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A REVIEW OF IAIN H. MURRAY’S ‘THE OLD EVANGELICALISM’
by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.
“I will remember the works of the Lord: surely I will remember thy wonders of old” (Psalm 77:11).
In the summer of 1961 I went into the Biola Bookroom, a little Christian bookstore next to the Church of the Open Door, then pastored by Dr. J. Vernon McGee, at 550 South Hope Street in downtown Los Angeles. I saw a small yellow book that caught my attention. The subtitle made me pick it up, “No single figure influenced so many minds, no single voice touched so many hearts. No other man did such a life’s work for England.” I turned the book over and read on the back cover, “As one who inhales the lotus fragrance is forever charmed, so the reader of Wesley’s life is irresistibly drawn to know for himself the heights and depths of the love of the God whom John Wesley served.”
The main title of the book was The Journal of John Wesley (Moody Press, no date, edited by Percy Livingstone Parker). It contained about one-fourth of Wesley’s original Journal, now published as volumes one to four in The Works of John Wesley (Baker Book House, 1979).
Then I read what Augustine Birrell, attorney for the King, said in the introduction to the Moody Press edition,
If you want to get into [the 18th century], to feel its pulses throb beneath your finger,…ride up and down the country [on horseback] with the greatest force of the eighteenth century in England…his Journals remain, and from them we can learn better than from anywhere else what manner of man he was, and the character of the times during which he lived and moved and had his being (ibid., p. 23).
I bought the book, I think, for about seventy-five cents, went home and read it from cover to cover. The back jacket said that it is
“A book full of plots and plays and novels, which quivers with life and is crammed full of characters. By offering Wesley’s Journal again to the Christian public, Moody Press is presenting in handy form one of the most important, instructive, and entertaining books ever published in the English language. John Wesley influenced not only eighteenth-century England - the force of his life and exertions is felt today, and will continue to be felt.”
As I read John Wesley’s Journal, I found that I was indeed “forever charmed.” As I read, I was “irresistibly drawn to know for [myself] the heights and depths of the love of the God whom John Wesley served.” I consider his Journal to be one of the three or four seminal books that helped to change my views of evangelism and real revival. I have never fully gotten away from it.
Being a mere youth, I knew not as yet the names of George Whitefield, John Cennick, Howell Harris and the other important preachers of the First Great Awakening (1735-1760). But Wesley’s Journal gave me a taste for the sort of awakening he ministered in during those days of God-sent revival in the eighteenth century.
I looked around me in the twentieth century and saw nothing of the mighty outpouring of God which occurred in that far off century. But the Journal made me hungry to know more about that almost “mystical” time when tens of thousands experienced real conversion, before C. G. Finney ruined evangelism by changing God-given conversion into the empty “decisionism” which now engulfs so much of the world.
Yes, I named my second son John Wesley Hymers out of respect to this great evangelist. But I do not now agree with Wesley on a number of lesser points. I do, however, agree with his basic message of evangelism, which he and Whitefield preached up and down the world.
For a clearer theology on some points, the earlier Puritan writers should be read, and read carefully, men like Flavel, Hooker, Owen, and the others. But it is, I believe, a mistake to dwell excessively on the writings of these earlier Puritans. They ought to be read and consulted. But to gain a full understanding of evangelism we must not rest on their writings alone. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones often said that the focus of our study should be on George Whitefield, Howell Harris, John and Charles Wesley, and others who took the Puritan message of conversion out of the confines of the churches, into the fields, to the unchurched, unsaved multitudes.
If I were counselling a young man regarding true evangelism, I would tell him to become familiar with the Reformers of the sixteenth century, particularly with Martin Luther (1483-1564) and John Knox (1514-1572). I would tell him to peruse the writings of John Owen (1616-1683), Richard Sibbes (1577-1633), Thomas Hooker (1586-1647), John Flavel (1627-1691), Joseph Alleine (1634-1668), John Bunyan (1628-1688), and especially Richard Baxter (1615-1691) who famously said,
“I preach as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.”
