Religious Revival and English Baptists in Eighteenth Century England
Rev Dr Mark Reid
The eighteenth century was characterised by resurgences in the Christian faith in both Britain and its American colonies. These revivals or awakenings1 were by no means uniform in space or time and did not necessarily affect all Christian denominations in the same time period.
Most commentators are agreed that in broad terms, the early part of the eighteenth century saw a decline in church attendance and the rise of doctrinal positions that did not see evangelistic activity desirable or necessary. Deism2 was a common belief system within the Church of England whereas Baptists tended towards the extreme positions of their soteriology. The General Baptists for example, drifted towards Unitarianism, having been strongly influenced by the sociniansim3 of Matthew Caffyn in the previous century , whilst the Particular Baptists were strongly influenced by the High Calvinism of John Gill (1697-1771). A later critic of Gill, John Ryland noted wryly that followers of Gill considered that it was not the duty of the unregenerate to believe in Christ4. Haydin (1992) notes that the Particular Baptist congregations declined from about 200 in the period 1716-18 to around 150 by 17505. The Generals fared scarcely better and by 1737, they bemoaned the fact that there were insufficient delegates at that year's Baptist Assembly6
The winds of revival started to blow in Britain with the activities of George Whitefield and John Wesley7 - both ordained in and lifelong members of, the Church of England. Their impact in the 1740s and 1750s was extensive, with a huge growth in Methodism and in the established church in the UK with a massive impact also within the church life in the American colonies due to Whitefield's itinerant transatlantic ministry. Within two decades, both Whitefield and Wesley were complaining of the revival's wane and there was a an increase in Arianism and naturalistic interpretations of the Christian faith. The supernatural elements were discounted, the biblical doctrine of grace was openly denied, and increasing worldliness appeared within the churches8.
However, there was another resurgence in the 1790s which lasted into the early nineteenth century, which was again transatlantic and is sometimes referred to as the Second Great Awakening. It is easy to overstate the influence of such revivals. Even at the height of the revival in the 1740s and 1750s, the revival met with resistance from both Church of England and Dissenters and remained a minority, albeit vocal and significant. However as we shall see,these relatively intense periods of "enthusiasm" created values and structures which were more enduring.
The Baptists seem to have largely passed the first Evangelical Revival by with very few records of positive responses to it9 in the peak years. Even though Whitefield was a Calvinist, the Particulars saw his brand of evangelical Calvinism, his willingness to work across denominations and his friendship with the Arminian Wesley (even though they publicly disputed one another) as anathema. Benjamin Wallin, a Particular Baptist and Gill supporter criticised the revival because "it did not lie with the preservation of ecclesiological convictions but on the vigorous exploitation of soteriological truths."10
Individual churches discouraged their members from attending any form of Methodist meeting and disciplined their members for doing so11. Naylor describes the attitude of Particular Baptists as stubbornly negative towards the evangelical revival, particularly the Wesleys12 although at the same time they bemoaned the decline of their churches, for example, as late as 1765, Benjamin Francis commented on the lukewarm and careless people who had grown formal in worship and indolent in the service of God13. Because of the Arminianism of Wesley's Methodism, the General Baptists lost many members to Methodism and caused considerable angst in many parts of the country14.
But revival did not totally pass the Baptists by. A new generation of Baptist leaders influenced by the revival started to appear in the 1760s and 1770s desiring to effect change. These tended to be what would be referred to today as "breakthrough people", with many originating outside the Baptists but drifting towards them as they saw the need to be baptised as believers. As the revival was changing into organised Methodism, these new Baptist leaders were acquiring the values and the language of the revival.
Consequences for General Baptists
As early as 1745, Baptist churches were being planted in Leicestershire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire under the preaching of David Taylor, a friend of Whitefield and in the service of the Countess of Huntingdon. By 1760, five churches had been established although they did not become associated with the General Baptists until some years afterwards15. However, the greatest impact on the Generals as through the preaching of Dan Taylor who defected from the Methodists in 1763 was baptised and became a General Baptist Minister. However, in his early days he also influenced to men who were to become leaders in the Particulars; John Fawcett and John Sutcliff.
Taylor was disillusioned with the General Baptist Assembly due to what he saw as their lack of evangelical fervour and doctrinal laxity, and in 1770 formed the New Connexion of General Baptist Churches which steadily grew in numbers. By the end of the century the old Assembly was in terminal decline. Taylor was keen to promote an orthodox and evangelical witness in Baptist churches in contrast to the dry formality and influence of Unitarianism of the old group. He also encourage village preaching in the manner of Whitefield and Wesley although Underwood has noted that the new Connexion was also successful in reaching working class communities in the growing industrial cities. However, it was still quite a conservative body that had few relationships with other denominations and a huge gulf remained with the Particular Baptists16.
