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Revivals in Religion
A Letter from Francis Wayland, D.D.
President of Brown University,
Providence, Rhode-Island.
Providence, March 7, 1832.

Reverend and Dear Sir,
      You have requested me to give you some account of the revivals with which I have been acquainted, and specially of those which have occurred in the denomination to which I belong. So large a portion of my life has been devoted to the business of instruction, and having been permitted to witness but one general revival in a literary institution, I regret to say, that I am far less able to comply with your request, than many others of my brethren. I have, however, frequently visited congregations and places during seasons of revival, and have been in habits of intimacy with many of my brethren who have enjoyed such seasons, and have been thus, in various instances, acquainted with the whole progress of the work. I merely mention these circumstances to shew you just how far the subsequent opinions are worthy of credit. Having done so, I will proceed, and offer such remarks as my limited observation and experience have suggested on the subject.

      I. I believe in the existence of revivals of religion, as much as I believe in any other fact, either physical or moral. By revivals of religion I mean special seasons in which the minds of men, within a certain district, or in a certain congregation, are more than usually susceptible of impression from the exhibition of moral truth. The effects of this special influence are manifest on ministers and hearers, both converted and unconverted. Ministers are more than usually desirous of the conversion of men. They possess, habitually, an unusual power of presenting the simple truths of the gospel directly to the consciences of their hearers, and feel a peculiar consciousness of their own weakness and insufficiency, and at the same time a perfect reliance upon the efficacy of the gospel, through the agency of the Spirit, to convert men. Every minister of the gospel has, I presume, enjoyed this feeling occasionally in his addresses to his fellow men, and every one has,

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I fear, felt that to possess it habitually is one of his most difficult attainments. Christians, during periods of revival, are characterized by an unusual spirit of penitence, of confession of sin, and of prayer, by a desire for more holiness, and specially by a tender concern for the salvation of souls. Unconverted persons are more desirous to hear the gospel, and particularly the plainest and simplest exhibitions of it; they readily listen to conversation on the subject, and seem to expect it. Truths which they have frequently heard with total unconcern they now hear with solemn and fixed attention; and in many cases, for days together, scarcely a sermon will be preached, or an exhortation offered, which is not made effectual to the conviction or conversion of one or more souls.

      Seasons of this sort commence in various ways. Sometimes a whole congregation is simultaneously impressed with the importance of religion. At other times a single striking conversion spreads its effect gradually over the whole. Sometimes the unconverted are awakened while the church yet slumbers. But more frequently Christians become convinced of their lukewarmness, and return to God by repentance, and through them the Holy Spirit is shed abroad upon the unconverted. That such seasons as these have been and still are witnessed, in almost every part of our country, can no more be doubted than the shining of the sun at noon-day.

      II. I next inquire what means have been most successfully used for the obtaining of this blessing.

      1. On the part of the church, putting away all known sin. The enforcement of strict discipline, the universal engagement in behalf of temperance, the renewal of covenant engagements with God, more universal separation from the world, have all been frequently followed by seasons of revival.

      2. Setting apart seasons of fasting, and prayer, and humiliation, both individually and collectively, has very commonly been attended with a blessing. Those seasons which have been followed by most powerful revivals, have been marked by unusual confession of sin, deep humility, earnest longing for the salvation of others, specially of parents for children, and of relatives for relatives. In innumerable cases, such prayers have been in a remarkable manner answered.

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      3.The more frequent and more faithful preaching of the gospel, has been generally followed by increase of religious attention in a congregation. Ordinarily, ministers in New-England have formerly preached twice on the sabbath day, and once on an evening of the week. Of late, however, the number of services has much increased. Most churches have three services on the sabbath, when they can be procured, and meetings for religious improvement frequently during the week. These meetings have been of various kinds. Sometimes the families in a neighborhood have been invited to spend an hour in religious services. At other times, particular classes of society have met separately for this purpose. For instance, parents, fathers, mothers, young men, young men in business, persons in middle age, have met and have been addressed in relation to their own particular case. Meetings for conference, or for exhortation and prayer, by lay brethren, have been very common, and have been very useful. Perhaps few means have, however, been attended with more invariably good effect, than the establishment of bible classes. These, I need not say, are associations for the purpose of studying the sacred scriptures, conducted by a minister, or some competent person. I perhaps should not err in saying that revivals have more commonly commenced in bible classes than any where else. Within a few years also, protracted meetings, or meetings for the purpose of continuing religious services for three or four days in succession, have been attended with good success. Such meetings have rarely been held without being followed by hopeful conversions. Like any other special means of religious improvement, however, they need to be carefully guarded to prevent their falling into abuse. I have no doubt that experience will suggest such rules concerning the best mode of conducting them, as will enable Christians to derive the benefit which they confer, without suffering the evil which in some cases, it has been said, they have produced. That they have, in most instances with which I have been personally acquainted, been attended with a decided preponderance of good effect, so far as their results have been at present developed, I have no reason to doubt.

     The doctrines which have been most successfully exhibited in the promotion of revivals of religion, I think have been those which are peculiar to the gospel of Christ. Of these I believe the

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following to be some of the most important. - The entire want of holiness in all men by nature; the justice of God in the everlasting condemnation of sinners; the exceeding sinfulness of sin; the total inability of man, by his own works, to reconcile himself to God; the sufficiency, freedom and fulness of the atonement; the duty of immediate repentance, and faith in Jesus Christ; the inexcusableness of delay; the exhibition of the refuges of lies under which sinners hide themselves; the sovereignty of God in the salvation of sinners; the clear exhibition of the truth that he is under no manner of obligation to save them; and the necessity of the agency of the Spirit of God to the conversion of any individual of the human race.

