The Prayer Call of 1784.
The Amazing Account of Prayer and Lack Thereof in the Decline and Revival of the Particular Baptists in the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries,
who because of their Prayerlessness Missed the First Great Awakening under Whitefield and the Wesleys in the 18th Century,
but because of God’s Grace, became the Catalyst for the Second Great Awakening in the 19th Century.
(The following is a transcribed, abridged, highly decollated compilation of a 3-lecture series by historian Dr. Michael Haykin of the Toronto Baptist Seminary, edited to accentuate the Prayer Call of 1784. Slightly altered quotations, headings, inaccuracies and a few supplementary details are the responsibility of R. McRoberts)
1. The Group of Seven.
In the late 1630s several Calvinist Christians emigrated from Continental Europe and settled in London, England. They had come to a correct theological understanding of who a Christian was and what a Christian believed through the influence of Martin Luther and the Reformation, and particularly the writings of John Calvin.
However, they did not have much of an idea of how they should function together as a community of believers. By studying the Bible on their own in London they arrived at an understanding of church community life and government very similar to what is practiced in many Baptist churches today.
By 1644 there were seven of these small church groups meeting in the London area. They realized that if they were to follow the Biblical model, there needed to be some sort of association and accountability between their groups.
So they formed an association called the Particular Baptists.
All Baptist churches in North America (except those who stem from German and Swedish ethnic groups on the continent of Europe) trace their roots to these seven congregations that appear in England in the early 1640s.
(There were also other Baptist churches forming about the same time who called themselves General Baptists. Eventually they moved toward Arianism. They began to decline, and by the 1700s there were very few surviving churches among this group. The surviving remnant began calling themselves Unitarians, of whom some still exist today.)
What happened to the Particular Baptists? Did they flourish and expand? Or did they also decline?
By 1660 they had grown from seven churches to around 150,
By 1688 they had grown to around 300 churches spread throughout England, Wales and Ireland.
2. Growth beyond Expectation. What were the reasons for such growth during these 44 years?
a. Devotion to family and community prayer.
Richard Baxter (an Anglican, but coming from the Puritans who sparked the formation of Baptists) spent 16 years in ministry at Kidderminster, part of the time being during the English Civil War of 1642-1649. Those years were very difficult years for preaching and planting churches because the English Civil War was raging (1642-49). But God blessed, as often happens in times of national upheaval. In the preface to The Saints’ Everlasting Rest are these words about conditions in Kidderminster when Baxter arrived as pastor, and the contrast when he left. “He at first found but a single instance or two of daily family prayer in a whole street; and on his going away (1660) but one family or two could be found in some streets that continued to neglect it.”
b. Commitment to a clear proclamation of the Gospel.
At one point in his ministry Baxter wrote a little book entitled Call to the Unconverted. After his death, a piece of paper was found in his study which had been written not long before his death. It said, “This little book, the Call to the Unconverted, God hath blessed with unexpected success, beyond all that I have written, except the Saints’ Rest.”
c. Acceptance of persecution and prison.
In 1660 a terrible time of religious persecution began. Charles II came to the throne. He firmly believed that there should be but one church in England, of which he would be head, as previous monarchs had been. So he was determined that legislation be passed (and it was) that made it illegal for more than 5 adults to worship together outside the Church of England, or without an Anglican clergyman present. A host of other laws made it very difficult to gather any group of Christians together. If they were caught, they were fined. If it happened more than three times, they were imprisoned. If one was a deacon or pastor, he would be imprisoned without any options.
John Bunyan spent 12 years in prison (1660-72), in terrible conditions. He was told at his trial that if he gave up his preaching and went back to be what he had been trained to be – a tinker – a maker of pots and pans, like his father, the judges would willingly release him. But he replied, “No, the Lord has given me gifts to preach. I know that because the congregation has called me to preach, and I have a loyalty to King Jesus. And on that day when I stand before Him, it would not matter whether I was loyal to this crown if I was not loyal to that greater King. And although I long to be a loyal citizen, God so help me, I must continue to preach if you release me.” So in prison he stayed.