But after reading the Puritans, I hope a young man would then turn his study in depth to the writings and sermons of their successors, the men who followed the Puritans in the eighteenth century, during the time of the First Great Awakening, men like Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John Wesley, Howell Harris and their co-laborers during the greatest of all revivals in the English speaking world, for it was these successors of the Puritans who took their doctrines to the streets, and confronted every living soul in their hearing with the life-changing message of the old evangelical Gospel.
I believe that it is an error to focus exclusively on the Puritans. It is my conviction that we should concentrate on their heirs, the eighteenth century men like George Whitefield. These were the men who went outside their churches and confronted a dying civilization with the unadulterated Gospel of Christ. And I believe we must do no less than what they did in our time. We must, like them, obey Christ and
“Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled” (Luke 14:23).
Above all, I would tell a young preacher to read The Life of the Reverend George Whitefield, two thick volumes by Luke Tyerman (Need of the Times Reprint, 1995). Tyerman’s two books on Whitefield have never been surpassed. These are the books on Whitefield a preacher should read. The newer biographies tend to be “watered down.”
In my opinion George Whitefield was the greatest Gospel preacher since the Apostle Paul. Every young man who feels the call to preach should read Tyerman’s work. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones called Whitefield, “the greatest preacher that England has ever produced.” I fully agree that he was the most important preacher of all time in the English speaking world.
Having learned the basic doctrines of converting grace from the Puritans, we must break free from their somewhat introverted applications, and go after college students and the man on the street, as Whitefield, Wesley, and the other eighteenth century men did with such zeal and God-given determination. These men did not agree on some points of theology, but all of them were deeply aware of basic Puritan thought concerning evangelism and conversion. Their views of conversion were nearly identical regardless of their thoughts on other subjects.
A fairly new book by Iain H. Murray is titled, The Old Evangelicalism: Old Truths for a New Awakening (Banner of Truth Trust, 2005). I believe this little book to be literally “sent by God.” Murray does not present a narrow sectarian point of view. He quotes as freely from the Arminian John Wesley as he does from the Calvinist John Owen. And by approaching his subject in this large-hearted way, he strikes at the very center of the difference between modern evangelism and what he calls “Old Truths for a New Awakening.”
The Old Evangelicalism is, I think, an outgrowth of Murray’s earlier book, Revival and Revivalism: the Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism (The Banner of Truth Trust, 2002 edition). Chapter fourteen of that book shows how the old concept of conversion and revival was replaced by the “new school,” led by C. G. Finney (1792-1875). Two quotations from chapter fourteen illustrate the difference between the “old school” evangelism of the 18th century and the “new school” evangelism that arose in the time of Finney in the 19th century. The first quotation says:
…the older generation argued that if being saved became identified with performing a bodily act [such as ‘going forward,’ raising the hand, saying a ‘sinner’s prayer,’ etc.], and if hearers were told that it was ‘as easy to change one’s heart from the love of sin’ as to perform that act, then multitudes would be encouraged in a false assurance. This point, as others, was never answered (Iain H. Murray, Revival and Revivalism: the Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858, The Banner of Truth Trust, 2002 edition, p. 368).
The second quotation gives another insight concerning the older evangelicalism:
…would-be converts were never encouraged to make instant profession. About six months would pass…between hopeful conversion and a public profession of faith. In the [earlier revivals] it is a prominent fact that ministers used great caution in giving opinions concerning the spiritual state…phrases such as “hopefully renewed,” or “hopefully born of God,” were then commonly used of professed converts, whereas by 1852, says the same writer, he heard of ‘conversions,’ ‘wonderful conversions’ which were only supposed to have happened ‘yesterday afternoon’ or ‘last evening’ (ibid., p. 369).
I believe that chapter fourteen of Revival and Revivalism should be studied carefully to give the historical background of Murray’s new book, The Old Evangelicalism: Old Truths for a New Awakening. The “new school” “decisionism” introduced by C. G. Finney and his cohorts has not produced revival, but has instead filled our church rolls with countless thousands of unconverted people. In Revival and Revivalism, Murray traced through Christian history the profound change that occurred in Finney’s time, which I would call the “anti-Reformation,” where evangelism changed from seeking real conversions to producing “decisions,” and true revival was replaced by human “revivalism.” The “new school” evangelism of the Finney men was based on a theological attack on the doctrines of the Reformation. Thus, it was really an “anti-Reformation” which has robbed us, in our day, of the great insights of the Reformers and the Puritans.
