by John Angell James, 1848
This increased earnestness is a state of things which must not be left to come on of itself without any efforts of ours, or be carelessly thrown upon the sovereignty of God. If a farm, whose scanty produce scarcely repays its tillage, is known to be susceptible of greater fertility, how is that end to be attained? Not by leaving the ground to itself, or continuing the old system of husbandry, or waiting for more auspicious seasons—there must be better farming, and a more diligent farmer. He who would double his crops, must double his labor. "Up, and be doing," is the voice of both reason and revelation. I would raise, if I could, through the length and breadth of the land, the stimulating cry, "Something more must be done!" I do not mean to say nothing is being done. No. Blessed be God, not only something—but much is being done. I would have the church start in a new career of earnestness, with a devout, joyful, and grateful admission of what is to be done.
It is easier to keep up motion than to originate it—and it is easier to keep in action those who have risen up from their slumber, and are already moving, than to excite others who are reposing on the couch of idleness. It is both untrue and disheartening to affirm that there is no life, no motion, no activity, in the church. In some things there never was more. "Whereunto we have attained, let us walk by the same rule." All good things tend to better things. Past success encourages the hope of achievements yet to be made. Despondency paralyzes exertion—and the shadows of present fears darken the path of the future, and frighten us back when we would advance. Still we are not what we ought to be, what we might be, what we must be.
I. As everything that is done by human instrumentality is the result of reflection, increased earnestness can only arise from increased thoughtfulness.I therefore now suggest certain topics connected with this subject, for the deep meditation of professing Christians.
1. Has the church of God ever yet developed fully the divine idea of its own nature, and transcendent excellence and importance, as set forth in the New Testament? Let anyone study this holy community as it is there described, and then say whether the sublime theory has ever yet been so entirely worked out as it might have been, and should have been? Whether the unity, the sanctity, the love, the zeal, the heavenliness of this "pattern given in the mount," have been embodied with sufficient and attainable approach to perfection, in the Christian profession? Whether the true idea of "a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people," a body of redeemed and sanctified men, a band of witnesses for God—has not been sunk amidst forms of government, ceremonial observances, and mere nominal Christianity? If we cannot find in all its grandeur this conception of the infinite Intellect in the pages of the ecclesiastical history of past ages, can we find it now? Will anyone on looking upon the schisms which divide, the corruptions which have disfigured, and still do disfigure, and the worldliness which enervates, the church—affirm that this is according to the archetype in the Word of God? Is it not, then, high time we should begin to think, and think earnestly, of conforming the church more exactly to its divine model? Have we not all been too much in the habit of considering the church as symbolized by systems of ecclesiastical polity and denominational distinctions and designations, rather than as consisting of those who repent, believe, love God, and lead a holy life? Have we not practically mistaken the whole matter, and lost the essential in the circumstantial, the vital in the formal?
2.A second subject of most serious consideration connected with the means of increased earnestness, is, whether really the church of God has yet so fully answered as it might, and should have done, the divine purpose for which it was set up; which is, to bear witness of the truth to the nations, and to convert them to God. If it has, how shall we account for it that in the nineteenth century of the Christian era, five-sixths of the population of the globe are pagans or Mahommedans; that Christendom itself is covered with such hideous corruptions of the gospel—and that even the more spiritual professors of it are so deeply sunk in worldliness? Surely it is time to ask, how it is that with such a divine constitution in the world, and set up for such a purpose, its design has not been more fully realized?
3. Has the church ever yet thoroughly understood and seriously pondered its design, and the wondrous power with which it is, or might be invested, for the accomplishment of this end?The church, viewed in all its relations, is God's grandest, noblest idea, and when fully developed will reveal more of God than all the universe besides. Have we, in dwelling upon our connection with the church, felt as if we were lifted up by that relationship, into an elevation of surprising height, grandeur, and importance—and as if therefore, the business of our existence were to answer the purpose of our church fellowship? And then, have we studied, and studied deeply, the wondrous spiritual power there would be in the church, if it were in such a state as it might and should be? Suppose it were indeed "the tabernacle of God with man, "having the glory of God" and "filled with all the fullness of God;" what a moral power would it not contain, and must it not exert! Suppose all its ministers were full of knowledge, piety, and zeal, living only for the conversion of sinners, and the edification of believers, each in his place a burning and a shining light—suppose all its lay officers were like the first deacons, full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and given up to the welfare of the divine community of believers upon earth—suppose all the corruptions that distort the form of Christianity and its doctrines, were done away, and the whole professing church were entirely the pillar and ground of the truth—suppose all the members of the church were consistent in their conduct; full of holy unction in their souls; all self-dedicated, each with his one, five, or ten talents, whether of knowledge, wealth, or influence, and all united and harmonious—suppose, I say, this were the state of the church, what wondrous moral power it would contain, and how soon then would its design be accomplished in the conversion of the world! Just in proportion as this is its state now, is its power already. Yes, low as it is compared with this representation, it has a weight and an influence now, which nothing else wields. It is already, to a considerable extent, swaying silently the world's destinies—and what would be its power if it were brought up to its proper standard!
