Review: The Great Awakening

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The Great Awakening: A History of the Revival of Religion in the Time of Edwards and WhitfieldJoseph Tracy. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2019 (first published 1842).

Summary: A reprint of the first comprehensive history of the English and colonial revivals of the late 1730’s and early 1740’s, focusing in New England and upon the work of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield.

In New England in the 1730’s, if one had been baptized in infancy into the church, had given assent to its doctrines and led a life without scandalous behavior, this was sufficient to receive communion, even if one could not give an account of God’s saving work, or “regeneration” in one’s life. Regeneration is the idea of passing from being dead in one’s sins to spiritually alive in Christ through a gracious work of God’s Spirit. One passes from deep concern and dread concerning one’s state to great consolation as one knows one’s sins forgiven through Christ and that one is now alive in Christ and able under God’s grace of living a life pleasing to God.

Due to this state of affairs, men even entered the ministry without such an experience of the grace of God. It was sometimes the case that in an affluent household of several sons, one of these took a church position, in part to relieve stretched family finances. As Jonathan Edwards, and others began to address this issue of the “unconverted” within the church, a great revival broke out. It began with many being greatly troubled about the state of their souls. Edwards urged people to trust not in their good acts but to resign themselves to God, hoping in the work of Christ to be accepted by God. There were no “anxious benches” or altar calls of the later revivals. The belief was that God would come in God’s time to whom God would, to save, and God did. Many reported experiencing great comfort and consolation in God’s grace, and there was a new liveliness of holy living and service in the lives of many of these.

Joseph Tracy was a Congregational minister who lived from 1798 to 1874. This work by Tracy represents the first comprehensive history of the Great Awakening, particularly focusing on the events of 1740-42, when this awakening was at its peak. What he does is feature the two major figures of the revival, Edwards and Whitefield, and reports of revivals in various parts of the American colonies (with one chapter on Whitefield in England). This is a valuable historical document because Tracy cites many primary source reports written at, or shortly after the time of the Revival. many of these accounts repeat occurrences along the pattern of great concern, an experience of consoling grace, and transformation of behavior following.

The reports also recount the controversies that arise which include the following:

  • Excesses of emotion, faintings, other bodily manifestations. Quickly, wise leaders like Edwards grasped that these are not definitive signs of awakening grace, which is most evident in the amended life of converts. They are neither necessary nor conclusive of conversion, and may be either genuine adjuncts or spurious in nature.
  • Declarations that ministers were “unconverted.” While there were unconverted ministers, and a legitimate concern for the state of their souls, some revivalists made sweeping, summary and public statements about the unconverted character of particular ministers which often did not go down well.
  • Itineracy. A number followed the example of Whitefield in going from town to town preaching rather than confining their ministry to a particular place. This was not a problem when a minister longing for the benefit of his people invited a guest to preach, but this courtesy was not always observed, and open-air preaching circumvented the need for such invitations, but amount to “sheep stealing” in the eyes of local ministers.
  • Exhorters. These were unordained enthusiasts who arose particularly out of the concern that existing ministers were unconverted.
  • Excesses or errors on the part of revivalists. This was most noteworthy in the case of Rev. James Davenport, who made wholesale judgments against ministers, acted more by “impulses” of the Spirit that scriptural warrant, and gathered numerous informal assemblies in homes and public places.

Tracy recounts all of this through reports, public statements of individuals and church bodies, and other documents of the time. Some of this can be heavy going if one is reading straight through but it is a trove of insight second only to Jonathan Edwards Religious Affections on the nature of spiritual awakenings, and the controversies, excesses and errors that may arise amid a genuine work of God.

He also shows the efforts of some, no doubt looking at the excesses and errors, and perhaps stinging from questions about their own spiritual state, to thwart the efforts of the preachers of the Awakening. We see the maturation of a Whitefield, who is able to acknowledge errors while not relenting in what he sees to be a God-given ministry, or Edwards, whose careful reflection and pastoral leadership addresses problems, and then offers a record of abiding value.

If you bog down amid the various accounts, don’t turn from this book without reading the final chapter on “The Results.” Tracy believed that as many as 50,000 were converted, and that the transformation of so many substantively affected the character of the colonies at the time of the War for Independence. It led to a renewed concern for the spiritual qualifications of the minister, fostered mission efforts, laid a basis for religious liberties, and led to the establishment of Dartmouth, Brown, Rutgers, and Princeton.

