From the Author to the Reader
W. T. Stead (The Revival in the West: A Narrative of Facts (London, 1905)
I am a child of the Revival of 1859 – 60. I have witnessed the Revival in South Wales, and it is borne in upon me that I must testify as to what I have seen and know.
I have been urged and entreated to speak in public on the subject. I have refused, although sorely tempted to comply. But though I am not physically strong enough to face the immense strain which public speaking always makes upon my nervous system, I cannot keep silent. Woe is me if I bear not my testimony, and bear it now! For never is it so true as in times of Revival that Now is the accepted time. Now is the day of salvation.
That is not a mere hackneyed text; it is a somewhat awe-inspiring fact. A fact, not a theory. The importance of the psychological moment so much insisted upon by Bismarck is as true in religion as in politics. It is the familiar truth, which all admit in other departments of life.
“There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows, and in miseries.”
Let me preface my narrative, as is the custom in all meetings when the awakened soul cries for facts from the experience of living men rather than for things at second-hand, by stating briefly how I came to be able to speak with knowledge of the mysterious force operating upon the heart of men which is in action at times of Revival.
I first woke up to a sense of my own sinfulness when I was a child of eleven. I was a child of the Manse. My father was an Independent minister, and both my parents were earnest, devoted Evangelical Christians. Independents sixty years ago were more Calvinistic than are their present-day representatives, and a sense of the exceeding sinfulness of sin and of the grim reality of the wrath of God permeated the atmosphere of our home. The higher the ideal of life and conduct to which we were taught to aspire, the more bitterly and constantly we were compelled to realize by every childish fault of selfishness or of temper how true it was that we had all sinned and come short of the glory of God. We were condemned by our own consciences. Even when we would do good, evil was present with us. How could we, with all our imperfections, our sins, and our short-comings, think without a shudder of the day when all secrets were revealed, and the soul, stripped bare of all wrappings and pretence, had to render account to its Maker for all the deeds that had been done in the body? It is the fashion of our day to regard such striving after the ideal as morbid; but although the phraseology may need revision, the essential truth remains the same.
It is not surprising, then, that one night, at eleven years of age, when I went to bed, I was seized with an appalling sense of my own unworthiness, my own exceeding sinfulness. God was so good, and I was so bad — I deserved to be damned. I accepted as a postulate the infinite goodness of God, and I knew only too well how often I had done the things I ought not to have done, and left undone the things I ought to have done, and that there was no strength in me. I sobbed and cried in the darkness with a vague sense of my own sin and of the terrible doom which awaited me. I had a passionate longing to escape from condemnation and be forgiven. At last my mother overheard me, took me into her arms, and told me comforting things about the love of God, and how it was made manifest by Jesus Christ, who had suffered in our stead, to save us from condemnation, and make us heirs of heaven. I have no remembrance of anything beyond the soothing caress of my mother’s words. When she left me the terror had gone; and although I had not in any way experienced the change which is called conversion, I felt sufficiently tranquil to go to sleep. When I woke the memory of the previous nights alarm was but as the remembrance of a thunderstorm when it has passed.
This was in the year 1860, when the Revival which had begun in the United States of America in 1857 or 1858 crossed the Atlantic, traversed the north of Ireland in 1858, covered Wales in 1859, and then moved into England, where its influence was felt all through 1860 and 1861.
In luly, 1861, I was sent to a boarding school for Congregational ministers’ sons, to which some sons of laymen were also admitted, at Silcoates Hall, near Wakefield. There were about fifty of us boys, from ten years old to sixteen or seventeen. The tradition of the school in the fifties and in 1860 had not been distinctly religious. All of us came from Christian homes, but as a school it was very much like other schools. About a month after I entered Silcoates some of the lads started a prayer meeting of their own in a summerhouse in the garden. They asked me to join, and I went more out of curiosity, and to oblige my chum, than for any other motive. There were about half-a-dozen of us, perhaps more, none of us over fourteen. We read a chapter in the Bible, and we prayed. No master was present, nor was there any attempt made on the part of the masters to encourage the prayer meeting. One master, indeed, was frankly contemptuous. The majority of the boys had nothing to do with the prayer-meeting fellows. One or two of us were under deep conviction of sin, and we talked among ourselves, and read the Bible, and prayed. Suddenly one day, after the prayer meeting had been going on for a week or two, there seemed to be a sudden change in the atmosphere. How it came about no one ever knew. All that we did know was that there seemed to have descended from the sky, with the suddenness of a drenching thunder shower, a spirit of intense earnest seeking after God for the forgiveness of sins and consecration to His service. The summerhouse was crowded with boys. A deputation waited upon the principal, and told him what was happening. He was very sympathetic and helpful. Preparation class was dispensed with that night; all the evening the prayer meeting was kept going, There was no singing, only Bible reading, a few brief words of exhortation, a confession of sin, and asking for prayers, and ever and anon a joyful acknowledgement of an assurance of forgiveness. Those of us who could not find peace were taken out into the playground by one or two of their happier comrades, who laboured with them to accept Christ. How well to this very day do I remember the solemn hush of that memorable day and night, in the course of which forty out of the fifty lads publicly professed conversion. Only half-a-dozen out of the whole school, and these exclusively of the oldest boys, held aloof from the movement, and were prayed for jointly and severally by name by their converted comrades.