Such are some of the topics which must become the subjects of reflection with the people of God, if there be any hope of increased earnestness in piety. The mind must be occupied by these momentous subjects. Something higher and nobler than matters of business, politics, science, fashion, or even of church polity, must possess their hearts. The world must be less, and the church more, in their esteem. It is only on the broad deep basis of such reflections that we can raise a sound and enduring superstructure of more intense piety. The church, the true church, the church in its scriptural meaning, in its spiritual nature, as it is viewed by God, and not as it is considered by ecclesiastics, statesmen, or historians, must become a matter of intense thoughtfulness, solicitude, conversation, and discussion, by professing Christians. Here we must begin, if we would have it what it should be, and what God intended it to be.
II. Let the increased earnestness of the church be the subject of devout, serious, and general conversation.It must not be dismissed in a spirit either of levity, or of self-delight. It will not do sneeringly to say, "Leave the subject to the gloomy croakers and the self-conceited reformers; the church is in a very good state, and need not be disturbed by a set of evangelical pharisees." Those who speak thus cannot surely have read the New Testament with attention and seriousness, nor have compared with its requirements the state of their own hearts, or that of the Christian church at large. Are we, then, so holy, heavenly, and devout, so dead to the world, and so devoted to Christ and his cause, as to need no advance? Paul did not think so, when, in reference to his own personal experience, he would forget the things that were behind, and reach forth unto those that were ahead. A spirit of self-satisfaction and self-delight, a resting in things as they are, a good-enough state of mind—will, if we cherish it, be our bane. We shall never be in earnest at all if we think we are in earnest enough. The very word earnestness implies an intense desire after what we have not at all possessed, or after more of what we already possess. Instead, therefore, of self-delight and self-satisfaction, let each member of every church begin to think seriously and devoutly upon the importance and necessity of improvement and growth. Let each speak of it to his fellow Christian, and raise a general reference to the matter. Let it be the talk of the church, the theme of the day. When it is uppermost in our hearts, it will be sure to be the topic of our conversation in company.
When instead of being contented with our state, we begin to say, "We must have more life, more vigor, more action, in our piety;" then we shall have it. Especially let us resist the efforts of those who, not wishing to be stimulated themselves, will endeavor to persuade us that things are well enough already, and should be let alone. There never will, never can be more earnestness, until a felt need of it pervades the Christian church, until it has seized and possessed the public mind, and has become the topic of general discourse.
III. It is of immense importance that this subject should be brought frequently and urgently before the churches, by the ministrations of the PULPIT.The strain of preaching should be of a character that tends to foster this spirit. What is the design of ministerial and pastoral duties, if not to accomplish this end? Every minister should often ask himself a few such questions as the following—"What is genuine earnestness of personal piety? What kind of ministry is adapted to promote it? Is mine such a ministry?" Without a thorough understanding of all these topics, no man can hope to accomplish the end of his office, and promote around him a spirit of intense and consistent piety. If ministerial notions of religion are loose, and extend no further than to outward and conventional decorum; if ministers are strangers themselves to any great power of the divine life, and see no great need of it in others; if they set down as enthusiasm, or as religious cant, the influence of piety upon the heart and a high-toned spirituality; if they are lukewarm in their affections, worldly in their tastes and habits, and lax in their theology; then, nothing can be expected from their sermons in the pulpit, or their conversation in the parlor, that is likely to increase the earnestness of their churches. Their ministration will inevitably partake of the character of their own personal piety. They will not express, much less inculcate, a fervor they do not feel. It behooves them to take care that there does not spring up among the pastors of the evangelical dissenting churches, a class answering to the Moderates of the Church of Scotland, and the anti-evangelical clergy of the Church of England—men, whose hearts are uninfluenced by the truth as it is in Jesus, and about whom that very truth itself hangs but loosely; whose sermons are dry discussions of mere ethical subjects; whose demeanor may be marked by official decorum—but whose character, conduct, and ministrations, are devoid of that evangelical sentiment, spirituality, unction, and fervor, which alone can promote similar views and feelings among the people.
Everything, under God, depends upon the ministry—earnest churches cannot be expected but from earnest preachers. But it is unnecessary to enlarge here upon a topic which I have made the subject of a previous volume, and I will therefore make only this one remark, that unless the pulpit be made to bear with all its power on this very point, there is little hope of any increase in the earnestness of the churches. The whole combined influence of the preachers of God's glorious gospel is indispensable. The standard of personal godliness must be lifted up, and lifted high, too. The nature of sanctification, as well as regeneration, must be explained, and its necessity insisted upon, the life of God in the soul enforced, the separation of the people of God from the people of the world enjoined, and a habit of self-denial and mortification inculcated. There must be no sewing pillows under the arms of sleepy professors, no spirit of accommodation to the requirements of worldly minded Christians, no prophesying of smooth things, no healing the hurt of the daughter of Zion slightly, no crying peace, peace, to those who are at ease in Zion. On the contrary, the defects and sins of professors must be pointed out, rebuked, and denounced—their judgments must be informed of the nature of true godliness, their consciences awakened, and their resolution of amendment engaged. For this purpose the most unsparing fidelity, combined with the greatest affection, must be used, every energy roused, and the whole course of the ministry directed so as to bring up the piety of the churches to the standard of God's Holy Word. And all this must at the same time be entered into and approved of by the people. Instead of being offended by the plainness of the minister, they must admire his courage and applaud his fidelity—instead of resenting his affectionate solicitude to aid them in the crucifixion of besetting sins, and to draw them out of the entanglements of the world, they should feel grateful for such self-denying offices of his generous friendship—instead of quarrelling with him for his puritanic notions and unnecessary strictness, they ought to hold up his hands, in holding up the law of God as the divine mirror by which they are to examine and adjust themselves.
