Bigger is not always better, Schaff predicted the Old School Advocates of Nurture would be right, and Church History has once again vindicated that belief.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner
Of the Internecine controversies which made up the 19th century none was more formative to modern American Christianity, other than the debates over Ecclesiology than the debate between “New Measures” revivalism and the Old School advocates of a Nurturing, Catechizing faith. I wrote extensively on these debates and their origins in the New Light, Old Light Controversy between Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield and Charles Chauncey. Though at the time of Edwards and Chauncey’s debate catechism was still extensively used among the Churches and Pastors of the time. One could also leave a sermon having a sure knowledge of the faith because the 3-hour long sermon made sure to detail and outline every single piece of the theological puzzle. Confessionalism did not take a back seat until the 2nd Great Awakening, though there were precursors to it in the original controversy, such as in the case of James Davenport. It was difficult for itinerant preachers to catechize congregations, that was to be the job of the local ministry of the local church. Radical conversion gave way to learning about the faith they now confessed. That is why Edwards could deny Communion to those teens who were embroiled in the “Blue Bible” controversy at Northampton. They had learned the faith well under him and knew that by their unrepentant hearts they could not partake without heaping condemnation on themselves. Finney did the same thing during his revivals, but that was not done out of concern for mere Orthopraxy but because of his Abolitionism, Slave holders were not allowed to partake because slavery was a sin. In principle they are the same, but in motive they differ, the slave holder had his own theology from the Stone-Campbell Churches that did not declare slavery a sin.
It was Finney’s new measures, first published in the “New York Evangelist” and later published as a book called “On Revivals” in the 1830’s that led to the second great controversy between the Old School (the New Lights of Edwards time) and the New School, Charles Finney and others that would lay the ground work for the revivalism of D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday and finally, Billy Graham who began reversing the trend begun by Finney through his partnership with The Navigators. Finney is the first to lay out a sort of formula to conversion that would be perfected by Graham in the 20th century. The problem was, Finney’s revivalism, in fact even that of Edwards in some cases, became a practice in emotionalism, not genuine conversion. Young Converts began looking for that same initial, emotional high, something Edwards had cautioned his converts against. Finney in particular was guilty of preying on the emotions of his hearers through “The Anxious Bench” where those who were close to “Getting through” (A puritan term for those coming to grips with their sinfulness and need for God) could sit and receive “Special preaching and prayer” during the revival service. The problem was, as Edwards knew, simply deciding for Christ did not make one a Christian. There had to be evidence only wrought by the spirit of God in the producing of fruit that informed those around us that the inward reality had moved outward. Edwards had taught that the Devil can fake many conversions and mimic the results of a great evangelist. It was only when good fruit was produced that one and others knew they were a genuine convert. Finney counted converts not at this moment, when the Christian moves beyond the emotionalism of infantile Christianity to the quiet reliance on God of childlike faith, but at the moment they accepted what he was saying and said they believed in Jesus. Moody, Sunday, and Graham would translate this into the moment of conversion coming at the time one prayed a prayer.
None of this means that there were not genuine conversions at Finney, Moody, Sunday and Graham’s revival meetings. It also does not mean that there were not genuine converts among those who prayed prayers of salvation. Paul does tell us that genuine conversion comes at the moment you “Confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead.” But at the same time, Paul preaches a conversion that moves beyond that point, beyond mere confessing or being persuaded or praying a prayer. He tells the Romans in 2:1-11 that if they condemn the world for practicing the sins mentioned in the vice list in 1:27-28 but then keep practicing them, they are not demonstrating a saving faith, but storing up condemnation on themselves. He goes on in 6 to tell them that they should not keep sinning so that grace may abound. The Apostle John teaches us that Christians who believe should avoid sinning habitually as one sign they are saved. James is the clearest on this when he says that faith based on knowledge only, not on deeds that flow from trusting God and Christ, leads to death. Many people sat under the revivalists and got a lot of knowledge about Christ and his work and considered themselves saved but starting with Finney and taking off under Moody and Sunday, that knowledge was not backed by actions for many. Sunday was particularly problematic in this regard because he helped encourage the withdraw from the world during the Fundamentalist, Modernist controversy of the early 20th century.
