Are we stirred? Are we Alive? Some thoughts on Revival

A few (further) extended thoughts on The Experience Meeting (EP Press 1973) & Revival. (Some of what follows appeared in previous Blog posts – Here, Here, and Here.)

Why bother with looking at this book, or even mentioning it, and Revival? I’ll answer the why by quoting Paul Cook from his book ‘Fire from Heaven‘:

‘The year is 1826. The location is Nottingham. The occasion, a crowded Methodist love-feast never to be forgotten by those present. Presiding was a Yorkshireman, John Smith, one of the greatest preachers ever to arise in Methodism, but whose ministry was cut short by an early death.

He led the people in earnest prayer and concluded by repeating the Lord’s Prayer. The effect was extraordinary. We read that the people

Responded with peculiar fervour to each petition as it was pronounced, till he came to the doxology, at each clause of which he raised his voice and ascribed to the Almighty ‘the kingdom and the power and the glory, for ever and ever’ in tone and with an unction which fell on the congregation with irresistible force.

The people were gripped with a sense of the glory of God.

A glow of heavenly feeling pervaded the whole assembly: many gave vent to their emotions by bursts of tears and some with irrepressible shouts of praise. Others laid hold of the words, repeating them again and again even after he had ceased; and whispers of ‘for ever and ever’ mingled with sobs passed from one to another… in fact, it was some time before the regular business of the meeting could be resumed.

We are not surprised to learn that there was an increase in the membership of the circuit that year of six hundred. God had visited his people.
Scripture encourages us to recollect such events, in order to strengthen our faith and increase our confidence in God. The Bible reminds us of the heroes of faith and urges us to keep them in mind, so that we might follow their example (Heb 1; 12:1). The history of God’s great acts is recorded in his word, and we are exhorted to ‘remember the days of old’ and learn from them. The Psalmists were constantly doing this to their great encouragement.’

(Fire from Heaven, Paul Cook. p. 13 & 14.)

Back to The Experience Meeting. Who is the author?

William Williams. We might think of him as primarily a Hymn Writer and poet. But he was also a Pastor and theologian, as well as a gifted organiser. And as we shall see he must have been someone with considerable spiritual discernment.

When was it written? It first appeared in 1777. Rules had been introduced (1742) for their meetings that ‘… bore the title Sail, Dibenion, a Rheolau’r Sociteties neu’r Cyfarfodydd Neilltuol a ddechreuasant ymgynull yn ddiweddar yng Nghymru (The Basis, Purposes, and Rules of the Societies or Private Meetings which have lately started coming together in Wales). Four hymns were appended, the one by Rowland used the familiar pilgrim imagery for the Christian life, and one by Harris was on ‘brotherly love and Christian Unity’. This work remained the standard code of practice for the societies until the appearance in 1777 of William Williams’ Drws y Society Profiad (The Experience Meeting).’ (Daniel Rowland, Eifion Evans, Banner, 1985. p. 181.).

Why was it written and what’s it about? The book looks back then to the events of the 1730’s & 40’s, and then forward as the ‘Experience Meetings’ or Societies that continued to be organised. It was written in response to a need that came about because of the Evangelical Awakening in the 18th Century.

From the previous account you can see that we are not in the same situation as an awakened fellowship. Philip Swann has written on ‘Experience Meetings’ in our day that is worth reading. In that article he helpfully contrasts then and now in this way:

‘Our current situation is less fervent and weaker than that in the evangelical awakening, but there is still spiritual life among us. It’s like a light connected to a dimmer switch; our light is on but turned down to a little glow, whereas William Williams and others were turned up to the max. Wherever we are on the scale, there is spiritual life, but it needs to be nurtured and encouraged.’

Source: Evangelical Magazine, July/August 2017, page 12.

These Experience Meetings were in a way, perhaps, what our home groups (if you have them) aspire to – to nurture and encourage. Most of the book is given over to leading them, the qualities of the leaders and many other things. Here’s Dr Lloyd-Jones from the introduction:

‘The task of conducting these ‘experience meetings’ obviously called for great wisdom, spiritual insight, tact, and discretion. They could easily degenerate into exhibitionism on the part of extroverts, and lead to scandal, as very private matters were related involving others. It was in order to obviate such troubles and disasters, and to instruct the leaders in this most important work, that the Rev. William Williams wrote this little book now translated into English for the first time.’ (From Dr Lloyd-Jones Introduction to The Experience Meeting, p.6)

They aren’t called chapters but dialogues. Much like catechising. So each chapter or dialogue is made up of sometimes quite lengthy questions and answers (It’s not a long book btw). The first dialogue then, if these are his headings, is ‘An imaginary history of the deadness of the land of sleep’ as Williams calls it. This corresponds, as we shall see, with the condition of the church(es) prior to an awakening. ‘The deadness of the land of sleep.’

