This entry is part 15 of 21 in the series: Revival
- The Biblical idea of revival
- Divine and human agency in revival
- Examples of revival
- Conditions prior to revival
- Experience of God in revival
- Repentance and revival
- Prayer and Revival
- The Word of God and revival
- Preaching and revival
- Results of revival
- Physical and emotional phenomena of revival
- The miraculous element in revival (I)
- The miraculous element in revival (II)
- Demonic activity in revival
- Problems associated with revival
- Evaluating Revivals
- Pentecostalism, baptism in the Spirit and revival
- Prospects for Revival
- ‘Lord, I have heard of your fame’ – stories of revival
- ‘Renew them in our day’ – prospects for revival
Having considered in general terms the mixture of good and evil which occurs in revival, we must now mention some of the specific problems which may occur. These are of two kinds: extrinsic and intrinsic.
A. Extrinsic problems
Some of the problems which can occur in connection with revivals are extrinsic, in that they originate in those who are outside the stream of revival and who are opposers of the work.
1. The first problem to be noted is that of resistance to change. The very unfamiliarity of revival can lead to suspicion and resistance on the part of Church-goers. For example, during the Second Great Awakening it was noted that:-
Revivals of religion were nowhere heard of, and an orthodox creed and a decent external conduct were the only points on which inquiry was made when persons were admitted to the communion of the church. The habit of the preachers was to address their people as though they were all pious, and only needed instruction and confirmation…Under such a state of things, it is easy to conceive that in a short time vital piety may have almost deserted the church. And nothing is more certain, than that when people have sunk into this deplorable state they will be disposed to manifest strong opposition to faithful, points preaching; and will be apt to view every appearance of revival with an unfavourable eye. Accordingly, when God raised up preachers, animated with a burning zeal, who laboured faithfully to convince their hearers of their ruined condition, and of the necessity of the thorough conversion from sin, the opposition to them was violent. The gospel, among people in such a condition, is sure to produce strife and division between those who fall under its influence and those whose carnal minds urge them to oppose it.
Alexander, The Log College, 17f.
One great enemy of revival, then, is traditionalism:-
Revival and change are almost synonymous terms, and both clearly cut across the grain of traditionalism. There is no way true revival can occur without major changes disrupting and reordering the life of the church…The least change in order, procedure, or familiar surroundings can be a great upset to the lover of tradition. Some parishioners don’t really seem to care what happens in their church as long as it remains the same.
Roberts, Revival, 137f.
This kind of resistance can have disastrous consequences. Dwight, in his biography of Jonathan Edwards, underlines the hardening effect on those who have witnessed the revival but resisted the Spirit. He says that this is one major cause of decline in a revival:-
One principal cause of this declension,…is undoubtedly to be found in the fact, that those, who had so long witnessed this remarkable work of God, without renouncing their sins, had at length become hardened and hopeless in their impenitence.
Dwight, in Edwards, Works, I, xliv.
An example of this occurred following the revival in Korea at the beginning of the present century:-
Missionaries claimed that the effects [of the Korean Pentecost] were uniformly wholesome, except where believers resisted the Spirit or deceived the brethren. An elder, for example, struggled with his conviction night after night, but received no peace. Then gradually he lost interest and was removed from office; the confession of a woman exposed his immorality. As he sank lower and lower, he became a brothel owner, commercializing his interest in vice.
Orr, Evangelical awakenings in Eastern Asia, 29.
2. The second extrinsic problem is that of misrepresentation. Ever since the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:13), revived and Spirit-filled Christians have been subject to this kind of slander. Nor should we be surprised at this, even when coming from professing believers, for:-
The mighty operation of the Spirit will always uncover and draw forth into the open, antagonism of the natural or carnal mind which is “enmity against God”. He whom God chooses to be an instrument in revival may expect to be a continual target for the malice of Satan, who never seems to lack willing hands or lips to do his work in the Church, as well as out of it.
Arthur Wallis, In the Day of Thy Power, 25.