     III. The objects that should be aimed at in conducting a revival of religion, are few and simple. Some of them are, I think, the following:

     1. To cultivate the deepest piety in Christians. Hence they need to be exhorted frequently to self examination, secret prayer, self denial, and the cultivation of the special graces of the Spirit. At such times the temptation is strong to exhibit our religion before the world. When this becomes the case, it soon languishes, and the power of a revival passes away.

     2. To improve the season as faithfully as possible to the conversion of sinners. This will be accomplished, 1. By rendering all the preaching as plain, scriptural, faithful and affectionate as God shall enable us. 2. By extending the means and increasing the amount of religious instruction. I see no reason why judicious laymen, provided they are experienced Christians, should not, under the general direction of the pastor, hold neighborhood meetings in various parts of a congregation. In this manner multitudes in every place, and especially in large towns, would be brought within the hearing of the gospel, who never enter a place of worship. 3. By personal conversation, to as great an extent as possible, with those whose minds are at all impressed with the importance of religion, for the sake of removing difficulties, dispelling ignorance, and leading them to the Savior.

     3. I suppose we should aim so to conduct our efforts during a revival of religion, as to prolong it as much as possible; or what is still better, to render it the permanent religious state of a congregation.

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Several means will probably conduce to this. 1. We may so multiply religious meetings, as to weary men's minds and bodies by the continuous effort of attention. When this effect is produced, their capacity for feeling is exhausted. On the contrary, by keeping within the limit designated by the laws of the human constitution, men's attention may be directed to the subject for any period whatever. 2. By creating no collision between religious and other duties. If other duties are neglected for a season, the conviction of this neglect will soon form an excuse for a subsequent neglect of the duties of religion. 3. By avoiding the mere excitation of the passions, and striving simply to arouse and quicken the conscience. Duty is, in its nature, fixed, permanent, stable; passion noisy, variable and uncertain. It is from want of this distinction that the results of many revivals have so greatly disappointed the hopes of the church.

     IV. There are some things which experience has taught us the importance of guarding against, in revivals of religion. Such are the following:

     1. Reliance on means, instead of reliance upon the Spirit of God. Seeing particular, and sometimes unusual means attended by a blessing, both ministers and people are prone to indulge the feeling that the efficacy resides in the means. They see particular exhibitions of truth, protracted meetings, &c., followed by conversions, and they are too likely to feel as though there were some combination of means by which men may certainly be converted. Thus reliance on the Spirit of God is forgotten; a spirit of self-confidence succeeds to a spirit of prayer, and God leaves the work in the hands of men. I need not say that it immediately ceases.

     2. A tendency to exaggeration is specially to be avoided. Men who desire to convince others, are always liable to use stronger language than the cool consideration of the case will warrant. It is so here. I do not mean to assert that the truth is represented too strongly. This cannot be. But a stress is frequently laid upon trivial circumstances, for the sake of immediate effect; plain truths are often represented in so novel a light, or surrounded with so unusual imagery, that they have the effect upon a plain congregation, of false doctrine. We can never improve upon the sayings of Christ, nor present the doctrines of the gospel in a dress

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better adapted to the human mind than he has done. As an illustration of the nature of this tendency to exaggeration, I would remark that I have known ministers urge persons to wait, after the congregation was dismissed, for the purpose of being prayed for, in such terms as would have led us to believe that their salvation absolutely turned upon this very point. Now I will not say that a person's salvation may not turn upon such a point as this, but I ask, is this the general rule? Does the Bible authorise us to state it thus to a congregation?

      3. A tendency to spiritual pride needs frequently to be corrected. Young converts are often put forward too rapidly, and induced to address congregations. These exhortations are sometimes attended with good effects, and are, by the injudicious, applauded. Hence they are prone to vanity, self-exaltation and censoriousness. The same effect is produced in Christians who are trusting to the means of grace, instead of relying on the Spirit of God. These indications need to be repressed by faithfulness and independence on the part of the ministry. In opposition to all this, I know it may be said, that a revival is a season of harvest, and we must labor differently from our usual manner. I answer, granted. But I ask, are we to work harder in a season of harvest than in a season of seed time? Should we not always work for God with our whole might, and should we, or others, work, or can we work, beyond that might? Should a man work so, on the first day of his harvest, that he and all his fellow laborers would be disenabled from labor during the remainder of the season? And, secondly, Whether it be seed time or harvest, God expects us to labor according to the laws, to which he has subjected this and every other labor. What should we think of a farmer who went to work upon his wheat field, cutting down and trampling under foot the rich blessings of autumn, and alleging as his reason, that it was harvest time, and he must work hard, for it would soon be over? If it will soon be over, the reason is the stronger why we should lay out our labor to the greatest effect. And our labor will be laid out to the greatest effect, by conducting it according to the laws which God has enacted.

      These, my dear sir, are a few of the reflections which have occurred to me in attempting to comply with your request. I have

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been obliged to study brevity, and fear that, in many cases, I may not have made myself perfectly understood. I have been obliged to write in haste, and in imperfect health. Should any thing have been written which can be of the least use to any of my brethren, I shall have cause for thankfulness. That this may be the result, is the sincere desire of,
Dear sir,
Yours truly,

      To The Rev. Dr. Sprague, Albany.


[From W. B. Sprague, Lectures on Revivals of Religion, 1832, Appendix, Letter II. Document provided by Ron Crisp. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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