The great work of salvation is always accomplished by a sovereign intervention of God in the lives of sinful men so that the existence and continuation of a church, made up of sinners “saved by grace”, is nothing short of a continuous miracle of mercy.
The record of God’s mighty work at Pentecost and the subsequent spread of the Christian Church throughout the Roman Empire thrills the heart of every true believer. That so many thousands should be brought into the spiritual kingdom of God in so short a time is one of the amazing historical demonstrations of the mighty power of our almighty King, a power exerted through the preaching of the gospel, not with men’s wisdom and natural powers of oratory, but by an exhibition of the Holy Spirit’s sovereign right to quicken whom He will.
This preaching of the gospel, a stumblingblock to the Jew and foolishness to the Greek, was a simple proclamation of the doctrine of Christ and His cross whereby multitudes were called from darkness to light and the whole course of human history altered; surely the world was turned upside down!
The subsequent history of the Christian church shows that, at intervals and often in certain geographical areas. God again intervenes in a most powerful way and what is termed a revival is the result. This term revival basically means a reviving of what already has life, a reanimation of what had become weak and almost lifeless. This first use of the word in connection with God’s work on earth has reference, then, to times of renewed spiritual liveliness and concern amongst believers. Very often in such times of reviving it is believers in a moribund and lethargic church who first experience this unusual quickening of concern and prayer. This new zeal for God’s glory, for an increase of spiritual life in the church, and for the conversion of sinners, has often been stirred by preachers who themselves have begun to experience a fresh sense of God’s powerful presence with them both in private and in their public ministry. They realize, in a far deeper way than ever before, a great compassion for the souls of men, and preach with a more urgent longing for the conversion of sinners.
Such a reviving of believers has many times been a prelude to revival in the more commonly accepted sense of the word, as referring to an unusually rapid increase in the number of people being called by grace and added to the church. This is only to be expected, since the same Spirit who has given new urgency in prayer is the same blessed Spirit who works in answer to those prayers.
It is painfully evident that many churches in the British Isles, where the form of Christian belief and practice is still biblical and orthodox, are desperately weak both numerically and spiritually. In this weakness there is a real temptation to abandon hope of any improvement, meanwhile clinging desperately to a traditional form until the last believer is laid in the grave. All that then remains is a mere caricature of a Christian church made up of persons whose family history demands that they should keep to what they feel are the “old paths” but in whose souls there is neither life nor love. It is sadly obvious that unless there is a revival in both senses of the word, many doors will finally close on places where once the
gospel was powerfully preached and where sinners were truly converted to God.
The prayerful study of revival is surely then an urgent necessity for believers and churches, and it is with this in mind that this edition of Gospel Tidings is devoted to this theme with the longing desire that God, the blessed Spirit of truth and life will again work powerfully as in Ezekiel’s day when the valley was full of bones and “lo, they were very dry”. (Ezek.37.2).
It is impossible in forty pages to give a history of revivals, and so an almost random selection of illustrations has been drawn from the copious literature on the subject indicating some of the characteristic features of revival and revival blessings.
RELIGION AND REVIVAL
In a fascinating series of lectures on revival, first published in 1832 and reprinted by the Banner of Truth in 1958, W. B. Sprague
makes a series of important comments in his first lecture on the Nature of a Revival.
“Religion consists in a conformity of heart and life to the will of God. It consists in a principle of obedience implanted in the soul, and in the operation of that principle in the conduct. Religion is substantially the same in all worlds; though the religion of a sinner is modified, in some respects, by his peculiar character and condition. In common with the religion of the angels, it consists in love to God – to His law, to His government, to His service; but in distinction from that, it consists in repentance of sin; faith in the merits of a crucified Saviour; resignation under trials; opposition to spiritual enemies. Moreover, religion in the angels is an inherent principle; it begins with their existence; but in the human heart it is something superinduced by the operation of the Spirit of God. Wherever there exists a cordial belief of God’s truth, and submission of the will to His authority, and the graces of the heart shine forth in the virtues of the life, there is true religion; whether it be in the palace or the cottage; whether it appear in a single individual, or be diffused over a whole community.
