They left. William and Catherine Booth had endured enough shenanigans at the hands of jealous and controlling leaders. They felt they had to get out.
So in 1861 they stepped into the unknown. William was sure of one thing – that he must preach the gospel in England.
He didn’t wait long. A friend within the Methodist New Connexion invited him to conduct a series of evangelistic meetings in the South West. So William and Catherine left their temporary digs in Brixton and travelled, at their own expense, to Cornwall.
The ‘Penitent Form’ There was controversy surrounding his decision to call those who were responding to the gospel to the front of the meeting hall.
Those in need were identifying themselves publicly. This appeared to be the only response option he offered and didn’t seem to respect peoples’ privacy.
Booth called for a ‘right now’ kind of response, which to some seemed rough and sudden. Surely people needed time to think over these things.
But he was adamant that his method was useful in both identifying those whom his message had impacted and helping the respondent understand their both their need and ability to respond.
This whole process he called the ‘penitent form’. That’s an almost incomprehensible term now, but basically it followed a school-room idea of forms (classes/years) sitting on certain benches in rows. The ‘penitent form’, then, was a vacant bench at the front of the meeting where those who wanted to repent of their sins and turn to Christ could identify themselves and receive prayer.
This method of publicly calling for a response to the evangelistic message was already popular amongst Methodists in both England and America, and was adopted by the American preacher Charles Finney.
‘The people crowded around’ The key issue for us, however, is not really the method but the gospel that produced such an amazing response. Booth writes of one meeting,
‘We had the greatest difficulty to clear sufficient space for a penitent-form, and when we had, the people crowded up and around, and the prayers of those in distress, the shouts of those who had obtained deliverance, and the sympathetic exhortations and exultations and congratulations of those who stood round, all united made the most confounding medley I ever listened to. Again and again I endeavoured to secure order, but it was of no avail, and at length I concluded to let it go for the evening, doing as well as we could.’[i]
The invitations for Booth to preach began to come in quickly and soon more and more chapels were hosting evangelistic meetings where similar scenes were taking place.
In fact, Booth soon found himself in the midst of a hugely successful work. Why then, did he suddenly, in the midst of success, find himself depressed and in difficulties, and hungry for more?
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
When the Methodists of the late 18th Century began inviting those seeking conversion to come forward at the end of church services the practice became commonplace.
The Methodist evangelist Peter Cartwright records how the preachers planned such meetings. If they were able to discern the Spirit of God moving in significant power they should call for people to give their lives to Christ and invite them to take a seat at the front.[i]
‘Striking fire!’ Cartwright records that one of the preachers said to him, ‘If I strike fire, I will immediately call for mourners, and you must go into the assembly and exhort in every direction, and I will manage the altar. But if I fail to strike fire, you must preach; and if you strike fire, [you] call the mourners and manage the altar. I will go through the congregation and exhort with all the power God gives me.’[ii]
Soon, large numbers were responding to the invitation and the Methodists, after counseling those who responded, were recording these numbers as hopeful conversions.
Understandably, even those who did not share the Arminian theology of some of the Methodists, began to see how an evangelistic appeal could help clarify a person’s response to the gospel and the practice began to spread.
A popular way of responding to the gospel It became such a feature of the growing revival (often referred to as the Second Great Awakening) that preachers found it happening even without their encouragement.
A Baptist preacher, Wilson Thompson, describes what happened at an open air meeting in Kentucky in December 1812:
‘I took for a text the saying of Paul: For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ…At the close of this discourse the large congregation seemed deeply affected.
I cast my eyes over them, and the general appearance was a solemn stillness, as though some unseen power was hovering over them. Every eye was set on me, and I felt must with astonishment, and stood silent for some minutes.
I believe there was not a motion nor a sound during the time until, simultaneously, some twenty or more persons arose from their seats and came forward.’[iii]
But, as we’ll see in the next post, it was Charles Finney who, arguably being the most effective Evangelist of this period, became the preacher who popularized the practice more than any other.