In The Old Evangelicalism Murray explains what evangelicals believed about conversion before the change began in Finney’s day. By the term “old evangelicalism” he refers not to a particular generation or a single denomination, but to the beliefs of Christian leaders of the past five centuries, from Martin Luther in the sixteenth century, to the Puritans of the seventeenth century, to Whitefield, Edwards, and Wesley in the eighteenth century, to C. H. Spurgeon in the nineteenth century, and to Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in the twentieth century. While Murray is himself a Calvinist, he writes concerning the great sweep of Protestant and Baptist “conversionists,” including men belonging to different schools of Calvinism, as well as the Arminian John Wesley, to whom Murray devotes an entire chapter (“What Can We Learn from John Wesley?”). The scope and breadth of his scholarly yet warm-hearted coverage is shown inside the front and back jackets of the book, where he lists the names and dates of the “old” evangelical authors he quotes. Here are some of the men he mentions in that list as “old” evangelicals.
Martin Luther, 1483-1546.
John Calvin, 1509-1564.
John Knox, 1514-1572.
Thomas Hooker, 1586-1647.
William Gurnall, 1616-1679.
John Flavel, 1627-1691.
Joseph Alleine, 1634-1668.
John Bunyan, 1628-1688.
John Wesley, 1703-1791.
Jonathan Edwards, 1703-1758.
George Whitefield, 1714-1770.
Robert M. M’Cheyne, 1813-1843.
Alexander Whyte, 1836-1921.
John C. Ryle, 1816-1900.
C. H. Spurgeon, 1834-1892.
A. W. Tozer, 1897-1963.
D. M. Lloyd-Jones, 1899-1981.
At the beginning of this list he quotes Martin Luther:
We teach no new thing, but we repeat and establish old things, which the apostles and all godly teachers have taught before us.
At the end of the list he quotes Spurgeon:
Clean the grand old pictures of the divine masters; hang them up in new frames; fix them on the walls of your people’s memories, and their well-instructed hearts shall bless you.
Chapter one of The Old Evangelicalism is the most important part of the book. It is titled, “Preaching and Awakening: Facing the Main Problem in Evangelism.” The main points of the chapter are these:
“No One Will Become Concerned About Himself Until He Learns About God.”
"Under Conviction Individuals Commonly Endeavor a Change of Behavior."
“By the Law Men Learn Their Helplessness.”
“The Initial Need in Evangelism Is Not to Win an Acceptance for Christ.”
“Regeneration and Conviction”
“Conclusion: 1. The Case Demonstrated by History.
2. What Preachers Need.”
John Brown of Wamphrey: What Preparation is Not and What It Is.
Thomas Scott: The Offence of the Cross Ceasing.
Alexander Whyte: Preaching to the Conscience.
D. M. Lloyd-Jones: The Law.”
I would sum up the main point of this chapter in these words: conversion is real. True conversion begins with an awareness of God, and one’s sin and helplessness. In the “old” evangelicalism, “…the one dominant note was an overpowering sense of sin” (p. 4). John Bunyan said, “It is an easier thing to persuade a well man to go to a physician for a cure, than it is to persuade a man that sees not his soul-disease, to [truly] come to Jesus Christ” (p. 7).
Real revival is a time when consciences are alarmed. This is also true of individual conversions. People will not be concerned about being truly converted until they feel that they are hopeless sinners in the sight of a holy God. When their consciences are convicted, sinners will try to change their behavior. Then they discover that they cannot measure up to God’s standard. By the preaching of the law men learn their helplessness. As Dr. J. Gresham Machen pointed out,
Without the consciousness of sin, the whole of the gospel will seem to be an idle tale (J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1923, reprinted 1983, p. 66).
Murray warns that a person may mentally “believe” the message of the Gospel without being converted. The conscience must be thoroughly dealt with by the law, as Machen indicated (p. 13). The error of the “new” evangelism lies in ceasing to preach the law to sinners so they will say, “O God, deliver me from myself” (p. 14). Today there are many “converts” who never knew the depths of their own depravity, or the fear of God. Murray argues against modern “decisionism” by saying that the goal of evangelism is not initially to win “an acceptance of Christ.” He says, “Conversion does not come about by the preacher gaining the sinner’s acceptance of his message” (p. 15). Instead the sinner must be convinced of his own helplessness, the pride of his heart, and the rebellion of his nature against God.
