Revivals and the Terrors of God

An opponent of revivals has said, “I consider the state of these new converts in no other light than that of a state of terror.”

But they are really happy; and surely you will allow this feeling to be inconsistent with the idea we attach to that little English word.

“Their state is that of high excitement; a reaction must take place, when it is likely they will fall into the opposite extreme.”

Perhaps not.

“They are merely frightened into a religious life.”

This may be true, and yet it is possible they are converted; and that which was occasioned by “a fright” may last to the end of their life. But is it not very remarkable, that they all, every one of them, thank God they ever heard the doctrine and preaching which “frightened” them out of their sins “into a religious life”? Did not St. Paul declare, that, knowing the “terrors of the Lord,” he “persuaded men”? Should you, or any servant of God, be displeased, if thousands of these sinners who encompass us on every side, many of them very vile, were scared out of their sins, -” frightened” away from the service of the devil, into obedience to God? Does it matter how a sinner is brought to repentance, if it only be genuine? I freely admit, the sinner can only be justified in one way, — through faith in the merits of Christ’s death; but I will not allow he can be awakened to a concern for his soul in one way ONLY. Facts are against such a position. You may, it is true, be among those who discard FACTS, and wish to reason with them; but it is neither philosophical nor scriptural. “The man who writes, speaks or meditates,” says Lord Bacon, “without being well stocked with facts as landmarks to the understanding, is like a mariner who sails along a treacherous coast without a pilot, or one who adventures in the wide ocean without the rudder or compass.” Weigh well that beautiful passage in the epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians. Lest you should be indisposed to turn to it, I shall quote it for you: “Now, there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal.” 1 Cor. 12:4-7. This is a striking and singularly expressive piece of composition, and allows great latitude in the operations of the Godhead, in bringing about the salvation of man. I glory in this, that the Gospel of Christ, assisted by the influence of the Holy Spirit, is the revealed instrumentality from heaven for the conversion of sinners; but this does not exclude the Lord from awakening men to a concern for their souls, by his providences, and by his judgments. That they are regenerated by these, no spiritual man will assert; but they may learn righteousness (Isa. 26:9); they may be aroused, — “frightened,” if you please, -into an agonizing concern for their souls by them. And far more terrific may be their sensations, under these, than if a living preacher were thundering “hell and damnation” in their ears from the pulpit. It is not an easy matter to terrify a sinner sitting in a comfortable chapel, in good health, and with no certain prospect of dying soon; it is, indeed, utterly impossible, unless the Spirit of God, which can alone reach the conscience, take hold of the man; that the thing is done, indeed, and effectually. Now, if “a manifestation of the Spirit is given to EVERY MAN to profit withal;” and if there are DIFFERENCES of administrations, and DIVERSITIES of operations;” and “all these worketh that one and the self-same Spirit;” would it not be wrong to limit the beginnings of these divine manifestations or to deny that the Spirit of God may use the instrumentality of various providences and judgments, wielded as they may be by the omnipotence of God? May not such an administration of terror be subservient to a preparation for diversity of gifts; among which are “righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost”?

How can you be ignorant of the fact that the elements of terror are frequently used by the Almighty for the conversion of sinners; that these are often rendered all-powerful,

“To force the conscience to a stand,
And drive the wanderer back to God”?

