Recently my wife bought me Mack Tomlinson’s In Light of Eternity: The Life of Leonard Ravenhill (2010), which has been a tremendous blessing. While I was studying Philosophy and Religion at UNC Pembroke in 2005-2006, I became a “SermonIndex.net” junkie, listening to hundreds of MP3 sermons from preachers like Leonard Ravenhill, David Wilkerson, A. W. Tozer, and other revival leaders. But my favorite was Ravenhill. Within the next few years, my life would take some dramatic turns by way of trials and tribulations, and I simply did not have the time nor the opportunity to listen to those sermons. But they remained in my spirit. Ravenhill’s sermons challenged me to seek a deeper prayer life or meditation and contemplation of God, to pursue “holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14), and to not compromise my moral convictions. I shared his disgust with the carnality, worldliness, and hypocrisy of most Christians and leaders in today’s church; it was always refreshing to hear an old man crying out fervently against these sins. I felt that I wasn’t crazy; I was not alone.
Just before I married my wife in 2008, I met Kerrigan Skelly and Jesse Morrell, two young evangelistic open air preachers of my generation: they too had been deeply influenced by Ravenhill’s sermons; I also started open air preaching on-and-off at UNC Pembroke around 2006:—which was also a year in which I was blessed with revelations, visions, and dreams. It was a very prophetic time for me. God was definitely “leading and guiding me into all truth” at this time (John 16:13). I eventually read Ravenhill’s Why Revival Tarries in the summer of 2007, and I absolutely loved it; it was once again another encouragement for me to pursue “holiness and righteousness all the days of my life” (Luke 1:75), which is obedience to God. What many said was “legalism” in my life for years, Ravenhill assured me was just good old-fashioned holiness, or obedience to God. The influence of the sermons, of this fiery British preacher, on my relationship with God, has been obviously tremendous. But enough about me; now a bit about him, and Christ in him…
Ravenhill’s Early Years:
Holiness Churches, The Salvation Army, and the Trekkers
Leonard was British. He grew up in Leeds, England. His father worked at a steelworks factory, was relatively poor, but was radically converted from being a drunk; and became deeply involved in what was left of the holiness movement. His father was converted by hearing David Matthews in 1912, a preacher who wrote I Saw the Welsh Revival; and became friends with his father after that. The Ravenhills attended holiness churches as a family; and his dad would regularly go street preaching in various places at night after work, either independently or with the Salvation Army, occasionally bringing people to church that he had converted at the bars. In his adolescent years, Leonard drifted into selfishness and carnality, and had not made a personal commitment to Christ. But at the age of 14, because of the influence of his father, and his mother’s fervent prayer life; Leonard became persuaded of the reality of Christ, and his own spiritual lack. This was in 1921.
After graduating from high school, for a short time he worked at a textile factory, and was thinking he would end up with a career as a tailor. One evening, near the end of his work shift, he heard the nearly audible voice of Christ speak from behind him, “Follow me.” He looked behind him to see who it was; but nobody was there. It was then he knew Christ was calling him into full time ministry; for a while he had been thinking of going to Cliff College, where the renowned holiness preacher Samuel Chadwick was president. And so he did. He only stayed for 9 months though, and then joined the “Trekkers”:–an evangelistic group of young men sent out from Cliff College to travel by foot all over England, preaching the Gospel in the streets, holding evangelistic tent meetings, and planting what eventually became the Calvary Holiness Church:–of which Maynard James, Leonard Ravenhill, Clifford Filer, and Jack Ford were leaders. This is recorded in Ford’s book In the Steps of John Wesley, which reveals the obvious spiritual influence of Wesleyan evangelism: to “spread Scriptural holiness throughout the land.” It is said they walked a total of 500 miles preaching the Gospel in England’s towns, cities, and communities! There were also miracles of divine healing in answer to their prayers for the sick! All of this, was of course, before Ravenhill was married and had kids. For 18 years, he served as an itinerant pastor and street evangelist for the Calvary Holiness Church, which in 1955, eventually buckled under financial difficulties, and merged with the Church of the Nazarene. Ravenhill, however, did not join in with the merger, and instead chose to become an independent itinerant evangelist.
Ravenhill, the Evangelist:
Bethany Fellowship, Travels, Etc.
For anyone answering the call of an itinerant evangelist, it is known to be a financially difficult task, and at times, very unstable. In his early days, he was struggling to find enough opportunities to have his needs met:–for about 2 years. And at this time, he was married and had kids. This must have been a very trying time for Leonard. To have no more of the spiritual influence, prestige, and financial security of leadership in the Calvary Holiness Church; and to be simply living by faith as an itinerant evangelist, must have been very humbling and difficult. Because there was no homeschooling movement in those days, the Ravenhills followed the usual custom of sending their kids to public school. Whenever Leonard had a preaching opportunity open up for him in America, he had to go, because of his calling, and the financial pressure. But he left his family behind; and for times, months on end. (Learning of this made me take warning to myself and all evangelists: no ministry is worth leaving your wife and kids behind; remember the apostle Peter “carried his wife along” with him, as did other apostles–1 Cor. 9:5.)
