History matters?

Last week I went to the Grace Baptist Assembly.  There were a number of excellent sessions. 

The land Paul loved

It was sobering to listen to a pastor from Turkey describe the needs of Turkey.  Three thousand evangelical believers in a nation of eighty million people.  That means that  0.00375 % of Turkish people profess faith in Christ – and in John’s verdict many of those show little sign of true conversion.   Less than four in every hundred thousand.  And this is the country to which Paul and his colleagues devoted so much of their lives.  Here were the thriving churches of Ephesus – where Paul spent two years labouring night and day – and Colosse – a church that Paul had never visited but for which he gave thanks every day (Col 1:9).  Here were the Galatian churches which came so close to breaking Paul’s heart.  Here were the churches for which John suffered so much and to which he wrote from his prison island – the suffering church of Smyrna, the brave little church of Philadelphia, the compromised churches of Pergamum, Thyatira, Laodicea.  Today, Turkey is a spiritual wilderness. 

What went wrong?

We need to ask questions about the past.  What went wrong?  Why did God send such spiritual famine to a land that had enjoyed such spiritual bounty?  How did Islam capture the hearts of Turkish people so totally?  But then we need to ask questions about the present and the future.  Why do so few Turkish believers go on to become mature, consistent Christians?  How can we support and encourage them?  Why do so few missionaries go into Turkey?  Turkey is not a country at the ends of the earth – it is on the borders of Europe.  It may soon be part of the EU. Why aren’t Christians in the UK talking about the needs of Turkey, praying for churches to be planted there, sending workers?   What is our strategy for reaching Turkey with the gospel?

If the Assembly had gathered just to hear that talk, it would have been well worth all the time and trouble spent in planning and arranging.  If the churches that gathered at Swanwick last week take on a new concern for Turkey, who knows what may come of it.

Living history

But  of course there were other sessions too.  Michael Harley talked movingly about his fifty years in the ministry.  It was a very personal account, but it was also a vital piece of living history.  How much things have changed in fifty years – not just in society but in the churches!   Michael pictured  the crowded churches of his youth; he described the preachers of the day – pulpit giants to whom he looked up with fear and trembling; he told us how he was first “called” to the ministry:  his terrifying interview at the Baptist Union HQ, his training at the denominational college in Oxford,  his first pastorate – and it was like listening to a traveller from another galaxy. 

He shared with us his own struggle against liberalism – his God-given certainty that the Bible in its entirety is God’s Word, surrounded by denominational leaders who had lost that certainty .  He made us feel the agony of his decision to leave the Baptist Union; the shock of the phone call from his old college principal: “Blackleg!  Blackleg!”  He conveyed to us something of the insecurity and the excitement of the days that followed, as he moved into the world of independent churches – churches that had no denominational structures, no guaranteed career ladder, no effective way of steering ministers towards suitable churches.  

There may have been some older men at the assembly who could recognise the world in which Michael began his ministry.  But most of us had never known that world.  We listened fascinated.  And again we were left with many questions to think about.  Have things changed for the better or for the worse?   Back then, it was taken for granted that most men going into the ministry would go straight from university to training college and then into a first pastorate.  Now many churches want to know that pastors have had some years in secular work.  And we tend to be wary of theological colleges.  Were they right?  Are we right?  Back then men like Michael had all the machinery of a denomination to support them.  We’ve abandoned the denominations and emphasise the importance of churches being independent.  But among our independent churches, what structures are there to support pastors who are struggling?  Back then pastors were authority figures, draped in Geneva gowns, revered both in society and in the churches.  Now, I turn up at the midweek meeting in chinos and open necked shirt and tell the teenagers to call me “Stephen”.  I’m glad it’s like that.  But have we lost something by choosing the casual option?

Four centuries in Ireland

Learning about the past helps us to think about the present.  Each year we try to have one session at the Assembly devoted to church history – especially the history of our calvinistic baptist forefathers.  This year Crawford Gribben spoke on “Andrew Fuller and the Irish Mission”.  Crawford gave us a lightning survey of calvinistic baptist witness in Ireland from the 17th century right through to the present.  But it was the events of the 19th century that he wanted to emphasise.  He talked about the desperate state of the churches at the beginning of the century and suggested some reasons for their weakness – their dependence on wealthy sponsors; their failure to maintain clear doctrine; their poor organisation.  Lots of lessons for us there.  Then he went on to talk about the work done – much of it by Englishmen – to revive the cause of the gospel in Ireland.  Lots of challenges for us there.  Andrew Fuller and his friends poured effort and prayer into the task of planting gospel churches in Ireland.  Largely through their efforts the Irish Baptist Society was formed in 1814.  Over the next forty years, forty new churches were planted across Ireland.  Schools were founded.  Evangelists were sent out to preach in Irish and in English.  Tremendous encouragements for us there.

