George Ella on Doctrinal Matters

The Evangelical Revival Or The Great Awakening

Bible Reading: Romans 10:13-14.

In the eighteenth century, an Evangelical Awakening swept through the western world ushered in through the medium of restored preaching. Never since the Reformation had earnest men taken to the highways and by-ways and preached to the multitudes with such power. Hundreds of thousands who had never cared for religion, found themselves drawn to it through the spoken Word.

Stop: you might say. The Church is not a preaching factory. Preaching is of use in its right place but church worship, the communion of the saints and pastoral care are essentialities of church fellowship. We understand this and this conference and our Society do not neglect to teach about the inner fellowship shared by the communion of the saints. But our present task in this conference is especially to emphasise the divine use of preaching to draw lost sinners into that fellowship through the call of God to people who do not yet know Him.

Preachers of the Awakening such as George Whitefield and James Hervey kept this balance between pleading with the lost and edifying the saved. At the start of the revival they held daily Morning Prayers together, building up their congregation in the knowledge of their Lord but they also preached to the hitherto unreached thousands outside. Sturdy Whitefield moved wherever the crowds could be assembled but invalid James Hervey was gifted by God to draw in the crowds from miles around to hear his preaching, having the windows and doors removed from his church building so that they could hear the Words of salvation. Both ministers thus drew thousands of men and women from the highways and byways and compelled them through the Spirit to find Jesus.

The 18th Century Restoration of Preaching

But why speak of an eighteenth century restoration of preaching? Was not that renewal accomplished two centuries before? Yes, but by the beginning of the eighteenth century the spoken word had been downgraded so radically that true preaching had disappeared even in once ‘Reformed’ churches. The ever-renewing idea of a semper reformanda was forgotten. The reasons, with hindsight, are obvious.

First: A return to Roman Aristotelianism

Reformed Biblical exegetical principles were rejected in the churches for a return to a systematic Aristotelian analysis of Scripture, dissecting the living Word into dead parts instead of synthesising and synergising those parts into a living whole. Preaching became an academically, logical, analytical, systematic slaughter of the Scriptures. Key inseparable doctrines like repentance, forgiveness, cleansing from sin, adoption, justification, and the New Birth became isolated through departmentalised exegesis.

Second: The Enlightenment invaded the Church

That misnomer ‘The Enlightenment’ entered the churches, re-emphasising the Light of Reason, Natural Law and Natural Religion. Appeal to the Holy Spirit’s inner-working on the soul was dropped and ‘Reason’ was deified.

You may say I exaggerate but read even so-called Reformed manuals such as Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex, the first major Enlightenment work mass-printed for clerical consumption, built on Major’s and Buchanan’s in-human French Humanism. Leaning on Plato and Aristotle, Rutherford, argued that ‘nature’s light’, ‘nature’s instinct’, ‘nature’s law’, ‘the covenant of nature’ and a ‘common human law of nations’ empowered human self-rule through natural, divine wisdom. Lex Rex was followed closely by the Westminster Assembly’s Presbyterians as seen in Article 21 which begins:

‘The light of nature shows that there is a God, who has lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and does good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might.’

Paragraph VII continues:

‘As it is the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in His Word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment binding all men in all ages, He has particularly appointed one day in seven, for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto him.’

Did you know by natural light that God was love and goodness before God stepped into your life? Do you put the ‘law of nature’ before Scripture? Sadly such natural theology still pollutes Reformed thinking. Because the Lord allows the rain to fall on the just and the unjust, we hear, every fallen man has a natural duty to respond positively to God’s salvation and has also a natural right and warrant to it because Natural Law is superior to revealed law. See Andrew Fuller. Happily, Articles IX and X of the Church of England declare that man’s wisdom recognises no natural light and is not subject to the law of God thus deserving only damnation. Until God says ‘Let there be Light’ in our nature, we are in darkness, whatever the weather! God’s Revealed Law alone can lead a sinner to Christ.