IV. If the church be ever stirred up to greater earnestness, it must be by the greater earnestness of its individual MEMBERS.I have already had frequent occasion in this work to remark that there is a fatal propensity in the members of all Christian communities, to get rid of individual responsibility, and by a fiction to think of the body only as responsible. There is in reality no such thing as a collective conscience—bodies, as such, cannot be accountable. God will not, at the last judgment, deal with nations, or churches, or families. It was a fine purpose of a young Christian which he thus entered in his diary, "Resolved, that I will, the Lord being my helper, think, speak, and act, as an individual—for as such I must live, as such I must die, stand before God, and be damned or saved forever and ever. I have been waiting for others—I must act as if I were the only one to act, and wait no longer." This is just the view and the purpose to be taken by us all. It is as individuals we must act for ourselves, and he who acts for himself, in this matter, will certainly influence others. Every man acts upon others, by the power of the influence of their example. Example is influence. The diffusion of piety is like the kindling of a fire, or the lighting of so many candles; one original flame may by contact communicate itself to a multitude of other points. It was said of Harlan Page, by one who knew him intimately, "I have well considered the assertion when I say, that during nine years in which we were associated in labors, I do not know that I ever passed an interview with him long enough to have any interchange of thought and feeling, in which I did not receive from him an impulse heavenward, an impulse onward in duty to God and the souls of men."
If this could be said of all professing Christians, we would see earnestness in reality.
Allow me then formally and solemnly to propose, that each reader of this volume, will seriously and immediately begin to be more in earnest for himself. Let him indulge in some such reflections as these, "If the church is ever made more earnest, it must be by an increased earnestness in its individual members. I am one of those members, and am as much bound to advance in the divine life as any other. It is but hypocrisy, gross, disgusting hypocrisy, to lament over the low state of piety in the church, and to desire a revival, while I am unconcerned about the state of my own piety, and do not seek a revival of that. I will begin with myself. I will wait for no other. I must be more in earnest, and God helping me, I will be." We may now just notice the steps which such a person ought to take to accomplish his resolution.
Let him turn away from all the conventional piety of the day, and read over with devout attention what is said in a former chapter, of the true nature of genuine piety.
Let him, in a season of closet devotion, examine his own piety, and compare it with this standard.
Let him, upon discovering his great and numerous shortcomings, humble and abase himself before God, in a spirit of true contrition.
Let him reject all excuses which his own deceitful heart, and lukewarm, worldly-minded Christians—will be ever ready to suggest for self-defense, and be thoroughly convinced that nothing can, or will, be admitted by God as an apology for a low state of personal piety.
Let him intensely desire to be raised from his depressed condition into a more exalted state of spirituality, heavenly-mindedness, and devoted zeal. Let him set himself most vigorously to the work of mortifying sin, and crucifying the flesh.
Let him redouble his diligence in attending the means of grace, and especially let him give himself to reading the Scriptures, meditation, and prayer.
Let him add season to season of special humiliation and supplication, to obtain a new and copious effusion of the Holy Spirit of God.
Let him cultivate a new and more delicate sensibility of conscience, in reference to all matters of offence, both towards God and man.
Let him seek to have his mind illuminated by the Spirit and Word of God, in the knowledge of the person, offices, and work, of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Let him give himself to Christian vigilance, watching ever against sin.
Let him, in short, intelligently, resolutely, and unalterably, make up his mind to enter upon a new course of personal godliness; so new that his past attainments shall seem as if they were nothing. There is such a thing as starting afresh, as forgetting the things that are behind—and so must it be with him who would be really in earnest. He will wake up from his slumbering, dreamy profession, saying, "I have slept too long and too much, I must now throw off the spirit of sloth, and give all diligence to make my calling and election sure."
"As the One who called you is holy, you also are to be holy in every aspect of your life; for it is written--Be holy, because I am holy." (1 Peter 1:15-16)
V. There must be an increased and pervading spirit of believing and importunate PRAYER, especially for the outpouring of the Spirit of God.If it is saying too much to affirm that the earnestness of piety is identical with the earnestness of prayer, because this would seem to imply that prayer is the whole of piety. It is not too much to say, that earnestness in piety is ever characterized by earnestness in prayer, and that there is really no more of the former than there is of the latter. It is absolutely impossible, in the nature of things, that either an individual, a church, or an age, can be earnest in piety, and at the same time lukewarm in devotion. The church needs the spirit of prayer, for its own internal state and for its external operations; for its own spiritual life, and for its influence upon the world; for its more perfect sanctification, and for its more extensive usefulness.
Let it be borne in recollection that piety is a divine creation, a heavenly production; there is not a particle of it in our world—but what comes down from above; no, not a ray of holy light, or a glow of spiritual warmth—but what is an emission from the fountain of celestial radiance and fire. All on earth will be sterility and desolation until the shower descends from the clouds which hang around the throne of God. The world can no more be regenerated and sanctified without the work of the Holy Spirit, than it can be redeemed without the blood of the Son of God. The soul which is not visited by these genial influences of the new heavens, will be a desert soul; without these the church will be a desert church; the world, a desert world. We cannot be too deeply convinced of the need of the Spirit's operation; a defect of conviction on this point is radical, and will enervate everything, and cause ultimate and universal disappointment.
