Reinventing the Gospel, A Warning from History

Dan Miller   -  

Up until the 1800s, revival meetings in American churches aimed at rejuvenating spiritual fervor in light of the Gospel and encouraging personal transformation among attendees. The Gospel message, enflamed by the work of the Holy Spirit, was the driving force of religious affection and promoted unity among churchgoers. However, by the beginning of 1825, the revival meeting(s) were changing in a (often) sincere effort to realize more conversions. These ideas were broadly called “new measures” and would come to change the entire orientation of the revival meeting… along with evangelicalism in America.

In 1825, Charles Finney was the catalyst behind these “new measures” intent on producing conversions. As a lawyer by trade, Finney believed:

“A revival is not a miracle, or dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means.”

In Western New York, where these techniques were introduced — extended singing during the invitation, anxious seats in the front for those feeling the weight of conviction, inquiry rooms, the crying plea of the pastor to escape the flames of hell nipping at one’s heals, the public censure of individuals by name in sermons and prayers, the instant profession and recording of decisions, etc., the results were noticeable – more conversions, larger crowds, and increased giving. However, while proponents claimed a new “work of God” had arrived, there was growing skepticism that the new techniques were simply a form of manipulation, not the work of the Holy Spirit.

A Growing Concern

In May 1827, pastors of Congregational churches in Oneida, New York, published a letter entitled:  Pastoral Letter of the Ministers of Oneida Association to the Churches under their Care, on the Subject of Revivals of Religion. The letter was a gentle warning to avoid counterfeit methods in revival meetings:

“… making too much of any favorable appearance; not guarding against false conversions; ostentation and noise; the hasty acknowledgment of persons as converted; (the strength of the church does not consist in its numbers, but in its graces… We fear that the desire of counting numbers is too much indulged, even by good people).”

The emphasis on emotional responses based on felt needs, coupled with the “fire and brimstone” preaching – emphasizing the horrors of eternal hell, was becoming more and more pronounced. There was a growing concern that the gospel being presented was not producing changed lives but merely the outward form(s) of a temporary change in behavior. The desire to escape the horrors of hell and be assured of entering heaven after one’s death was the core thrust of the revivalist’s message.

Ultimately, the number of conversions recorded in many churches vastly overwhelmed the need to take the warning seriously.  The new measures would continue and expand.  For example, Jedidiah Burchard conducted revival gatherings in central and northern parts of Vermont in 1834-35. Burchard claimed to be God’s instrument in igniting a “great fire of religious fervor.” A reporter recorded the scene of Burchard’s revival meeting.

“After repeated prayers and appeals, through which he almost compelled crowds to occupy the anxious seats, he repeatedly inquired if they loved God. They remained silent. ‘Will you not express your love for God? Just say that you love or desire to love God.’ Some confessed, and their identities or numbers were noted down to be reported as converts. Merely affirming the question sufficed, yet many were not readily induced to admission without persistent urging and management. He persisted, ‘Do you not love God? Will you not admit that you love God?’ Then, taking out his watch, he exclaimed, ‘I grant you a quarter of an hour. If you are not brought to love God within fifteen minutes, there will be no hope for you—you will be lost, damned.’ A moment of silence followed with no response. ‘Ten minutes have passed; only five minutes left for salvation! If you do not love God in five minutes, you are lost forever!’ The terrified candidates confessed records were made, and a hundred converts were reported.”

Taking the Show on the Road
By the end of 1827, the controversy of the “new measures” style of revival seemed to have come to an end… in western New York, that is. By the end of 1827, the influence of Charles Finney had grown to capture the ear of the churches in Philadelphia (America’s second-largest city during this time). Charles Finney began holding revivals throughout the city of brotherly love. Soon, the same concerns that had dogged Finny in Western New York were nipping at his heels again.

Silence is Unity
To counter these concerns, in May of 1828, the pastors and leaders who supported the new measures designed and circulated a “Treaty of Mutual Silence.” The document held signatories in agreement to:

“Cease from all publications, correspondence, conversations, and conduct designed and calculated to keep those subjects before the public mind” and “to induce our friends on either side to do the same.”

At first glance, the document heralded a Christian virtue – the unity of the faith among the churches. To the uninformed minister and church-goers in Philadelphia, far away from the rumblings in Western New York, this compact was one more indication of the pious and passionate heart of a new wave of young evangelists led by Finney. Unfortunately, that was not the case.

Silence… a Form of Betrayal
Just before the circulation of the “Treaty of Mutual Silence,” Asahel Nettleton and William Weeks had made known that they were “collecting facts and making preparations to publish them” regarding the growing reliance on man-centered means that were void of Spirit-induced conviction. The impending report would also question the “refusal of certain young evangelists to examine the lasting fruit of those being converted under the new measures” and for church leaders to “avoid fanning the flames of counterfeit faith,” that seemed to be burning out of control in many churches under the guise of “revival.

The motive for circulating the petition was to keep Nettleton and Weeks from damaging Finney’s work.  It was not unusual for Finney to warn people who questioned his methods, to “not to quench the Spirit by questioning the Spirit” was a common cry of Finney. It seemed that Finney, along with his associates, would use this petition to hold pastors and church leaders hostage in a vow of silence.  In Philadelphia and surrounding areas, Pastors were urged to sign the petition that would bind them not to challenge the “new measures” of Finney nor those who were aligned with Finney.  The cry for unity expressed in silence was too great for many pastors to stand against. The desire to evaluate the areas in which “revival” had come through proved so small that by the time the report by Nettleton and Weeks would be published in 1848, both men were dead.

“New Measures” in Our Day?

While fiery sermons and extended alter-calls are absent in most churches today, the underlying mentality – the belief that the environment dictates acceptance and conversion, saturates the evangelical church in America.  The evangelism we often see today is epitomized in the “seeker church” philosophy.  The effort to create environments in which the felt needs of the “seeker” shape the message and occupy the attention of the church leadership. Tragically, the notion that man-made environments are a guarantee to produce Godward results confuses both the order of salvation and misunderstands the nature of saving faith.  The focus and emphasis for many churches today devolves God-centered, Christ-exalting evangelism into mere slogans such as “Live your Best Life Now” or  “Christianity will make your life better and make you better at life.”  Underneath this brand of church is the notion that Christianity can be made irresistible to people held captive in their sin by some technique, engaging church environment (“win the right to be heard”), or a message that aims at the felt needs of people. While the techniques in the seeker-church model look very different from those used in the 1800s, they are just as rotten because, at its core, the governing mentality is rooted in life enhancement.

The lack of discernment among some pastors and the lack of courage to stand against the “new measures” in evangelism during the 1800s changed the Evangelical Church in America forever.