The First Great Awakening was a religious revival in Britain and its American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s. It was experienced particularly sharply among the Puritans of New England. It was remembered long afterward for its spiritual power, but also for its “unhappy excesses,” as the Rev. Ezra Stiles called them. In 1760, he looked back and said of that time, “Multitudes were seriously, soberly, and solemnly out of their wits.” The Second Great Awakening began with the Cane Ridge Camp Meeting in 1801 in Kentucky. It was very like the First Great Awakening, but a lot less sophisticated; the Puritans were highly educated, the Kentucky backwoodsmen hardly at all. But much of their experiences were the same.
People who are drunk on God can do some weird stuff. Sometimes, they give away all their possessions. They are capable of dropping all their plans and taking off for the far corners of the world, to labor and die in obscurity. They go about forgiving people, and asking to be forgiven, for all sorts of things people don’t want to know about. They talk incessantly about God. Sometimes, in the heat of ecstasy, they profess to have visions; sometimes, they bark like dogs or speak in tongues. To those not touched by the revival – and sometimes to those who have been – they appear, well, bonkers.
After the revival quiets down, the people changed by it go about doing good, living the good that they have experienced. But later generations often try to hold onto the feeling of the revival. They see craziness as a virtue in itself. If they talk loud and preposterously, they will be seen as “prophetic,” no doubt. If they adopt a rowdy and rousing worship style, they feel they can keep the revival going. One old lady in my first church prayed constantly that God would reveal himself to us in “an unusual way” but it was plain that for her, the unusual was something she hoped would be more usual than it was. In the end, the unscripted and unscriptable experience of God is reduced to a style, and in so doing begins to parody itself. The thing to be remembered is that while people drunk on God can do weird stuff, weird stuff is not righteousness.
The beginnings of revival can come in other ways. Charles Williams, in his book The Descent of the Dove: a History of the Holy Spirit in the Church, talks about the renewal of contrition that suddenly convulsed all kinds of different people at the same time in the Sixteenth Century.
After Worms Luther was secluded in the Wartburg; he was there from May 1521 to March 1522. The dates recall the second condition which prolonged the [Catholic-Protestant] split through the centuries. For from March 1522 to January 1523 ignatius Loyola was also living in seclusion and devotion – but he at the cave of Manresa in Spain. In 1534, as a result of his retirement Luther was able to publish the German translation of the Bible. In the same year Ignatius with six companions took the vows. Among the companions was Francis Xavier . . . In the same year another young classical scholar, a Frenchman . . . [who] had been living since in seclusion in Angouleme, also after conversion, composed a small treatise on the primal doctrines of Christianity. His name was John Calvin, and the book was the first draft of the Institutes of the Christian Religion. The German Bible, the Jesuits, the Institutes -- all in one year.Luther, Ignatius, Francis, Calvin – each one a soul convulsed by God, converted by grace, and determined to speak the Truth that he had discovered. The result was not clarity, though many found clarity through their teaching. Nor was it unity, though people joined one movement or another in their millions. It was conflict. Not for nothing had Jesus said, “I came not to bring peace, but a sword.” When people begin to take God seriously, they begin to care about truth. But truth divides, sometimes acrimoniously. Churches divide between those who see things that need to be corrected and those who believe they were just fine as they were. Societies convulse over issues that before had not been taken seriously. Things matter in a way they didn’t before. And unbelievers as well as other-believers do not easily cede to the newly enlightened the claims now advanced. As John Jay Chapman, a social reformer of the early 19th Century, put it, “People who love soft methods and hate iniquity forget this; that reform consists in taking a bone from a dog. Philosophy will not do it.”
And some people, trying to live up to – and continue in – the revival that raised these issues can sometimes be strident and doctrinaire. But battling for truth is not, by itself, righteousness. It isn’t even always “contending for the faith.” Lesser heirs sometimes argue more passionately for certain doctrines because they fear giving away the store bequeathed to them by the saints who came before. The fact of the matter is, you can be technically correct in your understanding of the doctrine but fail to grasp the doctrine with your soul. St. Paul talked of “speaking the truth in love,” and we need to remember that truth without love may be correct but cease to function as true – even as love without truth ceases to be loving.
In between the two Great Awakenings, and connecting them, was the Wesleyan revival. Wesley is often remembered more for his social advice than his doctrinal teaching – especially, but not exclusively, among those Methodists who no longer teach his doctrine. He is particularly remembered for his practice and sayings about behavior. “Earn all you can (so you can) save all you can (so you can) give all you can.” “Do all the good you can in all the ways you can to all the people you can so long as ever you can.” And so on. And certainly, Wesley helped reshape his society. He found a society of poor, unruly scofflaws and left behind the beginnings of a prosperous, pious, and law-abiding middle class.
The moral reform and socio-economic rise of Wesley’s followers illustrate what is known as “redemption and lift.” People became so filled with God that they left their profligate habits and venial sins behind in a passion for holiness. Their sobriety and careful stewardship enabled them to escape their own poverty, help other poor people, and provide a better foundation for their children. In doing so, they rediscovered the truth that had long been known to the monks of the Middle Ages: “Discipline begets abundance; and abundance, if it be not checked, will destroy discipline.”
But looking at the good effects that revival can bring, financially and institutionally, is only a secondary issue. Prosperity is not a gauge for righteousness, and the Prosperity Gospel is a heresy. Not only that, but emphasizing good habits and avoiding even minor vices can easily degenerate into a Gospel of respectability, not righteousness. I grew up in an era where everywhere, respectability was preached, and it was utterly hollow. Eventually, respectability always devolves into “if nobody saw it, it didn’t happen,” which is a recipe for internal rot. Piety and sin can co-exist in people far more comfortably than most people want to admit.
So, trying to stay weird, because people filled with Spirit sometimes do weird things, is a dead end. Battling over the Truth, because God makes people seek the Truth with all their heart, is a dead end. Avoiding petty sins and paying your dues, because people truly motivated to serve God hate sin and seek to be good stewards, is a dead end. None of these things is revival itself, though revival can sometimes include any or all of them. Revival comes to those who are desperate for God, who desire only him, who lay aside their preconceptions in order to lay hold of him when revival comes. And when it comes, it reveals as cheap all the churchy ways of churchy people and the futility of those who thought they could capture the Spirit of God in a style, or who thought they could “fake it till they make it.” When that which is utterly Real comes, all imitations – even those done in sincere flattery of the original – are revealed for what they are.
For those who are willing to be humble, the tinsel crown is seen as the toy it is, to be treasured but not clung to, as God gives them the true crown. For those who have invested themselves too deeply in their tinsel treasures, though, it is often seen that they will not give them up, not for the Lord of Glory himself. For revival, in whatever form it comes, always issues not only in salvation, but also in judgment. Which is yet one more reason to long for it and fear it at the same time.
Even so, come, Lord Jesus.