Deny or forget, or only coldly and theoretically admit this, and whatever forms of individual devotion, and creeds of orthodoxy, we may maintain, whatever systems of ecclesiastical polity we may set up, whatever societies of confederated zeal we may organize, we are only building a Babel to proclaim our folly, or a mausoleum to entomb our fleshly endeavors. This great truth must not go down even in the shadow of the cross. While we contend for the free agency, and therefore the responsibility of man, and press them home upon the conscience, still we must recollect that the sinner never will do, what in one sense he can do, until he is made willing in the day of God's power. All hope of, and all attempt at revival, either in our own soul, or in our own church, or in our own age, must begin here. This is to begin at the beginning.
"O Christians, is there such a doctrine in our creed as the doctrine of Divine influence? Is there such an Agent in the church as the almighty Spirit of God? Is he among us, expressly to testify of Christ, to be the great animating spirit of his missionary witness, the church? And is it true that his unlimited aid can be obtained by prayer? O, you that preach, 'believe the promise of the Spirit, and be saved.' You that love the Lord, keep not silence; send up a loud, long, united, and unsparing entreaty for his promised aid. This, this is what we need. And this is all we need. Until this be obtained, all the angelic agency of heaven will avail us nothing—and when it is obtained, all that agency will be unequal to the celebration of our triumphs."
Let this impressive and beautiful paragraph be written upon our hearts, repeated by our lips, and sounded by ten thousand echoes throughout the land. This must be the burden of the church's prayers, for God has, to a considerable extent, made the outpouring of the Spirit dependent upon the supplications of his people; an arrangement by which he honors himself in being publicly acknowledged as the Author of all good, and at the same time honors his church by making her the medium through which the blessing descends. What a tremendous responsibility, then, does this devolve upon the church! If it depended upon our prayers whether the sun should rise, or the rain should descend upon the inhabitants of the other hemisphere, should we not, if we neglected prayer, be chargeable with the perpetual night and desolating drought which caused the countless millions to perish for lack of the light of day and the fertilizing shower? Had we any compassion, would we in that case ever look up at the orb of day, or the floating cisterns in the clouds of heaven, without imploring the God of nature to send their inestimable treasures to the benighted and starving inhabitants of other regions?
Christians, the moral world is in darkness and in drought for lack of your prayers! Sin reigns, Satan triumphs, hell is peopled, through the lack of your prayers! The dominion of Christ, the spread of truth, the millennial glory, are hindered through the lack of your prayers! Your missionary societies and all your organizations of pious zeal; your abounding liberality and active exertions are but very partially successful, through the lack of your prayers! Think of this and tremble at your responsibility, and tremble still more at your insensibility. Yes, what we need is more prayer. I know we need money, we need men—but we need prayer still more. More prayer will give us more of everything else that is necessary. Hear the testimony of your missionaries sent to us from the midst of their difficulties among the heathen, "Brethren, pray for us!" transmitted to us from their sick and dying beds. "Brethren, pray for us!" delivered to us when wasted and worn they come back to England, to recruit their enfeebled strength. "Brethren, pray for us!" this, this, is the emphatic supplication from every missionary station under heaven, and borne to us by every breeze and every wave that touches our shore, "Brethren, pray for us!" Could all the missionaries of all societies, and from all the stations upon earth, assemble in one place, however they may differ on some points of doctrine and discipline, they would be perfectly harmonious in bearing this testimony—that prayer is the hope of the missionary cause.
We were never more in danger of forgetting the importance and necessity of prayer that at the present moment. Our institutions have risen to a magnitude and extension which are grand and imposing; it is an age of great societies, an era of organization, when there is imminent peril of trusting to the wisdom of committees, and the power of eloquence, of numbers, and of money—instead of the power of prayer. We cannot do without organization, and it makes one's heart throb with delight to see to what an extent it is carried. The annual list which is published of our May meetings is one of the greatest wonders of the age, the brightest glories of the church, and the richest hopes of posterity. But then our glory is our danger; this very organization may seduce us, and I am afraid is seducing us, and has seduced us from our dependence upon God, until organization is likely to become the image of jealousy, which makes jealous in the temple of the Lord.
An eloquent speaker once said upon a missionary platform, "Money, money, money—is the life's blood of the missionary cause." I would substitute another word, and say "Prayer, prayer, prayer—is the life's blood of the missionary cause." I am no enthusiast—I do not expect our cause to be sustained without money; nor do I expect gold to be rained out of heaven into our coffers. Money we must have, in far greater abundance than we now have it—and money will come at the bidding of prayer. If we had more fervent believing supplication, we would have more wealth. The same spirit of sincere and importunate supplication which would bring down the treasures of heavenly grace, would call forth the supplies of earthly means. I repeat what I think I have said elsewhere that I could be almost content that for the next year, not a word would be said about money—but the church be summoned universally to intense and believing supplication. Ministers of the gospel, lay this matter upon the consciences of your flocks; instruct them in their duty, and urge them to it. Remind them that what we need is not only a giving church, and a working church—but a praying church. Tell them that praying for the coming down of the Spirit is not to be confined to the Sabbath and the pulpit, nor to the missionary and social prayer meeting—but that it is every man's business at his own family altar, and in his closet. Then, when the whole church of God, with all its families apart, and every individual member apart, shall be engaged in a spirit of believing and fervent supplication; then may it be expected the Spirit of God will come down in power and glory upon the earth, and not until then, whatever of organization, of wealth, of eloquence, or of numbers, may be engaged in the cause of Christian missions.
