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Handbook of Revivals: Chapter 4 - A Nation Founded by Faith

By Henry C. Fish


      ARE revivals a part of God's plan? Are they ordained as one of the methods of the world's conversion? Do they enter into the economy of redemption?

      For several reasons we believe this to be the case.

      And first of all, because from the beginning God has wrought prominently through revivals. As we have seen in a previous chapter, the kingdom of Christ has thus far advanced chiefly by special seasons of gracious and rapid accomplishment of the work of conversion. And can any reason be found why God should work in that way in primeval and not in subsequent times? We question if the most ingenious opponent of these seasons, or if any Christian doubter can invent any tolerably plausible reason for this,--that God should work thus then, and not work thus now.

      Again: many scriptural utterances assume the existence of revivals, and anticipate them. We refer to such as these: "Drop down ye heavens from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness." "I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground: I will pour my Spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine offspring: and they shall spring up as among the grass, as willows by the water-courses. One shall say, I am the Lord's; and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob; and another shall subscribe with his hand unto the Lord, and surname himself by the name of Israel." This prophecy is an exquisite representation of a revival, wherein newly converted souls are openly professing loyalty to their King. And these are but a few scriptures which encourage the expectation of revivals.

      God's providences are adapted to move people in masses. Thus, often one member of a family falling in death is the means of the conversion of a household. So when pestilence spreads among a people, and thousands die; or famine is abroad on the earth, there is an appeal made to communities; and the thoughts of men, if any suitable impression were made, would be directed to God and to a better world. The times and seasons also preach to communities, as well as to men singly. There is neither a judgment of the Almighty, nor a blessing that comes from our great Father's hand, that is not fitted to impress communities with the importance of religion, and to lead alienated, social man, back to God. Thus threatening ruin roused Nineveh to repentance; and thus God visits the earth alike with judgment and mercy, to rouse the attention of whole communities, and direct their thoughts to eternity and to heaven.

      Moreover, the social character of man must be taken into account. The world is not made up of independent individuals, but is bound together in tribes, communities, families. There is a brotherhood of feeling and interest. If, then, religion is to exist in the world, we should, expect to see it, at times, exerting a more widespread and potent influence over men's minds than at other times, and large masses of society moved as by a common influence. We think it would be rational beforehand to look for just such spiritual phenomena as every revival presents. We should expect that one mind, becoming strongly interested in the subject of salvation, would be the occasion of another mind being aroused to attend to the subject; and that this would lead to the same result in the case of another; and thus that the interest on this momentous subject, which perhaps began with an individual, would be, or easily might be extended through a large community, until there should be but one paramount and absorbing object of pursuit throughout the whole body. And the denser the population in that community, and the more numerous the points of mutual contact among the members of that community, the more general and powerful (should we expect) the revival would become. It would be strange if mankind, being placed together in organized society, and possessing such sameness of susceptibilities of being acted upon one by the other, should be serious and anxious about their salvation only one at a time, and each separately.

      Again, how are God's purposes of grace to be fulfilled without this extensive moving of the masses? We do not see that the world can otherwise be converted. In the ordinary way of gaining converts to the Redeemer, without any such excitement of the public attention to the subject of religion as constitutes a revival, it would seem that the race could not be recovered from its ruined condition. The occurring of here and there a single solitary instance of conversion, will never bring about the conversion of the world. The common mass of the population, in any and every part of the world must be moved. Thus, and thus only, can we reasonably expect that the inhabitants of this globe will be brought to give up their sins and lying vanities, and turn to the living God.

