Evangelicalism in Ascendancy and Decline: 1715 - 2000
No age in history stands alone and unrelated to the years that have gone before. We inherit both the blessings and problems of past generations. We must therefore begin by recalling some of the problems which were carried over from the seventeenth century into the period before us which begins in 1715.
- The question of how churches are to be related to one another had been left unresolved in the previous century. Those who were united in the doctrine of the gospel had not been able to arrive at any agreement on questions of church government. So different denominations of Christians outside the national Church of England had come into existence – Presbyterian, Independent and Baptist. These were all known by the common title of 'Dissenters', or later as 'Nonconformists'. The Act of Settlement of 1688 had secured toleration for Dissenters but they continued to suffer under certain disabilities, for example, no one belonging to a Dissenting church could study at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge or Durham until as late as 1871.
Debates and controversies among Christians in the seventeenth century had sometimes displayed a dogmatism and an intolerance which was widely recognized as wrong by their successors. The Puritans had rightly emphasized the duty of absolute faithfulness to Scripture but they had not always allowed for human fallibility in its interpretation and the fact that Scripture is not equally clear on all subjects. The Puritan period had been slow to see that disagreement has to be tolerated when it comes to the question of how parts of Scripture, not fundamental to salvation, are to be understood.
This seventeenth-century weakness was partly responsible for the way in which Christians in the eighteenth century often went to the opposite extreme. Very often in history a mistake by some men leads to a reaction in their successors which is equally wrong. So in the early-eighteenth century the mood even among the Dissenters favoured a general spirit of toleration and charity towards almost all opinions. For an example of what I mean, take these words of Philip Doddridge in which he describes the outlook of the divinity teacher of the Dissenting academy at Kibworth, Leicestershire, where he went to study for the ministry in 1719:
He furnishes us with all kinds of authors upon every subject, without advising us to skip over the heretical passages for fear of infection. It is evidently his main care to inspire us with sentiments of catholicism, and to arm us against that zeal which is not according to knowledge.1
3. The fundamental problem inherited by the eighteenth century was, however, much more basic. Every generation is born into this world with the fallen nature of our first parents and, no matter how faithful the church is in one generation, there is never any certainty that her spirit will be possessed and her work carried on by the next. This has always been so in church history. We read in Judges 2:10: 'All that generation were gathered to their fathers: and there arose another generation after them, which knew not the Lord, nor yet the works that he had done for Israel.' The command to the church is the same as when Paul wrote to Timothy, 'The things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also' (2 Tim. 2:2); but the supply of faithful men is not the same in all generations and in the broad period which is before us there have been marked variations in this regard.
This leads us then into the years immediately following 1715, and without question these have to be described as years of decline. Just one year earlier Matthew Henry had died, one of the last of the Puritans. Shortly before his death he had spoken of the conditions which had become so prevalent:
It may justly grieve us to see not only how iniquity abounds, but how the love of many waxes cold; love to their God, to their Bibles, to their brethren; devout affections ebb and abate; the kindness of our youth is forgotten ... It is our sorrow to see so little of the power of godliness among those who retain the form of it; to see family worship neglected, Sabbath time trifled away ... solemn assemblies indifferently attended, and the word preached carelessly heard.2
Dissenting chapels were mostly in a state of orthodox but dull stagnation. This left them open to the spirit of the age. Human reason instead of Scripture was now revered in the world of scholarship and doctrinal certainties gradually gave way to an easy-going broad-mindedness. If the seventeenth-century Christians had estimated creeds and Confessions of Faith too highly, soon they were scarcely regarded at all by many of their descendants. Conditions were still worse in the Church of England where the light had virtually gone out after 1662. George II, who was its head after his accession to the throne in 1727, typified the majority of its members. In the words of Lord Chesterfield, 'He troubled himself little about religion, but jogged on quietly in that in which he had been bred, without scruples, doubts, zeal, or inquiry.' 3It was said that he and Queen Caroline talked politics in the royal chapel during sermons. In 1728 when the artist William Hogarth produced a drawing of a service in a parish church he suitably entitled it, 'The Sleeping Congregation'. Those who did listen knew what kind of sermon they preferred:
The preacher who allowed them to live as they might choose, who did not preach too censoriously about sin, and who professed to give them, with the sanction of the State and all the bishops, an easy entrance to heaven after death, was the preacher for them.4
For the first forty years of the eighteenth century it appeared that a widespread Christian influence was a thing of the past. Mammon was now god. The era of the soul had given way to the era of the stomach and the gin shops.