Daniel Rowland was ruthlessly ridiculed and misrepresented, as the following extract shows:-
Mr Rowland made a long extempore prayer before his sermon, which prayer, it seemed worked so upon some of the audience that some cried out in one corner, ‘Rhowch glod!’ others in different parts of the church bawled out as loud as possibly they could, ‘Bendigedig, rhowch foliant!’ [Glorious, give praise!’] and so on, that there was such a noise and confusion through the whole church that I had much ado, though I stood nigh the minister, to make sense of anything he said. His preaching, again, flung almost the whole society into the greatest agitation and confusion possible; some cried, others laughed, the women pulled one another by the caps, embraced each other, capered like, where there was any room, but the perfectionists continued as before their huzzas…Surely they are actual instances of perfect enthusiasm. Nay, I never saw greater instances of madness, even in Bedlam itself.
in Gruffydd, Revival and its fruit, 20f.
So people spoke ill of the later Methodists:-
There is here what some call a great Reformation in Religion among the Methodists, but the case is really this. They have a sort of rustic dance in their public worship, which they call religious dancing, in imitation of David’s dancing before the Ark. Some of them strip off their clothes, crying out ‘Hosannah!’ &c., in imitation of those that attended our Saviour when he rode into Jerusalem. They call this the glory of the latter day; and when any person speaks to them of their extravagance, the answer they give is, ‘You have the mark of the enemy in your forehead!’ Such is the delusion and uncharitableness of this people.
in Gruffydd, Revival and its fruit, 23.
The Methodists, after having kept quiet for several years, have of late been very active. Their number increases, and their wild pranks are beyond description. The worship of the day being over, they have kept together in the place whole nights, singing, capering, bawling, fainting, thumping and a variety of other exercises. The whole country for many miles around have crowded to see such strange sights.
in Gryffydd, Revival and its fruit, 24.
That revival should be opposed by the worldly, is no surprise; but that it should be resisted and ridiculed by the so-called friends of religion is startling and tragic. It gives us pause for thought lest we too, who say we hope and pray for revival, might not welcome or recognise it when it comes:-
There are always some who are desirous of revival until it comes, and then they bitterly oppose it, because it has not come in the way they anticipated. The instrument that God used, or the channel through which the blessing flowed, was not what their convictions had led them to expect. They looked to see an Eliab or an Abinadab chosen for this great work, but the Lord, who “looketh on the heart”, chose a David.
Wallis, In the Day of Thy Power, 26f.
B. Intrinsic problems
Other problems can occur which are intrinsic, in that they originate in the friends, supporters and subjects of revival. Jonathan Edwards identified three extremes to which the supporters of revivals were prone to run:-
The weakness of human nature has always appeared in times of great revival of religion, by a disposition to run to extremes, and get into confusion; and especially in these three things, enthusiasm, superstition, and intemperate zeal.
Edwards, Works, I, 372.
The same writer uncovers some of the reasons God permits such human error in the midst of revival blessing:-
It is very analogous to the manner of God’s dealing with his people, to permit a great deal of error, and suffer the infirmity of his people to appear, in the beginning of a glorious work of his grace, for their felicity, to teach them what they are, to humble them, and fit them for that glorious prosperity to which he is about to advance them, and the more to secure to himself the honour of such a glorious work. For, by man’s exceeding weakness appearing in the beginning of it, it is evident that God does not lay the foundation of it in man’s strength or wisdom.
Edwards, Works, I, 374.
If the unfamiliarity of revival can lead to resistence to change amongst some, then it can also lead to unbridled and misplaced zeal in others:-
We have long been in a strange stupor: The influences of the Spirit of God upon the heart have been but little felt, and the nature of them but little taught; so that they are in many respects new to great numbers of those who have lately fallen under them. And is it any wonder that they who never before had the experience of the supernatural influence of the Divine Spirit upon their souls, and never were instructed in the nature of these influences, do not so well know how to distinguish one extraordinary new impression from another, and so (to themselves insensibly) run into enthusiasm, taking every strong impulse or impression to be divine?
Edwards, Works, I, 373.
