Revivals in North America: Do We Need Revivals Today?
Written by Gerald Procee
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Reformed Worldviews - The Hand of God in History

 In the first two instalments we considered the great Revival of 1857 in New York City and the 1857 Hamilton, Ontario Revival. During the years leading up to the New York Revival spiritual life in the United States was at a deep low. The country was in a moral decay. Worldliness and spiritual indifference were rampant. Society was steadily breaking apart.

Factors Leading To Spiritual Decline

J. Edwin Orr lists five contributing factors leading to this spiritual and economic collapse of the country (Orr, The Fervent Prayer, p.1).

  1. Gain, gambling, and greed. The economy was booming and people were becoming rich. Speculation for gain increased. Some people amassed spectacular wealth. Prosperity for an elite few widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Covetousness increased. Love for money prevailed. Gambling practices increased. Connected to this was the rapid increase of violent crime.

  2. Prevalence of the occult. A nation hungry for the supernatural turned to spiritualism and occult practices. Trying to ‘contact the dead’ became popular.

  3. Immorality. A playboy philosophy of ‘free love’ was advocated and accepted by many.

  4. Commercial and political corruption. Bribes and illegal business practices flourished nationally. Federal law in America still legalized the cruel system of slavery.

  5. Atheism, agnosticism, apathy, and indifference to God, to the church and its message abounded on every hand. There was a pervasive decline in the social, moral, political and spiritual realms. This led to economic collapse and by October 1857 many factories had been shut down and a vast number of people were unemployed. Suicides were rampant. People no longer indulged in speculation or seeking economic gain, but were in despair. Hunger stared them in the face.

Spiritually Low Years

In the years leading up to 1857, New York City was in spiritual decay. Church life was at low ebb and the philosophy of rationalism was spreading quickly. This was also caused by the fast population growth. Due to immigration, at times the population growth rate was 1800 persons per day. The vast majority of those who came to the city were generally unsympathetic to America’s spiritual history. Unbelief and atheism were becoming widespread. The over-all spiritual condition appeared to be gloomy and seemed beyond the reach of any spiritually reviving work.

James W. Alexander, pastor of the Nineteenth Street Presbyterian Church in New York City, described the detrimental influence that mass immigration had upon spiritual life as follows:

The living cargoes, which are poured in on us day by day, from Ireland and the European continent...are increasingly making their influence felt on our manner, our morals, our religion... We are in the midst of a gradual and silent but tremendous revolutionary movement (Iain Murray, Revival and Revivalism, p.339).

Our Condition Today

When we look at our present society, we see striking similarities. We see financial speculation being widely promoted. People are stimulated in every way to love money. There has never been such great prosperity as we have now, yet ungratefulness and discontent prevail. People are urged, in various ways, to be greedy and become covetous. Gambling has become a national sin. The government is supporting casinos and consequently crime is rampant. In our major cities, drug wars lead to killing in broad daylight. The popularity of occult practices in our society is shocking. Many children’s books are permeated with the occult, preparing children to indulge in the real thing, such as making contact with evil spirits and engaging in witchcraft. It seems that the current indulgence in immorality is without precedent. Marital infidelity is for many the norm. Homosexuality is promoted everywhere. Extra-marital sexual practices are glorified, while divorce rates are reaching unprecedented highs. Lying and deceitful practices are commonplace. Commercial and political corruption is the order of the day, calling for public inquiries. Agnosticism and indifference to the church and the Gospel are widespread.

The Bible is no longer the norm in our society and, in correlation, society is on a downward spiral of decay, so that family values are deteriorating and there is a prevailing move to individualism. Rationalism, or worse, post-modernism, is the philosophy of the day. Christianity is considered to be outdated. In our time we see our population growing rapidly, especially because of the influx of immigrants coming from non-Christian countries and cultures. This has a great impact upon the present day Canadian culture and spiritual climate. These conditions are very similar to developments that took place in New York City and in North America in the early 1850s. Then too, mass immigration was changing the spiritual climate.

