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A forgotten revival – 100 years on

Lowestoft is my home town, writes John Woods. It is famous for being the most easterly point in Great Britain. On Monday 7 March 1921, Lowestoft began to experience, what has been called the last spiritual revival in England.

Why remember an event on the edge of the UK from 100 years ago? My friend Mike Betts, a Christian leader who lives in Lowestoft, suggests three reasons:

•    Looking at history helps us reflect on our present situation with a view to moving forward prayerfully into the future

•    God delights to work in obscure people and places. As Nathanial said so famously about Jesus: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” God often uses nobodies. People like Gideon, and the 12 disciples, or in Lowestoft a fascinating combination of trained and untrained preachers

•    The events in 1921 came on the heels of a worldwide pandemic: Spanish Flu, and the devastation of the Great War, in which the port of Lowestoft was heavily bombarded. This created an atmosphere of anxiety and a thirst for transcendence.

Douglas Brown (pictured), a pastor from London, arrived in Lowestoft as a reluctant mission preacher. He had been in bed for 11 days with the flu that had carried away millions worldwide, and had just emerged from months of spiritual crisis, wrestling with God until he had a powerful experience of his love and power. The visit was the result of a period of concentrated prayer by many of the local churches.

When I was a pastor in Lowestoft, a man called Hector Griffin was part of the congregation. Hector had become a Christian in 1921, and he told me about hearing Douglas Brown preach. Brown would walk along the aisles of the church while he was preaching and praying, pausing occasionally by a pew.  

On that evening he stood near Hector, saying: “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Hector said that he knew he was lost and was so overcome by the sense of God’s presence through the preaching that he became a Christian in that moment. His wife to be was a faithful praying Christian. Her prayers were answered that night.  

Their only child, Stanley, was the main leader at the church where I became a Christian. Stanley wrote an account of the events of 1921 (The Forgotten Revival, Day One, 1992).

Thousands would travel down to Lowestoft from
Scotland during the herring season

The revival continued beyond the summer of 1921.  It was marked by dramatic conversions, including local fisherman whose cynicism was melted by an authentic encounter with God. There was a tangible sense of God’s presence in the town, with people breaking down in repentance in the street, and people even being saved while out at sea.

Later in the year, during the herring season, the work continued among visiting fishermen and fisherwomen who had come south from Scotland. This led to the spread of the awakening to the north east coast of Scotland and beyond.

Ripples were felt throughout East Anglia and Northern Ireland. Douglas Brown was invited to speak at the Keswick Convention in May 1922, where there was further evidence of God being at work. Yet it is suggested by historian Ian Randall that the Keswick committee, afraid of excessive emotionalism (yet Brown’s after meetings were quiet), applied the brakes and steered the convention away from what they regarded as a dangerous path!

After 1921 Lowestoft sent many people to train for Christian ministry and missionary work, including Alan Neech, who became a bishop in India, and later a Chairman of the Keswick Convention. Mike and I are also part of this legacy.

A young curate in Suffolk, who experienced the impact of the revival, shared the passion with his son David Pytches, who was to become a bishop in Chile where he saw God move in power. Later as Vicar of St Andrew’s Chorleywood, he became the catalyst for Soul Survivor and New Wine, and shaped the thinking of the leaders of HTB, the home of the Alpha Course. Now that is an interesting trajectory!

Read an excerpt from Stanley Griffin’s book here

Not everyone knows what to make of the year-long events of a century ago. Clearly something remarkable happened. Living as we do, in the shadow of another global pandemic, we should pray that God might work with awakening power again.

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