America Is Ripe for Revival Again
From “A History Of American Revivals” by Charles Thompson
The first general revival of religion in this country realized most perfectly the strict meaning of the word. It was a quickening again; it was the Spirit of God calling to newness of life those who once had lived. The beginning of it is usually put at 1740. In truth, it antedates that period by several years.
A glance at the religious condition of the country will prepare us to understand its character and extent. A single phrase may outline it: Formalism as opposed to vital Godliness. Puritan severity had yielded to the gradual encroachment of an all-pervading worldliness. Between the Church and the world the line had grown so shadowy as to be almost invisible. Conversion was not necessary to church membership -- a work of grace in the heart not at all essential to an approach to the communion table, and not at all times to be insisted on as a qualification even for preaching the gospel.
Writes Samuel Blair, the venerable President of Princeton College, “Religion lay, as it were, dying and ready to expire its last breath of life in this part of the visible Church.” Edwards says, “Many seemed to be awakened with the fear that God was about to withdraw from the land.”
Joseph Tracy, in his admirable work on “The Great Awakening”, says, “Such had been the downward progress in New England. Revivals had become less frequent and powerful. There were many in the churches, and some even in the ministry, who were lingering among the supposed preliminaries to conversion. The difference between the church and the world was vanishing away. Church discipline was neglected, and a growing laxness of morals was invading the churches. And yet never, perhaps, had the expectation of reaching heaven at last been more general, or more confident. Occasional revivals had interrupted this downward progress, and the preaching of sound doctrine had retarded it in many places, especially at Northampton, but even there it had gone on, and the hold of truth on the conscience of men was sadly diminished. The young were abandoning themselves to frivolity, and to amusements of dangerous tendency, and party spirit was producing its natural fruit of evil among the old.”
Commenting upon the state of religious views before the revival began among the Scotch Irish Presbyterians of New Londonderry, Pennsylvania, Blair writes of the presence everywhere of the external forms of religion, but also a lamentable ignorance of the main essentials of true, practical religion. “The necessity of being first in Christ by a vital union and in a justified state before our religious services can be well-pleasing and acceptable to God, was very little understood or thought of. But the common notion seemed to be that if people were aiming to be in the way of duty as well as they could, as they imagined, there was no reason to be much afraid.”
There was one man who perceived the extent of the peril to which the church was exposed by this general lapse from experimental religion, and who also understood that only the truth in its majesty and severity could break the deadly lethargy which had seized upon the conscience. Jonathan Edwards determined to meet the danger with the unsheathed sword of the Spirit. With keenest insight he saw that the worst of the spiritual trouble of the land was, in somewhat different form, what was the malady under which religion lay dying just before the Reformation. It was the denial of the necessity of regeneration and personal faith in Christ as the sinner’s only hope. Luther had unveiled the truth of justification by faith alone, and it flashed light over a continent of darkness. To him it was the article of a standing or falling church. To Edwards came a like opportunity, and God honored him to be the preacher of this doctrine, at a time when it was well-nigh as sorely needed as in the sixteenth century, and when it also required the highest moral courage to proclaim it.
In 1734 Edwards preached that remarkable series of sermons on “Justification by Faith”, which shook the whole community with the truth that in his relations with God, the sinner can rely on no outer support of morality, or church fellowship, but only on the atoning work of Christ. The effect of these and following sermons was to strip away false hopes, to enrage some, to humble and convict others, but generally to awaken the public mind to the sharpest questioning and the closest sifting of religious grounds and hopes.
The Holy Spirit owned the truth. In December of that year, Edwards says: “The Spirit of God began extraordinarily to set in and wonderfully to work among us.” Remarkable conversions followed one after the other; the report of the work at Northampton spread through the neighboring towns in which many were awakened and brought to repentance. In half a year Edwards hoped that more than 300 were converted in Northampton.
