This entry is part 4 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
To grasp the true nature and impact of revival, it is necessary to examine the moral and spiritual conditions which precede such a time of awakening. As if to show us that it is “not by might, nor by power, but my Spirit”, God often seems pleased to pour out revival blessing when the land is at its most parched and dry:-
Repeatedly these seasons of refreshing from the presence of the Lord emerge in the providence of the Lord at a time of crisis. When true religion is at a premium, when the Word of God is scarce and the lamp of God burns low in the land, then it is that the irresistible energies of the eternal Spirit burst forth with a vigour seldom witnessed more than once in any one generation.
Evans, The Welsh Revival of 1904, 35
According to James Burns:-
The period immediately preceding a widespread spiritual awakening is generally characterised by a profound sense of dissatisfaction awaking in many hearts…A weariness and exhaustion invade the heart, the pleasures of the world no longer satisfy…Sick in soul, men turn with a sigh to God. Dimly they awake to consciousness that, in bartering for earthly joys, they have encountered irremediable loss…Slowly this aching grows, the heart of man begins to cry out for God, for spiritual certainties, for fresh vision. From a faint desire this multiplies as it widens until it becomes a vast human need; until in its urgency it seems to beat with violence at the very gates of heaven.
in Egerton, Flame of God, 100.
We will examine pre-revival conditions firstly in a couple of Old Testament examples, and then in some more modern awakenings.
Old Testament Revivals
Such times of darkness before the dawn can be observed in the pages of the Old Testament. As Walter Kaiser has written:-
Most revivals were preceded by a time of deep spiritual decline and despair. For example, there was the Egyptian bondage, which led to the golden calf debacle, or the time prior to the revival under King Hezekiah, which involved the revolting practice of offering children as burnt offerings on the altar of Molech. No different was the situation in Elijah’s time, with the maddening spectacle of a whole nation gathering on Mount Carmel, unable to decide whether to worship Baal or Yahweh. All were times of deep spiritual decline, and they match our own in many ways.
Kaiser, Quest for renewal, 19.
We go back to the days of Moses:-
Ex 32:1 When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered round Aaron and Said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”
The whole narrative extends from 32:1 to 34:7. Moses had ascended Mount Sinai and there received the law of God. But while he was away, the people became impatient, assumed that Moses had been killed, and decided to take matters into their own hands. The persuaded Aaron to construct an idol, before which they worshiped, and around which they revelled. They flaunted their rejection of God by engaging in sexual prostitution (32:6). As long as they continued with this sinfulness unconfessed, they risked (as Kaiser points out) the wrath of God (32:7-14), the loss of atonement (32:30-35), the loss of his God’s presence (33:1-17), and the loss of his goodness (33:18-34:7). But revival came in response to Moses’ intercessions on behalf of the people:-
On the basis of Moses’ arguments as a mediator and on the basis of the people’s repentance and attitude of contrition, these were the progressive steps of mercy and favour witnessed by Israel. First, the Lord relented in the threatened judgement (32:14). Second, the people were allowed to continue on the Canaan with divine guidance, not the presence of the Lord himself but that of a heavenly messenger (32:34; 33:1-2). Finally, the Lord Himself would once again accompany Israel on their journey to Canaan (33:15-17).
Kaiser, Quest for renewal, 48.
A later revival took place under Josiah. This awakening was preceded by desperate wickedness:-
2 Chron 33:21ff Amon was twenty-two years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem for two years. He did evil in the eyes of the Lord, as his father Manasseh had done. Amon worshipped and offered sacrifices to all the idols Manasseh had made.
After the atrocities committed by Amon, the eight-year-old Josiah began his reign. At the age of sixteen, ‘he began to seek the God of his father David’ (II Chron 34:3). The subsequent awakening appears to be a notable illustration of the sovereignty of God in revival:-
As far as the record goes, Josiah had no examples or guides to follow. A very early influence, prior to his coming to the throne, may have been the prophetess Huldah (34:26-28). But he surely did not have any help from his grandfather Manasseh, who reigned for fifty-five years and led a most disgusting life of wickedness and evil. Not only did that king set up pagan high places for the worship of strange gods, he also copied ‘the abominations of the heathen’ (2 Chron 33:2)…Next Manasseh’s son, Amon came to the throne, but he followed the wicked example of his father. After two years of ruling, his palace servants assassinated him. The people in turn ordered that those involved in this plot be put to death, for they were weary of all of the political corruption and intrigue. But no one seemed yet able to realize that their problems were moral and spiritual and had to do with their backslid condition.
