The National Significance of Revivals

The National Significance of Revivals

W. T. Stead (The Revival in the West: A Narrative of Facts (London, 1905)

Slowly the Bible of the race is writ,
And not on paper leaves nor leaves of stone,
Each age, each kindred adds a verse to it,
Texts of despair or hope, of joy or moan;
While swings the sea, while mists the mountains shroud,
While thunders surges burst on cliffs of cloud,
Still at the prophets feet the nations sit.

One of these newly written verses is spelling itself out before our eyes in Wales. In order to understand its significance we need to look backward across some centuries to realize what vast issues may be in this upheaval among the Welsh country folk.

The word Revival is not to be found in the index to the latest edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Neither does it figure in the comprehensive index to Baring-Goulds Lives of the Saints. Yet the Saints were great Revivalists, and the history of the progress of the world is largely made up of the record of successive Revivals. The Revival of Religion has been the invariable precursor of social and political reform. This was very admirably put by the Rev. F. B. Meyer in his Presidential Address to the Ninth National Council of the Evangelical Free Churches at Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1904.

Every great Revival of religion has issued in social and political reconstruction. In no history has the effect of the one upon the other been more carefully traced than in Green’s History of the English People. Take, for instance, his account of the Revival of the twelfth century. “At the close of Henry’s reign,” he says, “and throughout that of Stephen, England was stirred by the first of those great religious movements which it was afterwards to experience in the preaching of the Friars, the Lollardism of Wyclif, the Reformation, the Puritan enthusiasm, and the mission work of the Wesleys. Everywhere, in town and country, men banded themselves together for prayer; hermits flocked to the woods; noble and churl welcomed the austere Cistereians as they spread over the moors and forests of the North. A new spirit of devotion woke the slumbers of the religious houses, and penetrated alike to the homes of the noble and the trader. The power of this Revival eventually became strong enough to wrest England from the chaos of feudal misrule after a long period of feudal anarchy, and laid the foundations of the Great Charta.” We may go further, and assert that the movements which led to the abolition of the Slave Trade and the Com Laws originated in the evangelistic efforts of Wesley and Whitefield. Even Mr. Benjamin Kidd, in his “Social Evolution,” lays great stress on the religious foundations upon which civilization rests. He tells us that the intellect has always mistaken the nature of religious forces, and regarded them as beneath its notice, though they had within them power to control the course of human development for hundreds and even thousands of years. Discussing the opposition of the educated classes in England to progress, he says: “The motive force behind the long list of progressive measures has not, to any appreciable extent, come from the educated classes — it has come almost exclusively from the middle and lower classes, who have in turn acted, not under the stimulus of intellectual motives, but under the influence of their religious feelings. It is, therefore, on the authority of history and economics that we base our contention that society can only be saved through a great Revival of Religion.”

There are certain phenomena which precede and which follow Revivals of Religion. The symptoms premonitory of a Revival are the phenomena of death, corruption, and decay. It is ever the darkest hour before the dawn. The nation always seems to be given over to the Evil One before the coming of the Son of Man. The decay of religious faith, the deadness of the Churches, the atheism of the well-to-do, the brutality of the masses, all these, when at their worst, herald the approach of the Revival. Things seem to get too bad to last. The reign of evil becomes intolerable. Then the soul of the nation awakes.

That the familiar phenomena of the reign of sin are with us and abound, no serious observer will dispute. As a nation we have once more stooped to those depths of bloody mire in which from time to time Britain has wallowed. Drunkenness, gambling, and gluttony, with others of the seven deadly sins, abound. Worldliness is universal. High ideals are eclipsed. Plain living and high thinking are at a discount. To see as in a mirror the vacuous mind of a generation which eschews serious thought you have only to read the popular newspapers and periodicals of the day.

Life has become for the comfortable classes little better than a musical comedy. You look in vain for the strenuous, high-spirited youth who scorn delights and live laborious days in order to achieve some thing of good for their fellowmen. To have a good time is the end-all and be-all of millions. Indolence, indifference, and selfishness so dominate that even the healthy game of football has become little better than a modem substitute for the gladiatorial sports of ancient Rome — the winter gambling bell that replaces the summer racecourse. Our young men do not play themselves, they look on while professionals play.

