God has blessed Merseyside in many ways, so much so that it has been said by some that Liverpool is the third most evangelical city in the UK, behind Belfast and Glasgow. Travelling around Merseyside this certainly becomes evident when we see so many evangelical churches in existence. Sadly many of these are struggling in these days, and many people are discouraged, so I do believe that it is now a good time to reflect on what God has done in the past, and also to consider what it was that the past generations of Christians had that we perhaps have lost sight of today.
When using the term "revival" I am using it in the sense of an "evangelical awakening" as used by Brian Edwards in his excellent book "Revival, a people saturated with God". It is true to say that Merseyside hasn't generally experienced the sort of spontaneous and rapid revivals that took place, such as in the 1859 Ulster Revival, the 1904 Welsh Revival, or the 1949 Hebrides Revival (although there were a number of exceptions to this), but that is not to say that what God has done in Merseyside is in any way inferior to what he did in those places. For example in the 1859 Revival God visited the whole of the UK with a wonderful revival, which affected virtually the whole of the country. In Ulster this was indeed very dramatic with a large percentage of the population brought to Christ within that year. This was followed in a similar way in Wales and Scotland, but in most of England it was much slower and far less dramatic, but the end result was just the same, with some 600,000 brought to Christ in England during the period 1859-1864. In London and most of England (including Liverpool and Manchester) it was more of a revival of preaching, preceded by a large-scale prayer movement that lasted some two years, with God raising up a vast army of evangelists, who preached the gospel throughout the land so powerfully.
I have so much enjoyed reading of some of the wonderful exploits of these evangelists, which has personally strengthened my own faith, and I hope will also strengthen the faith of all who read of their lives.¹ Similarly through the ministry of William Garrett and the Methodist Mission, multitudes were brought to Christ with many transformed lives, but this was over a period of some 30 years, but the end result, however, was the same. The ministry of Canon Richard Hobson also, is a wonderful story of a transformed parish in Liverpool, which again took place over a period of 30 years. On the other hand during the Edward Jeffreys’ Crusades a multitude of people was brought to Christ in Bootle and Tuebrook, during the summer of 1934, with 3,000 people converted in one day! Many thousands were also brought to Christ during the Moody/Sankey and Torrey/Alexander crusades. God has, therefore, visited us in a number of different ways, but the cumulative effect of it all has been to bring much spiritual blessing to Liverpool and Merseyside.
Liverpool has also been so blessed by many others who have impacted our city most effectively. The appointment of J C Ryle, for example, as the first Bishop of Liverpool, a most fervent evangelical, was the cause of much rejoicing not only in Liverpool, but also throughout the country. The circumstances of his appointment are truly amazing as will be read of in chapter 12, which shows the providence of God in such a wonderful way. His successor also, J Chavasse who was greatly influenced by the 1859 revival did much good for Liverpool and was the moving force behind the construction of our marvellous cathedral. Also people like Alexander Balfour, whose monument is in St John’s Gardens, behind St George’s Hall, though not a preacher himself was a hugely significant character in the Christian life of Liverpool, with a great passion for his city.
So what was it that the Christians of this period had that brought such spiritual blessing to Liverpool and in which we are perhaps lacking today? There are a number of factors that have become evident to me during my period of research and I would like to suggest some of these as follows: -
- Their prayer life was on a different level to what it is today.
- There was a greater eagerness to seek God’s anointing and to empowered from on high, not only in their preaching, but also in other areas of ministry such as in singing and worship.
- They had a more earnest desire to be clothed with humility, particularly in times of revival when so many thousands were being brought in the kingdom.
- They preached the gospel clearly and did not compromise on the truth of the Word of God, and they also seemed to show a greater earnestness in their quest to reach the lost for Jesus.
- There was a much stronger bond of unity amongst the churches, so much so that people from other parts of the country used to comment on this.
- There was less dependence on human effort and a greater dependence on the Holy Spirit as they sought to reach people with the gospel.
With regard to this last point Mary Lockhart in the biography of her husband said that during the times of God’s blessing there was little attraction in the means used, but there was the supreme attraction – the power of God’s Spirit drawing men to Him. She referred, for example, to the meetings where Brownlow North spoke with such marvellous power, and said that the only singing in his meetings was the 100th Psalm. She said that the fact that there would be a meeting was enough to fill a room, and men and women who had been at work all day in the mills would then walk for miles to hear the Word, stand in crowded halls or churches, and then tramp back again late at night, and have to rise early the next morning for work again. Later in her husband’s life when some workers spoke to him about using certain methods to get at the people, he informed them that "a revival can’t be got up, it must be got down!"
Writing also about this period, Jane Radcliffe, the wife of Reginald Radcliffe, a Liverpool solicitor, whom God used in a powerful way both in Liverpool and around the country and abroad, made the following comment about prayer, in the introduction to the biography of her husband: -
"The watchword that sounded forth in those days was PRAYER. Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit. "It was another Pentecost" she said, "the children of God waited, but with unceasing and united prayer for the promise; and its fulfilment came in manifested power from on high, that no flesh should glory in His presence."
One of the things that I think we also need to take note of is that in former times when there was a falling away from the faith, there was nearly always a coming together of the churches for prayer and these weren’t just once a month or bi-monthly meetings but a regular coming together for earnest prayer. Wales used to be known as the land of revivals, and the reason for this was that whenever the decline set in, the churches would come together as a matter of course. Brian Edwards in his book on Revival gives the following quotation from Thomas Charles whom God used in the revival in Bala, North Wales in 1791:-
"Unless we are favoured with frequent revivals, and a strong, powerful work of the spirit of God, we shall in great degree, degenerate, and have only a name to live by; religion will soon lose its vigour, the ministry will hardly retain its lustre and glory; and iniquity will, of consequence, abound."
I think that it is true to say that we are living in such days today, and the state of things in our country today is a result of us not coming together as we should have done, to seek God’s face for mercy on our land. If ever there was a time when we needed to pray as we never have done before, it is now, but sadly, apart from some pockets of prayer, here and there, this is being largely ignored.
The above factors are in my view some of the most important issues that the church needs to face up to today.
It is my conviction that we have much to learn from our local Christian history, and for us to think of the past as irrelevant is both a mistake and inadvisable. Hegel once famously said that "experience and history teach us this, that peoples and governments have never learned anything from history." Our ancestors on many occasions faced similar problems to what we face today, and I do believe that it is important that we seek to learn from them how they dealt with their own situation and why God blessed them the way that he did.