The GOSPEL TRUTH
REVIVALS OF RELIGION.
WILLIAM B. SPRAGUE, D. D.
PASTOR OF THE SECOND PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN ALBANY, N.Y.
EVILS TO BE AVOIDED IN CONNECTION WITH REVIVALS.
Romans xiv. 16.
"Let not then your good be evil spoken of."
This direction of the apostle was suggested by a particular case, which was the subject of controversy in the church at Rome, when this epistle was written. You will instantly perceive, however, that the rule here prescribed is of universal application, and that it is founded in general principles of Christian prudence and charity. The design of it is not only to direct us in the practice of that which is good, but to lead us to unite wisdom with our pious activity; that we may, so far as possible, prevent incidental evils from being connected with our well-meant efforts, and that our good may be inoffensive and irreproachable.
As there is no part of Christian conduct in relation to which this direction is not applicable, so, if I mistake not, it applies especially to the part which the church is called to take in a revival of religion, indeed to the whole economy of a revival. For as there is no department of religious action in which even good men are not liable to err, so there is no other field in which the Christian is called to labour, where there is greater danger of his being misled. There is in the minds of most men a tendency to extremes; and that tendency is never so likely to discover itself as in a season of general excitement. When men are greatly excited on any subject, we know that they are in far more danger of forming erroneous judgments, and adopting improper courses, than when they are in circumstances to yield themselves to sober reflection. Now as there is often great excitement in connection with a revival, there is the common danger which exists in all cases of highly excited feeling, that our honest endeavours to do right will result in more or less that is wrong; in other words, that we shall give occasion for our good to be evil spoken of.
The conclusion to which we should be brought on this subject from the very constitution of human nature, is in exact accordance with what we know of the history of revivals. There always has been, mingled with these scenes of divine power and grace, more or less of human infirmity and indiscretion; and in some cases, no doubt, in which there have even been many genuine conversions, there has been just reason to say, "what is the wheat to the chaff?" To say nothing of revivals in modern times -- whoever will read the history of the early revivals in New England, while he will find evidence enough that the presence and power of God was in them, and if he be a Christian, will regard the record of them as occupying one of the most blessed chapters in the history of the church, will nevertheless find just cause to weep, that they should have been clouded so much by the mistakes and infirmities even of good men. But those good men (some of them at least) lived to be satisfied that they were in the wrong; and it is to their honour that they acknowledged it; and it were impossible to read the record of their acknowledgment, without feeling a sentiment of veneration for their characters, and without wishing that the errors into which they fell, might, so far as they were themselves concerned, be blotted from the memory of the church.
I am aware, my friends, that in endeavouring to present before you the abuses to which revivals are liable, and with which they have always been, in a greater or less degree, connected, I am undertaking a task of peculiar delicacy; and I confess to you, that nothing but a strong and honest sense of duty would have led me to attempt it. I will state to you the considerations which have arisen to occasion this reluctance, and the manner in which I have felt myself obliged to dispose of them.
In the first place, I can hardly doubt, that an attempt to expose these evils may appear to some unnecessary. But so thought not the illustrious Edwards, when his discriminating and mighty mind was occupied in framing some of the most judicious treatises which the world has seen, for the very purpose of guarding against the abuses of revivals. On the title page of those books the church has written her own name, and she claims them as her property, in a higher sense than almost any thing else, except the Bible. And is it not manifest that that illustrious man judged rightly in composing them, and that the church has judged rightly in the estimate she has formed of them?
For who does not perceive, that if revivals of religion become corrupted, there is poison in the fountain whose streams are expected to gladden and purify? And who that is competent to judge, will doubt that those treatises have done more than any other uninspired productions, to maintain the purity of revivals, from the period in which they were written to the present? If Edwards has rendered good service to the church by writing these immortal works, then surely it cannot be unnecessary for other ministers to direct their humbler efforts to the same end. It is just as necessary now to distinguish between true and false experience, and between right and wrong conduct, in a revival of religion, as it ever has been in any preceding period; and the manner in which this duty is practically regarded, must always determine, in a great degree, the amount of blessing which any revival will secure.
But it may be said, also, that what I am about to attempt should be avoided, because it is fitted to awaken controversy. I acknowledge that controversy, on the subject of religion, is not in itself desirable; for it is exceedingly liable to wake up the bad passions of men. Nevertheless, there are some cases, in which we shall all agree that it is necessary to hazard the evils that may result from it. No being on earth ever awakened a more violent religious controversy than Jesus Christ; but if it had not been for this, where now would have been our blessed Christianity? So also, Luther, and Calvin, and Zwingle, and Knox, and the whole host of Reformers, excited a controversy concerning religion, which had well nigh set the world on fire; but if it had never existed, what evidence have you that the church would, to this hour, have witnessed the glorious Reformation. President Edwards published his "Thoughts on Revivals," and other invaluable works in connection with the same subject, at the expense of being denounced, even by some of his own brethren, as an enemy of revivals; but these publications have served to correct and prevent great abuses ever since; and if he had rendered the church no other service, for this alone she would have embalmed his memory. Controversy, then, though it is never to be desired for its own sake, cannot always be declined in consistency with Christian obligation, or without putting at fearful hazard the best interests of the church.
In the present case, however, permit me to say, that I have no intention to excite controversy, by attacking any man, or body of men. The evils which I shall endeavour to expose, are none of them peculiar to any one denomination of Christians, or to any particular period of the church: but they have existed at various periods, and among different sects; and there is always danger that they will exist, from the very constitution of human nature. If it should be said, that some of the remarks which I shall offer ought to be withheld, on the ground that they admit of application to an existing state of things in the church, I acknowledge that that seems to me a strong reason why they should not be withheld; for if the abuses of which I shall speak actually do exist in our own times, we are in the greater danger of falling into them, and in the greater need of being guarded against them; whereas, if they were only evils of other days, I might, in speaking of them, seem to be beating the air. But I utterly disclaim all responsibility in respect to any particular application. I only say that such abuses have existed -- do exist; but my province in respect to them is, not to charge them upon any individuals, or upon any particular portion of the church, but to endeavour to guard you against them. The only point for which I hold myself responsible is, that these are really evils, and ought to be avoided.
