Revival and Revivalism–Introduction



“’The chariot of the gospel never has free course, but the devil tries to be charioteer.’ There is nothing he is so much afraid of as the power of the Holy Ghost. Where he cannot arrest the showers of blessing, it has ever been one of his devices to dilute or poison the streams. . . With the obvious signs of the times in view, who does not see that this artful foe would enjoy his malignant triumph, if he could prejudice the minds of good men against all revivals of religion. This he does, not so much by opposing them, as by counterfeiting the genuine coin, and by getting up revivals that are spurious and to his liking. Revivals are always spurious when they are got up by man’s device, and not brought down by the Spirit of God” (Gardiner Spring qtd. by Murray xv).

The most crucial part of any communication is definition. Murray starts his book by defining “revival” and contrasting it with “revivalism” which began in the early 1800s. Distinguishing between these two terms and defining the characteristics of each is the crux of his book. Murray shows the tendency of writers since the 1860s to make no distinction between “revival” and “revivalism.” Failure to see this distinction is what has driven many away from idea of or desire for revival. As a child, I grew up with the (now, or maybe then) traditional “revival meetings.” Seeing the failure of such to bring any true change, has driven me away from a desire for revival. Throughout the book, we will see the distinction the Murray makes between true revival and revivalism. “This book has been written in the hope that it may strengthen faith and encourage prayer for another great outpouring of the Spirit of God” (xxii).

Revival has been defined as “some special seasons wherein God doth in a remarkable manner revive religion* among his people (Murray xvii).” Contrast that “surprising work of God” with the shift of the mid-1800s toward “revival meetings” where “revival” can be planned and announced in advance. Murray points out that in the 1700s no one knew how to secure a revival, but the “revivalists” of the 1800s popularized a system “which came near to guaranteeing results” (xviii). The “system” that Murray refers to will be dealt with more fully later in the book, but this quote from John Kent summarizes it well: “American revivalism began as a method of obtaining (at least in appearance) the external signs of conviction, repentance and rebirth” (xix). The method was the perfection of many elements designed to elicit a response: the excitement generated by a large crowd, development of music with catchy tunes that was easy to sing, and “the altar call” which exerts “psychological and social pressures of the minister and of the community of the converted” (xix).

“Revival meetings” are out of style in the modern church, but you will find all of the above elements in the mega-church movement. Gather a large crowd, draw them into “worship” with appealing music, and use psychological/emotional manipulation of the crowd to bring them to a decision point. The methods have changed from the old tent meetings, but most of the elements are the same.

Eventually, we will be brought to the theological foundations that underlay the methods of revivalism. Sufficient for now is to understand that Murray is seeking to prove that revivalism focuses on man’s devices, but true revival focuses on the work of God. I believe that those caught up in revivalism believe they are producing a work of God but in reality are promoting a man-centered religion through the methods of men. Distinguishing between the work of man and the work of God becomes difficult when the lines have been blurred in American Evangelicalism for a century and a half. But until we can clearly see this distinction, we will continue in the methods of man and never see the true work of God, that is, true revival.

I Corinthians 2:1-5, “And I, when I came to you, brothers,[a] did not come proclaiming to you the testimony[b] of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men[c] but in the power of God.”

*(Note: The term religion is often used in this book when quoting original sources. It’s important to understand that the term did not have the negative connotations that evangelical Christians give it—e.g. “It’s a relationship, not a religion.” Webster’s 1828 dictionary clarifies the use of religion in its day: “religion in its most comprehensive sense, includes a belief in the being and perfections of God, in the revelation of his will to man, in man’s obligation to obey his commands, in a state of reward and punishment, and in man’s accountableness to God; and also true godliness or piety of life, with the practice of all moral duties. It therefore comprehends theology, as a system of doctrines or principles, as well as practical piety; for the practice of moral duties without a belief in a divine lawgiver, and without reference to his will or commands, is not religion.” For more on the definition of religion, please go to Webster’s 1828 online.)

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