“Forget none of His benefits.” -Psalm 103:2
Some historians have helped us to remember His benefits and see how a gentle reformation often can come from the bottom up, through the spread of Christian faith and practical application of the Bible.
Faith in Christ is the driving force behind so many benefits we take for granted today – the consensus against human slavery; rights of free speech, press and religion; advanced medical care; wars on poverty; civility.
Several historians find a common grace theme especially in times of spiritual revival and reformation. They advance this thesis with a super-abundance of evidence – page after page of stories of individuals and families exchanging destructive habits of drinking for sobriety and finding new inspiration for creativity and discovery from the Scriptures.
John Wesley Bready advanced this theme in his 1938 book, England Before and After Wesley. England was in horrible shape in the early 1700s. The peaceful revolution of 1688 did rule out absolute monarchy claims and put Parliament on a gradual road to equal footing with the monarchy. But day to day life was miserable. Though Handel was writing his great musical work, “Messiah,” alcohol consumption was out of control, in all classes of society. Crime was rampant. Corruption was common in government.
By mid-century, the open-air preaching of John Wesley and George Whitefield led thousands to conversion and spiritual renewal within the Church of England and outside it in the dissenting chapels. In the next generation William Wilberforce led the Parliamentary battle to abolish the slave trade, then slavery. Prison reform grew out of the same faith-based impulse, along with better treatment for the mentally ill and ministry to children in need.
Herbert Schlossberg takes much of the same historical material and offers another angle in The Silent Revolution and the Making of Victorian England (2000). He argues that the advances of the Victorian Era in the 1800s in England were actually the fruit of the earlier First Great Awakening led by Wesley, Whitefield, and he traces a humanitarian concern for the poor back to the revival. He implicitly contrasts this revolution with the bloody French Revolution, which was long on utopian sentiment but short on real progress in daily life in France.
“A veritable army was marching through England doing good,” he writes. “The church visitors were the unofficial and unpaid social workers of the nation. Many of the evangelical clergymen had what amounted to relief agencies in the parishes, with (mainly) women taking turns visiting the sick and needy.”
“This new society, a product of the silent revolution from within its own resources, its own history and traditions, was far from perfect, but it freed the slaves, taught the ignorant, brought spiritual life where there was darkness, turned the drunk and indigent into useful citizens and effective parents, and ameliorated the harsh conditions brought about by industrialization, internal migration and rapid population growth," Schlossberg concludes. “It was a revolution that succeeded in making almost all things better. There are not many like that.”
Alvin Schmidt advances this thesis across a longer span of time, in How Christianity Changed the World (2001). Faith in Christ led to advances in medicine, science, political freedom and family stability. His earlier title was clever, perhaps easily misunderstood as a reference to drunkenness: Under the Influence. He organizes his story by topic instead of chronology, including chapters on literature, music and education.
Schmidt shows that very few people used to believe in the abolition of slavery or the right of free speech. We take these blessings for granted and presume that well-meaning people all around the world will embrace these self-evident truths easily, given the opportunity. Schmidt digs deep enough into history to show how these blessings have emerged as a consensus in the West primarily through Christian faith. We are created in God’s image, but we also are very sinful so we can turn to cannibalism, slavery and other bad choices. If we don’t turn those ways, we should not pat ourselves on the back for our virtue. We likely are benefiting from choices made in earlier generations, handed down through parents, family and society.
A similar thesis comes from Vishal Mangalwadi in India in The Book That Made Your World, How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization (2011). From a Hindu background, Vishal grew up in India and lives there now. So he offers a fresh perspective on how someone from a much different cultural and religious background sees Bible benefits that we would take for granted.
“It was the Bible, not Greek political ideals, that fired the modern quest for freedom,” he writes. “The Bible created the modern world of science and learning because it gave us the Creator’s vision of what reality is all about. That is what made the modern West a reading and thinking civilization.”
This approach to history is a good application of Psalm 103:2. Sometimes we lose benefits or blessings because we forget the source or give less emphasis to the faith in Christ that brings them to us in history. Living in a society like ours, we can take these blessings for granted and become complacent. Or we can become chronological snobs and look down on those in earlier eras who did not protest slavery or had not embraced what we see as progress.
A related danger might be a triumphalist attitude that boasts of American greatness or ingenuity. Carried away with such thinking, we can lose the foundational Christian faith that produced the blessings. We can begin to think we have earned God’s favor by our hard work or self-discipline, which are fruits of faith often developed in earlier generations, passed down through family heritage.