As we continue our study of the many times the Holy Spirit has moved across communities and even whole nations, I want to talk about the ministry of Charles Finney (1792-1875), who became well known in revivals in the nineteenth century. Charles was a very keen sportsman and young lawyer, who also happened to have a mighty empowering of God’s Spirit on the night of his conversion which took place on Wednesday 10th October 1821. That morning the Holy Spirit convicted Charles on his way to work. So rather than go to work he spent the morning praying in the woods near his small home town of Adams in New York State. There he surrendered himself fully to God. He then walked to his law office that afternoon as a profoundly changed man and in the afternoon assisted his employer Squire Wright to set up a new office. That night he was filled with the Holy Spirit like never before. He describes that momentous night in his autobiography:
“By evening we had the books and furniture adjusted, and I made a good fire in an open fireplace, hoping to spend the evening alone. Just at dark my employer, seeing that everything was adjusted, told me good night and went to his home. I had accompanied him to the door, and as I closed the door and turned around my heart seemed to be liquid within me. All my feelings seemed to rise and flow out and the thought of my heart was, ‘I want to pour my whole soul out to God.’ The rising of my soul was so great that I rushed into the room at the back of the office to pray. There was no fire and no light in this back room; nevertheless it appeared to me as if it were perfectly light. As I went in and shut the door after me, it seemed to me as if I met the Lord Jesus Christ face to face. It seemed to me that I saw him as I would see any other man. He said nothing, but looked at me in such a manner as to break me right down at his feet. It seemed to me a reality that he stood before me, and I fell down at his feet and poured out my soul to him. I wept aloud like a child and made such confession as I could with my choked words. It seemed to me that I bathed his feet with my tears, and yet I had no distinct impression that I touched him.
I must have continued in this state for a good while, but my mind was too much absorbed with the experience to remember anything that I said. As soon as my mind became calm enough I returned to the front office and found that the fire I had made of large wood was nearly burned out. But as I turned and was about to take a seat by the fire, I received a mighty baptism of the Holy Spirit. Without any expectation of it, without ever having the thought in my mind that there was any such thing for me, without any memory of ever hearing the thing mentioned by any person in the world, the Holy Spirit descended upon me in a manner that seemed to go through me, body and soul. I could feel the impression, like a wave of electricity, going through and through me. Indeed it seemed to come in waves of liquid love, for I could not express it in any other way. It seemed like the very breath of God. I can remember distinctly that it seemed to fan me, like immense wings. No words can express the wonderful love that was spread abroad in my heart. I wept aloud with joy and love. I literally bellowed out the unspeakable overflow of my heart. These waves came over me, and over me, and over me, one after another, until I remember crying out, ‘I shall die if these waves continue to pass over me. Lord, I cannot bear any more,’ yet I had no fear of death.”
That night a member of the Church choir which Finney led called in at his office, amazed to find the former sceptic in a “state of loud weeping” and unable to talk to him for some time. That young friend left and soon returned with an elder from the Church who was usually serious and rarely laughed. This is Finney’s account of what happened then:
“I was very much in the state in which I was when the young man went out to call him. He asked me how I felt and I began to tell him. Instead of saying anything he fell into a most spasmodic laughter. It seemed as if it was impossible for him to keep from laughing from the very bottom of his heart.”
Next morning, with what Finney called “the renewal of these mighty waves of love and salvation” flowing through him, Charles witnessed to his employer who was strongly convicted and later made his peace with God. That morning a Deacon from the Church came to see Finney about a court case due to be tried at ten o’clock. Finney told him he would have to find another lawyer, saying, “I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead His cause and I cannot plead yours.” The astonished Deacon later became more serious about God and settled his case privately. Finney described the immediate change in his own life and work:
“I soon sallied forth from the office to converse with those whom I might meet about their souls. I had the impression, which has never left my mind, that God wanted me to preach the Gospel, and that I must begin immediately. So I spoke with many persons that day, and I believe the Spirit of God made lasting impressions upon every one of them. I cannot remember one whom I spoke with, who was not soon after converted. In the course of the day a good deal of excitement was created in the village because of what the Lord had done for my soul. Some thought one thing and some another. At evening, without any appointment having been made, I observed that the people were going to the place where they usually held their conference and prayer meetings. I went there myself. The minister was there, and nearly all the principal people in the village. No one seemed ready to open the meeting, but the house was packed to its utmost capacity. I did not wait for anybody, but rose and began by saying that I then knew that religion was from God. I went on and told such parts of my experience as it seemed important for me to tell. We had a wonderful meeting that evening, and from that day we had a meeting every evening for a long time. As I had been a leader among the young people I immediately appointed a meeting for them, which they all attended. … They were converted one after another with great rapidity, and the work continued among them until only one of their number was left unconverted. The work spread among all classes, and extended itself not only through the village but also out of the village in every direction.”