Now if such be the nature of religion, you will readily perceive in what consists a revival of religion. It is a revival of scriptural knowledge; of vital piety; of practical obedience. The term revival
of religion has sometimes been objected to, on the ground that a revival of any thing supposes its previous existence; whereas in the renovation of sinners, there is a principle implanted which is intirely new. But though the fact implied in this objection is admitted, the objection itself has no force; because the term is intended to be applied in a general sense, to denote the unproved religious state of a congregation, or of some other community. And it is moreover applicable, in a strict sense, to the condition of Christians, who, at such a season, are in greater or less degree revived; and whose increased zeal is usually rendered instrumental in the conversion of sinners. Wherever then you see religion rising up from a state of comparative depression to a tone of increased vigour and strength; wherever you see professing Christians becoming more faithful to their obligations, and behold the strength of the church increased by fresh accessions of piety from the world; there is a state of things which you need not hesitate to denominate a revival of religion.
Such a state of things may be advantageously represented under several distinct particulars.
1. The first step usually is an increase of zeal and devotedness on ‘he part of God’s people. They wake up to a sense of neglected obligations; and resolve to return to the faithful discharge of duty. They betake themselves with increased eamestness to the throne of grace; confessing their delinquencies with deep humility, and supplicating the aid of God’s Spirit to enable them to execute their pious resolutions, and to discharge faithfully the various duties which devolve upon them. There too they importunately ask for the descent of the Holy Ghost on those around them; on the church with which they are connected; on their friends who are living at a distance from God; on all who are out of the ark of safety. Their conversation becomes proportionally more spiritual and edifying. They endeavour to stir up one another’s minds by putting each other in remembrance of their covenant vows, and impressing each other with their individual and mutual responsibilities. When they meet in the common intercourse of life, their conversation shows that the world is with them but a subordinate matter; and that their controlling desire is, that God may be glorified in the salvation of sinners. They find it no difficult matter to be faithful in pressing the obligations of religion upon those who are indifferent to it; in warning them of their danger;
and in beseeching them with the earnestness of Christian affection to be reconciled to God.
It is a case of no uncommon occurence at such a season that a professor of religion, under a deep sense of his wanderings, comes to regard his own Christian character with the utmost distrust; and sometimes wanders many days in darkness, before the joys of salvation are restored to his soul. There are indeed some professors who sleep through such a scene; and probably some who join with the wicked, so far as they dare, in opposing it; but many at least are awake; are humble; are active; and come up to
the help of the Lord with renewed zeal and strength.
2. Another prominent feature in the state of things which I am describing, is the alarm and conviction of those who have hitherto been careless. Sometimes the change in this respect is very gradual;
and for a considerable time nothing more can be said than that there is a more listening ear, and a more serious aspect, than usual, under the preaching of the word; and this increased attention is gradually matured into deep solemnity and pungent conviction. In other cases, the reigning lethargy is suddenly broken up, as if there had come a thunderbolt from eternity; and multitudes are heard simultaneously inquiring what they shall do to be saved. The young man, and the old man, and the middle aged man; the exemplary and orthodox moralist, the haughty pharisee, the downright infidel, the profane scoffer, the dissipated sensualist, may sometimes all be seen collected with the same spirit in their hearts – a spirit of deep anxiety; and the same question upon their lips – how they shall escape the threatening woes of perdition? In some cases, the conviction which is felt prompts to silence, and you are left to learn it from downcast looks, or as the case may be, from half-stifled sobs. In other cases, there is no effect at concealment, and the deep anguish of the heart comes out in expressions of the most painful solicitude. Those who once would have disdained any thing which should indicate the least concern for their salvation, hesitate not to ask and to receive instruction even from the obscurest Christian, or to place themselves in circumstances which are a virtual acknowledgement to all that they feel their danger and desire to escape from it. All the shame which they once felt on this subject they have given to the winds; and then” commanding desire now is, that they may find that peace which passeth understanding; that hope which is full of immortality.
