Revival and Revivalism – 5/1/2017

In the Fall of 1787 three students at Hampden-Sydney College met for prayer on Saturday afternoons in the woods a short distance away.  Anticipating rain one weekend they decided to risk using one of the College rooms to meet.  Although careful to sing and pray with suppressed voices, their fears of interruption were realized.  Someone overheard and soon a noisy mob began to thump at the door, whooping, swearing, and threatening vengeance if they did not forbear once and forevermore.

“We had to cease, and bear the ridicule and abuse of this noisy riot, which could not be quieted until two of the Professors interfered and ordered them all back to their rooms . . . In the evening the College was rung to prayers.  When the prayers were ended, Mr. Smith demanded the cause of the riot, and who were the leaders in it.  Some of the most prominent leaders stepped forward and said, there were some of the students, who had shut themselves up in one of the rooms of the College, and began singing and praying and carrying on like the Methodists, and they were determined to break it up.  We had nothing to say; we were not absolutely certain that we were justifiable in introducing such exercises in College without first obtaining permission to do so.”

Hampden-Sydney College

Hampden-Sydney College

But Professor Smith was overjoyed at this first evidence of a spiritual concern among the students.  He rebuked the complainers and announced, “I rejoice, my young friends, that you have taken the stand you have; you shall not be interrupted in your meetings for the future.  Your appointment next Saturday afternoon shall be held in my parlour; and I will be with you, conduct your meeting for you, and render you all the assistance you may need.”

The next Saturday the Professor’s parlour was full and the weeks following brought the entire student body out along with folks from the neighborhood, requiring use of the large College Hall which was filled up, too.  Reports indicate that “fully half of the students in the College appeared deeply impressed, and under conviction for their sins,” plus many from the neighborhood.  Prayer meetings multiplied and John Blair Smith gave himself to preaching in the College and in multiple congregations.

“Every other business appeared for a time forgotten in the all-absorbing interests of religion . . . by the commencement of the year 1788, there was a general awakening in Prince Edward, Cumberland, and Charlotte counties.  The professors of religion awaked as from sleep and put on the armour of godliness; some declared themselves convinced that their former profession had been a lifeless one and professed conversion anew.”

In the Fall of 1788 Smith’s father, Robert, an old preacher converted under George Whitefield’s work in 1740, observed the fruit a year after the beginning of this revival and wrote about the young people in these now life-filled congregations:  “When they go to sermons or societies, they commonly go in companies, either conversing on spiritual subjects or singing hymns.  When they arrive at the place of worship, they enter the house and sing hymns till the minister enters.  Such sweet singing I never heard in all my life.  Dear young Christians, how engaged, how heavenly, how spiritually and innocently they look and speak.  I have seen an hundred wet cheeks, some deeply penetrated with convictions, some fainting with love-sickness as it were, in the Savior’s arms, and others rejoicing for the day of God’s power and grace, all under the same sermon.  The rejoicings were much among some old disciples.”

John Blair Smith

John Blair Smith

That’s a short description of a genuine revival.  Prayer is evident at the beginning, conviction of sin is real, phony professing Christians get saved and lives change, and the changes last.  I’ve taken that account from Iain Murray’s wonderful book, Revival & Revivalism:  The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858.  Murray writes from his Presbyterian and Calvinist perspective, but works with some diligence to follow the threads of Methodist and Baptist revivals, too,  during that century.  His concerns show up in his title, distinguishing genuine revivals as a work of God from revivalism which refers to man’s efforts at stirring up evangelical enthusiasm without any lasting work of the Holy Spirit.

I’ve written a fair amount and read a great deal about revival and revivalism.  It seems there are two camps on what causes revival, camps at extreme positions with hardly anyone in between.  Murray’s camp is rooted in a Calvinist view of  sovereignty, that since salvation is wholly of God with no contribution from man, revivals happen when God makes them happen, period.  At the other extreme we find Charles G. Finney in the 19th century and John R. Rice in the 20th century who insist that revival will happen when Christians (even one by himself) will meet the conditions that God demands, and so it is really up to us.

The first view can tempt to complacency or even fatalism and a general discouragement about personal evangelism, and the second view tempts to manufactured, even scheduled efforts to drum up revival, as many IFB (Independent Fundamental Baptist) churches affix ‘revivals’ to their calendars once or even twice per year.  For an IFB perspective on 19th century revivals, you might try James Beller’s book, The Soul of St. Louis:  A Historical Narrative of Revival in the Gateway City, or his more extensive work with a national perspective, America in Crimson Red:  The Baptist History of America. 

