This passionate exhortation by William Booth has often been misquoted. At least certain punchy phrases have been lifted out of context.
In one sense he hasn’t helped himself by referring to all gospel-sharing as ‘preaching’. But it’s clear that he is differentiating between the general call on every Christian to witness to those who don’t know Christ and the specific call which some experience and which tends to lead them into and confirm them as public preachers and teachers of the Bible.
He is exasperated by the silence of ordinary, good Christians when it comes to evangelism.
While some phrases are certainly clumsy, let’s not miss the passion:
– We need to become aware of those who don’t yet realise that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6).
– We need to have an appropriate understanding of eternal realities and the eternal consequences of someone’s rejection of Christ.
– We need to become ‘unselfish’ and start serving people evangelistically.
– If the gospel is true, love should compel us to initiate contact, communication, relationships.
– While there is a special call to vocational ‘ministry’ for some, we are all called to ‘preach’ the gospel. For some, even if they haven’t been specially ‘called to ministry’ they can still seek God for it (Booth was always looking for more leaders).
You may not be a Salvationist. You may not like aspects of Booth’s theology. But every Christian should feel stirred and sharpened by Booth’s words:
How can anybody with spiritual eyesight talk of having no call? ‘How can anybody with spiritual eyesight talk of having no call, when there are such multitudes around them who never hear a word about God, and never intend to; who can never hear, indeed, without the sort of preacher who will force himself upon them?
Are you spiritually healthy if you have no compassion? ‘Can a man keep right in his own soul, who can see all that, and yet stand waiting for a ‘call’ to preach? Would they wait so for a ‘call’ to help anyone escape from a burning building, or to snatch a sinking child from a watery grave?
Does not growth in grace, or even ordinary growth of intelligence, necessarily bring with it that deepened sense of eternal truths which must intensify the conviction of duty to the perishing world?
Does not an unselfish love, the love that goes out towards the unloving, demand of a truly loving soul immediate action for the salvation of the unloved?
And are there not persons who know that they possess special gifts, such as robust health, natural eloquence or power of voice, which specially make them responsible for doing something for souls?
If you’ve been called by God obey Him! ‘And yet I do not at all forget, that above and beyond all these things, there does come to some a special and direct call which it is particularly fatal to disregard, and peculiarly strengthening to enjoy and act upon.
I believe that there have been many eminently holy and useful men who never had such a call; but that does not at all prevent anyone from asking God for it, or blessing Him for His special kindness when He gives it.’[i]
For the next post in this series, on how the Booths broke away from Methodism click here For the first post in this series on the Salvation Army click here
William Booth, Founder of the Salvation Army, was first and foremost an Evangelist; a preacher of the gospel.
He was famous for his untiring zeal. He described himself as red-hot and he wanted to reproduce red-hot evangelists, preaching the gospel and winning thousands to Christ. And it was this passion for evangelism that sustained his mission to serve the poor effectively (but more of that later).
Saved to Save! Sarah Osborne (nee Butler), a close friend of the Booth family, gives this amazing description of him:
‘He was the most earnest and enthusiastic man I ever knew – he was really burning, really on fire to save souls. He used to say that we were saved to save. He could not stand people who said their souls were saved and who did nothing to save other people.’[i]
As a relatively new convert, he was determined to reach others with the good news he had found and began preaching in the streets and at small ‘cottage meetings’ in peoples homes.
Not Satisfied with a Few Responses and Positive Feedback These early efforts did get some fruit but he was not satisfied.
‘Oh, the stagnation into which I had settled down, the contentment of my mind with the love offered me at every turn by the people! I still aimed at the Salvation of the unconverted and the spiritual advance of my people, and still fought for these results. Indeed, I never fell below that.
And yet if the After-Meeting was well attended, and if one or two Penitents responded, I was content, and satisfied myself with that hackneyed excuse for so much unfruitful work, that I had ‘sown the seed.’ Having cast my bread on the waters, I persuaded myself that I must hope for its being found by and by.
But I heard of a Rev. Richard Poole who was moving about the country, and the stories told me of the results attending his services had aroused in me memories of the years gone by, when I thought little and cared less about the acceptability of my own performances, so long as I could drag the people from the jaws of Hell.
I resolved to go and hear him…When I had heard him preach from the text, ‘Said I not unto thee, that if thou wouldst believe, thou shouldst see the salvation of God,’ and had observed the blessed results, I went to my own chamber – I remember that it was over a baker’s shop – and resolved that, regardless of man’s opinions, and my own gain or position, I would ever seek the one thing.
Whilst kneeling in that room, there came into my soul a fresh realisation of the greatness of the opportunity before me of leading men and women out of their miseries and their sin, and of my responsibility to go in for that with all my might.
In obedience to the heavenly vision, I made a consecration of the present and future, of all I had, and hoped to have, to the fulfilment of this mission, and I believe God accepted the offering.’[ii]
To read Booth’s description of 19th city-life (and similarities with the poor in cities today) click here
For the first post in the Booth/Salvation Army series click here
Although William Booth’s conversion experience was relatively undramatic the results were not.
During a message to young Salvation Army officers Booth stirred them to action by describing his own early adventures in evangelism:
Surprising Success ‘God…led me out to work for Him, after a fashion which, considering my youth and inexperience, must be pronounced remarkable. While recovering from [an] illness, which left me far from strong, I received a note from a companion, Will Sansom, asking me to make haste and get well again, and help him in a Mission he had started in a slum part of the town. No sooner was I able to get about than I gladly joined him.
The Meetings we held were very remarkable for those days. We used to take out a chair into the street, and one of us mounting it would give out a hymn, which we then sang with the help of, at the most, three or four people. Then I would talk to the people, and invite them to come with us to a Meeting in one of the houses.
Hard Work as a Volunteer How I worked in those days! Remember that I was only an apprentice lad of fifteen or sixteen. I used to leave [work] at 7 o’clock, or soon after, and go visiting the sick, then these street Meetings, and afterwards to some Meeting in a cottage, where we would often get some one saved.
After the Meeting I would often go to see some dying person, arriving home about midnight to rest all I could before rising next morning in time to reach my place of business at 7 A.M. That was sharp exercise!
Mobile devotionals How I can remember rushing along the streets during my forty minutes’ dinner-time, reading the Bible or C. G. Finney’sLectures on Revivals of Religion as I went, careful, too, not to be a minute late.
And at this time I was far from strong physically; but full of difficulties as those days were, they were nevertheless wonderful seasons of blessing, and left pleasant memories that endure to this hour.
‘Slow down, young man!’ The leading men of the church to which I belonged were afraid I was going too fast, and gave me plenty of cautions, quaking and fearing at my every new departure; but none gave me a word of encouragement.
And yet the Society of which for those six apprentice years I was a faithful member, was literally my heaven on earth. Truly, I thought then there was one God, that John Wesley was His prophet, and that the Methodists were His special people.
The church was at the time, I believe, one thousand members strong. Much as I loved them, however, I mingled but little with them, and had time for but few of their great gatherings, having chosen the Meadow Platts as my parish, because my heart then as now went out after the poorest of the poor.
My conversion made me into a Preacher of the Gospel Thus my conversion made me, in a moment, a preacher of the Gospel. The idea never dawned on me that any line was to be drawn between one who had nothing else to do but preach and a saved apprentice lad who only wanted ‘to spread through all the earth abroad,’…the fame of our Saviour.
