And The Churches Declined

In two previous posts, I showed that the growth of the Presbyterian denomination in Wales came from a sequence of revivals that gave it a high conversion rate. Consequently, its subsequent decline was due to a drop in its conversion rate resulting from the demise of revivals [1,2].  As the growth and decline of this denomination are typical of all the major pre-1900 denominations in the UK, I have put forward two complementary theses:

  1. The growth of the church in the UK from the mid-1730s to the 1870s was due primarily to revivals giving a large number of conversions.
  2. The twentieth-century decline of the UK church is due to a lack of revivals and their associated conversions.

Key Graph

A key graph is reproduced from [2] to illustrate these theses, figure 1. The graph shows the growth of the church as a percentage of the total population up to the 1870s, together with the various Welsh revivals that drove that growth. Percentage growth indicates the presence of conversion over and above the retention of the children of church members regardless of the birth rate. After the 1870s, there is a decline, with only one major revival left in 1904/5. The pattern of membership percentage in figure 1 is typical of most pre-1900 denominations, where data is known, hence the establishment of the two theses across all such churches.

Figure 1

The Presbyterian Church grew as a percentage of the population from the first revival in 1735 up to the mid-1870s. After this date, it failed to keep pace with population growth (although it continued to grow until 1905 [1]). The 1870s was the end of the period of major revivals, bar the 1904/5 one. The church has lost ground in society ever since and is back to its 1760 percentage.

Falling Conversion Rate

It was shown [1,2] that the change from growth to decline was due to a falling conversion rate. For the period 1767-1869, conversion was around 4% [2], with a revival peak of over 6% typical [1,2]. However, the conversion rate by the 1890s was down to 1.26%, and by the 1960s, it was 0.46%.

Thus the hypothesis that revivals cause high conversions, which in turn gives growth, is established with the end of revivals leading to the downturn. I will implicitly assume in what follows that the past revivals were a work of God. I appreciate not everyone holds this view, but instead, they propose other explanations. These issues are dealt with in a separate post [3].

Clearly, the 1870s period contains the turning point of church percentage membership, a drop in conversion rate, and no more major revivals, bar one in Wales. Thus to understand the cause of church decline, the significance of the period around the 1870s needs addressing [4].   I propose Six reasons for the ending of revivals. They are not independent, nor are they alternatives, but are causally intertwined.

1. Institutionalism

As denominations grew, they needed more formal structures to operate. For example, the Welsh Presbyterians opened their first training school in 1837, and by 1845 they insisted that all churches should be in the charge of an ordained minister [5]. The first general assembly to regulate the church met in 1864 [5,6]. Indeed Griffiths, in his 1906 history of the church, identifies four periods of institutional development: The revival period 1735-1785, the organising period 1785-1811, the preaching period 1811-1860 and the educational period 1860-1900 [6].  Although such institutionalism was done with the good intention of improving quality and organisation, there was also the danger of stifling lay involvement, the very enthusiasts needed to generate revival.

Likewise, as all denominations grew through the 19th century, their structures became more formalised. This resulted in the churches having to put more effort into servicing their infrastructures at the expense of missions. This practice could have distracted churches from pursuing revival, which is much messier. Additionally, it put more power in the hands of a small number of leading ministers and seminary teachers, which would make it easier for a different ideology to take hold in the churches, perhaps one hostile to revival.

Institutionalism perhaps is not the direct cause of the demise of revivals, but it may have created a context that would make such an end easier.

2. Rationalism

Some people see the middle of the 19th century as the rise of rationalism and its undermining of religion.  In particular, the year 1859 is seen as a watershed with the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, which was followed by many years of claims that science had made religion redundant, especially supernatural events such as revival, miracles and the work of the Holy Spirit. Modern man had supposedly grown out of such things.

However, on its own, rationalism in the 19thcentury is not a convincing explanation for the end of revivals. The rise of rationalism and “reason” as competing ideologies to supernatural religion occurred two centuries before this, but although it produced the likes of the French Revolution, the works of Thomas Paine, and the like, it did not prevent revivals in Britain and America in the 18th and early 19thcenturies. Rationalism does not spell the end of religion.

