SPURIOUS RELIGIOUS EXCITEMENTS
by Robert L. Dabney
These plain facts and principles condemn nearly every feature of the modern new measure “revival.” The preaching and other religious instructions are shaped with a main view to excite the carnal emotions and the instinctive sympathies, while no due care is taken to present saving, didactic truth to the understanding thus temporarily stimulated. As soon as some persons, professed Christians, or awakened 'mourners,' are infected with any lively passion, let it be however carnal and fleeting, a spectacular display is made of it, with confident laudations of it as unquestionably precious and saving, with the design of exciting the remainder of the crowd with the sympathetic contagion. Every adjunct of fiery declamation, animated singing, groans, tears, exclamations, noisy prayers, is added so as to shake the nerves and add the tumult of a hysterical animal excitement to the sympathetic wave. Every youth or impressible girl who is seen to tremble, or grow pale, or shed tears, is assured that he or she is under the workings of the Holy Spirit, and is driven by threats of vexing that awful and essential Agent of salvation to join the spectacular show, and add himself to the exciting pantomime. Meanwhile, most probably their minds are blank of every intelligent or conscientious view of the truth; they had been tittering or whispering a little while before, during the pretended didactic part of the exercises; they could give no intelligent account now of their own sudden excitement, and, in fact, it is no more akin to any spiritual, rational, or sanctifying cause, than the quiver of the nostrils of a horse at the sound of the bugle and the fox-hounds. But they join the mourners, and the manipulation proceeds. Of course, the sympathetic wave, called religious, reaches them more and more. As I have shown, it is the very nature of sympathy to assume the character of the emotion with which we sympathize. Thus this purely natural and instinctive sensibility takes on the form of religious feeling, because it is sympathy with religious feeling in others. The subject calls it by religious names—awakening, conviction, repentance—while in reality it is only related to them as a man's shadow is to the living man. Meantime, the preachers talk to them as though the feelings were certainly genuine and spiritual. With this sympathetic current there may mingle sundry deep original feelings about the soul, to which, we have seen, the dead, carnal heart is fully competent by itself. These are fear, remorse, shame, desire of applause, craving for future, selfish, welfare, spiritual pride. Here we have the elements of every spurious grace. The “sorrow of the world that worketh death” is mistaken for saving repentance. By a natural law of the feelings, relaxation must follow high tension—the calm must succeed the storm. This quiet is confounded with “peace in believing." The selfish prospect of security produces great elation. This is supposed to be spiritual joy. When the soul is removed from the stimuli of the revival appliances, it of course sinks into the most painful vacuity, on which supervene restlessness and doubt. So, most naturally, it craves to renew the illusions, and has, for a time, a certain longing for and pleasure in the scenes, the measures, and the agents of its pleasing intoxication. These are mistaken for love for God's house, worship and people. Then the befooled soul goes on until it is betrayed into an erroneous profession of religion, and a dead church membership. He is now in the position in which the great enemy of souls would most desire to have him, and where his salvation is more difficult and improbable than anywhere else.
The most fearful part of these transactions is the unscriptural rashness of the professed guides of souls. They not only permit and encourage these perilous confusions of thought, but pass judgment on the exercises of their supposed converts with a haste and confidence which angels would shudder to indulge. Here, for instance, is a hurried, ignorant young person, no real pains having been taken to instruct his understanding in the nature of sin and redemption, or to test his apprehension of gospel truths. In his tempestuous excitement of fear and sympathy, he is told that he is unquestionably under the influence of God's Spirit. When he has been coaxed, or flattered, or wearied into some random declaration that he thinks he loves his Saviour, joyful proclamation is made that here is another soul born to God, and the brethren are called on to rejoice over him. But no time has been allowed this supposed convert for self-examination; no care to discriminate between spiritual and carnal affections, or for the subsidence of the froth of animal and sympathetic excitements; no delay is allowed to see the fruits of holy living, the only test which Christ allows as sufficient for other than the omniscient judgment. Thus, over-zealous and heedless men, ignorant of the first principles of psychology, and unconscious of the ruinous effects they may be producing, sport with the very heart-strings of the spiritual life, and that in the most critical moments. It were a less criminal madness for a surgeon's raw apprentice to try experiments with his master's keen bistoury on the patient's jugular vein.
