1735 – A Year of Grace
“Thou shalt arise, and have mercy upon Zion: for the time to favour her, yea, the set time, is come.” Psa 102:13
By the 1730’s the fires of the Reformation in England had been virtually extinguished, leaving behind the embers of Protestant formalism. In just 40 short years since the remarkable deliverance by King William, securing the liberties of these islands, the nation was wallowing in the mire of religion without true faith. As a consequence the morals of the nation had sunk, it seemed, to an all time low. It was an alarming situation that caused concern among many, but no-one it seemed, had the answer for these perplexing problems.
The mining community at Kingswood, on the outskirts of Bristol, was symptomatic of the problems of the age. The people lived in such filth and deprivation that few would go near their villages. On occasions they rioted in the streets of Bristol, giving vent to their frustration.
But God had the solution for Kingswood and for England with all of the social, moral and spiritual evils that prevailed. During the Easter season in 1735, a young Oxford student called George Whitefield was converted. He had been a zealous and spiritually minded young man who joined himself to John Wesley’s Holy Club. It was while reading a book written by a Scot, Henry Scougal called “The Life of God in the Soul of Man”, that Whitefield’s conscience was alerted to the inner need of his soul:
“God showed me that I must be born again or be damned. I learned that a man may go to Church, say his prayers, receive the sacrament, and yet not be a Christian…God soon showed me that ‘true religion is a union of the soul with God, and Christ formed within us’ “.
What was most remarkable was the conversion of a little known Welsh schoolmaster, who had no contact whatsoever with Whitefield, also in 1735. Howell Harris was in his own words, an arrogant and proud young man who despised his parents and was full of his own self importance until he heard a sermon when the vicar said these words which pricked his soul:
“If you are not fit to come to the Lord’s table you are not fit to live and you are not fit to die”.
Consumed with a mighty passion for souls Harris began preaching outdoors to as many as would listen to him. He travelled across an extensive area of South Wales and by 1739 had established 30 societies where the converts fellowshipped together. The clergy denounced him, he was twice refused ordination by the Church, but he carried on on convinced that his rejection by the establishment made him all the more useful.
When Whitefield returned to England in 1738, after his first missionary journey to the American colony of Georgia, he discovered that many of the clergy were not disposed to permit him into their pulpits. Shortly after his conversion and ordination Whitefield had preached from many pulpits, before his departure across the Atlantic. But the clergy were glad to see him go and were equally alarmed with his return. This popular and enthusiastic young preacher was a considerable threat to the comfortable status quo which they presided over and derived their living from.
Whitefield, however, heard of Howell Harris and was inspired by the success of his outdoor preaching. He saw an opportunity of reaching the nation, by-passing the normal procedures of Church preaching.
In Bristol, he decided to begin this new phase of his ministry among the Kingswood colliery community, because they had no access to a Church. Even he could not have anticipated the results as the Spirit of God blessed these efforts, not only among the miners but throughout Bristol. There was something about the love, the gentleness and the spirit of the young well dressed clergyman that caused this community, despised and feared by so many, that brought hundreds to faith in Christ. After six weeks Whitefield was preparing to leave Bristol, because his heart was entwined with the needs of orphans in Georgia, but the work had grown to vast crowds in Kingswood alone of over 20,000, in addition to other meetings throughout the city and societies had been established for comfort and fellowship. These societies in Bristol were the beginnings of the Methodism and were modelled after the pattern established in Wales by Howell Harris.
There was only one man Whitefield could entrust this work to, as he prepared to take his leave; his old friend, the forceful and resourceful John Wesley who had been converted himself just a few months earlier. The rest we can well say – is history.
The impact of the young Oxford academic and the rather aloof and profligate Welsh schoolmaster in 1735 cannot be overstated. These two young men converted at the same time would have lives and ministries that moulded and shaped the course of a nation, that had lost her way.
Perhaps God this year, as we are travelling through this difficult period of history, will raise up two young men, from unlikely backgrounds, infuse them with the power of Spirit and give them the voice of a prophet, shaking our arrogant and godless nation to the core. He did it almost 300 years ago – He can do it again. Is there anyone to say that He won’t or that He can’t?
In those years God bypassed the Church and her clergy. He did a new thing but yet the message was the same as that of old, but the power was different. Are we not slumbering in a kind of religious apathy, too interested to maintaining our ground, afraid of being too enthusiastic in a cause that must demand our hearts and our souls? Does the Church not need to be awakened by the God who can do a new thing?
These pioneers of the 18th Century revival known as “The Evangelical Awakening” in Britain and “The Great Awakening” in America were men of prayer who lived in the presence and fear of God. Whitefield spent hours on his knees pouring over his Bible and Matthew Henry’s comments, saturating his soul with truth. Only such a life of meditation could have prepared him for the burden of the being the first celebrity figure of the modern era when the poor and the rich from two continents flocked to hear him preach, and preach he did on thousands of occasions and only eternity will reveal the souls he won for Christ.
Lord – awaken your slumbering careless Church and turn the course of this decadent foolish nation that is slipping onward towards the darkness.