The subtitle of this book well describes its contents, ‘A History Of American Revivals, With Their Philosophy And Methods.’ Written in 1877 it covers revivals that occurred in the ministries of George Whitefield, the Tennants, James McGready in the 1800 revival, Asahel Nettleton, Daniel Baker, Charles Finney, Edward Payson Hammond, the 1857-8 prayer revival and the Moody and Sankey campaigns.
Thomson concludes the book with chapters on various observations of revivals, like the place of music and singing, the centrality of the Scriptures and Bible study, conducting inquiry meetings, the ministry of women in revivals and so on.
An altogether helpful volume, wide in its scope and wise in its application
We have included 4 of the 19 chapters.
From the day of Pentecost to this year of grace there have been great religious movements called revivals. They have, in many respects, been different from the steady and regular progress of the kingdom of Christ. Let us inquire whether they are consistent and harmonious with the ordinary laws of spiritual increase, or whether they antagonize them. Are they parts of a spiritual plan, or are they variations from it? Astronomers have from time to time, been puzzled by apparent movements of heavenly bodies that seemed to be at variance with established laws. A closer observation has disclosed that these very irregularities are parts of the broad plan of the heavens, and like discords in music, tend to the finest and best harmony of celestial laws. Eclipses are regarded by savages as portents of evil, wholly aside from the movements of planets and suns. Somewhat in this light many have looked upon revivals of religion. If they were not signs of evil to the church, they were at best abnormal action of religious forces always doubtful in the blessings they produce, often of preponderating harm to the cause they were meant to sub-serve. It was idle to deny there have been such revivals. They are the necessary human infirmity that accompanies every great work. There is a philosophic reason for them, a reason which Dr. Kirk has suggested thus: “When the plans of Providence are approaching their maturity, and some new truth is about to enter the current of human thought, there are found persons of peculiar temperament, who are among the first to feel the approaching change, and seize the idea, in its fragmentary form of manifestation, and who pluck the unripe fruit, and poison themselves and others with its crude juices. Elated with their discovery, they attack the established order and convictions rudely and unwisely, and present the coming truth in caricature.”
Nevertheless, the truth carries its own light with it, and furnishes the counter-action incident to its connection with human agency. Spurious revivals cannot disprove the genuine. Popular objections that are urged against popular extravagances, or bad methods, fall powerless against the fundamental idea of a true revival of religion. Therefore, though there have been man-made—and therefore evil—revivals, and though many others have had such an infusion of evil human elements as largely to neutralize their good, let us at the opening of our history find, if we can, some standing ground of general principles, from which we may not only view the separate movements, but get a conception of some common law to which they move. Dr. Bonar says: “Viewed on the human side, the philosophy of revivals, as they term it, is just a department of the philosophy of history. In no region has progress been uniformly steady and gradual; but it has been now and then by great strides, by fits and starts, and such events as the Germans call epoch-making. In all the affairs of men there have been tides with full floods. Every channel along which human energies pour themselves has had its ‘freshets.’ We are all familiar with revivals in trade, science, literature, arts and politics. Times of refreshing and visitation are not much more frequent in sacred than in secular history; and they indicate the most interesting and fruitful periods in both.”
The law being reached, obedience to it will be our high and constant duty. If the farmer would have a joyous harvest home when the yellow light of the harvest moon begins to tinge the fields and skies, let him observe the laws of nature. Let him work with sunlight and rain and change of season. To oppose the laws of seedtime, to neglect the laws of summer growth, is to plan for barren fields and empty garners. If we would rejoice before the Lord according to the joy of spiritual harvest, let us fall under the power of God’s spiritual laws—wide as His universe—unfailing as His nature. If we shall touch this law we will understand that true revivals are not the flush of emotional life. As harvest has summer and spring behind it, pushing out its sheaves, tinging its skies, writing flame-colors along its fields, so we will see that every work of grace has years of ripening history behind it; seed-time and growth prepare its flush of harvest time and herald its song of joy.
What is a revival of religion? Dr. Kirk says: “A Revival is the result of special impulses on the religious sensibilities of a community, characterized by these features—a change, a religious change, wrought by the supernatural action of the Holy Ghost, tending to the advancement of true religion, directly or indirectly.” Another defines revivals of religion as: “Times of spiritual awakening, when different classes in community have their attention directed to the great subject of salvation, and earnestly desire to lay up their treasure in heaven.” Dr. Barnes speaks more fully, thus: “Take the case of a single true conversion to God and extend it to a community—to many individuals passing through that change, and you have all the theory of a revival of religion. It is bringing together many conversions; arresting simultaneously many minds; perhaps condensing into a single place, and into a few weeks, the ordinary work of many distant places and many years. The essential part is, that a sinner may be converted by the agency of the Spirit of God from his sins. The same power, which changes him, may change others also. Let substantially the same views and feelings and changes which exist in the case of the individual, exist in the case of others; Let a deep seriousness pervade a community, and a spirit of prayer be diffused there; let the ordinary haunts of pleasure and vice be forsaken for the places of devotion, and you have the theory, so far as I know, of a revival of religion.” And Dr. Finney, confining his definition more strictly to the meaning of the word, defines revivals as a “work of grace, which includes conviction of sin, repentance, new obedience and faith in the church, breaking the power of the world and of sin over Christians, a condition from which reformation and salvation of sinners will follow, going through the same stages of conviction, repentance and reformation.”
For the purposes of this discussion it will be sufficient to say a true revival of religion is a movement among the people produced by the power of the truth and the agency of God’s Spirit, resulting in the quickening of God’s children and the conversion and reformation of sinners. This is a broad work. It has causes—both various and uniform. That is to say, there are certain elements necessary to every true revival; there are certain causes always present. These maybe called its necessary or essential elements. There are also certain elements that have particularity to every revival. They constitute its individuality. These differ from time to time, and they are the varying factors, which are essential in that in some form they will always be present, but which are never exactly the same in any two revivals of religion. The former may be likened to the primary elements of matter, always present and operative, the latter like form and color, indefinite in their variety and determined by very many conditions.
Let us ask, first what are the essential or permanent elements of a revival, those without which it never can exist, those, therefore, which differentiate a true work of grace from every false or merely manmade work?
1. God’s sovereign and Holy Spirit. It is not dogmatism to say there never has been, there never can be, a true work of grace without the vitalizing power of the Holy Ghost. There cannot be any personal religion without that Spirit. No soul ever burst the bonds of its own grave. The Spirit’s work is it to give efficacy to the truth. It has no inherent saving power. It becomes saving only when the Spirit quickens it. Here is a seed in the earth. It is the germ of a beautiful flower. Folded in its hard, dry cell is a bloom that defies the imitation of best art—a perfume that will burden the air around it. But that on one condition, that the sun stoop from his throne with a finger of light and spring open its life and beauty. Even so only the Holy Spirit can transform gospel truth into the efflorescence of beautiful life and character. So say time words of Jesus to Nicodemus: “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” “The Spirit,” Christ says, “shall convince of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment.”
Not only does the Holy Spirit first renew the soul; He also is the source of its holiness. If we are sanctified, Peter says, it is “through the Spirit, unto obedience.” So Christ says: “Howbeit, when He, the Spirit of Truth, is come, He will guide you unto all truth; for He shall not speak of Himself, but whatsoever He shall hear (i.e., from the Father and Son) that shall he speak.” Now, the twofold work of revival is to quicken and sanctify. But this is the specific and special work of the Holy Ghost. And if His agency is essential to the vivifying of a single soul, and to every increase that soul shall make in obedience and holiness, how even more is it essential that if a whole community is to be aroused, a great movement to be inaugurated, in which truth shall spring like a sun into the heavens to awaken and illuminate and guide, God’s eternal Spirit must conduct the work from its inception to its close.
Not only is the Holy Spirit the author of every genuine revival, but in this authorship He is sovereign. He calls whom and as He will. He works when and as He will. He works by means we would despise, and He often passes by the means we had hopefully laid to his hand. As the wind bloweth where it listeth, so in a free and sovereign might God’s Spirit breathes upon His church. If we shall learn this lesson and accept this freedom of the Spirit as one of the very laws of revival, it wil] save us much vain philosophy and hopeless conjecture. It will give modesty to our criticisms and freedom to our plans, it will save us from hasty condemnation of methods that are novel, it will make us pliable in the hands of the Spirit to follow the indications of Providence, and to use with skill and effect every tool He may lay to our hands.
This fact of divine operation as the first essential factor in every revival of religion, is not only announced by scripture, but also is confirmed by experience. It likewise has its illustrations in every department of work. The visible human hand must clasp the invisible hand from above. The vessel, fresh from the artisan’s hands, slides from the dry dock into the water. Fair and graceful as a lily, she rests on the ocean’s breast. Glittering arms of graceful waves close around her as if to bear her on the Prosperous voyage. Yet she moves not. The sailors in holiday attire man the yards and rigging. The sails are spread—the streamers fastened—the anchor weighed. She stirs not. Free sovereign breath of heaven, the launched vessel waits thy coming. From some far-away blue mountain roll, from some wide level plain, from some sultry sea thou must come, and at thy viewless touch the art and thought and purpose and plan of man spring into a living thing of beauty and utility. So ever the work of man waits the touch of God. The breath from heaven must come. It may be the north wind, sharp with biting strength; it may be the south wind, blown over gardens and faint with spices; but the plans of man rock idly on stagnant waters until it comes. God can energize the feeblest human agency. Without His Spirit the very best machinery of human thought and skill advertises only more effectively human helplessness. First then, of all agencies, behind, above, around every device of man’s head, every holy endeavor of man’s renewed heart is the free, boundless, almighty breath of God. In Ezekiel’s vision the wheels with wheels within them were moved by the living creatures of flaming and glorious appearance, “and when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them; and when the creatures were lifted up the wheels were lifted up by them. Whithersoever the spirit was to go they went, thither was their spirit to go, and the wheels were lifted up over against them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.”
The wheels represent the Church on earth, the living creatures are the Spirit of God, their wings are his power, and their eyes are his wisdom. The Church was organized amid a brilliant display of the power of a mighty God. Tongues of flame lit the brows of the apostles, and words of flame, like the lightning flashes of Ezekiel’s spirit, lit up that first magnificent century of church history. Since then, however revivals have differed from each other, they have had this unvarying mark and sign, the tongues of flame have brought heavenly illuminations and the victories of the truth have been secured by the direct power of the Spirit. In the words of an English writer, “The reformation of the monasticism, and the great religious movement associated with it, extending from the close of the eleventh century far into the thirteenth; the Waldensian revival, which covered a part of the same period; the very remarkable outburst of religious life in the Low Countries in the fifteenth century; the Protestant reformation of the sixteenth century; English Puritanism; English Methodism—were singularly unlike each other; but they were all the results of fresh communications to the Church of the life and light and power of the Holy Ghost.
II. The second permanent factor in a revival is the truth of God. There is no inherent and necessarily saving efficacy in the truth. The gospel may be heard only, to be rejected. And yet the truth is God’s agency for the liberation of men. “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” God has ordained that men shall be saved by the proclamation of the gospel. To the mere ritualist it may be a stumbling block—as it was to the Jews,—to culture it may seem to be foolishness; so it appeared to the Greeks; but it is the wisdom and power of God unto salvation. That is to say, salvation is the design of it. If man is not saved by it, it is because he perverts it. Now the place which truth holds in revivals is easily determined. It is the seed whose life is to bring the harvest. The harvest indeed depends on certain relations between sunlight and seed grain; neither is fruitful without the other. Preach, therefore, without the Spirit, and it is vain. And for life, movement, guidance of the people, the Spirit without the truth is vain. The Spirit may overwhelm a community with a sense of sin and peril. He may awaken dull sensibilities amid arouse lethargic consciences, but the truth as it is in Jesus must point the way of peace. Redemption, therefore, as a great fact, to which the Bible gathers all its strength, redemption in the life, suffering, death and glory of Jesus, is the seed truth of revival harvest. Around it many others cluster. As in times of Nehemiah, in the unfolding it brings confession and praise, tears and joy. Upon these all, the Holy Spirit pours His light. They rise into strength and beauty; they grow into life and character. As a garden unfolds in the harmony of colors, so does truth, colored, vivified, blended, expand under the Spirit’s power into the beautiful unity of Christian Life?
The truth is many-sided. The side that is most prominently seen at any particular period determines somewhat the character of the revival that may result. The moon always turns the same illuminated disc to us, but truth revolves. The Spirit shows us all the sides. A variable shade is thus given to the different ages. The same vegetation in different latitudes has different colors the same truth in different ages has different appearances. If we were to characterize the distinguishing mark of the religious movement of the first century we should call it intensity. The apostle’s simple creed: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved” glowed in white heat in every sermon, and the feet that obeyed the Savior’s first commission were swift to run the race whose goal was martyrdom.
The Reformation Revival, broader and more multiform, was an awakening, not only of personal faith, but also of doctrine, learning and liberty.
The revivals of this century indicate a perceptible tendency towards apostolic simplicity and missionary zeal. Through all these changes one fact stands prominently to view and must never be forgotten. The truth as it in Jesus is an essential element in every work of grace. Popular excitement that is not pointed to rest in the doctrines of the cross is only hurtful. The truth, only, rightly arouses; the truth, only, successfully calms.
If therefore, it be inquired what element should be most prominent in revival work, we answer, Christ and His cross. Rowland Hill, wrote in his Bible. three words as condensing all its meaning, “Ruin, Regeneration, Redemption.” Scatter these ‘seed-truths through any community, plow them in with sharpest assertion, water them with tears, tend with unfailing watchfulness, and then fear no empty gleam of harvest sheaves that have no bread in them.
The mind unfed by truth is easily made the victim of delusions, the prey of its fervid imaginations. Passion may be mistaken for religion; excitement for consecration. But he builds securely, whether for personal character or for popular persuasion, influence and spiritual results, who builds on God’s Word.
A series of Bible revivals will train up a generation of stalwart Christians, not moved about by every wind of doctrine, not seduced from their allegiance by every fascination of the world. It is this that constitutes at once, the beauty and safety of the present revivals. It is the truth that makes us free.
