Aldersgate Street, London. This was where John Wesley, who had launched Britain's Evangelical Revival decades before, had found his heart "strangely warmed" in May 1738.

But it was not only Wesley's Methodists who spread that revival. On a frozen Thursday evening in January 1783, in an upper room of the Castle-and-Falcon Pub on Aldersgate Street, John Newton met with fellow evangelical leaders Richard Cecil and Henry Foster, Anglican clergymen, and Eli Bates, an Anglican layman.

Though there is no record of what transpired at that meeting, it is a safe bet that the 57-year-old Newton had his pipe in hand and that he was exuding characteristic warmth and enthusiasm. The four of them agreed to meet on a regular basis—"fortnightly"—the beginnings of the Eclectic Society. As it expanded to include other attendees, Newton's meeting would gain a reputation as one in which Christian leaders from different strains of evangelicalism could discuss important issues in a relaxed setting.

It was an environment defined by Newton's signature conversation style, which William Jay remembers as "most easy, and free, and varied, and delightful, and edifying."

Newton himself called his meeting an "association," representing a much-needed alternative to the churches' beloved "assemblies, consistories, synods, councils, benches, [and] boards," which he cordially disliked. He was, after all, in the habit of receiving scores of parishioners and friends at least twice a week in his home, in the intimacy of his back room—sometimes 40 in a single day.

The Castle-and-Falcon meetings marked more than a change in style, however. Over the next three decades, the Eclectic Society would become a center of English evangelicalism, a place for London clergy ...

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