Revival is understood by different people in different ways. Some traditions host revivals for a week or two in the summer time with a more evangelistic tenor. The preaching is squarely designed to fall on the ears of the lost. Those are good endeavors, but what's being revived? Spiritual revivals are intended not to reach the lost but to revive the Spirit of God in believers. Hence, revival.
But we should not make a distinction without a difference. We were all at one time lost and perishing, and through hearing the word of God, believed. So evangelistic preaching should not be relegated to a time of the year but should be done at all times. God's people need the gospel preached to them as much as the lost.
Today I want to turn to a book called Revival and Revivalism by Iain H. Murray. Murray states quite clearly that he has written this book to “encourage prayer for another great outpouring of the Spirit of God.” But he intends to show that God acting in greater force than what is considered normal is never prompted by any action or intent of man.
Many have tried to use peculiar tactics to force God’s hand or convert people in their own power. These things do not manipulate the sovereign God of the universe. On the contrary, a mighty fall of God’s Spirit is always accompanied or marked by the normal means of grace—the faithful preaching of his Word and the unceasing prayer of his people. True revival will always be an act of God.
Murray blends history with critical evaluation of the events that transpired and the people involved. Not every minister receives equal weight, but instead he focuses on those whose preaching and ministry were outstanding in their day. He also interprets and applies both lessons from revivals and warnings from revivalism to today. These are perhaps his greatest contributions.
Murray begins by highlighting important moments in the life of Samuel Davies. Davies was converted at age 15 and went on to study for the ministry at the log college of Fagg’s Manor. Davies was instrumental also in the beginning of the College of New Jersey, the forerunner to Princeton Theological Seminary. He would later serve as its president. Davies’ relationship to revival was based on faithfulness and allowing God to work.
Murray says of Davies, “In speaking of the meaning of revival it is also essential to note that what Davies and his brethren believed about revival was not something separate from, or additional to, their main beliefs; it was, rather, a necessary consequence.” Davies saw revival as a result of faithful preaching and mighty prayer.
Murray turns his focus to Virginia once again in the late 1700’s. Baptists were now gaining influence in the new world. The change took place because of the “caliber of the preachers and by the lives of those converted under their ministry.” The Church of England was persecuting Baptist preachers (who were not allowed to preach in the colonies), so they held “the status of reformers.”
Baptists also found success by being able to cooperate with ministers of other denominations. Christians of all persuasions, however, are tempted to mistake excessive emotion for true conversion. Despite the success of however many denominations, Murray reminds those who would misjudge a person’s confession that “a winnowing season generally follows revival.” The chaff often quickly falls away after harvest.
“The Great Revival” took place between 1787-1789. What marked this period was a desire for spiritual experiences, devotion to prayer, and acts of charity. Many denominations experienced revival during this time, but it was the Presbyterians who experienced the greatest resurgence of saving faith. Murray introduces us to Archibald Alexander and several other prominent Presbyterian ministers of the period. Presbyterians were able to remain a force for good because of their willingness to plant schools and colleges for young ministers in ways that other evangelical denominations were not.
A number of denominations began to see decline toward the end of the eighteenth-century due to inward controversies. However, Murray writes that much of what is known about this decline is exaggerated. Many others considered this time period to be “the age of Bibles and missionaries”. This is the period known as the Second Great Awakening, generally agreed to have lasted from 1800-1825.
Not only did the Second Great Awakening outlast the first, but it also spread among more denominations. Murray makes four observations about this period: it was widely agreed upon that the only means necessary for the spread of the gospel in this period were the means which God had instituted from the beginning: the preaching of the Word and prayer; denominations became more active as a result; the Awakening had major impacts in institutions of learning; and preachers sought to help their congregations notice the presence of God in ways that did not involve exaggerated passions.
After Kentucky became a state, many of the earliest settlers were Baptist and Presbyterians. Kentucky ministers faced their own issues in a new state. Congregations could not be established as quickly as the land was being settled. This led to a different sort of revival from the eastern states. The most peculiar distinction was the use of “camp meetings.” What began as a Scottish Presbyterian custom due to the infrequency of receiving the Lord’s Supper quickly became an event that would have lasting influence among many denominations.
“All awakenings begin with the return of a profound conviction of sin.” Murray notes that while revivals begin under these conditions, they often find themselves qualified by “emotional excitement.” The fears of many ministers were that the results would be profound disorder and greater overall resistance to the gospel while others found no reason to condemn such practices if some fruit was being produced.
