"Let the Little Children Come To Me"
A friend of mine who speaks regularly to teenagers likes to tell them, "You are not the church of tomorrow. You are the church of today." Evangelicalism has always been a dynamic movement—with all the energy, restlessness, and idealism this word suggests—in large part because it has been a movement of and for the rising generation.
Many Christians in the English-speaking world believe that evangelical revival first began in 1734 among the young people in Jonathan Edwards' church at Northampton, Massachusetts, and then spread up and down the Connecticut River Valley in New England. But there was an earlier revival in a different river valley in central Europe: the Oder River Valley. The region is known as Silesia and runs along the Czech-Polish border. The "Uprising of the Children" here in 1708 reminds us of the important place of young people in the church, both in the past and in the present.
Out of the mouths of babes
The story of this revival is told in a 41-page tract published in London in 1708 with the long title (typical of the period) Praise out of the Mouth of Babes, or, a Particular Account ofSome Extraordinary Pious Motions and Devout Exercises, Observ'd of Late in Many Children in Silesia. The phrase "Particular Account of Some Extraordinary Pious Motions" recalls the style of Jonathan Edwards' report on the revival he witnessed in New England: A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God. Both of these accounts are of the strange-but-true genre.
The revival in central Europe began when school-age children of Protestant parents were not willing, like their elders, to be silenced and marginalized by their Catholic rulers. The children at Sprottau (near Glogau) began to meet in the open fields outside the town at daybreak and two or three more times a day. They would form a circle and pray—sometimes lying prostrate—and then sing Lutheran hymns, read Psalms and devotional texts, and close with a blessing. One Protestant father was so worried about the children doing this in defiance of the authorities that he tried to lock his son and daughter in their bedrooms. When he heard that they were going to climb out the window, he relented and let them go.
Soon the adults were gathering and forming a circle around the children. As the children sang and prayed, the adults wept. In several towns, as many as 300 children gathered. Later, one observer reported a thousand. The magistrates issued orders to desist, but the children wouldn't stop. At Frideberg, the hangman was sent with a whip to disperse the children who were meeting in the marketplace, but when he saw them at their prayers, he couldn't do it. At Breslau, some of the Roman Catholic children joined the Lutheran children, despite strict orders from the magistrates for parents to keep their children at home. And still thousands looked on. Evangelicals and Catholics together.
This young people's revival was "baptized into the church," and Protestant pastors channeled it into a regional renewal movement. The nerve center of the revival was the Jesus Church in Teschen, a town deep in the south of Poland. (On a modern map of central Europe, you can find a town on the Polish-Czech border that is named Cieszyn on the Polish side, and Český Těín on the Czech side.). The Jesus Church was one of a handful of churches that the ruling Catholic dynasty allowed the Protestants in the region to have, and they had to raise the money for it themselves. A series of Pietist pastors came in from Germany and elsewhere to oversee the church, but soon the services attracted thousands more than could be accommodated. Some people would walk all night to get there. Though the church held 5,000 and had multiple balconies, services had to begin at six on Sunday morning and continue all day in different languages. Great crowds inside and outside the church passed the time in prayers, confessions, and ardent hymn singing. Revival soon spread to the surrounding towns and villages. Teschen was to central Europe in the 18th century what Edwards' Northampton was to America.
From Moravia to Massachusetts
The story does not end there. Some Protestants in the neighboring region of Moravia were inspired by the revival at Teschen. They grew weary of religious and economic persecution and fled to east Saxony in German territory. There they found safe harbor on the estate of the pious nobleman Count Nicolaus von Zinzendorf, who established a village for them on his property. They christened it Herrnhut, "the Lord's Watch," since they were determined to watch for the Lord even as they understood themselves to be under his watch and care. A fresh revival broke out among these refugees in 1727 (beginning again with the children), and Zinzendorf molded this movement into the Renewed Moravian Brethren. At a meeting of some of these same Moravian Brethren in Aldersgate Street, London, in 1738, the future founder of Methodism John Wesley felt his heart "strangely warmed."
So we can connect the dots. One: the children's uprising in Lower Silesia in 1708. Two: the revival at Teschen that followed. Three: the Renewed Moravian Brethren at Herrnhut in 1727. Four: John Wesley's Aldersgate experience in 1738. Five: John Wesley reads the Faithful Narrative of the revival under Jonathan Edwards in Massachusetts and realizes this is all one great work of God on both sides of the Atlantic.
The story was more complex than this, of course, and other factors led to the rise of evangelical religion in the North Atlantic in the 18th century. The Scots-Irish practice of long festivals of open-air Communion services fed into revival in western Scotland and then among immigrants in the middle colonies in America. The New England Puritan tradition of community renewal was the background for the revivals Jonathan Edwards witnessed. And the mix of Anglican and Dissenting devotional traditions in England contributed to evangelical revival in the 1730s and 40s. But, as historian W. R. Ward has reminded us, the central European taproots of evangelicalism are also very important, even though we have only begun to learn the story and pronounce the names.
Young people were of crucial importance in early America, too. During the Great Awakening, local revival began first among the young people in Elizabethtown, Boston, Bridgewater, Lyme, New Concord, Philadelphia, Ipswich, Woodstock, Easthampton, and several other places—before it spread to the adults. Many of the preachers at the outset of the evangelical revival were only in their 20s. The most famous 18th-century preacher of all, George Whitefield, was called the "boy preacher." Small groups of praying children stimulated revival not just in Silesia, but also among Baptists in Northampton in England and among Congregationalists in Northampton in New England.
The gift of youth
Roman Catholic theologians speak of religious orders forming around a founding charism—a particular grace given by the Holy Spirit to equip that religious group to serve the church in a unique way. Was there a founding charism in the rise of evangelical Christianity in the 18th century? Though many features of evangelical renewal could be identified, the story I've been telling here certainly reminds us of one important characteristic: that young people are the life of the church.
Since at least the 1930s, the evangelical movement in America has shown tremendous energy for youth work and student organizations. This shows no signs of changing anytime soon. And wherever the church is growing most rapidly around the world today, evangelical forms of Christianity are again taking root among the rising generation. As Philip Jenkins has pointed out to us, half the world's population is under 24 years old, and 90% of these young people live in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. If the church is to thrive in the 21st century, it will have to thrive as a young people's movement—just as it did at Northampton in Massachusetts and at Teschen in Silesia at the beginning of modern evangelicalism.
Bruce Hindmarsh is professor of spiritual theology at Regent College in Vancouver and a member of the Christian History advisory board.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History & Biography magazine.
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