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God Uses Ink: Books and the Revival of Calvinism in 20th Century Great Britain

By Michael Wagner

 

Published in the July/August 2012 issue of
Reformed Perspective magazine, p. 19-20.

 

 

Michael WagnerAmong people who claim to follow the Bible, only a small minority embrace what is commonly called Calvinismthe Biblical teaching that God is in control of all things, including who comes to believe in Him. But it has not always been this way. Indeed, back in the time of the Reformation, Calvinism was the dominant view among Christians in some nations.

 

Britain, for example, was a Calvinist country. In 1643 the nations of England, Scotland and Ireland swore a covenant with God (called the Solemn League and Covenant) to uphold the doctrine and practice of Reformed Christianity. Like in Old Testament times, however, it wasnt long before people began to drift away from their commitment to the Lord.

 

Slowly but surely, Britain fell away from God. Scotland remained a bastion of Calvinism much longer than England, but it, too, slowly succumbed to the departure from truth. By the early twentieth century, aside from some small holdouts (e.g., the Free Church of Scotland), Britain had become virtually a Calvinism-free zone.

 

Beginning by the mid-twentieth century, however, there was some degree of a revival of Calvinism there. This is recounted in the book Catch the Vision: Roots of the Reformed Recovery by John J. Murray (Evangelical Press, 2007). Murray was a minister in the Free Church of Scotland and a participant in the efforts to revive Calvinism in his country.

 

Books, books, books,

If one were to list the three main causes of the Calvinist revival it would be tempting to say books, books, and books. But that might be going a bit far. It would be more accurate to say 1) books, 2) men who read the books and got turned on to Reformed theology, and 3) the ministries they founded or contributed to as a way to promote the books and the doctrine taught in the books.

 

Specifically, it was seventeenth and eighteenth century Puritan books that revived interest in genuine Biblical theology. Of course, books in and of themselves are just paper and ink without any inherent power. But God uses means to achieve ends, and sometimes books are tools in the hands of the Holy Spirit to awaken people to His truth. That is what we are talking about here.


At the center of Murrays story are the particular individuals who worked to restore Calvinism as a theological force among conservative Protestants in Britain. He points out that In most cases it was the discovery of some treasure of Christian literature from a spiritually favoured age that set the person on the course he took” (p. 11).

 

Books have been very important in history, both for the spread of truth and for the spread of error. In this case the power of books for good can clearly be seen.

 

Britain had robust and theologically strong churches from the time of the Reformation until the latter part of the nineteenth century when theological liberalism began to take over. Liberalism kills churches, spiritually. As Murray writes, Whatever show of scholarship it may have presented, there is no doubt that liberalism was just disguised unbelief (p. 17).

 

Book lovers,

During this same period, one prominent British holdout for Biblical theology was the famous Baptist preacher Charles H. Spurgeon. Spurgeon had become a Calvinist as a result of reading Puritan books in an old library, and he actively promoted Puritan works himself.

 

However, most people in Britain were going in a very different direction theologically. Interest in Christian classics tanked, and by the time of the First World War Puritan books were often thrown out for salvage (p. 22).

 

Arthur Pink was another Baptist who discovered Calvinism. Pink had an experience in Christian literature reminiscent of the discovery of books made by the young C. H. Spurgeon in Stambourne. As he read the Christian classics, the more convinced he became that it was not only liberalism that was endangering the Christian faith but also fundamentalism, with its man- centred programmes for soul-winning (p. 35).

 

Pinks primary ministry was through a monthly magazine he edited, Studies in the Scriptures, which introduced many others to Calvinist doctrine. Through his writing he actively opposed both Arminianism and Dispensationalism, which were rampant among professing Christians.

 

A bookstore,

If books are important (and they are), then book publishers and distributors must also be important. With the demise of conservative Protestant publishing in Britain, conservative English-language books had to be imported from elsewhere.

 

Rev. William J. Grier, an Irish Presbyterian minister who had studied under Gresham Machen at Princeton Theological Seminary in the early 1920s, played an important role in funneling good books into Britain through a Belfast bookstore. In the 1930s and 1940s the best Reformed books were being published in the USA. The main source of supply of these books in the United Kingdom was the Evangelical Bookshop in Belfast (pp. 40-41).

 

A library,

Besides distributors, libraries can also make books available to the public. A man named Geoffrey Williams began personally collecting and loaning out classic Christian books in the early 1900s. He had also realized that many excellent evangelical works were fast disappearing from the public domain, and so he set himself the task of reclaiming as many of them as possible as a heritage for future generations” (p. 79). By the early 1930s his collection had become a private library under a committee, and by the mid-1940s it had become the Evangelical Library, an institution central to contemporary British Calvinism and still thriving today.

 

…and a magazine.

Perhaps the leading figure of the revival of Calvinism in Britain, however, was a Welsh medical doctor who became a minister, D. M. Lloyd-Jones. Murray states that We can gather from a study of church history that there is very often one individual raised up above others to forward a work of God. In the twentieth century that leader was undoubtedly Dr David Martyn Lloyd- Jones” (p. 48). As a young physician Lloyd-Jones began to read Puritan books and ultimately felt Gods call to leave medicine for the ministry.

 

Lloyd-Jones became the pastor of Westminster Chapel in London in 1943 (he had been assistant pastor there since 1939). His preaching attracted much attention, and he wrote many books from a Calvinist perspective. He also became a leading figure in the Evangelical Library and in conferences promoting Puritan theology.

 

In the early 1950s one young man who came under the influence of Lloyd-Jones was Iain Murray. With Lloyd-Jones’ support, Iain Murray launched the Banner of Truth magazine in 1955. In 1957 an associated ministry, the Banner of Truth Trust, was started to reprint Puritan books. It remains today one of the main sources for Calvinist literature in English.

 

Conclusion

The Banner of Truth magazine, the Banner of Truth Trust, and the Evangelical Library have all been major factors in the spread of Calvinism in Britain since the mid-twentieth century. Their influence persists today, and new organizations and publications have also sprouted since that time.

 

Calvinism may not have a huge profile in Britain right now, but its much more vigorous than a hundred years ago. Decades of decline were halted, and life began to reemerge among Calvinists by the mid-twentieth century. Book and magazine publishing as well as book distribution have been at the center of this phenomenon. The ministry of books often takes years to have an impact, but it tends to be a deep and meaningful impact.

 

As the example of Britain demonstrates, the work of Christian publishing is vital to the maintenance and spread of Biblical doctrine. Christian publishers are, like, totally awesome.