One of the places I often go back to when I seek to understand what true revival looks like - and whether movements, voices, or people are hitting the nail on the head - is an account that Ellen White shared after holding meetings - along with A.T. Jones and E.J. Waggoner - in South Lancaster, Massachusetts, in January of 1889. These meetings were extremely powerful in Ellen White's mind, to the point that she said, "We seemed to breathe in the very atmosphere of heaven." Thus, I find it fruitful to judge these various perspectives against the elements that were present in those South Lancaster meetings.
So I am here re-producing Ellen White's testimony about those meetings. It is a little lengthy for a quick read, but at only 2300 words, I think it will be an extremely beneficial read. At some point in the near future, I hope to offer some reflections on what I see as the main elements that caused Ellen White to say that "we seemed to breathe in the very atmosphere of heaven." So take a few minutes and read this account, taken from the Ellen G. White 1888 Materials, pp. 267-268. You will be extremely blessed.)
Special meetings began at South Lancaster on Friday, Jan. 11. We were glad to find the church well filled with those who had come to receive benefit from the meetings. There were many persons present whom we had never met before, and their presence testified to the power of God to convert souls, and to turn men's feet into the path of his commandments. Delegates were present from Maine, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and other States. We realized that there was a work to be done in setting things in order, which man's best efforts could not accomplish without the aid of God. Our hearts were drawn out in earnest supplication to God that he would work in our behalf. We had a message of present truth for the people; and if they would place themselves in the channel of light, they would be prepared to do a work for others similar to the work that should be done for them.
On Sabbath afternoon I had freedom in presenting to the people the necessity of obeying the law of God. It is not enough to say that we believe. We must have that genuine faith which works by love, and purifies the soul. God has given us a perfect standard of righteousness in his law. "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself." This comprehends the whole duty of man to his God and to his neighbor. We owe to God our life, and all that makes life desirable, and when we refuse to render obedience to him, we rob and defraud our own souls. No man can choose his own way without deep ingratitude to God; in so doing he renders to God enmity for love.
We felt burdened for those who had been bearing the message of truth to others, lest they should close their hearts to some of the precious rays of heaven's light that God has sent them. Jesus rejoiced when his followers received his messages of truth. At one time he raised his eyes to heaven, and said, "I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes." The precious Saviour, who brought life and immortality to light, rejoiced that the plan of salvation could be understood by those who were humble in spirit, although the proud and self-sufficient could not comprehend its mystery. The worldly-wise cannot see the beauty of that truth which Christ constantly opens to the understanding of those who have a willing, childlike desire to be loyal to God. To the humble the truth is the power of God unto salvation.
On Sabbath afternoon, many hearts were touched, and many souls were fed on the bread that cometh down from heaven. After the discourse we enjoyed a precious social meeting. The Lord came very near, and convicted souls of their great need of his grace and love. We felt the necessity of presenting Christ as a Saviour who was not afar off, but nigh at hand. When the Spirit of God begins to work upon the hearts of men, the fruit is seen in confession of sin, and restitution for wrongs. All through the meetings, as the people sought to draw nearer to God, they brought forth works meet for repentance by confessing one to another where they had wronged each other by word or act. Wild, clamorous cries and exercises are no evidence that the Spirit of God is at work. The Lord manifested himself to Elijah in the still small voice. Says Christ, "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me." It is the sinner himself who has barred the door. Will he take down the barriers? Will he unbolt the door? The locks are all on his side of the door, not on the Saviour's side.
There were many, even among the ministers, who saw the truth as it is in Jesus in a light in which they had never before viewed it. They saw the Saviour as a sin-pardoning Saviour, and the truth as the sanctifier of the soul. "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." If we would be partakers with Christ of his glory, we must also be willing to share with him in his humiliation. "Though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered." This must be the experience of every true child of God. "Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind; for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin."
We should not murmur if we are called upon to share the suffering part of religion. There are many who do not feel averse to suffering, but they do not exercise simple, living faith. They say they do not know what it means to take God at his word. They have a religion of outward forms and observances. It is painful to see the unbelief that exists in the hearts of many of God's professed followers. We have the most precious truths ever committed to mortals, and the faith of those who have received these truths should correspond to their greatness and value. There are many who seem to feel that they have a great work to do themselves before they can come to Christ for his salvation. They seem to think that Jesus will come in at the very last of their struggle, and give them help by putting the finishing touch to their life-work. It seems difficult for them to understand that Christ is a complete Saviour, and able to save to the uttermost all that come unto God by him. They lose sight of the fact that Christ himself is "the way, the truth, and the life." When we individually rest upon Christ, with full assurance of faith, trusting alone to the efficacy of his blood to cleanse from all sin, we shall have peace in believing that what God has promised he is able to perform. As Christ represented the Father, so we are to represent Christ to the world. We cannot transfer our obligation to others. God desires to make known to you what is the richness of his glory, that you may preach the mystery of salvation to those around you,--Christ in you the hope of glory.