No professionals – we are all soldiers in Christ’s mission I have lived, thank God, to witness the separation between layman and cleric become more and more obscured, and to see Jesus Christ’s idea of changing in a moment ignorant fishermen into fishers of men nearer and nearer realisation.
But I had to battle for ten of the best years of my youth against the barriers the Churches set up to prevent this natural following of the Lamb wherever He leads.
Resisting clerical pretence At that time they all but compelled those who wished to minister to the souls of men to speak in unnatural language and tones, and adopt habits of mind and life which so completely separated them from the crowd as to make them into a sort of princely caste, whom the masses of every clime outwardly reverenced and inwardly despised.
Lad though I was, a group of new Converts and other earnest souls soon gathered around me, and greater things seemed to be ahead…’[i]
For the next post, on William Booth’s amazing zeal click here
It may well be that the Evangelist is always in a controversial position.[i] He aims to be winsome but is sure to step on toes; tries to bring a simple message firmly, yet knows he deals with slippery objections; doesn’t want to offend, yet proclaims a message contrary to human self-sufficiency, and seeks to express certainties with humility. He mustn’t be driven by his own sense of persuasiveness, yet everyone wants results.
And it’s not only the message which can cause controversy; the changing methods employed by Evangelists can create trouble too!
As we’ve seen already, the appeal (or ‘altar call’, as it tends to be called in the US) is a method that became popular towards the end of the 18th century. After preaching for a series of meetings, those who were either converted or seeking conversion were asked to identify themselves by going to the front of a meeting and talking with a minister, or entering a separate ‘inquirer’s meeting’ for further instruction and prayer.
The reason the appeal is controversial today is because it can give a false impression of conversion, or can be used in the hope of producing conversion rather than merely connecting ‘seekers’ with a spiritual advisor.
Whether you’re a fan of Charles Finney or not you have to concede that, despite the modern critics, he was aiming at conversion through preaching and the Spirit’s work, and using the appeal as a means of either identifying those who already converted or those seeking conversion. We’ll see that in the following quotations.
Finney Beginning In 1825 Finney preached a series of meetings in a small town called Evans’ Mills in Jefferson County, NY.
He writes, ‘The Spirit of the Lord was evidently poured out on the congregation; and at the close of the sermon I did what I do not know I had ever done before, called upon any who would give their hearts to God to come forward and take the front seats…
The moment I made the call [a] young lady was the first to arise. She burst out into the aisle, and came forward like a person in a state of desperation. She seemed to have lost all sense of the presence of anybody but God. She came rushing forward to the front seats, until she finally fell in the aisle and shrieked with agony.
A large number arose in different parts of the house and came forward; and a goodly number appreared to give their hearts to God upon the spot.’[ii]
Revival A little later, preaching in Rome, Oneida County, NY, in the midst of what seems to be full-blown revival, he records,
‘Conversions multiplied so rapidly that we had no way of learning who they were. I therefore every evening, at the close of my sermon, requested all who had been converted that day to come forward and report themselves in front of the pulpit, that we might have a little conversation with them. We were very surprised by the numbers and class of persons that came forward.’[iii]
One observer, Catherine Huntingdon, reported, ‘I do not know the number of converts in our town; it may be four hundred. Two evenings since, when those were requested to come forward who had obtained hopes within the thirty-six hours, between twenty and thirty presented themselves. Usually every other evening the ministers made the request, that they might see who they were, and shake hands with them.’[iv]
The Missionary Herald published news of the revival stating, ‘During one week, it is said, scarcely any secular work was done, so intent were the people on the great concerns of the soul. It was a sort of sabbatical week.’ (published May 1826)[v]
The after-meeting and the appeal While Finney began to see the importance of people being clear about conversion, he initially saw the ‘appeal’ as taking place after the meeting and not necessarily as part of the service itself. This is clear from his practice in Rome:
He writes, ‘Mr Gillett afterwards reported that during the twenty days that I spent at Rome there were five hundred conversions in that town, or an average of twenty per day. At evening when I requested that any who had been converted during the day should come forward and report themselves, the people would remain standing instead of retiring, to see who came forward to report themselves as having been converted; and the utmost astonishment was expressed by those present when they saw who came forward.’[vi]
On many occasions those who came forward took part in a further enquirer’s meeting and the benches or seats that were used at the front of the meeting halls began to be referred to as ‘the anxious seat’, where those anxious about their separation from God waited for prayer or counsel.
A settled practice It may be worth quoting Finney’s at length here:
‘I had never, I believe except in rare circumstances, until I went to Rochester  used as a means of promoting revivals, what has since been called ‘the anxious seat’.
I had sometimes asked persons in the congregation to stand up; but this I had not frequently done…
From my own experience and observation I had found, that with the higher classes especially, the greatest obstacle to be overcome was their fear of being known as anxious inquirers. They were too proud to take any position that would reveal them to others as anxious for their souls.
I had found also that something was needed more than I had practiced to make the impression on them that they were expected then and there to give up their hearts; and something that would call them to act, and act as publicly before the world as they had in their sins; something that would commit them publicly to the service of Christ; some public manifestation or demonstration that would declare to all around them that they abandoned a sinful life then and there, and committed themselves to Jesus Christ…
I had felt for sometime that something more was necessary to bring them out from among the mass of the ungodly to a public renunciation of their sinful ways, and a public committal of themselves to God.
At Rochester, if I recollect right, I first introduced this measure…I made a call…upon all that class of persons whose convictions were so ripe that they were willing then and there to renounce their sins and give themselves to God, to come forward to certain seats which I requested to be vacated, and offer themselves up to God while we made them subjects of prayer.
A much larger number came forward than I expected…’[vii]
But how necessary was it during those revivals? Through using this rather confrontational device Finney made a number of observations. It is very clear that Finney’s concerns and convictions were being shaped primarily by his desire to help people get converted.
And it is clear that his primary perspective was not from the study to the mission but from the impact the preaching was having from the recipient’s point of view, then he developed his thinking.
Again, I am quoting Finney at length to at least allow him the opportunity of a defence.
Exposing pride and clarifying obedience He writes, ‘I found, as I expected, that this was a great power for good. If men who were under conviction refused to come forward publicly and renounce their sins and give themselves to God, this fact disclosed to them more clearly the pride of their hearts. If, on the other hand, they broke over all those considerations that stood in the way of their doing it, it was taking a great step; and as I found continually was the very step that they needed to take. And when the truth was explained to them, and they were made intelligent…this was one of the means used by the Spirit of God to bring them to a present submission to and acceptance of Christ.
Acting rather than waiting I had long been of the opinion that a principal reason why so few were converted…was that they were not brought to the point…
Ministers had been in the habit of preaching to sinners sermons pointing out to them their duty; but then in all probability admonishing them at the close that their nature must be changed by the Spirit of God or they could do nothing. Ministers had been so much afraid of dishonouring the Spirit of God…
Thus just at the point where the sinner needed to think of Christ, of his duty, of the thing important to be done, his attention was turned back to see whether any divine influence was going to change his nature, and let the Spirit of God act upon his nature like an electric shock while he remained passive…
Therefore the thing to be done was to set the sinner’s duty clearly before him, and depend on the Spirit’s teaching to urge him to do it; to set Christ before him, and expect the Holy Spirit to take of the things of Jesus and show them to the sinner; to set his sins before him, and expect the Holy Spirit to show him his awful wickedness, and lead him to voluntarily renounce his sins. I saw therefore clearly that to cooperate with the Spirit of God as an intelligent agent in this work, I must present the truths to be believed, the duties to be done, and the reasons for those duties.’
