INTRODUCTION TO SPRAGUE'S
by John Angell James, 1832
In conjunction with a much-esteemed brother, I have consented to introduce to the attention of Christians, on this side of the Atlantic, Dr. Sprague's important and interesting volume of Lectures and Letters, on the subject of Revivals of Piety. Mr. Redford has addressed himself to the Pastors of the churches—and in a manner so impressive and heart-stirring, that it leads to the expectation, that, under the blessing of God the Spirit, the ministers of Christ will be excited to renewed zeal, in the solemn and momentous duties of their office. I have been prevailed upon to address myself to you—and I entreat your candor and forbearance, while, with affectionate earnestness I attempt to direct your attention to this confessedly important topic, and to point out in what way you may be instrumental in reviving and extending the cause of piety in our country.
I consider Dr. Sprague's volume, therefore, as the most important and satisfactory testimony that has yet reached us on the subject of revivals. And of what, dear brethren, does this testimony assure us? Of whole congregations bowed at the same moment beneath the mighty power of Divine truth, looking as with a single eye upon the realities of eternity, and feeling, as with a common emotion, the powers of the world to come; so that a thoughtless stranger, coming into the assembly, is made to feel as if, by stepping over the threshold of the house, he had passed the boundary-line between things seen and temporal and things unseen and eternal, and entered a region where though surrounded by thronging multitudes, he was left alone with God and his conscience—of scenes where hundreds of heart-stricken, anxious inquirers after salvation, just awakened from the long deep slumber of an unregenerate state, and musing on thoughts too deep for utterance, were asking by their looks, rather than their words, what they should do to be saved—of whole churches blending their common and fervent supplications at the footstool of the divine throne, with such oneness of intense desire as caused them to feel that there was scarcely a single object in the universe to be coveted, or thought of, at that moment, but the salvation of souls—of colleges of learning, where the pursuits of literature were almost suspended for a season, by a still deeper solicitude to become wise unto salvation—of towns so filled with the power of divine truth, that all the adult population have yielded to its influence, and turned unto the Lord—of Christian churches increased in a single year to an exceptional magnitude, by the accession of hundreds to their communion—yes; of all these facts do the accounts from the United States assure us as occurring there. Happy land! Delightful state of things!
And now, brethren, I would, with great deference and affection, propose for your devout consideration, several questions arising out of this subject, and which connect it with your own situation, prospects, and obligations, as professing Christians.
1. What is the real state of piety in our country--and is the condition of our churches such as to justify and demand any special efforts to obtain a revival?
In replying to this question, I would by no means assert or insinuate, that vital godliness is at a lower ebb at the present time, than at any former period since the Reformation. Without doubt, the most lukewarm age of our Protestant history was that which terminated when Wesley and Whitfield commenced their glorious labors. An impulse was then given, the force of which is not yet spent, and in all probability never will be, until the millennium. Yet true piety has been gradually reviving ever since. The vast and delightful increase of truly pious clergymen in the established church, the astonishing expansion of the Wesleyan body, the progressive advance of the different denominations of evangelical Dissenters, the spirit of holy and benevolent activity, as manifested by the formation of so many pious institutions for the spread of the gospel in the world, are certainly cheering and unequivocal symptoms of a quickening influence; but this may be admitted without disproving the necessity of a still greater awakening.
Revival is a comparative term that indicates a state of vitality—as compared with a previous state of absolute death. But it can also be compared to the languor of a sickly person—contrasted with the high degree of health which is enjoyed by another person. Comparing the state of piety in this country with what it once was—it is now flourishing. Compared with what it should be, considering our means and privileges, or with what it is on the other side of the Atlantic—it is low indeed. Mr. Colon thus defines a revival—"It is the multiplied power of piety over a community of minds, when the Spirit of God awakens Christians to special faith and effort, and brings sinners to repentance." In other words, it means an unusual and visible display of divine grace in converting the impenitent, and raising the piety of believers to a higher elevation. Revival is an extraordinary work of God, in making the wicked righteous, and the righteous more righteous.
Examine now the state of our churches, with reference to each of these two parts of a revival. You are well acquainted with the pious condition of your different societies. Of the labors of your own pastors you are the constant witnesses, and cannot be ignorant of the results. And now let me ask you—what are those results? Are you the delighted spectators of congregations bowed under the power of the truth? Do you perceive a deep and general impression produced by the preaching of the word? Do you know of great numbers pricked to the heart, and crying out, in the agony of a wounded spirit, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" Do you see ten, twenty or fifty people, coming forward at one time, and from time to time, to join the fellowship of the faithful? Perhaps you feel surprise at such a question—but why should you? Such things are of common occurrence in America, and have occurred in this land. Are not many of you painfully conscious of a state of piety so low, that sometimes months, and even years, pass by, without a single addition being made to the church? Do you not know that it is a very common case for the pastor and the people to lament together, under what seems to them to be an almost total suspension of converting grace? The accession of two or three, is regarded as a kind of wonder, compelling many a grateful and astonished witness to exclaim, "What has God wrought!"