As our brethren and sisters opened their hearts to the light, they obtained a better knowledge of what constitutes faith. The Lord was very precious; he was ready to strengthen his people. The meetings continued a week beyond their first appointment. The school was dismissed, and all made earnest work of seeking the Lord. Eld. Jones came from Boston, and labored most earnestly for the people, speaking twice and sometimes three times a day. The flock of God were fed with soul-nourishing food. The very message the Lord has sent to the people of this time was presented in the discourses. Meetings were in progress from early morning till night, and the results were highly satisfactory.
In the early morning meetings I tried to present the paternal love and care of God for his children. The knowledge of God's love is the most effectual knowledge to obtain, that the character may be ennobled, refined, and elevated. Jesus is to be our pattern. The Lord has lessons of the greatest importance for us to learn. He leads us as children to take views of his goodness, mercy, and love, from the simple, lowly life of our dear Redeemer. Christ ever directed the minds of his disciples to God as to a loving Father. He educated his followers to look upon God with confidence and love. When we are overawed with the greatness and justice of God, we are pointed to Jesus, to his spotless character and his infinite love. There we see the Father revealed in the Son, for God is love.
Both students and teachers have shared largely in the blessing of God. The deep movings of the Spirit of God have been felt upon almost every heart. The general testimony was borne by those who attended the meeting that they had obtained an experience beyond anything they had known before. They testified their joy that Christ had forgiven their sins. Their hearts were filled with thanksgiving and praise to God. Sweet peace was in their souls. They loved every one, and felt that they could rest in the love of God.
I have never seen a revival work go forward with such thoroughness, and yet remain so free from all undue excitement. There was no urging or inviting. The people were not called forward, but there was a solemn realization that Christ came not to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance. The honest in heart were ready to confess their sins, and to bring forth fruit to God by repentance and restoration, as far as it lay in their power. We seemed to breathe in the very atmosphere of heaven. Angels were indeed hovering around. Friday evening the social service began at five, and it was not closed until nine. No time was lost; for every one had a living testimony to bear. The meeting would have continued hours longer, if it had been allowed to run its full course; but it was thought best to close it at that time. I was not able to sleep that night until nearly day. The Lord had visited his people. And there was joy in heaven among the angels over the repentant sinners that had come back to the Father. What a beautiful sight it was to the universe to see that as fallen men and women beheld Christ, they were changed, taking the impression of his image upon their souls.
There were many who testified that as the searching truths had been presented, they had been convicted in the light of the law as transgressors. They had been trusting in their own righteousness. Now they saw it as filthy rags, in comparison with the righteousness of Christ, which is alone acceptable to God. While they had not been open transgressors, they saw themselves depraved and degraded in heart. They had substituted other gods in the place of their Heavenly Father. They had struggled to refrain from sin, but had trusted in their own strength. We should go to Jesus just as we are, confess our sins, and cast our helpless souls upon our compassionate Redeemer. This subdues the pride of the heart, and is a crucifixion of self. In the parable, the father saw the returning prodigal son. He saw his repentance and contrition of soul, and he had compassion on him, and ran, and fell on his neck and kissed him. The son spoke his penitence, saying, "Father, I have sinned against Heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: and bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found." The prodigal made a full confession of his sin. He made no excuse for his wrong-doing, and he was forgiven, and re-established in his father's house.
We thank the Lord, we rejoice, that it is not too late for wanderers to return, with humble confession, and receive a welcome in the Father's house,--to be clothed with the righteousness of Christ. I thank God for this with a full heart every day. We should be the most ungrateful of his creatures, were we indifferent when he works for the children of men in such a marvelous way. We should be like the heath in the desert, if we did not praise God when good cometh. I know that there has been rejoicing in heaven because of the good work done in South Lancaster; and if the angels rejoice, why should not we who have also witnessed the return of wanderers from darkness into the marvelous light of God's love?
To know God is the most wonderful knowledge that men can have. There is much wisdom with worldly men; but with all their wisdom, they behold not the beauty and majesty, the justice and wisdom, the goodness and holiness, of the Creator of all worlds. The Lord walks among men by his providences; but his stately steppings are not heard, his presence is not discerned, his hand is not recognized. The work of Christ's disciples is to shine as lights, making manifest to the world the character of God. They are to catch the increasing rays of light from the word of God, and reflect them to men enshrouded in the darkness of misapprehension of God. The servants of Christ must rightly represent the character of God and Christ to men. Says the apostle, "Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light."