Charles Finney was a revival preacher in the mid 19th Century. He was a controversial figure then (and now) because he thought that revivals were not just something that happened arbitrarily, but rather something that preachers could participate in. He was also controversial because his religious view led him to hold several unpopular social views, such as the abolition of slavery and equal education for all regardless of gender or race.

Finney published his hard-won experience in his Lectures on Revivals of Religion. Here are some excepts from the first two lectures on what a revival is (and isn’t) and when one can be expected.

What A Revival Is

Revival consists in the return of the Church from her backslidings, and in the conversion of sinners. It proceeds as follows:

  1. A revival always includes conviction of sin on the part of the Church. In it, backslidden Christians are brought to repentance.
  2. Christians will have their faith renewed. While they are in their backslidden state they are blind to the state of sinners. Their hearts are hard as marble. The truths of the Bible appear like a dream. They admit it to be all true; their conscience and their judgment assent to it; but their faith does not see it standing out in bold relief, in all the burning realities of eternity. But when they enter into a revival, they no longer see “men as trees, walking,” but they see things in that strong light which renews the love of God in their hearts. This will lead them to labor zealously to bring others to Him. They will feel grieved that others do not love God, when they love Him so much. And they will set themselves earnestly to persuade their neighbors to give Him their hearts. So their love to men will be renewed.
  3. A revival breaks the power of the world and of sin over Christians. It brings them to such vantage ground that they get a fresh impulse towards heaven; they have a new foretaste of heaven, and new desires after union with God; thus the charm of the world is broken, and the power of sin overcome.
  4. When the Churches are thus awakened and reformed, the reformation and salvation of sinners will follow. Their hearts will be broken down and changed. Very often the most abandoned profligates are awakened and converted. The worst of human beings are softened and reclaimed and made to appear as lovely specimens of the beauty of holiness.

What a Revival Is Not

Revivals used to be regarded as miracles, and even some in our day believe it so. It has been supposed that revivals came just as rain does, sometimes in one town, and sometimes in another, and that ministers and Churches could do nothing more to produce them than they could to make rain come on their own town, when they were falling on a neighboring town.

As a result, some people are terribly alarmed at all direct efforts to promote a revival, and they cry out: “You are trying to get up a revival in your own strength. Take care, you are interfering with the Sovereignty of God. Better keep along in the usual course, and let God give a revival when He thinks it is best. God is a Sovereign, and it is very wrong for you to attempt to get up a revival, just because you think a revival is needed.” This is just such preaching as the devil wants. And men cannot do the devil’s work more effectually than by preaching up the Sovereignty of God as a reason why we should not put forth efforts to produce a revival.

A revival is not a miracle, nor dependent on a miracle, in any sense. It is simply the result of the right use of the constituted means – as much as any other effect produced by the application of means. There may be a miracle among its antecedent causes, or there may not. The apostles employed miracles simply as a means by which they arrested attention to their message and established its Divine authority. But the miracle was not the revival. The miracle was one thing; the revival that followed it was quite another thing. The revivals in the apostles’ days were connected with miracles, but they were not miracles.

The means which God has enjoined for the production of a revival do not themselves produce a revival without God’s own blessing. No more will grain, when it is sown, produce a crop without the blessing of God. It is impossible for us to say that there is not as direct an influence from God to produce a crop of grain as there is to produce a revival. What are the laws of nature according to which it is supposed that grain yields a crop? They are nothing but the constituted manner of the operations of God. In the Bible, the Word of God is compared to grain, and preaching is compared to sowing the seed, and the results to the growth of the crop. A revival is as naturally a result of the use of the appropriate means as a crop is of the use of its appropriate means.

Others are opposed to revivals in general. Because there are evils arising in some instances out of great excitements on the subject of religion, they are of opinion that it is best to dispense with them altogether. This cannot, and must not be. True, there is danger of abuses. In cases of great religious as well as in other excitements, some incidental evils may be expected, of course. But this is no reason why revivals should be given up. The best things are always liable to abuses. The evils which are sometimes complained of, when they are real, are accidental, and of small importance when compared with the amount of good produced by revivals.

