Sprague's experience of genuine revivals, his faithfulness to Biblical theology and his balanced view, eminently fitted him to write what Dr Lloyd-Jones describes as "The outstanding classic on this vital and urgently important matter".
The chapters cover such themes as The Nature of a Revival, Obstacles to Revivals, Divine Agency in Revivals, General Means of Producing and Promoting Revivals, Treatment due to Awakened Sinners, Evils to be Avoided in connection with Revivals, etc.
There is also a large and excellent Appendix comprising letters on revivals by various North American evangelical leaders of the last century. This reprint is reproduced from the personal copy of Charles Simeon, who wrote on the flyleaf: "A most valuable book. I recommend my Executor to keep it, as there are few, if any, others in this kingdom. I love the good sense of Dr Sprague."
We have included 3 of the 10 Lectures and 20 Letters in the book.
Isaiah 45:8 Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness; let the earth open, and let them bring forth salvation, and let righteousness spring up together.
The final and complete triumph of the church was a theme at which the mind of this prophet was always ready to kindle. So infinitely superior did he regard it to any thing that respects merely the present world, that when his predictions relate immediately to temporal mercies, they often look farther to spiritual blessings; and sometimes we find him apparently forgetting himself for a moment, and passing abruptly, and almost imperceptibly, from some national deliverance to the salvation of the gospel. In the verses immediately preceding our text, there is a manifest reference to the deliverance of the Jews from their captivity in Babylon; but in the text itself, there is a sudden transition to a subject of far higher import, even the blessings of Christ’s salvation; and this latter subject continues to engross the prophet’s mind to the close of the chapter. “Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness: let the earth open, and let them bring forth salvation, and let righteousness spring up together.”
There was some partial fulfilment of this prediction in the revival of true piety which attended the return of the Jews from Babylon; though it is evidently to be considered as referring principally to the more extensive prevalence of religion under the gospel dispensation. It may be regarded, in a general sense, as denoting the abundant grace by which the gospel would be attended, casting into the shade all previous measures of divine influence which had been enjoyed by the church; or it may be considered more particularly—as referring to special occasions, on which the agency of the Spirit would be signally manifest. In this latter sense, it may be applied to the wonderful effusions of the Holy Ghost which attended the preaching of Peter on the day of Pentecost; and to what in these latter days we are accustomed to denominate ‘revivals of religion’. It is in its application to revivals that I purpose to consider it at the present time.
I here commence a series of discourses, in which it will be my object to present before you, in its various bearings, the subject of REVIVALS OF RELIGION. The reasons which have determined me to this course, and the grounds on which I beg leave to commend this subject to your special attention, are the following:
1. It is a subject in which the church, especially in this country, is, at this moment, more deeply and practically interested than almost any other. You cannot look back upon the history of our American church, and compare the past with the present, without perceiving that within the last half century a wonderful change has taken place in the order of God’s providence towards it. It is true, indeed, that through the ministry of Whitfield and others, there was a revival of considerable extent in this country, a little before the middle of the last century; but owing to various causes, which I shall not now stop to specify, the fruits of it were, in no small degree, blasted; and from that period till near the beginning of the present century, the church was only enlarged by very gradual additions. But at the period last mentioned, a different state of things seemed to commence, in the more copious and sudden effusions of the Holy Spirit; and now it has come to pass in these days in which we live, that far the greater number of those who are turned from darkness to light, so far as we can judge, experience this change, during revivals of religion. It is for revivals that the church is continually praying; and to them that she is looking for accessions both to her numbers and her strength. The praise of revivals is upon her lips, and upon the lips of her sons and daughters, who come crowding to her solemn feasts. Such being the fact, no one can doubt that this is a subject which she ought well to understand;— which all should understand, who care for Zion’s prosperity.
2. This is a subject in which the church is not only deeply interested at the present time, but is likely to be more and more interested for a long time to come. The cause of revivals has hitherto been gradually and yet constantly gaining ground. The last year has been, in this respect, unparalleled in the annals of the church; and there is much in prophecy to warrant the conviction that, as the millenial day draws near, these effusions of the Holy Spirit will be yet more frequent and powerful. Every thing decides that this is to be a practical subject, not with the present generation only, but with many generations to come. It is desirable, therefore, that we should form correct views of it, not merely for our own sake, but for the sake of those who come after us; for our views no doubt will, to a great extent, be propagated to future generations.
3. The views which we form on this subject, and the course we adopt in respect to it, must determine, in a great measure, the actual effect of revivals upon the interests of the church. This is a matter in relation to which God is pleased to leave much to human instrumentality. It is possible that his people may co-operate with him in carrying forward a revival, by such means that there may be many sound and scriptural conversions, and that his cause may thereby be greatly advanced; and it is possible that, by the neglect of duty, or by the adoption of mistaken and unscriptural measures, they may grieve away the Holy Spirit, or confirm multitudes in fatal self-deception. It is not to be questioned that what commonly passes under the name of a revival of religion is an engine of prodigious power in the church. God intends it only for good: nevertheless it is capable of being perverted to evil. As so much, then, in respect to the influence of revivals is dependant on the human agency that is employed in them, and as our conduct on this subject will take its complexion from our views, you perceive that it is a matter of great moment that our views should be correct.
4. Every member of the church, whatever may be his standing in society, has a part to act in relation to this subject, and therefore ought to be enlightened concerning it. In days that have gone by, this may have been thought a matter almost exclusively for ministers and other officers of the church; while private Christians may have imagined, that out of their closets they had little to do in relation to it, but to look on and behold the wonderful work of God. But happily this mistake has, to a great extent, been corrected; and it seems now to be almost universally admitted, that this is a field in which even the obscurest Christian may find a place to labor. In a community in which there prevails a spirit of deep religious anxiety, and many are just forming the purpose to set their faces toward heaven, and many others are beginning to hope that they have yielded themselves to God, there must needs be much occasion for private counsel and instruction; and the persons most likely to be applied to are often those with whom the individuals concerned happen to be most intimately associated. Every one, therefore, ought to be competent to give at least some general directions. One right direction, in certain circumstances, may be the means of saving the soul. One wrong direction, in similar circumstances, of ruining it forever. If all Christians, then, are so deeply and practically interested in this subject, there is good reason why it should be brought before you as a distinct theme for contemplation and instruction.
Having now stated some reasons for bringing this subject before you at this time, I proceed to the main design of the discourse, which is to exhibit the NATURE of a revival of religion. And that we may do this intelligently, it will be necessary previously to answer the question, in a single word, what is the nature of religion?
Religion consists in a conformity of heart and life to the will of God. It consists in a principle of obedience implanted in the soul, and in the operation of that principle in the conduct. Religion is substantially the same in all worlds; though the religion of a sinner is modified, in some respects, by his peculiar character and condition. In common with the religion of the angels, it consists in love to God—to his law, to his government, to his service; but in distinction from that, it consists in repentance of sin; faith in the merits of a crucified Saviour; resignation under trials; opposition to spiritual enemies. Moreover, religion in the angels is an inherent principle; it begins with their existence; but in the human heart it is something superinduced by the operation of the Spirit of God. Wherever there exists a cordial belief of God’s truth, and submission of the will to his authority, and the graces of the heart shine forth in the virtues of the life, there is true religion; whether it be in the palace or the cottage; whether it appear in a single individual, or be diffused over a whole community.
Now if such be the nature of religion, you will readily perceive in what consists a revival of religion. It is a revival of scriptural knowledge; of vital piety; of practical obedience. The term ‘revival of religion’ has sometimes been objected to, on the ground that a revival of any thing supposes its previous existence; whereas in the renovation of sinners, there is a principle implanted which is entirely new. But though the fact implied in this objection is admitted, the objection itself has no force; because the term is intended to be applied in a general sense, to denote the improved religious state of a congregation, or of some other community. And it is moreover applicable, in a strict sense, to the condition of Christians, who, at such a season, are in a greater or less degree revived; and whose increased zeal is usually rendered instrumental of the conversion of sinners. Wherever then you see religion rising up from a state of comparative depression to a tone of increased vigor and strength; wherever you see professing Christians becoming more faithful to their obligations, and behold the strength of the church increased by fresh accessions of piety from the world; there is a state of things which you need not hesitate to denominate a revival of religion.
Such a state of things may be advantageously represented under several distinct particulars.
1. The first step usually is an increase of zeal and devotedness on the part of God’s people. They wake up to a sense of neglected obligations; and resolve to return to the faithful discharge of duty. They betake themselves with increased earnestness to the throne of grace; confessing their delinquencies with deep humility, and supplicating the aids of God’s Spirit to enable them to execute their pious resolutions, and to discharge faithfully the various duties which devolve upon them. There too they importunately ask for the descent of the Holy Ghost on those around them; on the church with which they are connected; on their friends who are living at a distance from God; on all who are out of the ark of safety. Their conversation becomes proportionally more spiritual and edifying. They endeavor to stir up one another’s minds by putting each other in remembrance of their covenant vows, and impressing each other with their individual and mutual responsibilities. When they meet in the common intercourse of life, their conversation shows that the world is with them but a subordinate matter; and that their controlling desire is, that God may be glorified in the salvation of sinners. They find it no difficult matter to be faithful in pressing the obligations of religion upon those who are indifferent to it; in warning them of their danger; and in beseeching them with the earnestness of Christian affection to be reconciled to God. It is a case of no uncommon occurrence at such a season that a professor of religion, under a deep sense of his wanderings, comes to regard his own Christian character with the utmost distrust; and sometimes wanders many days in darkness, before the joys of salvation are restored to his soul. There are indeed some professors who sleep through such a scene; and probably some who join with the wicked, so far as they dare, in opposing it; but many at least are awake; are humble; are active; and come up to the help of the Lord with renewed zeal and strength.
2. Another prominent feature in the state of things which I am describing, is the alarm and conviction of those who have hitherto been careless. Sometimes the change in this respect is very gradual; and for a considerable time nothing more can be said than that there is a more listening ear, and a more serious aspect, than usual, under the preaching of the word; and this increased attention is gradually matured into deep solemnity and pungent conviction. In other cases, the reigning lethargy is suddenly broken up, as if there had come a thunderbolt from eternity; and multitudes are heard simultaneously inquiring what they shall do to be saved. The young man, and the old man and the middle aged man; the exemplary and orthodox moralist, the haughty pharisee, the downright infidel, the profane scoffer, the dissipated sensualist, may sometimes all be seen collected with the same spirit in their hearts—a spirit of deep anxiety; and the same question upon their lips—how they shall escape the threatening woes of perdition? In some cases, the conviction which is felt prompts to silence, and you are left to learn it from downcast looks, or as the case may be, from half-stifled sobs. In other cases, there is no effect at concealment, and the deep anguish of the heart comes out in expressions of the most painful solicitude. Those who once would have disdained any thing which should indicate the least concern for their salvation, hesitate not to ask and to receive instruction even from the obscurest Christian, or to place themselves in circumstances which are a virtual acknowledgement to all that they feel their danger and desire to escape from it. All the shame which they once felt on this subject they have given to the winds; and their commanding desire now is, that they may find that peace which passeth understanding; that hope which is full of immortality.
There are others who are partially awakened; whose attention is in some measure excited, but not enough to prompt to any decided and vigorous effort. They look on and see what is passing; and acknowledge God’s agency in it; and at times manifest some feeling in respect to their own condition, and express a wish that they may have more. They attend regularly not only upon the ordinary but upon some of the extraordinary means of grace, and treat the whole subject not only with great respect, but with decided seriousness; but after all do not advance to the decisive point of repentance, or even of true conviction of sin. In this state they often remain for a considerable time; until they return to their accustomed carelessness; or by some new impulse from on high they are carried forward and become the subjects of a genuine conversion; or else they are taken away in the midst of their half formed resolutions to a world where they will learn, to their eternal cost, that it was most dangerous to trifle with the Spirit of God.
