Since the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening in the first half of the 19th century, the historic Presbyterian understanding of revival has practically disappeared. Instead, a set of ideas that originated with professed enemies of the Reformed faith, such as John Wesley and Charles Grandison Finney, has been imported and reimported into Reformed and Presbyterian churches. Revivalism in practice overturns Biblical norms in worship, mission and church leadership in order to increase a sense of participation either emotionally, in mass rallies, or vocally, in small group meetings. The identification of revival with activism and participation leads in particular to the violation of Biblical norms of leadership, replacing decision-making by family heads and elders with strong personal authority figure "ministers" at the top and committees representing various social groups at the bottom. From its inception revivalism included women and others not qualified to serve as elders on these committees. Moreover, revivalism has always tended to create a cult of the personal authority of a minister elevated above other elders or entirely removed from their oversight.
The dynamics of authoritarian harangue, mass rally excitement and small group pressure combine in a pattern familiar to most students of modern social history. Finney himself understood that his revivalist methods were borrowed from modern social and psychological theory. Such organizational methods can indeed work in virtually any setting. In the political arena the process would be called mass mobilization. In Europe these organizational methods have had little religious expression but have been used widely by nationalistic, radical, and totalitarian mass movements to generate an enthusiastic sense of purpose and identity.
Like other modern social movements, revivalism combines individual isolation with group solidarity. The individual is removed from the ties and authority of church and family and placed in mass rallies and small groups with other individuals, often led by those who legitimately exercise authority in neither the family nor the church. If the individuals in these small groups, called "conventicles" by the Wesleyans and Pietists, have anything in common it is their membership in a social group. For example, Finney made great use of women's prayer groups which required every woman to take her turn in public prayer, again following the practice initiated by Wesley, but hitherto far removed from orthodox Christianity. This experience prepared them to violate Biblical norms by speaking in the revival meetings, which were perceived as worship. These women also went out in teams of two door-to-door to raise interest in the revivalist rally. Finney biographer Keith J. Hardman notes how disturbing and exhilarating such female independence from the family and church seemed in its day.
Revivalism is justified in these un-Scriptural innovations by its supposed results. Of course this view is wrong in principle, since it substitutes worldly success for fidelity to God's word and spiritual blessings in heaven. In the American setting revivalism has generated only a transitory sense of commitment but little lasting positive impact. There is considerable evidence that revivalism has not even had much effect on church membership, except possibly for change of affiliation from one denomination to another. In fact, regions of revivalist activity have tended to become burned out, cynical and even more secular than those without such revivals, in a short period of time. Revivalism also contributed to the rise of social reform movements inimical to Biblical norms. Whitney Cross's The Burned-over District is a standard source on this experience in upstate New York during the Second Great Awakening.
In Reformed denominations, the effect of the introduction of these strategies has not been revival but decline and loss of any distinctiveness. However, revivalism has only succeeded in influencing Presbyterians when they already have begun to abandon Biblical practices. The organizational forms which arose from revivalism's emphasis on group mobilization, for example, women's and youth organizations, have no warrant in Scripture. However, the enthusiasm of revivalist mass meetings and small groups are mistaken as a spiritual validation above that of the sword of the Spirit, God's word. Women's and youth groups, in particular, have only arisen to assume the ministry of the men of the church in their families and congregations when the men have already abdicated their Biblically mandated spiritual leadership, especially in family worship and instruction. Even a "conservative" leadership cannot long maintain Biblical norms of church authority when the men are not encouraged and equipped to be spiritual leaders in the home. Their wives will inevitably turn to other arenas for spiritual nurture, which will set in motion the forces that have always led to demands for women's ordination.
The most recent example of the introduction of a revivalist approach to the problems in Christian families touches on the issue of male leadership: Promise Keepers. The Promise Keepers movement that seeks to restore the commitment of Christian men to their wives and children takes these men away from their families to put them through a program of emotion charged, yet superficial, preaching, praise music, small group discussions, and group prayer, led by persons selected not by the church but para-church group staff. The men return to their families charged up, but soon need to go away to another Promise Keepers conference. Indeed, discussions on the Christian radio indicate that you must have gone to several of these rallies to show that you are a real Promise Keeper. So it is that this supposed effort to bring men back to their families has become yet one more event which takes them away, for several weekends a year for the most "committed." Yet this is exactly what you must do in the revivalist model which has risen to dominate the church since the days of Charles Grandison Finney.
