Back to article index

Revivalist meeting addressed by faith healer Oral Roberts, 1962


Which brings us to a further evolution of the original Calvinist impulse. In talking about 'revival', I have been careful to avoid using the word 'revivalism'. The distinction between 'revival' and 'revivalism' has been made by Iain Murray, disciple and biographer of the great twentieth century Welsh preacher David Martyn Lloyd Jones. Together with Lloyd Jones, Murray was deeply involved with the extraordinary publishing venture the Banner of Truth, a massive library of key Calvinist and Puritan texts from Calvin's time to the present day. His book Revival and Revivalism is subtitled 'The making and marring of American Evangelicalism, 1750-1858'. (32) 1858 - the beginning of the great revival of 1859. His broad argument is that 'Once the idea gains acceptance that the degree of the Spirit's work is to be measured by the strength of emotion, or that physical effects of any kind are proofs of God's action, then what is rightly called fanaticism is bound to follow.' (pp.163-4) Murray blames the growth of this 'revivalism' on an intrusion of Wesleyan Methodists into what had been a stable (Presbyterian and Baptist) community in North America. Something similar could be said of Wales. (33) Murray mentions the well-known Brecon born Thomas Coke, the first man consecrated as a Bishop by Wesley, as one of the offenders. Talking about a major revival that occurred in Kentucky at the beginning of the nineteenth century he says: 

'One reason for the Methodist ascendancy in the later stages of the revival was that they were not distracted by internal divisions as the Presbyterians and Baptists were. There does not seem to have been any sign of dissent among them over the issue of emotionalism and physical phenomena which put such a strain on other churches. Methodist writers deny that their men encouraged excesses, but we know no reason to doubt David Benedict's statement that "when the work arose to an enthusiastick height ... the Methodists had no scruples of its being genuine." Instead of recognising and restraining natural excitement and wildfire, and probably losing the headstrong as a consequence, the Methodists willingly accommodated themselves to it. Overbalanced on an experience-centred Christianity, and too ready to exalt zeal above knowledge, the Methodist tendency was to treat such things as loud emotion, shouting, sobbing, leaping, falling, and swooning as though they were "the true criteria of heartfelt religion." This is a generalisation, but support for it is not hard to find. Thomas Cleland, a schoolboy in Kentucky at the time of the revival, and later a preacher in revivals himself, described how his Methodist schoolmaster worked children up into religious hysteria.'

(32) Edinburgh and Carlisle, PA, Banner of Truth, 1994.

(33) As discussed in eg the first chapter of Owen Thomas: The Atonement Controversy in Welsh Theological Literature and Debate, 1707-1841, Edinburgh and Carlisle, PA, Banner of Truth 2002 (originally published in Welsh in 1874 as part of The Life of John Jones, Talsarn).

The Methodists were keen to promote what were called 'camp meetings' - huge crowds gathered for religious purposes over several days. Murray comments:

'Crowds as such were not the issue. Throughout the period vast congregations were to be found in all denominations. But the Methodists ... came to believe that the organisation of mass meetings was a very effective part of evangelism. Emotion engendered by numbers and mass singing over several days was conducive to securing a response. Results could thus be multiplied, even guaranteed. Calvinists, using their Bibles rather than any knowledge of psychology, saw from the New Testament that no technique could produce conversions. On the contrary, the use of techniques was calculated to confuse the real meaning of salvation ...' (p.184).

The Methodists had begun to record the number of converts and they developed the technique of the 'call to the altar': 

'Prior to 1800, Methodism in America - despite its concern not to admit any into church membership prematurely - had begun to record the number of supposed converts at particular services. This was a practice studiously avoided by the older evangelicalism and it was not used by John Wesley. How converts were counted is not always clear ... The excitement of the camp meetings had brought much attention to the visible. It became common to count the number of those who "fell" during services and ... some took the figure as an indication  of permanent results ... But incautious as they tended to be, Methodists knew too much of true religion to make "the falling exercise" the test of the number of converts. Something else was needed and it was found in what became known as '"the invitation to the altar" ...'  

According to an account by a Methodist evangelist, Jesse Lee, in 1798:

'"The preachers then requested all that were under conviction to come together. Several men and women came and fell upon their knees, and the preachers for some time kept singing and exhorting the mourners. Two or three found peace." In 1801 another Methodist in Delaware reported: "After prayer I called upon persons in distress to come forward and look to the Lord to convert their souls. Numbers came forward."' (p.185)

The same pattern was then transferred to the camp meetings:

'Speaking of a camp meeting in 1806 Peter Cartwright, a Methodist itinerant, said: "The altar was crowded to overflowing with mourners ... young ladies asked permission to set down inside it. I told them that if they would promise to pray to God for religion they might take a seat there" ... 

