The recurring tragedy of church history is the loss of the fundamental truths of the Gospel with the consequent addition to the church of people who are unregenerate.  Naturally every religious revival had to be a revival of gospel truths of evangelicalism.

The classic recovery of Gospel truths was the Reformation led by men like Martin Luther and John Calvin.  From the accumulated rubbish of the centuries they recovered the truth of justification by faith, the alternative to which, as the Scottish “Daily Express” recently said, is that every man is left to save himself.  This he normally attempts to do by good works, religious observances, etc., etc.

In less than 200 years after Luther and Calvin the great truths of the gospel had again been obscured.  John Wesley was already a clergyman before he was actually converted.  As he attempted to spread his new-found faith he fell foul of the established Church of England.  Eventually his attempts to bring the Gospel to the masses led to him being squeezed out of the Church.

It took no longer for Methodism to stall than it did the Reformation.  By the next century William Booth was squeezed out because of his devotion to evangelism.  He was one of the many who like the “early brethren” were caught up in the 1859 Revival.  Naturally these men were not satisfied alone with Christians dissociating themselves from the existing denominations.  If they were to be Paul-like in establishing New Testament churches it was only logical that they should be Paul-like in the approach to the Gospel.

He who would be a student of Pauline theology can scarcely avoid being an ardent evangelical.  His great treatise on the Gospel is prefaced with, “I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish, so I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (Rom. 1: 14-15).  The same treatise is virtually concluded with, “From Jerusalem as far round as Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ” (15:19).

Likewise his charter of a New Testament church contains this essential attitude if such assemblies are to survive and prosper.  “For necessity is laid upon me.  Woe is me if I do not preach the gospel”  (1 Cor. 9:16).

This was the atmosphere breathed by those early brethren and maintained for a long time afterwards.  Henry Moorhouse was saved under Richard Weaver in 1861.  Who has not heard how Moorhouse crossed the Atlantic and preached every night for a week on John 3:16 in Moody’s Church in Chicago, which so moved Moody that he became the greatest evangelist of them all?

The spirit that carried Moorhouse and Moody across the Atlantic also impelled those who couldn’t cross the ocean to criss-cross the country with the Gospel.  Local vantage points were selected as the regular venues for open-air meetings.  Assemblies joint forces to inaugurate summer Gospel Tent campaigns in their respective counties.  Gospel campaigns were conducted nightly for weeks on end just as they had been in the golden years of 1859/60.  By such means the pressure was kept up and the strongholds of the enemy came tumbling down.

Such activities were dependent upon the zeal of individuals and it continued right into the second generation of “early brethren” those whose life-spans brought them into the 20th century.  Take Alexander Marshall, for instance.  He was commended to full-time service as an evangelist in 1876.  In subsequent years he preached throughout the British Isles and crossed the Atlantic over 30 times to do the same.  So effective was his preaching there that in at least one district of Canada people in assemblies are referred to as Marshallites.

Such men didn’t only preach the Gospel: they wrote it.  R.W. Cooper calls Alexander Marshall “the prince of tract writers.”  In particular his “God’s Way of Salvation” has been printed in several languages and the circulation has reached millions.  Even his grave-stone continues to preach the gospel for it proudly proclaims the full words of John 3:16 in Prestwick Cemetery.  Not content with that his house in Prestwick was bequeathed as a missionary home.

William Shaw was another of the same,although his parish wasn’t quite as large.  Both played a prominent part in the Ayrshire Gospel Tent work.  Only those who have tied to keep up a regular or month magazine article know how burdensome such a duty can be.  Yet for years from 1886 onwards, Willie Shaw of Maybole produced, almost single-handed, both a magazine for believers and a Gospel paper, conduct the distribution side himself as well.

Yet another contemporary was as busy for God in the same district.  In addition to conducting a country-wide ministry John Ritchie edited “The Believers Magazine,” and one exclusively for Christian workers, two months Gospel papers and two of the same frequency for children.  A recent managing director of the publishing firm that bears his name describes a book barrow which lay in the premises in his time and which had been pushed for colportage purposes from Kirkcudbright to Wick by John Ritchie and F. Stanley Arnot.

A fourth stalwart in the same county was Peter Hynd of Troon.  This is how his son-in-law described his evangelistic labour in his youth, “Physically strong he employed the robust years of early manhood in strenuous Gospel labours.  Sometimes as often as three nights a week with a solitary companion to help in the singing, he would travel four or five miles after a day’s work to preach the Gospel in adjacent villages.  Taking his stand in the middle of the village he would lift up his clear, ringing tones in Gospel entreaty.”

Is this what explains why there came to be over 40 assemblies in that county?

The same spirit was seen in Lanarkshire.  A description of the work of the late Jas. Lees before he went to Europe tells his story.  One of the twenty founders of the Burnbank Assembly “he showed a keen interest in the gospel immediately and with others went into the surrounding villages to preach.”  Having an hour to spare he said to Mr. Donaldson, Senior, “Duncan, what about a wee word in the Gospel at Springwells?”  And so the Gospel meeting was held.  It was his habit to go to Burnbank Cross and with a bundle of tracts in his hands he would say to his neighbours and workmates, “Come on ... to the Gospel Meeting”  It was open-air meetings during the summer and kitchen meetings during the winter.  One of his favourite texts fro an early age was, “Give me children or else I die” (Gen. 30:1).

Is it any wonder that we made progress in those days?  That’s why souls were saved and assemblies established.  It’s still the only way.  When we cease to regard evangelism as something we do for two hours each Sunday and begin to regard it as something we can do any day in the week we’ll maybe begin to move again.

The times may have changed but tragically so have we.  Preoccupation with business, with studies, with things legitimate and illegitimate has slowed our Gospel zeal to a trickle.  We can go for years without an extra effort.  We are content to organise a meeting to which no stranger comes.  This is not our heritage.  This is not the tradition of the Acts of the Apostles.  There is still a variety of ways in which we can challenge our fellows with the claims of Jesus Christ.


© Douglas Carr 2021