18th century: Reason
Scientific study accelerated during the 18th century. Alongside it came an energetic faith in the logical power of ‘reason’. Hope grew that the more humans could comprehend, the more their knowledge could be made to benefit the world. Previously inexplicable things came to be understood, so there was less need to assume that only miracles by God could have made the world so complex. Perhaps there was no God. Or perhaps God set the universe in motion but was utterly remote.
This thinking presented a profound challenge to Christians. In Europe a significant group of Christians began to consider whether it was possible to have a faith in which all supernatural elements had been stripped away. Some were persuaded that there was a supreme God, but struggled to believe that this Being could have taken on human flesh in the person of Jesus, died and returned to life. A group called the Unitarians grew popular, worshipping a divine God and following the teaching of a human Jesus. In response the Protestant church in Europe became defensive and was weakened.
Revival came because leaders emerged who realised that a cerebral, rational understanding of the world could satisfy the brain but did nothing for the needs of the human heart. A hundred years before a number of groups in Germany who formed the Pietistic movement had experienced a rich and loving encounter with the living Jesus. The warmth of the way they lived out their faith contrasted with hard-line Protestant churches.
One of these groups was called the Moravian Brethren. Scattered by war, little congregations were meeting in cities across Europe. A young man called John Wesley attended a service in London in 1738, in which he fully considered for the first time what Jesus had done for him by dying and rising from the dead. His emotional response changed his life. He became convinced that the people of Britain and Ireland needed to hear the message of how a personal response to Jesus could fulfil every aspect of life and death.
John and his brother Charles travelled extensively. They proclaimed that an encounter with Jesus was so transforming that it was salvation. They preached in open spaces because the churches would not allow them to use their premises. Despite their opposition (or perhaps because of it) crowds came to hear the message in market places. In huge numbers they professed that they had been converted. Charles’ catchy hymns and John’s heartfelt explanations of the difference that faith could make to a life were attractive to working class men and women in a way that cerebral churches never could be.
Other dynamic Christians followed their lead. Howell Harris preached in Wales. George Whitfield preached in Scotland and England. And in the United States, Jonathan Edwards was a significant figure in a ‘Great Awakening’. The revival of faith there had a great impact on the religious life of the nation which still evident to this day.
John Wesley urged those whose faith in Jesus had been invigorated to return to their Anglican churches to grow in understanding through Bible study and prayer using a disciplined ‘method’. They nicknamed themselves ‘Methodists’ so that they could support each other in pastoral care. The Anglican Church could not adapt itself with sufficient imagination to give this huge number of new Christians the spiritual guidance they needed. The result was that the Methodists needed to move out to where they had freedom, and a new worldwide denomination was born.
This approach to Christianity which emphasised a personal relationship with the living Jesus and honoured the Bible as a guide for daily life was called ‘evangelical’. Poor people, for whom churches had not always been places of welcome, found it compelling. But middle and upper class people were energised too. A group within the Church of England calling themselves the Clapham Sect included intellectuals and politicians. Lord Shaftesbury, William Wilberforce and Charles Simeon were driven by their Christian faith to bring about sweeping changes to the conditions of the poor. These included limiting the working hours of children, improving conditions for factory workers and miners, and making the trade of slaves illegal.
New missionary societies were funded by donations from the church-going public. It meant that wherever trade from Europe reached, Protestant Christianity went with it. The Dutch colonised South Africa and Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon). The British colonised India and the Caribbean. Settlers were expected to be advocates for the faith of their homeland as well as traders. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge were all founded in this generation. Each denomination had its equivalent, such as the Methodist, Baptist and Church Missionary Societies. They all still exist, having changed their names and practices to meet the needs of subsequent generations.
Continue the story of the Christian faith in the next century here.
What the Bible says about it
An extract from the Bible:
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.
Where to find it:
About these words:
From a letter preserved in the New Testament.
And they said...
John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, 1703 – 1791:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
Anthony, Lord Shaftesbury, politician, 1801 – 1885:
I think a man’s religion, if it is worth anything, should enter into every sphere of life and rule his conduct in every relation.