Revivals Of Religion
( Originally Published 1912 )
"Knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep."-PAUL.
One of the most interesting chapters of science, as interpreted by Herbert Spencer, is devoted to setting forth the law of alternation or rhythmic force. Nature abounds in that kind of phenomena. The currents of air, the motions of waves and tides, the tremors of the Northern Lights, the waving of a flag, the flutter of a leaf, the noise made by a cataract, the beating of the heart, the course of the planets, and the immense periods )f geologic history are familiar illustrations of rising and falling power or of undulating force.
But it is a well known fact that man the individual Ind man the race repeats, on a higher plane, almost all he phenomena and laws of the natural world. Thus he course of human history manifests a similar rhythmic tendency. The stream of civilization does pot always flow in a steady current and is not always If equal depth. It is subject to many rains and many droughts. Nor has it flowed in a right line. It is as crooked as the famous Phrygian Meander and seems to follow the line of least resistance.
Recalling each of the elements that go to form civilization, a series of risings and fallings, advances and retreats appears. This is true of painting, sculpture, architecture, music and literature. The collective mind seems to go in a given direction until it reaches a degree of excellence which is, for the time, its limit. Then it becomes stationary; then follows a period of decline. There will be many years of sluggishness in which there will be nothing but imitation and reproduction of old forms growing more and more stereotyped and conventional and uninspired. When it can go no lower it will begin to rise. There will be an awakening, sometimes in an unexpected quarter of earth. New and original minds will appear. Rejecting the prevalent patterns and ideas, they bend themselves to a study of the unchanging laws underlying all beauty and truth and, as a result, a new world of the true and the beautiful rises upon the ruins of the old. Philosophy is a standing illustration of the prevalent law. It engages the attention of the best minds; then it declines in interest; after a time it revives. The course of politics shows an undulating surface. First there is a liberal, progressive policy, followed by a conservative and retrogressive period.
Each life is an arena upon which similar scenes are enacted. Moods chase each other like the waves of the sea. First there is vivacity, then depression. One day thought comes in torrents; another day the channels of the mind are dry and dusty.
"Tis not every day that I Fitted am to prophesy;
When Herrick wrote those lines he was stating a universal experience. Not only can the poet not write his best poetry at all times, but no man can do his best work at all times. Not only his energy fluctuates, but so does his interest. Now work is a source of unmeasured delight, again it weighs upon the spirit like lead and nothing is so inviting as idleness.
Thus, look where we may, in the life of the individual, in the life of the race or in the vaster movements of the universe we find the same law present. There is action, reaction; rising, falling; flow, ebb; labor, repose; inspiration, lethargy everywhere.
Finding so broad a base to support the theory that the movement of things is not along a level plain, room may be easily found to uphold the idea that religion conforms to the same general law. It has its natural period of exaltation and depression, Nor is this conclusion dependent upon reasoning from analogy. History amply confirms the philosophical theory. There have been periods of great spiritual depression or religious indifference. At best there would be only a soulless round of conformity to inherited usage, the feeble attempt to imitate what had been done by former generations of inspired and devout men and women. The free, energizing, upward motions of the soul were almost entirely absent. The true religious sentiment seemed to be slowly sinking into that Sadducean tomb from which there is no resurrection. Then a change would appear. Religion would throw off its formal rites and customs that had held it in its grasp like the bands of death. Its original strength returning, it would stand forth as the greatest inspiration of life, as the most powerful motive to noble deeds, as the most uncompromising enemy of all wrong, and the constant friend of all goodness. A new generation would appear with new courage and new aims. The spiritual verities would be grasped with earnestness, To do, to suffer, to sacrifice the lower for the higher, to become the willing agents of truth and love would be deemed the only worthy aim of existence. All past achievements would seem insufficient; all historic revelations would be eclipsed by the inspirations and duties of the present time: and the heavens seemed to be opened to form new wonders upon the earth.
In many places, at many times, and in many forms these religious awakenings have occurred. They come from the same source, but their special form is determined by circumstances. The clouds around a sunset are produced by the same causes, but they come with ever changing forms and varying hues. So, produced by similar causes, each revival of religion assumes a different form,--a form partly determined by the age into which it comes. Through all the past, voices have been heard saying: "Awake thou that sleepest. The time of spiritual repose is ended. The day for inspiration and duty and justice and benevolence has fully come."
Christianity itself was such an awakening. The voice of John the Baptist came like a trumpet call from heaven. Following him came Christ with his doctrines of spiritual force and universal love. Then came the apostles with their aggressive zeal to conquer the world for the new religion. We may read of that multitude, which was so thrilled by the rebukes and charmed by the invitations of those evangelists that in one day three thousand resolved to enroll themselves under the banner of Christ. We may recall that Roman Governor who trembled under the words of one of the missionaries. Persons in all classes of society were deeply impressed by the new gospel, and many asked, what they must do to attain the new way of life;—a way leading, indeed, through much persecution on earth, but with the promise of terminating at last beyond the reach of pain and sorrow. Pagan statesmen were amazed when they saw how widely the new spiritual movement was spreading. One complained that the temples of Jupiter were almost deserted while converts to Christianity were found everywhere from the humble homes of the slaves to the palace of the Caesars.
