Effect of Revival Efforts on Lukewarm Church-Members

The impression has been deepening in my mind for several years, that it is possible for a man to become deeply concerned about his soul; and that, during the progress of his uneasiness, he may be led to give up many of his sins, and exhibit an external and visible reformation, and yet stop short of Regeneration.

The visitations of the Holy Spirit, and the rebukes of his conscience, may have constrained him to renounce the company of the wicked and profane, and to give a decided preference to the society of real Christians. Having united with some branch of the church of God, his career may be marked all along by a regular attendance upon all her ordinances. In searching the Scriptures, also, as well as in family prayer, in asking a blessing at his table, in private prayer, and in the entire government of his household, there may be all that is becoming the real Christian; and yet he may still remain an unpardoned and unconverted sinner, the whole of his visible performances being, in the estimation of God, like a body without the soul, because of the absence of that animating spirit, the love of God shed abroad in his heart, by the Holy Ghost given unto him. A conviction of the tremendous truths of eternity, and the priceless value of his own soul, may, indeed, have taken fast hold of his conscience; but the “one faith,” by which a penitent is freely forgiven all his sins, through the redemption that is in our Lord Jesus Christ, has never yet been once exercised by his pensive and restless mind. Justification by faith, all this time, has been to him a mystery unexplained. The man has been seeking rest in the “outward law,” but entirely ignorant of its “deep design.”

It has, indeed, condemned him; it has left its curse upon his conscience; but it has not been the “schoolmaster to bring him to Christ.” Throughout his entire efforts, the Spirit of God has never made a single visitation to his heart, as a witnessing Spirit that he is a child of God. He has, indeed, received “the spirit of bondage again to fear,” but not ” the spirit of adoption,” whereby he is enabled to cry, “Abba, Father;” “the Spirit itself” doth not “bear witness” with his spirit, that he is one of the children of God. Rom. 8:15, 16.

It would be a relief, if we could limit such characters to two or three in a church. Alas! I find them very numerous, in every denomination with which I become acquainted; and few things occur more frequently than the exclamation, with Nicodemus, “How can these things be?” when the doctrines of the new birth are pressed home upon the conscience.

But my observations have extended to another class of professors of religion, some of whom are members of various churches; and, dangerous as is the state of the former, the latter is still more so. I mean those who are living in the neglect of the duties of religion, and who, by the looseness of their lives, afford mournful evidence that they have not even been awakened to a serious concern for salvation.

Some, of both classes, I have found, who entertain no expectation of being saved through faith in the merits of Christ alone, but through the “good mercy of God;” others, I have observed, have some crude notions about faith, but mixed up with the neutralizing idea of the merit of works; while most have denied the possibility of any person knowing his sins forgiven, by the witness of the Spirit. And, to rivet them in their unbelief, there have not been wanting ministers of the Gospel, — and men called “evangelical,” too, — who have positively assured some of the above, who were brought to a concern about their souls, that there is no possibility of any person knowing in this world that God has accepted him; denying, most roundly, the witness of the Spirit, and affirming, vehemently, that the only evidence of being saved from guilt, which any individual can have, is that of his moral conduct, and those deductions which he is at liberty to draw therefrom.

