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Soul Winning in American History
by Richard Flanders
 

An important reason for our nation's spiritual and moral decline is the churches' neglect of soul winning. One appeal to abandon soul winning pretends to call for a change in the method of evangelism. We must drop "confrontational evangelism" and adopt "lifestyle evangelism," the "experts" say. Another departure from soul winning claims to call for a change in the definition of evangelism. Relief work, political activism and a great variety of activities are now called evangelism. We are told that this is a "new day" and that direct soul winning (i.e. evangelistic services, personal witnessing, door-to-door visitation, tract distribution) is the method of a past era.

Yet the soul-winning Christians of the past did not think of going after the lost as a "method." To them winning souls was a duty, mandated by the Lord's Great Commission. Direct soul winning has not characterized only one era in church history; it has been the passion and work of Bible-believers in all eras. Christian evangelism has had a profound influence on our history and the culture of our nation!

The very settlement of the colonies in America was motivated in part by soul-winning zeal. The famous Mayflower Compact declared that the Plymouth Colony was "undertaken for the glory of God, and the advancement of the Christian faith." Of course, the "advancement of the Christian faith" means "soul winning."

From colonial days, America has seen many intense soul-winning efforts. In the later 1600s, Puritan pastors in Massachusetts held special conferences to address the "deep declension in the life and power" of the churches. The leading light of this revival movement was Solomon Stoddard of Northampton. He called for more evangelistic preaching and direct efforts to convert sinners.

When Stoddard died in 1729, his assistant pastor took his place as shepherd of the Northampton Church. This young man was the great Jonathan Edwards. Edwards' series of sermons on "Justification by Faith" in 1734 sparked the beginnings of what historians call "The Great Awakening." The next year Pastor Edwards reported that over half of the people "above sixteen years of age" in his town had been won to Christ! Written reports by Edwards on the revivals in Northampton and nearby locations helped spread interest in revival, soul winning and evangelistic preaching throughout the colonies. Other preachers joined the revival cause and soul-winning efforts grew across America. The profound effect of the Great Awakening on life in the colonies is demonstrated by Benjamin Franklin's statement that "it seemed as if all the world were growing religious."

The Second Great Awakening came after the War of Independence and involved many different human instruments in different parts of the country. At its onset, two Baptist preachers, Stephen Gano and Isaac Backus, led in the issuing of a "circular letter" that was sent to many churches calling for people to pray for revival. Their efforts resulted in an enormous "Concert of Prayer" among the churches of many denominations, which helped bring on the great harvest of souls.

The Second Great Awakening was led humanly by a great army of soul-winning Baptist pastors, Methodist circuit-riders, Presbyterian evangelists and Congregational educators. Then, after the War of 1812, a conservative Calvinist from Connecticut, the Reverend Asahel Nettleton, rose to prominence and was used of God to win thousands in evangelistic meetings across the country.

Coming into public notice in the 1820s when in many ways the Awakening seemed to be subsiding, Charles G. Finney led great evangelistic campaigns that gave new life to the revival. In 1831 in Rochester, New York, Finney saw the most powerful local revival in American history. Even Finney's critics estimated that a hundred thousand sinners were brought to Christ and into the churches across the nation that year as a direct result of the revival at Rochester!

Other evangelists, many of whom were influenced by and acquainted with Charles Finney, rose up to help extend the life of the Second Great Awakening. Among them was the first great Baptist evangelist in America, Jacob Knapp. While serving as pastor of the Baptist church at Watertown, New York, Knapp was called of God to begin an itinerant ministry as an evangelist. Knapp's campaigns were known for the devastating effects they had upon the liquor and gambling businesses in the communities where he preached. The truth is that successful soul-winning efforts always have dramatic effects on community life. The Second Great Awakening was the most enduring national revival in modern history. It held our country in its power for more than forty years (from about 1800 to about 1840).

