Lectures on Revivals – A Review by D Campbell
Lectures on Revivals*, by W B Sprague, is published by the Banner of Truth Trust, and has been reset, updating its appearance from their 1958 edition; the book was first published in 1832. Besides the nine lectures, there is an appendix of nearly 200 pages containing 20 letters from noted divines from whom the author requested insights on the subject of revival. This edition includes very useful biographical introductions to these correspondents by Dr James D Garretson.
William B Sprague (1795-1876) was a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America for over 50 years. To have lived in an era when true revival was not only a common experience but was, in even greater measure, the heritage of previous generations, gives a more authoritative aspect to his own insights. In our spiritually-barren times, we have much to learn from Sprague’s Lectures. Today’s lack of acquaintance with the subject might discourage readers of this volume. However, we believe that the subjects covered and the manner of their treatment should lead to the very opposite effect. These lectures are designed to correct wrong views on the subject and to encourage diligence in promoting genuine revivals of religion. This is greatly needed in our times.
The nine lectures are each based on a text of Scripture which sums up the subject to be considered. They are as follows: the Nature of, Defence of, Obstacles to, Divine Agency in, and Means of Producing and Promoting Revivals; the Treatment Due to Awakened Sinners, and to Young Converts; the Evils to be Avoided; and the Results of Revivals. While some of these titles may seem to restrict the subject matter to those experiencing revival, they contain much wise and practical instruction in issues of pastoral theology which is relevant whenever sinners come under the power of the truth. What is relevant for awakening and establishing multitudes during revivals is equally relevant for one solitary sinner, and the lessons apply to both. Indeed this perspective on the revival of true religion, which ‘is substantially the same in all worlds’ (p. 5), gives the lectures their practical worth. When dealing with the subjects of awakening and establishing young converts, avoiding hindrances, and divine agency, Sprague applies plain Scripture principles which every pastor ought to adopt, whether living in times of revival or not.
The chapter on divine agency in revivals is particularly interesting as, together with a necessary emphasis on the need for absolute dependence on the Spirit of God, Sprague gives a prominent place to the working of providence in individual lives. Providence neither hinders human diligence nor excuses human negligence. Prayer and upright living are shown to be the primary duties of Christians in promoting revivals and the searching chapter on the obstacles to revivals should be read carefully by those who make the subject of revival their frequent plea at the throne of grace. Among other obstacles, Sprague identifies ‘ignorance of the nature of revivals’ and the ‘want of a proper sense of personal responsibility among professed Christians’. He rebukes those who treat divine agency in a fatalistic manner: ‘Much of what God does is done through his people; and if they remain with their arms folded, it were unreasonable to expect that God’s work should be revived” (p. 54). In one sense revival is to be viewed, says Sprague, as ‘the improved religious state of a congregation’, and ‘increased zeal is usually rendered instrumental in the conversion of sinners’ (p. 6).
The extensive treatment, in the lectures and more especially in the appendix, of evils which disturb and ultimately destroy revival is most instructive. Here Sprague condemns human interference in God’s work and particularly the adoption of evangelistic methods which are extra-biblical or even contrary to the plain teaching of Scripture. Revival was common in his lifetime, but so too was spurious religious excitement. This was promoted by various zealous, and often censorious, individuals and greatly damaged the reputation and progress of true revival. James Davenport is identified by more than one of Sprague’s correspondents as such a leader, and his imprudent methods are carefully analysed. Among the features associated with spurious revivals were the public speaking of new converts, camp meetings and the consequent alienation of many from the ordained ministry and the established public means of grace. In our day, when religion is increasingly privatised and public preaching generally rejected, these warnings are timely and instructive.
The letters which make up the appendix and nearly half the content of this volume are of varying degrees of interest. Those by well-known writers such as Archibald Alexander, and a particularly long contribution from Samuel Millar, make truly edifying reading. Both these ecclesiastical giants have points of warning extremely applicable to the modern day. Millar analyses carefully the expediency of the ‘anxious seat’ at ‘revival’ meetings, which at this point began to have widespread use, and rejects it. The almost-invariable danger that such devices will breed self-deception and false professions should sound a necessary alarm for today’s Church. These insights help greatly in reviewing revivals and revivalism from the nineteenth century onwards and we believe that the unscriptural methods warned against in this volume have been a plague to Evangelical Churches down to the present day. May we not conclude that, for this and similar reasons, the Holy Spirit is grieved away from today’s professing Church to a large extent?
We heartily recommend this volume to lovers of Zion and we are glad to find in it frequent expression of a firm hope of God’s works being revived among all nations. This prospect, as it encourages zeal and prayerfulness, lay behind the greatest missionary endeavours that the world has witnessed. Its loss in modern Evangelical circles has surely contributed to the decline of that zeal for souls which characterised Christianity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in both in America and the United Kingdom.
Lectures on Revivals*, by W B Sprague, is published by the Banner of Truth Trust, and has been reset, updating its appearance from their 1958 edition; the book was first published in 1832. Besides the nine lectures, there is an appendix of nearly 200 pages containing 20 letters from noted divines from whom the author […]
Reprinted with permission from The Free Presbyterian Magazine of December 2007.
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