We’re going back to the 18th century today, just briefly.
As I sat reading a selection of William Cowper’s poetry this morning I wondered how many people still read him. He is not a difficult poet and may be unfairly overlooked these days because he is overtly Christian.
The Poetry Foundation’s main article on him states, ‘William Cowper was the foremost poet of the generation between Alexander Pope and William Wordsworth and for several decades had probably the largest readership of any English poet.’[i]
Cowper was a contemporary of William Wilberforce and a friend of John Newton. He was too young to have seen much of the early years of Whitefield and Wesley’s preaching but was certainly impacted by the gospel message they preached.
His huge popularity as a poet existed not only because his Christian hymns were popular in the churches, but because of his notable skill as a poet.
I am reprinting here a section of his beautiful poem To Mary.
In their later years Mary Unwin and Cowper had been engaged and the love between them was very tender although they never married. He was at her side as her health declined in her final illness.
These verses take us right to her bedside. We see his devotion to her even though she can no longer communicate verbally, we share the thrill of her minute but definite responses to his love. No wonder Tennyson said that this poem was too touching, too moving, to be read out loud.
Thy indistinct expressions seem
Like language utter’d in a dream;
Yet me they charm, whate’er the theme,
Thy silver locks, once auburn bright,
Are still more lovely in my sight
Than golden beams of orient light,
For could I view nor them nor thee,
What sight worth seeing could I see?
The sun would rise in vain for me,
Partakers of the sad decline,
Thy hands their little force resign;
Yet gently prest, press gently mine,
And then I feel that still I hold
A richer store ten thousandfold
Than misers fancy in their gold,
I suppose the ‘wow’ moment for me was the intensely touching lines, as Cowper sits by the bedside of his dying love.
‘Partakers of the sad decline, Thy hands their little force resign; Yet gently prest, press gently mine…’
It reminds me of a comment Billy Graham made about his wife Ruth when she was bedridden, how they could experience such ecstatic romance by simply staring into each other’s eyes for long periods of time and know their love was as complete and fulfilling as it could ever be.
Read Cowper’s lines again.
And maybe grab hold of some of his poetry from your local bookstore.
When William Booth taught his fellow ‘soldiers’ in the Salvation Army certain key principles, one of those he emphasized continually was the importance of being able to genuinely influence people towards faith in Christ.
So far so good. Most Christian leaders would agree. We’re only playing if we’re only publishing.
CH Spurgeon, while coming from a different theological viewpoint from Booth, was also unapologetic about the need for results. Souls need to be saved.
And so Booth includes in his own story the fact that, certainly in the mid-19th Century, formal theological training didn’t help equip him in his evangelistic Mission.
Booth moves to the Methodist New Connexion After Booth arrived in London in 1849 he joined a Methodist church and began preaching with some success.
Discouraged by the lack of missional intentionality, he joined the Methodist New Connexion, and was encouraged to seek ordination.
Booth at this time was sent to preach for churches that were losing numbers, and for whom it was felt little could be done. He’d go for two weeks at a time, preaching each evening with much success, sometimes drawing the positive attention of the local press.
There was no doubt that he was a gifted evangelist, but he had no formal training for ministry. He had not even completed High School let alone received a University education.
Booth was self-conscious about this deficiency and asked if he might study under a theologian within the New Methodist Connexion denomination. Surely theological training would help him in the mission.
Give me a chance His prayer was, ‘Give me a chance of acquiring information, and of learning how more successfully to conduct this all important business of saving men to which Thou hast called me, and which lies so near my heart.’[i]
Disarmingly, Booth writes, ‘But instead of better qualifying me for the work of saving men, by imparting to me the knowledge necessary for this task I was set to study Latin, Greek, various sciences, and other subjects, which, as I saw at a glance, could little help me in the all-important work that lay before me…’[ii]
Nevertheless he kept studying until the day finally came when his tutor would hear and assess his preaching. Booth knew he would be evaluated on theological content and not necessarily evangelistic impact.
The occasion was a regular evening service in a church. And there were non-believers there. It was soon clear that this could be no practice run. In his mind the mission always trumps any ‘in-house’ priority, which in this instance, was his own future prospects.
Booth: ‘I saw him seated…at the end of the church…I realized that my future standing in his estimation, as well as my position would very much depend on the judgement he formed of me on that occasion…
I knew that my simple, practical style was altogether different from his own, and of the overwhelming majority of the preachers he was accustomed to approve…
I saw dying souls before me… [But] I saw dying souls before me, the gates of Heaven wide open on the one hand, and the gates of Hell open on the other, while I saw Jesus Christ with His arms open between the two, crying out to all to come and be saved.
My whole soul was in favour of doing what it could to second the invitation of my Lord, and doing it that very night.
I cannot now remember much about the service, except the sight of my Professor, with his family around him, a proud, worldly daughter sitting at his side.
