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The hopes of 1846 evangelicals for unity have been realised, 170 years on

Our regular look back through the Alliance archive

If you’re concerned about unity within the evangelical movement at present, it’s worth looking back to the mid-19th century, when evangelicals were riven with division...

There were differences on theological topics from infant baptism to slavery. The biggest rift was between the established Anglican churches and those in the Congregational or Free’ churches.

That evangelicals within the Anglican and Free churches are broadly unified now is partly due to the hard work of the founders of the Evangelical Alliance and their earnest prayers. If we look into the records of the inaugural Evangelical Alliance conference in 1846, it’s clear that the hopes and prayers of those Christians have been answered in many ways.

At the time evangelicals were worried about what they perceived as increased Catholic influence in the church of England and in the British government, as well as more liberal theological trends and spiritual groups such as the Oxford Movement. 

Yet some evangelicals were barely able to bring themselves to talk to one another. Rev John Jordan, an Anglican minister, confessed to the 1846 conference that he had refused to meet the minister of a dissenting’ church who had sent him an invitation, but felt a deep sense of sinfulness’ at such divisions and the manifold evils which have resulted’.

Many of the theological divides were vigorously debated at the two-week conference. One of the most significant disagreements was over slavery. The conference was diverse for the time; there were mission agencies from Asia and Africa, American representatives who spoke in favour of slave owners, Caribbean victims of racism who spoke against slavery, as well as British evangelicals from varied different theological and denominational backgrounds.

But these fears have passed away, and have been changed into strong hopes; and those anxieties have yielded to firm confidence

Yet the hope of the 1846 conference was that all of these evangelicals from across the world could meet and unite on the essentials of their faith. A Free church of Scotland minister, Rev James Begg, told the conference: We must aim at complete unity… Oh! what a glorious spectacle would it present before the Christian church, if we were to go out from this Hall… into the world… as one united army, one in thought, one in the interpretation of the Divine Word, as well as one in feeling!”

Despite the theological and cultural differences, the Christians managed to come to an agreement on the essentials of evangelicalism, and the Evangelical Alliance
was formed. It gave the attendees great hope at the time. Rev Dr De Witt said: I was not without my fears — and fears were expressed by my Christian friends — that, in
proportion to the exceeding desirableness and magnitude of the object [of forming the alliance], was the danger, lest the safeguards of truth should not be united with the cement of love.

But these fears have passed away, and have been changed into strong hopes; and those anxieties have yielded to firm confidence.”

From the vantage point of 2018 we can see many more examples of how the hopes and prayers of the 1846 evangelicals were answered. Many of the disagreements of
that day would be seen as second order’ issues by evangelicals today, not reason for separation. We can rejoice that evangelicals now have one mind in opposing the evils of slavery.

Were the founders of the Alliance to know that the fruits of their work are seen some 170 years later, we can guess that they would praise and thank God. Sir Culling
Eardley Smith, chairman of the conference, said in his opening address: I do not doubt but that gracious God who has bought us together from every part of the habitable world will cause us to come to united conclusions; so that this 19th day of August 1846, coming generations of the Lord’s people may have cause to glorify his name.”

Today, we can praise God for how He has kept such a large part of the Christian church unified within the Evangelical Alliance. The current challenges to unity
may be different, but we are still brought together around the essentials of our faith. Whatever difficulties we face, we can have confident hope that our prayers for unity will be heard, as were those of the Alliance’s founders.

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