Cooperating with what the Spirit is doing The non-believer, hearing the sermon, ‘should understand distinctly that the Spirit’s work is not to convert him while he is passive, while he is waiting God’s time; but that the Spirit of God converts or turns him by inducing him to turn himself; that the act of submission is his own act, and the Spirit is persuading him to do this; that faith is his own act…That he gives us faith by inducing us to believe; and that he leads us to perform every duty, to repent, to believe, to submit, to love, by presenting the truths which are calculated to lead to these acts in so clear a light as to overcome our reluctance, and induce us voluntarily, with all sincerity and with all our hearts to turn to God, to trust Him, to love Him, to obey Him.
With these views of the subject I saw clearly that just at the point where the sinner is thoroughly instructed, and while under the voice of the living preacher with the strong pressure of truth set home by the Holy Ghost upon him, something was needed to induce him to act then and there upon his convictions.
I concluded then, and have always thought since, that to call the sinner right out from the mixed multitude to take a stand for God, to be…open and frank in his renunciation of sin…to call him to change sides, to renounce the world and come over to Christ, to renounce his own righteousness and accept that of Christ – in short to do just that which constitutes a change of heart, was just what was needed. I was not disappointed in the use of this measure.’[viii]
We may not agree entirely with Finney’s rationale, but his determination to serve the non-believer, once the Spirit of God has awakened them, is admirable.
We may also disagree with Finney’s later assertions that certain practices will produce certain results. R.T. Kendall, one time Pastor of Westminster Chapel, writing of his frustration with that church’s lack of evangelistic success, said, ‘Charles Finney, the nineteenth-century American evangelist (whom I admire), taught that if we do certain things, God will do certain things; therefore any church can see true revival. It may have worked for him but I have to say it hasn’t worked for us.’ [vix]
Feel free to add your own insights. Finney said that this ministry device had not disappointed him. Was that because there was such a powerful revival happening anyway? What about Asahel Nettleton and the Reformed Evangelists who preached with similar results and power?
For my view on the use of appeals in churches now click here
For the first part on this three-part series on Evangelistic Appeals click here
For the first part of the ministry of Charles Finney click here
‘The Biblical view is, to me, more credible than atheism, since it makes far more sense of reality, since it is supported by powerful evidence, both objective and subjective.’
An input of intelligence and energy from outside the system ‘And God said: Each step [of creation] begins with a word of God, an input of intelligence from outside the system. This is the exact opposite, obviously, of an unguided, mindless process, proceeding from the simple to the complex. The complexity of life is not self-generated: there is an input of energy from the outside.’
If you have never heard Oxford Professor John Lennox speak before, this is a superb introduction.
John is Professor of Mathematics in the University of Oxford, Fellow in Mathematics and the Philosophy of Science, and Pastoral Advisor at Green Templeton College, Oxford.
He has debated Richard Dawkins twice. You can see the first debate here.
There’s such a pressure to keep quiet! This message is essentially a sermon to a Christian audience in order to strengthen their resolve to stand up for God in their various walks of life.
‘Once a person’s faith in God is undermined their fundamental stabilities begins to erode. There’s such a pressure to keep quiet and keep your faith for the private sphere. You want to believe in Christ? Fine but do it privately. Don’t bring it into the public square!
Do we bring it into the public square? Science is the public thing.
And some scientists, more generous than others, like the late Stephen J Gould, say that religion is alright so long as we keep it separate from science. That sounds great until we look at the small print. And the small print says this: Science deals with reality and religion deals with everything else: fantasy like God, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.
That won’t do will it?
The pressure to be silent is increasing but Daniel and his friends withstood it then and we are called upon to withstand it now…Daniel understood the basic doctrines of the nature of God and creation as taught in Genesis.’
Enjoy the message!
Click on the photo to watch the video
The result of Charles Finney’s encounters with the Holy Spirit are well documented: when he preached multitudes came to Christ.
The Apostle Paul talked about preaching with the ‘demonstration of the Spirit’s power’ (1 Cor 2:4). While we may be convinced that such demonstrations may differ from culture to culture, the following can certainly be understood as an example of a 19th Century American revivalism.
These events took place three years after Finney received his ‘baptism of the Spirit’ in 1824 in a packed school hall in Antwerp, Jefferson County, New York, and are recounted by him.
An ‘ungodly people’
‘While I was [preaching] I observed the people looked as if they were angry. Many of the men were in their shirt sleeves and they looked at each other and at me, as if they were ready to pitch into me and chastise me for something on the spot…their anger arose higher and higher.
As soon as I had finished the narrative I turned upon them and said, that I understood that they had never had a religious meeting in that place; and that therefore I had a right to take it for granted, and was compelled to take it for granted, that they were an ungodly people. I pressed that home upon them with more and more energy, with my heart full to bursting.’
‘The congregation began to fall from their seats’
‘I had not spoken to them in this strain of direct application, I should think more than a quarter of an hour, when all at once and awful solemnity seemed to settle down upon them; and a some thing flashed over the congregation – a kind of shimmering – as if there was some agitation in the atmosphere itself.
The congregation began to fall from their seats; and they fell in every direction, and cried for mercy. If I had had a sword in each hand I could not have cut them off their seats as fast as they fell. Indeed nearly the whole congregation were either on their knees or prostrate, I should think, in less than two minutes from this first shock that fell upon them. Every one prayed for himself who was able to speak at all. I, of course was obliged to stop preaching, for they no longer paid any attention.
I saw the old man who had invited me there to preach sitting about in the middle of the house, and looking around with utter amazement. I raised my voice almost to a scream to make him hear, and pointing to him said, ‘Can’t you pray?’…
‘You are not in Hell yet!’
I then spake as loud as I could, and tried to make them attend to me. I said to them, “You are not in hell yet; and now let me direct you to Christ.” For a few moments I tried to hold forth the Gospel to them; but scarcely any of them paid any attention.
My heart was so overflowing with joy at such a scene that I could hardly contain myself. A little way from where I stood was an open fire-place. I recollect very well that my joy was so great, that I could not help laughing in a most spasmodic manner.
I knelt down and stuck my head into that fire-place and hung my pocket handkerchief over my head, lest they should see me laugh; for I was aware that they would not understand that it was irrepressible, holy joy that made me laugh. It was with much difficulty that I refrained from shouting, and giving glory to God.’
One by one Finney spoke to individuals, leading them to Christ. Years later he had the joy of receiving funding for his ministry from some of those converted in that very meeting.
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)
Charles Finney grew up south of Lake Ontario in New York State. ‘My parents were neither of them professors of religion. I seldom heard a sermon unless it was an occasional one from some travelling minister.’[i]
He was a quick learner and was entrusted with some teaching responsibilities in the local school in Henderson from the age of 16 until he was 20.[ii]
Preaching that would make you laugh
Finney writes, ‘Almost the only preaching that I heard was that of an Elder Osgood, who was a man of considerable religion but of very little education. His ignorance of language was so great as to divert the attention of the people from his thoughts to the very comical form of expressing them.
