Thoughts on Religious Experience

Archibald Alexander, 1844

Effect of sympathy illustratedóCautions in relation to this subjectóA singular case in illustration.

The causes, already considered, which modify religious experience, relate to Christians as individualsóbut man is constitutionally a social being; and religion is a social thing; so that we cannot have a complete view of this subject without considering them as they stand connected with others, and especially as they are influenced by one another. There is a mysterious bond, called sympathy, by which not only human beings, but some species of animals are connected. It is much easier, on this subject, to state facts than to account for them. A man cannot go into any company without being sensible of some change in his feelings. Whatever passion agitates those around him, he involuntarily participates in the emotion; and the mere external expression of any feeling often produces the same expression in himself, whether it be yawning, smiling, crying, or coughing; and this must be effected by an assimilation of the mind of the beholder to the state of mind which produced the external act. The wilder and stronger the passions which agitate others, the more are we affected by them. This operation of mutual sympathetic excitement, when many people are brought together under some agitating influence, produces a stream of emotion which cannot easily be resisted; and far above what any one of the crowd would have felt if the same cause had operated on him alone. Hence the ungovernable fury of mobs, carrying desolation and often murder in their train; and yet the ringleaders, had they been alone, would have experienced no such violence of passion; and hence the danger, in large cities, of permitting multitudes of undisciplined people to assemble promiscuously. A mob is an artificial body, pervaded by one spirit; by the power of sympathy, for which the French have an appropriate phrase, esprit de corps.

If there be anything in animal magnetism, which has of late made so much noise, beside sheer imposture, it must be grafted on this principle; for the extent to which human beings may influence one another by contact or proximity, in certain excitable states of the nervous system, has never been accurately ascertained. In those remarkable bodily affections called 'the jerks', which appeared in religious meetings some years ago, the nervous irregularity was commonly produced by the sight of other people thus affected; and if, in some instances, without the sight, yet by having the imagination strongly impressed by hearing of such things. It is a fact, as undoubted as it is remarkable, that, as this bodily affection assumed a great variety of appearances in different places, nothing was more common than for a new species of the exercise, as it was called, to be imported from another part of the country by one or a few individuals. This contagion of nervous excitement is not unparalleled; for whole schools of young ladies have been seized with spasmodic or epileptic fits, in consequence of a single scholar being taken with the disease. There are many authentic facts ascertained in relation to this matter, which I hope some person will collect and give to the public, through the press.

It will not be thought strange, then, that sympathy should have a powerful influence in increasing and modifying the feelings which are experienced in religious meetings; nor is it desirable that it should be otherwise. This principle, no doubt, is liable to abuse, and when unduly excited may be attended with disagreeable and injurious effectsóbut without it how dull and uninteresting would social worship be. When a whole assembly, in listening to the same evangelical discourse, or praising God in the same divine song, or sitting together around the same sacramental table, are deeply affected, they form, as it were, one body, and the whole mass is melted down and amalgamated into one grand emotion. They seem to have but one heart and one soul; and as harmoniously as their voices mingle in the sacred song of praise to the Redeemer, do their feelings amalgamate in one ascending volume towards heaven.

The preacher who is privileged to address such an assembly seems to have before him one great body, having many eyes but one soul. Hence we see the reason why a company thinly scattered over a large house always appears cold and uncomfortable; while the same people brought near together, in a small house, have an entirely different appearance; and also we see why social meetings in private houses are felt by sincere Christians to be more profitable, often, than the more solemn assemblies of the church. And, upon the same principle, all worshipers feel more animated when surrounded by a multitude.

But it is in times of revival or general awakening that the power of this principle manifests itself most evidently; and it is no evidence of a spurious work that the sympathies of the people are much awakened, or that many are led to seriousness by seeing others affected. God often blesses this instinctive feeling in this very way. But is it not to be expected that, at such a time, many will be affected by mere sympathy? And will not such as are thus affected be in great danger of being deceived, by taking these tender emotions of sympathy to be the exercises of true repentance, especially as they fall in with those convictions of conscience which all who hear the gospel experience? Is it then judicious, by impassioned discourses addressed to the sympathies of our nature, to raise this class of feelings to a flame? or to devise measures by which the passions of the young and ignorant may be excited to excess? That measures may be put into operation which have a mighty influence on a whole assembly is readily admitted; but are excitements thus produced really useful? They may bring young people, who are diffident, to a decision, and as it were, constrain them to range themselves on the Lord's sideóbut the question which sticks with me isódoes this really benefit the people? In my judgment, not at allóbut the contrary. If they have the seed of grace, though it may come forth slowly, yet this principle will find its way to the light and air, and the very slowness of its coming forward may give it opportunity to strike its roots deep in the earth.

