The majority of the distinctives that make up our modern evangelicalism find their origin in the two revival periods of the 18th and 19th centuries. These periods saw great numbers of conversions to the Christian faith and a massive growth in numbers in churches throughout the United States. During these two time periods, a shift in the way Christians understood Christian faith and practice occurred. The study of these events is important if we are to understand how we have come to the place we are in 21st Century Christendom.
The first shift came in the First Great Awakening (1730-1755). In comparison with the Second Great Awakening, this revival of the Christian religion in this time was concentrated in the northeast coast of America as opposed to being widespread throughout the whole country. It also lasted much shorter than the one which would follow years later. The shift during this time was primarily comprised of two parts: travelling preachers and an expectation of revival.
In large part, this revival occurred during a time when it was not common for a preacher to preach in another church, nor preach in a place other than a church building. So, when preachers such as George Whitefield travelled up and down the eastern coast preaching the gospel, they did so as pioneers.
Perhaps the novelty of having a different preacher preaching, one whom the congregation did not know well enough to think poorly of, caused a greater interest in the Christian faith. Take George Whitefield for example, he was not without fault, yet he became one of America’s first celebrities, garnering the attention (and later friendship) of Benjamin Franklin, and on one occasion, when he spoke in Boston, the crowd that gathered was much larger than the population of Boston. Travelling preachers became a common occurrence, and with it brought the idea that the congregation could switch churches without losing their religion. Before this, no one dared attend another church than their own, but now churchgoers began to be selective as to whose teaching they would sit under. This was a triumph of the laity. Now the congregation had more power in their hands to determine the message of the preacher.
At a fundamental level, this revival was truly the work of the Holy Spirit. I cannot think of a better way to describe the situation of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) but that he found himself in the midst of revival. His church had certainly prayed for conversions, but Edwards never changed his style nor his message. He preached his famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, without much inflection in his voice, nor did he raise his voice. In fact, he had already preached it to another congregation.
With this sudden interest in Christianity came the mentality that this extraordinary outpouring of the Holy Spirit should always be expected. For pastors such as Edwards, this mentality was largely controlled by his understanding that the Holy Spirit alone generated such a saving interest in Christ. However, because of the combination of a powerful congregation and the excitement of revival, many others began to take matters into their own hands. This development would only be felt when The Second Great Awakening (1790-1840) occurred a generation later.
For about the first twenty years of The Second Great Awakening, the revival seemed to follow in the footsteps of the previous revival. Men such as Asahel Nettleton and Lyman Beecher carried on with their task of teaching theology to the next generation of ministers while proclaiming the gospel to the congregation. Revival broke out in much the same way as before, but change could already be seen on the horizon.
The first change did not seem so bad at first. Where the Presbyterians and Congregationalists had taught that one must grasp the law and their own sin in light of the law before they could fully trust in Christ, the Baptists began to preach that the sinner could come to Christ immediately. This was welcomed since the old method had degenerated into a conditional faith (“do these things before you can come to Christ”). But it did not take long for the Baptist method of evangelism to degenerate as well into a works-based, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps-to-come-to-Christ gospel. Both these methods were correct on certain points, but their result was an entirely different gospel—no gospel at all. Yet, the numbers of those who were truly converted were astounding.
However, the major change occurred when emotional responses were welcomed as part of the conversion experience, even becoming the conversion itself. During the services, many of the congregants would be so convicted by the preaching that they would cry out. Previously, protocol would have them ushered out so that other ministers could counsel them without distracting the rest of the congregation. But now, many of the ministers argued that to take them out of the service quenched the Holy Spirit. It did not take long after that for the elders of the church to count an emotional response as a conversion. Some of the preachers even began to compete among themselves to see who would be able to convert the most people. As a result, conversion became quite cheap, and soon after, experience trumped theology.
This was the perfect soil for the philosophy of Charles Finney to take root. He is arguably the most famous person of this time, largely due to his hard work and ability to emotionally move great numbers of people. Because of Finney, the anxious bench (which would later be known as the altar call) was popularized. This was all part of his philosophy of conversion. He believed that people were converted by the persuasiveness of the preacher and the power of their own will. He also believed in perfectionism, namely that a believer could and must become perfect in this life. With this combination, Finney’s preaching mirrored that of a psychological manipulator and less of a gospel preacher.
It was not long after Finney began to preach that the revival waned and the emotional excitement that the new preachers promoted began to die. Even Finney himself understood that people could not sustain excitement for long periods of time, yet he pressed on.
The lesson we learn from this period of time is simply this: conversion is best left in God’s hands. We do not need a new method of proclamation, the gospel does just fine on its own. We do not need more excitement, it will not last. And lastly, if we are to remain true to the gospel, we must never go out seeking new measures by which to win lost souls; we must pray and expect revival, but we must never force revival.