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History of the Church


1800-1900Lesson audio


The World


The rise of the city

It is an unfortunate effect of living in modern times that we believe most people lived in cities throughout history.  Until the 19th century, however, the technology did not exist to make truly large cities possible.  One reason we are ignorant of this is that most of the knowledge and wisdom of the ancients was recorded, taught and kept – in the cities.  Citizens of cities have had a disproportionate impact on civilization.  And when cities come to hold most of the population, city life has a much greater impact.

The first great change in life was simply this:  the average human being now worked in a factory, was paid with money on a regular basis, conducted himself according to the time clock (as opposed to dawn and dusk) – and considered himself to be better off because of it.  What was it like?


Child labor in an English factory – contemporary print


Life, for the factory worker, meant a daily grind of twelve to sixteen hours a day, usually six days a week.  But this meant life with money in the pocket and new things to spend it on.  People came to the factories in hordes; even today, there are those who call for more factory jobs so that everyone will have a chance to be employed.

The side effects were quickly evident.  Life in a village near the farms was a life where everyone knew everyone; the sense of community was always there, from birth.  The tyranny of the time clock was unknown;  people worked by nature’s clock, the sun.  People gave up the farm life to rush to the city – and the first purchase with their wages was often a watch; this to be sure of being at work on time.  Labor was cheap; so was human life.  The sense of community broke down quickly in this environment. 

The church was slow to respond to this.  The resulting change, however, is with us today.  The mega-church was invented in this era; for example, C. H. Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle had about 6,000 members.  Such a collection of people in an earlier time would not happen – how could people arrive at the same time?  Where would they leave their horses and wagons?  The train and trolley solved this problem – freeways just changed how it was done.

This also had the effect that no longer was the church local.  You went to a church because you liked the preacher’s messages, or because the building was nice – but never again in Western civilization would you go to a church because it was the church in your parish.  One of the reasons that the church was so slow to respond was that in England, creating a new parish took an act of Parliament.  It still does, for some churches.

It also meant that the church now had to compete for land in the city.  No longer would one plot of ground be equivalent to all the others.  Funding for land and buildings was now a necessity.


The rise of empires

This was also the time which saw the formation of the great European powers’ empires.  Britain, France and to a lesser extent Germany and America formed empires out of conquered territory in Africa and Asia.  This, in its own way, aided the spread of the Gospel – for now English would be spoken around the world.  The textbook for teaching English was often the King James Bible – one of the invisible bonds of the English speaking peoples.

In America, two key events helped determine the future of the church:

·  The Civil War triggered many things for the church.  The shock of the numbers of casualties, the connection between the abolitionist and the preacher (Henry Ward Beecher was both, for example) and the impact of the “no atheists in foxholes” phenomenon put America very much in the forefront of Christianity.

·  More than that, the westward expansion of the American nation had its own effects.  For the first time we see churches which are non-denominational, with doctrine decided by those who read the Bible, not by those who went to college.  The west was fertile ground for new churches and even new religions – Mormons, for example.


Typical of American revivals, these folks were at a “camp meeting” – usually two-three weeks of preaching revival.


Overall, we may speak of the “three C’s” of empire – Christianity, Commerce and Civilization.  Empire builders knew that these three went hand in hand.  It is fashionable today to be appalled at colonialism;  we might look at it differently if we realize what the colonies were before and after the British arrived.



In Europe especially, it was a time for “isms.”  The great “ism” of the age in its impact on the church was Darwinism – the Theory of Evolution.  This provoked bitter reaction by the church:


A caricature of Charles Darwin, of the period.


The division in the church (often thought to be impossible) came from an unfortunate confluence.  Just a hundred years earlier a bishop of the Anglican church in Ireland (there’s a popular occupation) put forth his chronology of the world.  By comparing dates in the Bible, he worked out that the universe was created in 4004 BC.  May I point out to you that until the 18th century no one had gone through the calculations?  The reason is simple:  the early church viewed the Garden of Eden as being instructional, but not necessarily historical.  Augustine, for example, wrote that Moses received the details from God in the form that would be understood by a poet – in other words, to be taken to heart but not necessarily taken literally.  As we shall see, the tendency in the 19th century was to take it very literally.  The divisions on this are still with us.