There are still others belonging to the same general class of awakened sinners, who struggle against their convictions; whose consciences proclaim to them that their all is in jeopardy, but who try to discredit the testimony. These persons sometimes rush with unaccustomed avidity into the haunts of business or the haunts of pleasure. They throw themselves into vain company, or engage in reading idle or infidel books; and in some instances even venture to deny what is passing within them, and to jeer at what is passing around them. Wherever you hear scoffing, and witness violent opposition in a revival of religion, it is scarcely possible that you should mistake, if you should put down those by whom it is exhibited on the list of awakened sinners. The true account of it is, that there is a war between the conscience and the passions. Conscience is awake and doing its office, and the heart is in rebellion against its dictates.
3. It also belongs essentially to a revival of religion, that there are those, from time to time, who are indulging a hope that they are reconciled to God, and are born of the Spirit. In some cases the change of feeling is exceedingly gradual, insomuch that the individual, though he is sensible of having experienced a change within a given period, is yet utterly unable to refer it to any particular time. Sometimes the soul suddenly emerges from darkness into light, and perceives a mighty change in its exercises, almost in the twinkling of an eye. Sometimes there is a state of mind which is only peaceful; sometimes it mounts up to joy and ecstacy. In some cases there is from the beginning much self distrust; in others much—too much, confidence. But with a great variety of experience, there are many who are brought, or who believe themselves brought, into the kingdom of Christ. They give reason to hope they have taken the new song upon their lips. Children sing their young hosannas to the Lamb that was slain. The aged tell with gratitude of what God has done for them while on the margin of the grave. Saints on earth rejoice, and in proportion as the work is genuine, so also do saints and angels in heaven. The church receives a fresh and often a rich accession both to her numbers and her strength; an accession which, in some cases, raises her from the dust, and causes her to look forth in health and beauty.
Such are the more prominent features of what we commonly call a revival of religion. But revivals, like every thing else that is good, have their counterfeits; and not unfrequently there is a spurious admixture in those which, on the whole, must be considered genuine. It becomes therefore a matter of great importance that we discriminate accurately between the precious and the vile; that we do not mistake a gust of animal passion for the awakening or converting operations of God’s Holy Spirit. We will inquire briefly what are not, and what are, the indications of a genuine revival.
1. It is no certain indication of a genuine revival, that there is great excitement. It is admitted indeed that great excitement may attend a true revival; but it is not the necessary accompaniment of one, and it may exist where the work is wholly spurious. It may be an excitement produced not by the power of divine truth, but by artificial stimulus applied to the imagination and the passions, for the very purpose of producing commotion both within and without. Instances have occurred in which Jehovah who has declared himself a God of order, has been professedly worshipped in scenes of utter confusion; and impiety has been substituted for prayer; and the wildest reveries of fanaticism have been dealt out, instead of the sober and awful truths of God’s word. Here is the highest excitement; but it surely does not prove that the scene in which it exists is a genuine revival. It does not stamp confusion and irreverence, and impiety, with the seal of God’s Spirit. On the other hand, there may be a true revival where all is calm and noiseless; and multitudes of hearts may be broken in contrition and yielded up to God, which have never been agitated by any violent, much less convulsive emotions, nor even breathed forth a single sob, unless in the silence of the closet, and into the ear of mercy.
2. It is no certain evidence of a genuine revival that great numbers profess to be converted. We are too much inclined, if I mistake not, to estimate the character of a revival by the number of professed converts; whereas there is scarcely a more uncertain test than this. For who does not know that doctrines may be preached, or measures adopted, or standards of religious character set up, which shall lead multitudes, especially of the uninstructed, to misapprehend the nature of conversion, and to imagine themselves subjects of it, while they are yet in their sins? We admit that there may be genuine revivals of great extent; in which multitudes may be almost simultaneously made the subjects of God’s grace; but we confidently maintain that the mere fact that many profess to be converted does not prove a revival genuine. For suppose that every one of these individuals, or far the larger part of them, should finally fall away, this surely we should say, would prove the work spurious. If then, their having originally professed to be Christians proved it genuine, the same work is proved to be both genuine and spurious. Does the fact that an individual imagines himself to be converted convey any certain evidence of his conversion? But if this is not true of an individual, it certainly cannot be true of any number of individuals; for if one may be self deceived, so may many. It follows that the genuineness of a revival is to be judged of, in a great measure, independently of the number of its professed subjects.
3. Nor yet, thirdly, is the existence of an extensive and violent opposition, any evidence that a revival is genuine. There are those who will have it, that God’s Spirit cannot be poured out upon a community, but that all who are unrenewed, if their hearts are not at once broken (in godly sorrow, will be excited to wrath and railing. Now I admit fully that the carnal mind is enmity against God; and I am willing to admit moreover that, in most cases, perhaps in all, in which revivals of any considerable extent exist, there are some who act out this enmity in the way of direct opposition ;—some who revile God’s people and ministers, and who ridicule even the operations of his Holy Spirit. But in an orderly and well instructed community, I hesitate not to say that we are not to look for any such general exhibition as this. Facts prove that there are multitudes who pass through a revival without becoming personally interested in it, who still never utter a word against it, and who say, and doubtless say honestly, that they feel no sensible hostility towards it. They have indeed a heart at enmity with God; but that enmity may operate in some different way; or it may be to a certain extent controlled and neutralized by constitutional qualities or habits of education; and they may never feel a disposition to rail at God’s work on the one hand, and may be as little inclined to yield themselves to his service on the other. While I admit therefore that the natural enmity of the heart does sometimes assume the form of direct opposition against revivals, where there is nothing censurable in the manner in which they are conducted, I am constrained to believe that the opposition which is often complained of, or rather gloried in, is opposition to harsh expressions which are fitted to irritate, but not to enlighten, to convince, or in any way to profit. And then how natural is it that the odium should be transferred, or rather extended, from the severe language and questionable measures, to the revival with which they are connected; and so it comes to pass that a violent prejudice really grows up in the mind against the whole subject of revivals, which originated in the imprudent and mistaken zeal of some of their friends. There are those, I know, who court opposition on these occasions, and who seem to think that nothing can be done to purpose, until the voice of railing is heard from without. Such persons are sure to find the opposition they seek; and in encountering it, instead of suffering for righteousness’ sake, they are buffetted for their own faults. I repeat then, a genuine work of God’s grace may be extensively opposed; but the existence of such opposition does not evince it to be genuine.
What then are some of the indications of a genuine revival of religion?
1. The fact that any thing which claims to be a revival has been effected by scriptural means, is an evidence in favor of its genuineness.
God has given us his word not only as a rule of faith but of practice; and in the same proportion that we adhere to it, we have a right to expect his blessing; in the same proportion that we depart from it, we have reason to expect his frown. His own institutions he will honor; and the institutions of men, so far as they are conformed to the spirit of his word, he will also honor; but whenever the latter are put in place of the former, or exalted above them, or assume a shape which God’s word does not warrant, we cannot suppose that he can regard them with favor; and even if, for a time, there should seem to be a blessing, there is reason to believe that the event will show that in that apparent blessing were bound up the elements of a curse.
Now apply this to the subject of revivals. Suppose there were to be a powerful excitement on the subject of religion produced by means which are at war with the spirit of the gospel;—suppose doctrines were to be preached which the gospel does not recognize, and doctrines omitted which the gospel regards fundamental;—suppose that for the simple, and honest, and faithful use of the sword of the Spirit, there should be substituted a mass of machinery designed to produce its effect on the animal passions;—suppose the substance of religion, instead of being made to consist in repentance, and faith, and holiness, should consist of falling, and groaning, and shouting;—we should say unhesitatingly that that could not be a genuine work of divine grace; or if there were some pure wheat, there must be a vast amount of chaff and stubble. It may be safe to admit even in the wildest scenes, the possibility of some genuine conversions; because there may be some truth preached, and some believing prayer offered, which God may regard and honor, notwithstanding all the error and delusion with which it may be mingled. But in general it is perfectly fair to conclude that when men become dissatisfied with plain Bible truth, and simple Bible measures, and undertake to substitute doctrines or devices’ of their own, any excitement which may be produced, however extensive, however powerful, is of an exceedingly dubious character. If the effect partake of the same character with the cause, it must be of the earth, earthy.
On the other hand, where there is an attention to religion excited by the plain and faithful preaching of God’s truth in all its length and breadth, and by the use of those simple and honest means which God’s word either directly prescribes or fairly sanctions, we cannot reasonably doubt that here is a genuine work of the Holy Spirit. The means used may be in some respects feeble; that is, there may be the entire absence of an eloquent and powerful ministry; nevertheless if God’s truth is dispensed fairly, and fully, and with godly sincerity, and other corresponding means used in a corresponding manner, the effect which is produced may reasonably be attributed to the operation of divine grace; and it is a fact which does great honor to the sovereignty of God, that the humblest instrumentality, when well directed, has often been honored by a multitude of conversions, which a course of holy living has proved sound and genuine.
If then we have a right to say that God honors his own word and his own institutions, the means employed in producing and carrying forward a revival furnish a good criterion by which to determine its character. It may not always be easy accurately to apply this rule in given cases, because there is often a strange mixture of good and bad; but without deciding how far any particular revival is genuine or spurious, we may safely decide that it is so in the same proportion that it is sustained by scriptural or unscriptural instrumentality.
2. A genuine revival is characterized by a due proportion of reflection and feeling.
I will not undertake to decide what amount of scriptural knowledge is necessary to conversion in any given case, or to question the fact that men under certain circumstances may be renewed where their knowledge is very limited; nevertheless it is certain that religious reflection precedes religious feeling in the order of nature. Before men can feel remorse, much more contrition, for their sins, they must have held strongly to their minds the fact that they are sinners. They must have reflected upon what it is to be a sinner; on the character of God, not only as a Father, but a Lawgiver; on the reasonableness of their obligations to Him, and on the guilt of violating those obligations. Before they can exercise faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, they must have reflected on the character of Christ, on the fulness of his atonement, and on the freeness and sincerity of the gospel offer. The Holy Spirit employs the truth not only in the work of sanctification, but even in the work of conversion; and the truth can never find its way to the heart, except through the understanding. If then the great truths of God’s word are steadily held up before the mind as subjects of reflection; and if the feeling which is manifested by sinners, whether of anxiety and distress, or of peace and joy, be the effect of such reflection, there is good reason to believe that God’s Spirit is really at work, and that that which claims to be a revival is really one. But if, in such a scene, the mind be kept in a great degree passive, if there be a great deal of feeling with very little thought— burning heat with only dim and doubtful light; if the sensibilities of the soul be wrought into a storm, none can tell how or why; then rely on it, it is not a work which God owns; or if there are some true conversions, far the greater number may be expected to prove spurious.
3. That on which we are principally to rely as evidence of the genuineness of a revival, is its substantial and abiding fruit. Precisely the same rule is to be applied to a revival as to individual cases of hopeful conversion. Those who have been most conversant with the subject of religious experience, do not rely chiefly for evidence of piety on the pungency of one’s convictions, or the transports by which they may be succeeded, or the professions which may be made of devotedness to Christ; for they have learned that all this is equivocal; and that delusion and self-deception are consistent with the most promising appearances which are ever exhibited. While, therefore, they may hope favorably from what they see at the beginning, before they form a decisive opinion they wait to see whether the individual can endure temptation; whether he is faithful in the discharge of all duty; whether he is a good soldier of Jesus Christ. And if they see the fruits of holiness abounding in the life, whether the appearance at the beginning were more or less favorable, they infer with confidence that a principle of holiness has been implanted in the heart. In the same manner are we to test the character of revivals. If an excitement on the subject of religion (no matter how great it may have been) passes away, and leaves behind little or no substantial and enduring good; if most of those who profess to have been converted return speedily or gradually to the world, living a careless life, and exhibiting an unedifying example; or if they manifest a spirit of pride, and uncharitableness, and a disposition to condemn all who do not exactly come to their standard, then rely on it, though that may be called a revival of religion, it has little more than the name. But if, after the excitement has gone by, the fruits of holiness remain and become more and more mature, if those who have been professedly converted hold on a course of humble, self denied, devoted obedience, exemplifying the spirit of Christ as well as professing his name, then you may take knowledge of them that they have come out of a true revival of religion. Religion acted out in the life is the best evidence that religion has its dwelling in the heart. Let the virtues and graces of the Christian adorn the lives of those who have professed to be converted during a revival, and you need ask for no better evidence that there has been the agency of the Spirit of God.