There were, of course, those who lamented the decline in morals and religion and who were conspicuous for their efforts to secure a change. Robert Boyle endowed an annual lecture for the purpose of proving the Christian religion against atheists and others. Three volumes of these lectures were published in 1739. Joseph Butler was responsible for a book with the same purpose in 1736. In it he mourned that Christianity 'is now at length discovered to be fictitious. And accordingly it is treated as if, in the present age, this were an agreed point among all persons of discernment, and nothing remained but to set it up as a principal subject for mirth and ridicule.'
Men such as Boyle and Butler were concerned with an intellectual defence of the Christian faith. There were clergy who gave themselves to remedy the situation by conscientious labour and the preaching of Christian morality. John Wesley was ordained in the Church of England in 1726 and for over ten years he was occupied in this way without any result. Other clergy experienced the same thing. John Berridge confessed his uselessness as a parish minister in these words:
I preached up sanctification very earnestly for six years in a former parish, and never brought one soul to Christ. I did the same in this parish for two years, without any success at all.5
The Real Problem Addressed
When the barrenness of this period ended it occurred simultaneously with the adoption of a very different approach to the situation. Within a few years in the late 1730s, Whitefield, the Wesleys, and others, came to a startling discovery within the Church of England. They found that the real problem was not so much intellectual difficulties, nor the lack of holiness in Christians, it was that the very meaning of 'Christian' had been lost. Speaking of his first twelve years in the Christian ministry, John Wesley confessed: 'I neither laid the foundation of repentance nor of believing the gospel, taking it for granted that all to whom I preached were believers.'
The evangelical clergy who had made this discovery – soon nicknamed 'Methodists' – learned that fallen men cannot be trained into being Christians: there has to be a conversion, which is a divine work entailing a new birth, and leading sinners to see that acceptance with God is secured for all who repent and believe by Christ's death alone. The newness of such teaching at once caused an uproar. Whitefield and the Wesleys were stigmatized as fanatics and disturbers of Christian unity, but, simultaneously with the opposition, God gave an authentication of the truth of their message by a power present in their preaching which had not been seen for many years. A Dissenter who came to hear Charles Wesley described the unusual scene in these words:
I found him standing on a table-board in an erect posture, with his hands and eyes lifted up to heaven in prayer; he prayed with uncommon fervour, fluency, and variety of expression. He then preached about an hour in such a manner as I scarce ever heard any man preach; though I have heard many a finer sermon – according to the common taste or acceptation of sermons – I never heard any man discover such evident signs of a vehement desire, or labour so earnestly, to convince his hearers that they were all by nature in a sinful, lost undone state.6
Something similar to what happened in the Book of Acts happened in England in the late 1730s, and not surprisingly, for in both instances it was a work of which the Holy Spirit was the author. Wherever these evangelicals preached there was no more sleeping in sermons; indifference gave way to concern and conviction; churches were stirred with new life; and so widespread was the interest that preaching could not be confined to Sundays and to ecclesiastical buildings. Such was the beginning of what became known as 'The Evangelical Revival'.
A whole series of addresses could be given on that revival, and we can say very little here. Whitefield, who was born in the very year that Matthew Henry died, was the first to take the gospel into the open-air in 1739. Typical of reactions to his message was the testimony of a parish clerk in Worcestershire who wrote as follows to Whitefield after he had heard him preach:
I found, to my great confusion, that I had all my life long been offering to God the sacrifice of fools, being destitute of the pure oil of grace in the heart ... the new birth, justification by faith only, the want of free will in man to do good works without the special grace of God, and the like, was, as it were a new language to me ... But being very much oppressed in thought concerning those important truths which you delivered, as soon as I returned home, I searched an old Exposition of the Catechism, the Church Articles, and Book of Homilies, which I found exactly to correspond with what I had heard you deliver.