…the evangelicalism of the last hundred years contrasts unfavorably with what went before. One of the older evangelicals who forecast the coming change was C. H. Spurgeon [who prophesied that “boiling mud-pots of apostasy” would characterize Christianity in the twentieth century]; another was William Booth. When Booth was asked by an American newspaper what he regarded as the chief dangers ahead for the twentieth century, he replied tersely: “Religion without the Holy Ghost, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, politics without God and heaven without hell.” Such a decline in the biblical message has indeed taken place and a weaker evangelicalism has been unable to stem the tide (p. xi).
C. H. Spurgeon wrote,
Sometimes we are inclined to think that a great portion of modern revivalism has been more a curse than a blessing, because it has led thousands to a kind of peace before they have known their misery; restoring the prodigal to the Father’s house, and never making him say, “Father, I have sinned.” The old-fashioned sense of sin is despised…The consequence is that men leap into religion and then leap out again. Unhumbled they came into the church, unhumbled they remain in it, and unhumbled they go forth from it (p. 27).
Murray says, “Spurgeon’s warning was unheeded. Spiritual decline followed. As gospel was preached without law, faith without repentance and heaven without hell, a careless spirit increased” (ibid.). As a result literally uncountable numbers of people have experienced a counterfeit “conversion” in our day. There can be no real conversion without a sharp, deep-working sense of sin and unworthiness. People will not savingly come to Christ until they are brought under the law by sharp preaching, followed by a probing of the conscience by the preacher, alone with the inquirers in a quiet place after the sermon. Only by such preaching and counselling will they be brought to an end of their own efforts, and then brought savingly to Jesus.
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “The essence of evangelism is to start by preaching the law” (ibid.). Lloyd-Jones said,
The business of evangelism is not just to solve people’s problems…The thing that separates the gospel from every other teaching is that it is primarily a proclamation of God and our relationship to God. Not our particular problems, but the same problem that has come to all of us, that we are condemned sinners before a holy God and a holy law. That is evangelism (ibid.).
To which Iain H. Murray adds,
A recovery of the fear of God, and of the greatness of His displeasure against sin, is the need of our times (ibid., p. 31).
Murray is absolutely right!
The second chapter of The Old Evangelicalism is devoted to C. H. Spurgeon, the “Prince of Preachers.” Spurgeon was the leading figure of the Third Great Awakening (1857-1861) and was, in my view, the most important Baptist pastor of all time. He was also a man who leaned toward the past. Conservative by nature, he has been called “the last of the Puritans.” Murray is exactly right to devote an entire chapter (“Spurgeon and True Conversion”) to him in his book. On the back jacket, Murray quotes Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones,
Modern evangelicalism is very unlike the evangelicalism of the eighteenth century and of the Puritans. The genuine evangelicalism is that older evangelicalism.
Spurgeon lived close enough to our time to be considered a bridge to the older evangelical view of true conversion. In his analysis of Spurgeon, Murray takes a more distinctly Calvinistic view of the order of conversion than I would. Yet much can be learned from this chapter regarding what Spurgeon thought about conversion, and Murray has done a great service by making available, in this easily read format, what Spurgeon thought about this all-important subject.
Spurgeon believed in real conversion, not a mere “decision.” He believed that true conversion includes a strong awareness of sin and a “looking” or “coming” to Jesus - union with Christ. Spurgeon said,
In all true conversions there are points of essential agreement: there must be in all a penitent confession of sin, and a looking to Jesus for forgiveness of it, and there must also be a real change of heart, such as shall affect the entire after life, and where these essential points are not to be found there is no genuine conversion (quoted in Iain H. Murray, The Old Evangelicalism, Banner of Truth Trust, 2005, p. 41).