There are others who are partially awakened; whose attention is in some measure excited, but not enough to prompt to any decided and vigorous effort. They look on and see what is passing; and acknowledge God’s agency in it; and at times manifest some feeling in respect to their own condition, and express a wish that they may have more. They attend regularly not only upon the ordinary but upon some of the extraordinary means of grace, and treat the whole subject not only with great respect, but with decided seriousness; but after all do not advance to the decisive point of repentance, or even of true conviction of sin. In this state they often remain for a considerable time; until they return to their accustomed carelessness; or by some new impulse from on high they are carried forward and become the subjects of a genuine conversion; or else they are taken away in the midst of their half formed resolutions to a world where they will learn, to their
eternal cost, that it was most dangerous to trifle with the Spirit of God.
There are still others belonging to the same general class of awakened sinners, who struggle against their convictions; whose
consciences proclaim to them that their all is in jeopardy, but who try to discredit the testimony. These persons sometimes rush with unaccustomed avidity into the haunts of business or the haunts of pleasure. They throw themselves into vain company, or engage in reading idle or infidel books; and in some instances even venture to deny what is passing within them, and to jeer at what is passing around them. Wherever you hear scoffing, and witness violent opposition in a revival of religion, it is scarcely possible that you should mistake, if you should put down those by whom it is exhibited on the list of awakened sinners. The true account of it is, that there is a war between the conscience and the passions. Conscience is awake and doing its office, and the heart is in rebellion against its dictates.
3. It also belongs essentially to a revival of religion, that there are those, from time to time, who are indulging a hope that they are reconciled by God, and are born of the Spirit. In some cases the change of feeling is exceedingly gradual, insomuch that the individual, though he is sensible of having experienced a change within a given period, is yet utterly unable to refer it to any particular time. Sometimes the soul suddenly emerges from darkness into light, and perceives a mighty change in its exercises, almost in the twinkling of an eye. Sometimes there is a state of mind which is only peaceful; sometimes it mounts up to joy and ecstacy. In some cases there is from the beginning much self distrust; in others much – too much, confidence. But with a great variety of experience, there are many who are brought, or who believe themselves brought, into the kingdom of Christ. They give reason to hope they have taken the new song upon their lips. Children sing their young hosannas to the Lamb that was slain. The aged tell with gratitude of what God has done for them while on the margin of the grave. Saints on earth rejoice, and in proportion as the work is genuine, so also do saints and angels in heaven. The church receives a fresh and often a rich accession both to her numbers and her strength; an accession which, in some cases, raises her from the dust, and causes her to look forth in health and beauty.”
To illustrate these general principles we shall consider a number of examples of the way God has worked to revive His church.
REVIVAL IN NEW ENGLAND circa 1737
Extracts from a letter, written in 1737 by Jonathan Edwards, describe the revival he witnessed in the area of Northampton, Massachusetts, when many hundreds were added to the churches of that district.
“I am the third minister who has been settled in the town. The Rev. Mr. Eleazer Mather, who was the first, was ordained in July, 1669. He was one whose heart was much in his work, and abundant in labours for the good of precious souls. He had the high esteem and great love of his people, and was blessed with no
small success. The Rev. Mr. Stoddard who succeeded him, came first to the town the November after his death; but was not ordained till September 11,1672, and died February 11,1728-9. So that he continued in the work of the ministry here, from his first coming to town, near 60 years. And as he was eminent and renowned for his gifts and grace; so he was blessed, from the beginning, with extraordinary success in his ministry, in the conversion of many souls. He had five harvests, as he called them. The first was about 57 years ago; the second about 53; the third about 40; the fourth about 24; the fifth and last about 18 years ago. Some of these times were much more remarkable than others, and the ingathering of souls more plentiful. Those about 53, and 40, and 24 years ago, were much greater than either the first or the last: but in each of them, I have heard my grandfather say, the greater part of the young people in the town, seemed to be mainly concerned for their eternal salvation.