Such, as it seems to me, are the characteristics of a genuine revival of religion. I shall not stop here to prove that such a state of things has every thing in it to interest the best feelings of the Christian. If you have ever felt the power of God’s grace, and especially if your hearts are now awake to the interests of his kingdom, and the salvation of your fellow men, it cannot be a matter of indifference with you whether or not God’s work is to be revived in the midst of us. Let me entreat you then, as this subject is for several successive weeks to occupy your attention, to be fellow helpers together, in humble dependence on God’s grace, to procure for ourselves those rich blessings on which your meditations will turn. While we are endeavoring to form correct views of this important subject, may we get our hearts thoroughly imbued with its spirit; and be able to point with devout joy to what is passing in the midst of us, as an example of a genuine, scriptural revival of religion.
Acts 2:13 Others mocking, said, these men are full of new wine.
The occasion on which these words were spoken, marked a memorable era in the history of the church. The disciples of Jesus, a few days after his ascension, being assembled for devotional exercises in a certain room, in the city of Jerusalem, where they had been accustomed to meet, were surprised by a marvellous exhibition of the mighty power of God. There came suddenly a sound from heaven, as of a violent rushing wind; and, at the same time, there appeared unto them a number of divided tongues, made as it were of fire; and it was so ordered that one of these tongues rested upon each of them. And at the moment that these tongues, or lambent flames touched them, they were filled, in an extraordinary degree, with the Holy Spirit; and began to speak a variety of languages which they had never before understood, with a fluency and fervor which were beyond measure astonishing. It is hardly necessary to add that this was a most signal attestation to the divinity of the gospel, and a glorious pledge of the Redeemer’s final and complete triumph.
It is not strange that so wonderful an event as this should have been instantly noised abroad, or that it should have excited much curiosity and speculation. Accordingly, we are informed that the multitude came together, and were amazed to find that the fact was as had been represented; that these ignorant Gallileans had suddenly become masters of a great variety of languages; and were talking with men of different nations as fluently as if they had been speaking in their own mother tongue. The true way of accounting for this—that is, referring if to miraculous agency—they all seem to have overlooked; nevertheless, as it was manifestly an effect of something, they could not but inquire in respect to the cause; and we have one specimen of the wisdom that was exercised on the occasion in the words of our text— “Others mocking, said, these men are full of new wine;“—as if they soberly believed that a state of intoxication, which often deprives a man of the power of speaking his own language, had strangely given to them the power of speaking languages not their own, and which they had never learned. All will admit that this was the very infatuation of prejudice.
The reason why this absurd and ridiculous account was given of this miraculous occurrence was, that the individuals were at war with that system of truth of which this was pre-eminently the seal; they could not admit that it was an evidence of the triumph of the crucified Jesus; and rather than even seem to admit it, they would sacrifice all claims to reason and common sense. Now I would not say that all objections that are made against revivals of religion, are made in the same spirit which prompted this foolish declaration of these early opposers of the gospel; but I am constrained to express my conviction that many of them are; and hence I have chosen the passage now read as introductory to a consideration of OBJECTIONS AGAINST REVIVALS. It was actually an effusion of the Holy Spirit, which drew forth the objection contained in the text; the commencement of a scene,. which terminated, as revivals now do, in the conversion of many souls, and an important addition to the Christian church.
The sole object of this discourse then, will be to consider, and so far as I can, to meet, some of the most popular objections which are urged against revivals of religion. And I wish it distinctly borne in mind that the defence which I am to make relates, not to mere spurious excitements, but to genuine revivals;—such revivals as I have attempted to describe in the preceding discourse.
I. The first of these objections which I shall notice is, that revivals of religion, as we use the phrase, are unscriptural. It is proper that this objection should be noticed first, because if it can be sustained, it is of itself a sufficient reason not only for indifference towards revivals, but for positive opposition to them; and in that case, as it would be unnecessary that we should proceed, so it would be only fair that, at the outset, we should surrender the whole ground. No matter what else may be said in favor of revivals; no matter how important they may have been regarded, or how much we may have been accustomed to identify them with the prosperity of Christ’s cause; if it can be fairly shown that they are unscriptural, we are bound unhesitatingly to conclude that we have mistaken their true character. God’s word is to be our standard in everything; and wherever we suffer considerations of expediency in reference to this or any other subject, to prevail against that standard, we set up our own wisdom against the wisdom of the Highest; and we are sure thereby to incur his displeasure. To the law and the testimony then be our appeal.
In order to denominate anything that is connected with the subject of religion unscriptural, it is not enough that we should be able to show that it is not expressly commanded; but we should also make it appear that it is either expressly or implicitly forbidden. There are many things which all admit to be right among Christians, and which are even regarded as important. parts of duty, for which there is no express warrant in the Bible; though no doubt they judge rightly when they suppose that they find a sufficient warrant for these things in the general spirit of the Bible. For instance the Bible has said nothing about the monthly concert of prayer for the conversion of the world, which is now so generally observed throughout evangelical Protestant Christendom; and of course this is not to be regarded as a divine institution; but so long as God has commanded his people to pray for the prosperity of Jerusalem, and so long as the Saviour has promised to bless them where only two or three are met together in his name, it would be folly for any one to contend that the monthly concert is an antiscriptural institution. The spirit of the Bible manifestly justifies it, though the letter of the Bible may not require it. In like manner, even if we were to admit that what we call a revival of religion, so far as human agency and influence are concerned, were not directly required by God’s word, nevertheless, if it can be shown that it is consistent with the spirit of God’s word, no man has a right to gainsay it, on the ground that it is unscriptural.
Now we claim for revivals, (and it is the least that we claim for them on the score of divine authority) that there is nothing in the general spirit of the Bible that is unfavorable to them, but much of an opposite character. It is the tendency of all the instructions of God’s word to form men to a habit of serious reflection; to abstract their affections from the world; to lead them to commune with their hearts, and to commune with God, and to seek with greater earnestness than anything else the salvation of the soul. Now this is precisely what is accomplished in a revival of religion. In such a scene, if any where, is fulfilled the great design of God’s word in bringing men to serious consideration; to self communion; to a right estimate of the comparative value of the things which are seen and are temporal, and the things which are not seen and are eternal. We say nothing here of the means employed, but simply speak of the effect produced; and we are sure that no one who admits that the effect is as we have stated, will doubt that it is in keeping with the general tenor of God’s word.
But we need not stop here: for the Bible has given a more direct sanction to revivals; and in various ways. Look for instance at many of the prayers which it records, as having been offered for the spiritual prosperity of Zion, when she was in a state of deep depression. Says the Psalmist, “Turn us O God of our salvation, and cause thine anger towards us to cease. Wilt thou be angry with us forever? Wilt thou draw out thine anger unto all generations? Wilt thou not revive us again, that thy people may rejoice in thee? Shew us thy mercy, O Lord, and grant us thy salvation.” And again, “Return we beseech thee O God of Hosts; look down from heaven, and behold and visit this vine, and the vineyard which thy right hand hath planted, and the branch that thou madest strong for thyself.” And again, the prophet Habakkuk prays—” O Lord revive thy work;—in the—midst of the years make known; in wrath remember mercy.” These prayers were offered in behalf of the church, when she was in a state of temporal bondage, as well as of spiritual affliction; nevertheless, they relate especially to spiritual blessings; and what was meant by a revival then, was substantially the same thing as what is intended by a revival now. Accordingly, we find that these very prayers are constantly used by the church at this day; and that from a regard to them, as we cannot doubt, God often appears to lengthen her cords and strengthen her stakes; the blessings of divine grace descend upon her in such profusion, that she puts on her beautiful garments, and looks forth fair as the morning.
There are also recorded in the scriptures many signal instances in which God has poured out his spirit, and effected a sudden and general reformation. If you go back to the Jewish dispensation, you will find this remark strikingly verified in the reigns of David and Solomon, of Asa and Jehosaphat, of Hezekiah and Josiah. After the church had languished during the long and gloomy period of the Babylonish captivity, her interests were signally revived under the ministry of Ezra. A similar state of things existed in the days of John the Baptist, when the kingdom of heaven is said to have suffered violence, and many of the most profligate part of the community became impressed with religious truth, and were baptized unto repentance. On the occasion referred to in our text, no less than three thousand, and on the day following two thousand more, were subdued to the obedience of the truth, and were added to the Lord. Shortly after this, multitudes in Samaria experienced the regenerating power of the gospel; and upon the dispersion of the disciples after the martyrdom of Stephen, they were instrumental of exciting a general attention to religion in the remote parts of Judea, and even as far as the territories of Greece. Here then are facts recorded by the unerring finger of inspiration, precisely analagous to those which the objection we are considering declares to be unscriptural.
But in addition to this, there is much in the prophecies which might fairly lead us to expect the very scenes which we denominate revivals of religion. If you read the prophetical parts of scripture attentively, you cannot, I think, but be struck with the evidence that, as the millenial day approaches, the operations of divine grace are to be increasingly rapid and powerful. Many of these predictions respecting the state of religion under the Christian dispensation, it is manifest, have not yet had their complete fulfilment; and they not only justify the belief that these glorious scenes which we see passing really are of divine origin, as they claim to be, but that similar scenes still more glorious, still more wonderful, are to be expected, as the Messiah travels in the greatness of his strength towards a universal triumph. I cannot but think that many of the inspired predictions in respect to the progress of religion, appear overstrained, unless we admit that the church is to see greater things than she has yet seen; and that they fairly warrant the conclusion that succeeding generations rejoicing in the brighter light of God’s truth, and the richer manifestations of his grace, may look back even upon this blessed era of revivals, as a period of comparative darkness.
If then the general spirit of the Bible be in favor of revivals; if the prayers which holy and inspired men have offered for them are here recorded; if there be many instances here mentioned of their actual occurrence; and if the spirit of prophecy has been exercised in describing and predicting them; then we may consider the objection that they are unscriptural as fairly set aside; nay, we may regard them as having the sanction of divine authority in the highest and clearest possible manner.
II. It is objected, again, that revivals of religion are unnecessary. In the mouth of an infidel, this objection would doubtless imply that religion itself is unnecessary; and so, of course, must be all the means used for its promotion. But in this view it does not fall within our present design to consider it. There are those who profess to regard religion, who maintain that revivals are modern innovations; and that they are unnecessary on the ground that the cause of Christ may be sustained and advanced, as it has been in other days, without them. This is the only form of the objection which it concerns us at present to notice.
The first thing to be said in reply, is, that the objection supposes what is not true—viz, that revivals are of modern origin. The truth is that if, as the objection asserts, the cause of religion in preceding ages has been sustained and carried forward without them, so also it has been sustained and carried forward with them; and during the periods in which they have prevailed, the church has seen her greatest prosperity. You have already seen that, instead of being of recent origin, they go back to an early period in the Jewish dispensation. And passing from the records of inspiration, we find that revivals have existed, with a greater or less degree of power, especially in the later periods of the Christian church. This was emphatically true during the period of the Reformation in the sixteenth century: Germany, France, Switzerland, Holland, Denmark, the Low countries, and Britain, were severally visited by copious showers of divine influence. During the season of the plague in London in 1665, there was a very general awakening; in which many thousands are said to have been hopefully born of the Spirit. In the early part of the seventeenth century, various parts of Scotland and the North of Ireland, were blessed, at different periods, with signal effusions of divine grace, in which great multitudes gave evidence of being brought out of darkness into marvellous light. During the first half of the last century, under the ministrations of Whitfield, Brainard, Edwards, Davies, the Tennents, and many other of the holiest and greatest men whose labors have blessed the church, there was a succession of revivals in this country, which caused the wilderness to blossom as the rose, and the desert to put on the appearance of the garden of the Lord. And when these revivals declined, and the church settled back into the sluggish state from which she had been raised, then commenced her decline in purity, in discipline, in doctrine, in all with which her prosperity is most intimately connected. And this state of things continued, only becoming worse and worse, until, a little before the beginning of the present century, the spirit of revivals again burst forth, and has since that period richly blessed especially our American church. The fact then, most unfortunately for the objection we are considering, turns out to be, that if the church has been sustained at some periods without these signal effusions of the Holy Spirit, she has barely been sustained; and that the brightest periods of her history have been those, in which they have prevailed with the greatest power. To object to revivals then on the ground that they are modern, or that they are unnecessary to the best interests of the church, betrays an utter ignorance of their history.
