For a thorough history of revival in the United States one can do no better than purchase and read this book. It is interesting and well-written, and traces the history of revivalism from the Great Awakening in New England to modern mass evangelism under the leadership of Billy Graham and Luis Palau. The purpose of the book is not, however, merely to give a bird’s-eye view of the history, but, as Luis Palau explains in the Introduction, it is hoped that the book will bring about revival in our own day. All the men who participated in revivals get their fair share of time: Jonathan Edwards, Theodore Frelinghuysen, Charles Finney, Dwight L. Moody, Billy Sunday — they are all there and their views are examined.
The book is favorable towards revivalism, but is strangely silent for the most part on the excesses which often accompanied revivals and speaks sparingly about the criticisms which were leveled against revivals by orthodox theologians.
Yet, the book brings out in many ways the weaknesses of revivalism, and for this reason alone it is worth reading.
The book finds its support for revivals in the Old Testament and Pentecost; but this biblical basis is weak, for the appeal to the Old Testament is really a misinterpretation of the place which Israel occupied in the history of redemption, and an appeal to Pentecost is a complete misunderstanding of what took place on that important day when the Spirit was given to the church.
A wrong view of conversion lies at the heart of revival theory. This view is an erroneous view first promoted by later Puritan theology, basically Arminian, and based on a wrong view of the covenant of grace, especially the truth that God establishes His covenant in the line of continued generations. It is briefly described on page 43:
Before conversion, every sinner had to undergo certain preparatory stages, although those stages had no salvific power in themselves. Such preparations were similar to Puritan “convictions,” in which a “law work” based on the paradigm of the Old Testament legal dispensation manifested the sinner’s helplessness and need. This instruction in helplessness prepared the sinner for introduction to the saving grace of Christ. Preparations … came in the two stages of humiliation and contrition (see also pp. 115, 116).
The role that the doctrine of freewill plays in revivalism is admitted and defended. As early as Solomon Stoddard (p. 49), the predecessor of Jonathan Edwards in Northampton, this Pelagian heresy was a part of revival thinking. And it maintained that preeminent place throughout, coming to sharp expression in Charles Finney’s total rejection of Calvinism (see, e.g., pp. 122, 147, 156). There was always the tension found in revivals between a pious admission that revivals come from God and the need for man to do something to bring about revival.
Revivals always bred a false ecumenicity. Forgetting important biblical and confessional differences, churches would band together for or be united by revivals which, supposedly, swept entire areas. Doctrinal truths of God’s Word were laid aside in the broader and more compelling interests of cooperation for bringing about revival.
Nor was revivalism free from postmillennial thinking. The author makes that clear, e.g., when he writes: “Their optimistic hope was that as evil decreased, goodness and the gospel would increase to the point of bringing in the millennium” (p. 165).
The book, filled with statistics which are intended to prove the success of revivalism by listing the numbers of converts, shows the carnal emphasis on mere numbers, which are so important even to modern mass evangelism.
How different all this is from Scripture’s emphases. The battle of faith is a battle of the ages in the defense of truth. The church is always a hut in a garden of cucumbers (Is. 1:8, 9). The life of the church in the world is the steady progress of an embattled remnant that perseveres by the power of Christ in every age even when it can scarcely be found on the earth (Belgic Confession, Art. 27); it is not, as revivalism teaches, a long series of ups and downs marked by spiritual declines and sudden bursts of revival which soon fade away. The life of the child of God is not of such spiritual lows and highs that revivals bring sudden bursts of intense spiritual ecstasy only to be followed by periods of extreme lethargy. It is the slow, unnoticed, steady progress in sanctification which marks the earnest believer in his daily struggle with sin and his daily putting off the old man and putting on the new man, expressed in confession, sorrow for sin, and renewed resolve to walk in the ways of God’s commandments. The work of the Holy Spirit is not manifested in the earthquakes of religious frenzy, but in the still, small voice of daily regeneration.
It is the spiritual aspect of revivals which is so extremely dangerous to a proper understanding of the history of the church and the daily walk of the believer who finds his refuge daily in the cross of Christ. To pray for revival, as the book wants us to do, is to pray for that which is contrary to the will of God and a denial of all that Scripture teaches of the age-old battle against sin.