I may be in error—but it is my opinion, that, compared with the prodigious amount of instrumentality employed in the age, the quantity of spiritual effect never was so small. Means can now be counted on no lower a scale than that of millions; the gospel sermons preached, the Bibles circulated, the tracts distributed, the lessons taught, must all be reckoned by millions. Does the work of conversion then, I ask, keep pace with such means employed to effect it? Upon a moderate computation, fifteen or twenty thousand men of truly pious minds, and evangelical sentiments, are every Sabbath-day publishing the glad tidings of salvation in the United Kingdom, seconded by myriads of devoted Sunday-school teachers, and thousands of holy men and women, who visit the cottages of the poor with pious tracts, and for the purpose of pious conversation—now, I ask again, do you see a result proportioned to the means? Was not the preaching of the gospel far more effective—when it was more rare?
Mark the power which attended the sermons of Berridge, and Romaine, and Grimshaw, within the pale of the Church of England; and those of Wesley and Whitfield outside of it. What numbers were then converted, even hundreds under a single sermon! What multitudes flocked to the Savior, at only a single invitation from the messenger of mercy! But where is anything which even remotely approaches to such a state of things now? Attendance upon evangelical preaching, I am aware, has become fashionable—but with what spiritual effect? Out of the number who admire the preacher, and approve the sermon—how few believe unto salvation, or even correctly understand the doctrine! They hear the joyful sound—but do they know it? They are at ease in Zion, when they should fear lest a promise being made to them of entering into rest, they should perish through unbelief.
Take the other view of a revival, I mean an increase of piety in the souls of believers, and ask, if you need no improvement here? I am aware of the spirit of zeal which is in active operation; but to consider this alone as a proof of a high state of pious feeling would be extremely fallacious; for not to say how small a portion of what is done, is accomplished by the professing people of God, I may inquire how much of what they do, is done from such motives as will stand the test of the scrutinizing eye of Omniscience? There is a fascination in the working of our public institutions, which throws its spell over innumerable minds, that have never yielded to the power of that very truth they are anxious to diffuse. There is in others a regard to reputation, and a submission to the 'compulsion of example', which will not allow them to stand back from the great spiritual enterprise. To ascertain the state of our piety, then, we must apply other tests than the attendance at public meetings, the amount of monetary contributions to the institutions of the day, or the measure of personal services rendered to the cause of pious benevolence. These may be, and doubtless are, in many cases, the mere gratification of taste; a mere pacifying of the conscience, in lieu of still severer and more self-denying services. Or they may be a cloud of incense to our own vanity.
I would ask, what there is among you of 'living by faith'; of the spiritual and heavenly mind; of the victory over the world, and deadness to it; of devotional habits; of Bible meditation; of the practice of self-denial; of Christian charity; of the martyr's spirit, which never, even in minor matters, allows Christian principle to bend to expediency; of the meekness and gentleness of Christ; of the stamp of immortality; of the anticipation of eternity—and of the patient waiting for the coming of our Savior—all of which are enjoined in the word of God, are implied in our profession of Christianity, and have been exemplified in men of like passions with ourselves?
Do we not see, almost everywhere, instead of these things, a superficial, secular, and temporizing kind of piety; a piety without any depth of feeling, any power of principle, or any distinctness of character; a cold, spiritless orthodoxy, united with a heartless morality—a mere exemption from gross vice and fashionable amusements; an observance of forms and decencies—but a lamentable destitution of love, of Christian temper, and tenderness of conscience? Do I defame what is called the pious world, in thus representing its present condition?
Enter the social parties of professing Christians, listen to their conversation, witness their entertainments, observe their spirit. How frivolous, how worldly, how different from what might be expected from redeemed sinners, from the heirs of immortality, from the executants of everlasting glory! Follow them home to their domestic circle, and behold their pervading temper—how irascible, how worldly, how destitute of spirituality! Witness the cold and lifeless formality, the late, hurried, irregular, and undevout seasons of their family devotions, together with the shameful neglect of the pious instruction of their children! Witness the shortness and inconstancy of their times for private prayer, and think how little communion with God, how little study of the Scriptures, how little self-improvement, can be carried on during such fragments of time, snatched from the greedy and all-devouring passion of earthly-mindedness! The spirit of prayer is expiring amidst the ashes of its own dead forms, and the Bible reduced, in many houses of professing Christians, to the degradation of a mere article of furniture, placed there for show—but not for use. Who will deny that this is but too correct a representation of modern piety; or admitting it, deny the need in which our churches stand of a revival?
II. I shall now remind you of the concern which you, as Christians, have, or ought to have, in the subject of revivals, and the obligations that lie upon you to do all in your power to promote them.