But let us inquire a little further why the old and quiet way, as it is often represented, of becoming religious, is the best. If you mean that you prefer that state of religion in which the dews of divine grace-continually descend, and Christians are always consistent and active, and there is a constant succession of conversions from among the impenitent, to the more sudden and rapid operations of God’s Spirit—be it so; there is as truly a revival in the one case as the other. But the state of things which this objection contemplates is that in which religion is kept in the background, and only here and there one at distant periods, comes forward to confess Christ, and the church is habitually in a languishing state. And is such a state of things to be preferred above that in which the salvation of the soul becomes the all engrossing object, and even hundreds within a little period, come and own themselves on the Lord’s side? Is it not desirable that sinners should be converted immediately? Are they liable every hour to die, and thus be beyond the reach of mercy and of hope; and is it not right that they should be pressed with the obligations of immediate repentance; and is it not necessary that they should exert themselves to escape the tremendous doom by which they are threatened? Is it more desirable that the mass of sinners should be sleeping on in guilty security, liable every hour to fall into the hands of a sin-avenging God, or that they should be escaping by multitudes from the coming wrath, and gaining an interest in the salvation of the gospel? He, and only he, who will dare to say that the former is most desirable, can consistently object to revivals on the ground that the church had better revert to the quiet uniformity of other days.
Still farther: Before you decide that revivals are unnecessary, you must either settle it that they are not the work of God, or else you must assume the responsibility of deciding that he is not doing his work in the best way. Will you take the former side of the alternative, and maintain that this is not God’s work? If you say this, then I challenge you to prove that God ever works in the renovation of men; for the only evidence of the existence of a principle of religion in to heart, is the operation of that principle in the life; and I hesitate not to say that I can show you as unequivocal fruits of holiness produced from a revival of religion, as you can show me in any other circumstances. Unless then you will assume the responsibility of saying that all the apparent faith, and love, and zeal, and holiness, which are produced from a revival, and which, so far as we can judge, have every characteristic of genuineness, are spurious, it were rash to decide that this is not a work effected by the agency of the Holy Spirit.
But if you admit that this is God’s work, you surely will not dare to say that his way of accomplishing his purpose is not the best. Suppose that nothing appeared to render this course of procedure especially desirable, yet the point being established that it is the course which God hath chosen, the reflection that God’s ways are not as our ways, ought to silence every doubt. But who, after all, will say that it even appears inconsistent with infinite wisdom and goodness, as the cause of God is advancing towards a complete triumph, that he should operate more powerfully, more suddenly, than in some other periods; in short, precisely as he does in a revival of religion? Has God bound himself that he will convert men only by small numbers, or by a very gradual influence; or does he not rather, in this respect, claim the right of absolute sovereignty? I ask again in view of the bearing which this objection has upon the character of God, who will dare say that revivals are unnecessary?
III. Another objection against revivals is, that they are the nurseries of enthusiasm.
If by enthusiasm you mean a heated imagination that prompts to excesses in conduct, then you meet with it in other departments beside that of revivals. You will see as much enthusiasm in a political cabal, or in an election of civil officers, or in a commercial speculation, or even in the pursuits of science, as you will find in a revival of religion. Yes, behove me, there is a worldly as well as a religious enthusiasm: and let me inquire how it comes to pass that you can tolerate the former, nay perhaps that you can exemplify and cherish it, and yet can regard the latter with so much disapprobation and abhorrence? Does it not look a little as if your objection lay rather against religion—the subject in respect to which the enthusiasm is exercised, than against the enthusiasm itself?
But are you sure that in passing judgment on the enthusiasm connected with revivals, you always call things by their right names? Is it not more than possible that much of what you call by this name, may be the fervor of true love to God, and of genuine Christian zeal? Suppose you were to go into a meeting composed entirely of persons of the same religious character with Isaiah, or David, or Paul; and suppose they were to utter themselves in expressions not more fervent than these holy men have actually used, do you not believe that you would think there was some enthusiasm in that meeting, and that the exercises would be better if they partook a little more of the earthly and a little less of the heavenly? Between enthusiasm on the one hand, and conviction of sin and love to God, and zeal in religion on the other, there is really no affinity; they are as unlike each other as any genuine quality is unlike its counterfeit; but is there not some danger that they who have a heart opposed to religion, and who are willing to find excuses for the neglect of it, will brand some of the Christian graces when they shine with unusual brightness, with the opprobrious epithet of enthusiasm?
But suppose there is some real enthusiasm mingled with revivals, (and to a certain extent, this no doubt must be admitted) shall we on this ground reject them altogether? Because some few individuals in such a scene may act the part of enthusiasts, is all the true Christian feeling, and Christian conduct, which is exemplified by many others to be considered of no account? Or suppose, if you will, that a small degree of enthusiasm may pertain to all, does this nullify all the exercises of genuine and perhaps elevated piety with which it may happen to be connected? Where is the man who adopts the same principle in respect to his worldly affairs? If you should import the productions of some foreign clime, and should discover that a small part of the quantity had been injured by the voyage, and that the rest had not suffered at all, would you cast the whole of it from you, or would you not rather make a careful separation between the good and the bad, retaining the one, and rejecting the other? Or if you should hear a lecture on science, or politics, or religion, or any other subject, in which you should discover a few mistakes, while nearly the whole of it was sound, and practical, and in a high degree instructive, would you condemn the whole for these trifling errors, and say it was all a mass of absurdity, or would you not rather treasure it up in your memory as in the main excellent, though you felt that, like every thing human it was marred by imperfection? And why should not the same principle be admitted in respect to revivals? Is it right, is it honest, because there may be in them a small admixture of enthusiasm, to treat them as if they were made up of enthusiasm and nothing else? Would it not be more equitable, would it not be more candid, to separate the precious from the vile, and to let the sentence of condemnation fall only where it is deserved?
But perhaps I shall be met here with the declaration that there are scenes which pass for revivals of religion, in which there is nothing but enthusiasm and its kindred evils; scenes which outrage the decorum of religious worship, and exert no other influence upon religion than to bring it into contempt. Be it so. If there be such scenes, whatever name they may assume, they are not what we plead for under the name of revivals; on the contrary, every friend of true revivals must, if he be consistent, set his face against them. And I maintain further, that it is gross injustice to the cause of revivals, to confound those scenes in which there is nothing but the wild fire of human passion, with those in which there is the manifest operation of the Holy Spirit. Suppose you should see a man practising the extreme of avarice, and calling it by the honest name of economy; or suppose you should see a man inflexibly obstinate in an evil course, and calling his obstinacy virtuous independence; would this justify you in setting at naught a habit of economy and independence, as if a virtue could be turned into a vice by the misapplication of a name? And suppose that any man, or any number of men, choose to yield themselves up to gross fanaticism, and to attempt to pass it off under the name of religion, or of a revival of religion, who is there that does not perceive that the existence of the counterfeit contributes in no way to debase the genuine quality? Prove to me that any thing that takes the name of a revival is really spurious, and I pledge myself as a friend of true revivals, to be found on the list of its opposers. Names are nothing. Things, facts, realities, are every thing.
IV. Another objection to revivals closely allied to the preceding is, that the subjects of them often fall into a state of mental derangement, and even commit suicide.
The fact implied in this objection is, to a certain extent, acknowledged; that is, it is acknowledged that instances of the kind mentioned do sometimes occur. But is it fair, after all, to consider revivals as responsible for them? Every one who has any knowledge of the human constitution, must be aware that the mind is liable to derangement from any cause that operates in the way of great excitement; and whether this effect in any given case, is to be produced or not, depends partly on the peculiar character of the mind which is the subject of the operation, and partly on the degree of self-control which the individual is enabled to exercise. Hence we find on the list of maniacs, and of those who have committed suicide, many in respect to whom this awful calamity is to be traced to the love of the world. Their plans for accumulating wealth have been blasted, and when they expected to be rich they have suddenly found themselves in poverty and perhaps obscurity; and instead of sustaining themselves against the shock, they have yielded to it; and the consequence has been the wreck of their intellect, and the sacrifice of their life. You who are men of business well know that the case to which I have here referred is one of no uncommon occurrence; but who of you ever thought that these cases reflected at all upon the fair and honorable pursuit of the world? Where is the merchant who, on hearing that some commercial adventurer had become deranged in consequence of some miserable speculation, and had been found dead with a halter about his neck, ever said, “I will close my accounts and shut up my store, and abandon this business of buying and selling, which leads to such fatal results?“ Is there one of you who ever made such an inference from such a fact; or who ever relaxed at all in your worldly occupation, on the ground that some individuals had perverted the same occupation to their ruin? Here you are careful enough to distinguish between the thing, and the abuse of it; and why not be equally candid in respect to revivals of religion? When you hear of instances of suicide in revivals, remember that such instances occur in other scenes of life, and other departments of action; and if you are not prepared to make commerce, and learning, and politics, and virtuous attachment, responsible for this awful calamity, because it is sometimes connected with them, then do not attempt to cast this responsibility upon religion, or revivals of religion, because here too individuals are sometimes left to this most fearful visitation.
I have said that some such cases as the objection supposes occur; but I maintain that the number is, by the enemies of revivals, greatly overrated. Twenty men may become insane, and may actually commit suicide from any other cause, and the fact will barely be noticed; but let one come to this awful end in consequence of religious excitement, and it will be blazoned upon the house top, with an air of melancholy boding and yet with a feeling of real triumph; and many a gazette will introduce it with some sneering comments on religious fanaticism; and the result will be that it will become a subject of general notoriety and conversation. In this way, the number of these melancholy cases comes to be imagined much larger than it really is; and in the common estimate of the opposers of revivals, it is no doubt multiplied many fold.
But admitting that the number of these cases were as great as its enemies would represent—admit that in every extensive revival there were one person who actually became deranged, and fell a victim to that derangement, are you prepared to say, even then, upon an honest estimate of the comparative good and evil that is accomplished, that that revival had better not have taken place? On the one side, estimate fairly the evil; and we have no wish to make it less than it really is. There is the premature death of an individual;—death in the most unnatural and shocking form; and fitted to harrow the feelings of friends to the utmost. There may be a temporary loss of usefulness to the world; and as the case may be, a loss of counsel, and aid, and effort, in some of the tenderest earthly relations. Yet it is not certain but that the soul may be saved: for though, at the time the awful act is committed, there may be thick darkness hanging about it, and even the phrenzy of despair may have seized hold of it, yet no mortal can decide that God’s Spirit may not after all have performed its effectual work; and that the soul, liberated from the body by the most dreadful act which man can commit, may not find its way to heaven, to be forever with the Lord. But suppose the very worst—suppose this sinner who falls in a fit of religious insanity, by the violence of his own hand, to be unrenewed—why in this case he rushes prematurely upon the wrath of God; he cuts short the period of his probation; which, had it been protracted, he might or might not, have improved to the salvation of his soul. Look now at the other side. In the revival in which this unhappy case has occurred, besides the general quickening impulse that has been given to the people of God, perhaps one hundred individuals have had their character renovated, and their doom reversed. Each one of these was hastening forward perhaps to a death bed of horror, certainly to an eternity of wailing; but in consequence of the change that has passed upon them, they can now anticipate the close of life with peace, and the ages of eternity with unutterable joy. There is no longer any condemnation to them, because they are in Christ Jesus. And besides, they are prepared to live usefully in the world;—each of them to glorify God by devoting himself, according to his ability, to the advancement of his cause. Now far be it from us to speak lightly of such a heart-rending event as time death of a fellow-mortal, in the circumstances we have supposed; but if any will weigh this against the advantages of a revival, we have a right to weigh the advantages of a revival against this; and to call upon you to decide for yourselves which preponderates? Is the salvation of one hundred immortal souls (supposing that number to be converted) a light matter, when put into the scale against the premature and awful death of a single individual; or to suppose the very worst of the case—his cutting short his space for repentance, and rushing unprepared into the presence of his Judge?
