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History of the Church

The Great Awakening

1650-1800Lesson audio


The World

Changes in the church do not happen in a vacuum; rather, they are usually shaped by conditions and events in the outside world, along with the internal pressures and (one hopes) the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  It will serve us, therefore to look at the world around the church.



There is one prominent fact:  the religious wars which ended the period of the reformation – and made the great division so permanent – are over.  Winners and losers have been decided; Catholic and Protestant nations emerge.  This is no help for the unity of the church; indeed, the stirrings of the ecumenical movement do not really arrive until the 20th century.  But the wars are over; for European Christians, it is a time of relative peace. 

It is the age of empires.  Britain, France, Spain, and Portugal all develop their empires around the world.  It is a time of expansion;  nations are interested in acquiring and developing colonies around the world.  It is fashionable today to insist that there was nothing good in colonialism.  As we shall see, however, the beginnings of the missionary evangelism so well known today are begun in this time.  Trade follows the flag – and the evangelist follows the trade.

One thing has not changed:  the government still is of the opinion that there should be one preferred religion.  What that religion is varies by country, of course – but the argument is the same as in Constantine’s time:  the emperor is responsible to the gods.  The king must ensure that his subjects worship God in the right way, lest the Almighty become angry with them.  There is a great deal of justification for this in the Old Testament.  This naturally is viewed as intolerance by those who are not in the right church – and this intolerance moves people to leave their homes and seek a place to be allowed to worship as they believe best.  A goodly portion of America’s early settlers fall neatly in this category – Protestants and Catholics alike.


Times and technology

We must remember that this period is before the industrial revolution.  But the high point of technology has a great deal of influence regarding the spread of the Gospel.  Here’s that high point:

This is HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar.  Dating back to Drake’s victory over the Spanish Armada, this type of vessel was the most complicated thing ever built up to this time.  It was the Space Shuttle of its day.  The key fact is this:  Britain ruled the seas, for the most part.  That meant that traders – of any nation – could venture out on the sea with reasonable risks and the expectation of profits.  In short, the world now had an efficient way of taking the trade everywhere.  The oceans were peaceful.  Think back to the world of Rome in the time of the Apostles; substitute England for Rome and sea lanes for roads.  You can see that this must be a time of evangelism for the church.  As Pax Romana was to the ancient world, so Pax Brittanica would be for this time – and beyond, extending to the 20th century.


The image of the church

At the beginning of this era, the world had one opinion of the church:  boring.  It was about as exciting as the wait at the dentist’s office:  you know you have to go, but the thrill factor is exactly zero.  Here’s how one contemporary showed it:

It’s a rather satirical piece, but the people of the early 17th century would have seen it that way.  For one reason, all the really sincere believers were making tracks to America.  The clergy delivered long, well reasoned speeches which provoked no repentance.  It was church by formula.

It was also church by the king’s command.  The national churches were subsided from tax money, often in the form of the priest’s salary.  Laws were passed which required every citizen to attend church in the authorized denomination at least once a year.  You  can imagine the hypocrisy this provoked.  You can also imagine the pressure this put on those who did not conform – and understand their reason for seeking a better life elsewhere.



The Church

The Holy Spirit does not allow the church to remain in error.  In all parts of Protestant Europe (and America) a great revival broke out.  It was accompanied by new forms of worship.  People would meet to hear the Word – under a tent!  Those who organized these things kept records not only of the official members but of prospects as well.  Much of the methodology of tent meeting revivals was first used in this era, especially by the Methodists.

And there was music!  From Handel’s oratorios to the hymns of John Newton (Amazing Grace) the church began to sing.  The great music of Bach – still the premier composer for the organ[1] - had moved many a church to acquire an organ.  These were put to grand use when a choir was added.  The dull, stale worship service now overflowed with song – and the hearts of Christians soared.

Interestingly enough, church architecture declined.  No longer was the “wow factor” important in designing a church building.  The richest of congregations might put up a Greek Revival building, but for most churches the matter was one of practicality and economy. 


The Scriptures

One version of the Bible dominated the English speaking world during this period and on into the early part of the 20th century – the King James version.


Taken from the Thompson Chain Reference Study Bible NIV with permission of B.B. Kirkbride Bible Company

But – there is a problem hiding in the King James.  As you can see from the diagram, the King James did not use the ancient manuscripts as its basis for translations.  Rather, it relied upon other translations as well as the textus receptus, the received text of Erasmus.  Because the King James was “the Bible”, it was easy to challenge the authenticity of the Scriptures on factual grounds.  Most Christians were taught that you had to take the Bible on faith – which meant that you should close your mind to the evidence.  This was to have serious repercussions for English and American Christians as they confronted the “Age Of Reason”


Great Men

As always, we have many great men to choose from; here are three that represent this age:

Jonathan Edwards.  An American pastor (1703-1758) who began his life in the intellectual, philosophical climate of the time, in 1727 he had an experience which gave him a new picture of God.  A firm believer in predestination, his written works are his great contribution.  His Freedom of the Will emphasizes God’s election, predestination and the completely fallen nature of man. 