Thirdly: Head-knowledge superior to heart-experience

Ecclesiastical, educational and doctrinal reforms introduced by Church of England and Ireland Puritans like Usher, Bidell, Morten, Davenant, Hall and Durie, and Independents like the Nyes, Davenport, Sibbes and Owen, ceased with the Enlightenment. Such true Puritans had used advances in Biblical linguistics and the great think-tanks of knowledge they had founded internationally as instruments in serving the God-Only-Wise and experimental Christianity. True wisdom was seen as emanating from God alone. Sadly, their successors used the defective knowledge of the scientists alone to judge Scripture, giving rise to what Jonathan Sheehan calls the Enlightenment Bible. Hitherto, Bible translators believed the original texts were the sovereign voice of God. Now, as the seventeenth century turned to the eighteenth, Oxford’s Walton, Fell, Mill and Bentley dropped theological principles, scrutinising ancient texts according to cold linguistic and secular theories of human origins. Sheenan says:

‘Whereas for long centuries, the Bible had been a self-legitimating text – it was authoritative because, in affirming itself as God’s word; it affirmed its own authority – now biblical authority was reassigned to the world of human beings. No longer tied to God’s word, the Enlightenment Bible became authoritative by virtue of its connection and relevance to human morality, aesthetics, and history. Instead of theology, culture would be the new rock atop which the legitimacy of the Bible was built.[1. The Enlightenment Bible: Translation, Scholarship, Culture, Preface, p. xiv.]’

With the Spirit banned from the Word, sermons were preached on ‘The Wisdom of being Religious’ or ‘The Difficulty of Reforming Vicious Habits’, or ‘The Practice of Religion is Necessary in Proportion to our Knowledge.’ Joseph Butler and Matthew Tindal preached ethical and academic reasoning with little appeal to the needs of sinners.

Fourthly: Love of entertainment and a free press

At this time, concerts, dancing and play-acting invaded Puritan culture as Cromwell patronaged operatic performances in Puritan houses. Charles I’s orchestra of 47 musicians was boosted to over 300 by Cromwell, entertaining at Westminster until the early mornings. Queen Christina claimed Cromwell’s ambassadors were ‘Cavaliers’ whose diplomatic mission was to teach the Swedish court ladies fashionable dancing.

Because the Cromwellian legal system collapsed, pamphlet wars took place without literary, moral, social and political control. True religion was mocked and the language of Scripture used blasphemously. These sordid works formed the basis of a new literature featuring shoddy scenes and immoral living with playboys and sluts as heroes and heroines. When Addison, Richardson, Hervey and Cowper cleaned up the English language and morals, high society protested. Augustine Birell in his Res judicatae says a tradition had been broken. The real place for literature was the beer-mug and the sponging house. The poet Coleman complained that, ‘A man might as well turn his daughter loose in Covent Garden as trust the cultivation of her mind to a circulating library.’

We are back there today. A famous preacher recently said, ‘If I don’t place the word ‘sex’ in my sermon title, nobody will come and hear me.’

Happily, the Lord revived His work with preachers realising that mankind must be reformed before ears could understand God’s Words, mouths show forth His praise and eyes could understand the glory of God’s creations, both New and Old.

Whitfield debunks Latitudinarianism and Free-will holiness

Amongst the first Englishmen to re-emphasise gospel preaching was George Whitefield. His initial aims were to debunk false learning, false views of Christ and Natural Religion by proclaiming true godly righteousness. Expounding Jeremiah 18:1-6, on the divine potter, Whitefield denounces preaching on Arcana Natura (Nature’s Secrets) and ‘dry science’, saying,

‘persons of a more exalted . . . reach of thought. . . . know that the greatest scholars are in the dark, in respect to many even of the minutest things in life’ and are bound to conclude in divine matters ‘that they know nothing yet as they ought to know.’

In Chapters 23:6 and 33:10, Whitefield outlines whose righteousness covers our iniquities and shields us from God’s wrath, saying:

‘If any Arians or Socinians are drawn by curiosity to hear what the babbler has to say, let them be ashamed of denying the divinity of that Lord, who has bought poor sinners with his precious blood. For the person mentioned in the text, under the character of the Lord, is Jesus Christ. Ver. 5, “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous branch, a king shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth. In his days (ver. 6) Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely; and this is his name whereby he shall be called, The Lord our righteousness.” By the righteous branch, all agree, that we are to understand Jesus Christ. . . . . .