The writer went on to say how he had then discovered the books of two Puritan authors, Robert Bolton and Daniel Dykes, and these further convinced him 'that I knew nothing as I ought to know, the gospel being to me a sealed book.' 7In the course of the Evangelical Revival multitudes of people came to the same conclusion before they became Christians. Whitefield himself could tell his hearers:
Being so long deceived myself I speak with the more sympathy to you, who are resting on a round of duties and moral performances ... The devil has so ordered the affairs of the church now, and our hearts are so desperately deceitful, that if we do not take a great deal of care, we shall come short of true religion – of the kingdom of God in the soul.8
When he was shut out of the pulpits of his own denomination, Whitefield's friends built two large buildings for his use in London, and so greatly was his preaching blessed that a later writer could say that these two 'Tabernacles', as they were called, 'contain the largest congregations which assemble for the hearing of the gospel, perhaps, in the whole Christian world; and it may be questioned, if any two places of worship can count a greater number of the true disciples of Christ.'9Whitefield was criticized for not doing more to establish churches and for seeking the conversion of sinners too exclusively. His response was that this was what God had called him to do, and this work he pursued perhaps more widely than any previous evangelist in recorded history. Thirteen times he crossed the Atlantic and, in addition to conversions, his preaching did much to forge a unity among the Christians in the thirteen American colonies. After 1776 it was this unity which did so much to preserve the infant republic from the excesses of the French Revolution. 'It will not be saying too much', Augustus Toplady wrote of Whitefield, 'if I term him "The apostle of the English empire".'10
Unlike Whitefield, John Wesley, in addition to being a greatly used evangelist, did build a structure of congregations ('societies') which eventually became the Methodist denomination. Statistics exist which show how rapidly these societies grew and multiplied. In 1742, some three years after the beginning of the revival, society members in Bristol and London numbered 1,100, and by the end of 1743 this number had almost doubled. Whitefield died at the age of fifty-seven, Wesley lived to the year 1791 and the age of eighty-eight. Throughout his life he saw gospel work grow. In 1770 members of his churches numbered 29,406; ten years later in 1780 another 14,424 had been added.11It should also be remembered that membership in these Wesleyan societies was no easy or formal thing. Assisting Wesley in 1780 were forty-eight itinerant preachers.
Whitefield and Wesley were only two of the instruments of God used in the awakening of the country in the eighteenth century. J. C. Ryle's classic book on the subject includes the biographies of six other preachers. And there are others, not recorded by Ryle, who certainly deserve remembering, beginning, perhaps, with Howell Harris, John Cennick and Samuel Walker of Truro. Christians other than preachers also took a vital part in the awakening of England. They included John Thornton, the Countess of Huntingdon, and Lord Dartmouth.
Results of the Eighteenth-Century Revival
We must move on quickly to some of the results of the Evangelical Revival although we can do little more than list them.
The multiplied numbers of true Christians influenced the whole moral and social tone of the nation. I do not mean that the majority of the population had become Christians. That would be far from true, but definite Christians, with transformed lives, became sufficiently numerous to act like salt and light. Instead of being laughed at, Christianity came to be seen as possessing an uplifting power that nothing else could match. In the aftermath of the revival there came reform in schools, hospitals and prisons. The slave trade was finally broken under the leadership of William Wilberforce and other evangelicals. The sanctity of marriage, honesty in business and a general respect for the Ten Commandments all returned to become an accepted part of public life.
As historians have also pointed out, the effect of the revival upon the poor was to turn them away from the revolutionary spirit which might otherwise have possessed them. In the words of G. M. Trevelyan, Methodism gave the uncared for millions 'other interests and ideals besides the material, it fostered in them self-respect as citizens of another world whose franchise was not confined to the well-to-do, and it provided them with a democratic religious and educational organization of their own.' 12
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, when it had again become popular to despise evangelical doctrine, Joseph Parker pleaded that before the former beliefs were given up it should at least be remembered what they had accomplished:
These may be old-fashioned doctrines, but they created missionary societies, Sunday schools, hospitals, orphanages, and refuges for penitence; they gave every child a new value, every father a new responsibility, every mother a new hope and constituted into society a new conscience and new trust ... Let us be very careful how we give up trees that have borne such fruit, and in whose leaves there has been such healing.13
Although the revival did not begin amongst the Dissenters it had a mighty influence upon many of their chapels. Pastors awoke out of sleep or from their pursuit of secondary issues. A concern for the salvation of souls was recovered and it was to the lasting honour of Baptist chapels in the Midlands of England that the Missionary Society was born which sent William Carey to India in 1793. Within a few years, it seemed, the world had become the parish of the evangelicals and the hymn of Isaac Watts, 'Jesus shall reign where'er the sun', took on a new meaning.