After the last of these, came a far more degenerate time, (at least among the young people.) I suppose, than ever before. Mr. Stoddard, indeed, had the comfort, before he died, of seeing a time where there were no small appearances of a divine work among some, and a considerable ingathering of souls, even after I was settled with him in the ministry, which was about two years before his death; and I have reason to bless God for the great advantage I had by it. In those two years there were nearly twenty that Mr. Stoddard hoped to be savingly converted; but there was nothing of any general awakening. The greater part seemed to be at that time very insensible of the things of religion, and engaged in other cares and pursuits. Just after my grandfather’s death, it seemed to be a time of extraordinary dulness in religion. Licentiousness for some years greatly prevailed among the youth of the town; they were many of them very much addicted to night-walking, and frequenting the tavern, and lewd practices, wherein some, by their example, exceedingly corrupted others. It was their manner very frequently to get together, in conventions of both sexes for mirth and jollity, which they called frolics; and they would often spend the greater part of the night in them, without regard to any order in the families they belonged to: and indeed family government did too much fail in the town. It was become very customary with many of our young people to be indecent in their carriage at meeting, which doubtless would not have prevailed in such a degree, had it not been that my grandfather, through his great age, (though he retained his powers surprisingly to the last,) was not so able to observe them. There had also long prevailed in the town a spirit of contention between two parties, into which they had for many years been divided; by which they maintained a jealousy one of the other, and were prepared to oppose one another in all public affairs.
But in two or three years after Mr. Stoddard’s death, there began to be a sensible amendment of these evils. The young
people showed more of a disposition to hearken to counsel, and by degrees left off their frolics; they grew observably more decent in their attendance on the public worship, and there were more who manifested a religious concern than there used to be.
At the latter end of the year 1733, there appeared a very unusual flexibleness, and yielding to advice, in our young people. It had been too long their manner to make the evening after the sabbath, and after our public lecture, to be especially the times of their mirth, and company-keeping. But a sermon was now preached on the sabbath before the lecture, to show the evil tendency of the practice, and to persuade them to reform it; and it was urged upon heads of families that it should be a thing agreed upon among them, to govern their families, and keep their children at home, at these times. It was also more privately moved, that they should meet together the next day, in their several neighbourhoods, to know each other’s minds; which was accordingly done, and the motion complied with throughout the town. But parents found little or no occasion for the exercise of government in the case. The young people declared themselves convinced by what they had heard from the pulpit, and were willing of themselves to comply with the counsel that had been given: and it was immediately, and, I suppose, almost universally, complied with;
and there was a thorough reformation of these disorders thenceforward, which has continued ever since.
Presently after this, there began to appear a remarkable religious concern at a little village belonging to the congregation called Pascommuck, where a few families were settled, at about three miles distance from the main body of the town. At this place, a number of persons seemed to be savingly wrought upon. In the April following, anno 1734, there happened a very sudden and awful death of a young man in the bloom of his youth; who being violently seized with a pleurisy, and taken immediately very delirious, died in about two days; which (together with what was preached publicly on that occasion) much affected many young people. This was followed with another death of a young married woman, who had been considerably exercised in mind, about the salvation of her soul, before she was ill, and was in great distress in the beginning of her illness; but seemed to have satisfying evidences of God’s saving mercy to her, before her death; so that she died very full of comfort, in a most earnest and moving manner warning, and counselling others. This seemed to contribute to render solemn the spirits of many young persons; and there began evidently to appear more of a religious concern on people’s minds.
In the fall of the year I proposed it to the young people, that they should agree among themselves to spend the evenings after lectures in social religion, and to that end divide themselves into several companies to meet in various parts of the town; which was accordingly done, and those meetings have been since continued, and the example imitated by elder people. This was followed with the death of an elderly person, which was attended with many
unusual circumstances, by which many were much moved and affected,
About this time began the great noise, in this part of the country, about Arminianism, which seemed to appear with a very threatening aspect upon the interest of religion here. The friends of vital piety trembled for fear of the issue; but it seemed, contrary to their fear, strongly to be overruled for the promoting of religion. Many who looked on themselves as in a Christless condition, seemed to be awakened by it, with fear that God was about to withdraw from the land, and that we should be given up to heterodoxy and corrupt principles; and that then their opportunity for obtaining salvation would be past. Many who were brought a little to doubt about the truth of the doctrines they had hitherto been taught, seemed to have a kind of trembling fear with their doubts, lest they should be led into by-paths, to their eternal undoing; and they seemed, with much concern and engagedness of mind, to inquire what was indeed the way in which they must come to be accepted with God. There were some things said publicly on that occasion, concerning justification by faith alone.