I can remember, however, that in my desire to impress the people with the fact that they could have Salvation there and then, if they would seek it, and, to illustrate their condition, I described a wreck on the ocean, with the affrighted people clinging to the masts between life and death, waving a flag of distress to those on shore, and, in response, the life-boat going off to the rescue.
And then I can remember how I reminded my hearers that they had suffered shipwreck on the ocean of time through their sins and rebellion; that they were sinking down to destruction, but that if they would only hoist the signal of distress Jesus Christ would send off the life-boat to their rescue.
Then, jumping on the seat at the back of the pulpit, I waved my pocket-handkerchief round and round my head to represent the signal of distress I wanted them to hoist, and closed with an appeal to those who wanted to be rescued to come at once, and in the presence of the audience, to the front of the auditorium. That night twenty-four knelt at the Saviour’s feet, and one of them was the proud daughter of my Professor.’[iii]
The brief but happy review The next day Booth met with his tutor for the review.
‘My dear Sir,’ the tutor said, ‘I have only one thing to say to you, and that is, go on in the way you have begun, and God will bless you.’
Booth didn’t complete his studies with the New Methodist Connexion. He writes, ‘I had hardly settled down to my studies before I got into a red-hot Revival in a small London church where a remarkable work was done. In an account of this effort my name appeared in the church’s Magazine, and I was invited to conduct special efforts in other parts of the country.
This, I must confess, completely upset my plans once more, and I have not been able to find heart or time for either Greek or Latin from that day to this.’[iv]
Neither Booth, nor the Salvation Army were anti-education, but in terms of equipping men and women for evangelistic effectiveness, he was adamant that men and women should be appropriately equipped for effective ministry. And that meant a blend of standard education as well as specific equipping to bring people to faith in Christ.
An old Pentecostal preacher is quoted as saying, ‘In all yer learnin’, get the fire!’ Sound advice. Get the learning but get the skills too. And Booth would agree: Get the fire!
To read Booth’s impassioned plea for all Christians to witness click here
For the first post in the Salvation Army story click here
At 19 William Booth moved to London. It was 1849. Like many others from the rural areas, he needed to find work.
His sister and her family lived in London, but her drunken husband would not allow Booth to stay with them for any length of time.
‘He arrived in London as a seeker of work, the son of a poor and struggling mother in the provinces, with no influence, with no money, and with no friends.’ [i]
He was alone in a very crowded city, where poverty and sickness were on every side. As had been the case in Nottingham, his own experiences of personal need combined with his compassionate observation of the needs of others, would shape his future ministry.
Booth’s biographer, Harold Begbie gives us a description of London that is both vivid and powerful.
And before we press on too much further with the story of The Salvation Army and how they began to actually sought to solve some of these problems, let’s read Begbie’s account with our own cities in mind.
While there clearly are differences, aren’t his descriptions of mid-nineteenth century London unnervingly familiar to those of us living in the great cities of the world today?
And don’t we need some present-day William and Catherine Booths to rise up? Don’t we need many more modern-day Salvation Armys to get to work and engage with the pressing issues of the major cities of the world?
London in 1849
‘It is difficult for the modern mind to conceive truly of the England of that period. Humanitarianism, which has become with us, if not a passion and a religion, at least good manners, was then regarded as the misguided hobby of a few fussy and mischief-making philanthropists…
Little concern was shown by the churches or the chapels for the bodies of men. No shame was felt for such a term as ‘Ragged Schools.’ There was no system of national education, factory legislation permitted children to work for ten hours a day, there was no real inspection of these insanitary places, no idea of housing reform, no provision for poverty but the execrable Poor-House.
Few agencies existed for ministering to the physical needs of the poor, the mental needs of the uneducated, the spiritual needs of the sunken masses, the most elemental needs of perishing children…
The phrase ‘social conscience’ had not been invented; men were satisfied with, accepted as a God ordained system of human government, a state of individualism which trod millions underfoot for the enrichment of tens.’ [ii]
Booth’s response began with the somewhat awkward method of simply standing up and preaching to crowds, if he could gather them. Although our specific methodology may differ according to our context, as followers of Christ, the passionate proclamation of the gospel of Christ must also be central – as central as it was for Booth and the early Salvation Army.
But I jump ahead. For now, take a closer look at your city, your town. How can you reach the majority of the residents there with the gospel?
What initiatives are in place in your city to tackle poverty, vice, greed, homelessness, violence?
Let us know!
To read Booth on the balance between Education and Evangelism click here
For the first post in the Salvation Army series click here
[i] Harold Begbie, Life of William Booth: The Founder of the Salvation Army (2 vols. London: MacMillan, 1920) 1:77
William Booth’s Conversion and the Church’s resistance to the Poor
While Booth was working in the ‘bondage of slavery’ as a pawnbroker’s apprentice in Nottingham, he gave his life to Christ.
Although many very dramatic conversions followed his preaching, Booth’s own conversion was fairly straightforward: sudden conviction of sin, repentance and faith in Christ, all in the space of an evening.
He had begun attending some Methodist meetings and, at about 11pm, walking home, he suddenly realised that he must surrender to the Christ the Methodists had been preaching so earnestly about.