III. There is another element that may be considered essential to revival work, an element that has never been wanting, via. a church on earth. Sometimes a dead church needing first to be raised before it could become helpful to others, but still the conception of a revival as the impress of the truth upon a community supposes an agency that shall bring that truth to the mind and heart along the ordinary path of instruction and appeal. Human agency then is supposed in every revival of religion. Let us be humbly mindful of the fact that such agency has often begun at the minimum of church coldness and formality. Let us remember God has often chosen things conspicuously weak to be the channel of his strength. Yet it remains true, the human side is as much an unvarying factor (though of course in relatively insignificant measure) as the divine. Christ’s method was the projection of himself with all of divine pity and human tenderness and sympathy into the sorrows of men, recognizing that not the least of these sorrows are those which spring in a sincere heart from the bondage of sin and error. He could have sent a liberating doctrine by the mouth of an angel, or let it kindle again in the words of an Isaiah or a David, but not so has he chosen. “It has pleased God to save men by the foolishness of preaching.” Men are imprisoned, and the tap of an idea at the iron prison door cannot set them free. A man must come into that jail, a man, who has the keys to its winding corridors; he must surrender his liberty for the time, stand among the prisoners, unbinding chains with one hand, and with the other point the almost despairing faces to the breadth of sunlight, that glints feebly through the grated windows.
Society is so constructed that influence is at a maximum, when its lines are level. So it is not angels for men, but men for men in personal impact of moral power, which moves the world. Thus, however feeble is human agency in itself; God takes it into a glorious partnership. They who underrate or ignore it will fail to reach the philosophy of God’s method of grace with the children of men. A clod of earth is dark, most unlovely, in any view of its powers separate from the sun in the heavens and the vital germ hid within it. Most unimportant in itself; yet it is the solid base on which the tree stands. Through its dark corridors the sun shoots its quickening beams, through its unlit passageways the roots must twine. There is no growth without it. The reason is plain. The soil and the seed and the radiant sun are one in the grand endeavor for growth and life. Inert clod, It may be powdered under the heel, but it has lofty alliances, it has mighty friends. The sun sends it shining greeting, and girds it with its own puissance. Weak enough is humanity—humanity apart from its God, aside from truth. It is dust to be blown by the winds, to be whirled in an endless unrest, in a dry and perpetual death, but that humanity which comes into harmony with God, for which heaven has tears, and truth has light, and God’s Spirit has life, is the broad base of all those spiritual growths that seem more of heaven than earth. We say again, therefore, a church on earth, a company of people allied to God, willing subjects of His grace, willing missionaries of His truth, locking hands with the Spirit, is an essential element in that movement, which is at once deeply divine and thoroughly human; deeply divine, because God is all its real efficiency; thoroughly human because man is the sphere of its activity, and the divinely ordained channel of its progress.
Let us turn our thought now to what may be termed the varying elements of revival. They are not essential, but they are such as, combining with what is essential, give form and color to revivals; such, in a word, as determine their individuality. Three elements determine a tree as to the facts of life, growth and nature. There must be a germ, a soil, and warmth. Three factors constitute the fact of a revival as to life, growth, and nature, God’s Word, God’s Spirit, and God’s Church. But the wind and storm and latitude and other influences measure the strength, shape and color of the tree. So many influences of the age, society, and intellectual tendencies pressing on a revival from the outside, give direction, shape and tone to that which, as a fact, is assured by the triple movement from the center.
1. Prominent among these is the social or national condition, which like an atmosphere flows around every work and modifies its form. It is difficult for a man to rise out of the level of his time. And religious movements are restricted in like manner. Some conditions of society are favorable to reflection; others adverse. So some times in a nation give better scope to the victories of truth than others.
A revival of religion is in a large measure a tide of religious thought and feeling. The thoughts and feelings of a nation or community cannot be profoundly set in two opposite directions at the same time. Hence a time of war is seldom a season of widespread religious interest. The reason is apparent. The whirl of present interest and peril diverts all feeling to that one central channel. It is sometimes a matter of wonder that times of national calamity should so often be times of religious indifference. There need be no wonder. The waters that run to white lines of most intense activity cannot be separated into several channels. They must be compressed into one.
On the other hand, times of failure and of depression are favorable for the impression of the truth. After the strain of a world-ward tendency has relaxed, when men let go their world-ward endeavors with the gathering conviction of the vanity of things under the sun, then, in the calm and hunger that follow, truth has had some of her most signal victories.
The great revival of 1857—58 followed hard on the commercial disasters. The present financial depression and business stagnation seem to have given an impetus to religious interest all over the country. Thus the Holy Ghost in His free sovereignty does not despise the help of circumstance. He can work over and above it. He has often done so. But remembering how often He has taken advantage of a lull in human passions, of a subsidence of the fever for possessions, to make heard His call to faith and the service of God, it is interesting to think He thus takes into his service the ordinary current of history, using the changes of social or national life to give speed to the conquests of truth.
In the development of our history we shall have frequent occasion to give illustrations of these remarks, showing the influence of the national history upon the spiritual condition of the people. Thus the general indifference and apathy of the people of New England on all religious subjects for quite a long period before the time of Edwards and the labors of Whitefield seemed to be the groundwork out of which arose the great revivals which followed. God used special providential occurrences for the purpose of arousing attention and quickening the popular conscience. Dr. Edwards makes particular mention of one of these providences that had a most remarkable effect in giving power to the truth. He says: “In the month of April, 1734, there happened a very sudden and awful death of a man in the bloom of youth. The sermon preached at his funeral affected many. This was followed by the death of a young married woman. In the beginning of her illness, she was greatly distressed about the salvation of her soul, but seemed to obtain satisfactory evidence of God’s saving mercy, and in a most earnest and moving manner counseled and warned others. This seemed much to affect many young persons, and increased the religious concern on their minds. It was in the latter part of December, that the Spirit of God began to act in, and wonderfully to work among us. Soon the noise among the dry bones, waxed louder and louder. The work of conversion was then carried on in the most astonishing manner. Souls did, as it were, come by flocks to Jesus Christ. It made such a glorious alteration in the town, that, in the following spring and summer (1735), the town seemed to be full of the presence of God. I hope that more than three hundred have been brought home to Christ in this town (a population of eleven hundred) in the space of half a year.”
2. Intellectual conditions also enter into the success of revivals. Of this fact there are two signal historic illustrations. The day of Pentecost came at a remarkable time in the intellectual history of the world. The wonderful religious progress that followed Pentecost, and which made the first hundred years of Christian history almost a continuous revival, would scarce have been possible at any other time. A single glance at the confluence of Eastern and Western history at that time would reveal how Providence had prepared the way for the revival fires that broke forth through the darkness all around the Mediterranean.
The intellectual history in the dark lands east of Palestine had been one prolonged failure. Confucius set his face toward his ancestors and died. Brahmins drank the sacred Sonia and in its intoxication became indifferent to time and eternity. Buddhists wandered a while in atheism, and, saying: “There is no God,” plunged into Nirvana, and the Magians from the courts of Zoroaster, perceiving the hopeless struggle between good and evil, and longing for a deliverer, followed the Hebrew traditions that lingered on the Euphrates, and by that Star which emblems every historic light, came to the manger of’ Jesus, bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh. To the west of Palestine a similar course of failure and of hunger may be traced. The Star passes from Persia and rises over Greece. Plato dreamed of a great good, a perfect human state, an infinite chasm between them, and there, the dream ended. Greek religion climbed to the height of beauty and art, and then broke down under its own loveliness. The end of their cultured and earnest endeavor was a wail of utter helplessness and surrender, which, as the tradition runs, sounded through all their temples, saying: “The great Pan is dead” and hushed the oracles forever. The gorgeous mythology had fallen to pieces on the Aegean, as before it had failed on the Euphrates. The world had nothing else. It was an hour of despair. Philosophy was creeping drearily on toward atheism. Then came Christ, then came Pentecost. And from all nations the heavy-hearted people looked toward Jerusalem and listened to its call to faith and peace and rest. The Pentecostal wave was borne eastward along Arabian sands, and westward around the base of classic mountains, on the tide of such intellectual confession and need as had never been lifted before.
Another illustration is at the Reformation Era. The revival of learning stimulated and shaped that great revival of religion. The progress of science in many directions led men slowly out of the cloisters to look upon the world and themselves. It was the development of the man against the church, personal responsibility against authority. The end whereunto alike the schoolmen and defenders of science worked, often blindly and unconsciously, was this: the right of private judgment in all matters, great or small, sacred or secular. The highway thus thrown up, among falling alters and decaying art was not made by the reformers, but rather for them. It was God’s developing idea that prepared this way, and as the soul is often darkly led from its outer supports to the vitality of the inner life, so by steps no logic can measure and no chronology date, the mind of Europe felt its way past the outward to the inward, away from the picture gallery of a whole continent to the lecture room of the Truth. And even as the soul gains its freedom at a great price, so the transition from Art to thought required the ransom price of tears and flames and blood. Thus the quickening of a human intellect and the quickening of religious life and thought came together. Their confluence gave a power to each that separately they could not have attained. Rationalists claim that the liberation of the mind from the shackles of superstition was wholly due to intellectual causes. The influence was indeed mutual, but the illumination, which shone direct from heaven, upon the minds of Martin Luther and his compeers had much to do, not only with the awakening of religious, but also civil and intellectual liberty. On the other hand, the awakened mind gave wings to the newfound gospel. At no other time could the unchaining of the Bible have been of so much use to Europe and to the world. The printing press loaded with Bibles that vessel which the mariner’s compass had made bold to push out from shore. And so that revival, which spread from the Adriatic to the North Sea, from Geneva to Edinburgh, shook a continent, with all its thrones and its universities, as with the very power of God. Thus again the Holy Spirit brought human instrumentality to His service; used the circumstance of aroused intellectual condition to deepen and spread the grandest work of grace known to the history of men.
We believe the sharpening lines of the present intellectual battle will eventuate in a similar service to the spirit of revivals. The line of attack now is around the foundation stone. Shall we have any religion, any God, any immortality? We believe the result of this inquiry for deepest truths will disclose a bed-rock, on which will be built the most successful of all the labors of the church. Out of these discussions will come strength of mental conviction, which is the condition of the best religious zeal. Lord Bacon says: “It is true that a little philosophy inclineth men’s minds to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.” From that depth in philosophy there will arise such height of united Christian endeavor to conquer the world for Christ as has never marked a period of church history before. Surely it is not without significance that this depth of conviction should be approached in these days at once by the heart methods of evangelistic labors and by masterly philosophical discussions, at once through the sermons of Moody and the lectures of Cook. Indeed, as a condition of revival zeal, it matters little by what path this conviction of the truth as it is in Jesus may come—path of logic, or path of service —so only the truth take shape in the mind and settle into the heart. It is the grandeur of the Bible that its lines of evidence are level to the lowest. It not only touches the springs of feeling with an impartial hand in the breast of sage or child, but the evidence that leads to mental conviction is drawn with such a masterly hand that it equally impresses every age, rank and condition. We believe this conviction is now being impressed upon the attention of the world, through scholarship and missions and revivals, as never before. We look forward, therefore, to an unwonted depth and continuous and widening power of the revival work of the future.
Without stopping to specify all the human and social conditions which shape and affect revivals of religion, it is perfectly manifest, if they have a human side, as well as a divine, then the changes of that human will powerfully characterize the revival. That is what the Germans call a zeitgeist, a spirit of the age that sets its impress on every work done within that age. From that spirit and its molding power even an outpouring of the Spirit of God is not exempt.
The water taken up from the great ocean and in clouds carried over the land is originally all of the same density and form. A smooth and even vapor, it rises from the sea and drifts toward the mountain ranges. But when it comes within reach. of the atmosphere of the continent, then the conditions of that atmosphere determine its form. Whether, unbound from the clouds by peals of thunder, it shall fall in heavy drops upon the land below whether it shall descend in hardly visible mist clouds, or in icy sleet or feathery flakes of snow, depends on conditions of that element into which it has come. So is the work of God’s truth among the children of men. Even the Spirit’s appeals get tone from the Christian atmosphere in which they vibrate. The theology, the religious or irreligious tendencies, the political and social and moral air color and so individualize revivals of religion. It was idle, therefore, to expect that one revival would have the same prominent elements as some other.
We cannot learn them all by studying one. We cannot, from one age, take a standard of measurement, which can be applied to all others. It were folly to discredit the present work of grace because it has features not marked before; because it has not the tongues of Pentecostal flame, or the intense heroism of Scottish Covenanter days, or the severe legal aspects of the first revivals in our own country. Just as unwise would it be unduly to magnify it because it has more of the gospel of simple trust, and exalt it at the expense of other revivals in which the gospel of St. John had a less conspicuous place.
Again, we say God’s Spirit is a free Spirit, and because this is so, He makes every age, every condition of society, every state of human thought, subservient to His grand purpose of pressing forward the kingdom of Christ.
From this glance at the necessary and accessory elements of revivals, we discover there is one great law under which these elements fall. A revival of religion is not a lawless thing. When a farmer has learned the laws of nature he plans for harvest under those laws; he goes to his fields with a firm step, because he believes God is with him. From the first furrow turned in the spring to the last sheaf gathered in the autumn, he works under the buoyant consciousness that God is with him because he is with God, because he observes those laws of seed time and harvest which he is assured shall never fail. In our blessed work of winning souls to Christ we may work under the inspiring thought that the laws of grace are as sure as those of nature; that the promise that brings the opening warmth of spring, the radiant heat of summer and the mellow light of autumn is the same word that secures the bloom, growth and ripening of religious life. Let us, therefore, learn to take revivals out of the exceptional realm into that of regular church methods. They are God’s means, ordained to bear his church along. It is the aim of this history to gather from the various fields of special religious interest in this country, such hints of the relation between the necessary divine elements and the varying human efforts as may contribute somewhat toward a discovery of that law of success in saving souls obedience to which would give the utmost joy, and the largest success to Christian work. It is not too much to hope that at some time not far away the church will enter upon a revival which, in its breadth, shall encompass the world, and in its result shall bring the fulfilment of that promise when nations shall be born in a day. God speed time when Pentecostal expectation shall fill every church, and Pentecostal flames light up every altar. Then shall the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our Lord and his Christ?
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.”
There was one man who perceived the extent of time 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 three hundred were converted in Northampton. His account of the experience of the converts is important to our purpose. He notes among those who were awakened, first a conviction of the justice of God in their condemnation, a sense of their own exceeding sinfulness and the vileness of all their performances. This was followed by unexpected quietness and composure, and often a conclusion within themselves that they would lie at God’s feet and await His time. This was followed, sooner or later, by “some comfortable and sweet view of a merciful God, of a sufficient Redeemer, of some great and joyful things of the gospel.” “There is wrought in them a repose of soul in God through Christ, a secret disposition to love him and to hope for blessing in this way. And yet they have no imagination that they are now converted. They know not that the sweet complacence they feel in the mercy and complete salvation of God, as it includes pardon and sanctification, and is held forth to them only through Christ, is a true receiving of this mercy, or a plain evidence of their receiving it.’’