For example, instead of saying, ‘I am’, he would say, ‘I are’ and in the use of the pronouns thee and thou etc, he would mix them up in such a strange and incongruous manner, as to render it very difficult indeed to keep from laughing while he was either preaching or praying. Of course, I received no religious instruction from such teaching.’[iii]
Preaching that would make you cry
In 1812, aged 20, Finney moved to Connecticut and lodged with an uncle and attend an Academy there. He began attending his uncle’s Congregationalist Church, led by the much-loved but aging, Peter Starr. This was the first time he began regularly attending church services.
Finney decided that he would hear Christianity consistently presented. Biographer Keith Hardman writes,
‘Having developed some abilities in speaking and leading himself, he naturally expected to find theology preached with a certain amount of vigour and dynamic. It was not to be.
To observe Starr’s methods, Finney sat in the balcony where he could look down on the pastor’s performance and note his techniques.
To his chagrin, he found that the pastor ‘read his sermons in a manner that left no impression on my mind. He had a monotonous, humdrum way of reading what he had probably written many years before…It seemed to be always a matter of curiosity to know what he was aiming at.’[iv]
Finney’s later criticism of local pastors and preachers was, in large measure, based on these experiences.
No further formal education
Already in his twenties, Finney asked his teacher about the possibility of attending Yale University. The teacher dissuaded him however, both in light of his evident intellectual ability as well as his age.
Finney later regretted that his formal education progressed no further than high school. But in his twenties he was extremely self-confident.
If, however, Finney’s spiritual advancement was also faltering there was at least one ray of light: his brother was suddenly converted. He wrote to Charles. He was the first of the Finney family to be converted and something about his letter to the twenty-six year old hit home: ‘I actually wept for joy!’ he said.
We’ve all been appalled by the news footage of looting and theft in London and other cities in the UK.
We’ve seen cars burning, shops being broken into, buildings on fire, violence. We’ve seen who are doing these things – largely young people who clearly don’t have an internal restraint.
Groups of hundreds have been moving up and down local high streets, smashing windows and stealing whatever they can.
Obviously pastors and elders all across London will be evaluating both the measure of their impact amongst young people as well as what they could or should be doing in the future.
Many churches have worked hard to create respectful, relevant community engagement. Kings Church, Catford and Jubilee Church Enfield (both in boroughs where looting took place) are just two examples of vibrant, growing, multi-racial churches with strong youth groups. So this post is not intended to be a corrective to those churches who are making a difference. See here for a statement by Tope Koleoso, Pastor at Jubilee, Enfield.
Some may be questioning whether a concert-and-motivational-talk type of ministry is really penetrating London’s population – and whether a far more robust ministry both on Sundays and in the midst of the communities is now more obviously necessary. Time to serve.
And it seems that as the British media, and the culture generally, has pushed evangelical Christianity into a corner, and as the church has submitted to this marginal role in modern British life, something of a beast has been growing in its place – and we’re seeing something of the fruit of that in the behaviour of the young people involved in these looting sprees. Why would we expect a Christian ethic to be in place when we’ve repeatedly displaced the Christian message?
[Added later]: Former London Mayor, Ken Livingstone was interviewed on Sky News (evening, August 9th) and, comparing the mischief his contemporaries got up to as youngsters, said: ‘Something’s changed in the last thirty years. We’ve got to find out what it is, and then tackle it!’ (Sky News Live Broadcast)
No God – no authority
The logic seems to be: ‘If there’s no God, there’s no ultimate authority, there’s no real basis for any other form of authority – therefore, we can take the moment and go for it! Why not?’
So how has the church actually grappled with these issues in the past? One obvious example that comes to mind sprang up in London itself – through William and Catherine Booth and the movement of unashamed evangelism they created: The Salvation Army.
Your view of the Salvation Army today may be of something that is very tame – closer to the St John’s Ambulance volunteers than the SAS.
A Return to Unashamed Evangelism and Social Engagement
I want to suggest that church leaders and believers looking on at this problem today could do well to learn from the London-based Salvation Army of yesterday.
They were crystal clear on preaching the gospel, not just from ‘the pulpit’ but actually in the communities they were reaching, and their ranks were filled with self-sacrificing Christians who were determined to meet the needs of the disenfranchised and marginalised. Many of the early full time officers were younger than 23.
So, I hope you’ll excuse me by putting a link here to a pretty thorough overview of their early methods and successes. It is based on years of research and is a message I brought at a Newfrontiers conference in the UK, in 2010.
My hope is that as you hear what the Booths and others did, the Holy Spirit will strengthen your resolve to actually make a difference in our cities. If you want to skip past Booth’s formative years, jump in at around 20 minutes.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve had a kind of love affair with India for most of my adult life.
Nevertheless my admiration for Indian scholar Vishal Mangalwadi is anything but sentimental. I am genuinely impacted every time I hear him speak. It’s the same kind of impact I felt when I first read the works of Francis Schaeffer.
Somewhat guided by his notes (!), but also peppered with stunning digressions and off-the-cuff insights, his teaching energises me every single time.
He is currently working on a book about the central influence of the Bible in the development of the Western World, which, coming from an Eastern perspective, is intriguing.
This message is part of his material for that book. To be honest, I could have chosen any one of these messages but I thought the title alone might grab your interest.
JC Ryle, the 19th century Pastor, wrote extensively about the great heroes of the 18th century awakening in England.
We’ve been enjoying his frank observations on both the source of the problems and the means of revival that God used.
Ryle specifically lifts up the role and gift of the Evangelist as being the key to the breakthroughs that took place, and we will continue to be challenged by his analysis in this post.
1. The opposition experienced by the Evangelists
Ryle writes, ‘At first people in high places affected to despise them. The men of letters sneered at them as fanatics…
‘The Church shut her doors on them…the ignorant mob persecuted them. But the movement of these few evangelists went on, and made itself felt in every part of the land.’ (p.23)
2. The Primary method for changing the cultural landscape of England was Preaching
‘The instrumentality by which the spiritual reformers of the last century carried on their operations was of the simplest description.
‘It was neither more nor less that the old apostolic weapon of preaching.
‘Beyond doubt, preaching was their favourite weapon. They wisely went back to first principles.’
3. The Evangelists preached everywhere.
‘If the pulpit was open to them they gladly availed themselves of it [but] they were equally ready to preach in a barn.
‘No place came amiss to them. In the field or by the road side, on the village green, or in a market place, in lanes, or in alleys, in cellars or in garrets, on a tub or on a table, on a bench or on a horse block, wherever hearers could be gathered [they] were ready to speak…They were instant in season and out of season…’ (p.24)
4. They preached simply
‘They rightly concluded that the very first qualification to be aimed at in a sermon is to be understood!
‘They saw clearly that thousands of able and well composed sermons are utterly useless because they are above the heads of the hearers.’
Ryle says they preached in a way that could be clearly and immediately understood: ‘To attain this they were not ashamed to crucify their style and sacrifice their reputation for learning.’ (p.24-25)
We’ll continue next time, to hear about the style of preaching which God used to turn England upside down in the 18th Century.
All quotes from Christian Leaders Of The 18th Century by J. C. Ryle, Banner of Truth edition.
You can Purchase Ryle’s excellent book from the Banner of Truth website
What makes Ryle’s commentary so appealing is the fact that we can apply the same lessons to ourselves and trust God for major breakthrough in our various cities and nations.