If I were to place myself on what is called an 'anxious seat', or should kneel down before a whole congregation to be prayed for, I know that I would be strangely agitatedóbut I do not believe that it would be of any permanent utility. But if it should produce some good effect, am I at liberty to resort to anything in the worship of God which I think would be useful? If such things are lawful and useful, why not add other circumstances and increase the effect? Why not require the penitent to appear in a white sheet, or to be clothed in sackcloth, with ashes on his head? and these, remember, are Scriptural signs of humiliation. And on these principles, who can reasonably object to holy water, to incense, and the use of pictures or images in the worship of God? All these things come into the church upon this same principle, of devising new measures to do good; and if the 'anxious seat' is so powerful a means of grace, it may soon come to be reckoned among the sacraments of the church. The language of experience is, that it is unsafe and unwise to bring people who are under religious impressions too much into public view. The seed of the Word, like the natural seed, does not vegetate well in the sun. Be not too impatient to force into maturity the plant of grace. Water it, cultivate itóbut handle it not with a rough hand.

The opinion entertained by some good people that all religion obtained in a revival is suspect, has no just foundation. At such times, when the Spirit of God is really poured out, the views and exercises of converts are commonly more clear and satisfactory than at other times, and the process of conversion more speedy. But doubtless there may be expected a considerable crop of spurious conversions, and these may make the greatest show; for the seed on the stony ground seems to have vegetated the quickest of any. And this is the reason that, after all revivals, there is a sad declension in the favorable appearances; because that which has no root must soon wither. In looking back after a revival season, I have thought, how would matters have been if none had come forwardóbut such as persevere and bring forth fruit? Perhaps things would have gone on so quietly that the good work would not have been called a revival.

But ministers cannot prevent the impressions which arise merely from sympathyóneither should they attempt it; but when they are about to gather the wheat into the garner, they should faithfully winnow the heap; not that they can discern the spirits of menóbut the Word of God is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. The church is no place of safety for the unconverted. Hundreds and thousands are shielded from beneficial convictions by their profession and situation in the church. Let ministers be "wise as serpents", as well as "harmless as doves". (Matt 10:16) "Be not many masters, knowing that we shall receive the greater condemnation." (James 3:1) "They watch for souls as those who must give account" (Heb 13:17)ósolemn account!

From what has been said about the power of sympathy, some may be ready to conclude that all experimental religion and all revivals may be accounted for on this principle, without the necessity of supposing any supernatural agency to exist; and if no effects were produced but those excitements which often mingle with religious exercises, this would be no irrational conclusion. But under the preaching of the gospel we find a permanent change of moral character taking place: so great a change that, even in the view of the world who observe it, the subject appears to be "a new man". An entire revolution has taken place in his principles of action as well as in his sentiments respecting divine things. Now those who would ascribe all experimental religion to mere natural feelings, artificially excited, must believe that there are no such transformations of character as have been mentioned, and that all who profess such a change are false pretenders. But this ground is manifestly untenable, for no facts are more certain than such reformations; and if there are men of truth and sincerity in the world, they are to be found among those who have undergone this moral transformation. Surely there are no phenomena now taking place in our world half so important and worthy of consideration, as the repentance of an habitual sinner; so that he utterly forsakes his wicked courses, and takes delight in the worship of God and obedience to His will.

Let it be remembered that these are effects observed only where the gospel is preached, and in some instances, numerous examples of such conversions from sin to holiness occur about the same time and in the same place. No series of miracles could give stronger evidence of the divine origin and power of the gospel than the actual and permanent reformation of wicked men; and the skeptic may be challenged to account for such effects on any natural principles.

But it may still be asked how the person who is the subject of these new views and exercises can know that they are the effects of a supernatural agency. It is readily admitted that we cannot be conscious of the agency of another spirit on ours, because our consciousness extends only to our thoughts, and often when new feelings arise in our minds we are unable to trace them to their proper cause. In this case, if we had no revelation from God, we might not be able with certainty to account for such effects; but in the Word of God we are distinctly and repeatedly informed that God by His Spirit will continue to operate on the minds of men, to turn them from iniquity, and to cause them to engage with delight in His service. And when we find these very effects taking place in connection with the means appointed to produce them, we can have no doubt about their divine origin; and our faith is confirmed in this doctrine of divine agency by observing the wonderful change produced by the preaching of the gospel upon the most depraved and degraded of the heathen.

The transformation of character, in thousands of instances now existing, is enough to produce conviction in any mind not rendered obdurate by the prejudices of infidelity. It may be objected that, in many instances, the change professed is not permanentóbut temporary, and they who appear saints today may be found wallowing in the mire of iniquity tomorrow. These are facts which we cannot gainsay; but we do deny that they go to invalidate the argument from the examples of a permanent and thorough change which do really take place. If there were only one real, sound conversion and reformation in a hundred of those who may be religiously impressed, still, the conclusion in favor of a divine influence would be valid. In the spring we behold the trees clothed and adorned with millions of blossoms which never produce mature fruit; but when in autumn we find here and there apples, large, sweet, and mellow, do we hesitate to believe that this is a good tree which produces good fruit?