In politics degradation shows itself chiefly in the indifference to blood-shed and the waste of the resources of our own people in making believe to be ready to slaughter our neighbours. As a condemnation alike of the morality and intellect of the nation, the Army and Navy expenditure of Britain for the last twelve years stands without a parallel. Here we have the very note of the decadence of our time. That way madness lies, and the supreme and crowning demonstration of the criminal lunacy which has overtaken us is afforded by the proposal to tax the bread and sugar of the poor in order to meet the demands of insatiate Mars.

If, therefore, a Revival never comes until the nation has sunk into the slough of luxury and vice, and wallows in brutality and crime, then this precursory symptom is assuredly not wanting in the present situation. It is interesting to turn over the pages of Green’s History of the English People and to note how invariably the Revival is preceded by a penod of corruption and followed by a great advance in the direction of national progress.

Take, for instance, what he tells us about the state of England on the eve of the second Revival. The effect of the first Revival had passed away by the middle of the thirteenth century. The second was brought about by the Franciscans and the Dominicans.

Speaking of the coming of the Friars, Mr. Green says:

The religious hold of the priesthood on the people was loosening day by day . . . . . The disuse of preaching, the decline of the monastic orders into rich landowners, the non-residence and ignorance of the parish priests, robbed the clergy of their spiritual influence. The abuses of the times foiled even the energy of such men as Bishop Grosseteste, of Lincoln. To bring the world back again within the pale of the Church was the aim of two religious orders which sprang suddenly into life in the opening of the thirteenth century.

He then describes how the Revival due to the Black Friars of St. Dominic and the Grey Friars of St. Francis swept in a great tide of popular enthusiasm over the land. They carried the Gospel to the poor by the entire reversal of the Older Monasticism by seeking personal salvation in effort for the salvation of their fellowmen. Their fervid appeal, coarse wit, and familiar story brought religion into the fair and the market place. They captured the University of Oxford, and made it stand in the front line in its resistance to Papal ex-actions and its claim of English liberty.

The classes in the towns on whom the influence of the Friars told most directly were the steady supporters of freedom throughout the Barons War. Adam Marsh was the closest friend and confidant both of Grosseteste and Earl Simon of Montfort.

Thus, if the first Revival preceded the signing of the Magna Charta, the second paved the way for the assembly of the first English Parliament.

The third Revival mentioned by Green was that of Wycliffe. The second Revival had spent its force in a hundred years. The Church of the Middle Ages had, at the middle of the fourteenth century, sunk to its lowest point of spiritual decay. The clergy were worldly and corrupt, and paralysed by their own dissensions. The early enthusiasm of the Friars had died away, leaving a crowd of impudent mendicants behind. Then Wycliffe arose. He recalled the ideal of the Kingdom of God before the eyes of mankind, and established his order of Simple Priests or Poor Preachers, who, with coarse speech and russet dress, preached the Gospel throughout the land with such success that the enemy declared in alarm that “every second man one meets is a Lollard”. Wycliffe died, but the seed he had sowed sprang up and bore terrible fruit in the Peasant Revolt, which, although ultimately trampled out in bloodshed, was the first great warning given to the landlords of England that the serf not only had the rights of man, but was capable on occasion of asserting them, even by such extreme measures as the decapitation of an Archbishop.

The fourth Revival was that which preceded the Reformation. Tyndale, with his translation of the Bible, blew upon the smouldering embers of Lollardry and they burst into flame. The new Scriptures were disputed, rimed, sung, and jangled in every tavern and ale-house. From that revival of popular religion among the masses came by tortuous roads the triumph of Protestantism.

After the Reformation and the Renaissance had achieved their culminating glory in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, a period of decadence and of corruption set in under the Stuarts. Under James I, Whitehall became an Augæan stable of all uncleanness, and a vicious Court assailed the liberties of England. Against this corruption in high places a fierce religious rebellion broke out amongst the serious English folk. The Puritan Revival of the first half of the seventeenth century had two notable offshoots. The first was the founding of New England by the men of the Mayflower; the other was the founding of the English Commonwealth by the Ironsides of Cromwell. The great struggle of the seventeenth century was primarily religious, only secondarily political. As Green remarks, “There was one thing dearer in England than free speech in Parliament, than security for property, or even personal liberty, and that one thing was, in the phrase of the day, the Gospel.” It was the religious Revival that summoned Milton from literature to politics. So long as the question between King and Parliament was purely political, he shut himself up with his books and “calmly awaited the issue of the contest, which I trusted to the wise conduct of Providence and to the courage of the people.” But when men began to demand the reforming of the Church in accordance with the Word of God, Milton tells us in his Second Defence of the People of England:

This awakened all my attention and my zeal. I saw that a way was opening for the establishment of real liberty, that the foundation was laying for the deliverance of man from the yoke of slavery and superstition, that the principles of religion, which were the first objects of our care, would exert a salutary influence on the manners and constitution of the republic: and as I had from my youth studied the distinction between religious and civil rights, I perceived that if I ever wished to be of use I ought at least not to be wanting to my country, to the Church, and to so many of my fellow-Christians in a crisis of so much danger. I therefore determined to relinquish the other pursuits in which I was engaged, and to transfer the whole force of my talents and industry to this one important subject.

