Chapter IV c

The Genuineness of The Revival

Notwithstanding all the disorders and other evils attendant on this revival, there can be no doubt that it was a wonderful display, both of the power and grace of God. This might be confidently inferred from the judgment of those who, as eye‑witnesses of its progress, were the best qualified to form an opinion of its character. The deliberate judgment of such men as Edwards, Cooper, Colman, and Bellamy, in New England; and of the Tennents, Blair, Dickin­son, and Davies, in the Presbyterian Church, must be received as of authority on such a subject. These men were not errorists or enthusiasts. They were devout and sober‑minded men, well versed in the Scriptures and in the history of religion. They had their faults, and fell into mistakes ; some of them very grievous; but if they are not to be regarded as competent witnesses as to the nature of any religious excitement, it will be hard to know where such wit­nesses are to be found. Besides the testimony of these distinguished individuals, we have that of a convention of about ninety ministers met at Boston, July 7, 1743. Similar attestations were published by several associations in Connecticut and elsewhere. The Pres­byteries of New Brunswick and New Castle, and the whole Synod of New York, repeatedly and earnestly bore their testimony to the genuineness and value of this revival.

We have, however, ourselves sufficient ground on which to form a judgment on this subject. We can compare the doctrines then taught, the exercises experienced, and the effects produced, with the word of God, and thus learn how far the work was in accordance with that infallible standard. The first of these points is a matter of primary importance. It would be in vain for any set of men to expect the confidence of the Christian public in the genuineness of any religious excitement, unless it could be shown that the truth of God was instrumental in its production. There have been great excitements where Pagan, Mohammedan, and Popish doctrines were preached, but no one regards such excitements with approbation, who does not regard those doctrines as true. Any revival, there­fore, which claims the confidence of the people of God, must show that it is the child of the truth of God. If it cannot do this, it may safely be pronounced spurious. How will the revival under consideration abide this test? Is there any doubt as to the doc­trines taught by Whitefield, the Tennents, Blair, Dickinson, and the other prominent preachers of that day ? They were the doc­trines of the Reformation, and of the standards of the Presbyterian Church. Indeed, these men often went to a length in their state­ments of the peculiarities of those doctrines, that would shock the delicacy of modern ears. These great truths were not kept under a bushel during this period. They were prominently presented, and gave to the work, as far as it was genuine, its distinctive character. “The doctrines preached,” says Trumbull, “ by those famous men, who were owned as the principal instruments of this remarkable re­vival of God’s work, were the doctrines of the reformers ; the doc­trine of original sin, of regeneration by the supernatural influences of the divine Spirit, and of the absolute necessity of it, that any man might bear good fruit, or ever be admitted into the kingdom of God; effectual calling ; justification by faith, wholly on account of the imputed righteousness of Christ; repentance towards God and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ ; the perseverance of saints; the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in them, and its divine consolations and joys.”

The contemporary accounts of the doctrines inculcated by the zealous preachers of that day, fully sustain the statement just quoted. Edwards mentions that his sermon on justification by faith, though it gave offence to many, was greatly blessed, and that it was on the doctrine therein taught, the revival was founded in its beginning and during its whole progress. In the account of the revival at Plymouth, we are told that the doctrines principally insisted upon, were “the sin and apostasy of mankind in Adam ; the blind­ness of the natural man in things of God; the enmity of the carnal mind; the evil of sin, and the ill desert of it; the utter inability of fallen man to relieve himself; the sovereignty of God, his righteousness, holiness, truth, power, eternity, and also his grace and mercy in Christ Jesus; the way of redemption by Christ; justification through his imputed righteousness received by faith, this faith being a gift of God, and a living principle that worketh by love ; legal and evangelical repentance; the nature and neces­sity of regeneration, &c.”

The Rev. Air. Crocker, in his history of the revival at Taunton, enumerates the doctrines which had been chiefly “blessed by God to the awakening, convincing, and converting of sinners,” or to the edification of believers. His list contains all the distinguish­ing doctrines of the gospel ; as original sin, that all men by nature are dead in trespasses and sins, legally and spiritually dead; the natural impotence and enmity of men ; their natural blindness in spiritual things; the covenant of works and of grace ; God’s sove­reignty in dispensing grace to whomsoever he will; justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ; the necessity of regeneration ; the necessity of the special and supernatural influences of the Holy Spirit; the necessity of a holy life, &c. &c.

