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Arnold Dallimore: What England Was Like Before the 18th-Century Revival

Date October 13, 2022

The following is the text of Arnold Dallimore’s essay, Spiritual and Moral Conditions in England before the Revival which appears in Volume 1 of his George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-Century Revival.

Righteousness exalteth a nation; but sin is a reproach to any people.

Proverbs 14:34

I love those that thunder out the word! The Christian world is in a deep sleep. Nothing but a loud voice can waken them out of it!

Whitefield, 1739

For the past thirty years numerous evangelical people have been saying, ‘There can never be another revival! The times are too evil. Sin is now too rampant. We are in the midst of apostasy and the days of revival are gone for ever!’ The history of the eighteenth-century Revival entirely contradicts that view. It demonstrates that true revival is the work of God – not man – of God who is not limited by such circumstances as the extent of human sin or the degree of mankind’s unbelief. In the decade between 1730 and 1740 the life of England was foul with moral corruption and crippled by spiritual decay, yet it was amidst such conditions – conditions remarkably similar to those of the English-speaking world to-day – that God arose in the mighty exercise of His power which became the eighteenth-century Revival. In an over-all view of a century of British history we are able to observe these conditions, not only in themselves, but as to their cause, their effect and their cure.

*

Our glance goes back to 1660. In the violent rejection of Puritanism that then accompanied the Restoration of the monarchy, Englishmen were given to believe that the life of unfettered licentiousness might be indulged in with impunity. In this assurance much of the nation threw off restraint and plunged itself heedlessly into a course of godlessness, drunkenness, immorality and gambling. Legalisation was enacted which distressed the Puritan conscience, and in 1662, on one of the darkest days in all British history, nearly two thousand ministers – all those who would not submit to the Act of Uniformity – were ejected from their livings. Hundreds of these men suffered throughout the rest of their lives, and a number died in prison. Yet these terrible conditions became the occasion of a great volume of prayer; forbidden to preach under threat of severe penalties – as John Bunyan’s Bedford imprisonment bore witness – they yet could pray, and only eternity will reveal the relationship between this burden of supplication and the revival that followed.

During these years a teaching known as Deism was introduced into England. Deism was not an organised cult, but was a form of religious rationalism advocated by a number of authors[i]. It taught that whatever God there may be is nothing more than the First Cause, a force that made the world the way a clock-maker makes a clock, and having set its mechanism to operate according to certain laws, simply winds it up and lets it run. This Deity, they said, had revealed himself only in creation and that man’s sole responsibility towards Him was that of recognising His being. This vague contemplation they termed Natural Religion, and, strangely enough, they claimed that it, and it alone, was true Christianity.

The Deists carried on a vigorous warfare against supernatural religion – Biblical Christianity – and in doing so made loud boast about the reasonableness and logic of their views. They claimed that the Bible could not be a revelation of the Deity, for, had He chosen to reveal Himself, He would not have done so through one small, ancient nation and in a book rendered unreliable by divergent readings. They sought to explain away the argument from fulfilled prophecy by stating that the prophecies were either written after their supposed fulfilment or were so ambiguous as to admit of many fulfilments. They argued that the miracles were unproved and that such dogmas as the Virgin birth and literal resurrection were no more than pious imagination. Jesus, they said, was merely a man, earnest but deluded, and raised to an imagined Saviourhood by the fancies of His disciples.

To Englishmen who had already rejected the idea of moral restraint Deism proved especially welcome. It removed from their thoughts the God of the Bible, the God of holiness and justice whom the Puritans had preached, and substituted this vague Deity found, as they believed, in nature. In its assertion that man was not held responsible for his actions and that there was no judgement day, it rationalised the sin with impunity concept and, as a result, was widely received.

Deism gradually made its way into the thought of the nation. Its influence began to be felt between 1660 and 1670, and the successive appearance of each of its books increased its popularity. Tindal’s Christianity as Old as Creation, published in 1730, brought it to the peak of its fame.

*

Confronted by the challenge of Deism the Church displayed both its strength and its weakness. Its strength was manifested in the intellectual force of its reply. From the ranks of the Church of England such men as Berkeley, Conybeare, Warburton and Butler, and, from the Dissenters Watts, Doddridge, Lardner and Leland – these and many others – took up their pens and replied to the Deists with consummate skill.[ii] It deserves to be noticed that these men very largely adhered to the supernatural in Christianity and the works they produced still stand as the greatest body of apologetics in the English language.

