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Joseph – Man in the shadows

[This article was originally posted on December 19, 2014. Additional posts on “Revival” will resume in January 2018. Have a blessed Christmas.]

During my lifetime I have probably looked at dozens of nativity sets and observed many Christmas plays depicting the night of Christ’s birth. The cast of characters includes baby Jesus, Mary, the shepherds, the three wise men (who actually appeared much later in time), assorted cows, chickens, sheep, and other animals typically found in a stable. Oh yes, we must not forget Joseph. In arranging our nativity scene, Jesus is always placed at the center with Mary hovering nearby or holding the child. Inconspicuous Joseph is standing there, seemingly as an afterthought, merely because of his status as the husband of Mary. In modern parlance, Joseph was the typical wallflower, a fifth wheel, the original invisible man. Never in the spotlight, Joseph was a man who always seemed to be in the shadows.

Prior to the birth of Jesus, Joseph is mentioned only once in Luke’s first chapter, “To a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of house of David…” [Luke 1:27. RSV] In Chapter 2, Joseph is mentioned a second time when he traveled with his pregnant wife (but “who knew not a man” in the quaint phrasing of King James) from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be taxed in accordance with the decree of Caesar Augustus. [v. 4] Joseph’s unimportance in the events surrounding Christ’s birth appears to be confirmed by the sparse mention of his name in Luke’s record of that first Christmas. He receives far less discussion than the lowly shepherds who had a remarkable encounter with an angel and a multitude of the heavenly host telling of Christ’s birth. The shepherds then hurry from the fields where they tended their flocks to the stable to find “Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.” [v. 16] When the days of Mary’s purification were completed according to the Mosaic law, Joseph and Mary traveled from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to present the babe to the Lord and to offer a sacrifice as commanded by the law of the Lord. When Joseph and Mary presented the child to Simeon and to receive a blessing as was the custom of the law, they marveled at Simeon’s prophecy with regard to the Christ child. [v. 22-35]

We must look to Matthew’s gospel to learn a little more of Joseph. Matthew tells us that after finding Mary was pregnant, “…her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” [Matthew 1:19. RSV] But an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him he should keep Mary as his wife because the baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit, that His name would be called Emanuel (God with us), and that He will save His people from their sins. “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took his wife, but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.” [v. 24-25]

Some period of time after their return to Nazareth, wise men from the east hoping to find Him who was born king of the Jews followed his star. They found the child residing with His parents and presented their treasures to the child king. [Matthew 2:1-12. RSV] Soon thereafter an angel of the Lord appeared unto Joseph in a dream, warning him to flee with his family to Egypt. Joseph was obedient to the Lord and fled with Mary and Jesus because Herod sought to kill the baby. They stayed in Egypt until Herod’s death. [v. 13-15]

We have only one more reference to Joseph twelve years after Jesus’ birth. Mary and Joseph experienced every parent’s nightmare—a missing child. After a day’s journey on the way back to Nazareth following their annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem where they attended the feast of the Passover, Joseph and Mary discovered that Jesus was missing. They had presumed Jesus was with their kinsfolk and acquaintances traveling with them. Returning to Jerusalem, they sought him for three days before they “…found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.” [Luke 2:46-47. RSV]

It appears we have not discovered a lot of material in the scriptures to flesh-out the caricature of Joseph that most of us see as we look at our nativity sets. Yet, after a closer reading of the scriptures we gain new insights into the real flesh and blood Joseph who was far different than we have imagined. We see a man who was compassionate. He did not want to make a public spectacle of Mary because of the skepticism as to her explanation of her pregnancy. He favored a quiet divorce. But, he changed his mind after hearing from an angel from the Lord who told him not to divorce his wife. Therefore, he was obedient to God. Unlike many modern-day absent fathers, current live-in boyfriends, or uncaring stepfathers, Joseph loved and cared for his family as shown by a day’s journey back to Jerusalem and a three-day search for the missing twelve-year-old Jesus. Joseph was also a man who obeyed the laws of the land (he paid his taxes) as well as the laws of God (he took his child to the temple and presented him unto the Lord). Joseph protected his family as evidenced by their sojourn in Egypt.