1. The first specific problem under this heading is that of an uncritical attitude. It is not surprising that the excitement of a revival can lead its supporters into a naively uncritical attitude:-
The cry was, ‘O, there is no danger, if we are but lively in religion, and full of God’s Spirit, and live by faith, of being misled! If we do but follow God, there is no danger of being led wrong! ‘Tis the cold, carnal, and lifeless, that are most likely to be blind, and walk in darkness. Let us press forward, and not stay and hinder the good work, by standing and spending time in these criticisms and carnal reasonings!’ etc. etc. This was the language of many, till they ran on deep into the wilderness, and were taught by the briers and thorns of the wilderness.
Edwards, Works, I, cl.
2. The second problem to be noted is imitation. People may be led to imitate the externals of revival without having experienced its essence. With a phenomenon so striking and energetic as revival, it is not suprising that observers may try to imitate the experience, without having had any real encounter with God:-
They believed there was a good work going on; that people were convinced, and brought into a converted state; and they desired to be converted too: they saw others weeping and fainting, and heard people mourning and lamenting, and they thought if they could be like these it would be very hopeful with them; hence, they endeavoured just to get themselves affected by sermons, and if they could come to weeping, or get their passions so raised as to incline them to vent themselves by cries, now they hoped they were got under convictions, and were in a very hopeful way…and then they would be looking and expecting to get some texts of scripture applied to them for their comfot; and when any scripture text which they thought was suitable for that purpose came to their minds, they were in hopes that it was brought to them by the Spirit of God, that they might take comfort from it. And thus…some appeared to be pleasing themselves just with an imaginary conversion of their own making.
in Gillies, Historical collections, 346.
3. A third problem is that of presumptuousness. There is a danger in people being allowed, or even encouraged, to think themselves converted before a real change of life and heart has been effected. And this is no small importance:-
There are doubtless some who indulge a false hope, that are subsequently awakened, and become true Christians; but in general such a hope is undoubtedly the best security which the adversary could desire for keeping the soul under his entire dominion.
Sprague, Lectures on revivals, 224.
4. A fourth problem is activity without anointing. One possibility which needs to be taken into account is that the human activities associated with revival might continue when the divine influence has been withdrawn. Church-goers might then still have a reputation as lively or Spirit-filled Christians, but in fact be at death’s door, from a spiritual point of view (Rev 3:1):-
Time after time throughout revival history, insensitivity to the fragile nature of true revival has accounted for the sudden withdrawal of the divine presence which is always such a remarkable and essential aspect of divine outpourings. When God withdraws himself because of the failure of his people to give proper biblical guidance and stability to revival, the mechanical aspects of the work may continue and even grow for a period, but in due time the counter-revival will prevail and the great work of God’s kingdom will slip back into its former level.
Roberts, Revival, 103.
In connection with this, we should mention with regret the modern habit of labelling one’s church, or even one’s self as ‘Spirit-filled’. This is presumptuous, not only because it is immodest, but also because it assumes that being filled with the Spirit is a once-for-all state, whereas it is all to easy to retain the outward form (say, charismatic styles of public worship) but to have slipped far away from the Lord and his grace.
5. Fifthly, of all the dangers to which the supporters of revival are prone, none is more understandable and yet more ugly than misplaced zeal manifesting itself as an over-critical attitude, or censoriousness:-
Revival does not abolish at once all the defects of our human nature. The criticism is sometimes made that spiritual awakening is inclined to induce a controversial and opinionated spirit. So it must have been in the New Testament, for we find these early Christians being exhorted against this very thing: ‘Foolish and unlearned questions avoid, knowing that they do engender strifes.’…Revival, like conversion, can sometimes induce spiritual pride. In the flush of the great eighteenth-century revival, William Williams warns against this, speaking of a ‘raw youth whom no one would entrust to shepherd his sheep, who is today riding high in a boldness of spirit much superior to old ministers who have borne the burden and heat of the day’. Paul warns against appointing a novice in the faith to office in the church, ‘lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil.’ This pride often takes the form of criticising others for what appears to be new convert to be lukewarmness. In one who has just been swept off his feet in conversion, and has no criterion except his new-found experience against which to evaluate Christian character, this is a failing which can be expected and understood.
Roberts, Revival and its fruit, 10f.
No doubt there is much in the conduct of many Christians and ministers, to give just occasion for regret; and if they appear cold and worldly, it is only a Christian duty that we should affectionately admonish them of their error, and endeavour to render them more spiritual and active. But this is something quite different from [a] censorious, denouncing spirit.