The impact of the Second Great Awakening on American society could hardly be over-stated. The evangelical churches began the great missionary crusade that continues today and formed the first American mission societies. The midweek prayer meeting was instituted as common practice in the churches, as were the "altar call" and the "inquiry room." Camp meetings were first held in this revival, and citywide cooperative revival campaigns were first organized. The anti-slavery movement was powerfully advanced by the revived saints and reborn sinners of this long season of harvest, as were the Sunday school movement, the temperance movement, and the Bible and tract societies. Historians record that by 1834 the benevolent, social-action and mission societies formed and fed by the Second Great Awakening had received annually in annual donations almost as much as the entire budget of the national government! Soul winning set the tone of American life in those days.

Just as excitement over the disputes with Britain had diverted Christians from soul winning before the War of Independence and had brought to an end the first Great Awakening, the debate over slavery diverted soul winners in the 1840s and cooled the Second Great Awakening. Christians have often failed to understand that soul winning is the great cause, and that societal change is a side effect of the results of soul winning. Revivals die when attention to the promotion of revival is diverted. The churches fall when they are lured from their work of direct evangelism to join causes of genuine but lesser importance.

Soul winning has played a very important role in American history, although non-Christian historians seldom mention it. In the Civil War, over two hundred thousand soldiers on both sides were won to Christ through vigorous soul-winning efforts! Northern chaplains actually held revival campaigns in the camps, resulting in thousands of conversions. Two of the Civil War soul winners gained a reputation as Christian workers after the war. John Vassar of Poughkeepsie, New York, worked tirelessly for the American Tract Society confronting Union soldiers with the gospel, with eye-witnesses reporting between 75 and 100 men a day! He witnessed to famous Americans in those days, including President Grant and Brigham Young!

D. L. Moody worked with great soul-winning success for the YMCA and the Christian Commission during the war. Yet D. L. Moody was still fundamentally a personal soul winner. Friends told of his tireless door-to-door visitation in Chicago in connection with the Sunday School he organized there.

The American religious scene was dominated after the Civil War by the citywide revival campaigns of D. L. Moody and evangelists inspired by him. Organized with the cooperation of evangelical churches, these preaching campaigns won millions of souls before the turn of the century. Besides Moody, there were Sam Jones, J. Wilier Champion, and others. These men all insisted upon direct methods in seeking the salvation of souls.

The twentieth century enjoyed the rise of new evangelists who also saw great success in their soul-winning efforts. The best-known and best-loved was Billy Sunday, but there were also R. A. Torrey, Bob Jones, "Gypsy" Smith, Mordecai Ham, William Biederwulf and Henry Morrison. Each of these believed in, practiced and promoted what is now called "confrontational" witnessing and other kinds of direct soul winning, such as revival campaigns, tract distribution and public invitation.

Their influence and the influence of their many converts had a deep effect upon the conscience of the nation. The revivals that occurred prior to and during World War I gave great strength to the temperance movement and led, historians say, to the passage of the Prohibition Amendment in 1919. Interestingly, the diversion of Christian interest toward social and political causes (including prohibition) seemed to kill the revivals. By 1930, the day of powerful citywide revivals seemed to have ended. Yet the soul-winning campaigns of former days had provided many leaders and members for the churches.

Since the demise of evangelism in the 1930s, soul-winning activity has "come back" in certain places and at certain times. Yet the careful observer will note that whenever Christians slacken their direct soul-winning efforts, there is never a harvest of souls. Usually the neglect of soul winning has been accompanied by the same excuses we hear today, and often soul-winning zeal has been replaced by enthusiasm for moral and political causes.

Throughout the history of the United States, Christians have engaged in trying to win their fellow-countrymen to Christ! No period of our history has been unaffected by evangelism. Let us organize our churches for soul winning again. Let American Christians return to what their spiritual forefathers always did when they were at their spiritual best, and what God always blessed in a powerful and wonderful wayŚsoul winning!


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