Activity and devotion, giving and praying, conscientious zeal, and the feeling of entire dependance upon God, must be properly balanced in all we do. The more we give, the more we should pray—and the more we pray, the more we should give. The proportions are often disturbed; our danger in this day lies in an excess of activity over the spirit of prayer. Let us restore the balance, and bring on an era which shall be characterized as the praying age of the missionary enterprise.
Our supplications should be the prayers of faith. We ought to know and to feel that the cause of missions is no mere experiment in the spiritual world, no invention of man, no tentative scheme; but an attempt the success of which is guaranteed by all the attributes of the eternal God, and which should therefore be prayed for in the full confidence of assured expectation. And to faith, we must add fervency; we must pray for the regeneration of the world with an intelligent perception of what is included in that wondrous phrase, "a world converted from idolatry to Christ," with a recollection that this is in some sense dependent upon our prayers, and with such an importunity as we might be supposed to employ if the world's salvation depended upon our individual intercession.
But this spirit of prayer is needed by the church, not only to give power and efficiency to her operations for the conversion of sinners—but for her own internal improvement; to increase, and indeed to indicate her earnestness for her own salvation. She needs an outpouring of the Spirit upon herself to rouse her from her lukewarmness, and to elevate her to a higher state of purity, fervor, and consistency. She needs revival, and it can be looked for only in answer to the fervent prayer of faith, and in answer to such prayers it may be ever and everywhere expected.
To say nothing of other instances well known, and some of them alluded to in this work, I may refer to the success of that flaming seraph, Mr. McCheyne, of the Free Church of Scotland, whose early death in the midst of his-usefulness, is one of the mysteries of Providence "too deep to sound with mortal lines." He thus records in his diary the spirit of prayer which prevailed among his people—"Many prayer-meetings were formed, some of which were strictly private—and others, conducted by people of some Christian experience, were open to people under concern, at one another's houses. At the time of my returning from the mission to the Jews, I found thirty-nine such meetings, held weekly, in connection with the congregation."
O that this beautiful instance of cooperation with the minister, by the people, prevailed through all our churches. Look at it, professing Christians; ponder it, church members. The whole church, or at any rate, its more experienced members, resolving themselves into thirty-nine prayer associations, meeting weekly, fostering new converts, and all this in the absence of the pastor. When shall this pattern be imitated? When shall all our deacons and leading members, go and do likewise? When shall our churches be made up of praying members, and be full of the spirit of prayer after this fashion? This is the earnestness of a church, the earnestness of piety, the earnestness of prayer. Revivals will always come, where this is found. It is itself a revival.
If there is one thing which is more suited to our condition, and more prompted by our necessities than any other—it is prayer. If there is one duty which is more frequently enjoined by the precepts, or more beautifully enforced by the examples of Scripture, than any other—it is prayer. If there be one practice as to which the experience of all good men of every age, every country, and every church, has agreed—it is prayer. If there be one thing which above all others decisively marks the spirit of sincere and individual piety—it is prayer. So that it may be safely affirmed, where the spirit of prayer is low in the soul of an individual, in a country, an age, or a church—whatever it may have, of morality, of ceremony, of liberality—the spirit of piety is low also.
Now it is most seriously to be apprehended, that this deficiency of prayer is the characteristic of our age. It is a preaching age, a speaking age, a hearing age—but not eminently a praying one. Men are too busy to pray. Even the most distinguished Christians are too apt to shorten the seasons of prayer, in order to lengthen those of secular and sacred business. Everything, not only in the world—but in the church, is against the spirit of prayer. I know very well we cannot expect in such an age as ours, the same spirit of devotion as prevailed in persecuting times, when John Welsh, one of the men of the Covenant, spent whole days praying for his parishioners, wrestling alone with God; he used to rise often in the middle of the night, wrap himself in his garment, pour out his soul to his Maker, and say, "I wonder how a Christian can lie in bed all night, and not rise to pray." We do not expect even the most holy ministers to spend eight hours a day in prayer, as he did, who had little to do but to suffer, and to pray—but surely we may expect more of the spirit of prayer than we now witness, either in pastors, or their flocks.
There is one view of prayer which has not been so much considered as it should be—and that is its reflex power, or in other words, the moral influence of prayer upon the individual mind engaged in it. No doubt it is an expressive homage paid to God, and an appointed means of obtaining blessings from above—but it is more, for it is also ordained for self-edification. As the offspring of our desires—it reacts upon its source, making them more strong, more vivid, more solemn, more prolonged, and more definite as to their objects; the effort of expressing them to God, concentrates the soul in them, and upon their objects. Every sincere act of adoration increases our veneration for God's glorious character, every confession of sin deepens our penitence, every petition for a favor cherishes a sense of dependence, every intercession for others expands our philanthropy, and every acknowledgment of a mercy inflames our gratitude. Every godly man is therefore the better for his own prayers, which not only obtain other good things—but are themselves good to him.
Hence when an individual can be stirred up to pray more for increased earnestness of piety, his supplication contains both the prayer and its answer, and affords a literal fulfilment of the promise, "before they call I will answer." Thus a godly man never entirely loses his prayers, for if they do no good and bring no blessing to others, they do to himself. Whenever the church, therefore, is stirred up to a more intense spirit of prayer for a revival, the revival is begun.
