March 27: Can Presbyterians Revive?

I find E.H. Gillett to be an engaging writer. Copies of his History of the Presbyterian Church are almost impossible to find, but it is at least available in digital form on archive.org. Browsing a bit further in this volume today, I came across the following account of a series of revivals that took place in North Carolina in 1802. 

Presbyterians don’t generally know what to do with such accounts. We like to keep our hands at our sides. Still, I think there is a place in our theology for reformation and revival, to admit there are exceptional times of harvest, when God’s people are particularly conscious of sin and turn from it, and when the Lord brings in great harvests of souls. 

In the preceding pages, the author has described three previous occasions of revival that took place in the first three months of 1802. The author opens this account with these striking words: “There had been already–subsequent to the close of the war–two marked seasons of revival in this region. The first began in Iredell county; the second commenced at a period when the prospects of religion were exceedingly dark, and when immorality and vice had come in like a flood.” Also noteworthy is how, in each of the first three accounts, he enumerates the number of Presbyterian pastors who were present on each occasion, numbering from six to fourteen, along with a few Baptist and Methodist ministers.

Now he comes to this last account of the revival in North Carolina:

The fourth general meeting was appointed on Friday, March 27, and was held at New Providence Church, under the charge of Mr. Wallis, in Mecklenburg county, about twelve miles southeast of Charlotte, and somewhat more than seventy miles north of Camden. The encampment was on a beautiful mount, easy of ascent from every direction, and more than half surrounded by a little crystal stream, which afforded water sufficient for the people and horses. It was clothed with a thick growth of giant oaks, with very little undergrowth. By three o’clock in the afternoon it was swept clear of timber, the tents were pitched, the fuel was gathered, and thousands, with their covered wagons and stretched canvas arranged in regular lines of encampment, covered the summit.

The services then commenced. A holy fervor glowed on the faces of the ministers, and a grave solemnity rested on the countenances of the people. A loud and lofty song of praise,—like “the sound of many waters,”—swelled by the united voices of the great assembly, and waking the echoes of the neighboring hills, rose to heaven. Prayer was then offered; and as the words of the text, “This is the house of God, this is the gate of heaven,” were uttered, it seemed but the instinctive expression of the feelings of every heart.

During the evening, and throughout the greater part of the night, there were exercises of singing, prayer, and exhortation in the several tents. The novelty of the scene, the fervor of devotion, and the depth of feeling so affected the multitude that few closed their eyes in sleep to the dawn of day. Before the services commenced on Saturday morning, three persons were struck down. At the close of the forenoon sermons several more were similarly affected; and the number continued to increase until the close of the meetings. Seventeen ministers were present, and about five hundred communicants participated in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, which was administered in the midst of the camp without noise or disturbance. At the same time preaching was going forward at three different stations. At the close of the services on Monday, continuing as they did till midnight, there were about one hundred persons prostrate on the ground, the greater part of whom were shouting aloud, and many of them in the most earnest manner entreating for mercy. While Dr. Hall was at prayer, about forty fell at the same instant. It was estimated that the whole assemblage amounted to at least five thousand persons. How large a number were “stricken” could not be ascertained. Besides those affected at the preaching-stations, many were taken in their tents, many more in their wagons, and a great many in the woods while at prayer or on their return to their homes.

Still other meetings were held; but their general features were substantially the same with those already described. The scenes they presented were pronounced “truly august and solemn,” especially in the night-season. When the fires were lighted up, the whole camp was illuminated, and revealed the canvas tents, the overhanging boughs of the trees left for shelter, and the eager listening groups, while the air was laden with solemn sounds which seemed more impressive amid the strangeness of the scene. Lofty songs of praise, pathetic prayers, thrilling appeals, stirring exhortations, groans or sighs of keen mental anguish, loud cries for mercy, or rapturous shouts of “glory” and thanksgiving from those who had found relief, were heard from every quarter of the encampment, and yet “with as little confusion and disturbance as the people of a city pursue their various occupations in the busy scenes of life.”  Every object, every utterance, seemed to conspire to deepen the solemnity. All that might interfere to distract attention was shrouded in darkness. The devout spirit seemed to realize the immediate presence of Jehovah, the presence of Him whose temple is all space, and beneath its dome of stars, with fellow-worshippers around him, bowed with reverence and awe appropriate to a “house not made with hands.”

The impression made upon those who had been drawn thither by curiosity was one which they could not shake off. It was almost impossible for them to sneer at what they witnessed. Those who came to mock often “remained to pray.” The most hardened cases were the very ones whose “exercises” were the most marked. In some instances not more than one in five, in others not more than one in ten, of those who were supposed to have been converted, were in the least physically affected. But where a person had been noted for his opposition or his incredulity, he was one of the most probable candidates for the “exercises.”

Words to Live By:
Revival depends upon God’s people coming to grips with their sin, repenting and turning from their wicked ways, humbling themselves and earnestly seeking the Lord. Then He will bless. It may not be in a way such as that described above. But He will bless, and His people will prosper spiritually.

For Further Study:
An old work well worth reading is John Preston’s set of six sermons on 2 Chronicles 7:14, titled The Golden Sceptre. You can find it on the web, here.

E. H. Gillett’s History of the Presbyterian Church was published in two volumes, available
here [vol. 1] and here [vol. 2]

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