But then decline set in again – at least across the South of Ireland.  The famines of the 1840s left the churches decimated.  Many members died through starvation; many more emigrated.  The revival of 1859 brought new hope, but its effects were largely in the north. And the revival did nothing to encourage baptists to stand fast to their biblical convictions about the importance of baptism.  Even Spurgeon – who came across to Ireland to preach – talked as though baptism was unimportant.  Baptist witness – and evangelical witness generally – in the southern counties continued to decline.  Gospel Christianity thrived in the north but died in the south.  And when Ireland was partitioned in 1921, Eire was largely abandoned  to Romanism.  Protestants in the north adopted a defensive posture towards the Republic and forgot their brethren in the south of Ireland; Christians in mainland Great Britain never took up missionary enterprise with the same determination and vigour as Fuller and his friends.  Yes, there were exceptions.  No doubt if Crawford had had time, he would have talked to us about the heroic work of the Anglican Irish Church Missions, and some brethren groups.  But baptists have made few serious attempts at evangelism in the south.  Many reasons for heart-searching there.

But finally Crawford brought the story up to date by telling us a little about the extraordinary growth in evangelical witness – and baptist witness – in recent years.  The number of evangelical Christians has trebled in the last 15 years.  Crawford’s view is that the calvinistic baptist cause in Ireland is stronger now than it has ever been.  The church of which he’s a member is linked with a network of around 40 evangelical churches churches most of which are calvinistic in doctrine and baptist in practice.  And that is only one of several networks of gospel churches.  And beyond those, there are many which are completely independent.  Many reasons for rejoicing there.

There were other fine sessions at the assembly, but those are the three that I think I will remember most clearly.  All of them raised questions about the past and in doing so forced us to think about the present and the future.

History is bunk

History has been devalued in our society.  Many children go through school without ever gaining an overall outline of world history, or even the history of our own country.  How many university students could put even the biggest figures and events of world history in order: Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus the Great, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Attila the Hun, Charlemagne, Cromwell, Napoleon, Lenin, Hitler?  How many of them really know what the Renaissance was all about?  Or why so many thousands of Englishmen emigrated to America in the seventeenth century?  How many of them could tell you one reliable piece of information about John Wesley?  How many of them have any clear idea of what life was like in an eighteenth century city or in a Victorian household?  The scraps of information they do think they know have often been picked up from BBC dramatisations of Jane Austen’s novels, or from films like “The King’s Speech” which distort history beyond recognition.  History is rewritten to suit politically correct agendas and is then served up to children through Black History weeks in schools, and Gay History exhibitions in town halls.

The result is that people have no way of assessing the present.  When politicians or “experts” present some idea as obvious, or inevitable, ordinary people may not be aware that in fact it’s a very novel and eccentric view.  Do you know when British citizens were first required to show a passport if they wanted to leave the country?  Do you know when we were first required to get a licence in order to own and carry a gun?  Do you know when education was made compulsory in England?  Do you know who introduced income tax in the UK, and why?  Do you know when it was written into law that no Roman Catholic can become king or queen of Great Britain, and why? 

Again, when people know no real history, they can be persuaded to believe any myths about the past. 

“Up till modern times people believed the world was flat”. 

“Really? Would you like to mention one writer from the 1st century onwards who believed that?”

 “Well I’ve never studied it, but everyone knows it’s a fact”.

“Religion causes most of the trouble in the world”.

“Oh?  How much do you know about Mao Tse Tung?  Or about the Stalinist purges?  Or about Pol Pot’s regime?”

“Well I’ve never studied any of them, but it’s obvious, isn’t it?”

History is important.  And especially, history is important for us as Christians.  World history, British history, and above all the history of the Gospel and of the Church.

Five reasons to study history 

1.  All history is about God.  History is the record of God carrying through his plans for his world.  Why did the Roman Empire decline?  Because God ordained it.  Why did the Spanish Armada founder?  Because God made his winds to blow and scattered it.  Why were the D Day landings successful?  Because God was merciful to our nation and to the world.  Why has post-war Britain collapsed into immorality and social chaos?  Because God handed us over to folly. 

