Revival(ism) and the Reformed Faith

Can belief in the reformed confessions and revival(ism) co-exist?

Many people, including those of reformed persuasion, too quickly eschew subjective grace as smacking of subjectivism. That is a grievous error that must be avoided and corrected. Subjective grace and subjectivism are not the same thing. Subjective grace is not opposed to objective grace, but rather it is the means whereby a sinner believes in the gospel. Subjectivism is an emphasis on the experience apart from faith in the objective truths of the gospel. We must not throw out subjective grace in our effort to counter unbiblical subjectivism which is too often what happens.


There is a school of thought in reformed circles that belief in the reformed confessions and revival(ism) cannot co-exist. That idea is not new, but it is wrong. The Old Side-New Side split of the Presbyterian Church in 1741 divided the 18th century Presbyterian church in America over the issue of the spreading revival known as the Great Awakening. The Old Side-New Side Presbyterians should not be confused with the Old School- New School division of the Presbyterian Church in 1838. That latter division was over the issue of theological purity.

My former professor, Dr. Morton H. Smith, often stated in our classes at Reformed Theological Seminary that much of the Presbyterian church’s spiritual heritage could be defined as New Side/Old School. In other words, Smith believed (and I agree) that the best form of reformed theology combines a commitment to revival(ism) with the purity of the reformed faith as expressed in the various reformed confessions and creeds.

As one who has spent a large portion of the last 42 years studying the Great Awakening, Dr. Smith’s statement above is my conviction as well. In addition to the books in my library on the Great Awakening, I have six filing cabinet drawers full of materials on that revival, including numerous photocopies of unprinted manuscripts or out-of-print sermons, books, etc. Additionally, I have spent countless hours tediously reading sermons and manuscripts from that period on a microprint reader in various major libraries.

The 18th century, especially the Great Awakening, has been my first love in church history. My newest book, Samuel Davies: Apostle to Virginia, was written about events related to the Great Awakening. The Great Awakening, like all movements in the history of the church, was tinctured with imperfections.  How could it have been otherwise? The Reformation was not completely pure. Puritanism was not perfectly pure.

In his work, Thoughts on the Revival of Religion in New England, the calm-spirited Jonathan Edwards has a section titled, “We should distinguish the good from the bad, and not judge the whole by a part.” In that section, Edwards wrote:

The weakness of human nature has always appeared in times of great revival of religion, by a disposition to run to extremes, and get into confusion; and especially in these three things, enthusiasm, superstition, and intemperate zeal. So it appeared in the time of the reformation very remarkably, and even in the days of the apostles. Many were exceedingly disposed to lay weight on those things that were chimerical, giving heed to fables, (1 Tim. i.4. iv 7. 2 Tim. Ii.16. and ver. 23. And Tit 1.14 and iii.9). Many, as ecclesiastical history informs us, fell off into the most wild enthusiasm, and extravagant notions of spirituality, and extraordinary illuminations from heaven beyond others.[1]

If we are going to condemn a movement, any movement, because we are uncomfortable with some of the rhetoric, practices, and phenomena associated with it, then the whole history of the church will necessarily be castigated. Such censoriousness would evidence a judgmental spirit in contradiction to Christ’s words in Matthew 7:1-5. Yet, the Old Side ministers in the time of the Great Awakening did that very thing and their modern-day followers still mimic their example.

When the seraphic Samuel Davies went to Hanover, Virginia in 1748, he was immediately called on to defend the Great Awakening against various accusations included in a printed sermon by John Caldwell, “An Impartial Trial of the Spirit. . ..” Caldwell’s message was preached against the Great Awakening phenomena. Rev. Patrick Henry, Sr. (uncle of the more famous Colonial statesman and an Anglican minister in Hanover County) wrote the preface in which he stated:

The following sermon. . . is now published in this colony, chiefly with a design to open the eyes of some deluded people among us, who are imposed upon by the itinerants, who have frequently preached here of late, and let the world see, what the Presbyterians, in the Northern provinces are in reality, a set of incendiaries; enemies not only to the Established Church, but also common disturbers of the peace and order of all religious societies wherever they come.[2]

Caldwell himself was a Presbyterian minister, later to be disgraced when his thievery became known, and a member of the Old Side ministers who opposed the Great Awakening. One of his objections to that revival was that there were several strange phenomena taking place which ought to have been condemned, such as crying, tears, and various convulsions. Davies effectively answered that charge in his aptly named response, The Impartial Trial, Impartially Tried, and Convicted of Impartiality:

Must we conclude a sinner’s conviction of his sin and danger irrational because it is so affecting to his soul that it affects his body too? Must we pronounce his sense of condemnation under the penalty of the violated law delusive and diabolical because it is attended with such commotions as would not be thought strange in one that sees himself condemned to death at a human bar, as weeping, crying, swooning?[3]

Two hundred and seventy years after Davies first asked those questions, the opponents of the Great Awakening and/or revival(ism) have still not attempted to answer them. The fact is that the presence of tears, crying, and various emotions neither prove nor disprove a conversion to be genuine. Thus, we cannot conclude that someone who feels deeply his sense of danger and expresses it with loud crying, tears and strong emotions to be deluded or subject to false emotion.