That the greatest weight of responsibility lies upon the ministers, I am willing to allow; but I contend that it is not exclusively ours. Even an apostle, when writing to a body of disciples, said, "You also helping together, by prayer for us." As to that part of a revival which relates to the quickening of lukewarm professors, there cannot exist for a moment any doubt upon the necessity of your exerting yourselves to produce this happy change. If the church is to be revived, it must be done by interesting the church itself. It is the recruiting of your own piety, brethren, that I am now speaking of, and is this no concern of yours? You are the very people who are to receive the inestimable blessing of the Holy Spirit, and which you, therefore, must be individually engaged to seek. Do not put the subject away from yourselves—but take it home to your own bosom, for it belongs to you. Indifference on this topic, is indifference to your own spiritual and eternal welfare. If the whole body is to be renovated, it must be accomplished by a movement in each particular part. Then as to that view of the subject which relates to the conversion of sinners, by what show of argument can you attempt to prove that this is no concern of yours? In what book or chapter of the word of God, can you find a sentiment that discharges you from all interest in this matter? Even if you were excluded from all direct instrumentality in seeking this object, if it were not permitted you to attain to the high honor of "converting a sinner from the error of his ways, saving a soul from death, and covering a multitude of sins," still you are not released from obligation to pray for their success to whom this solemn business is entrusted.
The conversion of sinners ought to be, and is, the matter of deepest interest to the unfallen inhabitants of the most distant world that God has created; they look, from their remote abodes, with the most intense solicitude to our planet—as the scene of redeeming mercy and saving grace. Is the salvation of sinners, then, nothing to you, who dwell among the saved race, who are some of them, and who are actually invited to assist in the work of saving them? O it is a grave and serious error, a practical heresy, of most fatal influence to the souls of men—that ministers only are under solemn obligations to seek the conversion of souls, and to labor for the extension of the Redeemer's kingdom! It is strangely and most criminally forgotten, that the church, not merely its ministers, is put in trust with the gospel for the benefit of the world. The Spirit of Christianity is essentially a spirit of propagation—and everything in the constitution of the church implies a principle of expansion. A church is, in fact, a Foreign and a Home Missionary Society in itself—and every member of a church is, in one sense, a missionary!
That man who does not seek the conversion of others, forgets one great purpose of his own, and suggests a serious doubt, whether indeed he himself is converted. Do you think you are released from all obligation to seek a revival of piety? You may as rationally think of your being released from an obligation to love God, honor Christ, and love your neighbor! The wish to be thought so, the remotest idea of it, virtually dissolves your connection with the church, and cuts the tie that binds you as a professor to the body of Christ. No, you must not, you dare not, delegate to us ministers, the duty and the honor of seeking a revival of piety. On the contrary, if you saw us anxious to discharge you from all concern in the great work, you ought to resist the effort as an aggression upon your privileges, an usurpation of your rights. Come then, beloved brethren, to the help of the Lord against the mighty. Cooperate with us in this transcendently important object. Connect yourselves more closely with the kingdom of Christ, and give your hearts and your energies more entirely to the revival and extension of piety. Roll away the reproach, that "all men seek their own things, not the things that are Jesus Christ's." What are the politics of this world to you; what the interests of literature or science to you; what the course of discovery to you; what the state of commerce to you; what the current of events, the tide of history to you; or what even those fortunes you are endeavoring to seek for yourselves or your children, to you—compared with the immortal interests involved in a genuine revival of piety?
III.An important part of the subject now remains to be considered. The MEANS to be employed by Christians for bringing about a Revival.
It is essentially necessary, that all Christians should take a deep and individual, as well as collective, interest in this subject. It belongs to you all. There is not a single Christian, whether rich or poor, young or old, male or female, that should feel no concern, and take no step, to obtain this blessed quickening. Each one should take it up as his own business, and feel and act as if it depended upon himself, whether piety should flourish or languish. He should scarcely ask to whom, next to himself, this matter belonged—but consider himself as the one individual with whom it rested, whether the church were to diminish or increase; to whom all its interests were entrusted. Every Christian should therefore cherish such a solicitude as he would scarcely fail to be the subject of, if he knew that all the instrumentality, on which its resuscitation and the conversion of the world depended, centered in himself. No one is to wait for others—but everyone is to endeavor to influence others. No one is to ask where will the movement begin—but everyone is to originate it in himself, if he does not find it already originated by others. The glory of God, the honor of Christ, the salvation of souls, are everybody's business—and all these are comprehended in a revival of piety.
You must ARDENTLY LONG for it. You must not only feel that it is your business—but that it is a transcendently important and infinitely desirable event; an event which should kindle such an ardor of hope, that the soul, by the velocity and intensity of its own desires, would be alight with a flame of hallowed and rational enthusiasm. The revival of piety is a phrase that occupies but a small space on paper, or a short time in utterance—but its results are infinite and eternal. The improvement of your own personal piety, which is, in fact, your own advance in an education for heaven and eternity; the probable salvation of your children, the increase of your own church with all the increase of God; the benefit of your cities, towns, and villages, by large accessions to the number of their pious inhabitants; the strengthening and adorning of your country, by the multiplication of those who are its ornaments and its defense; the raising up of a greater number of devoted ministers and missionaries; the more rapid extension of the Redeemer's kingdom in the world; the wider diffusion of piety on earth, and the greater accumulation of joy in heaven—are the results of every revival in piety!
