This article was found in the September 1952 issue of Progress, the monthly magazine of the Romford Congregational Church
Being the eighth imaginary letter from an imaginary uncle to imaginary twins.
Dear Jack and Betty,
During the reign of Charles II thousands of Nonconformists were imprisoned for failure to comply with the various Acts of Parliament aimed at their extinction - and imprisonment often meant death. There is an estimate that between five and eight thousand died in prison during Charles' reign. Yet, although driven underground they were never exterminated. One of the noted men of the time was John Bunyan who, during imprisonment, wrote that most famous and well loved book "Pilgrim's Progress". Bunyan was later called to be minister of the Congregational Church at Bedford, a church which bears his name to this day.
In 1665 occurred the Great Plague of London. Many clergymen fled from their Churches in panic and in the general breakdown of the city's normal life which the plague caused, many Nonconformists slipped into the vacant pulpits. Their courage in visitation and work during this period made a great impression and may have resulted in the Declaration of Indulgence of 1672 which gave them three years of liberty. During these three years many new Independent Churches were formed but in 1675 persecution broke out again and went on for another 10 years. Then in 1685 James II (a Roman Catholic) came to the throne and in trying his best to help the Roman Catholics he was obliged (probably unwillingly) to give Non-conformists some relief.
A few years after, James II lost his throne to William of Orange (a Protestant) and in 1689 the Toleration Act relieved them of persecution. There was, however, nothing generous about the Toleration Act. It did nothing more than make them safe from further persecution but there was still a lot of feeling against them and they had to suffer many indignities. Many times their meetings were broken up and socially they were almost outcasts among their fellows, but they were safe.
Now Nonconformity began to grow apace. The three main denominations, Presbyterian, Independents and Baptists, built about 1,000 churches (or meeting houses) in the 20 years following the Toleration Act. In the main the congregations were small and the churches poor; the services were simple to the point of austerity; the sermons and prayers were long.
Now, strangely enough a blight fell on Independent Churches. The great progress of the previous 20 years was halted - slowly but surely decay began to set in. Dr. Peel describes it thus:-
"Persecution had stiffened Nonconformist convictions; tolerance resulted in the weakening and slackening of moral fibre. The old religious earnestness disappeared, as did the sense of joy and privilege in belonging to a Church composed of Christian believers. It is as true as it is suggestive that 'An enquiry into the Cause of the Decay of the Dissenting Interest' (1730) gives as the first and primary cause 'Ignorance of their own principles'."
A further reason for the decay was a social one. The old Independent stalwarts had died and their children did not possess the convictions of their fathers. They found that as Independents they were looked upon as "cranks" - the social pull of the Anglican Church had its effects and many members and even some ministers went over to the Church of England. The whole of Christianity in this country was at a low ebb. The old burning zeal had been lost. The old insistence on purity of life had disappeared. Men were careless of religion, prayer and worship. They ceased to be scrupulous about their amusements and began to worship the gods of pleasure and money. Men had in fact, for a time, lost the sense of God's presence.
And here, perhaps, I can break my narration for a short space. As I wrote this description of religious life in the early 18th century, I was struck with its similarity to our own times now. Are we going through a similar phase today? Are we today putting too much stress on material things, on getting on in life? Have we of this generation lost the sense of God's presence? Perhaps you young people will just put this down to the moralising of an older man. It may be so, but I feel this generation has lost something and we have to find it before the great revival can start. Come it will I am certain. There is more than personal faith in this statement. It is the lesson history teaches.
Certainly a great Evangelical revival came in the 18th century. Wesley and Whitefield went through the land proclaiming the gospel with passionate intensity. The Sunday School movement commenced and men's thoughts turned towards missionary work. Revival spread throughout the length and breadth of our land. Congregationalists played a great part in this revival and Independent Churches acquired a keen sense of their responsibility for the Evangelisation of the world. Suddenly Congregationalists saw the terrific magnitude of the task ahead and they saw that while a Church independent and alone could deal with the problems in its own immediate neighbourhood something larger was required if the task of evangelising the world was to be attempted.
How we faced up to that task and its results I will tell you in my next letter.
Ever your affectionate