These abuses are the less excusable in any minister, because the Scriptures which he holds in his hands tell him plainly enough without the lights of philosophy, the wrongness of all these practices. No inspired apostle ever dared to pass a verdict upon the genuineness of a case of religious excitement with the rashness seen on these occasions. Christ has forewarned us that converts can only be known correctly by their fruits. Paul has sternly enjoined every workman upon the visible church, whose foundation is Christ, to “take heed how he buildeth thereupon.” He has told us that the materials placed by us upon this structure may be genuine converts, as permanent as gold, silver, and costly stones; or worthless and pretended converts, comparable to 'wood, hay and stubble;' that our work is to be all tried by the fire of God's judgments, in which our perishable additions will be burned up; and if we are ourselves saved, it will be as though we were saved by fire. The terrible results of self-deception and the deceitfulness of the heart are dwelt upon, and men are urged to self-examination.
The ulterior evils of these rash measures are immense. A standard and type of religious experience are propagated by them in America, as utterly unscriptural and false as those prevalent in Popish lands. So long as the subjects are susceptible of the sympathetic passion, they are taught to consider themselves in a high and certain state of grace. All just and scriptural marks of a gracious state are overlooked and even despised. Is their conduct immoral, their temper bitter and unchristian, their minds utterly dark as to distinctive gospel truths? This makes no difference; they are still excited and "happified' in meetings; they sing and shout, and sway to and fro with religious feelings. Thus these worthless, sympathetic passions are trusted in as the sure signatures of the Spirit's work.
Of the man who passes through this process of false conversion, our Saviour's declaration is eminently true: "The last state of that man is worse than the first." The cases are not few which backslide early, and are again "converted," until the process has been repeated several times. These men are usually found most utterly hardened and profane, and hopelessly impervious to divine truth. Their souls are utterly seared by spurious fires of feeling. The state of those who remain undeceived, and in the communion of the church, is almost as hopeless. "Having a name to live, they are dead." Their misconception as to their own state is armor of proof against warning.
The results of these "revivals" are usually announced at once, with overweening confidence, as works of God's Spirit. A minister reports to his church paper that he has just shared in a glorious work at a given place, in which the Holy Ghost was present with power, and "forty souls were born into the kingdom." Now, the man of common sense will remember how confidently this same revivalist made similar reports last year, the year before, and perhaps many years previously. He was each time equally confident that it was the Spirit's work. But this man must know that in each previous case, time has already given stubborn refutation to his verdict upon the work. Four-fifths of those who, he was certain, were converted by God, have already gone back to the world, and declare that they were never converted at all. The means he has just used in his last revival are precisely the same used in his previous ones. The false fruits wore at first just the aspect which his last converts now wear. Is it not altogether probable that they are really of the same unstable character? But this minister declares positively that these are God's works. Now, the cool, critical world looks on and observes these hard facts. It asks, What sort of people are these special guardians and expounders of Christianity? Are they romantic fools, who cannot be taught by clear experience, or are they conscious and intentional liars? The world is quite charitable, and probably adopts the former solution. And this solution, that the representatives of Christianity are men hopelessly and childishly overweening in their delusions, carries this corollary for the most of worldly men who adopt it: That Christianity itself is an unhealthy fanaticism, since it makes its chosen teachers such fanatics, unteachable by solid facts. Thus, the Christian ministry, who ought to be a class venerable in the eyes of men, are made contemptible. Civility restrains the expression of this estimate, but it none the less degrades the ministry in the eyes of intelligent men of the world, as a class who are excused from the charge of conscious imposture only on the theory of their being incurably silly and fanatical.
In the denominations which most practice the so-called "revival measures," abundance of facts obtrude themselves which are conclusive enough to open the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf. Instances may be found, where annual additions have been reported, such that, if the sums were taken, and only subjected to a fair deduction for deaths and removals, these churches should number hundreds, or even a thousand members, and should be in a splendid state of prosperity. But the same church-reports still set these churches down as containing fifty or seventy members. Others, which have been boasting these magnificent processes, are moribund, and some have been "revived" to death.