Beautiful is the language employed in the report already alluded to of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States—"Who can estimate the precious influence of these renovated churches upon the population of our country, upon present and future generations? What energy of moral power is thus imparted to the cause of truth! How many fountains of salvation are thus opened, to gladden the dry and thirsty land! The fruits of this astonishing work of grace are valuable to the church and the world, beyond all human computation. In numerous communities, the predominating influence is now consecrated to the cause of God. How many mothers have been prepared, by grace, to train up their children for the kingdom of heaven! And what a noble army of young men has renounced the honors of the world, and devoted themselves to the cause of the Redeemer! Never, until the destinies of eternity are unfolded, can be known the full amount of blessings bestowed by these dispensations of mercy."
Believers in Jesus Christ, professors of the faith of the gospel, can you look on such a picture, and feel within you no risings and workings of strong desire? What base, insignificant, and uninteresting ideas, notwithstanding their power to inflame the imaginations of the children of this world, are the revival of trade, the revival of education, the revival of science—compared with the revival of piety! The warmest heart which ever glowed under the intensity of this burning thought, is cold, and the most fervid imagination that ever brightened into rapture under the illumination of this radiant vision, is dull and dark—compared with what they might be!
But oh, it is melancholy to witness the indifference of the great bulk of nominal professors, to this vast and momentous subject! Could we behold a tenth part of the concern about it that is felt and expressed in reference to a revival of trade, we would feel that vitality was becoming to circulate through the spiritual body, and that symptoms of returning animation were beginning to appear. But, alas! with many there is scarcely a perceptible pulsation of desire. They have hardly life enough left to be sensible of the spiritual palsy that has smitten them. "What languor has fallen upon the church of God! and yet here the impulse must begin, which is to subdue the world. We need an increase of impulses. We need new baptisms of fire and of the Holy Spirit. Oh that we felt our responsibility to the world! Our coldness and deadness end not with ourselves. We propagate coldness and death. We putrefy the moral atmosphere of the world."
Let us shake off our apathy, let us long for a revival, and covet, with intense solicitude, a resuscitation of piety. I do not expect to see here an exact counterpart of the scenes exhibited in America; I do not approve of all the means that are there employed to produce them. But there is one thing that all must approve, and that is, the ardent desire that prevails there for this gracious renovation. The church is beginning there to take God at his word, and to enlarge her expectations and desires to the measure of his promises. She has heard the voice of him who says, "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock," and has responded, "Open the doors, that the King of glory may come in." And He is standing and knocking at the doors of our churches also, with all his fullness of grace, and all his treasures of wisdom, willing to come in and sup with us—if we will but invite him; but ready to depart—if we desire not his gracious presence.
We must exercise FAITH in the reality and attainableness of the blessing. Mr. Colon has told us, "that, if we would have a revival, we must have a faith in the specific thing, not a vague general notion of we know not what. Here is the starting point, this is the means of all other means, standing in the relation of parent to the rest." We treat the subject of revivals, as sinners too generally do the gospel—as something to be believed in some way, but they know not how; and by somebody else, but not by themselves. We have no intelligent appropriating faith. We hear, and read of them—but as a matter not relating to us. But why not? Is there a subject on which God has been more lavish of his promises, than the communications of his grace to those who seek his Holy Spirit? We cannot have the blessing, if we do not believe both its reality and its attainableness. Our unbelief will be fatal to our hopes; indeed, we cannot hope at all if we do not believe. This infidelity or even scepticism, on the subject, will be as the stone upon the well's mouth, which must be rolled away, before the fertilizing waters can be drawn forth. Faith, if we had it, would soon bring the blessing; for it would soon put us upon all the other means to obtain it.
We must fervently PRAY for a revival. General, believing, fervent, persevering prayer, would as certainly bring to us this gracious visitation, as it has done to our brethren in America, and as it has done in every age, and every country, in which it has been tried. This is not now a new experiment, and ought never to have been considered as such. It is not a thing of uncertainty, whether God will bestow his Spirit abundantly upon an individual who asks in faith and prayer—and what is a church but a collection of individuals? That which is true and certain to the one, cannot be false or contingent in reference to the many. But the prayer that is effectual, must be fervent and persevering. This is one striking characteristic of the American churches. They believe that the blessing may be obtained by supplication—and, therefore, they set apart days for humiliation and prayer, and continue with one accord in supplication to God. It has been thought, by some, that there is rather too much of man's contrivance in their means and plans; but is not their ultimate dependence upon God? One fact alone will teach us the importance they attach to prayer.