'It is significant that when people fell in sufficiently large numbers in the meetings, Cartwright considered the altar call unnecessary, as though the work of conversion had already been done. On the other hand, when parents belonging to other churches hindered their children from "going to the altar", Cartwright regarded their action as hindering salvation: "I fear they were hindered for life, if not finally lost." As the idea gained ground that coming forward was the alternative to being lost, results and successes on an unprecedented scale were witnessed ...' (pp.186-7)

The reference to 'mourners' indicates that the ghost of William Perkins was still hovering over the process. But a conviction of sin that in his eyes could last for weeks, months, years could now be telescoped into a couple of hours. With the call to the altar we are seeing the seeds of what was to become associated with the Billy Graham movement and its predecessors - Moody and Sankey, Billy Sunday, Oral Roberts - as well as the televangelists of the present day. But we're also seeing the beginnings of what was to become the pentecostalist movement including the Church of God in Christ which I evoked at the beginning of this talk. Remember that both revivals and revivalism claimed to be the work of the Holy Spirit. The Church of God in Christ originally separated from the Baptist movement as a 'Holiness' church, that is to say a church which accepted a doctrine originally taught by Wesley that the Christian could attain 'perfection' - freedom from sin - while still living on this earth. Wesley's doctrine may well be related to Orthodox teaching on the possibility of attaining 'deification' - union with God - while still living on this earth. Wesley would have had that idea from reading and admiring the Homilies of St Macarius. In his Preface to the Paulist Press translation of Macarius, Kallistos Ware quotes Wesley's diary for 1736: 'I read Macarius and sang'. (34) Ware goes on to quote Macarius himself on 'the soul that is counted worthy to participate in the light of the Holy Spirit by becoming his throne and habitation', saying that 'there is no part of the soul that is covered with darkness.' (35) Of course the original Orthodox teaching presupposed intense ascetic effort in the context of a monastic/eremitic life and those who achieved this state were recognised as saints in an understanding of the word 'saint' that was quite different from the one developed within the Calvinist tradition.

(34) He gives July 30th as the date. My copy of Wesley's journal (3rd ed, n.d.) contains no entry for July 30th 1736. On October 12th 1736 he speaks highly of Saint Ephrem the Syrian. The first of the fifty volumes of his Christian Library contains an abridged version of Macarius's Spiritual Homilies. In this context I should perhaps also mention Wesley's admiration for William Law's Practical Treatise Upon Christian Perfection (1726). 

(35) Pseudo-Macarius [sic - PB]: The Fifty Homilies and the Great Letter, New York, Paulist Press, 1992.

Nonetheless the rich flowering of Gospel Music in black Pentecostalism, and its relevance to the spiritual needs of people living under Jim Crow legislation gives it a substance that transcends the vulgarity of the white revivalism as described by Murray. (36) A white Pentecostalist movement, the Assemblies of God, split off from the Churches of God in Christ, unable to cope with the leadership of its black founder, Charles Harrison Mason. Jim White's film Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus is a powerful evocation of how white Pentecostalism relates to the needs of very poor people - 'trailer trash' - in the deep South.

(36) My friend Stephen Richards reminds me that white revivalism has also left an impressive musical heritage.

So we have reached Sister Rosetta. At this point we might be reminded of the opening lines of Yeats's poem The Second Coming: 'Further and further in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer.' Taking the falconer to be Calvin we may indeed feel that the falcon has moved out of earshot. But the trajectory has nonetheless been continuous. And the analogy is imperfect in that each of the turnings of the widening gyre has left traces of its own existence. And there has perhaps been more than one falcon. We have been dealing with the one that followed the path of religious enthusiasm but mention has also been made of the trajectory into Unitarianism. And perhaps we could evoke a third, perhaps predominant in present day Wales, who has simply collapsed in a state of exhaustion.

When I began this project I wanted to place Calvinism more firmly in the context of what I understand of the Eastern Orthodox tradition. I had thought of tracing it back through the overall western Christian tradition to Augustine of Hippo, with particular emphasis on the - in my view perverse - doctrine of the vicarious atonement. I haven't done this to anything like the extent I had intended. It seemed to me to be necessary first of all to establish some idea of the enormity of what Calvinism had done in the world. I tried to do that with the help of Abraham Kuyper. I have not gone much into the detail of Calvinist theology. I thought it more important to get some idea of what it is like to be a Calvinist. To quote Hodges (Flame in the Mountains) talking about William Williams:

'It is easy to score controversial points against Calvinism. The Wesleys showed the way and one need only follow it. Mention predestination; explain that it means an arbitrary decree of God whereby some human beings are elected to salvation and others are assigned to damnation before they are even born, and irrespective of what they may think or do when they have been born; work yourself into a state of moral indignation at the imputation of such conduct to God - and there you are ... But, as a later Welsh writer has remarked, "it was wholly unfair to attribute to the Calvinists the opinions which other people supposed were necessary conclusions from their doctrines." (37) The Wesleys' rhetoric was so splendid that it hid the weaknesses and inconsistencies of their own position, and Calvinism was given a bad name and hanged. Yet it remains true that this "Calvinism" of theirs is not what was preached in Wales, (38) and certainly not what inspired these hymns.'

(37) He doesn't give a source for this,

(38) Though perhaps this statement could be qualified by a reading of Owen Thomas's The Atonement Controversy. 

As I indicated earlier the unpleasant conclusions that can be drawn from the Calvinist doctrine of predestination are actually implicit in the universally accepted Christian doctrine of the omnipresence and omniscience of God. So the theological critique of Calvinism is not something to be undertaken lightly. Perhaps, though, what I have done here will help clear the way for a future effort along the lines I had originally planned.