Knock & Point Free Church of Scotland (Continuing), on the Isle of Lewis, is a congregation with a history of revival over the last 100 years, and some of our members can remember seasons of remarkable blessing during the 1940s and 1950s.
Sadly, revival has not been much experienced in recent years, but we long and pray for it to come again. Recently, I have been reading a couple of books on that subject. The log college by Archibald Alexander, originally published in 1851, is a classic account of the times of revival in America during the Great Awakening of the 1740s, later republished by the Banner of Truth.
Revival and Revivalism: The making and marring of American evangelicalism, 1750–1858, by Iain H. Murray, published in 1994, also by Banner, studies the century following the first Great Awakening. Iain Murray demonstrates how the American view of ‘revival’ changed and deteriorated over that 100-year period, so that revival came to be seen as something that could be produced by human effort rather than requiring a sovereign work of the Spirit of God.
Here on Lewis, it is the older, and more biblical view of revival that has prevailed, and so we look to the Holy Spirit to grant such blessing again. But what would true revival look like? Here, drawing examples from these two books, I suggest seven marks of genuine Revival.
Revival is a sovereign work of God
There is no human effort that can summon the Spirit of God to work, and so we cannot by man-made efforts produce revival. We can produce emotion, enthusiasm, even fanaticism, but these will not result in genuine conversions unless the Spirit is working. True revival arises only from God.
When the other students realised what they were doing, they began whooping and banging on the door to disturb them. But the college president was sympathetic, and took charge of the meetings himself, with most students in attendance, amidst a charged atmosphere.Example: In 1787, the spirit in America was secular and worldly. Educated people believed that the philosophy of Hume and Paine had explained away religion as just a natural phenomenon. But three or four students at Hampden Sidney College, Virginia, began to meet secretly for prayer.
Within two weeks, fully half the student body was reckoned to be under conviction of sin, and many were soundly converted, beginning a revival that spread throughout Virginia — one of the harbingers of the Second Great Awakening.
Revival arises through faithful preaching
Preaching will not guarantee revival, but revival is generally the blessing of the Spirit on ‘the foolishness of preaching’, especially where such preaching is doctrinally sound, biblically based, and warmly passionate.
Example: In 1740, the powerful, Irish-born preacher Gilbert Tennent moved to Boston, and there preached faithfully for about three months. His preaching was ‘justly terrible, as he, according to the inspired oracles, exhibited the dreadful holiness, justice, law-threatenings, truth, power and majesty of God, and His anger with rebellious, impenitent and Christless sinners: the awful danger, every moment they were in, of being struck down to hell, and damned forever, with the amazing miseries of that place of torment’.
Hundreds were converted, with one local minister recording 600 anxious inquirers coming to him during the three months.
Tennent later served as a minister in Philadelphia, but sadly had adopted a practice of reading his sermons, instead of preaching freely. He never saw the same blessing on his later ministry.
Revival leads to deep conviction of sin
When the Spirit works powerfully, he shows people their sins and the solemn wrath of God promised against them. This results in a deep experience of conviction.
Example: A younger brother of Gilbert was John Tennent, later the much loved minister of Freehold, New Jersey, who experienced severe conviction of sin before he received assurance of salvation.
Gilbert wrote: ‘His conviction of his sin, danger and misery was the most violent in any degree of any I ever saw. For several days and nights together he was made to cry out in the most dolorous and affecting manner, almost every moment. The words which he used in his soul agony were these: ‘O my bloody lost soul! What shall I do? Have mercy on me, O God, for Christ’s sake’. Sometimes he was brought to the very brink of despair’.
This is a very different experience of conversion from most Christians in our day. In times of widespread revival, even some of those who had previously lightly professed Christ were overwhelmed by the realisation of their sins, and by a fear that they had eaten and drunk unworthily at the Lord’s table, and so anxiously sought the Lord afresh.
Revival leads to deep impressions of the glory of God
Christians in the Highlands who knew revival often described extraordinary experiences, where they were brought to wonder at the exaltation of God. This is entirely typical of true revival, where God is glorified rather than man.
Example: Another member of the Tennent family was William, Junior, who succeeded John as minister of Freehold. He experienced powerful seasons of revival, on one occasion becoming deeply overwhelmed with God’s glory while walking in the woods prior to a service.
He was found lying on the ground by his elders, and was helped into his pulpit, praying only that ‘God would withdraw himself from him, or that he must perish under a view of his ineffable glory’. After a few minutes of silent prayer in the pulpit, he was able to stand, gripping the desk, and begin the service.
The sermon that followed was one of such power that it made a lasting impression on all who heard it. His ministry resulted in a great number of converts.
Revival leads to an increase of the spiritual graces
Revival involves the Spirit working, and therefore it brings forth the fruits of the Spirit, especially in love for God and for his worship.
Example: True revival under the ministry of Samuel Davies in Hanover, Virginia, resulted in such a love for God’s worship that some households in his congregation had gatherings all through the night, singing Psalms and hymns, while good books were received with delight. He himself exhibited his love in the deep warmth and compassion with which he pleaded with men to turn to Christ.
Revival leads to emotion and sometimes excesses
True revival involves a whole community being disturbed by the fear of God, and by the prospect of salvation. It involves much emotion, and deep concern. Inevitably, this sometimes can be expressed in disorderly scenes. A wise minister knows how to calm such scenes, and direct individuals under the fear of hell to the Lord, who alone can deliver from it.
Example: During the Second Great Awakening, David Rice was a minister in Kentucky, and saw an upsurge of ‘bodily agitations’ in his congregation, as people were swept up by the emotions of the services of revival.
‘His method of calming these scenes was remarkable. ‘In the most solemn manner, [he] began to repeat those words of Scripture, ‘Holy! Holy! Holy! is the Lord God Almighty! Never was anything more impressive. There was an instantaneous hush through the whole house. The venerable old patriarch, having thus secured their attention, proceeded to express his sentiments on the “bodily exercises”, and to dissuade from encouraging them’.
Revival can lead to division and doctrinal error
Sometimes good men make the mistake of condemning a whole revival because of the excesses of a few, but, ‘Quench not the Spirit’.
What is even worse, however, is where there is some spiritual blessing, and the widespread emotion that accompanies it, without wise leadership and sound teaching. This can lead directly to division and error entering the church.
Examples: In 1741, the Presbyterian Church in America split over the first Great Awakening, a division that persisted for 17 years, as the theologically sound but cold and suspicious men of the Synod of Philadelphia stood aloof from the revival being experienced by the Tennents and others — who formed a separate ‘Synod of New York’ during these years. There were faults on both sides of this dispute, and the division was healed to general satisfaction in 1758.
Much more tragically, the Second Great Awakening, from about 1800 onwards, came to Kentucky while there were few ministers there able to teach sound doctrine or to guide the people aright.
Some, under the influence of intense emotion, joined the sect of the Shakers, who were fanatical in doctrine and morally loose in their teachings. Many others, however, strayed into Arminianism, and over the next 50 years this man-centred, false teaching spread throughout the rest of the United States, becoming increasingly accepted as orthodoxy in American evangelicalism.
As believers we pray and long for revival, and trust in God to grant it at the right time. We also look to him for wisdom, that we may be preserved from excess, division and error, both in the day of revival and in our present ‘day of small things’.
Rev. Alasdair Macleod is minister of Knock & Point Free Church of Scotland (Continuing). This article first appeared in the Free Church Witness, May 2016, and is used here by kind permission (http://www.freechurchcontinuing.org/publications/magazines/witness).