Humble, compassionate, obedient to God, law-abiding, honest, concerned parent, protector, provider—all paint a picture of Joseph as a righteous (virtuous) man and loving husband and parent. What better set of adjectives could a man ask for when describing his life? However, for most people in this self-obsessed modern world, Joseph does appear to be a man whose life was lived in the shadows. But in God’s account book, a man’s worth is not measured by his popularity, bank balance, worldly success, or fame as evidenced by a pile of press clippings. When God looked at Joseph the shadows disappeared because the righteous “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” [Matthew 13:43. RSV]

Larry G. Johnson

Tis the Season for Secular Silliness

[This article was first posted on on December 13, 2013. Given the growing hostility of the majority of secular culture to all things Christian,it seems appropriate to publish it a second time.]

Holiday letter to my secular humanist friends,

The first signs of the holiday shopping season peek from store shelves in September. October’s chill warns that Halloween nears. We must select a costume that tops last year’s. November heralds that most wonderful time of the year—Black Friday. But Oh My! What shall we do with December and that highly embarrassing “other” holiday? You know the one I mean. We once masked it by calling it Xmas. But the X could be misconstrued as a cross. And a cross can be associated with you know who, and that will never do. Now we call that “other” holiday by many names such as Winter Solstice celebration, Festival of Lights, and Winter Carnival. Those are so inclusive, so democratic…so…so generic. (I almost said ecumenical, but that sounds too religious.) With these new names, the holiday season can mean whatever one wants it to mean rather than have a religious meaning crammed down our throats each December. Why must we be subjected to those old-fashioned myths and fables that have lingered for two thousand years? We have Santa Claus!

But there are still millions out there who haven’t gotten the message. They are generally backward, unintelligent, and remain culturally insensitive unlike those of us who have progressed beyond those crude expressions of faith. Unfortunately, not everyone wants to join our shining, non-offensive, tolerant, all inclusive, sensitive secular society.

You hear those sentimental Christians whining every year at this time. They are always hiding behind the Constitution which they say guarantees their religious freedom. Well of course they have religious freedom as long as they don’t flaunt it in public!

We must be ever vigilant and ready to crush any efforts to return to those bad old days. Just a couple of years ago, a group of carolers singing at various businesses in a Silver Springs, Maryland, shopping center entered a U.S. Post Office also located in the shopping center. Dressed in period costumes reminiscent of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” they were only a few words into their first carol when the vigilant and brave Post Office manager rushed into the lobby to stop the indiscretion. “You can’t do this on government property,” the angry manager shouted. He ordered them to leave immediately because there was a Post Office policy prohibiting solicitation. They attempted to explain that they were going to all the businesses in the shopping center. But he would have none of it and insisted they leave in spite of boos from the patrons waiting in line.[1] Even though there was no such policy, this Post Office manager should serve as a role model for that small minority of managers who aren’t so enlightened and have allowed caroling in their Post Offices. Fortunately, our government is filled with like-minded militant secularist bureaucrats rigorously defending society from such unauthorized merriment.

But we can never let down our guard. Just the other day the leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives announced that its members would be allowed to use previously banned holiday greetings in official mailings to their constituents. Representative Candice Miller said, “I feel it is entirely appropriate for members of Congress to include a simple holiday salutation, whether it is Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and so on.[2] Shameful! How could these legislators abuse their franking privileges by including messages of Merry Christmas to thousands of their constituents? Such episodes tend to be contagious and must not be allowed to go unchallenged.

Such blatant relapses can cause others to become weak-kneed when banning Christmas from any public display or expression. One example is the Bordentown, New Jersey, Regional School District administration that had banned religious Christmas music at winter public school concerts effective as of October 18th. Less than two weeks later the superintendent backed down after national attention was focused on the school’s ban. The superintendent announced that the religious Christmas music would be allowed for now “…after reviewing additional legal considerations and advice on this matter and the expressed sentiments of the community at large…” However, she promised that, “…the school board will continue to examine the issue to determine how the policy will be handled in the future.”[3] Of course it is always wise to impose these unpopular restrictions on a low-key basis. The school administration should have imposed the restrictions banning religious Christmas music in, let’s say, March. Once policies are established and in effect for a period of time, opposition to those policies can usually be attributed to a fringe element of religious fanatics bent on imposing their religion on others and which violates our constitutionally mandated separation of church and state. It doesn’t matter that the words “separation of church and state” aren’t in the Constitution; we know the Founders really meant freedom from religion instead of freedom of religion. You see, that Constitution thing can work both ways.