I was present in the awful and important hour when a most powerful revival commenced, under the following circumstances and instrumentality: In the town of Burlington, State of Vermont, United States, we had a small Methodist society. It had been in existence several years; but, having no “house of worship,” and having to hold their meetings in school-houses, and in private dwellings, their influence with the community was very limited. A few brethren, assisted by several of the inhabitants of the place, resolved to build a house for God. After many painful struggles and sacrifices, the church was completed and dedicated. The pastor and his little flock, entering into conversation respecting their depressed state in such an important town, came to the conclusion, now that they had a church, that something should be done towards filling it with regular hearers, and also to increase the number of converted members. It was resolved, accordingly, to hold a “protracted meeting.” The prospects of a revival were very problematical to their feeble faith. The pastor secured the assistance of several ministers, among whom was the writer. Many said, “What can these feeble Methodists do?” We felt the force of the remark, and humbled ourselves before God. We had preaching every night, but could make no impression upon hardened sinners. One night, after a sermon from Romans 12:1, — “I beseech you, therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service,” — and just as the congregation was retiring, and before we knew of a single case of awakening, and I should think before fifty of the audience got out, a most tremendous storm of thunder, lightning, and rain, burst over the town. The windows of the church were unusually large, and they appeared all in a blaze, from the effect of the lightning. The mass of the people were arrested in a moment. It was at a season of the year when thunder is very seldom heard in that country. The storm raged in fury; and one of the preachers, a plain young man, began to exhort, and wielded with power that passage in the eleventh Psalm, — “Upon the wicked he shall rain snares, fire, and brimstone, and an horrible tempest; this shall be the portion of their cup.” Thus, while God thundered and lightened outside, his minister did the same within. It was a scene of terror and awful grandeur. Some began to tremble, and weep, and pray. At length there was a movement towards the ministers, where they were standing at the altar; not to take vengeance upon the fiery exhorter, but to cry for mercy from that God who was thundering through the heavens, and to seek an interest in the prayers of his people. Still the storm continued, with peals of loudest thunder, which were reached by successive bursts of the most impassioned appeals to the consciences of terrified sinners. Nothing was heard but, –

“See the storm of vengeance gathering
O’er the path you dare to tread;
Hear the awful thunder rolling,
Loud and louder, o’er your head!”

And all this attended by the deep and subdued groans of sinners, slain by the sword of the Spirit. This was help in time of need. Victory, from the Lord of hosts, was on our side from that hour; and the victories achieved by a preached Gospel, during the three or four weeks following, amazed the whole town.

“But,” you will be ready to inquire, “did not many of these go back to their former course of life, after their fright was over?” A few did so; but a large majority are still living in the enjoyment of that grace which “the terror of the storm” drove them to seek. A few did, indeed, “measure back their steps to earth again.” But if this argument be allowed to make against the results of this extraordinary providence, it may be wielded equally against the fruits of the “ordinary and sober services” of the ordinary ministry of the Gospel. How many are constrained to a serious course of life, by all that is mild, enlightening, and softening, in a “quiet and peaceful delivery” of the Gospel message, — are even converted to God, — and yet afterwards relapse into a wicked life!

Several of the subjects of the above revival have since passed into the eternal world. I visited some of them on their death-beds, and the scenes of holy triumph I witnessed there were sufficient to convince the most abandoned infidel of the truth of religion. That revival is yet remembered by the people of Burlington with great interest; and God has since honored them with a succession of revivals, into which that church has entered with increased confidence. Such have been the results of these divine visitations, that Methodism has arisen to such a point of importance in that town, as to enable its friends, a few months since, to entertain, during its session, the Troy Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal church.

I remember another revival, which occurred in the city of Montreal, Canada, in the winter of 1835; but its commencement showed a difference of administration by the same Spirit. I had not the privilege of being present during the hour in which was displayed this manifestation of the power of God over [the] mind. Those who witnessed it informed me that it was a scene of overpowering interest. During more than one week they had preaching every night. On the evening in question, the discourse was more than usually pointed and solemn. A death-like stillness pervaded the large assembly. At the close of the sermon, an unexpected influence came down upon the people. But, instead of two or three persons manifesting a desire for salvation, the entire congregation seemed to be moved at once, like a forest bending beneath a heavy gale. There was very little noise; no shouting or screaming; but many tears and sighs among the multitudes; and strong men bowing themselves, in penitential sorrow, before the Lord God of hosts, with earnest prayer; but evidently restraining the deep emotions which agitated their souls. When an invitation was given to penitents and they were exhorted to come forward for the prayers of God’s people, the aisles were speedily filled, all crowding toward the communion-rails; rich and poor were seen mingling together. I cannot enter into all the particulars; but it was supposed that within the short space of four weeks four hundred sinners were converted to God. That city, several times since, has been visited with revivals of religion. In the year 1827, there was a visitation of this kind, which resulted in the conversion of two hundred souls; and again, in 1841, two hundred found peace with God. I had the delightful privilege of being present during these three revivals. In all these outpourings of the Holy Spirit, that noble and blessed people, with their ministers, local preachers, and class leaders, entered into the work with an ardor that did them credit, while it showed how highly they estimated each previous revival.