George Whitefield’s first published sermon was on the nature and necessity of a new birth. The doctrine, so common now, was at that time new and startling. In his own words: “It was so seldom considered and so little experimentally understood by the generality of professors that, when told they must be born again, they were ready to cry out: ‘How can these things be?’” The effect of this sermon was electric. Multitudes were pricked to the heart and led to Christ, but some mocked and scoffed. As the preacher went on ringing the fundamental truths of spiritual religion in the ears of the people, the opposition to him grew apace. Bishops and priests united in assailing him. He was forbidden many of the pulpits of his own church. Then he went to the streets and commons, and preached to the thousands who gladly flocked to his words.
“His mighty deeds in the pulpit were blazoned in the newspapers. He preached nine times a week, and the people listened as for eternity. And now a few of the clergy began to turn against him. Some called him a ‘spiritual pick-pocket’, others thought he used a charm to get the people’s money. Some were offended because he was on good terms with the dissenters, and some forbade him the use of their pulpits, unless he would retract a wish expressed in the preface of the sermon on regeneration, that his brethren would preach more frequently on the new birth.”
Gilbert Tennant was a prominent revivalist and close associate and friend to George Whitefield. Whitefield says of him: “Then I went to the meetinghouse to hear Mr. Gilbert Tennant preach, and never before heard such a searching sermon. He convinced me more and more that we can preach the gospel of Christ no further than we have experienced the power of it in our own hearts. Being deeply convicted of sin, by God’s Holy Spirit, at his conversion, Mr. Tennant has learned experimentally to dissect the heart of the natural man. Hypocrites must either soon be converted, or enraged at his preaching. He is a son of thunder, and does not fear the faces of men.”
Another account of Mr. Tennant’s preaching describes it thus: “It was frequently both terrible and searching. It was often for matter, justly terrible, as he, according to the inspired oracles, exhibited the dreadful holiness, justice, law, threatenings, truth, power, and majesty of God. It was not merely, nor so much his laying open the terrors of the law and wrath of God, or damnation of hell; as his laying open their many vain and secret shifts;and refuges, counterfeit resemblances of grace, delusive and damning hopes, their utter impotence and impending danger of destruction, whereby they found all their hopes and refuges of lies to fail them and themselves exposed to eternal ruin unable to help themselves and in a lost condition.” The same words would well describe the preaching of Edwards, Whitefield and others.
In Philadelphia, so great was the change produced through the preaching of Whitefield and Tennant, that Benjamin Franklin, quite at a loss, from his skeptical standpoint, to explain the results, writes thus: “It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless and indifferent about religion, it seemed as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk through Philadelphia in the evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.”
Another writer, speaking of the surprising effect of Whitefield’s preaching in and about Philadelphia said that crowds followed him on foot, even to the distance of 60 miles. Of the services in New Brunswick, Whitefield writes: “I preached morning and evening to near seven or eight thousand people, and God’s power was so much amongst us in the afternoon sermon that the cries and groans of the people would have drowned my voice.” His labors in and around Boston were termed ‘herculean’. His correspondence at this time shows that he preached two or three times daily to audiences numbering from three to eight thousand, and often spent a large part of the night with inquirers, who came to him in great distress.
On one occasion when Whitefield returned from England to Boston, he encountered more decided opposition in this country than he had ever met before. Many Congregational and Presbyterian ministers disapproved his plans and methods, and thought his ministry tended to unsettle pastors and disaffect churches, and that his doctrine was often-times unscriptural either in form or substance. He was charged with being an ‘enthusiast’, with being ‘uncharitable, censorious and slanderous,” and with having been a “deluder of the people” in collecting contributions to his orphan house. He was accused of having led hearers to believe that he intended to have personal charge of the school, when instead he was all over the country preaching the gospel. But Mr. Whitefield often expressly declared his purpose to preach as long as he had breath and wherever he could find an audience. He never for a moment thought of settling down to be a pedagogue at Savannah. As to the charge of a slanderous and censorious disposition, while he spoke often in severity, and was sometimes censorious he always loved the people well enough to be at once faithful and tender. As to the charge of ‘enthusiasm’, he would doubtless admit it to the full.