Even the effect of controversies between religion and Darwin can be overplayed. Theories of evolution predated his work by some years, and the geological revisions of the age of the earth were settled in the late 1700s [7] without undue effect on a supernatural framework or the authority of scripture.  Many Christians had already adopted Calvin’s principle of accommodation in such matters, but it did not stop them from seeking and receiving revival from the Holy Spirit [8].

3. Liberalism

Rationalism Within Churches

If rationalism as a competing external ideology had a limited effect on the occurrence of revivals, the same cannot be said for the spread of rationalism within churches. From the 18th century onwards, a growing number of theologians were advocating that human reason rather than divine revelation was the determining factor in matters of Christian doctrine and behaviour [9]. This spread within Presbyterian and Independent churches on both sides of the Atlantic and spawned Unitarianism. However, much of the church remained unaffected, largely because there was still no centralised training for ministers in most denominations. In the case of Wales, the dominance of the Welsh language until the mid-1800s also helped prevent its spread.

By the late 19th century, the rationalistic ideology, now called liberalism [10], was taking hold of seminaries and universities. This influenced the training of ministers, many of whom were now acquiring their theological education through university degrees [9,11]. This is seen in Welsh Presbyterianism in Griffiths [6], who lists the education and religious experience of the ministers over its history. It is clear the ministers from the mid-1800s onwards were much better qualified than the denomination’s founders, often with university degrees, but unlike their predecessors, little is said of their conversions.  Indeed Griffiths refers to the period from 1860 as the church’s “education period” as if learning had now replaced revival and preaching as the church’s main task.


The spread of liberalism within the church led to clashes between liberal and conservative Christians. Two examples of this clash were the downgrade controversy in the Baptist church, with conservatives led by C.H. Spurgeon [12,13]; and the departure from orthodoxy of the Free Church of Scotland [11], ultimately leading to schism. The battles have continued to this day in almost all denominations.

Clearly, a rationalistic approach to Christian belief will not sit well with a belief in revival as a supernatural work of God. Thus it would be easy to lay the blame for the end of revivals with the rise of liberal Christianity. But it needs to be asked in what specific way did ecclesiastical rationalism prevent revivals.  Sheehan [12], in commenting on the late 1800s, gives a clue:

It was not that error was openly propagated or that truth was denied. Rather it was that the truths of the scriptures were ignored and replaced by inoffensive generalities.

People notice the presence of error more than the absence of truth. That leads to two specific truths whose demise may be responsible for the end of revival.

4. The Doctrine of Hell

Michael Watts, in his lecture on why the English stopped going to church, firmly lays the blame for church decline on the demise of the preaching of the doctrine of hell [13]. He argued that the fear of future punishment had been the most effective tool in winning converts during the period of revivals. With the doctrine put to one side, as occurred in the late 1800s, the need for people to accept Christ as saviour became less urgent as the future consequences of the failure to make that decision was now less clear.

I would go further. The absence of the reality of hell also took the edge off Christian ministers and witnesses by clouding the need to make converts out of compassion for their lost eternal state. Growing churches became more important than saving souls, illustrating a shift in emphasis from the affairs of the next world to those in this world.  A shift that further emphasised the needs of the church as a religious institution over those of the individual.  

Liberal Christianity was optimistic, believing it needed to create a heaven on earth that could be enjoyed now. A noble aim, though one that ignores the fact that no one can enjoy such a hope indefinitely as death is inevitable! Our need for the next world cannot be ignored. Otherwise, there is no ultimate hope.

5. Future Hope

Iain Murray argues that the revivals of the past were rooted in the hope of the worldwide success of the gospel through such outpourings, whose completion would usher in the ultimate hope of the return of Christ and his visible eternal kingdom [14]. Of course, both these hopes, the Spirit-empowered spread of Christianity, and the second coming of Christ, are firmly supernatural in origin. Thus these two positive hopes, along with their negative counterpart, the fear of hell, were inevitable casualties of the late 19th century rationalistic infiltration into Christianity.