Would we make such a harsh judgment about someone who lost a child and responded with an outburst of tears and great emotion? Of course not! Then, why would we condemn a person as being deluded because he/she expresses such strong emotions in repenting and believing? Did not the Philippian jailer cry out with strong emotions and tremblingly ask, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ after he was assured that he did not need to take his life because all the prisoners were still in the prison? Did not the immoral woman wash Jesus’s feet with her tears and wipe them with her hair? Did not the publican beat on his chest, refusing to even lift up his eyes to God, while crying out, ‘God be merciful to me, the sinner’? So, objecting to the Great Awakening or revival(ism) because of the various emotional outbursts experienced by some people is a dog that won’t hunt!

I have often told people that the most important day in American history was March 5, 1740 which causes quizzical looks to appear on their faces. That was the day that Gilbert Tennent preached his famous or infamous sermon, “The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry” at Nottingham Presbyterian Church in Maryland. No minister in the history of the church has received as much verbal abuse for one sermon as Tennent has for that one. When people say that they disagree with the rhetoric of the Great Awakening ministers, it is almost always this sermon that they mention as an example of such rhetoric. Interestingly, I doubt that most of those people have ever read that sermon. If so, they would have a hard time stating wherein it differs from Christ’s own warning (“Beware of wolves who come to you in sheep’s clothing.”). Certainly, Tennent preached that sermon in a heated spirit for which he cannot be exonerated, but his doctrine was correct and necessary.

Both sides in the Old Side-New Side split accused the other side of being unconverted. Tennent was not the first person to do that. In fact, the documentary evidence indicates that the Old Side, in their castigation of the Great Awakening, was the first ones guilty of such. It is interesting that those who condemn the phenomena of the Great Awakening while pretending to be impartial never mention the wrongs of the Old Side ministers. Maybe, in the words of Davies, their professed “impartiality” is really partiality. There were many harsh, mean-spirited, censorious, and uncharitable things that the Old Side ministers did to the New Side ministers.  If we are going to discuss the errors of the eighteenth century, we must include those also or else we are guilty of partiality.

Yet, there were some very real and important differences between the Old Side and New Side proponents. For one thing, many of the Old Side Presbyterians (like most ministers of all denominations at the time) believed that it was not necessary for a minister of the gospel to be converted. Their motto was that a converted minister is best, but an unconverted minister can still do much good. For that reason, people would remain in their churches under languid, unbiblical preaching. Tennent’s sermon put an end to that. It was the cannon shot that sparked the explosion of the Great Awakening as church members all across the colonies left their churches to go out into the open air to hear the revival preachers.

1740 was the high point of the Great Awakening. People flocked to the revival preachers and many thousands were converted to Christ. Tennent’s principle is still deeply imbedded in the minds of American Christians. I have often had Christians tell me that their minister has warned them that if their church ever ceases to preach the gospel they are to flee it with their fingers in their ears. Nothing has contributed, in my opinion, more to the protection of evangelical Christianity in this country than this deeply imbedded principle in the hearts of American Christians.

The Old Side Presbyterians made a formal confession of their agreement to the Westminster Standards, but many of them were not truly orthodox. Many Old Side ministers and other opponents of the Great Awakening believed in baptismal regeneration, some form of nomism with respect to salvation, and denied that assurance of salvation was possible. Unless someone studies that era with a jaundiced eye, he will be constrained to acknowledge that the documentary evidence clearly indicates that both the greatest supporters of the revival and the most thoroughly reformed ministers hailed from the New Side or New Light branch of Presbyterians. If you want to read reformed sermons of that period, you will find them almost exclusively among the New Side Presbyterians. While opposing the Great Awakening, the Old Side ministers have left little documentary evidence to indicate their agreement with the Westminster Standards. Archibald Alexander therefore wrote concerning the Presbyterian Church:

Under such a state of things, it is easy to conceive that in a short time vital piety may have almost deserted the church, and that formality and “dead orthodoxy” have been all that was left of religion.[4]

It is certainly an uninformed opinion to hold that the Old Side Presbyterians as a whole were staunch advocates of justification by faith alone and the guardians of the reformed faith while the New Side Presbyterians promoted the revival and emphasized emotional experiences. Anyone who thinks that needs to read the sermons of the New Side ministers. The fact is that the New Side ministers believed in both objective grace and subjective grace whereas the Old Side men denied subjective grace.

