Perhaps this is true at every point in the history of a God-ruled, sin-pervaded world. It was true in 1859, and it is true today.
Charles Dickens wrote The Tale of Two Cities in 1859. It begins,
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
He was referring to 1775, the time of the French Revolution. But his point was, that period was like the present period in 1859. In the mid-19th century, “it was the best of times and the worst of times.”
In 1859, Charles Spurgeon was 25 years old, George Müller was 54, Hudson Taylor was 27. And Charles Darwin was 50 years old, John Stuart Mill was 53 and Friedrich Nietzsche was 15.
Rebellion and Revival
God was mightily at work in 1859. In China’s Millions, the most thorough history of the China Inland Mission, Alvyn Austin wrote,
In 1859, while Hudson Taylor was still in China [on his first missionary term before founding the China Inland Mission], a revival broke out in Northern Ireland that led to a religious movement so pivotal in British religious history that it came to be called the Revival or “Awakening of ’59.” … Although Taylor missed the first phase of the revival, he arrived in Britain in time to reap its benefits. As J. Edwin Orr noted, “there is reason to believe that the whole [of the China Inland Mission’s first] party [of 1866] was made up of converts and workers of the 1959 Awakening. … It is generally agreed that “something happened” in 1859–60, and that its ripples continued to reverberate for the rest of the century. (82–83, 85)
The astonishingly fruitful ministries of Spurgeon, Müller and Taylor were riding the wave of God’s great work in their day. It was the best of times.
But other things happened in 1859. Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, and John Stuart Mill, the atheist and utilitarian, published his essay “On Liberty.”
So alongside growing secularism in science and politics, growing materialism in the industrial revolution, and growing self-reliance, as God was rejected by many, there was a great spiritual awakening and a great global advance of the gospel of Jesus. It was the worst of times and the best of times.
The same is true today: It is the best of times and the worst of times.
For example, historian Mark Noll points out, “In a word, the Christian church has experienced a larger geographical redistribution in the last 50 years than in any comparable period in its history, with the exception of the very earliest years of church history” (The New Shape of World Christianity, 20). He fleshes it out with concrete examples:
• At the beginning of the 20th century, about 71 percent of professing Christians in the world lived in Europe. By the end of the 20th century, that number had shrunk to 28 percent. Now 43 percent of the Christians live in Latin America and Africa.