Come then, ye Arians, kiss the son of God, bow down before him, and honor him, even as ye honor the Father. Learn of the angels, those morning-stars, and worship him as truly God: for otherwise you are as much idolaters, as those that worship the Virgin Mary. And as for you Socinians, who say Christ was a mere man, and yet profess that he was your Saviour, according to your own principles you are accursed: for, if Christ be a mere man, then he is only an arm of flesh: and it is written, “Cursed is he that trusteth on an arm of flesh.” But I would hope, there are no such monsters here; . . . . . For it is plain, that, by the word Lord, we are to understand the Lord Jesus Christ, who here takes to himself the title Jehovah, and therefore must be very God of very God; or, as the Apostle devoutly expresses it, “God blessed for evermore.”

He then explains how Christ is our righteousness:

‘And that is, in one word, by Imputation. For it pleased God, after he had made all things by the word of his power, to create man after his own image. And so infinite was the condescension of the high and lofty One, who inhabiteth eternity, that, although he might have insisted on the everlasting obedience of him and his posterity; yet he was pleased to oblige himself, by a covenant or agreement made with his own creatures, upon condition of an unsinning obedience, to give them immortality and eternal life. For when it is said, “The day thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die;” we may fairly infer, so long as he continued obedient, and did not eat thereof, he should surely live.

The 3rd of Genesis gives us a full, but mournful account, how our first parents broke this covenant, and thereby stood in need of a better righteousness than their own, in order to procure their future acceptance with God. For what must they do? They were as much under a covenant of works as ever. And though, after their disobedience, they were without strength; yet they were obliged not only to do, but continue to do all things, and that too in the most perfect manner, which the Lord had required of them: and not only so, but to make satisfaction to God’s infinitely offended justice, for the breach they had already been guilty of. Here then opens the amazing scene of Divine Philanthropy; I mean, God’s love to man. For behold, what man could not do, Jesus Christ, the son of his Father’s love, undertakes to do for him. And that God might be just in justifying the ungodly, though “he was in the form of God, and therefore thought it no robbery to be equal with God; yet he took upon him the form of a servant,” even human nature. In that nature he obeyed, and thereby fulfilled the whole moral law in our stead; and also died a painful death upon the cross, and thereby became a curse for, or instead of, those whom the Father had given to him. As God, he satisfied, at the same time that he obeyed and suffered as man; and, being God and man in one person, he wrought out a full, perfect, and sufficient righteousness for all to whom it was to be imputed.’

It is astonishing that this doctrine has been dropped in Reformed circles. When challenged recently by a correspondent of mine, a leading Reformed man actually said that he had never heard of the doctrine.

Whitefield applies these truths to the heart

So, too, applying Scripture to the souls of their hearers had almost died out in preaching, but Whitefield said, ‘an unapplied Christ is no Christ at all, continuing:

‘Can you say, the Lord our righteousness? I say, the Lord our righteousness. For entertaining this doctrine in your heads, without receiving the Lord Jesus Christ savingly by a lively faith into your hearts, will but increase your damnation . . . . Can you then, with believing Thomas, cry out, “My Lord and my God?” Is Christ your sanctification, as well as your outward righteousness? For the word righteousness, in the text, not only implies Christ’s personal righteousness imputed to us, but also holiness wrought in us. These two, God has joined together. He never did, he never does, he never will put them asunder. If you are justified by the blood, you are also sanctified by the Spirit of our Lord. Can you then in this sense say, The Lord our righteousness? Were you ever made to abhor yourselves for your actual and original sins, and to loathe your own righteousness; for, as the prophet beautifully expresses it, “your righteousness is as filthy rags? Were you ever made to see and admire the all-sufficiency of Christ’s righteousness, and excited by the Spirit of God to hunger and thirst after it? Could you ever say, my soul is athirst for Christ, yea, even for the righteousness of Christ? . . . . Give me Christ, O God, and I am satisfied! My soul shall praise thee for ever.’