It may also occur to some, that an exhibition of the evils which are sometimes connected with revivals, may be fitted to injure the general cause, by leading many to the conclusion, that if ministers themselves acknowledge that there is so much chaff in them, probably the whole is delusion, and worthy to be regarded only with indifference or contempt. That some men may have taken refuge from the convictions of conscience in this miserable delusion, far be it from me to question; nevertheless, I am constrained to believe, that it is a rare case, in which any good cause is ultimately injured by telling the honest truth respecting it. Besides, you may be assured that the cause of revivals is far more likely to suffer by an attempt, on the part of its friends, to pass off every thing for gold, than by giving to that which is really dross its proper name. Suppose you should introduce a mere man of the world -- if you please, a man of high intellectual culture -- into a revival in which there should be gross disorder and fanaticism, and you should endeavour, without any qualifying remarks, to impress him with the importance of the work that was going forward -- it is altogether probable he would say, or at least think, if that were a revival, he had seen enough of it -- and if that were religion, the less he had of it the better. But suppose you should say to him, of all that is disorderly -- "that is the mere operation of human infirmity or passion -- the chaff mingling with the wheat;" and of all that is good and praise-worthy -- "that is the genuine operation of the Holy Spirit;" and he would not improbably, in view of that distinction, acknowledge the reality and importance of the work. You cannot, even if you would, make sensible men think, in ordinary cases, that that is religion, or part of a revival of religion, which is not so; and any attempt of this kind is exceedingly liable to awaken their hostility to the whole subject. Irreligious men are generally ready enough to admit the correctness of any distorted accounts of religion, especially if they get them on so good authority as that of Christians themselves; for. every such account furnishes them with an argument against the whole subject, and puts their consciences into a still deeper lethargy.
And, finally, I can suppose it may appear to some, that any attempt to expose the evils incidentally connected with revivals, may be fraught with danger, inasmuch as it is acknowledged, on all hands, that these evils exist among good men, and withal are connected with much that is praiseworthy; and it may be thought safest to let the tares and wheat flourish together, lest an attempt to remove the former, should expose the latter. As to the fact that the evils to which I refer have been found among truly devoted men, there is no ground for question. Even the well-known Mr. Davenport, who was for a while an apostle of fanaticism, and who publicly denounced, and prayed for, by name, many of the most eminent ministers of New England as the enemies of revivals, was nevertheless, beyond a peradventure, a good man; and thought, that in all his irregularities, he was faithfully serving his Master: but he did not think so always; for he afterwards penitently and publicly acknowledged his error, and even justified the severest censure which his conduct had received. Yes, I repeat, good men do fall into these excesses; and so, also, good men are sanctified but in part. And as we do not fear that any scriptural endeavours to purify them from remaining corruption will exert a bad influence upon their Christian graces, so we ought not to apprehend, that any judicious efforts to correct the errors to which I refer, will serve in any degree to abate their truly Christian zeal and activity. There are cases, I acknowledge, in which great evils must be tolerated for a season, because any attempt to remove them would only make way for greater ones; but nothing is more certain, than that to tolerate evil in good men because they are good men, is directly contrary both to the spirit and letter of the gospel. And besides, the very fact that there is much that is praiseworthy in their characters, and much that is benign in their influence, is a reason why we should do all in our power to remove whatever may, in any degree, impair their usefulness. We would treat good men in this respect as in every other: while we would acknowledge them good, we would strive to make them better and more useful.
I have now stated to you the grounds of the delicacy which I have felt in bringing this subject before you, on the one hand, and the grounds of my conviction that my duty as a Christian minister would not permit me to pass it by, on the other. Some of the evils to which I have referred in general, I proceed now more distinctly to consider.
1. One prominent evil to be guarded against in a revival, is the cherishing of false hopes.
I surely need not undertake to prove that this is an evil, and one of appalling magnitude; for a false hope, at the gate of eternity, is a passport to hell; and such a hope, once indulged, is exceedingly apt to hold its place till the last, though it sometimes lurks in the bosom, almost unobserved, even by the individual who is the subject of it. And where it is given up, it more commonly makes way for a kind of vague scepticism in respect to all experimental religion, and steels the conscience, in a great measure, against future conviction. 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.
Now I admit, that in every case of supposed conversion there is a liability to a false hope. Let a revival be conducted with as much wisdom as it may, and there is danger that there will be some cases of self-deception. And the reason is obvious. For the first evidence upon which the mind fastens, is a change of feeling. But some of the operations of animal passion appear so much like truly gracious affections, that even advanced Christians often mistake, in their endeavours to distinguish between them. Certainly, then, there is far greater danger that those who have had no experience in religion, and who withal are eagerly looking out to catch the first gleam of evidence that they have been renewed -- there is far greater danger that they will mistake some accidental and joyous, yet temporary commotion of the animal feelings, for the exercise of a principle of true piety. I am sure that every person who has been conversant with revivals, must acknowledge that this in accordance with fact. Who that has mingled even in the most genuine revival, has not witnessed, in some instances at least, a painful exemplification of the character of the stony-ground hearers, in whom, for a while, there was much that looked like religion, but because the principle was wanting, it all gradually withered away?