I remember the way in which it came to me that my sins were forgiven, and that from being a rebel against God I was admitted into the family of the redeemed. I had no ecstasy. Alas! my temperament is not subject to ecstasies. My friend, a lad of my own age, was walking by my side plying me diligently with texts, and appealing to me to believe only in Christ. As we walked and talked together it slowly seemed to dawn upon my mind that I had been saved all the time, and had never known it till just then. Saved not by any merit of my own, but because in some mysterious way, positively asserted in the New Testament, and verified by the experience of all the best human beings whom I knew or had heard of, the death of Christ had reconciled the world to God. He had borne my sins, therefore they were no longer on record against me. There was no condemnation for those who were in Christ Jesus. And who were “in Christ Jesus”? The whole human race, excepting those who thrust themselves out of His fold, and would none of Him. In short, it seemed to me that I had always inverted the position. Instead of thinking I had to do some strange spiritual act described as coming to Jesus, when my sins would be forgiven and I should be adopted as a Son of God, I came to see that Christ had already reconciled me to God, had forgiven my sins, thousands of years before they had been committed, and that I had just to accept the position in which He had graciously placed me. Of my own self I could have done nothing. I was a sinner, not only in the sight of God, but in my own inner consciousness. I had been made in the image of God, and had unmade myself into the image of a very ordinary, bad-tempered, selfish lad, not perhaps more bad-tempered or more selfish than other twelve-year old lads, but a very ordinary sinner, not by any means the saint and the hero which I ought to have been. I was a poor wretch, but God in His unspeakable love and mercy had blotted out my sins, and taken me into junior — very junior — partnership with Himself. The terms were, on my side, that I had to do what He told, me, and, on His side, that He would tell me quite clearly what He wanted me to do. And although I had no ecstasy, and was gladdened by no heavenly vision, a sense of great peace and deliverance settled upon me.
I was seized with the longing to tell others of the discovery I had made — that we were saved all the time if we only knew it, and that God was a great deal more anxious to take us into partnership than we were to accept so gracious an offer. Writing was a sore cross to me, at 12, but I wrote to my parents and told them the good news. I wrote to my elder sister, urging her to be converted. We had prayer circles for the conversion of our unconverted comrades. In the fervour of my boyish zeal I decided to be a missionary, and applied myself all the more diligently to my lessons. About twenty of us joined the Church as communicants. Every night during the two years I was at Silcoates the prayer meeting was kept up by the lads. Half an hour after tea, before preparation, was given to the prayer meeting. But — and this brings me to the point of all this confession of personal experience — although the tone of the school was kept up at a high level, and although the prayer meeting was kept going, and the solid fruits of the Revival lasted all the time I was there, we never had another conversion after that strange outpouring of the Spirit which overwhelmed us all, unexpectant, at the beginning of the term. Those who were brought in during the Revival week stood for the most part firm, those who stood out against the Revival never came in afterwards. Neither, so far as I remember, with perhaps one or two exceptions, did the new lads who entered school later on seek or find conversion.
I am not setting forth the conception of the relation between man and his Maker embodied in the foregoing narrative as if it were the truth of God to any other soul excepting my own. And for those who deny both God and the soul, I am willing, for the sake of argument, to admit that the whole episode in my life was nothing more or less than the delusion of something that imagined itself to be a soul as to the reality of its relations with a nullity which it imagined was its Creator. The truth or the falsehood of my notions is, in this immediate connection, quite immaterial. For what I am wanting to insist upon is, first, that these seasons of spiritual exaltation which we call Revivals are realities to those who come under their influence, permanently affecting their whole future lives; and, secondly, that they come like the wind and vanish as mysteriously, and that those who resist them may never again feel so potent a call to a higher life.