Kaiser, Quest for renewal, 116f.
It was against this unhopeful background that God graciously sent spiritual renewal (chapter 34).
Turning now to the modern era of spiritual awakenings, we note that the Reformation followed a long period during which Roman Catholicism suffered many a crisis and was on the verge of disintegration:-
First of all, christendom was assaulted by appalling disasters. Famine often stalked the countryside, as it did with tragic consequences between 1315 and 1317. In 1347-8 the plague – the Black Death, killed about two-fifths of the population of Europe. incessant warfare demonstrated man’s brutality towards man…Half the popes between 1447 and 1517 had fathered illegitimate children and the papal court itself became a hotbed of conspiracies, plots and intrigues…The popes, almost without exception, were burdened with debts and new ways of raising revenue had to be devised, such as, for example…selling indulgences, or selling offices of profit in the papal court for annuities. But despite all their financial difficulties, the princes of the church lived a life of splendour and luxury if they had access to fruitful sources of revenue…Very few resident curates in parishes had received any education…And those who did graduate took their degrees in arts and in law rather than theology. This fitted men for administrative and legal posts rather than for providing enlightened teaching…The church was also plagued by immorality. The papacy and the cardinals set an appalling standard. But it is clear that the Roman Catholic Church’s insistence on celibacy, especially among unwilling people, created unnecessary moral scandals. Thus, towards the end of the fifteenth century in the diocese of Constance some 1,500 children were born annually to priests. The Church condoned their behaviour by exacting a cradle fee for each child and a concubinage fee from each offending clergyman.
Jones, The Great Reformation, 13f.
The Great Awakening
Conditions prior to the Great Awakening have been accurately summarised by P.V. Jenness as follows:-
The Reformation was a spent force. The ministry was largely corrupt. [Some]…sought in vain for a sound Gospel preacher in London. The Sabbath was a day of general carousal. Public blasphemy was common. Current literature and common conversation was lascivious and corrupt. God was openly defied. The outlook was dark indeed.
in Wallis, In the Day of Thy Power, 205.
As far as Wales was concerned at that time:-
Attendance at church was generally sparse and frequently irreverent. Outside, the churchyard would be the scene of any number of sports and pastimes: football and other ball-games, wrestling, bowls, skittles, cock-fighting, dancing to the tunes of pipes, fiddlers, harpists and minstrels. Inside the church, the scene left much to be desired. In 1703 Ellis Wynne had published his famous Gweleigaethau y Bardd Cwsg (Visions of the Sleeping Bard). One of these is of people at worship: “There I saw some whispering, some laughing; others eying young maidens; yet others surveying the dress of their neighbours from head to toe; some fighting and quarreling about privileged positions, some asleep, others diligent in their devotions, and some of these even were hypocrites.”
Evans, Daniel Rowland and the Great Evangelical Awakening in Wales, 12
J.C. Ryle records that:-
The celebrated lawyer, Blackstone, had the curiosity, early in the reign of George III, to go from church to church and hear every clergyman of note in London. He says that he did not hear a single discourse which had more Christianity in it than the writings of Cicero, and that it would have been impossible for him to discover, from what he heard, whether the preacher were a follower of Confucius, or Mahomet, or Christ.
J.C. Ryle, Christian Leaders of the 18th Century,
Similar circumstances were reported in New England:-
A vast change was visible in the churches of New England [in the early 18th century]: the discipline was relaxed, the doctrine was diluted, and the preaching tame and spiritless. A written form of words superseded the notes which had served for “a brief” in the pulpit; the confinement of the eye and the finger to the line, and the absorption of the minister in the reading of the scroll, left the young unawed and the aged slumbering, while the others glided in reveries to the farm or the traffic, the fireside or the forest.