I have no doubt, whatever, that multitudes join the various churches of this land, live and die in union with them, without having been born again; and what have they gained by it, but a deeper damnation? Such unhappy persons may be fitly compared to the beasts which entered Noah’s ark; neither their embarkation, nor the terrors of the deluge, — the mercy of the Lord displayed in their preservation while other brutes perished, a nor the voice of prayer and praise by Noah and his family, — wrought any radical change in those animals. They went in brutes, and they came out brutes; they entered the ark wild and unclean, and they departed wild and unclean. Be it so; they were only brutes, and the God that made them never designed they should be anything else. This is not the case with the sinners in Zion; they may be converted, and become saints of the most high God! But a vast number of both classes, already described, enter the church of God, and remain there unchanged in their nature; and leave it for another world with an unchanged nature, and with as great a distaste for God and godliness as characterized their carnal mind through life. We have seen some of them stretched upon the bed of their last sickness, — even those who have led a moral life; but now, unexpectedly called to die, they have realized the inefficiency of all their past performances to bring tranquillity to their conscience, or to sustain effectually the confidence of their departing spirit, or to inspire them with courage to meet the decisions of their Supreme Judge. And there have been cases, not a few, in which the various acts of rebellion against conscience have terrified the soul; “Life has been all retouched again,” and with a finger of fire! If such have not sunk into the sullenness of despair, it has been quite as distressing to the minister of God to see then gather up their energies to die with something like manly fortitude, in the entire absence of any religious comfort.

A few solitary cases, it is true, have come under my notice where, after a severe struggle, which has appeared to render the last sickness as the agonies of a “double death,” the persons have ventured at last upon the atoning blood of the Son of God and we have seen the languid eye brighten, with the expression, “My God is reconciled,” and thus, at the eleventh hour, they have “escaped with the skin of their teeth.” Job 19:20

Such death-bed scenes, however, have not been the only places where I have learned the dangerous state of many deceived souls. Facts the most startling have come before me, in the course of my ministry, of persons who had been living long in church fellowship, without any internal religion whatever; but who under the searching truth of God, applied by the Holy Spirit were brought into a state of deep concern, and, after seeking salvation with many tears, found it to the joy of their hearts.

I have conversed with vast numbers, who have declared that, though they had long sat “under the sound of the Gospel,” they had never been “born again,” — never had known their sins to be forgiven; that they had

“Rested in the outward law,
Nor knew its deep design.”

Such cases have not failed to awaken my attention particularly to this class of my hearers. God has impressed deeply upon my mind the necessity of dealing faithfully and plainly with professors of religion; and that, at the peril of my future account, such must not be overlooked in my appeals to the sinners of the world.

And thus have originated those discriminating and pointed appeals to the consciences of those who have been entrenched for years within the ramparts of my own and other denominations; and results of the most startling and impressive character have occurred. To their surprise and horror, many have discovered that they had not only never got out of the road that leads to hell, but positively they had been for years slumbering on the very brink of damnation!

When such persons were converted, they have generally returned to their own churches; but frequently they have met with such a cold reception both from the minister and members of their church, that they have felt it was at the peril of backsliding from God to remain there. They soon discovered, also that the kind of preaching which satisfied them very well in their carnal state had now but little in it that was congenial to the state of their new-born souls; and, with tears, they have returned, and requested to be admitted members of the Methodist church. Nor could her ministers deny that privilege to a member of another church, which they would desire might be extended to any of their own members, who should, from religious scruples, leave the Methodists, and offer themselves to another denomination.

As the door of Methodism is open for any of her communicants to leave her pale, so, in their opinion, that door should not be shut, but remain quite as wide open, to receive members of other churches, who believe in her doctrines, and who are willing to be governed by her discipline.

It has frequently happened, of late, that members of other churches, and persons who merely belong to certain congregations, have been brought into a state of alarm about their souls, by attending these services. There have been instances where they have gone to the minister, and made known the state of their mind; but, instead of pointing them to the Lamb of God, and explaining the way of faith, and rejoicing that, by any means, they had at last been brought to a sense of their danger, my manner of preaching has been held up to ridicule, and they have been warned not to hear me anymore! Again and again, before they have left that minister’s company, he has assured them it is all fanaticism for any man to say that an individual can know his sins forgiven in this life. Now, what must be the inference drawn in the minds of these anxious inquirers after salvation? What, but, “My minister himself has never been converted; surely all must be doubt and uncertainty in his own mind respecting the state of his soul, since he positively denies that any person can attain to certainty upon this subject; else, why should he declare that unattainable by me, if he himself has received it, seeing it is written, ‘God is no respecter of persons?'” It so happens, however, that when the Spirit of God is probing the heart of an awakened sinner, such unscriptural declarations generally fail to satisfy his conscience. Such persons, notwithstanding various prohibitions from the above quarter, return to the place where they have been wounded, in hopes of finding out the means of a cure for the “wounded spirit.” In a short time they learn the way of faith, and after resting simply and only upon the merits of the atonement, they are freely forgiven for Christ’s sake, and the Spirit of God is sent “into their hearts, crying, Abba, Father.” Gal. 4:6

