Revival and Revivalism: A Review Article

Revival and Revivalism:
A Review Article

Terry Chrisope

Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring
of American Evangelicalism, 1750-1858.

by Iain H. Murray, Banner of Truth Trust, 1994. xxii + 455 pp. $27.95

This is a book for which I have waited twenty years. It is a treatment of a crucial period in American religious history by one who is thoroughly familiar with the literature of revival and who possesses the theological stance and critical acumen properly to evaluate the events it relates. As a result, the issues raised by Iain Murray’s treatment are nothing less than momentous for Southern Baptists as well as for evangelicalism at large.

Murray’s essential argument is packed into his title and subtitle. He contends that there is a difference between revival and revivalism, a difference that has been lost both to American evangelicalism and to academic historians. Genuine revival is the result of the activity of the Spirit of God in human lives and in human history, and is not under human control. Revivalism, in contrast, is the manifestation of human activism, energy, and organization and may exist where the Spirit of God is not active in any extraordinary way. Murray argues that the blurring of this distinction was accomplished during and after the Second Great Awakening in America in the first half of the nineteenth century, and that it came about under the influence of American Methodism and of Presbyterian evangelist Charles G. Finney. It is the resultant emergence of revivalism that constitutes for Murray the marring of American evangelicalism.

Murray sets the scene for these developments by first surveying what he considers genuine revivals which occurred during the latter part and the aftermath of the Great Awakening, primarily during the second half of the eighteenth century, especially among Presbyterians and Baptists. He makes pertinent observations concerning the nature and characteristics of these revivals, including the Calvinistic theological orientation of their leaders and the absence of any special means for promoting revival.

The middle chapters of the book treat the Second Great Awakening, which occupied the first quarter of the nineteenth century. Here Murray takes note of the strong Methodist influence upon the theology and practice of revival, an influence which encouraged the organization of mass meetings, the recording of the number of conversions, and the use of the “altar call” or invitation to come forward. For various reasons these innovations became widely accepted, and it is in these developments that Murray thinks revivalism was born as a humanly-engineered means of producing purportedly spiritual results.

The final third of the book describes the popularization of revivalism in American Christianity. A theology and practice similar to those of Methodism were to flourish in the East under the impetus provided by Charles G. Finney who, though not originating these methods, became instrumental in popularizing and spreading them. The theological underpinning of Finney’s approach was the assumption of complete human ability to respond to the demands of the gospel and the corresponding need to utilize all available means to promote what was called “revival.” Division among Christians occurred as adherents of the older theology of revival as a sovereign work of God raised questions about and objections to Finney’s “new measures” and the theology which underlay them. Those who raised such questions were soon castigated as being “anti-revival” and as opposed to evangelism, although this patently was not the case. It seemed to many that a new era in evangelism and revival was being born, and the claim appeared to be supported by the numbers of new converts being produced. The use of the prescribed means of protracted meetings, emotional appeals, and altar calls were supposed to unfailingly produce the desired revival, and if they did not it was due to human fault rather than to any contrary purpose in the divine will. This new approach swept Baptists and virtually all other Protestants before it and became the accepted understanding of revival by the end of the century. Any remembrance of the older concept of revival was all but lost.

Murray’s study is quietly powerful and persuasive. His argument gathers strength as it advances through the book. A brief review can hardly do it justice. But some of the issues that Murray raises are worthy of noting here and should provoke serious discussion, especially among Southern Baptists, who, generally speaking, have assimilated and institutionalized the methods advocated by Finney and his followers.

The first and perhaps most fundamental issue to be raised by this book is that of the theology of conversion. Prior to approximately 1830 a Calvinistic conception of human inability and the necessity for the operation of divine grace prevailed among American Protestants except for the Methodists. A corresponding understanding of revival as a sovereign outpouring of divine power accompanied this view. After 1830 the Methodist theology of conversion (known as Arminianism or semi-pelagianism) became gradually but widely accepted. This view sees conversion as dependent on the response of the autonomous human will rather than being the result of the special work of the Holy Spirit. This theology was associated with a new view of revivals, one which saw them as the product of the human means used to promote them. This revised understanding of conversion and revival had no more energetic proponent than Charles G. Finney, whose views came to prevail among American evangelical Protestants.