The Old School Nurture teachers, on the other hand, would rather have had six converts to Christianity who really got it and were raised in the faith under biblical instruction and catechesis, rather than 6000 who made a profession of faith but had little to no evidence of an actual saving faith. Jesus started with 12, each of them had a smaller inner circle that traveled with them, sometimes it was just them, as Paul expresses at the end of 2nd Timothy. 3000 were converted in Acts 2, but even they immediately devoted themselves to the Apostles Teachings. There is a reason that Catechesis develops almost instantly in the early Church, there had to be a way to teach what Jesus taught, the Father’s understood that having Christians running around with superficial knowledge of the truth was going to reflect poorly on the, already persecuted Christianity. There is also a reason that almost nothing is said about Evangelism until after Constantine, instead there is a lot written about patience by the Church Father’s, a patience combined with the work of the Gospel, caring for the poor, the sick, the needy, the ones the Roman’s discarded. It was this patience and faith which coupled belief with action that was the reason the early Church grew and it is the only way that the church is going to grow in our modern context.
That being said, this was not necessarily on the minds of the Old School and certainly was not on the mind of the Old Light Charles Chauncey as he responded to the First Great Awakening, caught up as they were in the “Scottish Realism” of their day that fueled men like Charles Hodge and Archibald Alexander’s “Common Sense Theology” (which also influenced the revivalists). It was, however, on the minds of the Mercersburg Theologians, who, though they could not agree with Princeton on much, agreed with them on New Measures. Nevin considered it pure emotionalism and Schaff was concerned about how it centered not on Christ, but on the individual. Nevin called New Measures Revivalism “Mechanical and Shallow.” Telling the reader, it had “no affinity whatsoever with the reformation.” In that regard I agree with Nevin. What would be defined in the reformation era as like 19th century revivalism ended poorly for the Christians who partook in it (see Munster). The Augsburg Confession and Heidelberg Catechism had proven long and trusted teachers of the faith when they were put in their proper place below the Holy Scriptures. Because, as Schaff says: “The tradition answers to Love” they were a sign of grace to the Christian to encourage them in their spiritual growth and saving faith. The same would have been true of the Savoy Declaration of Faith in Congregationalism, the London Confession in Baptistic movements and the most famous in the new world, the Westminster Statement of Faith and Catechism. The abandonment of these, in favor of individual feeling, was abhorrent to the New Schoolers, as it should have been, the effect of a confession less Christianity based in historical orthodoxy was that of a sailboat in a windstorm. Instead of created grounded Christians who were not tossed about by every wind and vain of doctrine (Ep 4:1-21) they were in fact, well-tossed, clinging to one doctrine until it lost popularity before pursuing another. Nevin, Schaff, and even Hodge, who himself was guilty of a similar desacramentalizing of the Christian Faith that naturally followed Revivalism, understood the dangers of such a purely individual driven faith.
If we are honest, the same is true today. Revivalism has failed us, individualism in the church has failed us. The Church is not made up of individuals who make individual professions of faith, it is made up of groups of people who make common confessions of faith rooted in the Word of God, guided into their present form by the Holy Spirit, working in Church History. Graham understood what revivalism had created and even pushed back against it, using the Navigators to follow up. Graham’s famous quote: “Christianity in America is a mile wide and an inch deep” should concern us and give us pause. Today, one could amend this quote in much of the bible belt and Midwest to say: “Christianity in America is largely cultural and knows nothing of its biblical and historical roots.” Those who are committed Christians, especially among Millennials and Gen Z are look for a faith that nurtures through relationships, through teaching, through a lived faith, not a spoken one. Many are committed Christians in=spite of the Christianity of revivalism, not because of it. That is why they have flocked to denominations and conferences that promote confessional faith taught through Catechism such as Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism.