I could say that I’ve concluded that the ‘cause’ of revival is somewhere between the two extremes, but I know it just ain’t so.  It’s not a linear, 1-dimensional spectrum.  I’m certain that revival is nuanced, complex, multivariate.  I’m sure it includes willful (free will) prayer and yet it includes a ‘spirit of prayer’ that God visits on certain people in particular times and places.  I’m sure that revival involves God working bigger, cleverer, more effectually than ‘normal,’ but also that He finds one or more Christians who truly care for souls and choose to do something about it.  I’m confident it involves the complex nature of the ‘harvest field’ of a community or a region or a nation, which may look either ripe or hard to us, but has a dynamic that only God can see.  I’m sure it involves spiritual warfare, not just demonic efforts to prevent the birth of revival, but also relentless ploys to hinder, diminish, and corrupt.

Indeed, Murray, as much as he despises ‘Finney-ites’, honestly admits that revivals did occur under such efforts.  Beller, too, records great and fruitful works among the Calvinist Baptists, not just the Biblical ones.  I won’t get into the back and forth of the criticisms levied by one camp against the other, of the ilk of, “Yeah, maybe some people got converted over there, but there was a lot of corrupt fruit, too!”  Heaven will render surprises for all.  What I do want to focus on is the historical fact of much revival in this country, up until the last few generations.  Hey, folks, since the mid-twentieth century, there just hasn’t been much evidence of genuine revival . . . in this country.  Church planting, yes.  Big city-wide evangelistic rallies, yes.  Megachurch growth, yes.  An explosion of TV, radio, web, and multi-media ‘ministries’ . . . and conferences, and rallies, and books, and DVDs, and courses, and certificates and ad nauseam, but real revival?  No.

Samuel Davies

Samuel Davies

Have I got the answers for making revival happen in America?  I mean anywhere, even in a neighborhood, let alone the nation?  No.  I’ve got lots of speculation, but I won’t foist that upon you.  What I encourage you to do is merely to start looking at the history of the subject, because it speaks to a Christian culture and a Christian quality of spiritual life that is simply nonexistent today.

So . . . in this essay I’ll proceed to pull some nuggets from Murray’s book that I’ve enjoyed.  I hope you do, too.  And if you haven’t looked at the topic much, find some of my other relevant essays on this site, about Nettleton and Finney, about Rolfe Barnard, about John Sornberger (“Giants of the Northern Pines”), about D. L. Moody and Lillian Trasher.  And buy the biography of James Stewart, written by his wife, Ruth.  Then ask me for more references.

Samuel Davies, a Presbyterian pastor in Virginia, wrote a letter in 1752 to the Bishop of London to deny accusations that he was working to build dissent against the Church of England in the colony, as revival grew in his region . . . “I have not exhausted my zeal in railing against the established clergy, in exposing their imperfections, or in depreciating their characters.  No, my lord, I have matters of infinitely greater importance to exert my zeal and spend my time and strength upon – to preach repentance toward God and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ; to alarm secure impenitents; to reform the profligate; to undeceive the hypocrite; to raise up the hands that hang down . . . These are the ends I pursue and if ever I divert from these to ceremonial trifles, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”

Here we see a second always-present element in revivals . . . a clear message of repentance and faith aimed at salvations that transform lives unto holiness.  I particularly like the phrase “to alarm secure impenitents”!  That sounds rather blunt and confrontational, doesn’t it?  No sneaking up, no implied ‘relational evangelism’ was part of Davies’ playbook.

Davies does provide an assessment for the Anglican bishop on the condition of the Virginian clergy, that they seem “stupidly serene and unconcerned, as though their hearers were crowding promiscuously into heaven, and there were little or no danger; that they address themselves to perishing multitudes in cold blood, and do not represent their miserable condition in all its horrors; do not alarm them with solemn and affectionate warnings . . . that their common conversation has little or no savour of living religion . . . that instead of intense application to study, or teaching their parishioners from house to house, they waste their time in idle visits, trifling conversation, slothful ease, or at best, excessive activity about their temporal affairs.”

