Do you believe that anybody can change the world? Do you think it is even possible, and do you think it has ever happened before?
I mean, yes, we all know and believe that Jesus changed the world. But what about His people; can an ordinary Christian person change the world?
Let me introduce you to a group of people that you might never have heard of that did just that.
First, a little background to remind us of some British history. England went back and forth between being Catholic and Protestant for about a hundred years after the Reformation, and sometimes things got violent. For a brief time in the 1630s, there was a Civil War in England, where people actually killed the king and were ruled by Protectorate. When the monarchy was restored twenty years later in 1660, the new king (who happened to be the son of the murdered king) wanted very little to do with an active Christianity. By the early 1700s, England was really tired of the back and forth fight of “Are we Protestant or Catholic?” People wanted the debate to end, so they could get on with their lives.
Not surprisingly, then, it did not take long for morality to tank. English society got really, really bad. We can make a good argument that it was even worse than our own society is today. In the 1730’s, the infant mortality rate was seventy-five percent. The favorite public sports were dog-fighting and bull-baiting; animals were killed in awful torturous ways for fun and sport. One out of every five women were prostitutes. Alcoholism was rampant - people were afraid of the water because of the plague, so they drank gin instead, and they gave it to their kids! By law, poor people were not allowed to learn to read or write; the government was afraid that if they were educated, there would be revolution. Society was horrible, without hope. This was a nation that called itself Christian, but forgot to act like it.
But then, a couple of brothers named John and Charles Wesley came along. They actually had read the Bible and got very serious about living out their faith. They got very serious about holiness, about reading and knowing the Scriptures and praying, about sharing their faith with people who did not know God, and about living life in community with other believers. Slowly, the tide actually began to turn as they shared the true good news.
By the time the Wesleys were elderly in the late 1700s, thousands and thousands of people in England and America had been influenced by their teachings and methods. It is a particular grouping of these people that I want to introduce us to.
They were various individuals who believed that Jesus was real, and that His power could change one person’s heart as well as the heart of a city, a nation, and the whole world. They were called by God to take part in doing just that. They were politicians, writers, preachers, actors, singers, teachers, bankers, and artisans who dared to believe that real Christianity could be lived out. They all had huge dreams individually, dreams to make a real difference. God had empowered each of these people with incredible creativity and skill in their respective fields.
Meet Hannah More, a best-selling author, also a teacher by trade (yes, both were unusual for a woman at that time), who believed that all children should be able to read. She had the incredible idea to invite all the children of her village to church on Sundays, the only day the children did not have to work, and then invite them to stay for school all day. She gave them a meal and reading lessons.
Meet Henry Thornton. He was a banker and economist, and was quite wealthy. Before he married, he gave eighty percent of his income away to help the poor and to spread the gospel. After he married, it was about fifty percent, which is still incredibly and challengingly generous.
Meet William Wilberforce, a member of parliament by age twenty-five. He had hundreds of good ideas to improve society. He started the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, so people could be informed to treat animals kindly and not cruelly, as was the fashion. He wrote a best-selling book called A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classes in this Country Contrasted with Real Christianity, which is a great title. He also had a personal conviction and agenda that the slave trade must end.
In 1790, Henry Thornton bought a house in a town some five miles outside of London called Clapham. Within a few short years, Thornton, Wilberforce, Hannah More and about thirty others had bought or built homes all around this first house so that they could live in proximity to and in community with one another, to pool their talents, ideas, and resources, and get serious about changing the world. They never gave themselves a name, but people noticed them and their absolutely enormous influence and called them the Clapham Sect.
So, when William Wilberforce’s first bill to abolish the slave trade was defeated in 1791 (when he was only thirty-two!) the Clapham bunch decided to band together to change the earth.
-Hannah More wrote books and plays about the evils of slavery and about the dignity of every man, woman and child.
-The poets wrote beautiful poems; the singers sang catchy, memorable songs about the evil of the slave trade; the actors staged plays.
-The potters crafted gorgeous vases and plates and porcelain brooches with the image of a slave and the captions, “Am I not a man?” which were best-sellers. Ever hear of Josiah Wedgewood, famous for Wedgewood pottery? He did that.
-The painters made posters depicting the evils of the slave trade and sold them to shopkeepers for their windows.
-Olaudah Equiano, a freed slave who had been blessed to learn to read in captivity, wrote his life story, revealing the horror of slavery from the inside. It was a runaway best seller.
