Revival & Revivalism by Iain H. Murray

Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750 - 1858 Murray, Iain H. cover imageMurray, Iain H. Revival & Revivalism: The making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750 – 1858. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2002. Purchase at Westminster Books.

Introduction

Iain Murray, a noted biographer, historian, and co-founder of the Banner of Truth Trust, presents an historical sketch of the movements of God in the evangelistic efforts of American pastors and evangelists. He states his thesis explicitly in the introduction: “… In the period of our study [1750 – 1858], American history was shaped by the Spirit of God in revivals of the same kind as launched the early church into a pagan world” (xx). He additionally proclaims there is a failure to “recognize the all-important distinction between religious excitements … and the phenomenon of authentic spiritual awaking” (xix) by evangelical church historians.

One of the reasons Murray restricts his research to the years 1750 – 1859 is due to the copious amounts of material available on the movement of the Holy Spirit in the 1740’s because of the Great Awakening (xxi). Furthermore, he cites the shift from the nomenclature of revivals as moving from “Seasons of revival [becoming] revival meetings” (xviii) taking place in the “last forty years of the nineteenth century” (xviii). This confusion muddies the waters for the modern church to understand historically how the Spirit of God moved through the proclamation of the gospel. His task, therefore, is to set the record straight and “strengthen faith and encourage prayer for another great outpouring of the Spirit of God” (xxii).

To that end, Murray recognizes the commonality of understanding the workings of the Holy Spirit to bring about genuine revival from after what is commonly called the First Great Awakening (1730’s – 1740’s) up to the eve of the American Civil War. Those commonalities included God’s faithfulness to his Word, Christ’s resurrection, and the Holy Spirit’s role in advancing God’s kingdom (xx). He seeks to allow the eye witnesses to speak for themselves before the “meaning of revival was confused (xx).”

Review

Iain Murray’s well-researched work on the theological foundations between revivals before 1858 and after presents an historical understanding of why the American church is weaker today than ever. Pragmatic evidence notwithstanding, Murray expertly shows how the Great Awakening was a special movement of God through the normal means of prayer and proclamation of the Word. The Second Great Awakening began as such. Due to the methods of the Methodists, however, the Second Great Awakening ended largely in the manipulation of crowds. Regardless, Murray is not without bias in this work.

Though he sets a solid foundation of how the Lord moved especially among the churches in colonial America, he merely mentions the ebbs of church attendance following the War of Independence as well as the emptiness of the churches leading up to the beginning of the Second Great Awakening. He does not spend as much time delving into this issue other than to state the fact and offer a sentence or two as to why this was so. While it would have made the book longer, this would have been invaluable for today’s pastor to understand.

What makes this most problematic is his overemphasis on the lack of theological training and understanding of many of the preachers either lay or ordained of the Second Great Awakening. While the theological acumen of many of the preachers in the 1730’s and 40’s is known today, it is also known that they were not always the greatest of pastors as evidenced by Jonathan Edwards’ firing from his North Hampton pulpit. Regrettably, Murray writes as though the Great Awakening was largely without any problems or theological concerns. This is a glaring omission since the Second Great Awaking started well enough. At issue is his overemphasizing of the theological and methodological concerns that quickly came to light through those who were preaching.

The aforementioned criticism dovetails well with Murray’s emphasis on Charles Finney in the latter half of the book. As Mark Hanley states in his review, Murray offers a “forceful and much-needed assault on Charles Grandison Finney’s claims as progenitor of the new order.”[1] While this was definitely needed, Murray could have been a bit more charitable towards Finney as Paul was towards those who preached out of envy and selfishness (Phil 1:15-18). His animosity towards Finney and the new methods is evident in the verbiage he uses to describe both the men and the movement.