Wait a minute. I must go to the door. No, it can’t be! There are carolers out there singing religious Christmas songs and indiscriminately shouting Merry Christmas right there on the public sidewalk for everyone to hear. Where’s my cell phone? Hello! 911? Send the police. No, better yet send a SWAT team. We are having a major public insurrection right here in River City in direct violation of the Constitution. Hurry! There are children in the neighborhood being exposed to this brazen criminal activity!

I must go. I think I see one of my neighbors putting a nativity scene on his front lawn. Hmmm. Would that violation fall under the city’s building code or advertising ordinance? Where’s my cell phone?

Larry G. Johnson


[1] J. P. Duffy, “Post Office Manager Throws Christmas Carolers Out into the Cold,” Family Research Council, December 12, 2011. (accessed December 10, 2013).
[2]Chris Deaton, “Victory: House members no longer prohibited from saying “Merry Christmas” in official mail,” Red Alert Politics, December 4, 2013. (accessed December 10, 2013).
[3] Billy Hallowell, “N.J. School District That Banned Christmas Music With ‘Religious Origins’ Backs Down,” The Blaze, November 6, 2013. (accessed December 10, 2013).

Revival – 5 – Spiritual Conditions in America 1620-1720

What occurred among the New England Puritans between 1620 and 1660 is a remarkable story that began with a rag-tag band of beleaguered separatist Puritans (Pilgrims) that landed on the shores of a vast wilderness in 1620. By the end of that decade many of the prosperous, well-educated members of the Church of England also began immigrating to New England. Unlike the Pilgrims, they still considered themselves to be members of the Church of England, although separated from their corrupt brethren that remained in their homeland. Known as Puritans, they formed the great migration to the Massachusetts Bay Colony which by 1640 had grown to a population of twenty-six thousand. For these Protestant Puritans who strongly followed the teachings of John Calvin, religion was the beginning, center, and end of all social and political life. The Puritan adventure in their New England colony began as a theocracy, but the Massachusetts Puritans were not alone in their religious affections. Religion and religious liberty were the fundamental reasons for the founding of most of the original thirteen colonies, and nearly all were founded upon various social and religious experiments.[1]

However, none were so well organized or advanced in their religious practices as the New England colonies, particularly the Puritans of Massachusetts. Not only was New England the most studied portion of early colonial America history, the region was also the foremost center of revivalist activity prior to and at the beginning of The Great Awakening. As early as the 1670s, Puritan leaders recognized the need for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit because churches and towns were spiritually languishing and in need of corporate renewal.[2]

The seeds of the Puritans’ early spiritual decline were found in both the Catholic and Reformed churches’ practice of infant baptism. If one had not been baptized and confirmed or had been excommunicated, they were excluded from the Lord’s Table. In early New England, excommunication meant the loss of certain civil rights (e.g., voting and holding office) and could lead to punishment by the civil government. “Under such laws, the Lord’s table must be open to all who have been baptized, who have learned the creed and catechism, and have not committed any crime which a civil court would judge ‘scandalous’.” Although the bishop could require additional evidence of regeneration, this practice was rarely followed. Subject to the foregoing conditions, all young people and adults baptized as infants were considered to be members of the church in full communion.[3]

Clergymen were reluctant if not loathed to withhold participation in the Lord’s supper for to do so would inflict civil injury. Claims of wrongful denial of church membership or participation in the Lord’s supper made the clergymen liable for prosecution and, if found guilty, subject to punishment.[4] The only safe option for clergymen was to treat every one as a real convert and hope that regeneration had occurred even if no apparent change was present in the life of the professing Christian. Because of such a mindset within the clergy, their preaching was greatly restricted and diminished. As to the unconverted, they could only hope that somehow the heretofore undetected regeneration would mysteriously occur through participation in the Lord’s table.[5]