Although great fault was found with meddling with the controversy in the pulpit, by such a person, and at that time – and though it was ridiculed by many elsewhere – yet it proved a word spoken in season here; and was most evidently attended with a very remarkable blessing of heaven to the souls of the people in this town. They received thence a general satisfaction, with respect to the main thing in question, which they had been in trembling doubts and concern about; and their minds were engaged the more earnestly to seek that they might come to be accepted of God, and saved in the way of the gospel, which had been made evident to them to be the true and only way. And then it was, in the latter part of December, that the Spirit of God began extraordinarily to set in, and wonderfully to work amongst us; and there were, very suddenly, one after another, five or six persons, who were to all appearance savingly converted, and some of them wrought upon in a very remarkable manner.
Particularly, I was surprised with the relation of a young woman, who had been one of the greatest company-keepers in the whole town. When she came to me, I had never heard that she was become in any wise serious, but by the conversation I then had with her, it appeared to me, that what she gave an account of, was a glorious work of God’s infinite power and sovereign grace; and that God had given her a new heart, truly broken and sanctified. I could not then doubt of it, and have seen much in my acquaintance with her since to confirm it.
Though the work was glorious, yet I was filled with concern about the effect it might have upon others. I was ready to conclude, (though too rashly,) that some would be hardened by it, in carelessness and looseness of life; and would take occasion from it to open their mouths in reproaches of religion. But the event was
the reverse, to a wonderful degree. God made it, I suppose, the
greatest occasion of awakening to others, of any thing that ever
came to pass in the town. I have had abundant opportunity to
know the effect it had, by my private conversation with many. The
news of it seemed to be almost like a flash of lightning, upon the
hearts of young people, all over the town, and upon many others.
Those persons amongst us, who used to be farthest from
. seriousness, and that I most feared would make an ill
improvement of it, seemed greatly to be awakened with it. Many
went to talk with her, concerning what she had met with; and what
appeared in her seemed to be to the satisfaction of all that did so.
Presently upon this, a great and earnest concern about the great
things of religion, and the eternal world, became universal in all
parts of the town, and among persons of all degrees, and all ages. The noise amongst the dry bones waxed louder and louder; all other talk but about spiritual and eternal things, was soon thrown by;
all the conversation, in all companies and upon all occasions, was
upon these things only, unless so much as was necessary for people
carrying on their ordinary secular business. Other discourse than
of the things of religion, would scarcely be tolerated in any
company. The minds of people were wonderfully taken off from
the world, it was treated amongst us as a thing of very little
consequence. They seemed to follow their worldly business, more
as a part of their duty, than from any disposition they had to it; the
temptation now seemed to lie on that hand, to neglect worldly
affairs too much, and to spend too much time in the immediate
exercise of religion. This was exceedingly misrepresented by
reports that were spread in distant parts of the land, as though the
people here had wholly thrown by all worldly business, and betook
themselves entirely to reading and praying, and such like religious
But although people did not ordinarily neglect their worldly
business; yet religion was with all sorts the great concern, and the
world was a thing only by the bye. The only thing in their view was
to get the kingdom of heaven, and every one appeared pressing
, into it. The engagedness of their hearts in this great concern could
not be hid, it appeared in their very countenances. It then was a
dreadful thing amongst us to lie out of Christ, in danger every day
of dropping into hell; and what persons’ minds were intent upon,
was to escape for their lives, and to fly from wrath to come. All
would eagerly lay hold of opportunities for their souls; and were
wont very often to meet together in private houses, for religious
purposes: and such meetings when appointed were greatly
There was scarcely a single person in the town, old or young, left
unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world. Those
who were wont to be the vainest and loosest, and those who had
been most disposed to think and speak slightly of vital and
experimental religion, were now generally subject to great
awakenings. And the work of conversion was carried on in a most
astonishing manner, and increased more and more; souls did as it were come by flocks to Jesus Christ. From day to day, for many months together, might be seen evident instances of sinners brought out of darkness into marvellous light, and delivered out of an horrible pit, and from the miry clay, and set upon a rock, with a new song of praise to God in their mouths.