In terms of a qualified defence of the practice, I have written on this subject elsewhere. I certainly acknowledge the danger of presumption and of giving a false impression as to the nature of the spiritual work done in a person who has responded to the gospel message by ‘going forward’
It is often asserted that Charles Finney is the dastardly inventor of this religious device, which has had both the staunchly Reformed and the weak-of-faith irritated by its popularity and reluctant to employ it at the end of their messages.
That Finney is the originator of this overwhelmingly popular form of response is apparently enough for some Reformed pastors to reject it outright. Tut tut.
But author Iain Murray, a friend of Dr Lloyd-Jones and a keen historian of revival, has unintentionally come to Finney’s rescue.
Revival and Results In Revival and Revivalism, Murray discusses the dangers of emotionalism. Strange things happen in genuine revivals: people fall down, overcome with the power of the Holy Spirit.
But, when such things take place, there begins a dynamic in which such outward displays of religious excitement can become indicators of success, and preachers eager to see a response to their preaching, or, worse, driven by an ambition to be known as powerful, can fall into the trap of encouraging such responses.
These elements, he argues, were fully at work during the Kentucky Camp Meetings in the early 19th Century, noting menacingly that some ‘went the full distance into delusion’. Nevertheless he credits the Kentucky revival and the Second Great Awakening in America generally as ‘giving men the Bible as their guide instead of the goddess Reason whose reign had begun in France.’
The old Calvinism under threat In the context of these developments he raises the problem of Calvinism’s loosening hold on the prevailing theology of evangelicals. Although the late 18th century revivals had begun primarily amongst Calvinists, new opinions were gaining ground. The first American Methodist magazine was bullishly titled ‘The Arminian Magazine’.
The opinion of those Methodists who were vigourously engaged in the work of evangelisation was that the Calvinists had a tendency to slow things down and get in the way.
If the revival in Kentucky had given a boost to the Christian cause generally it was at the expense of the old Reformed doctrinal unity.
Here Murray charges the Methodists with being ‘overbalanced on an experience-centred Christianity, and too ready to exalt zeal above knowledge.’
Mass Evangelism, Organized Campaigns, Lots of Singing, Presumption
Thus several regrettable outcomes: ‘the Methodists…came to believe that the organization of mass meetings was a very effective part of evangelism. Emotion engendered by numbers and mass singing, repeated over several days, was conducive to securing a response. Results could thus be multiplied, even guaranteed.’
The Calvinists, by contrast, according to Murray, ‘using their Bibles rather than any knowledge of psychology, saw from the New Testament that no technique could produce conversions.’
That the Methodists were then doing what Whitefield had done a generation before (organize mass meetings), and what all believers shall do one day (ie, sing songs of worship to Jesus Christ in a massive, massive crowd cf Rev 7:9-10) is of little consequence to Murray: he is setting the stage for the still irritatingly prevalent ‘altar call’.
How do you know what’s happening? At first it was difficult to tell who was being actually converted. Should they count the ones who fell down as converted? Obviously not. Murray omits the fact that even Whitefield tended to consider the general weeping of one of the mass congregations as a good indicator, even explicitly mentioning the broken emotional responses of Bristol miners as a sign of their repentance.
The whole connection between Kentucky emotionalism and the evangelistic appeal is tenuous anyhow as no ‘altar calls’ happened there anyway.
The first modern appeals Nevertheless here it is: Murray has pinpointed what may well be the first instance of the evangelistic appeal (and it wasn’t Finney): ‘Before the end of the eighteenth century, in some congregations of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the innovation had been introduced of inviting ‘mourners’ to come to the front, metaphorically, ‘to the altar’.
‘Jesse Lee recorded in his journal for 31 October 1798: ‘At Paup’s Meeting House Mr Asbury preached on Eph 5:25, 26, 27…I exhorted, and the power of the Lord was among us…John Easter proclaimed aloud, “I have not a doubt but God will convert a soul today”. The preachers then requested all that were under conviction to come together. Several men and women came and fell upon their knees, and the preachers for some time kept singing and exhorting the mourners…two or three found peace.’’
Murray gives a further example: ‘In 1801 another Methodist in Delaware reported: ‘After prayer I called upon the persons in distress to come forward and look to the Lord to convert their souls. Numbers came forward.’’
