1739 London, England
January 1 – George Whitefield, John Wesley
During 1739 there was an astonishing expansion of revival in England. On January 1, the Wesleys and Whitefield (recently back from America) and four others from their former Holy Club at Oxford University, along with 60 others, met in London for prayer and a love feast. The Spirit of God moved powerfully on them all. Many fell down, overwhelmed. The meeting went all night, and they realized they had been empowered in a fresh visitation from God.
John Wesley gave the following account:
Mr. Hall, Kinchin, Ingham, Whitefield, Hitchins, and my brother Charles were present at our lovefeast in Fetter Lane, with about sixty of our brethren. About three in the morning, as we were continuing instant in prayer, the power of God came mightily upon us, insomuch that many cried out for exceeding joy, and many fell to the ground. As soon as we were recovered a little from that awe and amazement at the presence of his majesty, we broke out with one voice, “We praise Thee, O God, we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord” (Idle 1986, 55).
This Pentecost on New Year’s Day launched the evangelical revival in England which became part of the Great Awakening. Revival spread rapidly.
In February 1739, Whitefield started preaching to the Kingswood coal miners in the open fields near Bristol. He preached outside because many churches opposed him, accusing him and other evangelicals of “enthusiasm.” When he started the meetings in February, about 200 attended. By March, 20,000 attended.
Whitefield invited John Wesley to take over. Wesley reluctantly agreed and began his famous open-air preaching, which continued for 50 years. He later described that first weekend in his journal:
Saturday, 31 March—In the evening I reached Bristol, and met Mr. Whitefield. I could scarce reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he set me an example on Sunday; having been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order, that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.
Sunday, 1 April—In the evening, I begun expounding our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount (one pretty remarkable precedent of field-preaching) to a little society in Nicholas Street.
Monday, 2 April—At four in the afternoon I submitted to be more vile, and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining to the city, to almost three thousand people. The scripture on which I spoke was “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me topreach the gospel to the poor” (Idle 1986, 56–57).
Sometimes strange manifestations accompanied revival preaching. Wesley wrote in his journal on April 26, 1739, that during his preaching at Newgate, Bristol, “One, and another, and another sunk to the earth; they dropped on every side as thunderstruck” (Backhouse 1996, 212).
He returned to London in June reporting on the amazing move of God’s Spirit with many conversions and many people falling prostrate under God’s power—a phenomenon that he never encouraged! Features of this revival were enthusiastic singing, powerful preaching, and the gathering of converts into small societies called weekly Class Meetings.
Initially, leaders such as George Whitefield criticized some manifestations in Wesley’s meetings, but this changed. Wesley wrote on July 7, 1739:
I had opportunity to talk with Mr. Whitefield about those outward signs which had so often accompanied the inward work of God. I found his objections were chiefly grounded on gross misrepresentations of matter of fact. But the next day he had opportunity of informing himself better: for no sooner had he begun (in the application of his sermon) to invite all sinners to believe in Christ, than four persons sank down, close to him, almost in the same moment. One of them lay without either sense or motion; a second trembled exceedingly; the third had h5 convulsions all over his body, but made no noise, unless by groans; the fourth, equally convulsed, called upon God, with h5 cries and tears. From this time, I trust, we shall all suffer God to carry on His own work in the way that pleaseth Him (Backhouse 1996, 212).
Both John Wesley and George Whitefield continued preaching outdoors as well as in churches that welcomed them. Whitefield’s seven visits to America continued to fan the flames of revival there.
Revival caught fire in Scotland also. After returning from America in 1741, Whitefield visited Glasgow. Two ministers in villages nearby invited him to return in 1742 because revival had already begun in their area. Conversions and prayer groups multiplied. Whitefield preached there at Cambuslang about four miles from Glasgow. During the opening meetings on a Sunday, Whitefield saw the great crowds on the hillside gripped with conviction, repentance, and weeping more than he had seen elsewhere. The next weekend 20,000 gathered on Saturday and up to 50,000 on Sunday for the quarterly communion. The visit was charged with Pentecostal power that even amazed Whitefield.
© Geoff Waugh. Used by permission.