Unauthorized “means” used in revivals of religion
These are used in various degrees of offensiveness, often with circumstances of irreverence and indecency. In the time of Finney, the Pelagian revivalist, they were called "new measures," and later they have gone by the appropriate name of "revival machinery." They embrace all those measures, over and above the means which God himself has appointed, which have been invented by "evangelists" or "revival preachers" for the purpose of awakening careless sinners, such as "the anxious seat," the "altar," to which "mourners" are invited in order to be specially prayed for; the reading of letters (which, perhaps, have been procured by solicitation) from young converts or from inquirers; "silent prayer" of the congregation; the calling on certain classes in the congregation to arise and separate themselves from the rest; the roaming over the assembly of certain persons for the purpose of making appeals to individuals and of producing excitement by mere motion; the calling upon certain descriptions of people in the audience to sing certain hymns, and the requiring of the rest not to sing; the demand for unusual postures in parts of the worship, as, for example, kneeling in singing, etc., etc.
There is one feature which is common to all "revival machinery," and this is, to lead awakened sinners to commit themselves in order to get them over that indecision and fear of man which have kept them back, and to render it impossible for them to return with consistency. The measures used for bringing about this commitment are various. Some of them were described in the last paragraph. To these may be added the exacting of a promise "to give themselves to religion at once." These measures, as has been suggested, while they are intended to commit the actors, are intended also to awaken the attention of others, and to serve as means of general impressions.
Now some of the objections to this machinery are the following:
(a), They lead to a reliance on other means than truth and, prayer, and on other power than that of God. Sinners are very apt to place dependence on this act of commitment. "I have taken one step, and now I hope God will do something for me," "is language which," Dr. Griffin says, "I have heard more than once."
(b), These measures divert the attention of the sinner from the truth of God as impressed upon his own conscience. Dr. Ichabod Spencer remarks in his Pastor's Sketches (we quote from memory) that he never knew anybody to be converted by a funeral sermon, and he accounts for it by the fact that those who are really afflicted by the death are too much absorbed in the contemplation of their loss to attend to the truth which is set forth by the preacher. So in this case, the sinner is not allowed to meditate upon the truth he has just heard, but his attention is called away by a proposition to change his seat. So, also, the congregation is invited to cease meditating. upon the truth and to watch the motions of some who are walking up and down the aisles, or to be on the tip-toe of expectation to see who are going to rise and go forward. What has truth to do with these tactics? They are evidently designed to work on the senses, the imagination and the passions; they are merely for effect.
(c), Hence, when often repeated they become mere forms, like those of Rome. Rome ascribes a magical or a mechanical effect to her sacramental forms; a like effect is virtually ascribed to this revival machinery. In both cases the sinner is invited to submit himself to the manipulations of the minister of religion with the hope of "getting through," and it is no breach of charity to add that in both cases the Chris tians who are made are man-made and machine-made.
There is another point of resemblance. In the case neither of the priest nor of the "revivalist" is there any necessity for spiritual gifts, for a spiritual frame of mind, or for piety, or anything, indeed, but the power of physical endurance — and brass. We do not deny that some of these measures have been used by good men, and with an earnest desire to do good; but there is nothing in their own nature which forbids their being used with effect by men who have not one spark of genuine piety. Accordingly, we find that they have been successfully used by wicked men and hypocrites. The Roman priest performs the ceremonies of the ritual, and the business is done. The character of the priest has nothing to do with the efficiency of the ritual. Whether he be a Hophni or a Zadok makes no difference in the result. The recipient or patient "gets through" alike in either case.
(d), This suggests another thought, that these measures most naturally affiliate with a Pelagian or semi-Pelagian system of doctrine. The mummeries of Rome have an intimate connection with the semi-Pelagian position of that body. It is not a question of vital importance which of the two was first in the order of time, the abuse in practice or the error in doctrine. If both belong to the same organism it matters not whether the head or the foot came in first. It is enough for us to know that the head and the foot are members of the same body, and that if the one be admitted the other will be apt to follow in due time. No such ordinance as that which the papists call baptism could have a prominent place in a body which was not at least semi-Pelagian in doctrine. And so it may be truly said that the machinery in question is thoroughly semi-Pelagian in its affinities. It was introduced in modern times by churches of that doctrinal tendency ; it was worked con amore by the Pelagianizing party in the Presbyterian Church in the years preceding the schism of 1837, and if not condemned again and put down it will bring on another semi-Pelagian schism or something worse. It is altogether out of harmony with the doctrine of our church concerning the agency of the Holy Ghost in regeneration. One or the other must, in the long run, be given up.