Jonathan Edwards on dealing with fallen consciences

Some 18 century preachers went even further than this in holding the sinner’s sin and lost state directly before his nose rejecting appeals to his supposed dutiful knowledge or moral integrity. Thus we have dear Jonathan Edwards holding his manuscript up to his myopic eyes by candlelight preaching about sinners in the hands of an angry God. Listen to this:

‘The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. . . . You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder. . . . ‘

‘How dreadful is the state of those that are daily and hourly in the danger of this great wrath and infinite misery! But this is the dismal case of every soul in this congregation that has not been born again, however moral and strict, sober and religious, they may otherwise be. . . . There is reason to think, that there are many in this congregation now hearing this discourse, that will actually be the subjects of this very misery to all eternity. . . . And it would be a wonder, if some that are now present should not be in hell in a very short time, even before this year is out. And it would be no wonder if some persons, that now sit here, in some seats of this meeting-house, in health, quiet and secure, should be there before to-morrow morning. . . .’

And then, after such soul-renting preaching came the great cry of these revival preachers. ‘The doors of Heaven are open. Flee, flee into the arms of Jesus and be saved from the wrath to come.’

Griffith Jones and Welsh Revival work

Many Welsh preachers pioneered revival times. Griffith Jones, Daniel Rowland, Howel Harris, William Williams and Christmas Evans spread the good news of the full doctrine of grace throughout the country. Five great features typified this Awakening: Schooling pioneered by the SPCK and Griffith Jones; preaching academies such as Treveca, mainly through Howel Harris; the Experience Meeting under William Williams, and Hymnody, again mostly through William Williams. The Awakening started in the Episcopalian fold, but soon the dividing line between Dissenters and Anglicans almost disappeared. As Eifion Evans says, ‘There was Glory in the pulpit’ as the power of God was revealed in the Word of Life.

In Wales, the SPCK founded some 95 free or charity schools between 1699 and 1739 and distributed thousands of books and bibles but this was a mere start in view of the great need for literacy pointing to a godly life. Griffith Jones realized that he must combine preaching with education, knowing that both the written and preached word went hand in hand in educating and edifying man. From 1730 onwards, he aimed to make every Welshman literate so that he could better understand the food for their souls and minds, making the Welsh Bible, Prayer Book and Catechism basic reading. Enough financial supporters were found and by 1761, the year Griffith Jones died, 158,237 pupils had passed through 3,495 new schools, not counting adult Night School students who numbered two or three times that amount.

Griffith Jones urged every child and adult to use his intellect and spiritual gifts in the service of God. This could only be perfected if the learner had found faith in the God-Only-Wise through Jesus Christ as outlined in Romans 16. Thus, like Whitefield, he never dealt merely with head-knowledge in his preaching but brought the soul to see his spiritual needs in Christ through applying the preached or written word. Happily, we have a contemporary account of his preaching and application methods. We read:

‘Every word that proceeded from his mouth was big with feeling and concern. – He spoke naturally, for he spoke feelingly; everything that was said had the very stamp of sincerity, which art many mimic but cannot reach. – In refuting, remonstrating and reproving, he assumed the tone of conviction and authority; but when he came to the application, he entered upon it with a solemn pause. He seemed to summon up all his remaining force; he gave way to a superior burst of religious vehemence and, like a flaming meteor, did bear down all before him. – His voice broke silence, and proceeded with a sort of dignified pomp. – Every word was like a fresh attack, and carried with it a sort of triumphant accent. – No wonder that his hearers wept, when the preacher himself burst into tears. – No wonder that he was so successful in the conversion of sinners, when it was the Divine spirit that made the word effectual. . . . In his preaching he copiously displayed and exalted the Person, offices, Characters and Relations of the Incarnate God. – He preached up faith and repentance judiciously. He was a strenuous asserter of the absolute necessity of the New Birth and gospel holiness both in heart and life; and thus he was a burning and shining light.’