Charles Finney continued for the rest of his life in evangelism and revival. During the height of the revivals he often saw the awesome holiness of God come upon people, not only in meetings but also in the community, bringing multitudes to repentance and conversion. Wherever he travelled, instead of bringing a song leader he brought someone to pray. Often Father Nash, his companion, was not even in the meetings but in the woods praying. Finney founded and taught theology at Oberlin College which pioneered co-education in America and enrolled both blacks and whites. His Lectures on Revival were widely read and helped to fan revival fire in America and England. He emphasized Hosea 10:12, “Break up your fallow ground: for it is time to seek the Lord till He comes and rains righteousness on you.” He believed that if we do our part in repentance and prayer, God will do His in sending revival.
He preached in Boston for over a year during the great revival in 1858-1859. Many reports tell of the power of God producing conviction in people not even in the meetings. At times people would repent as they sailed into Boston harbour, convicted by the Holy Spirit. At one time the power of God came over a whole town and people. In bars, in their homes, on the streets people were overcome with the reality of their sin and God’s grace and forgiveness. This all began at the exact same time as Charles Finney was sitting on a train and looked up from his Bible as the train passed through the town and he prayed for this community where he was not scheduled to stop. The Holy Spirit moved with power and touched hundreds of lives.
Various revival movements influenced society in the nineteenth century but 1858 in America and 1859 in Britain were outstanding. Typically, it followed a low ebb of spiritual life. Concerned Christians began praying earnestly and anticipating a new move of God’s Spirit. Revival swept Great Britain also at this time, including the Ulster revival of 1859. During September 1857, James McQuilkin commenced a weekly prayer meeting in a village schoolhouse near Kells with three other young Irishmen. This is generally seen as the start of the Ulster revival. The first conversions in answer to their prayer came in December 1857. Through 1858 innumerable prayer meetings started, and revival was a common theme of preachers. On 14th March 1859 James McQuilkin and his praying friends organized a great prayer meeting at the Ahoghill Presbyterian Church. Such a large crowd gathered that the building was cleared in case the galleries collapsed. Outside in the chilling rain as a layman preached with great power hundreds knelt in repentance. This was the first of many movements of the Holy Spirit.
No town in Ulster was more deeply stirred during the 1859 Revival than Coleraine. It was there that a boy was so troubled about his soul that the schoolmaster sent him home. An older boy, a Christian, accompanied him, and before they had gone far he led the young boy to Christ. Returning at once to the school, this latest convert testified to the master, “Oh, I am so happy! I have the Lord Jesus in my heart.” The effect of these artless words was very great. Boy after boy rose and silently left the room. On investigation the master found these boys kneeling in prayer alongside the wall at the playground. Very soon their silent prayer became a bitter cry. It was heard by those within and pierced their hearts. They cast themselves upon their knees, and their cry for mercy was heard in the girls’ schoolroom above. In a few moments the whole school was upon its knees, and its wail of distress was heard in the street outside. Neighbours and passers-by came flocking in, and all, as they crossed the threshold, came under the same convicting power. Every room was filled with men, women, and children seeking God.
The revival of 1859 brought 100,000 converts into the Churches of Ireland. God’s Spirit moved powerfully in small and large gatherings bringing great conviction of sin, deep repentance, and lasting moral change. It was common for people to be lying prostrate for some time over come by the Holy Presence of God. The transformation impacted the whole community. This revival had a greater impact on Ireland than anything known since Patrick brought Christianity there. By the end of 1860 the effects of the Ulster revival were listed as overflowing services, unprecedented numbers of communicants, abundant prayer meetings, increased family prayers, unmatched Scripture reading, prosperous Sunday Schools, converts remaining steadfast, increased giving, vice and crime reduced.
Revival fire ignites fire. Throughout 1859 the same deep conviction and lasting conversions revived thousands of people in Wales, Scotland and England. Revival in Wales found expression in glorious praise including harmonies unique to the Welsh which involved preacher and people in turn. There too, 100,000 converts (one-tenth of the total population) were added to the church and crime was greatly reduced. Scotland and England were similarly visited with revival. Again, prayer increased enormously and preaching caught fire with many anointed evangelists seeing thousands converted.
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, a Baptist Minister known as the prince of preachers, saw 1859 as the high watermark although he had already been preaching in his Metropolitan Tabernacle in London for over five years with great blessing and huge crowds. Spurgeon first preached in what was known as New Park Street Chapel in 1853. His arrival soon led to such crowds thronging the chapel that services had to be moved to a vast hired hall in the Strand, and then to the Royal Surrey Gardens Music Hall, where up to 10,000 people assembled. During Charles Spurgeon’s ministry tens of thousands were converted to God under the preaching of the Word. Spurgeon pastored the church for 38 years, founding a pastors’ college, an orphanage, a Christian literature society and The Sword and the Trowel magazine. Over 200 new churches were started and pastored by his students.