Others besides Milton felt the imperious call of the religious movement of his time. Nor did its impulse fail until the death of Oliver Cromwell opened the door to the rabble rout of the Restoration.

Once more England plunged heavily towards the nethermost abyss, and once again a great Revival of Religion took place to save the soul of the nation from perdition. It was partly due to the relentless persecution of the Nonconformists, but it owed much also to the flaming zeal of the Quakers, who were the great Revivalists of the second half of the seventeenth century. The Government had at one time in horrible dungeons as many as four thousand of these excellent men. Professor William James truly says of the Quaker religion that it is something which it is impossible to over praise.

In a day of shams, it was a religion of veracity rooted in spiritual inwardness and a return to something more like the original Gospel truth than men had ever known in England. So far as our Christian sects today are evolving into liberality, they are simply reverting in essence to the position which Fox and the early Quakers so long ago assumed.

The Quaker Revival had as its immediate political result the founding of Pennsylvania, and among its more remote and indirect effects the final expulsion of the Stuarts.

Quakerism, tolerated, lost much of the savoury salt that it possessed when it was kept up to the standard of the apostles by the sufferings of the martyrs. The reversion of the English people, especially of the highest and the lowest, to sheer paganism is one of the most constant phenomena of our history. After the Stuarts had vanished and the Protestant succession secured, the land relapsed into brutality and infidelity in the eighteenth century, as it had done in every century since the Conquest.

Then came the seventh and best known Revival of all under Wesley and Whitefield. Once again England had gone rotten at the head. In the higher circles of society every one laughs, said Montesquien on his visit to England, if one talks of religion. Of the prominent statesmen of the time, the greater part were unbelievers in any form of Christianity, and distinguished for the grossness and immorality of their lives. As at the top, so at the bottom. The masses were brutalized beyond belief. In London, at one time, gin-shops invited every passer-by to get drunk for a penny, and dead drunk for two-pence. But in the midst of this moral wilderness a religious Revival sprang up which carried to the hearts of the people a fresh spirit of moral zeal, while it purified our literature and our manners. “A new philanthropy reformed our prisons, infused clemency and wisdom into our penal laws, abolished the slave trade, and gave the first impulse to popular education.” The Revival then was not without many features which caused the sinner to blaspheme. “Women fell down in convulsions; strong men were smitten suddenly to the earth; the preacher was interrupted by bursts of hysteric laughter or hysteric sobbing.” Very foolish and absurd, no doubt, sniggered the superior persons of that day. But if Mr. Lecky and other observers may be believed, it was that foolishness of the Methodist Revival that saved the children of these superior persons from having their heads sheared off by an outburst of revolutionary frenzy similar to that of the Reign of Terror.

About the same time that Wesley was preaching in England a great Revival broke out in Wales, of which one of the outward and visible signs most plainly perceptible amongst us today is the fact of the Welsh revolt against the Education Act. That the Liberal party commands today a solid majority among the Welsh members is the direct result of the Revival of 1759, which is associated with the name of Howell Harris, a layman of the Church of England, who, while taking part in the Litany in his parish church, became suddenly filled with a fervent zeal, and went forth to preach the Gospel to his fellowmen. At first the movement was within the pale of the Church. Ten beneficed clergymen were among the Revivalists of that day. What would have happened if the Anglican authorities had possessed the wisdom of the serpent and had followed the example of the Church of Rome in utilizing the zeal of her enthusiasts to extend her own borders, who can say? But the problem never arose. The Anglican Church, true to its evil traditions, cast out the Revivalists, and Welsh Nonconformity was born. Modem Wales is the direct product of the Revival of the eighteenth century.