The result is a version of Christianity devoid of a future eternal hope, leaving it as just another humanistic movement along with all the others that have come and gone. Christianity becomes an ideology of the here and now rather than the world to come.

Gravitation to the Future World

American theologian Geerhardus Vos sums up this change in the life of the believer: The gauge of the health in the Christian is the degree of his gravitation to the future eternal world [15].  The loss of emphasis on future hope creates unhealthy Christians. He further says:

The modern, humanistic movement prefers to cultivate the secular and earthly in part because it has come to doubt the heavenly and eternal; its zeal for the improvement of the world often springs not from faith, but from scepticism. The Church by compromising and affiliating with this would sign her own death-warrant as a distinct institution. When religion submerges itself in the concerns of time and becomes a mere servant of these, it thereby renders itself subject to the inexorable flux of time.

Not only does the loss of future hope give unhealthy Christians, but it also leads to an unhealthy church. This is a church with no reason for conversions, no mechanism of supernatural revivals to bring it about, and ultimately no engine for growth. The consequence is a slow decline to extinction; trying unsuccessfully to compete with all other ideologies on temporal issues; unable to confidently deliver the one thing it had that was different to everyone else: the transcendent King of Kings, Jesus Christ, who pours out his Spirit, saving souls.

6. The Hand of God

But surely, if revival is a supernatural work of God, how can the all-powerful Lord of Glory be stopped by an ideology of human origin? Surely God can just send a revival and blow rationalism away?

When the elders of the churches in the Outer Hebrides were faced with the poor state of their churches after the Second World War, they quickly diagnosed the problem: the Most High has a controversy with the nation [16]. Or, as it says in Micah 6:2, the LORD hath a controversy with his people. They understood the absence of revival as a sign of Divine displeasure.

Could it be that God withdrew revival from Western Christianity at the end of the 19th century in order to bring a wayward church back to himself? A church that had constructed a rationalistic narrative for its own existence, a narrative without a need for divine revelation or divine intervention and without regard for an eternal future and God’s ultimate glory?

We know that time and again in the Bible, God deals with his people when they go astray. Psalm 78 gives a good overview of this phenomenon. God is not just the author of their flourishing but also of their downturn, as it is ultimately for their good and rooted in his compassion for them. Her adversaries have become the master; her enemies prosper; for the LORD has afflicted her because of the multitude of her transgressions (Lam 1:5).

Revival – This is the Lord’s Doing

 Look at figure 1 again. There are many Christians who can look at the rise of the church from the 1730s to the 1870s through all the indicated revivals and say with certainty, “this is the Lord’s doing”. Perhaps you are one of those. But can you also look at the subsequent decline and say the same? That the absence of revivals, conversion, and thus the decline of the church is due to the action of God himself because we have turned from him?

Can we apply the truth of 1 Kings 9:8-9 to church decline? And as for this house, which is exalted, everyone who passes by it will be astonished and will hiss, and say,  ‘Why has the Lord done thus to this land and to this house?’ Then they will answer, ‘Because they forsook the Lord their God

I appreciate this is not a rationalistic answer to the absence of revival and church decline. But seeing the issue in terms of reason alone, and not relying on revelation, IS the source of the problem. It is not that rational thinking is not helpful. We do need to think it out; that is why I use church growth models! The models are rooted in mathematics and the laws of logic, about as rational as you can get. The six reasons for the absence of revivals given above could be linked together in a causal loop diagram, using the rationalist thinking of system dynamics. But such thinking is not enough – rationalism is bounded by human finiteness. We need to settle the controversy that God has with us because of what we have done against him.

Humble Ourselves

The good news is that such reconciliation with God is possible if we are humble enough to admit we went wrong. The Bible is also the story of God’s deliverance of his people, their restoration and the glory of God filling the land. He is already reviving his church around the world. There is no reason why we in the West cannot repent of past errors and again be a church offering people an eternal hope, based on his revelation, seeing conversions brought about by revivals where the Lord Jesus Christ, not man, has the pre-eminence.

