“Lord, I have heard of Your fame;
I stand in awe of Your deeds, O Lord.
Renew them in our day,
in our time make them known;
In wrath remember mercy.” -Hab. 3.2
At the start of the 18th century, England was in a more depraved moral and spiritual condition than she had been in since the Reformation, over 150 years before. An esteem for righteousness had largely waned, philosophy and theory had overtaken the simplicity and purity of faith, and the preachers were being scorned as ignorant and unworthy of society’s ear. Christian leaders were responding to the onslaught with intellectual pamphlets and arguments, and aside from “a few notable exceptions, the pulpits were cold, and discord and stagnancy were the chief features of the denominations.”
The Church “had failed at a time when they were most sorely needed.” The society, “robbed of a sense of the reality of God…. stood more in need of the Gospel of Jesus Christ than at any time since the Reformation. But they were denied the message of its transforming power and, as a result, found themselves in the bondage of sinful habit.”
If this picture wasn’t dark enough, history tells of the emergence of what came to be known as The Gin Craze. The importation of liquor had been prohibited, so Englishmen began to brew their own, “and so large was the demand that, within a generation, every sixth house in London had become a gin shop and the nation was in an uncontrollable orgy of gin drinking.” Toward the end of his life, a man known as Bishop Benson made this comment:
Gin has made the English people what they never were before- cruel and inhuman.
By and large, the nation was manifesting anger, immorality, abuse, and thievery like never before, and the spiritual and moral landscape looked to be without promise entirely.
A London magistrate named Henry Fielding stated:
Should the drinking of this poison be continued at its present height during the next twenty years, there will, by that time, be very few of the common people left to drink it.
Bishop Butler “declared that scepticism was so rampant that Christianity was treated as though ‘it was now discovered to be fictitious…. and nothing remained but to set it up as the subject of mirth and ridicule.'”
Archbishop Secker, writing in 1738, noted:
In this we cannot be mistaken, that an open and professed disregard to religion is become, through a variety of unhappy causes, the distinguishing character of the present age. This evil has already brought in such dissoluteness and contempt of principle in the higher part of the world, and such profligate intemperance and fearlessness of committing crimes in the lower, as must, if this torrent of impiety stop not, become absolutely fatal.
How could the tide of darkness be turned? Surely it was too pervasive, too deep-seated, too overwhelmingly wicked. Surely England could not recover from this kind of profound moral and spiritual bankruptcy! Ah, but wait!
During the very months in which Bishop Secker wrote his foreboding words, England was startled by the sound of a voice.
Yes, a voice! Crying in the wilderness of England’s dry and deathly condition, there was suddenly a voice.
It was the voice of a preacher, George Whitefield, a clergyman but twenty-two years old, who was declaring the Gospel in the pulpits of London with such fervour and power, that no church would hold the multitudes that flocked to hear.
His voice continued to be heard, and then was joined by the voices of John and Charles Wesley and of many others, in a tremendous chorus of praise and preaching that rang throughout the land and was sustained in strength for more than a half a century.
The effect has been described in the words:
“… a religious revival burst forth… which changed in a few years the whole temper of English society. The Church was restored to life and activity. Religion 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 of popular education.”
It is the story of the eighteenth-century Revival, rich with its lessons for our own needy age…”
(All Quotations taken from George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the 18th Century Revival by Arnold Dallimore, Vol. 1; pp. 20-32, Banner of Truth)
For more than 50 years, the Western world was shaken by this great Awakening, and it came upon the shoulders of broken men and women, who had cried out to God for mercy upon their nation.
I am young, but I can’t remember a time when the darkness hung so thickly over America. I can’t remember a time when the Bible was so scoffed at, the return of the Lord so trivialized, the Church so distracted, and the overall tenor of our nation so immoral and God-less.
Europe is under a thick cloud as well, in the very lands that shook under the power of God in centuries past. While we pray and send laborers to the 10/40 window, let us not forget how lacking our own nation is. Let us not forget how desperately we need an awakening in our own land.
The darkness was overwhelming in the 18th century. But at the time when England’s experience was the darkest, it was suddenly “startled by the sound of a voice.” Light broke into the heart of their nation, and an awakening resulted.
Whitefield’s great voice caused America’s hills to reverberate with God’s glory as well, and thousands upon thousands of souls passed from darkness to light in that great historic hour. I believe it was J.C. Ryle who described Whitefield in this way:
He followed Paul, his zeal aflame; his apostolic charity the same.
We have too many echoes coming from our pulpits, books, and radio shows. O, how the nations need to hear voices again! May the Lord break us free from entanglements that bind, and sweep us up in His great love and purity, possess us with the Spirit of prayer, and mark us as voices in the wilderness of these last days!
The Lord will do even greater in the final hour than He did in the historic awakenings of the past. Are we willing vessels, surrendered to Him for that eternal work? Blessed is the man who is found in Him in the day of His power.