As a Christian who joyfully embraces Reformed theology I struggle to see the problem with that example.
What do you think?
More next time…
For the first part in the Charles Finney Story click here
 NB. In the US the appeal is still referred to by the archaic sounding term ‘altar call’. The term ‘evangelistic appeal’ also has problems, of course, considering that the actual appeal is contained in the message itself.
 ‘The phenomenon of hearers falling prostrate during a service or crying out in anguish is nor uncommon at the outset of revivals.’ Revival and Revivalism, Iain Murray, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth 1994) p.163
 He says later, ‘There were no ‘altar calls’ in the early great communion services and camp meetings in the Kentucky revival but, with the impetus that high emotion imparted to the immediate and the visible, it was a short step to its introduction by the Methodists.’ P. 186 Thus he reveals the weakness of his historical argument.
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.
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
When the precocious legal apprentice Charles Finney was converted to Christianity in 1821 it was the fulfilment of a fairly rigourous intellectual inquiry. He was, therefore, surprised by the depth of emotion he experienced in its aftermath.
The initial feeling was one of a deep and steady peace. ‘The repose of my mind was unspeakably great…The thought of God was sweet to my mind, and the most profound spiritual tranquillity had taken full possession of me.’[i]
After returning from the woods, where he had finally surrendered his life to Christ, he went to the law office which was empty and began playing his Bass Viol. ‘But as soon as I began to play and sing those sacred words, I began to weep. It seemed as if my heart was all liquid…I wondered at this and tried to suppress my tears, but could not.
I wondered what ailed me that I felt such a disposition to weep. After trying in vain to suppress my tears, I put up my instrument and stopped singing.’[ii]
Soon Finney’s boss arrived and they spent the afternoon moving books into another office.
‘After dinner we were engaged in removing our books and furniture to another office. We were very busy in this, and had but little conversation all the afternoon. There was a great sweetness and tenderness in my thoughts and feelings. Everything appeared to be going right, and nothing seemed to ruffle or disturb me in the least.
A desire to pray
Just before evening the thought took possession of my mind, that as soon as I was left alone in the new office, I would try to pray again…
Just at evening we got the books and furniture adjusted; and I made up, in an open fireplace, a good large fire, hoping to spend the evening alone. Just as it was dark Esq. Wright, seeing that everything was adjusted, bade me goodnight and went home.
I had accompanied him to the door; and as I closed the door and turned around, my heart seemed to be liquid within me. All my inward feelings seemed to rise and pour themselves out; and the impression on my mind was, “I want to pour my whole soul out to God.”
The rising of my soul was so great that I rushed into the room behind the front office, to pray. There was no fire, and no light, in the room; nevertheless it appeared to me as if it were perfectly light.
Meeting Jesus, face to face
As I went in and shut the door after me, it seemed as if I met the Lord Jesus Christ face to face. It did not occur to me then, nor did it for sometime afterward, that it was wholly a mental state.
On the contrary it seemed to me that I met Him face to face, and saw him as I would see any other man. He said nothing, but looked at me in such a manner as to break me right down at his feet.
I have always since regarded this as a most remarkable state of mind; for it seemed that he stood before me, and I fell down at his feet and poured out my soul to him. I wept aloud like a child, and made such confessions as I could with my choked utterance…
I must have continued in this state for a good while; but my mind was too much absorbed with the interview to recollect scarcely anything that I said.
But I know, as soon as my mind became calm enough to break off from the interview, I returned to the front office, and found that the fire that I had just made of large wood was nearly burned out.
The Holy Spirit descended upon me
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.’[iii]
Next time we’ll examine Finney’s detailed description of God’s power ‘pouring’ into him. You can read it here
For the first instalment of the Finney Story click here
What has continually struck me about Martyn Lloyd-Jones, since first discovering him in the 80s, is the note of authority in his preaching. Not fundamentalism. Not arrogance. Not self-promoting bravado. Not self-centred supernatural experience. Authority – and particularly the authority of the Biblical text itself.
He spoke with such conviction in his generation, that, even allowing for some areas of disagreement, his message still strikes a clear note, and pierces the conscience today!