Here are a couple of accounts prior to a Revival. The following is a bit long but worth it as it helps set the context:

‘There has been a great and just complaint for many years among the ministers and churches in Old England, and New (….), that the work of conversion goes on very slowly, that the Spirit of God in his saving influences is much withdrawn from the ministrations of his word, and there are few that receive the report of the gospel, with any eminent success upon their hearts. But as the gospel is the same divine instrument of grace still, as ever it was in the days of the apostles, so our ascended Saviour now and then takes a special occasion to manifest the divinity of this gospel by a plentiful effusion of his Spirit where it is preached: then sinners are turned into saints in numbers, and there is a new face of things spread over a town or a country. The wilderness and the solitary places are glad, the desert rejoices and blossoms as the rose; and surely concerning this instance we may add, that they have seen the glory of the Lord there, and the excellency of our God; they have seen the out-goings of God our King in his sanctuary.

Certainly it becomes us, who profess the religion of Christ, to take notice of such astonishing exercises of his power and mercy, and give him the glory which is due, when he begins to accomplish any of his promises concerning the latter days: and it gives us further encouragements to pray, and wait, and hope for the like display of his power in the midst of us. The hand of God is not shortened that it cannot save, but we have reason to fear that our iniquities, our coldness in religion, and the general carnality of our spirits, have raised a wall of separation between God and us: and we may add, the pride and perverse humour of infidelity, degeneracy, and apostacy from the Christian faith, which have of late years broken out among us, seem to have provoked the Spirit of Christ to absent himself much from our nation. “Return, O Lord, and visit thy churches, and revive thine own work in the midst of us.”’

From A Narrative of Surprising Conversions first published in 1736. Select Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol 1, p. 2 & 3, Banner of Truth, 1965.

Here’s another account from 1850:

‘During the intervening years, apart from the movements – chiefly local – in 1850, the churches had, by 1858, declined to an alarming state of deadness and barrenness. The means of grace had become more or less a formality, made unattractive to the world by the coldness of its orthodoxy; sinful practices were rampant and carried on openly without any sense of shame; the church was spiritually “asleep”, oblivious of its mission to the world, and satisfied with its lukewarmness. The prayer meetings were not burdened for the souls of the unconverted, and preaching was theoretical, oratorical and “popular” in the worst sense.

Thus E. Richardson writes in the Drysorfa for June, 1854: “We must confess that we have become too formal, lukewarm and unwilling in the work of the Lord generally in these days, but especially so in our prayer meetings”.’

Revival comes to Wales by Eifion Evans, p.23.

We could look at many more….

I’ve spent some time describing the condition of the church because I think we need to understand the situation. Although Williams describes his account in Dialogue 1 as ‘imaginary,’ what is described there, it seems to me, is based on his own experience and what he witnessed take place, as we have seen, in the previous Revival accounts. That is, the condition of the churches described prior to the visitation of the Spirit of God. Remember, he’s describing ‘The deadness of the land of sleep.’ Here is a part of that description from Dialogue 1:

EUSEBIUS continues….: ‘This is the way the Lord worked in that part of the world. One time, there were just a few of us, professing believers, gathered together, cold and unbelievably dead, in a meeting which we called a special service, so discouraged as to doubt whether we should ever meet again, some who were usually absent from every meeting, some in a deadly apathy, with nothing to say of God nor their own souls, some given over to the world and its cares, some backslidden completely from all means of grace and the ordinances of the gospel, some given over to the flesh and its lusts, as in the days of Noah – seeking a wife, seeking a husband marrying and giving in marriage – and I myself well nigh disheartened and thinking often of coming to live in warmer spiritual climes, and moving my tent from Ur of the Chaldees nearer to the borders of the Promised Land.

But, even though all things were as i have described them – the world, the flesh and Satan victorious – these special services were yet conducted in an incredibly lifeless manner. There was no encouragement for anyone to carry on the work, save only the promise of God, that wherever there were two or three coming together in His name, if their purpose were right, however lifeless their present state, He would come to them and bless them. This alone had made us come together to pray; but our prayers were not much more than groans.’

What we read there should encourage us to not give up meeting. Revival comes not at the behest of man but by Gods gracious intervention – and that, when we are at our lowest ebb. Perhaps that is one of our problems. Our churches are so well organised that if God were absent from our meetings, or our evangelism, would any of us really notice?

‘And she said, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson!” And he awoke from his sleep and said, “I will go out as at other times and shake myself free.” But he did not know that the LORD had left him.’ Judges 16:20

What’s so encouraging is that these believers were in such a low spiritual state. God visits us when He chooses to do so. Not because we’ve reached a point where we might be tempted to say ‘God will bless us now.’