The late excellent Mr. Bruen, in writing to a friend, after giving an account of a revival which had occurred in a town he visited, makes the following remarks—"The most interesting proof given me of the novel state of the church at such a time is, that the minister told me, the people seemed to feel that they had but to pray; that preaching was important—but inferior to prayer—and that, if it had been announced that Dr. Chalmers was to preach in the church on a week-day afternoon and that there was to be a prayer-meeting in the court-house, at the same time, and that it was equally right for the people to go to either place, they would have gone to the place of prayer in preference. God is ready to work anywhere, when his people are ready for the reception of his Holy Spirit—and, if truly prepared, we need but to ask to receive. True Prayer is always successful."
What can be more striking or impressive than this fact? This is the very spirit of prayer. But ah! how little of it have we in this country. How low is the flame of devotion sunk upon the altar of our hearts! Faith is so weak, and the spirit of supplication so feeble, that the church has ceased to be able to wrestle with God and to prevail. The necessity of divine influence for the conversion of the soul, has been, of late, frequently made the subject of resolutions and speeches, on the platform at public meetings. Much has been said, and eloquently said, to recommend the theme to the devout attention of the Christian church—but there the matter has ended. The breath of eloquence has not fanned the languid flame of piety—and, indeed, as it is usually employed, it has but little adaptation to accomplish this end. It is not eloquence we need—but faith and the supplicating heart. Eloquence may move man—but prayer moves the arm of God! Eloquence may procure money—but prayer will bring down the grace that money cannot purchase, and without which the greatest hoards of wealth are useless! Eloquence may fill the place with the inspirations of human genius—but prayer will fill the church with the presence and the power of the great Jehovah!
The believing fervent breathings of one soul, uttering its longings after revival, in the retirement of the closet, do more for the attainment of this object, than a thousand orations delivered in public, amidst the plaudits of admiring auditors. O Christians, let your closets testify, let your conscience testify, how much time you set apart to importune the God of all grace, to pour out his Spirit upon the church and the world! The blessing is ready—but waits to be fetched from heaven by your believing prayers. When the minds of believers shall be intent upon the object, and giving utterance to their desires in vehement entreaty, they shall exclaim, "Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly!" his voice shall soon be heard in gracious response, saying, "Behold, I come quickly, and my reward is with me!"
But you are not only to ask, however fervently, or knock, however importunately, at the door of mercy, for the blessing. You are also to seek for it in the diligent use of other MEANS. As very much depends upon ministerial fidelity and devotedness, you should abound in prayer for your pastors. If apostles felt their need of the prayers of the brethren, and, in the language of affectionate entreaty, said, "Pray for us," how can it be expected that the ordinary ministers of the gospel can do without the intercessions of their people? O what force and beauty are there in Paul's words to the Corinthians, already quoted—"You also helping together by prayer for us!" Apostles, even with miraculous endowments, felt themselves feeble and powerless without the supplications of their own converts! And the humblest ministers of the word may be made mighty, and gloriously successful by such aid. The church has never yet tried the solemn and sublime experiment, to what a lofty height of personal devotedness and success it could raise its ministers, by the power of general and fervent prayer.
Christians are almost ever in the extremes of idolizing or despising their ministers; of overvaluing great talents, or undervaluing such talents as are solid, though not brilliant. And thus they are in danger of not praying for the former, as above the need; and for the latter, as below the reach, of divine power. Should you have a minister whose heart is not yet interested in the subject of revivals, what method can you adopt more likely to engage his attention, than to commend him to God by earnest, affectionate supplication? Expostulation with him may, perhaps, only offend him; but prayer for him cannot produce such a negative effect—and may bring the reviving influence from God upon his soul.
It is of no less consequence, that you should do everything to encourage the hearts of your ministers. In order to the bringing about of a revival, there must be the most harmonious feeling, the best understanding, and the most cordial good-will, between the pastor and his flock. Where the minister does not live in the affections of his people, or is dispirited by a lack of proper attention to his ministry, or of due regard to his comfort—all hope of a renovated state of things in the church is utterly vain. It is in the calm of peace, and not in the storm of contention, in the summer season of affection, and not in the wintry frost of indifference or ill-will—that a revival can be expected. It requires so much mutual confidence, deliberation, and cooperation, that the most undisturbed cordiality is essential to its existence. If you would wish your ministers to promote this great work, you must take care to keep them in a state of mind that leaves them at leisure to carry it forward.
You must constantly attend their ministry, and not dishearten or paralyze their zeal, by the sight of pews vacated by those who have left their own teacher, for some pulpit novelty in another place. Curiosity is a passion which should have little scope for operation in piety, whether it relate to doctrines or to preachers. Has the stranger studied for you, prayed for you, as your own minister does continually?
Let your attendance be as serious as it is constant. Take earnest heed to the things you hear, lest at any time you let them slip away. A revival of piety always, or at least usually, begins by a renewed solemnity in the congregation. We should listen to sermons as voices from eternity—speaking about eternity. There are no sleepers, no idle gazers, in such assemblies. All turn to the pulpit, as to a door opening into the unseen world, through which are partially visible the realities of heaven and hell; objects too solemnly momentous to allow a spirit of trifling.