America in Crimson Red

America in Crimson Red

I thought for a second that this might be a prophecy about 21st century evangelicalism.  My wife and I visit quite a number of evangelical churches.  The pastors – without exception – behave and teach as if everybody’s ok, everyone is saved, no issues, just gonna try to get you to follow Jesus a little better so you’ll be a little happier, a little healthier, come on and lighten up, life is good, huh?  Have you noticed that the pastoral playbook apparently requires frequent comments to show how current he is in sports news, as if “Hey, I’m just a regular worldly guy like anyone else!”  Have you noticed how the online biographical sketches of the pastoral staff include how much they like hiking, playing basketball, and watching movies?  Why do they try so hard to convince the world that they are completely of the world?  Are they afraid someone might suspect them of having ulterior motives, perhaps a spiritual bent that could turn serious?  But perhaps they’ve convinced themselves.

Genuine revivals of the late 18th century broke out among Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists, but the message had to be Biblical for the Holy Spirit to work powerfully.  Nathan Bangs, a Methodist historian wrote about the Wesleyan evangelists in America, “While they held, in common with other orthodox Christians, to the hereditary depravity of the human heart, the deity and atonement of Jesus Christ, the necessity of repentance and faith; that which they pressed upon their hearers with the greatest earnestness was, the necessity of the new birth, and the privilege of their having a knowledge, by the internal witness of the Holy Spirit, of the forgiveness of sins, through faith in the blood of Christ; and as a necessary consequence of this, and as naturally flowing from it, provided they persevered, holiness of heart and life.”

Getting your sins forgiven was valued and new converts were unashamed to manifest holiness of heart and life.  Today it seems even the paid clergy don’t dare to pretend they seek after holiness.  And telling someone he’s a sinner who needs forgiveness . . . way too judgmental!  Is there any mystery about why there are no revivals in America?

Despite all the crusades and ministries and media in modern times, I personally am aware of only two events which fit the character of the revivals of yesteryear.  I know an old retired pastor who was a student at Wheaton College in 1948 when a revival broke out among the student body.  Many souls were saved, prayer meetings multiplied, classes were cancelled, and a new spirit took over the college for an extended period of time.  I also know an old retired evangelist who saw one genuine revival in his lifetime in a small town in Kansas in 1982.  Souls were saved throughout the town, the local church grew with new and lasting conversions, relationships were healed, and the sin industry suffered.

Charles G. Finney

Charles G. Finney

But I know of only those two events since WW2.  There may be more, but I’ve never heard of them.  Do sinners get saved today in America?  Sure.  Thank you, Lord, for saving me, not as part of a revival, but simply because one Christian decided to befriend me and tell me the truth.  I know the Lord sent that friend my way and I’m glad he was obedient.  But revival in the historic sense?  Nope, never seen it.

Methodist revivals in 1775 – 1776 include this report:  “The multitudes that attended on this occasion, returning home all alive to God, spread the flame through their respective neighborhoods, which ran from family to family:  so that within four weeks, several hundreds found the peace of God.  And scarce any conversation was to be heard throughout the circuit, but concerning the things of God.”

And another:  “I had gone through about two-thirds of my discourse and was bringing the words home to the present – Now, when such power descended, that hundreds fell to the ground, and the house seemed to shake with the presence of God . . . we saw nothing but streaming eyes, and faces bathed with tears; and heard nothing but groans and strong cries after God and the Lord Jesus Christ . . . we could only say, This is none other than the house of God!  This is the gate of Heaven!”

There was controversy over ‘wildfire’ in the revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries, including uncontrolled displays of emotion and converts who didn’t stick.  Sure.  Satan works hard to hinder and corrupt.  Yet many, many revivals showed lasting results, with repentance that bore fruit and Christians that stuck and grew to maturity.  Where is this happening today?  In Asia, I understand that revival lives, but not here.

The War of Independence (1775 – 1783) benefited the Baptists in the South in that it ended their persecution at the hands of the Anglican establishment. Speculating in land acquisition and in new trade opportunities increased wealth.  Unfortunately, the new liberty and prosperity cooled their zeal.  “Nothing is more common than for the increase of riches to produce a decrease of piety.  Speculators seldom make warm Christians . . . The love of many waxed cold.”  Today in America prosperous churches with wealthy congregations dot the landscape.  Wealthy?  How many church members do you know that don’t have a car, air conditioning, a big screen TV, cable and internet, and so much food that weight gains have to be fought with special diets and fitness club memberships?  Today’s ‘middle class’ is far richer than the tycoons of the 19th century.