1. Everyone was aware of a major change
Says Ryle: ‘That a great change for the better has come over England in the last hundred years is a fact which I suppose no well informed person would ever attempt to deny. You might as well attempt to deny that there was a Protestant Reformation in the days of Luther…’ (p.21)
2. Where the change didn’t come from Not the Government: ‘The government of the country can lay no claim to the credit of the change.’ Not the Church of England: ‘Nor…from the Church of England as a body. The leaders of that venerable communion were utterly unequal to the times. Left to herself, the Church of England would probably have died of dignity…’ Not the ‘Free’ churches: ‘Nor…from the Dissenters. Content with their hard-won triumphs, that worthy body of men seemed to rest upon their oars.’ (p.22)
3. The change came through Evangelists
‘The men who wrought deliverance for us…were a few individuals…whose hearts God touched about the same time in various parts of the country.
‘They were not wealthy or highly connected. They were simply men whom God stirred up and brought out to do His work.
‘They did His work in the old apostolic way, by becoming the evangelists of their day.’(p.22)
4. The demeanour of these Evangelists
Ryle writes, ‘They taught one set of truths. They taught them in the same way, with fire, reality, earnestness, as men fully convinced of what they taught.
‘They taught them in the same spirit, always loving, compassionate…even weeping, but always bold, unflinching and not fearing the face of man.
‘And they taught them on the same plan, always acting on the aggressive; not waiting for sinners to come to them, but going after, and seeking sinners; not sitting idle till sinners offered to repent, but assaulting the high places of ungodliness like men storming a breach…
‘The movement of these gallant evangelists shook England from one end to another.’ (p.23)
We’ll continue with Ryle’s observations next time…
All quotes from Christian Leaders Of The 18th Century by J. C. Ryle, Banner of Truth edition.
You can Purchase Ryle’s excellent book from the Banner of Truth website
I am reluctant to pull away from the 18th century! Much more can be said and I need to get on to William Carey and the explosion of missionary activity in the 19th century.
So perhaps you will forgive me for rounding up a few thoughts and insights from British Pastor and popular 19th century author, JC Ryle. These insights can speak to us today and stir us to pray and work for the good of those around us.
All quotes are from Ryle’s excellent book, Christian Leaders of the Eighteenth Century, originally published as ‘The Christian Leaders of the Last Century, or England a Hundred Years Ago’ (references are to the Banner of Truth edition of 1978).
1. The Christian Faith was not influential
‘Christianity seemed to lie as on dead…There was darkness in high places and darkness in low places…a gross, thick, religious and moral darkness – a darkness that might be felt.’ (p.14)
2. The Church was ineffective
Describing both the Anglican Churches and the Free Churches he writes, ‘They existed, but they could hardly be said to have lived. They did nothing; they were sound asleep.’
‘Cold morality, or barren orthodoxy, formed the staple teaching both in church and chapel. Sermons everywhere were little better than miserable moral essays, utterly devoid of anything likely to awaken, convert or save souls.’ (p.14)
3. Church Leaders were distracted
Speaking of the Anglican clergy, Ryle doesn’t hold back: ‘The vast majority of them were sunk in worldliness, and neither knew nor cared anything about their profession…They hunted, they shot, they farmed, they swore, they drank, they gambled. They seemed determined to know everything except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.’
‘And when they did preach, their sermons were so unspeakable and indescribably bad, that it is comforting to reflect they were generally preached to empty benches.’ (p.17)
4. The People were sceptical of true Christian faith
‘The land was deluged with infidelity and scepticism. The prince of this world made good use of his opportunity.’ (p.15)
‘It may suffice it to say that duelling, adultery, fornication, gambling, swearing, Sabbath-breaking and drunkenness were hardly regarded as vices at all. They were the fashionable practices of people in the highest ranks of society, and no one was thought the worse of for indulging them.’ (p.18)
We’ve been looking at George Whitefield’s efforts to bring the Christian message to 18th century America.
Preaching amongst the black population
In 18th century America, the African population were almost all slaves. That they were slaves in the first place is an outrage, but we’re told the white population looked upon African as inferior in every respect, not even having souls.
Although Whitefield is not guiltless in his view of the African slave trade, he rejected this completely and insisted on telling slaves that they were made in the image of God, and that they were so important to God that Christ died on the cross for them.
He had written to the whites, ‘Think you, your children are in any way better by nature [than black children]? No! In no wise! Blacks are just as much, and no more, conceived and born in sin as white men are, and both, I am persuaded, are naturally as capable of the same improvement.’[i]
Whitefield was committed to preaching that all are equal in the sight of God. This was offensive to many whites – but he insisted that all are made in the image of God. Many African slaves were converted to Christ and the earliest spiritual songs were heard amongst those to whom Whitefield had preached.
An African Tribute to George Whitefield
Whitefield was genuinely loved and appreciated by those who came to Christ through his preaching. Phillis Wheatley a former slave with a superb literary gift, wrote a poem of appreciation about Whitefield after his death.
Wheatley herself is a marvel of intellectual ability, having been in America only 9 years she had mastered the language superbly. Her brilliance is evident in many of her published poems. She was the first African American poet to be published in America. She later wrote a poem for George Washington. He was so impressed with her poetic skill he said it would be a privilege to meet her.
Of Whitefield’s preaching she writes,
‘Thou didst, in Strains of Eloquence refin’d,
Inflame the Soul and captivate the Mind.’
Of his praying she writes,
‘He pray’d that Grace in every Heart might dwell:
He long’d to see America excel;
He charg’d its Youth to let the Grace Divine
Arise, and in their future Actions shine.’
Using his style of preaching she exhorts her readers:
‘Take HIM, ye wretched, for your only Good;
Take HIM, ye starving Souls, to be your Food.
Ye Thirsty, come to this Life-giving Stream:
Ye Preachers, take him for your joyful Theme:
Take HIM, “my dear Americans,” he said;
Be your Complaints in his kind Bosom laid:
Take HIM, ye Africans, he longs for you;
Impartial SAVIOUR, is his Title due;
If you will choose to walk in Grace’s Road,
You shall be Sons, and Kings, and Priests to GOD.’
Whitefield’s contribution to the development of African American Christianity was imperfect, but it was significant.
Whitefield loved America, sought to build America, rebuke its wrongs and try and reach those it wronged, by proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ.
To read of Whitefield’s failure to oppose slavery click here To read of Wesley’s encouragement to Wilberforce to fight slavery click here
[i] Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, Vol 1, p.494
We saw earlier how John Lancaster, a prisoner condemned to death in Newgate prison, had come to faith in Christ.
Now we see him at his last moment and at his most triumphant. The year was 1748 and John Wesley recorded the events for future generations in his journals.
As Lancaster was led out of his cell, his confession was “Blessed be the day I came into this place! O what a glorious work hath the Lord carried on in my soul since I came hither!”
“O that I could tell the thousandth part of the joys I feel!”
Wesley adds, ‘Then he said to those near him, “O my dear friends, join in praise with me a sinner! O for a tongue to praise Him as I ought! My heart is like fire…I am ready to burst…O that I could tell the thousandth part of the joys I feel!”
‘One saying, “I am sorry to see you in that condition.” He answered, “I would not change it for ten thousands worlds.”
‘From the press-yard he was removed into a large room where he exhorted all the officers to repentance.
‘Thomas Atkins was brought in, whom he immediately asked, “How is it between God and your soul?” He answered, “Blessed be God, I am ready.”
“By one o’clock I will be in Paradise!”
