Revival Always Involves a Deep Demonstration of Emotion

One of the distinguishing characteristics of revival as well as one of the greatest points of criticism has centered on its emotional responses. When Jonathan Edwards preached his famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” those listening in the audience fainted and cried out in terror. Over the history of revivals, people have cried out, wailed, fallen to the ground, fainted, shrieked, moaned, and laughed. Charles Finney noted in one service, “The Spirit of God came upon them with such power that it was like opening a battery upon them.”13 In a meeting attended by many skeptical college students, Jonathan Goforth noted that the Holy Spirit suddenly “swept like an avalanche through the university students.”14 Goforth, who witnessed a great revival in China, observed: “If the Almighty Spirit moves in sovereign power on the hearts and consciences of men the outcomes must be above the normal. … [Might] as well expect a hurricane, an earthquake, or a flood to leave nothing abnormal in its course, as to expect a true Revival that is not accompanied by events quite out of the ordinary experience.”15 One could legitimately enquire how a personal encounter with Almighty God could not affect someone’s emotions. When Isaiah came face-to-face with God enthroned, he cried out, “Woe is me” (Isa. 6:5). When the beloved disciple encountered the risen Christ on the isle of Patmos, he fell to the ground as a dead man (Rev. 1:17). If we are not experiencing a deep emotional response when we encounter our Creator and Judge, we may need to ask why not.

Nevertheless, to assume revivals are nothing more than mass emotionalism is a misconception. Many revivals have been orderly and free of excessive affectations. During the Asbury revival in 1970, college students testified and worshipped for 185 straight hours, but the services were orderly, and students politely waited their turn to testify. Charles Spurgeon experienced almost continuous revival in his church, and yet services were peaceable and focused on the preached Word. Deeply stirred emotions are a possible result of revival, but they do not constitute revival itself.

There Is Only One Kind of Revival

In essence, this is true. However, genuine revival is conducted in two major ways. One is leader directed and Word centered. The other is laity led and testimony driven. A classic example of the former is the First Great Awakening. This moving of God was led primarily by pastors, including Jonathan Edwards, Gilbert Tennant, and Theodore Frelinghuysen along with the itinerant preacher George Whitefield. The services were focused on preaching and teaching of Scripture. The pastors and preachers controlled the order of the service, and the focal point was their exposition and application of Scripture.

The latter type of revival, laity driven and testimony centered, was exemplified by the Laymen’s Prayer Revival of 1957-58 and the Asbury Revival of 1970. In these cases no prominent pastors dominated the movement with their preaching. Rather, laypeople took an active role, praying and testifying. In some ways this form of revival can spread more rapidly because its advance does not depend on a Whitefield or Edwards to do the preaching. In the Asbury Revival the president of the school was out of the country when revival came. When teams of revived Asbury College students traveled across the country testifying to what had happened, more than 130 college campuses soon felt the impact. It has been said that “revival comes through prayer, but testimony spreads the flame.”16

We would make two general observations about laity-led, testimony-driven revivals. First, they tend to be more prone to abuse. While a man such as Jonathan Edwards witnessed dramatic occurrences during periods of revival, he discouraged excessive forms of emotionalism. If people acted or spoke inappropriately, they were silenced. Further, pastor-led, Word-centered revivals tend to be more rooted in Scripture, which is much more reliable than people’s feelings and testimonies. Testimony-driven revivals can be as genuine as Word-driven revivals, but they invite people unschooled in theology or who are easily misled by their emotions to affect the spirit of the entire meeting. Some have argued that the great revival under Evan Roberts in Wales was harmed because he did not place preaching at the center and he was not always discerning in screening who was allowed to testify in the meetings.17 Some of the testimonies became deeply emotional and at times suggested things that were unbiblical. A second observation is that Word-centered revivals tend to last longer than testimony-driven movements. This may be because they are generally more firmly grounded in Scripture and led by church leaders. — Blackaby, Henry T., Claude V. King, Richard Blackaby, and Anne Graham Lotz. 2009. Fresh Encounter: God’s Plan for Your Spiritual Awakening Revised. Nashville, TN: B&H Books.