Richard Webster, in Murray, Jonathan Edwards, 18
It may be useful to give a somewhat more detailed picture from a contemporary writer of conditions at this time:-
I conceive it will be useful to give a brief general view of the state of religion in these parts before this remarkable season. I doubt not then but that there were some sincerely religious people up and down; and there were, I believe, a considerable number in the several congregations, pretty exact, according to their education, in the observance of the external forms of religion…but with these things the most part seemed, to all appearance, to rest contented, and to satisfy their consciences with a dead formality in religion…A very lamentable ignorance of the main essentials of true practical religion, and the doctrines nextly relating thereunto, very generally prevailed. The nature and necessity of the new birth was but little known or thought of. The necessity of a conviction of sin and misery, by the Holy Spirit opening and applying the law to the conscience, in order to a saving closure with Christ, was hardly known at all to the most. It was thought that if there was any need of a heart-distressing sight of the soul’s danger, and fear of Divine wrath, it was only needful for the grosser sort of sinners; and for any others to be deeply exercised this way…was generally looked upon to be a great evil and temptation that had befallen these persons…Thus religion lay a-dying, and ready to expire its last breath of life in this part of the visible church.
Samuel Blair, in Gillies, Historical Collections, 343f
In this early part of the 18th century, then, the state of Christianity in most parts of the English-speaking world:-
appeared reminiscent of the wise and foolish virgins, ‘they all slumbered and slept’. There was small difference between the church and the world. Almost any degree of religious interest, or of adherence to the forms of religion, was considered enough to justify a person’s Christian profession, and all who grew up in the church were commonly treated as belonging to Christ, irrespective of evidence to the contrary.
Murray, Jonathan Edwards, 124f
The Second Great Awakening
Later in the same century (18th) another low-water mark was reached:-
Trevelyan, in his English Social History, specified the year 1776 in retrospect as the low-water mark in the ebb-tide of infidelity and of laxity of doctrine in England. It was also a significant date in American history, the date of the Declaration of Independence. And Tom Paine, a champion of American independence and advocate of the French revolution, popularized rationalistic deism as the proper doctrine for the emerging democracies. Paine’s writings were immensely popular and masses of restless people took hold of his ideas, abandoning orthodox Christianity.
Orr, The Light of the Nations, 15
At the same time:-
The noble figure of Thomas Jefferson, father of the American republic, lent much aid to the rapid spread of rationalistic deism in the newly independent United States. Jefferson was a deist, with a reverent attitude towards religion, and he claimed to be a Christian “in the sense that Jesus wished anyone to be, “though he did not make it clear how he knew what Jesus Christ wished in this regard. In fact, Jefferson compiled from the New Testament those sayings and doings of Jesus which met his approval, leaving aside every trace of the supernatural and every claim to Deity.
Orr, The Light of the Nations, 15
Meanwhile, Scotland was experiencing its own spiritual problems:-
Not only Arianism and Deism wrought a deadening work, but even greater havoc was wrought by lay-patronage, in which a patron without spiritual insight was free to inflict an unspiritual minister upon a church.
Orr, The Light of the Nations, 17f
During this period:-
the moderates preached morality, with almost nothing of the supernaturalism of true Christianity. They ignored the Fall of man, sneered at the idea of a new-birth, and said nothing of the perfection and power of the work of the Holy Spirit.
I.H. Murray, Thomas Chalmers and the revival of the church, 4.
The following anecdote illustrates well the lack of consciousness of sin:-
Preaching on one occasion as a visitor in the parish of Glenelg, [John Macdonald] was told by the minister after the service was over, ‘That was a very good sermon, I suppose, but it was unsuitable here; for you spoke all day to sinners, and I know only one in all my parish.’
I.H. Murray, op. cit., 5.
J. Edwin Orr has summarised conditions in the United States in the years preceding the 1858 revival:-
Between 1845 and 1855, religious life in the United States of America was in decline. There were many reasons for the decline, political and social as well as religious.
The question of slavery was of paramount importance and men’s passions and energies were being diverted into the channels of contention on either side of the controversy.
Many people at the time lost faith in spiritual things because of the extremes of apocalyptists who followed William Miller and others in predicting Christ’s return and reign in 1843 and in 1844. Public confidence became shaken as the excitement died down, some deluded victims becoming bitter infidels while others embraced materialism and quite a number were spoiled for Christian service. So widespread was the delusion that the churches became the subjects of ridicule and faith in religion was impaired.
Between 1845 and 1855, there were several years in which the number of church accessions scarcely kept pace with severe losses due to a relenting discipline and a relentless death-rate. The tide that had flowed in so strongly was now ebbing out rapidly.
