The 18th Century Great Commission Resurgence: The call for repentance
What precedes genuine revival and the spiritual renewal of God’s churches? In the last installment (Dec. 24 Messenger), we noted that there was prayer. Generally speaking no genuine movement of God has taken place in the history of the church without it being preceded by prayer. But there is also repentance on the part of God’s people preceding such awakenings and calls for repentance to admit that we have not been what we should have been. Such a call for repentance can be seen preceding the First Great Commission Resurgence in the 18th Century.
In 1785, the year after the Prayer Call was issued by the Baptists of the Northamptonshire Association, Andrew Fuller, who would become one of the leading pastors in this group of churches, wrote a small tract called Causes of Declension in Religion, and Means of Revival (for the entire tract, see http://baptisthistoryhomepage.com). In it, he outlined the spiritual apathy then reigning among many Baptists of his day.
“It is to be feared the old puritanical way of devoting ourselves wholly to be the Lord’s, resigning up our bodies, souls, gifts, time, property, with all we have and are to serve Him, and frequently renewing these covenants before Him, is now awfully neglected. This was to make a business of religion, a life’s work, and not merely an accidental affair, occurring but now and then, and what must be attended to only when we can spare time from other arrangements. Few seem to aim, pray, and strive after eminent love to God and one other. Many appear to be contented if they can but remember the time when they had such love in exercise, and then, tacking to it the notion of perseverance without the thing, they go on and on, satisfied, it seems, if they do but make shift just to get to Heaven at last, without much caring how. If we were in a proper spirit, the question with us would not so much be ‘What must I do for God?’ as, ‘What can I do for God?’ A servant that heartily loves his master counts it a privilege to be employed by him, yea, an honour to be entrusted with any of his concerns.”
Many, Fuller noted, were merely content to get to “Heaven without concerning themselves overly about how they get there.” The practice of giving oneself wholly to God that had been common among the 17th-Century Puritans had generally ceased to be part of late 18th-Century Baptist spirituality. This apathy was well revealed in the question, “What I must do for God?” In other words, they were asking, “What is the minimum I must do to get to Heaven?”
Seeking to change this dire situation, Fuller suggested:
If it is required “What then is to be done? Wherein in particular can we glorify God more than we have done?”, we answer by asking: Is there no room for amendment? Have we been sufficiently earnest and constant in private prayer? Are there none of us who have opportunities to set apart particular times to pray for the effusion of the Holy Spirit? Can we do more than we have done in instructing our families? Are there none of our dependents, workmen, or neighbours who we might speak to, at least so far as to ask them to go and hear the Gospel? Can we rectify nothing in our tempers and behaviour in the world so as better to recommend religion? Cannot we watch more? Cannot we save a little more of our substance to give to the poor? In a word, is there no room or possibility left for our being more meek, loving and resembling the blessed Jesus than we have been?
Here, Fuller listed five ways in which his fellow Baptists could prepare themselves for renewal. At the top of the list is prayer. We have already seen the way in which these Baptists were turning to the Lord in prayer. Then, Fuller noted, there must be the cultivation of Christianity in the home. Real Christianity is seen in the home and this involves, in part, teaching one’s children the truths of the Bible. Then there are opportunities for witnessing to unbelievers that need to be seized. There must also be an honest examination of what needs to be changed in one’s character and purposefully seeking to change it. The Holy Spirit works in and with the believer, never apart from him, as he seeks to develop a Christ-like character. Finally, there is to be a development of a spirit of generosity to those in need. It is noteworthy that Jonathan Edwards, the theologian of revival in the 18th Century, saw such a concern for the poor as a mark of one truly revived.
However, Fuller went on to stress, one’s heart attitude was also important.
“Think it not sufficient that we lament and mourn over our departures from God,” he said. “We must return to him with full purpose of heart.”
As Fuller reflected on this matter of heart-renewal, he urged his readers to “cherish a greater love to the truths of God” and to “cultivate love to one another” by taking seriously the responsibilities of being a member of a local church.
Thus, there was personal and corporate reformation taking place before revival came. As we shall see, though, an element of theological reformation would also be needed.
Michael A.G. Haykin is professor of church hsitory and biblical spirituality at Southern Seminary in Louisville, Ky.