In a certain part of America, surrounded with woods, a minister of Jesus was preaching the Gospel to a listening crowd. A stranger, on horseback, proceeding through the forest, hearing the sound of a human voice, paused; and then, through curiosity, approached sufficiently near to hear the truth delivered by the earnest preacher; but did not alight. What he heard, it seems, made no impression upon his mind at the time, and he continued his journey. As he rode along, he began to reflect upon the importance of the truth he had just been hearing. The Spirit of God accompanied his meditations in so forcible a manner to his conscience, that he fell from his horse, as one dead. How long he lay upon the ground he could not tell; but, upon coming to his senses, he perceived that a surprising change had taken place in his mind. Love, peace, and sweet communion with God, had taken possession of his heart; he was a new creature in Christ Jesus. Upon looking round for his horse, it was gone, and had carried off his portmanteau in which was all his money, etc. Returning upon his track, he found the animal entangled by the bridle in a brake, and all his property safe. He remounted, and proceeded on his way rejoicing. When he arrived at a certain town (a place, by the way, notorious for wickedness), he began to proclaim what great things God had done for his soul. The people were astounded, and considered the man insane, and were about to confine him. He told them, with heaven beaming in his countenance, that he had never been in the right exercise of his reason till a few hours before; but that now he was in his right mind, and any happy in God; and that they need not give themselves any uneasiness about him. He then related the circumstances of his conversion, and exhorted them to flee from the wrath to come. The power of God attended his exhortations, and many gave heed to the things spoken by the stranger; a revival began from that day, and a great number of people were the saved of the Lord.

The particulars connected with the above revival may serve as a further answer to the question: “Do all revivals begin in the same way?” Had I time, I could bring forward many other remarkable revivals, resulting in the conversion of hundreds of sinners, yet all differing in the “phenomena” of their beginnings. I cannot, however, conclude, without referring to your “particular views” upon such matters. If you are for calms by sea, I am for storms. That you have also “seen some lovely scenes by river’s brink or sunny dell, in waving woods and groves watered by crystal rills,” — and that you, and many others, have felt the power of God there, and rejoiced in the evidences of his goodness, amidst these scenes of tranquil loveliness, — I wish not to question; for I have felt the same, a thousand times, myself. Nor shall I dispute that you have had your “intellectual feasts,” and some rich foretastes of heaven, when listening to your favorite minister. You describe sea scenery very well; with all its “constant sympathies with yonder sky; crisped smiles, luxuriant heavings, and sweet whisperings!”

“Hail, splendid picture! molten print!
Medal of majesty divine!
Coinage of heaven’s illustrious mint,
Perpetual currency is thine.

“And why hath Jehovah, in forming the world,
With waters divided the land?
His rampart of rocks round a continent hailed,
And cradled the deep in his hand?”

But why did you not add that other verse? –

“What can thy angry strength restrain?
Deep, rolling, huge, circumfluous form
Swinging in gravitation’s chain,
Boiling and foaming in the storm!”

I doubt whether you have ever been out sight of land, to say nothing of witnessing the effects of a storm at sea on the minds of sinners, as much as I doubt your theory, that “such exhibitions of elemental wrath” are incapable of making those religious impressions that are lasting, and which “tend directly to the conversion of the soul.” I question whether you have, in the course of your life, been able; from close observation, to philosophize upon such a scene; as I doubt whether, until very lately, you have seen the “elements of terror,” within the grasp of any minister of God, wielded as they should be for the awakening and conversion of sinners. But I can testify, from actual observation, that conversions, by what you term “the artillery of terror,” whether elementary, or by the powerful voice of a living ministry, have been as real and as lasting as those which have occurred amidst the calm of nature, or when the soft, persuasive arguments of the Sabbath sermon have won sinners to Christ; while they illustrated, at the same time, that fine couplet of an elegant poet, –

“Fit words attend on weighty sense,
And mild persuasion flows in eloquence.”