When A Revival Is To Be Expected

A revival is needed:

  • When there is a lack of brotherly love and Christian confidence among church-goers.
  • When there are dissensions, and jealousies, and evil speakings among church-goers.
  • When there is a worldly spirit in the Church.
  • When the Church finds its members falling into gross and scandalous sins.
  • When there is a spirit of controversy in the Church or in the land,
  • When the wicked triumph over the Churches, and revile them.
  • When sinners are heedless of their spiritual danger and ignorant of their spiritual state.

Only a revival can help in these circumstances because:

  • Nothing else can wipe away the reproach which covers the Church, and restore religion to the place it ought to have in the estimation of the public. Without a revival, this reproach will cover the Church more and more, until it is overwhelmed with universal contempt. You may do anything else you please, and you may change the aspects of society in some respects, but you will do no real good; you only make it worse without a revival.
  • Nothing else will restore Christian love and confidence among Church members.
  • A revival is indispensable to avert the judgments of God from the Church. The fact is, Christians are more to blame for not being revived, than sinners are for not being converted. And if they are not awakened, they may know assuredly that God will visit them with His judgments.
  • Nothing but a revival of religion can preserve such a Church from disappearing. A Church declining in this way cannot continue to exist without a revival. If it receives new members, they will, for the most part, be made up of ungodly persons. Without revivals, more in a Church will die every year than be converted.
  • Nothing but a revival can prevent the means of grace from doing a great injury to the ungodly. Without a revival they will grow harder and harder under preaching, and will experience a more horrible damnation than they would if they had never heard the Gospel.
  • Likewise, there is no other way in which believers can be sanctified, grow in grace, and be fitted for heaven. What is “growing in grace”? Is it hearing sermons and getting some new notions about religion? No. The Christian who does this, and nothing more, is getting worse and worse, more and more hardened, and every week it is more difficult to rouse him up to duty.

The hallmarks of an impending revival include:

  • When the providence of God indicates that a revival is at hand. There is a conspiring of events to open the way, a preparation of circumstances to favor a revival, so that those who are looking out can see that a revival is at hand, just as plainly as if it had been revealed from heaven.
  • When the wickedness of the wicked grieves and humbles and distresses Christians. Sometimes the conduct of the wicked drives Christians to prayer, breaks them down, and makes them sorrowful and tender-hearted, so that they can weep day and night, and instead of scolding the wicked they pray earnestly for them. Therefore, the prevalence of wickedness is no evidence at all that there is not going to be a revival. That is often God’s time to work.
  • When Christians have a spirit of prayer for a revival. That is, when they pray as if their hearts were set upon it. Christians may be warm in prayer for other things, but that is not what is in view here. rather, they feel the need for a revival, they pray for it; they feel for their own families and neighborhoods; they pray for them as if they could not be denied. This spirit of prayer is not many prayers and warm words, but rather a state of the heart. It is a continual desire and anxiety of mind for the salvation of sinners. It is something that weighs them down. This travail of soul is that deep agony which persons feel when they lay hold on God for such a blessing, and will not let Him go till they receive it. I do not mean that great distress is essential to a genuine spirit of prayer. Rather a deep, continual, earnest desire for the salvation of sinners is what constitutes the spirit of prayer for a revival.
  • When the attention of ministers is especially directed to this particular object, and when their preaching and other efforts are aimed particularly at the conversion of sinners.
  • When Christians begin to confess their sins to one another. At other times they confess in a general manner, as if they are only half in earnest. They may do it in eloquent language, but it does not mean anything. But when there is an ingenuous breaking down, and a pouring out of the heart in confession of sin, the flood-gates will soon burst open, and salvation will flow over the place.
  • When Christians are found willing to make the sacrifices necessary to carry it on. They must be willing to sacrifice their feelings, their business, their time, to help forward the work. Ministers must be willing to offend the impenitent by plain and faithful dealing, and perhaps offend many members of the Church who will not come up to the work. They must be prepared to go on with the work even though they should lose the affections of all the impenitent, and of all the cold part of the Church. The minister must be prepared, if it be the will of God, to be driven away from the place.
  • When ministers and other Church leaders are willing to have God promote it by whatsoever instruments He pleases. Sometimes ministers are not willing to have a revival unless they can have the management of it, or unless their efforts can be conspicuous in promoting it. They wish to prescribe to God what He shall direct and bless, and what men He shall put forward.

In fact, when the above things occur, a revival to some extent already exists.