A revival is one of those things that's best understood in hindsight. While it's long been recognized that colonial America did experience a slew of revivals, we can learn many great lessons to this day, and Thomas Kidd's The Great Awakening" helps us do just that. Now, let's look at some of the people who played significant roles in those revivals and what conclusions we might make.
George Whitefield played an integral role in the Great Awakening of the 1740’s. Part of his enormous influence stemmed from his willingness to partner with churches of other denominations. Whitefield began an itinerant ministry of preaching in Philadelphia. His preaching often condemned the worldly practices he perceived among his hearers and the unspiritual lives of their ministers. The “new birth” was the focus of his evangelistic message.
Samuel Blair, a Pennsylvanian minister, encouraged his church to refrain from emotional excesses during worship but never at the expense of true conversion. He understood the extremes: “cold passivity” and “overheated emotions” were both to be avoided. Blair believed that while rationality was a good guide for judging excesses, it was not irrational to have emotional outburst at the conviction of sin.
Other preachers focused on ordained clergy as the recipient of their ministries. One such preacher was Gilbert Tennant, author of The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry. Tennant sought to encourage laypeople, many of whom were younger, to make sure their ministers were truly converted, or their own salvation was questionable. Kidd notes again how revival of an area often began among young people.
George Whitefield preached many times at Josiah Smith’s church in South Carolina, and Smith would be a strong resource and ally. Smith tried to promote a moderate view of Whitefield to the public. However, Whitfield began to articulate positions at odds with the mainstream, mainly the corruption of the Anglican church and the mistreatment of slaves.
Whitefield had become a sort of celebrity by his use of new print media and outdoor field preaching. He worked with local pastors to advertise his upcoming travels in order to garner a crowd. Many of his sermons continued to deal with the issue of “unconverted ministers,” and Jonathon Edwards urged Whitefield to use more tact when dealing with these kind of issues. Other issues common to his preaching were matters of race. While evangelicals of the time were ready to preach to African American, few were willing to form an abolitionist message yet.
Daniel Rogers made a concerted effort to reach both African American and Native Americans. Tennent’s preaching also significantly impacted women and young people. Several young people were affected by a fast and Lord’s Supper organized by ministers Henry Messenger and Elias Haven in 1741. The revivals that followed were noted to have relatively few emotional outbursts. Conservative ministers continued to raise concerns about emotional excesses, but the likes of Daniel Rogers continued to preach and espouse a new radicalism. Others believed that “unrestrained emotionalism could easily lead to sexual anarchy if left unchecked."
Excessive emotionalism, “bodily agitations and vocal outbursts” continued to describe the revivals. Moderates like Edwards proposed that the apostles of the first century gave the church the means for proving a true work of God. He noted many similarities between the apostolic period and the current age of revivals. Edwards penned The Distinguishing Marks in order to help ministers think through these issues. In his defense of the revivals he warned critics that to “slander the late work of God could meet with divine retribution."
Ministers like James Davenport and Andrew Croswell continued radical revival preaching. Croswell openly critiqued ministers he thought were unconverted. Davenport was accused of antinomianism (the notion that the Mosaic law has been abolished and Christians have complete freedom to live as they see fit). Both were also thought to be suffering from physical or mental conditions. Davenport was finally arrested on the charge of slander (by local ministers). The Connecticut General Assembly requested that that Davenport never return. In response, he burned books on the Sabbath in public by authors who offended him. This resulted in ministers forming Separatist churches as a way of being able to stay true to their radical leanings.
Edwards continued to hold the moderate line and remained convinced that, amidst the chaos of radicals, the revivals still brought about good. This manifested itself mainly in the belief that this period was about to give way to the millennium. Many ministers believed like Edwards in that there was more good than ill, even from the radicals.
Possibly up to ninety ministers gathered together to finally form a statement on the excesses of revivalism. The result was The Testimony and Advice of an Assembly of Pastors. This document promoted revivals while warning the radicals “to contain their excesses.” With support from moderates, radicals like Davenport began to see themselves as moderates and retracted many previous statements.
“Liberty of conscience” was the cry of this period. Many understood liberty of conscience as the fundamental principle on American religion. Hundreds of Separate churches were formed, many due to a sense of corruption, opposition to revivals, and support for the ministry of laypeople.