      Again: by revivals the atheistic spirit is rebuked. Look at Christians. How apt are they to think that they can get along without God, even in the world's conversion. But leanness follows this self-consequence. And the churches finally come to see and feel that souls are not being saved; and they mourn over it, and in distress confess their pride and reliance on human agencies: upon which the Lord graciously appears to save. Thus are his creatures taught their dependence. When they are thrown upon the efficiency of their own efforts, they very soon find that their best strength and proudest doings avail nothing at all. In this way he glorifies his own great name. It is felt, and most heartily acknowledged, that the power is God's. Thus a discourse which a short time ago apparently accomplished no good, now goes with life and salvation to numerous hearts. Once no truth, no effort took effect. Now every word and work, in Christ's name, is charged with a benignly subduing efficacy. These very alternations produce more profoundly the conviction, and bring out more fully the declaration--it is the work of God, --and more loudly the ascription-- "to him be all the Glory."

      Then look at Christless men. The best answer to their sneer, "Where is thy' God?" is a glorious revival. The Most High takes this matter in hand. He comes in his great power. Seriousness settles on a community. Anxious inquiry and earnest prayer spread among the people with the rapidity of an electric shock. Every eye is open, every ear attentive, conscience awake, every heart alive to the engrossing interests Dissipation ceases; amusement is forgotten; the drinking saloons are less frequented; and where the wicked still congregate, perhaps to make sport of these sacred things, they yet see the handwriting on the wall, and their knees smite together like Belshazzar's; and, perhaps, next day they are found penitent and believing. The very atmosphere of the community seems charged with Divinity. Eternity is near. The world for the time is nothing. The soul is all. The invisible is seen. Spiritual things, before shadowy and distant, are real, and near, and urgent. It is as if the boundaries of earth and heaven were broken, and the veil of flesh removed,--as if earth and seas had fled, and men were already standing before the throne of God.

      These things are more potent than a thousand arguments to prove the divine existence. There is a God! There is no one but knows it, and feels it; and the whole ground of popular doubt is shaken, if not removed.

      Thus does God by revivals rebuke atheism and infidelity. Scenes like these, scenes, we believe, yet to come with great and still greater power, are to be God's main argument upon an infidel age, -- ever growing more infidel and arrogant from the delay of his power;--a mighty argument, an arresting, penetrating force, a fiery logic, writing in the inmost soul, the demonstration that a God and a gospel, and a heaven and a hell, are tremendous realities.

      Particularly, is Christ honored by revivals. Says Rev. Wm. Reid, "the quiet conversion of one sinner after another, under the ordinary ministry of the gospel, must always be regarded with feelings of satisfaction and gratitude by the ministers and disciples of Christ; but a periodical manifestation of the simultaneous conversion of thousands is also to be desired, because of its adaptation to afford a visible and impressive demonstration that God has made that same Jesus who was rejected and crucified, both Lord and Christ; and that, in virtue of his divine Mediatorship, he has assumed the royal sceptre of universal supremacy, and "must reign till all his enemies be made his footstool." It is therefore reasonable to expect that, from time to time, he will repeat that which on the day of Pentecost formed the conclusive and crowning evidence of his Messiahship and Sovereignty; and, by so doing, startle the slumbering souls of careless worldlings, gain the attentive ear of the unconverted, and, in a remarkable way, break in upon those brilliant dreams of earthly glory, grandeur, wealth, power and happiness, which the rebellious and God-forgetting multitude so fondly cherish. Such an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, forms at once a demonstrative proof of the completeness and acceptance of his once offering of himself as a sacrifice for sin, and a prophetic "earnest" of the certainty that he "shall appear the second time without sin unto salvation," to judge the world in righteousness.

      So is the Spirit honored by revivals. One way this is done is by making effective in conversion the weakest instrumentalities. Said one as to the great revival in Dundee, Scotland: "The wonderful thing is, not only that the people come--that laborers from a distance come night after night, but that the simplest statement of the truth in the simplest language seems to fall with power, and be listened to with the deepest interest." And ministers have often observed the same thing in revivals.

      During the revival in Boston in 1842, it was often remarked how independent of ordinary agencies the Holy Spirit operated. A man in middle life a Sabbath breaker and a lover of pleasure, was awakened by shooting a pigeon on the wing. "There," said he to himself, "how quick that creature went out of existence! And I may go as suddenly and unexpectedly, and where would then my spirit be?"