Those strange movements called the crusades were a kind of revival. They originated in an awakened admiration for Christ. It was inspired by the preaching of Peter the Hermit and others to whom it seemed a wrong that the tomb of Christ should be in hands of infidels. It is to be regretted that reason and enthusiasm cannot always be found together. There is no way of determining whether .enthusiasm without reason or reason without enthusiasm is more useless It is a pity that Peter the Hermit and Urban the Pope mistook the sepulcher of Christ at Jerusalem for the spiritual Christ in the world as the object of religious zeal. But without doubt their mistake brought some benefits to mankind. Perhaps it is better to be deeply in earnest over the grave of buried goodness than not to be in earnest over any kind of goodness. Better to love a dead Christ than have no love for any Christlike thing. Thus the crusades may stand for a revival of religious sentiment.
In the fifteenth century Savonarola came burning with indignation against the vices of his day. The church was sunk in indescribable grossness. The Florentine revivalist was bold, eloquent, aggressive and he claimed to have special guidance from God. He fearlessly attacked the vices of the church. Religion again became a living thing in Florence. Hymns were substituted for the ribald songs that had been openly sung in the streets. A pile of masks and jewelry and obscene books was made in the public square and was burned. On one Sunday twelve hundred men professed religion.
In the sixteenth century Luther came with his protest against unrighteousness and with his plea for the rights of the individual soul. Climbing the holy stairs at Rome on his knees, the truth was borne in upon his soul that the just shall live by faith. Returning home, he attacked the sale of indulgences and all the venal practices of the church. From that came the great religious and political movement known in history as the Protestant Reformation.
In the eighteenth century came Whitefield and the Wesley s. The age was irreligious in the extreme. The church was formal and worldly. A bishop said that religion had completely lost its hold upon the people of England. Visiting England at that time Montesquieu said: "In the higher circles of English society, if religion is mentioned every one laughs." In these conditions Whitefield came with his awful earnestness. With a voice that could be heard by twenty thousand persons in the open air, with a bound-less faith in God and a boundless love for mankind, he became a kind of spiritual storm sweeping over England. Nothing could resist him. His converts were numbered by thousands. By his persuasive eloquence the skeptic was made ashamed of his doubts. At his command the miser unloosed his purse-strings. His words struck the glass from the hand of the drunkard and led the libertine into paths of purity. The condition of the American Colonies resembled that of the mother country. Religion was at its lowest ebb. After the evangelist had been here for a time the whole scene was changed. Speaking of the results of Whitefield's work in Philadelphia, Franklin says: "It was wonderful to see the changes made in our inhabit-ants. From being indifferent about religion it seemed as if all the world were growing in piety."
An observation of those moral disturbances shows that while they have come in different forms the same power has been present in all of them. Felix and George Fox were separated by hundreds of years of time. Each lived in the midst of a wholly different civilization. In the quality of their lives there was nothing in common. The one was an elegant courtier; the other was a humble shoemaker. But both trembled at the same thing, namely, at the authority of the moral law. Thus the spirit of religion always comes with the same message. Its appeal is to the incorruptible moral law as opposed to custom, Isaiah ridiculed the religious observances of his day because they were separated from actual goodness. God demanded, not sacrifice, but obedience to the moral law. This has been the message of all great religious reformers. They may not have been great philosophers or great theologians, but they have been great heralds of personal righteousness. They all passed beyond sectarian boundaries. Their church was the world, for the truth they uttered was human and universal. Called by many names, at heart they were one. They were one in their antagonism to sin; one in their love of reality; one in their faith that the pure in heart and only the pure in heart are blessed, Whether the scenes of past days will be reproduced in the present or future it is difficult to fortell. But there can be no doubt of the value of those men who have appeared as disturbers of existing conditions.
To all the common aids of human progress,—science, art, learning, the regular pulpit teaching, must be ascribed much of the world's welfare. But much also must be ascribed to those exceptional mortals who have been so inflamed with a desire to uplift the race that they could see nothing else in life. Two of those whom Jesus sent out were given the title of Boanerges, that is, "sons of thunder." It represents their tempestuous energy. So in all ages there have been men who moved over society like a thunder storm. Having rolled along in their strength and grandeur threatening all things, and shaking the very hills with their deep voices, they have left the air purer and all the vales of life bathed in a richer sunshine.