I hear a renewed hunger for revival and awakening in many circles. The value of a book like this is to give theological substance, as well as practical warnings, that may prove useful should God be so gracious as to grant this work in his churches in our day. This history also warns us of the temptations of pride and censoriousness for preachers in the center of such movements, most evident in the ministry of Davenport. Banner of Truth Trust is to be applauded in bringing this classic work of history of the Awakening of 1740 to a new generation, who hopefully will benefit from the experience of those who have gone before.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Jesus Revolution

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Jesus RevolutionGreg Laurie, Ellen Vaughn. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2018.

Summary: An account of the Jesus Movement centered around Calvary Chapel and Chuck Smith, who mentored Greg Laurie into ministry, and how such a revival might come once more.

Some might argue that the last major American Awakening took place in the late 1960’s to mid- 1970’s in what was known as the Jesus Movement. Young men and women were coming to faith out of the hippie, drug culture. It was happening all over the United States in locality after locality. There was no national campaign. I know. I was a part of it.

So was Greg Laurie, and in this book, he, along with Ellen Vaughn offers a personal narrative of the times, the Southern California movement that centered around Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel, and Greg’s conversion to Christ, growth as a young believer under Smith’s mentoring, and the beginnings of his own ministry, resulting eventually in Harvest Christian Fellowship.

Laurie and Vaughn narrate the times: the transition from the staid 1950’s to the tumultuous 1960’s, the rise of the civil rights and anti-war movements, the proliferation of drug use, the rock festivals, and how the promise of Woodstock rapidly unraveled, leaving the children of the counter-culture desperate for something better.

Greg’s own story involved growing up in a single parent family with his mother and a series of her boyfriends. He didn’t know who his father was. Then he encountered Lonnie Frisbee, a charismatic minister who, at the time, was working with Chuck Smith, an older pastor who was open to this movement of God among young people and taught them the Bible, training converts to be disciples and witnesses.

Greg narrates coming to faith, and plunging into the life of Calvary Chapel, learning that drugs and discipleship could not go together. He began bearing witness to his faith, using art talents to create what became a popular pamphlet. Eventually he is invited to lead a Bible study over in Riverside that explodes, at which time Chuck Smith helps him plant a church that became Harvest Christian Fellowship.

The book goes on to interweave the subsequent life of Greg Laurie, and his wife Cathe, also converted through the ministry, and the subsequent narrative of the next forty years in the U.S. This includes some of the personal tragedies in his life including the death of his own son, and the falling out he had with Chuck Smith when he planted a church in Orange County, where he grew up and where Calvary Chapel was based. Fortunately, the two of them reconciled before Smith’s death.

One of the most significant parts of the book for me were a couple pages where he cited Billy Graham’s The Jesus Generation (a book I read during that period, so grateful for the affirmation of the evangelist for the work of God we were seeing all around us). Graham noted strengths of this movement that were evident in Greg’s narrative and that I saw as well:

  • “It was spontaneous, without a human figurehead…”
  • It was “Bible based.” All of us had dog-eared, marked up Bibles.
  • “The movement was about an experience with Jesus, not head knowledge.”
  • There was an emphasis on the Holy Spirit.
  • “[L]ives were dramatically transformed” as people were liberated from “addictions, and ingrained patterns of sin.”
  • “The movement’s emphasis was on Christian discipleship.” We talked about being “sold out” to Christ in every area of life.
  • “It was interracial and multicultural.”
  • “The movement showed a great zeal for evangelism.” I’ve often joked that if it moved, we tried to witness to it!
  • “The movement emphasized the second coming of Jesus.” Given the turbulence of the times with assassinations, Middle East conflict, and so much discord in the country, we thought Christ could come in our lifetime (pp. 165-166).

An odd characteristic of the book is that references to Laurie are in the third person, perhaps due to it being a co-authored work. Nevertheless, the book offers an eyewitness account of the times and the Jesus Movement that is helpful for anyone who wants to know more about this revival. While the cultural history offers a broad summary, and the account is centered in Southern California, I found that it rang true to my own experience, and that of others I’ve talked to from other cities.

It has been debated whether the Jesus Movement was a revival. The authors argue that it was, as a movement orchestrated by God and not human agency, in which Jesus was powerfully transforming lives through the Holy Spirit. Their purpose is not nostalgia, but rather to challenge the church that it can happen again. They ask whether, like the youth, and some of the churches of the 1960’s, we are desperate enough in our day:

“God grants revival. He grants it to those who are humble enough to know they need it, to those who have a certain desperate hunger for Him. Only out of self-despair–a helpless understanding of the reality of sin and one’s absolute inability to cure it–does anyone ever turn wholeheartedly to God. That desperation is sometimes hard to come by in America, because it is the opposite of self-sufficiency. In the US, many of us live under the illusion that our needs are already met, that maybe God is an add-on to our already comfortable existence” (pp. 232-233).