-The politicians worked together tirelessly to get the votes.
-Essentially, they commandeered popular culture with anti-slavery sentiment. And they pooled their own money together to pay for all of this.
It took thirty years of organized effort, but we know today that slavery is a thing of the past for most of the world. In 1826, the slave trade was abolished in the British Empire and these are the people who made it happen - ordinary Christians who dared to live their Christianity and do extraordinary things.
Is taking down the slave trade - an ancient, wicked practice - not enough for you?
-They started and financed the missions movement and effort into India.
-They reversed the rampant alcoholism problem.
-They started Sunday schools and regular schools and made the literacy rate go through the roof.
-They reformed prisons.
-They started orphanages.
-They organized homes and shelters for the poor.
-They helped return dignity to women.
-They fought for better conditions for workers.
-They brought back decency to popular music, literature and the stage.
They were a passionate few who lived in community on purpose, and who changed the entire Western World.
Now, what about you and me?
It actually says in Genesis 11 that if we work together, there is nothing we cannot do. How powerful it could be if we all took our faith seriously, and determined in our hearts to make our lives count for eternity! The social justice issues that frustrate so many would be naturally eliminated if the good news of Jesus were really proclaimed again. The poor would be cared for, the overlooked would be welcomed and encouraged, the broken and confused would be set free, and the evil practices of greedy, selfish people would be eliminated.
Not only could our own communities be transformed, but we could band together to send missionaries to the ends of the earth. There are millions of people who have still never heard the gospel, and we can no longer hide behind the excuse that it is impossible to get there; the world is more connected than ever. The reason so many have never heard about Jesus is because we do not give enough money or prayer support to send those who are willing to go, nor will most of us go ourselves. We could be the generation who finishes the task of letting the whole world know about the saving power of Jesus, if we just will. History tells us that a passionate few, living in community and on purpose, can change truly the world - will we accept the challenge in our generation?
*The facts and statistics in this post are all drawn from three different books that I love and highly recommend to you:
-England Before and After Wesley by J. Wesley Bready
-Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More - Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist by
Karen Swallow Prior
-7 Women: And the Secret of Their Greatness by Eric Metaxas
This post is an excerpt from a chapter in my book - to read more, use this link to order your copy today!
2020 is certainly turning out to be a year for the history books, isn't it? Every day it seems that something new and more wild than yesterday happens. Pandemic, fires, storms, riots...the list keep going and growing.
We have a new intern class this fall semester, and in spite of everything happening, we are having a lot of fun. This 2020-21 class consists of nineteen young men and women - all have had a tremendous experience with God during their university years, and are exploring the potential of a lifetime in ministry.
Each year I have the joy and privilege of introducing a new class full of recently-awakened young Christians to the wonders of two thousand years of Church history. Very few 22 year-olds have much knowledge of history at all - let alone Church history. Oftentimes history is viewed as boring, put-you-to-sleep kind of stuff, but I disagree. It is fascinating, and we can learn so much about ourselves by studying it carefully. There are quite a few patterns - good and bad - that emerge with a long look back.
One recurring theme throughout the last 2000 years is a particularly tragic spiral. It begins with one generation that has a real, amazing, fresh and life-changing encounter with the God of the Universe, and surrenders whole-heartedly to the ways and plan of Jesus. We can read about this happening time and again, in nations and people groups all over the world. These are the people that would throw themselves in front of one other as they were being killed for sport in pagan arenas, or who would risk life and limb to protect others from a wicked ruling class. They had an undeniable encounter with Jesus, and no amount of persecution could change their minds about Him.
In such a generation, their faith in God is highly contagious. Their lives impact many others; the very hearts of men and women are renewed, and families are made whole. Commerce is often impacted as the vices of society are abandoned and holiness is joyfully pursued. When a group of people truly turns to God, governments have even been seen to shape up - ceasing to be about the pursuit of power for a moment, turning temporarily for the good of the many. The foundation for true peace and fruitfulness is laid and strengthened, and the people flourish.
But the danger of this cycle is that in a time of peace and blessing, things get easy. And prosperous. And taken for granted. The children and grandchildren of the ones who had a real encounter with God enjoy the blessings and steadiness of a peaceful and prosperous society very much. They are safe, and they might have plenty of time and money to spend however they see fit. As always, even since our original grandparents walked in the glorious Garden of Eden, the grass begins to look so much greener on the other side of the morality fence.