Other Dissenters were not far behind Carey. The Congregationalist David Bogue started a school for missionaries at Gosport and it was from there that Robert Morrison left for China in 1807. By that date the Nonconformists had founded the London Missionary Society with Bogue as one of its leaders. It was this Society which sent John Williams to the South Pacific in 1817. Throughout the nineteenth century many of England's brightest Christians went to the farthest corners of the world. One of the best remembered was J. Hudson Taylor, a Yorkshire Methodist who founded the China Inland Mission (now OMF) in 1865, with the support of fifteen fellow missionaries. Thirty years later the number of CIM missionaries had risen to 641.
A further consequence of the revival was the formation of an evangelical party in the Church of England. With the patronage of powerful laymen, such as Lord Dartmouth, successors to Wesley and Whitefield managed to secure parishes in the national Church. By the 1780s evangelicals such as John Newton and Richard Cecil were in influential London pulpits and Charles Simeon, as minister of Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge, had begun his life work in the evangelization of students.
For the next forty years, centred in what was called the Eclectic Society, evangelical clergy commanded attention and drew no small measure of opposition upon themselves. Parishioners unused to any evangelical preaching were often up in arms against them. Seat-holders in Simeon's church locked their pews and deserted the building. When Simeon countered by having forms placed in the aisles for those who wanted to attend, the church wardens threw them out. So for more than ten years his congregation, described as people who had 'left discretion and attachment to the Established Church', had to stand throughout the services.
Despite such troubles at home these evangelicals were also caught up in the new concern for world missions. Simeon's ministry alone supplied six chaplains for work in India, the best-known of whom was Henry Martyn. Martyn went to India in 1805. After his early death at the age of thirty-one in 1812, Simeon ever kept a portrait of his friend over the fireplace in his dining room. 'No one looks at me as he does', he would say. 'He never takes his eyes off me and seems always to be saying, "Be serious – be in earnest – don't trifle – don't trifle."' 14
- Another result of revival was the way in which evangelicals in all denominations found a new unity and large-heartedness which led to a willingness to help one another despite their differences on the question of church order. Paedobaptists now encouraged Baptists, and evangelicals in the Church of England gave aid to Dissenters. In this way the divisions and suspicions of an earlier age were weakened and men again began to act in accordance with the apostolic rule, 'Grace be with all that love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity.' Without any minimizing of church differences, the oneness of all united to Christ in saving faith was seen to transcend lesser differences. Faithfulness to Christ was recognized as a greater thing than denominational labels and loyalties.15An era of co-operation was thus born, and with it there were new benefits, both at home and on the mission field. Part of its fruits was to be demonstrated in strong interdenominational societies and in the Evangelical Alliance.
From Ascendancy to Decline
There is nothing that can so energize Christians and instil confident expectation into labour as a demonstration of the saving power of the gospel. This was the explanation why the age following the eighteenth century awakening found evangelicals engaged optimistically in all manner of spiritual work and activity. The early nineteenth century was full of new endeavours. Some of these I have already mentioned but the full list is inspiring reading: it would include the establishing of Sunday Schools, Bible Societies, Tract Societies, publishing enterprises (from magazines to major reprints of old evangelical classics), and other organizations for all manner of good works. Simeon could write to a friend in 1814: 'Truly this age may, I think, be called "The Age of Benevolence". Everything that can be supported is supported. This speaks well for us, and makes me hope that God will yet bless our highly-favoured land.' 16
From the seventeenth century to the present time, if we can ever speak of an evangelical ascendancy, it was in the first half of the nineteenth century.17
Perhaps in that very appearance of evangelical strength lay a factor which contributed to subsequent decline. By 1851 the Nonconformist leader, John Angell James, was convinced that there was too much attention being given to all manner of public exertions and schemes for evangelization and too little to personal prayer and private devotion: 'We have no diminution of Christian activity and associated effort; but individual piety is undevout and feeble.' 18One consequence of this, he believed, was that evangelicals were approximating too closely to the world, with Christians marrying unbelievers.