Within the church this model means that a church is "revitalized" by getting as many members as possible "active" in committees, small groups, and social action para-church organizations. As an expression of church growth or outreach, this model means having an array of activities targeted to particular groups in society. Finney first worked for such an organization, the Ladies' Missionary Society of Western New York, and he inspired the founding of the Young Men's Christian Association. The roots of modern feminist models of independence from family and organizational leadership by women in the revivalism of Finney, and before him of Wesley, are well-known to scholars today. However, this model of revival is so pervasive that for many Christians unfamiliar with history, it is impossible to even imagine what the alternative would be. Some even might think that a criticism of this participatory, social group focused revivalism is a rejection of true revival and evangelistic outreach.
Indeed, it could be said that Finney merely repackaged the ideas of John Wesley for the formerly Reformed Congregational, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches of his day. However, why did Wesley not succeed a century before with Presbyterians? Why were his efforts contained within the new Methodist denomination? Part of the answer is that the Reformed people of Wesley's day had another practical model of revival which is little known today. This model was particularly successful although unheralded, among the denomination that most practiced it: the Presbyterians. That model was based on the promotion of the Biblical principle of spiritual leadership of the male head of the family through family worship.
The thinking of American Presbyterians of all currents was shaped by The Directory for Family Worship which was adopted by the Church of Scotland in 1647. Family worship was necessary according to The Directory, in order that "the power and practice of godliness, amongst all ministers and members of this kirk, according to their several places and vocations, may be cherished and advanced." This same language was used by the Synod of Philadelphia in acting on an overture "to use some proper means to revive the declining Power of Godliness." The "proper means" advocated by the Synod was defined as recommending "to all our ministers and members to take particular Care about visiting families, and press family and secret worship, according to the [W]estminster Directory [that is, The Directory for Family Worship]. The Presbyterian minister William Tennent, of Pennsylvania, appears to have been the source of this overture.
Tennent's son Gilbert, also a Presbyterian minister, was a leader in the middle colonies of the "First" Great Awakening. Gilbert Tennent also emphasized pastoral visitation and the promotion of family worship as the strategy for reviving the power of godliness. Indeed, Leonard Trinterud asserts that family worship was widely urged in the First Great Awakening. Sermons on family worship from that period by George Whitefield and Samuel Davies confirm that view. Whitefield stated "I believe that we must forever despair of seeing a primitive [referring to First Century Christianity] spirit of piety revived in the world until we are so happy as to see a revival of primitive family religion." He also upheld the Biblical emphasis on the spiritual leadership of the male head of the family: "every governor of a family... ought to look upon himself as a prophet, and therefore, agreeably to such a character, bound to instruct those under his charge in the knowledge of the Word of God." Jonathan Edwards' "Farewell Sermon" makes it clear that he viewed the practice of family government and instruction as vital to revival: "...family education and order are some of the chief means of grace. If these fail, all other means are likely to prove ineffectual. If these are duly maintained, all the means of grace will be likely to prosper and be successful."
These ideas continued to shape the Presbyterian view of revival in the 18th century. The 1743 New Light Synod officially adopted The Directory for Family Worship with some amendments. A pastoral letter from the Synod of New York and Philadelphia of 1775, on the eve of the American Revolution, decried the "neglect of family religion and government" as the principal cause of the sins of their time. Presbyterians from the Associate and Covenanter streams still tied to bodies in Scotland maintained their subscription to The Directory for Family Worship. When they formed the Associate Reformed Synod in 1799, an amended form of The Directory was adopted. The founding General Assembly (1788-89) of the Presbyterian Church in America included much of the 1647 Directory in its "Directory for Secret and Family Worship." All of these bodies retained the sections emphasizing the centrality of the spiritual leadership of the male head of the family.
As long as these Presbyterians upheld family worship as central to the need to revive the power of godliness they were immune to the form of revivalism promoted by John Wesley. When the Second Great Awakening impacted Presbyterians in the early decades of the 19th century they sought to retain both the practice of family worship and adapt the un-Biblical methods of the revivalists, including Sunday school and women's societies, to Reformed doctrine. By the 1840s several writers pointed to the disturbing decline of family worship throughout the church. Men were very willing to abdicate their Biblical responsibility for the spiritual nurture of their wives and children in favor of new methods seemingly proven to be effective by the revivalists. In reality, at that juncture the church exchanged the power of Godliness for a form of godliness with no power, because of its lack of grounding in the word of God.
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