But the men who work this machinery, notwithstanding the fatal condemnation of the facts, are not blind! What are the causes of their perseverance in methods so worthless? One cause is, doubtless, an honest, but ignorant zeal. In the bustle and heat of this zeal, they overlook the unpleasant facts, and still go on, "supposing that they verily do God service." Another subtile and far-reaching cause is an erroneous, synergistic theology. The man who believes in the efficient cooperation of the sinner's will with the divine will, in the initial quickening of his soul, will, of course, seek to stimulate that human will to the saving acts by all the same expedients by which men seek to educe in their fellows carnal acts of will. Why not? Why should not the evangelist practice to evoke that act cf will from the man on which he believes the saving action of the Almighty pivots, by the same kind of arts the recruiting sergeant practices —the martial song, the thrilling fife and palpitating drum, the spectacular display of previous recruits in their shining new uniforms—until the young yeoman has "committed" himself by taking the "queen's shilling"? That volition settles it that the queen is to make him her soldier. It must be the youth's decision, but, when once made for a moment, it decides his state. Thus a synergistic theology fosters these "revival measures," as they, in turn, incline towards a synergistic creed. Doubtless, many ministers are unconsciously swayed by the natural love of excitement. This is the same instinct which leads school-boys and clowns to run to witness a dog-fight, Spaniards to the cockfight and the bull-fight, sporting men to the pugilist's ring, and theatre-goers to the comedy. This natural instinct prompts many an evangelist, without his being distinctly aware of it, to prefer the stirring scenes of the spurious revival to the sober, quiet, laborious work of religious teaching. But it is obvious that this motive is as unworthy as it is natural.
Another motive which prompts men to persevere in these demonstrably futile methods is the desire to count large and immediate results. To this they are spurred by inconsiderate, but honest zeal, and by the partisan rivalries of their denominations. These unworthy motives they sanctify to themselves, and thus conceal from their own consciences the real complexion of them. No word is needed to show how unwise and unsuitable they are to the Christian minister. Here should be pointed out the intrinsic weakness of the current system of employing travelling revivalists in settled churches. No matter how orthodox the man may be, the very nature of his task lays a certain urgency and stress upon him, to show, somehow, immediate results before the close of his meeting. If he does not, the very ground of his vocation as a "revivalist" is gone. He has been sent for to do this one thing, to gratify the hopes, zeal and pride of the good people by, at least, a show of immediate fruits. If he fails in this, he will not be sent for. This is too strong a temptation for any mere mortal to endure without yielding. But the prime fact which decides all true results of gospel means is, that the Holy Ghost alone is the Agent of effectual calling; and He is sovereign. His new-creating breath "bloweth where it listeth." His command to the sower of the word may be expressed in Solomon's words: "In the morning sow thy seed; and in the evening hold not thy hand; for thou knowest not which shall prosper, whether this or that." The best minister on earth may be appointed by God's secret purpose to the sad mission given to Isaiah, to Jeremiah, and even to their Lord during his earthly course, "to stretch forth their hands all the day long to a disobedient and gainsaying people." Hence, this evangelist has put himself under an almost fatal temptation to resort to some illicit expedients which will produce, in appearance, immediate results. How few, even of the orthodox, escape that temptation!