There were secular factors operating as well. Financial and commercial prosperity had had an adverse effect upon the American people of the mid-century. The zeal of the people was devoted to the accumulation of wealth, and other things (including religion) took a lesser place. Cheap and fertile land attracted multitudes of settlers, and the frontier was pushed farther and farther back. Cities and states were founded in rapid succession and the population in them increased at an astonishing rate. Harvests were plenteous. Boom times caught the public fancy, and turned men’s hearts from God.
Secular and religious conditions combined to bring about a crash. The third great panic in American history swept the giddy structure of speculative wealth away. Thousands of merchants were forced to the wall as banks failed, and railroads went into bankruptcy. Factories were shut down and vast numbers thrown out of employment, New York City alone having 30,000 idle men. In October 1857, the hearts of people were thoroughly weaned from speculation and uncertain gain, while hunger and despair stared them in the face.
There had been a commercial revulsion, quite as widespread and unexpected, in the year 1837. It was tenfold more disastrous, yet it produced then no unusual turning to religion, no revolution of the popular mind, no upheaving of foundations. The people as a whole were far more intent upon examining the political and the economic causes of their pecuniary pressure than searching for a spiritual explanation. Now, in the United States and the world, distress preceded an awakening.
Orr, The light of the nations, 99f.
Things had also reached a low state in Wales in the years prior to the same great revival:-
For a year or so before 1859 among the Welsh churches there had been an increasing awareness of their low spiritual state. Prayer meetings were lifeless and weak, and the preaching, though orthodox, was ineffective…’Before the ’59 Revival’, said Principal T.C. Edwards of Bala, ‘the churches were withering away in our country; a wave of spiritual apathy and practical infidelity had spread over Wales.’ The world was becoming increasingly more blatant in its profanity and indifference. Young people were defecting from the earlier church affiliation, and the baser manifestations of a society adrift from its spiritual moorings were causing concern.
Evans, Two Welsh Revivalists, 38
The 20th Century
So it was again in the years leading up to the 1904 Revival in Wales. At the turn of the century a correspondent to a Christian periodical wrote of:-
low attendances at Sunday services, fellowship and prayer meetings, of a decline in Bible reading and family worship…People were turning away from solid preaching and praying and seeing the church more as a social meeting-place for the purpose of enjoyment. Bazaars, operettas, and similar events for raising funds were on the increase, while the spiritual appetite was becoming blunted and atrophied.
Evans, The Welsh Revival of 1904, 45
Surveying this particular aspect of the cycle of decline and renewal, Eifion Evans suggests:-
At the risk of over-simplification it can be maintained that the revivals of the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries came to an apostate, declining expiring Church, while those of the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries took place against the background of a dormant, listless and unconcerned Church. The former situation witnessed the mergence of particular doctrines and outstanding figures, while the latter situation was radically altered by invigorated prayer together with a return to the apostolic preaching of the whole counsel of God.
Evans, Revivals, 6f
And what of our own day? As we survey the scene in these last years of the 20th century, are we not compelled to say that as a society and as a church we have sinned in many ways, both in the evil we have done and in the good we have not done? Are not the words of J.S. Stewart just as true today as when they were written some 30 years ago?-
The term ‘revival’ presupposes a deterioration and declension; a falling away, a slackening of the reigns…It is a tragic fact that the vast majority of Christians today are living a sub-normal Christian life. So low has become the spiritual life of the average believer that the glorious state which revival brings would seem abnormal to him.
Stewart, Opened windows, 34.
This review of conditions prior to revival seems to confirm our belief in the sovereignty of God in revival. Revival comes, not when conditions are favourable, but when, from a human point of view, things have reached a low ebb. Then it is that God steps in and accomplishes this great work of grace and power. D.M. Lloyd-Jones asks:-
Is there anything that so demonstrates the sovereignty of God as revival? Think of it in terms of the timing of revival. When does revival come? The answer is not that it is when we have produced certain preliminary conditions, as Finney taught. No, God does it at unexpected times.
Lloyd-Jones, The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors, 19.
But we should reflect also upon the fact that these dark, lifeless periods prior to revival are dishonouring and displeasing to God. In his righteousness indignation he could pour out judgement; but in his mercy he sends salvation and forgiveness. But this points to the truth that judgement and mercy, far from being incompatible in the divine nature, are actually different but complementary facets of God’s glorious attributes, and are closely connected. Arthur Wallis remarks that:-