Book Review: Revival and Revivalism, by Iain Murray
“How did we get here?” is a question that is always relevant and often illuminating. Yet contemporary evangelicals don’t ask it as often as we should.
In his book Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism, 1750-1858, Iain Murray tells a story that helps explain how evangelicals—Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and more—got to where we are today.
FROM REVIVAL . . .
The book’s title tells the whole story in a nutshell. Over the one hundred and nine years Murray examines, from 1750 to 1858, American evangelicals’ understanding and experience of evangelism morphed from “revival” to“revivalism.”
Background: The First Great Awakening
Not that what came before 1750 wasn’t important. From about 1735 to 1740, under the preaching of Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and others, the American colonies experienced a massive spiritual enlivening which came to be known as the First Great Awakening. This phenomenon was driven by preaching that emphasized the biblical truths of the holiness of God, the gravity of sin, man’s enslavement to sin, and the need for the Holy Spirit to give new birth so that people might repent, believe, and be saved.
Though superficial responses to such preaching inevitably got mixed up with the true, contemporaries of these events regarded them as a genuine revival. They believed this spiritual movement had been caused by God’s sovereign choice to pour out his Spirit in a profound and unusual way, thus causing the ordinary, biblically appointed means of evangelism to bear extraordinary fruit.
Heirs of Edwards and Whitefield
Murray’s story, then, begins with the heirs of the First Great Awakening who ministered from New England to Virginia, men such as Samuel Davies and Alexander McWhorter (chs. 1-4). These pastors held to the same theology that drove Edwards’ and Whitefield’s preaching, and they had been personally impacted by the events of 1735-1740. Throughout the second half of the eighteenth century, these men and the ministers who followed them periodically experienced the blessing of God on their ministries in ways that also merited the label “revival.”
Revival: Gift of God, not Guaranteed Result
Like their predecessors, these pastors knew that revivals were the sovereign work of God and could not be explained in any other way. Therefore, they preached the gospel, pleaded with sinners, and prayed for fruit like they had for years; and for reasons known only to God, he sometimes blessed these labors remarkably, and sometimes he didn’t.
These revivals, in other words, were neither planned by men nor achieved by men. They did not involve any unusual or novel evangelistic techniques. They were understood, therefore, to be gifts of God.
. . . TO REVIVALISM
Then, beginning around 1800, revival began to break out on a greater scale across the young nation, from the northeast to the western states of Kentucky and Tennessee. And what’s truly remarkable is that this large-scale revival continued in one form or another for about thirty years, rightly earning it the title of the Second Great Awakening.
The Second Great Awakening
In the beginning, this revival was understood in the same terms as previous ones. Yet over time, theological and practical shifts began to occur that amounted to a revolution by the revival’s end. (For this part of the story, see chapters 5 through 12.)
For example, in 1800 in Cane Ridge, Kentucky the Presbyterians’ outdoor “communion seasons” (which followed a traditional Scottish practice) became the flashpoint for what looked like a major movement of the Spirit. The meetings grew quickly. Ministers from other denominations, such as the Methodists, shared in the preaching. Large numbers of people who were unaffiliated with any church traveled great distances to come and hear. Many people responded to the preaching and singing, sometimes in disruptively dramatic ways.
Eventually, the leaders of these meetings divided over how to respond to excessive displays of emotion in these meetings. Some—most of the Presbyterians—thought such displays should be permitted or rebuked depending on the case, while others—the Methodists—tended to treat all of them as proof of the work of God’s Spirit.
From this point, the Methodist leaders of this work in Kentucky took a strategy that was originally a response to revival—namely, protracted outdoor meetings—and made it a key component of their efforts to bring about revival. Further, these Methodists and some others, undergirded by a radically different doctrine of conversion, began to focus their efforts on inducing outward, immediate responses to the gospel.
Two Major Shifts
The story runs along similar lines elsewhere. By the 1820s and 1830s, two major shifts had occurred throughout American evangelicalism.
The first is a doctrinal shift regarding conversion. Up to 1800, evangelicals almost universally believed and preached that God must sovereignly give someone a new nature to enable him or her to repent and believe. By the 1830s, this was widely replaced by an understanding of conversion in which the decision to repent and believe lay entirely within an individual’s own power.
