The Church in Earnest


By John Angell James, 1839

One of the most delightful signs of the present times, is, the concern which is felt by many people, and is still spreading among ministers and their flocks--for the revival of spiritual piety. There is a visible dissatisfaction with things as they have been, and a desire loudly expressed for the more powerful and effectual ministry of the word of life in our country. It is a truly delightful fact, that neither the secular agitation of the political world, the anxious competition of commerce, nor the missionary excitement of the church, has so preoccupied and engrossed the minds and hearts of Christians and their pastors, as to leave them no inclination to think of this important subject. A conviction is gaining ground, at least in the minds of ministers, (where it ought to begin,) that something more might be done, and should be done for the conversion of souls in this country. Routine and formality, even in conducting orthodox ministries, are beginning to be thought inadequate to meet the claims of perishing sinners, and the demands of Him who died for their salvation. The apostolic rule of conduct, "I have become all things to all people, so that I may by all means save some" is adopted by many who, though not behind most of their brethren, are resolved upon new and untried efforts. There is a desire for a revival of piety—and such a desire is a revival begun.

Revivals are not, usually, the work of mere sovereign grace, unaccompanied or unsought by human instrumentality. We are not to sit down, and wait for the blessed visitation, without doing anything to obtain it. It surely cannot admit of a rational doubt, whether it is proper for a church in a state of lukewarmness, to take measures, and those of a somewhat unusual kind--to remove this dullness, and to diffuse a greater degree of vital warmth. If an individual Christian finds out that the power of godliness has declined in his soul, he sets apart a day of examination, humiliation, and prayer, or at least should do so, in order that piety may be revived in his heart. And why may not a Christian church do likewise? In each case steps ought to be taken, and means used, to obtain an increase of piety. Happy would it be if both churches and their individual members, were more frequently to set apart special seasons of fasting and prayer to seek a renewed communication of divine influence.

A question naturally arises what methods of operation should be adopted to bring about a revival? In the United States, what are called "Protracted Meetings," have been very common, and much blessed. They have been held, also, during the last two or three years, in this country, in many places with considerable effect. In this town a series of services, including early prayer meetings, ministerial conferences, and public addresses, were conducted with gratifying results. Some who had been totally indifferent to piety were awakened; and many who had been previously impressed, but were hesitating and procrastinating--became decided. It is usual, and we adopted the plan, to employ a considerable variety of ministers in conducting these services; but I begin to think that this may be carried to an excess, and that the ends would be better answered, if fewer instruments were engaged. It savors too much of an appeal to curiosity, and of an attempt to get up what might be called an "interesting" meeting, rather than a useful one. The attention is too much diverted by so many agents, and there is too much room and incentive for comparison between the different speakers, to allow the conscience to perform its functions.

I believe that a single minister who has the holy courage and strength to make the trial, and could be ably assisted by his own deacons and church might, in some cases, do the work himself. And in most other churches, if a minister were aided by only one or two others of experience, he would do it better than if aided by many occasionally. Certainly means are needed, not only to endeavor by an allowable novelty of effort, and extraordinary solemnity of appeal, to awaken the attention of the careless—but also to bring to decision those who have been previously the subjects of impression and conviction—and I know of nothing better than some such meetings as those to which I now refer.

There is, however, danger (and it is well to know it, and watch against it,) of both ministers and people depending more for success upon occasional, and what some might call spasmodic efforts, than upon the regular and ordinary ministrations of the word and ordinances. If extraordinary means, and seasons of excitement, should render the stated services less interesting and less effective than usual, more harm than good, in the long run, will be done by resorting to such measures. If either pastors or their flocks should, during the intervals of revival, reconcile themselves to lukewarmness and inertness, by the idea that the season will come around when they shall again be restored to their lost ground, mischief will be done, and the very word revival will be a bane instead of a blessing.

It is by continuous zeal, and not merely by paroxysms, that the work of the Lord is to be carried on with success—and upon this, under the blessing of God, we must rely, for both doing and getting good. As it is the law of our moral, as well as of our physical nature, that high excitement is followed by proportionate collapse, we must be watchful not only against having our feelings raised artificially to too high a pitch by revival measures—but also against allowing them to sink too low after methods, which though they are not enthusiastic, are still somewhat out of the usual course. Whatever methods for producing a revival are employed, they should all be restoratives, partaking more of the tonic and intended for abiding strength, than of the stimulant, administered only for present excitement. And as far as my own experience and observation extend, that is the effect likely to be produced by those services in which I have been engaged at home, or have witnessed abroad.

I am well aware, that all new measures require to be controlled and directed by a sober mind, lest they should be carried further than those who originated them intended--and end in wild enthusiasm, extravagance, and absurdity. Wild enthusiasm has not certainly been the extreme to which our churches have hitherto been prone—but the apathy and cold stiff formality which are opposed to it. Still, we have need to be upon our guard. If Satan cannot prevent good from being done, he will pervert it—and when he cannot keep us quiet, he will endeavor to hurry us on into eccentricity and extravagance. I have already seen some lack of judgment, in the arrangements of protracted meetings. While the zealous and enterprising are in movement and in action, it is well for the more cool and calculating to observe their plans of operation, and be ready to sound the word of caution. New measures ought to be scrutinized, not indeed with a bigotted attachment to antiquity—nor on the other hand with a passionate love of novelty.

There is, I admit, no small portion of excitability in the public mind just now—and in such a state of the pious community, it is well for us to take heed that we do not feed the appetite for novelty, instead of contributing to the strength and growth of an intelligent, manly, and ardent piety. With all this disposition to be cautious, and to encourage caution in others, I still am delighted to observe the desire which is become so common after revivals, and the steps which are taken to obtain them. The re-publication, at such a period, of the work of that illustrious man, Jonathan Edwards, is a seasonable and valuable attempt to fan, and at the same time to guide, the flame of the present attemts. That great writer of practical logic and theological controversy, was not likely to be misled in his own judgment of revivals, or to mislead others. It was his rare felicity to possess one of the clearest and profoundest of human intellects, united with one of the warmest and most spiritual of renewed hearts. And what is still more in point, he did not write on revivals as a mere speculatist, who had no observation or experience—for in his own congregation and town occurred one of the most extraordinary outpourings of the Spirit which ever took place even in that land of heavenly showers. He therefore was no less qualified to write upon the subject by what he had seen, than by what be had thought and heard. With a mind of wondrous sagacity, not only in detecting the sophisms and fallacies of a wrong process of thinking—but equally so in detecting the deceitful processes of wrong feeling, he is singularly gifted to guide our opinions in all matters connected with the subject of this treatise.

Without conceding too much to the authority of his great name, I might say, that no man need to blush to own himself the advocate of revivals, and of revival measures, when Edwards' acute and strong understanding saw nothing in them but what, when genuine and uncorrupted by fanaticism, called for his devout admiration and gratitude. May the circulation of this admirable work, be the means, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, of stimulating and guiding that zeal in the cause of revivals of piety, which already begins so happily and so extensively to prevail in this country!

J. A. James.
June 19, 1839.