For reasons already given, it ought not to be expected that all serious impressions should eventuate in a sound conversion. External appearances may be the same to our view, where the causes are entirely diverse. This is especially to be expected when a great many are affected at once, and meet in the same assembly. And if these transient appearances did not take place under the preaching of the gospel, our Savior's doctrine of the various effects of the Word would not be verified. Ministers of the gospel cannot be blamed for these temporary impressions, unless they use unauthorized means to work upon the sympathies of their hearers. That, through ignorance, vanity and enthusiastic ardor, many preachers in our day have attempted to produce such excitements, cannot be denied; and by the true friends of vital piety is greatly lamented. Perhaps nothing has so much prejudiced the minds of sensible men against experimental religion as the extravagance and violence of those 'staged excitements' which have been promoted in various places by measures artfully contrived to work upon the passions and imagination of weak and ignorant people. And as the preacher must have his reward of glory for his efforts, all this must be so brought out, that their number may be counted and published to the world. Alas! alas! poor human nature!

I believe that all respectable denominations among us are becoming more and more sensible, that something more is requisite in the ministry than fiery zeal. Some who, within our remembrance, disparaged a learned ministry are now using noble exertions to erect seminaries, and encourage their young preachers to seek to be learned. This is a matter of rejoicing, and bodes well for the American Church hereafter. I would be unwilling to bring before the public all the scenes that I have witnessed under the name of religious worship. But as the subject of sympathy is still under consideration, I will relieve the reader by a short narrative.

Being in a part of the country where I was known, by face, to scarcely anyone, and hearing that there was a great meeting in the neighborhood, and a good work in progress, I determined to attend. The sermon had commenced before I arrived, and the house was so crowded that I could not approach near to the pulpitóbut sat down in a kind of shed connected with the main building where I could see and hear the preacher. His sermon was really striking and impressive, and in language and method far above the common run of extempore discourses. The people were generally attentive, and so far as I could observe, many were tenderly affected, except that in the extreme part of the house where I sat, some old tobacco-planters kept up a continual conversation in a low tone about tobacco-plants, seasons, etc. When the preacher came to the application of his discourse he became exceedingly vehement and boisterous, and I could hear sounds in the center of the house which indicated strong emotion. At length a female voice was heard, in a piercing cry, which thrilled through me and affected the whole audience. It was succeeded by a low murmuring sound from the middle of the house; but, in a few seconds, one and another arose in different parts of the house, under extreme and visible agitation. Casting off bonnets and caps, and raising their folded hands, they shouted to the utmost extent of their voice; and in a few seconds more, the whole audience was agitated, as a forest when shaken by a mighty wind. The sympathetic wave, commencing in the center, extended to the extremities; and at length it reached our corner, and I felt the conscious effort of resistance as necessary as if I had been exposed to the violence of a storm. I saw few people through the whole house who escaped the prevailing influence; even careless boys seemed to be arrested and to join in the general outcry. But what astonished me most of all was that the old tobacco-planters whom I have mentioned and who, I am persuaded, had not heard one word of the sermon, were violently agitated. Every muscle of their brawny faces appeared to be in tremulous motion, and the big tears chased one another down their wrinkled cheeks.

Here I saw the power of sympathy. The feeling was real, and propagated from person to person by the mere sounds which were uttered; for many of the audience had not paid any attention to what was saidóbut nearly all partook of the agitation. The feelings expressed were different, as when the foundation of the second temple was laid; for while some uttered the cry of poignant anguish, others shouted in the accents of joy and triumph. The speaker's voice was soon silenced, and he sat down and gazed on the scene with a complacent smile.

When this tumult had lasted a few minutes, another preacher, as I suppose he was, who sat on the pulpit steps, with his handkerchief spread over his head, began to sing a soothing and yet lively tune, and was quickly joined by some strong female voices near him; and in less than two minutes the storm was hushed, and there was a great calm. It was like pouring oil on the troubled waters. I experienced the most sensible relief to my own feelings from the appropriate music; for I could not hear the words sung. But I could not have supposed that anything could so quickly allay such a storm; and all seemed to enjoy the tranquility which succeeded. The disheveled hair was put in order, and the bonnets, etc., gathered up, and the irregularities of the dress adjusted, and no one seemed conscious of any impropriety. Indeed, there is a peculiar luxury in such excitements, especially when tears are shed copiously, which was the case here.

I attended another meeting in another place where there had been a remarkable excitementóbut the tide was far on the ebb; and although we had vociferation and out-crying of a stunning kind, I did not hear one sound indicative of real feelingóand I do not think that one tear was shed during the meeting.