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Campus Revivals of the Past

By Editorial Staff
Published March 31, 2008

By Nick Pappis

Could a Christian revival come to your campus? Many people today laugh at the idea. After all, they suppose, students on American campuses in the 1980s are far too sophisticated to want religion. And besides, they have adopted a new set of materialistic values that leave no room for God or the Bible.

Students at Yale College in the late 1700s also scoffed at the idea of Christian revival. Yale was at that time a hotbed of rationalism; the French philosophers had become popular among the students, along with the moral infidelity that men like Voltaire and Rousseau espoused. Students even called each other by the names of French intellectuals.

But, as history records, a revival did sweep Yale which “shook the institution to its center.” God’s instrument was Timothy Dwight, a grandson of the great preacher Jonathan Edwards. When Dwight became president of the college in 1795, the students handed him a list of subjects for class disputation, claiming that free discussion was limited in the classroom. To their surprise, Dwight chose one of their subjects: “Is the Bible the Word of God?”

Most of the students involved in the discussion took the side of infidelity. But when the debate was over, Dwight’s appraisal of their arguments convinced them that they were wrong. Dwight then preached a famous series of sermons in the college chapel. Most devastating was his 1796 sermon on “The Nature and Danger of Infidel Philosophy.”

The effect was immediate. “From that moment infidelity was not only without a stronghold,” wrote one student, “but without a lurking place. To espouse her cause was now as unpopular as it had been before to profess a belief in Christianity.”

That same year, 26 Yale students founded the Moral Society of Yale College. It discouraged profanity, immorality, and intemperance. By 1800, it included “between one-third and one-half of all the students in its membership.” Its influence laid the foundation for four revivals at Yale in the opening decades of the 19th century.

What had come upon one of the leading universities of that day has historically been called revival. A genuine awakening had come and turned the tide of humanism and ungodliness for a generation of young people. The seeds sown by infidel philosophers had dominated all of university life. Immorality, drunkenness, and the excesses of all forms had prevailed. One of America’s greatest universities had been brought down, reduced to nothing more than a haven of lust and debauchery.

How much different was Yale College prior to Timothy Dwight’s first sermon when compared to the universities of America today? Our classrooms are likewise filled with humanistic philosophy. Professors are endorsing humanism, Marxism, and Eastern ideas – while at the same time ridiculing Christianity as outdated and irrelevant. Students have thrown themselves wholeheartedly into sexual revolution, drug abuse, and the endless pursuit of more money and possessions.

The Yale College revival should serve to remind us that God can bring awakening into the darkest place. Can we look through the eyes of faith – as did Timothy Dwight – and believe that God can bring revival into the campuses and cities of this nation?

Prophetic Preaching

When the spirit of revival arrives, God always raises up men and women to speak for Him. They do not preach mere sermons – they speak as prophets of God. Their preaching does not come with persuasive words, but with power and conviction.

When the Apostle Peter preached at Pentecost, it was the multitude that gave the invitation. The Bible says that they were“pierced to the heart and cried out, ‘Brethren, what must we do to be saved?’” These people were not simply embracing a new philosophy. Their hearts had been eternally changed as the power of God broke through the darkness of sin in their lives.

Arthur Wallis states, “To aim at ‘decisions’ or ‘results’ before this work of convicting has been done is to build one’s castle on the sand. What is the good of offering a man a pardon when he has never been convicted of the crime? What is the good of urging a man to come to Jesus when he has no sense of his ‘lostness’?” This is the difference between preaching and revival preaching: it always grasps the consciences of men.

Prophetic revival preaching always goes deeper than a message by a well-prepared evangelist. To those who are on the receiving end, the reality of their sin and separation from God is overwhelming. Their consciences are smitten, and they cannot rest until they surrender to the lordship of Christ.

Charles Finney’s ministry is a good example of preaching that was immersed in a prophetic spirit. It has been said that for many years Finney would devote himself to prayer and intercession before he preached. He would then go to the meetings full of the Holy Spirit, and trust the Holy Spirit to anoint him.

On one occassion, Finney said, “I had not taken a thought with regard to what I should preach. The Holy Spirit came upon me, and I felt confident that when the time came for action, I should know. As soon as I found the house packed, I arose and, without any formal introduction or singing, opened upon them with these words: ‘Say to the righteous that it will be well with them; for they shall eat the fruit of their doings. Woe to the wicked! It shall be ill for him; for the reward of his hands shall be given him.

“The Spirit of God came upon me with such power that it was like opening a battery upon them. For more than an hour the words of God came through me to them in a manner that I could see was carrying all before it. It was like a fire and a hammer breaking the rock, and as a sword that was piercing … I saw that a general conviction was spreading over the whole congregation.”

Is it too much to believe that such power could be released once again in our day? Is it too much to believe that God could raise up an army of men and women like Timothy Dwight or Charles Finney, who can stand in the boldness of Christ and proclaim the truth of God to the university students of America once again?

Are the students on our campuses today any harder to reach with the gospel than the students at Yale in 1800? I believe that there is a wave of students emerging in this hour who will challenge every vain philosophy and turn our universities from humanism to the living God. Professors will once again call students to repentance. Students will gather by the thousands in university facilities to hear and respond to the Word of God. Similar events have happened in our nation’s past – we can expect them to happen again.

Selected quotes from Arthur Wallis taken from Rain from Heaven.


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