I find his preaching encouraging and uplifting, and inclusive:
‘It seems to me that the great trouble in the church today is that she’s not reaching the working classes. The majority of the members of our church were working class men.’ D Martyn Lloyd-Jones on his ministry years in Aberavon, Wales (from one of the interviews on this video).
David Martyn Lloyd-Jones was loved by rich and poor, and acknowledged as making a significant contribution to the spiritual life of Great Britain.
So the message this month is not really a message, but some video footage which traces his early ministry and introduction to London, interspersed with some television footage (you can spot a young Joan Bakewell in the mix too!)
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
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.
“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
The search for genuine joy in the battle of life is a search that concerns every person.
The soul’s thirst for satisfaction drives men and women, Christian and non-Christian, to try a myriad of promises – and often leaves them feeling empty, short-changed, duped.
In this compelling message, John Piper argues that the chief aim of the Christian leader is to make joy the ultimate aim of each person – by pointing them to the only ultimately satisfying source of joy: Jesus Christ.
Joy in Christ is the goal of the Christian life – Joy, Piper asserts, is not just the icing on the cake, it is the cake!!
The link below is to a video, but if you don’t have access to fast internet (as most people don’t yet), then there is a link on the page to an mp3 version of the message.
In the 19th Century – the explosion of the message to nations beyond Europe, with thousands leaving Europe to take the gospel to those who have never heard it. ‘Go into all the world!’
In other words there was a rediscovery of the Bible as the authoritative guide for a relationship to God and each other, a thorough attempt to apply it pastorally, and then a Spirit empowered evangelistic proclamation of the gospel, first in Europe and America and then to the ends of the earth.
This progression gives us a general but helpful guide to place movements and leaders in their historical context. Of course, if you read previous posts, you’ll know that all of these various emphases have been happening all through church history, and with mighty demonstrations of the Spirit’s power, but it is not altogether inaccurate when considering Christianity in the 19th Century to speak of ‘the missionary movement’ or even ‘the missionary century’ as some do.
Nor is it altogether inaccurate to refer to one particular pioneer as ‘the father of modern missions’ as we turn our consideration to one of the most inspiring figures in church history, William Carey.
To read the next part of the William Carey Story click here
(Part Two of ‘Truths that Changed a Nation’)
JC Ryle, the Bishop of Liverpool in 19th century England was eager to see a revival of authentic Christianity in his own generation.
In the previous century England had witnessed such remarkable outpourings of the Holy Spirit and huge numbers of conversions. Ryle was hungry for a further move of God.
So he began looking back in order to gain insight about how to proceed. In the last post we saw the first three essential truths that the great Methodist leaders, Whitefield, Wesley and others, proclaimed. These were the authority of the Bible, the sinfulness of mankind and the necessity of Christ’s death on the cross for our salvation.
In this post we’ll look at the other essentials that Ryle believed led to such radical cultural transformation in 18th century England.
1. Justification by Faith
The 18th century Evangelists ‘told men that faith was the one thing needful…that the moment we do believe, we live and [can obtain] all Christ’s benefits.’
The Evangelists rejected the idea that merely being a member of a church meant you were somehow right with God.
Ryle says, ‘Everything – if you will believe, and the moment you believe; nothing – if you do not believe, was the very marrow of their preaching.’ (p.27)
2. ‘You Must be Born Again’
It’s not uncommon to meet people who believe that the emphasis on being ‘born again’ was somehow a 1970’s American religious phenomena.
But actually, as Ryle demonstrates, the preachers of the 1700’s emphasised this constantly. Of course, both the term ‘born again’ and the necessity to preach the new birth goes right back to Jesus Himself (see John chapter 3).
Ryle emphasises ‘heart conversion and a new creation by the Holy Spirit.’
‘They proclaimed everywhere to the crowds whom they addressed, ‘Ye must be born again.’