Now, if there is danger of the indulgence of a false hope in every case, there is special danger of it under particular circumstances. The change which takes place in conversion is of a moral nature: it has its seat in the soul, and nowhere else. There is no natural connection between this change and any bodily postures or movements. If then the idea be held out, that conversion is usually associated with the loss of bodily strength, or with any remarkable bodily motions, or that it is more likely to happen to an individual in one place, or one posture, than another, where the same truths are proclaimed, and the same prayers offered -- 'there is great danger that this will lead to self-deception -- that, with unreflecting minds at least, that bodily exercise which profiteth little, will be put in place of that godliness which has the promise of eternal life. There is danger that the individual will substitute what is considered an external expression of anxiety for his soul, for the internal workings of genuine conviction; or if there be something of true conviction, there is danger that he will mistake the physical act of taking a particular place or posture, which is spoken of as peculiarly favourable to conversion, for the spiritual act of yielding up the soul to the Saviour,
Again, The instrument by which every conversion is effected is God's truth. If then, ministers, during a revival, fail to hold up the truth in its distinctive and commanding features, and confine themselves principally to impassioned addresses, and earnest, exhortatory appeals, there is great reason to apprehend many spurious conversions. God requires, indeed, that the truth should be preached in an earnest manner; but it must be the truth that is preached; and that only he will honour in the conversion of men. I appeal to the whole record of revivals for evidence, that where any thing has been substituted, to any extent, in place of this -- where exhortation, instead of holding its proper place, has taken the place of instruction, there has been the least of sound, deep, abiding, religious impression, and there have been found the greatest number of hopeful converts, whose subsequent experience has proved that they had no root in themselves.
Still farther. The change which the soul experiences in regeneration is a change of mighty import -- nothing less than a new creation -- old things passing away, and all things becoming new. Any course of instruction, then, which should leave the impression that it may be accomplished independently of a divine influence -- or that a man has nothing to do but to wish himself a Christian, in order to become one -- or that it is as easy to change one's heart from the love of sin to the love of holiness, as to change one's purpose in respect to any worldly concern, or to perform any physical act, -- any such course of instruction, I say, must necessarily expose to self-deception; because it represents the conversion of the soul to God as comparatively a small matter: and if that impression be gained, how reasonable to expect, that the individual should suppose himself converted, when he is not so! The way of effecting true conversions, no doubt, is, to represent the work to be done in all its magnitude, and then to bring out the very mind of the Spirit in respect to the manner of doing it, and the means by which it is to be accomplished.
I think you will agree with me, my friends, that, in any of the circumstances which I have here supposed, there is special danger that sinners will take up with false hopes. There is yet another course of treatment which is extremely well adapted to cherish and confirm such hopes. Let the sinner who has actually deceived himself, hear his supposed conversion spoken of with as much confidence as if it were known to be a genuine one -- let him hear himself constantly numbered among the converts, and by those in whose judgment and experience he confides -- let there be little or nothing said that implies the possibility of his being deceived, and let every thing that is done, in respect to him, seem to take for granted that he stands on safe ground -- and, above all, let him immediately be introduced into the church, -- and if he ever wakes out of that delusion, believe me, it will be little less than a miracle. This last step, particularly, is fitted, more than any other, to entrench him in a habit of self-security, which he will probably carry with him to his death-bed.
2. Another of the evils to be guarded against in a revival, is a spirit of self-confidence.
Even advanced Christians are liable to this, and sometimes exhibit it in a degree that is truly humiliating. While they are witnessing the powerful operation of God's Spirit, in the conviction and conversion of sinners, and are actively engaged in helping on the work, they lose sight, in some degree, of the fact, that they are but unworthy instruments; and though there may be an acknowledgment of divine agency occasionally upon their lips, yet in their hearts they are really taking to themselves the glory. I need not speak of the manner in which this spirit discovers itself, in the part which they bear in a revival, for no one who witnesses its operation can easily mistake it; but I may say, with confidence, that wherever it exists, it mars the beauty, and detracts from the purity, and hinders the efficacy, of the work.
But I refer here more particularly to a self-confident spirit, as it is often exhibited by young converts; and let me say, that the very same course of treatment to which I have just adverted, as being fitted to cherish and confirm a false hope, is adapted to awaken, even in those who have been truly converted, a spirit of self-confidence. This is a great evil, as it respects their own growth in grace. Wherever it exists, there will be little of self-examination; little sense of the need of being constantly taught and guided by the Holy Spirit; little of that humility which becomes a sinner redeemed by the blood of Christ, and saved by sovereign grace; and, I may add, little of that gratitude, which looks, in acts of faith and praise, toward the Lamb that was slain. That there may be much of zeal, connected with self-confidence in a young Christian, cannot be questioned; though it may reasonably be doubted, whether even that is altogether of heavenly origin: but, whether it be so or not, it usually happens, where it is found in connection with this spirit, that the flame burns with diminished brightness, until it has nearly died away.
Nor is this spirit less prejudicial to the young Christian, as connected with his usefulness. In a young convert, especially, nothing is so lovely as humility. Let him show by his deportment, rather than by his professions, that he often turns his eye upon the hole of the pit from which he hopes he has been taken -- that if he has obtained mercy, he feels that he deserves nothing but wrath -- and that, for ought he knows, he may be indulging the hope of the hypocrite -- certainly that he has much to do to make his calling and election sure, -- I say, let him manifest such a spirit in his conduct, and it will give him favour with all with whom he associates; and it will secure him access to many hearts, which might otherwise be barred against his influence. But let him, on the other hand, speak of his conversion as if he were sure it was genuine -- let him refer with confidence to the very moment when it occurred -- let him talk of it as an event that has been brought about by mere human agency -- and let him say to others, by his deportment, "Stand by, I am holier than thou," -- and you may rest assured, especially if he be a young person, that he can have little hope of accomplishing much for the cause of Christ. There will be something in his very manner to repel those whom he should desire to win; and though he may console himself, in view of his unsuccessful efforts, by thinking and speaking of the obstinacy of sinners, yet it were more reasonable that he should humble himself, that, if he be a Christian, his conduct, in this very particular, indicates so much of remaining infirmity and corruption.
3. Another lamentable evil incident to revivals, is a spirit of censoriousness.
No doubt there is much in the conduct of many Christians and ministers, at such a time, 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 that censorious, denouncing spirit, to which I here refer; which, though it be exercised in reference to religion, is nothing better than the spirit of the world. And it is easy to see how it gets into operation even in good men. Their minds are awake to the great subject of the soul's salvation, and they are oppressed by its amazing weight. They feel that something efficient ought to be done -- must be done, to wake up a slumbering world; and they desire that all Christians should go along with them in their efforts. In this state of mind, they are prepared for nothing but cordial co-operation; and where they do not find it, corrupt nature takes advantage of the excitement they have reached, and the disappointment they feel, and perhaps withal of a naturally ardent temperament, to discharge itself not only in grievous complaints, but sometimes even bitter invective. This is the most favourable account of the exercise of this spirit. There are other cases, no doubt, in which it is identified with a spirit of self-righteousness; in which the secret and prevailing feeling of the heart is, that heaping censure upon others is an easy way of laying up treasure in heaven; that to complain of the coldness and worldliness of our fellow Christians, is an evidence of zeal and devotion in ourselves. But let this spirit have its origin in whatever state of mind it may, we shall all agree that it is a serious evil, and ought to be guarded against with the utmost care.
