December 11: Presbyterians & Revival

Our post today is from a publication celebrating the centennial anniversary of the First Presbyterian Church in Dayton, Ohio on December 11, 1899. On that occasion, one of the addresses was brought by the Rev. J. Ross Stevenson. Alert readers will recognize that name as the man who followed Francis L. Patton as president of Princeton Theological Seminary and who, since he was at the helm there from 1914-1936, can be seen as presiding over the early days of the Seminary’s theological decline. Yet I find no problem with what Rev. Stevenson has to say in this address below. His actions and beliefs in later years will have to be a study for another time.

by The Rev. Prof. J. Ross Stevenson, D.D.


Wilt thou not revive us again, that thy people may rejoice in thee?” (Psalm 85:6).

This prayer of the psalmist has repeatedly been the supplication of God’s people down through the ages, and is to-day ascending up on high from many an earnest heart. It looks backward and forward, and, in the light of past experience, contemplates a quickening of the Lord’s followers as something greatly to be desired. The history of any church, the history of the whole kingdom of redemption, bears witness to the place and power of revivals of religion as the means appointed of God to gather his people out from the world, build them up in grace, and equip them for his service. Whatever prejudice there may be against such spiritual awakenings, no matter what evils may be discerned at times in connection with seasons of special religious interest, however much it may be contended that the growth of the church should be steady and constant, without dependence upon extraordinary times of refreshing, the fact remains, which cannot be questioned, that revivals have marked God’s dealings with his people down through all their history.

Just as there have been times of spiritual declension, when the life of the church has fallen to the lowest ebb, when her pulse-beat could scarcely be felt, and she has lain prostrate, helpless, inactive, so there have been seasons of special interest and growth, when the quickening life of God has pulsated through the heart of the church, and she has been stirred to vitalized activity; when the tone and standard of piety have been elevated among the followers of Christ, and the true light of the Shekinah has hovered around them, and inquiring souls have flown as a cloud, and have taken refuge in the wounds of Christ. In the time of the apostles we read of churches which left their first love, which became lukewarm in the service of the Master, churches in which there were only a few who had not defiled their garments so that the God of Israel might well say of them, as of his ancient church, “My people are bent to backsliding from me”; while, on the other hand, we behold the more pleasing picture of Pentecost with its extensive effusion of the Holy Spirit, or of that work in Ephesus, when mightily grew the word and prevailed so that all they that dwelt in Asia heard the word of the Lord.

However much we may deplore the fact, the career of the church has not been a regular and constant advance. Her course in the world has been compared to a ship at sea, becalmed at times, then tossed about on boisterous waves, driven back it may be by unfriendly gales, and then borne forward by favorable tides and propitious winds, so that in the main there has been a marked progress. Not only have the periods of largest growth and greatest efficiency been revival seasons, as we call them, but as another has truthfully said, “The history of redemption has been a continuous record of spiritual declensions, succeeded and overcome by great and wonderful spiritual revivals.”

In such awakenings, Presbyterianism has taken a leading part. Some may challenge this assertion under the impression that the Calvinistic preacher is coldly intellectual and afraid of emotional outplay; that to his mind a sigh, a tear, a contrition has not half the value of the conviction that God hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass. He is supposed to be rendering a literal obedience to the advice of the archbishop in Robert Elsmere, who in the light of all his experience had only this counsel to give to a bishop, “Place before your eyes two precepts and only two : One is, Preach the gospel; and the other is, Put down enthusiasm.” It must be admitted that in connection with many of the great historic revivals there has been a contagious spasmodic excitement, not grounded in intelligent conviction, which Presbyterians have deplored, and to which they are much opposed to-day. Such excitement often attended the preaching of such Puritan divines as Jonathan Edwards, the Tennents, George ‘ Whitefield, to say nothing of the pioneer Presbyterian ministers of the West. But I am sure all of us are agreed that there is a proper enthusiasm which the faithful preaching of the gospel is sure to arouse. It did so in the time of the apostles when conscience-stricken hearers were constrained to cry out, What shall we do? And that enthusiasm which is generated and maintained by the truth of God, is congenial to Presbyterianism and our Church has ever sought to foster it.

This is just what might be expected, when you consider that for which the Presbyterian Church stands. We do not seek to exalt a system of doctrine, or a form of government, or a directory of worship as an end in itself. We recognize the Lord Jesus Christ as the only head of the church, and in our standards we seek to define the oracles, the ordinances and the ministry which he hath given for the gathering and perfecting of the saints in this life to the end of the world. In our beliefs, in our fundamental principles and aims, we endeavor to exalt the religion of Jesus Christ, going back to the Scriptures as our rule of faith and obedience, placing great emphasis on the evangelical principle of the Reformers, that the Spirit of God maketh the reading and the preaching of his holy Word an effectual means of enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners, driving them out of themselves unto Christ, conforming them to his image and building them up in grace.

True Presbyterianism stands for the gospel of Jesus Christ, and proclaims with no uncertain sound those very truths of sin and grace which God has revealed and which he always blesses in large spiritual awakenings. We would not contend that our Church has always been true to her trust and her mission, nor that the ministers of our denomination have always with the power of the Spirit faithfully declared the whole counsel of God to sinful men; nor would we depreciate in the least the great and noble work for God which our sister churches have accomplished and are accomplishing. Yet it is a simple fact of history that Presbyterianism has the strongest affinities with genuine revivals of religion, and has been wonderfully used of God in promoting them.

In illustration of this, let me remind you first of all, that the Presbyterian Church is the direct fruitage of that great revival of religion which swept over Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and which we commonly call the Reformation. No matter what emphasis we may put upon the intellectual, the ecclesiastical, the social, the political significance of that momentous movement, we must not ignore its preeminently religious intent and power. Its leaders were men of God, who had passed through a deep religious experience. Burdened with a sense of sin, they had sought relief in mediaeval Catholicism, and had sought in vain. Turning in revolt from the errors and corruptions of a degenerate church, their attention was called to the plain teachings of God’s Word, to the simple gospel of Christ, and they found light and peace and comfort in those saving truths which a formal and worldly church had lost sight of. And when they proclaimed the biblical doctrine of sin and salvation by grace, it went flaming through the heretical, sacerdotal, and ceremonial rubbish which had accumulated through the centuries, and set all Europe on fire. Luther, the hero of the Reformation, by his sermons as by his theses sought to recall the people from their backsliding and bring them into fellowship with the Father through the justifying merits of Jesus Christ. Zwingli, from the old cathedral pulpit in Zurich, preached Christ and him crucified, and made the moral desert of that city to blossom as the rose. Knox, in Scotland, Crammer and Latimer, in England, sought to revive the church by reaffirming the great evangelical principles declared by Christ and his apostles. And truly the Spirit of God was at work, convincing of sin, glorifying Christ, transforming human lives, and nourishing them with the soul-satisfying truth of God.

[To read the rest of this address by J. Ross Stevenson, click here.


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