An officer asked what time it was and Lancaster happily replied, “By one I shall be in Paradise, safely resting in Abraham’s bosom…I see [Jesus] by faith, standing at the right hand of God, with open arms to receive our souls.”
Another asked, “Which is Lancaster?” and he answered, “Here I am. Come see a Christian triumphing over death.”
‘A bystander said, “Be steadfast to the end.” He answered, “I am, by the grace of God, as steadfast as the rock I am built upon, and that rock is Christ.”
Why no-one should despair
‘Then he said to the people, “Cry to the Lord for mercy, and you will surely find it. I have found it; therefore none should despair. When I came first to this place, my heart was as hard as my cell walls, and as black as hell. But now I am washed, now I am made clean by the blood of Christ.”’
Speaking of the prayer time he had with other prisoners the night before he said, “I was as it were in heaven. O, if a foretaste be so sweet, what must the full enjoyment be?”
Wesley continues, ‘The people round, the mean time, were in tears; and the officers stood like men affrighted.’
Praying for the Nations and the Local Church
‘Then Lancaster exhorted one in doubt, never to rest till he had found rest in Christ. After this he broke out into strong prayer…that the true Gospel of Christ might spread to every corner of the habitable earth; that the [Methodist] congregation at the Foundery might abound more and more in the knowledge and love of God…’
‘When the officers told them it was time to go, [the converted prisoners] rose with inexpressible joy, and embraced each other…’
“I am going to Paradise today!”
‘Coming into the press yard, he saw Sarah Peters. He stepped to her, kissed her, and earnestly said, “I am going to Paradise today; and you will follow me soon.”
‘The crowd being great, they could not readily get through. So he had another opportunity of declaring the goodness of God [saying] “Rely on Him for mercy and you will surely find it.”
‘Turning to the spectators he said, “It is but a short time and we shall be where all sorrow and sighing flee away. Turn from the evil of your ways; and you also shall stand with the innumerable company on Mount Zion…See that you love Christ; and then you will come there too!”
‘All the people who saw them seemed to be amazed; but much more when they came to the place of execution. A solemn awe overwhelmed the whole multitude.
‘As soon as the executioner had done his part with Lancaster, and the two that were with him, he called for a hymn book, and gave out a hymn with a clear, strong voice.
‘Even,’ John Wesley adds, ‘a little circumstance that followed seems worth observing. His body was carried away by a company hired by the surgeons. But a crew of sailors pursued them, took it from them by force, and delivered it to his mother…
‘He died on Friday October 28 and was buried on Sunday the 30th.’ (All quotes from John Wesley’s Journal, Vol 2, p.123-125, Baker Edition)
The Problem of Praiseless Praise and Joyless Joy!
Most Christians are used to passion in their gathered church meetings. It would be strange, in a perfectly logical sense, to encounter strict formality, dull routine and lacklustre praise (how can you praise someone blandly, with praiseless praise, joyless joy?)
The Bible repeatedly exhorts us to praise God with joy filled hearts and even with shouts of joy!
The Sound Psalmists
David says, ‘I will praise you, O Lord, with all my heart’ (Ps 9:1) and the sons of Korah cry repeatedly, ‘Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises.’ (Ps 47:6)
You have to admit, you don’t need to go far in the Book of Psalms to realise these guys are exhorting the gathered community of God’s people to exuberant expressions of joy!
Again, Psalm 66:17 says ‘I cried out to him with my mouth; his praise was on my tongue.’ And there’s even a Biblical exhortation to clap our hands and shout – during a time of worship!! (see Psalm 47:1)
Anyhow, for the great Evangelistic preachers of the 18th Century, the noise didn’t usually come from meetings of believers.
Noise, sometimes overriding everything else, came from the mobs and crowds that were hired to disrupt their meetings, and who blew trumpets, banged on drums and threw copious amounts of dirt and stones.
The meetings were also disturbed by the loud cries and shrieks of those who were suddenly aware of their desperate need of God’s forgiveness, or who were being delivered from some form of bondage.
Non-Christians behaving, Christians raving!
However, when Wesley visited Gwennap in Cornwall (England) in 1747 he was surprised by a welcome reversal.
A very large crowd gathered to listen attentively to his preaching. Wesley writes, ‘About half an hour after five I began at Gwennap. I was afraid my voice would not suffice for such an immense multitude.
‘But my fear was groundless; as the evening was quite calm, and the people all attention.
‘It was more difficult to be heard in meeting the society, amidst the cries of those, on the one hand, who were pierced through as with a sword, and of those, on the other, who were filled with joy unspeakable.’ (from John Wesley’s Journal, Vol 2, p.62, Baker Edition)
May God give us such ‘revival’ scenes once more, with multitudes gathering to hear the good news of the grace of God in Christ, and church meetings filled with foretastes of heavenly glory.
This is getting silly!
Having failed to secure a hearing with a Judge in Wednesbury, the crowd decide to march Wesley to a Justice of the Peace in nearby Walsal.
It’s not clear exactly what they thought they would accomplish; possibly to have Wesley censured for disturbing the peace.
(Read the first part of the story here and follow the links)
As news was being delivered to them that the second judge was already in bed and not willing to see them, it happened!
Two Mobs attack each other!
Wesley writes, ‘About fifty of them undertook to convoy me. But we had not gone a hundred yards when the mob of Walsal came, pouring in like a flood, and bore down all before them.
‘The Darleston mob made what defence they could; but they were weary, as well as out-numbered, so that in a short time, many being knocked down, the rest ran away, and left me in their hands.
‘To attempt speaking was in vain, for the noise on every side was like the roaring of the sea.
Yanked by the hair
‘So they dragged me along till we came to the town where, seeing the door of a large house open, I attempted to go in; but a man catching me by the hair, pulled me back into the middle of the mob.
‘They made no more stop till they had carried me through the main street, from one end of the town to the other.
‘I continued speaking all the time to those within hearing, feeling no pain or weariness.
‘At the west end of the town, seeing a door half open, I made towards it and would have gone in, but a gentleman in the shop would not suffer me, saying they would pull the house down to the ground.
‘However, I stood at the door and asked, “Are you willing to hear me speak?” Many cried out, “No! No! Knock his brains out! Down with him! Kill him at once!”‘ (From John Wesley Journal, Vol 1, p.437-438, Baker Edition)
We’ll pick up the final installment in the story next time…
Late one evening, in Wednesbury, England, the famous Evangelist John Wesley found the house he was staying in surrounded by an angry mob. He called the ringleaders inside and spoke wisely to them.
(Read the first part of the story here, the second part here)
Sensing the crowd would be pacified, Wesley decided to go out to them but several still demanded he be taken to a local magistrate to be censured for disturbing the peace.
Wesley, being perhaps a little over-confident, agreed to go with them despite the relative lateness of the hour.
‘Let it Rain!’
A ridiculous, lumbering crowd of between two and three hundred pushed and shoved along for about a mile. Then, typical of June in England, the rain began to pour down. ‘Heavy rain’, says Wesley in his journal.
Finally, after a two mile rain-soaked walk, those running ahead arrived at the Wednesbury Magistrate’s house.
Not very surprisingly, he wasn’t keen to meet the unruly crowd and had a servant tell them he was in bed and they should take Wesley back into Wednesbury.
The charge against the Evangelicals
However, when the main bulk of the crowd got to the house they began banging on the door. This time, the bold Justice sent his son to the door. He asked for information on what Wesley and his colleagues had actually done wrong.
