The Importance of the Past: Wycliffe to Spurgeon.
As an expatriate Englishman I have been asked to outline the state of British Evangelicalism for readers of this Newsletter. I suppose I could just charge in headlong and hope that you would perceive where I’m coming from, but that approach would essentially undermine one of the key things I would wish to communicate; vis à vis the spiritual milieu within which many conservative Christians in Britain understand themselves. Without this backdrop one cannot really understand the way things stand in the present. To put it differently, some sympathy must be established with Britain’s evangelical past before one can interpret the state of things in our day. Indeed, I have noticed that British evangelicals seem more in tune with the past than their American counterparts.
The point I wish to reach by the time you put down this article is this: Where are English Evangelicals coming from? How do they understand themselves?
As you are all doubtless aware, Great Britain has a rich (some might say, unrivalled) heritage of Christian spirituality. From proto-Reformers Bradwardine and Wycliffe, and the Great Lights of 16th and 17th century Protestantism, to the giants of the so-called Evangelical Awakening in the 18th century (Wesley, Whitefield, Rowland, etc.), through to the Spurgeons and Maclarens and Ryles of the 19th, and the likes of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in the last century. All these have left their impress upon our Christian history, and their influence upon those who followed after them.
Proceeding on the back of those two entirely overlong paragraphs I will attempt now a “bird’s-eye” sweep over this ground in order to provide us with a clearer focus for my ensuing articles.
The population of the British Isles in the 14th century, like the rest of Europe, was enveloped in spiritual darkness. Romanism had had centuries to fritter down the Gospel into obscurity and replace it with gross superstition and ignorance. Holy places, relics and fables abounded. One might say that religion in these times resembled more a “christened fetishism” than anything like true Christianity.
Into this gloomy situation came the figure of John Wycliffe. It was while lecturing on the Bible to his students at Oxford that Wycliffe met the Saviour. Lechler observes that, “In teaching the Scriptures to others, he learned the true meaning of them himself.”– John Wycliffe and his English Precursors, 112-113. This led him to insist upon the sufficiency of Scripture alone, to call the Pope “a fallible man”, and to undertake to translate the Latin Vulgate into English. With at least parts of this Bible in hand he sent out his Lollard preachers into the highways and byways of the land, so that by 1362, two years before his death, Wycliffe had presided over the production of the first English translation of the Scriptures, and had seen the light of the Gospel begin to dispel much spiritual darkness in his homeland.
- The Reformers.
Had you and I been alive in England in about 1500 it is doubtful whether we would have known anything at all about the message of salvation preached by Wycliffe and his Lollard preachers. It is a peculiar fact of history that as light scatters darkness, so, after a generation or two, the light recedes and the darkness fills the void. Thus, by the time William Tyndale was converted through reading Erasmus’ Greek Testament in around 1520, the Gospel was again rarely heard. By the way, it was Tyndale who first coined the term “Evangelical” to describe himself. He styled himself a “Gospel man”.
God used Tyndale and a small group of fellow students at Oxford (Bilney, Cranmer, Latimer, Hooper, etc.) to prize open the door which Wycliffe had earlier unlocked. Through their preaching and writing, and then by their martyrdom, these men set up the standard for the Gospel to which successive evangelicals have rallied. Throughout England even today meetings are held to commemorate the sacrifices of these men.
- The Puritans and Nonconformity.