More than this, that very catholicity of spirit which was a strength of evangelicalism, could too easily become a weakness by engendering an attitude which wished to avoid all controversy among professing Christians. Angell James knew that Christian work and missions would not be long sustained without strong convictions: 'Truth is the food of piety, and error is its poison. There can be no sound spiritual health apart from sound doctrine.' 19But as the nineteenth century advanced zeal for the distinctive doctrines of evangelical Christianity waned. J. C. Ryle spoke for a decreasing number when he said, 'Zeal will make a man hate unscriptural teaching, just as he hates sin.' 20
By the second half of the nineteenth century a change was taking place within evangelicalism which left it ill prepared to face new dangers – dangers which were to increase in the twentieth century and to the present day. In the eighteenth century the main problem for evangelicals was the deadness and nominal orthodoxy within the churches. The major errors which assailed Christian belief were more often from without. Now, however, a new opposition was to arise within the church and in a number of instances it claimed men who had begun their ministries as professing evangelicals.
The New Dangers
The first of these two dangers was Tractarianism, so named after the tracts which John Henry Newman and others had produced in Oxford in the years 1834-41. In these publications Newman attempted to show that the Thirty-nine Articles forming the doctrinal standards of the Church of England, far from being specifically Protestant and evangelical, were actually in harmony with the beliefs of the Church of Rome. He protested against the evangelical belief that the unity of the church is primarily spiritual and argued that a visible continuation of the church, through duly appointed bishops, was essential for the validity of the sacraments. With sophisticated, devout learning, and beautified by a new hymnology, Tractarianism was an attempt to undo the Reformation. The logic of its case was reunion with Rome but while Newman followed that logic in 1845, others of the same opinions remained in the Church of England and worked to undermine everything distinctly Protestant. They were named Anglo-Catholics and as one of them confessed, should they succeed, the result would be to expel Evangelicalism from the Church of England.21
A second danger was very different; it came from Germany and it soon affected both Church of England and Nonconformity alike. At the risk of oversimplifying I will summarize it as follows. At the same time as Charles Simeon was preaching in Cambridge, Friedrich Schleiermacher was teaching in the universities of Halle and Berlin. Originally from an orthodox evangelical background, Schleiermacher became absorbed with different questions. It was an era in which unbelief prevailed in German scholarship and the authenticity of the Old Testament, in particular, was being challenged. In the face of this hostile attack, Schleiermacher believed he had found a way by which Christianity could be preserved. He asserted that faith is not dependent on Scripture but rather that it comes from within the human consciousness and by this means Christ can be known personally without any dependence on the reliability of the Bible. Therefore whatever critics of Scripture may say, he believed that a person's experience of Christ needs no external authority to support it.
This case Schleiermacher presented with eloquence, and with such an appeal for renewed devotion to Christ, that many saw no real danger. Yet the German professor was directly contradicting the Apostle Paul who writes, 'Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God' (Rom. 1:17) In fact what Schleiermacher wanted was an escape from the rule of Scripture. Scripture gives us a rule by which to know 'the spirit of truth and the spirit of error' (1 John 4:6) and he was content to see that rule abandoned. His new teaching was not simply an innocent mistake: the truth is that his beliefs concerning the person of Christ and on the atonement were of a character which all Bible-believers ought to have opposed.
Yet Schleiermacher's teaching was successful in changing the definition of a Christian. It is an astonishing fact that within a hundred years the claim that one can be 'Christian' without trust in Scripture became commonplace in the churches of Britain. How did that happen? Two things can be mentioned. In the face of new scientific theories which appeared to make the whole biblical account of creation redundant, combined with the widespread attack on the credibility of crucial parts of Scripture, the idea that Christianity does not depend upon any one set of definite beliefs had a subtle appeal for professing Christians anxious to defend 'the faith'. Surely one could believe in 'Christ' without believing in Scripture? And if those parts of Scripture which are particularly offensive to people are put to one side would it not be the case that the Christian message – especially the message of the Sermon on the Mount – would gain much wider acceptance? So the new ideas, it was claimed, heralded a much brighter future for the church. Men did not hesitate to promise that a new age of 'faith' was at hand.