We study history and we tremble at God’s judgements, we give thanks for God’s mercies, we are awed by God’s sovereignty.  We learn to fear him and obey him.  “I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us.  We will not hide them from their children but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord and his might, and the wonders that he has done… so that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God…” (Psalm 78: 2-7). 

2.  The Bible is full of history.  Pick up your Bible.  What is it about?  Well, there are some books of law in it.  There are some letters.  There are some poems and proverbs.  There’s a great vision of the future.  But by far the largest part of the Bible is devoted to history.  The history of the beginnings of the human race.  The history of Abraham and his family.  The history of the Jewish nation over fifteen hundred years.  The history of Jesus and his apostles.  Why should God inspire a book packed with history if history is unimportant? 

3.  The good news is all about history.  The gospel is not just good advice that could have been given at any time.  It is the proclamation that in the days of the Roman Empire, when Caesar Augustus ruled the world, God’s Son came into this world.  He was born on a particular day in a particular place.  Herod the Great sent out troops in an attempt to kill him in his cradle. Thirty years later he was arrested at Passover-time by the scheming of Caiaphas, High Priest in Jerusalem.  He was crucified at the order of Pontius Pilate governor of Judaea.  He was laid in a grave belonging to Joseph of Arimathea, he rose again three days later and sent his messengers out to to proclaim forgiveness of sins through his name, starting in Jerusalem, going on to Judaea, Samaria, and then out to every province of the Roman Empire and beyond.  The first Christian missionaries tramped along Roman roads, were tried by Roman magistrates, and one of them at least witnessed before the Roman Emperor.  And it was through these events in history that God saved us and brought the gospel to us.  We are saved because of events that happened two thousand years before we were born.  How can a Christian say, “history doesn’t matter”?

4.  We learn from history what is normal Christianity and what are passing fashions.  Many dispensationalists imagine that their prophetic views have been taught all down the centuries.  They don’t realise that they were first dreamed up by one eccentric Irish clergyman in the 19th century.  Many baptists imagine that mainstream Protestantism has always been baptist.  They don’t realise that all the great 16th century reformers defended infant baptism.  I’d like to believe otherwise, but history is history.  Evangelicals from many backgrounds imagine that the “altar call” and the “prayer of decision” have been used by Christians from the start.  They don’t realise that these are strange modern innovations, dreamed up by American evangelists eager for quick results.

Many things which are taken for granted by Christians today would leave our forefathers astonished.  And when Christians of today start finding out what our forefathers believed and practised, they are often astonished too.

5.  Because we learn from history – especially church history – to follow wise paths and to avoid foolish mistakes.  That’s why Crawford’s talk was so important.  There were reasons why the Calvinistic Baptist churches of Ireland declined and came so close to extinction.  We must learn from their mistakes – or face the consequences.  God in his time revived the dying cause – but he did it through the work of dedicated men.  We can learn from the inspiring example of Fuller and his friends. 

How many disasters would have been averted if Christians had only known their history!  When the charismatic movement hit America and Britain in the 1960s many fine believers were swept away by its enthusiasm, and the promise of new life that it offered.  If only they had looked to history.  Where did charismatic enthusiasm lead the Montanists?  Or the Jansenists?  Or the “little prophets of the Cevennes”?  Or Edward Irving?  Everything that the charismatic leaders were promising has been promised before by misguided leaders down the centuries – and those who have believed the promises have been led to disaster.  “Those who ignore history are bound to repeat it”.

Roots that Refresh

We need to know our history.  That’s one of the reasons why we’ve started our annual local history lectures.  They’ve been interesting, haven’t they?   It’s also the reason why Martin Grubb has taken on the responsibility of planning a four day church history conference out at Charlesworth this autumn.  The title of the conference is Roots that Refresh: A Baptist Model for Church Life.   It’s planned from October 10th to 14th, directly before the God’s Glory Our Joy conference.  For four days we’ll be looking at the English Baptist Churches of the 17th century, and asking what we can learn from them.  Our teacher for the course, James Renihan, is perhaps the no 1 expert in the world on that period of history and it should be fascinating.

We expect folk to travel from all over the UK to be there.  And I hope that as many of you as possible will be there too.  It’s a lot to ask – that people should take four days out of work to attend a church history conference.  But history is important… isn’t it? 

Stephen Rees

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