But the benefit does not stop here, for God will answer such supplications, and bestow the gift which is sought. God is ever waiting to be gracious. His language ever is, "Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it. Prove me now—if I will not open the windows of heaven, and pour out a blessing that there shall not be room enough to receive it." The promises to this effect are so numerous, and so express, that it would seem as if the church might enjoy any measure of divine power which she had the piety to desire, the faith to ask, and the will to receive. She is invited to launch forth into all the fullness of God, and to replenish herself with the inexhaustible riches of divine grace.
The best way to ascertain how far the spirit of prays is lacking, or is possessed, in this day, is, for each reader of this volume to ask how it is with himself. He best knows himself, and his own practice, and he may therefore say, "Suppose my case is not a singular—but an average one, as there is reason to suppose it is, what is the state of the Christian church?" And what will that individual find to be the case with himself? How much time in each day does he devote to this most necessary, most momentous duty—to pray for his conduct in life, for his salvation, his family, his church, the world? How much, as compared with other things—with his relaxation from business, his recreation, the time he gives to the newspaper, or even to mindlessness? Is there not a frequent reluctance to the duty? Is it not often performed rather from a haunting sense of duty, and to silence the accusations of conscience, than from any attraction, sweet and irresistible, coming over the heart from the throne of grace? Is there not a habit of letting any inferior thing that may offer itself be attended to before it, and a disposition to postpone the exercise to a more convenient time, and a more appropriate frame of mind? Is there no habit of "making social or domestic prayer a partial excuse for omitting the private exercise, a kind of acquittance, the share of a social exercise being reckoned enough for the whole tribute of an individual, as if a social tribute were for the purpose of gaining an exemption for each individual?" Now, how much prayer, such as really deserves the name, is going up to heaven continually from the church, and for it? Surely, surely, we need far more, and must have far more, if the Spirit shall come down in plenitude and power to make us more earnest in piety.
VI. Special seasons of devotion, instituted with immediate reference to the revival and increase of piety, are adapted to promote this object, and are therefore of considerable importance. This is perhaps one of the most difficult practical subjects of the present volume, and will require the greatest caution in treating it. A prejudice founded partly on observation, and partly upon report—but rarely upon experience, against any efforts beyond the ordinary course of ministerial and pastoral labor, exists in many minds—and if some instances of revival-efforts were made the example or the standard of what is here meant by special services, they are to be dreaded and deprecated by every lover of sobriety of mind, and every friend to the credit of our holy religion. Scenes more resembling pandemonium than the solemnities of the house of God, have been set forth under the name of "revival meetings," to the disgust of the wise, the grief of the good, and the scandal of the bad. Nor is it any justification of such frantic orgies, to allege that souls have been converted. Very likely. But how many have imbibed invincible prejudice against all religion, how many more after the excitement has passed off, have become increasingly hardened, and how many have received a distaste for the ordinary and more sober ministrations of the gospel!
There is, no doubt, a power in the eternal truths of the Word of God, that will exert itself, under God's Spirit, in defiance of all the revolting and inharmonious adjuncts with which they may be sometimes associated. It is not, perhaps, to be questioned that if some of the monstrosities of the Church of Rome, such, for instance, as dramatic exhibitions of the Savior's passion, were united by some popular and energetic preacher of the gospel with a vivid appeal to the conscience, in the statement of evangelical truths, souls might be converted from the error of their ways. But would this authorize and justify us in representing the scenes of Calvary upon a stage? I eschew then, at once and forever, all attempts at revivals which offend against the majesty and sobriety of divine truth, which violate the proprieties of public worship, produce an excitement of the passions that amounts to mental intoxication, and render tame, tasteless, and insipid, the ordinary ministrations of the sanctuary.
But is there no middle course between wild extravagance and dull formality? Between the performances of the actor, and the somnolence of the sluggard? Is a judicious physician to be precluded from adopting a stimulating treatment in the case of a collapsed patient, because some ignorant quacks have carried it so far as to bring on epilepsy or madness? I know it is the opinion of many, that all attempts to keep up, or to increase, the spirit of vital godliness in the church, and multiply conversions, by special meetings, tend to relax, on the part of both ministers and their flocks, diligence in the maintenance of their stated services—and to teach them to rely on occasional and spasmodic exertions, rather than on such as are habitual. Our object, they say, should be to produce a constant and well-sustained earnestness, rather than a fitful and transient one; just as in regard to our bodies, our aim is habitually to keep up robust health, rather than to neglect it, and then trust to occasional and extraordinary means for restoring it. This is true. But surely if in the latter case, it be well to resort to special means of cure, when the health is impaired, and the strength is reduced, and in the best constitutions this will sometimes take place, it must be equally proper, so far as the analogy holds good, to follow this rule in reference to piety.
In the best and the most watchful Christians, piety, alas, will occasionally decline; first love will abate—and vital godliness be among "the things that remain, and that are ready to die." Who does not feel this, and lament it too? Have not all in whose soul is the life of God, and who are anxious to maintain that life in vigor, found it necessary occasionally to observe special seasons of examination, humiliation, and prayer? Does not the biography of every eminently godly man give us an account of the days of fasting and devotion, which he observed to obtain a revival of piety in his soul? Is there a Christian really in earnest for his salvation, one of more than usual piety, who does not feel it necessary to add an occasional season of devotion to his accustomed duties, in order to recover lost ground and to advance in the divine life? And does this practice take him off from his usual and regular duties of meditation and prayer? On the contrary, does it not rather lead him to supply his defects, to correct his negligences, and to pursue his course with fresh vigor and alacrity. Surely, if this be the case with the individual Christian, the same thing may be affirmed of a Christian church.