Murray then notes five of the most influential pastors/leaders during the time of the Second Great Awakening: Lyman Beecher, Edward Payson, Edward Griffin, Asahel Nettleton, and Gardiner Spring. Murray includes them because “the lives of these men show the clear difference between knowing revival and being a ‘revivalist.’” These five leaders chose to faithfully preach the Word and to devote themselves to prayer and so trust God to reap the harvest. They noted that long periods of time could take place between the planting of the Word in a man’s heart and the harvest of conversion. These men recognized the danger in urging people simply to make decisions when no sense of the indwelling of the Spirit of God is present.
Murray introduces Charles Grandison Finney as the standard-bearer of the “new measures.” Finney was initially a missionary to the west but would up in New York. Finney felt compelled to use provocative measures to prompt revival which caused controversy between him and many of his contemporaries in the Presbyterian church. Several publications denounced these measures as unfounded and irregular, read, unbiblical.
While Finney was not the instigator of these measures, he finally came to the conclusion that they were the “essence of revival” and “the whole controversy became personalized around himself.” Finney’s main point of contention was with the Calvinistic doctrines of human depravity. He believed that man’s will, not his nature, was the hindrance to conversion. This Arminian stance put him at odds with the orthodoxy of his day. Murray argues that “it is clear that belief about conversion will determine what men believe about revival."
The new measures divided many congregations by calling into question the effectiveness of those ministers who refused to use them. If a minister wasn't using the most effective, pragmatic tactics, what good was he? Archibald Alexander and others in Princeton worked diligently to keep these new measures from further infiltrating the Presbyterian church. New divisions were formed in the old school and new school, and each was accusing the other of heterodoxy.
Murray spends significant time interpreting the change that democracy brought to the understanding of revival. Because democracy gave the common man a voice, “traditional positions and offices stood for far less, and half-educated, fast-talking speakers, claiming to preach the simple Bible, and attacking the Christian ministry, were more likely than ever to find a hearing.” The definition of ministerial success devolved from a standard of faithfulness to God’s Word to large numbers of converts. By the 1830’s, the Second Great Awakening was ending. The new measures were unable to maintain what doctrinal preaching had begun. Finney’s only rationale for this lack of success was that others opposed him and his methods too harshly.
Baptists were committed to establishing congregations wherever there were people. They were willing to cooperate with those of other denominations who shared similar doctrinal commitments. Perhaps the secret to the power of early American Baptist life was that they made certain to know the power of the doctrine they were teaching. Minister/preachers such as James Manning and Isaac Backus were examples of the doctrinal vibrancy of Baptist churches.
There were, however, those who were determined to see the same influx of Arminian doctrine into the Baptist churches that infiltrated other denominations. On the other extreme, forms of Hyper-Calvinism were also finding their way into Baptist teachings. There were of course those who stood by well-worn patterns of biblical preaching. Many preachers were convinced that ignoring the issue of sin in preaching would never convict the sinner and never comfort the believer (326-27).
James Alexander, son of Archibald Alexander, ministered during the awakening of 1857-1858. Although he initially opposed Calvinism, viewing it as a “hindrance to evangelism,” he eventually believed as his father did—that Calvinism is far more doctrinally vibrant and truer than any other. He lamented that “the Gospel is not attractive enough for people now-a-days. Ministers must bait their trap with something else. The old-fashioned topics are seldom heard.” Most of his work was to undo what had been done. He preaching orthodox doctrines and made no room for “excesses of mere excitement.” By this time the definition of revival had become so convoluted that no two people agreed on its meaning.
Murray concludes by noting once again the patterns of revival and the differences from revivalism. Revivals are the works of God; revivalism is an attempt by man to do God’s work. Revivals are always closely connected to God’s Word and always inspire greater devotion to the Bible. We find that revivalism is marked by “a low view of doctrine as such and […] the idea that efforts to advance the faith were for more important than the need to understand and believe it in its fullness.”
The differences in methods were ultimately theological. Murray notes that the controversy rested in confusion over public behavior equating with true assurance of salvation. But Murray does concede that even where error is found, revival is still possible. However, revival is not a necessary component of kingdom work; indeed, “slow and gradual growth is the norm in his kingdom.”
So should the church seek revival? Absolutely. At all times. But what kind of revival? Shouldn't revival be the constant state of the church if we understand revival to be the work of the Spirit?
Join us next week as we seek to answer these questions!