Baptists and Revival

“And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation. Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls.”
(Acts 2:40-41)

We can thank the Lord for a growing interest in revival in recent days among the independent Baptists around the world. Surely God is moving among His separated, faithful people. Also among them, a new interest in Baptist history and identity has been spreading, with a number of good effects. The two developments can work together, under the hand of God, to restore the purity of New Testament Christianity in our time, and surely this possibility is encouraging to those who pray for such a thing. However, some misunderstanding of the facts, both scriptural and historical, has confused good people in regard to the relationship between the Baptists and revival over the centuries, and has led some of them to think that revival is a concept foreign and contrary to the Baptist cause.

This misunderstanding can be destructive to the Cause of Christ, and must be examined carefully. Thankfully, it is not difficult to dispel such confusion, and to encourage Baptists to keep seeking God for the revival we need. Let us now look at the facts, and clear the air.

1. The concept of revival and the Baptist distinctives do not contradict, but actually go together when they are correctly understood. In the Bible, revival means God bringing His people back to submission and faith, so that He can bless them in the ways He has promised. Revival involves coming back to scriptural standards. The Psalmist prayed, “Quicken thou me according to thy word.” (Psalm 119:25) The Hebrew word translated “quicken” here is the one translated “revive” in Psalm 85:6. Again in Psalm 119:88 we read, “Quicken [Revive] me after thy lovingkindness; so shall I keep the testimony of thy mouth.” By definition, revival is a movement back to the Bible. And Baptist distinctives are Bible standards. The teachings of the New Testament in regard to the ordinances, the church, the believer’s priesthood, and such matters are the doctrines and practices that set people apart as “Baptists.” A full and complete revival, therefore, would make a Christian, a church, or a movement Baptist. Revivals, we understand from scripture, are always relative, however, and are limited in their power and scope according to the understanding of those revived. This is why so many Old Testament revivals resulted in great movements in Israel back to the Law of God, but did not bring the people all the way back. They were real revivals, but because of the ignorance of the people, the revivals sometimes left them worshipping in high places or failing to fulfill the Law of Moses in other ways. God in His mercy deals with His people where they are. He will not fail to revive them when they repent and seek His face, even though ignorance of the truth may limit the scope and power of the revival. But revival is always God-ward, and scripture-ward. Revivals are movements back to the Bible, and New Testament revivals have always and must always move men toward what we call Baptist distinctives. The visible products of the revival at Pentecost were the immersion of thousands in believer’s baptism and the building up of the local church.

2. The great regional and national revivals of history benefited the Baptist movement. The Evangelical Awakening in England during the eighteenth century produced a great multiplication of Baptists and Baptist churches. This significant growth was experienced especially by the General Baptists, among whom Daniel Taylor became the prominent evangelist. Of course, the Evangelical Awakening was sparked and led by Anglican preachers, John and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield, but it made many into Baptists as well as Christians. Baptist growth in Scotland came as a direct result of the Evangelical Awakening, and especially the ministry of Whitefield. Revivals in Wales brought many into the family of God and also into Baptist churches, and the fire continued to burn there into the nineteenth century through the ministry of the Baptist evangelist, Christmas Evans. The influence of revivals in getting people back to the Bible always opened many eyes to the Baptist distinctives.
America’s first Great Awakening, also in the eighteenth century and in some ways connected with the British Awakening, also forwarded the Baptist banner. The Baptists in America prior to the Great Awakening were a very small sect found only in a few spots in the colonies. It was the Great Awakening that grew the movement to prominence here. Although Baptists were somewhat reluctant at first to join the revival efforts that grew out of powerful acts of God among Congregationalists and Presbyterians in those days, they eventually became deeply involved, and reaped great rewards. When the Awakening had ended at the beginning of the War of Independence, more Baptist churches had been founded than any other kind. Many “Separate” or “New Light” Congregationalists (those sympathetic to the revivals) had become Baptists, including the great Baptist leader, Isaac Backus. The revivalism that began among the Congregationalists (including Jonathan Edwards) and the Presbyterians (including the Tennants of New Jersey) spread into the Baptists, creating Free Baptists and Separate Baptists. The Separate Baptists (particularly Shubal Stearns and Daniel Marshall) led the final great victories of the Awakening. When the evangelist George Whitefield (an Anglican who crossed the ocean many times to participate in the revivals on both sides) returned to the colonies after a period of absence back in Great Britain, he remarked on the fact that many of the converts that had been won through his preaching had since become Baptists, and said, “All my chickens have become ducks!” Powerful revivals turn men to the Word of God, and such a change is always good, and never detrimental to Baptists. Historians would say that the Baptist denomination in America was firmly established by the Great Awakening, even though the most prominent of the revival’s leaders were not Baptists.

