Skip to main content

Superficial Revival


I recently came across a small, scarce collection of letters written by Charles Finney toward the end of his life. They are exhortations concerning his perspective of the growing superficiality of church life and revival meetings around the year 1870. As I read, I could not help but mourn over the state of the church as we now experience it 130 years later. It takes little imagination to figure what his response would be to the rock bands, comedy routines, T-shirt sales and empty conversions that typify “revival meetings” of our day.

It is my prayer that this timeless reprimand will spur us in returning not only to the revival fire of the 1830’s, but further still, until the Book of Acts becomes our reality in this day. Below is an excerpt from this collection. --Dean Taylor

I have observed, and multitudes of others also I find have observed, that for the last ten years, revivals of religion have been gradually becoming more and more superficial. All the phenomena which they exhibit testify to this as a general fact. There is very much less deep conviction of sin and deep breaking up of the heart; much less depth of humility, and much less strength in all the graces exhibited by converts in late revivals, than in the converts from the revivals which occurred about 1830 and 1831 and for some time previous. I have observed, as have others also, that revivals are of much shorter duration, and that a reaction comes on much more suddenly and disastrously than formerly. Also, that fewer of the converts make stable and efficient Christians; that those who do persevere, appear to have less of the Spirit of Christ than in former revivals—not so much of the spirit of prayer, and are not so modest and humble. In short, all the phenomena of the more recent revivals, judging from my own experience and observation and from the testimony of other witnesses, show that they have at least very extensively, taken on a much less desirable type than formerly.

Christians are much less spiritual in revivals, much less prevalent in prayers, not so deeply humbled and quickened and thoroughly baptized with the Holy Ghost as they were formerly. These statements I do not suppose to be universally applicable to modern revivals, but I do believe them to be applicable generally. As revivals now exist, I believe ministers are not nearly as desirous of seeing them in their congregations as they formerly were, nor have they good reason to be. Those ministers who have witnessed none but the later revivals of which I speak, are almost afraid of revivals. The have seen the disastrous results of modern revivals so frequently, that they honestly entertain the doubt whether they are, upon the whole, desirable. Those, as I have good reason to know, who saw the revivals which occurred ten or twenty years ago, greatly prefer revivals of that type. They are distressed with the superficiality of many recent revivals. I make this as a general, not a universal remark, and state only my own opinion of public sentiment. I have often heard it said, both among ministers and private Christians, “We long to see the days return when we shall have such revivals as we saw years ago.” I have been anxiously watching the progress of things in this direction, and inquiring as carefully and prayerfully as I could into the causes which are operating to produce these results. If I am not misinformed, and have not greatly misapprehended the case, the following will be found among them:

1. There is much less probing of the heart by a deep and thorough exhibition of human depravity, than was formerly the case. It has been of late a common remark, and a brother who has long labored as an evangelist made the same remark, that for the last few years there has been little or no opposition made by impenitent sinners to revivals. Now it is not because the carnal mind is not still enmity against God, but I greatly fear it is for the want of turning up to the light the deep foundations of this enmity in their hearts. The unutterable depravity of the human heart has not, I fear, been laid open to the very bottom as it formerly was. A few sermons on the subject of moral depravity are generally preached in every revival, but I fear this is by no means the great theme of the preaching so much and so long as it ought to be, in order thoroughly to break up the fallow ground of the sinner’s and the professor’s heart. From my own experience and observation, as well as from the Word of God, I am fully convinced that the character of revivals depends very much upon the stress that is laid upon the depravity of the heart. Its pride, enmity, windings, deceitfulness, and everything else that is hateful to God, should be exposed in the light of His perfect law.

2. I fear that stress enough is not laid upon the horrible guilt of this depravity. Pains enough is not taken, by a series of pointed and cutting discourses, to show the sinner the utter inexcusableness, the unutterable wickedness and guilt, of his base heart. No revival can be thorough until sinners and backsliders are so searched and humbled, that they can not hold up their heads. It is a settled point with me, that while backsliders and sinners can come to an anxious meeting, and hold up their heads and look you and others in the face without blushing and confusion, the work of searching is by no means performed, and they are in no state to be thoroughly broken down and converted to God. I wish to call the attention of my brethren especially to this fact.

When sinners and backsliders are really convicted by the Holy Ghost, they are greatly ashamed of themselves. Until they manifest deep shame, it should be known that the probe is not used sufficiently, and they do not see themselves as they ought. When I go into a meeting of inquiry and look over the multitudes, if I see them with heads up, looking at me and at each other, I have learned to understand what work I have to do. Instead of pressing them immediately to come to Christ, I must go to work to convict them of sin. Generally, by looking over the room, a minister can tell, not only who are convicted and who are not, but who are so deeply convicted as to be prepared to receive Christ.