True in nature, it is no less true in morals that the stream will rise no higher than the fountain. If the will borrows its power from a source higher than its own machinery, so must the church. Mere organization and numbers cannot atone for the lack of some downward streaming energy. Machinery cannot take the place of inspiration. The church in general is well supplied with officers; it has many boards and bureaus and agencies; it has much money at command. Yet, for some reason, it is partly a failure; the work it was intended to do is not very well done. Its moral vision is not as clear as it ought to be. It stands upon expediency rather than upon ethical and spiritual ideals. It often mistakes financial prosperity and energetic pew-rentals for spiritual ardor. Its energy is business energy rather than religious zeal. It is not inflamed with the desire to make the world holy and happy. It is not built upon the stream of sacred passion that flows down from the mountains of righteousness. Perhaps that is the reason that our days are seeing no greatness of any kind except material greatness. With spiritual inspiration gone there is not much of permanent value left. It is like an earth with its spring and summer taken away.
There is nothing our age more needs than a religious awaking. It may be impossible for it to come in the exact form in which it appeared in former times, but there can be no doubt that it ought to arrive in some form.
Every movement must be adjusted to present conditions and must be studied in the light of its own times. The circumstances surrounding Christ belonged to that age and will never reappear. We may recall the fact that he and his disciples lived in a land that had been subjugated by Rome. Alexandria had become the center of learning and philosophy. Since then great changes have come. The Roman Empire long since perished. Learning passed away from Egypt. Many discoveries have been made. Education has become much more general. Human thought has under-gone many changes. Earth contains new nations, new laws, new customs. Those former conditions will never again be exactly repeated. Neither can those scenes around Chryosotom or Savonarola or Wyclif or Luther or Whitefield and Wesley be exactly repeated in our day. But the spirit that was present in those awakenings might manifest itself amid these modern scenes and surroundings. Never again can the old crusades be repeated. The spread of education, the different modes of travel and change in values placed upon relics and places have made them impossible. A Peter the Hermit would use his persuasive eloquence in vain. In vain would a Pope Urban II call a Council and fasten the cross to the army of pilgrims bidding them go because God wills it. Our age finds little in Jerusalem that is of value. It does not even know where to find the sepulcher of Christ. Nevertheless it would be well if some eloquent orator or high church dignatary could awaken a new enthusiasm, not for the tomb of a dead, but for the spirit of a living Christ. It would be a great gain for our age if millions would set out on a pilgrimage to rescue the moral beauty of the Sermon on the Mount from the enemy into whose hands it has fallen. It is suffering greater insults from selfishness and commercialism than the Saracen ever offered to the sepulcher of him who uttered it in Palestine. Could it be rescued and loved and made one of the great motives of civilization then, not only Palestine, but all earth would be a Holy Land and every grave would be the resting place of a saint.
Sometimes it seems strange that so many centuries passed before the great, useful inventions were made. We wonder how those in the past lived without them. But we should be much more amazed that it has taken eighteen hundred years to discover that Christianity is an imitation of Christ and not merely a great church organization. It would seem that this is so plain that every one should have discovered it at a single glance. Are the stars greater than any school of astronomy? Are the flowers more beautiful than any book on botany? Is human love more precious than an essay on friendship? Is The Largo of Handel more touching than any theory of music? Should an orator have a language? Should the rainbow have rich colors? Then why should any one ask whether a Christian should have Christ-like qualities? Why should any one ask whether a religious life surpasses in value all theologies and all churches? It seems amazing that it could ever have been doubted.
The kind of revival our days need is a revival of actual Christianity. Too much time has been spent over religion as a theory, too little over religion as a practice. Sunshine is not a philosophy of light; it is light itself, life-giving, life-preserving, life-cheering. It is not otherwise with religion. It is not a speculative belief; it is a life, It is not in a church or book; it is in the mind and heart. It is to create nobler motives, to awaken purer aspirations, to turn the whole life current toward goodness. A revival of this kind of religion is very desirable. Indeed, a survey of society in the large makes it seem more than desirable. It is indispensable. It is demanded in the church, in the market place, in politics; demanded wherever human beings are living and toiling and dying. We can picture nothing better for our land than that the coming generation should find itself en-compassed by the deeds, the spirits, and the worship of a great living religion.
No one denomination can begin and carry forward such a revival. It can only come when all resolve to take the spirit of Christ and transfom it into life. This spirit is not only divine, but it is universal. Thus all churches might freely join in the effort to enthrone it in society. Each generation must perform its own tasks and care for its own high interests in its own way. The past is gone. Those who awakened religious fervor in former times cannot awaken it in our day. That task rests alone upon those now living. It is to be hoped that not many more years will come and go without the appearance of those, who, themselves filled with religious zeal and wisdom, will awaken the churches from slumber, restore their original meaning, and lead them to unite in a great spiritual movement that shall result in turning many to righteousness.
Looking upon earth, we behold great wealth, great power, great splendor. But here, also, are many mil-lions of human beings moving through many strange vicissitudes to many millions of graves. To make the march bravely and to lie down sweetly at its end, wealth and power and splendor will not suffice. More than these things man needs to have his mind filled with great thoughts about Deity and duty and his heart full of great expectations about destiny. May gracious Heaven send hither men who will awaken us from our spiritual sloth, and lead us toward the truest meanings of existence!