Seemingly new voices emerge from the growing shadows and whisper, “Why shouldn’t you eat taste that/say that/do that?” Very few can remember a time when things were not safe and sound, and people begin to question why all of these rules are in place to begin with. They suddenly seem so restrictive and really cramp our style. It becomes high time to stop worrying so much all the time about our kids and their futures - it is time for some “me” time.
“Obviously it is not going to hurt anything if we tear down this big fence right here - it is just in the way and has always kept us from running as fast as we want to run,” the people say, as they tear down the fence with a flourish and promptly fall off the cliff. They did not realize that their great-grandparents built that very fence to keep people from falling to their deaths.
This accelerates the downward spiral. Reaping the bitter fruit of a selfish life makes people even more angry at God, so they do even more selfish things to try to fill the void in their souls. They especially resent responsibility, and do not want to have to spend their own time ensuring the health and well-being of anyone else. So they outsource the tough jobs like teaching their kids and governing their cities to anyone who will do it, refusing to admit or believe that anyone might take advantage of this.
Generally speaking, what happens next is that an enemy army of some kind marches in and violently rolls over everything. Then, at last, people begin to cry out to God. Only when things become the darkest can men and women once again fully understand their great need for the Savior. God, in His infinite patience and with His tremendous heart to see people really know Him, allows the cycle to begin anew.
When you take some time to read a book covering the scope of Christian history, you could almost stand up and shout by the time you get to the modern era, “Oh, no! Please look ahead and see what is about to happen!"
In generations like that, there comes a real tipping point when it is suddenly too late to change things. Don’t believe this? Ask some of the Christian nations of the past...ask Rome of the 400’s AD. Ask the Byzantines all over the Mediterranean Basin and Middle East in the 700’s-1000 AD. Ask 1400’s Constantinople. Ask 1780’s France. Ask 1910’s Russia. Ask 1920’s Weimar Germany. Ask 2020….whoa, wait!
THERE IS GOOD NEWS AND HOPE!
I have been referencing Christian peoples, but of course history began long before Jesus left Heaven and came to earth as a man. There is so much that happened before the birth of the Church. Millennia before, God chose a man named Abraham in order to show the world what it looked like for a people to be in covenant relationship with Him. The history of Israel that we can read in the Old Testament is frequently so similar to that of the Christians. They love God and serve Him, then get prosperous and lazy, let in false thinking and practices, and eventually get steam-rolled by an enemy. Repeat. And again...
But God never leaves them or forsakes them. He made a covenant with them, and He is not a covenant-breaker. Of course, He will allow them (and us!) to walk away of our own accord and face the consequences of such a foolish action, so that we can remember our great need for help and salvation. God gave us all free will, and He will not force us to do anything. But when any of us come to our senses and call out to Him, He is always there, waiting with open arms.
When Abraham's descendant Solomon built and dedicated the beautiful temple in Jerusalem, God Himself came and reminded Solomon of His wonderful promises to His people. The whole passage in 2 Chronicles chapter 7 is both sobering and encouraging, and I encourage you to read the entire thing as a timely message to all of us in 2020. Verse 14 of that chapter reminds us of God's promise to help in dark times...
If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways,
then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
There is very little most of us can do right now to physically bring change to the chaos around us. Many of us are pretty normal folks, not in positions of great power or opportunity. But, even so, we are not helpless!
There is One who can help and save, and that is God. He reminds us that He is right there to bring help and healing to His people IF AND WHEN...
-IF we will humble ourselves. He is God and we are not - we must lay down our pride, listen and obey.
-IF we will pray. Not worry, or grumble, or fuss, or put out frustrated messages on Facebook and Twitter, but pray. He hears and helps when we do.
-IF we will seek His face. It is election time, and we all have so many opinions about what ought to happen. But we must remember that while government is necessary, it does not actually hold the answers to the problems of the world. Neither does education or money or power. The hearts of mankind need a change that only God can bring.
-IF we will turn from our wicked ways. Statistically speaking, many Christians do not act like Christ. We must stop doing wicked, selfish things and start obeying God.
-THEN He will come and forgive our sins and heal our land! Both things that we desperately need.
I have mentioned several generations that let their guard down too far and faced the tragic repercussions. In my next post, I would like to revisit several generations that rose to the occasion and saw tremendous, miraculous change sweep across their land. Oh, that we would be such a generation!
Hi! I'm Mary - mother to two wonderful grown daughters, wife to an incredible husband, and loving our life in the piney woods of Texas... (read more!)
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