It is not uncommon to find this spirit marking the conduct of private Christians towards each other. There are some who will condemn their brethren as cold Christians, or perhaps even no Christians at all, because, with less of constitutional ardour 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. Many a Christian, who has been labouring faithfully and judiciously for the salvation of sinners, whose closet has witnessed to the fervour of his devotion, and whose conversation has been according to the gospel of Christ, has not only been suspected by his brethren of coldness, for some one or other of the reasons just mentioned, but has been marked, and denounced, and even prayed for, as dead to the interests of revivals, if not dead in trespasses and sins.
On the other hand, it is not to be questioned, that men of a cautious habit, who are constitutionally afraid of excitement, sometimes unjustly accuse their more zealous brethren of rashness, and impute to spiritual pride what really ought to be set to the account of an honest devotedness to Christ. Especially, if real and great abuses actually exist, they may be so much afraid of coming within the confines of disorder, that they may rush to the opposite extreme of formality; and from that cold region they may look off upon the Christian who evinces nothing more than a consistent and enlightened zeal, and hail him as if he were burning to death in the very torrid zone of enthusiasm.
The same spirit which discovers itself in private Christians toward each other, is also frequently manifest in respect to different churches. A church which is abundantly blessed with revivals, may condemn, with a high hand, another church, in which, though religion may not be in a languishing state, yet there may never have been any general and sudden effusion of the Holy Spirit. And this may be attributed most unjustly to a cold ministry, or to some signal want of faithfulness in the members; when the fact, that the church is really in a flourishing state, (its interests being sustained by gradual, rather than by sudden accessions,) is entirely overlooked. And, where there is not only the absence of revivals, but the spiritual interests of a church are really depressed, it is still more common to hear the case spoken of with an air of unchristian severity; and not unfrequently, there is something like a sentence of reprobation passed upon the whole body, as if they were indiscriminately a company of backsliders. Or where a church differs from another in its views of the economy of revivals, it may denounce that other as chilled with the frost of apathy on the one hand, or scorched with the fires of fanaticism on the other; when, as the case may be, the church that is the object of censure may hold correct and scriptural ground. Any church, whether it be distinguished by its zeal, or its want of zeal, that takes the responsibility of dealing out violent censures upon its sister churches, especially if they are walking in the faith and order of the gospel, certainly assumes a degree of responsibility which it can ill afford to bear; and it will have no just ground for surprise, if it should meet a painful retribution, not only in bringing back upon itself the censures of men, but in bringing down upon itself the displeasure of God.
And 1 am constrained to go farther, and say that ministers have sometimes erred in the same manner, judging each other as fanatics, or as drones; some supposing that their brethren were setting the world on fire, when they shed around them no worse light than that of sober consistent zeal; and others, that their brethren were in the very valley of death, as it respects religious feeling, when the principle of spiritual life was beating in strong and vigorous pulsations. I will say nothing of what exists on this subject in our own day; but I refer you to what has been in other days. I point you, for examples, to men who have long since been in their graves, and whose joy in the world of glory, will not be interrupted by our learning wisdom from the imperfections of which they are now entirely free, and which they lived bitterly to lament. In the revivals which are recorded in the early part of the history of New England, there were a considerable number of ministers, and among them the individual to whom I have already referred, as distinguished for his extravagance, who declared the mass of their brethren to be unconverted men; who denounced them as leading souls to hell; and who endeavoured, by every means in their power, to alienate from them their congregations, that they might bring them under the influence of what they regarded a more faithful ministry. This unhappy faction, from the nature of the case, was not of long continuance; it could not be, because it lived upon the highest excitement, -- but it lasted long enough to counteract, to a melancholy extent, the benign effects of that work of grace; long enough to entail upon at least two generations, its destructive consequences. If you read the history of those days, or rather of those men, there will be every thing to make you weep, until you come to the delightful fact that they saw their error, and acknowledged it, and wept over it themselves.
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. Brethren, no apology can be offered for this -- not even the semblance of an apology. Christian charity herself can record nothing better concerning such a prayer, than that it breathes the spirit of the world in one of its most odious forms. Whatever degree of religious indifference may have called it forth, it certainly cannot furnish a juster cause for humiliation than does the prayer itself.
4. Inconstancy in religion is another evil to be avoided in connection with revivals.
Men are exceedingly prone to vibrate from one extreme to the other; and it is a law of human nature, that a very powerful excitement, in respect to the same individuals, cannot long be sustained. Hence there is danger that Christians, from the excitement to which they are liable during a revival, will gradually fall into a state of spiritual languor, and will even give occasion for the cutting inquiry, "What do ye more than others?"
Now what might be expected from the very tendencies of human nature to happen, we find actually does happen, both in respect to individuals and churches. Who has not seen the Christian, during a revival, seeming to be constantly on the mount, both of enjoyment and of action; willing apparently to wear himself out in the service of his Master, and for the salvation of souls; and in a few months after comparatively silent and inactive, and insensible on the great subject which had so lately occupied him, almost to the exclusion of every other? And who that has been much conversant with revivals, has not seen a church, during one of these seasons of special blessing, waking up to a lively sense of obligation, sending up united, and holy, and strong supplications, and labouring incessantly, with an eye now on the cross, and now on the judgment seat, and now on the crown of life; and the same church, at a subsequent period, apparently forgetting their responsibility, becoming cold in their devotions, and relaxing in all their efforts for the salvation of men? In the one case, you would have supposed, from their fidelity, that they were marching on to a high state in glory; in the other, you would, especially if you had turned your eye off from the Bible, have almost been ready to doubt the perseverance of the saints.
