Throughout its history Christianity has ebbed and flowed, risen and fallen, lost its way and recovered, gone to sleep and been revived. After the initial great Holy Spirit driven expansion in the first three centuries, the Church became established and settled into becoming a strong and successful presence throughout the Roman Empire. The period from about 500 AD to 1200 AD is often described as ‘The Dark Ages’. It wasn’t really dark at all. That’s when Christianity came to western and northern Europe for example, including to Scotland. However it was in this period that Islam came into existence and expanded by use of force throughout the middle-east and North Africa and thence into Europe via Spain.
The Christian Church lost its way as the second millennium began. A revivalist figure appeared – he came to be known as St Francis. He lived in and around Assisi in Italy from 1181 – 1226, dying from spiritual exhaustion at the age of 45. He was a Christ-like figure, extreme in obedience, living by faith in relative poverty and in tune with nature. He taught by example that Christ was alive and challenged the powerful and rich centralised Church in Rome. He wrote the hymn 'All creatures of our God and king' which is in our hymn book and is sung throughout the Christian world today. He brought revival. Another revivalist was Savonarola who lived and preached in Florence, also in Italy. He was born in 1452 and died unnaturally in 1498. He was more like John the Baptist than Jesus. He challenged the indolence and idolatry of Florence. He was a revivalist preacher who shamed people into recognising that they lived far from obedience to Jesus Christ. He got them to bring their occult books and luxury goods and put them on a bonfire – the origin of the phrase ‘bonfire of vanities’. For a while he was successful but he became too powerful and people wearied of being reminded of their sins. The people turned against him and he was tried for heresy, condemned, hanged in the public square and his body burned in the fire below the gallows. Nasty.
Martin Luther was a different kind of revivalist. He was primarily a scholar who sought to return the Church to its New Testament origins and principles. John Calvin closed the pubs in Geneva. You could only get a cup of tea. They didn’t have copies of the Sun or Star newspaper for customers to read – only Bibles on the tables. John Knox thought that Geneva was the most perfect City of God on earth. Protestant Christianity settled into presence and influence in Scotland but over the years lost its heart and soul. It was revived in England most obviously by the Wesley brothers, John and Charles who founded the Methodist Church. In Scotland the rather harsh and legalistic Protestantism dominated for a while but in the 19th Century it began to break up as kinder, more liberal and more spiritual expressions of Christianity began to permeate the national Church. The 1843 Disruption during which one third of Church of Scotland ministers walked out - most with their congregations – resulted in the forming of the Free Church. This was a significant revival movement resulting in many new churches bring built throughout the Land.
There were a number of local revivals over the years. The Cambuslang Revival of 1742 centred on Holy Communion. There was a similar one at Kirk o’ Shotts and also at Kilsyth and Muthill. In those days they held Communion seasons with visiting preachers taking services from the Friday to the Sunday evening. When revival occurred it was because something special happened to those attending and participating. They didn’t just go home again to watch the telly as if nothing had happened. They were inspired and quickened by the movement of the Holy Spirit and found encouragement and increase of faith and commitment. Sometimes there were conversions as people gave up alcohol and thieving and became devout Christians for the first time in their lives. Even people who lived decent lives were convicted of sin and became born again Christians with a new personal relationship with God.
There were such revivals in the highlands also, often more frequently if on smaller scales. There were quite a lot of free spirited evangelical itinerant preachers who travelled throughout the highlands. A very modest remnant of these survives today in The Faith Mission for example. From 1949 - 1953 Duncan Campbell a former soldier of World War I led a revival on Lewis and Harris. His publication The Lewis Awakening recorded what had happened. He is described as a man who is great enough to be humble and therefore humble enough to be truly great…The community is touched with real revival... In one village, a leading businessman said that, before revival came, their young people spent much of Sunday in their beds or drinking the time away. Now, those same young people are members of the Church. And, added my informant, "there has not been one case of backsliding.”