Revivalism has also left us expecting revivals as the only means through which God works. I have had church members say to me: “You are going to need a revival just to get young kids in the door.” This flies in the face of everything, everything, we know about Millenials and Gen Z. Actually, the opposite is true, they are searching for a faith that nurtures, and churches that help them find their voices from a Biblical Worldview. Not the flashy emotionalism that is offered through modern revivalism. As I have told my congregation, they do not want the big bands and flashy lights, they want the relationships. Evangelism is not going to be done the same way it was during the height of revivalism, the future of evangelism actually looks more like the patient, steady care for everyone around us, reaching them with the Gospel not just by caring for their spiritual need but also caring for their physical needs. Door to Door evangelism does not work, but house to house, meeting over dinner, long discussions, life on life, these things have always and will continue to reach the world with the Gospel long after Revivalism is relegated entirely to history. The challenge then is to stop looking for the big revival and start trusting that God can use you, your home, your resources, resources that he blessed you with so you could bless others, not hoard, for the sake of reaching the world with the Gospel and teaching those you reach the richness of what they are becoming a part of. A long glorious history of truth, unbroken from the time of Christ until now.
Older Christians, there is a tremendous opportunity here for you, there is no retirement in Christ, or so they tell me, until we go home to glory. There is, however, work to be done and you have a faith that is meant to be passed down. Learn it well and pass it, along with your skills and knowledge down to the next generation by forming deep relationships. I understand that it is scary, and you risk getting hurt. If you are intentional and do not presume a relationship before you form it, then you can build a deep and lasting friendship with the younger generation and pass down your faith to them. Teaching them to live as Christ in this world that needs us to teach that aspect of the faith so badly. Engage with them on the issues that are important to them, stop approaching them with an “us against them” mentality. If you look down on younger people as so many in the older generation seem to, you are not going to reach them, you are going to continue to sin against them by harboring anger towards them, slandering them and gossiping about them. Younger Christians, we must be open to these relationships, I know that research shows we are, but one of the balances we struggle to strike is learned from and being respectful to the older generation, even when we are disrespected by them.
Both groups need to remember that it is Christ and His Word, not the authority of the human, that dictates the Christian Life. There are a lot of unbiblical doctrines in the popular world (and in the scholarly) and we should avoid passing those down like the plague, lest we bring wrath among ourselves. Obey Christ, not me, love one another and love those the world has proclaimed your enemy. Maybe if we do this, if we live as Christ, the decline we have been told to fear, will lead to renewed fruit.
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Jerusalem, Cyril of. 2016. “Catechetical Lectures Volume 1, Chapter 1, Paragraph 1.” In Edits of the Church Fathers in one Volume, by Philip Schaff. Ebook: Public Domain .
Marsden, George. 2003. Jonathan Edwards, A Life . Yale: Yale University Press .
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Nevin, John Williamson. 2017. “The Anxious Bench .” In The Mercersburg Theology Study Series Vol VI: One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Tome One: The Ecclesiological writings of John Williamson Nevin (1844-1850), by John Williamson Nevin David W. Laymen, 29-111. Eugene : Wfpf & Stock .
Nevin, John Williamson. 2017. “The Church .” In One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic, John Nevin’s Writings on Ecclesiology (1844-1849) Tome One: The Mercersburg Theology Study Series Colum Five, by John Williamson Nevin David W. Laymen, 144-159. Eugene : WFPF and Stock .
Philip Schaff, . 1964. “The Principle of Protestantism .” In The Lancaster Theology Series on the Mercersburg Theology V: VI , by J.W. Nevin, Ed Bard Thompson Philip Schaff, 48-219. Philidelphia : United Church Press.
Philip Schaff, Cyprian of Carthage . 2016. “On the Unity of the Church .” In The Complete Works of the Church Father’s, by Cyprian of Carthage, 182205. Ebook : Public Domain .
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife and daughter in Northern Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center