Now, wherever this state of things exists, it is a serious evil, both as it respects the church and the world. It is so to the church; because it mars the consistency and beauty of her character, lessens the amount of her communion with her Head, and renders her light comparatively dim and feeble, when she is commanded to let it shine with a steady brightness. It is an evil to the world; inasmuch as it casts an air of suspicion, in the view of many, over the reality and importance of revivals; and leads them to imagine, that Christians work hard one day to purchase the privilege of doing nothing the next; and that a revival is a matter to be got up and laid aside, at the pleasure of those who engage in it. It leads them, moreover, to think less than they otherwise would of the good influence of Christians when they attempt to exert it; and when, in more favoured seasons, they show themselves active, and endeavour to rouse up the sinner's slumbering conscience, not improbably their exertions will be unavailing, from his recollection of their indifference at other times, and his impression that their zeal is a mere creature of circumstances.
You will all agree with me that this is a great evil, and ought to be guarded against with the utmost caution. One means of avoiding it, is by endeavouring to keep down animal passion, especially at the height of the revival, when it is most likely to be awakened; for the stronger the excitement of the animal nature, the greater the tendency to a universal re-action. Another means is, by endeavouring to keep up spiritual feeling, when the general excitement attending a revival begins to pass away; for that is the critical time when religious languor usually first creeps over the soul. By using the proper caution at these two points, the church may effectually avoid the evil which I am considering; and instead of becoming listless at the close of a revival, she may show that she has renewed her strength for subsequent labours and conflicts.
5. Another evil to be guarded against, in connection with revivals, is ostentation.
I refer not here to the manner in which revivals are sometimes conducted, (having adverted to that already,) but to the manner in which they are represented, both in common intercourse, and through the press: and I cannot doubt, that, in respect to both, there is much that no discreet Christian can contemplate without regret and disapprobation.
It is not uncommon, during the progress of a revival, and sometimes in an early stage of it, to hear its glorious results spoken of with as much confidence as if they had actually been realized. Particular religious exercises, which may have been attended with unusual solemnity, are represented as having secured the conversion not only of a great, but a definite number of souls. One is represented as having preached, another as having prayed, another as having talked, so many sinners into the kingdom. Perhaps the infidel has professed suddenly to renounce his infidelity, and embrace the Saviour; or perhaps the profligate has wept in view of his profligacy, and resolved to enter upon a new life: these cases are confidently spoken of as instances of genuine conversion; and, what is still worse, they are too often spoken of as such in the presence of the very persons who are the subjects of them. It is easy to see, that, if the individuals are true converts, the effect of this must probably be to inflate them with spiritual pride; if they are not true converts, it must fearfully aid the work of self-deception. It leaves a bad impression also upon the world; for it is the exact opposite of that humility, that sense of dependence, that disposition to acknowledge God in every spiritual blessing, which constitute some of the loveliest features of Christian character.
But what I chiefly refer to under this article is, the ostentatious complexion, and the premature date, of many of those narratives of revivals which are given to the world through our religious periodicals. It is only honest to acknowledge, that many of them, though evidently dictated by a desire to do good, are yet eminently fitted to do evil. They are written in the midst of strong excitement, when the mind is most in danger of mistaking shadows for substances; when its strong hopes that much is about to be done, are easily exchanged for a conviction that much has been actually accomplished. Hence all who are supposed to appear more serious than usual, are reckoned as subjects of conviction; and all who profess the slightest change of feeling, are set down as converts. And particular instances are detailed, in which very obstinate sinners have been made very humble, and then have become entranced with bright visions of the Saviour; and other cases are mentioned, in which a child has pressed forward into the kingdom, in spite of the opposition of a wicked parent; or a wife, notwithstanding she was persecuted by an ungodly husband. Now the narrative, containing these particulars, goes abroad into the world, and almost of course comes back immediately into the congregation whose religious state it professes to describe. And what think you will probably be the effect? What will it be upon those who here find it announced to the world that they have been converted, and perhaps read a high-wrought and glowing story of their conversion? What, especially, must it be on those who are represented as having been the subjects of a miracle of grace; as having been great sinners, and now having become great saints? If they are really converted, the effect of this must be, as in the case just mentioned, to lessen their humility, and open their hearts to temptation. If they are cherishing a false hope, it cannot fail to add to its strength. And if, before the narrative meets them, as is a very supposable case, they have cast off their serious impressions, and returned to the world, it must provoke and irritate them; and thus fearfully increase their obduracy, and render their salvation still more improbable. And what effect will this be likely to have upon those who are designated, (if not by name, yet so as to be identified,) as having been distinguished for their malignant opposition to the work? It will awaken in them the spirit of fiends. It will embolden them to fight still more furiously against God, and against his people, and not improbably to do that which will seal their perdition. And what must its effect be upon the surrounding world? What, when they compare the written statement with what has fallen under their own observation, and find a sad disagreement? Must it not be to create and cherish a prejudice against all revivals? Must it not throw an air of suspicion over every statement respecting them which they either hear or read? Must it not even bring in question the veracity of good men?
You will by no means understand me, as intimating any disapprobation of publishing, at a proper time, even detailed accounts of revivals. So far from this, that I regard it as due to the church, due to the honour of Him whom we acknowledge as the great Agent in revivals, that such accounts should in due time be sent forth. But let them not, in ordinary cases, be written, until the true results of the revival are in some measure known; certainly, let them be confined to palpable facts, which no one can gainsay. Let them be framed with a deliberate recollection that they are to be scanned by multitudes; that they are to exert an influence either for or against the cause of revivals; and that God is not honoured, but offended, by the least attempt to go beyond the truth, even in recording the triumphs of his grace. It is a matter of importance, that all narratives of this kind should be furnished by competent and responsible persons -- those who have opportunity to know the facts, and ability properly to estimate them. While it cannot be questioned, that there are many instances, at the present day, in which the evil of which I am speaking is strikingly exemplified, it is an occasion for joy, that there are many other cases, in which revivals are detailed seasonably, judiciously, and in a manner fitted, in all respects, to subserve the cause of truth and piety.