Elisha Paine and Isaac Backus were at the forefront of the Separate movement. In the same way that rejecting the established church’s authority subverted good order, the Separatists were now arguing whether or not the baptism of infants was a good practice. Men like Backus went back-and-forth between support and rejection of infant baptism, but he finally landed on believer’s baptism. He was then baptized. Along with difference views on baptism came difference views on conversion-focused, or regenerate, church membership.
It takes all kinds. God used such a wide variety of dispositions to lead his people through revival. And we shouldn't ignore the parts of history that are uncomfortable, but neither should we impose contemporary philosophies on people who, 300 years ago, would not have thought like we do.
These people, ministers and lay people alike, teach us a couple of things:
1. We should always be ready for revival, and
2. We should always be ready to test revival.
Jonathan Edwards was a great mind who also knew great emotions. His other published personal writings give examples of his sitting on his horse, weeping at the beauty of the earth and worshiping the God who created and sustains it. But he also knew that not every sentiment is led by the Spirit, and they must be tested.
Every time God shakes the earth, what stands firm rises above all that blows away. We live in a time when God has shaken us. And the church will continue to stand firm. As we look around to see a shaken world, we see in even more glorious ways the splendor of the church. Amidst all of this, Christ's people stand firm in the gospel.
Can we expect revival today?
Love me some revival talk.
Last week we established that revival is always the work of the Holy Spirit, without apology. Today, let's look at another book, The Great Awakening by Thomas Kidd, to see what revivals teach us about being faithful and ready for revival in the contemporary church.
Professor Thomas Kidd wrote The Great Awakening to offer a perspective on the birth of evangelicalism in North America. We evangelicals pride ourselves on our focus on the work of the Holy Spirit and his effect on revival. The evangelical’s relationship to revival has been at times shaky because of disagreement concerning what a person does to bring revival (if anything at all).
Should we just wait on the Spirit of God, not knowing where the wind will blow? Or should we start taking action now and simply expect the Spirit of God to move?
Kidd begins by noting the Puritans desired a renewal of the Holy Spirit in their churches—a revival in the hearts and minds of Christians. While few thought that men could do much at all to coerce God to bringing revival, there were those who thought that certain circumstances might set the stage for the Spirt to act.
Puritan churches began a series of what they called "covenant renewals" to call members to greater faithfulness and to mourn for their sins. Not a bad thing! Puritan churches often had membership covenants that listed the rights and responsibilities of the membership and detailed the beliefs of the church.
However, the most prominent of these measures was the Halfway Covenant of 1662 which allowed those in the area of New England to baptize their children even if they (the parents) were not converted themselves. Place yourself in their shoes:
The first settlers would have been members of the Church of England and by necessity baptized as children. That in turn made you a member of the church. The settlers began to devise a different theology of church membership, one that required proof of conversion to be a member of a local church. But the children of the settlers seemed to not be having the same fervor and zeal as their parents. Keep in mind, though, their parents were being persecuted in England, which is the reason they set sail for the colonies anyway.
The Halfway Covenant was a way of trying to reconcile two disparate theologies: regenerate church membership (only those who are truly converted are in the body of Christ) and infant baptism. It's always dangerous to judge the Christians of the past for having to make the best of the circumstances they find themselves in, but we also don't have to repeat their mistakes.
Today we often call for re-dedications if an individual has backslidden or committed some serious sin. We might ask ourselves, rededicate to what? Even if we aren't going to start baptizing the children of unbelievers, maybe we can learn something from the Puritans here and gain greater clarity about what we're calling for in rededication. In asking for rededication, we should be calling for greater faithfulness and grief over sin.
Some pastors also made concessions on the Lord's Supper. Solomon Stoddard, a minister in Northampton, saw the Lord’s Supper as a means of preparing the unconverted. While he was in the minority, the nearly unanimous position was that the greatest means of bringing conversions was the fear of dying only to face damnation in the sight of God’s holiness. The hope of the era was that revival would bring about the millennial reign of Christ.
The early 1730’s saw several unsettling deaths around the area of Northampton. This short period of time caused many (mostly young people) to consider their own mortality. Jonathon Edwards noted that this sort of thing drew unbelievers into his church. Those who were true seekers often brought the same spiritual enthusiasm back to their own town, sparking a sort of awakening all over. So the Great Awakening was in one sense a series of smaller awakenings.