Dissenters part in the Awakening

It is said that Dissenters played little part in the Evangelical Awakening in Britain but the bulk of former nonconformists had, indeed, returned to the Anglican fold in 1660-62 and many of the few Dissenters left were of the high church Savoy kind who ventured into Arminianism, Arianism and Unitarianism. However, amongst non-Anglicans, we find glorious exceptions like great church-planting pastors and preachers such as John Collet Ryland, John Gill and William Huntington.

Ryland a Star of the First Magnitude

This is what Ryland’s contemporary William Newman called my present subject. Converted under Benjamin Beddome, Ryland increased his Independent church in Northampton seven-fold. He pioneered open-air preaching in the highways and byways and, unlike his critics, neither removed the doctrines of grace from the gospel of salvation nor included man’s agency as a saving factor, preaching the full gospel to all, including the terrors of the Law. He regretted that his son’s circle neglected revival preaching by following Andrew Fuller’s impossible teaching to ‘love Christ as if you had never apostatised’. Where Ryland preached an evangelical gospel of grace, his critics preached a legal gospel of duties.

When Mount Aetna erupted and buried great cities, Ryland preached:

‘Some high Calvinists neglect the unconverted; but Paul left no case untouched. He spoke properly and suitably to Felix, as well as to Timothy. Some neglect to preach the law, and tell their hearers to accept Christ. O sinners, beware! If Christ says, “Depart,” ‘tis all over. Depart into a thousand Aetnas, bursting up for ever and ever. Your souls are now within an inch of damnation. I am clear of your blood. If you are condemned, I’ll look you in the face at judgment, and say, “Lord, I told that man – I told those boys and girls, on the 29th of August, 1790 – I warned them – they would not believe – and now they stand shivering before the bar!”

Great evangelical contemporaries such as Harris, Hervey, Toplady and Whitefield acknowledged Ryland as one in the Spirit with them and shared pulpit and communion table with him.

John Gill or Dr Voluminous

John Gill joined Whitefield, Hervey and Toplady in revival preaching. His voluminous works are mostly based on former sermons, Gill preached daily in his own chapel, and regularly in others. When one sermon was delivered, he started preparing the next. He was seen working in the house or garden, seemingly talking to himself, sorting out a word from the Lord for his next service which he committed to writing the same late evening, never thus being surprised by a preaching invitation. When Gill preached, his hearers felt he finished on the most moving and edifying part of his sermon, and longed for more.

Gill rarely preached through a whole book, and seldom on one verse, varying his texts in the morning, evening and midweek services as led. Even his 122 sermons on the Song of Solomon were not given consecutively. Rather than read from a manuscript, he used outlines in the pulpit so his hearers could receive good tidings straight from the heart.

Thomas Wright called Gill ‘the profoundest preacher’, whose ‘voice rose clear and distinct above the babblement of the day.’ He ranked him with Berridge, Hervey, and John Brine as preachers of the pure Gospel and men who ‘were baptised with the Holy Ghost and with fire.’ Wright describes young theology student Toplady’s search for the pure Word whilst hearing Gill in Southwark and then dashing off to hear Whitefield at Tottenham Court Chapel.[2. See Wright`s The Life of Augustus M. Toplady for details of Gill`s influence over the author of Rock of Ages.] Venn distributed Gill’s works amongst his friends fresh from the printers’.[3. The list of subscribers to the various editions of Gill’s works reveal a large number of Anglican readers.] The numerous quotes from Gill’s Carter Lane, East Cripplegate and Lime Street sermons found in Toplady’s works testify to the power he found in them. Hervey constantly praised the beauty of Gill’s language in spreading the good news of Christ’s love for sinners. He found especially Gill’s teaching on the perseverance of the saints,

‘full of weight, rich with consolation, and worthy of a place in our memories and in our heart. May our own meditation fix them in the one, and the Spirit of our God implant them in the other![4. Letter CXXX.]’

Augustus Toplady and Erasmus Middleton[5. Biographia Evangelica, vol. 4, pp. 454-455, Sermons and Tracts, vol. 1, pp. xxxiv-xxxv.] explained that Gill, when preaching, first awakened the soul to its lost state; then led him to Christ, comforting him in the knowledge of the Saviour’s mercies. Then he taught the saved sinner how to walk with Christ, thus edifying him and establishing him in the faith. These were the basic elements of the 18th Century spiritual revival.