A few years before this there was a revival of considerable power in Freehold, N. J., under the ministry of the Tennents. In 1735 “Mr. Gilbert Tennent brought some overtures into synod with respect to trials of candidates both for the ministry and for the Lord’s Table.” He was moved to this by the custom into which the low state of religion had led the church, of not only receiving people to the Lord’s Table without any evidence of a change of heart. But even ordaining ministers without any strict examination as to their “experience of a work of sanctifying grace in their hearts.” The response of the synod was, however, explicit on the last of these points, and it was one of the signs of the general religious awakening for which God’s Spirit was preparing the way.
Prominent among those early revivals, the one among the Scotch Irish Presbyterians of New Londonderry, Pa., deserves special mention, less for the extent of it than for the insight it gives us into the spiritual tendencies of the times. Samuel Blair gives an interesting account of the state of religion at that time. He speaks 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.”
In the spring of 1740 the Spirit was poured out on his congregation in Londonderry in an eminent manner. He had prepared the way for it during the previous winter, by most searching preaching of the nature of sin, the breadth of divine law and the necessity of conversion. Many were brought into great distress of soul; “some burst out with an audible noise into bitter crying.” During the whole summer every sermon produced wonderful impressions on the hearers. The effect of these impressions he thus describes: “Several would be overcome and fainting, others sobbing, hardly able to contain, others crying in a most dolorous manner, many others more silently weeping, and a solemn concern appearing in the countenances of many others. And sometimes the soul exercises of some (though comparatively but very few) would so far affect their bodies as to occasion some strange, unusual bodily motions.” The joy and peace that followed after were usually as deep as the distress that had gone before. Afterwards, he relates that those who were under slight impressions lost them again, and fell into their former carelessness and stupidity. But many gave increasing evidence of a firm and saving change.
In 1739 and ‘40 there were also marked signs of revival in New Brunswick and Newark, N. J., Harvard, Mass., and other places. The long, dark night was drawing to a close. The day was near at hand. Among ministers there was longing for better experience in their own hearts, better fruit in their work. Among the people there was a deepening sense of the unworthy character of their Christian life, the often-unscriptural nature of their hope and experience. God was dealing with his church and through it with the formative period of our national history. There were great perils before our land; times of trial both national and religious. A struggle was coming that would try men’s souls. Infidelity was getting ready to make brilliant bids for the controlling thought of the country. The Lord was about to lift up a standard against it.
George Whitefield was born in the Bell Inn, Gloucester, England, on the 16th day of Dec. 1714 (old style). His father was a wine merchant in Bristol, and afterward an innkeeper, and died when George was only two years of age. During the lad’s early years he had fair opportunities for an education—at fifteen being proficient in Latin—and astonishing his associates by his speeches and dramatic performances at the public examinations. He seems to have been born a preacher, for in early years he used to “play minister,” composing sermons and spending much time in the study of the Bible.
At the age of seventeen he went to Oxford. His progress here was rapid. His decision, prompt action and hard working ambition, displayed pluck not unworthy of the man who in later years braved brutal mobs with heroic boldness, and who, when the present comforts of ocean traveling were things un-thought of, again and again crossed the turbulent Atlantic; and, constrained by the love of Christ his Savior, tramped American woods and swamps, seeking sinners and trying to save them. The moral tone of Oxford at this time was at its worst, “a learned den of infidelity and dissipation.” He resisted, however, from the first the temptation to carousals with which he was surrounded. Studying his Bible and other good books, he had determined to strive for a better life than that he saw around him. But how to attain it he knew not. The three following years were years of religious darkness and struggle. There were two others in the University destined to like conspicuous places in the church who were in a similar state of mind, John and Chas. Wesley. These three, beating around in the dark, put themselves upon severe ascetic regimen to find the way of life. They knew not Christ and were trying to save themselves. In this path Whitefield hesitated at no sacrifice. The worst of food, the meanest apparel, prolonged fasting, midnight vigils and other forms of crucifixion of the flesh so wrought upon his brain and nerves that he was haunted with a constant fear of seeing the devil. His condition, physical and mental, had become alarming. His friends, the Wesley’s, knew not what to do for him; they had not found the light themselves. Happily his bodily constitution broke down, and by prostrating him upon a bed of sickness for six or seven weeks, gave him aim-enforced rest from his bodily crucifixion and the torturing thought with which his mind was afflicted. His mind became clearer as it became calmer.
He spent much of the time in reading the Greek Testament and in prayer. Gradually the hopelessness of his own efforts at salvation dawned upon his mind, and for the first time in his life he knew he was lost. The decisive point in his experience we give in his own words: “One day, perceiving an uncommon drought and a disagreeable clamminess in my mouth, and using things to allay my thirst, but in vain, it was suggested to me that when Jesus Christ cried out, ‘I thirst,’ his sufferings were nearly at an end. Upon which I cast myself down on the bed crying out ‘ I thirst, I thirst. ’Soon after this I found and felt in myself that I was delivered from the burden, which had so heavily oppressed me, the spirit of mourning was taken from me and I knew what it was to rejoice in God my Savior, and for some time could not avoid singing psalms wherever I was. But my joy gradually became more settled and, blessed be God, has abode and increased in my soul, saving a few casual intermissions ever since. Thus were the days of my mourning ended. After a long night of desertion and temptation, the stand, which I had seen at a distance before began to appear again, and the daystar arose in my heart. Now did the Spirit of God take possession of my soul, and, as I humbly hope, seal me unto the day of redemption.”
Sixteen years afterward, reviewing this experience, he writes more fully of his feelings at the time: “My crying ‘I thirst, I thirst,’ was not to put myself on a level with Jesus Christ. But when I said those words, my soul was in an agony. I thirsted for God’s salvation and a sense of divine love; I thirsted for a clear discovery of my pardon through Jesus Christ, and the seal of the Spirit. I was at the same time enabled to look up to, and act faith upon the glorious Lord Jesus as dying for sinners, and felt the blessed effects of it.”
From this time his spiritual life rapidly deepened. Henceforth his hungering and thirsting after righteousness were boundless. The Bible became almost his one book. He found his theology not in the University course or library, but in prayerful study of God’s Word. Some time after his conversion, writing from Gloucester, he says: “I began to read the Holy Scriptures upon my knees, laying aside all other books and praying, if possible, over every line and word. This proved meat indeed and drink indeed to my soul. I daily received fresh life, light and power from above. I got more true knowledge from reading the book of God in one month, than I could ever have acquired from all the writings of men.”
This outline of his early religious exercises gives an insight into his future life and work. Whitefield, the servitor at Oxford, brought at last to the utter end of human endeavor, and made to surrender wholly to the sovereign grace of God in Christ, interprets Whitefleld, the preacher, casting himself never on his own resources, or on human plans, but singly and always upon the power of God. He never retraced the steps of the lesson of those early days of spiritual gloom and struggle. He accepted as the pole star of all future aims the truth of Scripture. “Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit, saith the Lord.”
The reader can hardly fail to notice the points of similarity between Whitefield’s religious experience and that of the father of the Reformation. Luther’s struggles in the chains of his youthful sins were matched by the groans that came from Pembroke College in such complaints as this: “If I trace myself from my cradle to my manhood, I can see nothing in it but a fitness to be damned.” The self-righteous attempts at salvation by the great German Reformer, even to climbing the stairs at St. Peter’s on his knees, find a parallel in the self-lacerations of the English student, who pressed on his way of mortifying the flesh till the bones well nigh burst through the skin, and the mind staggered away from the ordeal. And the perfect peace, the sweet surrender at the feet of Christ, the completeness of righteousness, and the un-shaded acceptance with God through Christ, are the same at Erfurth and Oxford. The parallel might be carried further. In each case it was the keynote of life. As they had received Christ in the fullness of his atoning sacrifice, so they walked in Him. In each case the instrument was nothing, and God was all in all.
Whitefield’s experience also interprets his theology. Those nights alone with the Bible taught him in rare measure the secrets of men’s hearts and the hidings of his power in dealing with them. If we would understand his method for winning men, we must recall how the Lord won him. To that lesson he was always loyal. The spirit had burned human helplessness, and ruin, and divine grace too deeply into his own experience to allow him ever to forget it in his preaching.
These truths had been in his own heart too consuming a fire ever to allow him to wander beyond them. The impressions of his life were struck from that early type with singular fidelity. He became a preacher of the way in which God had revealed His Son in him. Hence he preached profoundly rather than broadly. Hence he did nothing but preach. He had less culture than his noble friend, Chas. Wesley, less breadth of plan, less executive power, less worldly wisdom, in measures for extending the gospel, than John Wesley. But no preacher since Paul more grandly lived under the light of the Apostle’s single purpose: “This one thing I do.” Our sketch, therefore, of the revivals under Whitefield in this country will be a sketch of the effect of the gospel of Christ, preached by a man whose soul burned with Apostolic consecration. It is a history, not of measures, plans, or systems, but simply, purely an account of the wisdom of God making foolish the wisdom of man, the strength of God, conspicuous most in the weakness of man.
Whitefleld’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.
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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.”
At this time he made up his mind to go to America. The Wesley’s had invited him to Georgia. Having collected a thousand pounds for an orphan school, and about three hundred for the poor in Georgia, the already famous preacher embarked (Dec. 28, 1737,) to cross the Atlantic.
The morning after reaching Savannah, he began his ministry on this continent by preaching to an audience of “seventeen adults and twenty-five children.” After a residence in Savannah of about three months, he returned to England, first in order to be ordained as a priest; and secondly, to collect funds for the orphan house, which had now become very dear to him.
After spending a year in England, he set sail again for his far-away home in the New World. What a year it had been! He had set all England on fire. Thousands had been converted. Timid mouths had been opened. A new era was about to dawn on the churches of Great Britain. But Whitefield felt called to a humbler field. He was consumed with zeal to preach the gospel in the wilderness.
He landed near Philadelphia, October 30th. Here he began his wonderful evangelistic career. His word, which in England had kindled like a torch, now lit up the new settlements of Pennsylvania and New York, and later, of Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas. First among the men he met in the New World, and to whom his soul became knit in the bonds of warmest friendship, were the Tennents, William and Gilbert. A sketch of their lives and ministry will be in place here.
Wm. Tennent, Sr., was an ordained minister of the Established Church in Ireland. Unable to conform to some of the terms imposed on the clergy, he was deprived of his living, and migrated to Pennsylvania in 1718. He was received as a member of the Presbyterian Synod of Philadelphia, and settled at Neshaminy, twenty miles north of Philadelphia. There in 1720, he opened the famous school, known in history as the “Log College,” in which some of the most distinguished ministers of that time received their education. He had four sons. One of them, Charles, was minister of the Presbyterian Church at Whiteclay Creek. Another, John, was, for two short years, the greatly beloved and remarkably successful pastor in the old church in Freehold, N.J. In 1732 death called him from labors, which God had greatly honored in the conversion of many souls. The next year his brother William succeeded him, and the religious interest begun under the labors of John Tennent, continued for many years under the ministry of William. His pastorate continued for forty-four years.
Gilbert Tennent began his work in New Brunswick. At first there were no signs of life, but after a course of close and severe preaching of the claims of divine law, the Holy Spirit was poured out in a wonderful manner. He became prominent as a revivalist, and was often associated with Whitefield. Indeed, the love of these men for one another was like the friendship between David and Jonathan. Extracts from a few letters will give touching illustrations of this friendship. Mr. Tennent writes to Whitefield, from New Brunswick, thus: “I think I never found such a strong and passionate affection to any stranger as to you. When I saw your courage and labor for God at New York, I found willingness in my heart to die with you, or to die for you.” Of Tennent, Whitefield writes thus: “Then I went to the meeting-house to hear Mr. Gilbert Tennent 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 first conversion, Mr. Tennent 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.”
This estimate of the power of Gilbert Tennent is amply confirmed by all we know about him, and he was the instrument in God’s hand not only for quickening the church and rescuing sinners wherever his influence reached, but by his courage and fidelity he reformed abuses that had crept into the church, and with a few others of like spirit changed the whole character of the Presbyterian ministry of that day.
To return to Whitefield. His ministry in New York and Philadelphia (in both which places he had the powerful and sweet company of Mr. Tennent was greatly blessed. Not allowed in New York to preach in his own church, “his preaching in the Presbyterian meeting house received the sanction of his Divine Master.” In Philadelphia so great was the change produced at this time through the preaching of Whitefield and Tennent, 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.”
The story of the effect of Whitefield’s preaching on Franklin has often been told. It will bear another repetition. Franklin had opposed Whitefield’s project for an orphanage in Georgia, and had refused to contribute. Soon after, he was present at a preaching service from the drift of which he soon perceived that the great preacher was going to finish up with a collection. He, therefore, braced himself in the purpose that Whitefield should get nothing from him. As the sermon proceeded, the great philosopher softened down a little, and thought he would give the coppers that were in his pocket. Another stroke of Whitefield’s oratory determined him to give the silver, and the conclusion was so overwhelming that Franklin emptied his pockets into the collector’s plate—copper, silver, gold—all.
He also tells the following anecdote: “At this sermon there was also one of our club, who, being of my sentiments respecting the building in Georgia, and suspecting a collection might be intended, emptied his pocket before he came from home. Towards the conclusion of the discourse, however, he felt a strong inclination to give and applied to a neighbor who stood near him to lend him money for that purpose. The request was fortunately made to perhaps the only man in the company who had the firmness not be affected by the preacher. His answer was: “At any other time, friend Hopkinson, I would lend thee freely, but not now, for thee seems to me to be out of thy right senses.”
Another writer, speaking of the surprising effect of Whitefield’s preaching in. and about Philadelphia, says: “So great was the enthusiasm to hear Mr. Whitfield preach that many from Philadelphia followed him on foot to Chester, to Abington, to Neshaminy, and some even to New Brunswick in New Jersey, the distance of sixty miles.” Of the services at the latter place during this time, 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.”