But the New England Puritans would have none of this. Irrespective of their baptism of infants, they still believed that if a man was “born again,” a change occurred which was observable by both the person and others. There was a difference in the unregenerate and regenerate in which the latter would exhibit good qualities through their thought, feeling, and conduct. All who did not give evidence of Christian piety would be considered unregenerate, and they would admit none to their communion unless considered regenerate. These beliefs were very different from those of their English cousins. So strong were these beliefs and practices that they were set forth in the preface to the Puritans’ Cambridge Platform published in 1648.[6]

Puritan church records of that time contained a list of those considered to be on the road to heaven and therefore full participants in the ordinances of the church. It also contained a list of those names who by common consent were “…to be regarded and addressed as persons in the road to hell.” Consequently, the New England clergy were not hesitant to assail their listeners with argument and entreaty aimed at prompting regeneration of those in the church known to be in a spiritually lost condition.[7]

But erosion of the high standards of the Puritan churches of New England began at the Puritans’ Synod of 1662. It was decided that the children of parents who were avowedly unregenerate and excluded from the Lord’s table could be baptized if the parents were otherwise qualified. Those other qualifications and requirements were that the parents had to have been baptized in infancy, understood the doctrine of faith and publicly confessed their assent thereunto, did not lead a scandalous life, agreed to give themselves and their children to the Lord, and submitted themselves to the government of Christ in the Church. This practice was immediately adopted over vehement protests and became the new standard for many churches.[8] This new practice was called the Halfway Covenant of 1662 and allowed New England churches to be filled with “substantial numbers of pseudo-members waiting for their conversion.”[9] Sherwood Eddy describes the inevitable outcome of this fateful decision.

There was a gradual loss of the sense of sin, and the idea of God’s sovereignty became a means of oppression by the ecclesiastical oligarchy…The children of the hardy pioneers became softer and more worldly. The unregenerate second generation was allowed to remain in the church as members though not in full communion. Thus originated the halfway covenant with a mixed membership of a more all-inclusive church that had lost the purity of a separated regenerate sect. The genteel churches turned from the difficult gospel of election and regeneration to “societies of Christians by mutual agreement” who avoided “scandalous sin.”[10] [emphasis added]

Other compromises followed. Solomon Stoddard, the pastor of the Northampton church, published a sermon in 1707 whose message stated that sanctification (to set apart, make holy) was not a necessary qualification for participation in the Lord’s supper and that “the Lord’s supper is a converting ordinance.” In other words, those desiring the full advantages of church membership, even though they did not have “a Saving Work of God’s spirit on their hearts,” were eligible to partake of the Lord’s supper. This practice at Stoddard’s Northampton Church was vigorously opposed by some, but given the general high esteem held for the prominent pastor and the general desire of many halfway covenanters to enjoy the benefits of church membership, the practice was adopted and spread extensively to churches in other parts of New England.[11]

The outworking of these practices adopted by the New England churches tended to destroy church discipline. Why should the unconverted be concerned with conversion when they are not held accountable by the church for their unregenerate heart and disobedient ways?[12] These beliefs and practices must inevitably lead to confusion as to the true meaning of conversion and thus undermine the redemptive work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts and minds of the lost. Writing over 175 years ago, Joseph Tracey described the eventual course that the resulting confusion would take after the loss of a biblical understanding of conversion.

What must it teach the unconverted church member to think of himself, and of his prospects for eternity?…And what must he suppose conversion to be? Not a change by which a man begins to obey God; for he had already begun to obey him, as he supposed, and yet was unconverted. Not a change righteously required of him at every moment; for God had given him something to do before conversion, and he was doing it. He must have thought it some mysterious benefit, which God would, in his own good time, bestow on those for whom it was appointed…Being thus deceived with respect to the very nature of conversion, all his desires and prayers and labors for it would be misdirected.[13]

Stoddard and other New England pastors hoped to counteract the dangers of their beliefs on conversion and sanctification by faithfully and forcefully preaching the Word so as to compel conversion. But as Tracey so ably points out, “…in the end, the doctrines on which a church is seen to act, will prevail over those which are only uttered; and the state of feeling among the members, and ultimately the preaching itself, will conform to the theory on which the church is governed and the ordinances are administered.”[14] Put another way, doctrines which are observed and practiced will inevitably prevail over those that are merely preached.

