Revivals, Awakenings, and Misrepresentations

by Richard Riss

During the course of my study of revivals over the past twenty-three years, one of the things that has fascinated me is the extent to which they are misrepresented. These misrepresentations are usually widely believed, creating stumbling blocks which prevent many people from partaking in the forgiveness, love, joy, refreshing, healing, reconciliation, character development, and other benefits which are freely available through a move of God of this kind.

Jonathan Edwards wrote of this phenomenon in connection with the outset of the Great Awakening, which began at his church in Northampton, Massachusetts in December of 1734. In the introductory portion of his FAITHFUL NARRATIVE OF THE SURPRISING WORK OF GOD, he said that the Great Awakening was being "exceedingly misrepresented by reports that were spread . . . [to] distant parts of the land." These reports were spread by other Christians, many of whom were in positions of leadership in the churches. Edwards wrote that, "When this work of God first appeared, and was so extraordinarily carried on among us in the winter, others round about us seemed not to know what to make of it, and there were many that scoffed at and ridiculed it; and some compared what we called conversion to certain distempers." Because people really didn't understand what was happening, they began to say negative things about it.

These bad reports spread throughout the entire country, and this had a lasting effect on peoples' willingness to accept that what was happening was a work of God. He wrote, "A great part of the country have not received the most favorable thoughts of this affair, and to this day many retain a jealousy concerning it, and prejudice against it." Unfortunately, when people begin to become predisposed against something, it is no longer an easy matter for them to benefit from it, and they will sometimes attempt to put a stop to it.

In the concluding remarks of the same work, Edwards referred again to "the innumerable misrepresentations which have gone abroad" concerning the revival that began in his church. He stated that because of this, it had been necessary for him to go into great detail about what God was actually doing within the context of the beginning of what we now know as the Great Awakening.

One of the reasons that people misunderstand revival is that it tends to create a great deal of chaos and disorder. Normal church programs are usually suspended. People are caught up in the things of God. They often fall to the ground or make unusual noises; they weep or laugh or act as though drunk. This was as true for the Great Awakening as it was for any other revival (for details, see my paper "The Manifestations Throughout History.)

During the Second Awakening in America, Charles Finney said some of the same things about misrepresentation of what God was doing. He lamented in his MEMOIRS that "it has been common for good men, in referring to those revivals, to assume that although they were upon the whole, revivals of religion, yet . . . they were so conducted that great disorders were manifest in them, and that there was much to deplore in their results. Now all this is an entire mistake."

This is a very common phenomenon during revivals. People will assume, based upon misleading reports, that there is a great deal of mixture in them and that there is "much to deplore in their results." Yet, one could be a perfect leader and still encounter storms of criticism; this is exactly what happened to Jesus Christ.

A little bit later, Finney wrote, "Until I arrived at Auburn, I was not fully aware of the amount of opposition I was destined to meet from the ministry; not the ministry in the region where I had labored, but from ministers where I had not labored, and who knew personally nothing of me, but were influenced by the false reports which they heard." Finney found it amazing that his critics would believe so many of the reports that they had heard.

However, there is a sense in which this phenomenon is not surprising at all. The spread of false reports and negative attitudes with respect to a work of God is a sure sign that it is genuine, because it indicates that the enemy is at work, attempting to discredit it.

The temptation to belittle the work of God is greatest among those who might have a tendency to feel that they would have something to lose if people were allowed to partake in it. There are strong temptations to jealously even among Christian leaders. Those who yield to such temptations are in danger of undermining the work of God by belittling the very thing that is bringing life and blessing to those who love Him.

God, in His wisdom, has His own reasons for allowing false reports to arise concerning His work. The stumbling blocks will therefore inevitably come, but woe to those through whom the stumbling blocks come.

Written by Richard Riss

Reprinted with Permission of Richard Riss.