In the 18th and 20th centuries there was a strong American evangelical revivalist influence in both Scotland and England. The names of Moody and Sankey are known to some here. They had a Gospel music ministry and gathered large crowds in Scotland from 1875. There were evangelistic crusades in Glasgow and the Tent Hall was built to accommodate the new congregation that resulted. Moving forward, Billy Graham had a successful campaign in Glasgow in 1955. Some of those who trained with me for the ministry became Christians at his Crusades. The Tell Scotland movement was led by D P Thomson and Tom Allan, ministers of the Church of Scotland and the Summer Mission Movement arose out of that also. The remnant of this was the appointment of Church of Scotland evangelists, Peter Neilson being the foremost though he has now retired. Billy Graham also preached in Scotland in 1991 at Murrayfield Stadium. I went along to hear him.
Today in this country the kind of committed Christianity that results from conversions can be seen in the independent evangelical churches. They have strong authority based in the ministry, clear rules that must be kept, usually good musical output, lively singing and worship and social programmes for people in need of support. In Northern Ireland the mainline churches are still strong and throughout the United Kingdom, there are many local congregations in all denominations that have defied the odds and remained in existence; some have grown and some have seen significant revival.
We have lived through a great deserting of Jesus Christ and of Christianity. Maybe we did not expect to see that happening. The Church of Scotland into which I was born and baptised, in which I was brought up and to whose ministry I was called is no longer. The tensions and fault lines between evangelicals and liberals are visible. There has in recent years been a quiet exodus of serious Christians from our Church, especially in the highlands. Tragically, some of the most committed and self-conscious Christians in great city centre Churches of Scotland such as St George’s Tron, Gilcomston South and Holyrood Abbey have left the Church of Scotland. Whether they will survive and prosper we do not know. Many traditional parish churches have closed throughout the land and are now furniture shops, restaurants, homes and work places.
There is a significant and determined assault on Christianity in public life. Politicians have shared in this and have not upheld the value of Christianity as the guiding light of the peoples of these islands for the past 1500 years. And yet we see the results all around. This very week a newspaper carried the following article.
'Families where parents no longer “take responsibility” for teaching their children “right and wrong” are at the root of Britain’s biggest problems, the man overseeing the education of millions of pupils has claimed. In outspoken remarks about the “social breakdown” of Britain, Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools and social care, attacked “hollowed out and fragmented families” where parents suffer a “poverty of accountability”. Sir Michael made the comments as Ofsted published a national report on the state of social care, which showed that almost 6 out of 10 councils are failing to do enough to protect vulnerable children and revealed that 700,000 youngsters are growing up in homes blighted by drug or alcohol addiction. But he said child abuse and neglect was not the fault of local authorities alone. Such issues were the product of a “social breakdown”, he added. Sir Michael warned that the problems exposed in child abuse scandals were being deepened by an apparent national obsession with “pussyfooting around” and “making excuses” for bad parents. The head of Ofsted claimed that town planners must also take their share of the blame for the problems he highlighted. He said that by filling areas with betting shops and fast food outlets, they “obviously do not help to support troubled families and troubled children”'.
There is a touch of revival about our mission week-end. People are talking about it. We have leafleted most of Blackburn and Seafield. Friday evening was interesting and successful and our event for children and families was great. This evening there is an opportunity to be touched by the Holy Spirit and we hope and pray that many will be. The truth is that God loves everyone and Jesus lived died and rose again for everyone. We know that being a Christian is a great thing for anyone. We know that many need to be Christians because their lives are a mess. We know the nation needs revival Christianity to break out. It would be good if Blackburn’s Ladbrokes and Coral had to shut down in a few month’s time; it would be good if people stopped going to spiritualist seances; it would be good if people drank less; it would be good if people were better parents of their children; it would be good if the local affluent lived less for money and pleasure; it would be good if people found faith in Jesus Christ; it would be good if we ourselves got a shot in the arm and a gentle kick on the backside. Christianity is never defeated. We have to explore its depths and heights and riches. Even we can change. Have you been paddling about in the shallows all your life? Have you been casually resisting the Holy Spirit for years and decades? Here’s a chance to put the love of God at the heart and centre of your life. Will you take it?