The Evangelical Group

from A History of Preaching
by F. R. Webber

Not all of the evangelical clergy of the eighteenth century were members of the Methodist group. During those remarkable middle decades of the eighteenth century men appeared in various parts of England and began to preach sin and grace. In England we find such men as Grimshaw, Romaine, Berridge, Venn, Hervey, Newton and Toplady, all of whom were contemporaries of Whitefield and Wesley. A few years later were such men as Cecil, Simeon, Carey, Hall, Robertson and Hill. Early in the century the movement appeared in Scotland under the leadership of Boston, the Erskines, Robe and McCulloch. It was made known in Wales by Griffith Jones, Rowlands, Harris, Williams of Pant-y-celyn, Charles of Bala and toward the end of the century by Evans. Meanwhile Walker of Truro was stirring Cornwall, and Frelinghuysen, the remarkable Tennent family and Edwards appeared in the American colonies. These men appeared as evangelical witnesses after an age of spiritual decline, and most of them were contemporaries. Had an evangelical conference been called in the year 1750, no less than 22 of the 35 great leaders of the evangelical movement might have been present.

Although the men whose names we have mentioned were not closely associated with Wesley and Whitefield, yet they were friendly toward them, and in many cases welcomed them to their pulpits. They were remarkable men, for they had grown up in a period of spiritual apathy, and their theological training, in most cases, had been received in a rationalistic atmosphere. Through their own study of God’s Word they had arrived at certain truths, and in scattered places they began to preach sin and grace, and usually with remarkable success. Not all of them arrived at a complete understanding of evangelical truth, for some of them were clear in regard to sola gratia, and yet confused in regard to universal grace. Others preached individual justification and yet failed to grasp the fact that this has its basis in a universal justification as old as Calvary. Incomplete as their preaching often was, yet they declared enough saving truth that thousands of people were brought to repentance and faith.

The truths that these men held in common were: the fall of man; the complete inability of man to save himself by his own reason or strength; the offer of the grace of God through Jesus Christ; the fact that Jesus Christ kept perfectly all the demands of the Law; the imputation of this righteousness of the Lord to the believer; the death of Jesus Christ on the cross for the sin of the world; His resurrection and ascension; the work of the Holy Ghost in applying to the believer the benefits of our Lord’s righteousness and death; the necessity of repentance; justification by grace through faith; the believer’s assurance of salvation through Jesus Christ. While most of their contemporaries were preaching lifeless sermons on mere conventional morality, these men, with only the Scriptures as their guide, were preaching stirring doctrinal sermons, and laying utmost stress upon sin and grace and upon repentance and faith. They saw the need of individual salvation, and of repentance rather than mere outward reformation. Despite certain shortcomings, the preaching of these men was as sunshine breaking through the clouds after a long period of darkness. Grimshaw, in a little village among the rough Yorkshire moors, Venn in the crowded industrial city of Huddersfield, Romaine in London, Berridge in Everton, Hervey in Weston Favell, Walker in Cornwall and Rowlands and Harris in Wales, all preached with remarkable success and transformed their respective communities into great centers of evangelical influence. In their century few people had ventured more than a few miles from their native villages, yet when these men preached, men and women were willing to travel all night long over muddy roads and across wild moors. So great was the demand for their preaching that some of these evangelical witnesses were obliged to itinerate during the week, and in some cases to preach from ten to twelve times every week, in as many different places. J. C. Ryle, who has given posterity a valuable account of these men and their labors, has declared again and again that a dozen men awakened all England. They did it without the aid of boards or committees or denominational machinery. They depended, Ryle assures us, solely upon the power of the Word of God. In the early stages of the movement there were but a dozen men, each with only his Bible as his equipment.

These men preached both Law and Gospel, although they were not always clear in regard to the distinction between the two. They described sin in all its hideousness, going much farther in this respect than is the fashion in many places in our own day. They described man’s utter helplessness in ridding himself of sin’s foul pollution. To these men the devil was very real, and his power over his servants absolute. In their preaching these evangelical clergy did not condemn sin in the aggregate: they made it seem personal. Again and again do their hearers declare, “His sermon seemed to be directed to me alone.”

The evangelical clergy preached the Gospel as well as the Law. In describing their preaching J. C. Ryle says that they

“taught constantly that Christ’s death upon the cross was the only satisfaction for man’s sin; and that, when Christ died, He died as our Substitute–‘the just for the unjust.’ This, in fact, was the cardinal point in almost all their sermons. They never taught the modern doctrine that Christ’s death was only a great example of self-sacrifice. They saw in it something far higher, greater, deeper than this. They saw in it the payment of man’s mighty debt to God. They loved Christ’s person; they rejoiced in Christ’s promises; they urged men to walk after Christ’s example. But the one subject above all others concerning Christ, which they delighted to dwell on, was the atoning blood which Christ shed for us on the cross. Furthermore, the reformers of the last century taught constantly the great doctrine of justification by faith. They told men that faith was the one thing needful in order to obtain an interest in Christ’s work for their souls; that before we believe, we are dead, and have no interest in Christ; and that the moment we do believe, we live, and have a plenary title to all Christ’s benefits. Justification by virtue of church membership–justification without believing or trusting–were notions to which they gave no countenance. Everything, if you will believe, and the moment you believe; nothing, if you do not believe,–was the very marrow of their preaching.”

. . . Although these men never came to a complete understanding of evangelical truth, yet when one considers their rationalistic background and the meagre character of the theological training of the eighteenth century, it is remarkable that they were able to grasp as much evangelical truth as they did. It is proof that the Bible is not an obscure Book; and if they did not understand revealed truth in its completeness, it was due to the fact that they were never able to rid themselves entirely of the rationalistic influences under which they grew up. While one can only regret their shortcomings, yet we must rejoice in the fact that the Lord blessed their testimony, incomplete as it was, and used these men together with Wesley, Whitefield and Fletcher, to awaken a nation that had long walked in spiritual ignorance. . . .

These great preachers of the eighteenth century were much superior to the religious leaders of the previous century, not only in their understanding of evangelical truth but in the fervor with which they proclaimed it. However, the writer of these lines must make it clear that he does not endorse everything that they taught. When judged by the Scriptures, there were certain points upon which they were in error, as well as important truths which they did not understand clearly. It is only honest to mention these facts, and to regret that their printed sermons, (so admirable in contrast to the weak sermons of many of their contemporaries), cannot be said to be entirely without fault. Nevertheless these men preached enough Scriptural truth that an unprejudiced observer can believe that thousands of people were awakened from their spiritual indifference and sin, and brought to a saving knowledge of the redemption which is in Jesus Christ alone.