V. It is further, objected against revivals, that they occasion a sort of religious dissipation; leading men to neglect their worldly concerns for too many religious exercises; exercises too, protracted, not unfrequently, to an unseasonable hour.
No doubt it is possible for men to devote themselves more to social religious services than is best for their spiritual interests; because a constant attendance on these services would interfere with the more private means of grace, which all must admit are of primary importance. But who are the persons by whom this objection is most frequently urged, and who seem to feel the weight of it most strongly? Are they those who actually spend most time in their closets, and who come forth into the world with their hearts deeply imbued with a religious influence, and who perform their secular duties from the most conscientious regard to God’s authority? Or are they not rather those who rarely, if ever, retire to commune with God, and who engage in the business of life from mere selfish considerations;—who, in short, are thorough going worldlings? If a multitude of religious meetings are to be censured on the ground of their interference with other duties, I submit it to you whether this censure comes with a better grace from him who performs these duties, or from him who neglects them? I submit it to you, whether the man who is conscious of living in the entire neglect of religion, ought to be very lavish in his censures upon those who are yielding their thoughts to it in any way, or to any extent? Would it not be more consistent at least for him to take care of the beam, before he troubles himself about the mote?
Far be it from me to deny that the evil which this objection contemplates does sometimes exist;— that men, and especially women, do neglect private and domestic duties for the sake of mingling continually in social religious exercises: nevertheless, I am constrained to say that the objection, as it is directed against the mass of Christians, during a well regulated revival, is utterly unfounded. For I ask who are the persons who have ordinarily the best regulated families, who are most faithful to their children, most faithful in their closets, most faithful and conscientious in their relative duties, and even in their worldly engagements? If I may be permitted to answer, I should say unhesitatingly, they are generally the very persons, who love the social prayer meeting, and the meeting for Christian instruction and exhortation; those in short who are often referred to by the enemies of revivals, as exemplifying the evil which this objection contemplates. God requires us to do every duty, whether secular or religious, in its right place; and this the Christian is bound to keep in view in all his conduct. But there is too much reason to fear that the spirit which ordinarily objects against many religious exercises, is a spirit, which, if the whole truth were known, it would appear, had little complacency in any.
But it is alleged that, during revivals, religious meetings are not only multiplied to an improper extent, but are protracted to an unseasonable hour. That instances of this kind exist admits not of question; and it is equally certain that the case here contemplated is an evil which every sober, judicious Christian must discourage. We do not believe that in an enlightened community, it is an evil of very frequent occurrence; but wherever it exists, it is to be reprobated as an abuse, and not to be regarded as any part of a genuine revival; or as any thing for which a true revival is responsible. But here again, it may be worth while to inquire how far many of the individuals who offer this objection are consistent with themselves. They can be present at a political cabal, or at a convivial meeting, which lasts the whole night, and these occasions may be of very frequent occurrence, and yet it may never occur to them that they are keeping unseasonable hours. Or their children may return at the dawn of day, from a scene of vain amusement, in which they have brought on an entire prostration both of mind and body, and unfitted themselves for any useful exertion during the day; and yet all this is not only connived at as excusable, but smiled upon as commendable. I do not say that it is right to keep up a religious meeting during the hours that Providence has allotted to repose: I believe fully that in ordinary cases it is wrong; but sure I am that I could not hold up my head to say this, if I were accustomed to look with indulgence on those other scenes of the night of which I have spoken. It is best to spend the night as God designed it should be spent, in refreshing our faculties by sleep; but if any other way is to be chosen, judge ye whether they are wisest, who deprive themselves of repose in an idle round of diversion, or they who subject themselves to the same sacrifice in exercises of devotion and piety.
VI. It is objected against revivals that they often introduce discord into families, and disturb the general peace of society.
It must be conceded that rash and intemperate measures have sometimes been adopted in connection with revivals, or at least what have passed under the name of revivals, which have been deservedly the subject of censure, and which were adapted, by stirring up the worst passions of the heart, to introduce a spirit of fierce contention and discord. But I must be permitted to say that, whatever evil such measures may bring in their train, is not to be charged upon genuine revivals of religion. The revivals for which we plead are characterized, not by a spirit of rash and unhallowed attack on the part of their friends, which might be supposed to have come up from the world below, but by that wisdom which cometh down from above; which is pure, peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated. For all the discord and mischief that result from measures designed to awaken opposition and provoke the bad passions, they only are to be held responsible by whom those measures are devised or adopted. We hesitate not to say that there is no communion between the spirit that dictates them, and the spirit of true revivals.
Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that there are instances, in which a revival of religion conducted in a prudent and scriptural manner, awakens bitter hostility, and sometimes occasions, for the time, much domestic unhappiness. There are cases in which the enmity of the heart is so deep and bitter, that a bare knowledge of the fact that sinners around are beginning to inquire, will draw forth a torrent of reproach and railing; and there are cases too in which the fact that an individual in a family becomes professedly pious, will throw that family into a violent commotion, and waken up against the individual bitter prejudices, and possibly be instrumental of exiling a child, or a wife, or a sister, from the affections of those most dear to them. But you surely will not make religion, or a revival of religion, responsible for cases of this kind. Did not the benevolent Jesus himself say that he came not to send peace on the earth but a sword;—meaning by it this very thing—that in prosecuting the object of his mission into the world, he should necessarily provoke the enmity of the human heart, and thus that enmity would act itself out in the persecution of himself and his followers? The Saviour, by his perfect innocence, his divine holiness, his uncompromising faithfulness, provoked the Jews to imbrue their hands in his blood; but who ever supposed that the responsibility of their murderous act rested upon him? In like manner, ministers and Christians, by laboring for the promotion of a revival of religion, may be the occasion of fierce opposition to the cause of truth and holiness; but if they labor only in the manner which God has prescribed, they are in no way accountable for that opposition. It will always be right for individuals to secure the salvation of their own souls, let it involve whatever domestic inconvenience, or whatever worldly sacrifice it may. And so too, it will be always right for Christians to labor in God’s appointed way for the salvation of others; though in doing so, they should kindle up against them the fiercest opposition. Where such opposition is excited, the opposers of religion may set it to the account of revivals; but God the righteous Judge will take care that it is charged where it fairly belongs.
VII. It is objected, again, to revivals that the supposed conversions that occur in them are usually too sudden to be genuine; and that the excitement which prevails at such a time, must be a fruitful source of self-deception.
That revivals are often perverted to minister to self-deception cannot be questioned; and this is always to be expected, when there is much of human machinery introduced. Men often suppose themselves converted, and actually pass as converts, merely from some impulse of the imagination, when they have not even been the subjects of true conviction. But notwithstanding this abuse, who will say that the Bible does not warrant us to expect sudden conversions? What say you of the three thousand who were converted on the day of pentecost? Shall I be told that there was a miraculous agency concerned in producing that wonderful result? I answer there was indeed a miracle wrought in connection with that occasion; but there was no greater miracle in the actual conversion of those sinners than there is in the conversion of any other sinners; for conversion is in all cases the same work; and accomplished by the same agency—viz, the special agency of the Holy Spirit. This instance then is entirely to our purpose; and proves at least the possibility that a conversion may be sound, though it be sudden.
Nor is there any thing in the nature of the case that should lead us to a different conclusion. For what is conversion? It is a turning from sin to holiness. The truth of God is presented before the mind, and this truth is cordially and practically believed; it is received into the understanding, and through that reaches the heart and life. Suppose the truth to be held up before the mind already awake to its importance, and in a sense prepared for its reception, what hinders but that it should be received immediately? But this would be all that is intended by a sudden conversion. Indeed we all admit that the act of conversion, whenever it takes place, is sudden; and why may not the preparation for it, in many instances, be so also? Where is the absurdity of supposing that a sinner may, within a very short period, be brought practically to believe both the truth that awakens the conscience, and that which converts the soul;—in other words may pass from a state of absolute carelessness to reconciliation with God? The evidence of conversion must indeed be gradual, and must develope itself in a subsequent course of exercises and acts; so that it were rash to pronounce any individual in such circumstances a true convert; but not only the act of conversion but the immediate preparation for it, may be sudden; and we may reasonably hope, in any given case of apparent conversion, that the change is genuine.
I may add that the general spirit of the Bible is, by no means, unfavorable to sudden conversions. The Bible calls upon men to repent; to believe; to turn to the Lord now; it does not direct them to put themselves on a course of preparation for doing this at some future time; but it allows no delay; it proclaims that now is the accepted time, now the day of salvation. When men are converted suddenly, is there any thing more than an immediate compliance with these divine requisitions which are scattered throughout the Bible?
But what is the testimony of facts on this subject? It were in vain to deny that some who seem to be converted during the most genuine revivals fall away; and it were equally vain to deny that some who profess to have become reconciled to God, when there is no revival, fall away. But that any considerable proportion of the professed subjects of well regulated revivals apostatize, especially after having made a public profession, is a position which I am persuaded cannot be sustained. I know there are individual exceptions from this remark; exceptions which have occurred under peculiar circumstances; but if I mistake not, those ministers who have had the most experience on this subject, will testify that a very large proportion of those whom they have known professedly beginning the Christian life during a revival, have held on their way stronger and stronger. It has even been remarked by a minister who has probably been more conversant with genuine revivals than any other of the age, that his experience has justified the remark, that there is a smaller proportion of apostacies among the professed subjects of revivals than among those who make a profession when there is no unusual attention to religion.
After all, we are willing to admit that the excitement attending a revival may be the means of self-deception. But we maintain that this is not, at least to any great extent, a necessary evil, and that it may ordinarily be prevented by suitable watchfulness and caution on the part of those who are active in conducting the work. To accomplish this requires an intimate knowledge of the heart, and of God’s word, and of the whole subject of experimental religion. But with these qualifications, whether in a minister or in private Christians and with the diligent and faithful discharge of duty, we believe that little more is to be apprehended in respect to self-deception during a revival, than might reasonably be in ordinary circumstances.
VIII. It is objected that revivals are followed by seasons of corresponding declension; and that, therefore, nothing is gained, on the whole, to the cause of religion.
This remark must of course be limited in its application to those who were before Christians;— for it surely cannot mean that those who are really converted during a revival, lose the principle of religion from their hearts, after it has passed away. Suppose then it be admitted that Christians, on the whole, gain no advantage from revivals, on account of the reaction that takes place in their experience; still there is the gain of a great number of genuine conversions; and this is clear gain from the world. Is it not immense gain to the church, immense gain to the Saviour, that a multitude of souls should yield up their rebellion, and become the subjects of renewing grace? And if this is an effect of revivals (and who can deny it?) what becomes of the objection that, on the whole, they bring no gain to the cause?
But it is not true that revivals are of no advantage to Christians. It is confidently believed, if you could hear the experience of those who have labored in them most faithfully and most successfully, you would learn that these were the seasons in which they made their brightest and largest attainments in religion. And these seasons they have not failed subsequently to connect with special praise and thanksgiving to God. That there are cases in which Christians, during a revival, have had so much to do with the hearts of others, that they have neglected their own; and that there is danger, from the very constitution of the human mind, that an enlivened and elevated state of Christian affections will be followed by spiritual languor and listlessness, I admit; but I maintain that these are not necessary evils; and that the Christian, by suitable watchfulness and effort, may avoid them. It is not in human nature always to be in a state of strong excitement; but it is possible for any Christian to maintain habitually that spirit of deep and earnest piety, which a revival is so well fitted to awaken and cherish.
IX. The last objection against revivals which I shall notice is, that they cherish the spirit of sectarism, and furnish opportunities and inducements to different denominations to make proselytes.
I own, Brethren, with grief and shame for our common imperfections, that the evil contemplated in this objection frequently does occur; and though, for a time, different sects may seem to co-operate with each other for the advancement of the common cause, yet they are exceedingly apt, sooner or later, to direct their efforts mainly to the promotion of their own particular cause; and sometimes it must be confessed the greater has seemed to be almost forgotten in the less. Wherever this state of things exists, it is certainly fraught with evil; and the only remedy to be found for it is an increased degree of intelligence, piety, and charity, in the church.
