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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!
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!)