After a visit to Savannah to further the interests of the Orphan School, and sundry trials as well as great successes, in which, however, we have not space to follow him, he went to do evangelistic work in New England, landing at Newport, R. I., on September 14th, 1740. The land was ready for him. We have spoken of the preaching of Edwards and the local revivals. A general desire for a better religious life seemed to be spreading through the length and breadth of the land. Tarrying only a few days in Rhode Island, Whitefield hastened on to Boston. In the afternoon of the day following his arrival he preached to about four thousand people in Dr. Coleman's meeting house.” During time next few weeks his labors in and around Boston were 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.
The work thus begun in Boston continued for a year and a half after Whitefield’s departure. Gilbert Tennent remained nearly four months after the great evangelist had gone, and was wonderfully instrumental in deepening and extending the work. The general activity of the city following this revival may be seen from the following summary: “Thirty religious societies were instituted in the city. Ministers, besides attending to their usual work, preached in private houses almost every night. Chapels were always crowded. The very face of the town seemed to be strangely altered. Even the Negroes and the boys in the streets left their usual rudeness, and taverns were found empty of all but lodgers.”
From Boston Whitefield went to Northampton to visit Jonathan Edwards, and, of course, to preach the gospel. Here, where there had been precious revivals in the preceding years, his ministry of a few days was greatly blessed. “The town seemed to be in a great and continual commotion day and night.” Mr. Whitefield now left New England for a preaching tour Southward, lingering a few days in New York, New Brunswick, Baskinridge, Philadelphia and many other towns, his ministry everywhere being with power over the consciences of the people.
In New England the gracious wave of blessing spread from Boston north and south and west. There were great awakenings in Plymouth, Taunton, Middleborough, Portsmouth, Gloucester, Enfold and many other places. It was in the last named place that Edwards preached his great sermon on “Sinners in the hands of an angry God.” The revival had not reached that town. The people were almost defiantly careless and unconcerned. Their appearance at church, before the preacher began his sermon, was thoughtless and vain. Turmoil, who learned the particulars from an eyewitness, thus describes the effect of the sermon: “Before the sermon was ended the assembly appeared deeply impressed, and bowed down with an awful conviction of their sin and danger. There was such a breathing of distress and weeping that the preacher was obliged to speak to the people and desire silence, that he might be heard. This was the beginning of the same great and prevailing concern in that place, with which the colony in general was visited.”
What shall be said concerning the physical effects, which this sermon and the preaching of the Tennents and other revivalists of this period often produced? The philosophy of them, to those who have at all considered the subtle action of sensitive nerves on the body and mind alike, will not be very obscure. The falling and fainting fits tire convulsions and trances and other physical manifestations were the result of high nervous action among a people, all whose training had been toward intense mental action and intense feeling. The reciprocal influence of mind and nerves was not so well understood then as now, and hence many things were referred to supernatural agency that would now be more readily and simply explained. But it were folly to discount the reality of those works of grace, because so often the body yielded to the severe stress of religious excitement. The character of the preaching at this time is also an element in the explanation of this strange physical and nervous action.
Mr. Tennent’s preaching is thus described:
“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, threatening, truth, power, majesty of God.
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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 resemblance's of grace, delusive arid 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 rain, unable to help themselves and in a lost condition.” The same words would well describe the preaching of Edwards, Whitefield and others. Those were times of awful disclosures of human hearts and unveilings of divine truth. They came after times of trial upon people who had undergone the perils of wildernesses amid savages. There had been two centuries of tremendous nervous excitement. The settlers of New England were by inheritance people of tense and sensitive nerves. Upon such people the preaching of that generation could not come like the dew on the flowers. It was a rushing torrent, plunging into a condition of intense thought and feeling. There were present all the elements, both subjective and objective, necessary, not only to determine the mind, but to agitate and shake the whole nature.
While the excesses connected with these early revivals do not disprove their genuine character, they are abnormal, the results of peculiar temperaments and circumstances, and not to be desired. They increase the dangers of false conversions, blind the minds of the ignorant, so that nervous excitement is taken for religion and in many ways operate unfavorably toward that religion which is most manifest not in earthquake or whirlwind, but in the silent influence of the truth and the “still, small voice” of the Spirit.
In 1741, Mr. Whitefield returned to the old country. His preaching in England and in Scotland, the opposition to him, the stormy scenes through which he passed, holding aloft steadily and gloriously the banner of the cross, the immense crowds that in streets and commons flocked to his ministry, the multitudes of conversions, the extent of the work, not only through Great Britain, but even on the continent, these would fill a volume. Except as they illustrate the power of Whitefield they are aside from our purpose.
On Mr. Whitefield’s return 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 oftentimes unscriptural either in form or substance. The “Testimony” adopted by the faculty of Harvard College gives the general animus of this opposition. In it Whitefield is charged, first, with being “an enthusiast,” the charge being sustained by numerous quotations from his journal and sermons; second, with being an “uncharitable, censorious and slanderous man;” and third, with having been “a deluder of the people,” in the affair of the contributions to his orphan house, collecting money under the impression that he was to have personal charge of the school, whereas he was all over the country preaching the gospel. In point of fact there was nothing to the charges. As to the last one, 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 itinerancy 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 the great preacher truly replied, “But did I come unasked? Nay; did not some of those 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 his reply to the faculty of Harvard College he defends itinerancy 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, though not of their own head, yet 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 ministers, indisputable privilege. During this opposition Whitefield was never for a moment swerved from his work. He was utterly tireless in his zeal and devotion. In Boston, Ipswich, through Maine, in New York, Philadelphia, through the South, with the heart and the tongue of an apostle, he preached salvation through Christ.
But our sketch of him must close. 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. The time was coming for his reward.
On his last tour from South to North, stopping one day with his old friend, William Tennent, to refresh his soul with a company of cherished ministers, he happened to express his joy at the thought that he was approaching time Kingdom. All assented but Tennent. Whitefield said to him: “Brother Tennent, you are the oldest man among us. Do you not rejoice that your being called home is so near at hand?” “I have no wish about it,” bluntly answered Tennent. Whitefield pressed his question, and Tennent again replied: “No sir, it is no pleasure to me at all, and if you know your duty it would be none to you. I have nothing to do with death. My business is to live as long as I can, and as well as I can.” Whitefield still pressed him, to know if he would not gladly die if death were within his choice. “Sir,” answered Tennent, “I have no choice about it. I am God’s servant. And now, brother Whitefield let me ask you a question. What do you think I would say if I were to send my man Tom into the field to plough, and if at noon I should find him lounging under a tree, and exclaiming: Master, the sun is hot and the ploughing is hard, and I am weary of my work; do let me go home and rest.’ What would I say? Why, that he was a lazy fellow, and that it was his business to do the work I had appointed him, until I should think fit to call him home.”
But Whitefield truly ploughed till he was called home. He was now on his last evangelistic tour. An anecdote of his pulpit power at this time is worth inserting. “An eminent ship-builder being invited to hear Whitefield, at first made several objections, but at last was persuaded to go. ‘What do you think of Mr. Whitefield?’ asked his friend. ‘Think,’ said he, ‘I never heard such a man in my life. I tell you sir, every Sunday when I go to church I can build a ship from stem to stern under the sermon. But were it to save my soul, under Mr. Whitefield I could not lay a single plank.’”
On his journey toward Boston he preached almost constantly, although part of the time seriously ill. Thus a biographer, giving an account of the labors of his last two weeks on earth, says: “From September 17th to 19th he preached in Boston, and on the 20th at Newtown. The next two days he was ill, but managed to travel from Boston to Portsmouth, where he preached on the 23d to the 25th. The 26th he employed at Kittery; the 27th at Old York; the 28th at Portsmouth, and the 29th at Exeter. At six o’clock in the morning of the 30th, he died.”
His last sermon was preached at Exeter. The people prevailed on him to stop there and preach to them. An immense audience assembled to hear him. His pulpit was a hogshead. His text was: “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.”
Thus died one of the greatest of all pulpit orators. What were the secrets of his wonderful power over men? First of all, he was an orator of most consummate skill and astonishing resources. The manner of his address revealed, or, rather, concealed, the most perfect art. Garrick said he could say “Mesopotamia” in such accents as to draw tears from the hearers. At another time he said: “I would give a hundred guineas if I could only say: ‘Oh!’ like Mr. Whitefield.” Mr. Tyermnan, Mr. Whitefield’s last and certainly not too partial biographer, says: “Whitefield was the greatest gospel orator of the age. He never stretched after profundity of thought. A fine, highly ornamental style he seems to have eschewed as much as Wesley did. He preached simple truth with all his might, and witnessed success such as is rarely given a minister to see.”
Indeed, he was a preacher, in many points, wholly different from Wesley. The ministry of the founder of Methodism was most effective among the common people, and was not confined to preaching to them. He was a great captain and organizer. Whitefield, on the contrary, did almost nothing but preach. His preaching, however so united simplicity and fervor with the perfection of diction, attitude, accent, all, indeed, that goes to make the skillful orator that every class hung delighted upon his utterance. In England, the clergy, lords and ladies, and literary men crowded into his audiences, and vied with each other in their praises of his eloquence. In this country his fame was as great. Franklin was enthusiastic in his expressions, and we have already narrated how, to his cost, he learned how great was the orator’s power. Dr. Gillies, of Glasgow, gives a most careful analysis of his oratorical power. He says: “ His eloquence was great, and of the true and noblest kind. He seemed to be quite unconscious of the talents he possessed. * * *The grand sources of his eloquence were an exceedingly lively imagination and an action still more livelily. Every accent of his voice spoke to the ear, and every motion of his hands spoke to the eye.”
This as to the manner of his speech. The matter of it was the gospel of Christ in its simplicity and power. 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 preached the old doctrines of grace. It was emphatically “the old, old story.” And finally, he was an unselfish, consecrated, holy man. He lived for God with a purpose absolutely undivided.
A few words upon the general results of the revivals running from 1740 to 1770 will close this chapter. The Congregational churches added about one hundred and fifty new churches to their roll in New England. The number of Presbyterian churches was more than doubled. Baptist churches also greatly increased in number. The converts have been numbered at about fifty thousand. On this basis the effects of the revival in the conversion of sinners, was as great in proportion to the population as if there should now be a series of revivals gathering four hundred thousand people in to the churches.
Yet, indeed, that is but a superficial estimate, which counts only the converts. There are other fruits broader, deeper, and themselves continually productive. Prominent among these is the higher tone of spiritual life in the church. The preaching of Edwards, Whitefield and Tennent opened the mind of the church of their day to the startling truth that in greater or less measure an unconverted ministry had entered the pulpits and unconverted communicants gathered at the Lord’s Table. Granted that all three of them were severe and often uncharitable in their judgments of their brethren, it is clear there was only too much ground for severity. The revival strengthened the various denominations to exact of candidates for the ministry clearer evidence of personal piety, and destroyed the idea that mere knowledge of the catechism, without evidence or profession of regeneration, was sufficient qualification for church-membership.
Not only so, but the exaltation of the cardinal doctrines of grace in the preaching and teaching of that time had a most wholesome effect in nourishing the new life of the church and making vigorous Christians and vigorous preachers. Not in vain did Whitefield preach “the new birth” over and over, from Savannah to Boston.
Among the educational fruits of the revival may be mentioned Princeton and Dartmouth Colleges. The latter college was founded in 1770, and in connection with its founding there was a series of revivals extending through several years, and over a large district round about. These revivals were evidently a continuation of those of 1740 and possessed many of their leading characteristics.
The influence of the revivals on the nation, which was just entering its most critical period, was doubtless greater than can well be defined. The men of the Revolution were in the formative period of youth when Whitefield’s eloquence and zeal lit up the whole land. They can hardly have failed to learn lessons of high virtue and courage from men who, for Christ’s sake, braved every peril and shrank from no sacrifice. Not only so, but the land was to be brought into close relations and alliance with France, where infidelity was rife and was soon to be in the ascendant. Forcibly on this point does Tracy say: “The religious principles of the country needed to be strengthened in advance against all these dangers, and with all the accessions of strength that religion received from the revival, it did but just stand the shock, and for a long time many of the pious feared that everything holy would be swept away. Strengthened by so many tens of thousands of converts, and by the deep sense of the importance of religion produced in other tens of thousands, both in and out of the churches, religion survived in time, rallied and advanced, and is marching on to victory.”
There is another result of this revival, the fruits of which, in full measure, we are just beginning to reap. We have said Whitefield was our first itinerant evangelist. He stoutly defended the right of every minister to find his audience wherever he could. This evangelism has limitations. We shall have occasion in a subsequent chapter to define its boundaries. But in Whitefield’s splendid ministry that fact is unrolled to the world, which ecclesiasticism had for a long time obscured, that “the field is the world “—that the gospel needs to be everywhere proclaimed, and that some of the grandest periods of church history have been periods of itinerant evangelism. Especially when the church has gone to sleep among altars on which the sacred fire is dying, does God call men to rise above churches and to refuse to bound their influence by any particular place, and to “go everywhere preaching time gospel.” Such there were in apostolic times, such there were in the Reformation in Germany, such were Knox and his co-laborers in Scotland such was Whitefield. Before the fullness of the Gentiles shall be gathered in there will be many more—the flying artillery of the army of the Lord
The great revival of which we spoke in the preceding chapter was, as we designated it, specially a revival through the preaching of the gospel. “There were giants in those days,” and with giant strength did they wield the sword of the Spirit; and the hearts of the King’s enemies bowed before them. During the latter part of that period, from 1750 to 1770, the spirit of revival gradually died out of the churches. There were still marked signs of divine favor wherever Whitefield and his associates went, but the work of grace was during that time local rather than general.
From 1770 to the close of the century was a time of great spiritual death. There were a few local revivals in New England and the Middle States, and some of decided power in Virginia, but the general state of the church was one of coldness and apathy. For this deplorable condition of church life there were manifest reasons.
In the first place, the “old French war,” by which France sought to gain a foothold in the provinces of the new world by surrounding them with a cordon of garrisons and troops from Quebec to New Orleans, greatly distracted the minds of the people and centered all thoughts on the supreme one of self-defense.