But here again, let me remind you that, let this evil be as great as it may, the most that you can say of its connexion with revivals is, that they are the innocent occasion of it—not the faulty cause. Suppose an individual, or any number of individuals, were to take occasion from the fact that we are assembled here for religious worship, to come in, in violation of the laws of the land, and by boisterous and menacing conduct, to disturb our public service; and suppose they should find themselves forthwith within the walls of a jail ;—the fact of our being here engaged in the worship of God might be the occasion of the evil which they had brought upon themselves; but surely no man in the possession of his reason would dream that it was the responsible cause. In like manner, a revival may furnish an opportunity, and suggest an inducement, to different religious sects to bring as many into their particular communion as they can; and they may sometimes do this in the exercise of an unhallowed party spirit; but the evil is to be charged, not upon the revival, but upon the imperfections of Christians and ministers, which have taken occasion from this state of things, thus to come into exercise. The revival is from above: the proselyting spirit is from beneath.
But the fallacy of this objection may best be seen by a comparison of the evil complained of, with the good that is achieved. You and I are Presbyterians: but we profess to believe that our neighbors of many of the different denominations around us, hold the fundamental truths of the gospel, and are walking in the way to heaven. As Presbyterians we have a right, and it is our duty to take special heed to the interests of our own church; but much as we may venerate her order or her institutions, who among us is there that does not regard Christian as a much more hallowed name? In other words, where is the man who would not consider it comparatively a light matter whether an individual should join our particular communion or some other, provided he gave evidence of being a real disciple of Christ? Now apply this remark to revivals. The evil complained of is, that different sects manifest an undue zeal to gather as many of the hopeful subjects of revivals as they can into their respective communions. Suppose it be so—and what is the result? Why that they are training up—not as we should say, perhaps, under the best form of church government, or possibly the most unexceptionable views of Christian doctrine—but still in the bosom of the church of God, under the dispensation of his word, and in the enjoyment of his ordinances, and in communion with his people—are training up to become members of that communion in which every other epithet will be merged in that of sons and daughters of the Lord Almighty. Place then, on the one side, the fact that these individuals are to remain in their sins, supposing there is no revival of religion, and on the other, the fact that they are to be proselyted, if you please, to some other Christian sect, provided there is one; and then tell me whether the objection which I am considering does not dwindle to nothing. I would not deem it uncharitable to say that the man who could maintain this objection in this view, that is, the man who could feel more complacency in seeing his fellow men remain in his own denomination dead in trespasses and sins, than in seeing them join other denominations giving evidence of being the followers of the Lord Jesus, whatever other sect he may belong to, does not belong to the sect of true disciples. Whatever may be his shibboleth, rely on it, he has not learned to talk in the dialect of heaven.
I have presented this subject before you, my friends, at considerable length, not because I have considered myself as addressing a congregation hostile to revivals—for I bear you testimony that it is not so—but because most of the objections which have been noticed are more or less current in the community, and I have wished to guard you against the influence of these objections on the one hand, and to assist you to be always ready to give an answer to any one that asketh a reason of your views of this subject on the other. I hope that what has been said may confirm your conviction that the cause of revivals is emphatically the Saviour’s cause; and that you may be disposed, each one to labor in it with increased diligence and zeal. And may your labors be characterized by such Christian prudence, and tenderness, and fidelity, that while you shall see a rich blessing resting upon them, they may have a tendency to silence the voice of opposition, and increase the number of those who shall co-operate with you in sustaining and advancing this glorious cause.
I Corinthians 10:12 Lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ.
It is impossible to contemplate either the life or writings of the Apostle Paul, without perceiving that the ruling passion of his renewed nature was a desire to glorify God in the salvation of men.— For the accomplishment of this end there was no service which he would not perform; no earthly comfort which he would not surrender; no suffering which he would not endure. A charming illustration of his disinterestedness in the cause of his Master, occurs in the chapter which contains our text. He maintains, both from scripture and from general equity, the right which a minister of the gospel has to be supported by those among whom he labors; and then shows how he had waived that right in favor of the Corinthians, that the purpose of his ministry might be more effectually gained.—“If others be partakers of this power over you,” says he, that is, “if it is the privilege of ministers in general to receive their support from those for whose benefit they labor, are not we rather entitled to this privilege—we who have been instrumental not only of instructing and comforting you, but of leading you to the profession of Christianity? Nevertheless we have not used this power, but suffer all things, lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ: we cheerfully submit to many inconveniences and deprivations, that our success in winning souls to Christ through the gospel, may not be in any degree hindered by the cavils of those who are always on the alert to misrepresent and censure us.”
The text takes for granted that there may exist certain hindrances to the influence of the gospel. As every genuine revival of religion is effected through the instrumentality of the gospel, it will be no misapplication of the passage to consider it as suggesting some of the OBSTACLES which often exist in the way of a revival; and in this manner I purpose to consider it at the present time.
What then are some of the most common hindrances to a scriptural revival of religion?
I. Ignorance or misapprehension of the nature of true revivals.
It is not to be concealed or denied that much has passed at various periods under the name of revivals, which a sound and intelligent piety could not fail to reprobate. There have been scenes in which the decorum due to christian worship has been entirely forgotten; in which the fervor of passion has been mistaken for the fervor of piety; in which the awful name of God has been invoked not only with irreverence but with disgusting familiarity; in which scores and even hundreds have mingled together in a revel of fanaticism. Now unhappily there are those, and I doubt not good men too, who have formed their opinion of revivals from these most unfavorable specimens. These perhaps, and no others, may have fallen under their observation; and hence they conclude that whatever is reported to them under the name of a revival, partakes of the same general character with what they have witnessed; and hence too they look with suspicion on any rising religious excitement, lest it should run beyond bounds, and terminate in a scene of religious phrenzy.
There are others, (I here speak particularly of ministers of the gospel—for their influence is of course most extensively felt on this subject) who are led to look with distrust on revivals, merely from constitutional temperament, or from habits of education, or from the peculiar character of their own religious experience; and while they are hearty well wishers to the cause of Christ, they are perhaps too sensitive to the least appearance of animal feeling. Besides, they not improbably have never witnessed a revival, and as the case may be, have been placed in circumstances least favorable to understanding its nature or appreciating its importance. What is true of one individual in this case, may be true of many; and if the person concerned be a minister of the gospel, or even a very efficient and influential layman, he may contribute in no small degree to form the opinion that prevails on this subject through a congregation, or even a more extensive community.
Now you will readily perceive that such a state of things as I have here supposed, must constitute a serious obstacle to the introduction of a revival. There are cases indeed in which God is pleased to glorify his sovereignty, by marvellously pouring down his Spirit for the awakening and conversion of sinners, where there is no special effort on the part of his people to obtain such a blessing; but it is the common order of his providence to lead them earnestly to desire, and diligently to seek, the blessing, before he bestows it. But if, instead of seeking these special effusions of divine grace, they have an unreasonable dread of the excitement by which such a scene may be attended; if the apprehension that God may be dishonored by irreverence and confusion, should lead them unintentionally to check the genuine aspirations of pious zeal, or even the workings of religious anxiety, there is certainly little reason to expect in such circumstances a revival of religion. I doubt not that a case precisely such as I have supposed has sometimes existed; and that an honest, but inexcusably ignorant conscience on the part of a minister or of a church, has prevailed to prevent a gracious visit from the Spirit of God.
II. Another obstacle to a revival of religion is found in a spirit of worldliness among professed christians. The evil to which I here refer assumes a great variety of forms, according to the ruling passion of each individual, and the circumstances in which he may be placed. There are some of the professed disciples of Christ, who seem to think of little else than the acquisition of wealth; who are not only actively engaged, as they have a right to be, to increase their worldly possessions, but who seem to allow all their affections to be engrossed by the pursuit; who are willing to rise up early, and sit up late, and eat the bread of carefulness, to become rich; and whose wealth, after it is acquired, serves only to gratify a spirit of avarice, or possibly a passion for splendor, but never ministers to the cause of charity. There is another class of professors whose hearts are set upon worldly promotion; who seem to act as if the ultimate object were to reach some high post of honor; who often yield to a spirit of unhallowed rivalry, and sometimes employ means to accomplish their purposes which christian integrity scarcely knows how to sanction. And there is another class still, not less numerous than either of the preceding, who must be set down in a modified sense at least, as the lovers of pleasure: far enough are they from encouraging or tolerating any thing gross or offensive to a cultivated worldly taste; but they mingle unhesitatingly in scenes of amusement, from which they know before hand that every thing connected with religion must be excluded; and they talk afterwards with enthusiasm of the enjoyment they have experienced in such scenes; and if the consistency of their mingling in them with christian obligations happens to be called in question, not improbably they will defend themselves with spirit against what they are pleased to call a whimsical or superstitious prejudice. There are professors of religion among those who take the lead in fashionable life: they seem to breathe freely only when they are in circles of gaiety; and if they were taken out of the ranks of pleasure, the language of their hearts, if not of their lips, would doubtless be, “ye have taken away my gods, and what have I more?“ I am willing to hope that the number to whom this can apply, in all its extent, is, at this day, comparatively small—certainly it is becoming smaller; but there are many who are ready to make a partial compromise with conscience on this subject; and who, in keeping aloof from the extreme of too great strictness, slide too near, to say the least, to the confines of the opposite error. All these different classes, if their conduct is a fair basis for an opinion, have the world, in some form or other, uppermost. They are quite absorbed with the things which are seen and are temporal. Their conversation is not in heaven. It breathes not the spirit of heaven. It does not relate to the enjoyments of heaven, or the means of reaching those enjoyments. The world take knowledge of them, not that they have been with Jesus, but that like themselves, they love to grovel amidst the things below.
That the evil which I have here described existing in a church, must be a formidable obstacle to a revival of religion, none of us probably will doubt. Let us see for a moment, how it is so.
The individuals concerned constitute the church, or a portion of the church—the very body in which, according to the common course of God’s providence, we are to expect a revival to begin.— But the prevalence of this worldly spirit of which I have spoken, is the very opposite of the spirit of a revival; and can have no more communion with it than light with darkness. So long as it exists then, it must keep out that general spirituality and active devotedness to the cause of Christ in which a revival, as it respects Christians, especially consists; and of course must prevent all that good influence, which a revival in the church would be fitted to exert upon the world.
But suppose there be in the church those who are actually revived, and who have a right estimate of their obligations to labor and pray for the special effusion of divine influences, how manifest is it that this spirit of worldliness must, to a great extent, paralyze their efforts? How painfully discouraging to them must it be, to behold those who have pledged themselves to co-operate with them in the great cause, turning away to the world, and virtually giving their sanction to courses of conduct directly adapted to thwart their benevolent efforts! And how naturally will careless sinners, when they are pressed by the tender and earnest expostulations of the faithful to flee from the wrath to come, shelter themselves in the reflection that there is another class of professors who estimate this matter differently, and whose whole conduct proclaims that they consider all this talk about religion as unnecessary—not to say fanatical. I know that a few Christians, have, in some instances, been enabled by God’s special blessing, to stem such a current as this; and have been permitted to witness the most glorious results from their persevering labors; but I know too that nothing is more disheartening to a few devoted disciples of Christ—nothing more directly fitted to render their exertions of no effect, than for the mass of professors around them to be buried up in the world; to be found with them at the communion table commemorating the death of Christ, but never to go with them in any effort for the advancement of his cause.
But while this spirit of worldliness mocks in a great degree the efforts of the faithful, it exerts a direct and most powerful influence upon those who are glad to find apologies to quiet themselves in sin. I know that it is a miserable fallacy that the inconsistent lives of professed christians constitute any just ground of reproach against the gospel; nevertheless, it is a fact of which no one can be ignorant, that there are multitudes who look at the gospel only as it is reflected in the character of its professors; and especially in their imperfections and backslidings. These are all strangely looked at, as if religion were responsible for them; and whether it be a particular act of gross transgression, or a general course of devotedness to the world, it will be almost sure to be turned to account in support of the comfortable doctrine that religion does not make men the better, and therefore it is safe to let it alone altogether: or else it is inferred that, if religion be any thing, it may be safely delayed; for it is so small a matter that it may be taken up at any time: or possibly the individual referring his own character to the low standard which he may observe among professors, may charitably conclude that he is already a Christian; and thus by playing off upon himself the arts of self-deception, may lull himself into a lethargy, out of which he will never awake, until he is roused by the light of eternity both to conviction and despair. None surely will question that whatever exerts such an influence as this on the careless and ungodly, must constitute a powerful barrier to a revival of religion.
