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Revival – 4 – The British Great Awakening

Conditions in England 1688-1739

As discussed in Chapter 3, the Catholic Church and the various branches of the Protestant Church were in great turmoil from the beginning of the Reformation in 1517 until 1648 when the peace agreement at Westphalia substantially ended the Catholic-Protestant wars on the continent of Europe. However, the conflict would not end in Great Britain until the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the triumph of Protestantism under William III.

All wars invariably lead to post-war periods in which the Christian faith is neglected which leads to a general decay of national morality. This was the condition in which the British people found themselves at the end of the seventeenth century. Not only had the opposing camps of Christianity fought among themselves, but England had been involved in almost constant civil and international warfare for almost two centuries by the end of the 1600s. As a consequence there existed a significant decline of morality and the general religious impulse within the nation. This decline was deepened by the ascendance of competing Enlightenment philosophies and deism in the late 1600s and all of the 1700s throughout Europe and Great Britain. By the time the British Great Awaking began in 1739, England, Scotland, and Wales were in a deplorable state. Mathew Backholer described the depths to which the moral breakdown of English society had sunk just prior to the awakening.

Across Britain, before the Great Awakening, there was a rise in deism, a decline of Christian observances, a massive rise in gin consumption and other alcoholic beverages which led to poverty and abuses within families. Every sixth house in London was a grogshop (where spirits were sold, gin, rum, etc.) and you could get drunk for a pence and dead drunk for two pence…In 1714, two million gallons of spirits were distilled; by 1742, it was seven million gallons, and by 1750, it was more than eleven million…Only four or five members of Parliament were regular attendants at church.

This was the land and age of highwaymen in the countryside, burglars in the cities, profanity, bear-baiting, bull-baiting, prize-fighting, cock-fighting – the amusements of all classes were calculated to create a cruel disposition. It was the age of mobs and riots and the state of the criminal law was cruel in the extremes. There were no fewer than one hundred and sixty crimes for which a man, woman, or child could be hanged!

In 1736, Archbishop Secker, the Bishop of Oxford, said, “That an open and professed disregard to religion is become…the distinguishing character of the present age; that this evil is grown to a great height of the nation and is daily spreading through every part of it.”

Parliamentary life was rotten through and through…There was a growing neglect of Sunday observance among the ruling elite. Cabinet dinners and even cabinet councils were constantly being held on that day. Sunday concerts and card parties were common. Drunkenness was almost universal, and the drunkards walked unashamed.

In the higher ranks the young “Bloods” (nobility) often banded themselves together and paraded the streets in search of victims for what they were pleased to call their wit. Many a man and many a woman died in their hands, in consequence of their ferocious treatment.[1]

Great moves of God within a nation generally start with small beginnings, and so it was with the British Great Awakening. In 1728, a student at Oxford University started a Holy Club. That student was Charles Wesley who became a preacher but is better known as one of the greatest hymn writers of all time. Because of his methodical habits in study, Charles was called a “Methodist.” Leadership of the Holy Club would soon pass into the hands of John Wesley, Charles’ older brother.[2]

By 1733, Charles was a junior tutor of Christ Church at Oxford University. He and the other members of Holy Club had noticed the thin young man’s attendance at a weekday church service which was most unusual behavior for a lowly and poor freshman. It was through a chain of events that eventually led Charles Wesley to send word to the eighteen-year-old student at Oxford’s Pembroke College to visit him. It was to be a providential meeting that October morning between the twenty-six year old Master of Arts tutor and George Whitefield who came to Wesley’s rooms at Christ Church. Charles fed him coffee and breakfast as he coaxed his life story from him. He had come from Gloucester the year before. Being from a very poor family, Whitfield earned his way at Pembroke by becoming a servitor to the gentlemen students in the upper social strata. Servitors were the lowest rank of undergraduate and at the opposite end of the scale to those noblemen who resided at the top.[3]

But the members of the Holy Club were being observed by Whitefield long before the club members had noticed him. At the start of the term Whitefield had watched and admired the members of the Holy Club as they passed through a crowd of hostile mocking hecklers when attending Holy Communion at the University Church. Being poor and lacking any form of social status, Whitefield stood afar off, fearing public rejection by associating himself with the Holy Club’s members. Whitefield confessed his cowardice to Wesley at that first meeting, but Wesley comforted Whitefield with good advice, kindly encouragement in his spiritual journey, and an invitation to the next meeting of the Holy Club. As he walked back to Pembroke College Whitefield was “happier than he had been since coming to oxford.”[4] This meeting eventually would have an incalculable impact on both England and America.

The British Great Awakening 1739

The British Great Awakening is also known by several other titles: Evangelical Revival, the Methodist Revival, and the Wesleyan Revival. Just over five years after that fateful first meeting between Charles Wesley and George Whitefield, the Methodist Revival was birthed by a powerful move of the Holy Spirit which is the definitive signature of all revivals. The incontrovertible fact of the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit is confirmed by a reading of excerpts from the January 1, 1739 Journal of John Wesley.