There were a number of revivals that occurred before the recognized beginning of The Great Awakening in America. One of the first to preach the essence of true revival was Samuel Torrey, pastor of the Weymouth, Massachusetts church. Torrey may be considered the first evangelical in New England for by 1674 he had begun preaching the need for revival among pastors and congregations. Torrey emphasized the “Work of Reformation.” He believed that the churches’ would not be revived through moral efforts but only an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This would occur only when each person experienced a “Heart-reformation, or making of a new heart.” This would occur when God would pour “out [an] abundance of converting grace, and so revive and renew the work of conversion.” Torrey preached his greatest sermon on revival in 1695. In “Mans Extremity, Gods Opportunity,” Torrey preached that the sin of New Englanders had grown to such an extent that an ordinary reformation was not possible. God must unilaterally intercede, but that “We must follow God mourning…Such a mourning is the certain effect of the saving dispensation of the Spirit and converting grace.”[15]

Covenant renewals had begun occurring in the late 1600s. Typically, in covenant renewal ceremonies, pastors reminded all church members of their promises to God and to each other. Full covenant members could consider if their relationship with God was truly right. Halfway members could seek conversion and admission into full membership in the church. These ceremonies were generally followed by preaching on salvation for a period of several weeks. Samuel Willard led a covenant renewal in 1680 at Boston’s Old South Church. Early in the renewal, several children publicly embraced their responsibilities of their baptismal covenant. This sparked the whole church to go through renewal and recognition of their baptismal covenant with many becoming members in full communion.[16]

A covenant ceremony was led by Samuel Danforth Jr. in 1705 at Taunton, Massachusetts. Thomas Kidd in his book The Great Awakening – The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America gave an account of the events that occurred.

Danforth reported in February 1705 that “we are much encouraged by an unusual and amazing Impression, made by GOD’S SPIRIT on all Sorts among us, especially on the young Men and Women.” The young people had become sober as a result of the meetings and some “awful Deaths and amazing Providences.” He hoped that their sobriety was not temporary and asked for “Prayer that these Strivings of the SPIRIT, may have a saving Issue.”…“We gave Liberty to all Men and Women Kind, from sixteen Years old and upwards to act with us,” and three hundred people added their names to a list forsaking sin.” Later that month Danforth reported that he had no time for his regular pastoral duties because of his constant visits from young people seeking salvation.[17] [emphasis in original]

There were many such outpourings of the Holy Spirit in the late 1600s and early 1700s, and the frequency of these revivals grew in New England during the 1710s and 1720s. Out of these early stirrings came a renewal movement called evangelicalism that fundamentally changed many churches and denominations and helped birth the First Great Awakening. Those churches that embraced evangelicalism emphasized a revivalist style of preaching, personal conversion, personal devotion and holiness, and individual access to God which de-emphasized the importance and authority of church government.[18]

Heretofore, our emphasis has been on Puritan revivals that preceded The Great Awakening. However, in addition to the English stream of evangelicalism there were two other streams that fed the rising river of revival fervor: Scots-Irish Presbyterianism and Continental Pietism.[19]

Pietism contributed an intense focus on the heart, often in conflict with the decayed state of formal, established religion. Scots-Irish Presbyterianism supplied legions of pious immigrants, who often came expecting revival to occur…The Pietists and Presbyterians of those colonies had begun striving for awakenings well before the Grand Itinerant George Whitefield came on the scene.[20]

Pietism stressed Bible study and personal religious experience and was a reaction to formalism and intellectualism. Reformed Pietism primarily focused on heart religion and Christian practice whereas Puritanism focused on doctrinal and ecclesiastical purity.[21]

We have examined the dire circumstances and conditions that led to the various revivals throughout the American colonies prior to the beginning of The American Great Awakening during the late 1720s. In the next chapter we shall examine the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in various revivals that comprised The Great American Awakening, the course of these revivals, and their long-term consequences for both the nation and the churches therein after the revival fires had subsided.