References & Notes

[1] Church Decline Caused by Lack of Conversions, Blog Post. 

[2] Church Decline Caused by Lack of Revival,   Blog Post.

[3] Revival and Church Growth – Dealing with Objections   Blog Post.

[4] Michael Watts [13] argues for the 1880s. There may well be different years for different denominations. However, all are in the latter part of the 19th century.  

[5] The Presbyterian Church of Wales: Our History.  

[6] Griffiths, E. (1906). The Presbyterian Church of Wales Historical Handbook 1735-1905. Hughes and Son, Wrexham.  

[7] Roberts, M. B. (2007). Genesis Chapter 1 and geological time from Hugo Grotius and Marin Mersenne to William Conybeare and Thomas Chalmers (1620–1825). Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 273(1), 39-49.  

[8] Calvin wrote at the time that the astronomical theories of Copernicus were causing controversy within the church, both Catholic and Protestant.  The church was anti-science. Rather, it was that astronomy was deemed a branch of pure mathematics, not of the physical sciences. Thus, Copernicus’ theory was seen at the time as an unnecessary mathematical trick. It would take later generations, Kepler and then Newton, who would bring astronomy into physics and give it scientific respectability.  

Despite this, Calvin, in his commentary on Genesis, deliberately stays away from the Copernican controversy. Instead, he states that the Bible is not the place to learn astronomy.  

For example, in verse 6 he says: He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere.  

About verse 16, Calvin says:

Here lies the difference; Moses wrote in a popular style things which without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labour whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend. Nevertheless, this study is not to be reprobated, nor this science to be condemned, because some frantic persons are wont boldly to reject whatever is unknown to them. For astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God.  

The principle of accommodation probably did not originate with Calvin, but he does express it neatly at a critical time for the church. The principle means that there is no need to reconcile everything in scripture with everything in science. The two disciplines are addressing different issues in different ways. It does mean that at any time, there will be things that cannot be understood using both the Bible and science. But as scientific understanding is changeable, that is a tension that can be lived with. It usually sorts itself out with hindsight. Living with a lack of understanding is fundamental to science. Its scope is limited to explaining one proposition from another, but it still leaves the original proposition unexplained. Science “can’t construct something out of nothing!”  

[9] Murray I.H. (2000). Evangelicalism Divided. Banner of Truth, chapter 1.  

[10] I think the names liberalism, or Liberal Christianity, are the wrong descriptions. The word “liberal” has shades of meaning, such as free, tolerant, abundant, moderate etc.. It is used in politics, and it is used in approaches to life generally. Christians can be liberal in one thing, e.g. dress code, and conservative in something else, e.g. alcohol consumption. A “liberal” church could be one allowing any beliefs. However, it could also be one with strict adherence to one form of “liberal” theology and intolerant of conservative theologies. D.M. Kelley argued for a division of churches between strict and lenient, but as pointed out by D.E. Miller, a liberal church could be just as structurally strict as a conservative one.

Thus I would suggest Liberal Christianity is better named “Rationalistic Christianity”. The influence of rationalism should be both variable and multi-dimensional.   Kelley D.M. (1986). Why Conservative Churches are Growing. Mercer University Press.   Miller D.E. (1997). Reinventing American Protestantism. University of California Press, p.186.  

[11] Murray I.H. (2015). How Scotland Lost its Hold of the Bible, Banner of Truth Magazine, August/September.  

[12] Sheehan, R.J. (1985). C.H. Spurgeon and the Modern Church. Grace Publications.  

[13] Watts, M. (1995). Why Did the English Stop Going to Church? Friends of Dr  Williams’s Library, lecture 49.  

[14] Murray I.H. (1971). The Puritan Hope. Banner of Truth.  

[15] Vos, G. (1920). Eschatology of the Psalter.  The Princeton Theological Review 18, 1-43.  

[16] Campbell D. (1954). The Lewis Awakening 1949-1953. The Faith Mission. Reprinted as Revival in the Hebrides, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform and available on Kindle.


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