We Baptists love to talk about the role that the English Particular Baptists of the 18th century, especially Andrew Fuller and William Carey, played in launching the modern missions movement in the English-speaking world. That movement is often said to begin in 1792 with the formation of the Particular Baptist Missionary Society, which sent Carey and John Thomas to India the following year. But that’s not the full story. Before there was a “Great Commission Resurgence” among the English Particular Baptists, there was prayer.
In 1784 a Particular Baptist pastor named John Sutcliff was given a copy of Jonathan Edwards’ treatise An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom on Earth. In that book, Edwards promoted the idea of conducting “Concerts of Prayer” for the conversion of the heathen, worldwide revival, and the dawn of the millennium.
After reading An Humble Attempt, Sutcliff immediately began to circulate the work among friends like Fuller and John Ryland Jr. In 1784 Sutcliff issued a call for the pastors of the Northamptonshire Association to set apart the first Monday evening of every month for prayer for the heathen and the coming kingdom. In 1789 Sutcliff actually published a British edition of An Humble Attempt and wrote an introduction to the treatise. The prayer meetings became very popular among the younger pastors in the Northamptonshire Association, including Fuller and Carey, and continued into the 1790s. It is unlikely there would have ever been a BMS had there not been nearly a decade of prayer for spiritual renewal and the conversion of the nations.
The text of the “Prayer Call” is as follows:
Upon a motion being made to the ministers and messengers of the associate Baptist churches assembled at Nottingham, respecting meetings for prayer, to bewail the low estate of religion, and earnestly implore a revival of our churches, and of the general cause of our Redeemer, and for that end to wrestle with God for the effusion of his Holy Spirit, which alone can produce the blessed effect, it was unanimously RESOLVED, to recommend to all our churches and congregations, the spending of one hour in this important exercise, on the first Monday in every calendar month.
We hereby solemnly exhort all the churches in our connection, to engage heartily and perseveringly in the prosecution of this plan. And as it may be well to endeavour to keep the same hour, as a token of our unity herein, it is supposed the following scheme may suit many congregations, viz. to meet on the first Monday evening in May, June, and July, from 8 to 9. In Aug. from 7 to 8. Sept. and Oct. from 6 to 7. Nov. Dec. Jan. and Feb. from 5 to 6. March, from 6 to 7; and April, from 7 to 8. Nevertheless if this hour, or even the particular evening, should not suit in particular places, we wish our brethren to fix on one more convenient to themselves.
We hope also, that as many of our brethren who live at a distance from our places of worship may not be able to attend there, that as many as are conveniently situated in a village or neighbourhood, will unite in small societies at the same time. And if any single individual should be so situated as not to be able to attend to this duty in society with others, let him retire at the appointed hour, to unite the breath of prayer in private with those who are thus engaged in a more public manner.
The grand object of prayer is to be that the Holy Spirit may be poured down on our ministers and churches, that sinners may be converted, the saints edified, the interest of religion revived, and the name of God glorified. At the same time, remember, we trust you will not confine your requests to your own societies [i.e. churches]; or to your own immediate connection [i.e. denomination]; let the whole interest of the Redeemer be affectionately remembered, and the spread of the gospel to the most distant parts of the habitable globe be the object of your most fervent requests. We shall rejoice if any other Christian societies of our own or other denominations will unite with us, and do now invite them most cordially to join heart and hand in the attempt.
Who can tell what the consequences of such an united effort in prayer may be! Let us plead with God the many gracious promises of His Word, which relate to the future success of His gospel. He has said, “I will yet for this be enquired of by the House of Israel to do it for them, I will increase them with men like a flock.” Ezek. xxxvi.37. Surely we have love enough for Zion to set apart one hour at a time, twelve times in a year, to seek her welfare.
As found in John Ryland, Jr., “The Nature, Evidences, and Advantages, of Humility” (Circular Letter of the Northamptonshire Association, 1784), 12.
Through the influence of Fuller, Carey, and their friends, the crippling influence of hyper-Calvinism waned among the Particular Baptists as they became partners in the Great Commission. Then the General Baptists became interested and also became partners in the Great Commission. Then non-Baptist British evangelicals became partners in the Great Commission. Then the New England Congregationalists–Jonathan Edwards’ denomination–became partners in the Great Commission. Then American Baptists became partners in the Great Commission. What started in Northamptonshire with prayer in the 1780s had become what my colleague Alvin Reid like to call a movement–and many people were joining the movement.
If Southern Baptists want to see a Great Commission Resurgence like the one witnessed by our English Baptist cousins in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, we better be a people whose missionary zeal and evangelistic initiative is bathed in prayer. Ronnie Floyd, chairman of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force, has issued a modern prayer call to Southern Baptists. The time is short. The need is great. Will we answer the call to pray for a Great Commission Resurgence? And will we, by God’s grace, experience a Great Commission Resurgence among the people, churches, and related ministries of the Southern Baptist Convention? This is my prayer, and I hope it is yours as well.