This led to (or, in some cases, followed) a shift in evangelistic practice. Many evangelicals adopted practices that sought to bring about an immediate decision. The “anxious bench,” the altar call, singling people out personally in public prayer, warning hearers to respond immediately or else lose their chance to repent—all these practices and more grew out of the new belief that conversion is something within a person’s power to achieve, or even to effect in others.
The Result: Revivalism
The result of these two shifts is that church leaders began to regard revival as something that could be infallibly secured through the use of proper means—“proper” being whatever would induce an immediate decision or external token of decision. This understanding was most vigorously promoted by Charles Finney, but by the end of the Second Great Awakening it had become a given among a strong majority of American evangelicals. Historian William McLoughlin even went so far as to say that by the mid-nineteenth century, this new system was the national religion of the United States (277).
Thus, revivalism was born. To be sure, revivalism grew up in the soil of genuine revival. But this new practice of revivalism radically differed from the previous understanding of revival it so quickly supplanted. A “revival” became synonymous with a meeting designed to promote revival. Unlike previous generations, evangelicals after 1830 gained the ability, so to speak, to put a revival on the calendar months in advance.
The goal of such revivals was to secure as many immediate decisions for Christ as possible. As such, awareness of the possibility of false conversion seemed to simply vanish from the evangelical consciousness. Few asked whether their new measures just might create as many false converts as true disciples.
SEVEN LESSONS FOR PASTORS
At the risk of stating the obvious, it doesn’t take too much effort to see how we got from the 1830s to the evangelistic practices that many of us take for granted today. That holds true whether we’re thinking of stadium-based crusades or churches which seek to recreate that atmosphere every Sunday.
Yet, as Murray rightly argues in the book’s final chapter, this type of revivalism and the theology that supports it represent a serious departure from both a biblical doctrine of conversion and a biblical practice of evangelism. Therefore, Revival and Revivalism should inspire us to reflect critically and carefully about our churches and our evangelistic practices.
Toward that end, here are seven lessons from the book that should be especially relevant for pastors.
1. Don’t Confuse an External Act with Inward Change.
First, don’t confuse an external act with inward change. Murray writes about the beginnings of the altar call,
Nobody, at first, claimed to regard it as a means of conversion. But very soon, and inevitably, answering the call to the altar came to be confused with being converted. People heard preachers plead for them to come forward with the same urgency with which they pleaded for them to repent and believe. (186; see also 366)
It’s possible to walk an aisle, pray a “sinner’s prayer,” and do any number of other activities without being converted. And it’s possible to be converted without taking any of those particular outward steps (though of course conversion will always manifest itself in visible fruit).
Therefore, pastors should not speak about any external action as if it were identical with conversion. And they should be wary of evangelism techniques which seem to equate the two.
2. Beware of Producing False Converts.
Second, beware of producing false converts. Of course it’s inevitable that some people who initially profess faith will later prove unrepentant, but pastors can evangelize in a way that either minimizes or multiplies false converts. For instance, Murray cites Samuel Miller to the effect that the anxious seat (precursor to the altar call) promotes “the rapid multiplication of superficial, ignorant, untrained professors of religion”—that is, false converts (366).
3. Be Cautious about Giving Immediate Assurance of Salvation.
Third, be cautious about giving immediate assurance of salvation. Perseverance, as the New Hampshire Confession says, is the grand mark of a true Christian (Heb. 3:6, 14). Faith makes itself known by its fruits—whether good or bad, true or false (Matt. 7:15-27). Yet Murray points out that the new revivalistic methods were actually founded on the promise of immediate assurance:
But the anxious-seat evangelism wanted to do away with any doubts in those who made the public response. The whole strength of its appeal…lay in its suggestion that a response would ensure salvation. To have conceded that there was no sure connection between answering a public appeal and being converted would have been to undermine the whole system. (368)
In other words, the whole point of the new methods was that a response guaranteed salvation. And on that basis, preachers assured people of their salvation immediately and unreservedly simply for coming forward at the end of the service.