But this worldly spirit is to be looked at moreover in the relation which it bears to the Spirit of God; for God’s Spirit, let it always be remembered, is the grand agent in every revival. What then do professing Christians virtually say to the Holy Spirit, when they lose sight of their obligations, and open their hearts and their arms to the objects and interests of the world? Do they thereby invite him to come, and be with them, and dwell with them, and to diffuse his convincing and converting influences all around? Or do they not rather proclaim their indifference, to say the least, to his gracious operations; and sometimes even virtually beseech him to depart out of their coasts? But it is the manner of our God to bestow his Spirit in unison with the desires and in answer to the prayers of his people—can we suppose then, that where the spirit of the world has taken the place of the spirit of prayer, and the enjoyments of the world are more thought of than the operations of the Holy Ghost—can we suppose, I say, that He who is jealous of his honor, will send down those gracious influences which are essential to a revival of religion?
Whether, therefore, we consider a worldly spirit among professed Christians, in its relation to themselves, to their fellow professors who are faithful, to the careless world, or to the Spirit of God, we cannot fail to perceive that it must stand greatly in the way of the blessing we are contemplating.
III. The want of a proper sense of personal responsibility among professed Christians, constitutes another obstacle to a revival of religion. You all know how essential it is to the success of any worldly enterprize, that those who engage in it should feel personally responsible in respect to its results. Bring together a body of men for the accomplishment of any object, no matter how important, and there is always danger that personal obligation will be lost sight of; that each individual will find it far easier to do nothing, or even to do wrong, than if, instead of dividing the responsibility with many, he was obliged literally to bear his own burden. And just in proportion as this spirit pervades any public body, it may reasonably be expected either that they will accomplish nothing, or nothing to any good purpose.
Now let this same spirit pervade a church, or any community of professed Christians, and you can look for nothing better than a similar result. True it is, as we have already had occasion to remark, that, in a revival of religion, there is much of divine agency and of divine sovereignty too; but there is human instrumentality also; and much of what God does is done through his people; and if they remain with their arms folded, it were unreasonable to expect that God’s work should be revived. Let each professor regard his own personal responsibility as merged in the general responsibility of the church, and the certain consequence will be that the church as a body will accomplish nothing. Each member may be ready to deplore the prevalence of irreligion and spiritual lethargy, and to acknowledge that something ought to be done in the way of reform; but if, at the same time, he cast his eye around upon his fellow professors, and reflect that there are many to share with him the responsibility of inaction, and that, as his individual exertions could effect but little, so his individual neglect would incur but a small proportion of the whole blame—if he reason in this way, I say, to what purpose will be all his acknowledgments and all his lamentations? In order that God’s work may be revived, there must be earnest prayer; but where is the pledge for this, unless his people realize their individual obligations? There must also be diligent, and persevering, and self-denied effort; but where are the persons who are ready for this, provided each one feels that he has no personal responsibility? Who will warn the wicked of his wicked way, and exhort him to turn and live? Who will stretch out his hand to reclaim the wandering Christian, or open his lips to stir up the sluggish one? Who, in short, will do anything that God requires to be done in order to the revival of his work, if the responsibility of the whole church is not regarded as the responsibility of the several individuals who compose it? Wherever you see a church in which this mistaken view of obligation generally prevails, you may expect to see that church asleep; and sinners around asleep; and you need not look for the breaking up of that slumber, until Christians have come to be weighed down under a sense of personal obligation.
Moreover, let it be remembered that the evil of which I am speaking, is fitted to prevent the revival of God’s work, inasmuch as it has within itself all the elements of a grievous backsliding. Wherever you find professors of religion who have little or no sense of their own obligations apart from the general responsibility of the church, there you may look with confidence for that wretched inconsistency, that careless and unedifying deportment that is fitted to arm sinners with a plea against the claims of religion, which they are always sure to use to the best advantage. And on the other hand, wherever you see professing Christians realizing that arduous duties devolve upon them as individuals, and that the indifference of others can be no apology for their own, there you will see a spirit of self-denial, and humility, and active devotedness to the service of Christ, which will be a most impressive exemplification of the excellence of the gospel, and which will be fitted at once to awaken sinners to a conviction of its importance, and to attract them to a compliance with its conditions. In short, you will see precisely that kind of agency on the part of Christians which is most likely to lead to a revival, whether you consider it as hearing directly on the minds of sinners, or as securing the influence of the Spirit of God.
IV. The toleration of gross offences in the church, is another serious hindrance to a revival of religion. We cannot suppose that the Saviour expected that the visible church on earth would ever be entirely pure; or that there would not be in it those who were destitute of every scriptural qualification for its communion; or even those whose lives would be a constant contradiction of their profession, and a standing reproach upon his cause. He himself hath said that “it must needs be that offences come;” though he has added with awful emphasis, “wo unto that man by whom they come.” And the whole tenor of God’s word goes to show that it is required of the church—of the whole body, and of each particular member—that they keep themselves unspotted from the world; that they have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness; that they exhibit, in all respects, that character which becomes “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people.” And inasmuch as there was danger from the imperfection and depravity of man, that the church would embody a greater or less amount of hypocrisy and corruption, it pleased the great Master to prescribe rules for the maintenance of her purity. Hence Christians are exhorted to stir up one another by putting each other in remembrance; to reprove and admonish each other with fidelity as occasion may require; and in case of scandalous offences persisted in or not repented of, the church as a body is bound to cut off the offender from her communion. In performing this last and highest act of discipline, as well as in all the steps by which she is led to it, she acts, not according to any arbitrary rules of her own, but under the authority, and agreeably to the directions of her Head.
Now it is impossible to look at the state of many churches, without perceiving that there is a sad disregard to the directions of the Lord Jesus Christ, in respect to offending members. It sometimes happens that professors of religion are detected in grossly fraudulent transactions; that they grind the face of the widow and orphan; that they take upon their lips the language of cursing, and even profanely use the awful name of God; not to speak of what has been more common in other days—their reeling under the influence of the intoxicating draught—I say it sometimes happens that Christian professors exemplify some or other of these vices, and still retain a regular standing in the church, and perhaps never even hear the voice of reproof; especially if the individuals concerned happen to possess great worldly influence, and the church, as it respects temporal interests, is in some measure dependent upon them. But rely on it, Brethren, this is an evil which is fitted to reach vitally the spiritual interests of the church; and wherever it exists, it will in all probability constitute an effectual obstacle to a revival of religion.
For its influence will be felt, in the first place, by the church itself. The fact that it can tolerate gross offences in its members, proves that its character for spirituality is already low; but the act of tolerating them must necessarily serve to depress it still more. It results from our very constitution and from the laws of habit, that to be conversant with open vice, especially where there is any temptation to apologize for it, is fitted to lessen our estimate of its odiousness, and to impair our sense of moral and Christian obligation. If a church tolerates in its members scandalous sins, it must know as a body that it is in the wrong; nevertheless each individual will reconcile it to his own conscience as well as he can; and one way will be by endeavoring to find out extenuating circumstances, and possibly to lower a little the standard of Christian character. Thus it will almost of course come to pass, that that deep and awful sense of the evil of sin which the Christian ought always to cultivate, and which is essential to a high degree of spirituality, will no longer be found; and in place of it there will be, if not an exhibition of open vice, yet a disposition to regard iniquity in the heart, and a readiness to partake of other men’s sins.
Besides, the neglect of one duty always renders the neglect of others more easy; not merely from the fact that there is an intimate connection between many of the duties which devolve upon Christians, but because every known deviation from the path of rectitude has a tendency to lower the tone of religious sensibility, and to give strength to the general propensity to evil. Let the members of a church do wrong in the particular of which I am speaking, and it will make it more easy for them to do wrong in other particulars. A disregard to their covenant obligations in this respect, will render them less sensible of the solemnity and weight of their obligations generally: in short it will lead by almost certain consequence to that state of things, which is characterized by spiritual insensibility and death, and which is the exact opposite of all that belongs to a revival of religion.
But the evil to which I refer is not less to be deprecated in its direct influence upon the world, than upon the church. For here is presented a professing Christian, not only practising vices, which, it may be, would scarcely be tolerated in those who were professedly mere worldly men, but practising these vices, for aught that appears, under the sanction of the church. Wherever this flagrant inconsistency is exhibited, the scoffer looks on and laughs us to scorn. The decent man of the world concludes, that if the church can tolerate such gross evils, whatever other light she may diffuse around her, it cannot be the light of evangelical purity. And even those who feel the weight of Christian obligation, and who desire to join in the commemoration of the Redeemer’s death, will sometimes hesitate whether they can become members of a community in which the solemn vows of God are so much disregarded. Need I say that there is every thing here to lead sinners to sleep on in carnal security to their dying day?
But observe still farther, that this neglect to purify the church of scandalous offences, is an act of gross disobedience to her Head; to him who has purchased for her all good gifts; and whose prerogative it is to dispense the influences of the Spirit. Suppose ye then that he will sanction a virtual contempt of his authority by pouring down the blessings of his grace? Suppose ye that, if a church set at naught the rules which he has prescribed, and not only suffer sin, but the grossest sin, in her members, to go unreproved, he will crown all this dishonor done to his word, all this inconsistency and flagrant covenant-breaking, with a revival of religion? No, Brethren, this is not the manner of Him who rules King in Zion. He never loses sight of the infallible directory, which he has given to his church; and if any portion of his church lose sight of it, it is at the peril of his displeasure. Disobedience to his commandments may be expected always to incur his frown; and that frown will be manifested at least by withholding the influences of his grace.
V. Another powerful hindrance to a revival of religion, is found in the absence of a spirit of brotherly love among the professed followers of Christ.
Christianity never shines forth with more attractive loveliness, or addresses itself to the heart with more subduing energy, than when it is seen binding the disciples of Jesus together in the endearing bonds of a sanctified friendship. Let it be said of Christians as it was in other days, “Behold how they love one another;” let them evince a strong regard to each other’s interests, and a tender sympathy in each other’s wo, and a ready condescension to each other’s infirmities, and a willingness to bear each other’s burdens; and, rely on it, this kindly spirit will diffuse a grateful influence all around; and even the enemies of religion will not be able to withhold from it at least the homage of their respect and approbation; and there is good reason to hope that it may be instrumental of subduing many to the obedience of the truth. But on the other hand, let the professed followers of the Saviour manifest towards each other a jealous or contentious spirit; let them appear more intent on the advancement of their own personal, or selfish, or party ends, than upon the promotion of each other’s edification and benefit; and those who see them, instead of taking knowledge of them that they have been with Jesus, will take knowledge of them that they have imbibed the very spirit of the world.
The influence of such an example upon the careless, must be to lower their estimate of the importance of religion, and furnish them an excuse for neglecting to seek an interest in it. Oh how often has it been said by infidels and the enemies of godliness, to the reproach of the cause of Christ, that when Christians would leave off contending with each other, it would be time enough for them to think of embracing their religion!