Larry G. Johnson


[1] Sherwood Eddy, The Kingdom of God and the American Dream, (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1941), pp. 48-49, 74.
[2] Thomas S. Kidd, The Great Awakening – The Roots of Evangelical Christianity in Colonial America, (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2007), p. xvi.
[3] Joseph Tracy, The Great Awakening – A History of the Revival of Religion in the Time of Edwards and Whitefield, Public Domain. Facsimile edition reproduced from original documents, pp. 1-2. Originally published in Boston, Massachusetts by Tappan and Dennet, 1842.
[4] Ibid. p. 2.
[5] Ibid., p. 3.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., p. 4.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Kidd, The Great Awakening, p. 3.
[10] Eddy, The Kingdom of God and the American Dream, p. 55.
[11] Tracey, The Great Awakening, pp. 4-5.
[12] Ibid., pp. 5-6.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid., p. 6.
[15] Kidd, The Great Awakening, p. 1-3.
[16] Ibid., p. 4.
[17] Ibid., pp. 4-5.
[18] Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2004, 2005), pp. 253, 256-257.
[19) Kidd, The Great Awakening, p. xvi.
[20] Ibid., p. 39.
[21] Ibid., p. 25.

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.

Revival – 3 – Purifying the Reformation – England and America

To understand the origins and nature of the great awakenings and revivals beginning in the eighteenth century, we must first look at the history of God’s people in England and the American colonies following the Reformation. Much of their history presented in this chapter is drawn from Chapters 6 through 9 in Evangelical Winter-Restoring New Testament Christianity.[1]

Although the reformers readily affirmed their allegiance to “the scriptures alone” as the authority of the church and living the Christian life, it was a far more difficult matter to shed centuries of the teachings and practices of the Catholic Church that conflicted with or undermined faithful adherence to the Scriptures. Therefore, implementation of reforms in the new Protestant churches often carried with it many of the old Roman Catholic ways of doing the business of church.

By 1550, the church in the West had settled into three branches of state religion: papal Catholicism, Lutheranism (Christianity allied with the state), and Calvinism (theocracy).[2] The Protestant branches were similar in that each was a compulsory religion, had strong ties with the state in one way or another, retained certain unbiblical elements of Catholic orthodoxy, and attempted to use the state to impose a religious monopoly. The false teachings and practices carried over from the Catholic Church would not be effectively challenged on a broad scale within the Protestant churches until the birth of the evangelical arm of the church in the great revivals that arose in England and the American colonies in the early eighteenth century.

Protestant Reformation – 1517

The Church of Jesus Christ had traveled a tortuous path through 1500 years of persecution, victories, corruption, triumphs, and tragedies. Along the way the universal church had accumulated an inordinate amount of wealth, excess doctrinal baggage, and a large measure of worldliness. But in spite of the faults and corruptions within the church, the sustaining inerrant truth of the New Testament and its doctrines were the church’s life preserver to which a faithful remnant clung, however tenuously, for a millennium and a half. The Reformation was a time of casting off of much of the church’s excesses, failures, and worldliness, but it would be a painful and imperfect parting for both Catholic and Protestant churches.

When Luther nailed the ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church on October 31, 1517, he called into question certain practices of the church and sought to change them. Initially his actions were not meant to divide the church but to rid it of the practices that many in the church felt were doctrinally contrary to the tenets of the New Testament. What many define as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in 1517 may be more correctly viewed as a step (although the last major one) in a centuries-long process that eventually led to the irrevocable separation of the Protestants from the Roman Catholic Church.[3]