The connection here asserted between Pelagianism and the use of revival machinery is fully vindicated by the history of the famous revivalist, Charles G. Finney. In a review of his sermons in the Princeton Review for 1835 (republished in the Princeton Theological Essays, second series, pp. 77 ff.), it was shown that he denied the doctrines of total depravity, of regeneration (in the Calvinistic sense), of the direct agency of the Holy Ghost upon the soul, etc.; that he held to the notion of the "self -determining power of the will," and to the related doctrine of sin and holiness as consisting in volitions only, etc., etc. He asserted the perfect, unqualified ability of the sinner to regenerate himself. (Pp. 103 ff.) The great aim and effort of the preacher is to persuade the sinner to convict himself. Hence the use of extra measures. He says (page 83), "God has found it necessary to take advantage of the excitability there is in mankind to produce powerful excitements among them before he can lead them to obey." "There is a state of things in which it is impossible for God or man to promote religion but by painful excitement."
(e), The use of this machinery brings a multitude of un converted people into the church who would not otherwise come into it. The appeal is made to mere natural sensibilities and sympathies; people, especially the young, honestly mistake this natural feeling and mere impressions on the imagination for religious conviction, or for the sentiments which result from religious convictions, and without time for testing their sentiments and for manifesting their real nature and origin, they are hurried into the church, and assume the irrevocable vow. A few months are sufficient to reveal the fact of self-deception to a multitude of these "converts"; but they are in the church; they commit, the greater part of them, no "offence" to warrant their excommunication; and they remain in the church, while they are of the world. Hence another fruitful source of apostasy from the faith. By the terms of the supposition, such church members have no spiritual relish for the distinctive truths of the gospel; in particular, there is nothing in them which says "amen" to the teachings of God's word concerning the desperate power and malignity of sin and concerning the almighty and sovereign power of the Holy Ghost. The real problem of sin has never been anxiously revolved by them, and they are, consequently unable to appreciate the Bible soteriology, whether of the Son or of the Spirit. Now, as a spiritual experience of the power and reality of the truth is the only security for its preservation; as it is the presence of the invisible church within the body of the church visible which determines and perpetuates the faith, it is plain that the church in which the greater part is unconverted is in danger of losing its faith. The world in the church! this is the great peril. This is doing more to help the cause of Rome and of infidelity than all the crafty books that are circulated in their interest. This is the peril against which the church has been warned from the very beginning; and it is a peril into which the use of revival machinery is aiding to plunge us.
(f), There is an argument ad hominem which may be ad dressed to Presbyterians in our own churches, and which ought to be conclusive with them against these "measures," even if they are not convinced that the measures are in themselves wrong, and that is, that they are a clear addition to the covenant which has been made with one another by the congregations constituting "the Presbyterian Church in the United States." This covenant is contained in our standards. We have agreed as to what "the ordinances in a particular church" shall be (Form of Government, Chapter II., Section IV., Article V.), and in the Directory for Worship the features of the worship to be observed in all our congregations are described. No congregation has the right to introduce any other form of worship, and at the same time to remain a constituent part of that church to which these standards belong. It is not improbable that many machinery- using churches in our communion would be scandalized by the introduction into our non-machinery-using churches of a liturgy. But why should they? The covenant is violated, it is true; but the machinery has also broken it. We do not hesitate to say that, if the covenant has to be broken in one way or the other, we should consider the breach by liturgy much the less offensive and dangerous of the two.
