Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelism, 1750-1858

By Iain H. Murray
Carlisle, PA : Banner of Truth (1994). xxii + 455 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Dennis Swanson
6.1 (Spring 1995) : 107-109

In a time when the church is often searching for "revival" and passersby can often see signs in front of churches announcing a "revival meeting" and many of the media preachers seem to portray "revival" as something that follows them around from city to city, Iain Murray has produced a marvelously helpful book that will serve to give "revival" and "revivalism" a proper historical and theological perspective.

Murray chronicles the revivals in America from the late colonial period to just prior to the Civil War. He shows how

Seasons of revival became "revival meetings." Instead of being "surprising" they may even now be announced in advance, and no one in the previous century had known of ways to secure a revival, a system was now popularized by "revivalists" which came near to guaranteeing results (xviii). Murray begins his study in the time immediately after the "Great Awakening" in the American Colonies. He presents a picture of the men who were foundational in various smaller revivals and the "Second Great Awakening." Particularly notable is his discussion of the ministry of Samuel Davies, called by Dr. Lloyd-Jones "the greatest preacher America ever produced." Murray chronicles the various revivals in different colonial areas and offers a seemingly endless amount of historical detail. The amount of detail will be a hindrance to the casual reader, as the flow of Murray's work occasionally slows and nearly bogs down in the amount of factual data presented. The flow could have been improved if more of Murray's "sidebars" had been reduced to footnotes. An additional help would have been the inclusion of some detailed maps to give the reader a better sense of the regions and occasionally obscure villages Murray refers to.

Throughout this work Murray attempts to demonstrate that true revival is an act of God's sovereignty in which the Holy Spirit does an unusual work in convicting men of sin and bringing about their conversion. Regarding the men God used in the various revivals he states,

A considerable body of men, for a long period before the Great Awakening, preached the same message as they did during the revival but with vastly different consequences—the same men, the same actions, performed with the same abilities, yet the results were so amazingly different!

The conclusion must be that the change in the churches after 1798 and 1800 is not explainable in terms of the means used. Nothing was clearer to those who saw the events than that God was sovereignly pleased to bless human instrumentality in such a way that the success could be attributed to Him alone (127-28).

The key thesis of Murray's work is that as Christians began to modify and abandon their Calvinistic theology and replace it with an increasingly Arminian one, the emphasis of revival as a working of a sovereign God shifted to revivalism, something that man could manufacture by the "proper use of ordained means" as promoted by Charles G. Finney (247-48). Though Murray thoroughly evaluates and criticizes Finney and his followers, other "evangelical Arminians" such as Francis Asbury come in for some favorable comments. Murray devotes three chapters to a thorough and highly critical examination of Finney, his theology, methodology and influence. However, the work ends on a positive note as Murray examines the ministry of James Waddell Alexander (the son of Princeton Seminary founder Archibald Alexander) and the "Layman's Prayer Revival" of 1857-58.

Murray presents an impressively documented history of American evangelicalism during the first half of the nineteenth century. Two appendices on revivalism in Great Britain and revivals in the South are very helpful, as is the very thorough index. This is clearly one of Murray's finest historical efforts and will be an important reference source in the study of revivals.