In the second place, when this peril had passed away, the colonies were on the very eve of an open rupture with the mother country. The clouds which had long been gathering were ready to let loose their bolts. A time of war is almost never a time of religious prosperity. With the dawn of 1776, therefore, all the energies of the people were turned away from religion, and every peaceful pursuit and concentered in the bloody torrent of a seven years’ struggle. The close of the war was hardly more favorable for spiritual life than had been its absorbing progress. The disbanded armies, long used to camp license and sin, sowed seeds of bad morals through all the communities. Intemperance, profanity, Sabbath-breaking, and other sins abounded. The church, so long asleep, with only a name to live, was in no condition to resist them. Then from France, the friend and ally of our country, came another and a far greater peril. The infidelity, which brought on the French Revolution, was sending its baneful influences across the water. The colonies were flooded with infidel books. France won the sympathies of the New States by writing “liberty” upon her banners, and so gained access to the best thought of the country. Voltaire, Volney and Paine spread their blasphemous publications widely through the land. It was a time of unequaled peril. In Paris the boast was openly made that in a few years the religion of Christ would be blotted from the earth. In our own country the same fearful prophecies were echoed. So we approached the end of the century—death in the churches, rottenness in public morals, infidelity coming in like a flood upon the schools and the thinkers of the young republic.
This was God’s time to lift a standard against the enemy. And if ever there was a revival of which it might be said, it was the direct interposition of God to save His church and save the state, it surely may be so said of the one we are now considering. Some revivals have more of the human element than others. In every true work of grace the fact of God’s Spirit present with His church, is of course assumed. But in some the lines of human agency can be quite distinctly followed. In some cases it is preaching, in others it is organized personal effort. But the revival of 1800 came from God so straight that no footfall of human activity announced its coming. There were no signs in the sky it fell, as did the manna upon famishing Israel—silently, everywhere, and plentifully. Indeed there were many and faithful preachers at that time, worthy successors of the men of 1740. There was Bellamy and Griffin, and the younger Edwards, Dwight, Mason, Livingston and many others. The Lord girded them to gather the ripening vintage. But it was His sunlight that brought the harvest. That harvest ripened almost simultaneously in New England, New York, Pennsylvania and the South. There were no evangelists like Whitefield to go from place to place with a John-the-Baptist call to repentance. There was no union of effort like that, which characterizes present revivals. It was a revival in the church and under the ordinary ministrations of the pastor. There were almost no protracted meetings, nothing that in modern phrase would be called revival services. A neighboring minister would come to the help of the pastor on Sunday, a “conference” meeting would be held in connection with the public service, one or two “week-day lectures” would be given as the interest seemed to demand, and services, not very unlike the present cottage prayer-meeting, would be held in outlying districts of the congregation, and that was all.
And yet this revival, so quietly conducted that while in the midst of it you would hardly know, by any outward stir, that there was a revival at all, shook the new states as they have hardly been shaken since.
Let us briefly sketch the work in some of the more marked centers of its power. It is called the revival of 1800. The first moving of it came several years earlier. Dr. Edward D. Griffin graduated at Yale College in 1790, and studied theology with the younger President Edwards. When he was licensed in 1792 and returned to his father’s house in East Haddam, he found himself the only professor of religion in a family of ten persons. He began his work there among his kindred. One of his sisters was the first seal of his ministry. “That,” said he, “was the beginning of American revivals so far as they fell under my personal observation, and from that moment I know they have never ceased.” In January he commenced preaching in New Salem, where his labors were blessed in “a revival of great power, and a church was gathered where there had not been one for forty years.”
Referring to this period, he says: “I had an opportunity to see the whole field of death before a bone began to move, and no one who comes upon the stage forty years afterwards can have any idea of the state of things at that time.”
In 1828 Dr. Griffin preached a sermon at the dedication of a chapel at William's College, of which he was then president, in which he thus refers to the beginning of the revival: “The year 1792 it has often been said, ushered a new era into the world. In that year commenced that series of revivals in America, which has never been interrupted, night or day, and which never will be until the earth is full of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. In pondering upon the destinies of this college in illumined moments—in moments of intense interest—it has been no indifferent thought that it arose into being at that punctum of time; that it opened upon the world when those other institutions began to open which are full of salvation—when the redemption of Africa commenced at Sierra Leone and St. Domingo— when that moral change began which has swept from so large a part of New England's looseness of doctrine and laxity of discipline, and awakened an evangelical pulse in every vein of the American church.
“It was my happiness to be early carried by the providence of God to Litchfield county, Conn., and to be fixed in that scene where the heavenly influence was to send out its stronger radiations to different parts of the country; where thrice twenty congregations, in contiguous counties, were laid down in one field of divine wonders. There it was my privilege to be most intimately associated with such men as Mills and Gillett and Hallock—names which will be ever dear to the church on earth, and some of which are now familiar in heaven. Their voices, which I often heard in the silent groves, and in the sacred assemblies which followed, and in the many, many meetings from town to town, have identified them in my mind with all those precious revivals which opened the dawn of a new day upon our country.”
As an illustration of the way in which God prepared the work of grace by invisible processes, it is interesting to notice the experience by which God trained some of the men who were most blessed in their ministry at this time. The experience of Mr. Hallock, whom Mr. Griffin mentions in the extract above, is a case in point. He had never seen or heard of a revival, and knew nothing about conviction or conversion. In 1779, at the age of twenty-one while at work alone, “he was impressed with a sense of his dependence on God and of the sinfulness of his heart, which seemed so black and polluted that he could hardly avoid crying out.” At length, as he afterwards wrote: “The law of God appeared just, I saw myself a sinner, and Christ and the way of salvation by him looked pleasant. I thought it was a happiness to be in the hands of God, and that I could trust my all to him. It still did not occur to me that I had experienced a change of heart.” Soon after this, while engaged in military service, he called his comrades around him and exhorted them on the subject of religion. His words were, winged by the Spirit of God. It was the beginning of a revival. Meetings were held, and as Mr. Hallock seemed to be the first of the converts, the conduct of them was placed in his hands. He then began to study for the ministry, and in his first charge, in a few weeks there were a hundred hopeful conversions. He and Dr. Griffin were settled in neighboring parishes. Dr. Humphrey says: “They both had tasted the blessedness of revivals, and together they mourned and wept and wrestled for perishing souls and the languishing interests of Zion. One or more of the groves is still pointed out where they, with neighboring pastors, used to retire from the world to agonize for the descent of the Holy Spirit. The day of mercy was near.”
The work now spread rapidly on all sides. Infidels who had long preached infidelity were brought into fearful distress of mind, and in many cases were converted. One of them, with trembling limbs, cried out: “I am the wretch who have murdered Christ. I have talked a great deal against the gospel, but there was always something in my heart which said it was true.” He was brought into deep and long despair, but at last God had mercy upon him, and he found in Christ his best friend.
The deep spiritual exercises of the converts in these first stages of this great revival are worthy of special remark. Frequently, without any public means of grace, a sense of sin so great as to be well nigh crushing would fall upon the soul. The anguish of soul would so deepen that perforce the convicted person was constrained to seek some minister or other Christian, and raise the old question, “What must I do to be saved?” Writes one: “Several were brought under distressing conviction at midnight on their beds, and many in such circumstances that it could not be accounted for on any principle but the sovereign power and mercy of God.” Thus in many instances the first knowledge ministers had of any special interest in their congregation would be in these solemn and anxious visits.
What was the general tone of the preaching in New England at this time? It may somewhat explain these depths of conviction of sin. Dr. Hyde of Lee, Mass., in whose church there was a great and precious work of grace, thus gives the substance of his preaching: The holiness and immutability of God, the purity and perfection of His law; the entire depravity of the heart, consisting in voluntary opposition to God and holiness; the fullness and all-sufficiency of the atonement made by Christ; the freeness of the offer of pardon, made to all on condition of repentance; the necessity of a change of heart by the Holy Spirit, arising from the deep-rooted depravity of men, which no created arm could remove; the utter inexcusableness of sinners in rejecting the kind overtures of mercy, as they acted freely and voluntarily in doing it, and the duty and reasonableness of immediate submission to God. These are some of the truths which God appeared to own and bless, and which, through the agency of the Spirit, were made ‘quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword.’”
The revival under this preaching continued quietly, solemnly, steadily, for a year and a half The visible results were about a hundred and ten additions to the church and a surprising change in the religious sentiments and feelings of the people, and in the general aspect of the town.
Rev. Moses Rallock, of Plainfield, Mass., in giving an account of the work in that town, gives a summary of the distinguishing marks of the revival. He speaks of the depth of conviction as springing not so much from a fear of punishment as from a sense of sin against God, which took away all their peace, and of the great doctrines of grace which have been owned of God, and whatever may have been the antecedent prejudices, have been in every case humbly accepted by the converts. Many of these had been scoffers, and had long sought to fortify themselves in skepticism as a refuge against the threatening of divine law.
In Washington, Conn., under the labors of Dr. Ebenezer Porter, afterward Professor at Andover, there was a very penetrating revival in 1803. We give Dr. Porter’s account of it: “Near the close of the summer of 1803, several persons became seriously impressed. Weekly conferences were revived. During the winter the operations of the Divine Spirit were discernible in every part of the society. The church, which had appeared to languish as with a wasting hectic, put on the aspect of returning health. Through the next spring and summer, though thirteen had been added to the church, we were still between hope and fear. God’s people longed for, rather than expected, a revival. They scarcely dared to believe that the day had indeed dawned which was to succeed a night of more than sixty years. But in the autumn, the Sun of righteousness arose upon us with healing in his wings. As in the valley of Ezekiel’s vision, there was a great shaking. Dry bones, animated by the breath of the Almighty, stood up newborn believers. The children of Zion beheld with overflowing hearts, and with thankful tongues acknowledged, ‘ This is the finger of God.’ The work was stamped conspicuously with the impress of its divine author, and its joyful effects evinced no other than the agency of Omnipotence. So manifestly it was the work of God, that opposition, however it might have rankled in the bosoms of individuals, was awed into silence. Many old professors, amidst the majesty and glory of the scene, seemed unable to contain, and equally unable to express the wonder and joy of their hearts. During a winter unusually severe, nothing could surpass the resolution with which numbers attended, to be instructed in the way of salvation. From the extremity of the season, apprehensions were entertained for persons of delicate constitutions; but the people were seldom or never more healthy.
“As the first-fruit of this Precious and memorable season, fifty-four persons have been added to the church, none of whom, blessed be God, have been left to discredit their holy profession.”
One of the most remarkable of all the New England revivals occurred in the little village of Boscawen, N. H., in the ministry of Rev. Dr. Wood. A revival had never been known there. Dr. Wood modestly felt if his work might only be crowned with the salvation of one soul, it would be reward sufficient. But a healthful state of religious interest, amounting almost to a continuous revival, began in 1782, and went increasingly on until the beginning of the present century. In a small inland congregation Dr. Wood had the pleasure of fitting one hundred students for college—of whom more than forty entered the gospel ministry.
We have not space to follow the details of a work that was almost as extensive as New England. Rev. Jno. B. Preston, writing from Rutland, Vermont, says: “ Within little more than a year, the Spirit has also been wonderfully poured out upon a number of towns, and about a thousand have been added to the churches of Christ in Bennington and Rutland counties. Bennington, Sandgate, Rupert, Dorset, Tinmouth, Rutland, Brandon, Pittsford, Benson, and Orwell, have shared the most largely in this shower of divine grace. Not less than fifty have been added to the church in each of these towns, and in several, more than a hundred. Most of the other towns have shared in some degree.”
In New York similar scenes were witnessed. Dr John M. Mason was installed in 1793. His ministry was greatly blessed. Within a short time six hundred were added to his church, and the increase, he said, “owes nothing to soothing doctrines or to remissness of discipline.” The sainted Isabella Graham, writing of him in his youth, says: “Our young Timothy is a champion for the gospel of Jesus. The Lord has well girded him and largely endowed him. He walks closely with God, and speaks and preaches like a Christian of long experience, he was ordained and installed about two months ago in his father’s church. O for a thankful heart! The Lord has done wonders for me and mine; and blessed be his name, that in a remarkable manner he hedged me in to become a member of this congregation, where I am led and fed with the same truths which nourished my soul in Zion’s gates at Edinburgh; and I am helped to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.”
In Newark, N. J., the spirit of revival descended on the churches in 1806. It was preceded by a spirit of prayer. Dr. Griffin writes to Dr. Ashbel Green: “Early in September many private associations for prayer were formed, and I never witnessed the communication of so earnest a spirit of prayer, and so general, nor observed such evident and remarkable answers to prayer. The agonies of parents have been such as to drive sleep from their eyes, and for weeks together have been seemingly as great as their nature could well sustain. And these parents, in every case that has come within my knowledge, have each several children who are already numbered among the hopeful converts. What a testimony to the truth of God’s promises, and what an encouragement to prayer! In this revival between two and three hundred were converted in the then small town of Newark. They were from all classes, from nine years old to more than threescore and ten, and of all characters, including drunkards, apostates, infidels, and those who were lately malignant opposers, and of all conditions, including poor Negroes, and many of them hoary with age. While we gaze with wonder and delight at these glorious triumphs of the Prince of Peace, and weep for joy to hear babes and sucklings sing hosannas to the Son of David, we cannot but join in the general response, and cry, ‘Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!’”
Some of the most signal revivals of this period were in Virginia. The rise of one in Hampden—Sidney College as early as 1788, is an interesting story. Rev. Dr. Wm. Hill, in his youth, was a student in the college. A pious lady sent him a copy of “Alleine’s Alarm.” The reading deeply affected him. He soon found out there were two or three other students anxious about their souls. They gathered for a prayer-meeting—a thing they had never heard of before. The other students heard the singing, and tried to break up the meeting. So serious was the disturbance, the president, the excellent Dr. John Blair Smith, had to investigate the cause of it. The good man heard of the little prayer-meeting, and of time purpose of the rioters that there should be no such doings there. Looking at the youths charged with the sin of praying, with tears in his eyes, be said: “Oh, is there such a state of things in this college? Then God has come near to us. My dear young friends, you shall be protected. You shall hold your next meeting in my parlor, and I will be one of your number.” Sure enough they had their next meeting in his parlor, and half the college were there. And there began a glorious revival of religion, which pervaded the college, and spread into the country around.
“Two hundred and twenty persons, chiefly young people, were added to the churches to which he ministered within eighteen months; and the revival extended over Prince Edward, Cumberland, Charlotte and Bedford counties, and to the “Peaks of Otter,” in the Blue Ridge.