Pietism (a moralistic and austere form of Christianity) began to enter the American landscape in the 1720’s and 1730’s through the writings of Theodorus Frelinghuysen and Philipp Spener. They encouraged devotional meetings outside of the regular worship of the church and “renewal of individual hearts.” The millennium was still a major focus, and Spener believed that corruption was postponing the coming of Christ. Frelinghuysen also advocated that ministers should have complete assurance whether or not a member of his church was saved. An inability to do so called into question not only the salvation of the individual but also the effectiveness of the minister.
Other ministers such as William Tennent Jr. advocated for dreams and visions among laypeople so long as they did not contrast with orthodoxy. This new emphasis on spiritual (charismatic) matters began to change what congregations expected of their ministers. Instead of formal training at a respected institution being the primary requirement so the pastor could rightly divide the word of God and guard his doctrine well, these “spiritual qualifications” mattered significantly more.
Despite the various circumstances early colonial Christians found themselves in, here's the point: Puritans began to pray for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit so that their churches would be revived and be convicted of sin. While it may or may not bring revival, we are wise to follow this pattern. Our churches are full of people who need revival from God’s Spirit, drawing them to deeper faith and repentance.
Next week, we'll take a deeper look at some of the people who were active in the Great Awakening and how we can imitate their faithfulness.
Movements come and movements go, but humanity is inherently spiritual. Even those who verbally reject any belief in the transcendent are searching for meaning. And our age is ripe with spirituality that says a lot without saying anything. It promises fulfillment with no hope of achieving it. One such movement today is termed the New Spirituality.
The New Spirituality rejects the exclusive claims of any and all religions in order to satisfy the rebellious nature of the human heart. In terms of Christianity, two fundamental doctrines are rejected and condemned as, at best, outdated and, at worst, destructive to real spiritual health. These two doctrines are the authority of Scripture and the holiness of God.
The authority of Scripture is replaced with the authority of the human circumstance. The holiness of God is replaced with the god of my whim. Here's a quick reflection on what is lost when these doctrines are rejected and how believers can reach out to those in the church who have subscribed to the New Spirituality, albeit naively. I have also included some other resources for those interested in learning more about it.
THE AUTHORITY OF SCRIPTURE
For the Christian, the Bible is the highest court of authority. In it God has revealed himself and his will for man. It is free from errors and sufficient to bring men to a saving knowledge through the shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16). To have a low view of Scripture or to disregard it entirely is to reject the only God-ordained revelation to know him in a saving way. By necessity, all other forms of spirituality are sub-Christian or anti-Christian.
This is an intensely dangerous state in which to be. Michael Horton notes that non- and anti-biblical forms of spirituality are by their very nature “enthusiastic,” meaning that God is found within, not without (en-theo, or "god within"). Essentially, this is the classic work-driven position that holds man can ascend to God instead of God descending to man. Horton writes, “Yet, apart from the incarnate Word, this dazzling god we encounter at the top of the ladder is really the devil, who ‘disguises himself as an angel of light’ (2 Cor. 11:14).”
The problem with this “ascension” spirituality is that any biblically-literate Christian can quickly see that the Bible does not allow for this sort of thinking. It is completely at odds and totally incompatible with biblical spirituality, because Scripture tells us that the Son took on human flesh in the incarnation and so descended to us. Therefore, any “spirit” that is encountered at the top of the ladder is necessarily evil or anti-God in nature. God does meet us at the top of a ladder, IE, a life of works or striving for experience, but descends to us in our despair.
The Scriptures are thereby stripped of all authority, and mankind is endowed with the incredible privilege of true power. Belief systems are formed from experience and desire. The practitioners of the New Spirituality also claim the right to change their beliefs based on new experiences and desires. No longer is there an objective basis from which man forms his system of thought. Divine revelation is re-defined to mean what God spoke to me in my heart and mind.
For the Christian, joy is found in being obedient to the revelation that God has given. For the believer of the New Spirituality, joy is found in fulfilling the current desires. The only means for knowing if what a person believes is true is if there are “psychological or therapeutic benefits which are derived.” The litmus test for truth is if it calms a busy nerve, not if it pleases a holy God.