Mr. Hall, Kinchin, Ingham, Whitefield, Hutchins, and my brother Charles, were present at our love-fest in Fetters Lane, with about sixty of our brethren. About three in the morning, as we were continuing instant in prayer, the power of God came mightily upon us, in so much that many cried out for exceeding joy, and many fell to the ground. As soon as we recovered a little from that awe and amazement at the presence of His Majesty, we broke out with one voice, “We praise thee, O God, we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.”[5]

George Whitefield also wrote of the events of that evening at Fetter’s Lane in London and other meetings to follow that led to the beginning of the British Great Awakening on February 17, 1739.

It was a Pentecostal season indeed, sometimes whole nights were spent in prayer. Often we have been filled as with new wine, and often I have seen them overwhelmed with the Divine Presence, and cry out, “Will God, indeed, dwell with men on earth? How dreadful is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and the gate of heaven!”[6]

On January 14th, Whitefield was ordained a priest in Church of England. Apart from his meeting with fellow Methodists, all was not heavenly for Whitefield before the revival broke forth on February 17th. There began to develop among some of the clergy strong opposition to the message of Whitefield and the two Wesleys. Some clergymen argued against the “despised Methodists’” understanding of the “new birth” which their critics believed was a “pretending to special effusions of the Holy Ghost.” The essence of the arguments was that those opposed to the Methodist message believed only in an outward Christ and denied that Christ must be “inwardly formed in our hearts also.” These clergymen began to influence others to close their pulpits to Whitefield and the Wesleys. False accusations about Whitefield were spread among the clergy.[7]

Having been refused the pulpit in Bath on February 14th, he stayed with his sister and her husband in Bristol. Following two more rejections for permission to preach at Bristol churches, Whitefield knew of one place he would be allowed to preach. The Corporation of Bristol had a jail chapel but not a chaplain. The jailer had become a convert through Whitefield’s preaching two years earlier and wholeheartedly welcomed his request to preach to the prisoners that Saturday morning. Following the chapel service, an aged Dissenter invited Whitefield to lunch at his home in Kingswood, just two miles or less from the closed walls surrounding Bristol and near the forest coal mines. It was here that a people lived in a world far more distant from the respectable people of Bristol than a mere two miles might suggest.[8] Whitefield’s biographer John Pollock described the plight of the coal miners and their families.

Respectable citizens were afraid of them; they caused violent affrays and had shocked even the hard-bitten sailors by digging up the corpse of a murderer whose suicide had cheated them of a public execution to hold high festival round it. They were totally illiterate. Their shacks, like the mines lay on the far boundaries of four different parishes so they were ignored by the clergy of all. Gin-devils, wife beaters, sodomites – the Bristol world had not a good word for the colliers (coal miners) of Kingswood, and considered that they illustrated perfectly the dictum of Thomas Hobbes: “No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”[9]

Over dinner Whitefield talked to his host of how, “My bowels have long yearned towards the poor colliers, who are very numerous and are as sheep having no shepherd.” They could only be reached in the open air for no church would welcome them. To preach in the open air was an idea that he once mentioned to John Wesley but who called it a “mad notion.” To do so was to defy church law and risk being prosecuted or at least shunned by the clergy and gentry for disorderly conduct.[10]

Whitefield, the two friends, and his host went out for a walk about the time the coal miners left the pits. The four men had climbed a little hill about a hundred yards from a group of miners walking toward them. Whitefield called out to them in clear voice, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall see the kingdom of heaven!” The miners immediately stopped and stared at the strange spectacle before them – a young “parson in a cassock, gown, and bands holding a book and audible at a hundred yards.” Pollock vividly described the scene.[11]

The crowd grew until perhaps two hundred were clustered around Hannam Mount. George Whitefield spoke of hell, black as a pit, about “Jesus, who was a friend of publicans and sinners and came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” He spoke of the cross, and the love of God, and brushed tears from his eyes. On and on he went, in dead silence except for this own voice and the slight stirring of wind through the bare trees behind him.

