Prayer has invariably preceded revival. The revitalization of the Baptists in the eighteenth century was no exception. As Andrew Fuller (1754-1815) Fuller emphasized in his Causes of Declension in Religion, and Means of Revival (1785) that we began looking at last month:
“Finally, brethren, let us not forget to intermingle prayer with all we do. Our need of God’s Holy Spirit to enable us to do any thing, and every thing, truly good should excite us to this. Without his blessing all means are without efficacy and every effort for revival will be in vain. Constantly and earnestly, therefore, let us approach his throne. Take all occasions especially for closet prayer; here, if anywhere, we shall get fresh strength and maintain a life of communion with God. Our Lord Jesus used frequently to retire into a mountain alone for prayer, he, therefore, that is a follower of Christ, must follow him in this important duty.”1
Now, the year before Fuller wrote these words there had actually begun regular meetings for prayer, which met with one specific object, to pray for revival and revitalization.
The Prayer Call of 1784
The origin of these prayer meetings can be traced back to the year 1784 and to the town of Nottingham in the heart of England, where in June of that year, the pastors of the Baptist churches belonging to the Northamptonshire Association were meeting. Earlier that year a treatise on corporate prayer for revival by the New England divine Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)–An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and visible Union of God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth, Pursuant to Scripture-Promises and Prophecies Concerning the Last Time (henceforth referred to as the Humble Attempt)–had come into the hands of John Sutcliff (1752-1814), the Baptist pastor of Olney, Buckinghamshire, who was also a close friend of Andrew Fuller. Not widely heeded during the lifetime of its author, the Humble Attempt‘s greatest impact would come after Edwards’ death. Deeply impressed and moved by this treatise, Sutcliff proposed to his fellow pastors that a monthly prayer meeting be established to pray for the outpouring of God’s Spirit not only upon the Baptist churches of England, but also upon all those churches that loved the Lord Jesus. This proposal ran as follows:
“Upon a motion being made to the ministers and messengers of the associate Baptist churches assembled at Nottingham, respecting meetings for prayer, to bewail the low estate of religion, and earnestly implore a revival of our churches, and of the general cause of our Redeemer, and for that end to wrestle with God for the effusion of his Holy Spirit, which alone can produce the blessed effect, it was unanimously RESOLVED, to recommend to all our churches and congregations, the spending of one hour in this important exercise, on the first Monday in every calendar month.
…The grand object of prayer is to be that the Holy Spirit may be poured down on our ministers and churches, that sinners may be converted, the saints edified, the interest of religion revived, and the name of God glorified. At the same time, remember, we trust you will not confine your requests to your own societies [i.e. churches]; or to your own immediate connection [i.e. denomination]; let the whole interest of the Redeemer be affectionately remembered, and the spread of the gospel to the most distant parts of the habitable globe be the object of your most fervent requests. We shall rejoice if any other Christian societies of our own or other denominations will unite with us, and do now invite them most cordially to join heart and hand in the attempt.
Who can tell what the consequences of such an united effort in prayer may be! Let us plead with God the many gracious promises of His Word, which relate to the future success of His gospel. He has said, “I will yet for this be enquired of by the House of Israel to do it for them, I will increase them with men like a flock.” Ezek. xxxvi.37. Surely we have love enough for Zion to set apart one hour at a time, twelve times in a year, to seek her welfare.”2
The focus of this momentous call to prayer was the “revival of our churches, and of the general cause of our Redeemer.” How was this to be achieved? By “the effusion of [God’s] Holy Spirit, which alone can produce [this] blessed effect.” There is, in these words, a distinct recognition that the revival of the denomination lay ultimately in the hands of God the Holy Spirit, and all of their labours without his blessing would come to nought. Yet, those who issued this statement were not Hyper-Calvinists who expected results without the use of means. And thus they encouraged their congregations to gather for prayer once a month for one hour on the first Monday of the month.
The heart of the “Prayer Call” is to be found in the second and third paragraphs above. There the conviction that reversing the downward trend of Calvinistic Baptists could not be accomplished by mere human zeal is mentioned again. It must be effected by an outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit: “the grand object of prayer is to be that the Holy Spirit may be poured down on our ministers and churches, that sinners may be converted, the interest of religion revived, and the name of God glorified.” Without the Spirit all of the church’s best efforts to bring men and women to Christ will fail, all of her noblest attempts to edify God’s people and bring glory to God’s name fall short of success. The Spirit is the true agent of renewal and revival. Thus, there was a desperate need for prayer.
Then, there is the “inclusive” nature of the praying. As the Calvinistic Baptists of this Association came together for prayer, they were urged not to pray solely for their own churches or even for their own denomination, but to embrace in prayer other Baptist churches throughout the length and breadth of England, and even churches of other denominational bodies. Third, there is a definite missionary focus: the readers of this call to prayer are encouraged to pray that there would be a spread of the gospel “to the most distant parts of the habitable globe.” It is important to note that it was out of this group of praying Baptists that William Carey (1761-1834) came, the so-called father of the modern missionary movement. All great missionary ventures are born in the cradle of prayer.
Fourth, there is the Scriptural foundation for the call to pray for revival. Only one text is cited–Ezekiel 36:37–but those who drew up this document were well aware that there are other biblical texts that could be cited. One of Sutcliff’s friends, Thomas Blundel, has this to say with regard to this verse from Ezekiel: “It is chiefly in answer to prayer that God has carried on his cause in the world: he could work without such means; but he does not, neither will he. … He loves that his people should feel interested in his cause, and labour to promote it, though he himself worketh all in all.”3
To be continued.
1. Andrew Fuller, Causes of Declension in Religion, and Means of Revival in The Complete Works of the Rev. Andrew Fuller, ed. Joseph Belcher (Repr. Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1988), III, 324.
2. [John Sutcliff,] “The Prayer Call of 1784” in John Ryland, Jr., The Nature, Evidences, and Advantages, of Humility (Circular Letter of the Northamptonshire Association, 1784), 12. For a detailed discussion of this call to prayer and its historical context, see Michael A.G. Haykin, One heart and one soul: John Sutcliff of Olney, his friends and his times (Darlington, Co. Durham: Evangelical Press, 1994), 153-171.
3. Thomas Blundel, The River of Life Impeded in his Sermons on Various Subjects (London, 1806), 183, 184.