On 1 October 1845, 216 Christian leaders gathered in Liverpool’s Medical Hall to share a big vision of uniting to make Jesus known. Ten months later in London, the Evangelical Alliance was born. 175 years on from that birth, the vision remains strong.

As evangelicals, those who met by the Mersey emphasised the supreme authority of scripture, the centrality of the cross, personal conversion, and gospel activism. These emphases derived from the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. But they’d gained momentum in the 1730s, with revivals led by the Wesley brothers and George Whitefield in Britain, and by Jonathan Edwards in America. To maintain and develop revival, John Wesley had called for a national union of evangelical clergy’, but tribal loyalties died hard: he later lamented that evangelical unity had too often ended up as a rope of sand’.

Cooperation improved as overseas mission advanced with technology and imperial expansion. The London Missionary Society (1795) and the British and Foreign Bible Society (1804) were founded as interdenominational agencies. At home, though, unity remained more elusive, until a series of external challenges focused minds.

Many at Liverpool were concerned by a resurgence in Catholicism. That concern brought Anglican and Free Church Evangelicals together, leading to further cooperation as the Evangelical Alliance took shape. Roman Catholics had been denied various rights since the Reformation, but a Relief Act in 1829 restored many of them. From 1833, the Oxford Movement called for a recovery of Catholic emphases in the established Church of England. More then than now, anti-Catholic sentiment defined evangelical identity. It was stoked further in 1844 when the Westminster government approved funding for a Catholic seminary at Maynooth near Dublin – then still part of the UK. Also much-discussed at Liverpool was a split from the Church of Scotland by 1,200 clergy, on the grounds that Presbyteries should choose their own ministers, free from central church or state control.

But more conciliatory motivations were at work, too. Another Scot, James Hamilton, warned the Liverpool gathering that it should beware of taking any mere anti-form”. The great Congregationalist John Angell James agreed: Every chorus of human voices”, he declared, depends on the keynote’ being rightly struck”, and the keynote that must be struck now was LOVE”. The Presbyterian David King invoked Jesus’ prayer for oneness in John 17: Christian union, not controversy, he said, should come first.

Every chorus of human voices depends on the ​‘keynote’ being rightly struck, and the keynote that must be struck now was ​'LOVE'.

Suitably inspired, the Liverpool meeting appointed a provisional committee to take things forward, and on 19 August 1846, more than 800 attendees gathered in Covent Garden, London, for the inaugural conference of the Evangelical Alliance. The desire for a body that would manifest and promote the unity of Christ’s people” worldwide was genuine, but it would take time to develop. Eighty-four per cent of those present were British, eight per cent American and the other eight per cent from Canada, continental Europe and beyond. Still, on the fifth day a basis of faith containing the most vital truths’ of global evangelical Christianity was adopted with acclaim. Though the text of the basis has been revised since, the same truths remain at its core.

The Evangelical Alliance emerged as a major force for evangelical unity and witness. In doing so, it laid the foundations for the ministry it continues to exercise today.

But then the Evangelical Alliance faced its first major test. British representatives proposed barring slaveholders from membership. This was before the emancipation of slaves in the US, and several Americans objected. After heated exchanges, it was agreed to compromise. The Evangelical Alliance would be an affiliation of autonomous regional networks rather than an integrated global body. Yet the British organisation’ that then emerged hardly confined itself to domestic issues. Indeed, it would tenaciously campaign for religious liberties in Turkey, Russia, Italy and Spain, championing evangelicals and others persecuted for their faith. This went hand in hand with vigorous support for evangelistic work, near and far.

One hundred and seventy-five years ago, the Evangelical Alliance emerged as a major force for evangelical unity and witness. In doing so, it laid the foundations for the ministry it continues to exercise today. A much smaller proportion of the UK population count themselves Christians now than would have done in 1846: never has the John 17 imperative been more relevant, and our great commission programme bears that out. According to the recent Mountstephen report, 245 million modern-day Christians are persecuted for their faith – more than when the Evangelical Alliance first began to advocate for religious liberties. So, we continue to work on this with Open Doors, the World Evangelical Alliance and others. More vicious forms of anti-Catholicism may have receded, but the need to uphold evangelical faith as the most authentic expression of the gospel still underpins our advocacy agenda, our Being Human project and the work of our Theological Advisory Group.

The calling discerned at Liverpool in 1845 and actioned in London the next year is as urgent as ever. As we celebrate this 175th anniversary, may God continue to bless the Evangelical Alliance as together we make Jesus known.

The calling discerned at Liverpool in 1845 and actioned in London the next year is as urgent as ever.

This article appears on page two of idea magazine as To know where we’re going we’ve got to know where we’ve come from’.