Yesterday, I spent some time building on Mike Walker’s call for prayer and fasting (and yesterday was my day of fasting). But as we talk a little bit about revival, it helps to look back to the past to understand what we’re talking about.
The Great Awakenings
Ian Murray’s Revival and Revivalism is a very readable and humbling treatment of the nature of true revival. He compares and contrasts the First and Second Great Awakenings (the first he sees as mostly good, the second as a mixed bag of true revival and emotional manipulation).
Murray quotes the great Samuel Davies from 1757 speaking of his experience of revival “…when all religious concern was much out of fashion, and the generality lay in a dead sleep in sin, having at best but the form of godliness, but nothing of the power; when the country was in peace and prosperity, free from the calamities of war, and epidemical sickness; when, in short, there were no extraordinary calls to repentance; suddenly a deep, general concern about eternal things spread through the country; sinners started out of their slumbers, broke off from their vices, began to cry out, What shall we do to be saved? And made it the great business of their life to prepare for the world to come. Then the gospel seemed almighty, and carried all before it. It pierced the very hearts of men with an irresistible power. I have seen thousands at once melted down under it; all eager to hear as for life, and hardly a dry eye to be seen among them.”(5)
Murray makes the point that revival isn’t something we declare – it isn’t an event that we promote with flyers and banners. True revival is a special outpouring of the Holy Spirit that with extraordinary power brings people to conviction of sin and turning to Christ as their sole hope for salvation and healing. He contends that these periods of revival were marked by several characteristics:
1) Catholicity of spirit – by which Murray means that we don’t let lesser points of theology divide us (here he means the classic Calvinist/Arminian divide). That doesn’t mean that they’re not important, but it does mean that they’re not as important as proclaiming the sinner’s inability to save himself and calling the sinner to repent and turn to Christ.
2) Experientially living the faith – not just having the dry bones of doctrine, but beseeching the Holy Spirit to work sin out of our lives and helping us to live rightly. This is especially needed in the lives of preachers, Murray contends. We should expect the gospel to work a change in our lives.
3) A concern to discern true repentance – revival is not about getting the sinner to sign on the dotted line, but to have the individual truly search his heart. It is usually accompanied by solemn and serious attention to the proclamation of God’s word.
4) An emphasis on prayer and preaching of the word as the means through which God works upon the hearts of hearers.
It is likely that if we look into the histories of many of our congregations and many of our families, we’ll find that we were touched by the First or Second Great Awakening.
My great great grandfather was RY Russell. He was born in 1800 in County Antrim, Ireland. His parents, William and Isabella, brought him to the United States in 1801 and settled in the upstate of South Carolina. He had a visionary experience at age 10, and at age 20 he gave his life to Christ during one of the camp meetings being held near his home. He abandoned his pursuit of a law degree to become a minister. He spent his entire life as a reasonably obscure pastor of the small farming community of Bullock’s Creek, SC.
But while a pastor, he saw revival happen in his church. His biographer Gerry West tells the story: “Under his leadership, the church grew in numbers and spirit. Preceding the Great Revival of 1832, a fervent spirit was stirring York county, and reverend Russell became the man-of-the-hour for the area. Russell had a wonderful ability in delivering a sermon in a most forceful manner and people came from all over the area to hear him preach. During the great revival, it is said that vast crowds flocked to God; believers rejoiced in their salvation, and sinners cried aloud for mercy.” (From the book “Star over Bullock’s creek” – self published by West).
In our own congregation here at Covenant-First, we experienced a prayer revival in 1828. The elders began to meet regularly each week to pray for revival. They encouraged congregation members to do the same. Note this – they didn’t pray that God would increase the numbers of the church – they simply prayed for revival. By the end of that year, the church membership rolls had shot up from around 200 to over 600, and our congregation (then First Presbyterian) became a major force within the city during that era.
Both Great Great Grandpa Russell and Covenant-First experienced the fruits of the Second Great Awakening. Look into your own histories to see what you might find – and then let’s set our hearts to prayer for yet another Awakening in our time.
Soli Deo Gloria