It was in one of these revivals that Dr. Archibald Alexander was converted. He says of himself at the age of seventeen: “My only notion of religion was that it consisted in getting better. I had never heard of any conversions among Presbyterians.” A pious lady in a family where he was employed as tutor, loved the writings of Flavel, and as her eyes were weak, often sent for him to read to her. This was the means of his conversion. Hearing of the great revival in the neighborhood of Prince Edward, he, with some of his fellow students, went to the scene of religious wonders, attended a communion season, heard Dr. John Blair Smith and others preach, saw Wm. Hill and others of the recent converts, and on their return “a revival of great power commenced which extended to almost every Presbyterian church in the Valley of Virginia.”
The work in Virginia is further described by the Rev. Dr. Foote, thus: “In the latter part of the year 1801, the churches under the care of Messrs. Mitchel and Turner were greatly revived. A meeting held at the close of the year was noted for the number of people impressed with a deep sense of the value as well as truth of the gospel. Many made profession of their faith. In the succeeding spring the influence of Divine truth was felt with increased force. The Presbytery of Hanover met at Bethel. Crowds attended upon the ministrations of the gospel. About one hundred had now professed conversion. The congregations in Albemarle, in Prince Edward and Charlotte, were greatly awakened, and the happy influence was felt over a large region of country east of the Blue Ridge.
The revivals at this period in Kentucky and Tennessee were of the most extraordinary character. Probably in no part of the country were there more marked displays of Divine grace; neither in any other place was there so large an admixture of human passions followed by so many deleterious effects. In 1801 there was an immense gathering at Cave Ridge, Kentucky, to which people had come from all parts of the state, even a distance of two hundred miles. An eye-witness describing it, says: “We arrived upon the ground, and here a scene presented itself to my mind not only novel, but awful, and unaccountable beyond description. A vast crowd, supposed by some to have amounted to twenty-five thousand, was collected together. The noise was like the roar of Niagara: The vast sea of human beings seemed to be agitated by a storm. I counted seven preachers all speaking at once, some on stumps, and some on wagons.” Another says: “The shouting, shrieking, praying and nervous spasms of this vast multitude produced an unearthly and almost terrible spectacle. The religious exercises on the ground were continued from Friday morning until the ensuing Wednesday evening, day and night without intermission. Heavy rains fell during that time apparently without being noticed by the people, though few were protected by any covering.” It was in this tempest of religious emotions that Campbellism had its rise, and it was here also the Cumberland Presbyterian church dates its origin.
The work in Tennessee, probably somewhat soberer in its character and attended by fewer physical manifestations, was equally deep and pervasive. The Rev. James McGready gives the following account of some meetings in that state: “The present summer (viz. 1800) has been the most glorious time that our guilty eyes have ever beheld. All the blessed displays of Almighty power and grace, all the sweet gales of the Divine Spirit and soul—reviving showers of the blessings of heaven, which we enjoyed before, and which we considered wonderful beyond conception, were but like a few scattering drops before the mighty rain which Jehovah has poured out like a mighty river upon this, our guilty, unworthy country. The Lord has indeed showed himself a prayer-hearing God; he has given his people a praying spirit and a lively faith, and then he has answered their prayers far beyond their highest expectations. This wilderness and solitary place has been made glad, this dreary desert now rejoices and blossoms like the rose; yea, it blossoms abundantly, and rejoices even with joy and singing.
“At Gasper River, on the fourth Sabbath of June, a surprising multitude of people collected, many from a very great distance, even from the distance of thirty to sixty, and one hundred miles. On Friday and Saturday there was a very solemn attention. On Saturday evening, after the congregation was dismissed, as a few serious, exercised Christians were sitting conversing together, and appeared to be more than commonly engaged, the flame started from them and overspread the whole house until every person appeared less or more engaged. The greater part of the ministers and several hundreds of the people remained at the meeting-house all night. Through every part of the multitude there could be found some awakened souls struggling in the pangs of the new birth, ready to faint and die for Christ, almost upon the brink of desperation. Others again were just lifted from the horrible pit, and beginning to lisp the first notes of the new song, and to tell the sweet wonders which they saw in Christ. Ministers and experienced Christians were everywhere engaged praying, exhorting, conversing and trying to lead inquiring souls to the Lord Jesus. In this exercise the night was spent till near the break of day. The Sabbath was a blessed day in every sense of the word. The groans of awakened sinners could be heard all over the house during the morning sermon, but by no means so as to disturb the assembly. It was a comfortable time with many at the table. Mr. McGee preached in the evening upon the account of Peter’s sinking in the waves. In the application of his sermon the power of God seemed to shake the whole assembly. Toward the close of the sermon the cries of the distressed arose almost as loud as his voice. After the congregation was dismissed the solemnity increased till the greater part of the multitude seemed engaged in the most solemn manner. No person appeared to wish to go home; hunger and sleep seemed to affect nobody. Eternal things were the vast concern. Here awakening and converting work was to be found in every part of the multitude, and even some things strangely and wonderfully new to me. Sober professors, who had been communicants for many years, now lying prostrate on the ground, crying out in such language as this: ‘I have been a sober professor, I have been a communicant; oh, I have been deceived, I have no religion.’ The greater part of the multitude continued at the meeting-house all night.”
In 1801-2, there were also great revivals in North and South Carolina. Union meetings were not very common at that time, but Dr. Furman gives an account of a union meeting held by Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists and others, at Waxhaws, about one hundred and seventy-eight miles from Charleston, at which three or four thousand people were present, and about twenty ministers. A large proportion of the great audience had traveled over bad roads, seventy or eighty miles from different parts of the state to attend this meeting. On their return home they spread the fire, and extraordinary religious interest was developed in many places. The character of the revival may somewhat be judged from the following description: “By the latest accounts we hear that the flame has reached South Carolina, and is going on with rapid progress. I would just mention for the comfort of God’s people in your country, that I never knew a revival with fewer instances of deceptions or delusive hopes. It is truly astonishing to find those who are delivered from their burden of guilt and distress to be the subjects of such clear, rational, scriptural views of the gospel scheme of salvation, and the nature of Christ’s satisfaction to the law and justice, and his willingness to save guilty, lost sinners. It is a common case for illiterate Negroes and little children of five, six, seven and eight years old, when they get their first comforts, to speak of their views of the mediatorial glories of Christ; his fullness, suitableness and sufficiency to save to the uttermost; their views of the holiness of God and the purity of the divine law, and such like subjects, with an eloquence and pathos that would not disgrace a preacher of the gospel.”
The Rev. James McGready, mentioned above, was an instrument in God’s hand for wonderfully extending the work throughout the Southern states. A man of great energy, decision of character and zeal for souls, he preached with a courage and vehemence throughout all that region that earned for him the name of Boanerges. His ministry was especially blest in North Carolina. The revival became general throughout that state. Dr. Foote, in his “Sketches of North Carolina,” thus describes a communion season held at Cross Roads, Orange county: “No interest had attended the meetings up to the communion season. At the service on that day the pastor arose to dismiss the people, intending first to say a few words expressive of his sorrow that apparently no advance had been made in bringing sinners to God. Overwhelmed with his sensations of distress that God had imparted no blessings to his people, he stood silent a few moments and then sat down. A solemn stillness pervaded the congregation. In a few moments he rose again; before he uttered a word, a young man from Tennessee, who had been interested in the revival there, and had been telling the people of Cross Roads during the meeting much about the state of things in the West, raised his hands and cried out, ‘Stand still and see the salvation of God!’ In a few moments the silence was broken by sobs, groans and cries, rising commingled from all parts of the house. All thoughts of dismissing the congregation at once vanished. The remainder of the day was spent in the exercises of prayer, exhortation, singing and personal conversation, and midnight came before the congregation could be persuaded to go to their respective homes. The excitement continued for a length of time, and many were hopefully converted to God. No irregularities appeared in this commencement of the great excitement in North Carolina; the sobs and groans and cries for mercy were unusual, but seemed justified by the deep feeling of individuals on account of the great interests concerned.”
In no part of the country, however, was the revival more marked with best features and productive of permanent results than in Western Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio. The people of that region were, as Dr. Gillett observes, “by no means the miscellaneous driftwood which emigration usually floats off from older communities to new settlements. Among them were men of culture, and a large proportion of them were characterized by stern religious principle. They were men whose energy and vigor were developed by the circumstances of their lot, and who, in grappling with the forest and repelling or guarding against savage attacks, were made more sagacious, fearless and self-reliant.”
The beginnings of grace among the people were thus recorded by the Rev. Joseph Stevenson, of Ohio: “It may almost be said that the Presbyterian Church in Western Pennsylvania was born in a revival. In 1778 Vance’s Fort, into which the families living adjacent had been driven by the Indians, was the scene of a remarkable work. There was but one pious man in the fort, Joseph Patterson, a layman, an earnest and devoted Christian, whose zeal had not waned, even amid the storm and terrors of war; and during the long days and nights of their besiegement he talked with his careless associates of an enemy more to be dreaded than the Indian, and a death more terrible than by the scalping-knife. As they were shut up within very narrow limits, his voice, though directed to one or two, could easily be heard by the whole company and thus his personal exhortations became public addresses. Deep seriousness filled every breast, and some twenty persons were there led to Christ. These were a short time subsequently formed into the Cross Creek Church, which built its house of worship near the fort, and had as its pastor for thirty-three years one of these converts, the Rev. Thomas Marquis.
“From 1781 to 1787 a more extensive work of grace was experienced in the churches of Cross Creek, Upper Buffalo, Chartiers, Pigeon Creek, Bethel, Lebanon, Ten Mile, Cross Roads and Mill Creek, during which more than a thousand persons were brought into the kingdom of Christ. Considering the unsettled state of the public mind at the close of the Revolutionary war, the constant anxiety and watchfulness against the incursions of hostile Indians, the toils and hardships incident to new settlements, and the scarcity of ministers, this was a signal work of the Spirit, greatly strengthening the feeble churches.”
The revival in some of these congregations continued almost without perceptible diminution for a number of years, and was everywhere marked by the same characteristics of a most thorough and genuine work of grace. Everywhere there was a deep sense of sin and its awful penalty, an humbling sense of the hardness of the heart and the blindness of the mind, an apprehension of the plan of salvation through the obedience, sufferings and death of the Savior, a cordial acceptance of Him as the sinner’s only hope, and abiding peace and consolation as the result. Mr. Stevenson speaks of it as a work that was generally carried on in more ordinary and moderate manner than that in other parts of the country.
Although convictions were deep and pungent, the sense of sin, guilt and danger very afflicting, and the apprehensions of divine wrath distressing, yet in but few instances were they attended with any extraordinary bodily affections. The work was also remarkably free from enthusiasm, wild imaginations, and disorderly, hurtful irregularities. Although there were some instances of apostasy, yet it must be remarked, to the praise of free grace, that these were but few amongst those respecting whom their pious friends and the officers of the Church entertained a favorable opinion that they had been the subjects of saving grace, and who were admitted to the communion of the Church.
This work extended throughout western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio, continued for several years, and has now for more than seventy years borne the precious fruit of a genuine revival of religion. Upon all that region it has set a stamp of intelligent piety and Christian activity. Some of the special services held during that time have probably never been surpassed in the history of this country. Services were continued not only through the whole of successive days, but sometimes through, the intervening nights as well.
There was very little of outward agitation, but a solemnity so silent and deep as to be overwhelming and awful in its character.
The effect of these revivals was felt not only in the states that were moved by them, but even to this day they are thrilling the uttermost parts of the earth, for this was the beginning of modern missions. Up to this time there was no Foreign Missionary Society, and no Bible, Tract or educational organizations. The Church was purely on the defensive, and very feebly at that.
In this revival Newell, Judson, Rice, Knott, Mills and other foreign missionaries were converted. The American Board was organized in 1810 to support the first band of foreign missionaries that went out from this country to India. About the same time the Baptist foreign board was organized at the call of Judson from far-off Burmah. A new life had taken possession of the whole Christian world. The Savior’s commission was again heard ringing in the ears of his disciples. The Church shook herself from her slumber of many years and went forth to her conquest of the world. If to-day we look hopefully to the future, if a dash of the sunrise that came over the Alleghanies at the beginning of the century begins to tip the Rocky and Sierras Ranges, to light up the Himalayas, and to fall with a prophesy of Christian life on China and Japan, let us remember the world’s debt to the revival of 1800,—which is only to say, let us remember when God would open a new era that would girdle the world with its glory, He does it by pouring out his Spirit upon towns, villages and hamlets, so giving new energy and efficacy to that truth which, with feet as fair and swift as the morning, shall run around the world.
Who knows but the century, which began with a Pentecost may end with the dawn of the Millennium?
Looking back upon the leading features of this revival, they may, perhaps, be described in the following general terms—a sense of unfaithfulness on the part of Christians, penitence and confession of their sins to one another and to the Lord, an affecting view of the love of God in the gift of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world, a new and enlarged sense of the value of immortal souls around them, and of their certain destruction out of Christ, and then earnest, believing, and importunate prayer for the sanctification of God’s people and the salvation of sinners. As in 1740, so now, there was little of method or plan. The aggressive idea of winning the whole world to Christ was but just dawning and had not taken full possession of the Church. Of a religious campaign in the modern sense of that word, nothing was known. The overwhelming ideas that stood over all their work, gave it their impress of solemnity and power, were the holiness of God, and the sinfulness and consequent peril of men. Under these ideas they wept over their sins and besought men to be reconciled to Christ. These ideas never more profoundly moved the Church than they did then, but the application of them to human necessities in all their fullness and breadth was, in the development of God’s plan, reserved to a later age.
In the middle portion of what is regarded by some writers as the most remarkable age of revivals in the history of the American Church, there appeared upon the stage, following each other in quick succession, three men, wonderfully endowed of God and wonderfully successful in their evangelical labor. These were Asahel Nettleton of New England, Daniel Baker of the Southern States, and Charles G. Finney of New York and Ohio. They were, for a considerable portion of their lives, cotemporaries, and yet their entrance upon the field of labor, as well as the chief work accomplished by each, was not synchronous, but following one the other, in the order in which their names have just been mentioned.
It is proposed in this chapter to give some account of the first of the three, Rev. Asahel Nettleton. He was himself a child of the great revival epoch just referred to, and from his early manhood, no one contributed more to its distinctive character and success. He had the distinction of being a sort of pioneer in the revival work, and in the end, he became as true a representative and exemplar of what are called American revivals, as any man who has ever preached amongst us. He seemed to possess a double portion of the evangelical spirit, and to combine, in his own character, all the highest and best gifts that fit a man for such work.