As a leading Baptist minister said, writing on this subject on November 19th:

The Nonconformist bodies of Wales owe their origin to Religious Revivals, two to that of the seventeenth century and two to that of the eighteenth century. Wales has to thank her past Revivals for the greater part of the energy exhibited in her national, political, and social life. In the Revivals with which the people of Wales have been blessed of God, His Spirit engraved upon the conscience of the nation the terribly solemn truths of existence and the things which belong unto her peace. This gave to her men of Conviction and of courage, and taught her to aspire to all that is good and noble, and whatever her achievements are religiously and socially, they are due mainly to the stimulus received during periods of outpouring of the Spirit of God.

In the nineteenth century the Tractarian Movement may be regarded by some as a Revival. But it was neither preceded by great apathy nor followed by vigorous political progress. The most notable Revival of the century was that which broke out in the United States in the latter end of the fifties, and which spread in a few years over Ulster and Wales, and from thence made its way into England and Scotland. The Revival seems to travel in the opposite direction to the sun. The great Revival of 1740, under Jonathan Edwards in New England, preceded by many years the Welsh Revival under Howell Harris and the English Revival under Wesley and Whitefield. In like manner the Revival that touched Wales in 1859 and England in the early sixties had its birth in 1857 or 1858 across the Atlantic, where it was the direct precursor of the great civil war and the emancipation of the slaves. The Revival of 1859 to 1861 coincided with the closing years of Whig domination, and was followed very speedily by a great movement of popular reform. There was no direct connection between the establishment of household suffrage and the penitent forms and prayer meetings of 1859 and 1861. “Post hoc” is not “propter hoc”. But when Reform follows Revival, the plain man may be pardoned if he sees some connection between the two other than mere coincidence. The coincidence, if it be such, is surely very remarkable The record of Revivals in English history runs thus: —

12th.   century
The Cistercian
Magna Charta.
13th.       "
The Friars
Parliamentary Government.
14th.       "
The Peasant Revolt.
16th.       "
The Reformation.
17th.       "
The Fall of Despotism and the Founding of New England.
17½th.    "
The Revolution of 1688 and Founding of Pennsylvania.
18th.       "
The Era of Reform.
19th.       "
The Era of Democracy.
20th        "
Who can say?

To the observer of the phenomena of national growth and the evolution of society these periodical Revivals of Religion are as marked a phenomenon in the history of England, possibly of other lands, as the processions of the seasons. To appreciate the prophetic significance of a religious Revival does not necessarily involve any acceptance of the truth of the religion. All that we have to recognize is that the history of human progress in this country has always followed a certain course, which in its main features is as invariable as the great changes which make up our year. Always there is the winter of corruption, of luxury, of indolence, of vice, during which the nation seems to have forgotten God, and to have given itself up to drunkenness, gambling, avarice, and impurity. Men’s hearts fail them for fear, and the love of many grows cold. It is the season when, through most of the day, the sun withholds his beams, and a bitter frost chills all the nobler aspirations of the soul. Through such a period of eclipse we have been passing during the last few years. But as the rainbow in the ancient story stands eternal in the heavens as a proof that summer and winter, seed time and harvest, shall fail not, so after such periods of black and bitter wintry reaction always comes the gracious spring-tide with healing in its wings.

And, as we have seen, the outward and visible sign of the coming of spring in the history of the nation is a great revival of religious earnestness — a sudden and widespread outburst of evangelistic fervour. We may dislike many of its manifestations, as we dislike the winds of March or the showers of April, but they occur in almost identical fashion century after century. The form changes. The preaching of the Friars was not exactly the same as the preaching of the Methodists. Wycliffe’s Poor Preachers and the Early Friends differed both in dialect and in doctrine. But at bottom all the English Revivals have been identical. One and all represent the spring-time of faith in the heart of man, a sudden rediscovery that life is given him not to please his senses, but to serve his Maker, and that time is but the vestibule of Eternity. The sense of the reality of an ever-living God within, around, above, beneath, in whom we live and move and have our being, and the related sense of a never-dying soul, whose destiny throughout numberless æons of the future years will be influenced by the way in which each day of our mortal probation is spent — these two great truths are rediscovered afresh by the English people every century. The truths blossom in the national heart at these times of spiritual spring-tide as the hawthorn blossoms on the hedge in the merry month of May.

That the Revival time passes is true. So passes spring-tide with its flowers. But as spring is followed by summer, so the Revival of Religion in this country has ever been followed by the summer of reform and the harvest of garnered fruit. It is this which ought to make every thoughtful person of all creeds, or of no creed, watch with the keenest interest the symptoms which indicate the coming of a National Revival. Untill this nation goes to the penitent form, it never really pulls itself together for any serious work.