You must, if you would have a revival, change your whole design and manner in hearing the word. Instead of that careless and thoughtless rush into the sanctuary, you must go from praying to hearing, and return from hearing to praying. It is shocking to think how some professors of religion treat both the preacher and his sermon. They go to the house of God, as others go to a play—for entertainment, not for improvement! And they return, not to apply the discourse—but to criticize it. In the hearing of children or guests, they assail it with the shafts of ridicule, or the bolts of anger—and thus messages from the eternal God to immortal souls, on the high themes of salvation and damnation—are treated with the same jocularity and merriment, as are bestowed on the smallest trifles that float on the breeze of popular gossip. All this arises from, or is connected with, the idolatrous regard which is paid in the present age to eloquence. The public meetings, which are so common, and which have been thought so necessary for the support of our pious institutions, whatever benefit they may have conferred upon preachers, by cultivating a more free and popular mode of address—have corrupted in some measure the taste of the people, by producing a desire after oratorical, bombastic, and elaborate harangues—instead of the more sober, solemn, and instructive method of expounding and applying the truths of revelation; while both preachers and hearers seem to be too much occupied by matters of taste and imagination, to the neglect of the more solemn functions of the conscience. It is man that too many go to hear speak, and not God! It is eloquence that they want, and not the gospel. To be entertained, but not to be sanctified—is the object they seek. True it is, that it must be sound doctrine that they hear, and orthodox preachers that they follow; but it is not for the truth's sake—but for the musical voice, the fine imagination, or the captivating style with which the truth is announced. This must be altered—and if we would have a revival, we must come back to the simplicity that is in Christ Jesus.
It is not irrelevant to the subject to mention, the necessity of maintaining a proper scriptural discipline in our churches. The church is the temple of God, a habitation for the Spirit—and if it is defiled by the addition or retention of unholy members, the Divine Inhabitant will retire, and leave it to the finger of desolation to write upon its forsaken walls, "The glory is departed." It might have been as rationally expected, that the symbol of the divine presence would have continued to rest upon the mercy-seat, had all the impurities concomitant upon the sacrificial rites been profanely swept into the Holy of Holies—as it is to believe that a revival of piety will take place in those churches, where there is a gross neglect of holiness in the members.
If you would enjoy a revival of piety, you must take care not to be too much engrossed by secular politics. True it is, you did not cease to be citizens when you became Christians; nor did you, when you joined yourself to the church, take the veil, like a nun when she enters the convent, and sever every tie that binds you to earth, and to earthly affairs. The church is in the world, though not of it, and is to be to you a sacred retreat, a place of refreshment and repose, where you may recruit your strength, not only to struggle for the crown of glory—but with the rough cares of time, and from which you must come forth with invigorated piety, to guide and to influence the current of human affairs.
But still it must not be concealed, brethren, that these are times in which the danger lies in the extreme, not of being too little—but of being too much, involved in political pursuits. The government of the earth must not be abandoned by the saints; but oh, let the saints maintain the character and the rights of their earthly citizenship, remembering that they belong to another and a holy community, and having their conversation in heaven! You must be sometimes in the dangerous region of party politics—but remember it is to piety an infected place, a region of malaria, in which you must guard, as much as possible, your spiritual health, and from which you must escape as speedily as you can!
There is another circumstance intimately connected with the hope of a revival of piety, I mean a spirit of brotherly love towards your fellow-Christians of other denominations. Evil omens have shown themselves of late, of a growing spirit of alienation between the evangelical part of the Church of England and the orthodox Dissenters. What may be the cause I will not venture to inquire—but merely state the fact, that instead of approximating nearer and nearer to each other, as by the identity of their "like precious faith," and common salvation, it might be expected they would do—they are continually receding to a greater distance. Alas! alas that in the attractions of the cross, the common center of their pious opinions and their holy sensibilities, there should be less power to unite and harmonize, than there is in their varying forms of ecclesiastical polity to produce repulsion and dissonance. Roots of bitterness have sprung up of late, with portentous rapidity, which, instead of being eradicated by the hand of a cautious zeal, have been fostered by prejudice, until they have grown to such a height, as to chill with their shadow, and to poison with their influence, the fairest flower in the garden of the Lord, the spirit of brotherly love. We can expect no revival while these things last, except it be a revival of bigotry and intolerance.
"The irascible passions," says Mr. Hall, "surround the soul with a turbulent atmosphere, than which nothing is more opposed to that calm and holy light, in which the Spirit loves to dwell. Oh! let us lay aside our mutual suspicion; let us repress our eagerness to seize and magnify differences. Let us not encourage our literary publishers and periodical journals to carry on a warfare of incrimination and misrepresentation. Let us not refer with exultation and triumph to acknowledged evils and abuses, and thus rejoice in iniquity. A truce, an everlasting truce, to such things as these, which trouble the waters, and bring a diseased state upon the church. One of the best means, one of the first signs, of a revival, is a growing spirit of brotherly love among the different denominations of real Christians—and to obtain this, we must "pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath or doubting."