Following the break from the Catholic Church, the years between 1520 and 1562 were a time of bloody martyrdom for the Protestants. But the worst was to come between 1562 and 1648 when Protestants fought for their very survival.[4] In a belated and half-hearted effort to reunite the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestants, Pope Paul III called for a council to consider reforms within the Catholic Church in the little town of Trent in the mountains of northern Italy. With two interruptions of several years each, the Council of Trent lasted from 1545 until 1563. The council developed a creed and a new catechism (religious instruction) for the church. The religious abuses that had caused much of the trouble for the church were corrected, and provision was made to better educate the clergy. Although significant reform had been accomplished within the Catholic Church, the essential character of the church remained unchanged which was considered a triumph for the preservation of the papacy.[5]

The efforts of the Catholics at Trent revitalized the church following the shock of the Reformation and spurred its efforts to stamp out Protestantism. Between 1562 and 1618, the Calvinistic Protestants suffered the greatest martyrdom. In 1618, the Lutherans were also dragged into the conflict with the Catholics. The Catholic-Protestant wars throughout the European continent eventually ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia which substantially fixed the boundaries of Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism in Europe to the present day.[6]

England – 1517 -1688

The progress of the Reformation and rejection of papal authority generally was a grass roots affair in every country as most rulers were aligned with the Catholic hierarchy. But the Reformation in England was unique in that it became the first nation-state to reject papal authority but not the church’s doctrines or forms of worship.

Henry VIII was eighteen when he became king of England in 1509 and ruled for thirty-eight years until his death in 1547. Henry became embroiled in a controversy with the papacy because of his desire to divorce his long-time first wife and marry Ann Boleyn (second of six marriages) with the hope of producing a male heir to inherit the throne. Failing to receive a timely reply from the Pope that Henry be allowed to divorce his wife, the powerful monarch took matters into his own hands and pushed the Parliament to rubber-stamp the necessary legislation which decreed that Henry was the supreme head of the Church of England. His actions were not meant as a rejection of Catholicism for he had previously rejected Luther’s concept of the church. But Henry’s proclamation of royal supremacy over the church effectively separated the English church from Rome and led to the dissolution of monasteries and the confiscation of church property which Henry sold to the aristocracy and gentry. Henry’s view of the Church of England (also called the Anglican or Episcopal Church) was that it was still Catholic in doctrine but now rested on the supremacy of the king and his descendants.[7] Although Henry thought Luther a heretic, many Protestants believed Henry’s rejection of papal authority was a step, however feeble, in reformation of the church.[8]

From Henry’s death in 1547 until 1688, the quest for domination of the religious order in England was a free-for-all among the Henry’s heirs, competing challengers for the throne, and Parliament, all of whom chose sides in championing the cause of Catholicism or the Church of England. Others dissenting Protestant groups felt the wrath of both as they defied the Roman church and the Church of England, depending on who was in power at the moment. These religious wars came to an end when William III and Mary came from Holland in 1688 and drove James II from the throne in what was known as the Glorious Revolution. Church historian B. K. Kuiper states that, “William had saved England, Holland, and America for Protestantism and liberty against the Catholicism and despotism of Louis XIV of France and James II of England.” Although the Episcopal Church of England remained the established and endowed church of the land, in 1689 religious toleration was granted to religious dissenters including Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and Quakers. The only exceptions were Roman Catholics and those denying the Trinity.[9]

As we have seen, the English Reformation was the result of royal intrigues and politics of kings, queens, and Parliament. Therefore, reformation is perhaps too strong a word for what had occurred in England. The Church of England considered itself neither Protestant nor fully Catholic for the changes were more political and organizational than religious and doctrinal. As a result, unrest and desire for freedom from the strictures of the Church of England continued for a long time after the Reformation had run its course and become settled in other countries. Those members of the Church of England who pushed for a more thoroughly purified church were called Puritans. They objected to the rites, ceremonies, and episcopal form of government of the Church of England, but they wanted to remain in the church and work for reform from within. Separatists were those who believed the process of reforming the Church of England was hopeless and chose to separate from the church altogether. The Separatists were called Congregationalists or Independents. These were the Pilgrims who eventually founded the Plymouth Colony in 1620. Nine years later the Puritans followed and establish a reform-minded outpost of the Church of England in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.[10]

