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The evangelical track record

In the same way the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world - just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace.

Browsing my late father-in-law’s bookshelves a few weeks ago, I came across a gem: G R Balleine’s A History of the Evangelical Party in the Church of England. In style it is a book of its time: it was first published in 1908, and uses words like “heathen”. But it relates an amazing story of gospel influence – a story that we do well to hear again.

Although the term “evangelical” (from the Greek NT word for good news) goes back to the Reformation, Balleine traces the evangelical movement in the Church of England to the great revival of the 1730s-50s, in which John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield and others rediscovered the Biblical gospel and began to preach it.

Balleine tells the story of astonishing church growth as preachers all over England got to work. Sometimes they laboured in parish churches, sometimes in fields, sometimes through “lectureships” or “proprietary chapels”, where red tape had prevented new parishes being formed. Millions of ordinary people were reached for Christ.  And all this, often in the face of significant opposition from the ecclesiastical establishment.

Some of what we take for granted today came from evangelical influence. Did you know it was the evangelicals who introduced congregational hymn-singing? (And, of course, who wrote many of our favourite hymns – including Amazing Grace, whose 250th anniversary was marked this week.)  Is it known that it was the evangelicals who were behind the Sunday School movement, pioneering gospel work among children?

It was also evangelicals who were in the forefront of the huge missions expansion of the nineteenth century.

It was evangelicals, too, who led the campaign against the slave trade (Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect), and it was an evangelical, Lord Shaftesbury, who led the charge, in the 1847 Factory Act, to prevent exploitation of child labour.

We could continue the story ourselves. Billy Graham’s missions in the second half of the twentieth century led to a great surge in candidates for ordination in the Church of England.  Those same years also saw a revival of Biblical scholarship, the legacy of which we see at Tyndale House and elsewhere today.

On a more local level, it is a remarkable but undeniable fact that the many church plants which have happened across Cambridgeshire in the past 30 years have been almost entirely from evangelical churches (and not from Anglo-Catholic or liberal ones).

To say this is not boasting!  For Balleine’s history is also one of very flawed individuals.  Rather, in spite of our weaknesses, it is testimony to the power of the gospel.  For evangelicalism is not at heart a political movement (as it has sadly become in parts of the American church), nor just a style (guitars and worship bands), nor even just about getting the message out (though it must entail that); it is about confidence in the Biblical gospel, which is God’s power for salvation.

Preach that, and, as Paul says in the verses above from Colossians, much fruit will be borne.