The first evidence of his conversion was a confrontation with his stingy employer, Francis Eames. Eames, who sounds like a character right out of a Dickens novel, continued working his apprentices after midnight on Saturday into the early hours of Sunday morning (they were supposed to close at midnight).
The new convert immediately felt this was breaking the Sabbath and refused to work. He was sacked. However, Eames relented and soon restored his most reliable employee. But it was pitiable work.
First attempts at preaching Booth now began to emulate his new-found hero, John Wesley. ‘There is one God’, he was later to say, tongue in cheek, ‘and John Wesley is His prophet!’ He knew instinctively that the gospel must be communicated urgently with those around him. He and a friend began preaching in the open air. He would stand on a barrel and preach to the two or three people who might listen, urging them to attend a nearby meeting.
Seeing a gang of men on their way to the pub, Booth called out to them, urging them to repent and stop wasting money on drink while their wives were waiting at home for them to bring food.
But he wasn’t merely scolding people for irresponsible behaviour, he was preaching Christ too. And when he began to get some converts from amongst the poor he found it difficult to convince them to come to church.
Finally, one Sunday, he would be resisted no longer and ushered a reluctant group of ragged-trousered followers into Broad Street Methodist Church. The effect was…well, awkward. The pastors may have had a commitment to evangelistic preaching, but they clearly weren’t ready to cross any cultural bridges to reach those around them who were poor.
Booth was called to a Deacon’s meeting at which he was told not to do that again. This probably wasn’t a huge surprise to him. He knew what Wesley could never have imagined: that the once revivalistic Methodist church in Nottingham had become respectable.[i]
For the next post in this series, on William Booth’s own early experiences in evangelism, click here
To read the first post in this series on The Salvation Army click here
[i] Much of the material here is found in Richard Collier’s excellent book, The General Next to God (Glasgow: Fontana, 1968)
It could have gone so well. His father, Samuel Booth, had made some money, quite a lot of money, and then lost some money, quite a lot of money.
His business ventures and investments (as a nail manufacturer and then builder) rose and fell and then, early into his second marriage, they crashed beyond recovery.
Samuel and his first wife, Sarah, had enjoyed some prosperity, living in a large house in a village outside Nottingham. But it didn’t last. After Sarah’s death, and the death of their only child five years later, Booth Sr. had to scale down.
But first he remarried. It doesn’t appear to have been a happy match. He was already sliding steadily downhill towards hardship. William describes his father as obsessed with making money. His mother, Mary, the daughter of a well-to-do farmer, was 16 years younger than Samuel and was 33 when they married.
The inevitable happened. They left the big house and moved to a relatively poor suburb of Nottingham, where William was born in April 1829.
William Booth was the only (surviving) boy of the family with one older sister and two younger sisters.
Their situation went from downsizing to considerable losses to outright ruin. Booth wrote, ‘bad times set in, heavy losses followed one on the heels of the other, making the early days a season of mortification and misery.’[i]
It would seem that both parents were somewhat ashamed of their situation, with few friends and few visitors to the family home.
There were brief moments of relief but Samuel was never able to lift his family to financial stability.
Out to work at 13
Although William had attended a good school, at the age of thirteen his father was no longer able to afford the school fees and he was sent to work as an apprentice to a pawnbroker. This experience of badly paid work, and particularly of seeing his employer profiting from the vulnerability of the poor had a profound effect on Booth.
‘I had scarcely any income as an apprentice, and was so hard up when my father died, that I could do next to nothing to assist my dear mother and sisters, which was the cause of no little humiliation and grief.’
‘The system of apprenticeship in those days generally bound a lad for six or seven years. During this time he received little or no wages, and was required to slave from early morning to late evening upon the supposition that he was ‘being taught’ the business, which, if he had a good master, was probably true.
It was a severe but useful time of learning. My master was a Unitiarian – that is, he did not believe Christ was the Son of God and the Saviour of the world, but only the best of teachers; yet so little had he learned of Him that his heaven consisted in making money, strutting around with his gay wife, and regaling himself with worldly amusements.
At nineteen, the weary years of my apprenticeship came to an end. I had done my six years’ service, and was heartily glad to be free from the humiliating bondage they had proved.
I tried hard to find some kind of labour that would give me more liberty to carry out the aggressive ideas which I had by this time come to entertain as to saving the lost; but I failed. For twelve months I waited. Those months were among the most desolate of my life. No one took the slightest interest in me.
Failing to find employment in Nottingham, I had to move away.’[ii]
For the next post, on Booth’s conversion and the church’s resistance to his early converts click here
For the first part in this series on The Salvation Army click here
Today we see them, usually around Christmas, ringing a bell and calling for cash donations into red buckets.
In the US they’re a not-for-profit we trust. They’re doing good. Serving those in need.
In the UK they’re held in affection as a kind of mix between the St. John’s Ambulance men and a village fete brass band playing the kind of tunes we imagine were popular in the 1940s. They’re faithful, and part of us.