But this does not wholly explain why German unbelief became so acceptable. Another part of the answer is that German scholarship and erudition won the admiration of most of the institutions for theological learning in Britain. Progress was the spirit of the hour, and so why not progress in theology also? The cry was for the new, for intellectual talent in the ministry, and for broadmindedness with regard to the ideas offered by able men. As in Germany, so now in Britain, training for the ministry came to involve examinations not set by the churches but by universities. Inevitably the priorities for the gospel ministry were changed. A Nonconformist leader, Dr John Campbell, complained that the new way of training was sending out companies of tutors, rather than evangelists and men 'mighty in the Scriptures' ... The churches ask for Preachers, and they are offered B.A.'s, M.A.'s and LL.B's! I submit that the entire system is wrong.
The two best-known opponents of what we now call theological liberalism were John Charles Ryle and Charles Haddon Spurgeon. The first was a clergyman and then a bishop in the Church of England, 'a man of granite with the heart of a child'. In 1884 Ryle believed they were seeing
the rise and progress of a spirit of indifference to all doctrines and opinions in religion. A wave of colour-blindness about theology appears to be passing over the land. Everything, forsooth, is true, and nothing is false, everything is right and nothing is wrong. You are not allowed to ask what is God's truth, but what is liberal, and generous and kind.22
Spurgeon, the other leading opponent of doctrinal indifference, was a Baptist pastor who ministered in London from 1854 to his death in 1892. Both these men were resolute evangelicals; both saw that the fundamental issue was the trustworthiness of Scripture; both believed that expecting progress without faithfulness to the written word – 'the sword of the Spirit' – was a delusion; yet both were treated by the majority of their contemporaries as 'old fogies', as men hopelessly enamoured with beliefs that belonged only to the past. It is probable that the grueling disappointments suffered by Spurgeon in the 'Down-Grade Controversy' which began in 1887 hastened his death at the age of fifty seven. Men who owed much to him, and whose support he had expected in standing for Scripture, fell away in droves.
Typical among Baptists unsympathetic to Spurgeon was T. R. Glover who explained Spurgeon's stand in terms of his bad health and exulted in 1932, 'If you want a real old obscurantist college, you have to found a new one.' 23Spurgeon was ready to judge things by a longer time-scale. In one of his last addresses to the students of his Pastors' College he said in 1889: 'For my part, I am quite willing to be eaten of dogs for the next fifty years; but the more distant future will vindicate me.' 24
Ryle and Spurgeon were discounted as pessimists but we now know to our sorrow that their forecast of what the change in belief would do for the churches and for the nation was true. Britain in the twentieth century provided one of the most striking examples in all history of spiritual decline and apostasy. Figures reveal part of the story: In the census of 1851 almost 38 percent of the population of England attended a Protestant church. In 1989 it was little more than 6 percent, and comparatively few of the churches which that 6 percent attended were now even Protestant in name. Whereas between 1715 and 1851 adherents of Nonconformist churches proportionate to the total population increased threefold, by 1989 a mere 3.22 percent of the population were connected with their once crowded buildings. In the year 1943, Professor D. W. Brogan wrote, 'One of the greatest changes in the English religious and social landscape has been the decline of Nonconformity.' 25It was not only evangelicals who had seen what was coming. In 1902 the liberal professor of theology, Dr Marcus Dods, wrote: 'The churches won't know themselves in fifty years time. It is to be hoped some little rag of faith may be left when all's done.' 26
Dr Michael Watts, to whom I am indebted for some of the figures just quoted, discussed the reason for the decline in a lecture given in London in 1995. I think his analysis is partially correct. He concedes that the fall away from church attendance ran parallel with the turning of the church from historic Christian belief. But he is wrong to attribute the loss of influence chiefly to the giving up of the doctrine of future punishment, which he calls the evangelicals' 'most effective argument in the winning of converts'.27It was never fear of any kind that built churches. Real faith comes from the power of God, and it was the departure of that power which is the real explanation of the catastrophic change that has occurred. The Holy Spirit does not authenticate error.