We remember John Bunyan because of his prison writings (Pilgrims Progress and The Holy War). But he was just one of many who were imprisoned. Innumerable Baptist pastors also died in prisons.
John Bunyan wrote, “My great desire in fulfilling my ministry was to get into the darkest places in the country, among those people who were furthest from a profession of faith, not because I feared the light, but because I found my spirit leaned most after an awakening and converting work. So I have striven to preach the Gospel, not where Christ was named, lest I should build on another man’s foundation.”
After he was released from prison, until the end of his life, he went from village to village, visiting little hamlets that had no Gospel light, and preaching in barns, in the open air, in the woods at night, etc.
So the Baptists grew despite trouble, war and persecution. By 1688 there were around 300 of these Baptist churches.
Then a new king came to power in 1688. William III, a Dutchman and man of strong convictions asked Parliament to pass a law called The Act of Toleration, which lies at the foundation of the religious liberty we enjoy today. He set a course of religious toleration.
Suddenly the Baptists were free to build churches. (They couldn’t call them churches: they had to call them by some other name - chapels, tabernacles, etc.). Many other restrictions also remained – one couldn’t be a graduate of any university, hold political office, or hold a commissioned office in the army or navy if not an Anglican. In essence if you weren’t an Anglican, you were a second class citizen. But at least these Baptists could now safely preach, gather congregations, and own buildings.
One would think that freedom and toleration would lead to further spiritual growth. But it did not.
The next 90-100 years were years of decline. The Particular Baptists didn’t really see it at the time. Forty years passed before they began to notice that things were not as they had been in their grandparents’ days. The decline was not uniform. There were some churches that flourished for awhile and saw the blessing of God. But even they eventually plateaued, stagnated, and declined.
By 1750, there were only 150 churches – half of what there had been in 1688. Many of these were small, stagnated, in disarray and discouraged. It would not be until into the 1780s that the Particular Baptists began to cry out in prayer, that God would rend the heavens and send His Spirit to bring revival and a reawakening to their churches.
What makes this decline doubly sad is that in the mid 1700s a great revival broke out all over England and in North America along the eastern seaboard, through the ministry of such ones as George Whitefield, John and Charles Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards.
But the Awakening passed by the Particular Baptists completely. They missed it.
What were the reasons? The reasons are complex, but we could isolate these three:
1. Putting Buildings Up.
Instead of reaching out, they poured their energy into buildings. Instead of money being given to further the Gospel where there was no Gospel witness, the focus was put on themselves. We can understand why – they needed an identity.
Also, instead of reaching out into villages and hamlets, they concentrated on putting buildings up in what were called market towns – key centres where people came into town to buy food on a Saturday. But these churches were built at the expense of evangelism.
2. Keeping Heads Down.
There were still rules that prevented preaching in the open air. But this didn’t stop George Whitefield, an Anglican. Many came to Christ under his open air preaching.
But Baptist preachers did not go out-of-doors. There was a willingness in society for people to listen to out-of-door preachers, but the Baptists felt they had enough liberty. Better to keep heads down and not lose what they had.
It was said of George Whitefield that “He ventured his life for God while the Baptists are snug in their comfortable buildings.”
3. Covering the Gospel Over.
There was the rise of hyper-Calvinism (whether this was a cause or result of the decline is not clear).
Particular Baptists argued, “God will save the elect without your help or mine. It brings Him more glory.” So the Gospel was not offered by many Baptist preachers and churches. They covered over the Gospel, making it obscure.
And so they became a community in decline. Many churches closed, and others found themselves in confusion.
1. Rethinking the Proclamation of the Gospel.
The practice in the 1700s was that if anyone came to a Particular Baptist pastor concerned about his soul and wondering how he might get saved, the pastor would send him away, telling him to return in six months if he still felt the same way, and if he had arrived at any conclusions on his own as to how to be saved.
One man God would use to bring about a re-thinking regarding the proclamation of the Gospel was Andrew Fuller, 1754-1815. He grew up under the ministry of a Baptist minister named John Eve (died 1782), who never once explained or offered the Gospel to the unconverted in his congregation.
Andrew Fuller’s formal education ended at age 12. Then he began to work on a dairy farm. He often thought in farmer’s terms. Later in life he said, “If things had gone on much longer we Baptists would have been little more than a dung hill in society.”