But the Church’s weakness was also revealed in these efforts. The works against Deism ought to have radiated the beauty and warmth of Christianity, but actually contained little besides logic, and most were as cold as they were correct. Their appeal was almost solely to the intellect, and few persons apart from those of sufficient mental strength to pore through such treatises as Conybeare’s Defence or Butler’s Analogy could be influenced by them. They were also merely defensive, for, whereas the Christian forces ought to have mounted a mighty offensive against sin and unbelief, Deism alone took the initiative and the Church politely replied. English Christianity provide itself to be little more than a religious ethic, sedate and timid – a disposition admirably exemplified in Dr John Tillotson, Archbishop from 1691 to 1694 – and this remained the vogue until challenge by the militant evangelism of the revival.

Moreover, much of the Church was in no way strong enough to withstand the onslaught of Deism. After the ejection of the two thousand pastors in 1662, the Church of England accepted as their substitutes whatever men were available, and many whom it received were sadly lacking in both learning and Christian principles. In turn, the ministerial standards suffered a long and steady decline, insomuch that, nearly a century later, a member of the clerical ranks, Archdeacon Blackburne, saw fit to state

The collective body of the clergy, excepting a very inconsiderable number, consists of men whose lives and occupations are most foreign to their profession – courtiers, politicians, lawyers, merchants, usurers, civil magistrates, sportsmen, musicians, stewards of country squires, tools of men in power, and even companions of rakes and infidels, not to mention the ignorant herd of poor curates to whom the instruction of common people is committed, who are, accordingly, in religious matters, the most ignorant common people who are in any Protestant, not to say in any Christian society upon the face of the earth.[iii]

Among clergy of this kind Deism easily gained acceptance, and it was not uncommon for them to drone its tenets from their pulpits. And even among better men, doctrines that had once been considered essential to Christianity were regarded as open to dispute, and for more than half a century a great debate over the Deity of Christ – the Trinitarian Controversy – was waged within the Church.

Large numbers of the people, both high and low, believing Christianity to be false, dropped all pretence of religious profession. The majority of the populace, however, in keeping with the belief that the Church of England was a necessary support of the monarchy and a key factor in maintaining the peace of the realm, asserted that, despite its outworn dogmas, it ought to be retained. To such persons its rituals were but empty formality; an incident revealing this attitude among the highest circles comes from the record of the death of Queen Caroline:

She had been out of health for a long time, and in November, 1737 was on her death-bed … And now we have a painful but very characteristic scene. People wondered that the Queen did not have anyone to pray with her. To stop these remarks, Robert Walpole [the Prime Minister] asked the Princess Emily to suggest to the Queen that Archbishop Potter should be sent for. The Princess hesitated. Then, although about a dozen persons were present, Walpole added: ‘Pray, Madam, let this farce be played; the Archbishop will act it very well. You may bid him be as short as you will. It will do the Queen no hurt, no more than any good; and it will satisfy all the good and wise fools, who will call us atheists if we don’t profess to be as great fools as they are.’ [iv]

The attitude revealed in this very characteristic scene could doubtless have been found in many a home and many a pulpit throughout the nation. There was, however, one aspect of the religious question on which the people of England were in general unity. This was the fear of what they called ‘enthusiasm’. The term meant as much as or more than the word ‘fanatic’ to-day, and they applied it to anyone whose practice of Christianity manifested any true fervour. In the belief that the wars of the mid-seventeenth century had been caused by over-zealous religion, it was commonly assumed that prayer and preaching which displayed a vital earnestness would prove a threat to the peace of the realm, and in fear of such an outcome public opinion decreed that everything to do with religion must be quietly dispassionate. Thus, empty formality was the order of the day, and an unwritten law demanded that it remain so.

*

Among the Nonconformists (Presbyterians, Independents and Baptists) conditions were undoubtedly better, but very little so, than in the Church of England. Though persecuted from the time of The Great Ejection of 1662 onward, they came into liberty with the Act of Toleration of 1689. In the joy of this new freedom they immediately began to conduct themselves with great vitality; yet their fervour lasted but a short time, and before many years had passed the spiritual lethargy of the times had descended on them too.

