Gareth Lloyd writes:
“Western culture … had its foundation in the bible, the word of God, and in the revivals of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.” (20th century evangelist Billy Graham, 1950)
The University of Manchester Library has digitised a collection of 156 manuscript conversion narratives written during the 18th century Evangelical Revival. These testimonies provide a vivid insight into a dynamic and often disturbing spirituality that fuelled an explosion in popular religion to create one of the building blocks of the modern world. This previously unpublished collection, part of the official archive of the Methodist Church of Great Britain, is now made available to scholars as well as members of faith communities interested in the roots of some of the world’s leading denominations.
Approximately one third of the collection has been transcribed and these copies can be accessed on the library website with the digital images of the original documents.
The testimonies document the grassroots response to revival meetings held across the British Isles during the middle decades of the 18th century. At these unruly and often violent gatherings, crowds sometimes numbering in tens of thousands were told of the transforming power of God and offered the choice between heaven and hell. Delivered by charismatic preachers of the calibre of George Whitefield and the Wesley brothers, this message had a shocking impact. The testimonies report cases of physical and emotional collapse with long term effects on the mental and emotional state of converts.
This extreme behaviour provoked widespread opposition. Methodists were accused of fanaticism and of undermining family ties and society itself. Hostility to the evangelicals entered the mainstream of popular culture. The “mad Methodists” were attacked in print, dragged into court and mocked in the street for their visions, dreams and eccentricities.
From humble and controversial beginnings, the Revival came to exert huge influence across the English-speaking world. Progressive causes in the 19th century were often championed and led by evangelical Christians including the movements for the abolition of slavery, working class education, factory reform and temperance.
This primary text collection provides a unique insight into the birth of an extraordinary popular movement. These narratives were not written by the leadership, but by ordinary men and women struggling to reconcile deep theological concepts with the reality of daily life.
This digital collection will be of value to scholars and students from the following disciplines:
- Church history
- 18th century studies
- Popular culture
- Women’s studies
- Psychology of religious belief
The material also represents a spiritual treasure trove. The Evangelical Revival laid the foundations for the world family of Methodist and related denominations, modern Pentecostalism and the evangelical wing of the Anglican Communion.
The testimonies offer answers to questions concerning faith and spirituality that are still relevant for the modern Church.
Engraving (detail), ‘The Tree of Life’, undated. Meth. Arch./SB 1/150.
“This burst of popular devotion, the white-hot experience captured like a snapshot in these letters would be canalized into a powerful and enduring movement, ultimately reshaping the religious geography of the modern world.” (Bruce Hindmarsh, James M. Houston Professor of Spiritual Theology, Regent College, Vancouver)