This becomes more glaring when reading his description of the preachers from the First Great Awakening. The way in which he approaches the two groups of preachers and movements borders on nostalgic hagiography for the former and a hyper critical spirit for the latter. Even with this bias, however, Murray offers exceptional research on how American Christianity transitioned from revival to revivalism largely through the Methodist encouragement of tangible and physical responses to preaching at specially arranged revivals. Dalton takes note of this when he states, “By 1858, revival had been largely replaced (except in the South) by revivalism.”[2]

Much to Murray’s credit, however, he shows the historical gradual change from what was understood as God-wrought revivals in the Great Awakening to what later amounted to man assisted public professions of faith that was readily counted in the moment but often had no lasting fruit whenever the planned revival moved on to another town. This remains an important topic for discussion as the world continues to jettison any form of Christianity. While Murray calls this revivalism, many of the critics today call it decisionism wherein all one must do is get people to a point of recognizing their need and then have them jump through a few hoops (walk an aisle, pray a prayer, sign a card) to know that they are saved. The new “converts” are then told that if they ever doubt their salvation all they need to do is look at the card they just signed, and they will know they are saved.

To be fair, Murray admits from the outset that he has a preference. That is, his conviction that there remains a difference between what the Lord has accomplished and what man has accomplished throughout the history of Christianity in America. Murray believes that those differences will fall on one of two sides of a theological chasm: Calvinism or Arminianism. If the reader can get beyond the labels and read Murray for the content, he will appreciate his persuasive argument that there remains a qualitative difference in total reliance on the Lord for revival and that of the new methods which was guaranteed to produce results.

The heartbeat of the Great Awaking was that of faithfulness to how the Lord saves sinners and trusting that the Lord alone would give the growth (1 Cor 3:7). The Second Great Awakening started much the same, but as the new methods began taking hold, man replaced the Lord in the giving of growth. Murray rightly laments this loss of understanding of who brings about genuine revival as well as the confusion of theological terms.

For example, the confusion of Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism to the point that the charge of biblical Calvinism destroying evangelism is so prevalent today that to try to argue against the statement is a practice in futility. The primary redefinition of terms, however, remains that of revival. The modern church has understood what Murray calls revivalism to be revival for so long that she cannot imagine another method by which the Lord would add converts apart from walking an aisle or the signing of a commitment card.

Though Murray writes as a polemic, his work on the nature of revival in American history is worth wrestling with as he offers great historical insight into the conversation through many firsthand accounts. Though he could have been more critical of those who held to a Calvinistic view of Christianity, a view he is sympathetic to, his assessment of American evangelicalism is fairly accurate as evidenced by the present continued disregard for the pulpit, the pastor, the theologian, and the church in American society today.

Recommendation

A search on the Internet for this book shows that Murray touched a nerve when it was published and is still touching nerves today. Although many pastors will read this book either happily or begrudgingly based on their own preconceived notions, Iain Murray has proven himself to be an able and accurate historian who, though he has biases of his own, understands that history must be told to the coming generations lest Christians forget their own heritage.

Since its publication 1994, there has been a further reawakening of the Christocentric understanding of advancing the Lord’s kingdom. That is, proclaim the Word and pray for revival and let the Lord bless His preferred means. While revivalism offers instant gratification of quantifiable professions of faith, genuine revival offers eternal gratification of souls saved by the hand of God through the Word of God in the power God.

Furthermore, as is shown by Murray, there are continuous ebbs and flows throughout church history. What is to be seen is that the Lord blesses the preaching of his Word and the proclamation of his gospel despite the preacher. Though Christians might disagree with one another, it is the Lord who still saves. How many Christians today were saved by the Lord via the new methods? Regardless, the case can be made that these new methods, introduced by the Methodists, and popularized by Finney, have done more harm than good since the middle of the nineteenth century.

It is for this reason that Murray’s work will continue to have an influence on evangelism and their understanding of revivals in the church. Because of that, the church remains indebted to the Banner of Truth Trust for publishing this work in order to bring to light that which was forgotten. Though one may be challenged by Murray’s biases, as well as wrestling with one’s own biases, this work will help to shed light on the root cause of many issues facing the American church today. May the reader read it with a spirit of humility and openness to understanding that the difference between God-wrought revival and man-wrought revivalism.

[1] Mark Hanley, review of Revival & Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858 by Iain Murray, The William and Mary Quarterly Vol. 53, No. 3, (Jul., 1996): pp. 662-664, https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.sbts.edu/stable/2947220?seq=2#metadata_info_tab_contents.

[2] James S. Dalton, review of Revival & Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelicalism 1750-1858, Church History Vol. 66, No. 1 (Mar., 1997): pp. 204-205, https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.sbts.edu/stable/3169736?seq=2#metadata_info_tab_contents.

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