Baptist believers were used, blessed, and multiplied by the other national awakenings as well. The Second Great Awakening was sparked, in a sense, by the efforts of certain Baptist leaders to renew the burden for revival among Christians after the War of Independence had left the country spiritually depressed. In 1794, Isaac Backus and Stephen Gano sought to turn the heart of the churches heavenward with the famous “circular letter” that called for “a concert of prayer” one day a month, in which churches would set aside the whole day to fast and pray for revival. Things started to happen in 1795 that assured the many who were praying that God was hearing. There were church and community revivals that saved many. There was the camp meeting movement in the west that resulted in the conversion of thousands. The camp meetings were started by Presbyterians, and especially employed by the Methodists, but the Baptists participated, too. It is interesting that historians say that Baptists did not have the trouble others experienced with “physical excitements” and disorder at camp meetings. Baptists were much involved in the move of God across the country in the early 1800s. For example, the First Baptist Church of Boston, which had opposed the revivalism of the First Awakening, was fully revived in 1803. The Elkhorn Baptist Association in Kentucky, which had sunk to great depths of spiritual barrenness by the end of the eighteenth century (recording only 29 conversions in its 29 churches in 1799), experienced powerful revivals beginning with the turn of the century, planting 9 new churches in 1801, and receiving 3000 new members into the churches by baptism that year. Prominent in the Second Awakening were the college revivals that stunned the public and converted masses of students in the early 1800s. The one at Williams College is possibly the most remembered because of the so-called “Haystack Prayer Meeting,” which produced America’s first foreign missionaries. We should note that the most notable of these young men became Baptists (Mills, Judson, and Rice) as a result of the influence of the Awakening. Baptists were not all fighting the revivals. Many were involved in them, blessed by them, and committed to them.

3. One reason Baptists have not always been noted in history in connection with the revivals as much as others is that Baptists did not write the history books, to a large degree. Protestant writers prefer, in some ways, to appreciate Edwards and Whitefield over Stearns and Marshall. There is a real difficulty between the Baptists and other evangelical believers that should not be overlooked. Viewing the true church as a local assembly of baptized (immersed) believers in Christ draws a sharp distinction between the Baptists and the Protestants. And although Protestant writers recognized the Baptists as Christians, they had a tendency to look down on them. Revival history does not tell us that revival is Protestant rather than Baptist. It indicates that the history has been written mostly by the Protestants. This situation, of course, can and ought to be corrected.

4. Baptist evangelists have been important in the great revivals. This fact is usually not recognized, but it is true. In the Great Awakening, there was Shubal Stearns, certainly one of the most productive of the evangelists in terms of souls saved and churches organized. In the latter part of the Second Great Awakening (which was in some ways dominated by non-Baptist Charles Finney), there was the great Jacob Knapp (who led powerful city-wide revival campaigns in cooperation with many churches, and has been called our nation’s first prominent Baptist evangelist), Jabez Swan (who in his ministry saw the baptism of over ten thousand converts), Emerson Andrews (who was converted under the preaching of Congregationalist Asahel Nettleton, the first prominent evangelist of the Second Great Awakening), and Thomas Sheardown. Have you heard of these men? Because Baptists have not been the recorders of the revivals, our knowledge of the Baptist evangelists is seriously lacking. The era of mass evangelism that occurred between the Civil War and the First World War involved the ministries of Baptist evangelists, such as A.B. Earle, as well as of Protestant evangelists like D.L. Moody. The revival movement at the turn of the century also involved important Baptist voices, such as those of A.J. Gordon, C.G. Spurgeon, F.B. Meyer, and the revived Baptists of the Welsh awakening. Baptists have always naturally been involved in revival movements. Who could not have noticed the Baptist prominence among the evangelists of the twentieth century?

