Any cursory glance at the history of the world shows us that significant events sometimes fail to produce lasting consequences, and insignificant events can sometimes drastically change the course of history. This is especially true in the history of the Church. We know of major events that change the course of history (i.e.: the sixteenth-century Reformation), but do we have an example of an insignificant event changing the course of history? In a certain sense we do, and I found that Ian Murray’s book, Revival and Revivalism, details this well.
You might be familiar with names such as Jonathan Edwards, Charles Finney, Charles Spurgeon, or D.L. Moody, but do you know of Archibald Alexander, Asahel Nettleton, or Lyman Beecher? You might if you have studied the history of Christianity in America with some depth, but I know I was unfamiliar with them. As Murray uncovers the history of the great awakenings, it is not difficult to see that the latter men (although vastly unknown in comparison to the former) contributed just as much, if not more to the eighteenth and nineteenth century revivals of the Christian religion in America than the former.
That is not the only place I found insignificance producing great change during this time. For the entirety of the First Great Awakening and part of the Second Great Awakening, the majority of revival happened within the context of the local churches. Of course, the Second Great Awakening saw a greater revival than before, and so it also saw a greater influx of travelling preachers and open air preaching. These were the Calvinists who saw that no special measures were needed in the salvation of souls apart from the preaching of God’s Word. It was something so insignificant as the proclamation of a certain message that was used mightily.
However, a change in the thinking about revival occurred subtly during the Second Great Awakening. Murray could not find anyone who knew where it began, but it became popular for preachers began to rely on their charisma and ability to incite an emotional response out of the people. Perhaps it was when the number of people converted became a contest. No longer was there a period of discipleship before a convert was accepted as a member of the church. All a person had to do was fall over, as though struck by God, and they were counted among the converted. Perhaps it was that—that no one questioned why the person was falling over. The simple response, “It might be the Holy Spirit and we don’t want to blaspheme Him,” shut up the questioner.
The fruit of this change has drastically marred modern evangelicalism. As Murray traces the line from the anxious bench to modern evangelistic practices, it is unmistakable that those who sought to help God convert sinners did so to the demise of generations of Christians to come.
Pick any of Ian Murray’s historical works, and you will be sure to have a most thorough account of the event. This book is no exception. One of the ways it stood out to me in the book was that not only does he show the shortcomings of those with whom he agrees, he lets those who disagree with him have a fair say.
In the case of the Calvinist ministers, Murray does not hide the fact that they failed in the popularity contest between their position and those who promoted the “new measures”, or the fact that many of them agreed (to an extent) with D.L. Moody when he promoted emotion-driven evangelism over theology-driven evangelism. In the case of Charles Finney, Murray lets Finney argue for the use of “new measures” in evangelism. Murray does not diminish the fact that Finney rose to great popularity, and effected thousands with his preaching. By the end of the book, one feels as though they had been there, observing it from a birds-eye view.
If you want to understand how popular American evangelicalism got to where it is, this book will give you every reason to believe that what took place during the great awakenings has greatly influenced modern thought and practice. This book explains how many of the modern ideas took root in our ancestors. It is, then, helpful for us today, because it gives us a clear picture of the past. And without a clear picture of the past, we will have no clear vision for the future.
By Ian Murray, Banner of Truth, 1994