Assurance of salvation is possible for the youngest and weakest Christian, but it should always be grounded in the objective work of Christ and corroborated by the fruit of a transformed life.
So pastors, be cautious about giving immediate assurance of salvation. And be careful not to give it on the wrong basis.
4. Tether your Ministry to What God Requires in his Word.
Fourth, tether your ministry to what God requires in his Word. In some ways, the crucial turning point in Murray’s narrative comes when the early nineteenth-century Methodists came to regard certain novel, extra-biblical practices—long-duration outdoor camp meetings, techniques to secure immediate decisions, and so on—as the crucial keys to producing conversions (184).
Certainly, Christians are free to pursue evangelism in ways that are not directly exampled in Scripture. If Paul could rent the hall of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9), why shouldn’t modern evangelicals evangelize in stadiums?
But the catch is that these new methods became mandates. They became magic bullets. And they became the givens without which people could not imagine anyone getting saved.
Instead, place your confidence in what God has required you to do—preach the Word. Trust that God has given you, in his Word, what you need to be a faithful pastor. Labor with the tools he’s given, and trust that he will cause your work to bear fruit.
5. Make Sure your Theology Drives your Practice, not Vice Versa.
Fifth, make sure your theology drives your practice, not vice versa. Murray writes about the spread of the altar call among Baptists, who in the early 19th century were almost unanimously reformed in their soteriology:
It had not captured anything like the majority of the churches in the 1830s but there can be no doubt that, with the Baptists also, it was the alleged success of the new evangelism which hastened both its adoption and the gradual doctrinal shift to justify it. (325-326)
In this case the practical tail wagged the theological dog. The logic of the new evangelism worked its way into their theological system and rewrote the DNA. Without realizing it, huge numbers of Baptists adopted an evangelistic method that was not only at odds with their theological commitments, but eventually undid them.
6. Don’t Equate Outward Success with a Divine Endorsement.
Sixth, don’t equate outward success with a divine endorsement. During the conflicts Murray chronicles between the old guard and the new, the revivalists often played the trump card of outward success (282). As one contemporary pastor has famously put it, “Never criticize what God is blessing.”
The first problem with the argument from success is that “success” is not always success. Murray writes, “What was indisputable was that making ‘conversion’ a matter of instant, public decision, with ascertainable numbers immediately announced in the religious press, produced a display of repeated ‘successes’ on a scale never before witnessed” (283).
But how many of these “decisions” represented genuine conversions? How many were baptized, joined churches, and began new lives? If the numbers back then match the numbers generated through similar methods today, the likely answer is, “Not many.”
The second problem with the argument from success is that, in one way or another, God is always blessing us in spite of ourselves. Every time God uses a pastor’s preaching to convert people, he’s blessing that man’s work in spite of that man’s sins and errors. So how can you be sure that God is blessing a ministry because of some new method rather than in spite of it?
Certainly we should expect God to bless preaching and practices that are in line with his Word. But we can’t reduce his workings to the mechanics of “most faithful” = “most blessing.” Nor can we work backwards from apparent success to discern what must be correct theology and practice.
7. Celebrate the Normal.
Murray writes of the earlier generation of ministers who regarded revival as a gift from God, “The men of the Old School, while believing in revival as fervently as they did…nevertheless knew no biblical reason to be cast down by the normal” (385). These men knew that most of the time, ministry is slow and plodding work. They knew that some sow and others reap. They “believed that God would grant his blessing in the measure that was appropriate—whether in its heightened form…or in quieter ways” (385).
So, finally, don’t be discouraged by slow-ripening fruit. Instead, rely on God to work through the regular means of grace. Celebrate the normal.
GOOD REASONS WHY IT’S ALREADY BECOMING A CLASSIC
As I hope this review has proved, there are many good reasons why Revival and Revivalism is already becoming a classic. It’s long, dense, and somewhat rambling, but it more than repays the time and effort it takes to get through it. I commend it to all present and aspiring church leaders, and to any Christian who likes to ask, “How did we get here?”
 For an insightful piece that covers much of the same ground Murray does and also traces this trajectory into the present, see Owen Strachan’s article in this issue of the 9Marks Journal.