Marvellous Melbourne and Spiritual Power: A Christian Revival and Its Lasting Legacy

Will Renshaw

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Marvellous Melbourne and Spiritual Power is a unique record of the rich Christian spiritual heritage of Melbourne. The foundations for this heritage were laid within the city’s first months of European settlement, when Henry Reed preached the gospel at Port Phillip in 1835. In the decades that followed, many gathered regularly to pray for evangelistic and missionary activity, and for a revival of faith in the young nation. One significant outcome was the growth of a flourishing evangelical movement in Victoria with its distinctive Keswick-style convention ministry, which originated in England and proclaimed abundant life and full salvation.

This is a story of how God equips ordinary people to become extraordinary leaders in his service. It is a powerful testimony to the importance of persevering prayer and intercession in the deep reviving work of God in his church and the wider community.

‘Will Renshaw’s book left me pondering the question of why so many of today’s churches and Christian ministries seem to have lost the hunger for the fullness of God’s Spirit evidenced in a commitment to corporate prayer for revival among God’s people and the evangelisation of the world. Is our current spiritual malaise due to the fact that “we have not, because we ask not”?’

David Price
Chairman – Belgrave Heights Convention
Former Principal of the Bible College of Victoria

Will Renshaw worked as an accountant in professional practice for over 50 years. He has been involved in many ministries, including the Fellowship for Revival within the Methodist (and later, Uniting) Church of Australia, the Bible Society, the Christian Leaders’ Training College in Papua New Guinea, New Life Australia, Steer Incorporated and the Keswick-Scripture Union Bookshop and Keswick Bookshops Inc. He was Treasurer of the Belgrave Heights Convention, President of the Bible College of Victoria, and is now a Life Member of the Melbourne School of Theology.


Marvellous Melbourne and Spiritual Power: A Christian Revival and it’s Lasting Legacy
Will F. Renshaw
Melbourne. Acorn Press. 2014.
The Victorian Age of Giants’

Also published in Church Heritage, Historical Journal of the Uniting Church in Australia (NSW & ACT). Volume 19, Number 2, September 2015. To download a copy of this review, click on this link.

Mr. Will Renshaw is now old enough to remember the chief characters of a race of Christian giants who dominated the evangelical scene in Melbourne for many years through the twentieth century. Many of these men also dominated much of the business world of Melbourne in these years, as well. The remarkable thing about our author is that he is still alive, and still able to write and speak so meaningfully about these giants of the past.

There were, of course, powerful evangelical leaders in Melbourne before Will Renshaw’s story begins – men like James Balfour, Charles Carter and Henry Varley. Melbourne’s evangelical history was also affected by visits of a string of evangelists during the “marvellous Melbourne” period of the 1880s.

Renshaw’s contention is that evangelical revival appeared strongly in Victoria in the years between 1891 and the start of the First World War in 1914. This revival produced long-term results in the lives of individuals, and in the organisations which these people led. In particular, it produced results in the life of H. P. Smith, and through his many spheres of work. In his turn, Smith influenced many others in the generation following, and the ongoing results of the revival can be seen there, as well.

Renshaw’s story starts around 1891 with the visit to Australia and New Zealand of the Anglican evangelist, the Rev. George Grubb, who was a travelling speaker on behalf of the Keswick Convention, a famous annual gathering, meeting in the Lakes District of England, where the speakers emphasised certain teachings on Christian holiness.

Through these years from 1891 and onward, a thirst for spiritual revival grew amongst a number of evangelical leaders, culminating in the visit to Australia in April, 1902, of the Principal of the Moody Bible Institute, the Rev. Reuben A. Torrey and the song-leader Charles M. Alexander. The impact of these meetings was like a revival, and the success of these meetings were greeted in many parts of the world as signs that a wider revival was breaking forth. Renshaw describes the subsequent campaigns of Torrey and Alexander in England and America, and then the outbreak of the famous Welsh Revival in December, 1904.

This again led to interesting revivals on many of the mission fields, and a decade of mass evangelism in Australia, and in many other countries.

H. P. Smith (Hervey Perceval) was born in 1870, and his spiritual life was renewed in the decade leading up to Torrey’s meetings in Melbourne in 1902. He had joined the Independent Church in Melbourne (now St. Michael’s Uniting Church), and was appointed as a prayer meeting leader in preparation for the mission. There was also, however, a dramatic experience during the mission, centred upon Jesus Christ, which transformed his life. He was already an established businessman, and his links with these mission meetings made a radical change in the way he was committed to serving Jesus Christ.