American Influence: Fundamentalism
In this period of decline there have also been other influences at work affecting English evangelicalism and the foremost of these, namely, American influence, must be mentioned before we close. Looking back to the eighteenth century it can be seen that trans-Atlantic influence was chiefly one way, from Britain to America. Jonathan Edwards' writings were the exception. But a century later the traffic of ideas was more often from America to Britain. Formative thinking came through itinerant evangelists, first C. G. Finney (in person, but more especially through his books), then D. L. Moody, with R. A. Torrey early in the twentieth century. The last of these prominent figures has been Dr Billy Graham. This is not the place to discuss what these men accomplished and thought: suffice it to say that they were all used in the conversion of souls. Not entirely unrelated to these evangelists was the holiness movement which began at Brighton and Keswick in 1875, inspired largely by the personalities of an American husband and wife team, Pearsall and Hannah Smith. At a critical moment Pearsall Smith suddenly dropped out of the proceedings but Hannah long continued to be regarded as a sound spokesperson for evangelicals. In that same year she published The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life, a book reputed to have 'sold millions of copies.' 28 Speaking of the reception she received in England, Hannah Pearsall Smith wrote: 'It delights me to see how they appreciate us. To be an American seems to be a certain passport to their favour.' 29
In the years 1910-15 American and British evangelicals combined to produce a series of books called The Fundamentals, and it was in part out of this that a new term was coined. Evangelicalism began to be called 'fundamentalism'. But it would be a mistake to suppose that the American fundamentalist movement was identical with the older British evangelicalism. On basic Christian beliefs, such as the person and work of Christ and the verbal inspiration of Scripture, they were indeed the same.30
Yet the differences were many. The creed of fundamentalism was too narrow and its doctrinal interest very limited. The literature and heritage of the older evangelicalism was scarcely known, with the result that novelties unknown to historic Christianity became regarded as sacrosanct: I refer to such things as the dispensational view of unfulfilled prophecy and the so-called 'second blessing' which was said to change the 'carnal believer' into the 'victorious Christian'. Whereas the older evangelicalism had not disparaged the need for church order and discipline, fundamentalism was far more individualistic and personality-centred. Instead of the local church being the chief means of evangelism, the itinerant evangelist and special meetings were heralded as more successful. It came to be believed that the atmosphere of the big campaign or crusade was obviously more conducive to secure immediate results, as hundreds, perhaps thousands, were seen to respond to the call to decide for Christ.
Ryle and Spurgeon had both raised their voices over dangers incipient in these new developments but they had very few successors in their convictions. For the first fifty years of the twentieth century it is probably true to say that most English evangelicals were strongly influenced by the fundamentalist ethos. It has become fashionable now to criticize fundamentalists, but without their witness there would have been very little gospel success in England in the first half of the last century, so great was the flood of liberalism and unbelief in the churches. Fundamentalists stood for the supernatural, for basic Christianity, at a time when much of the professing church had lapsed into apostasy, and they were foremost in their contribution to missionary endeavours.
The Question Which Divided Evangelicals
A major change began to occur in English evangelicalism in the 1950s. Part of that change was due to the ministry of one man, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones who had been at Westminster Chapel in the heart of London since 1938. His congregation was initially very unused to his message and so also was the wider evangelical constituency. He served that constituency, yet in a sense he did not belong to it. His thinking was largely governed by convictions which pre-dated the rise of fundamentalism. His models were the eighteenth-century men and he fed, as they did, on Puritan books. He was not a dispensationalist; he criticized the Keswick teaching on sanctification; and, when Billy Graham appeared to take London by storm in 1954-5, the minister of Westminster Chapel was conspicuous by his absence from the Graham platform. Why he thought and acted in this way became apparent when the older evangelical classical literature again began to be republished in the 1950s.