Consequences for Particular Baptists
The sea-change that occurred in the General Baptists, was also felt in the Particulars and although it trickled down more slowly, ended in them being significant movers during the latter part of the century. As with the Generals, they received new blood and new ideas from people entering the Baptists. One influential early convert was John Fawcett was strongly influenced by Whitefield and particularly William Grimshaw, Rector of Haworth. He studied with Dan Taylor, as did another soon-to-be Particular Baptist, John Sutcliff. Some Particular Baptists were strongly influenced by Whitefield through hearing him preach in London such as Robert Robinson and Andrew Gifford.
After training as a Baptist minister, Sutcliff moved to Olney in Northamptonshire where he was associated with men such as Andrew Fuller, John Ryland and eventually William Carey. Fuller in particular was beginning to become influenced by the writings of Jonathan Edwards and himself became an influential Baptist writer and preacher, having been ordained in 1774. It was clear that even by the end of the 1770s, churches nationally reflected the sorry plight that was being experienced in the Baptists. Whitefield and Wesley encouraged a National Day of Prayer in 1779. The men from Nothamptonshire began to become challenged as to the centrality of prayer to the "revival and and spread of religion"17 This led to a meeting of the Northamptonshire Association at Nottingham in 1784, attended by Fuller and Sutcliff. Fuller had been strongly influenced by Jonathan Edwards' Attempt to Promote Prayer for the Revival of Religion18 and made an impassioned appeal to the other ministers.
This seems to have been a turning point for the Particular Baptists as the ministers committed themselves and their churches to prayer. However there was still resistance from the High Calvinist wing to the young "enthusiasts" in their midst. However, the Second Great Awakening in the 1790s, they seem to have been firmly in control of the denomination. This time revival did not pass them as the Particular Baptists found themselves in the midst of it The number of Baptist Congregations rose sharply; for example from 326 congregations in 1794 to 361 in 1798. How did these changes affect the Particulars?
The Particulars began to abandon High Calvinism and embrace the Evangelical Calvinism that characterised Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards and was articulated by the writings of Andrew Fuller19. Fuller saw the shift from High Calvinism as just in time commenting that "had matters gone on for a few years, the Baptists would have become a perfect dunghill in society."20 He strongly argues against Gill's position and produced an influential book promoting his brand of Evangelical Calvinism; The Gospel Worthy of all Acceptation in 1784. Fuller became very influential in denominational affairs and his evangelical position strongly affected the ethos of the denomination,
Calvinism brought a new commitment to preaching the Word.
As early as 1759, Robert Robinson was evangelising
villages around Cambridge, and a feature of the new
Baptist leaders was their commitment to home evangelism.
Thinking on evangelism was promoted by William Steadman,
who worked as an itinerant evangelist and encouraged
others to do the same. Even though he was a closed
communion Particular Baptist, like Whitefield, he
preached anywhere where there was an open door - be it
Methodists, Independents or Church of England21 .
Funds were made available for itinerant evangelism and by
the 1790s students in theological training were
encouraged to evangelise, despite the fact that itinerant
preaching was still technically illegal.22
The Whitefield influence was again evident as Baptists
copied the techniques of his Calvinistic Methodists23
By 1800 the concept of the Pastor-Evangelist and the
preaching of the word was an established part of Baptist
One of the most enduring products of rediscovery of mission in the Particular Baptists in the late eighteenth century was the interest in foreign mission. The foundation of what was later to become the Baptist Missionary Society in 1792 was largely due to the efforts of William Carey who was ordained by Fuller and Sutcliff in 1786. Fuller became its first Secretary and Carey its first missionary. Carey was an aggressive promoter of the faith and the quote below is quite characteristic of the shift away from High Calvinism by 1792:
is thus that multitudes sit at ease, and give themselves
no concern about the the far greater part of their fellow-sinners,
who to this day are lost in ignorance and idolatry."25
The society was the first of the modern missionary organisations and seems to have caught the mood of the generation as it was quickly replicated by other denominations.
eighteenth century saw the promotion of education and
training as a priority. Dissenters did not have the same
educational privileges as others and their Ministers were
often poorly trained. An influential Academy was
established in 1720 which was never particularly
influenced by High Calvinism being founded and run by
Hugh Foskett a relative moderate. It became a centre for
evangelical Calvinism under the principlaship of Caleb
Evans and later John Ryland. However other leading
evangelical Calvinists saw the need to promote learned
ministers such as Abraham Booth ( a strong promoter of
Carey) and William Steadman. They saw the best way of
promoting the gospel (and Evangelical Calvinism) was be
having well-trained ministers and evangelists to avoid
what they saw as the errors of the past.
