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.