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Handbook of Revivals: Chapter 1 - What Is A Revival?

By Henry C. Fish





      Henry C. Fish

      MUCH of existing indifference and opposition to revivals comes from a confusion of terms. There attaches to the word revival what does not belong to it. Exception is not so much taken to that which is inherent and essential, as to that which is accidental and contingent.

      This shows the importance of having a clear conception of the thing meant. We must carefully separate the revival from its adjuncts and accessories. We must distinguish it from false and dangerous excitements, which have usurped its name; for, common and almost technical as the word revival has become it is often understood by those who oppose all earnestness in religion, and all true religion itself, to denote every species of religious extravagance. Even the wildest out breaking of fanaticism and superstition are dignified by the name of revivals.

      And yet the term is properly used with some latitude of meaning. Words often become broadened in their signification. It is so with the word revive. Strictly speaking, it means to bring again to life, to re-animate. While, then, we may speak of Christians as being revived, it could not be said of the unregenerate. As they are "dead in trespasses and sins," there could be no reviving. That which has never lived could not be re-animated.

      In popular use, however, the word revival embraces the idea of the conversion of sinners as well as the awakening of saints. Perhaps no better word could be employed. Certainly it is not improperly used; for it is applicable alike to the quickening of the individual soul, and the community. Indeed, when Christians are revived, there will always be the conversion of men.

      Hence the word has a two-fold meaning: implying the renewal of spirituality and vigour among Christians, and the conversion of sinners in considerable numbers to God. The terms "reformation," "awakening," etc., mean the same thing.

      Dr. Hetherington, of Scotland, gives the following very just criticism upon the term revival. "The word itself (in some of its forms) is often used in Scripture; and, as so used, it generally implies the reproduction of a spiritual life which had almost died away. It is not, however, strictly synonymous with the term conversion; for while revival implies the renewal of a life which had almost died away, conversion strictly means the conferring of a spiritual life not before existing. In truth, it so happens that revivals and conversions commonly accompany each other; so that, where conversions are frequent and striking, many will be re-quickened or revived."

      Revivals are then seasons when Christians are waked to a more spiritual frame, to more fervent prayer, and to more earnest endeavours to promote the cause of Christ and redemption; and consequent upon this, seasons when the impenitent are aroused to the concerns of the soul and the work of personal religion. They are times when the Spirit of the Lord again moves on the face of the waters, and the freshness and beauty of the new creature come forth. Nature itself seems more full of God; the very words of Scripture seem thereby invested with a new light and glory and fullness and meaning. As Edwards says: "All things abroad, the sun, moon, and stars, the heavens and the earth, appear as it were with a cast of divine glory and sweetness upon them."

      The most prominent idea generally associated with the word revival is the regeneration of many souls. Multiplied conversions is the great outstanding characteristic of a time of revival. Multitudes lying dead in the valley of vision find that it becomes to them the valley of decision. Mr. Barnes says, take the case of a single true conversion to God, and extend it to a community--to many individuals passing through that change, and you have all the theory of a revival of religion. It is bringing together many conversions; arresting simultaneously many minds; perhaps condensing into a single place, and into a few weeks, the ordinary work of many places and many years.

      It hardly need be added, that this true view of revivals is to be disassociated from the idea of means and measures. These have nothing whatever to do with the pure signification of the term and confusion here should be avoided.

      Revivals may be either false or genuine. Under the former are to be classed mere religious excitements, extemporised by human agency, and subsiding without permanent results. There may be a whirlwind of agitation and no real revival.

      And these spurious movements have done much to harm the cause of true revivals. Artifices to catch attention; devices to entrap the careless; representations to create impressions; an exaggerated style of preaching to produce alarm and shake suspicious hopes, and to raise a furore, no matter of what kind, these have in some cases been put into requisition, over which truth, and reverence, and humility must weep, and which have done more to injure revivals than all opposition and unbelief on the part of those making no professions of piety.

      Genuine revivals are the fruit of the Holy Spirit. "Until the Spirit be poured out from on high," saints are neither quickened nor sinners saved. The effective cause in all true revivals is the life-giving, light-imparting, quickening, regenerating and sanctifying energy of the Holy Spirit, converting the hardened sinner and reclaiming the back-slidden and dormant believer. The quaint old Thomas Adams says: No means on earth can soften the lie art; whether you anoint it with the supple balms of entreaties, or thunder against it the belts of menaces, or beat it with the hammer of mortal blows. Behold God showers his rain from heaven, and it is suddenly softened. One sermon may prick to the heart. One drop of a Saviour's blood distilled on it by the Spirit, in the preaching of the word, melts it like wax. The drunkard is made sober, the adulterer chaste, Zaccheus merciful, and raging Paul as tame as a lamb."

      Again, diversities of aspect attach to revivals. The principle should not be forgotten, says Dr. J. W. Alexander, that, while the great laws of the divine government and the dispensation of grace remain the same, the Supreme Giver varies his modes of bounty with reference to differences of country and period. Apostolic awakenings were in some things unlike those of the Reformation day. The quiet, spring-like renewal of vital godliness, under Spener, Francke, and the Pietists, bore little external resemblance to the prodigious revolution under the Wesleys, Whitefield, Edwards, the Tennents and the Blairs. The very remarkable awakenings in which Dr. Nettleton and his friends were instrumental differ again from the times of refreshing in which we live.