This wave of revival in the mid 1800’s included countries around the globe. Missionaries and travellers told of thousands being converted, and others began crying out to God to send revival to their nations. It happened in South Africa. Revival began among the Zulu tribes before it spilled over into the Dutch Reformed Church. Tribal people gathered in large numbers on the frontier mission stations and then took revival fire, African style, into their villages. On Sunday night, 22 May 1859 the Spirit of God fell on a service of the Zulus in Natal so powerfully that they prayed all night. News spread rapidly. This revival among the Zulus of Natal on the east coast ignited missions and tribal Churches. It produced extraordinary praying and vigorous evangelism.
In April 1860 at a combined missions conference of over 370 leaders of Dutch Reformed, Methodist and Presbyterian missions meeting at Worcester, South Africa, discussed revival. Andrew Murray Sr., moved to tears, had to stop speaking. His son, Andrew Murray Jr., now well known through his books, led in prayer so powerfully that many saw that as the beginning of revival in those churches. By June revival had so impacted the Methodist Church in Montague village, near Worcester, that they held prayer meetings every night and three mornings a week, sometimes as early as 3 am. The Dutch Reformed people joined together with the Methodists with great conviction to seek God in worship and intercession. Reports reached Worcester, and ignited similar prayer meetings there. As an African servant girl sang and prayed one Sunday night, the Holy Spirit fell on the group and a roaring sound like approaching thunder surrounded the hall which then began to shake. Instantly everyone burst out praying! Their pastor, Andrew Murray Jr., had been speaking in the main sanctuary. When told of this he ran to their meeting calling for order! No one took any notice. They kept crying loudly to God for forgiveness.
All week the prayer meetings continued, beginning in silence, but “as soon as several prayers had arisen the place was shaken as before and the whole company of people engaged in simultaneous petition to the throne of grace.” On the Saturday, Andrew Murray Jr. led the prayer meeting. After preaching he prayed and invited others to pray. Again the sound of thunder approached and everyone prayed aloud, loudly. At first Andrew Murray tried to quieten the people, but a stranger reminded him that God was at work, and he learned to accept this noisy revival praying. People were converted. The revival spread like a fire. Fifty men from that congregation alone went into full-time ministry, and the revival launched Andrew Murray Jr. into a worldwide ministry of speaking and writing.
Later that year D.L. Moody (1837-1899), converted in 1855, led powerful evangelistic campaigns in America and England. Two women in his church prayed constantly that he would be filled with the Spirit, and his yearning for God continued to increase. While visiting New York in 1871 to raise funds for Churches and orphanages destroyed in the Chicago fire of October that year, in which his home, Church sanctuary and the YMCA buildings were destroyed, Moody had a deep encounter with God. He wrote:
“I was crying all the time God would fill me with his Spirit. Well, one day in the city of New York oh, what a day! I cannot describe it, I seldom refer to it; it is almost too sacred an experience to name. Paul had an experience of which he never spoke for fourteen years. I can only say that God revealed Himself to me, and I had such an experience of His love that I had to ask him to stay his hand. I went to preaching again. The sermons were not different; I did not present any new truths; and yet hundreds were converted. I would not be placed back where I was before that blessed experience for all the world it would be as the small dust of the balance.”
On a visit to Britain he heard Henry Varley say, “The world has yet to see what God will do with a man fully consecrated to him.” D.L. Moody resolved to be that man and he worked vigorously to establish the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in America and England as a means of converting and discipling youth. A Baptist minister in London, Rev. R. Boyd, went to a meeting where Moody had just spoken and observed, “When I got to the rooms of the YMCA, Victoria Hall, London, I found the meeting was on fire. The young men were all filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.” God’s Spirit powerfully impacted people through D.L. Moody’s ministry, especially in conversion and in deep commitment to God. Tens of thousands of people embraced the Gospel and many became pastors and missionaries.
When the Holy Spirit moves, whole societies and nations are transformed and the Kingdom of God advances just as Jesus said it would. The power of presence of God in revival is too often seen as some special and unique manifestation for a specific season and time and yet all the ingredients for revival are always at the disposal of every disciple of Jesus Christ.
The Gospel hasn’t changed.
The mission of Christ hasn’t changed.
The need for revival hasn’t changed.
The Holy Spirit’s desire to move in us, among us and through us hasn’t changed.
The Word of God hasn’t changed.
The only thing that has changed is the heart of God’s people, their conviction and passion for mission, their faith to believe that God desires to pour out His Spirit upon our land in our time and their willingness to pay the price, and more specifically to PRAY THE PRICE to see revival come.
If we can re-visit those wonderful revivals in the past and see what God can do when His people humble themselves and pray and cry out to Him for revival – if we can see all that God can do when the Holy Spirit moves and nothing changes in the choices we make the prayers we pray or the faith we have in God – then perhaps we will understand why revival continues to be a distant memory and not a realistic expectation.