Our Christian Heritage
John Wesley was an ordained priest in the Church of England but it was not until he experienced personal conversion some years later that he became an evangelist and went up and down the country preaching the Gospel, having for his companion George Whitefield. Lack of clergy to preach forced Wesley to accept lay preachers and denied the use of many churches he built chapels. It was Wesley’s hope that his work would remain a service within the Established Church but after his death the Methodist movement grew and a separate organization was formed outside the Church of England.
The Established Church was not unmoved by the Wesley Revival. Evangelicals within its fold were often ill-treated and persecuted. Charles Simon was one who hoped that the new movement would act “as leaven in the Church” but that it would conform to the Church principles and discipline. Others similarly moved were Isaac Milner, Dean of Carlisle and John Venn at Clapham. Here a group called the “Clapham Set” met to study the Word. William Wilberforce who worked to free the slaves, was of this set. Evangelism because it placed the emphasis on personal conversion with an appeal to the individual to repent and accept justification by faith was not primarily interested in ecclesiastical authority and so was viewed with suspicion. However, the consciousness of evil and sense of social responsibility moved them to seek to help the poor and less fortunate. Out of this grew an interest in missionary work that carried the Gospel to the far ends of the earth, a vision shared by those of other denominations.
Many who sought to correct social evils were moved by purely humanitarian motives. Robert Raikes whose name is closely linked with the Sunday School movement made a national movement out of what had been attempted in several localities. Reports on the progress of this work give ample evidence that at the outset the problem of teaching the boys and girls to read and write was foremost in the minds of the organizers. Today the Sunday School plays an important role in instructing the young in things spiritual rather than temporal and must be considered a very important part of our Christian heritage.
For a time the English Puritans held on to the hope that reform within the State Church was possible but despairing of this they separated from it. These Separatists grew into two modern denominations, each of which had had similar bodies of Dissenters in the past. These were the Baptists and Congregationalists. There had been many fine men among the Puritans but perhaps the best known of them was John Milton whose great epic poems, Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained so graphically picture God’s eternal purposes in His dealings with creation and man in language both majestic and profound.
Prior to Wesley the Baptists had shown little progress. John Bunyan was a Baptist preacher. Revival under Wesley started a flame that was not to be extinguished. William Carey who himself became a missionary to India led the way to newer efforts by organizing the Baptists Missionary Society in 1792. This was the beginning of the modern missionary movement among English-speaking Christians. William Fox, another Baptist, gave great impetus to Sunday School work by organizing a school where he taught the children to read from the Bible. Out of this came a great demand for Bibles and Thomas Hughes became a leader and first Secretary of the British Foreign Missions and Bible Society whose contribution to Christianity, only eternity will reveal. Charles H. Spurgeon, the noted Evangelist, was a Baptist.
Barrowe, Greenwood and Penry were forerunners of the Congregationalists. Their church in London held as its foundation principle Matthew 18:20 “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them.” All three suffered death for their faith. Those who succeeded these men accepted the Bible as the sole rule of faith and practice. They sought to find in it, not merely the authoritative source of Christian doctrine but also a complete and adequate pattern of church government. They rejected the idea of a National Church and went further than any other dissenting group. They held that the only proper form of the visible Church is the total congregation of a company of professed disciples of Christ who could claim a personal religious experience. These united to Christ and to one another by a voluntary covenant transform a company of Christians into a church. The right of each church to govern and discipline its own members was maintained. They believed that each church is completely self-governing and responsible only to Christ as its Head. This was certainly far removed from what had been the practice down the centuries. It was this kind of thinking that brought about the movement begun by men like John Gifford Bellett, Edward Cronin and Anthony Norris Groves.
In Revelation 1:13, the Lord Jesus is seen in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks which we are told are the seven churches of Asia (v. 20), Thus in the time of the Apostle John each church is seen as a separate entity subject only to its Head, Jesus Christ. For centuries this was lost sight of and in its struggle for power under its bishops the Church suppressed everything that challenged its authority and right to instruct its members. It would almost seem that God stood aside and let man have his way. Yet through all these years of intolerance and bigotry, some dared to raise the lamp of truth and its flickering flame pierced the murky gloom of ignorance and superstition bringing hope and peace to those who turned their eyes upward. Rather than place a blanket condemnation over the whole sordid history of ambitious and conniving worldly men who sought to band the Church to their own selfish aims and purposes, let us thank God for whatsoever was true, whatsoever was honest, whatsoever was just, whatsoever was pure, whatsoever was lovely, whatsoever was of good report and think on these things. This is our Christian heritage.
As we look ahead to the future, let our doubts vanish as we pay tribute, not in lighted candles or incense, not in rich and glittering robes, not in silver and gold, but in love and faith and vows of allegiance to His Name, His Testimony, His Commission and His Service.