The strength of the Nonconformist bodies became sapped, as had that of the Church, by scepticism. Certain men who held to the fundamental principles of Christianity endeavoured to contend for them, but amidst the majority of the ministers Arianism was common, and some preached nothing more than the vagaries of Deism. With but a few notable exceptions, the pulpits were cold, and discord and stagnancy were the chief features of denominational life. By the year 1700 such divisions had taken place that in London there were three separate groups of Presbyterians, four of Independents and six of Baptists. The growth was so small that a report covering the work of these three denominations for the period from 1695 to 17630 stated:

One church only had been erected, but by enlargements, increased accommodation had been made for four thousand persons. Twelve of the old congregations had been dissolved and ten new congregations organised; fourteen had increased, fifteen had declined and twenty remained in about the same state.[v]

The plain truth is that the churches of England had failed. Much is made in some quarters to-day of the fact that the ecclesiastical machinery was all functioning the same as ever. Nevertheless, in their lack of spiritual authority, their lack of earnestness and lack of power, the churches had failed. Furthermore, they had failed at a time when they were most sorely needed. Subjected to the effects of Restoration licentiousness, and robbed of a sense of the reality of God by Deism, the people of England 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.

Nowhere was the nation’s weakness more evident than in the Gin Craze. With the prohibition, in 1689, of the importation of liquor, 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. ‘What must become’, asked Magistrate Fielding, ‘of the infant who is conceived in gin, with the poisonous distillations of which it is nourished both in the womb and at the breast.’[vi] ‘Those cursed liquors’, asserted Bishop Benson, ‘will, if continued to be drunk, destroy the very race of the people themselves.’ The nation which had been taught to scoff at self-restraint learned that it had not the strength to withstand the slavery of alcohol. We shall need to remember that it was among a people broken by gin that Whitefield and the Wesleys went about in the nobility of their ministries and that there was triumphant meaning to Charles Wesley’s lines on the deliverance effected by the Gospel:

Hear Him, ye deaf! His praise ye dumb,

Your loosened tongues employ;

Ye blind, behold your Saviour come,

And leap ye lame for joy!

He breaks the power of cancelled sin,

He sets the prisoner free!

His blood can make the foulest clean,

His blood availed for me!

Perhaps the worst effect of the Gin Craze was that indicated by Bishop Benson, when, towards the close of his life he stated, ‘Gin has made the English people what they never were before – cruel and inhuman’. From almost every aspect of British life there arises evidence that an unwonted heartlessness had come over the nation. The Puritans had prohibited sports which indulged in cruelty to animals, but in the age of gin a traffic in games which found their pleasure in torturing beasts was carried on throughout the land, and people had become so callous that they could look on suffering and delight in it.

The generality of England’s upper class manifested a deep-seated inhumanity. Their lives were marked by pride and ostentation; they created homes of boastful magnificence and lived in luxury, but although they gave lip service to the Church, Deism was the creed of many hearts and polite thievery went hand-in-hand with their intrigues for political power. Far below them there existed the vast numbers of the poor. Of course, every country has its poor in every age, but, as England became more and more enfeebled by its long rejection of moral restraint and its indulgence in gin, larger and larger numbers of them became unable or unwilling to work. The indigent increased in such a fashion that by 1740-50 the arrangements throughout the country for collecting and expending the Poor Rate proved inadequate and the increase in the local Poor Rate alarmingly high. Conditions in the slums of London have been described in these words:

Behind the streets there was hidden, in a squalid confusion of buildings, fever-laden haunts of vice and wretchedness, … a maze of alleys and lanes fading into the unwholesome vapour that always overhung them, of dirty tumble-down houses, with windows patched with rags and blackened paper, and airless courts crowded with quarrelling women and half-naked children, wallowing in pools and kennels.

The men of the Restoration had pictured the licentious life as one of unalloyed pleasure, but England learned to its sorrow that it also brough lawlessness and violence. Crime became rampant and the authorities resorted to the only hope they had of checking it: the increase of punishment. They made as many as 160 offences punishable by death, but lawlessness still mounted. London erected a permanent scaffold at Kennington and another at Tyburn, and a hanging became a gala event with a boisterous crowd making merry around the gallows. Jail sentences were meted out with great freedom, and many persons spent the major portion of their lives in the prisons amidst conditions of unspeakable wretchedness.

The prisoners were huddled together [says the Encyclopedia Americana], utterly regardless of their influence on each other, the young and the old, the first offender and the hardened criminal, and the treatment of women was almost worse than that of men. Hundreds of women were crowded together in London prisons, some of them women of the streets, and others accused of little thefts to keep their children alive; and with many of the prisoners, children were allowed to be there because there was no one but their mother to care for them. Poor women were often hanged for passing a counterfeit pound note which sometimes they did not know was counterfeit, and the fact that they had children at the breast or were in pregnancy, was no mitigation of their offence.[vii]

John Howard said of the Knaresborough jail, ‘Only one room … earth floor; no fireplace; very offensive; a common sewer from the town running through it uncovered … An officer confined there took with him a dog to defend him from vermin; but the dog was soon destroyed … by them.’[viii] We shall need to bear these conditions in mind when we witness the ministrations of the men of the revival among prisoners, and see, for instance, Charles Wesley as he shewed mercy to a ‘poor sick negro in the condemned hole’, and saying as he told him and his companions the Gospel, ‘I found myself overcome with the love of Christ to sinners.’