EUSEBIUS continues…. ‘But at last, forced by cowardice, unbelief and the onslaughts of Satan, we resolved to give up our special meeting; and now we were about to offer a final prayer, fully intending never again to meet thus in fellowship. But it is when man reaches the lowest depths of unbelief that God imparts faith, and when man has failed, then God reveals Himself. So here, with us in such dire straits, on the brink of despair, with the door shut on every hope of success, God Himself entered into our midst, and the light of day from on high dawned upon us; for one of the brethren – yes, the most timid of us all, the one who was strongest in his belief that God would never visit us – while in prayer, was stirred in his spirit and laid hold powerfully on heaven, as one who would not let go.

His tongue spoke unusual words, his voice was raised, his spirit was aflame, he pleaded, he cried to God, he struggled, he wrestled in earnest, like Jacob, in the agony of his soul. The fire took hold on others – all were awakened, the coldest to the most heedless took hold and were warmed; the spirit of struggling and wrestling fell on all, we all went with him into the battle, with him we laid hold upon God, His attributes, His Word and His promises, resolving that we would never let go our hold until all our desire should be satisfied.’

The Experience Meeting: An Introduction to the Welsh Societies of the Evangelical Awakening, William Williams, Evangelical Press, 1973. Pages 8 & 9.

We have much to learn. I like the phrase ‘we all went with him into the battle.’ I don’t think that means everyone was praying at the same time or that everyone prayed. But that when one prayed, all prayed (Acts 4:24). Such was their united assault upon the throne of Grace. That’s the sort of unity we want in our prayer meetings.

It’s a fine line, perhaps, between not despising the day of small things (Zech 4:10) and the realisation that without God we are sunk. God is at work. He does not stop working. The Lord Jesus is building His church (Matt 16:18), and He will continue to build it until He returns. He gives us persevering grace. We are not fallen away because He keeps us in the way. For this we are thankful and raise our Ebenezer (1 Sam 7:12). But we pray: “Lord, give us that longing we know we need.” ‘O, that Thou wouldest rend the heavens and come down (Isaiah 64:1)’ and ‘that glory may dwell in our land (Ps 85:9).’

In 2008 I invited Paul Cook to come and lecture to us, giving him the title of ‘Have we lost interest in Revival’ because it seemed to me that that was the case. Paul was more than pleased to come. It’s available online although the last section for some reason didn’t get recorded. I believe this is where we mostly are now, nearly 15 years later. I don’t see too much to convince me otherwise. But I’m happy to be wrong.

‘They prayed and they worked’ is a quote that has rattled around in my mind for many years since I first read it in Revival comes to Wales. Here’s the quote in context.

‘”It is a big thing to have a feeling God would revive His work. Whoever possesses such a feeling will be compelled to do all he can to revive the Lord’s work. By reading the history of the Church we find that the great cause fluctuates up and down through the ages, but that, whenever the Lord drew near to save there was some considerable expectancy amongst the godly for His coming. As well as praying, we should be doing our utmost to revive the work. So did the godly of old: they prayed and they worked.”

It is said of David Morgan “that for ten years before 1858 a petition for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was never absent from his public prayers.”‘ p. 25.

We must be honest, that does not describe most of our prayer meetings. We are not in the 17th or 18th centuries but the lethargy, or ‘deadness‘, that was experienced back then is not unfamiliar to us.

In 1979 Peter Jeffery (and Bob Cotton) went as he had for many years to the Bala Ministers Conference. When he came back after the Sunday evening service, he called the church to prayer. I’d have to double-check the facts on this, but I believe he called the church (the people) into the schoolroom that adjoins the main church (I’m sure this was described to me this way). After that people began to be saved. One of those was me – and that without any contact with the church, or any church for that matter. Or with other Christians. And I wasn’t alone in that, there were others.

Here’s Peter in his own words:

‘Immediately on my return to Rugby (from the Bala conference), I called a special meeting and put all this to the church. I called the church to prayer for forgiveness and to intercede that the Lord would give us conversions again. I believed the church had become lifeless and that few were being converted because there were few unconverted people at the services. I urged the church to consider Isaiah 62:6-7 ‘You who call on the Lord, give yourselves no rest, and give him no rest …’ in response to this challenge, a letter was sent out to every member by the elders and deacons, and the prayer meetings were stirred to a spirit of prayer for the lost.’

(Chains of Grace, Peter Jeffery, DayOne, p. 45.)