      One man was converted by observing that his dog after being fed seemed grateful. The thought came in his mind, "I am not so good as my dog: he is grateful to me for kindness, but God has always fed, clothed and taken care of me, and I have never been grateful at all." This discovered to him his heart, and brought him to repentance.

      Thus by the use of insignificant means does the Holy Spirit manifest his being and power.

      So does he do it by the quickness and the extent of the work. What weak men fail to do in years, the Spirit does instantly; and he does it on so grand a scale as to widely command attention. It was the greatness of the day, the prodigies of manifestation and power on the Pentecost, that brought the surrounding multitudes to a stand, rugged, resisting, defiant, as they were; and the Holy Ghost, through the truth, brought them down. The same holds all along in the history of the church. Some of the greatest prodigies of conviction and subjugation, the greater part of them,--the all but miraculous making over of opposers and haters, have occurred in connection with special revival seasons.

      These are some of the reasons why we may believe that revivals are a part of the divine economy. Dr. Busnell (Footnote: The Quarterly Christian Spectator for 1838) has very ably presented several points which we summarize in the few following pages, leaving him, in the main, to speak in his own felicitous manner. Remarking upon an objection above referred to,--the uneven character of the divine influence, he says it is instructing to advert to the various and periodical changes of temperament which affect men in other matters than religion. Sometimes one subject has a peculiar interest to the mind, sometimes another. Sometimes the feeling chimes with music, which at others is not agreeable. Society of a given tone is shunned to-day though eagerly sought yesterday. These fluctuations are epidemical, too, extending to whole communities, and affecting them with an ephemeral interest in various subjects, which afterwards they wonder at themselves, and can no way recall. No public speaker of observation ever failed to be convinced that man is a being, mentally, of moods and phases, which it were as vain to attempt the control of, as to push aside the stars.

      These fluctuations, or mental tides, are due, perhaps, to physical changes, and perhaps not. They roll round the earth like invisible waves, and the chemist and physician tax their skill in vain to find the subtle powers that sway us. We only know that God is present in those fluctuations, whatever their real nature,-- and that they are all inhabited by the divine power. Is it incredible, then, that this same divine power should produce periodical influences in the matters of religion--times of peculiar, various and periodical interest? For ourselves we are obliged to confess that we strongly suspect that sort of religion which boasts of no excitements, no temporary and changing states; for we observe that it is only toward nothing, or about nothing, that we have always the same feeling.

      Need we say, again, that progress, which is the law of all God's works and agencies, necessarily involves variety and change. Spring, for example, is the first stage of a progress. The newness thereof, the first beginnings of growth, must wax old and change their habit. So it is morally impossible that the first feelings of religious interest in the breast should remain. There is a degree of excitation in the strangeness of new feelings, and so likewise in the early scenes of a revival of religion, which belongs to their novelty, and which is by no means inconsiderable or improper. Such is human nature that it could not be otherwise.

      In fact, there is no reason to doubt that God, in framing the plan or system of his spiritual agencies, ordained fluctuations and changing types of spiritual exercise, that he might take advantage, at intervals, of novelty in arresting and swaying the minds of men.

      These are the spring-times of his truth, otherwise in danger of uniform staleness. Thus he rouses the spiritual lethargy of men and communities, and sways their will to himself by aid of scenes and manifestations not ordinary or familiar. Nor is it anything derogatory to the divine agency in the case that the spiritual spring cannot remain perpetual; for there is a progress in God's works, and he goes on through change and multiform culture to ripen his ends. Doubtless, too, there may be a degree of sound feeling, apart from all novelty in a revival of religion, which human nature is incompetent permanently to sustain; just as one may have a degree of intellectual excitement and intensity of operation, which he cannot sustain, but which is nevertheless a sound and healthy activity. In writing a sermon, for example, every minister draws on a fund of excitability which he knows cannot be kept up beyond a certain bound, and this without any derogation from his proper sanity.