Much more might be said in description of the evils of the times: the treatment of the insane, cruelties to children, the London mob – Sir Mob it called itself – the incredible extent of gambling, the obscenity of the stage – ‘that sink of all corruption’ as John Wesley termed it – these and similar aspects of English conditions might be depicted at length. We notice, however, a contemporary note on the corruption of the printed page. Dr Stanhope, Dean of Canterbury and Chaplain to the King, in a sermon preached in 1723, described certain productions of the press as,

… those monsters of irreligion and profaneness, of heresy and schism, of sedition and scandal, of malice and detraction, of obscenity and ribaldry, which mercenary wretches, void of shame, published for the sake of a paltry present gain, thereby not only debauching the principles of the age, but, if such detestable compositions can survive so long, propagating the poison to posterity…[ix]

Some will assert, however, that such a statement may be discounted since it comes from a clergyman, and that ministers invariably describe conditions that surround them as especially corrupt. But evidence that during the first half of the eighteenth century England was suffering moral and religious decay to an extraordinary degree comes also from such writers as Richard Steele and Joseph Addison, Samuel Johnson and Henry Fielding. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, a learned and witty member of high society, made such statements as, ‘To be styled a rake is now as genteel in a woman as in a man’, and ‘There are now more atheists among genteel women than men’. She made the claim, ‘Honour and virtue, which we used to hear of in our nursery, are as much laid aside as crumpled ribbons’, and joked that Parliament was ‘preparing a bill to have “not” taken out of the Commandments and inserted in the Creed[x], in order to render these documents more in harmony with the times. Lord Chesterfield, the elegant worldling who instructed his son in the arts of seduction as part of a polite education, came to the place where he too deplored the evils of the age. Addressing Parliament in 1737 on the obscenity of the theatre he carried the matter to its basic cause. ‘When we complain of the licentiousness of the stage’, he asserted, ‘I fear we have more reason to complain of the general decay of virtue and morality among the people.’[xi]

In 1732 The Weekly Miscellany, London’s foremost religious paper, published an article deploring the prevailing conditions – an article later summarised as follows:

It broadly asserts that the people were engulfed in voluptuousness and business, and that a zeal for godliness looked as odd upon a man as would the antiquated dress of his great grand-father. It states that freethinkers were formed into clubs, to propagate their tenets, and to make the nation a race of profligates; and that atheism was scattered broadcast throughout the kingdom. It affirms that it was publicly avowed that vice was profitable to the state; that the country would be benefitted by the establishment of public stews; and that polygamy, concubinage, and even sodomy were not sinful.[xii]

*

Such conditions as these, however, did not exist without there being several efforts made to correct them. The love of righteousness – a legacy from the Reformation and more particularly from the Puritan age – still existed in many a heart throughout the nation, and England was not wanting in hundreds – probably thousands – who refused to bow the knee to Baal.

Important among the attempts which such persons made towards the betterment of conditions was the Religious Societies movement. In 1673 Dr Anthony Horneck, a Church of England minister in London, preached a number of what he called ‘awakening sermons’. As a result several young men began to meet together weekly in order to build up one another in the Christian faith. They gathered in small groups at certain fixed locations and their places of meeting became known as Society Rooms. In these gatherings they read the Bible, studied religious books and prayer; they also went out among the poor to relieve want at their own expense and to show kindness to all. This activity was recognised by the Church of England, rules were laid out to govern it, and the work so grew that by 1730 nearly one hundred of these Societies existed in London, and others – perhaps another hundred – were to be found in cities and towns throughout England. The Societies movement became, in many senses, the cradle of the Revival, and a knowledge of it is essential to an understanding of Whitefield’s early ministry and of John Wesley’s organisation.

But there were also several other steps taken in the attempt to improve conditions, and the principal ones may be listed as:

1. The establishment of hospitals. The years 1720-40 saw unprecedented activity in this field. These institutions not only did much to relieve suffering, but also aided considerably in the increase then being made in medical knowledge.

2. The publicising of the conditions of the prisons. In 1728 a Parliamentary Committee headed by James Oglethorpe, made a study of England’s prisons and presented a report, severely condemning the conditions they found and calling for vigorous reforms. Nothing, however, came of the attempt at the time, for Englishmen in general had little heart for such things.