William Huntington, God’s Winnower

William Huntington proved to be a worthy successor to John Gill and George Whitefield towards the end of the Awakening period. This preacher to thousands was acclaimed by Reformed evangelicals as the winnower who separated the chaff from the wheat in the Evangelical Revival. Multi-denominational Christian periodicals like The Gospel Magazine, The Gospel Standard, The Gospel Advocate, Zion’s Watchtower, The Spiritual Magazine, The Gospel Herald and The Earthen Vessel were happy to publish his sermons.

Huntington started to prepare the following week’s sermons on Saturdays, before preaching in the evening in poor chapels so that he would draw in a generous crowd for them. He started work daily at four a,m, or earlier in the summer, and often did not return home before early morning, travelling far but was always ready to preach at 7 o’clock on Sunday mornings in lecture halls or chapels such as Little St Helen’s, preaching at Providence Chapel at eleven and six.

Mondays Huntington carried out a written ministry for enquirers and friends until the evening service at Providence. On Tuesdays, he attended William Romaine’s morning lectures at St Andrew Wardrobe, spending the rest of the morning and afternoon visiting his flock, before spending the evening preaching in some large London lecture hall.

Wednesdays were for visiting mainly the sick so Huntington always took medicine with him, so his followers altered his nickname ‘Dr Sack’ which the educated clergy had given him to stress his coalman days, to plain ‘Doctor’. Wednesdays’ work was rounded off by a 7 o’clock service at Providence Chapel. Nevertheless, he found time during the week to pop into chapels such as Monk Street where over 3000 souls heard him gladly. On Thursdays and Fridays, Huntington worked hard in his garden, growing food for his ever-increasing church family until his evening preaching, invariably interrupted by a stream of visitors with spiritual needs. As Huntington preached over ten times a week to thousands of worshippers, he belongs to the greatest of the Awakening’s preachers, especially as over fifty professed conversion per week.

Dear Brethren. I believe most of us think that we are in dire need of such a revival in preaching, worship, churchmanship and witness today but what can we do about it; what are we prepared to do? Bishop Ryle, facing the same problem advised: Stick to the original evangelical faith however the world outside or inside the established churches might sneer and jeer. Then keep up a hearty, constant, faithful witness praying and working in the Lord during all our daily tasks. Romaine’s Day of National Prayer was the starting point of national revival. May our prayer be:

Revive Thy work, O Lord!
And every soul inspire;
Oh kindle in each heart, we pray,
The Pentecostal fire!

George Ella


George M. Ella is a historian, author and biographer. His writings may be accessed at the online archived, ”Biographia Evangelica”.

George M. Ella, born February 1939 in Yorkshire, England, has lived most of his life on the European Continent. He is a retired Senior Civil Servant formerly employed in teaching, post-graduate teacher-training, chairing examination boards and curricula work. He holds degrees from London, Hull, Uppsala, Essen, Duisburg and Marburg universities with doctorates in English Literature and Theology. Dr. Ella has written regularly since the seventies for a number of magazines and newspapers and published numerous books on Church History, including biographies of William Cowper, William Huntington, James Hervey, John Gill, Augustus Montague Toplady, Isaac McCoy and Henry Bullinger besides works on doctrine and education. He is currently finishing the third volume of his series 'Mountain Movers'; a biography of John Durie; a work on Law and Gospel and further study material for the Martin Bucer Seminar. Dr. Ella is still internationally active as a lecturer and is a Vice-President of the Protestant Reformation Society. He is keenly interested in missionary work and has written on the spread of the Gospel amongst the Same people of Lapland, the people of India and the Native Americans. This present volume follows Dr. Ella's 'The Covenant of Grace and Christian Baptism', also published by the Martin Bucer Seminar. George Ella is married to Erika Ella, nee Fleischman, a former government administrator, and they have two sons Mark (41), Director of a Polytechnic College in Bremerhaven and Robin (39), Leading Senior Physician in a newly-built Geriatric and Psychiatric clinic in Dessau.

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