      Again: God has a given purpose to execute in those who have entered on the religious life, viz., to produce character in them. To this end he dwells in them, and this is the object of this spiritual culture, and here he meets, at the very beginning, this grand truth, that varieties of experience and exercise are necessary to the religious character. How then shall he adjust the scale of his action, if not to produce all such varieties as are necessary for his object? We have just remarked on the changes of temperament in men and communities, by which now one now another theme is brought to find a responsive note of interest. What is the end of this? Obviously it is, that we may be protected in all the many colored varieties of feeling, and led over a wide empire of experience. Were it not for this,--or if men were to live on, from childhood to the grave, in the same mood of feeling, and holding fast to the same unvarying topic of interest, they would grow to be little more than animals of one thought. To prevent which, and ripen what we call natural character to extension and maturity, God is ever leading us round and round invisibly, by new successions of providence and new affinities of feeling.

      Precisely the same necessity requires that religious character be trained up under varieties of experience, and shaped on all sides by manifold workings of the spirit. Now excitements must be applied; now checks to inspire caution or invigorate dependence. Now the intellect must be fed by a season of study and reflection; now the affections freshened by a season of social and glowing ardor. By one means bad habits are to be broken up, by another good habits consolidated. Love, it is true, must reign in the heart through all such varieties; but the principle of supreme love is one that can subsist in a thousand different connections of interest and temperaments of feeling. At one time it demands for its music a chorus of swelling voices, to bear aloft its exulting testimony of praise; at another it may chime rather with the soft and melancholy wail just dying on its ear.

      And so, in like manner, it needs a diversity of times, exercises, duties, and pleasures. It needs, and for that reason it has, not only revivals and times of tranquility, but every sort of revival, every sort of tranquility. Sometimes we are revived individually, sometimes as churches, sometimes as a whole people; and we have all degrees of excitation, all manner of incidents. Our more tranquil periods are sometimes specially occupied, or ought to be, in the correction of evil habits; or we are particularly interested in the study of religious doctrines necessary to the vigor of our growth and usefulness; or we are interested to acquire useful knowledge of a more general nature, in order to our public influence, and the efficient discharge of our offices. In revivals we generally prefer the more social spheres of religious exercise; afterwards the more private and solitary experiences may be cultivated. Such is the various travail which God has given to the sons of men to be exercised therewith.

      Besides, through these changes the churches make a deeper impression on the minds of men. God is manifested in nature by the wheeling spheres, light, shade, tranquility, storm, -- all the beauties and terrors of time. So the Spirit will reveal his divine presence through the churches by times of holy excitement, times of reflection, times of solitary communion, and times of patient hope. A church standing always in the same exact posture and mould of aspect, would be only a pillar of salt in the eyes of men; it would attract no attention, reveal no inhabitation of God's power. But suppose that now, in a period of no social excitement, it is seen to be growing in attachment to the Bible and the house of God, storing itself with divine or useful knowledge, manifesting a heavenly-minded habit in the midst of a general rage for gain, devising plans of charity to the poor and afflicted, reforming offensive habits, chastening bosom sins,-- suppose, in short, that principles adopted in a former revival are seen to hold fast as principles to prove their reality and unfold their beauty, when there is no longer any excitement to sustain them,-- here the worth and reality of religious principles are established. And now let the Spirit move this solid enginery once more into glowing activity, let the church thus strengthened, be lifted into spiritual courage and exaltation, and its every look and act will seem to be inhabited by divine power,--it will be as the chariot of God, and before it the enemies will tremble.