And this new birth which they so constantly asserted ‘was something that could be seen, discerned and known by its effects.’ (p.28)
3. A Changed Life
Ryle says that the 18th century leaders of the Great Awakening taught ‘the inseparable connection between true faith and personal holiness.’ (p.28)
They were not inclined to consider anyone a true convert unless there was a definite change in lifestyle. Merely saying you were saved but not changing your lifestyle choices would cause the leaders to question the reality of your faith. If there was no evidence of the ‘fruit of repentance’ then they did not consider that a person had received true saving grace.
4. God is both a God of Wrath and Love
This is without doubt a clear feature of Christian preaching throughout church history.
‘They knew nothing’, asserts Ryle, of ‘a heaven where holy and unholy…all find admission.’ They didn’t preach that everyone goes to heaven in the end.
‘Both about Heaven and Hell they used the utmost plainness of speech.
‘They never shrunk from declaring, in plainest terms, the certainty of God’s judgement and of wrath to come, if men persisted in impenitence and unbelief.
‘Yet, they never ceased to magnify the riches of God’s kindness and compassion, and to entreat all sinners to repent and turn to God before it was too late.’ (p.28)
These were the teachings of the great Evangelists: The trustworthiness of the Bible, the sinfulness of the human race, Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross, that we are justified not by works but by faith in Christ, and that a heart work – being born again – is absolutely necessary for salvation. This ‘heart change’ is a real change that affects every area of life. And that finally, God is a just Judge and a loving Father who is calling all people to come to Him for forgiveness.
Let us give good Bishop Ryle the last word:
‘These were the doctrines by which they turned England upside down, made ploughmen and colliers weep till their dirty faces were seamed with tears, arrested the attention of peers and philosophers, stormed the strongholds of Satan, plucked thousands like brands from the burning, and altered the character of the age…
‘The fact is undeniable: God blessed these truths…and what God has blessed it ill becomes man to despise.’ (p.28-29)
We’ve been enjoying JC Ryle’s insights into the preaching that shook England in the 18th century, and which led to many thousands coming to Christ.
In this post we’ll look at the content of the messages that were given. In outlining these for us, Ryle is obviously suggesting that there was a need, in his own day, for a revival of such preaching.
It may be that in quaint 19th century England the ministers and evangelists had softened their message, taken the edges off, in order not to offend those outside the churches.
If we really believe that the message should stay the same, even though we should package it appropriate to the context, then it is surely helpful to hear good old Bishop Ryle’s warnings and exhortations.
Ryle gives seven essential truths that the Methodist preachers all agreed on and asserted to their hearers. We’ll look at the first three in this post.
1. The Authority of the Bible
Ryle says that they ‘taught constantly the sufficiency and supremacy of Holy Scripture.’
‘They knew nothing of any part of Scripture being uninspired.
‘They never flinched from asserting that there can be no error in the Word of God.
‘To that one book they were content to pin their faith, and by it to stand or fall. This was one grand characteristic of their preaching.’ (p.26)
2. The Sinfulness of Man
‘They taught constantly the total corruption of human nature.
‘They never flattered men and women…They told them plainly that they were dead, and must be made alive again…
‘Strange and paradoxical as it may seem to some, their first step towards making men good was to show them that they were utterly bad; and their primary argument in persuading men to do something for their souls was to convince them that they could do nothing at all.’ (p.26-27)
3. The Necessity of Christ’s Death
Ryle says that the Methodist preachers of the 18th century ‘taught constantly that Christ’s death upon the cross was the only satisfaction for man’s sin; and that, when Christ died, he died as our substitute – ‘the just for the unjust’.
‘This, in fact, was the cardinal point in almost all their sermons.
‘They never taught the modern doctrine that Christ’s death was only a great example of self-sacrifice.
‘They saw in it the payment of man’s mighty debt to God.
‘They loved Christ’s person they rejoiced in Christ’s promises; they urged men to walk after Christ’s example. But the one subject above all others, concerning Christ, which they delighted to dwell on, was the atoning blood which Christ shed for us on the cross.’ (p.27)
It would probably be a good exercise for every preacher who is attempting to present the Christian message to their culture to review these points (and the three to follow) and see if any adjustment ought to be made in the content, if not the style, of their messages.
