Religionists of the nineteenth century held experience in high esteem. To receive membership in a local congregation, nearly every denomination required of the applicant the relation of an experience. Such experiences could take several forms. A believer might report they felt something as simple as a surge of warmth overwhelming them as they prayed for acceptance. The experience might be a dramatic testimony or a physical manifestation. In every case, such experiences depended on feeling.
Although much of this originated in the Calvinist doctrines of predestination and the direct operation of the Holy Spirit, a renewed emphasis came in the 1700s from Theodore Freylinghuysen. Freylinghuysen, a Reformed preacher in
Revivalism also gave a “shot in the arm” to religious feeling and experience. George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, and Samuel Davies were all powerful preachers who could stir the emotions. Preachers and hearers alike often mistakenly attributed these emotional feelings to the working of the Holy Spirit whose regenerating power brought conviction and release. The “Second Great Awakening” of the early nineteenth century also saw its share of emotional phenomena. Hearing of remarkable events in
Alexander Campbell and Walter Scott rejected the necessity of experience in salvation.
The reformers of the nineteenth century rejected any idea of such overt operations of the Spirit along with any need for experience, emotional or otherwise, for proving faith. As
For Campbell, and others, faith originated in a quiet confidence in the testimony of the Scripture. Because the eye-witnesses faithfully reported their experiences, one could come to believe without reservation that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. Paul’s letters, and the writings of others in the New Testament, continued Christ’s teachings as “he led them into all truth” (John 14:26). Leaders in the Restoration Movement realized it was not their experience but the experience of the Apostolic writers that meant something.
I find it interesting that religionists are today returning to a “religion of feeling and experience.” Commentators on the contemporary religious scene tell us that those around us are “seeking an experience with God” – indeed, they want to “experience God.” But what do they mean? They mean they want their emotions excited, their feelings moved, and their heartbeat stimulated. Today’s hearers must come away from a religious gathering with their “ears tickled” and “feeling moved.” Add to this, the sad fact that “booming bass” is often becomes a substitute for religious feeling. If one can feel the music, then there is an experience with God.
I am not making a case here for traditional worship, which is by common interpretation often boring worship. Uninteresting or boring worship is an offense against God. It is my conviction that one can present the ancient gospel in an interesting and winsome way, a way that appeals to thoughtful consideration without making it dreary or dull. At the same time, one does not have to dismiss the content component while emphasizing the emotional component to make disciples. Our churches are rapidly becoming large and shallow. Our preachers continue to spoon-feed pablum when long-time believers should be into the meat of the Word.
Time spent with God and with each other should be enjoyable and even entertaining. Enjoyment and entertainment, however, can never be the chief end. Worship must never degenerate to the level of “the show”. It is a gathering of the saints to celebrate what God, through Christ Jesus, has done for us. We express our thanks for his experiences rather than seeking one of our own. As in most things called Christian, it is a matter of balance as opposed to extreme.