At age 14 Fuller began to read an autobiography of John Bunyan who had lived in the previous century (1628-1688). Also he read Pilgrim’s Progress and some of the works of Ralph Erskine (1686-1752), a Scottish evangelical pastor. He often found himself weeping because of his sins. Finally, in November of 1769 when he was 15 years old, he was led to realize that “God would be perfectly just in sending me to hell, and that to hell I must go, unless I were saved by mere grace.” And he came to the place of finding forgiveness and peace with God at the foot of the cross. (p. 25, The Armies of the Lamb)
(Recall that his pastor had never presented the Gospel to him or anyone in the congregation. Fuller spent about another year under his pastor’s ministry. When he was 16, he realized “This man has nothing to say to me.” So he left the church.)
Then with the Scriptures and other books, he wrestled through the subject of Calvinism, and concluded with much struggling that the Gospel was to be freely preached and clearly explained to all people.
He was called to Cambridge to be a pastor, and then to Kettering in the midlands of England in 1783. When he accepted the call to the pulpit in Kettering he said this: “The Gospel must be freely preached to all… As a man stands before his congregation, it is not his responsibility to try and determine who is among the elect or not. That is none of his business. That is God’s work. He is to offer Christ freely, and press home with urgency, and with as much allurement as he can find, that there is a Saviour for sinners, that you do not need to perish, and that God has given His dear Son to die and shed His blood. That is all that a sinner needs. You can come, and you are freely invited to come to Christ.” (Also see quote, p. 279, Armies of the Lamb)
While in Kettering Fuller wrote a book entitled The Gospel Worthy of All Acceptation. It was like a canon shot that sounded around the world and awoke many Particular Baptists to realize that they had blood on their hands if they did not offer the Gospel to sinners. He also wrote that sinners were responsible to respond. “…only God can save, but you are responsible to respond… You need to cry out to God to save you and give you a new life. If you don’t, you have your own blood on your own head. It is not God’s fault that you are not saved.”
One of the texts Fuller used to support his position was John 6:29. People asked Jesus, What must we do to do the works God requires? Jesus didn’t cover over the Gospel. He answered them! The work of God is this: to believe in the one He has sent.
2. Recommitment to Prayer.
At the time Andrew Fuller came to the town of Kettering as pastor, one of his closest friends, John Sutcliff (1752-1814), was the pastor of a Baptist church at Olney, a nearby town made famous as the place where John Newton (Amazing Grace) had ministered.
Sutcliff had received a book written in America by Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) entitled, A Call to United Extraordinary Prayer: A 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 What Scripture Promises and Prophecies Concerning the Last Times.
In the book, Edwards had pleaded in 1748 the need to establish regular prayer meetings for the revival of Christianity, the need to unite and join with others who would pray for God’s revival.
Sutcliff read this book, and at an association meeting of Baptist pastors in June of 1784, he said, “Look at our situation. Look at our churches. We are in spiritual decline. Surely we must turn to God at this time.”
He urged them as pastors to meet regularly for prayer. So they agreed to meet every month, on the first Monday evening of each month for one hour of prayer. If they were some distance away and could not join with the others, they agreed that they would pray at the same time wherever they were.
[Read Ezekiel 36 and note how many times the Lord promises to do something, how many times the word “will” is used – that He will bring His people back to the land from exile, and give them a new heart, and put a new spirit in them. Then verse 37 says, I will yield to the plea of the house of Israel and do this for them. In other words, God had already promised to return the exiles, but He desired His people to have a burden for prayer first, and to plead with Him to do this for them!]
[Daniel 9:1-3 has the same thrust. Daniel, now about 82 years old, becomes aware from Scripture when the end of the exile would take place. Soon! Rather than rejoicing and passively waiting for God’s promise to come true, he prays for its fulfillment. He confesses the people’s sins that brought about the exile in the first place. Note verses 17-19, and the angel Gabriel’s words in verse 23. This mysterious but marvelous Biblical dynamic between God's sovereign promises and people’s ceaseless praying must never retreat into futility and fatalism on our part. Use the promises of God as incentives to intercession.]