Murray says that Spurgeon’s view of true conversion may sound simple, but “all that is involved is more profound than we can attain to in our present understanding…Our danger today is to suppose that the truth about conversion is only a preliminary to the Christian faith, something like the two-times table is for mathematics, and therefore that it need not detain our attention for long” (ibid.). He says that there are very few modern evangelical books on the subject of Biblical conversion. “What is central in the New Testament has been moved to the periphery, and this reflects a general situation in our churches” (ibid., p. 42). “But when the subject [of conversion] ceases to be paramount it ought to be no surprise that evangelistic endeavour falters” (ibid.). “If our practice was closer to Spurgeon’s who can doubt that true conversions would be more common among us. I propose, then, in this address to take up Spurgeon’s thought as a stimulus for us on this great issue” (ibid.).
Spurgeon believed in the necessity of law work in evangelistic preaching. Spurgeon himself had been “under conviction of sin for several years…But the important thing for him was not the length of time, it was the scriptural principle that law is necessary before gospel” (ibid., p. 48). Spurgeon said,
The Christian minister should declare very pointedly the evil of sin…Open up the spirituality of the law as our Lord did and show how it is broken by evil thoughts, intents and inclinations. By this means many sinners will be pricked in their hearts. Robert Flockhart used to say, ‘It is no use trying to sew with the silken thread of the gospel unless we pierce a way for it with the sharp needle of the law.’ The law goes first like the needle and draws the gospel thread after it (ibid., pp. 48-49).
Murray then traces how the preaching of the moral law was gradually left out of evangelism after the time of Finney. Yet, as important as the preaching of the law is in evangelism, conviction of sin is not the goal. The goal is for sinners to come to Jesus. “Law preaching” made Felix tremble, but he was not converted. Sinners must not take comfort in an awakening of conviction. As important as law preaching is, it is not an end in itself. Spurgeon said that “awakened sinners will be damned unless they believe in Jesus. You must not make a Christ out of your tears, you must not hope to find safety in your bitter thoughts and cruel despair. Unless you believe [in Jesus] you will never be established” [as a truly converted person] (ibid., p. 51).
Murray says that law should be preached to the unconverted, not because it teaches them “what they can do, but what they ought to do…It brings home to the non-Christian that he cannot change his own nature, he cannot save himself. It was of conversion that Jesus was speaking when He said, ‘With men this is impossible’ (Matthew 19:26)” (ibid., pp. 52-53). Preaching on the inability of the unconverted man, Spurgeon said,
Would to God we could bring you, not only to discouragement, but to despair of yourselves. When you… feel you are powerless we shall have hope for you, for then you will leave yourselves in the hands of him who can do all things. When self’s strength is gone, God’s strength will come in…I do not want to rouse your activity, you unconverted people: I want you to rouse you to the conviction that you are lost, and I pray God the Holy Spirit may convince you (ibid., p. 53).
Murray shows that the eighteenth century evangelist George Whitefield desired that lost people “might be convinced of your unbelief, and be led to ask faith of him whose gift it is” (ibid.).
Murray says that regeneration (the new birth) is instantaneous and once for all, never needing to be repeated. “Regeneration is an event, not a process. It is the entrance of the resurrection life of Christ” (p. 55). I believe regeneration is the other side of conversion (the human side) and so I teach that both are simultaneous and instantaneous. But this is really a minor difference, not worthy of further comment, in my opinion.
Murray correctly says that modern evangelicals are as wrong to identify regeneration with a “decision for Christ” as Catholics were to identify it with “baptism” (p. 56). He says,
The time of rebirth belongs to God. The one thing that is certain is that God brings men low before he raises them up. Before the Prodigal Son ‘came to himself’…he knew something of the pain of being in a far country (ibid.).
Some may be under conviction of sin for a long time before conversion, as was Spurgeon. Others may have a quick stab of conviction followed by a sudden conversion. Murray says, “Conviction does not save anyone but no one is saved without conviction” (p. 57). A person may come under conviction and yet not be converted. Also, a person may “believe” the doctrines of salvation without coming to Christ (pp. 57-58). Belief in the doctrines of grace never saved anyone. To be converted, one must be awakened to his terrible, sinful, lost condition and then actually be united with Christ, otherwise his “belief” will produce nothing but a dry acknowledgement of the facts of salvation, and he will never truly come to Christ Himself to receive the saving benefits the Saviour offers to sinners.
