Revival in Britain


Revival in England


In 1776 England was in such a shocking condition, that some historians tell how people became more savage than could be imagined since the creation of the world. Some men sold their wives on auction in the cattle market. Immorality was so rampant that most birth registers were filled with illegitimate births. Drunkenness was so common that even five-year-olds would be seen lying drunk in the gutters. Public houses advertised: “Guaranteed drunk for a penny, dead-drunk for tuppence” (two pennies). Vulgar demonstrations were the order of the day. Sex shows, with immorality, blatantly displayed, could be seen on the streets. High society had low morals, from the throne to the House of Lords and the House of Commons; many of these men kept mistresses openly and had children with them. Gambling was common among both rich and poor.


Women wore such scanty dresses that one historian remarked at a ball where the king was present, “She was as naked as a Greek sex goddess.” Incidentally, the king enjoyed the open flouting of a convention by the public showing off women’s bodies. The country was crippled by depression, tens of thousands being unemployed. Sometimes church services were disrupted by cursing, profanity and spitting; colleges were burned down, and it seemed as if there was no hope for society.


In one of the districts of London, 506 of the 2,000 houses ran a “gin shop” – places where alcohol was sold. According to the law of the land, there were over a 100 crimes that carried the death sentence. People were hanged for minor crimes, like spitting over the wall of a nobleman, but for these atrocities. King George III literally went mad. Children as young as eight were hanged in public. Such hangings were called “festival” and were social events. The nation was morally, financially and spiritually bankrupt.


But there were also Christians in England, and they started to pray on Monday evenings for revival in England and worldwide. From 1780, churches started with concerts of prayer. It was agreed to pray in unity. After about seven years of organised, dedicated and desperate prayer during prayer meetings, a revival started breaking out during the late 1780s in local congregations, communities and towns. From 1792 onwards, the revival came in power and continued in many places until 1810 with intervals. Extraordinary outbreaks of revival were still experienced until 1814. A qualified historian described one such revival in a particular region as “one of the most remarkable and extensive revivals of religion ever known” anywhere in the world.


Large numbers of people were converted. The revival touched the whole of Britain: England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Often crowds of 5,000 and then 10,000 and even up to 20,000 gathered to hear the gospel in many places all over England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. It was especially the revival in Scotland that had a huge impact on missions and many facets of society.


Then the church started to pray…


Churches came together on Monday evenings to pray for revival and mission. More and more churches joined. Slowly something started to happen. For some fifty years John Wesley and George Whitefield preached to the masses. Hundreds of thousands were saved. Their ministries prepared the way for change… and revival.  When the revival came to power from 1790-1810, in many places many new churches were planted, and church membership doubled and tripled, sometimes within two or three years. Large numbers of men became ministers and thousands left Britain to go to foreign mission fields in Africa and India.


This revival changed society… on social and in political spheres. Missionaries were sent out. It is simply not true that evangelical revivals are just concerned with personal salvation and holiness. Any study of the effect of revivals on society will prove, without exception that it always led to social transformation. James Edwin Orr gives well-documented proof of this in his book The Eager Feet.


Historians (Christian and non-Christian) are quite unanimous about the fact that this revival in Britain was the main reason why the chaos and destruction that France suffered through the French Revolution didn’t affect England. The nation began to prosper, and large numbers of people began to live respectable lives. Prostitution went down and the bars emptied. Prisons were reformed, and the laws about child labour were changed. In this period William Wilberforce got converted and started his campaign for the abolishment of slavery and succeeded. The concept of Sunday school started in 1786. Parks were built were and even resorts at beaches.


William Carey began to call for missionaries to take the gospel to the Africans, Indians, people from Sri Lanka, etc., and the wheels were set in motion for the emancipation of the slaves. The British and Foreign Bible Society, the Religious Tract Society, Baptist Mission Society and a host of other mission and evangelistic societies started the process.


Significant advances were made regarding the protection of prisoners, prison reform, care for the sick, improvement of working conditions on all levels of society, protection of women and children and improvement of education in general. Major changes took place regarding schools, colleges, asylums and orphanages.


The work of Florence Nightingale must be seen against the backdrop of the revival. The reforms of Lord Shaftesbury can equally be linked to the effect of revival: laws were passed that made it impossible to exploit the women and children of coal mine workers; working hours were reduced to no more than ten hours a day, and the exploitation of children through child labour was addressed. Lord Shaftesbury promoted libraries, established public parks, night schools, playgrounds for children and much more.


The evangelists campaigned against cruelty against animals: Cruel sports like bull-fighting, cock-fighting and any form of abuse that caused pain to animals. Free veterinary services were offered. They campaigned for radical restriction of capital punishment. Where necessary, they would go to the civil authorities to plead their case. Within two decades Britain looked different. Different moral values came into practice, a strong economy developed, and there was political stability.


Through all the ages, revival always resulted in a practical improvement in the living conditions of people and communities.

About the author

Bennie Mostert
By Bennie Mostert