The question which this issue presents to Southern Baptists is this: Can the Reformed theology of conversion found in such documents as the Baptist Confession of 1689 (widely adopted among American, including Southern, Baptists) and taught by such theologians as John L. Dagg and James P. Boyce be squared with the theology underlying Finneyite revivalism? If not, then can the Calvinistic theology of our heritage be shown to be erroneous or unscriptural? If it can then the shift to the new theology is warranted. But if it cannot, then the whole enterprise of revivalism and its underlying theology is brought into question. At the very least, the issue needs to be seriously addressed by thoughtful Southern Baptists. If the founders of the convention and its institutions are to be repudiated along with their Reformed soteriology, then let it be done with full awareness of the heritage that is being rejected. But if the older Baptist confessions and the founders of our convention are found to embrace a theology more faithful to the Biblical witness, then the new theology and its understanding of revival must in due course be corrected and a return to the more Biblical position be pursued.

A second issue that presents itself is the general condition of contemporary Christianity. Opponents of revivalism in the nineteenth century predicted dire consequences for the churches should the new mode of operation prevail. We do in fact seem to be witnessing the fulfillment of their predictions. Several questions occur to the thoughtful observer: Why is there such a low spiritual condition among the evangelical churches of this land? Why is it that a large percentage of the “converts” produced by modern evangelistic methods seem to fall away and count for nothing except statistics in organizational reports (see the comment on George Barna’s recent report under the “News” section of this issue)? Why are the majority of members in most Southern Baptist churches non-active or non-resident members?

Could it be that the answer to these questions is that during the past seventy-five years our churches began to engage in a faulty evangelism that focuses not on divine grace but on a presumed human ability to effect self-regeneration? Could it be that due to this faulty approach many of the supposed converts are not really converted at all? Could it be that this is why many “converts” fade away when the excitement of the moment ceases? Could it be that many of these “half-converted” (read “unregenerate”) souls fill our churches and there manifest their spiritual deadness?

To take the matter further: Why has there been no general revival in the United States since that of 1857-58 (which Murray treats at the end of his book)? Could it be that the man-centered theology and methods that were intended to promote revival have had the opposite effect and in fact serve to hinder genuine revival? And, we must ask, how could the opponents of Finney’s methods predict accurately in the 1830s and 1840s the spiritual devastation that would occur as a result of the new approach? As Murray points out, later generations were largely uncomprehending of why these men raised doubts about revivalism “Why Archibald Alexander believed that acceptance of `the new religion’ would mean that the glory had departed; why Nettleton thought acceptance would be `ruinous to the cause of revivals'; why John W. Nevin held that if the old orthodoxy lost the struggle, the failure would shape the `entire complexion and history’ of the churches in time to come’ (p. 357). The reason these men were able to make such claims-which now seem to be fully justified-is not that they were prescient but that they were guided by a doctrinal understanding which gave them spiritual insight into the outcomes of the new theology and new measures.

Third, and certainly at the center of all these questions, is an issue with which it will be extremely difficult for many Southern Baptists to deal objectively and scripturally. It is the issue of the altar call or invitation system (which is not synonymous with inviting people to come to Christ). Murray argues that the use of this device-calling on hearers to respond with some kind of physical movement, such as coming forward in a service-reflects a theology which replaces divine grace with a human ability which is strong enough to respond to God and the demands of the gospel. The older, Calvinistic theology denies any such ability, thus leaving the hearer shut up to divine grace as the only answer to his needs-a grace which must bestow a believing heart as well as forgiveness of sins. The new theology posits full human ability to respond any time one wills to do so; the only thing needed is the presentation to the hearer of the proper motivation to encourage and secure his response. With this view arose the direct appeal to “do something” physical which is embodied in the altar call.

But a great danger is involved here. It is the danger that a physical movement (coming forward) will be confused with a spiritual act (believing on Christ), thus potentially deceiving those who respond with the called-for physical movement. Sadly, such confusion is found too often within Southern Baptist Churches today.

