1992: A Year to Look Back
There is great value in taking note of significant anniversaries. Very often they provide occasion for remembrance of unusual blessings of God in the past. Such memories can challenge us to greater faithfulness in our present tasks as we are reminded of the gracious ways of God in using men and movements in history.
Other anniversaries evoke less pleasant memories, but may, nevertheless, help us understand more of our present situation by reminding us of people and events whose shadows still loom large over the contemporary scene.
The anniversary of Charles Spurgeon’s death on January 31, 1892 fits into the former category. Though Spurgeon’s beliefs and labors are more admired than accurately understood by modern evangelicals, his memory provides a lasting reminder that it has pleased God to use the foolishness of preaching (not foolish preaching!) to save those who believe.
This year also marks the two-hundredth anniversary of Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti’s birth in Italy. Better known by his papal title, Pius IX, his memory would be placed in the latter category by evangelicals. During his reign as pope (the longest in history) two important Roman Catholic doctrines were officially created: the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary (1854), and papal infallibility (1870).
These dogmas live on in Roman Catholic theology. We should be reminded of the need to contend just as strongly in our day as the Reformers did in their day for the principle of sola scriptura.
Another birth, of far greater significance to Baptists (and one which affords them much more pleasant memories), took place in 1792. This beginning was not that of a man, but of a movement. It occurred in the little English town of Kettering. There, on October 2, in the home of a deacon’s widow, the “Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel amongst the Heathen” was duly formed. Thus the Calvinistic Baptists of England gave birth to the modern foreign missions movement.
This move marked the culmination of much prayer and effort which began many years earlier. In 1894 the Scottish minister John Erskine sent to the British Baptist pastor, John Ryland, Jr., a copy of Humble Attempt, Jonathan Edwards’s famous call to prayer (the full title of the treatise is, An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and visible Union of God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer, For the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth, Pursuant to Scripture-Promises and Prophecies Concerning the Last Time). Ryland passed the treatise on to his fellow pastor and friend, John Sutcliff.
Sutcliff was so challenged by Edwards’s words that at the next meeting of the Northamptonshire Association of Baptist churches he made a motion for the establishment of regular prayer meetings for revival. The proposal was approved and the association sent out a circular letter calling for one hour on the first Monday of each month to be set aside for corporate prayer for revival.
Though this right use of appropriate means was enjoined, revival did not immediately come. In fact, the moral and spiritual life in the land had grown so dim that in 1785 Ryland lamented to his colleague Andrew Fuller (whose church was also a member of the Northamptonshire Association), “[there is] scarcely anything worth the name of religion left upon the earth.”
During this same time, in addition to the associational concert of prayer, several ministers began to fast and pray the second Tuesday of every other month. They met together, in Fuller’s words, “to seek the revival of real religion, and the extension of Christ’s kingdom in the world.”
This common burden for revival resulted in the development of an intimate fellowship among Fuller, Ryland, Sutcliff, and William Carey, who also pastored a church in their association. Later, Samuel Pearce joined them in their concerns so that together they comprised a sort of pastoral quintet of prayer for a fresh outpouring of God’s Spirit upon their generation.
On May 30, 1792, at the spring meeting of the Northamptonshire Association, Carey preached a moving sermon from Isa. 54:2-3,
Enlarge the place of your tent, and let them stretch out the curtains of your habitations; do not despair; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you shall expand to the right and to the left, and your descendants will inherit the nations, and make the desolate cities inhabited.
From this text Carey developed two points: “Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.”
The force of the message was so great that John Ryland claimed he would not have been surprised “if all the people had lifted up their voice and wept.” A resolution was passed instructing the next minister’s meeting (in the fall) to consider developing a plan to propagate the gospel among the heathen.
It is against this backdrop that the historic event of October 2, 1772, must be viewed. The resultant missionary service of William Carey in India so provoked others to venture forth into new regions with the gospel that he is generally regarded today as the “father of protestant missions.”
Certainly the memory of Carey and the formation of the Baptist Missionary Society should encourage us to remain faithful in gospel labors today. There is undoubtedly much which tempts us to be disheartened and despondent over present spiritual conditions. The world in which we live has little regard for God or righteousness. Our denomination is an easy target for justifiably severe criticism. Our own churches seem to make little difference in their communities and we ourselves are far from what we know we should be. Any honest believer could provide a detailed list of specific examples which demonstrate the spiritual and moral decadence of the hour.
Is it naive to follow Carey’s admonition in a day like ours? Is expecting great things from God folly, and is attempting great things for God presumptuous? Is it pointless to continue praying for revival? Not unless Carey’s God has changed.
To “expect great things” involves having faith in that which God has said that He will do. To “attempt great things” involves yielding obedience to that which God has called us to do.
What He says we will do,
Where He sends we will go;
Never fear, only trust and obey.
The darker the hour, the greater the need for an increased measure of both ingredients in our lives and ministries.
Two hundred years ago God established a work whose impact extended around the world. He burdened his people to pray and then answered their prayers. He convicted his people to work and then blessed their labors. He revived his work in the midst of their years.
The spiritual and moral decay in twentieth-century America is not less than it was in eighteenth-century England. Their need of revival was not greater than ours. Neither was Carey’s and Fuller’s God any greater or more merciful than ours. These are truths worth remembering.
May our faith in and obedience to God begin to approximate more closely that which was demonstrated by the pastors and churches of the Northamptonshire Association in the late 1700s. May their legacy encourage us to persevere as we seek to recover and proclaim the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ.