Six Marks of Revivalism
Modern evangelicalism emerged out of the series of revivals that took place in America and Britain from the 1730s through the 1830s, revivals which have left an indelible mark on the contemporary movement. The surprising work of God that took place in New England during the ministries of men such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield gave way to unprecedented, exponential growth of the Methodists and Baptists on the American frontier around the turn of the century. At the same time, other denominations and sects expanded along the colonial coast and elsewhere in the fledgling United States. This makes it difficult to neatly separate the First and Second Great Awakenings.
During the First Great Awakening Edwards had struck a careful balance that legitimized emotional expression and outward manifestation during times of revival without using them as the movement’s measuring stick. By the 1820s, this careful balance had began to be supplanted by revivalism.
This revivalism was by no means monolithic. Nonetheless, it had many consistent marks. Below I will offer six: reverse engineering, celebrity cults of personality, a reliance on high production quality, emotional manipulation, reductionist views of conversion, and inadequate ecclesiology. This list is certainly not exhaustive; nonetheless, my aim is to show the cohesion of revivalism with marks one and six as bookends that will hopefully demonstrate that the temptations of revivalism haven’t gone away.
MARK #1: REVERSE ENGINEERING
Revivalism at its core is the impulse to restore. In the first half of the nineteenth century, that meant men wanted to experience perpetually the movement of God that had occurred during the opening decades of the Great Awakening. Revivalism believes that humans can actually make this happen. As a result, preachers sought to recreate the conditions and results of spontaneous revival. The man most associated with this revivalism was Charles Finney.
Finney and other revivalists saw popular preachers (think Francis Asbury or Barton Stone), careful planning (Whitefield’s use of print media), and emotional and physical manifestations (as in Edwards’s Religious Affections) used to great effect for the conversion of souls. While he would never deny the necessity of grace, Finney taught that revival was not a miracle, but rather a work of man. It was the result of the right use of means. The means he practiced came to be known as the “new measures,” and it included mass advertising, long revival meetings, naming unsaved people in public prayer, and, most infamously, the “anxious bench.”
Finney’s animating principle was that revival was the responsibility of Christians. God had ordained means and if the faithful would simply implement the tools given to them, then souls would be saved. Revival wasn’t something divine and mysterious; instead, it could be actively engineered by studying past revivals, delineating their elements, and then putting those elements to work. Finney implemented his revivalism from upstate New York to Ohio. He left behind an influential legacy, even if most Christians today have never heard of him.
MARK #2: CELEBRITY CULTS OF PERSONALITY
Revivalism tends to revolve around well-known preachers, popular personalities, or even celebrities. This was not without precedent. People traveled by the thousands to hear Whitefield preach because it was Whitefield preaching. More people would likely have recognized Asbury than any of America’s founding fathers.
But something changed with the transition to revivalism. Finney defended his new measures vigorously in the face of criticism and controversy. They became the essence of true revival in his mind, such that his ministry came to be identified with revivals. This meant that any warning, even from his friends, was perceived as a personal attack. He refused to heed any efforts to temper his methods. One contemporary, Elizabeth Brainerd, noted of his ministry, “At first all stood amazed and glorified God. At length persons of ill-balanced minds and scanty knowledge of Bible truth, began to glorify Mr. Finney. To them it was plain he had caused the revival, he had converted souls.”
In his Memoirs, Finney himself made a revealing recollection. Remembering older ministers who were wary of his approach, he wrote, “Their opposition never made me ashamed, never convinced me that I was wrong in doctrine or practice, and I never made the slightest change in conducting revivals as a consequence of their opposition. I thought I was right. I still think so. I thought their opposition was impertinent and assuming, uncalled for and injurious to themselves and to the cause of God.” As is often the case in revivalist ministries, there was a lack of accountability, an unwillingness to be corrected, and an equation of an individual with the work of God.
MARK #3: A RELIANCE ON HIGH PRODUCTION QUALITY
Revivalism is usually marked by a reliance on expertise and professionalism in the execution of the means of revival. Why the emphasis on excellence? Because if success depends on humans deploying the right means, then everything must be done just right. This was true in America with Finney’s ministry, but also on the other side of the Atlantic.