The great difficulty is, of course, that the invitation system has become so institutionalized in Southern Baptist life that many people-laymen as well as pastors and preachers-cannot conceive of evangelism taking place in any other way. Indeed, questioning biblical propriety of the altar call would be viewed by many as an assault on evangelism. And certainly it is the case that the altar call is the means by which evangelists and pastors count converts and by which churches count new members and gauge the effectiveness of preachers. Many people, therefore, will feel threatened by the suggestion that the invitation system as it is commonly practiced is the outgrowth of bad theology. And yet, a careful perusal of the history presented by Murray indicates that this is precisely the case. The altar call was the central innovation of revivalism, the practical and symbolic embodiment of its theology. Its elimination may be the first necessary step toward the recovery of genuine revival.

Fourth, it is likely that the mentality of revivalism tends to promote anti-intellectualism in the churches and among evangelical Christians affected by it. Its simplistic theological approach and its overemphasis on the emotions and will discourage the serious attention to theology known by our spiritual forefathers, resulting in the “dumbing down” of the church. Consequently, many modern Christians and their pastors are not only unable to engage in theological discourse but are also unable to engage the surrounding culture at the intellectual level. I suspect that the theological vacuity, emotionalism, and intellectual superficiality of revivalism turn away many intelligent people from a consideration of the truth claims of Christianity. Such factors may also push intellectually serious people within evangelical churches away from historic Christianity and toward moderatism, liberalism, neo- orthodoxy, or liturgically oriented churches. Furthermore, revivalism gives opponents of Christianity a tool for discounting the reality of the supernatural in contemporary Christian life: if results can be obtained by emotional manipulation, bypassing the mind, then there is no need to attribute any effects to the influence of the Spirit of God.

Among the other issues raised by Murray’s book, a fifth and final one must be mentioned. That is the question of a Christian approach to history. Mark Noll, a historian at Wheaton College and a prolific author, has criticized Murray’s work as subsuming historical study under the discipline of theology and of engaging in an approach which Noll labels “tribalism.” Quoting historian Grant Wacker, Noll considers tribalism to be “scholarship that is fashioned with private or factional or parochial or ethnic-in a word, non-public-criteria of what counts for good evidence, reliable warrants, and sound conclusions.” In this approach the details are “all linked by explanatory frameworks that only insiders find credible” (Christianity Today: April 24, 1995, p. 34).

This sounds a good deal like the way the New Testament was written and, in fact, still must be understood. One can savingly grasp its meaning only as illuminated by the Spirit of God and regenerated unto spiritual life. If regeneration possesses any reality and is not merely a figment of the Christian imagination, then it will, among other things, reorient one’s thinking toward God’s purposes in history as explained in the Scriptures. The Bible, then, when interpreted correctly, provides the Christian with a set of criteria for making historical judgments, judgments which will at times conflict with those made by unbelievers. And the criteria are grasped only by insiders-the regenerate, that is, Christian believers. Admittedly, it is notoriously difficult to discern God’s purposes in the workings of providence, yet this difference between a Christian approach and the world’s approach to history is what makes the Christian approach distinctive-and Christian. This is what Murray is affirming and Noll seems to be denying. The question becomes particularly acute when dealing with alleged manifestations of divine activity in history such as revivals. We may thank Murray and Noll for drawing attention to this problem while acknowledging that further discussion is needed.

In sum, Murray’s case is presented persuasively and without rancor. Whether his argument will be used to effect reformation is in the hands of our sovereign God. Certainly there will be stout resistance, for modern evangelicalism is steeped in the ethos of revivalism and many frequently cannot conceive of any other mode of church life and evangelism.

If I had it in my power to require Southern Baptist pastors to read any single book this year besides the Bible, this is the one I would choose. I know of nothing better calculated to provoke the discussion of fundamental issues that is so desperately needed in Southern Baptist circles. Not only are the honor of God and the spiritual health of the churches at stake, but the eternal destinies of people as well.