It may be, that in some cases, a church has fallen into an unusually low state of depression and declension; its minister, discouraged and hopeless, knows not whether to leave or remain; its members, few and lukewarm, and heartless, are looking round, not for means of a revival—but for a way of escape. All is death and desolation, and the assemblies of the Sunday are rather like the mournful gatherings of a few surviving friends around the sepulcher of one departed, than the joyous meetings of glad hearts at a feast. Such a state of things calls for immediate and solemn consideration. No ordinary means or measures will do here; the case is all but desperate. Meetings of the pastor with his deacons to inquire into the cause, should immediately take place. Days of humiliation, confession, and prayer, should be immediately appointed. And in addition to all this, it may be well to call in the aid of one or two discreet neighboring ministers, to assist the solemnities, and endeavor to give them impression and effect, by addresses to the church and to the different classes of the congregation. Prompt, prudent, energetic measures should be adopted; it is no time merely to utter the language of complaint; the lethargy is increasing, and death is at hand!
The revival of piety in a Christian church, is, as I have already stated, a common concern. There is something for everyone to feel, and something for everyone to do. All can help, and each should help as much as he can. Deacons and elders, a fearful degree of responsibility lies upon you! You may never yet have considered how much the spiritual prosperity of the church depends upon you. Next to the pastor, you rouse it to activity, or lull it to indolence; you chill or cherish its ardor; you quicken or crush its energies. Many a worldly-minded, timid, or lukewarm deacon or elder has done more to prevent a revival than his pastor, however intent upon the work, could do to promote it. Such men paralyze the zeal of their minister; they are dead weights upon his energies, and obstacles in the way of his usefulness. Their cold scepticism about the work, their heartless indifference, their groundless suspicions, their juvenile fears of novelty and fanaticism—perplex and hinder the pastor, and frighten or petrify the people. Dreadful employment of official influence! Tremble at incurring such responsibility. If you have not courage or ardor enough for your station, resign it, and retire from the front rank to the rear.
But what a blessing is a spiritual, warm-hearted, prudent, devoted, deacon; one who uses the office well, and is alive to every good word and work! If unhappily the pastor should be indifferent to the subject of revival, let such men bring it before him, in an affectionate and respectful manner. Great caution, I admit, is necessary in the management of an attempt so delicate and so difficult. They must be careful not to disgust by anything like dictation, nor to weary by injudicious importunity; but still it is their solemn duty to bring the subject under the review of the pastor. On the other hand, it may be sometimes necessary for them to restrain or modify the effusions of a distempered zeal, which are poured forth by a rash and inexperienced minister, whose ardor burns with a wild and dangerous fury. But apathy, neglect, and opposition on the part of church officers, betray a state of mind unbefitting their station, and manifest indifference to piety, contempt for the pastor, disregard to the church; a strange and guilty unconcern about the salvation of immortal souls, and fearful forgetfulness of their accountability to Christ.
The pious and spiritual members of the church may be of great service, by continually looking around them, to notice any who appear to be under serious impression, to encourage them with kind sympathy, and to conduct them to the pastors. Many a blossom of hopeful piety which would be otherwise lost may thus be preserved—and, by the blessing of God upon ministerial solicitude and vigilance, may be ripened into the fruit of righteousness, which is by Jesus Christ unto the glory of God. A preacher's eyes cannot be on all his hearers, especially if his congregation is large—and therefore, the eyes of the more pious of his flock should be employed for him, to observe the anxious look, and the tearful eye, which indicate the anxious inquirer, and seem to say, "What shall I do to be saved?" How eminently useful might all be in this way, and yet how few attempt it!
Many would sit in selfish enjoyment, or cold formality, in their pews for months, never speaking a word of kindness, or directing a look of sympathy to the heart-stricken, weeping, agonizing soul in the very next seat. Revivals can never be expected while such apathy remains; no, never until all the piety of the church is called forth in the way of deep interest and energetic activity.
Pious females may, and should, render valuable aid to the cause of revivals, by looking after the younger ladies. This is a ground of usefulness which is yet almost totally unoccupied. Female agency was far more extensively employed in the primitive churches than it is in modern times. Honorable mention is made in the New Testament of "Phoebe, a servant of the church of Cenchrea, a helper of many;" of Priscilla, "who taught the eloquent Apollos the way of the Lord more perfectly," who received the thanks not only of the apostles—but of "all the churches of the Gentiles;" of "those women who labored with Paul in the gospel;" of Junia, who was of note among the apostles; of "Tryphena and Tryphosa, who labored in the Lord," and of others, too numerous to mention. The order of female deaconesses, which probably once existed, has vanished from the temple of the Lord, and their ministrations have long since ceased. This is not the place to discuss the question, how far it might be necessary to revive this order; but still how much beneficial influence might pious and experienced females exert, even though they were not formally invested with the authority of office! Could they not counsel the younger women, instruct them, encourage them, pray with them, and lead them on in the ways of godliness?