The answer was this: ‘Why, an’t please you, they sing psalms all day. Nay, and make folks rise at five in the morning.’
After a brief pause the Magistrate’s doorstep verdict was delivered: “Go home and be quiet!”
Unfortunately, one bright spark suggested that they try another Magistrate in the nearby town of Walsal. And that’s when the real trouble began…
John Wesley, making an entry in his journal for 20th June 1743, wrote,
‘Before five the mob surrounded the house again, in greater numbers than ever. The cry of one and all was, “Bring out the Minister! We will have the Minister!”
‘I desired one to take their captain by the hand and bring him into the house.
The ring leaders calm down once they meet John Wesley personally
‘After a few sentences interchanged between us the lion was become a lamb.
‘I desired him to go and bring one or two more of the most angry of his companions.
‘He brought in two, who were ready to swallow the ground with rage; but in two minutes they were as calm as he.
Wesley decides to go out and address the angry crowd
‘I then bade them make way that I might go out among the people.
‘As soon as I was in the midst of them I called for a chair; and, standing up, asked, “What do any of you want with me?” Some said, “We want you to go with us to the Justice.”
‘I replied, “That I will, with all my heart.”
Wesley senses an evangelistic opportunity!
‘I then spoke a few words, which God applied; so that they cried out with might and main, “This gentleman is an honest gentleman, and we will spill our blood in his defence.”
‘I asked, “Shall we go to the Justice tonight or in the morning?”
‘Most of them cried, “Tonight, tonight!”
A crowd of more than 200 people decide to walk Wesley to the Magistrate’s house!
‘[Hearing this] I went before [them] and two or three hundred followed, the rest returning whence they came.’
Wesley’s most frightening night was only just beginning. Although he thought he had steered the situation to a peaceful outcome, the decision to search for a Magistrate would prove to be a decision that Wesley and most of the crowd were later to regret.
What happened next is probably not what you think…
(All quotes from John Wesley’s Journal, Vol 1, p.436-7, Baker Edition)
Persistence in the midst of Persecution
In their mission to bring the Christian message to every town and village in Great Britain, the 18th century Methodist preachers travelled extensively.
They would arrive at a place, attempt to preach in one of the churches or, failing that, in a market place or at a fair.
Their style was engaging and they spoke with authority and grace. Wesley described their work as ‘offering pardon to sinners’.
But they didn’t always receive a warm welcome. While many thousands gathered to hear the message, some reacted negatively. Sometimes fuelled by jealous clergy, or fearful ‘Gentlemen’, and sometimes by a basic reaction of anger, the preachers faced violence fairly regularly. This was a different type of spiritual warfare.
John Wesley in Wednesbury, West Midlands
One famous incident in the life of John Wesley took place in October, 1743.
He writes, ‘Thursday 20th Oct, 1743 – ‘I rode to Wednesbury.
At twelve I preached in a ground near the middle of the town, to a far larger congregation than was expected, on, ‘Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever.’
‘I believe everyone present felt the power of God…and we held our peace.
An afternoon’s writing interrupted
‘I was writing at Francis Ward’s in the afternoon, when the cry arose, that the mob had beset the house.
‘We prayed that God would disperse them; and it was so. One went this way, and another that; so that in half an hour not a man was left.’
Wesley felt it would be sensible to leave, before there was any more trouble. But his hosts, understandably thrilled to have the great John Wesley staying in their house, urged him to stay on.
Not wanting to offend them, he conceded. But the few troublemakers who had drifted off before weren’t finished, and a larger number soon returned.
‘Before five the mob surrounded the house again, in greater numbers than ever. The cry of one and all was, ‘Bring out the Minister! We will have the Minister!’
(All quotes from John Wesley’s Journals, Vol 1, Baker Edition, p.436)
God gives us encouragements in the midst of difficulties. And each encouragement is deeply appreciated. Your leadership challenge may be tough for reasons that are entirely outside yourself.
It’s great to hear news of numerical breakthroughs and blessing in other places. We’re often helpfully stirred to pray and believe for greater breakthrough in our own towns.
But faithfulness to God’s call, with a heart toward God and a helping hand toward man, can sow spiritual seed that will produce fruit not only in our generation but also in the one to come.
After preaching each day for a week in his home-town of Epworth (Lincolnshire, England), John Wesley describes the huge crowd who heard him and reflects on the faithful labours of his father, Samuel Wesley, who was a minister in that town.
Wesley preaches to ‘a vast multitude’
He writes, ‘At six I preached for the last time in Epworth church-yard [he had been preaching on his father’s grave stone, after being denied the use of the church pulpit] to a vast multitude gathered together from all parts…
‘I continued among them for near three hours; and yet we scarce knew how to part.
‘O let none think his labour of love is lost because the fruit does not immediately appear!
‘Near forty years did my father labour here; but he saw little fruit of all his labour…but now the fruit appeared.
‘There were scarce any in the town on whom either my father or I had taken any pains formerly, but the seed, sown so long since, now sprung up, bringing forth repentance and remission of sins.’ (John Wesley’s Journals, Vol 1, Baker edition, p.379-380)
Galatians 6:9 says, ‘Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.’
1 Corinthians 15:58 says, ‘Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.’
Be encouraged as you seek to share the gospel of grace in your community – and remember Epworth and how years of sowing did eventually produce a massive harvest!
On Sunday June 6th 1742 John Wesley, the English Evangelist re-visited his home town, Epworth in Lincolnshire.
This was the town of his birth and his father had been the Pastor of the St. Andrew’s Anglican Church there. The Wesley children had been raised there.
Prior to the Sunday service beginning Wesley offered to assist the Curate with the service, either by preaching or ‘reading prayers’ (from the Book of Common Prayer, then used by Anglicans).
The curate wasn’t keen, and we pick up the story from Wesley’s Journal:
‘He did not care to accept my assistance. The church was exceeding full in the afternoon, a rumour being spread that I was to preach.
‘But the sermon on ‘Quench not the Spirit’ was not suitable to the expectation of many of the hearers. Mr. Romney told them one of the most dangerous ways of quenching the Spirit was by enthusiasm; and enlarged on the character of an enthusiast…’
It’s quite likely that John Wesley, his friends and many of the people could clearly understand that the dodgy ‘character’ being described was Wesley himself!
‘Mr. Wesley will preach in the graveyard!’
Wesley continues, ‘After sermon, John Taylor stood in the church-yard, and gave notice, as the people were coming out, ‘Mr. Wesley, not being permitted to preach in the church, designs to preach here at six o’clock.’
‘Accordingly at six I came, and found such a congregation as I believe Epworth never saw before.
‘I stood near the east end of the church, upon my father’s tomb stone and cried, ‘The kingdom of heaven is not meat and drink, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.’
We might expect that many left the Church of England because of the combination of the Curate’s and Wesley’s behaviour. And they did. But Wesley remained a loyal Anglican to the very end, urging new converts to attend the very churches that were teaching against the evangelical movement and preaching specifically against him and Whitefield.
In fact, because some who had left what they considered an unbelieving church were urging others to leave, Wesley, the very same day he had defied the Curate, decided to stay in Epworth and plead with several to remain within the Church of England.
It was a religious loyalty and tension that he struggled with all through his life.