Other far reaching changes were taking place at the same time. Until this date evangelicals, both Church of England and Nonconformist, had generally remained apart from non-evangelicals when it came to evangelism. They believed that cooperation would compromise their message. But to the surprise of all, Billy Graham's London Crusades attracted the attention and the support of church leaders far removed from evangelical belief. Graham took this as a sign that the old stand-off was no longer necessary and from 1957 he renounced the 'separatist' commitment of fundamentalism. The way to influence men, he believed, was to work alongside them, provided they did not control the message. This change on the part of Graham had major impact on the Anglican evangelical/fundamentalists who were the mainstay of his English support. As their predecessors before them, these good men had hitherto exercised little influence in the Church of England as a whole. It would appear that Graham's success prompted the idea that evangelicals' lack of similar results might be due to their previous isolation.
Such thoughts as these led to a new policy launched by Anglican evangelicals in the 1960s. They announced at their Keele Congress (1967) that they were now going to be both evangelical and comprehensive in their relations with all other professing Christians. Henceforth they would be a part of the ecumenical movement. This meant a very major shift. The two other parties in the Church of England were the liberal and the Anglo-Catholic. But since the mid-nineteenth century there had been a very unexpected development in the convergence of these two, so that by the 1960s there were many bishops and clergy who were both liberal in their view of Scripture and pro-Roman Catholic. To work alongside such men the new policy of the Anglican evangelicals demanded a truce and, just as Graham found that he could not contend against error and be co-operative, so they dropped their claim that the biblical Protestantism of the Thirty-nine Articles should be the norm in the Church of England.
An unforeseen question soon arose. If evangelicals can be comprehensive and work alongside men who are not evangelicals, can it really be important to be an evangelical at all? From the time of the Reformation the word 'evangelical' literally meant a 'gospeller', i.e., one who held to the gospel. So it had been understood thereafter and, both then and in later centuries, where evangelicals were opposed the usual reason was that their opponents did not hold the same gospel.31
Yet now evangelicals conceded the ecumenical axiom that all who say they are Christians must be treated as Christians. Did that mean that evangelical belief is not necessary for salvation – that one could deny Christ's deity, or his substitutionary death and physical resurrection, and still be a Christian? So it appeared. Church historian, Charles Woodbridge, rightly foresaw the effect of this new evangelical policy when he wrote: 'First comes toleration. Then cooperation. Then contamination. This is the unvarying sequence.' 32
From this brief survey of many years of history I would draw just two final conclusions.
- It is true that to esteem unity is an important duty for every Christian. In the face of militant secularism, and the widespread failure of Christian influence, there are denominational distinctives which ought not to be allowed to hinder the common co-operation and unity of Christians in the advancement of the gospel. So the ecumenical movement is not to be condemned for questioning the continuing validity of traditional denominational differences. What is wrong with ecumenism, and with so much contemporary Christianity, is the assumption that the churches face no urgent need for a recovery of the gospel itself. But the definition of 'Christian' is perhaps as blurred today as it was before the Reformation and the Evangelical Revival. Religious unity is not and cannot be the first need of the hour, and where good men make it their priority the result is bound to be compromise and a dilution of the truth. The consequence of the toleration of serious error will always be a loss of spiritual authority and power, for these necessities are not in any man's hands: they come from the Holy Spirit and are only to be found in obedience to his Word (Josh. 1:8; Acts 5:32). On that subject Spurgeon's address, 'The Preacher's Power, and the Conditions of Obtaining It', remains of great relevance.33
- All Christian history teaches us one great lesson: it is that Christianity is a supernatural thing. Its truth will therefore survive every crisis and outlive every falsehood. To confine our view of the church to a few short and passing years is therefore a serious mistake. We need to see and remember the big picture. What changes for the better have occurred since the year 1715! At that date there were virtually no Protestant hymn books; no missionary endeavours; and no Bible translation movement, to mention but a few of a succession of blessings. And since that date what stores of Christian literature have been added to our heritage! Above all, what vast numbers of people from these intervening years are now in heaven – gathered in during times both bright and dark, and dying with the assurance of a coming resurrection. One thing only can explain all this: it is that Christ is risen and that his church must live because he lives. 'He is able to save to the uttermost,' says Scripture, 'since he ever lives' (Heb. 7:25). The history of the Christian church will therefore always be in accordance with the promise of Psalm 45:16-17:
Instead of Your fathers shall be Your sons,
Whom you shall make princes in all the earth.
I will make Your name to be remembered in all generations;
Therefore the people shall praise You forever and ever.