How much good, also, may be done by the more experienced and instructed men of the church, in the way of Sunday evening schools; into which might be gathered the senior children of the Sunday schools, and others, who have recently left those young seminaries, and, in consequence of their age and circumstances, are in more danger, and in more need of guidance, than ever! Two or three such people in a church, yes one, might render help in the work of revival, beyond calculation.
Nor ought I to omit the efficient help which might be given by the active services of well-qualified people, in visiting and evangelizing the houses of the poor. The great mass of the poor are living in the utter neglect of piety. If they hear the gospel, it must be first preached to them at their own houses. The precious treasure must be carried to them, for they are too ignorant, and too indolent, to go forth to seek it. Christians, there are thousands of immortal creatures perishing in sin at your very doors! Souls are continually going down to the bottomless pit, from houses on your right hand and your left!
What deep pity has been felt, and properly felt, for the population of those towns in which the ravages of the pestilence or natural disaster have been unusually extensive. But oh! think of the more awful ravages of the plague of sin, which is sweeping crowds of immortal souls from your own neighborhood into everlasting misery! Men and women and their families are continually dropping into eternal burnings, almost before your eyes! And will you not go to their houses, and entreat them to think of their soul's welfare? If you have not courage to speak, you can take a pious tract, and beg them to read it—and by exchanging it weekly, you may continually supply them with a course of pious instruction, by which they may be made wise unto salvation.
Beloved brethren, let me, in conclusion, entreat you to consider the subject, with all the deliberate attention and deep seriousness, which its momentous, its infinite, its eternal importance demands. Every sign of the times, everything in the state of the church, and everything in the condition of the world, calls upon professing Christians to rouse from their slumber, and to look around them. Even the wise virgins are asleep, and that too amidst voices speaking to them from every quarter, and saying, "Knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand; let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light." Let these heart-stirring words enter into your souls, and call you forth to spiritual activity.
O that I had at command, "thoughts that glow, and words that burn!" I would turn them in a stream of impassioned eloquence upon your spirits, and endeavor to bear you away from that guilty selfishness, which has engrossed the people of God, and impel you to a combined, and vigorous, and anxious effort for the revival of lukewarm professors, and the conversion of impenitent sinners! The subject has not yet laid hold of your imagination, your heart, and your conscience. It has come near to you—but has not entered into you. It has been often the topic of conversation—but never of deep musing.
Do consider the present aspect of the world. A grand struggle for the mastery is coming on, between the spirit of infidelity and the word of God. Already the foe is in the field; his forces are marshaled, and, confident in the assurance of victory, he is preparing for the attack. Shall the church of God be sleeping and indolent? Shall she alone be inert? Shall there be revival and energy everywhere else—but there? Oh no! she must arise and gird herself for the conflict, and take to herself the whole armor of God. She must occupy a position which will enable her to take advantage of existing circumstances, and to bend to the promotion of her interests, the changes and events which are continually occurring on the great theater of the world. She must be more united, more spiritual, more fervent in prayer, more zealous in action—and then will she appear "bright as the sun, fair as the moon, and terrible as an army with banners." As to our own country, as well as in reference to every other—piety is the pillar of society, the parent of social order, the seed of national prosperity, and the source of national happiness.
"Without true piety, the nation will daily become more desirous of liberty, and, at the same time, less capable of enjoying and preserving it. The majority of the population, unless pious and virtuous, must ever be wretched and discontented—and the more beautiful the theory of government which is proposed to them, the greater, in the long run, will be their disappointment; for it is impossible that the most able contrivances of man can set aside the eternal laws of God, or by the blessing of an imaginary freedom to the wicked, secure that happiness and peace to the wicked, which God has reserved for the righteous." Douglas.
Everything yet devised by the wisdom of the church for the benefit of the world, languishes for lack of a revival of piety. Bible and Tract Societies have poured their streams of moral influence through the remote and desolate places of our demoralized population—but they yet appear like the "deserts and the marshes that are given to salt." We have kindled by our missionary zeal, a flame on Zion's hill, to be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of God's people. But how dim is its beam, how feeble its power to illuminate the nations which sit in darkness and the region of the shadow of death! After nearly half a century's labors, how little have we done to evangelize the globe! Is it not time to inquire into the cause of the smallness of our success? And would not inquiry convince us, that it is to be found in the languid condition of our personal piety?
And now, dear brethren, may that Divine Spirit, which on the day of Pentecost, in answer to united prayer, descended on the infant church, baptizing it with celestial fire and qualifying it for its high and holy vocation to evangelize the nations, by illuminating it with heavenly light, and adorning it with the beauties of holiness, as well as endowing it with miraculous powers—come down into your minds and hearts in all the plenitude of his gifts and graces, reviving that which is dull, cleansing that which is impure, strengthening that which is weak, uniting that which is severed—in order that in this way you may be prepared for a more abundant participation of all the fullness of God, and closer fellowship with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ—in everything that relates to the salvation of this lost world!