Worse yet was the application of Darwin’s central idea – survival of the fittest – to areas on which had no intention of trespassing.  In particular, people began to accept the idea that those who were favored were those who survived.  As this was taught, it was “obvious” that white people were the great survivors (just look at the civilization of white people vs. all the others) and were therefore superior to all other races. 

Combine this, please, with a healthy dose of German philosophy (including Karl Marx) and you have a magnificent opportunity to base society on race – and proclaim war as the noble way in which the fittest survive. 

The idea that life is a competition for survival, combined with the humanist idea that man alone is the judge of all things, has given us three great political movements in the 20th century:

  • The human who determined everything in Nazi Germany was Adolf Hitler.  The Fuehrer is always right – not just a slogan, doctrine.
  • The proletariat determined these things in Communism – at least when Lenin and Stalin didn’t give them the answer before hand.
  • Finally, there is American humanism (the people are always right). 

Hitler cost the world somewhere between six and twenty million lives.  Stalin did somewhat better, but American humanism has them beat:  Forty million slaughtered – and still counting more than a million a year.  As Peter Wimsey once put it, “The first thing an ideology does is go out and kill someone.”



The Church


Second Generation churches

The structure of churches set up by the Protestant Reformation now produced a new wave of new denominations.  The early Protestants attempted to reform the Catholic church; a few generations later there was no thought of this – just trying to determine how Christians should live and worship.  The “do it yourself” system produced some interesting results:


The Salvation Army.  William Booth, a preacher for several denominations, had a heart for the poor of London that led eventually to the establishment of the Salvation Army.  Its revival spirit, its campaign against alcohol (and, lately, homosexuality), its military structure combined with the ardor of the faithful made this the first Christian group which effectively penetrated the mass of poor people in London.  The common lot of the Army is to be pilloried, satirized and mocked, condemned by the press – and to continue to serve.  Its work with the poor is so well known that many Americans don’t recognize it as a church.

Plymouth Brethren.  With a focus on Biblical Christianity, simple forms of worship and the thought that there should be no difference between preacher and listener, all were equal before God.  This is the first church to deliberately avoid creating a hierarchy.  It is also the church that gave us John Darby.  To those in it, this is what God intended for the church.  Regrettably, those outside see it differently.  When Dorothy Sayers needed a character who was stiff, unfriendly and judgmental, she made him a Plymouth Brethren member.[1]

The Evangelicals.  The upper classes in Great Britain reacted to this – by creating a social Gospel, revival oriented movement of their own.  Referred to as Evangelicals, they stood for social reform – particularly in labor laws and factory safety and prison reform.  Their style was upper crust revival; their passion was social Gospel.  They also began some of the great missionary societies of the world.  More than any other group, they lead Victorian England into a social structure in which fervent faith and polite decorum were not incompatible.


Great Men

It is hard to pick only three great men from this era.  Indeed, I am obliged to state it:  there’s a surplus here of great quality.  When you can overlook Adoniram Judson and Hudson Taylor, you know your list is too short.

Dwight L. Moody.  A poor man apprenticing in his uncle’s shoemaking shop, Moody was converted by his Sunday School teacher.  He moved to Chicago and was active – as a layman – in the local church.  Noting that he regularly filled four pews with those he had recruited, he was encouraged to devote himself to full time ministry.  His tour of Great Britain (1873-1875) encouraged him (Harry Morehouse also taught him how to preach on this campaign).  When he returned to America, he spent the rest of his life preaching revival campaigns.  He was the greatest preacher America has ever known.


William Wilberforce.  A man of passionate conviction, Wilberforce led the political movement – based upon his faith – which eliminated slavery from the British Empire.  He helped to open British India to missionaries; he worked for prison reform and to eliminate the practice of hiring young children as chimney sweeps.  His influence was felt much more behind the scenes than in front, but he was the political head of Christian reform in Great Britain.


William Carey.  A man who devoted his life to missionary work in India, he translated the entire Bible into six different local languages, with parts translated into 24 other languages.  He created the mission school system, was greatly concerned with local agriculture (which he aided greatly by his scientific work), and led the fight in India to abolish the practice of suttee, or widow-burning.