Kindly people all. They don’t seem to be at war.
It’s amazing how words can lose their meaning through familiarity. Because those two words Salvation and Army were a perfect description for one of the most committed and self-sacrificing forces of evangelisation in the late 19th century. And their influence continues.
In this upcoming series of posts your faith is going to be stirred, your compassion aroused and your desire to do something about poverty in your city will resolve itself, I hope, into action.
– how the passion of the leading Evangelist of the Methodist churches in Britain led to thousands of conversions
– how a commitment to evangelism led to the formation of a church planting movement
– how the power of the Holy Spirit lifted people from poverty to leadership in their communities
– how those who were largely unreached by the established churches were gathered and mobilized for global mission
– how unemployment, starvation and disease were tackled head-on by Christians refusing to accept the status quo
– how the latest technologies and musical innovations were harnessed for gospel proclamation
– how tough, unbelieving communities were reached through creative, sometimes downright crazy, attention-getting gospel initiatives
– how persecution from both rich and poor that led to violence and even martyrdom couldn’t stop the relentless love of a genuinely missional community
– how a movement that began among a few drunks and no-hopers who mocked the message and threw rotten eggs at the messenger spread right across the globe
This is the story of Christ amongst the poor. This is the story of mercy triumphing over judgement. This is the story of blood and fire.
What did CS Lewis think of the Puritans? It is sometimes implied that Lewis leant equally towards Catholic as Protestant doctrine. Some may assume that his thoughts on hell and the afterlife imply he was unimpressed with the theological emphasis of the works of the English puritans.
But in his academic masterpiece of literary criticism, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (excluding drama), he demonstrates a thorough, personally informed view of the major theological influences on that century and those that followed.
His discussion of puritan and reformed thinking is not only easy to grasp but thoroughly enjoyable. Typical Lewis.
Here are a few gems to whet your appetite…
A correct understanding of the goal of puritanism ‘The puritans were so called because they claimed to be purists or purifiers in ecclesiastical polity: not because they laid more emphasis than other Christians on ‘purity’ in the sense of chastity.’
A correct understanding of the nature of ‘puritan’ experience ‘We want, above all, to know what it felt like to be an early Protestant.
One thing is certain. It felt very unlike being a ‘puritan’ such as we meet in nineteenth-century fiction. Dickens’s Mrs. Clennam, trying to expiate her early sin by a long life of voluntary gloom, was doing exactly what the first Protestants would have forbidden her to do. They would have thought her whole conception of expiation papistical. On the Protestant view one could not, and by God’s mercy, need not, expiate one’s sins.’
Tyndale and Luther properly understood Paul’s doctrine of Justification by Faith and not by works ‘In the mind of a Tyndale or Luther, as in the mind of St. Paul himself, this theology was by no means an intellectual construction made in the interests of speculative thought. It springs directly out of a highly specialized religious experience; and all its affirmations, when separated from that context, become meaningless or else mean the opposite of what was intended…’
‘Catastrophic Conversion’ essential to an experience of joy (or bliss) ‘The experience is that of catastrophic conversion.
The man who has passed through it feels like one who has waked from a nightmare into ecstasy.
Like an accepted lover, he feels that he has done nothing, and never could have done anything, to deserve such astonishing happiness. Never again can he ‘crow from the dunghill of desert’.
All the initiative has been on God’s side; all has been free, unbounded grace. And all will continue to be free, unbounded grace.
His own puny and ridiculous efforts would be as helpless to retain the joy as they would have been to achieve it in the first place.
Fortunately they need not. Bliss is not for sale, cannot be earned.
‘Works’ have no ‘merit’, though of course faith, inevitably, even unconsciously, flows out into works of love at once.
He is not saved because he does works of love: he does works of love because he is saved.
It is faith alone that has saved him: faith bestowed by sheer gift. From this buoyant humility, this farewell to the self with all its good resolutions, anxiety, scruples, and motive-scratchings, all the Protestant doctrines originally sprang.’
To read the next post (CS Lewis on Predestination) click here
To read a review of AN Wilson’s biography on Lewis click here
Wilson claims, ‘There are those readers who are so uplifted by the sublimity of Lewis at his best as a writer that they assume that he was himself a sublime being, devoid of blemishes.’
In this review I examine some of Wilson’s claims and comments as well as including fascinating material about Lewis’s ‘reluctant convert’ comment, the animosity between Lewis and John Betjeman, the conversations with J.R.R. Tolkien which finally led to his conversion and his resistance to the modern poets including T.S. Eliot.
If you’ve not read anything about Lewis’s life the review also serves as an introduction to one of the most inspiring Christian writers of the 20th century.
Strong-headed, rough as a broken rock, Charles Finney was converted and filled with the Holy Spirit.
He soon realised that he was never going to be a lawyer, but had to be a preacher. He began discussions with his Pastor, George Gale, about ordination and applied to three seminaries, but was rejected (partly because he also applied for financial assistance, partly because he was already in his thirties).