By special services I do not mean fixed periodical ones, such as yearly fasts, or a regular annual repetition of continuous preachings; for such cease to be special, and become a part of the ordinary means, and are themselves liable to sink into the same dullness of routine, and deadness of formalism, as the more frequent and ordinary means. What I mean by special services are some such exercises as the following. An occasional day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer, by a religious denomination, to which all its churches shall be invited by the committee that manage its affairs, or which shall be determined upon by the churches themselves at a general gathering.
An occasional meeting for solemn prayer by the directors of our public institutions, when all business shall be excluded, and nothing else shall take place but invocation of the blessing of God upon their plans, their counsels, and their objects—that thus a devotional spirit may be infused into all their operations. It is true they generally commence every meeting with prayer—but who has not felt how perfunctorily this is often done?
How much would it tend to keep up a right feeling and a fervent spirit in the ministry, if the pastors within a district of twenty or thirty miles diameter, were occasionally to meet and spend a couple of days together in solemn prayer, unrestrained conference, and mutual exhortation! What solemn discourse, what deep utterances of the heart, what intercommunion of soul, might then take place! As it now is, we meet only for business, business, business, until we return to our homes, revived a little, perhaps, in body, for the journey—but not one whit better, sometimes even worse, in our spiritual state.
Single churches could by a voluntary resolution of their own, determine to keep occasionally a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer. In the olden times of our forefathers, this was by no means uncommon; but alas, in our busy day we find little time, and have less inclination, for such exercises! True it might be difficult to command a week-day for such a purpose—what hinders, then, that a Sabbath should not some times be thus appropriated, and the services of that day be all made to bear on the object?
Where whole churches do not set apart such seasons, why may not a few of the members, who are like-minded in their devotional habits, in their yearning after a higher tone of spiritual feeling, and their longing for the outpouring of the Spirit, agree together to meet at particular times for special prayer? How blessed an invitation is it to issue from some spiritually-minded Christian to his fellows, "Come, let us set apart a season of special prayer for a revival of true piety in our church, in the denomination, and the whole church of God!"
But there is another kind of special services, which for the purpose of conversion, might be resorted to with great advantage, if conducted with propriety; I mean, continuous preaching, carried on for several successive days, and accompanied by earnest prayer on the part of the members of the church. As already intimated, this plan has been lamentably abused; not only by certain men, called "revivalist preachers," whose outrageous rant, "pious frauds," and solemn trickery, have done so much mischief, and have furnished the lukewarm with an apology for formalism—but by others, who have made such services a mere pretense to call attention to a partially deserted place, or to puff an unknown minister into notice, until one almost loathes the very name of "revival meetings." But how different from all this "bellows blowing," as Mr. Jay called it, are the sober and solemn services which have been and still are carried on by some ministers, to call by special efforts the attention of the careless to the solemn verities of eternal truth. When a minister perceives that little good seems to result from his preaching, that souls are not converted, and that professors are lukewarm and worldly—is there anything contrary to sobriety, to reason, to revelation, to the laws of propriety, or to the mental economy of man, in determining, by a continuous course of services, sustained through the evenings of a whole week, to keep piety before the minds of the people, and rouse their slumbering attention to its high importance? Is not this perfectly consonant with the strictest decorum, with the most refined spiritual sensibility? Shall science, politics, and literature, have their special services, and not piety? How likely to rouse the minds of the careless, to fix the thoughts of the volatile, to decide the choice of the wavering, and to kindle the ardor of the lukewarm, is the plan of thus carrying on a succession of appeals to them through a whole week.
Keep out extravagance, let there be no anxious seat, no vociferation, no extravagant appeals to the passions; but only the vivid, solemn, and faithful exhibition of the truth. As one minister, the pastor, may not have strength enough for such services, another, or more than one, may be called on to assist him. During all this while, much prayer should ascend from the church for the divine blessing to come down upon such efforts. What can be objected to in such a scheme? Who has ever tried it without a blessed result? What, in fact, were the labors of Whitfield and Wesley, yes, what were the labors of apostles—but such continuous services as these? It is said of the blessed Paul, he "discoursed," daily in the school of Tyrannus.
What are we doing by the ordinary means? What souls are we converting to God by our regular routine? Does not the work of reconciliation languish in our hands? Are not thousands and tens of thousands perishing at our doors, and going down to the pit before our eyes? And shall we be contented with routine, formality, and custom, in our way of saving them? Shall we fear to step out of our ordinary course to pluck sinners as brands from the eternal burning? Shall we be afraid lest by adopting some new means, however little differing from the stated services of the sanctuary, we shall incur the charge of enthusiasm in our attempts to carry out the purposes for which the Son of God expired upon the cross? Enthusiasm? I wish we better deserved the charge, and were more entitled to the accusation. Enthusiasm! Where is the cause in our world that more deserves or demands it, in a modified and chastened meaning, than that of saving immortal souls from eternal perdition? Enthusiasm! Bid the man who is snatching his fellow-creatures from the flames, or from the wreck, not to be an enthusiast in his heroic generosity, and the admonition will be far more seasonable and appropriate than when addressed to him who steps a little out of the ordinary track to convert sinners from the error of their ways, save souls from death, and hide multitudes of sins. Enthusiasm! Make the charge, as upon the principles of many of our bigots to formalism we justly may, against that great man, who said, "If by any means I might save some, I could even wish myself accursed from Christ, for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh."
