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COMMENTS ON THE FIRST GREAT AWAKENING #1
by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.
A sermon preached at the Baptist Tabernacle of Los Angeles
“Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart”
I have been reading The Life and Times of the Rev. John Wesley by Luke Tyerman (Tentmaker Publications, 2003 reprint, 3 volumes). Tonight I will read from volume I regarding the moral and religious condition just before the beginning of the First Great Awakening, and the conviction of sin that occurred under the preaching of Jonathan Edwards in New England.
The Weekly Miscellany for 1732 broadly asserts that the people were engulfed in voluptuousness [pleasure seeking] and business [money-making]; and that a zeal for godliness looked as odd [in] a man as would the [old-fashioned clothing] of his great grandfather. It states that freethinkers [unbelievers] were formed into clubs…and that atheism was scattered… throughout the kingdom… There was…luxury, display, dissipation [loose living], gambling, irreligion and wickedness …efforts were put forth to undermine [Christianity], and to make men infidels [unbelievers]. One class of writers laboured to [get rid of the] Christian church. Another [class of writers] so allegorized the meaning of the miracles of Christ, as to take away their reality…Reason was recommended as the full and sufficient guide in matters of religion, and the Scriptures were to be believed only as they agreed [with human reason]… (Tyerman, ibid., p. 217).
This was the age of Voltaire and Volney, an age of skepticism, deism, profanity, drunkenness, gambling, hatred of real Christianity, and immorality. But it was at this time, in these dark and sinful circumstances, that the First Great Awakening occurred. A world-wide revival of Reformation Christianity began. Its real beginning can be traced to the Moravian movement in Germany under the preaching of Zinzendorf (1700-1760) and Spangenberg (1704-1792). Tyerman said,
In America, the work [of revival] began in 1729, the very year that the Oxford Methodists [John Wesley, Charles Wesley, and George Whitefield] formed their first society. The Rev. Jonathan Edwards [preached] the grand old doctrine of “justification by faith alone.” In the town of Northampton, New England…there was scarcely a person at the beginning of the year 1735 who was not deeply convinced of sin, and earnestly seeking salvation; and from day to day, for months, there were undeniable instances of genuine conversion. Almost every house was a house of prayer, and…Christ was the theme of public conversation. The revival which [began] at Northampton spread throughout [New England]. All sorts of people – high and low, rich and poor, wise and unwise, moral and immoral – simultaneously became the subjects of the Spirit’s strivings, and were converted... Mr. Edwards published a narrative of [the revival’s] most striking incidents; and also his “Thoughts” as to “the way in which [the revival] ought to be acknowledged and promoted;” and from these two invaluable treatises we collect the following facts.
In many instances, conviction of sin and conversion were attended with intense physical excitement. Numbers [of people] fell prostrate [to] the ground, and cried aloud for mercy. The bodies of others were convulsed and benumbed [rendered unconscious]…The work was great and glorious… Men literally cried for mercy…sinners trembled; but not more than the philosophers of the present day would do, if they had equally vivid views of the torments of the damned [in Hell] to which sin exposes them. There were groanings and faintings…from one end of the land to the other, multitudes of…thoughtless sinners were unmistakenly converted, and were made new creatures in Christ Jesus…lewd songs, [drunkenness], profane speaking [cursing], and extravagance in dress, were generally abandoned. The talk of the people was about…God [and] Christ…The country was full of meetings [for prayer]…
Of course there were men who opposed and [spoke evil against] this blessed work of God’s Holy Spirit [and] did their utmost to discredit it…Ministers were blamed for their earnestness in voice and gesture…Others were censured for preaching the terrors of the law too frequently, and for frightening the people with [sermons on Hell]. Objections were raised against so much time being spent in religious meetings; though the objectors had been…silent when the [same people] had formerly spent…as much time, and even more, in [bars] and sinful pleasures. Some were disgusted at the new converts so passionately warning [and] inviting… others to be saved. Some found fault with so much singing… and others found fault with children being allowed to meet together to read and pray [just as the] priests and scribes, who were…displeased when the children saluted Christ by shouting, “Hosannah in the highest!” [and said] “He casteth out devils by Beelzebub, the prince of the devils” (Tyerman, ibid., pp. 218-220).
The First Great Awakening went on with Howell Harris (1714-1773) preaching in Wales; George Whitefield (1714-1770) preaching in America in great meetings of thousands, as well as in Scotland and England; and the work of John and Charles Wesley and men who followed (cf. Iain H. Murray, Wesley and Men Who Followed, The Banner of Truth Trust, 2003).
Now I want to make a few observations concerning what happened in the First Great Awakening.
1. First, are not the excitements we see in charismatic and Pentecostal meetings similar to these? Only superficially. Any thoughtful comparison of the Great Awakening with these modern meetings reveals that there is no real parallel. In the Great Awakening, they were not “slain in the Spirit” as they are today. They fell under extreme conviction of sin. Such conviction of sin as that described in Great Awakening services is, to my knowledge, almost completely absent in the modern Pentecostal meetings. I have been in several, in various places, and have not seen people trembling over their sins with “vivid views of the torments of the damned to which sin exposes them.” So the excitements today are not at all the same.
2. Second, the preaching in the charismatic meetings today is not at all the same, is it? Where do we hear preaching like that of Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”? Where do we hear sermons like Edwards’ “Men Naturally God’s Enemies,” “Wrath Upon the Wicked to the Uttermost,” “Future Punishment of the Wicked,” “True Grace Distinguished From the Experience of Devils,” “The Necessity of Self-Examination,” “Man’s Natural Blindness,” “Natural Men in a Dreadful Condition,” “Wicked Men Inconsistent With Themselves,” “Christ’s Agony,” and other sermons that Edwards – as well as Whitefield, the Wesleys and the others – preached during the First Great Awakening? Where is such preaching found in today’s meetings? And, as a result, where do we see what happened both in the Great Awakening and at Pentecost?
“Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart…”
3. Third, where do we hear such preaching in non-charismatic evangelical churches today? And is this not also a reason that we do not see what happened both in the Great Awakening and at Pentecost?
“Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart…”
Much emphasis today has been placed, at least in theory, on prayer for revival. While this is needed, it is not the only prerequisite. Where the preaching is wrong, we must not expect revival no matter how much we pray. I believe that the preaching in America and Europe is off-message. It needs to be Christ-centered preaching. It also needs to be preaching that reaches the heart, not just the intellect. The preacher must probe the consciences of his hearers, or they will not come under conviction of sin. Congregations need to be made, by the preaching, to “examine” themselves, “whether [they] be in the faith” (II Corinthians 13:5). A great deal must also be preached concerning man’s total depravity, his sinful nature with its inability to add anything to a man's salvation. The root of sin in man’s original rebellion against God, passed down from fallen Adam, must be stressed. People need to be brought face to face with the fact that they are “by nature the children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). They need to be confronted in the preaching with the awful fact that they are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1, 5), and that only the grace of God in Christ can ever set them free from the deadness of their hearts. The Disciples said, “Who then can be saved?” (Matthew 19:25). Jesus answered, “With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). People must be confronted in the preaching with the fact that only God can open their hearts to see their sin and their need for the Saviour. They must be confronted with the fact that they can add nothing to their salvation, but are wholly dependent on God to give them life in Christ. They must be told that their salvation depends on God, not on them, not on their own decisions or rededications. Their dependence on their own efforts must be stripped away by the preaching until they feel helplessly sinful, without any hope whatsoever, if God does not intervene and draw them to Christ, for Jesus said,
“No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him” (John 6:44).
Lost sinners must be told that God’s Spirit has to convict them of their sin or they will not be converted,
“And when he [God’s Spirit] is come, he will reprove [convict] of sin” (John 16:8).
Such preaching has always held a prominent place during real revivals, and always will. Without that kind of preaching we must never expect revival no matter how much we pray for it!
4. Fourth, since revivals are the work of the Spirit of God, they cannot be “worked up” by human means. The First Great Awakening makes that very clear. Therefore we reject Charles G. Finney’s definition of revival. He said,
A revival is not a miracle, nor dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means…a revival is the result of the right use of the appropriate means. The means… have a natural tendency to produce a revival (C. G. Finney, Revival Lectures, Fleming H. Revell Company, n.d., p. 5).
Finney's view has been generally held since the last third of the 19th century. But very few revivals have occurred since Finney’s thoughts prevailed. By studying the First Great Awakening, and other revivals before Finney, we find that his
theory is completely wrong. Revivals, like single conversions, are indeed miracles. They are totally dependent on God. If the Spirit of God does not send the miracle of conviction and conversion there will be no revival, no matter what man does.
Prayers are often made for the Holy Spirit to fill the preacher with power. This is not wrong, but it is only half right. The unconverted people must also be moved by God’s Spirit. Stephen was “full of the Holy Ghost,” according to Acts 7:55, but no revival occurred when he preached. They “cast him out of the city, and stoned him” (Acts 7:58) even though he was “full of the Holy Ghost” when he preached to them. This shows that no amount of the Spirit's power in the preacher will do any good whatever unless the Spirit also works on the people who hear the sermons. Therefore we should equally pray for God’s Spirit to come upon the congregation. Only when the Holy Spirit comes on the congregation will they be “pricked in their heart” (Acts 2:37). Thus, revival is utterly dependent on the work of the Spirit, both in the preaching and in the hearing of the people. Correct, even Spirit-filled, preaching will not convert lost sinners unless the Spirit of God works on the hearts of the lost. Finney was wrong. Revival conversions are a miracle of God – from start to finish. Nothing will make that clearer than a study of the First Great Awakening. What I have said here comes out of forty-five years of studying the subject of revival, and from seeing first-hand two very unusual outpourings of God’s Spirit in Baptist churches. I can say without hesitation that revivals are miracles. They cannot be brought about by human “means.”
5. Fifth, revivals are not the only way God adds converts to a church. Rev. Iain H. Murray, in his book, Pentecost Today? (The Banner of Truth Trust, 1998) points out that revivals are the extraordinary way God moves in a church, not the usual, day-by-day way conversions occur. Rev. Murray tells us wisely that we should not put all our hopes in revival, but that we should continue to preach and pray for conversions during the hard times, when few conversions occur. Most of the work of God has been carried on across the centuries by people when there was no special time of revival. Let that be the way we carry on God’s work!
“Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord…”
(I Corinthians 15:58)
whether God sends us a special time of revival or not! Keep at the work of evangelism! No matter how many, or how few, are converted, “be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord,” and God, in His own good time, may see fit some day to send us the revival for which we have prayed so long!
God bless you as you work to bring in souls to hear the Gospel of Christ’s dying love for sinful men! Some will hear. Some will be awakened. Some will be converted and prove their conversions by their works, by living the Christian life to the end of their days.
(END OF SERMON)
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Scripture Read Before the Sermon by Dr. Kreighton L. Chan: Acts 2:32-40.
Solo Sung Before the Sermon by Mr. Benjamin Kincaid Griffith:
“Eternity” (author unknown).