And now, sir, after the great and scriptural change of conversion has taken place, with a full and conscious knowledge of their adoption into the family of God, what do you suppose are their views respecting their former minister? Is it likely they would feel very comfortable to return and sit under his ministry, where the same things would be repeated, no doubt, again and again? What sort of a reception would such a one receive, were he to call upon that minister, and relate what great things God had done for his soul? There have been cases, not a few, where a sense of duty has led such new converts to “go show themselves to the priest;” but a sense of duty, quite as strong, has compelled them to withdraw from his teaching.

If other denominations oppose these services, and hinder their people who are unconverted from attending where it is most likely they would be converted, then let vigorous exertions be made for their salvation in their own place of worship. But if they choose to neglect this important duty, and will still use their influence to prejudice their minds, or interpose their authority to prevent them from hearing the truth, which might possibly result in their conversion, to God they are accountable. And should these persons lose their souls, in consequence of such an interference, I have no hesitation in saying, that they will have to account, at the great and dreadful bar of God, for the part they had in their destruction.

I have been charged with “small preaching.” This is a new phrase to me, but I suppose it means my condescending to dwell upon those “minute points” of Christian experience usually taken up in a more florid and eloquent style. But have you never read that striking sentiment of Galen in medicina nihil exiguum? “In physic nothing is little.” “A little error there,” said another, “may occasion fearful mischiefs so a small mistake in souls’ concernments may occasion everlasting ruin.” An error respecting conversion is ruinous, — damnable, if the person die in it. “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” This is a decision of tremendous import. Now, the object to be attained by faithful preaching is to tear away the veil, so that the deluded conscience may be enabled to look the deception fully in the face. It is not, however, that kind of preaching which you call “eloquent,” that is adapted to accomplish this.

As to the charge that revival preaching “has a tendency, in nine cases out of ten, only to disquiet and torment sincere minds,” it requires better proof than that which often accompanies a mere assertion. That a person may be sincere in error, I freely admit; but I cannot allow this to be a state of safety. It may be nothing more than a treacherous calm before a disastrous storm. “The word hypocrisy,” says a writer, “is originally borrowed from the stage, and it signifies the acting of a part; and we have heard of a stage-player who acted a part so long that he believed himself to be the very person he acted. And so I take it to be no extraordinary thing for the religious hypocrite to be given up to the same delusion, — to believe his own lie; and having put on religion first for a formality, to believe at length that that formality is religion.” Is it, then, my dear sir, a matter of small importance to endeavor to undeceive such self-deceivers? If you refer to such characters in your charge, I must, indeed, plead guilty. The direct tendency of my “small preaching” is to disquiet such persons; and the sharp crack of small fire-arms may be attended with more serious consequences than the loud report of a cannon in the “far-away distance,” especially when nothing more is contemplated than the “eloquence” of the flash and the roar.

If you can point to “many who are sick” of my preaching, “and who have been thrown into unnecessary distress by it,” and some within your own “family circle,” I could conduct you to many who have been lately cured of their sickness by the instrumentality you affect to despise, and who would not now for all the world have avoided the knowledge of their sickness, which has been succeeded by a consciousness of a perfect cure. The medicine, therefore, that has made them sick, may, after all, have been best suited to the state of their diseased souls. “But it fares,” as one has somewhere said, “with faithful ministers, as with honest and able physicians, that are many times ill thought of by the sick man, and foolish friends, when they put him to pain and trouble. They charge him with cruelty, in delighting to torment the poor man unnecessarily, and, it may be, think of discharging him, and getting a physician that will deal more gently with him; whereas, indeed, he is the sick man’s best friend, and many times, if he should not pain him, he should kill him.”