One Answer Only

There is only one answer to the rising tide of materialism and the spiritual and moral decay of our present age. That is a spiritual revival. The alternative will be spiritual collapse and probably also economic collapse, for where justice and truth fail, prosperity cannot flourish. Proverbs 14:34 reminds us that, “Righteousness exalteth a nation; but sin is a reproach to any people.” Our churches are not exempt from these developments. Many of our young people, as well as older members, are infected with worldly and ungodly attitudes. Materialism and love for money is also present among us. Immorality is also gaining ground among us, while watching and enjoying violence in movies is becoming accepted. The world is seeping into the church, also into our Free Reformed Churches. What we need in our day and age and in our churches is a spiritual revival.

Revival Begins With Self

We must remember that revival starts with ourselves. Who are we before God? What is our relationship to the Lord? It is necessary to personally examine our hearts. Psalm 139: 23,24 shows us the way: “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” It is a good thing to ask ourselves some questions, such as: What place does God’s Word have in my life? Do I read it carefully and prayerfully? Have I truly humbled myself before God and do I realize that even my best works are stained with sin? Do I confess sins by name? Do I love what God loves and do I hate what God hates? Do I lean for salvation upon the finished righteousness of Christ alone? Do I need the Lord Jesus Christ for the totality of my life, as priest, prophet and king?

The Necessity of Prayer

Personal prayer is essential. The influence of the ministry of Rev. James W. Alexander upon Jeremiah Lanphier, the man used of God to initiate the 1857 New York Revival, was great. Alexander believed in the power of prayer and wrote various tracts encouraging people to prayer. These tracts were distributed by Lanphier during the 1857 New York Revival.

Like his mentor, Lanphier saw the need for earnest prayer. One of the tracts he handed out was entitled: Pray for the Spirit. In it, Alexander wrote that as a church we need to get on our knees to pray for the Spirit.

The sub-headings of this tract are significant and show the necessity of the powerful work of God’s Spirit to convict and lead sinners to regeneration (cf. Iain Murray, Revival and Revivalism, p. 343):

1. There is such a thing as the pouring out of the Holy Spirit.

2. The influence of the Spirit of God is exceedingly powerful.

3. The Spirit whom we seek is the Author of regeneration and sanctification.

4. The Holy Spirit sends those gifts which are necessary for successful work.

God hears Prayer

Lanphier, having been instructed by Alexander, not only saw the necessity for prayer but he also believed that God hears prayer. That is why he started the noon-hour prayer meetings.

Do we really believe that God hears prayer? Are we specific in our prayers? How much time do we take for prayer? What do we pray for?

It is clear that we need revival, whether it is on a smaller or on a larger scale. God is able to give far above what we think or expect. He can even affect children. For example, during the 1857 Revival in New York, children were also affected. The following account is given from the year 1858 (Christian Equippers International, Spirit led Evangelism).

A schoolboy became so troubled about his soul in class that the schoolmaster sent him home. An older boy, a Christian, went with him, and before they had gone far, led him to Christ. Returning at once to school, this new convert testified to his teacher: “Oh, I am so happy! I have the Lord Jesus in my heart.” These simple words had such an astonishing effect that boy after boy rose silently and left the room. Going outside, the teacher found these boys in a row along the wall of the playground, all on their knees. Very soon, their silent prayers became bitter cries. A class of children that was inside heard it and it pierced their hearts. They fell on their knees and their cry for mercy was heard in turn by a girls’ class above them. In a few moments, the whole school was on their knees! Neighbours and passers-by came flocking in, and as they crossed the threshold, they all came under the same convicting power. Every room was filled with men, women, and children seeking God.

Let there be fervent prayer amongst us for God’s gracious and powerful deeds. Let us call upon His Name and personally seek to live close to the Lord, so that sin would be uncovered and lamented and the Lord implored for His grace in our own lives and in the lives of those around us. In that way we may expect His work of saving grace amongst us too. “Sanctify yourselves: for to morrow the LORD will do wonders among you” (Josh. 3:5). May it be so.

Dr. Gerald Procee is the pastor of the Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk in Middelharnis, NL. This article was printed in the FRC Messenger and is repubished here with permission.