Photo from www.rushdenheritage.co.uk
Turning the world upside down by Dave Price is so challenging! The Primitive Methodists preached a Bible-based message of heaven and hell, and in 50 years grew from nothing in 1807 to 210,000 members by their centenary in 1907. At that point they had another 600,000 adherents, 5,000 chapels and preaching places, 1,100 ministers, 16,000 local preachers, 480,000 children in Sunday Schools; and churches in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Horace Mann, a prominent barrister who was involved with the religious census of 1851, commented, "Their trespasses against what may be called a proper order will most likely be forgiven when it is remembered that perhaps their rough, informal energy is best adapted to the class to which it is addressed, and that, at all events, for every convert added to their ranks, society retains one criminal, one drunkard, one improvident less."
Price lists the following factors as central to their success:
1. Passionate, prevailing prayer.
2. Preaching the reality of heaven and hell.
3. Confronting the reality and seriousness of sin.
4. Preaching to head and heart; not merely imparting information but challenging people’s behaviour and expecting lives to change.
5. Expecting persecution and not being dissuaded by it.
6. Raising an army of lay leaders - evangelists, class leaders and Sunday school teachers. At the halfway point when the joint founder Hugh Bourne died in 1852 there were 9,000 local preachers, 6,000 class leaders, and 22,000 Sunday School teachers.
7. Training and equipping apprentice preachers. 10% of their members were evangelistic preachers.
8. Believing the Bible is God's revelation, divinely inspired and true.
9. They guarded against false doctrine.
10. They gave to the downtrodden working classes the hope of a better life now as well as of an eternity in heaven.
However from the high point in 1907 they started to decline in numbers and eventually died out as a separate movement when they joined the Wesleyan Methodists and the United Methodists in 1932. Price identifies several causes:
1. The ministers were primarily caring for their existing members rather than seeking converts through evangelism.
2. The ministers and local preachers were adopting liberal theology and biblical interpretation. In particular they stopped preaching the reality of heaven and hell as the only alternatives after death. The early preachers had proclaimed, "Flee from the wrath to come!" (Price quotes the following verses in support of this: Romans 2.8; 3.5; 4.15; 5.9; 9.22; 12.19; Ephesians 2.3; 5.6; Colossians 3:6, 1 Thessalonians 1.10; 2.16; 5.9.) Now "a Ranter preacher had no message to proclaim."
3. They rejected the idea of the substitutionary atonement of Christ. (Prices quotes Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 2:24 in support of this. He does not elaborate on it but my guess is that they no longer preached that faith in Jesus was the only path to eternal salvation.)
4. They started to believe in human progress.
5. They changed their idea of God: he was no longer a righteous ruler and judge but rather a loving and benevolent father.
6. In 1916 they even abandoned Wesley's sermons.
Price finally asks what can be done to restore the life and vigour of the early Primitive Methodists. He believes that any movement of the Spirit which once again changes the world will have similar characteristics. But he doesn't address the obstacle of people no longer believing the Bible is true or that heaven and hell are realities.
As I woke up this morning I found myself wondering whether the evangelistic message for this generation should be exactly the same as the message that Jesus preached: "The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news." In other words, “Jesus's return is imminent, and you'd better get ready while you still have time.” While people in the West no longer believe the Bible because of the prevalence of the theory of evolution, the Big Bang theory and scientific materialism in general, many do believe that the earth is dying and that life as we know it can't go on much longer. My own book's title, "Z: The Final Generation" does not sound so foolish now as it would have done a generation ago.
But I dare not start to preach Christ's imminent return as a FACT unless God reveals it to me with an equally undeniable revelation as the one he gave to St Paul - a bright light, a voice from heaven commissioning him to preach to rulers and Gentiles, blindness, a supernaturally guided visitor in the form of Ananias with the same message that Jesus had given him on the Damascus road, and the miraculous recovery of his sight and the infilling of the Holy Spirit. He could not have doubted the commission the Lord gave him, even if he had wanted to. I told the Lord that if he gave me that same undeniable conviction that his return is as near as I think it is then I would be totally willing to preach this. I can envisage that as a motivation for evangelism as powerful as that of the early Primitive Methodists. I renewed before God my original vow that I would do whatever he told me to do, so long as I could be certain it was he who was speaking to me.
I recalled the day in 2017 when I went to London for a prayer meeting that I never found, and instead prayed alone in Westminster Abbey and then the Methodist Central Hall. This is what I wrote in my diary:
"At the end of my prayer time my eyes were drawn to a very large open Bible on the communion table. I felt I should read whatever was in the bottom left hand column. I went to the table and found there was a single paragraph at that point, from John 16.12. It began, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth." (Which he had been doing during the journey to London.) It continued, "Whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you." What an encouragement to me to continue to finish and publish my book! First the personal prophecy from James Hazelton that what I was doing was ‘good stuff’ and I should not be discouraged. Then the word from Clive Collier to concentrate on the one single (silver) arrow in my quiver. And now this."
Nevertheless I feel that while this was the Lord's seal on my writing the Z Generation book, I still require something more definite from him before I dare say (and encourage others to say), "Thus saith the Lord, yet ten years and resurrection day will be upon us! Repent, and prepare to meet Jesus Christ!"
It will be interesting to see what happens as a result of publicizing my book at the New York Book Fair at the end of May, and the broadcast of my radio interview with Al Cole about it. This is to be aired in the near future in the show "People of Distinction" on Apple’s iTunes Radio Network (Professional News/Talk) featuring CBS Radio, Fox News, and two public service radio networks, with a potential audience of 24 million. Please pray that the most important parts of my message won't get edited out, and that many people who listen will decide to seek the Lord while he may be found. Nowadays we can evangelize in ways that the Primitive Methodists would never have dreamt of.