These men who committed themselves to this call to prayer did not believe that if they prayed, revival would automatically happen. But they knew very assuredly that if they did not meet with God in prayer, He would not bless and bring revival.
Note also that in this call to prayer there was a missionary focus. This was 1784. Evangelical Christianity was basically in northern Europe and in a narrow corridor along the Atlantic seaboard in America. As well, for most of these people in England, traveling 30 km in a day was a long trip. Many would never see in their whole lives as many people as we would see if we went to Rideau Street in rush hour and watched for one hour. But they started to realize that the Gospel was not just for English people, or for North Americans. It was for the world.
3. Re-dedication to Purpose.
One more issue had to be dealt with along with their prayerlessness. A general apathy hung like a thick gray cloud over Baptist churches – a cloud of, indifference, lack of concern for Biblical teachings, and laziness in spiritual growth.
In a little pamphlet Andrew Fuller wrote in 1785 entitled Causes of Declension and the Means of Revival, he outlines the spiritual apathy that reigned in the churches he knew. “It is to be feared the old puritanical way of devoting ourselves wholly to be the Lord’s, resigning up our bodies, souls, gifts, time and property with all that we have to serve Him, is now awfully neglected… If we were in a proper spirit, the question for us would be, not ‘What must I do for God?’ (by this he meant: what’s the minimum I must do to get to heaven?) but ‘What can I do?’”
People were saying, “I’m saved.” But they used that to cover their apathy. But Fuller confronted them, saying – if God has done so much in saving you, surely every last breath and thought you should give to Him.
In his pamphlet he mentions five things they should have an inner compulsion to do:
Fuller went on to say, “It’s your heart attitude that is most important. We must return to God with full purpose of heart. We must cherish a greater love to the truths of God, pay an invariable regard to the discipline of His house, cultivate love for one another, and above all, we must pray for revival.”
He is a Calvinist. He knows that when revival comes, it is God’s work. But on the other hand, he also knows that God does not accomplish ends without means. God delights in using human means to accomplish His ends. He does not need to do so. He didn’t need any of us to create the heavens and the earth. But it is His great delight that when He brings souls out of darkness – a greater work than the establishment of the universe – He uses fellow sinners.
Most important of all, Fuller stressed prayer. “Finally, brethren, let us not forget to intermingle prayer with all we do. Our need of God’s Holy Spirit to enable us to do anything and everything truly good should excite us to this. Without His blessing all means are without efficacy, and every effort for revival will be in vain. Constantly therefore, let us approach His throne.”
Revival didn’t come immediately. Month after month these Baptist met and prayed, from 1784 all the way through to the 1820s. By that time, and even by the 1790s, they had begun to see some amazing answers to their prayers. This spiritual revival in England eventually spread to North America – the 2nd Great Awakening. It was deeper and richer than the 1st Awakening under Whitefield, Edwards and the Wesleys in the 1700s that the Baptists had missed. What was the fruit they saw?
1. Local Church Growth.
There was an increase in numbers of churches. By 1798 there were 361 Baptist churches, more than double what there had been 40 years before. By 1812, the number had risen to 532. By the time Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) had begun his ministry it was around 1400. Many of these churches had large buildings that could seat 3000-4000 people. Many of these still exist today – but not filled as they were in those days, when God met them in revival.
In 1810 Andrew Fuller could write to William Carey who was in India, “I preached a sermon to the youth last Lord’s Day from 1 Thessalonians 2:19. I think we had nearly a thousand present.” The town of Kettering had a population of 3000! Where did all the youth come from? Eventually Fuller had to start a Monday meeting, and then a Friday meeting. Each of them was filled with young people.(One can visit this church building today. It seats 1500-1800 in number.)
2. Foreign Missionary Societies.
A second fruit was the formation of voluntary foreign missionary societies. The pastors, as they met, prayed that the Gospel would go to the ends of the earth. God raised up one in their very midst, William Carey (1761-1834). In 1792 Carey published a booklet entitled An Enquiry into the Obligation of Christians to use Means for the Conversion of the Heathen. His argument from such texts as Matthew 28:18-20 was that Christ’s commission still applied to all Christians. So later that year, on October 2, 1792, he inaugurated The Particular Baptist Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. (Later the name was simplified to the Baptist Missionary Society). It was the churches in Olney and Kettering and in the midlands of England who had the joy of sending Carey out as the first missionary under that society to India. In those days, furloughs were virtually unheard of. Carey went out in 1793. He never came back. He died in India in 1834.
