Saturday was a good mail day. The copies of volumes 2 and 3 of A History of Evangelicalism arrived (The Expansion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Wilberforce, More, Chalmers, and Finney, and The Dominance of Evangelicalism: The Age of Spurgeon and Moody). I was prepared to be let down by volume 2, because I enjoyed volume 1 so much, and volume 2 is not written by the same author (vol 1 is written by Mark Noll and vol 2 is writte by John Wolffe). However, I am really enjoying The Expansion of Evangelicalism. The purpose of this post, however, is not to review the book. It is to point to a thought that I had as I was reading the second chapter which describes revivals which occurred in Britain and the United States from 1790-1820.
Wolffe cites several primary sources that report the ways that folks experienced the revivals that they were a part of. As I was reading a few of these brief quotations, I began to feel as if I had read all of this before. Yet I knew I hadn’t, because Wolffe was writing about revival in a part of Britain (Scotland) that I have not studied much. (As Wolffe notes, the revivals in Scotland “owed nothing to Methodism which… remained a small movement with barely 1,000 members and did not expand at all during the 1790s” (53). Wolffe cites Alexander Stewart’s account of these revivals in Scotland:
“Seldom a week passed in which we did not see or hear of one, two, or three persons, brought under deep concern about their souls, accompanied with strong convictions of sin, and earnest enquiry after a Saviour” (54).
This process of becoming concerned about one’s spiritual state, then becoming convinced of one’s sin, seems to have led to “earnest enquiry after a Saviour.” Part of the reason this sounds familiar to me is because it does seem to be a common refrain for people who were describing the revivals of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This was the language that they spoke. John Wesley used similar language in the “General Rules” when he wrote, “There is only one condition previously required in those who desire admission into these societies, ‘a desire to flee from the wrath to come, to be saved from their sins.'”
It seems to me that part of the reason that there were periods of revival in Britain and North America during this period was because there was general agreement on the basics of the Christian message, at least among those who were involved in the revivals. Traveling preachers who could not agree on other things, were able to agree that it was essential to wake people up to the reality of their standing before God and to lead them to sorrow for their present state. All of this was so that these preachers could point people to the hope of salvation, to the one who is both able and willing to save.
In public settings, from field preaching, to camp meetings, and other venues, there seems to have been a broad consensus and a deep passion for the importance of convincing people of the basic truth of this message. Historians have pointed to other factors that contributed to the potency of the evangelical revivals, but this seems, at least, to be one key factor.
Today, there seems to be broad consensus that renewal, even revival, would be a wonderful thing for United Methodism to experience. A difficult question facing United Methodists, however, may be: Are we able to agree on what the basic message is that we should hope to share with those who have not heard the good news? Indeed, it seems that we even sometimes disagree about whether or not we should even try to share our faith.
For those who yearn for renewed vitality in our denomination, we may have something to learn from our spiritual forebearers. They seem to have had passionate and convicted answers to these questions: Why is salvation important? What do I need to be saved from? What do I need to be saved for? How can I be saved? It seems to me that an important initial step to our efforts to find renewal and reverse the recent pattern of decline in our denomination will be to decide what our message to a broken and hurting world is and to share it with excitement, passion, and conviction.