There is another interesting twist to this controversy. Gilbert Tennent quickly apologized for his harshness of language and made numerous efforts to be reconciled to the Old Side Presbyterians. Yet, the Old Side men never apologized for removing the New Side ministers from the denomination in violation of their due process; they never apologized for the terrible and false accusations they made against the New Side ministers; they have never apologized for passing a canon to excommunicate any church member who even went to hear a sermon preached by the New Side ministers. Before someone castigates some of the rhetoric of the Great Awakening ministers, he must also castigate such sinfulness on the part of the Old Side ministers, if he wishes to be impartial.

It has been said that Charles Hodge considered Jonathan Edwards to be guilty of ‘pantheism.’ In his Systematic Theology, Hodge has a large section on Pantheism, but never mentions Edwards. I can find no place where Hodge makes that charge against Edwards. On the other hand, Hodge vindicates Edwards from the allegation that he did not hold to the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone. Of course, one must always go back to primary source material first rather than quote second or third hand materials as proof of anything. Edwards has a discourse on the doctrine of justification by faith alone in the large two-volume set of his Works printed by the Banner of Truth. A review of that sermon clearly proves that Edwards believed in the imputation of Christ’s righteousness as essential to our justification and most certainly did not hold to the Catholic idea of the infusion of righteousness for our justification. Here is what Edwards said in one part of that sermon about imputation:

It is absolutely necessary, that in order to a sinner’s being justified, the righteousness of some other should be reckoned to his account; for it is declared, that the person justified is looked upon as (in himself) ungodly; but God neither will nor can justify a person without a righteousness; for justification is manifestly a forensic term, as the word is used in Scripture, and a judicial thing, or the act of a judge. . .

Believers are represented in Scripture as being so in Christ, as that they are legally one, or accepted as one, by the Supreme Judge; Christ has assumed our nature, and has assumed all in that nature that belongs to him, into such a union with himself, that he is become their head, and has taken them to be his members. And therefore what Christ has done in our nature, whereby he did honour to the law and authority of God by his acts, as well as reparation to the honour of the law by his sufferings is reckoned to the believer’s account. . .[5]

There are many more quotes to the same effect that we could give from this sermon by Edwards. He believed that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer is just as essential a part of justification as the imputation of Christ’s sufferings on the cross. It is possible, perhaps, that Edwards later changed his position on justification, but I highly doubt it.

Many people, including those of reformed persuasion, too quickly eschew subjective grace as smacking of subjectivism. That is a grievous error that must be avoided and corrected. Subjective grace and subjectivism are not the same thing. Subjective grace is not opposed to objective grace, but rather it is the means whereby a sinner believes in the gospel. Subjectivism is an emphasis on the experience apart from faith in the objective truths of the gospel. We must not throw out subjective grace in our effort to counter unbiblical subjectivism which is too often what happens. Edwards held to both objective grace and subjective grace in their proper balance and distinctiveness, even as all the great reformed theologians have done so since the time of Augustine. Indeed, those terms of distinction are used by all of them—Calvin, Turretin, Hodge, Bavinck, Edwards, Warfield, Buchanan, Cunningham, Bannerman, etc. Objective grace concerns the grace of what God has done for us in salvation and subjective grace concerns what God does in us through the Holy Spirit. It is not enough that Christ died on the cross for sinners. The Lord must pour out on us the Spirit of grace and supplication so that we can look on Him whom we have pierced and mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son” (Zechariah 12:10).

In conclusion, I agree with those authors who have rightly stated that revivals are extraordinary effusions of the Holy Spirit which give life to the church and prevent it from dying. America has basked in the sunlight of the Great Awakening for the better part of three centuries. The greatness of American Christianity for such a long period is owing to the tremendous impact that the Great Awakening has had on shaping American Christianity.

Instead of falling into the sacramental errors of Christianity in other parts of the world and in other periods of church history, American Christianity has been more purely evangelical and more centered on the gospel. We can thank Gilbert Tennent, Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Davies, Samuel Blair, George Whitefield, and all their fellow laborers for the wonderful heritage that they bequeathed us through the purity of the gospel they preached. Instead of criticizing their errors, let us honor them for what they did well. Especially, let us continue to hold to the principle that we must flee from any church or ministry that fails to preach the gospel. Meanwhile, let us pray that the Lord who sent the former blessings will send the latter rains on our nation during this period of great need as spiritual declension is all around us.

Dewey Roberts is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, Fla.

[1] Edward Hickman, rev., The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume One (Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 372.

[2] John Caldwell, An Impartial Trial of the Spirit Operating in this Part of the World: By Comparing the Nature, Effects, and Evidences of the Present Supposed Conversion, with the Word of God (Williamsburg, VA: William Parks, 1747). 5.

[3] Samuel Davies, The Impartial Trial, Impartially Tried, and Convicted of Partiality (Williamsburg, VA: William parks, 1748), 40-1.

[4] Archibald Alexander, The Log College (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1968), 17.

[5] Hickman, Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume One, 636-7.