The Rev. Mr. M’Gregore, pastor of the Presbyterian church at Londonderry, New Hampshire, preached a sermon on the trial of the spirits, which was subsequently published, with a preface by certain of the ministers of Boston. In that preface it is said: “As the Assembly’s Shorter Catechism has been all along agree­able to the known principles of the New England churches, and has been generally received and taught in them as a system of Christian doctrine agreeable to the Holy Scriptures, wherein they happily unite ; it is a great pleasure to us that our Presbyterian brethren who came from Ireland, are generally with us in these important points, as also in the particular doctrines of experimental piety arising from them, and the wondrous work of God agreeable to them, at this day making its triumphant progress through the land.” The writers say that they rejoice to add their testimony to that of the author of the sermon, to the same doctrines of grace, and to the wondrous works of God. “The doctrines which the promoters of this work teach,” says the author, and by which he insists they ought to be tried, to know whether they are of God, are the doctrines of the gospel, of the Apostles’ Creed, of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, and of the Westminster Confession of Faith. More particularly these men are careful to teach and inculcate the great doctrine of original sin, in opposition to Pelagius, Arminius, and their respective followers: that this sin has actually descended from Adam, the natural and federal head, to all his posterity proceeding from him by ordinary generation ; that hereby the understanding is darkened, the will depraved, and the affections under the influence of a wrong bias, to that degree that they are utterly indisposed to any thing that is spiritually good; that man, as a sad consequence of the fall, has lost all power in things spiritual. They teach likewise, with due care, the doctrine of the imputation of the righteousness of the second Adam, Jesus Christ; that this righteousness is apprehended and applied by faith alone, without the deeds of the law ; that the faith which justifies the soul is living and operative. They teach that this faith is the gift of God; that a man cannot believe by any inherent power of his own. As to regeneration, they hold it to be absolutely necessary; that the tree must be made good before the fruit be so; that unless a man undergo a supernatural change by the operation of the Holy Ghost upon his soul, or be born of water and of spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”

Such were the doctrines of the promoters of this revival, by which they wished to be tried themselves, and to have their work tested. Those who believe these doctrines will of course be disposed to have confidence in these men, and in the revival which attended their preaching. Whereas those who reject these doctrines may be expected to pronounce the men nothing‑doers, passivity-preachers, destroyers of souls, and the like, and their work a mere delusion ; unless, indeed, an exaggerated deference for public opinion, or the amiable prejudice of education should lead them still to laud the men and the revival, while they condemn the sentiments which gave both it and them their distinctive character.

The second criterion of the genuineness of any revival is the nature of the experience professed by its subjects. However varied as to degree or circumstances, the experience of all true Chris­tians is substantially the same. There is and must be a conviction of sin, a sense of ill‑desert and unholiness in the sight of God, a desire of deliverance from the dominion as well as penalty of sin ;

an apprehension of the mercy of God in Jesus Christ; a cordial acquiescence in the plan of redemption; a sincere return of the soul to God through Christ, depending on his merits for acceptance. These acts of faith will ever be attended with more or less of joy and peace, and with a fixed desire and purpose to live in obedience to the will of God. The distinctness and strength of these exer­cises, the rapidity of their succession, their modifications and com­binations, admit of endless diversity, yet they are all to be found in every case of genuine conversion. It is here as in the human face; all men have the same features, yet no two men are exactly alike. This uniformity of religious experience, as to all essential points, is one of the strongest collateral proofs of the truth of ex­perimental religion. That which men of every grade of cultiva­tion, of every period, and in every portion of the world, testify they have known and felt, cannot be a delusion. When we come to ask what was the experience of the subjects of this revival, we find, amidst much that is doubtful or objectionable, the essential characteristics of genuine conversion. This is plain from the ac­counts already‑given, which need not be here repeated. In a great multitude of cases, the same feelings were professed which we find the saints, whose spiritual life is recorded in the Bible, experienced, and which the children of God in all ages have avowed; the same sense of sin, the same apprehension of the mercy of God, the same faith in Christ, the same joy and peace in believing, the same de­sire for communion with God, and the same endeavour after new obedience.

Such. however is the ambiguity of human language, such the deceitfulness of the human heart, and such the devices of Satan, that no mere detail of feeling, and especially no description which one man may give of the feelings of others, can afford conclusive evidence of the nature of those feelings in the sight of God. Two persons may, with equal sincerity, profess sorrow for sin, and yet their emotions be essentially different. Both may with truth de­clare that they believe in Christ, and yet the states of mind there­by expressed be very dissimilar. Both may have peace, joy, and love, yet the one be a self‑deceiver, and the other a true Christian.