An old and shrewd practitioner of these human means of religious excitements, was once asked by a man of the world, "if it were possible he could be blind to the futility of most of the pretended conversions?" The answer was: "Of course not; we are not fools." "Why then," said the man, "do you employ these measures?" The preacher answered: "Because a few are truly converted, and make stable, useful Christians; and the rest when they find out the shallowness of their experiences, are simply where they were before." The worldly-wise preacher's statement involved two capital errors. It assumed that the "revival measures " were the effective instruments of the conversion of the genuine few; and that without these expedients they would have remained out of Christ. This is utterly false. The solid conversion of those souls took place not by cause of, but in spite of, the human expedients. The work was the result of sober Christian example, and previous didactic teaching in gospel truths, and had there been no "revival measures" these souls would have come out for Christ, perhaps a little later, but more intelligently and decisively. The mistake as to the second class, "the stony ground believers," is far more tragical. They are not left where they were before; "the last state of these men is worse than the first." I will not repeat the explanation of the depraving influences sure to be exerted upon the heart; but I will add one still more disastrous result. These deceptive processes usually end in making the subjects infidels. Some who keep their names on the communion rolls are secret infidels; nearly all who withdraw their names are open infidels, unless they are too unthinking and ignorant to reflect and draw inferences. First, every young person who has a spark of self-respect is mortified at being thrust into a false position, especially on so high and solemn a subject. Pride is wounded. He feels that he has been imposed on, and resents it. This wounded pride, unwilling to take the blame on itself, directs its anger against the agents of the mortifying cheat. But to despise the representatives of Christianity is practically very near to despising Christianity. The most earnest and clear-minded of these temporary converts has now what appears to him, with a terrible plausibility, the experimental argument to prove that evangelical religion is a deception. He says he knows he was honest and sincere in the novel exercises to which he was subjected, and in a sense he says truly. The religious teachers themselves assured him, in the name of God, that they were genuine works of grace. Did they not formally publish in the religious journals that it was the Holy Spirit's work? If these appointed teachers do not know, who can? Yet now this backslider says himself, "I have the stubborn proof of a long and sad experience, a prayerless and godless life, that there never was any real spiritual change in me." Who can be more earnest than he was? It is, then, the logical conclusion, that all supposed cases of regeneration are deceptive. "Many," he says, "have had the honesty like myself to come out of the church candidly, shoulder the mortification of their mistake, and avow the truth." Those who remain "professors" are to be accounted for in two ways. The larger part know in their hearts just as well as we do, that their exercises were always a cheat, but they prefer to live a lie, rather than make the humiliating avowal, and for these we feel only contempt. The minority remain honestly self-deceived by reason of impressible and enthusiastic temperaments. For these, if they are social and moral, and do not cant, we can feel most kindly, and respect their amiable delusion. It would be unkind to distrust it. This reasoning having led them to discredit entirely the work of the Holy Ghost, leads next to the denial of his personality. The backslider sinks to the ranks of a gross Socinian, or becomes a Deist or an Agnostic. Let the history of our virtual infidels be examined and their early religious life traced; here will be found the source and cause of their error. "Their name is Legion." He who inquires of the openly ungodly adults of our land, will be astounded to find how large a majority of them were once in the church. They conceal, as well as they can, what they regard as the "disgraceful episode" in their history. Their attitude is that of silent, but cold and impregnable skepticism, based, as they think, on the argument of actual experience. In fact, spurious revivals we honestly regard as the chief bane of our Protestantism. We believe that they are the chief cause, under the prime source, original sin, which has deteriorated the average standard of holy living, principles, and morality, and the church discipline of our religion, until it has nearly lost its practical power over the public conscience. Striking the average of the whole nominal membership of the Protestant churches, the outside world does not credit us for any higher standard than we are in the habit of ascribing to the Synagogue, and to American Popery. How far is the world wrong in its estimate ? That denomination which shall sternly use its ecclesiastical authority, under Christ's law, to inhibit these human methods and to compel its teachers back to the scriptural and only real means, will earn the credit of being the defender of an endangered gospel.
One corollary from this discussion is: How perilous is it to entrust the care of souls to an ignorant zeal! None but an educated ministry can be expected, humanly speaking, to resist the seductions of the "revival measures," or to guard themselves from the plausible blunders we have analyzed above. And the church which entrusts the care of souls to lay-evangelists, self-appointed and irresponsible to the ecclesiastical government appointed by Christ, betrays its charge and duty.
No man is fit for the care of souls, except he is deeply imbued with scriptural piety and grace. He must have a faith firm as a rock, and humble as strong, with profound submission to the divine will, which will calm him amidst all delays and all discouragements that God will bless his own word in his own chosen time. He must have that self-abnegation which will make him willing to bear the evil repute of an unfruitful ministry, if the Lord so ordains, and unblenchingly refuse to resort to any unauthorized means to escape this cross. He must have the moral courage to withstand that demand of ill-considered zeal in his brethren, parallel to the ardor purus civium juvenium in politics. He must have the unflagging diligence and love for souls which will make him persevere in preaching the gospel publicly, and from house to house, under the delay of fruit. Nothing can give these except large measures of grace and prayer.