But the want of brotherly love operates to prevent a revival of religion, still farther, as it prevents that union of Christian energy, in connection with which God ordinarily dispenses his gracious influences. It prevents a union of counsel. As the Saviour has committed his cause in a sense into the hands of his people, so he has left much as respects the advancement of it, to their discretion. And they are bound to consult together with reference to this end; and to bring their concentrated wisdom to its promotion. But if there be a spirit of alienation and discord among them, either they will never come together at all, or else their counsels will be divided, and they will do little else than defeat each-other’s purposes. The same spirit will prevent a union in prayer. This is the grand means by which men prevail with God; and the prospect of their success is always much in proportion to the strength of their mutual Christian affection;—for this is a Christian grace; and if it is in lively exercise, other Christian graces which are more immediately brought into exercise in prayer, such as faith repentance and humility, will not be asleep: and as concentrated effort is the most powerful in all other cases, so it is in this—let the united prayers of many hearts go up to heaven for the revival of God’s work, and they may be expected to exert an influence which will tell gloriously on the destinies perhaps of many sinners. But on the other hand, if there be not this feeling of brotherly kindness among professed Christians, even if they come together to pray for the out-pouring of the Spirit, their prayers will at best be feeble and inefficient, and their thoughts will not improbably be wandering, and unchristian feelings towards each other kindling, at the very time they are professedly interceding for the salvation of sinners. And the same spirit is equally inconsistent with a union of Christian effort; for if they cannot take counsel together, if they cannot pray together, they surely cannot act together. Who does not perceive that a spirit of mutual unkindness among the professed followers of Christ, thus carried out into action, must, if any thing, oppose a powerful obstacle to the revival of God’s work?
But suppose some whom you should regard as Christians should adopt measures in relation to revivals, unauthorized by God’s word, and to say the least, of very doubtful tendency, and you should decline to co-operate in such measures, and your conduct in this respect should be considered as evincing the want of brotherly love—where, in this case, would the blame really rest? Most unquestionably not on you, but on those who accused you. There is nothing in the obligation of good will which Christians owe to each other, to set aside the paramount obligation which they owe to their Master, to take his word as the rule of their practice. Whatever you conscientiously believe to be unscriptural, you are bound to decline at any hazard; and if you do it kindly, (no matter how firmly) and the charge of being wanting in brotherly love is preferred against you, you have a right to repel it as an unchristian accusation. If, in such a case, evil result from the want of concentrated action, and the measures adopted are really unscriptural, the responsibility rests upon those who, by the adoption of such measures, (however honestly they may do it) compel you to stand aloof from them. You may indeed, in other ways, give evidence of not possessing the right spirit towards them; and it becomes you to take heed that you do not give such evidence; but the mere fact of refusing your co-operation certainly does not constitute it. And it would be well if they should inquire whether they are not at as great a distance from you as you are from them; and whether their departure from you does not indicate as great a want of brotherly love as is indicated by the fact of your refusing to follow them?
But it may be asked whether a spirit of brotherly love may not exist between Christians whose views on points not fundamental may differ? I answer, yes undoubtedly; it may and ought to exist among all who trust in a common Saviour. We may exercise this spirit even towards those whom we regard as holding errors, either of faith or practice, provided we can discover in them the faintest outline of the image of Christ. They may adopt opinions in which we cannot harmonize, and measures in which we cannot co-operate, and the consequence of this may be a loss of good influence to the cause of Christ, and perhaps positive evil resulting from disunion in effort; nevertheless we may still recognize them as Christians, and love them as Christians, and cordially co-operate with them, wherever our views and theirs may be in harmony. The right spirit among Christians would lead them to make as little of their points of difference, and as much of their common ground, as they can; and where they must separate, to do it with kindness and good will, not with bitterness and railing.
I must not dismiss this article without saying that the Spirit of God who is active in awakening and renewing sinners, is the Spirit of peace; he dwells not in scenes of contention; and we cannot reasonably expect his presence or agency, where Christians, instead of being fellow workers together unto the kingdom of God, are alienated from each other, and sell themselves to the service of a party. In accordance with this sentiment, it has often been found in actual experience that the Spirit of God has fled before the spirit of strife; and a revival of religion which promised a glorious result, has been suddenly arrested by some unimportant circumstance, which the imperfections of good men have magnified, till they have made it an occasion of controversy. While they are yet scarcely aware of it, their thoughts which had been engrossed by the salvation of their fellow men and the interests of Christ’s kingdom, are intensely fastened upon another object; and they wake up, when it is too late, to the appalling fact, that the work of grace among them has declined, and that sinners around are sinking back into the deep slumber of spiritual death.
VI. The last hindrance to a revival which. I shall notice, is an erroneous or defective exhibition of Christian truth.
As it is through the instrumentality of the truth that God performs his work upon the hearts of men, it is fair to conclude that just in proportion as any part of it is kept back, or is dispensed in a different manner from that which he has prescribed, it will fail of its legitimate effect. It is not at the option of God’s ministers to select one truth from the Bible and omit another; but they are required to preach the whole counsel of God; and where they neglect to do this, it were unreasonable to expect a blessing. In the exercise of their own judgment on this subject, they may come to the conclusion that particular parts of divine truth are of little importance; and that even some of the peculiar doctrines of the gospel may well enough be lightly passed over; but this is an insult to the author of the Bible which they have good reason to expect he will punish by sending them a barren ministry.
There is a way of preaching certain doctrines out of their proper connection, which is exceedingly unfriendly to revivals of religion. Suppose, for instance, the doctrine of God’s sovereignty be exhibited in such a partial or insulated manner as to leave the sinner to infer that it is but another name for tyranny;—or suppose the doctrine of a divine influence be preached in such a way as to authorize the inference that man has nothing to do in respect to his salvation, but wait to be operated upon like a mere machine; or suppose the doctrine of man’s apostacy be so exhibited as to lead sinners to deny their responsibility for their transgressions, and to take refuge from the accusations of conscience in the relation which they bear to the father of our race;—in either of these cases, there is little probability that they will be converted or even awakened. It is natural for them to find excuses for remaining in a state of sinful security as long as they can; and so long as they are furnished with such excuses as these, and by the ministers of the gospel, there is not the least ground for expecting that their consciences will be disturbed. The evil to which I refer, has, I have no doubt, often existed in all its extent, where the minister has actually believed all the truths of God’s word; and yet he has exhibited some in such a manner as to neutralize the power of others, and even to prevent the legitimate effect of those he has attempted to enforce.
There is also an unnatural mixing up of human wisdom with God’s word, which, so far as it has any effect, must be unfriendly to the influence of divine truth. Let the naked sword of the Spirit be brought home to the consciences of men, and the effect of it must and will be felt, and the anxious inquiry will be heard, and sinners, in all probability, will be renewed. But let the wire-drawn theories of metaphysicians be substituted in place of the simple truth; or even let the genuine doctrines of the gospel be customarily exhibited in connection with the refined speculations of human philosophy; and though I dare not say that God in his sovereignty may not bless the truth which is actually preached, yet I may say with confidence that but little effect can be reasonably expected from such a dispensation of the word. And the reasons are obvious; for God has promised to bless nothing but his own truth; and the refinements of philosophy are to the mass of hearers quite unintelligible.
I may add that a want of directness in the manner of preaching the gospel, may prevent it from taking effect on the consciences and hearts of men. It is only when men are made to feel that the gospel comes home to their individual case, that they are themselves the sinners whom it describes, and that they need the blessings which it offers,—it is only then, I say, that they hear it to any important purpose. Suppose that its doctrines, instead of being exhibited in their practical bearings, and enforced by strong appeals to the conscience, are discussed merely as abstract propositions, and with no direct application, the consequence will be that, though the great truths of the Bible may be presented before the mind, yet they will rarely, if ever, sink into the heart. Sinners will hear them, and instead of realizing that they involve their immortal interests, will probably be as indifferent, as if they were matters of idle speculation. So it has been in a multitude of instances; and so, from the very nature of man, it must continue to be.
I might mention also, as another important hindrance to a revival, the want of a simple dependence on God; but as this will come up in another form in a subsequent discourse, I shall waive, for the present, a distinct consideration of it.
In closing this view which we have taken of the obstacles to a revival of religion, I know not, my Christian Brethren, how we can use the subject in a single word, to better purpose, than to gather from it a deeper impression of our own responsibility.— Christians, ye who profess to desire a revival of religion, and to make this a commanding subject of your prayers, let me ask whether, in view of what you have now heard, you have no reason to fear that you may yourselves be standing in the way of the bestowment of the very blessing for which you profess to plead. The great obstacles to the revival of God’s work are no doubt to be sought in the church: what these obstacles are, at least some of the more prominent of them, you have now heard; and I appeal to each of your consciences, as in the presence of the Searcher of the heart, whether the guilt of hindering God’s work, in some or other of these ways, does not lie at your door? Wherefore is it that the Holy Spirit is not now as manifestly in the midst of us, by his awakening and converting influences, as he has been in other days? Is it not because you have relapsed in some measure into a habit of worldliness; or because you value the blessing less; or because you are less united and vigorous in your efforts to obtain it? Or is it for any other of the reasons which have now been spread before you? Christians, awake, one and all, to a deeper sense of your responsibility. Let it not be told in heaven that God’s people on earth are opposing obstacles to the salvation of perishing men. In doing this, ye parents, ye may be keeping your own children out of heaven. In doing this, ye who have unconverted friends sustaining to you the tenderest earthly relations, you may be assisting to fix their doom in wo forever. In doing this, ye Christians of every class and of every condition, you are opposing the interests of God’s holy kingdom, opposing the design of the Saviour’s death, opposing the salvation of immortal souls. But you cannot do this, and think what you are doing. It must be that you are acting incautiously. Awake then to solemn reflection. Awake to earnest prayer. Awake to faithful and persevering action.— Else there may be sinners who will greet you at the last day, as the stumbling blocks over which they fell into eternal perdition.
Lecture I. Nature Of A Revival
Lecture II. Defence of Revivals
Lecture III. Obstacles To Revivals
Lecture IV. Divine Agency In Revivals
Lecture V. General Means Of Producing And Promoting Revivals
Lecture VI. Treatment Due To Awakened Sinners
Lecture VII. Treatment Due To Young Converts
Lecture VIII. Evils To Be Avoided In Connection With Revivals
Lecture IX. Results Of Revivals
Letter I. FROM THE REVEREND ARCHIBALD ALEXANDER, D. D. Professor of Theology in the Theological Seminary, Princeton, New-Jersey
Letter II. FROM THE REVEREND FRANCIS WAYLAND, D. D. President of Brown University, Providence, Rhode-Island
Letter III. FROM THE REVEREND DANIEL DANA, D. D. Newburyport, Massachusetts
Letter IV FROM THE REVEREND SAMUEL MILLER, D. D. Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Church Government in the Theological Seminary at Princeton, New Jersey
Letter V FROM THE REVEREND ALVAN HYDE, D. D. Pastor of a Congregational church in Lee, Massachusetts
Letter VI FROM THE REVEREND JOEL HAWES, D. D. Pastor of the First Congregational church in Hartford, Connecticut
Letter VII FROM THE REVEREND JOHN M'DOWELL, D. D. Pastor of the first Presbyterian Church, Elizabethtown, New-Jersey
Letter VIII FROM THE REVEREND NOAH PORTER, D. D. Pastor of a Congregational church in Farmington, Connecticut
Letter IX FROM THE LATE REVEREND EDWARD PAYSON, D. D. Pastor of a Congregational church in Portland, Maine.
Letter X FROM THE REVEREND ALEXANDER PROUDFIT, D. D. Pastor of an Associate Reformed church in Salem, New York
Letter XI FROM THE REVEREND CHARLES P. McILVAINE, Rector of St. Anne's Church, Brooklyn, New York.
Letter XII FROM THE REVEREND WILLIAM NEILL, D. D. Late President of Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania
Letter XIII FROM THE REVEREND PHILIP MILLEDOLER, D. D. President of Rutgers' college, New-Brunswick, New-Jersey
Letter XIV FROM THE REVEREND HENRY DAVIS, D. D. President of Hamilton college, Clinton, New -York
Letter XV FROM THE REVEREND NATHAN LORD, D. D. President of Dartmouth college, Hanover, New-Hampshire
Letter XVI FROM THE REVEREND HEMAN HUMPHREY, D. D. President of the College at Amherst, Massachusetts
Letter XVII FROM THE REVEREND JEREMIAH DAY, D. D. President of Yale college, New-Haven, Connecticut
Letter XVIII FROM THE REVEREND ASHBEL GREEN, D. D. Late President of the College of New-Jersey, Princeton
Letter XIX FROM THE REVEREND MOSES WADDEL Late President of Franklin College, Athens, Georgia
Letter XX FROM THE REVEREND EDWARD D. GRIFFIN, D. D. President of Williams College, Williamatown, Massachusetts