It was agreed by the local presbytery that he should begin personal studies under the guidance of Gale and they would review his application for ordination. Six months into this agreement Gale became ill and advised them to ordain Finney so he could take over pastoral responsibilities at the church in Adams.
Unfortunately, it didn’t go well. While it is true he was ordained more quickly than expected, it was clear that his somewhat severe style was not going to suit a pastoral mode of ministry. Once again, Gale (whom Finney unfairly criticises in his Memoirs) stepped in to help by suggesting he be commissioned as a ‘missionary’ to evangelise.
This slightly unusual course proved to be providential for Finney. It gave him a pattern for evangelistic ministry and he began to mature as a Christian and a leader as he learnt to preach the gospel.
His reaction to criticism
Although his insecurities and defensiveness are very evident in his Memoirs (and presumably helped define the change from a Reformed to a strong Arminian position in his later theology[i]), he was clearly and wonderfully used by God.
His early meetings were not wildly successful, but he faithfully persevered. He became aware of two primary needs: firstly that the non-believer needed to hear the gospel clearly and respond to it personally, i.e., the command to repent and believe was a command that could be obeyed. Secondly, he became aware of the necessity of the Holy Spirit in working upon the hearts and minds of those who heard, in order that they repent and believe.
At times, in his writings, he flip-flops from one emphasis to the other. But the criticism he received from pastors, theologians and evangelists over his direct and personal methods to ensure responses to the gospel resulted in a decided anti-Reformed position in his thinking.
In fact, his biographer, Keith Hardman, asserts that, in connection with his recollections in his Memoirs, ‘Finney interjected his later theological position into it, as he did with all of these incidents.’[ii]
Prayer and Preaching
Throughout the 1820s Finney continued itinerating, trying to secure conversions to Christ. He was accompanied by a praying minister, Daniel Nash. Nash was no great preacher but recognised a preaching gift in Finney and committed himself to prayer for him and for the meetings. They travelled together in partnership, with Nash sometimes ‘shouting’ in prayer and even calling out the names of individuals whom they considered needed converting! This proved controversial, of course, but the praying/preaching partnership began to bear much fruit – as we will see next time in a post entitled, ‘Demonstrations of the Spirit’s power!’
To read the first part in the Charles Finney story click here
[i] ‘His peculiar views, adopted since he has been at Oberlin, were no part of his theology at that time…Of the doctrine of election Mr Finney in his preaching said very little. His reason for it was that he was dealing with the impenitent chiefly, and he thought it was adapted to converted, or the mature Christian, rather than to the impenitent. This I always thought in some degree a wrong judgement…Had Mr Finney taken a different view of it, and dwelt upon it more, his faith would have been more firmly anchored, and he would have been saved from the position in which he has found himself…When he was licensed and first laboured as a missionary, he was very firm and faithful in bringing out this doctrine.’ George Gale, quoted in Keith J Hardman, Charles Grandison Finney, Revivalist and Reformer (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1987)
19th Century Evangelist Charles Finney was one of the more controversial figures on the religious landscape in America.
Converted after fairly rigourous intellectual inquiry, he had an astonishing experience of God’s love and power.
He certainly wasn’t the first to speak of a ‘baptism in the Spirit’ (see Matt 3:11, Mark 1:8) nor would he be the last, but his description of the experience is helpful for those seeking God for a similar dynamic in their spiritual lives.
You can read his introduction to the experience here.
‘A mighty baptism in the Holy Ghost’
His journal records the occasion:
‘But as I returned and was about to take a seat by the fire, I received a mighty baptism of the Holy Ghost. Without expecting it, without ever having the thought in my mind that there was any such thing for me, without any recollection that I had ever heard the thing mentioned by any person in the world, at a moment entirely unexpected by me, the Holy Spirit descended upon me in a manner that seemed to go through me, body and soul.
I could feel the impression, like a wave of electricity, going through and through me. Indeed it seemed to come in waves and waves of liquid love for I could not express it in any other way.
And yet it did not seem like water, but rather as the breath of God. I can recollect distinctly that it seemed to fan me, like immense wings; and it seemed to me, as these waves passed over me, that they literally moved my hair like a passing breeze.
No words can express the wonderful love that was shed abroad in my heart. It seemed to me that I should burst.
‘So happy that I cannot live!’
I wept aloud with joy and love; and I do not know but I should say, I literally bellowed out the unutterable gushings of my heart. These waves came over me, and over me, and over me, one after the other, until I recollect I cried out, “I shall die if these waves continue to pass over me.” I said, “Lord, I cannot bear any more;” yet I had no fear of death.
How long I continued in this state I do not know. But it was late in the evening when a member of my choir – for I was the leader of the choir – came into the office to see me. He was a member of the church.
He found me in this state of loud weeping, and said, “Mr. Finney, what ails you?” I could make him no answer for some time. He then said, “Are you in pain?” I gathered myself up as best I could, and replied, “No, but so happy that I cannot live.