David Wells writes that current spirituality is in essence in line with ancient Gnosticism. Gnostics believed that special knowledge, which would only be revealed in mysterious, inner ways, would raise a person out of his current fight with the physical world into a pleasant spiritual existence. Revelation was not from the outside; the only trustworthy revelation was direct and from within.
This kind of inner revelation only serves to make a person think he is more capable of taking charge of his own life than he truly is. Reality is redefined as something that we must discover. Reality is not something to be shown. The reality revealed in Scripture—creation, fall, redemption, and restoration—is considered to be less than. Real reality must be discovered. The authority, then, is placed in completely unsecure territory. What should happen if one never discovers this reality? What is his fate?
The inevitable conclusion to the problem of authority is that the New Spirituality actually has no authority. Once a person abandons the authority of divine revelation, he has abandoned the only trustworthy source of knowledge and righteousness. Man does not need any other form of revelation to know God more fully, and the revelation that comes from inside the self is illusory at best and satanic at worst. Once the authority of Scripture is thrown into the ash heap with the rest of mankind’s religious baggage, God’s essential attributes will soon be ejected, as well.
THE HOLINESS OF GOD
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:3). Over and again the Scriptures constantly proclaim the holiness of God. The “holy, holy, holy” found in Isaiah 6 and throughout Scripture is qualifying God’s holiness as perfect and complete, without blemish or reservation. God commands Moses to say to the Israelites, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2b).
God has the right to command his people to do certain things, obey certain laws, and behave certain ways because he is wholly other, completely outside of creation, and sovereign over all. This is the holiness of the Lord our God.
In speaking specifically of American religion, Horton notes that “there is almost no sense of God’s difference from us—in other words, his majesty, sovereignty, self-existence, and holiness. God is my buddy or my inmost experience, or the power-source for living my best life now.” If God is stripped of his most basic attributes, then in so many words, God is subservient to us.
Practitioners of the New Spirituality have formed a god that is not even merciful, for that would still imply an offense on our part. There is no need to define any essential attributes of God, because God is only here to serve us. It doesn't matter that God is different from us in some way as long as he affirms what we believe about ourselves.
If God is stripped of his holiness, he ceases to be a god that is worthy of any honor, worship, or obedience. R.C. Sproul notes that God’s holiness “is more than just separateness. His holiness is also transcendent. […] When we speak of the transcendence of God, we are talking about that sense in which God is above and beyond us.”
The way that Scripture addresses God’s holiness makes it impossible for the understanding of the New Spirituality to be compatible with biblical spirituality. They have disparate belief systems about the very nature of God.
Many in the New Spirituality want to see unity between orthodoxy and their statements about God, but while they use orthodox language, they redefine the terms. For those who are practicing a biblical spirituality, the good news is that the authority of Scripture and the holiness of God are still more than sufficient to sustain us. These truths motivate the Christian to hold fast and move forward.
THE WAY FORWARD
The Christian who holds to an authoritative view of Scripture needs to look no further for the way forward. God’s divine revelation of himself is the means by which he calls men to himself. Of all the things that Paul says Scripture is to be used for, “correction” is among them (2 Timothy 3:16).
There are many brothers and sisters who have fallen into the attractive snare of the New Spirituality. This happens for many reasons: it offers an un-offensive way to speak to non-believers about spiritual matters; the sufficiency of Scripture is not addressed in public worship and private counsel; and Western culture prioritizes inclusion at the expense of objective truth.
Faithfulness to the binding authority of Scripture on the heart and mind of the Christian and a radical commitment to the holiness of God is the only way forward. Scripture does not prescribe any other method for knowing the things of God. Wells notes that it is tempting to take the short view and see this problem as relatively new.
A biblical spirituality understands the world to be governed by a good God who created the world and sustains it by his sovereign grace. He reveals some of his attributes to man through natural revelation, but he reserves saving knowledge to special revelation. At no time does the one true God reveal anything about himself through some inner dialogue with man.
This is the worldview of the Christian. The New Spirituality, however, sees God as a distant divine being who affirms and serves, not convicts and saves. These are worldviews, entire systems of understanding the world, not simply disagreements about method.