We’re busy enjoying JC Ryle’s description of the preaching of the Evangelists whom God used to change the culture of 18th century England. (This is Part Four of a short series on Ryle. See Part One, Two and Three)
Having emphasised that it was specifically preaching that was used by God, he describes the type of messages the Evangelists preached.
1. They preached attractive, accessible messages
‘They used illustrations and anecdotes in abundance, and like their divine Master, borrowed lessons from every object in nature.
‘They revived the style of sermons in which Luther and Latimer used to be so eminently successful.’ Ryle then applies a saying of Luther to the 18th century Evangelists: ‘No one can be a good preacher to the people who is not willing to preach in a manner that seems childish and vulgar to some.’ (p.25)
2. They preached fervently and directly
‘They cast aside that dull, cold, heavy, lifeless mode of delivery which had long made sermons a very proverb for dullness.
‘They proclaimed the words of faith, and the story of life with life!
‘They spoke with fiery zeal, like men who were thoroughly persuaded that what they said was true, and that it was of the upmost importance to your eternal interest to hear it.
‘They spoke like men who had got a message from God to you, and must deliver it, and must have your attention while they delivered it.
‘They threw heart and soul and feeling into their sermons and sent their hearers home convinced, at any rate, that the preacher was sincere and wished them well.
‘They believed that you must speak from the heart if you wish to speak to the heart.’ (p.25)
3. Their sermons were full of Biblical content
‘I would have it understood that it was eminently doctrinal, positive, dogmatical and distinct.
‘The trumpets which blew down the walls of Jericho were trumpets which gave no uncertain sound.
‘The English evangelists of last century were not men of an uncertain creed…’ (p.25)
Next time we’ll look at the main points the Evangelists’ preached, and which had such a transforming impact on their culture.
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
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
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)
The Origins of Dancing in Church!
It may be unrealistic to try and specify a moment when dancing in church meetings became popular.
But the specific reason for such exuberant joy is obvious to all who know the power of the gospel.
This was highlighted with characteristic insight by CH Spurgeon who noted that Isaiah 35:6 states that the mute man doesn’t merely talk but ‘shouts’ and the lame man doesn’t merely walk but ‘leaps’, when the power of the gospel works in his life!
In the most obvious sense, then, the origins of dancing in church are just the normal human responses of those who are freed by the power of the love of God in Jesus Christ. This gospel truth is made real to them by the Holy Spirit. This may well be why so many charismatics quote the verse ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty!’ (2 Cor 3:17)
‘This is the Holy Ghost, Glory!’
The early Methodists began to dance. And then they danced a lot. These guys were seriously joyful at the close of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th Century, and they continued to dance!
This, let it be known, was considered dangerous and divisive, but from this distance of time, the descriptions are merely humourous:
‘At the spring sacrament at Turtle Creek in 1804, Brother Thompson had been constrained just at the close of the meeting to go to dancing, and for an hour or more to dance in a regular manner round the stand, all the while repeating in a low tone of voice: “This is the Holy Ghost, Glory!”
‘But it was not till the ensuing fall or beginning of the winter that [they] began to encourage one another to praise God in the dance, and unite in that exercise, justly believing that it was their privilege to rejoice before the Lord, and go forth in the dances of them that make merry.’
The Methodists used popular tunes, from the ‘drinking-saloons and playhouses’ and added new Christian lyrics.
Shaking Hands during Worship
Winthrop S. Hudson, in his article, ‘Shouting Methodists’ relates how it was common to shake hands during the close of a service, whilst still singing:
‘Shaking Hands while singing was a means, though simple in itself, to further the work. The ministers used frequently, at the close of worship, to sing a spiritual song suited to the occasion and go through the congregation and shake hands with the people while singing.
‘And several, when relating their experience at the time of their admission into the church fellowship, declared that this was the first means of their conviction.
‘The act seemed so friendly, the ministers appeared so loving, that the party with whom the minister shook hands would often be melted in tears.’
Other ‘Physical Manifestations’
At the risk of casting doubt over the credibility of the main body of these American Methodists, yet unable to resist an hilarious final paragraph, I quote Hudson once more concerning some physical phenomena that was reported amongst some of them.
