Tolle Lege: Revival and Revivalism

We say we desire it, but what is it?  It sounds attractive but once we really try to describe it we realize how nebulous our idea of it is.  For years my definition of revival was a lame as thinking that it consisted of being as excited about church things as I was about other things. 

Iain Murray excels as he demonstrates the transition of revival ideology from Samuel Davies to Charles Finney.  Up to and for some time after Davies revivals were regarded as wonderful surprises and yet as nothing new.  A revival consisted of God doing what He does every day, i.e. saving and sanctifying souls, but to an unusual degree such as we see in the early chapters of the books of Acts, the Protestant Reformation, and The Great Awakenings.  It is something we long for; it is not something we can work up on our own strength.  With Finney this changed, he thought he had the secret formula to begin a revival that turned out to be the death of revivals.  The counterfeit though initially appetizing came to be disdained, and with that disdain many lost their longing for the true article as well.  If you too suffer from an enigmatic idea of revival, this history of American revival and revivalism from 1750 to 1858 will help solidify the difference between the true and the false.

I have somewhere met the remark, that ‘the chariot of the gospel never has free course, but the devil tries to be charioteer’.  There is nothing he is so much afraid of as the power of the Holy Ghost.  Where he cannot arrest the showers of blessing, it has ever been one of his devices to dilute or poison the streams… With the obvious signs of the times in view, who does not see that this awful foe would enjoy his malignant triumph, if he could prejudice the minds of good men against all revivals of religion?  This he does, not so much by opposing them, as by counterfeiting the genuine coin, and by getting up revivals that are spurious and to his liking.  Revivals are always spurious when they are got up by man’s device, and not brought down by the Spirit of God.  – Gardner Spring

I was never fit to say a word to a sinner, except when I had a broken heart myself, when I was subdued and melted into penitence, and felt as though I had just received pardon to my own soul, and when my heart was full of tenderness and pity.  – Edward Payson

It may be that a generation of freshly-anointed preachers is already being prepared. Whether that is so or not, when such men are sent forth by Christ we can be sure of certain things. They will not be identical in all points with the men of the past, but there will be a fundamental resemblance. They will be hard students of Scripture. They will prize a great spiritual heritage. They will see the danger of ‘unsanctified learning’. While they will not be afraid of controversy, nor of being called hyper-orthodox, they will fear to spend their days in controversy. They will believe with John Rice that ‘the church is not purified by controversy, but by holy love’. They will not forget that the wise, who will shine ‘as the stars forever and ever’, are those who ‘turn many to righteousness’ (Dan. 12.2). They will covet the wisdom which Scripture attributes to the one ‘that winneth souls’ (Prov. 11.30). But their cheerfulness will have a higher source than their work. To know God himself will be their supreme concern and joy. They will therefore not be strangers to humility. And their experience will not be without trials and discouragements, not least because they fall so far short of their aspirations. If they are spared to live as long as John Leland they will be ready to say with him at last: ‘I have been unwearedly trying to preach Jesus, but have not yet risen to that state of holy zeal and evangelical knowledge, that I have been longing after’. Whether their days will be bright or dark they will learn to say with Nettleton that ‘the milk and honey lie beyond this wilderness world’.

One thought on “Tolle Lege: Revival and Revivalism”

  1. I must confess that I have come to loathe the word. We used to have ‘revivals’ at the church I attended in Wichita. They were held annually at best, but a couple of years we had ‘fall’ and ‘spring’ “revivals”. I attended faithfully, out of loyalty only, I’m afraid. It was 5 additional nights in a week of the same-old (one year, we thought we were having so much fun that we extended it out to two weeks– brutal). Same songs, same people, same sermons…same. I always thought it was silly to preach evangelistic messages to the same 28 people, who happened to be church members, and who were, one would assume, already saved. I suppose it never occurred to me to invite someone who wasn’t saved — number me among the mossy, loyal lemmings. What a sad mockery that word has come to mean, at least to me. I’m not blaming anyone (else), or that church — it was filled with wonderful people. We just didn’t get it (figuratively and literally).


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