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ON AMERICAN REVIVALS OF RELIGION.
[ Continued from page 90.) I now resume this subject, agreeable to the intimation given in a former number, to which I must entreat the reader to revert back and refresh his memory before he proceeds with the narrative.
From the time of the Revival described by Mr. Jonathan Edwards, there have been other similar periods of excitement in different parts of the United States, and of late years they have considerably increased; the consequence of which has been to draw no little attention in the countries on this side the Atlantic, as already mentioned. Three or four years ago a volume appeared among us from the pen of an American minister, then resident in the British metropolis, entitled, “ History and Character of American Revivals of Religion, by the Rev. Calvin Colton, of America, Addressed to British Christians," London, 1832—and, in the following year " Lectures on Revivals of Religion, by William Sprage, D.D., Pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church in Albany. With an Introductory Essay, by the Rev. George Redford, A.M., and the Rev. John Angell James," second edition. Both of these treatises have thrown considerable light upon the subject, and tended to make us much better acquainted with the character and complexion of these Revivals than we otherwise should have been. As many
may not have seen these publications, or have ready access to them, I shall extract from them such particulars as may be interesting, and accompany them with a few critical observations, beginning with Mr. Colton's book.
This Author evidently writes con amore—he firmly believes these recent Revivals to be the work of God; and though he candidly admits “that, in such a world as this, it is impossible but that the very elect will often be deceived, on subjects and facts of the greatest importance and of the most vital interest to the Church”-yet he thinks that, “when Christians in England are so well certified of the host of most venerable names, among the ministers of the United States, who as fully believe, that these Revivals are
the work of the Holy Spirit, as that the Bible itself is (!!) such a fact ought to weigh strongly against a few unfriendly Reports, from a few more doubtful names.”
This way of writing appears to me to be liable to great and manifold objections. It is an attempt to overawe us by the authority of great names; whereas, the appeal must be “to the Law and to the Testimony.” The blessed God has not left us destitute of sufficient criteria whereby to distinguish the operations of the Spirit of truth from those of the Spirit of error-and it is our duty to bring every thing to this test, and receive or reject as the evidence preponderates.
Having defined a Revival to be the multiplied power of Religion over a community of minds, when the Spirit of God awakens Christians to special faith and effort, and brings sinners to repentance,” Mr. Colton thus proceeds :
“ American revivals, I have thought, may properly be divided into two classes : one, when the instruments are not apparent ; the other, when the instruments are obvious.
“ The former class have sometimes come · like a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, overwhelming, almost instantaneously, the minds of a whole community with a deep, religious solemnity-filling the impenitent with alarm, and Christians with expectation. And yet the instruments of such a visitation would not be apparent. They have seemed to come directly from the presence of the Lord, unasked for, unexpected. What secret, unknown intercourse may have been had with God, on such an errand, by some of the most humble and secluded of his children, yet · full of faith and of the Holy Ghost ;' — what prayers of intercessors, long in Heaven, have been remembered and answered by these visitations ; — what covenant mercies, having respect to fathers, who for generations have been asleep in the grave, these may be descending upon their children ;-or how much of it may be owing to that sovereign kindness of God, which goes beyond his covenant – which disappoints expectation by bestowing more than has been asked, by opening the windows of Heaven, and pouring out a blessing larger than the measures prepared to receive it ; — which, or what parts, of all these considerations
may have moved the mind of God to such signal displays of his grace-or which, principally, it is impossible to say. This question will probably remain a secret, till the day of final revelation.
“ At other times, revivals of this same class —(the same, so far as the invisibility of instruments is concerned)-have come, 'like a still, small voice,' stealing softly and unseen over the minds of numerous individuals, apparently in insulated circumstances relating to each other, spreading deeper and wider, until some season of public religious assembly would furnish a natural occasion for the commingling of sympathy, and the unexpected development of a common and irrepressible feeling —so that all would feel that God was in the midst of them by the special power of his Spirit. And yet, neither in this would the particular instrumentality be obvious.
“ In this first class of revivals, the hand of God has always been more undeniable. For nobody expected, nobody prayed, nobody tried for such a work --- so far as appeared. And this, till a few years past, was the more ordinary character of revivals of religion in America : Churches and Christians waited for them, as men are wont to wait for showers of rain, without ever imagining that any duty was incumbent on them, as instruments. And it is only within a few years, that the promotion of revivals by human instrumentality has, to any considerable extent, been made a subject of study, and an object of systematic effort."