We must, therefore, look further than mere professions or detail of experiences, for evidence of the real character of this work. We must look to its effects. The only satisfactory proof of the nature of any religious excitement, in an individual or a commu­nity, is its permanent results. What then were the fruits of this revival? Mr. William Tennent says that the subjects of this work, who had come under his observation, were brought to approve of the doctrines of the gospel, to delight in the law of God, to endea­vour to do his will, to love those who bore the divine image ; that the formal had become spiritual; the proud, humble ; the wanton and vile, sober and temperate ; the worldly, heavenly‑minded; the extortioner, just; and the self‑seeker, desirous to promote the glory of God. This account was written in 1744.

The convention of ministers that met in Boston in 1743, state, that those who were regarded as converts confirmed the genuine­ness of the change which they professed to have experienced, “by the external fruits of holiness in their lives, so that they appeared to those who had the nearest access to them, as so many epistles of Jesus Christ, written not with ink, but by the Spirit of the liv­ing God.” President Edwards, in his Thoughts on the Revival, written in 1743, says, there is a strange alteration almost all over New England among the young. Many, both old and young, have become serious, mortified and humble in their conversation ; their thoughts and affections are now about the favour of God, an inter­est in Christ, and spiritual blessedness. The Bible is in much greater esteem and use than formerly. The Lord’s day is more religiously observed. There has been more acknowledgment of faults and restitution within two years, than in thirty years before. The leading truths of the gospel are more generally and firmly held; and many have exhibited calmness, resignation, and joy, in the midst of the severest trials. It is true his estimate of this work, a few years later, was far less favourable, but he never ceased to regard it as a great revival of genuine religion.

Trumbull, a later witness, says, “the effects on great numbers were abiding and most happy. They were the most uniform exem­plary Christians with whom I was ever acquainted. I was born and had my education in that part of the town of Hebron in which the work was most prevalent and powerful. Many, who at that time imagined that they were born of God, made a profession of their faith in Christ, and were admitted to full communion, and appeared to walk with God.” They were, he adds, constant and serious in their attendance on public worship, prayerful, righteous, and charita­ble, strict in the government of their families, and not one of them, as far as he knew, was ever guilty of scandal. Eight or ten years after the religious excitement, there was not a drunkard in the whole parish. “It was the most glorious and extensive revival of religion and reformation of manners which this country has ever known. It is estimated that, in the term of two or three years, thirty or forty thousand souls were born into the family of heaven in New England, besides great numbers in New York, New Jersey, and the more southern provinces.” It is to be feared, indeed, that Trumbull was led from the favourable specimens which fell under his own observation, and from his friendship for some of the lead­ing promoters of the revival, to form a more favourable opinion of its general results than the facts in the case would warrant. His testimony, however, is important, belonging as he did to the next generation of ministers, and familiarly acquainted as he was with some of the most zealous preachers of the preceding period.

The rise of the Methodists in England, the extensive revival of religion in Scotland, were contemporaneous with the progress of the revival in this country. This simultaneous excitement in the different parts of the British empire, was marked every where, in a great measure, with the same peculiar features. It would be in­teresting to trace its history abroad, in connection with what occur­red on our side of the Atlantic. This, however, the nature of the present work forbids. It is enough for our purpose to know that the revival was not confined to this country. It was essentially the same work here, in Scotland and in England, modified by the pecu­liar circumstances of those several countries.

If the evidence was not perfectly satisfactory, that this remark­able and extended revival was indeed the work of the Spirit of God, it would lose almost all its interest for the Christian church. It is precisely because it was in the main a work of God, that it is of so much importance to ascertain what were the human or evil elements mixed with it, which so greatly marred its beauty and cur­tailed its usefulness. That there were such evils cannot be a mat­ter of doubt. The single consideration, that immediately after this excitement the state of religion rapidly declined, that errors of all kinds became more prevalent than ever, and that a lethargy gra­dually settled on the churches, which was not broken for near half a century, is proof enough that there was a dreadful amount of evil connected with the revival. Was such, however, actually the case ? Did religion thus rapidly decline ? If this question must be answered in the affirmative, what were the causes of this decline, or what were the errors which rendered this revival, considered as a whole, productive of such evils ? These are questions of the greatest interest to the American churches, and ought to be very seriously considered and answered.