A case study of revival at Cronulla in the 1960s
The Cronulla Presbyterian Church in the 1950s was average for the time. It was
Presbyterian by tradition but not by spiritual heritage. Few of the elders would have made a credible profession of faith. The minister was evangelical, but he was not an expository preacher.
In 1955 the senior youth group disbanded through marriage or loss of interest. A few continued, meeting before the Sunday evening service for a “study” from the PFA Magazine. These dealt with dubious “contemporary issues”. By the end of 1956, only some four or five young people attended.
In 1956, at 14, I started attending and began reading my Bible. But in January 1957 at an Intra-School Christian Fellowship camp, I was found by Christ and bowed the knee to Him in faith and repentance. My whole life now changed.
At this time some teenagers joined the Bible Class, and attendance rose to a dozen or so. Spiritually, the group was rather barren. But while very ignorant, I knew I was a child of God and learned to lead the Bible studies. Late in 1957, through contact with ISCF, I started distributing Scripture Union Daily Bible Reading notes.
Alison Stebbins joined late in 1957, from the Bible class, and soon showed an interest in the things of God. She was converted shortly afterwards, mainly through reading the Scriptures. When the leader resigned in February 1959, I was elected.
Another Christian, coming from the country, joined Alison on the committee. The committee now began its meetings with a time of corporate prayer, even though not all on it were Christians. The committee now aimed at becoming an evangelical group. It decided to use better Bible studies and began inviting evangelical speakers for its monthly Fellowship tea.
In 1961, some young people came from the local Baptist Church because of problems with their own church. They wanted to organise a weekend camp. So the committee organised one before these young people complicated matters. Speakers were invited from the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, and their preaching was fervent. Though no conversions occurred, further camps were organised. In the meantime. Fellowship attendance continued to rise.
After a 1963 camp, weekly Sunday evening prayer meetings began before the Sunday meeting. Sometimes as many as 10 crowded a small church room and poured their hearts out to the Lord. This deepened a sense of God and a spiritual relationship among the young people. There was heartfelt, urgent prayer for God to work and for people to be converted. At this time two sisters were converted, and became enthusiastic for the faith. One became the leader for 1963-64.
At the 1964 camp, John Campbell, the minister of Hurstville South, spoke on justification and sanctification. This introduced us to the Reformed faith. This time there was a clear work of the Spirit. On Sunday morning, one by one, campers sought refuge in the chapel under deep conviction of sin. Some were already converted. Others came to see their need of Christ as they began to see their sin in all its ugliness.
Young people who had only recently treated the Christian faith as a joke were seen with tears streaming down their faces. One was Paul Alcorn. He writes: “I can’t say I remember a great deal of what was said but the fact of justification by faith, Jesus dying in my place bearing my sin away was clearly opened to … my heart. I was overwhelmed by the love of Jesus and the enormity of my sin. … My fear of hell was taken from me … Now all my sins were taken away. I had a sure and certain hope. I couldn’t fathom that love. But I knew the truth of it. I wept that day like I had never wept before or since. When I walked out of the chapel I had an overwhelming assurance. After that I just wanted everyone to share the joy of what Jesus had done for me.”
Several young people came to faith in Christ. There was an accelerating work of God that continued until 1969.
The local congregation, however, opted for a minister less committed to Reformed theology, and even the evangelical session clerk, said, “We have got to be fair. After having an evangelical we should have someone of broader theology”.
1966-67 saw Paul Alcorn as leader and Ken Stebbins as deputy. A growing momentum wrought conversions through the group’s normal witness. David Price writes: “What was remarkable was the genuine love of Christ and the care shown to me by the older members… Over the next two years I became a Christian, though I couldn’t pin down a date.” Don Burgess began attending and bought John Stott’s Basic Christianity at a camp, and was converted through it.
The Fellowship was embracing Reformed doctrine through Westminster Society meetings in the city, but the Youth for Christ Rallies and the Brian Willersdorf Crusade (1966) had a weakening effect. Yet conversions continued and much joy was evident. Frank Stoffels writes: “The joy that filled my heart as part of the Fellowship was palpable and memorable. I used to walk to and from Fellowship … and can remember rejoicing in the Lord all the way, often singing hymns in my heart.”
In 1967, in the aftermath of the exoneration of Professor Lloyd Geering on charges of heresy in New Zealand, the Presbyterian Reformed Church was formed, and many of the young converted ones at Cronulla joined it. It should be said that other congregations about this time or a little later also experienced something of a work of the Spirit of God.
Drawing the strands together, I make five observations.
First, the unpromising circumstances. There was no long-term Fellowship leader. From 1959-69, there were six leaders, all young and immature teenagers. The church was hostile to the idea of conversion.
Second, prayer. There was a growing emphasis on prayer. It became the spiritual powerhouse of the youth. Past revivals were marked by prayer. This was certainly the case here.
Third, God-given cohesion. The group acted together when it came to finding the doctrines of grace. God had brought about a steadfastness of commitment to the truth, in spite of the defective preaching from liberal pastors.
Fourth, developing doctrinal maturity. From 1956 to 1969 the Fellowship moved from liberalism to Arminian evangelicalism to a decisive Calvinism. Later conversions were deeply influenced by the doctrines of grace.
Fifth, lasting results. Of some 40 to 45 young people who made a profession of Christ in that era, some 35 are still standing firm (2017). Over time, three men have been called to the ministry. Another five became ruling elders and others have served as deacons. Several girls married teaching elders, ruling elders and missionaries. They have kept the
faith (2 Tim. 4:7) and continue in Christ.
Was it a singular work of God? The evidence points to revival having taken place, though spread over a decade. May this encourage us to pray for revival, and may God have all the glory.
Ed Kastelein is a retired Presbyterian Reformed Church minister