The Fire Divine: An introduction to the Evangelical Revival
David Ceri Jones
Church Times Bookshop £9
THIS book does exactly what its title suggests, and provides a concise, handy, and readable introduction to the 18th-century Evangelical Revival. Perhaps its chief strength is its global perspective: the course of the revival is charted in Continental Europe and North America as well as in the British Isles, where the Welsh author, who teaches at Aberystwyth University, gives due prominence to the “Celtic fringes”.
Jones is particularly good at providing vivid pen portraits of the leading figures in 18th-century Evangelicalism and their preaching techniques. George Whitefield, who apparently drove 15 people mad during his first sermon, had a carefully positioned trumpeter on hand when he preached on the Last Judgement, so that a loud blast would sound out when he quoted Corinthians 15.52.
This was just one among the carefully calculated practices used by the exponents of what came to be known as “heart religion” to heighten the emotional atmosphere at revival meetings. Reports frequently spoke of people becoming violently agitated, leaping up and down, and even “ripping off their clothes and crying out Hosanna in imitation of those that attended Christ when he rode into Jerusalem”. It is, perhaps, little wonder that early Methodists earned the nickname of “Jumpers”.
Although this book is stronger on description than analysis, it offers some interesting suggestions on both the origins and the course of the Evangelical Revival. Building on the work of John Walsh, Jones suggests that its precursors were the Pietists of Continental Europe, the English Puritans and, more surprisingly, High Church Anglicans seeking “primitive Christianity” in the late 17th century.
He also underlines the continuing rift between Calvinists and Arminians, which threatened Evangelical unity and impeded the continuing momentum of the revival, which began so powerfully and promisingly with the conversion to “vital religion” of Whitefield and the Wesleys.
The Very Revd Dr Ian Bradley is Principal of St Mary’s College, St Andrews, where he teaches church history, and author of The Call to Seriousness: The Evangelical impact on the Victorians (Lion, 2006).