The epoch of revival in which these men of God successively commenced their ministry, had its beginning about the opening of the present century. It is sometimes called the Great Revival of 1800. But it is more appropriately styled the Revival of Development and Organization. It would be a great mistake to suppose that, the evangelists just named and others of the same order accomplished its chief or only work. They indeed acted an important, and, it may be, indispensable part, in their burning zeal, and by their itinerant labors. But in all parts of the land, especially in the New England States, in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, the Carolinas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio, the revival spirit took possession both of pastors and churches. Scores and hundreds of pastors had their own faithful labors sealed with the Divine blessing, in great and often repeated revivals; while most of the Colleges and Seminaries were visited in like manner.
Among the Colleges visited with seasons of refreshing and ingathering during all this period, may be mentioned, Yale, under the presidencies of Drs. Dwight, and Day, Princeton, under Dr. Ashbel Green, Dartmouth, under Dr. Lord, and Amherst, under Dr. Humphrey. As an illustration of leading pastors, in widely separated parts of the Church, whose charges witnessed continual outpourings of the Spirit, in what might be called an unbroken series of revivals, may be named, Dr. Gardiner Spring of New York, Dr. Heman Humphrey of Pittsfield, Mass., Dr. Lyman Beecher of Litchfield, Conn., and afterwards of East Hampton, L.I., Dr. John McDowell of Elizabeth, N.J., and afterwards of Philadelphia, Dr. James Patterson of Philadelphia, Dr. David McGee of Elizabeth, N.J., Dr’s. Christmas and Baldwin of New York, Dr. Ichabod Spencer of Brooklyn, Dr. William Nevins of Baltimore, Dr. Edward Payson of Portland, Me., Dr. Alvan Hyde of Lee, Mass., Dr. Edward G. Griffin of Newark, N. J., Drs. Benjamin H. Rice, and George A. Baxter of Virginia, and many others too numerous to mention. This revival did not soon exhaust its force and pass away, as did the Great Awakening of the preceding century, in the times of Whitefield, Edwards and the Tennents. But it spread its blessed influences over the whole first quarter of the century, or more properly dating from its earliest beginnings in 1790, it covered the whole period of half a century. During its continuance, and under its blessed influences, were inaugurated nearly all the great benevolent associations, and all the evangelical, missionary and educational Boards and agencies of the Church. Thus originated in rapid succession, the Bible, Tract, Sunday School, Temperance, Educational, Foreign and Rome Missionary Societies, and our Theological Seminaries, with other kindred institutions for the spread of the gospel, and conversion of the world.
Says Dr. Gardiner Spring, who was himself one of the early converts of this great movement, and lived to witness all its triumphs: “From the year 1800 down to the year 1825, there was an uninterrupted series of these celestial visitations spreading over different parts of the land. During the whole of these twenty-five years there was not a month in which we could not point to some village, some city, some seminary of learning, and say, ‘Behold what God hath wrought!’ “At a later period of his ministry, the same venerable writer, taking a wider survey, says: “The period, commencing with the year 1792, and terminating with 1842, was a memorable period in the history of the American Church. Scarcely any portion of it but was graciously visited by copious effusions of the Holy Spirit. From north to south, and from east to west, our male, and more especially our female academies, our colleges, and our churches drank largely of this fountain of living waters. It was my privilege to enter upon the course of academical life not far from the meridian of this bright day. There were no subjects that interested my mind more deeply, when I began my ministry among this people, than those revivals of religion which passed over the land of my boyhood.”
‘We have a similar testimony from Dr. Humphrey, President of Amherst College, in his “Revival Sketches.” “In looking back fifty years and more, the great revival of that period strikes me, in its thoroughness, in its depth, in its freedom from animal, unhealthy excitement, and its far-reaching influence on subsequent revivals, as having been decidedly in advance of any that had preceded it. It was the opening of a new revival epoch which has lasted now more than half a century, with but short and partial interruptions—and blessed be God, the end is not yet.”
During the entire period covered by the successive ministry of Drs. Nettleton, Baker and Finney, and in fact for more than ten years before Dr. Nettleton began his public labors, the Spirit of God was present in the churches and wrought mightily in the conversion of sinners. Not alone under the direct agency of these itinerating evangelists did the great movement go on. While they were working, all good pastors were everywhere at work with revived zeal and a fresh baptism of the Spirit. God himself was present in the churches. In whole regions of country, and in multitudes of churches, not visited by the evangelists, there were great and precious revivals. This was specially the case in New Jersey, in Pennsylvania, in Kentucky, in Virginia and New England. Says Dr. Humphrey, speaking of the twenty years when Dr. Nettleton was in active service on the field, “Hundreds and thousands of churches connected with the various evangelical denominations in all parts of the country, were visited and blessed by the gracious outpourings of the Spirit, notice of which constantly appeared in weekly and other periodicals of the time.” And it was well for the Church and for the Nation that it was so. For this was the very hour when our young, growing country, spreading its population in all directions, most needed God’s presence. This was the very hour when our whole American Church, passing through her formative and organizing state, most needed the saving, plastic influences of the Holy Ghost, upon her people and her institutions.
Asahel Nettleton, who was honored of God to perform so important a part in this great revival era, was born in North Killingworth, Connecticut, on the 21st of April 1783. In the eighteenth year of his age he was converted to God in a season of revival in the Church where he resided. It had been his expectation to spend his days in agricultural pursuits, as he had been reared on a farm. He was the oldest son of a family of six, and his father dying in 1801, the care of the family and the management of the farm seemed to devolve on him. But God designed him for a different course of life. While laboring in the field he would often say to himself: If I might be the means of saving one soul, I should prefer it to all the riches and honors of this world, he would frequently look forward to eternity, and put to himself the question: What shall I wish I had done thousands and millions of years hence? Reading the missionary magazines of the period, a strong desire was awakened in his breast to become a missionary to the heathen, and he decided to devote his life to the missionary service if God, in his providence, should prepare the way. This was at a time when no foreign missionaries had yet gone from our land. Born on the same day with Samuel J. Mills, the pioneer of our American Missionary Boards, young Nettleton shared fully in the feeling expressed by the former: “That he could not conceive of any course of life in which to pass the rest of his days, that would prove so pleasant, as to go and communicate the gospel salvation to the poor heathen.”
As there were no education societies in the land in his time, and his means were limited, he had much difficulty in obtaining a collegiate education. So strong, however, was his desire to become a minister of the gospel and a missionary to the heathen, that he resolved to make the attempt, even while laboring on the farm and devoting his leisure moments to study. After much difficulty and some delay, he succeeded in entering Yale College in 1805, and graduated after a four years’ course of study. He was licensed to preach the gospel in 1811, and was ordained as an evangelist in the summer of 1817 by the South Consociation of Litchfield.
After receiving license to preach, Mr. Nettleton refused to consider himself a candidate for settlement as pastor, because he intended and expected to engage in the missionary service as soon as the providence of God should prepare the way. He chose therefore to commence his labors in waste places, and in some of the most desolate places of the Lord’s vineyard. He accordingly went to the eastern part of’ Connecticut on the borders of Rhode Island, and preached for a few months in a region entirely destitute of settled pastors. But he was never permitted to go to the heathen. The reasons why he did not go are thus stated in his Memoir by Dr. Tyler: Soon after he began to preach, his labors were crowned With signal success. Wherever he went, the Spirit of God seemed to accompany his preaching. His brethren in the ministry, witnessing the success of his labors, were of opinion that he ought, at least, to delay the execution of his purpose to leave the country. In deference to their opinion, he consented to delay; and as his labors became increasingly successful, his brethren were more and more convinced that God had called him to labor as an evangelist at home. Still, he never entirely abandoned the idea of a foreign mission, until his health failed in 1822.”
In the year 1812 Mr. Nettleton went to South Britain, Conn., and then to South Salem, N. Y. He preached a week in one of these places and two months in the other with great solemnity, and with the manifest blessing of God on his labors. From that time onward through the next ten years it was his happy lot to be employed almost constantly in revivals of religion. These two meetings formed but the beginning of a series of the most wonderful outpourings of the Spirit of God, to be found in the history of the Church. His biographer, Dr. Tyler, heard him for the first time on one of these occasions, and thus describes his manner: “ It was in a school—house, crowded with people, not a few of whom were under deep conviction of sin. As he arose, being an entire stranger, every eye was fixed upon him, and a breathless silence pervaded the assembly. With great solemnity he looked upon the congregation, and thus began: ‘what is that murmur which I hear? —I wish I had a new heart. What shall I do? — They tell me to repent—I can’t repent—I wish they would give me some other direction.’ He thus went on for a short time, personating the awakened sinner, and bringing out the feelings of his heart. He then changed the form of his address, and in a solemn and affectionate manner, appealed to the consciences of his hearers, and showed them that they must repent or perish, that it was their reasonable duty to repent immediately, and that ministers could not direct them to anything short of repentance, without being unfaithful to their souls. The address produced a thrilling effect, and served greatly to deepen the convictions of those who were anxious.”
During this decade, from 1812 to 1822, his services were in great demand among the Churches, he was constantly acting as an evangelist, and wherever he went, a remarkable blessing attended his labors. It is impossible in our brief limits, to give an account of the wonderful results accomplished in these meetings, or even to enumerate the places in which he labored. Within the period just mentioned he was engaged in connection with more or less extensive revivals in from sixty to one hundred towns and parishes all over Connecticut, and in the adjacent parts of Massachusetts and New York. In most of these places there were scores, and in some of them hundreds, added to the Church through his instrumentality.
The amount of labor, which Mr. Nettieton performed during this period, would seem almost incredible when it is remembered that he never possessed much vigor of constitution. During this time he preached generally three sermons on the Sabbath and several during the week, besides spending much time in visiting from house to house and conversing with individuals on the concerns of their souls. How he could endure such accumulated labors was a mystery to many. But at length, in the autumn of 1822, he was brought so low by a violent attack of typhus fever, that neither he nor his friends had, for some time, any expectation of his recovery.
Dr. Sprague, in the Annals of the American Pulpit, thus speaks of his career at this early period of his ministry: “From the commencement of his course as a preacher, he evinced a remarkable power over the conscience, and it was quickly apparent that his ministrations were destined to produce no ordinary effect upon the public mind. The world did not indeed crowd after him as an eloquent man; but multitudes went to hear him, because they could not stay away. There was in all that be said a directness and pungency, which it was not easy to resist, and wherever he went, a rich blessing seemed to hang upon his footsteps. In these circumstances, he was earnestly solicited by many of his brethren to abandon the idea of a foreign mission, which had been with him the cherished idea of many years, and devote himself to the work of an evangelist, in his own country. He, however, consented only to postpone the carrying into effect of his purpose to be a missionary, and he never relinquished it till the failure of his health in 1822 obliged him to do so.”
There is no way by which we can give the reader a better idea of the character and extent of Mr. Nettleton’s labors at this time, than by presenting a brief summary of his meetings during the last few years of this period, taken partly from Dr. Humphrey’s Revival Sketches, and partly from his Memoir. Exhausted by his incessant work in Connecticut, he went to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in the summer of 1819, not for the purpose of preaching, but simply for rest. But his services were soon in demand, and he commenced preaching in the neighborhood. The result is thus stated: “This year, 1819, was a remarkable year of the right hand of the Most High in the county of Saratoga, New York. The work commenced in the summer, at Saratoga Springs, and about forty made a profession of religion, including some of the most prominent persons in the village. About the same time, there was a remarkable revival in Stillwater. In February a hundred and three were added to the church, and about a hundred more were rejoicing in hope, expecting soon to be received. In Ballston, too, the work was very powerful, and at two communion seasons a hundred and eighteen were added to the church, while the work was still increasing. In the adjoining town of Milton the work was overwhelming. In less than two months, more than a hundred and fifty were brought to rejoice in hope. In Amsterdam there were about fifty hopeful conversions.”
Dr. Tyler, his biographer, says: “This revival, which commenced at Saratoga Springs, and spread into the surrounding region, resulted in the hopeful conversion of not less than two thousand souls.” Mr. Nettleton himself, writing from Union College in April 1820, writes: “ I have no time to relate interesting particulars. I only add that some of the most stout-hearted and heaven-daring rebels have been in the most awful distress, and within a circle whose diameter is about twenty-four miles, not less than eight hundred souls have been hopefully born into the kingdom of Christ since last September. In Malta there were such displays of the power of God’s Spirit in crushing the opposition of the natural heart, as are very seldom seen. The Deist and Universalist, the drunkard, the gambler and the swearer, were alike made the objects of this heart-breaking work. It was a place of great spiritual dearth, and, like the top of Gilboa, had never been wet by rain or dew; but the Lord now converted that wilderness into a fruitful field. A church was soon organized with eighty-five members.”
In the month of April 1820, Mr. Nettleton commenced his labors in Nassau, N. Y., near Albany, where he preached until the last of June, with similar results. More than a hundred had become subjects of Divine grace, of whom five young men prepared for the gospel ministry. Of this meeting he wrote out at the time a full account, which is given in his Memoir, and this is the only one of his revivals of which he has given a full record. In the same year was a powerful revival in New Haven, and about three hundred were added to the churches. It extended to most of the neighboring towns. Out of thirty-one congregations in the county of New Haven, at least twenty-five were visited, during the winter and spring, with the special presence of the Lord, and it was estimated that within those limits between fifteen hundred and two thousand souls were called out of nature’s darkness into marvelous light. In North Killingworth the revival was very powerful. It commenced about the last of August in a Bible-class, and rapidly spread over the town. The hopeful converts were a hundred and sixty-two, a hundred and seven of whom united with the church at the communion-season in January, and soon after twenty-five more.
In 1822 and 1823 were many extensive revivals in the eastern part of Connecticut, of which Mr. Nettleton gives the following summary view: “Most of these churches have, in years past, been favored with seasons more or less reviving, but never with such a general and powerful refreshing from the presence of God. The following towns have shared in the work: In Somers one hundred and fifty have been made the subjects of divine grace. In Tolland one hundred and thirty. In South Wilbraham one hundred. In North Coventry one hundred and twenty. In South Coventry, North and South Mansfield, about one hundred in each. In Columbia forty. In Lebanon ninety. In Goshen thirty. In Bozrah seventy. In Montville ninety. In Chaplin fifty.
