The Great Awakening either strikes fear in the hearts of many American Presbyterians or is one of the fondest memories of Presbyterianism in the United States (though it wasn’t the USA yet). Those who contend the Great Awakening was the beginning of a series of many problems for Presbyterianism or the Reformed Faith in North America typically point out how men like the Tennents preached without a license, how they at times stole people’s assurance and how they pried people away from “Mother Kirk” foaming at the mouth with false revivalistic fervour. The other side views the Great Awakening as the defining moment, the greatest moment, where God’s Spirit was poured out on the Church in the New World and Gospel was preached with power, fervency, and clarity! I fall into the latter camp, and though I will admit not everything was perfect in the Great Awakening, good or bad, it was American Presbyterianism’s seminal moment. Though the Great Awakening is viewed with disdain by some, and loved by others, what can’t be denied is that the Great Awakening produced a great interest in Puritans and Reformed old writers.
A record of this love for the Puritans is recorded in Iain Murray’s book Revival and Revivalism, in which he records in a series of revivals that erupted mostly in Virginia and North Carolina in the period of the late 1780’s through the early 1790’s. In the last part of the chapter dealing with the rapid growth of Presbyterianism and success after independence, Murray speaks about how many ministers had developed a love for the old writers, among these he list “Alleine, Flavel, Owen, Baxter, Bates, and others”(pg. 107). Murray then goes on to explain that through the reading of these old writers, and by the Spirit of God, ministers preaching was thoroughly changed. It became an urgent desire to see sinners awakened out of their stupor and come to Christ.
In the modern era, we have many Puritan writers available in print and countless more available online though Google Books and Archive.org. Yet, the Spirit of God seems to be curiously absent in ministries. The writings are there, records of those who have seen God’s Spirit poured out all readily available for ministers and students to read. So why is there a lacking in urgency of the pulpit? Why are men quoting the Puritans, but failing to preach like them? Why is there not more concern for those in the Church who are unconverted?
I would like to offer observations as to why this is:
1. The modern Reformed movement is, in a sense, a cult of personality formed around the lowest common denominator. Today we have big names, who go around preaching and teaching. People love their sermons and their teaching but they seem to be selected for being well-spoken and doctrinally weak. We live in a day where absolute truth is in question, so why should those men who are dogmatic, confessional, and stern be the leaders of the Calvinistic revival in the Church when it is far easier to have men who strive to make worship a concert, refuse to conform strictly to a confession, and would rather comment on how nice it is the Church has collectively summarized Her beliefs while at the same time being too doctrinally weak-kneed to subscribe to one? This is something that our Puritan forefathers would undoubtedly struggle to comprehend. The Puritans not only wrote wonderful devotional writings and quotable but they had a theology that dealt with every area of life and they weren’t afraid of that. Whereas today, we have men who oftentimes aren’t even sure how God created the earth!
2. The other thing the Reformed movement seems to lack is prayer. The Church must pray together! At Princeton, before the Awakenings in the 1780-90’s, there was prayer for the Gospel to go forth, there was prayer for the unconverted. Christ says in Mathew 7: 7-11 Christ instructs all those that could hear that they should ask their Father who is in heaven for things, yet I fear seldom is “Lord thy Kingdom Come” truly prayed for. Men seldom pray for the success of mission works, of the Lord to enlarge His Kingdom, and for souls to be brought into the fold of Christ. The Church must look back on times past where prayer was answered and the Church was revived. For example the Revival in New York of 1857 that began simply with earnest prayer. Or we can go back to the prayers of the Princeton students Iain Murray details earlier in the book , where they prayed for the success of the Gospel in America.
3. The Church must quit thinking Spiritual Whoredom and conformity to the World is Worshipful. In Romans 10: 13-17 the Apostle explains that men are Converted by the preaching of the Word of God. The Preacher when he gets into the pulpit has a Duty to preach the Word of God and to call sinners to repentance. How can preaching be central when at many “Calvinistic” Churches you show and get a rock concert? God saves sinners by the “Foolishness of Preaching”(1 Cor 1:21) calls men to himself and yet for some reason the Church feels the need to use the music and methods of the world around to draw sinners to Christ, this is harlotry at it’s finest, this is man’s pride maximized. This is why the Church is so weak and feeble, instead of employing the tactics of the world around to draw sinners, what if we the Church just proclaimed the Gospel and worshiped God as Commanded?
This article wasn’t easy to write. I hope that people realize I did this charitably but it grieves me that the preachers of the past sought the face of the Lord and proclaimed the Gospel with Passion and today the Church can’t. My fear(even for myself) is that the Puritans are close at hand, but the Spirituality of them isn’t, and that we never see what those Presbyterians saw in the late 1780’s-1790’s in our day.
The men of the past saw Reformation and Revival because chiefly the Lord granted it, and their preaching was transformed. We in our day need this transformation in preaching, this urgency for the lost, yet I fear this only comes by God’s Grace sending it. We need men like Frelyinghuysen, Whitefield,