An eye witness reported that sometimes, before being impelled to dance, a person’s head would ‘fly backward and forward, and from side to side, with a quick jolt.’ This phenomena was given a name: ‘the jerks’!
‘Sometimes…the whole body would be affected. The more a person labored to suppress the jerks, the more he staggered and the more rapidly the twitches increased.’
Although this was observable, it was not considered proper to merely imitate this behaviour in order to appear more spiritual! So that’s sorted that out!
In the mean time, don’t be afraid to truly rejoice in the magnificent salvation that you have received in Christ!
Before we leave the 18th Century Methodists we ought to venture into another of their meetings, this time in America.
The period we are looking at is late 18th and early 19th century, so we’re fast forwarding slightly and entering the exuberance of American Methodist revivalism.
The Shouting Methodists!
In a fascinating article that appeared in ‘Encounter’ Magazine in 1968, Winthrop S. Hudson wrote of the ‘Shouting Methodists’.
These fervent American converts were less concerned about appearing sophisticated than they were about celebrating their new found freedom in Christ.
Clearly, some of their exuberance sounds a little over the top, and, perhaps of more concern, the spontaneous expressions of praise may have become expected behaviour.
Hudson, quotes from a variety of sources, including Alexander Campbell who ‘declared that the Methodist church could not live without her cries of “glory! glory! glory!” And he reported that “her periodical Amens dispossess demons, storm heaven, shut the gates of hell, and drive Satan from the camp.”’
“Shout, shout, we’re gaining ground,” they sang. “We’ll shout old Satan’s kingdom down.”
The ‘Shout Song’
Hudson’s somewhat technical attempt to describe the phenomena of worship during these highly charged meetings make for comical reading:
‘”Shouting” was praise or, as it was often called, rejoicing. Both its practice, including the clapping of hands, and its meaning was partly shaped by Old Testament texts.
‘Initially “shouting” was probably no more than [sudden utterances] of praise. But it quickly became…a type of singing, a type of song, a “shout song,” or just a “shout.”
‘If a “shout” was an [expresion] of praise and a song of rejoicing, it also became the name of a religious service, a service of praise, a praise meeting.
‘People spoke of going to “preaching,” of going to a “class meeting,” and of going to a “shout,” a praise meeting. “When we get home,” they sang, “we’ll have a shout in glory.”
The Dancing Methodists!
‘Finally, for some, a “shout” became a dance, a shuffling of the feet, a jerking of the head, a clapping of the hands, and perhaps an occasional leap.
‘Most often it was a circular march, a “ring shout.” Thus Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines “shout” as “to give expression to religious ecstasy, often in vigorous, rhythmic movements (as shuffling, jumping, jerking) specifically, to take part in a ring shout.”’
We’ve been looking at the fact that the Methodist movement, in its heyday, was truly a people movement. And their songs reflected that!
Every new movement of churches seems to produce a new resource of great songs. This has been true since the charismatic movement in the 1960’s and 70’s.
We might argue that we are enjoying an era of great creativity in the Christian Church in the West at the moment.
But nothing really compares with these gems from the Methodist archives!!
In Stith Mead’s Methodist songbook, Hymns and Spiritual Songs of 1807, the initial impression of a convert is reported:
‘The Methodists were preaching like thunder all about.
At length I went amongst them, to hear them groan and shout.
I thought they were distracted, such fools I’d never seen.
They’d stamp and clap and tremble, and wail and cry and scream.’
It is impossible to imagine such a song being sung in churches today! The closest I can think of is Paul Oakley’s‘I love your love!’, although that is much more recognisable as a worship song than the above!
The People Were Jumping!
A later Methodist songbook, The Hesperian Harp of 1848, has a dialogue song between a Methodist and a ‘Formalist’.
In this segment we hear the Formalist’s impression of the Christian meeting he attended:
Such groaning and shouting, it sets me to doubting.
I fear such religion is only a dream.
The preachers were stamping, the people were jumping,
And screaming so loud that I nothing could hear….
The men they were bawling, the women were squalling,
I know not for my part how any could pray….
Amid such a clatter who knows what’s the matter?
Or who can attend unto what is declared?