“The work has recently commenced, and is advancing with power in Hampton, and within a few weeks fifty or more are rejoicing in hope. Also, within a few weeks past, the Spirit of God has descended with overwhelming power in Millington and Colchester. In the former place about seventy, and in the latter sixty, are already rejoicing in hope. They have never witnessed the like in the power and extent of the work. In the above cluster of towns, all contiguous, more than thirteen hundred souls have hopefully received a saving change since the work began. Of these, more than eight hundred have already made a profession of religion. In Chatham also the work is interesting, and about seventy are rejoicing in hope. The Lord has done great things for Zion, whereof we are glad; and let all her friends humbly rejoice, and bow, and give thanks, and exalt his name together.”
For the next two years Dr. Nettleton was laid aside from all public service, he had been brought so near to death, and recovered so slowly from his prostration, that he did not attempt to preach till the close of 1824, and then very seldom. Indeed, he never afterwards fully regained his health. But, beginning sparingly at first, he was after a few years engaged again in evangelical meetings in many places, through Conneticut, Massachusetts and New York, and with the same manifestations of the Divine blessing, which had attended his earlier ministry. Some of his most remarkable revivals took place during this period, as those at Taunton, at Brooklyn and Jamaica, Long Island, at Durham and at Albany, N. Y., where he preached feeling that he was a dying man. Even in the Catskill Mountains to which he had retired for the sake of health, he was constrained to hold services, and many were converted. While at this place, in a letter to a theological student, he gave this striking counsel: “Every itinerant preacher, especially if he has been engaged in a revival of religion, must feel the need of this last direction, ‘Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest awhile;’ or suffer greatly if he long neglect it. I could not advise any one to be employed in a powerful revival more than three months, without retiring into solitude for a short time, to review the past, and to attend to his own heart. He will find much to lament, and much to correct; and it is by deep and solemn reflection upon the past, and by this only, that he can reap the advantages of past experience.”
In the fall of 1827, Mr. Nettleton, being advised by his physicians, as a last resort, that he must seek a Southern climate in order to restore his health, went to Virginia where he remained till 1829, spending the winters in Prince Ed ward county, and his summers at the Springs in the mountains. But though so feeble, he could not be idle. As health and strength permitted, he labored in different parts of the State with much success, and was made the instrument of a great work of Divine grace. Writing to a friend in Connecticut at the end of the period, he says: “For three winters I have been in the Southern States, and my health has wonderfully improved, so that I have been able to labor almost incessantly. The scene of the deepest interest was in the county of Prince Edward, Virginia, in the vicinity of the Union Theological Seminary, and Hampden-Sidney College. Our first meeting of inquiry was at the house of Dr. Rice— the very mansion containing the Theological Students. More than a hundred were present, inquiring, ‘ What must we do to be saved?’ Among the subjects of divine grace were a number of lawyers, six or seven, and some of them among the leading advocates at the bar. Some were men of finished education, who are soon to become heralds of salvation.”
Dr. John H. Rice, here referred to, gives the following testimony as to the nature and extent of this revival: “When Mr. Nettleton had strength to labor, he soon was made instrumental in producing a considerable excitement. This has extended, and now the state of things is deeply interesting. Five lawyers, all of very considerable standing, have embraced religion. This has produced a mighty sensation in Charlotte, Mecklenburg, Nottaway, Cumberland, Powhattan, Buckingham and Albemarle. The minds of men seem to stand a-tiptoe, and they seem to be looking for some great thing. Mr. Nettleton is a remarkable man, and chiefly, I think, remarkable for his power of producing a great excitement, without much appearance of feeling. The people do not either weep or talk away their impressions. The preacher chiefly addresses Bible truth to their consciences. I have not heard him utter, as yet, a single sentiment opposed to what you and I call orthodoxy. He preaches the Bible. He derives his illustrations from the Bible.”
Dr. Nettleton’s influence during this visit was most marked and happy on the theological students. He also exerted a decided and salutary influence over many clergyman of the State as he became acquainted with them, by exciting in their minds an increased interest in revivals. One of them, after being with him two weeks, and hearing in conversation his theological views and methods, said, “On all these subjects he was the most interesting and instructive individual with whom I have ever had intercourse; and on the subject of revivals of religion, incomparably the wisest man I ever saw.” As an illustration of his wonderful tact and sagacity in winning souls, in the daily intercourse of life, which was indeed one of his most striking characteristics, we select from his Memoir a touching incident related by himself in a letter to a friend.
“During my residence in Virginia, I took a tour across the Alleghany Mountains, about two hundred miles, to spend a short time during the warm season. On my way, I spent a few weeks at a place called Staunton, where I left a pleasant little circle of young converts. On a certain Sabbath, as we were almost destitute of singers, I noticed a female voice, which from its fullness, and sweetness, and wildness, all combined, attracted my attention. On arriving at my lodgings I inquired of a young lady whose voice it could be, and whether we could not catch and tame it, and enlist it in our service? The name, I was informed, was S—L. ‘Will you not invite her to call and see us?’ ‘Oh, she is a very gay and thoughtless young lady; was never at our house, and we have no acquaintance with her.’ Tell her from me that I wish to see her—that I want the aid of her voice.’ N—went out, and in a few moments returned with the interesting stranger, who sat down with a pleasing, pensive countenance, which seemed to say, now is my time to seek an interest in Christ. And so it was that she and her sister, and fifteen or twenty others, became deeply impressed, and soon became joyful in Christ. This little circle would call on me daily, linking hand in hand, and smiling through their tears, would sing Redeeming Love. I bade them farewell—and now for the sequel. I have received a letter from Dr. Wardell, the worthy physician of that place, at whose house I resided, from which I will give an extract. ‘We have had several instances of death from typhus fever since you left us. The only individual whom you know, included in this number, was one of your little circle—S. L. It will be no less gratifying to you than it is to her friends here, to learn that she gave abundant evidence of the genuineness of the Christian profession. To go a little into detail, she had been complaining for several days, before she would consent to lie by; and did not call in medical aid for some days after her confinement. I first saw her six days from her first attack, when she was entirely prostrate. She said she believed she should not recover, nor had she any desire to live longer. So far from being dismayed at death, she seemed to view it as one of the most joyful events. I was in some perplexity to ascertain whether these were the feelings of a sound mind, and the vignrous exercise of faith; and closely watched for some incoherences which might settle the inquiry; but there was nothing of the kind. She was too weak to converse much, but had her friends summoned around her, to give them a word of exhortation; expressing a strong desire to be the means of leading one soul to heaven. She took great delight in gazing on those whom she had been accustomed to meet in your little religious circle, because she expected to meet them in heaven. She often spoke of you, and your little social meetings, prayed for you, and said she should meet you in a larger circle in heaven than she had ever done in Staunton. In order to test the correctness of her apprehension, I asked her if she would feel no diffidence in being admitted into the presence of a Holy God, and the holy beings who surround his throne? She had strength only to reply, ‘But I am washed—I am washed!’ She lived fourteen days after I saw her first. I have been thus particular, because she requested that some one would inform you of her death. You will pardon me for sending you this little story. It cannot touch your feelings as it does my own. You may read it to your young people as a token of affectionate remembrance from their unworthy friend.”
Returning to New England somewhat improved in health, though not restored, he preached at different places as his strength permitted. At Munson, Mass., in 1829, and in the cities of New York and Newark in 1830—1831, his preaching was again attended with the Divine blessing. In 1832, at the advice of his friends, he made a visit to England. After his return he preached for some time at Enfield, Conn., and in several other places, with precious revival influences on his labors. In 1833, he took an active part in the organization of the Theological Seminary at East Windsor, Conn., and was appointed one of its Professors. Here he continued to reside, giving occasional lectures to the students, again visiting the South from time to time for his health, and preaching as his infirmity allowed, until May 1844, when his useful life ended in a peaceful and happy death, and he entered into the glorious rest of the blessed.
Dr. Nettleton was never married. So devoted was he to the one great work of his life, so unselfish and self-sacrificing, that he sometimes even refused to accept money, which his friends had voluntarily raised for his support. It is stated by his biographer, that during the first ten years of his ministry, though constantly laboring in revivals, he received as a compensation for his services, a sum barely sufficient to defray expenses; so that when his health broke down in 1822, he was found so destitute that his friends in different places had to defray the expenses of his sickness.
After narrating, even in this brief and imperfect way, the prominent facts of a career like this, it will not be necessary to add much as to his style of preaching and his peculiar method of conducting revivals. No man could be more judicious and cautious in dealing with souls. This seemed to be his special gift. Probably no man was ever endowed, excepting those only who are inspired of God, with a more wonderful sagacity and insight, as it regards the workings of the human mind. In all his revivals he resorted to no extra means or agencies. He seemed to need none. Relying simply on the preaching of the truth, and the influence of the Holy Ghost accompanying the Word, in all his revivals, whether short or long continued, he was for the most part satisfied with the ordinary Sabbath services, with one or two evenings in the week for preaching. With great solemnity and directness he proclaimed the saving truths of the gospel. He then followed this up with inquiry meetings for the anxious, held in a smaller room, and with personal conversations held with individuals from house to house. There was an indescribable awe upon his congregations while he was preaching, making them feel that God was in the house, and there was an indescribable charm in his conversations and addresses when he met the anxious in the inquiry room. Says Mr. Cobb, of Taunton, one of his most intimate friends and fellow laborers, “His visits among the people were frequent, but short and profitable. He entered immediately on the subject of the salvation of the soul, and the great importance of attending to it without delay. He did not customarily propound questions and require answers, lest by this means he should turn the attention of sinners from their own wretched state, by leading them to think ‘how they should reply to the minister.’ He was so well acquainted with the human heart, that he seemed to have an intuitive perception of what was passing in the minds of those whom he was addressing. Thus he could so direct his conversation as to produce silence and self-condemnation, and confine their thoughts to their own lost and ruined state, sometimes remarking, ‘ You have no time to spend in conversation, before the salvation of the soul is secured.’
“When any indulged a hope which was not satisfactory, he would say, ‘you had better give it up, and seek your salvation in earnest.’ Well versed in all the doctrinal and experimental parts of the gospel; feeling deeply in his own heart the power of divine truth, he was qualified, beyond most, to judge of the character of others’ experience; and though mild and conciliatory in his manner, he was faithful in his warnings against false hopes and spurious conversions. All selfish considerations in the concerns of the soul he discarded; and he never used any art or cunning to entrap, or produce commitment on the part of sinners. In the anxious circle he was short, direct in his remarks, concluding with a short and fervent prayer; directing his petitions solely to God, and not displaying eloquence, or seeking to fascinate the congregation. He seemed to lose sight of man, and to be absorbed in a sense of the divine presence.”
“In his sermons, of which I heard sixty, he was, in manner, simple. He spoke with a clear voice— rather slow and hesitating at first, but gradually rising, till before the close, it was like a mighty torrent bearing down all before it. As the revival became more interesting and powerful he preached more doctrinally, He brought from his treasure the doctrines of total depravity, personal election, reprobation, the sovereignty of divine grace, and the universal government of God in working all things after the counsel of his own will. And these great doctrines did not paralyze, but greatly promoted the good work.”
Dr. Sprague and others tell us with what amazing power he sometimes uttered a single word or sentence, which would smite and penetrate like an arrow, and could never be forgotten. Dr. Edward Beecher gives the following illustration of this, in a sermon, which he heard on the parable of the lost sheep: “In one part of the sermon he came to a point in his description of the state of the sinner, where he rose to the climax of emotion and impression, by ringing out in clear and thrilling tones the words ‘lost! LOST!! LOST!!!’ It startled and electrified me at the time, but I did not know how great was its practical power till he told me that those words had been the arrows of the Almighty to many in the various places in which the sermon had been delivered.” Dr. Beecher adds,” So long as I knew Mr. Nettleton, he never resorted to what are called ‘anxious seats,’ nor did he call on his hearers to rise for prayer or to testify their purpose to serve God. Nor did he ever engage in protracted meetings. The services of the Sabbath and one or two weekly lectures he generally regarded as sufficient, in connection with meetings of inquirers, for religious conversation, and small social circles for exhortation and prayer. The tones of his voice were deep and solemn, his person was dignified and commanding, and in his countenance and whole aspect there was such a manifestation of absolute conviction of eternal realities, and of deep earnestness and emotion, that few could remain long in his presence unmoved.”
All the great revivals under Dr. Nettleton were in an eminent degree beneficial to the Churches; and their effects were as permanent as they were salutary. They invariably strengthened the Churches, and encouraged the hearts of their pastors. There is no instance on record, in which his ministry ever divided a church, or failed to augment the affection of the people for their pastor. It is the unvarying testimony of his contemporaries, that these revivals exerted a powerful and lasting influence for good upon society at large wherever they occurred. So striking was the evidence that they were not of man’s devising, but from divine agency, that in many cases a marked solemnity and awe took possession of the whole community. Such was the feeling of the aroused consciences of men, in those times, that the very name of a revival had a wonderful power. The announcement in a congregation that a revival had begun in a neighboring town would produce great solemnity on the whole assembly. The general feeling seemed to be that God had come nigh, and was calling men in solemn accents to meet him. As to the permanence of the results on the newly converted, Dr. Nettleton himself thus writes: “For a number of years I have kept a list of the names of those who have hopefully experienced religion, and made a profession of it in these revivals. I have watched them with anxious solicitude, and have made particular inquiry about the spiritual welfare of each one as opportunity presented. The thousands who have professed Christ, in this time, in general, appear to run well. Hitherto, I think they have exhibited more of the Christian temper, and a better example, than the same number who have professed religion when there was no revival.”
Chapter 1. Introduction
Chapter 2. Revivals Under Whitefield
Chapter 3. Revival of 1800
Chapter 4. Rev. Asahel Nettleton And His Evangelistic Work
Chapter 5. Daniel Baker, The Southern Evangelist
Chapter 6. Revivals Under Finney
Chapter 7. Revivals Of 1857-8
Chapter 8. Revivals Under Rev. E. P. Hammond
Chapter 9. Modern Evangelism
Chapter 10. Moody In Great Britain
Chapter 11. Moody And Sankey In Brooklyn, Philadelphia And New York
Chapter 12. Moody And Sankey In Chicago
Chapter 13. Moody And Sankey In Boston
Chapter 14. Revivals And Sacred Song
Chapter 15. Bible Preaching, Reading And Study
Chapter 16. Inquiry Meetings
Chapter 17. Woman In Revivals
Chapter 18. Gospel Temperance — Its Rise, Progress And Methods
Chapter 19. Review And Prospect