      Revivals are unlike in their beginnings. Some particular sermon, some sickness or death in the community.

      Some appalling providence, some awakening near by, the visit of some pastor or evangelist, and the like may be the apparent cause of a revival. Or it may come mysteriously. A deep and wide spread solemnity may suddenly seize a congregation or community, and the manifestation of an increased interest may spring up, as without cause, in the Sunday school, the prayer meeting, the factory, or the school district.

      So do revivals differ in their phenomena. The subjects of them are variously wrought upon. In some cases they readily and gently yield to the sweet pleadings of love; in others there are resistance and marked outward manifestations.

      In some cases, too, the work may progress quietly in others it comes with observation. Dr. Griffin says of a work in his day in Newark, N. Jersey. In point of power and stillness, it exceeds all that I have ever seen. While it bears down everything with irresistible force and seems almost to dispense with human instrumentality, it moves with so much silence, that unless we attentively observe its effects, we are tempted at times to doubt whether anything uncommon is taking place. But revivals ' were progressing at that very time, in different localities, with marked peculiarities of just the contrary character. It was no uncommon thing in the days of the Tennents, says Tracy, "to see persons, in the time of hearing, sobbing as if their hearts would break, but without any public outcry and some have been carried out of the assembly, (being overcome,) as if they had been dead." Gillies, mentions faintings, so that a number were carried out in a state of insensibility.

      Under the preaching of Rowland, in a Baptist church, probably at Philadelphia; but he gives no date. Gilbert Tennent was present; and at his suggestion, Rowland changed the style of his discourse, and the faintings ceased. In Finley's Nottingham sermon, "Christ triumphing and Satan raging,"--"wherein is proved that the kingdom of God is come unto us at this day," which was printed at Philadelphia, Boston, and London, in 1741, we are told that opposers of the revival, "without observing the deep concern that souls seem to be under, only ask about the fits and convulsions that their sorrow throws them into."

      The nervous excitements connected with the revivals under the Wesleys and Tennents, and Whitfield, and Edwards, and those of later days, are well known. Persons often involuntarily fell down, fainted, and went into convulsions.

      Among the most remarkable of these cases of physical manifestations were those in the "Kentucky revival," which commenced in 1800. Accounts were given by learned men, physicians, divines, and others, who were eye-witnesses and careful observers; but the most graphic and instructive seems to be that of the shrewd, though eccentric, Lorenzo Dow. He preached in the Court-house at Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1805, when about one hundred and fifty of his hearers were exercised with "the jerks;" that is, with violent spasmodic contractions of the muscles, which sometimes turned the head quickly from right to left and back again and sometimes threw person on the ground, where he rolled about strangely. He says, "I have seen all denominations of religion with the jerks, gentleman and lady, black and white, young and old, without exception. I have passed a meeting-house where I observed the undergrowth had been cut for a camp-meeting, and from fifty to a hundred saplings were left, breast high, on purpose for the people who were jerked to hold on by. I observed, where they had held on, they had kicked up the earth as a horse stamping flies. A Presbyterian minister told me that while preaching the day before some had the jerks. I believe it does not affect those naturalists, who wish and try to get it to philosophize upon it; and rarely those who are the most pious; but the lukewarm, lazy professor is subject to it. The wicked fear it, and are subject to it; but the persecutors are more subject to it than any, and they have sometimes cursed and swore and damned it, while jerking."

      Dr. Robertson, an eye-witness, says, in his Inaugural Essay before the Medical Faculty at Philadelphia:

      "It attacks both sexes, and every constitution; but evidently more readily those who are enthusiasts in religion." Dr. Alexander says that the phenomena "were common to all ages and sexes, and to all sorts of characters." Dow says that "persecutors" had it, without relaxing their open hatred of religion. Others testify that they have been thrown into "the jerks" by hearing a description of the jerking of others, and without any religious impression either attending or following the attack. Cartwright mentions one fatal case of the "jerks." "This large man cursed the jerks and all religion. Shortly afterward he took the jerks and started to run, but he jerked so powerfully he could not get away. He halted among some saplings, and although he was violently agitated, he took out his bottle of whiskey, and swore he would drink the jerks to death; but he jerked at such a rate that he could not get the bottle to his mouth, though he tried hard. At length he fetched a sudden jerk, and the bottle struck a sapling and was broken to pieces, and spilled his whiskey on the ground. He became very much enraged, and cursed and swore very profanely, his jerks still increasing. At length he fetched a violent jerk, snapped his neck, fell, and soon expired, with his mouth full of cursing and bitterness.