He turned and left the office, and in a few minutes returned with one of the elders of the church, whose shop was nearly across the way from our office.
The Laughing Elder
This elder was a very serious man; and in my presence had been very watchful, and I had scarcely ever seen him laugh. When he came in I was very much in the state in which I was when the young man went out to call him. He asked me how I felt, and I began to tell him.
Instead of saying anything, he fell into a most spasmodic laugh. It seemed as if it was impossible for him to keep from laughing from the very bottom of his heart. It seemed to be a spasm that was irresistible.’[i]
Further prayers were said and the fact one of the elders of the church couldn’t resist laughing when he saw Finney in a relatively helpless state made Finney doubt whether or not he had been presumptuous. Nevertheless he slept.
‘…When I awoke in the morning the sun had risen, and was pouring a clear light into my room. Words cannot express the impression that this sunlight made upon me. Instantly the baptism that I had received the night before, returned upon me in the same manner.
I arose upon my knees in the bed and wept aloud with joy, and remained for some time too much overwhelmed with the baptism of the Spirit to do anything but pour out my soul to God.
It seemed as if this morning’s baptism was accompanied with a gentle reproof, as if the Spirit seemed to say to me, ‘Will you doubt? Will you doubt?’ I cried, ‘No! I will not doubt; I cannot doubt!’’ [ii]
That such experiences of God’s power are recorded throughout church history should challenge us to seek God for authentic encounters with His majesty that we might have an impact on our generation as Finney and others did on theirs.
Next time we’ll look at how Finney began to seek to minister to others…click here
For the first instalment of the Finney Story click here
Charles Finney was not destined to become a schoolteacher, even though he loved it and was loved by those he taught. It was suggested to him that a career in law might be the thing.
At that time the procedure was to study, as an apprentice, under a practicing lawyer. This Finney did in the town of Adams, NY. He was a diligent and able student and during the few court appearances he made was a very real match for any opponent.[i]
The Authority of the Bible
During his studies he noticed the repeated references to the Bible. The Scriptures were often referred to as an authority in terms of legal principles. It was impossible to ignore.
‘This,’ said Finney, ‘excited my curiosity so much that I went and purchased a Bible, the first I had ever owned…This soon led to my taking a new interest in the Bible, and I read and meditated on it much more that I had ever done before.’[ii]
Free will, conviction and personal application As a student of Law Finney learned three things that later marked his preaching. The first was the moral responsibility of a person with regard to guilt. The exercise of their own free will to commit a certain act was critical to securing a guilty verdict. If it was an involuntary act then the question of guilt is not clear. Secondly, he learned the importance of using close, searching, legal questions to convince both the guilty person and a jury of their guilt. And thirdly, he learned that in order to persuade a jury the lawyer needed to speak directly to them, not talk in an abstract way.
Finney, attending the Presbyterian Church in Adams, began to be troubled by the preaching of the Pastor, George Gale, who although younger than Peter Starr, preached in the same style. Decidedly Calvinistic, Gale emphasised the inability of a sinner to get right with God on his own, and, according to Finney, he never directly addressed the congregation – never saying ‘you!’.
Finney later acknowledged, ‘I now think that I sometimes criticised his sermons unmercifully.’[iii] But Gale continued to pursue and encourage Finney, visiting him in the law office and seeking to find out how much understanding of the gospel Finney was gaining.
Gale’s persistence and Finney’s conviction of sin
It must be acknowledged that Finney’s conversion, humanly speaking, was in large measure due to the evangelistic efforts of this young Reformed pastor.
Numbers were being added to the church in Adams. Gale was by no means an unevangelising hyper-Calvinist. Finney began to feel a certain, unshakeable conviction of sin.
After evangelistic sermons Gale would hold ‘inquiry meetings’ for those seeking salvation. Finney finally attended one. He wrote, ‘I trembled so that my very seat shook under me.’
Gale also wrote of that meeting, ‘He looked at me with an air of solemnity I shall never forget…
“I am willing now to be a Christian! Do you think there is any hope in my case?”
I told him he might be converted, but if he were it would be something very similar to God’s exercising miraculous power: It was not teaching that he needed. It was compliance with what he already knew.’[iv]
Peace at last!
Finally Finney submitted to God. He went up into the woods determined to get right with God before returning. He knelt down and surrendered his life to Jesus Christ.
He immediately experienced a freedom in his spirit and began to pray. He prayed for hours revelling in a peace that was inconceivable only moments before. He was determined that he would now preach the gospel to others.
To read about how Finney, on the evening after his conversion, was baptised in the Holy Spirit, click here
For the first instalment of the Finney Story click here
“It would be impossible to estimate the influence exerted on revival movements all over the world during the past hundred years by Charles Finney’s lectures on prayer in his Revivals of Religion.” Arthur Wallis (in 1956) [i]
Generally speaking, Charles Finney (1792-1875) is not very highly respected by Reformed writers and preachers. He rarely gets a mention. But he remains one of Christianity’s most effective representatives.