Some are looking around, and manifest no shame at all; others can not look you in the face, and yet can hold up their heads; others still can not hold up their heads, and yet they are silent; others, by their sobbing, and breathing, and agonizing, reveal at once the fact that the sword of the Spirit has wounded them to their very heart. Now, I have learned that a revival never does take on a desirable and wholesome type any further than the preaching and means are so directed, and so efficient as to produce that kind of genuine and deep conviction which breaks the sinner and the backslider right down, and makes him unutterably ashamed and confounded before the Lord, until he is not only stripped of every excuse, but driven to go all lengths in justifying God and condemning himself.

3. I have thought that, at least in a great many instances, stress enough has not been laid upon the necessity of Divine influence upon the hearts of Christians and of sinners. I am confident that I have sometimes erred in this respect myself. In order to rout sinners and backsliders from their self-justifying pleas and refuges, I have laid, and I doubt not that others also have laid, too much stress upon the natural ability of sinners, to the neglect of showing them the nature and extent of their dependence upon the grace of God and the influence of His Spirit. This has grieved the Spirit of God. His work not being honored by being made sufficiently prominent, and not being able to get the glory to Himself of His own work, He has withheld His influences. In the meantime, multitudes have been greatly excited by the means used to promote an excitement, and have obtained hopes, without ever knowing the necessity of the presence and powerful agency of the Holy Ghost. It hardly need be said that such hopes are better thrown away than kept. It were strange, indeed, if one could lead a Christian life upon the foundation of an experience in which the Holy Ghost is not recognized as having anything to do.

Premature Conversions

I have already intimated that pains enough had not been taken to search the heart and thoroughly detect and expose the sinner’s depravity, so as to make him see the need of the gospel remedy. If I am not mistaken, there has been, in many cases, an error committed in urging sinners to submission before they are prepared to understand what true submission is. They have been urged to repent, before they have really understood the nature and desert of sin; to believe, before they have understood their need of Christ; to resolve to serve God, before they have at all understood what the service of God is. They have been pressed to make up their minds to enter immediately upon the service of God, and have been taught that they needed only to make a resolution to obey the Lord. Hence their religion, after all, has been only a religion of resolutions, instead of a religion of faith, and love, and of a broken heart. In short, it appears to me that, in many instances, the true ideal of what constitutes pure religion has not been developed in the mind, and that consequently spurious conversions have been distressingly numerous. I have been more and more surprised from year to year, to find how very numerous those professors of religion are who manifestly have not the true ideal of pure religion before their minds. It seems that, in many instances, the idea that love is the essence and the whole of religion, is left almost, if not entirely, out of view.

No Meat

Another cause of the decline of revivals, in my estimation, is, that a right course has not been pursued with the Churches. In some instances they have been urged to labor and visit, and put forth active efforts for the conversion of sinners, while they have had very little wholesome food to live upon. Much labor has been demanded with too spare a diet. They have heard very little else than mere legal preaching. Ministers have been preaching almost exclusively to the impenitent, and perhaps for months have given the Church scarcely one wholesome meal of the real gospel. If Christians are to labor for God and souls, they must be fed with a plenty of the bread that cometh down from heaven; they must be made to know and feel where their great strength lies; must have Christ, in all His offices, and relations, and fullness, frequently presented to them. If this course is not pursued, their own piety will not only greatly suffer, but they will come into a legal spirit, all their efforts for the conversion of sinners will be only bustle and legality; and in this state they may encompass sea and laud to make proselytes and fill the Church with spurious converts.

If I am not entirely mistaken, this has been, to an alarming extent, the fact in revivals that have prevailed within the last few years. Christians have had so little of the gospel that they have become legal, self-righteous, blustering, carnal, mechanical, unbelieving; and their efforts have made converts like themselves; which has brought revivals into great disrepute.

Again, ministers, by preaching too exclusively to the impenitent, and dwelling so little on the marrow and fatness and fullness of the gospel, have greatly suffered in their own piety—have themselves become, in many instances, legal, hard-hearted, and censorious. In this state they can not promote true revivals of religion. Not living themselves on Christ, not dwelling in God and God in them, they are in no state to feed the Church or promote true and thorough revivals of religion.

No Preaching on Holiness

I am fully persuaded that my brethren in the ministry will find it indispensable to insist on entire holiness of heart and life, as a practical attainment in this world, or they can never sustain a healthy piety in their Churches.

My dear brethren, you may try it as long as you will; but if you take any lower ground than this your Churches will backslide until you yourselves will be appalled by the result. I am perfectly satisfied, from long experience, that there is no other way but to lodge the deep impression in the Churches, that they are not only required, but expected, to “cleanse themselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” All pleading for sin, or any thing that has the practical tendency of denying the practicability of attaining this state in this life, is the greatest and most ruinous error that can be inculcated on the Churches. As said an English writer not long since, “No error is so destructive, and to be so greatly denounced, as that Christians are expected to sin during this life.”