To see them behaving, like drunkards, all raving,
And lying and rolling prostrate on the ground.
I really felt awful, and sometimes felt fearful
That I’d be the next that would come tumbling down.
Ultimately, of course, he did tumble. His heart was glowing, Christ’s love was flowing, and ‘peace, pardon, and comfort’ he found.
(from ‘Shouting Methodists’ by Winthrop S. Hudson, Encounter Magazine 1968)
Well, if describing their normal church services in song became part of the history of this amazing revivalist movement, then dancing and shouting was also a strong feature.
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.
Every season of spiritual reform encounters resistance.
Every culture-changing spiritual breakthrough is accompanied by resistance. It is naïve of us to imagine, or hope, it might not be so.
As the Christian message had ever increasing impact outside the acceptable confines of the local churches and into the culture of 18th Century England, the leaders and new converts had to deal with opposition.
We’ll come to the inspirational bravery of the converts who continued to live and trade in hostile contexts after the preachers had moved on to new towns in a later post.
For now we will continue with John Wesley’s description of his experience in Staffordshire in October 1743.
To catch up with the story begin here and follow the links
Wesley continues to reason with an angry and violent mob
‘I began asking, “What evil have I done?”…and continued speaking for above a quarter of an hour, till my voice suddenly failed.
Then the floods began to lift up their voice again; many crying out, “Bring him away! Bring his away!”
‘In the mean time my strength returned and I broke out aloud into prayer.
A sudden change of heart after hearing Wesley pray
‘And now the man who just before headed the mob turned, and said, “Sir, I will spend my life for you! Follow me and not one soul here shall touch a hair of your head.”
‘Two or three of his fellows confirmed his words and got close to me immediately.
‘At the same time, the gentleman in the shop cried out, “For shame, for shame! Let him go!”
‘An honest butcher, who was a little further off…pulled back four or five, one after another, who were running on the most fiercely.
The Final escape
‘The people then, as if it had been by common consent, fell back to the right and the left, while those three or four men took me between them…
‘But on the bridge the mob rallied again. We therefore went on one side, over the mill-dam, and thence through the meadows; till…God brought me safe to Wednesbury; having lost only one flap of my waistcoat and a little skin from one of my hands.
A woman punches Wesley’s opponents
‘The poor woman of Darlaston, who had headed that mob, and sworn, that none should touch me, when she saw her followers give way, ran into the thickest of the throng and knocked down three or four men, one after another.
‘But she was soon overpowered and had probably been killed in a few minutes had not a man called to one of them, “Hold, Tom, hold!” So they held their hand and let her get up…’
Wesley recounts the injuries he had received whilst preaching
Wesley genuinely believed he was spared pain and danger, trusting, as he did, in the sovereignty of God.
He recalled his various injuries during his efforts to preach the gospel: ‘By how gentle degrees does God prepare us for his will! Two years ago a piece of brick grazed my shoulders.
‘It was a year after that the stone struck me between the eyes.
‘Last month I received one blow, and this evening two; one before we came into the town, and one after we were gone out; but both were as nothing:
‘For though one man struck me on the breast with all his might, and the other on the mouth with such a force that the blood gushed out immediately, I felt no more pain from either of the blows, than if they touched me with a straw.’
Back to the believers
Wesley found his way back to the four other leaders who had accompanied him through the ordeal, and back to the newly formed ‘society’ who had been praying.
William Sitch had been at Wesley’s side but was dragged away and beaten but afterwards he got up and found his way back to Wesley.
When asked what he thought would happen to them, Sitch replied, ‘To die for Him who had died for us!’
What became of the Two Justices of the Peace?
Following this outrageous violence, the two Justices, who had refused to face the crowd or see Wesley to protect him, wrote a letter to all the Police Constables and Peace Officers within Staffordshire.
It was a letter of warning, informing them of several ‘disorderly persons styling themselves Methodist Preachers’ who ‘go about raising routs and riots to the great damage’ of the people.
The police were instructed to search for these preachers, arrest them and bring them before Justices of the Peace throughout the county! (All quotes from John Wesley Journal, Vol 1, p.439-441, Baker Edition)
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…