6. Undervaluing divine institutions, and divine truth, is another evil which often exists in connection with revivals.
It is common, and no doubt right too, during a season of special attention to religion, to increase the number of occasional services during the week; and especially the number of meetings for social prayer. And it is desirable that Christians should feel a deep interest in these exercises, and should regard it as not less a duty than a privilege to engage in them, as their circumstances may admit. But they are not to be considered, in the strict sense, as divine institutions; for, though there is a fair warrant for them in the general spirit of the gospel, and, as we believe, even a direct sanction in apostolic usage, yet the regulation of them is a matter which God has been pleased to leave to the wisdom of the church; and whenever Christians exalt them to an equality with those institutions which are strictly divine, they may expect to incur the displeasure of the Master, as well as lose the benefit which these exercises are adapted, when kept in their proper place, to impart. But there is reason to apprehend, that many Christians, during a season of revival, actually do, in their feelings, attach an importance to these services which is even paramount to that which they recognise as belonging to the public exercises of the Lord's day. The secret feeling of the heart, there is reason to believe, often is, that to attend public worship on the Sabbath, though it is a duty, has yet too little in it that is distinctive and out of the common course, to be regarded with very deep interest; whereas those services which are observed during the week, and which seem more like a free-will offering, rise in their estimation to the highest degree of importance. There is in all this, no doubt, more or less of self-righteousness -- a sort of unacknowledged and perhaps undetected feeling, that the eye of God rests upon them even with more favour, when they are rendering him a service which he has left in some measure to their own discretion, than when they are walking in the plain and broad path of his direct commandments. These occasional services, I repeat, are not to be undervalued; for they are important helps, in every point of view, towards sustaining and carrying forward a revival; but that we may reap the benefit they are designed to secure, we must give them no higher place than the great Head of the church has manifestly assigned to them.
And while there is danger that the social exercises which the church may establish during a revival, may lead to too low a comparative estimate of the stated services of the Sabbath, there is perhaps equal danger, that they may bring into some degree of disregard the duties of the closet. Especially if these occasional exercises are greatly multiplied, the time which is requisite for attending them, beside other duties of a more secular nature, may leave but little opportunity for self-communion, reading the Scriptures, and private prayer; and there is reason to fear, that, sometimes at least, the Christian makes a compromise with his conscience, for at least a partial neglect of these latter duties, by calling to mind his exemplary diligence and constancy in respect to the former. And besides, there is no doubt that it lays his powers under far less contribution, to be engaged in a constant round of social exercises which are fitted to excite the mind, than to enter into his closet, and commune with himself, and apply the truths and precepts of the gospel, for the regulation of his affections and conduct. It is to this practical error, I doubt not, that we are to attribute, in a great degree, the fact, that many Christians, who engage with much interest in a revival, still seem to turn it to so little account as it respects their own personal piety. Nothing is more certain, than that the neglect of closet duties, whatever other duties may be performed, must wither the believer's graces, and render his Christian character sickly and inefficient.
If you would avoid the evil which is here contemplated, and secure the good which is aimed at by those who incur the evil, let God's institutions be kept in their proper place. Regard the public services of the Sabbath as far the most important which you can attend. Think it however a blessed privilege, that you may meet for religious purposes frequently at other times; but never let such meetings be a substitute for secret devotion. And if the effect of them should ever be to keep you away from your closet, or to give you a disrelish for its duties, you need no other evidence that there is something wrong; either that your attendance on these social services is too frequent, or not with the right spirit.
Nor is there less danger that a revival may be perverted to the undervaluing of God's truth. At such a time, especially, men love to be excited; and while those who hear the preaching of the word are apt to delight in those stirring and earnest appeals which are most fitted to rouse the feelings, there is a strong temptation on the part of ministers to feed this passion for excitement, by limiting themselves to a few topics of exhortation, rather than by holding up gospel truth in all its extent and fulness. And in this way it often comes to pass, that there is an aversion contracted to instructive preaching; the doctrines of the Bible come to be regarded, both by people and ministers, as comparatively tame; and 1 hardly need say, that, as a consequence, the ministry loses much of its real efficiency, and the piety of the church languishes for want of its appropriate nourishment.
Nor is this all. It cannot be questioned that revivals are sometimes made the occasion, not only of inspiring a disgust for sober scriptural doctrine, but of introducing into the church a flood of error. Ministers, in seasons of great excitement, and in the desire of saying something that shall seize hold of the feelings, sometimes make unguarded expressions, which involve some important error; and if these expressions seem to be followed by good effects, they are in danger of repeating them, until they come really to adopt the error which is thus involved. And then again, the excited multitude in such circumstances are usually carried away by the appearance of great zeal and earnestness; and he who evinces the most of these qualities is almost sure to be the favourite preacher: and if he be disposed to commingle error with truth, there is every probability, that, in many instances at least, the one will be received with the other, without inquiry or suspicion. Such has been the history of the introduction and progress of some of the wildest reveries and grossest errors, which have disturbed the peace, and marred the purity, of the church. Let ministers and private Christians, those who preach and those who hear, be alike on their guard against this tremendous evil.
7. There are certain things which sometimes occur during a revival, that are fitted to impair the dignity and lessen the influence, of the ministerial office; an evil which should always be guarded against with great caution.
It must be acknowledged that ministers themselves not unfrequently contribute to this unhappy result. Sometimes they are carried away by strong excitement into the region of extravagance, and even gross fanaticism, and say and do things, under this influence, which, in their cooler moments, will take them to their closets for confession and humiliation. In other cases, they come, perhaps honestly, to the conclusion, that some new expedient is necessary to secure attention: and the result is, that they come out with something which not only offends a correct taste, but shocks all the finer sensibilities, or, as the case may be, convulses the audience with laughter. Let a minister be as plain, as earnest, as faithful as he will -- but the moment he violates the decorum due to the place in which he stands, or the work in which he is engaged -- the moment he introduces, or even tolerates, any thing like confusion in the worship of God, -- then, rely on it, he sins against the dignity of his office. He does that which is fitted not merely to lessen his own influence with all men of discreet and sober minds, but in the view of multitudes, he brings the ministerial office itself into contempt. There are enough who would be glad to take such a mistaken course as a sample of the deportment of ministers in general; and a single instance of this kind furnishes them with a text-book for censure and ridicule, which they are sure to use to the best advantage.