While he was in Epworth he preached every evening of that week from his father’s grave to great crowds who continued to hear him. (all quotes from John Wesley’s Journal, Baker edition, Vol 1, p.377)
It was only near the end that he finally faced the inevitable and laid hands on the first apostolic delegate to America, Thomas Coke. Coke, in turn, had authority to appoint other leaders over the Methodist work in America.
So the Methodist movement, finally freed from its traditional English roots, became established in its own right and for many years became a mighty mouthpiece for evangelical Christianity around the world.
Charles Wesley is mainly remembered for his excellent poetic gift. This gift, thoroughly saturated in Scripture, produced some of the church’s best-loved hymns.
If you are in an English speaking church context it is quite likely that you recognize these well known opening lines from Charles Wesley hymns:
Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down;
Fix in us thy humble dwelling;
All thy faithful mercies crown!
Jesus, Thou art all compassion,
Pure unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation;
Enter every trembling heart.
And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Saviour’s blood?
O for a thousand tongues to sing
My great Redeemer’s praise,
The glories of my God and King,
The triumphs of His grace!
Actually, it’s difficult not to just go ahead and include whole hymns for the pure pleasure of enjoying them.
A Passionate Evangelistic Preacher
But my point is that Charles Wesley was not only a hymn-writer but also a passionate evangelistic preacher.
Some excerpts from his journal of 1741 will give us a flavour of the kind of passion he employed in his efforts to bring men and women to Christ.
‘April 13th. While I was in great love…the Spirit of power came down, the fountain was set open, my mouth and heart enlarged, and I spoke such words as I cannot repeat. Many sunk under the love of Christ crucified…’
‘April 22nd. I sharply reproved three or four inflexible Pharisees; then prayed the Lord to give me words of consolation, and immediately I was filled with power, which broke out as a mighty torrent.
‘All our hearts caught fire in a moment, and such tears and strong cryings followed, as quite drowned my voice…’
‘Sun May 3rd. At Kingswood [Bristol] as soon as I had named my text, ‘It is finished!’ the love of Christ crucified so constrained me that I burst into tears, and felt strong sympathy with him in his sufferings. In like manner, the whole congregation looked upon him whom they had pierced, and mourned.’
His preaching was effective and many were converted. One particular Kingswood resident wasn’t happy though. Charles wrote:
‘May 5th. A wild collier [coal miner] brought me four of his children…crying, ‘You have got the mother, take the bairns [the kids] too!’
(All quotes from Arnold Dallimore, Charles Wesley, A Heart Set Free, Crossway Books, p.107)
An Inspiring combination of the Poet and the Evangelist
Charles Wesley was an Evangelist, and an effective one at that. We’ll return to his heroic story later, but for now, let’s not forget that many of his hymns were written in the very context of urging his generation to come to Christ.
His hymn ‘Lovers of Pleasure’ provides us with an excellent example of the combination of his poetic and evangelistic gift. Enjoy!
‘Lovers of pleasure more than God,
For you He suffered pain;
Swearers, for you He spilt his blood;
And shall He bleed in vain?
Misers, for you his life He paid,
Your basest crime He bore:
Drunkards, your sins on Him were laid,
That you might sin no more.
The God of love, to earth He came,
That you might come to heaven;
Believe, believe in Jesus’ Name,
And all your sin’s forgiven.
Believe in Him that died for thee,
And, sure as He hath died,
Thy debt is paid, Thy soul is free,
And thou art justified.’
How do you respond when you hear that a Christian missionary is in trouble for distributing Christian literature, or for some other attempt to communicate the Christian faith?
Maybe your first response is to assume that the believer lacked wisdom. You may be right, of course. Christians can get carried away as they try and verbalise how wonderful they think Jesus Christ is. Each incident needs to be assessed separately.
But on the other hand, we’ve got to a slightly strange place when our assumption is that a follower of Christ trying to share their faith is automatically over-zealous or unwise.
Don’t misunderstand me: the Christian needs to communicate his faith with respect, wisdom and grace, with an ability to listen to others’ objections and beliefs. (see Col 4:4-6)
But the idea that a negative response to an honest attempt at presenting the gospel is always a correction, or, worse, a sign of God’s disapproval, merely reveals our evangelistic immaturity. Jesus made it clear that there would be times when the message would be rejected. Even He was rejected (see John 15:20-21).
And it’s difficult to think of how the Christian Faith advanced from its earliest days apart from believers courageously communicating the gospel to those who didn’t respect the Christian ideals of tolerance and debate.
Another thought before we re-join the 18th century battlefield: put yourself in the position of the hapless ‘missionary’ who is in jail for trying to share the Christian faith. It’s quite likely that you would be your own harshest critic as you retrace the decisions or statements that got you into trouble. My guess is that you’d want folk to pray for you.
The First Methodist Martyr
In October 1740,William Seward and Howell Harris were out again preaching the gospel in Wales. This time, they visited Hay-on-Wye.
Suddenly, someone from the crowd took aim and Seward was hit with a large stone and lay unconscious on the ground.
Dallimore writes, ‘he was carried from the scene unconscious. For a few days he hovered between life and death, but sank steadily lower till on October 22, 1740, his spirit passed away.’ (Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield, Vol 1, Banner of Truth, p.584)
Seward’s death, at age 38, was a blow to the young movement. But it did not stop their passionate preaching. Undeterred, they continued to present the gospel to the masses in Britain.
It was a personal blow to Whitefield, both in terms of friendship and financial support. Seward was helping fund Whitefield’s Orphan House in Georgia and Whitefield now carried that financial burden alone. Tragically, Seward had not made a will (ibid, p.585)
Trusting in God’s Sovereignty
John Wesley wrote in his journal for Mon Oct 27th, ‘The surprising news of poor Mr Seward’s death was confirmed. Surely God will maintain his own cause! Righteous art thou O Lord!’
William Seward was a wealthy supporter of the work that George Whitefield and Howell Harris were doing.
He also helped John Wesley with generous funding for the meeting place in Bristol, even though Wesley was assuming a leadership role there that Seward felt excluded Whitefield (See here for how Whitefield began the work in Bristol).
Seward had accompanied these preachers and witnessed both the joys and dangers of massive crowds.
In 1740 he travelled with Howell Harris in Wales and records several occasions when the crowds became violent.
Seward with Howell Harris
On Sept 9 he wrote, ‘We had been singing and praying and discoursing for half an hour when the mob began to be outrageous, and to pelt us…till at length I was struck with a stone upon my eye, which caused me so much anguish that I was forced to go away to the Inn.
‘Bro. Harris continued to discourse for some time afterward…I got my eye dressed and went to bed as soon as possible.
The next morning they went out again, preaching in the same place to the same crowds.
Stones, dirt, a cat and a dead dog
Seward writes, ‘We had continual showers of stones, walnuts, dirt, a cat and also a dead dog thrown at us…
‘I was struck on my forehead and under my right eye again, and also on my side with a stone.
‘A drum was ordered to be beat, which drowned [our] voices…the Book [the Bible] was all covered with dirt.
‘After Bro. Harris had done, I spoke a few words, but I found my call was more to suffer than to preach.’ (from William Seward, ‘Journal of a Voyage from Savannah to Philadelphia and from Philadelphia to England’ p.27)
Perhaps he should have backed down. Perhaps he should have let others do the preaching. Perhaps…
Seward would accompany Harris again in October, 1740 as Harris preached powerfully to hostile crowds. It would be the last time Seward would share in the struggle to bring Britain to Christ.