Perhaps the best way to combat your “serious objections” is to place them at once in battle array.

“These revival operations have a direct tendency to unsettle the members of other churches, and to render them dissatisfied with their own pastors.” Perhaps so; and would not any good pasture-field, near to a neighboring flock, starving, through the negligence of the shepherd, upon a bare and barren heath, have this tendency? But would any man in his senses present as a reason why that good shepherd should be indifferent about a luxuriant pasturage for his own flock, lest otherwise he might possibly unsettle the arrangements of his neighbors? Rather should he not turn his attention to the slothful shepherd, and urge the necessity of bettering the condition of his flock, as the only means of making them contented with their own pasturage? It is a silly sheep that would again and again exchange a good pasture for a worse. I was reading, the other day, of a minister who once preached the Gospel successfully in a certain part of Yorkshire, England; but he was the cause of great vexation to the minister of a neighboring parish, who could not restrain his church from “running after” the faithful preacher. At length, he made the complaint to the minister himself, and received this reply: “Feed them better, and they will not stray.”

“I have heard,” you proceed, “that since your arrival in Ireland, many, in consequence of your movements, have withdrawn from their respective churches, and have joined the Methodists.” A few have done so; but the majority of those who have been converted to God, during the revivals to which you refer, were sent back to the churches to which they belonged, and in a safer and happier state of mind than when they first visited the Methodist chapels. “When Jesus Christ healed the afflicted, his constant advice was, ‘Go show thyself unto the priest.'” I reply, not always. “Why not send them back to their own ministers, if they have received good? Why not let those who have labored so long for their conversion, as they who must give an account, hear from their own lips what God has done for them? Why not send such converts back to their own churches, and let them declare to their fellow Christians what they have received?” I can assure you, dear sir, we have frequently attended to this very thing; indeed, it is our general rule. That there have been cases in which we have been compelled to take different course, I freely admit. The following sentiment, of a particular friend of mine, I consider a good apology: “It will be conceded that circumstances must, in every case, determine as to the propriety of this. In some instances, it would be compelling the defenseless lamb to approach a roaring lion; while in others, it would resemble the sending of a new-born infant to a mere unparental anatomist, whose only solicitude would be for the gust of its dissection.” 1 Kings 3:26, 27; Deut. 27:18; 1 Thes. 2:7, 8.

“During your proceedings, congregations have been deserted by a large number of regular hearers, and I learn they have never returned.” Beware, lest you color too highly. Where there has been anything of the kind, the ministers connected with such congregations have had none to blame but themselves. They may thank their own conduct, and their injudicious railing against the revival, for such humiliating results. People will in such cases, judge for themselves; and when they hear men reviling what they consider a real work of God, and giving credit to reports which they know to be utterly false, it is not likely they will sit patiently to hear it; especially, when it is known that their minister has not been at one of those meetings, in order to hear and judge for himself.