The same evil, also, frequently results from a virtual assumption of the sacred office, by men who have neither the proper warrant nor the requisite qualifications. Not that I would intimate that judicious and intelligent laymen have nothing to do in public, beyond merely conducting the devotions of the congregation: I would have them, in many instances at least, ready to impart the word of exhortation; and in private their labours may turn to great account, in the way of counselling persons in different states of mind; but I would have it always borne in mind, that the ministry is an institution of God's appointment, and that the man who performs the appropriate duties of this office, without being regularly called to it, is chargeable with running before he is sent. And just in proportion as this is actually done -- just in proportion as men set at naught the scriptural rules pertaining to order on this subject, you may expect to see the influence of the ministry paralyzed. Let this be generally done, and who will yield to it the reverence which it claims as an institution of God?
8. There is danger, during a revival, of setting up false standards of Christian character.
Men are perpetually prone to mistake the circumstantials of religion for the substance of it. If this is owing partly to human infirmity, it is owing still more to human corruption -- to an aversion from that self-denial which is involved in the practice of the genuine Christian virtues. This tendency frequently discovers itself even in good men; and perhaps never more frequently than during a season of revival.
There is special danger, that, at such a time, the means of religion will be substituted for religion itself. As means are of no importance in any other department of action, except as they are related to the end, and may tend to secure it, so they are of no use in any other point of view in the department of religion. Means are of use as it respects the sinner, when they bring him to repentance; and as it respects the Christian, when they build him up in faith and holiness: and any use of them which does not lead to these results, will aggravate the condemnation of the one, and retard the sanctification of the other. But there is great reason to fear, that, in seasons of revival, many Christians, in examining themselves, and estimating their growth in grace, do not go much farther than to inquire how many meetings they have attended, or how many they have failed to attend.
Instead of asking themselves, whether the means they are using are accomplishing their end -- whether their love, and faith, and humility, and all other Christian graces, are quickened, or deepened, or brightened, by what they are doing, -- they satisfy themselves with i the bare use of the means, and mistake a secret self-complacency for the testimony of a good conscience. It is not uncommon to place the evidence of Christian character, especially during a revival, in talking abundantly and fervently on the subject of religion. True it is, that out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh; and it is impossible that religion should be in lively exercise in the soul, without giving a character to the conversation. But, at the same time, the mere fact that an individual makes the subject of religion a constant topic in certain circumstances, and even dwells upon it with great fervour, is the most equivocal evidence of true piety that can be imagined. Who has not heard the man actually under the influence of the intoxicating cup, talk of his experiences and of his joys, as if he thought himself on the threshold of heaven? And who has not been sometimes shocked, in hearing glowing statements in respect to revivals of religion, and deep lamentations over the coldness of Christians, and strong expressions of devotedness to Christ -- who has not been shocked, I say, to find himself listening to a man, whose character he knew to be openly stained with pollution, or marked by fraud or falsehood? I say, then, that while an entire silence on the subject of religion reasonably subjects one's Christian character to great suspicion, a disposition to converse much upon it does not of itself constitute any evidence of piety, or of growth in piety, that can be relied on. This is a matter which often depends more on constitutional temperament than any thing else. Of two Christians who have the same degree of grace, and have it in the same degree of exercise, one will speak out his feelings far more readily than the other, owing solely to a difference of original constitution. And what is a more striking case still, one being of a self-confident turn, may talk like an angel about his hopes and his joys, and another, being constitutionally distrustful, may speak hesitatingly, and rarely at all, of his religious experience; and yet the former may be a miserable hypocrite, the latter a devoted Christian. But is it not true, that in revivals especially, we are too prone to estimate the piety, both of ourselves and others, by this most uncertain standard? Is there not often at least a lurking feeling, that when we have talked most on the subject of religion, we have had the most evidence, and have given the most evidence, of being under its power?
I cannot avoid here adverting, in one word, to the use of a sort of technical phraseology relating to Christian experience and revivals of religion, which, in some instances, is not only an outrage upon taste, but is destitute of meaning. It may be said, that it matters little what language we use on this subject, provided it be understood: but this is not true; for if two expressions convey the same idea, and one is fitted to awaken prejudice or disgust in a large class of people, and the other is entirely unexceptionable with all, then it is not a matter of indifference which of them should be used. Now it is not to be questioned, that the cant phraseology which has gained such extensive prevalence in the church, in connection with revivals, is exceedingly revolting to men of taste; and there is reason to fear, in many instances, awakens a permanent prejudice against the whole subject. And there is nothing gained to the lower classes by the adoption of this phraseology; for no language can be more intelligible than that of the Bible and common sense. But if I do not greatly mistake, the use of this phraseology which I am condemning is, in many instances, identified with a high tone of spiritual feeling. It is evidently regarded by many as indicating a deeper spirit of devotion, a more earnest desire for the salvation of souls, in short, more of the spirit of a revival, than would be indicated by the use of the simple and pertinent language supplied by God's word. But never was there a greater mistake. The best that can be said of it is, that it is a departure from the dignity that belongs to the whole subject of religion.
You will perceive at once, that the effect resulting from these arbitrary standards of Christian character, must be unfavourable to the cause of truth and holiness. It is unfavourable upon Christians; for while it greatly interferes with their own religious improvement, it usually awakens among them a spirit of censoriousness towards each other. Its tendency in respect to sinners is to put them on a course of self-righteous effort, and thus to expose them fearfully to self-deception. Let this evil, then, be ever cautiously avoided. Let Christians remember, that, in a season of revival, as well as in a season of coldness, the evidence of piety is to be sought in the fruits of the Spirit. And let sinners remember, that no degree of attendance on means, no degree of animal fervour, can be substituted for repentance of sin and faith in the Saviour; that the existence of the former does not constitute the least evidence of the existence of the latter.
