A healthy and challenging self-examination in the searchlight of the past is taking place in many Christian quarters in Great Britain at the moment. There is a continuing renascence of interest in the Reformation, its principles, its doctrine, its outlook. Puritan studies are enjoying a considerable vogue. And there is a noticeable focus of attention upon the great revivals of Christian history, and especially, as might be expected in this country, on the Evangelical awakening of the eighteenth century. There was a time when it was imagined that sufficient research had been expended on this movement of the Spirit and that some other field might more profitably be explored. But at present there is more enlightened concern to trace the course of the eighteenth century revival than ever before. Many are beginning to recognize that it was not predominantly a Wesleyan or a Whitefieldian or an Evangelical Anglican affair. It was first and foremost a work of the Holy Spirit. The phenomenal occurrences of that remarkable period cannot be explained otherwise than as the evidence of another Pentecost. The human heroes are receding from the foreground and the Quickener himself is being seen in his rightful place of priority.


As we stand on the brink of the sixties we are compelled to recall what was happening here 200 years ago. By 1760 the Awakening was well under way. God’s river was in full spate. The years of visitation had passed into the years of evangelization. The Wesleys were traveling the length and breadth of the land preaching the everlasting Gospel and harvesting souls in their hundreds and thousands. Whitefield lagged not one inch behind them and proved himself, as Dean Sykes describes him, “the fiery torch of the revival.” The Moravians were pushing forward their astonishing mission in Yorkshire, in Wiltshire, and in Ireland. The Evangelicals within the Establishment were gathering strength so that even the death of Samuel Walker, their outstanding leader, did not impede their advance. The Countess of Huntingdon gave the support of her devotion, her enthusiasm, her influence, and her wealth. The spiritual life of a nation was revitalized. A radical social revolution was being initiated. And soon, in the missionary expansion at the close of the century, the uttermost parts of the earth were to feel the impact. No wonder, as he gazed in wonder upon all that God was doing, Charles Wesley was constrained to write:

See how great a flame aspires,

Article continues below

Kindled by a spark of grace!

Jesu’s love the nations fires,

Sets the Kingdoms on a blaze.

All that was 200 years ago and it seems but a dream, so different are conditions today. But it is good that we should remember what the Lord has done in the bygone centuries. It reminds us he can do it again.

When we are disposed to deplore the decline in religious fervor in our generation, we must bear in mind that earnest Christians who stood on the edge of the sixties 100 years ago were tempted to do the same. For even within so short a space from the dramatic conquests of the eighteenth century there had been a sad and serious subsiding. Much of the form remained, but the inner glow had died. What Dean Church wrote concerning the Church Evangelicals was unhappily true also of the Methodists and Nonconformists. “The austere spirit of Newton and Thomas Scott had, between 1820 and 1830, given way a good deal to the influence of increasing popularity. The profession of Evangelical religion had been made more than respectable by the adhesion of men of position and weight. Preached in the pulpits of fashionable chapels, this religion proved to be no more exacting than its “High and Dry” rival. It gave a gentle stimulus to tempers which required to be excited by novelty. It recommended itself by gifts of flowing words or high-pitched rhetoric to those who expected some demands to be made on them, so that these demands were not too strict.” So soon had the molten metal of white-hot intensity cooled and solidified into frigid and intractable steel.

At the same time the Oxford Movement raised its head. In a very real sense it was born out of the failure of Evangelicals to capitalize the gains of the eighteenth century revival. Much as we may regret the course it took and the indignities of the ritual controversy to which it led, Tractarianism nevertheless represented, in its origins at least, an attempt to restore a lost spirituality to the Church. But its effect was to disturb and divide the Established Church in a manner unprecedented since the Restoration settlement. As if this were not trial enough, there broke out in the 1860s the notorious debate between religion and science touched off by the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species. This was much more than a storm in a Victorian tea cup, as some would have us believe. It struck at the root of scriptural authority and threatened to destroy the foundation upon which the Gospel rests. It was felt by many thinking men that, as Wildon Carr expressed it, the evolution theory had antiquated all theodicies and that since Christianity appeared to make more exalted claims for itself than any other faith, its collapse would be correspondingly catastrophic. The death knell of the organized Church was already ringing, so it was confidently thought, and within a comparatively short period its momentum was expected to be exhausted. We must not forget that at this very time Karl Marx was propounding the Communist philosophy, in which it is taken for granted that religion is obsolete and doomed to inevitable extinction.

Article continues below

This, then, was the situation which confronted the British Church a century ago. It could hardly be regarded as encouraging. But God was ready with his answer even while Satan was claiming the victory. The Almighty always matches the challenge of the hour. In 1859 there broke out in Great Britain what Dr. J. Edwin Orr has christened the Second Evangelical Awakening. It added no less than a million to the Church and sent the spiritual temperature soaring to the fever point that was known to the previous century. It affected every county in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland and paved the way for the fruitful visits of Moody between 1867 and 1891. It heralded a half century of Church expansion which did more to refute the prognostications of the scientific materialists than a whole shelf-full of learned arguments. It launched a new crusade of Christian social concern and supplied an effective stimulus to evangelistic activity both at home and overseas. Out of this movement grew such organizations as the Salvation Army, the Church Army, the China Inland Mission, the University Christian Unions, the Keswick Convention, and Children’s Special Service Mission.