You have had your poetic excursion; now allow me mine. I think it most prudent, however, to keep within the territories of “nimble prose.” When the might of the tempest is let loose upon the ocean, and its surface is boiling into foam; when its waters are being scooped to the deepest abyss, and the billows are heaped to the clouds, “confounding the deep, perplexing the sky;” when the reeling vessel is tossing to and fro, or hanging in straightening suspense upon the billowy precipice and again descending, like an arrow, into the yawning gulf when the sails are rent from the spars, and the waves have obtained a clear passage over the deck, and the masts are shivered from the laboring hull, as if shattered by a thunderbolt from heaven, — behold the terrified crew and passengers. “They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths; their souls are melted, because of trouble;” trouble in the conscience, as well as trouble from the raging elements. But the sense of discomfort from without may have become more endurable than that which is felt within. The fiercest uproar of the angry storm may not equal at this time the alarming accents of an awakened conscience. The inflictions of that vicegerent of God within may strip and wreck the soul with more unfailing certainty than the repeated onsets of the howling tempest, which have left the ship sail-less and mastless. The impending death of the body; its descent into the wide, insatiable, and unsearchable grave of the sea, and the close contact with the monsters of the deep, staring through the troubled foam at this fresh cargo of humanity, slowly descending to the profoundest floors of this dreary cemetery, — ocean’s shambles; where monsters indescribable, which never seek the upper waters, are fed with ample supplies of human beings, driven from the regions afar; — alas! all this may not be so horrible to the soul, at such an hour, as the appalling probability of dying in sin, and of a descent into the blackness of darkness; an exchange of a deluge of water for one of fire and pain; a downward progress into the pit that is bottomless; a dismal and immediate fellowship with the monsters of hell, the vilest beings that ever walked our planet, and a dreadful acquaintanceship with infuriated devils; a full knowledge of the torments of the damned, from personal experience; an identical conjunction with the “worm that never dies;” and a sensible immersion into the “fire that never shall be quenched.” In a word, the foaming billows, “running mountains high,” which encompass them on every side, menacing every moment their removal from the wave-washed deck, may present no aspect of terror, compared with the waves of damnation, described by the eye of faith.

Behold the horrors of the wreck! Imagine the climax of their woes, — the termination of the appalling catastrophe. The terrors of the storm increase. Deep calleth unto deep. The waves seem as if lifting themselves to the skies; and the skies, in their turn, as if let down into the abyss. The vessel staggers and plunges from wave to wave. A nail starts, a seam opens, the leak increases; when lo! a bleak and rocky coast is discovered to leeward, from the foaming brow of an impetuous billow. Hark! Hear the agonizing cry, “Lord, have mercy upon us! Save, Lord or we perish!”

Here, dear sir, is a scene of excitement far beyond anything you have witnessed in these revival meetings. But tell me if the Spirit of God may not be there; and whether this scene of terror and despair, by his almighty agency, may not work that repentance which is unto life “just as effectually as under the searching appeals of “the Sabbath argument”? May not a dread of hell, and sorrow for sin, and a desire of forgiveness, and supplications for mercy, and faith in the blood of the atonement, be just as genuine, though excited by these terrific circumstances, as at a time when the storm is hushed, and the glassy surface of the ocean is mirroring its heavenly counterpart, and the gallant vessel, under a sweet and gentle breeze, in full sail, is speeding her way to the port of her destination?

May not the promptings of conscience to “flee from the wrath to come,” the Spirit’s influences, and the intercessions of Christ, and their invitations of pardoning love, be just as available; through the mercy of God, during such a season of peril as I have described, as when nature, in her softest loveliness, is encompassing him who in the most quiet seclusion is earnestly seeking salvation.