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Theologies of the American Revivalists

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Theologies of the American Revivalists, Robert W. Caldwell III. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: A study, not so much of the history, as the theologies underlying the different revival movements in America from 1740 to 1840.

There have been various studies of the histories of particular revival movements in American religious history. What Robert W. Caldwell offers in this work is a comparative study of the theologies of the different revivalists. Undergirding the preaching and methodologies of these revivalists lay considerable thought about the theology of the human will and the sovereignty of God, on how widely the salvation of Christ extended, on the length of the conversion process and a tension between systematic theology and plain reading of scripture.

In seven chapters, Caldwell outlines the theologies of various key figures representing different schools of thought, or religious bodies. These include:

  • Moderate evangelical revival theology. This stream of Puritan Calvinism included George Whitefield, Gilbert Tennent, and notably, Jonathan Edwards. Preaching focused on the law, bringing people under conviction of sin, pursuing “means of grace” as one sought conversion, and finally the consolation of assurance. This process was often emotionally intense and protracted.
  • Free grace revival theology. Andrew Croswell and other radical evangelicals rejected the use of “means of grace” and lengthy conversion processes. They emphasized responses of faith to the Christ who loves, and whose salvation was for the world, by “right.” Conversions were intense, certain, leaving no room for doubt, and quick.
  • Edwardsean Calvinist revival theology. Successors of Jonathan Edwards focused on Edwards idea that people have a natural ability to embrace the gospel, even if morally disinclined to do so. This had ramifications for the understanding of original sin, atonement, and, justification. Conversions continued to be lengthy events, culminating in a “disinterested” spirituality that accepted and even could worship God for his just judgment of oneself as a sinner, leading to the apprehension of God’s grace.
  • Methodist Arminian theology emphasized the love of God, the offer of salvation to all, and the freedom of the will to believe. Conversions were both emotional events and quick, with teaching that encouraged progress to Christian perfection.
  • Early American Baptists. They did not have a single revival theology but different leaders adopted one of the above approaches.
  • Taylorism, or New Haven theology. Nathaniel William Taylor further emphasized both the sinners ability to repent, and the ways in which the means of grace might eradicate selfishness in the sinner even prior to regeneration.
  • Charles Finney’s revival theology. Finney built on Taylor, emphasizing the sinner’s ability to respond to the command to repent and elaborating the means of grace systematically in what became called the “new measures.” Finney asserted that three processes were at work in the conversion process: the work of the Spirit, the work of the minister, and the work of the convert.

Caldwell also discusses two critical responses to these revivalist theologies. The first was that of the Princeton theologians Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge, who believed these revival theologies deviated from classic Calvinism in the direction of Pelagianism. They emphasized the quieter means of the influence of the Christian family. The second was the restoration movement led by Stone and Campbell that eschewed theological systems for the plain teaching of the Bible and the actions of belief, repentance, and baptism affirmed in scripture as resulting in regeneration.

I thought Caldwell’s exposition quite clear as to each of the theologies coupled the key figures, their ideas, and the theological implications of those ideas. Each chapter provides a summary of salient points that allows for good review of the chapter. I wondered about the focus on the conversion theologies associated with the revivalists. While this was a significant aspect of revivals, equally significant was the awakening of those who had already believed to spiritual vitality. Apart from the focus on Wesleyan perfection, this aspect was not addressed. Richard Lovelace’s classic Dynamics of Spiritual Life gives a much fuller account of the renewal of the church in revival.

I appreciated Caldwell’s closing comments on the importance of revival theology in the church today:

“A robust revival theology, one that intimately unites head and heart, Scripture, proclamation, and life, would certainly help galvanize preaching, capture the religious imagination of the lost, and aid in imparting a theological vision that draws sinners to life and raises up God-glorifying disciples” (p. 229).

Caldwell’s work offers a rich account of how those who have gone before us have conceived of these things, as well as pointing us to primary sources for further study. He helps us see that, beyond the emotion and the changed lives of the successive waves of revivals, there were prayerful and thoughtful human agents whose understanding of the ways of God in salvation shaped and energized their preaching and pastoral ministry.