      There is one more advantage in periodical or temporary dispensations; in the very fact that they are temporary. We often see that the certainty felt by those who are at any time enlightened and drawn by the Spirit that they will not long be dealt with as now,--that by delay they may miss the grace of God and lose the favored moment,--is the strongest and most urgent of all motives to immediate repentance. This, in fact, is absolutely requisite to the stress and cogency of all means and agencies. Such is the procrastinating spirit of men; so fast bound are they in the love of sin, that however deeply they may feel their own guilt and lost estate, nothing but the fact that God is now giving them an opportunity and aid which are temporary, would ever foreclose them from delay. We need look no farther to see the folly of supposing that God must not act periodically or variously, if he act at all, in renewing men. Why act uniformly when it would defeat all the ends of action.

      We should be sorry if in what has been advanced a shadow of countenance has been given to the impression that the Christian is allowed, at some times, to be less religious than at others. He is under God's authority and bound by his law at all times. He must answer to God for each moment and thought of his life. His covenant oath consecrates all his life to God, and stipulates for no intermission of service. At no time can he shrink from religious obligation, without dishonor to his good faith, together with a loss of character and of God's manifest favor. Furthermore still, it is his duty and privilege ever to be filled with the Spirit. The believer is one chosen for his indwelling. He is consecrated to be the divine temple, and God will never leave his temple, except he is driven away by profanation--grieved away. "I have somewhat against thee," said the Saviour, "because thou hast left thy first love." He did not require, of course, that the novelty and first excitement of feeling should last; but that love, the real principle of love, should lose ground in them was criminal.

      If it be asked how can this be harmonized with the alternations of revivals? the answer is this:-- God favors and appoints ,different moods or kinds of religious interest, but not backslidings, or declensions of religious principle. There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are diversities of operation, but it is the same God who worketh all and in all. There is a common mistake in supposing that the Spirit of God is present in times only of religious exaltation; or if it be true, that such need be the case. It is conceivable that he may be doing as glorious a work in the soul when there is but a very gentle, or almost no excitement of feeling. He may now be leading the mind after instruction, teaching the believer to collect himself and establish a regimen over his lawless will and passions, searching the motives, inducing a habit of reflection, teaching how to carry principles without excitement, drawing more into communion perhaps with God, and less for the time with men; and while he conducts the disciple through these rounds of heavenly discipline, we are by no means to think that he is, of course, less religious, or has less of supreme love to God than he had in the more fervid season of revival. A soldier is as much a soldier when he encamps as when he fights, when he stands with his loins girt about, and his feet shod with the preparation of the gospel as when he quenches the fiery darts. The Christian warfare is not all battle. There are times in it for polishing the armor; forming the tactics, and feeding the vigor of the host.

      Hence we conclude that there is in what we call revivals of religion something of a divinely appointed periodical nature. But as far as they are what the name imports, revivals of religion, that is, of the principle of love and obedience, they are linked with dishonor; for they are made necessary by the instability and bad faith of Christ's disciples. But here it must be noted, that the dishonor does not belong to the revival, but to the decay of principles in the disciple which need reviving. There ought to be no declension of real principle; but if there is, no dishonor attaches to God in recovering his disciple from it, but the more illustrious honor is his due. Thus it is very often true, when a revival seems to have an extreme character, that the fact is due, not to the real state produced, but to the previous fall, the dearth and desolation with which it is contrasted. And generally, if the ridicule thrown upon a revival were thrown upon the worldliness, the dishonorable looseness of life and principle which preceded, it would not be misplaced.

      We see then that revivals are in no degree desultory, except as they partake of human errors and infirmities. They lie embedded in that great system of universal being and event which the divine omnipresence fills, actuates and warms. As the gospel is enlarged in the world, and the Christian mind enlightened, they will gradually lose their extremes and dishonorable incidents, and will constitute an ebb and flow measured only by the pulses of the Spirit. The church will then make a glowing, various and happy impression. Her armor, though modified, will always shine, and will have a celestial temper in it. Changing her front, she will yet always present a host clad in the full panoply of God.

      "O LORD REVIVE THY WORK!"

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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