O, were that man again in our world, what would he think, and what would he say, of the fastidiousness of some of our ministers and churches, as to stepping ever so little out of the ordinary way of conducting the services of piety? The world is perishing, the great masses of our population are sinking more and more under the power of infidelity and irreligion—and we stand by asking what can be done, and are afraid to try any new scheme of action for their salvation, however discreet or well adapted, lest we should discompose the dress, or ruffle the fringes, of our habits of ecclesiastical order! As if it were better that men should go down unobstructed to the pit—than that our formalism should be in the least disturbed for their salvation!
Some time since I wrote, for his opinion on this subject, to one whom God has honored and blessed in his efforts, and who is one of the most devout and sober-minded of our brethren—he thus replied to my inquiries—"I think that considering the state of the churches generally, there is a call for something of this kind. The ministers are unsettled, which they would not be if they were doing good. I am sorry to say also the churches are often dissatisfied with their ministers, an evil which would be obviated were more good accomplished. It appears to me that special efforts, if wisely conducted, would be productive of much benefit; first of all, to the ministers themselves, in teaching them to understand better the nature of the work in which they are engaged. They would be led to know more how to aim at the conversion of sinners in their preaching. Secondly, it would do much good to the churches in arousing them to a better conception of their calling and duty, and they would acquire more of the taste for seeing good done, which would render them discontented with the desolation around them, and constrain them to give themselves more to prayer for the outpouring of the Spirit. When a church has once witnessed a season of revival, it is much more likely to witness the same again and again, than one that knows nothing of it but by hearsay. Thirdly, the region around the church where the special effort is made will often receive an impression, the effects of which are visible for many years. Thoughts are first started in the mind which are not for long after matured into conversion. This I look upon as the greatest of all the benefits derived from special efforts. A holy leaven is cast into the community, which makes the regular preacher of the gospel afterwards much more efficacious. I am sure this was the case at C—, and I have reason to believe it has been the case at other places also."
This is the testimony of reason and experience, and cannot be denied. Similar testimony is borne by all who have had the courage to institute such services, the fervor necessary for their efficiency, and the discretion requisite to conduct them with propriety.
VII. If we would have an increase of earnest piety, we must expect it, and look for it.There must be a frame of mind the opposite of despondency. We must not conclude that even in this age of worldliness, the thing is impossible. There is enough of truth in the promise, and of power in the Spirit of God, to accomplish this great achievement, and raise the church out of its comparatively low condition, into a much loftier elevation of piety and devotedness—if we have but faith to receive the blessing. This is what we need—a faith equal to the promise of God. If we could bring up our minds to the point of expectation, we would soon reach that of possession. We have not, because we ask not—and we ask not, because we expect not. Let us only intensely long, and earnestly pray, and diligently labor—and then we are warranted to expect.
When did God ever excite expectation of this kind, and not fulfill it? There is everything to warrant expectation. God is able to help us, and give us any measure of grace we need. Nothing is too hard for the Lord. This has been the hope and triumph of the church in every age. He can open the heavens and pour down salvation. He can make the wilderness like Eden, and the desert like the garden of the Lord. When we undertake anything for the revival of piety and the cause of the Redeemer, little as our encouragement may be from any other quarter—we cannot expect too much from God. We may take hope from the nature of the object we are pursuing. What is it we are looking for? Piety is God's own cause in our world. It is the only cause which is his in the fullest sense of the word. It is his highest and noblest production upon earth, that in which he has a deeper interest and on which his heart is more set than any other.
In our attempts to promote an increase of piety, we may encourage expectation from the fact that God has ever blessed the attempts of others. When and where did one ever fail? No, the whole history of the church does not furnish a single instance of united, vigorous, humble, and believing prayer, labor, and expectation, being disappointed. Our own experience, limited as it is, sustains our hope. Did we ever yet put forth our energies, in fervent supplication and rigid mortification, and not find a perceptible advance in spiritual piety? Did we ever yet spend an extraordinary season of humiliation and prayer, without a consciousness of a more intense reality in our piety?
O Christians, throw off your despondency then adopt the noble maxim of the immortal Carey—attempt great things, expect great things. Granting that there is much in the church that is delightful to contemplate—is the church everything it ought to be, and what it might be? Abandon the idea that it never can be better. Reject the suggestion that it is as holy, spiritual, and heavenly-minded as it can ever expect to be, in such an age and such a country as this—that it is so environed with influences hostile to the spirit of piety, that it is as high in devotion as it can be expected to be, or need be. Do you say this of yourselves? Do you make these excuses for yourselves? Are you all you can be expected to be, or need be? Are you satisfied with a lukewarm state of devotion, a low state of piety, under the tranquilizing, unworthy, unbelieving notion—that nothing better is to be expected, and that God looks for nothing better? If you are, your piety altogether is to be suspected. If not, then be not satisfied with the condition of the church. God has better things in store for us if we will but have them. Let us only be earnest in prayer, in faith, in labor, and in hope, and who can tell but the day of blessing is near? Already I seem to hear "the sound of abundance of rain." While bowing your knees, like the prophet, on the top of Carmel, some herald of mercy may tell you of "a little cloud that arises from the sea," which though now no bigger than a man's hand, may soon cover the heavens and pour down the refreshing shower!