A passionate and powerful Evangelist, Finney was often compared to Whitefield and Wesley by his friends. Yet he is sometimes portrayed as little more than a charlatan by those who were offended by his theology. Even as good a man as DM Lloyd-Jones spoke disparagingly of Finney’s ‘so-called’ converts!
Yet the distance of history may permit a measure of objectivity.
Finney the anti-Calvinist – not the anti-Christ!
It’s true that Finney didn’t respond well to his Calvinist critics and attacked their theology relentlessly. And it’s true he taught that if the church obeyed the Scriptural commands, prayed fervently and were filled with the Spirit, then she would see ‘revival’, significant awakenings amongst both believers and non-believers. He said, ‘I believe we can labor to promote revival with as reasonable a prospect for success as we could find in any other line of work.’ [ii]
Almost single-handedly, he shifted the emphasis of fruitful evangelism, effective mass evangelism, from God’s sovereignty to man’s responsibility.
You might not like that.
You might not like his anti-Calvinist statements. He certainly misrepresents the reformed understanding of God’s sovereignty in salvation. But he was a mighty Evangelist, saw many conversions, and we could learn from his example.
A great Evangelist but a not-so-great theologian
So my contention will be that Finney was an inspired, Spirit-filled Evangelist who was preaching the gospel during a season of ‘revival’ or ‘awakening’ similar to that of Whitefield, but that he was not a great theological thinker, nor a great teacher of theology.
He certainly ranks amongst the great Evangelists in the English speaking world, and his influence has continued into the 21st century.
So without getting too distracted by the theological controversies – except where I perceive them to be vitally important to the story, or to our current situation – I will see what we can learn from this fascinating character.
The Baptism of the Spirit, Prayer and Revival
We’ll see examples of prayer turning situations around, examples of mighty baptisms in the Spirit happening to both individuals and whole churches. We’ll enjoy accounts of the power of God invading meetings, and turning hard-hearted sceptics to Christ. We’ll note eye-witness testimony of how the presence of God broke through defences that seemed impenetrable.
This won’t merely be a story of a good, fervent man getting results – actually, Finney’s story is one of God breaking in and displaying His glory.
I think you’ll like that!
For the next post in this series click here
[i] Arthur Wallis, In the Day of Thy Power, (London: CLC, 1956), p. xiii
[ii] Charles Finney, Lectures on Revival, (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1988 edition), p.26
(Photo by Andrew Robertson from the ‘Tapes From Scotland’ website)
We may be convinced that the New Testament documents are based on reliable sources – that we have what was originally written from an early date – but do we know that what they contain is reliable? How do we know they weren’t just made up?
Dr Peter J Williams, Warden of Tyndale House, Cambridge University, attempts to answer the question of the reliability of the Gospel record by looking closely at both non-Christian sources and detailed material within the Gospels themselves.
He draws on research which strongly suggests the implausibility of a claim that the four canonical gospels were clever fakes.
Were these stories made up at a later time or written from a different place, or do they include such a wealth of incidental information that was available only to the ‘close-up’ gospel writers, and which points to their authenticity?
Peter presents the material with wit and precision and we’re left with an extremely convincing case that the four gospels were indeed comprised of genuine eyewitness accounts. You’ll enjoy this!
NEW! UPDATED video link. Click on the image below:
By all means, save some!
From time to time, as church leaders, our hopes for a sudden gain in church growth are raised by news of a fresh and creative initiative. Whether this is a specific evangelistic strategy or whether it’s in connection with church management our response is often similar: We do the research, hear the testimonies, read the materials, pray and prepare to launch into new territory which we hope will yield better results.
None of this is wrong, of course. In fact, we ought to be on our toes for spotting effective means of communicating the gospel message. We must keep imagining and learning and trying all that we can, that ‘by all means we might save some.’ (1 Cor 9:22)
But in all of this we need to remember that this is a life’s work. We are not just jumping from project to project – we are living all of life in the context of God’s mission to reconcile the world to Himself through Christ; all of life and for the duration of our life.
And this is where Hudson Taylor’s example of perseverance can encourage us. By the time of these events he had been serving in China nearly 40 years.
Christians worship a pig! In the early 1890s leaflets were distributed throughout Hunan Province that misrepresented the CIM and other missionary organisations working in China:
‘Missionaries are the frontline troops of western nations in their designs on China; they use magic powers to corrupt the Chinese; they extract unborn children from their mothers’ wombs and scoop out the eyes of the dead to make silver;
Jesus debauched the women of Judea and was put to death for violating the king’s harem;
Christians worship a pig and refuse to honour heaven, earth, the sun, moon, stars, ancestors and the sages.’[i]
As a result of the publication of these leaflets, and the growing resentment of colonial rule, several missionaries lost their lives, and most were living in real danger.
Taylor wrote, ‘We are continually encouraging our converts to brave persecution and to suffer loss for Christ’s sake, and they are apt to think that it is easy for us to speak in this way, seeing that, as far as they can tell, we are well-off and exposed to no danger or loss.