5. The application or absence of the Baptist distinctives has made the difference in the duration of the effects of the revivals. Baptist students of revival have often commented on the success of the Baptists in preserving the fruit of the revivals they have experienced. This success is contrasted with the failures of other groups in this same area. The claims that are made are not prompted by denominational pride or prejudice. They have their basis in the natural effect of doing things biblically. For example, the right use of the ordinances has the effect of keeping a church evangelical and orthodox in its views. To baptize upon the profession of faith is to highlight the necessity of repentance and regeneration for salvation. To baptize by immersion is to keep before the people the fundamental truths of the Gospel. To maintain the symbolic rather than the sacramental view of the ordinances is to deny the heresies of sacramental salvation. To baptize only those who have repented, and not babies, is to keep clear justification by faith and not by covenant. All of the truths protected by the right views in regard to the ordinances are vital to revival and evangelism. Converts sent back to churches that were wrong on the ordinances sometimes fell into trouble about the Christian essentials. The truth about the church being a local, visible congregation of baptized believers was also a safeguard for the fruits of revival. When new believers left the warm glow of the Gospel meetings led by Methodist Jones or Presbyterian Sunday or Anglican Whitefield, and landed (as many of them did) in orthodox churches that were wrong about the church, and especially the government of the church, they were drawn into a network that was going bad. Because Methodist and Presbyterian and Episcopal churches are run by big ecclesiastical machines, controlled from the top, whatever is going on at the top eventually will affect all the members of the local congregations. Baptist churches operate independently, with no hierarchy, viewing Christ as the Head of each local assembly, and each church as His Body. As Moody preached the pure Gospel and saw many saved, he sent many of those he won to Christ into churches that were orthodox, but were connected with denominations that were already infiltrated and defiled by heresy. If they had all been baptized and then received into New Testament churches, the effect of the revivals on the Cause of the truth would have been far more extensive and lasting.

6. The reluctance of some of the Baptists to work with even the best of the Protestant evangelists of the past is understandable, but is no reason for Baptists today to shy away from true revival. Certainly, the thought of converts going into errant churches, as well as the mistaken views of the evangelist on baptism, would cause a Baptist pastor to pray hard before taking his people to meetings where Finney or Moody would preach. Many of them did, however, and managed to bring a good number of converts into their own churches. Some did not. Serious men have little reason to find fault with either kind today. It matters little, because revival-minded Baptists that decided not to work with Protestants often recruited their own evangelist, and saw revival and spiritual fruit among themselves. To restrict cooperation to one’s own doctrinal family is not to reject the need to pray for revival or to work together for the salvation of souls! The passion for revival is not contrary to the passion for truth. The two go together.

7. Baptists in all eras of modern times can be found on both sides of the revival issue. Some (usually of the more Calvinistic bend) have held to the “sovereign-act” view of revival. No one can deny that revivals have occurred and do occur where God has worked in an unusual and powerful way through His people to bring multitudes to Christ. The issue is whether they come as a sovereign act of God or through the meeting of some conditions by man. The “sovereign-act” side of the issue insists that revivals happen only when, how, and where God decides to send them. Men that held this view criticized the efforts of Edwards in New England, as well as those of Wesley in Old England, attacked the work of Christmas Evans in Wales, accused Finney of wickedness, and barked at Moody’s heals. Some Baptists were and are among the “sovereign-act” voices. The other view might be called the “promised-response” view of revival. Interestingly, this view has also been held by certain Calvinists such as Edwards and Spurgeon. Many Baptists have preached revival in this way. They say that God will revive His people in response to their repentance and faith. When God’s people are revived, they are brought back to the purity and power of New Testament Christianity as described by the Lord in John 13 through 17, and illustrated in the Book of Acts. God has promised to revive His people when they turn back to Him, they say, and they find proof for this idea in such passages as James 4. “Draw nigh to God, and He will draw nigh to you” (verse 8). This the way many Baptist preachers have presented revival, with the next step being ours! Because somebody can cite a Baptist of the past making an anti-revival statement does not mean that all Baptists have held that view or taken that stand. The truth is that a sovereign-act view of revival cannot be defended from the Bible. It can be found nowhere in scripture. No prophet or apostle ever told God’s people to hope for a revival to come some day, but not to do anything about it. They all told us to repent, and to do it now! And this is why this issue is so important to Baptist fundamentalists today. “It is high time to awake out of sleep.” (Romans 13:11)

Let us seek the Lord until He is found, and not be deterred by confusion over the truth or over the past.


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