The Christian needs not bother trying these methods of finding the God on the inside. The Christian must confront these denials of the gospel with the gospel. Christ promises that the man who builds his house on the rock—his words—will not be shaken (cf. Matthew 7:24-25). How firm a foundation, you saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in his excellent Word.
The New Spirituality denies the authority of Scripture and the holiness of God. The inner revelation is self-centered. Biblical spirituality is God-centered—it attends to the word of God “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Biblical spirituality upholds the holiness of God as the central tenant of why man needs revelation. Depraved man will always look inside himself for truth. God, in his mercy, has revealed to sinful men so that we may be saved from ourselves.
The New Spirituality is not new all. The first man and woman decided to believe their own truth and thereby harmed their relationship with their Creator. In Christ, God has reconciled mankind to himself and has given us all we need for “training in righteousness.”
FOR FURTHER READING
Michael Horton, “Your Own Personal Jesus,” Modern Reformation, 17, no. 3 (May/June 2008): 16.
 Horton, “Your Own Personal Jesus” 16.
David F. Wells. Above All Earthly Pow’rs (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2005), 132
 Wells, Above All Earthly Pow’rs, 140.
 Horton, “Your Own Personal Jesus,” 16.
 R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1998), 36.
Wells, Christ in a Spiritual World, 155.
Wells, Christ in a Spiritual World, 156.
Wells, Christ in a Spiritual World, 156.
Is revival something that men can plead for, or is it something that God does entirely on his own? Does revival work because certain circumstances are in place, or is it a work of the Spirit regardless of circumstances?
Iain H. Murray now discusses the context for revivals. What precedes a revival, and what can be expected after?
Murray has given the church a testament to the power of faithfulness in preaching and prayer. By taking the reader through a short period of church history, one is still able to see God mightily at work. Murray also pauses on occasion to interpret a particular series of events or controversies. For instance, he notes that “[a] winnowing season generally follows revival.” Many ministers or leaders would begin to question the validity of a perceived revival if a great number of new confessors suddenly returned to living in condemnation. Murray however relieves those misconceptions by showing how a number of awakenings, clearly attested to in history, have also given way to a period of cleansing.
In a review of Revival and Revivalism, Bobby Jamieson of 9Marks notes that Murray is essentially answering the question, “How did we get here?” Jamieson goes on to write that many evangelical churches owe their difficulty reconciling their practices such as the altar call and the biblical doctrine of conversion to the time period covered by Murray. His point is that Murray has turned us to a period in history that demystifies the uneasiness many evangelicals have with these nebulous practices. Many preachers have difficulty squaring these practices with Scripture, and it seems as though they are rooted more in a blip on the historical radar than anything else.
One mistake we can make is to regard history as unimportant to the current milieu. Murray calls attention to this temptation by clearly showing how each revival is molded by outside forces. He says, “When any error in belief or practice gains swift popularity in the churches it will almost invariably be found to be connected with something conducive to it in the spirit of the age.” Murray ties the founding of a democratic nation to the upheaval of orthodoxy. Men of skill and learning were no longer regarded as authoritative figures; now individuals were the center of society. Is this always progress?
Dennis Swanson from The Master’s Seminary notes that the preachers who preceded the Second Great Awakening were men who preached the same things before, during, and after revivals. The core message of their sermons were the same, yet God in his sovereignty used the same messages in different ways at different times. The preachers such as Jonathon Edwards and George Whitefield saw their main task as being faithful to expositing the Word; God would produce the fruit. Once success was redefined, the ministry of otherwise great preachers were viewed quite differently. The clear, relevant, faithful preaching of Edwards and Whitefield was deemed benighted.
Think of what we see today in the context of a pandemic. While I am loath to make too many judgments on what God is doing while he's doing it, it seems undeniable, a year into it, that God is purifying his church. Is God reviving his church amidst worldwide anxiety? Do people need more preaching about ways to be a better friend, or do they need sermons about gospel truth? Are Christians forced to reconcile their faith with limited potential for gathering? Are we having to reform our definition of what the gathered church is, maybe even in light of Romans 12:1? Are we realizing how religiously lazy we may have been? Are we becoming more attuned to what God requires of us? Perhaps revivals aren't just about an influx of people into the church but a revival of the people inside the church.