Suddenly he noticed pale streaks forming on grimy faces, on that of a young man on his right, and on an old bent miner on his left, and two scarred, depraved faces in front: more and more of them. Whitefield, still preaching, saw the “white gutters made by their tears down their black cheeks.”[12]

Sunday morning Whitefield was reluctantly invited to preach at a local church. However, on the following Tuesday Whitefield was summoned to appear before the Chancellor of the diocese who threatened to excommunicate him if he continued to preach false doctrine. The Chancellor further prohibited Whitefield from preaching anywhere in the diocese without a license. But a little over twenty-four hours later a young coal miner called upon Whitefield and asked the young preacher to come and preach to the coal miners at a set time. He did not hesitate, and on a relatively warm February day at Kingswood, Whitefield preached for an hour to a crowd of two thousand coal miners, their families, and a number of townspeople. He would preach in open spaces to the coal miners on three additional occasions. On March 25th Whitefield preached at Hannam Mount to the largest crowd yet. Twenty three thousand reverent and tear-stained faces listen as Whitefield for nearly an hour delivered Jesus’ message that “…except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God!”[13]

Whitefield called on his friend John Wesley to come to Bristol to preach and shepherd the converts with organizing skills Whitefield did not possess. But Wesley would have to abandon his reluctance to preach in places other than Church of England pulpits. On April 1, 1739, Wesley joined Whitefield at Bristol’s Bowling Green, at Rose Green in Kingswood, and at Hannam Mount. As a result Wesley was also banned from many Church of England pulpits. His great offense was not just that he preached outside the sanctioned churches but that his fiery sermons preached “justification by faith.” Wesley continued to preach elsewhere. In June he preached at Blackheath to a crowd estimated to be between twelve and fourteen thousand, Upper Moorefield to six or seven thousand, and to fifteen thousand at Kennington Common.[14]

As he rode around the countryside, revivals broke out. Wesley began traveling four or five thousand miles per year throughout England, sometimes preaching at 5 AM to crowds exceeding twenty thousand. Wesley’s work eventually established one hundred preaching circuits attended by three hundred ministers and thousands of local lay preachers. Both Whitefield and Wesley took Methodism’s message to North America where the ideas of religious independence from the Church of England merged easily with the North American’s growing ideas of political independence from England.[15]

The British Great Awakening began on Hannam Mount in Kingsford on February 17, 1739, not as a revival but an evangelistic meeting. The Holy Spirit’s stirring in the hearts of those lost men would soon stir and revive the hearts of the British Christians and change the course of a nation. The British revivals that sparked the Great Awakening would subside as all revivals eventually do. However, the blessings that flowed from the “awakening” in the church and society in general in England, Scotland, and Wales would continue for decades.

From 1739 to 1791, it is estimated that the British Great Awakening had caused one-fourth of the population, about 1.25 million, to be converted to Christ. Over the course of time many towns, villages, and other places were so completely transformed that the character of the nation was changed. Some historians credit the awakening for preventing a revolution in Britain similar to the bloody French Revolution of 1789.[16]

This remarkable transformation of these nations by the effects of the Great Awakening was attested by many. Isaac Taylor said, “No such harvest of souls is recorded to have been gathered by any body of contemporary men since the first century.”[17] C. Grant Robertson wrote,

Wesley swept the dead air with an irresistible cleansing ozone. To thousands of men and women his preaching and gospel revealed a new heaven and a new earth; it brought religion into soulless lives and reconstituted it as a comforter, an inspiration and a judge…Aloof alike from politics and the speculations of the schools, Wesley wrestled with the evil of his day and proclaimed the infinite power of the Christian faith based on personal conviction, eternally renewed from within, to battle sin, misery and vice in all its forms. The social service that he accomplished was not the least of his triumphs.[18]

In 1922 British Prime Minster David Lloyd George said that the Methodist Movement was “probably the greatest religious movement in the past 250 years at least. Its influence, just like that of the Reformation – its indirect influence was probably greater than even its direct influence. That is the story of all great religious reformations.” In 1887, E. Paxton Hood in Vignettes of the Great Revival wrote, “There was a deeper upheaving of religious life…A change passed over the whole of English society…In the course of fifty years…a sense of religious decorum, and some idea of religious duty, took possession of homes and minds…[19]

Both Whitefield and Wesley took Methodism’s message of “justification by faith” to North America colonists, and it is to the story of the spiritual decline and subsequent revival of these transplanted Englishmen to which we turn our attention in the next chapter.

Larry G. Johnson


[1] Mathew Backholer, Revival Fires and Awakenings-Thirty Six Visitations of the Holy Spirit, (ByFaith Media, 2009, 2012), pp. 29-30.
[2] Ibid., p. 30.
[3] John Pollock, George Whitefield – The Evangelist, (Fearn, Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus, 1973), pp. 11-12.
[4] Ibid., pp. 15-16.
[5] Backholer, Revival Fires and Awakenings, pp. 30-31.
[6] Ibid., p. 31.
[7] Pollock, George Whitefield – The Evangelist, pp. 82, 85-86.
[8] Ibid., pp. 88-91.
[9] Ibid., p. 91.
[10] Ibid., pp. 91-92.
[11] Ibid.,
[12] Ibid., p. 92.
[13] Ibid., pp. 93-98.
[14] Ibid., p. 99.
[15] Backholer, Revival Fires and Awakenings, pp.31-32.
[16] Ibid., pp. 29, 32.
[17] Ibid., p. 37.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ibid., pp. 37-38.

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