The Keswick message also had a strong influence upon him, especially in the next years, through the War and into the 1920s. Linked to this was the experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit, and basing one’s life upon study of the Bible, and obedience to it.

Renshaw uses the various activities in which Smith became involved as a means of describing the flourishing state of evangelicalism in Melbourne through those years, until Smith’s death late in 1947, generally providing a chapter to each of these major strands. He introduces many people who were strongly influenced by Smith, and who became spiritual giants in Melbourne in their own right. Many of these men were also leading businessmen, like Smith. They were men who expected things to happen, and who had the drive and strength of character to be leaders like him.

The book concludes with attention being paid to “the next generation,” where the men who followed Smith’s generation are introduced – men who were well known to Mr. Renshaw, and were closer to his own age.

Sadly, the book does not include an index, which would have made it much easier to track the many major characters who figure in the story. [Editor’s note: Marvellous Melbourne now contains an index of the major characters in this story.]

The first major enterprise of Christian service in which H. P. Smith was involved was the formation of the Melbourne Gospel Crusade. From this there sprang the start of the Upwey Convention, which eventually became the Belgrave Heights Convention that we have today.

Smith organised what he called the Keswick Tea Rooms, and Keswick Book Shop. The Tea Rooms were a major meeting place for Christians and for Christian work.

He then commenced the editing and production of a newsletter to help promote and spread the message of the Upwey Convention. This publication was called the Keswick Quarterly and Upwey Convention News, which started in 1926. This news sheet was partly financed by advertising, but also contained a great deal of evangelistic and missionary news from various missionary organisations at home and abroad. It was also used extensively to promote personal and group prayer for Christian work of all kinds. A journal like this was able to exert an enormous influence.

Years later, Renshaw tried hard to assemble his own complete set of these journals. He gathered a large collection, but not complete. The only existing complete set is now held in the Melbourne School of Theology library.

Smith was also heavily involved in the formation of the Melbourne Bible Institute, which commenced around 1920 under the leadership of the Rev. C. H. Nash. Over the years, this Institute has also had an enormous influence on the Victorian religious scene. In 1942, a report was published saying that of the students who had been through M.B.I. at that time, one half had entered full-time Christian service – 86 went to China, 72 worked amongst Australian aborigines, Pacific Islands 62, India 58, Africa 46, South America 19, Japan and Korea 5, other Muslim lands 3, Home Service 182, total – 533.

After a time, satellite versions of the Upwey Convention were organised. There are chapters in this book about three main activities of the Melbourne Gospel Crusade. These were about special evangelistic work performed on Saturday nights, the open-air ministry, hospital visitation work, itinerant evangelistic work done in country locations based in a van,

Smith was also heavily involved in commencing the production of the larger newspaper which followed the Keswick Quarterly in 1938, which at first was called The Edifier, but which changed its name to New Life in 1939.

I could not recognise in this book much mention of the degree of revival which came to many of these men through the visits of J. Edwin Orr, in 1936 and 1938. Previously I have been led to believe that a degree of revival occurred amongst them at that time through Orr’s meetings, and also through the visit of Dr Oswald J. Smith of Canada. Dr Edwin Orr visited Melbourne a number of other times in later years as well. Apparently Renshaw did not believe that Orr’s meetings were any more significant to these men than many others in the 1930s.

The combined effect of all these avenues of Christian work helped to produce the “next generation” of outstanding leaders, who were more personally known to Mr. Renshaw. These men included Alfred E. Coombe (1892 – 1984), Arthur Pocklington (1908 – 1978), Leonard E. Buck (1906 – 1996), J. Harold McCracken (1906 – 1999), Ralph Davis (1912 – 1991). And there were others that Renshaw does not mention. This was the generation of spiritual giants in Melbourne, mostly men of business and ability. So Renshaw sees all the wonderful achievements in Christian service of these men as flowing from the spiritual revival which came to Melbourne, mainly in 1902, but obviously also depending upon many prayers since then.

From the dates of these men one can see that another generation has already almost lived and gone, and Mr. Renshaw is one of the last survivors of it. Arthur Pocklington’s son, Robert, did evangelistic work in the 1940s and following, after he attended M.B.I.

Significantly, apart from C. H. Nash, all these men were laymen. An important message should be gained from that fact. Most of them were strong leaders within the denominations to which they belonged. For example, Leonard Buck was a leading Methodist. But their main achievements were not performed within any of the denominations. The results of their work have also not be restricted to denominational effects.

I recommend this book to thoughtful Christians everywhere. More biographies of these giants are needed, and of their work for Christ. Their work contributed much to making Melbourne into a strong evangelical centre in their times, and some of the impact remains today.

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