Sprague, Lectures on revivals, 230.
We need to make due allowance for individual differences of temperament between true believers:-
There are some who will condemn their brethren as cold Christians, or perhaps even no Christians at all, because with less of constitutional ardor than themselves, and possibly more prudence, they are not prepared to concur at once in every measure that may be suggested for the advancement of a revival; or because they talk less of their own feelings than some others; or because they attend fewer public religious exercises than could be desired; or because from extreme constitutional diffidence they may, either properly or improperly, decline taking part in such exercises.
Sprague, Lectures on revivals, 231f.
Censoriousness is particularly distasteful in prayer:-
I know of no way in which a censorious spirit can discover itself, whether in ministers or private Christians, that is so revolting, and I may say, dreadful, as in prayer. The fact must be acknowledged, humbling as it is, that men have sometimes seemed to be pouring out at the foot of the throne their resentments against cold Christians and ministers; and have even assumed the office of judging their hearts; and have told the Almighty Being, apparently for the sake of telling the congregation, that they were as dead as the tenants of the tomb.
Sprague, Lectures on revivals, 235.
6. A sixth danger into which the friends of revival are prone, is to think that they know better than God, and try to promote revival by unscriptural means:-
The means salvation which God has prescribed in his word, are the best; and it is a reflection on his wisdom and goodness, to suppose that they need any additions or modifications of ours.
Sprague, Lectures on revivals, App. 100.
7. Seventhly, the indiscretions of eminent Christians can threaten to bring revival work into disrepute. Even the great George Whitefield was, in his earlier years; sometimes given to act and speak to readily in response to ‘impressions’:-
Whitefield’s wife gave birth to a son in early October, 1743. “Following the child’s birth Whitefield held a service in the Tabernacle in which he made known his impression that the child would grow up ‘to be a preacher of the everlasting gospel.'” In fact, however, the infant survived just four months.
Dallimore, George Whitefield, II, 167f.
Indeed, seeking guidance from misapplied texts of Scripture was (and is) one of the most prevalent mistakes among those who love God and the Bible:-
Some that follow impulses and impressions indulge a notion, that they do no other than follow the guidance of God’s word, because the impression is made with a text of Scripture that comes into their mind. But they take that text as it is impressed on their minds, and improve it as a new revelation to all intents and purposes; while the text, as it is in the Bible, implies no such thing, and they themselves do not suppose that any such revelation was contained in it before.
Edwards, Works, I, 404.
8. Eighthly, during all the ages of the Church there have been movements which have had some of the characteristics of revivals but which have been tainted, sooner or later, by fanaticism. And, although a fairly positive account has been given of the possibility of supernatural phenomena and spiritual gifts in revival, it must be conceded that in practice, a belief in latter-day prophecy has often led people far away from the authoritative word of Scripture:-
Among the distinctive emphases of glossolalic Christianity is one which has caused a great deal of difficulty in past awakenings and which continues to be problematic today: the doctrine that the gift of prophecy is still to be expected and enjoyed by the church. It seems difficult to frame a very strong biblical argument for limiting prophetic utterance to the apostolic period. And yet the church in later eras has repeatedly found that when it goes beyond the canon of Scripture to recognize new revelations, it soon finds itself dealing with severe problems. Outbreaks of fanatical enthusiasm in church history have always been accompanied by a belief in contemporary revelations of the Spirit.
Lovelace, Dynamics of spiritual life, 262.
Lovelace mentions as examples of this the Montanists of the 2nd century, who predicted the imminent return of Christ, the Zwickau prophets of the 16th century, who attacked Luther’s reforms with a fanatical zeal, and prophets such as James Naylor, who had been ‘told by the Spirit’ that he was Jesus Christ. Ronald Knox, in his book ‘Enthusiasm’, makes merry with dozens of examples of wierd, outrageous, and dangerous beliefs and practices of those who had rejected reason (and especially, we would add, Scripture), in favour of immediate revelations from the Spirit.