“I have, myself, heard several of these religious emigrants declare they had no religion previous to their going among the Methodists.” And how do you know they did not speak the truth? If truth, it is not wrong in them to acknowledge the fact. If so, had they no cause for thanksgiving to God? “And that they felt it to be their duty to remain among the people, who had been the means of what they term their ‘conversion.'” But, are you sure they were wrong, I will not say in the expression, but in their determination to remain where they had received so much good? “Not a few of them have imprudently insinuated, in the hearing of some of my friends, that their former pastor had never been converted.” Perhaps this was wrong, — at least, injudicious; but, are you quite sure it was not, in some instances, a mournful truth? “I am sorry, indeed, to admit that some of our clergymen do acknowledge that they are not aware of any other regeneration, in their own experience, than what they are confident did take place when they were baptized in infancy. But what of that? Even a blind man may hold a candle to enlighten others, though he himself may walk in the dark.” Yes! but let him have a light, and not a candlestick without one, or a dark lantern; else he and those he would guide may, eventually, “fall into the ditch” (that is, into hell) together. Matt. 15:14. “The Sun of Righteousness may shine, through the meanest window, upon the heart of a hearer, equally well as through one of the cleanest and purest material.” Ay! but let him be a real window, not an imitation; not the mere semblance of a converted minister of Jesus Christ; not mere brick-work and plaster, and paint (to carry out your figure), to avoid, the tax, and yet keep up appearances. From such ministerial windows, good Lord deliver us, and all our friends! Allow me to say, that just such a window is every unconverted minister. If the Sun of Righteousness should shine through such a man, upon the hearts of his hearers, it would be a greater miracle than were the natural sun to send his beams through those tax-avoiding imitations which amuse one in every street.

You say further, “A leaden pipe may convey the ‘water of life’ to the souls of the people, quite as well as a golden one.” Yes, but let it be a pipe, and not a mere mass of lead. If a pipe, let it be connected with the fountain; else it may as well be no pipe at all! Do you understand me? A sheet of lead may be converted into a pipe, and so may a minister; but let him be converted. “A man may see himself in a plain glass as well as in one with a gilt frame.” Just so, and I have seen my likeness quite as well in one that had no frame at all. But let it be glass, and let it be a clean and pure mirror; else it will show no likeness at all, or; at most, a false and incorrect one. The soul of a regenerated and sanctified minister of the Lord Jesus is like his sermons, — a transparent mirror of eternal truth. I dare not enlarge upon your figure, lest my letter would extend beyond your patience, and the time I have at my command.

I remember reading the following sentiment, which I very much admired at the time, and which, I think, applies to what you consider an imperfect ministry: “A pearl may be showed forth by a weak hand, as well as by the arm of a giant.” True, but that hand should be governed by a discerning and well-informed judgment; else it might display these gems in a very improper light, or present worthless pebbles, instead of pearls.

Beware, my dear sir, how you encourage men of whose conversion you stand in doubt. “It is a doleful thing,” said an old divine, “to fall into hell from under the pulpit; but, ah! how dreadful to drop thither out of it! ” It is awfully possible for ministers to coast the land of promise like the unbelieving spies; and, like them, have no inheritance therein throughout eternity! He who has taken upon himself the office of preaching the Gospel, through sordid and impure motives, has not the chance for salvation which other men enjoy. He may be, at one and the same time, an incumbent and a cumberer. A “speculator” in preaching he may be, and starve the church of God; but throw off the letter “s” — as a quaint man said — and you have his true character, — a “peculator” [an embezzler]. He may be capable, by his learning and talents, of stringing together a number of clever predictions; but, in the “judgment of God,” the man may have no other design than the accomplishment of his own favorite predations upon the church of Jesus Christ. It is at the imminent peril of his soul’s damnation, that an unconverted man casts a covetous eye towards the gown and surplice of a dying minister, who has been faithful to his God; or, that he clothes himself therein, either for ease, honor, or to earn with worldly credit a piece of bread. You have read how Aeneas, though he had purposed to spare the life of Turnus, yet, when he espied the girdle of Pallas about him, changed his mind, and turned the point of his sword to his heart.

It would, therefore, appear, from your own letter, that some churches in the nineteenth century are yet cursed with what was complained of so earnestly in the seventeenth century: “They by whom the streams of heavenly doctrine flow to us are of such superabundant charity, that they desire to empty themselves before they are half full; nay, many, before they have any drop of saving knowledge and divine learning, are most ready to deliver that which they never received, and teach what they never learned.” Have you never read of that Bithynean, whom Lactantius seized for taking upon him to cure dim and dark eyes, when he himself was stark blind?