This work of God, as it was carried on, and the number of true saints multiplied, soon made a glorious alteration in the town; so that in the spring and summer following, anno 1735, the town seemed to be full of the presence of God: it never was so full of love, nor of joy, and yet so full of distress, as it was then. There were remarkable tokens of God’s presence in almost every house. It was a time of joy in families on account of salvation being brought unto them; parents rejoicing over their children as new born, and husbands over their wives, and wives over their husbands. The goings of God were then seen in His sanctuary, God’s day was a delight, and His tabernacles were amiable. Our public assemblies were then beautiful: the congregation was alive in God’s service, every one earnestly intent on the public worship, every hearer eager to drink in the words of the minister as they came from his mouth; the assembly in general were, from time to time, in tears while the word was preached; some weeping with sorrow and distress, others with joy and love, others with pity and concern for the souls of their neighbours.
Our public praises were then greatly enlivened; God was then served in our psalmody, in some measure, in the beauty of holiness. It has been observable, that there has been scarce any part of divine worship, wherein good men amongst us have had grace so drawn forth, and their hearts so lifted up in the ways of God, as in singing his praises. Our congregation excelled all that ever I knew in the external part of the duty before, the, men generally carrying regularly, and well, three parts of music, and the women a part by themselves; but now they were evidently wont to sing with unusual elevation of heart and voice, which made the duty pleasant indeed.
In all companies, on other days, on whatever occasions persons met together, Christ was to be heard of, and seen in the midst of them. Our young people, when they met, were wont to spend the time in talking of the excellency and dying love of JESUS CHRIST, the glory of the way of salvation, the wonderful, free, and sovereign grace of God, His glorious work in the conversion of a soul, the truth and certainty of the great things of God’s word, the sweetness of the views of His perfections, &c. And even at weddings, which formerly were mere occasions of mirth and jollity, there was now no discourse of any thing but religion, and no appearance of any but spiritual mirth. Those amongst us who had been formerly converted, were greatly enlivened, and renewed with fresh and extraordinary incomes of the Spirit of God; though some much more than others, according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Many who before had laboured
under difficulties about their own state, had now their doubts removed by more satisfying experience, and more clear discoveries of God’s love.
When this work first appeared, and was so extraordinarily carried on amongst us in the winter, others round about us seemed not to know what to make of it. Many scoffed at and ridiculed it; and some compared what we called conversion, to certain distempers. But it was very observable of many, who occasionally came amongst us from abroad with disregardful hearts, that what they saw here cured them of such a temper of mind. Strangers were
generally surprised to find things so much beyond what they had heard, and were wont to tell others that the state of the town could not be conceived of by those who had not seen it. The notice that was taken of it by the people who came to town on occasion of the court that sat here in the beginning of March, was very observable. And those who came from the neighbourhood to our public lectures, were for the most part remarkably affected. Many who came to town, on one occasion or other, had their consciences smitten, and awakened; and went home with wounded hearts, and with those impressions that never wore off till they had hopefully a saving issue; and those who before had serious thoughts, had their awakenings and convictions greatly increased. There were many instances of persons who came from abroad on visits, or on business, who had not been long here before, to all appearance, they were savingly wrought upon; and partook of that shower of divine blessing which God rained down here, and went home rejoicing; till at length the same work began evidently to appear and prevail in several other towns in the county.
This seems to have been a very extraordinary dispensation of providence; God has in many respects gone out of, and much beyond. His usual and ordinary way. The work in this town, and some others about us, has been extraordinary on account of the universality of it, affecting all sorts, sober and vicious, high and low, rich and poor, wise and unwise. It reached the most considerable families and persons, to all appearance, as much as others. In former stirrings of this nature, the bulk of the young people have been greatly affected; but the old men and little children have been so now. Many of the last have, of their own a