3. Legislation against the sale of gin. Queen Caroline became so deeply concerned about the effects of the Gin Craze that, under her influence, The Gin Act – a law prohibiting much of the liquor traffic – was passed in 1736. But it was supported by so few and defied by so many that it proved impossible to enforce. Further legislation of a similar nature was passed in 1743, but this met the same fate.

4. The Charity Schools movement. In the early years of the eighteenth century Queen Anne led in the establishment of a number of free schools. William Lecky, the historian, says ‘Ninety-six grammar schools were founded in England between 1684 and 1727’, and others set the number much higher. But this noble effort was hindered by the vicious circle of the times in which competent teachers were difficult to obtain and dissolute parents were often more desirous that their children earn a few pence than that they learn to read and write.[xiii]

5. The Society for the Reformation of Manners. Failing by persuasion to influence evil-doers to desist from their practices, certain good men formed this organisation in order to force them to behave. They scouted out cases of blasphemy and immorality and, in a report issued in 1735, stated that, during the previous forty years, they had effected ‘99,380 prosecutions for debauchery and profaneness in London and Westminster alone’.[xiv]

6. The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Coming into existence in 1699, this movement provided Christian literature for distribution among the common people. Its efforts were highly beneficial and contributed much toward the work of the Revival.

But despite these many commendable endeavours, there was no noticeable improvement in the moral and religious state of the nation. In fact, conditions became not better, but worse, until responsible men began to grow alarmed and warn of dire consequences. Henry Fielding, speaking as a London magistrate, said concerning the Gin Craze, ‘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.’[xv] 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.’[xvi] Archbishop Secker, writing in 1738, asserted:

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.[xvii]

But how was ‘this torrent of impiety’ to be stopped? It was evident that the writing of scholarly books in defence of Christianity would not suffice, for it had been tried, but with little avail. Nor would the threat of punishment, for the informing on wrongdoers and the increase of hangings had but hardened the criminal mind. The successive failures of the several attempts to better conditions simply proved that the nation’s trouble lay basically with the individual human heart and that the ‘torrent of impiety’ would flow until some power was found that could stanch it at its source.

During the very months in which Bishop Secker wrote his foreboding words, England was startled by the sound of 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 much 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 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 to popular education.[xviii]

It is the story of this, the eighteenth-century Revival, rich with its lessons for our own needy age, which is before us now.

 

Arnold Dallimore’s 2 Volume George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-Century Revival can be purchased here.

 

Notes

[i] The following are some of the principal Deistic writers:

Matthew Tindal (1653-1733) Christianity as Old as the Creation

John Toland (1670-1722) Christianity Not Mysterious

Thomas Woolston (1670-1733) The Miracles of Our Saviour

Bernard de Mandeville (1670-1733) The Fable of the Bees

Lord Shaftesbury (1671-1729) Discourse of Free Thinking

Lord Bolingbroke (1678-1751) Essays

[ii] The following are the more important of the works against Deism:

Bishop Berkeley, Alciphron

[iii] Alfred Plummer, The Church in England in the Eighteenth Century (Methuen, London, 1910), p 114.

[iv] Ibid, p 109.

[v] Herbert S. Skeats, A History of the Free Churches of England, (Jas. Clarke, London, 1868), p 334.

[vi] Henry Fielding, An Enquiry into the Late Increase in Robbers

[vii] Encyclopedia Americana (1949 ed), Vol 10, p 31.

[viii] Cited by J. W. Bready, England: Before and After Wesley (Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1939), p 133.

[ix] Cited from Tyerman’s Life of Whitefield, Vol 1, p 71

[x] A letter to the Countess of Mar, cited by Julia Wedgwood in her John Wesley (London, 1870)

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Tyerman, The Life and Times of John Wesley (London, 1880), Vol 1, p 217.

[xiii] No mention is made here of the Welsh Circulating Schools, for they were a fruit of the Revival, not antecedent to it.

[xiv] William Lecky, A History of England in the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1887), Vol 2, p 595.

[xv] Fielding, op cit, p 19.

[xvi] Joseph Butler, Works, (New York, 1842), Advertisement prefixed to the first edition of The Analogy of Religion.

[xvii] Thomas Secker, Works, (Porteus and Stinton ed), Vol 5, p 306.

[xviii] J.R. Green, A Short History of the English People (Harper ed, 1899), pp 736-7.

 

Picture credit: ‘Gin Lane’ from ‘Beer Street and Gin Lane’ by William Hogarth. Public domain.

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