Eventually Bethany Fellowship in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a “mission sending agency” (for evangelists and missionaries), found out about Leonard, and offered him some support in 1958. While they could offer him no salary, they offered him and his family room and board on their campus, by the Bible school, and the stability of filling out a preaching itinerary for him. It was through Bethany House Publishers that Ravenhill published all of his books, including Why Revival Tarries, Sodom Had No Bible, Revival God’s Way, etc. Bethany Fellowship is responsible for making Ravenhill popular, at least to the evangelical ministry community. Whether or not pastors and Bible teachers came to love him or hate him, in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, the name of Leonard Ravenhill was a household name for many evangelical preachers and seminary students. He became a “preacher’s preacher”:–a role model to many, especially to Pentecostals, Wesleyans, holiness preachers, Baptists, Charismatics, and other evangelical ministers interested in evangelism and revival.
Ravenhill, the Revivalist:
Teen Challenge, Travels, Last Days Ministries, Etc.
After several years as a Bethany-based itinerant evangelist, by 1963 he came under the impression that God was calling him to more of a ministry of revival meetings than strictly evangelistic meetings:–that is, less of an emphasis on preaching the Gospel to the unchurched, and more of an emphasis on prayer meetings, revival of the church, and getting church people to repent from deep sin at the altar, and to see unconverted church members converted from backsliding, apostasy, and hypocrisy. Since revivalism was not part of the scope of Bethany Fellowship’s ministry focus, Ravenhill had to look elsewhere for a ministry base, from which he could bring his new preaching and ministry focus of revival for the church. In this way, he became very much like Charles Finney in his ministry approach; although on a theological level, he was still deeply a Wesleyan, and was influenced by countless Puritan books, devotional books, Christian biographies, and revival histories. After years as a revivalist, he had a confident hope that one day, America would see at least one more nationwide 18th century-style Great Awakening before the return of Christ; and for over 30 years he prayed for that to happen.
From 1963-1966, Ravenhill served as the chaplain for Brooklyn Teen Challenge, ministering to drug addicts; he had been invited there by special request of David Wilkerson, who became a life-long friend. After that, for several years, the Ravenhills lived in the lap of luxury in the Bahamas! The opportunity was given to them; and they had a lot of house church meetings in those days. They must have viewed it from the viewpoint of Philippians 4:11-13: “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” After years of suffering as an itinerant evangelist, and constant pain in body, and persecutions from lukewarm church leaders, the Ravenhills felt content for a time of contemplation and rest. However, the Lord laid it in on their hearts to go back to America for more itinerant revival meetings; not because they lacked anything financially, but because their burden for the American church was so great. In 1972, before leaving the Bahamas, Leonard wrote to a friend, “It has been lonely here for us, as far as churches; for three years the churches here have almost ostracized us. Now they are asking that we minister before we leave the island.” Revelation 3:16-17 sounds fitting: “Because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’–and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked.”
Throughout the 1970s, Ravenhill traveled around America, and I understand it was more often (but not always) with his wife, preaching revival meetings. The most notable of which were chapel services at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky, which were in the wake of the 1970 Asbury Revival. Leonard did not see that revival; but he was able to rekindle the remainder of its fires in the successive years. The meetings would sometimes go on for 4 hours of weeping, confessions, and repentance at the altar in prayer. He said of one such visit, “The meetings at Asbury were out of this world.” In the late 70s, Pastor Charles Stanley had Ravenhill to come and preach revival meetings at his First Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. It had such an effect that there were thousands brought to their knees in confession, repentance, and total humiliation of sin before God and men. What’s more, is that various groups from that church spawned prayer meetings and street preaching. After one very impactful and rebuking sermon from Ravenhill, Charles Stanley took the stage: “When he came to the pulpit, he was pale as death. He said, ‘I can’t pray for you. I can’t pray for you. The reason you don’t love the lost around here, the reason you haven’t visited people and don’t extend a hand, the reason you’d rather stay at home, rather than get in the back alleys, and rescue the perishing, is that I haven’t done it. All I have prayed is, ‘Oh, God, take this scum out of the city.'”
In 1979, Ravenhill began his final “burst of glory” for Christ; it was then that they moved to Lindale, Texas and were eventually sought out by Keith Green, the successful Christian musician, who had started his Last Days Ministries in Los Angeles, California. Keith was a powerful influence on the “Jesus freaks” generation (the Jesus movement); and he used Last Days as a vehicle by which to bring Ravenhill’s message to the Jesus freaks. Keith was a big fan of Charles Finney’s Lectures on Revivals of Religion, and had just recently been reading Ravenhill’s Why Revival Tarries. After Keith sought out Ravenhill, he moved his ministry to Lindale, and Ravenhill became the unofficial overseer of Keith and Last Days. Whenever Keith needed spiritual guidance, encouragement, or fellowship, he could freely walk into the Ravenhills’ house uninvited. They had a Friday night prayer meeting in a friend’s mansion home, that Ravenhill would preach at, and Keith would lead worship on the piano. Some people would drive over 200 miles just to make it to this prayer meeting! It was during those years, till his dying day in 1994, that Leonard preached those piercing recorded sermons at Last Days, which are on sermonindex.net.