People came. Why? God was at work. There’s no other explanation. It’s interesting to look back. I only realised this recently, but when we (Some of us from completely non church backgrounds) walked into Rugby Evangelical Free Church – AKA Railway Terrace – we didn’t walk into a dead orthodoxy or a lukewarm church. We walked into a church that was alive (in the sense of being refreshed). Even though it wasn’t like the ‘Evangelical Awakening(s)’ in intensity, the church, and especially the ministry, was experiencing ‘times of refreshing from the Lord. (Acts 3:20)’ As I found out it was far from perfect, and like every church (See the NT) it had its own problems, but it was alive. When I was baptised in February 1980 there were 12 of us being baptised, and later that year another 12 (or more – including Trevor and his Dad) were baptised and maybe other baptisms in between. In some ways, it’s what I think of as normal. The friends I have from then (Trevor Thomas & John Lee, Mike, Ruth, Adrian, and others), are still my closest and dearest friends. My own wife Sue was converted at this time, and baptised, as well as my own parents. I will never forget those days. And I don’t believe I’m supposed to forget them. As Trevor said recently, ‘They were special.’

As I say Bob Cotton and the church in Bury St Edmonds experienced a similar move of God. I remember Bob coming to Rugby to tell us about the blessing of God (not recorded because of personal details). He used to stay with my parents when he visited Rugby to preach.

I could have said a great deal more, perhaps another time, but I hope you have found this helpful, encouraging, and maybe even stirring. I know I need to be stirred.

I’m more convinced than ever that Revival (like the New Birth) is a sovereign, and undeserved visitation of God upon a people or even an individual. Oftentimes He comes when we least expect it, and more often than not when we are at our lowest ebb: as in Williams ‘imaginary’ account, when we are ready to give up. And yet, like David Morgan, we ought to be ‘praying and working.’ We need His help and enabling to do, and to persevere, in either. May the Lord visit us – for His Glory.

God at work – and the miracle of means

I’m older now so it’s possible to look back over several years of Christian life – about 42 years so far. More for some of you maybe. Over that time I have met some fascinating people. One of those was Eric Williams. Eric was for many years the general secretary of The Evangelical Tract Society. Eric and his family moved to Rugby and for a few years we used to hold a prayer meeting in their home specifically to pray for the open-air work that we used to do each Saturday. In those meetings from time to time we knew and felt the presence of God. They were special times. It’s about the general work of evangelism that I want to encourage you in this post.

While Eric was secretary he received many many letters from around the world relating how the ETS tracts had been used by God in the salvation of sinners. Eric had, it seemed to us as ‘his boys,’ an endless supply of miraculous stories of how God had saved men and women. He also related to us amazing testimonies of remarkable providences (some might say that’s what a miracle is). The point with all the stories was twofold really. The first and most important was that God doesn’t need us at all. The second and perhaps in some ways even more remarkable is that he chooses to work through sinful people – but not always.

I remember being in a service where Harry Sutton was preaching (One or two of you might remember Harry). He was preaching on Rahab. Then he gave the following illustration that I’ve never forgotten. He related how in a village the local drunkard was making his way home. On his way he happened to lean against a gate and as he leant on it, it collapsed and him with it. Being completely drunk he felt nothing and lay there till morning when he woke up. The difference was, when he woke up he had been converted. The Spirit of God had made that man alive. This happened as far we could tell with no contact with any church. You might think that was just hearsay and a bit of a tall tale. But the punchline, as it were, was that that man was Harry Sutton’s Sunday School teacher. It’s an amazing story that I have never forgotten. The point of the story was to illustrate, not just how Rahad was miraculously saved, but how God does not need us to save people.

Then very briefly, there’s my dear friend John who first told me of the Gospel and of The Lord Jesus. His conversion was without any contact with a church but was through purchasing a secondhand tape recorder that came with some ‘religious’ tapes (the recorder was apparently owned by religious nutcases). John was converted in his flat. He then played them to me. The Lord saved me. This was with no contact with a church. We didn’t know any Christians. For a while we thought we were the only Christians in Rugby – which of course we weren’t. Eventually, by other providences, ‘we found’ a church and sat under the ministry of Peter Jeffery. Again, the point is, God doesn’t need us.

I have absolutely no doubt that should God choose to do so your church would be packed. People would be banging on the door to be let in. And in times of Revival that’s what does happen.

When we don’t see that happening we shouldn’t lose heart. We do lose heart though, of course we do. Maybe this post will help to encourage you. The writing of it has encouraged me.

Although we know God doesn’t need us – at all – nevertheless, his ordinary way of working is through means. That is through people, their circumstances, and in the ‘ordinary’ means of simply living in the world. The miracle of ‘means’ is that we simply do not know what God by his grace might use. Perhaps a ‘chance’ encounter with someone and even though you didn’t get the opportunity to ram the Gospel down their throats, instead you maybe showed them a kindness that later on led to a conversation. I want to keep saying God doesn’t need us because I think deep down we really believe he does. As I write, saying that makes me wonder if that’s why most of the time our evangelism isn’t very fruitful. We’re not getting the message – God doesn’t need us. Perhaps when we get to really believe that God doesn’t need us he might bless the ‘means’ of our evangelism. Just a thought.