The One Book: Revival and Revivalism by Iain H. Murray
The Elizabethan polymath, Francis Bacon, counseled, “Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly.” Undoubtedly sound advice. But of the more than 300,000 books published annually in US, how is one to sort through such a smorgasbord of literary titles and select only the choicest delicacies? Getting others to recommend books that have impacted them is a good start, so let me introduce you to one that has been of tremendous help to me personally and professionally. The book, Revival & Revivalism by Iain H. Murray (Banner of Truth, 1994), uses the records of participants in both the First Great Awakening (1GA) and Second Great Awakening (2GA) to present a history of revivals in early America and their impact on modern American Christianity. Murray assesses both revivals through the lenses of history and theology and glimpses several important lessons for Christians and the Church. Let me mention just two.
The Importance of history to Christians
Murray showed me that history is an important tool for Christians because it helps us understand the present by understanding the past. Many assume the 1GA and 2GA were basically the same kind of revivals merely separated in time. Yet history helps us to see that such an assumption is far from the historical reality.
Murray documents that the 1GA, which occurred in the middle of the Eighteenth Century, was understood by the participants to be the unintended result of the normal use of the biblical means of prayer and preaching. The participants attested that these ordinary means were attended by increased instances of deep conviction, true conversions, and the spread of the gospel throughout the Colonies. These pastors didn’t get results; they watched God produce results, providentially using them as agents and their preaching as means. As one contemporary assessed it, “The Lord seems to have stepped out of the usual paths of ordinances, to effect this work more immediately in the displays of his Almighty power, and outpouring of his Spirit; probably to show that the work is his own” (pp. 128-9).
Murray convincingly shows that the 2GA in the early decades of the 1800s was surprisingly different. In raw numbers, it exceeded the 1GA in terms of how long it lasted, its wider geographic scope, the greater number of denominations involved, and the total increase in numbers of conversions and church membership.
Despite all of these outward signs of “success,” the 2GA struggled to pass the test for genuine revivals. While the leaders of the 1GA discouraged displays of enthusiasm as evidence of genuine work by the Holy Spirit, the leaders of the 2GA permitted and promoted excesses of emotionalism. First-hand accounts describe dancing, twitching, jerking, swooning, crying out, and even barking among the attendees! Later the 2GA moved away from such fanaticism, but Charles Finney, a leading preacher in its second phase, actively promoted techniques dubbed “New Measures,” designed to induce people to respond: falling as a physical response to preaching, lengthy meetings on successive evenings, and inviting individuals to “submit to God” and publically prove the authenticity of their resolution by coming forward to the “anxious bench.” These actions were supposed by many at the time to validate the 2GA’s success (298).
The Importance of Sound Doctrine for Shaping Practice
Murray also taught me that what we believe shapes what we do. While the two revivals differed in practice, more significantly, the theology which undergirded Finney’s New Measures was markedly different from that of the 1GA. The doctrinal stance of the 1GA leaders was a Calvinistic view of human inability, which held that sin had so impacted man’s will that the regenerative work of the Spirit must precede man’s ability to repent and believe. But Finney and other leaders of the 2GA presupposed an Arminian view and treated “believing and regeneration as amounting to the same thing” (363). This subordination of sound doctrine to manipulative technique meant that the preacher merely needed to provide the right inducements to incentivize a person to repent and believe.
With this important doctrinal shift, Murray argues, these differences in theology and methods represented a real watershed from a Spirit-led revival to a man-created revivalism. And it is the “New Measures” doctrine and practice that have shaped much of modern American Evangelicalism, including my own church background. With pastoral sensitivity for the church’s purity, Revival & Revivalism reminds us, “…God works in accordance with his Word. Without Scripture there is no ‘sword of the Spirit’….So the foremost role of the church is always to teach and preach the Word and the work of evangelism and the ingathering of souls is never to be considered as in tension with the maintenance of true doctrine” (359).
“Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do,
you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
James Rich is the Assistant Pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Harleysville, PA, and holds a Ph.D. in Church History from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He taught high school history and Bible and is an adjunct professor of history at Cairn University.