Over the past nine months we have been trying to learn a little church history. Each month we have opened a window on one century from the last millennium. Incidentally, this is good preparation for our New Year’s Eve service, at which we hope to have some special testimonies tracing the worldwide work of the gospel during the last one thousand years.
Tonight we come to the eighteenth century, which was marked by an unusual outpouring of God’s Spirit. The Great Awakening, as it is called, may have begun among a group of German Protestants known as the Moravians. In 1727 a nobleman named Count Zinzendorf (1700-1760) offered his property as a refuge for Christians who were persecuted for their faith. The refugees who gathered on his lands promised that they would live together in true Christian brotherhood.
Not many months after they started their community, the Moravian Brethren became conscious of a special nearness of God’s presence. Their meetings were marked by passionate praise for Christ and public confession of sin. Then came the day which Zinzendorf described as “a day of the outpourings of the Holy Spirit upon the congregation.” As a result of this spiritual awakening, the Moravians committed themselves to pray for the worldwide spread of the Gospel. They met in pairs to pray hour by hour around the clock, an “Hourly Intercession” which continued for more than one hundred years.
The Moravians sent missionaries to other countries, and it was at a Moravian meeting in London that the English preacher John Wesley (1703-1791) was converted. Wesley had long been a churchman, and even a missionary, but he was not a born-again Christian. “I went to America to convert the Indians,” he lamented, “but O who will convert me!” The answer turned out to be the Moravians. In 1738 Wesley attended one of their prayer meeting at Aldersgate in London. It was there that “I felt my heart strangely warmed,” he later wrote. “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given to me that he had taken away my sins.”
Wesley became a successful evangelist throughout Britain and America, often preaching out of doors. But he was not the only one. At the same time, God was pouring out his Spirit on many ministers and many churches in many places. Here in Philadelphia the great Calvinist George Whitefield (1714-1770) preached the gospel to an audience estimated in the tens of thousands. Down in Virginia, by the providence of God, a slaveholder found a few pages torn from Thomas Boston’s wonderful book The Fourfold State of Man. Not only was the man converted, but a revival broke out among his slaves. Up in Massachusetts there was revival in the church pastored by Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). It was Edward’s’ grandfather Solomon Stoddard (1643-1729) who offered one of the best definitions of spiritual awakening: “There are some special Seasons wherein God doth in a remarkable Manner revive Religion among his People. God doth not always carry on his work in the church in the same Proportion… there be times wherein there is a plentiful Effusion of the Spirit of God, and Religion is in a more flourishing Condition.”
Wherever true religion flourishes, society is transformed. Wesley, Whitefield, and Edwards preached in times that were just as immoral as our own. Substance abuse was common, chiefly in the form of alcoholism. Biblical Christians were distressed by the prevalence of sins like gambling, adultery, slavery, and infanticide. Edwards complained that “there is very little appearance of zeal for the mysterious and spiritual doctrines of Christianity; and they never were so ridiculed, and had in contempt, as they are in the present age… . never [was there] any age wherein was so much scoffing at, and ridiculing the gospel of Christ… as there is at this day” [“A History of the Work of Redemption,” in The Great Awakening, ed. by Alan Heimert and Perry Miller (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967), 21]. Yet the Great Awakening brought significant changes. In England it probably prevented the violent kind of revolution suffered in France. In America it ensured that the United States would become a profoundly Christian nation. It led to the founding of many Ivy League institutions—including our own University of Pennsylvania—as explicitly Christian colleges. Most important of all, many souls were saved.
Whenever I study the Great Awakening, I feel pangs of longing. Our culture is dying a long, slow spiritual death. We would rather be entertained than edified, which is why we prefer to celebrate perversion than to forbid it, and why we prefer to take innocent life than to preserve it. The only thing that can save us is a new awakening in which “the Spirit is poured upon us from on high” (Isa. 32:15a).
If God did send his Spirit to awaken us, he would come first to the church. God is always at work among us, but I sometimes wonder what the Holy Spirit would do if he visited us with a revival of biblical proportions. Probably, he would do what he did when he awakened the little church pastored by Jonathan Parsons (1705-1776) at the beginning of the Great Awakening. Here is what happened, in Parsons’ own words:
The Summer following my Ordination there was a great Effusion of the Holy Spirit upon the People. There appear’d to be an uncommon Attention to the Preaching of the Word, and… a remarkable Concern about Salvation. ’Twas a general Inquiry among the Middle aged and Youth, What must I do to be saved? Great Numbers came to my Study… under manifest Concern about their Souls. I seldom went into a House among my Neighbours, but they had some free Discourse about Religion, or were searching after the Meaning of some Texts of Scripture… . [I]n less than ten Months fifty-two Persons were added to the Church. There were several whole Families baptiz’d. Many of the young People were greatly reformed [“Account of the Revival at Lyme,” in Great Awakening, 37].
That is more than we deserve, I know, but I long to see it, and it is not too much to pray for.
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