This is Mr. Colton's description of his first class of American Revivals; but these insulated conversions, he acknowledges are “sparse” among them, “notwithstanding the mighty apparatus of means with which Christianity is furnished, and in the bosom of which they occur.” He therefore goes on to notice a second class of Revivals, to which he devotes a chapter, entitled, “ The sympathetic economy of Revivals,” and to explain which he remarks that
“ The sympathies of our nature catch the hallowing fires of the Spirit, or rather, the Spirit seizes upon them, and runs from heart to heart by the common laws of social influence, and multiplies the subjects of his purifying grace, in proportion as the ties of a community are intimate, and dispose them to sympathy apparently so. Insulated conversions are comparatively sullen, and cold, and cheerless. The grand talisman of the social state lies dormant ; the holy fire is not felt by others, because they are not near enough to feel it. That God could produce a revival of religion, independent of this principle, is not for us to affirm, or deny. He can doubtless multiply cases of conversion without it, to an unlimited extent; but he is not accustomed to group such cases. The moment they are grouped, the social principle operates, and the isolated condition is merged in a community of feeling. And, according to the definition I have given of a revival, it implies the operation of this principle.
“ I call this,” says Mr. Colton, “an economy, because it is strictly and distinctively so — and it is an economy of a wonderful
character, and of wonderful power ; and what makes it wonderful in both these respects, is, that the Spirit of God employs the social principles of our nature as instruments in the mediate steps towards conversion-as the instruments of awakening attention and of conviction—so that when one mind is interested, another is interested — when one mind is deeply and powerfully exercised, another sympathises -- when one is converted, another follows in train-and a third-and so on to a multitude. Human sympathy evidently has to do with it. And this is what constitutes its peculiarity, and its deep and thrilling power. And it is equally evident, that there is something more than human sympathy—that human sympathy could never induce such results.
This attribute of our nature is a medium, in such case, but not an efficient cause—it is the medium of Divine influence. The Spirit of God, taking hold of it as an instrument, facilitates, and (if I may be allowed the expression) economises his own powers. He avails himself of channels already open, as the currents of his own influence. Instead of confining his powers to subjects in insulated conditions, as in the case of sinners standing alone, unconnected with society, he touches a pulse, which beats in many hearts, — he touches a heart, in which a thousand others are interested by mediate connexions.”
The following is Mr. Colton's account of a Revival of Religion.
“ It is not a forced religious attention. It is not simply a general attention to religion, occasioned by a concentration of a special and extraordinary amount of instrumental and social influence. It does not consist of the multiplication of insulated conversions - which I have known to be without the occurrence of a proper revival. But it is the prevalence of an unseen influence, which seems to charge the whole moral atmosphere of a community at once and thoroughly with a deep religious solemnity,—which arrests the common current of this world's cares, and gives a bias of the popular mind to eternal things — which circulates with the rapidity of lightning through the ordinary channels of human sympathy, - and collects around the altars of the sanctuary, and bows down before the cross of the Saviour, in one company, multitudes of the rich and poor, the old and young, the man of pleasure and the man of business, every grade and condition of society. In one week, often in a day or two, a whole community may be seen, equally to their own surprise as to that of all the world, transformed from a most worldly and reckless condition of the popular mind, to such deep and absorbing thoughts of eternal
It may be either more or less striking than this description, according to the energy and extent of the influence bestowed
- bestowed as we ought to allow from above. It is not the eloquence of man. It is God that speaketh — it is God that is heard - it is God that is felt. A George Whitfield might pass along, and draw the world around him, and make a deep impression; and sinners, here and there, might be converted through his instrumentality. But the moment he is gone, the religious atmosphere goes with him. Not so in a genuine revival of religion. It came not of man, and is dependant on no accident of this sort. Instruments, to be sure, may help or hinder it, may beautify or mar it, may render it as the garden of God, or disfigure it, and sow tares, and plant much evil fruit. These accidents may and do affect the work, but they do not annihilate its peculiar character."
Mr. Colton tells us, that “ among the most ardent and enterprising of Christians in the United States, revivals are the great theme and constant aim, and they are becoming more and more
It is a leading article of their creed, that the spirit of revivals is the efficient weapon and the great pioneer of Christian enterprise.
Again he assures us that “ The present probabilities of the future uninterrupted increase and triumphant march of American revivals from this time, amount to a moral certainty. They have outlived and triumphed over disaster,--they have secured, in a very great measure, the favourable regards of the public mind, and are constantly gaining ground in this particular. They number in the ranks of their cordial friends and advocates a multitude of men, who in all respects are of the highest public consideration. The recent and present revivals have generally been brought about by a system of organised instrumentalities ; and those instrumentalities are constantly and rapidly augmenting in number, and power, and influence. And as they have hitherto invariably been owned and blessed of God, this success, it is considered, may reasonably be taken as a basis of calculation for the future. There is, of the two, a greater certainty of the success of moral, than of physical instrumentalities, when properly organised and applied-if it be proper to make such a distinction. The former never fail,--the latter may, and sometimes do fail. For instance :a man may put seed-corn into the earth, and be disappointed of a crop for want of rain. But God has established a more intimate and more sure connexion between his blessing and the labours of Christian faith. The spiritual, or moral world is always susceptible of the influences by which it is visited.”
Mr. Colton himself has caught the infection and anticipates the most favourable results from the working of the