Thursday, March 8, 2012

From Revival to Revivalism

Iaian Murray's excellent book Revival and Revivalism traces the history of American evangelicalism from 1750-1858 with special emphasis on the birth of revivalism and the troubling practices that ensued. This history matters because it truly helps to explain how specific doctrines and practices deviated (and continue to deviate) so drastically from what is prescribed in Scripture.

The latest edition of the 9Marks Journal includes a review of Revival and Revivalism by Bobby Jamieson. He writes:

By the 1820s and 1830s, two major shifts had occurred throughout American evangelicalism.

The first is a doctrinal shift regarding conversion. Up to 1800, evangelicals almost universally believed and preached that God must sovereignly give someone a new nature to enable him or her to repent and believe. By the 1830s, this was widely replaced by an understanding of conversion in which the decision to repent and believe lay entirely within an individual’s own power.

This led to (or, in some cases, followed) a shift in evangelistic practice. Many evangelicals adopted practices that sought to bring about an immediate decision. The “anxious bench,” the altar call, singling people out personally in public prayer, warning hearers to respond immediately or else lose their chance to repent—all these practices and more grew out of the new belief that conversion is something within a person’s power to achieve, or even to effect in others.

The Result: Revivalism

The result of these two shifts is that church leaders began to regard revival as something that could be infallibly secured through the use of proper means—“proper” being whatever would induce an immediate decision or external token of decision. This understanding was most vigorously promoted by Charles Finney, but by the end of the Second Great Awakening it had become a given among a strong majority of American evangelicals. Historian William McLoughlin even went so far as to say that by the mid-nineteenth century, this new system was the national religion of the United States (277).

Thus, revivalism was born. To be sure, revivalism grew up in the soil of genuine revival. But this new practice of revivalism radically differed from the previous understanding of revival it so quickly supplanted. A “revival” became synonymous with a meeting designed to promote revival. Unlike previous generations, evangelicals after 1830 gained the ability, so to speak, to put a revival on the calendar months in advance.

The goal of such revivals was to secure as many immediate decisions for Christ as possible. As such, awareness of the possibility of false conversion seemed to simply vanish from the evangelical consciousness. Few asked whether their new measures just might create as many false converts as true disciples.

Read the entire review HERE.

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