The Period of Apathy

from A History of Preaching
by F. R. Webber

The last three decades of the seventeenth century and the first thirty years of the eighteenth were times of spiritual deadness not only in Great Britain, but throughout the world. Spiritual awakenings and spiritual declines are not often confined to one country. If we find a period of spiritual indifference in England or America, the same conditions are quite likely to be found in Continental Europe. The decline of evangelical orthodoxy became apparent in Germany during the age of Pietism, which held sway from approximately 1675 to 1750. Men such as Philip Jacob Spener and A. H. Franke declared that true religion depends not so much upon loyalty to the Confessional Writings, but rather upon a holy life. Spener professed his loyalty to the Lutheran Confessions, but the men who followed him stressed sanctification rather than justification. They believed that the true Christian Church is dependent upon the personal character of those who compose it. They believed that the keeping of conventicles is of more importance than the preaching of the true Law and Gospel; and that no good could come from the preaching of a man who is not himself soundly converted. Pietism tended toward Chiliasm, and its followers looked for a speedy return of our Lord, and a millennial kingdom on earth. In its final stages Pietism degenerated into salvation by good works rather than by the grace of God in Christ.

Rationalism came in the wake of Pietism. It went through several stages, but it was at its zenith from about 1780 to about 1810. The father of Rationalism, Johan Semler (1725-1791), came to the University of Halle in 1752. This university, which had been the center of Pietism, soon became rationalistic. Semler was a pioneer in the field of destructive textual criticism. He applied scientific methods to the Scriptures, with human opinion as the court of final appeal, and man’s natural reason as both judge and jury. He made it appear that the Old Testament is but a stratification of Jewish folk lore and traditions, and a thing of gradual development. The New Testament, to his mind, was written by men of limited education who accommodated their ideas to people of meagre intelligence. Miracles were to be explained by natural causes, while original sin was said to be but a figment of the imagination, and its guilt was denied. It was into such an atmosphere as this that the graduates of the four Scottish and the two English universities were to come, not many years hence, and to carry back with them the destructive views that, in generations to come, undermined evangelical truth.

A pagan spirit prevailed in these German universities. Wolf came to Halle in 1705, and his teachings shook the faith of many of his students, who went out to spread his views. When Dr. Knapp, the theologian, came to the University of Halle in 1777, he declared that he could find not one of the thousand students who was truly devout. When Tholuck came to the same university in 1826, of all the students he was able to discover but three who were true believers. Such were the men who were to go forth into the ministry and become leaders of religious thought.

In England, Scotland and Wales, preaching began to decline about the middle of the seventeenth century, and before the end of the century the evangelical spirit had almost vanished. Men were able to applaud the brittle elegance of Archbishop Tillotson’s sermons, while in Scotland the spirit of German Rationalism found its counterpart in the group known as the Moderates.

“There arose also at that time,” declares Robert Hall, “a set of divines who, partly in compliance with the popular humour, partly to keep at a distance from the Puritans, and partly to gain the infidels who then began to make their appearance, introduced a new sort of preaching, in which the doctrines of the Reformation, as they are usually styled, were supplanted by copious and elaborate disquisitions on points of morality. Their fame and ability imboldened their successors to improve upon their pattern, by consigning the Articles of the Church to a still more perfect oblivion, by losing sight still more entirely of the peculiarities of the Gospel, guarding more anxiously against every sentiment or expression that could agitate or alarm, and by shortening the length, and adding as much as possible to the dryness of their moral lucubrations [laborious studies, especially at night, especially of a pretentious or solemn nature]. From that time the idea commonly entertained in England of a perfect sermon was that of a discourse upon some moral topic, clear, correct and argumentative, in the delivery of which the preacher must be free of all suspicion of being moved himself, or of intending to produce emotion in his hearers; or in a word as remote as possible from such a mode of reasoning on righteousness, temperance and judgment, as should make a Felix tremble. . . .”

Churches and chapels were empty. their interiors were swept and garnished of everything that the piety of former generations had provided, dust lay thickly everywhere and spiders spun their webs undisturbed from the roof trusses. Altars were removed, and small communion tables covered with green baize were used for all manner of secular purposes, and only dragged into the chancel on the rare occasions when Holy Communion was celebrated.