Other denominations saw what was happening, and formed societies in the late 1790s. The Methodists were on board by 1814-1818. The Church of Scotland, in 1796, seeing what was happening, refused to have any part in foreign missions, and it was 28 years later that they finally took responsibility to sent out their first missionary.
3. Other Volunteer Societies.
Bible and Tract Societies formed. For example: The British and Foreign Bible Society in 1804, with Joseph Hughes, a Baptist and main promoter, who became its first secretary.
Social justice agencies dealing with issues such as: prison reform; caring for widows and orphans; distributing food to the poor; ministering to alcoholics, etc., also sprang up.
4. A Moral Revolution.
Although a revolution in morals among the working classes had begun under the ministry of Whitefield and Wesley in the mid 1700s, it continued through the 1800s.
It was in the early 1800s that the first temperance organizations began to appear, to deal with the abuse of alcohol.
William Wilberforce and his campaign against the slave trade led to the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807 and the setting free of all slaves in the British territories in 1834.
Before John Sutcliff died in 1814, twenty years after his call to devoted prayer, God gave him the privilege of seeing the heavens rent, and the beginnings of one of the greatest revivals of all time.
On his death bed, Andrew Fuller went to see him. (Fuller died a year later, 1815.) Sutcliff said to Fuller, “I wish I’d prayed more.”
Fuller spent some time thinking about this, and in his diary wrote, “I wish I had prayed more. I don’t suppose that brother Sutcliff wished that he had prayed more frequently, but more spiritually.” Then Fuller turned it around to himself. “I wish I had prayed more for the power of the Holy Spirit, for more of the power of vital godliness. I wish I had prayed more for the assistance of the Spirit in study and preaching my sermons. I wish I’d prayed more for the outpouring of the Spirit to attend to the labours of our friends in India. I might have witnessed more the effects of their efforts in the conversion of the heathen.”
Sutcliff’s dying statement became a kind of mirror for Fuller to look at his own life and examine it. But it revealed something else in Fuller also – the profound awareness that the most important thing his ministry and his church needed was the blessing and power of the Spirit of God in revival – and that such blessing would only come through the people of God humbling themselves first in prayer.
Both men, Fuller and Sutcliff, had a mutual friend, John Ryland (1753-1825), who wrote this, “Surely the state of both the world and the church call loudly upon us to persist in praying to God for greater outpourings of His Spirit. Let us not cease crying mightily to the Lord until His Spirit be poured upon us from on high. Then the wilderness shall become a fruitful field and the desert like the garden of God. Yes, beloved, the Scripture cannot be broken. All nations shall own Him. All peoples shall serve Him. His kingdom shall be extended not by human might or power, but by the outpouring of the Spirit of God.”
1. The Purpose of Prayer.
The purpose of prayer is to move God’s hand to action.
2. The Power of Prayer.
Picture God’s power to act as the engine of a train. Prayer is the track along which the engine moves to get to its destination.
If we pray concerning something which is indeed God’s will, must He automatically act to answer the request in the way we are asking, and with the immediacy with which we are asking? No! We do not (or should not!) believe that if we pray, God will or must act.
On the other hand, if we don’t pray, we will have no assurance that God will do for us what we long for Him to do. (The thought of God being obligated to act began under the influence of Charles Finney in the late 1800s)
3. The Plan in Prayer.
God’s great delight is that before He does any of His great works in His grace, His plan is to bring His people to the place of prayer, and to pray for Him to do what He has promised to do. The truth about prayer is: if we do not meet with God in prayer, He will not bless, because this is His way. But if we do meet with God in prayer, the door is opened for Him to accomplish His work, in His way, in His time.
God loves that His people be interested in His cause. He labours to promote a prayer burden in us first, so that His will might be done on earth, even as it is in heaven.