      John Wesley looked upon these physical agitations as proofs of the divine presence. Charles Wesley suspected and discouraged them. Whitfield was incredulous. Edwards puts in an apology for them. But very few ministers favoured them. Finding, by careful examination that they were often accompanied with rational conviction and sound conversion, they treated them gently, but did not ascribe them to divine influence, nor hold them to be parts of a revival. It were better, no doubt, had there been a more decided discouragement of them. Even with the aids of science in its present advanced state, it is not possible to account for these physical effects; nor is it important. Agitations, quite as marked have occurred when in no way connected with religion, and also with fanatical heresies. A writer is probably correct in defining them to be "a catalepsy, or a suspension, more or less, of the functions of the cerebrum, attended by an abnormal activity, of those of the cerebellum. (Footnote:This subject is ably illustrated in an Essay upon the Influence of the imagination on the Nervous System, contributing to a False Hope in Religion, by Rev. Grant Powers. Andover, Flagg and Gould, 1828. Also in Religious Catalepsy, by Rev. Silas Comfort, in Methodist Quarterly Review for April, 1859. Also, Gibson's Year of Grace, p. 380. The account given by the Rev. Dr. Alexander may be found in the Connecticut Evan. Mag. Vol. II. p. 364.)The 'rational powers--the will, judgment or reason--are thus temporarily put in abeyance, and the involuntary susceptibilities left subject to the prevailing impression or influence."

      As to these and other aspects attendant upon revivals, it is not for us to limit the Holy One of Israel. There are diversities of operations by the same Spirit, suited to differences of country and time. The awakenings of the past were in sonic things unlike those of the present. And it may please God to change still farther the modes of his bounty in the days to come. Nevertheless, true religion is the same in all times and places, and genuine revivals, in their essential features, are the same. To show his sovereignty and fulfil his plans, and from other causes, the Most High may in one case bestow the Spirit gently like the falling dew; and in another, amid thunderings and quakings. In one case lie may bring in hundreds and thousands, and in others only a few. In one case the revival takes in persons of all classes, and in another it reaches one or two classes, leaving the rest as it found them. In one case it pervades the whole town, while in another it is confined mainly to the centre, or the out-districts. In one case it begins among the higher classes, and another among the lower; in one with the young men, in another with the young women, and, in another with one or both sexes in middle life. But wherever and however, it is the same Holy Spirit "turning men from darkness to light and from the power of Satan unto God."

      Nor is it difficult to designate the essential features of a genuine revival of religion. For one thing we may be sure that "the truth as it is in Jesus" accompanies a real work of grace. To borrow an example, 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.

      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 there is a genuine work of the Holy Spirit.

      Again, there will not be simple excitement of feeling in a true work of grace, but knowledge and reflection, as well. Truth enters the heart through the understanding, and if the feelings manifested, whether of peace or distress, be the effect of an enlightened apprehension, and intelligent conviction, there is reason to hope that God's Spirit is really at work. But where the mind is in a great degree blind and passive while yet the sensibilities are wrought to a high pitch, there is reason to doubt the genuineness of the supposed conversions, and that which claims to be a revival is pretty surely not a genuine but a spurious one.

      Again, the genuineness of a work is to be suspected unless the holiness, zeal, and devotedness of Christians are increased. Where they awake to a sense of neglected obligations, and mourn over and confess them; where they in earnestness implore the descent of the Holy Spirit, taking heed, themselves, lest they grieve and quench that Spirit; where their conversation becomes spiritual and they put each other in remembrance of the covenant vows; where they tenderly speak to the unrenewed, beseeching them to be reconciled to God; and where, as the result, conviction seizes upon the careless, and multitudes are inquiring what they shall do to be saved, there is no room. to doubt that a true work of grace is in progress.

      In the absence of all this, no matter by what name a work is called, it is not a real revival of religion.

      Farther; where the work is genuine there will be abiding results. 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 and godless life, then we may know that a revival had in it little more than the name. On the other hand, let religion be acted out in the life; let those professing a change illustrate, daily, the Christian virtues, and graces, and one need not ask for farther evidence of the agency of the Spirit of God.

      It is not difficult to see in President Edwards' description of Northampton, at the time of the great awakening there, the marks of a genuine work of grace. "This work soon made a glorious alteration in the town; so that in the spring and summer following, it seemed to big full of the presence of God: it never was so full of love, nor so full of joy, and yet so full of distress as it was then. There were remarkable tokens of God's presence in almost every house. It was a time of joy in families on account of salvation being brought to them; parents rejoicing over their children as new born, and husbands over their wives, and wives over their husbands. The goings of God were then seen in his sanctuary. God's day was a delight, and his tabernacles were amiable. Our public assemblies were then beautiful; the congregation was alive in God's service, every one earnestly intent on the public worship, every hearer eager to drink in the words of the minister as they came from his mouth. The assembly in general were, from time to time, in tears while the word was preached; some weeping with sorrow and distress, others with joy and love, others with pity and concern for the souls of their neighbours."

Back to Henry C. Fish index.

See Also:
   Handbook of Revivals: Chapter 1 - What Is A Revival?
   Handbook of Revivals: Chapter 2 - A Nation Founded by Faith
   Handbook of Revivals: Chapter 3 - A Nation Founded by Faith
   Handbook of Revivals: Chapter 4 - A Nation Founded by Faith
   Handbook of Revivals: Chapter 5 - A Nation Founded by Faith


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