The waning of spontaneous revivals and the move to arranged revivals took place in Britain in the 1840s. Finney’s methods were met with enthusiasm by some, especially young pastors. Seasoned American evangelists, such as James Caughey, with their tried-and-true methods, toured the British Isles. A magazine, The Revival, was started by R. C. Morgan as a herald to further the efforts in 1859. Planned events became the norm, such that, when true revival broke out in the village of Hopeman, in Scotland, the newspaper there was compelled to clarify that what was being experienced was not contrived, publishing that “no attempts were made to ‘get up’ this movement.”
MARK #4: EMOTIONAL MANIPULATION
Revivalism adopts strategies to promote emotion beyond preaching and prayer. This ranged in Finney’s ministry from language intended to alarm to private meetings that pressured individuals to naming lost people in public prayer and even to directly addressing particular people from the pulpit. It’s already been mentioned, but Finney’s most notorious weapon was the “anxious seat.”
There could be other physical gestures marking conversion, like standing, kneeling, or an altar call, but the anxious bench, also known as the “mourner’s bench,” was certainly the most dramatic. Here’s how it worked: a bench or a number of seats were placed at the center of a gathering, in plain sight of the whole congregation adjacent to the pulpit. People would come to this section when they were ready to surrender to Christ. Once they arrived, they would receive intense prayer and exhortations. Those already converted would surround them. Often, there was singing, weeping, confession of sin, and physical manifestations of the Spirit. In Finney’s words, the whole purpose of this exercise was that the unconverted be “brought right up to the single point of immediate submission.”
MARK #5: REDUCTIONIST VIEWS OF CONVERSION
By way of summary, a dependence on all of the above betrays a view of conversion that falls woefully short of what Jesus calls being “born again.” If revival comes as a result of human agency, then by implication regeneration must be explainable in similar terms. The issue is not the necessity of grace, but the primacy of grace. Is God sovereign in salvation or does he merely make salvation broadly available, while individuals ultimately determine their fate?
Nathaniel Taylor was a prestigious theologian who attempted to synthesize the ascendant Calvinism of his day with the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening. He was an ardent defender of the revivalism characteristic of Finney’s preaching, which necessarily led to his altering of traditional Calvinism to the point that it was no longer recognizable. Though Taylor served as a Congregationalist minister and professor at Yale, he was accused of Arminianism and, worse, Pelagianism—and not without merit. Taylor denied the depravity of man, substitutionary atonement, and the sovereignty of God in preference of free will.
For Taylor and other advocates of revivalism, conversion really was up to the individual. Such decisions could be marked visibly by some outward gesture like kneeling or visiting the anxious bench. Conversion was not a supernatural imposition of grace, but the natural decision of anyone who truly understood the appeal of the Christian message and the Christian life.
MARK #6: INADEQUATE ECCLESIOLOGY
In revivalism, the publicized open-air preaching and the tent meetings replace the local church. By its very nature, revivalism looks beyond the ordinary means of grace. It means to go above and beyond, to transcend what God does in the day-to-day. In the end, all the marks we have looked at ultimately undervalue the power and centrality of ordinary local church ministry.
Revivalism raises a question: what community are individuals saved into? The excesses of the Second Great Awakening, specifically its ambivalence toward denominational forms, set the stage for undenominational evangelists like D. L. Moody and Ira Sankey. Ironically, the lack of regard for the local church in the mid-to-late nineteenth century promoted the promulgation of numerous denominations and radical sects that claimed to be the harbingers of true religion.
At the end of the day, conversion isn’t the climax of the Christian life, but rather the start, the first step on the road to glorification. Along the way, however, we need more than a memory of an intense emotional moment. We need the local church. The local church is the community that affirms one’s profession of faith at baptism and continues to affirm it through the Lord’s Supper. The church provides the communal context for discipleship and sanctification.
That’s an introduction to revivalism. In short, it persists on a host of wrong assumptions and faulty premises. Do you see any of these marks today?