Matthew 11:25-30 (ESV) At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
The first great awakening started in the American colonies in the 1730s-1740s among the mostly Calvinist churches; you probably have heard of Jonathan Edwards and his famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon, which is a perfect representation of the nature of the first great awakening. The second great awakening ran from the late 1700s through the mid-1800s; it crossed the country through the work of mostly Baptist and Methodist revivalist preachers who held camp meetings to stir up religious fervor. And the third great awakening ran from the late 1850s through the early 1900s and produced a flurry of new denominations, such as the Pentecostals and Nazarenes.
One of the common threads running through all of these great awakenings is that preachers more and more appealed to the emotions of their audiences and tried to get them stirred up to action by manipulation rather than by simply letting God’s Word do its work. Generally speaking, before the great awakenings, Christians sermons had been focused on teaching God’s Word faithfully and calling people to repentance, with the recognition that people do have the ability to reject the call and go their own way. The preachers of the great awakenings weren’t satisfied with this sort of preaching since they thought it was too focused on appealing to the mind, the human intellect. Instead, they thought that preaching should appeal to human emotions, to feelings, to try to get people to make a decision to change their lives so that they would be more committed to God, or more morally responsible, or more active in addressing social problems, or even committed to totally avoiding things like drinking, dancing, and card-playing.
During the first great awakening, the preaching emphasized the horrors of hell and tried to scare people straight, but the sermons weren’t presented in what we might call a hellfire-and-brimstone style. Instead, people like Jonathan Edwards preached in a calm manner, with relatively little gesturing and voice fluctuation. But even without theatrics, his sermon was interrupted repeatedly by people moaning and crying out, “What must I do to be saved?”, so it clearly had been designed to get people to feel really scared and desperate.
But after the first great awakening, the preachers combined a hellfire-and-brimstone message with a hellfire-and-brimstone style: they got more and more theatrical, more and more rowdy, more and more willing to shout and work their crowds up into a frenzy. They rejected the use of the historic liturgy because they said it was too formal and unemotional. They shied away from using traditional hymns that were sung in a reverent manner and exchanged them for emotional revival songs that brought tears to people’s eyes and softened them up so that they could make their decision for Jesus and rededicate their lives to the Lord. The revivalists wanted people to have a personal experience of God’s presence with them and in them.
It is important to understand this history of religion in our country because it shows why faithful Lutherans have never felt quite at home in this land of diverse and strange religions. Throughout American history, conservative, confessional Lutherans have always been skeptical of and critical of great awakenings and revivalism because we believe that God’s Word accomplishes its purposes in our lives without preachers manipulating our emotions or playing music that makes us feel like God is present in our hearts.
It is a shame that many so-called Lutheran churches today are embracing a lot of the revivalist techniques in their preaching and worship, since none of the great awakenings that happened in our country were truly biblical awakenings. Thanks be to God that He has preserved many of our Lutheran congregations from the errors and excesses of revivalism, but we must always be on guard! The greatest temptation for congregations that do have God’s Word and Sacraments administered purely, and that do worship the Lord rightly, is that we become complacent and so familiar with what we have that we don’t appreciate how amazing God’s gifts in the Divine Service are.
For these things we must repent, and so that we may awaken to what our Lord would have us believe, and how He would have us worship, we need to have the great awakening that Jacob did in Genesis 28: that is, the revelation that we don’t seek God, but that He seeks us out, reveals Himself to us by Him coming and speaking to us, and when He speaks, the words that He really wants us to hear are His Gospel promises, promises that are true and faithful no matter whether they are whispered or shouted or read. And in response, we can exclaim about our Divine Service, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
Prayer (LSB 585):
1. Lord Jesus Christ, with us abide,
For round us falls the eventide.
O let Your Word, that saving light,
Shine forth undimmed into the night.
2. In these last days of great distress
Grant us, dear Lord, true steadfastness
That we keep pure till life is spent
Your holy Word and Sacrament.
3. To hope grown dim, to hearts turned cold
Speak tongues of fire and make us bold
To shine Your Word of saving grace
Into each dark and loveless place.
4. May glorious truths that we have heard,
The bright sword of Your mighty Word,
Spurn Satan that Your Church be strong,
Bold, unified in act and song.
5. Restrain, O Lord, the human pride
That seeks to thrust Your truth aside
Or with some man-made thoughts or things
Would dim the words Your Spirit sings.
6. Stay with us, Lord, and keep us true;
Preserve our faith our whole life through—
Your Word alone our heart’s defense,
The Church’s glorious confidence. Amen.