His itineracy was a frequent ground of complaint against him. Dr. Chauncey said, “Itinerant preaching had its rise at least in these parts from Mr. Whitefield; though I could never see, I own, upon what warrant, either from scripture or reason, he went about preaching from one province and parish to another, when the gospel was already preached and by persons as well qualified for the work as he can pretend to be.” To this he only replied, “But did I come unasked? Nay; did not some of the very persons who were as well qualified for the work as I could pretend to be send me letters of invitation? Yes, assuredly they did, or otherwise, in all probability, I had never seen New England.”
In a reply to Harvard College he defended itineracy as scriptural and right. He quotes the divine command, “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature”, and argues that it authorizes the ministers of Christ to the end of the world, to preach the gospel in every town and country, whenever and wherever Providence shall open a door, even though it should be in a place where officers are already settled and the gospel is fully and faithfully preached. This, he claimed, was every gospel minister’s indisputable privilege. Yet during this opposition Whitefield was never for a moment swerved from his work.
He crossed the Atlantic thirteen times, and was the evangelist of two continents. His quenchless zeal, his matchless eloquence, his dauntless courage, were now the praise of all Christian lands. The opposition gradually died away under the majesty of that glorious life, so single for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. His preaching was at once severe with the unsparing energy of truth, and gentle under the moving of a great love for souls. He spoke to the conscience, awaking the sense of sin and guilt against a holy God. He spoke to the heart, holding up in ever new light the changeless love of God. He was an unselfish, consecrated, holy man. He lived for God with a purpose absolutely undivided.
During the last two weeks of his life he managed to preach or travel or both almost every day in spite of illness. His last sermon, preached at Exeter, was from the text: “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith.” One of his biographers thus relates the scene: “Mr. Whitefield arose and stood erect, and his appearance alone was a powerful sermon. He remained several minutes, unable to speak, and then said: ‘I will wait for the gracious assistance of God; for He will, I am certain, assist me once more to speak in His name.’ He then delivered, perhaps, one of his best sermons. ‘I go’, he cried, ‘I go to rest prepared. My sun has arisen, and by aid from heaven has given light to many. It is now about to set for --- no, it is about to rise to the zenith of immortal glory. I have outlived many on earth, but they cannot outlive me in heaven. Oh, thought divine! I shall soon be in a world where time, age, pain and sorrow are unknown. My body fails; my spirit expands. How willingly would I live forever to preach Christ, but I die to be with Him.”
That night, when about to retire to rest, the people pressed around the parsonage, and into the hall, importunate for a few more words from the man they so dearly loved. He paused on the staircase and began to speak to them. The people thronged the hall, “...gazing up at him with tearful eyes as Elisha at the ascending prophet. His voice flowed on until the candle, which he held in his hand, burned away, and went out in its socket. The next morning he was not, for God had taken him.’”
The great revivals that we read about during the late 1700’s did not dawn upon a church untouched by worldliness and error. Formalism and outward show had become prevalent, with many church members and even preachers never having genuinely been born again. Worldliness had taken over, and the church was indistinguishable from the world in appearance, amusement and in attitude and aspiration. A deadly lethargy and self-satisfaction had settled over the populace, and though further from the truth, they were resting on false hopes of being good enough, being sincere, or being religious enough to have a certain home in heaven without ever having a definite conversion experience.
Yet into this spiritual climate, God sent men like Whitefield and Tennant and Edwards and the Wesleys to preach, “Ye must be born again”, and to battle against the unscriptural practices that had crept into the church. Great revivals stirred under their powerful preaching.
Today we are facing many of the same conditions among the American people and churches, and I believe that God can and will work in the same manner as then. I believe America is ripe for revival again.