(g), This part of the discussion may be appropriately closed by a testimony or two of the General Assembly. There are many testimonies of this sort, as may be seen by consulting Baird's Digest, Book III, Part 4, which bears the title, "Revivals." We shall content ourselves with a quotation or summary from the pastoral letter of the Assembly of 1832, of which the venerable James Hoge was Moderator: "1. In a time of the revival of religion let it be remembered, that while all proper means are to be used to deepen and cherish serious impressions and to awaken and alarm the sinfully secure, an undue excitement should be carefully avoided. If instead of distinguishing between deep and genuine and salutary convictions of sin, and the mere effusions of animal passions and nervous sensibility, the latter are encouraged and stimulated, as leading to a desirable issue, the most baneful effects are likely to ensue, effects multiform in appearance and character, but in all, deplorable and pernicious. Therefore, 2. We advise, that with tender ness, but yet with unshaken firmness, all bodily agitations and noisy outcries, especially in worshipping assemblies, be discouraged, and as far as possible prevented. 3. Guard against every species of indecorum in social worship, such, particularly, as is manifestly apparent when several individuals pray or exhort or converse at the same time… 6. Let not the settled order of churches be disturbed. In the absence of pastors or other authorized ministers of the gospel, let the elders or deacons or other Christians of standing and experience, rather than young converts, take the lead in the social exercises of religion. 7. Listen to no self-sent or irregular preachers, whatever may be their pretensions to knowledge, piety and zeal. 8. Let no doctrine inconsistent with the Scriptures as explained and summarily taught in the doctrinal standards of our church be promulgated and favored in any of our churches. 9. Let not apparent converts be hurried into the churches, and brought to the Lord's table, without a careful examination; nor, ordinarily, without a suitable period of probation, by which the reality of their religion may be better judged of than it can be by any sudden indications, however plausible. Nothing is more directly calculated to injure the cause of God and the credit of our holy religion than urging or permitting individuals to make a public profession of religion as soon as they have experienced some serious impressions, and natter themselves that they have been renewed in the temper of their mind. All experience shows that such persons often and speedily dis honor the profession, and not unfrequently become open apostates, and sometimes avowed infidels. 10. Finally, let no measures for the promotion of religious revivals be adopted which are not sanctioned by some example or precept, or fair and sober inference, drawn from the word of God. ... If such a warrant can be fairly made out, let the measure be adopted; but otherwise, let it be promptly abandoned; for it must be remembered that the Bible contains not only a safe but a complete rule of duty."
The opinions of the most eminent ministers of the past generation, as given in the appendix to Sprague's Lectures on Revivals, are in the same line with these testimonies of the Assembly of 1832; but we must content ourselves with a simple reference to that work. Under these testimonies and opinions we shelter ourselves from those, if there be any, of our readers who are disposed to charge us, on the ground of the views we have expressed, with being hostile to revivals and to vital piety. The same charge was brought against our fathers, men with whom we would not venture to com pare ourselves for a single moment as to knowledge or piety. A few words may be added upon the danger to the peace and character of the church from so-called "evangelists." Our history is instructive upon this subject. The schism of 1741 was occasioned, in great part, by the excesses and extravagances of itinerating ministers who, instead of preaching in destitute neighborhoods, invaded the pastoral charges of settled ministers, often without their consent, or with a consent extorted by the clamors of the people. The greatest contempt was shown for these settled ministers, no matter how long or how faithfully they had labored, if they had not been what the evangelists were pleased to consider "successful." They were treated as "blind leaders of the blind," cold-hearted, unconverted; and their people were not only encouraged, but exhorted, to forsake their ministrations for those of warm-hearted, zealous, inspired evangelists. These evangelists were generally good men; among them such as Whitefield and the Tennents; but this fact made the results all the more deplorable. (See Hodge's History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, Part II., Chapters IV. and V.)
Another great evil which resulted from the same causes was the lowering or attempt to lower the standard of the education of the ministry, and the encouragement of the laity to usurp the functions of the ministry. These two things go hand in hand, as we see, now in our own modern times. If preaching is nothing but exhorting sinners to flee from the wrath to come, why may not an uneducated, zealous layman do it as well as a trained and ordained minister? Thus the order of Christ's house was broken down, and but for the faithful testimony and labors of the noble men who were stigmatized as "graceless and unconverted" (see the extraordinary sermon of Gilbert Tennent, in Hodge's History of the Presbyterian Church, Part II., pp. 152 ff), the Presbyterian Church would have been ruined. Let it be added, with thanksgiving to God, that some of these good but erring men afterwards con fessed their error and deplored their uncharitable judgments and speeches.
Thomas Peck, Revivals of Religion, Miscellanies: Volume 1, Pages 215-224