The Scriptures

The view the church had of the Scriptures changed greatly in this era:

  • First, there was the establishment of Bible societies – for example, the Gideons.  People could now read;  it was time to give them the Bible.  These societies gave away millions of Bibles in many languages; some continue to do so even today.
  • The major impact on the Scriptures was the advent of “higher criticism.”  Those who followed humanist philosophy knew that the Scriptures could not possibly be true.  Rather, they were to be input to the human mind, which would determine truth.  The main avenue in this was what might be called the “it must have been theory.”  Take any passage and ask, “How could this distorted, twisted legend have started?”  This too is with us today.  Remember the “Jesus Seminar?”
  • In reaction to this, what is now called “lower criticism” was also developed.  Until this era, scholars viewed the Scriptures (in the original Greek) as being carefully handed down from generation to generation.  With this challenge, the search started for ancient manuscripts – which could be dated.  Legends take generations to twist;  the New Testament did not have that period.  The scholars of this era set the standards for documentary evidence that we still use today.
  • Finally, this era shows us church groups who base their entire church structure on the Bible – alone.  No longer are they content with the traditions and practices handed to them.  Everything must be taken back to the Scriptures;  and this has led us into some strange situations.


On Christ


The Impact of the French Revolution

On the 10th of December, 1793, a group of French deputies (i.e., members of Parliament) invaded Notre Dame Cathedral. They took it over, and installed what one history calls “a dancer of doubtful morals” as the Goddess of Reason.  It is symbolic of the era; France rejected the church; she rejected Christ – and found herself plunged by Napoleon’s ego into a war that ultimately was ruinous.  The philosophical and moral burdens of that war are still with us. 

One effect in particular must be observed:  it set in motion the chain of events which has given us the papacy of today:  a limited amount of sovereignty over a small piece of land.  We are accustomed to knowing the Pope as a religious power, not a political one.  The French Revolution gave us that. 

One question still puzzles some:  why did the revolution work in France but not in England?  The answer, according to our liberal historians, is the crushing burden of the Evangelical revival.



Social Gospel          


The concept of Social Gospel has not departed from amongst us.


When man lived on the farm all shared a common lot in life – they were out of sight to those who were upper crust.  But when the cities grew in industry, the misery of the poor was plainly seen, and in large quantity.  The result was the beginning of what we today would call social Gospel.  The debate was strong:

  • One side would ask how Christ could possibly have approved of a labor union – whose main function was to disrupt the factory system, the rebellion of the workers stealing from their employers.  Surely, this is sin itself!  Envy, greed and arrogance abound; this cannot be Christian.
  • The other would see that those with the means – the factory owners – were not being charitable to the poor who worked for them.  Was it fair, then, that workers could be hired for incredibly small sums so that the owners would live in luxury on the increase of profits?

The result was the establishment of societies to deal with such problems.  It is a little known fact, but the first Sunday Schools were designed to teach children how to read.  Their employers allowed them Sundays to go to church;  the rest of the week was spent in toil. 


Christ no longer paramount

One thing slipped by the people of these times:  the personal devotion to Christ.  Missions were sent; the poor relieved; and in all this God was shaped in our minds.  For all that we read Scripture, the worship of something other than Christ grew.

  • For the Catholic, this was the worship of Mary.  It is in this era that the Immaculate Conception and papal infallibility are proclaimed as truth.  As the Pope lost his temporal power he gained greatly in his control over the faithful.  One prime means of separating Catholic from Protestant was the “veneration” of Mary.  The Protestant could not accept it; the Catholic now could not give it up.  The split hardened.
  • For the Protestant, the Bible began to assume the status of an icon.  Its glories were proclaimed, partly in reaction to “higher criticism.”  In so doing the doors were opened for those who worshiped the Scriptures to avoid worshiping the Christ they reveal.  The Pharisees would fit right in.
  • Others – the “enlightened” worshiped their own ego.  They would determine the worship of God; God had nothing to say about it.


Through all this the Spirit preserved the remnant who worship the Lord.  The Victorian era was the launching pad for the events of the 20th century – events which refined the church – making some parts strong, and other parts disappear.



[1] You haven’t encountered Dorothy Sayers novels?  Her series of detective novels concerning Peter Wimsey are a delight.  The fact that she was also the greatest theologian of the 20th century enlivens these novels with rich moral discussion.  The novel mentioned here is A Busman’s Honeymoon.

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