America – 1620-1640

It all began as a tiny ship approached the shores of a primitive continent called America. Historian Paul Johnson in his massive A History of the American People called the Pilgrim’s arrival on an old wine ship at New Plymouth on December 11, 1620, “…the single most important formative event in early American history.” The Mayflower contained a mixture of thirty-five English Calvinist Christians including some who had lived in exile in Holland to escape religious persecution in England. All were going to America for religious freedom. They were Separatist Puritans who had despaired of reforming the Church of England, its episcopal form of government, and the heavy influence of Catholic teaching. They were accompanied by sixty-six non-Puritans. The two groups contained forty-one families.[11]

The men and women that came to the American colonies at the beginning still considered themselves Englishmen and were in agreement with much of English law, politics, and social customs. Yet, the major motivating force that caused them to leave England was their differences concerning the nature of the Christian. The notion of consulting the Scriptures as opposed to the practices of the English clergy was expounded by a small group of separatists in the north of England. This small group who joined together in voluntary fashion believed in the authority of the congregation in the choice of ministers, i.e., self-government.[12]

The Separatists disdained the papacy, the Church of England, and also the Puritans of southern England (whom they believed had compromised their faith). In attempting to separate themselves from the world, they defied the efforts of King James I to make all worshipers conform to the practices of the Church of England. The Pilgrim Separatists were a humble people and often viewed as radicals because of their desire to separate from the Church of England as opposed to most Puritans who wanted to stay in the church and reform it from within.[13]

While crossing the Atlantic on the tiny Mayflower and fearing anarchy because of the larger number of non-separatists, they formed themselves into a political body similar. The Mayflower Compact established a government by consent, similar to their church covenant, with governing authority lying in the entire adult male body with no distinctions as to class, wealth, or church membership. Thus, the compact representing one-third separatists and two-thirds of the voyagers from London with other motives was signed by all adult male members including four servants. The separatists landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in November, far north of their Virginia destination, and became known as the Pilgrims. Years of harsh existence lay before them, but they were free to “establish once more on earth the Church of Christ in its pristine purity.”[14]

We must distinguish between the separatist band of outlawed Pilgrims that fled across the Atlantic on the Mayflower and the influential Puritans who would soon follow. The English Puritans had arisen about 1560 within the Anglican Church and sought reforms to bring about “a pure and stainless religion.”[15] But almost seventy years had passed since their origins, and the Church of England had rejected their efforts to reform the church. If the Puritans could not reform the church in England, they would bring the church to America and change it to their liking. This was not intended to be a separation from the Church of England but a separation from its corruption. This second group formed the great migration of English Puritans that began in 1628 upon the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Many were able men with wealth and social position. An astounding twenty thousand had made the harrowing voyage across the Atlantic and settled in the Salem area by 1640.[16]

Sherwood Eddy called those early years when colonial Puritanism was at its highest “…the finest expression of spiritual life that Britain or America or Continental Europe had at that time.”[17]

Larry G. Johnson


[1] Larry G. Johnson, Evangelical Winter – Restoring New Testament Christianity, (Owasso, Oklahoma: Anvil House Publishers, 2016).
[2] Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1997) p. 288.
[3] B. K. Kuiper, The Church in History, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1950, 1964, p. 157.
[4] Ibid., p. 244-245.
[5] Ibid., pp. 233-234.
[6] Ibid., pp. 244-245.
[7] J. M. Roberts,The New History of the World, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 579-580; “Henry VIII,” Encyclopedia Britannica. (accessed August 10, 2015).
[8] Kuiper, The Church in History, pp. 223, 229.
[9] Ibid., pp. 253-257.
[10] Ibid., pp. 249-251.
[11] Johnson, A History of the American People, pp. 28-29.
[12] Evans, pp. 186-188.
[13] Kuiper, The Church in History, pp. 327-328.
[14] Sherwood Eddy, The Kingdom of God and the American Dream, (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1941), pp. 40-41.
[15 Ibid., pp. 48, 56.
[16] Kuiper, The Church in History, p. 328.
[17] Eddy, The Kingdom of God and the American Dream, p. 56.