Spurgeon regarded the altar call (“coming forward”) as “calculated to confuse the meaning of conversion.” Spurgeon “knew that receiving Christ is never without a change of nature (regeneration) and such a change cannot be effected by any physical action such as asking a person to come to the front” (p. 63). “Spurgeon never added to his preaching an ‘appeal’ or ‘altar call’ for an immediate public decision on the part of individuals who wished to become Christians” (ibid.). “The ‘public decision’ as a means to number converts Spurgeon regarded as utterly untrustworthy” (pp. 63-64). He said,
Some of the most glaring sinners known to me were once members of a church; and were, as I believe, led to make a profession by undue pressure…I am weary of this public bragging, this counting of unhatched chickens (p. 64).
“Of other places where [Spurgeon] preached, including in the open-air…no such appeal was ever given” (ibid.). That is, Spurgeon never gave an “invitation” to come forward, raise the hand, etc. Having the enquirers dealt with “was a different matter, which he encouraged” (ibid.). But he did this in his vestry, often on Monday nights and other evenings of his work week, not as a sudden thing at the end of each sermon, as we usually see done in our day of “new school” evangelism.
In the later nineteenth century the idea [from Finney and his followers] became very popular…that if conversion could be ‘simplified’ into a once-done act, performed at [any time] by any person, then evangelism would be more successful. ‘Success’ came to displace every other priority. Spurgeon, and [some others of the “old school” of evangelism] were in a minority in warning that the gospel wrongly presented was doing injury and [would] bring calamity to the churches [in the future] (p. 65).
In particular, what [Spurgeon] came to miss in the wider [new] evangelical scene was the absence of the conviction of sin and the fear of God. [Conviction of sin] was disappearing in the churches, and with [it] came a loss of reverence and awe. The description of Christians as ‘God-fearing people’ passed out of fashion. Happiness, not fear [became] the one theme, But Spurgeon argued that the two [could not] be separated (p. 66).
“Spurgeon had no doubt that the superficial evangelism [of the ‘new school’] was a major contributing cause for the absence of [true] converts” (ibid.).
Murray quotes Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who made this all very clear when he said, that in the “new” evangelism,
You need not feel much of your own sinfulness; you need not be aware of the blackness of your own heart. You just “decide for Christ” and you rush in with the crowd [at the “invitation time”], and your name is put down, and is one of the large number of “decisions” reported…It is entirely [different from] the evangelism of the Puritans and of John Wesley, George Whitefield and others [of the eighteenth century], which led men to be terrified of the judgment of God, and to have an agony of soul sometimes for days and weeks and months (page 69).
Murray closes this chapter by giving the view of an older evangelical, Dr. A. W. Tozer, who said,
The whole transaction of religious conversion has been made mechanical and spiritless. Faith may now be exercised without a jar to…the Adamic ego. Christ may be “received” without creating any special love for Him in the soul of the receiver (page 70).
There is an urgent need today for the recovery of the truth about conversion. A widespread controversy on this subject would be a healthy wind to blow away a thousand lesser things. A renewed fear of God would end much worldly thinking and silence a multitude of raucous services. There has been much talk of more evangelism, and many hopes of revival, but Spurgeon would teach us that the need is to go back to first things [as they were preached in older evangelism] (page 68).
I agree with Iain H. Murray with all my heart. That is why I so strongly encourage you to obtain a copy of his book, The Old Evangelicalism (Banner of Truth, 2005) and read it over and over until the “scales fall from your eyes,” and you feel a desire to join with those of us who want to go back to “the old paths” of real evangelism. A thoughtful modern reader will be challenged to at least consider the fact that nearly all of today’s evangelism has fallen short of what the old evangelicals once believed and preached up and down the land. I believe that we will never see a true classical revival of any magnitude unless we return to the beliefs and principles of the “old evangelicalism.”
May some who read Murray’s book be challenged to do just that! It will be hard to do so in these days of declension, but the results will glorify God and the Lord Jesus Christ. And many more souls will be brought to conversion than by using the modern tricks and manipulations to get “quick,” superficial results by the methods of modern evangelical decisionism.
(END OF REVIEW)
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