Take another instance. Think of a time when the storm is abroad over the landscape, bleakened as it is by the reign of winter; when it advances to the fury of a hurricane, bearing on its wings the hail or the snow. The night has set in with the accumulating storm, and the family are housed from the careering elements. Sheltered as they are from the storm that is abroad, is it not natural that they should think of the abodes of poverty, the fireless hearth, and scanty covering; or that they should sigh for the sailor on the foaming deep; or pity the benighted traveler, whom, in imagination, they see exposed to the relentless fury of such fearful elements? Supposing the storm to augment, uprooting lofty trees, and shaking to its foundations the hitherto secure mansion, how easy it is to conceive a transfer of their concern for others to a consciousness of their own immediate danger; and a rapid turning of their anxieties for their personal danger, to the more awful peril of their unprepared souls! May not the uproar of contending elements awaken fears quite as exciting as those called forth by the alarming accents of an earnest preacher? Are you certain that a class of sensations, arising from a sudden view of the evil nature of sin, and the hell to which it has exposed them, — a desire besides for pardon from that God who is now wielding these tremendous elements, — may not be quite equal to all you think may be felt under the searching truth of God in the sanctuary? And are you prepared to deny that the Spirit of God, on such an occasion, may lead such persons to the repentance and faith which are essential to a change of heart; and all this “quite as evangelical,” too, as when a sinner repents and believes in a meeting where you might hear a pin fall, or alone, and surrounded by the charms of a summer’s landscape? Nor are you, I would presume, prepared to come forward with arguments and facts to show that conversions which occur under such alarming circumstances are not quite as permanent as those you contend for as occurring in a more quiet way. If not, away with all this “cant,” that these “frenzied sermons,” and appalling exposures of hell,” and “terrific appeals to the passions,” can accomplish “nothing more than a FRIGHT and an excitement, which terminate with the occasion, without resulting in regeneration, or any permanent good to the subjects of it!”

Is it not a fact, that, during the awful visitation of the cholera, great multitudes were “frightened” into a reformation which was lasting who, but for a fear of the consequences of that dreadful pestilence, would, it is most likely, have continued in their sins? I could name cities where congregations and churches received large accessions, and where proofs the most convincing were given that the cholera had produced an excitement which resulted in revivals of religion. The cholera was a revivalist, then! It preached some tremendous truths, which the Holy Ghost condescended to apply. But it was an administration of terror; there were appeals to the passions, as well as the judgment. Very many, in these times of alarm, both in English. and American towns, were known to have experienced all the softening influences of real repentance. Their strong expressions of penitential sorrow, fervent prayers for mercy, and language indicative of confident peace with God, showed how genuine was the work wrought in their hearts by the Holy Spirit. The happy deaths of a numerous circle of these persons since have confirmed the truth of these sentiments. I cannot, therefore, agree with you, that conversions arising “from circumstances of great alarm” are “transitory.” It is my opinion — and I have had a good opportunity of judging — that the largest proportion of persons brought to God, during a great revival such as is now going on in this town, hold on their way to heaven more firmly than those converted in the ordinary means. Persons who are converted in a revival usually, I think, set out with greater earnestness and decision than those “brought in” in a more quiet and less exciting way. “I have observed,” says Mr. Wesley, “that few who set out in good earnest go back; but of those who set out coldly, one out of five generally does.”

Allow me, in conclusion, to say, that when you give place to these doubtful inquiries, you seem to lose sight of the great designs of God, in placing within a minister’s reach those “elements of terror” revealed in the Bible; as, also, such elementary visitations and alarming judgments as those to which I have referred, and which he himself wields to alarm a world of wickedness. I need not turn your attention to all the declarations of wrath he has uttered against the sinner; but consider that great decision from the volume of inspiration, — “When thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.” Forget not that it is “the Holy Spirit of God that gives significancy to those “elements of terror,” whether it be the mighty tempest, or “the pestilence that walketh in darkness, or the destruction that wasteth at noonday,” or the appeals of “tribulation and anguish, indignation and wrath, upon every soul that doeth evil,” made by the alarming preacher to the sinners of his congregation. And shall the spirit of God work in vain? or shall he suffer tamely his wonderful work in the sinner’s heart to be neutralized and counteracted? He will not, indeed, touch free agency; but he is very far from being unconcerned as to the permanency of the important work begun in the souls of the newly-converted.


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