9. Ninethly, we note that on occasions the leaders of revival falling into more grievous errors. Whether this is due to the physical and mental stresses of revival work, or whether it is to be explained in terms of demonic ‘infiltration’, would be hard to say in any particular case. At any rate, we can understand that God has permitted these instances to occur so that we may put give less praise to the human agents of revival, and more to the divine agent. One example of this is found in the life of James Davenport:-
It seems evident that his ministry at this time  was used to the awakening of many and that there was nothing which could be objected to in the content of his sermons. But the root of much future trouble was already present. Davenport seems to have believed that the Holy Spirit can give such direct guidance to Christians by ‘impressions’ made upon their minds that they may be infallibly sure of the will of God. The affect of an ‘impression’ was enough to prove its authenticity. The effect of this error, in the high tide of emotion accompanying the Great Awakening, was to encourage Christians (and others) to accept any powerful subjective impulse as the ‘special leading’ of the Spirit.
Murray, Jonathan Edwards, 223f.
Another example is found in the life of Humphrey Jones, a pioneer of the Welsh revival in the late 1850s:-
In the early months of 1859 he showed marked changes in his beliefs and behaviour. ‘He kept very much to himself and maintained that he was the recipient of divine ‘revelations’ which, delivered to the church, became ‘prophecyings’. The culmination of this tragic mental process was a total departure from the authoritative Word of God, and the announcement of a ‘prophecy’ to the effect that the Holy Spirit would descend in bodily form at Aberystwyth on a given date and at a given time, this even initiating the ‘millenium’. Humphrey Jones’ remorse after the painful incident which ensued, when his error and failure were brought into sharp focus before a larger gathering, knew no bounds, and he desired only oblivion and solitude.’ He took little further part in the revival, and later departed for America, where he died in 1895.
Evans, Revival comes to Wales, 61f.
What is clear is that these revival leaders were under intense physical and emotional (not to say spiritual) pressure, and part of the reason for the decline in a revival may be related to stress and exhaustion in its leaders:-
One principal cause of this declension, is undoubtedly to be found in the fact, that in all these places, both among ministers and private Christians, the physical excitement had been greater than the human constitution can, for a long period, endure.
Dwight, in Edwards, Works, I, xliv.
10. In the tenth place, the work of revival may be impeded by complacency. Clearly, there are many subtle ways in which the fire of revival may be dampened down and ultimately extinguished. And this means that lack of watchfulness on the part of believers may itself contribute markedly to spiritual decline, as was the case in Edwards’ day:-
[Edwards] came to believe that there was one principal cause of the reversal, namely, the unwatchfulness of the friends of the Awakening who allowed genuine and pure religion to become so mixed with ‘wildfire’, and carnal ‘enthusiasm’, that the Spirit of God was grieved and advantage given to Satan.
Murray, Jonathan Edwards, 216.
In conclusion, we make a plea for what someone has called ‘an anointing of clear sight’. The sad fact is that especially during the last hundred years or so, revival movements have been blighted by a reluctance to think through the issues and dangers involved in a thorough and biblical way:-
The leaders and shapers of the Reformation, the Puritan and Pietist movements, and the first two awakenings included trained theologians who combined spiritual urgency with profound learning, men who had mastered the culture of their time and were in command of the instruments needed to destroy its idols and subdue its innovations: Luther and Calvin, Owen and Francke, Edwards and Wesley, Dwight and Simeon. Evangelicals in the nineteenth and early twentieth century to a remarkable extent depended on the leadership of lay evangelists without formal theological training, men like Charles Finney, D.L. Moody, and Billy Sunday. This was not without positive effects. It continued the gradual laicization of Protestantism visible in earlier awakenings, and it freed evangelists of inherited formalism which might interfere with their practical outreach. But it led also to a progressively shallower spirituality among evangelicals and to a loss of intellectual command. This loss of intellectual mastery proved to be a critical weakness, since the secular humanist world view which had been in the process of construction since the Enlightenment was receiving powerful reinforcement from the contributions of Darwin, Marx and Freud.
Lovelace, Dynamics of spiritual life, 49f.
It is to be hoped that, in our own day, the vital insights of Edwards and others will be recovered, else the errors and evils of which we have been speaking will be likely to remain uncorrected.