The late 1780s saw a new wave of revivals in which Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians shared buildings and enjoyed a common witness, “where such co-operation had been scarcely known.”  Francis Asbury, a well-known Methodist circuit rider wrote in a journal entry, “The Baptists go ahead of the Methodists in this settlement:  if it be well done, it matters little who does it.”  John Witherspoon wrote, “There are few surer marks of the reality of religion than when a man feels himself more joined in spirit to a truly holy person of a different denomination than to an irregular member of his own.”

Years ago an IFB evangelist thought that a group of students at a seminary he was associated with would benefit from a seminar on creation vs. evolution that I was happy to provide.  The school’s president, however, refused the opportunity because I wasn’t a long-term card-carrying member of an IFB church at the time.  Now, the IFB culture makes a more public stand against associating with those not of their ilk, yet I have found the same separation barriers among many groups of evangelicals . . . they are just sneakier in drawing the lines.  This applies to churches and to parachurch ministries.  One creation ministry was interested in using me as an occasional speaker until I mentioned that my Bible of choice when I speak – merely for my own use – is the KJV.  Any other version and there would have been no problem.

Hey, people can do what they want, of course, and I’ve got plenty to do already.  But today there is scarcely any thought about a God’s-eye view of a community, whereby He might not be as pleased as the local clergy to see the rabid competition in communities to launch new temples on corner after corner.

In a recorded sermon by David Rice in 1803 on the state of the ongoing Kentucky revival, the character of the Christians involved was noted:  “They seem to me to have a very deep and affecting sense of the worth of precious immortal souls, ardent love to them, and an agonizing concern for their conviction, conversion, and complete salvation . . . This love, this compassion, this ardent desire, this agonizing, this fervent pleading for the salvation of sinful men and for Zion’s prosperity, far exceed any thing I have ever seen.”

New York City in 1860

New York City in 1860

This is yet another key element in genuine revivals, the love of Christians for the souls of men and women.  It’s not about a bigtime speaker, it’s not about eloquence.  The Gospel message must be clear.  There must be fervent prayer.  And Christians need to care.  The greatest revival in the nation’s history began with a small noon-time prayer meeting in September 1857.  Jeremiah Lanphier – just a guy like you or me – quietly organized a prayer time in the lecture room of a church on Fulton Street in Manhattan.  The first week six attended.  The next week twenty, and the following, forty.  The schedule changed to daily, more rooms had to be found, and meetings multiplied across the city.

In March 1858, Burton’s theater with a capacity of 3,000 was filled, as were many New York buildings like printer’s shops, fire stations, and police stations.  Tracts were printed and scattered that emphasized the power and influence of the Holy Spirit for regeneration, sanctification, and gifts necessary for spiritual work.  James Alexander, one of many local pastors swept up in this ‘layman’s revival’, wrote:  “Study I cannot, being run down by persons, many of whom I never knew, in search of counsel.  The uptown prayer meetings are very sober and edifying.  I am told the general tendency in all is to increased decorum.  The openness of thousands to doctrine, reproof, etc., is undeniable.  Our lecture is crowded unendurably – many going away.  The publisher of Spurgeon’s sermons, says he has sold a hundred thousand.  All booksellers agree, that while general trade is down, they never sold so many religious books.  You may rest assured there is a great awakening among us.”  Notably, these prayer meetings spread across the nation, a great and merciful work of God’s grace before the onset of the destruction of the Civil War.  We see similar timing in the European revivals that James Stewart witnessed in the 1930s, before WW2.

I would gladly trade a guarantee for another 20 healthy years of life in exchange for a certain homegoing in six months, if I could but be in the midst of a genuine revival for those six months.  I don’t expect that, of course.  So what good does it do me to have a level of discernment that is admittedly depressing at times, seeing the emptiness and frivolity of what passes for ‘Christianity’ among American churches?  Well, discernment doesn’t cheer me up.  It does serve to keep me from wasting my life on frivolities, on cheering and supporting the local shows, the so-called worship services of the evangelicals and the so-called revival meetings of the fundamental Baptists.  With whatever moments of life and resources the Lord is gracious to provide me with, I can keep plodding along, give someone a chance by handing him a tract with a clear Gospel challenge, keep writing what I see as simple truth just in case someone out there might find it helpful, and trying to encourage another believer or two out there to plod along in his or her community.  I cannot think of an alternative to simple plodding in this place and time.  If you can, let me know.


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