When, therefore, we are in danger they will mark our conduct very closely, and judge for themselves how far we really believe…Years of teaching would not impress them as our conduct at such times may do.’[ii]
Slow Progress and our response to it Like Taylor’s men and women, we also battle misunderstanding as to our purpose or motive. And, just like Taylor’s troops, we also wrestle with slow progress.
We are heartened by bursts of growth and by news of growth in other situations but we must hold steady and persevere in order to build the church in a spiritually bewildered culture.
Writing back in March 1892, Hudson Taylor, after 38 years of hard work, said, ‘The supreme want of all missions in the present day is the manifested presence of the Holy Ghost.
Hundreds of thousands of tracts and portions of Scripture have been put into circulation; thousands of gospel addresses have been given; tens of thousands of miles have been traversed in missionary journeys but how small has been the issue in the way of definite conversions!
We…have much need to humble ourselves before God…’
Seeking the power of the Holy Spirit ‘Few of us, perhaps, are satisfied with the results of our work, and some may think that if we had more, or more costly machinery we should do better. But oh, I feel it is divine power we want…!
Should we not do well, rather, to suspend our present operations and give ourselves to humiliation and prayer for nothing less that to be filled with the Spirit, and made channels through which He shall work with resistless power?
Souls are perishing now for lack of this power!’[iii]
Sure enough, the following month, instead of the normal business meeting of the directors of the Chinese operation, the minutes recorded: ‘Instead of meeting for conference, the China Council united with the members of the mission in Shanghai in seeking for themselves, the whole mission in China and the Home Councils, the filling of the Holy Spirit.’[iv]
Soon after, news was spread of the power of God working in a new way amongst them.
Let’s learn from history – in order to persevere in the mission we are on, we need encounters with God, to be both humbled and empowered by the Spirit of God.
We never graduate from this…this is our life’s work.
For the first part of the Hudson Taylor story click here
What would Carey do?
In our imaginary Quiz, where Indian students are asked the question ‘Who was William Carey?’ several answers have been given which prove Carey’s missionary interest was to benefit the peoples of India.
But there are still numerous students with their hands in the air waiting to give their answers:
Printing and Publishing
‘Dr. William Carey is the father of print technology in India.’ says one. He brought to India the modern science of printing and publishing and then taught and developed it. He built what was then the largest printing press in India. Most printers had to buy their fonts from his Mission Press at Serampore.’
A Free Press
‘William Carey,’ says another, was a Christian missionary who established the first newspaper ever printed in any oriental language because Carey believed that ‘Above all forms of truth and faith, Christianity seeks free discussion.’
‘His English language journal, Friend of India, was the force that gave birth to the Social Reform Movement in India in the first half of the nineteenth century.’
Translation and Promotion of Indigenous Literature
‘Carey was the first man to translate and publish great Indian religious classics such as the Ramayana, and philosophical treaties such as Samkhya into English,’ says a student of Literature.
‘Carey transformed Bengali…into the foremost literary language of India. He wrote gospel ballads in Bengali to bring the Hindu love of musical recitations to the service of his Lord. He also wrote the first Sanskrit dictionary for scholars.’
(All quotes from Vishal Mangalwadi, William Carey and the Regeneration of India, Good Books, Mussourie, India, p 2-4)
The picture we are compiling of the 19th Century missionary William Carey is not one of a blundering, insensitive cad who couldn’t care less about local culture but wants to stupefy the ‘natives’ into compliance with the colonial agenda.
Sent to Serve
Rather, we are seeing a deeply inspiring portrait of a man sent to serve; a man eager to understand the philosophical presuppositions of those he seeks to benefit.
This is no culture destroyer but someone seeking to strengthen a people, and bring them knowledge already gained elsewhere, enabling them to both believe the gospel and build a fairer and stronger society. And if you’re tempted to think, ‘Ah! It’s obvious that you, a Westerner, would say that!’ then please keep in mind that I am drawing heavily upon the expertise and research of Indologist, and Indian expert Vishal Mangalwadi.
The study of the history of the progress of the Christian church is one of the most rewarding, challenging and potentially life-changing adventures. The sheer magnitude of the success of Christianity is astonishing. The Christians believed this was a manifestation of God’s grace to the world.
This online project is not intended to be exhaustive, but inspirational. The aim is to revive stories from previous generations to encourage faith in our own lives.
I hope you will enjoy some of the many examples of God’s gracious interaction with people through the centuries. We’ll see the ever-present struggle between genuine faith and spiritual opposition, traditionalism, religious intolerance, and sin.
The selection of micro-histories is intentional. It’s easier to connect with a story than with a timeline.
I do hope you will enjoy these posts as they go up. We’ll be learning together. Feel free to comment or to correct if you spot an error and have a source for the correction.
We’ll begin at about where the Book of Acts ends and ride the wave of grace through the centuries to our present time. I hope you’ll bookmark this Review and join me for an uplifting look at what CH Spurgeon called Christ’s Glorious Achievements.