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Have you seen the signs along the side of the road? The signs that say, “Revival, Coming This Week, Every Night, 7:00 p.m.” It is difficult to think of American Christianity apart from revivals. Historians sometimes divide up American church history by different times of revival or awakening. There’s the First Great Awakening in the 1740s, followed by the Second Great Awakening in the 1800s–1820s, and so on.
These revivals are not exclusive to America. Both the First and Second Great Awakenings were transatlantic. In fact, revivals might very well be America’s number one export, as revivalists and preachers have boated and jetted across the globe, holding revivals in everything from tents to mammoth football stadiums.
Revivals and awakenings are part of the warp and woof of not only American Christianity but also global Christianity. Consequently, we need to understand this phenomenon and how it impacts theology and church life today. To do that, we need to look back to the Second Great Awakening and its key figure, Charles Grandison Finney.
Finney (1792–1875) was a Presbyterian minister, the leading figure in the Second Great Awakening, and a leading figure in social reform. He was also an author, publishing his most popular book, Lectures on Revivals and Religion, in 1835.
Initially pursuing the profession of law, Finney turned to the ministry after a dramatic conversion. He had no formal training but apprenticed under George Washington Gale. Though Presbyterian, Finney had misgivings about Calvinism and had contempt for the Westminster Standards. After his apprenticeship, he started preaching revivals, culminating in the 1830–31 revivals in Rochester, N.Y. Next followed revivals in New York City until 1835, when he left for a post as professor, then president, at Oberlin College in Ohio.
In his practice of revivals and in his writings on revivals, Finney bequeathed to American Christianity the “New Measures.” These include prolonged meetings, dramatic if not theatrical elements, naming people publicly for their sins and calling them publicly for repentance, and the “anxious bench.” The Puritans spoke of someone under conviction of sin as being in a state of anxiety; that person was soul anxious. Before Finney, if sinners felt the conviction of the Holy Spirit during a sermon, they would notify the pastor after the sermon, usually waiting a few days. The minister would then pay a pastoral call and counsel the sinner. Finney’s new measure of the anxious bench changed all that.
Finney instituted the altar call, pleading during that prolonged service for sinners to come forward, kneel at the bench before the platform, confess their sins, and be saved. The New Measures were necessarily bound to Finney’s theology, which was also not only new but an intentional and decided departure from the Calvinism and from the doctrine of the sovereignty of God that dominated the First Great Awakening. Perhaps Benjamin B. Warfield best summed up Finney’s deficient theology when he observed that you could remove God from it and it would not change much of anything.
Finney starts off Lectures on Revivals and Religion with a stunning declaration: “Religion is the work of man. It is something for man to do.” When man acts, God responds, and, through the work of the Holy Spirit, brings revival. It is not only incumbent on the sinner to make the first move, but it is also incumbent on the revival preacher to set the right conditions. In other words, Finney told would-be revival preachers to use means, to use techniques. Now we understand why these were not only new measures but wrong measures, and measures that sent American Christianity and revivalism off in a dangerous and heretical trajectory.
Finney believed that the doctrine of the sovereignty of God served only to send people to hell. In fact, at one point he claimed, “More than five thousand millions have gone down to hell” on account of emphasizing that true religion, the salvation of a soul, is the exclusive work of God alone.
The Second Great Awakening caused a split in Presbyterianism. Those who supported the revivalism and the New Measures were called “New Side” Presbyterians. Those who criticized them were called “Old Side” Presbyterians. The leading institution of Old Side Presbyterianism was Princeton Theological Seminary, home of theologians Charles Hodge and, later, Warfield.
Princeton was born out of the revivals of the First Great Awakening. That leads us to ask what changed from the 1740s to the 1820s and beyond. The answer, as mentioned above, is that the theology changed. And when the theology changed, the preaching changed. And when the preaching changed, the results were injurious.
Revivals come during times of declension, times of “backsliding.” There was a hunger, a famine in the land. Along comes the unadorned preaching of the gospel. Along comes the nourishment of God’s Word through the ordinary means of the preaching of God’s Word, and the soul awakens to God. Revivals move from declension and great lows to ascension and great heights. That is what happened in the First Great Awakening as the Word was preached and the Spirit of God moved. It was God’s work.
The problem with the Second Great Awakening is that it took people in declension even further down. But the solution to our problem of sin and being under the wrath of God is not to depend on ourselves to inch our way back to God. Dead people can’t move.
Iain Murray helps us by distinguishing between revivals and revivalism. He uses the term revivalism to capture the new measures and new theology that tragically undergirds not only the Second Great Awakening but also those movements that have come since and have sprung up from it. Revivalism emphasizes the work of man and the decision of man—at the expense of God’s sovereign work. The term revivals, on the other hand, has a more focused meaning. Revival is when a soul, dead in trespasses and sins, is made alive. We also use the word awakening to describe the work of God in bringing life from death, light from darkness.
Finney may have dominated the Second Great Awakening, but he was not the only revivalist. The times of revivals began right at the beginnings of the 1800s. Historians estimate that less than 10 percent of the American population regularly attended church in the 1790s. America’s newfound identity as a nation and prosperity led to a religious decline, not to mention the fascination with the Enlightenment by seminal thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. But something happened on college campuses in the first years of the nineteenth century.
Timothy Dwight, the grandson of Jonathan Edwards, was installed as president of Yale University in 1795. At that time, this description was offered of Yale: “The college church was almost extinct. Most of the students were skeptical, and rowdies were plenty.” Dwight had realized that Enlightenment thinking, “The Age of Reason,” had influenced the students. He began holding public debates on the authority of Scripture, and he began preaching the gospel with passion. In a few years, more than one-third of the student body professed faith. The college church, which formerly had empty pews, took in new members by the dozens. Yale had only slightly more than two hundred students in those days, but these young, articulate, and passionate Christians began to make an impact. Revivals spread to other colleges in New England. Out of this came the Student Volunteer Movement, which was the beginning of foreign mission endeavors in the United States. When Dwight spoke of the revival, he called it a triumph of grace and repeatedly said, “Surely God is in this place.”
In addition to coming to the ivy-covered walls of New England’s colleges, revival also came to America’s wild frontier. Cane Ridge, Ky., witnessed a massive revival in one week in August 1801. The Scotch-Irish who settled along these frontier lines brought with them the practice of the “communion season” or “Holy Faire.” These were intense, soul-searching weeks packed with sermons and culminating in the taking of the Lord’s Supper. One of these Holy Faires, of sorts, in Cane Ridge literally ignited waves of revival with hundreds of conversions. This may very well be the origin of the week of revival of sermons, now commonplace in American Christianity. These revivals led to a whole new focus on religion on the frontier. The Stone-Campbell Movement was born there. Soon Methodism would also spread as circuit-riding preachers carried sermons from church to church in their saddlebags.
Revivals also came during the Civil War. More than one general, both Union and Confederate, complained that soldiers were spending too much time on religion and not enough time soldiering. One of the Northern revivalists was Dwight Lyman Moody. Through the Young Man’s Christian Association and the United States Christian Commission, he preached to soldiers right on the battlefront at places such as the Battle of Shiloh. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, Moody, accompanied by songman Ira Sankey, crisscrossed the United States and crossed the Atlantic.
Church history is a story of steps and missteps. That’s also true when it comes to the history of revivals and awakenings. It remains true of our experience in our own day. We realize there are times of declension, times of famine. We cry out for the Word of God to be preached with boldness. We know that God’s Word alone has the words of eternal life. We rather agree with Edwards’ grandson Timothy Dwight. True awakening is a triumph of God’s grace. We are left to say only, “Surely God is in this place.”