The longing to know and love God, to bask in his presence, is core to evangelical life and faith as I understand it. The famous Bebbington quadrilateral describes evangelicals as those who emphasize the authority of Scripture, Christ’s death on the cross, the need for conversion, and a life of service, in both word and deed.
That is good as far as it goes, but it does not go deep enough, in my view. There is something that energizes our action, that initiates our first and sustains our ongoing conversion, that draws us repeatedly to the Cross, that compels us to read and obey Scripture. That something deeper is the yearning to know God. (My previous essay, “Monomaniacs for God,” outlines what that looks like in Scripture and church history.)
One reason I believe desire for God, as such, is core to what it means to be evangelical is what happened at our birth, when the desire for God did indeed characterize the movement. The following historical survey is woefully inadequate to prove this and the subsequent decline of our desire.
In the beginning, the American evangelical movement sprung up when, in the 1730s and ’40s, George Whitefield and John Wesley began preaching about the need to be born again. Their preaching revived a dying portion of Jesus’ church, which reanimated a people so that they might enjoy a vital, living, and loving relationship with our Savior. The movement blossomed as the message and experience of being born again spread (often with painful contractions as the larger body of Christ resisted the movement).
But nothing could stop what was happening. Before long, there stood a movement of men and women, boys and girls, washed clean of their sin “by the blood of the Lamb.” They cried out with the joy of being alive, really alive for the first time. And they praised our Savior—and loved him more than anything, more than life itself.
The pastor-theologian Jonathan Edwards did his best to describe what he saw happening around him:This work of God, as it was carried on, and the number of true saints multiplied, soon made a glorious alteration in the town: so that in the spring and summer following, anno 1735, the town seemed to be full of the presence of God: it never was so full of love, nor of joy, and yet so full of distress, as it was then.
There were remarkable tokens of God’s presence in almost every house. It was a time of joy in families on account of salvation being brought to them; parents rejoicing over their children as new born, and husbands over their wives, and wives over their husbands. The doings of God were then seen in His sanctuary, God’s day was a delight, and His tabernacles were amiable. …
In all companies, on other days, on whatever occasions persons met together, Christ was to be heard of, and seen in the midst of them. Our young people, when they met, were wont to spend the time in talking of the excellency and dying love of Jesus Christ, the glory of the way of salvation, the wonderful, free, and sovereign grace of God, His glorious work in the conversion of a soul, the truth and certainty of the great things of God’s word, the sweetness of the views of His perfections. …
Evangelical faith soon became characterized by a lively, personal relationship with God, grounded in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, with a deep and abiding trust in the Bible as God’s personal Word to us, with an active desire to spread this gospel to others. These emphases—especially that lively and personal relationship with God—can be seen in many eras of church history, and in this sense, evangelical religion goes back to the beginnings of the Christian faith. But its modern, American form finds its birth here, in a season when whole towns “seemed to be full of the presence of God.”
After the Revolutionary War, as the exhausted nation moved West in the late 1700s, the enthusiasm—en theos, the yearning to be in God and to know God in us—was replaced by more other concerns. On a trip to Tennessee in 1794, Methodist bishop Francis Asbury noted, “When I reflect that not one in a hundred came here to get religion, but rather to get plenty of good land, I think it will be well if some or many do not eventually lose their souls.”
Andrew Fulton, a Presbyterian missionary from Scotland, observed anxiously that in “all the newly formed towns in this western colony [around Nashville, Tennessee], there are few religious people.” Others still worried that many Christians had become universalists and deists, the latter especially asserting God’s distance from this world. (See “Revival at Cane Ridge” for the above quotes and the description and quote below.)
Still, there were some who, at the first sign of a flagging spirit, prayed for God to make himself known again. They prayed at home, in their churches, at denominational meetings, and at retreats that would climax in the sharing of the Lord’s Supper. And their prayers were answered at Cane Ridge in 1801, when some 20,000 people showed up to be touched by the Spirit of God.
Their enthusiasm for God spread into what is now called the Second Great Awakening. It eventually found expression in circuit riders and Methodist camp meetings and periodic revival meetings of local churches. One observer at small revival previous to Cane Ridge described what was to happen to so many in the years to come: “No person seemed to wish to go home—hunger and sleep seemed to affect nobody—eternal things were the vast concern.”.”