When men of the spiritual character and intellectual rigor of these Reformers seal their allegiance to Jesus Christ with their own blood, it is not surprising that they will attract to the Saviour a whole army of the best men and women of the next generation. By the mid to late 1500’s, the Reformation was in full swing throughout Europe, and opportunity arose for more intramural debates among Christian leaders. Some, satisfied with the accomplishments of their predecessors, and still believing in the divine right of kings (even in matters ecclesiastical), adhered to the beliefs and practices of the Church of England. But others wanted to rid the Church of every vestige of Romish influence and pressed for purer worship and practice. This second group can further be divided into Puritans and Separatists (Brown, Penry, Smyth, etc.). There is no room here to distinguish between these two sub-groups. Besides, for present purposes (though I am all too aware of the deficiency) I can concentrate on the Puritans, since their influence can scarcely be ignored.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that English Puritanism, particularly under Cromwell’s Commonwealth (1649-58) constituted a Golden Age of Christian preaching and writing. In spite of some glaring deficiencies—particularly among the Presbyterian party—anyone who is familiar with the works of these men has to concede that they were a race of giants. They sought to live entirely as if under the gaze of God. Their preaching was expositional and, most important to them, experimental (applicatory), and their publications followed suit. It is simply impossible to understand a Whitefield, a Spurgeon, or a Lloyd-Jones, or many of their kin today, without some acquaintance with men like Owen, Goodwin, Manton, and Flavel. Their books are staunchly Calvinistic in soteriology, and post-millennial in eschatology. Their doctrine of the Church (i.e. the kingdom) led many of them, but especially the Presbyterian wing, to oppose freedom of conscience and to bite the hand (Cromwell’s) which fed them. We would have problems with them in these areas. Nevertheless, we impoverish ourselves when we ignore their achievements in practical theology. An American who did not have even a smattering of Puritan knowledge would find himself or herself out of sorts in a gathering of Evangelicals at, say, the annual Westminster Conference.
- Evangelical Anglicanism: Wesley and Whitefield
In supporting the restoration of the godless Charles II in 1660, Puritanism essentially cut its own throat. Indeed, English Presbyterianism has never recovered since that time. It is not surprising then that John Wesley, George Whitefield, and their companions encountered great resistance when they set about their Gospel labors in the late 1730’s. England had become a hive of drunkards and criminals. Luke Tyerman, in the first volume of his Life of Wesley wrote that for little money a man could drink himself into a stupor and then sleep it off on a bed of hay before going home.
Despite their well-known theological differences, Wesley and Whitefield, by their phenomenal labors, succeeded in evangelizing most of Great Britain.
At this juncture, I must say something about the institutional church in England. It is true that the Church of England can boast a gallery of Evangelical heroes. And nowhere is this the case more than in the 18th century,—as a reading of J.C. Ryle’s Christian Leaders of the Eighteenth Century will prove. Yet the Church of England (Episcopalian) has always been a mingling of good and bad. And for every Cranmer there have been two Whitgifts or Lauds. For every Wesley two Aylmers, and every Ryle two or three Newmans. The distinction between Anglicans and Nonconformists (e.g. Baptists, Congregationalists, etc.) has always been understood, and continues through to the present day, both in the minds of “rank and file” churchgoers and the populace at large.
Baptists in the 18th century became embroiled in the Hyper-Calvinist controversy which threatened Nonconformity in the second half of the 1700’s. The famous John Gill, for instance, was teaching Eternal Justification. But this was also the age of William Carey and Andrew Fuller.
- The Nineteenth Century: Pros and Cons.
If the 18th century was a high-watermark for evangelical Anglicanism, perhaps the next century was somewhat equivalent for Nonconformity. Because of space considerations, I shall try to make the greatest impact in the fewest words. Therefore I simply give a list of names. During this period, and in addition to a host of considerably gifted but less well-known individuals, we find John Angell James, William Jay, Robert Hall, C.H. Spurgeon, Alexander Maclaren, Octavius Winslow, Marcus Rainsford, Joseph Parker, William Booth, F.B. Meyer, J.H. Jowett, George Müller, etc., etc. Through these men, and the additional impetus of the campaigns of American Dwight L. Moody, churches were packed and new meeting-houses erected.
A hundred years does not seem so long ago in the UK as it does in the US, and the impact of such ministries, with Spurgeon’s ghost looming large, is still felt among evangelicals in England. But the picture is not all rosy. The Oxford Movement of the mid- to late-1800’s attempted to make Anglo-Catholic “smells and bells” religion the norm within Anglicanism. At much the same time occurred the infamous “Downgrade Controversy” in which Mr. Spurgeon took such a conspicuous stand for the Bible. The “Downgrade” saw Evangelicalism buckle under the weight of humanistic optimism powered by the momentum of triumphalist evolutionism. The forces of Liberal theology were gaining strength.
C.H. Spurgeon died in 1892. The clarion voice of historic evangelicalism fell silent. Modernism was at its zenith, and, for the most part, the Evangelicals were left weak and intimidated. The seeds of secularization were sown. Not until Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ ministry started to set tongues wagging in the late 1930’s would the Evangelicals have a leader who could turn things round and provide new cause for optimism.