Although the Particular Baptists and for that matter other denominations, retained their distinctives and barriers, a thaw began to appear amongst those with evangelical views. Whitefield led the way in this respect, preaching wherever he was received - whether that be episcopalian, - other denominations. Because of their doctrinal and historic affiliation with Whitefield, the Particular Baptists developed informal links with well-known Anglican thinkers of the period.
Ryland developed strong links with John Newton, Thomas Scott and later the Clapham sect. Carey was admired by Charles Simeon.
On the other hand Wesley had little time for the Baptists, disparagingly calling them "anabaptists" and "dippers"26 whether they were Particular or General. The same could be said of the relationship between the Particular and General Baptists. The Particulars may have been influenced by Whitefield, but this did not extend to his willingness to co-operate with Arminians. However at a local level there was a more pragmatic approach. Steadman often found himself preaching outside the denomination in Methodist meeting rooms, in Independent Churches and in the Church of England27. Carey co-operated with other pioneer missionaries like Henry Martyn. As with other trends, these pioneers in the late eighteenth century were laying the foundations of the evangelicalism of the nineteenth.
Baptists and Wider religious Revival: some conclusions
The history of revivals tend to suggest intense periods of evangelical fervour that occur over relatively short periods, with their effects being by no means uniform and leaving a large proportion of the general population and even the church population unaffected. This certainly seems true of the evangelical revivals of the eighteenth century. However, the effects do trickle down and the impact of the revival lived on in attitudes and institutions long after the ecstatic fervour of the Whitefield and Wesley had died away. What was "enthusiasm" in the 1740s was increasingly becoming part of the acceptable face of evangelical theology by the late eighteenth century and the foundation for evangelical expansion in the nineteenth.
The Baptists were late entrants into this arena and although they missed the fervour of the 1740s and 1750s, the legacy of Whitefield and Wesley came through young men that were products of their ministry, and who gradually took control of their respective denominations - creating the shift in values and doctrines that propelled them into growth in the last decade and established patterns and institutions that were to outlive them. The Baptist experience was not unique and was experienced over a range of denominations.
Eighteenth century revival gave both the General Baptists and Particular Baptists an new vitality for mission that still has a legacy. The urgency and enthusiasm leaders like Fuller, Carey, Steadman or Sutcliff had still have capacity to inspire. In 1944, BMS Chairman, Seymour Price reflecting on 150 years of the BMS said: "Should not the state of the world today, the condition of our churches .... impel us to a renewed, concerted waiting upon God. Should we not be praying unitedly and regularly for the revival of religion and extension of Christ's Kingdom?"28 How much more is that true in the post-modern, post Christian Britain of the 21st Century?
Rev Dr Mark Reid is currently Minister of Swaffham Baptist Church. This paper was written as part of his studies at Spurgeon's College, London. He was Head of Geography at a VI Form College and has also researched into the history of UK landscape protection policy.
© Mark Reid 2001
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1The terms revival and awakening will be used reasonably interchangeably in this essay.
2Deism is used chiefly of an intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries which accepted the existence of a creator on the basis of reason, but rejected belief in a supernatural deity who interacts with humankind (OED)
3Socinianism: a 16th and 17th century theological movement professing belief in God and adherence to the Christian Scriptures but denying the divinity of Christ and consequently denying the Trinity (Webster's Dictionary)
4Haydin, p 304. This quote was by John Ryland Junior. His father of the same name was a Gill supporter. Ryland is probably overstating the case here as more recent commentators such as Naylor (1992) and Ella (1998) did have a clear gospel message. See note below.
5Haydin, p 305 Later Particular Baptists like Andrew Fuller believed that Gill was the source of the decline earlier in the century although Gill has his present day apologists such as Naylor (1992) and Ella (1998).
7Awakening had already been experienced in some places in America previously such at Northampton Mass. under Jonathan Edwards in 1734
9There is a record of the Particular Baptist inviting Whitefield there, but this seems to have been the exception rather than the rule.
15They were "discovered" by Dan Taylor and drawn into the New Connexion, although I suspect that they could have easily ended up with the Particulars if they had been discovered by them first, but as we shall see, the real awakening in the Particulars was up to a decade after the Generals.
18Online at http://users.breathemail.net/markreid/edwards.htm
19In Fuller (1864)
20Quoted in Hayden, p305
28Foreword in Payne, 1941