It is this sense of the fact that the Revival, when it comes, does not stop but passes on, which fills me with such a sense of the infinite importance of this present time, that I feel I must do what I can to bring to the knowledge of as many persons as I can reach, the glad tidings of great joy that a Revival of Religion is once more in our midst.
The old story of the man who was gathering eggs from the face of a precipitous cliff always recurs to me at such seasons of opportunity. The man, clinging to a rope, had lowered himself from the overhanging edge of a beetling cliff, till he was opposite the ledge where the seabirds laid their eggs. Owing to the extent to which the brow of the cliff overhung the sea, whose waves were dashing 203 feet below, the egg-gatherer found himself some ten feet distant from the ledge of the nests. By swaying to and fro, he was able to make himself swing as a pendulum outward and inward, until at last the extreme inward swing of the rope brought him to the ledge, on to which he sprang. As he did so he lost hold of the rope. There he stood for one awful moment midway between sea and sky. The rope swinging outward after he had quitted his hold was returning like a pendulum. It came, but not so far as to enable him to clutch it from where he stood. Outward it swung again, and he realized with agony that as each time it swayed to and fro it would be further and further off, until at last it would hang stationary far out of his reach. When the rope began slowly to swing inwards, he saw that the next time it would be out of his reach. Breathless, he waited until the rope was just about to pause before swinging back, then, knowing that it was now or never, he leapt into space, caught the rope, and was saved. Another second and he would have lost his chance. It is just so, it seems to me, with Revivals. They come and they go, and if they are not utilized the opportunity goes by — in some cases forever.
For the Churches the Revival is like spring. The good seed sown then springs up and bears fruit, whereas ten times the quantity of seed sown in winter’s frost or summers heat would simply perish. But in these prefatory observations I am not thinking of the Churches so much as of the individual reader who does not believe, who is not converted, and who is only idly curious as to whether there is anything in this Revival business, or whether there is not. It is for them that I have told, for the first time in my life, the story of how a Revival affected me, and what I know of it at first hand. And there is one other point upon which I think I may fairly claim to speak at first hand, and that is as to the effect of that expenence at Silcoates in 186l upon my own life. Whatever may be the objective reality of the altered relations which I then recognized as existing between my soul and its Maker, there is absolutely no question as to the abiding nature of the change it effected in my life. It is forty-three years since that Revival at school. The whole of my life during all these forty-three years has been influenced by the change which men call conversion which occurred with me when I was twelve. My views as to many things have naturally broadened much in these forty-three years. But that was the conscious starting point of everything that there has been in my life of good or of service for my fellow-creatures. It was my first conversion. Other spiritual experiences, involving a wider conception of the reality of God in man, a deeper sense of the need for self-surrender, I have had, and hope yet to have. But the fundamental change, the conscious recognition of the fact that I had been most graciously allotted a junior partnership with God Almighty in the great task of making this world a little bit more like heaven than it is today, came to me then. My life has been flawed with many failures, darkened with many sins, but the thing in it which was good, which has enabled me to resist temptations to which I would otherwise have succumbed, to bear burdens which would otherwise have crushed me with their weight, and which has kept the soul within me ever joyfully conscious that, despite all appearances to the contrary, this is God’s world, and that He and I are fellow-workers in the work of its renovation — that potent thing, whatever you may call it, and however you may explain it, came into my life there, and abides with me to this hour; — my one incentive and inspiration in this life; my sole hope for that which is to come.
Therefore I hope my reader will understand how it is that I, being a child of the Revival of 1858 to 1861, should hail with exceeding great joy the reappearance of the Revival in 1904. For as the mysterious out-powering of the blessing forty-three years ago has been of permanent belp and strength and comfort to my own life ever since that time, so will this Revival in the West change, transform, inspire, and glorify the lives of multitudes who at present know nothing and care nothing for the things that make for their own peace and the welfare of their fellowmen.
And the thought that haunts me and will not let me rest until I send out this little hook is that if I do not write it, and write it now, yon, my reader, may not hear the bugle call which is sounding in the West; the Revival may pass by, and, too late, you may awake to discover that you have missed the gift of God which it bore for your soul.