Particular Baptists and the Outpouring of the Spirit
POSTED BY MICHAEL HAYKIN
It is vital to note that while many Particular Baptists were in the state of declension (as described in part 1 of this series of studies on the renewal of this eighteenth-century Baptist community), from the mid-1730s on there was a tremendous movement of revival going on in Great Britain. It was a movement with such leaders as George Whitefield (1714-1770), the leading evangelist of the eighteenth century, the Wesley brothers, John (1703-1791) and Charles (1707-1788), and Howel Harris (1714-1773) in Wales. Known as the Eighteenth-century Evangelical Revival, or, in America, as the First Great Awakening, the power of this movement is well depicted by Howel Harris in a letter that he wrote at the close of 1743 to George Whitefield. Writing of the ministry of two fellow Welshmen under whose preaching Harris had recently sat, Harris told Whitefield:
“The outpouring of the Blessed Spirit is now so plentiful and common, that I think it was our deliberate observation that not one sent by Him opens his mouth without some remarkable showers. He comes either as a Spirit of wisdom to enlighten the soul, to teach and build up, and set out the works of light and darkness, or else a Spirit of tenderness and love, sweetly melting the souls like the dew, and watering the graces; or as the Spirit of hot burning zeal, setting their hearts in a flame, so that their eyes sparkle with fire, love, and joy; or also such a Spirit of uncommon power that the heavens seem to be rent, and hell to tremble.”1
And as George S. Claghorn has succinctly described Whitefield’s impact under God on the other side of the Atlantic in America: “Wherever he went [from Georgia to Maine], he drew congregations by the hundreds and thousands. Wholesale conversions followed, lives were transformed, and a lasting impact was made on the character of the American people.”2
Many Particular Baptists, however, had deep reservations about the revival. The Wesleys, of course, were Arminians and thus beyond the pale for the Calvinistic Particular Baptists. However, Whitefield was a Calvinist. Yet, the fervency of his evangelism and his urging of the lost to embrace Christ, their only hope of salvation, prompted a number of Baptist critics to complain of what they termed his “Arminian accent.”
Most importantly, the Particular Baptists were disturbed by the fact that the earliest leaders in the revival belonged to the Church of England. Their Particular Baptist forebears, after all, had come out of the Church of England at great personal cost and suffering, and they had suffered for their determination to establish true gospel churches. The heritage that came down to the eighteenth-century Particular Baptists was thus intertwined with a great concern for proper New Testament church order. John Gill (1697-1771), the leading Particular Baptist divine for much of that century, well expressed the ecclesiological convictions that prevailed in the Particular Baptist community for much of the era. “The Church of England,” he declared in no uncertain terms, “has neither the form nor matter of a true church, nor is the Word of God purely preached in it.”3 A resolution passed by St. Mary’s Baptist Church, Norwich, in 1754 also reveals this attitude. In the minute book for that year we read that “it is unlawful for any… to attend the meetings of the Methodists, or to join in any worship which is contrary to the doctrines and ordinances of our Lord Jesus.”4 Many eighteenth-century Particular Baptists were thus adamant in their refusal to regard the Evangelical Revival as a genuine work of God, for, from their perspective, it simply did not issue in “true gospel churches.”
Of course, there were some noteworthy exceptions, but up until the 1770s far too many Particular Baptists seem to have assumed that a revival could only be considered genuine if it preserved and promoted the proper form of the local church. For many Particular Baptists of the first six or seven decades of the eighteenth century, outward form and inward revival went hand in hand. Their chief preoccupation was the preservation of what they considered the proper New Testament form of church. In their minds, when God brought revival it would have to issue in true gospel churches like theirs.
The dilemma facing these Baptists was not an easy one. They rightly felt constrained to emphasize the New Testament idea of the local church as a congregation of visible saints and assert that the concept of a state church is antithetical to the whole tenor of the new covenant. Moreover, these were truths for which their forebears in the previous century had suffered much. To abandon them would have been unthinkable. But what then was to be made of the ministry of men like Whitefield?
One possible solution would have been for the eighteenth-century Particular Baptists to have viewed the ministry of Whitefield and other Anglican Calvinists in the way that their seventeenth-century forebears viewed the labors of the sixteenth-century Reformers. The latter did not reject the ministry of the Reformers because they were not Baptists. Rather, they recognized that the Reformers had been greatly used by God to bring the church out of the Stygian darkness of the Middle Ages. Yet, though the Reformers did well, they failed to apply all that the Scriptures taught. Similarly, it could have been recognized that God was indeed at work among the leaders of the revival, but that there were certain areas–in particular, those dealing with the church and its nature–where they needed greater light.
1. Cited Eifion Evans, Daniel Rowland and the Great Evangelical Awakening in Wales (Edinburgh/Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), 243.
2. Jonathan Edwards: Letters and Personal Writings, ed. George S. Claghorn (The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 16; New Haven, CT/London: Yale University Press, 1998), 79.
3. Cited Dafydd Densil James Morgan, “The Development of the Baptist Movement in Wales between 1714 and 1815 with particular reference to the Evangelical Revival” (DPhil thesis, Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford, 1986), 39.
4. Cited Charles B. Jewson, “St. Mary’s, Norwich,” The Baptist Quarterly, 10 (1940-1941): 283.
*This is Dr. Haykin’s second post in a series on “Revitalizing an Eighteenth Century Christian Community.”