Bishops of this period were often rich and pompous, and among them were scheming politicians whose offices had been secured by methods which were thoroughly worldly, to say the least. Some of these prelates never set foot within their dioceses. Parish churches were given to men who often lacked both theological training and spiritual qualifications. Through an infamous practice known as patronage, important livings were given to relatives and friends of the bishops, the land-holding gentry and the politicians. If the congregations objected, the civil magistrates were called in and such unworthy and uncalled clergymen were “settled by intrusion,” over the protest of the people of the parish. Pluralism prevailed, so that one man might be pastor of several congregations, draw the incomes prescribed by law, yet at the same time neglect them all. Such clergymen were often hard drinkers, given to cursing and swearing, and spending much of their time riding to the hounds. J. C. Ryle condemns these “hunting, shooting, gambling, card-playing, swearing, ignorant clergymen, who cared neither for Law nor Gospel, and utterly neglected their parishes.” In some cases clergymen were private chaplains to the wealthy squire, where they were expected to perform the most menial tasks in scullery and cow stable, as well as reading the morning and evening prayers of the household.

William Blackstone (1723-1780), eminent jurist and legal commentator, went to London and visited church after church, seeking a place where he might hear Christ-centered sermons, but he found none. After visiting many churches, he declared that a general paganism prevailed, so that it was impossible to determine whether the preachers believed in Confucius, Mahomet or Jesus Christ. Thus did conditions in Britain correspond to those in Germany, where an evangelical pastor visited every book-shop in the great publishing center of Leipzig, and in no place was he able to buy either a complete Bible or a New Testament.

In England there were men in high positions who often appeared to be outwardly loyal to their church. They attended Morning Prayer, read the responses ostentatiously, but in private they ridiculed their own doctrines. Thackeray describes a service in the Chapel Royal, where the gutteral conversation of King George and his friends obscured the voice of the preacher. Johnson tells us that “the Apostles were tried once a week” by the preachers of those days “on the charge of committing forgery,” and invariably were they found guilty. Bishop Butler declared that Christianity had “come to be taken for granted . . . not so much as a subject for inquiry; but that it is now at length discovered to be fictitious.”

Even in the churches and chapels where a form of Christianity was still preached, it was often a mere lip-service. Vitality was lacking and spiritual life was moribund. Personal religion, where it existed at all, was at low ebb. Missionary zeal was absent in the large majority of cases, instruction of children had disappeared both in the home and in the church, and the poorer classes were neglected completely. When George Whitefield visited Bristol in 1739, he found grown people who had never heard a sermon.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, preaching was ethical, at time polemical, but rarely centered upon Jesus Christ and the great doctrines of Redemption. The teachings of Scripture were rarely mentioned. The style of preaching was intentionally quiet and prosaic, and always very genteel. Any show of emotion was considered vulgar, and the idea that prevailed was that of “eminent respectability.” In the great universities of England and Scotland, drinking and gambling were taken for granted, and any mention of religion provoked only ridicule. Conditions such as these prevailed generally, and it was only here and there that some sincere clergyman might be found who still preached sin and salvation, and performed faithfully all the duties of his office. . . .

With preaching at so low an ebb in Britain, it is little wonder that a spirit of lawlessness prevailed in the land. Drunkenness was common; gambling was to be found everywhere; bands of robbers roamed the land. In England, a in Germany, all relation between religion and morals had disappeared. A clergyman could be drunk during the week and yet preach on Sunday. Lay people could live in utmost worldliness and yet make an outward show of piety. It was a period of brutality . . . .

It was an age when a strange fear held sway. From 1739 to 1784 England knew but two brief periods of peace, one of eight and the other of eleven years. There had been great earthquakes at Lisbon and elsewhere, and many predicted a speedy end of the world. . . . It was a time of epidemics and the death rate was abnormally high. Families of ten to twenty children were the rule rather than the exception, and of these but a minority reached maturity. Even small children left their play and gathered in the churchyards, reading the inscriptions on the headstones and discussing morbid subjects. Such was the age of the Great Apostasy at the close of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century. Religion had become stagnant. Conditions were right for the great awakening of spiritual life that was soon to follow.