George Whitefield.  He was the English counterpart to Jonathan Edwards.  A great open-air evangelist, he used the methods of John Wesley.  A Calvinist (predestination), he stressed original sin, justification by faith and the regeneration of the Holy Spirit.  Like many evangelists since, he traveled and preached, leaving the building of the local church to those left behind.


John Wesley.  Along with his brother Charles, he founded what today is known as the Methodist church.  He became a traveling evangelist, convinced that hearing the good news of salvation was of more importance than parish church lines.  Influenced by nonconformists, Moravians, Church of England, both brothers experienced the mystic and never looked back.  Charles also contributed something like 7,000 hymns and poems, many of which are in the hymn books yet (Love Divine, All Loves Excelling).



Of Christ


Methodism gets its name from Wesley’s “method of spiritual improvement.”  He formed local societies for this, starting with the one he formed at Oxford University.  We would consider this a parachurch activity today; something along the lines of Promise Keepers.  He devised what he called a “class system” – as in what we would now call Sunday School classes – which recreated the form of early Christianity in its small group sessions. 

Wesley stressed two things:  justification by faith, and salvation for all.  He denied the Calvinist position that people were predestined for salvation or hell.  In this we see one of the constant cycles of church history – the reform movement that starts in small groups, outside the conventional church.  As the movement grows, the church assimilates the small group.  Dullness of heart sets in – and another movement springs up.



In this time we see again the changes and challenges to the church brought about by the desires of men.  We can but review these three:

  • Russian Orthodoxy.  In the time of Czar Ivan the Terrible (around 1500) the Russian Orthodox church had two main lines of thought:  those who would marry church to state, resulting in a well funded, opulent church – or those who would divorce themselves from the state and be in the world, not of it.  The Russian government came down heavily in favor of the former.  The result, by this period, was a weak Orthodox church – for the rest of the Orthodox faithful were, by and large, in Moslem countries.  The Russian church was fat and happy – and powerless.  In the process, the upper part of the church hierarchy (the “black church”) became rich and played politics; the lower part (the “white church”) became poor – and provided the Orthodox church with the will to evangelize.  Forgotten today but of great sacrifice, the Orthodox church spread throughout Siberia and into Alaska.
  • Quakers.  So named because they trembled at the word of God (a derogatory nickname at first), these are also known as Friends.  They saw Christ as the Light of the World, and the world in darkness until they are converted.  Pacifists (Christ eliminates the need for war), they are much more focused on present life than most Christians.    At first they held to a rather strict interpretation of the Bible.  The movement was particularly successful in dealing with American Indians; as the Quakers did not wish to shoot them or steal from them, this might be seen as a logical result.
  • Unitarians.  Unitarians were so named because they rejected the Trinity.  Those who have been subjected to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poetry will soon see the thrust; transcendental meditation appealed to such as being a “scientific” religion.  The general lack of faith in our society has left them little in the way of higher skepticism.  Lately, they have been touting themselves as “the New Church.”  The name “Unitarian” is left out, lest the proselytes become confused. 


Is Christianity “Reasonable”

By far the greatest challenge to the church (inside and outside) was the “Age of Reason.”  We can but outline its main points;  but remember that the same arguments used to reject Christianity completely are also used to twist it from inside.  Here are the low points:

  • Rationalism.  Founded by the French mathematician Rene Descartes, this method stresses “being rational” about everything – which means to doubt everything.  This is the root of the transition from Aristotle’s method of the sciences to the modern one.  Challenge everything!  Doubt everything!  Descartes’ Cogito Ergo Sum (I think, therefore I am) stresses the fact that now Man decides about God – for Man is the measure of all things.
  • Rousseau.  Those familiar with the basis of the American Revolution will remember the phrase “social contract” – the idea that governments are not ordained by God, but the product of our consent – the social contract.  In addition, he left us one other idea, still in use today – the “Noble Savage.”  If we could just keep those aborigines in their primitive state, they would live happily with each other and in harmony with their environment.  The evidence for this?  Well, every time we encounter aboriginals they soon show themselves polluted enough to be sinners like us.  It’s a perfect conspiracy, the best evidence for which is the lack of any evidence.
  • Apologetics.  This attack on the church brought forward those who defended it.  The art of defending the faith was, of necessity, raised to a high pitch.  It is a tradition that has existed since then, in men like C. S. Lewis and Josh McDowell.


One thing remains:  in Western civilization, man is now the judge.  No longer do we submit our thoughts and deeds to the judgment of God.  Now, we examine his deeds and pass judgment on Him.


History will someday show whether or not this is wisdom or folly, but its effects are ours to live with.


[1] Toccata and fugue in D Minor, for those who need it.

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