My beloved brethren, in what I now say I am not endeavoring to win you to my opinion; but I wish to fix your attention and the attention of the Church on the fact; and to have you witness the results of inculcating any lower practical standard than that which I have named.

The fact is, the Churches are going rapidly away from God because of a lack of the true bread of life; and because the ministry have, to such an alarming extent, been guarding their Churches more against the doctrine of sanctification than they have against sin.

Church Life without Revival

Another subject on which I wish to address my brethren is, a tendency which I perceive to exist in the public mind towards a conclusion which, to me, appears little short of downright infatuation; namely, that the Churches can exist and prosper as well without revivals of religion as with them, or even better. Now this is certainly the most preposterous conclusion conceivable; and yet I really know not what else to infer from the general apathy upon the subject of revivals, and especially from the quite extensive hostility against them which is apparent in many sections of the Church. Many of the leading men in the Church seem about ready to adopt, or at least are earnestly favoring, the policy of making no efforts to promote revivals—of discountenancing the labors of evangelists, and all those extra means and efforts that have been used from time immemorial, whenever revivals have occurred.

Now that the Chrisitan Church cannot exist without extensive revivals of religion can be clearly demonstrated; unless the Lord introduces a different mode of diffusing the gospel from any that He ever has adopted. Nay, indeed, the very supposition is absurd and self-contradictory. Must not the Church be revived? Must not religion be revived among the impenitent? If not, will not true piety well nigh cease from the world? The nominal Church might exist, I grant, without revivals. They might introduce another half-way covenant system, or receive hosts of ungodly men into the Church without their giving any evidence of regeneration; and thus a nominal Church might be kept up; but that true piety can not exist and spread without a great and general revival of religion, and without revivals succeeding declensions as often as declensions in any portion of the Church shall occur, is, to my mind, one of the plainest truths in the world.

I am sorry that I have not the means by me of stating definitely the real results of those experiments that have been tried of promoting religion without revivals; but who does not know that, in such cases, the Churches have either become extinct or have become merely nominal Churches, having only a name to live while really dead? They have resorted to a half-way covenant, and various other means of filling up the Church from the world, without their being truly converted to God. How else could even the nominal Church exist? Christians continue to die, and die, in fact, much faster than sinners will be converted to fill their places without revivals.

I believe it to have been a universal fact that Church members have died faster than sinners have been converted to fill their places where no means have been used to promote revivals, and where consequently they have not existed.

To what an extent revivals in this country from 1820-1840 influenced the public mind, developed reforms, and brought up as from the depth of oblivion the great truths and principles that are the sheet-anchor of every Government of opinion under heaven. The fact is, those revivals affected all classes of the community. They affected the whole country, and have extended their influence throughout all Christendom. This I have very good reason to know, not only from my acquaintance with this country, but from intelligence received from Europe.

These revivals were beginning, and indeed more than beginning, to influence the legislation of all Christendom. But let them be done away, let the generation that has witnessed their power go to their graves without the recurrence of those scenes, and what will be the result? A Government of mere opinion like ours, in the hands of a people who fear not God, with a temporizing ministry, a licentious press, and all the agencies that are at work to carry headlong all the religious institutions of the land—where are we in twenty or in fifty years without revivals of religion? Witness the efforts of the papacy, the tendencies of Puseyism the efforts of Universalists and errorists of every description, the running to and fro of lecturers on every subject, the spread of infidel books and tracts, and all the enginery of hell to overthrow all order and law and everything that is lovely and of good report, and then say, my brethren, can the Church exist and prosper without having repeated revivals of religion in its very midst?

But to come nearer home—can we or the present Church become anything less than an abomination and a curse to the world without revivals? Whither is she tending already? Witness the gossip, the worldliness, the pride, the ambition, the everything that is hateful, growing up and prevailing in Churches, just in proportion as they are destitute of the reviving influences of the Holy Spirit. Contemplate the cowardice, the trimming policy, the ecclesiastical ambition of the ministry, without revivals of religion—mark how great and overcoming are their temptations to please men, and even ungodly Church members, when there are no copious outpourings of the Spirit to arouse the multitude and strengthen the hands of the servants of God.

O, it is impossible that desolation should not reign, that the ministry should not cower down before an ungodly public sentiment, that popery should not prevail, the Sabbath be desecrated, the Church ruined, and the world undone, without great revivals of religion.

And what can this policy mean, that would hush everything down, and frown on all special efforts to promote revivals? It is certainly infatuation, and, if not arrested, it must end in ruin.

I beseech my brethren in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to keep as far as possible from the appearance or the thought of discountenancing or looking coldly on revival efforts. They are our life. They are the salvation of the Church, they are the hope of the world. Instead of allowing them to cease, every minister and Christian ought to aim at increasing them a hundredfold. Every one of us ought to set his heart upon rendering them pure, deep, universal, and as frequent as the necessities of the Church and the world demand. Let no man stop short of aiming at this as he values his own soul, and the souls of his fellow men.

  • Hits: 3938