable degree of pride and covetousness predominant in too many of our clergy, we need not wonder at our degeneracy from the strict piety with which our forefathers worshipped God in the first ages of Christianity.’

Anglican impotency

The spiritual ineffectiveness of the Church of England was caused in large measure by the expulsion in 1662 of around two thousand of the most spiritually-minded ministers, who refused to conform completely to the rites and practices of the church.

For nearly 100 years this group, known to history as the Puritans, had sought unsuccessfully to bring reform and renewal to the Church of England. Eventually they were forced out, to join three fledgling denominations – the English Presbyterians, the Congregationalists, and the Particular Baptists (also known as the Calvinistic Baptists).

These three groups became known as ‘Dissenters’ or ‘Nonconformists’. Little wonder then that the Church of England found herself at a distinct spiritual disadvantage when it came to leading the nation in moral and spiritual reform.

Powerless dissent

Of the three dissenting denominations, it was the Congregationalists and the Calvinistic Baptists who stayed true to Christian orthodoxy as the seventeenth century gave way to the eighteenth.

But, for reasons considered later in this series, these Dissenters – especially the Calvinistic Baptists – were not the potent spiritual force that their Puritan forebears had been, and often were not reaching out to the unsaved with the gospel.

The spiritual situation facing early eighteenth-century Dissenters thus is well described by two Congregationalist ministers in 1737, Isaac Watts (1674-1748), the father of the English hymn, and John Guyse (1680-1761).

‘There has been a great and just complaint for many years’, they wrote, ‘that the work of conversion goes on very slowly, that the Spirit of God in his saving influences is much withdrawn from the ministrations of his word, and there are few that receive the report of the gospel, with any eminent success upon their hearts.’

They were thus constrained to pray: ‘Return, O Lord, and visit thy churches, and revive thine own work in the midst of us’.

Our next instalment will discover how God answered this prayer from the heart.

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