9. The last of the evils against which I would put you on your guard, in connection with revivals, is, corrupting the purity of the church.
We have indeed no right to expect that the church, during its militant state, will ever be entirely free from corruption; though this does not at all lessen our obligations to do all we can to render it so. The efficiency of a church depends greatly on its purity. Even if it consist of only a little band, and yet be eminent for its consistency and spirituality, it will exert an extensive and salutary influence. But let its numbers be increased to any extent, if it embrace a great amount of spurious religion, it will diffuse around it but a feeble and uncertain light. Every such accession is an accession of fresh weakness. Men who are destitute of religion had far better be out of the church than in it; for whether they come in as cold formalists or heated fanatics, they will bring with them the spirit of the world in some form or other; and whatever their worldly rank may be, their influence will injure rather than assist the cause of piety. Let the church receive to her communion a large number who have deceived themselves with false hopes, knowing nothing of the power of religion, and it will be strange, if she does not soon find that her most formidable foes are those of her own household. She may calculate that the time is not distant, when she will find her own members corrupting the purity of the faith -- when she will see them bound up in the frost of a heartless formality, and even resisting, so far as they dare, her own efforts to promote the cause of Christ -- when, in a word, she will be compelled frequently to exercise her discipline, or grievously to neglect her duty.
Now there is one course, which is often adopted, in connection with a revival, which is sure to bring in its train this great evil. I refer to the practice of admitting persons to the communion with little or no probation. Experience has long since taught us, that there are many at such a time, whose feelings are excited and apparently changed, and who give promise of being devoted to Christ, who nevertheless, within even a short time, relapse into their former indifference, and neither consider themselves, nor are considered by others, as furnishing the least evidence of Christian character. These persons, not being received into the church, are ready enough to acknowledge that they have lost their interest in religion; but let them be thus received, and though you will hear from them no such acknowledgment, the real fact, in respect to their condition, will be the same. Hence we are forbidden to doubt, that where the custom prevails of admitting persons to the communion almost immediately after they are supposed to be converted, many must be received who are no better than were the stony-ground hearers. I know it is said, in favour of this practice, that it originated with the apostles; and that Peter received to the church the three thousand who were converted on the day of Pentecost, without waiting to test their characters. But I know, too, that that case cannot be pleaded as a precedent for a similar course now, because the circumstances by which it was marked do not exist at the present day. To make a profession of Christianity then, was to expose one's self, not merely to reproach and obloquy, but to the rack and the stake; and it were impossible to conceive of any higher evidence of sincerity than such a sacrifice would involve. But now the fact of confessing Christ before the world injures no man's character, in the view of any one; and it is a rare case that it exposes to any personal inconvenience; so that, of itself, it can scarcely be said to furnish the least evidence of Christian character. Let the church, then, as she values her own purity and efficiency, beware of prematurely receiving those whom she considers the fruits of revivals, to her communion. Not that she will be able, at any period, to make an exact separation between the chaff and the wheat; but it is a duty that she owes, not only to herself, but to her exalted Head, to make that separation as accurately as she can.
Such are some of the evils with which revivals of religion may be -- have been connected. I have dwelt upon this subject at considerable length, not because it is a subject the most grateful to Christian contemplation, but because, to my own mind at least, it possesses an importance of which we can scarcely form too high an estimate. It were far more pleasant to speak of the blessings of revivals, and of the triumph of the cause of revivals, than of the evils which, through the weakness or corruption of human nature, may be associated with them. But I cannot resist the impression, that, in order to realize the highest amount of blessing which they are fitted to secure, we must testify against their abuse, and endeavour to keep them in their purity. I invite you, then, my brethren, one and all, to labour according to your ability, not merely in the promotion of revivals, but in preventing the evils with which they are so often connected; for in doing so, you not only contribute greatly to the ultimate good influence of every such work of grace, but you disarm men of their prejudices against the cause of revivals, and thus remove, at least, one obstacle in the way of their salvation. If we knew all who had rushed into infidelity, in consequence of what they have seen and heard in connection with revivals, I fear we should be overwhelmed by the discovery; and as we would save souls from death, rather than multiply the temptations to self-destruction, we are bound to watch, and pray, and labour, that whatever assumes the sacred name of a revival, may be worthy of the character which it professes to bear.
Do you ask what you have to do in relation to this subject? I answer, when God pours down his Spirit in the midst of you, you have much to do in preventing some or other of these various evils; and this you are to effect, by a constant and watchful observation of the state of things around you, and by subjecting every thing that is proposed to be done, to the simple test of God's word. You may also exert a general influence beyond your own immediate sphere; by having your views of this subject clear and settled, and expressing them temperately, yet firmly, as occasion may require. But be careful never to mingle, in the expression of your views, the least unkind or unchristian feeling. Though you may consider your brethren in some respects wrong, and may frankly tell them so, yet you are to do it in the spirit of Christian charity, and cheerfully give them credit for their full amount of usefulness. It were greatly to be lamented, if any of us, in our endeavours to correct the errors of others, should fall into a still greater one, should forfeit our claim to that charity which hopeth and beareth all things.
Brethren, I anticipate for the cause of revivals a glorious triumph; and one ground of this expectation is, that the friends of revivals will labour diligently for the promotion of their purity. I cast my eye toward the millennial age, and I witness these scenes of divine love and mercy, going forward with such beauty and power, that the eyes of angels are turned towards them with constantly increasing delight. I see the pure gold shining forth in its brightness, and the dross thrown aside and estimated at nothing. I see the chaff burnt up in the fire, or flying off on the winds, while the wheat is pure, and ripe, and ready for the garner. I see Christians every where co-operating with God for the salvation of men, in the very ways he has himself marked out; and while he pours out his rich blessings on the church, the church sends back her thanksgivings and praises to Him in the Highest. May God in mercy hasten this blessed consummation! And may you and I, whom he permits to labour in his cause, count it an honour that we are privileged to direct our efforts towards this high end, and to anticipate with confidence a glorious result!
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