Much publicity has been given in the Christian press and elsewhere to the 1859 revival. Centenary celebrations have been held throughout the land. We have rejoiced at what God can do and have taken fresh courage. But there is a certain atmosphere of disappointment in the camp. It had been fervently hoped that 1959 might see at least the skyline signs of a further divine visitation. Much prayer had been directed to this end. But it was not to be. God cannot, of course, be tied down to a timetable. The mere observance of a centenary, however zealous, is not a sufficient occasion to bring down the blessing of Pentecost. The consequence is that God’s people have been cast back on him in an increasingly desperate manner. The futility of human resource and ingenuity is widely admitted. It is known now that while believers must remain faithful in service and witness and seek to spread the Gospel by every available means, the touch of Pentecost itself can only be given from God and in his appointed time. This humble recognition of God’s sovereignty in revival and an obedient, penitent waiting upon him in the midst of intensified evangelism are the prevailing temper of the Evangelical churches in Britain today.

Article continues below

But beyond the confines of the avowedly Evangelical groups, there is a growing awareness in all the denominational bodies that the challenge of the age calls for a return to fundamentals. For one thing, there is a firmer emphasis on the Word. Even outside the circle of those who traditionally accept the inspiration and inerrant authority of the Scriptures, there is a refreshing readiness to concede the primacy of revelation. This arises in part from an increasing dissatisfaction with the tantalizing incompleteness of the Barthian theology of the Word. It has expressed itself in the holding of Bible Weeks and Bible Schools in growing profusion. It is reflected in a recent report on religious teaching in schools published by a committee of the National Society, where the doctrinal nature of Scripture is contended for. “Any attempt to expound or use the Bible solely in other ways, such as a record of ‘religious experience of the nation,’ or as a ‘source of morally edifying literature’ is false to the Bible itself and will lead to the wrong conclusions.” This leads us to note a stronger insistence on doctrine. The time is past when it could be said (as it was by a witty critic) that any stigma would do to beat a dogma. There is general recognition that belief is not an optional matter and that the Christian faith is capable of definition and has indeed been so defined in Scripture and the historic creeds. At the level of ministerial training it is indicative of the contemporary mood that J. F. Bethune-Baker’s at times tendentiously liberal introduction to the early history of Christian doctrine is being superseded as a textbook by J. N. D. Kelly’s much more centrally orthodox lectures on the same subject. The effect of this reorientation will be felt more and more in the pulpit. British preaching will become even less like the regrettable specimen pilloried by Reinhold Niebuhr as presenting “a God without wrath who brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment, through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

Article continues below

We may also comment upon a healthier respect for conservative scholarship. The evangelical position is no longer regarded as obscurantist and intellectually indefensible. Largely through the endeavors of the Biblical Research Committee of the Inter-Varsity Fellowship, founded just before the Second World War, a specific policy of promoting evangelical scholarship has borne abundant fruit. Even Clifford O. Rhodes, director of the Modern Churchman’s Union, is compelled to agree in his recent book The New Church in the New Age that “during the past dozen years the intellectual balance in the Church of England has been gradually weighing down on the Evangelical side,” and this is equally evident in the Free Churches. Perhaps the most significant appointment in Britain in our generation is that of F. F. Bruce to the Rylands Chair of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at the University of Manchester, in succession to such distinguished exponents of more liberal views as T. W. Manson, C. H. Dodd, and A. S. Peake. Within the life of the churches themselves we observe a growing spirituality. Numerically the picture may be discouraging, but there is some ground for believing that an advance in depth has been gradually taking place.

Finally, it is to be marked that even in those churches not usually associated with a distinctively evangelical standpoint there is a hunger for revival. Within the major communions of Great Britain there is now a recognized and expanding group of ministers and laymen pledged to plead and work for revival. The latest addition is the Anglican Prayer Fellowship for Revival, launched only last year. Revival is no longer the watchword of a sect. It is beginning to burden the whole Church. That is no doubt the most spiritually enheartening feature of our situation today.

It was the considered and stated conviction of Dr. John R. Mott, that the 1960s would be the most decisive decade in the Christian Church. Whatever may be the accuracy of that prediction so far as world Christianity is concerned (and it would seem as if his words will be justified), it is certainly true with respect to Great Britain.

Jacob J. Vellenga served on the National Board of Administration of the United Presbyterian Church from 1948–54. Since 1958 he has served the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. as Associate Executive. He holds the A.B. degree from Monmouth College, the B.D. from Pittsburgh-Xenia Seminary, Th.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and D.D. from Monmouth College, Illinois.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.