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Christian Leaders of the 18th Century Paperback – November 1, 1978
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The Awakening is incredible. God raised up these men and used them in the preaching of the gospel to hundreds of thousands of people. Most of them were Anglican, and had parishes within the Church of England. Nevertheless, they experienced revival in their parishes, and often went beyond the boundaries of their territory and preached abroad to whoever would listen. Whitefield was the pioneer in this, and others followed his example. Each of these men has different personalities, different strengths and different weaknesses. The book serves as a testimony to the grace of God which uses very different men to accomplish His purposes. "He giveth severally as He will."
This book also serves as a spring board for further study. I cannot recommend highly enough Dallimore's George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-Century Revival - Volume I and George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth Century - Volume II, as well as Daniel Rowland,William Grimshaw of Haworth, and a man not mentioned here, but used greatly in Wales alongside Daniel Rowland - The Early Life of Howell Harris. One name that you will see over and over again is Selina: Countess of Huntingdon: Her Pivotal Role in the 18th Century Evangelical Awakening. Her biography is highly recommended as a filling in of some background information, as well as a very inspiring life!
These men, "shook England from one end to another," and, "excepting Luther... and our own martyred Reformers, the world has seen no such men since the days of the apostles."
I highly recommend this book. I plan on rereading it this year for the second time and can see doing so many times, and doing as Martyn Lloyd Jones said, "go to the eighteenth century."
In this riveting drama of lives and souls, trials and victories, Ryle attempts to measure the influence of eleven of England’s top preachers of the 18th century. The standard he uses for judging is beyond reproach. He measures the success of each one by his ‘usefulness to souls’ (p. 106) and by the mark he left on his generation (p. 307.) The ranking, from first to last, is as follows: George Whitefield, John Wesley, William Grimshaw, William Romaine, Daniel Rowlands, John Berridge, Henry Venn, Walker of Truro, James Hervey, Augustus Toplady, and Fletcher of Madeley. The story of each one is well told, with smooth gospel expression and lots of moving anecdotes and interesting abstracts. The plan into which the content is poured is excellent as well. We are told about each subject, then his literary remains that were hinted at are given special attention. It is surprising how much one can learn about a person in just thirty to forty pages. It depends on the biographer. Biographers and historians ought to use this classic for their model of excellence that all chroniclers are bound to aim for.
That God used the books of 17th century Puritans to prepare many of these 18th century preachers for their respective ministries is deserving of special notice. Whitefield was much delivered out of darkness by the reading of Scougal, Baxter, Alleine, and Matthew Henry (p. 34); Owen and Brooks were helpful in putting Grimshaw right (p. 110); Toplady received ‘an effectual shock’ from the sermons of Manton (p. 362.); Hervey’s favorite authors included Owen, Manton, Goodwin, Reynolds, Bunyan, Flavel, Polhill, and Charnock (p. 340); Rowlands was indebted to the Puritans generally (p. 199.) Having said this, it is more or less true that Ryle’s Christian leaders were brought to light by a mixture of books, letters, dialogue, and Scripture. The Puritans were the most prominent authors of the books that God used. It seems that a principal reason why God raised up these holy intellectuals that we call the Puritans was for the clarification of doctrine in the minds of the men he was to use in the generations following. Whenever God sets up for revival, it involves preparing his agents by equipping them with sound theology. That is a given.
Unusual things happen when God is about to move. The more surprising, the more we are made to acknowledge that the Spirit is Sovereign. Wesley, by his own admission, had some of his views clarified by Luther! (p. 77.) Fletcher had the whole course of his life altered by the accidental spilling of a kettle of water! (p. 389.) Divine intervention is perhaps the most thrilling particular in all of history to be told about, for it encourages us to dream that there may be a chance that God might choose to use even one of us. Ryle is wise to recognize that. And by his circumspection we can gather hope from God’s romance to others.
This is one book that should be read once per year. You might want to if you like to read about sinners getting “seized with an apprehension of their sinful state” (p. 115.) You might want to if you like reading about people who walked miles each Sunday to hear the voice of God. You might want to if you like reading about a preacher so dedicated to his Cause that his high-class enemies did cast their eyes upon him “in some such manner as one would glance at a monster” (p. 231.) Aside from my enthusiasm for fascinating vignettes and my love of being transported in time by an able historian, I search and research these chronicles because the best advice for today’s problems is ordinarily discovered in past writings of this nature. I will make room for one example of what I mean. John Wesley’s mom to her son: “Would you judge of the lawfulness or unlawfulness of pleasures? of the innocence or malignity of actions? take this rule,--whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, or takes off the relish of spiritual things…that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may be in itself” (p. 71.)
My negative criticism is inconsiderable. J. C. Ryle, a bishop in the Church of England, candidly admits the facts that show how strenuously his Church opposed this monumental revival of religion and the preachers that were used to effect it. But he sometimes is too partisan to the Established Church in spite of these facts. This little sin of patronage, along with his too frequent use of the word ‘singular,’ are the only defects that I noticed in this comprehensive, dynamic accounting of what to me is of extraordinary historical/religious interest.
Ryle’s Christian Leaders of the 18th Century is a valued contribution to our understanding of revival. He allows the preachers and their contemporaries ample room to speak again as they once did. By these lengthy extracts we are persuaded that the context is well set and therefore that the pattern by which men are brought to salvation is the same as it always was. We don’t need tricks, goofy pulpiteers, and imitations of the world’s methods to bring men to a saving sense of God. We need sober living preachers caught up as Ryle’s heroes were, with “the same great truths—sin, Christ, and holiness—ruin, redemption, and regeneration—the blood of Christ and the work of the Spirit—faith, repentance, and conversion” (p. 78.)
The theological/biographical mix that Ryle presents is just the sort of material that serious Christians crave: doctrine with legs. If I could put just one book into the hands of every Christian, with the promise that it would be carefully read, and more than once, it would be this one of Ryle’s. It is a volume so precious that it would be in the running if I had to choose to keep just one besides my Bible.
J.C. Ryle's writing style is very pleasant to read and his insight and love of details makes this book compelling. Each short biography describes just enough of the minister's life as to engage the reader's curiosity to learn more. I especially liked reading about what each minister said on his deathbed. There are also excerpts from sermons and letters which are enjoyable to read.
Some of the biographies were more compelling than others. George Whitefield's life was by far the most interesting and I was amazed that anyone could preach eighteen thousand times! William Grimshaw's life was also intriguing. He also endured a lot of persecution and sometimes preached 30 times a week. I thought the example of one of his prayers was stunning. I must say that I laughed with amusement at some of the things he said to people in all honesty. I thought the example of John Wesley's sermon was remarkable.
This book also contains the stories of William Romaine, Daniel Rowlands, John Berridge, Henry Venn, Walker of Truro, James Hervey, Toplady and Fletcher of Madely.
I'd recommend this book to all preachers and to any Christian who is interested in the English Reformation. I am very impressed with the vibrancy with which this book was written. You will be changed by the reading of this book because it presents the message of hope that people need to get out of this world alive.
~The Rebecca Review