by Daniel E. Wray


In the October, 1887 edition of The Presbyterian Quarterly Robert L. Dabney published an article with the title, ‘Spurious Religious Excitements’.1 His biographer, Thomas Cary Johnson, said: ‘This paper ought to be read by most ministers once a year.’2 We believe that the ninety-one years since its publication have served to prove the truth of this contention.

Dabney defines religious excitements, in this article, as ‘temporary movements of the emotions devoid of any saving operation of the Truth on the reason and conscience’.3 However, he is careful to note that ‘the efficacious . . . movement of the feelings is just as essential a part of a true religious experience, as the illumination of the intellect by divine truth; for indeed, there is no such thing as the implantation of practical principle, or the right decisions of the will, without feeling. In estimating a work of divine grace as genuine, we should rather ask ourselves whether the right feelings are excited; and excited by divine cause. If so, we need not fear the most intense excitement.’ Indeed, he went so far as to say that ‘on all practical subjects, truth is only influential as it stimulates some practical feeling.’ Thus he seeks to develop some useful guidelines for understanding the nature of false religious excitements, as opposed to true religious feelings.

He begins his analysis by recalling certain positions which he had established in a previous article.4 Basic to the present discussion is the fact that, ‘The function of feeling is as essential to the human spirit, and as ever present as the function of cognition. The two are ever combined, as the heat-rays and the light-rays are intermingled in the sunbeams.’ Thus ‘a human spirit is never devoid of some degree of that feeling which the truth then engaging the intelligence tends to excite.’ In order to understand this subject, it is vital that the different types of feelings be ‘distinguished and classified’. The ‘all-important division’ is between two types of impressions or feelings. The first are those impressions which are made upon the soul from causes outside of the person. In receiving these, the soul is itself passive, exercising no self-determining volition [e.g. pain, panic, sympathy]. The second type are ‘those subjective feelings which, while occasioned from without, are self-determined by the spontaneity from within and in which the soul is essentially active, [as desire, benevolence, ambition, etc.].’ Later he refers to the first type as ‘passive sensibilities’; in other words, feelings, emotions, or impressions stimulated from without involuntarily [i.e. without conscious volition]. The second type he variously calls ‘spontaneous appentencies’, ‘subjective desires’, or simply ‘spontaneity’; that is, desires which are voluntary and unconstrained [though this is not intended to deny the work of the Holy Spirit]. With these distinctions in mind — after noting that this is ‘the psychology of the Bible’ he proceeds to make a number of useful observations and applications.

The fundamental inference from the above — which he devotes the rest of the article to proving and illustrating — is that, ‘The excitement of mere sensibilities, however strong or frequent, can offer no evidence whatever of a sanctified state.’ This follows because the soul is passive in receiving such impressions, while the moving cause of them is outside of the person. Thus, the mere stimulation of these ‘passive sensibilities, in which the will has no causal part, can never be evidence of that saving change’. The evidence of regeneration which we must look for is ‘when the soul freely exercises a “hungering and thirsting after righteousness”, hatred of sin, desire of God’s favour, love of his truth, zeal for his honour . . .‘. This is not to imply that in his unregenerate state man has true spiritual ability. For ‘the doctrine of Scripture is that man’s spontaneity is, in his natural state, wholly disinclined and made opposite [yet freely] to godliness, so that he has no ability of will for any spiritual act pertaining to salvation. But it is promised that, in regeneration, God’s people shall be willing in the day of his power.’

Dabney would not have us conclude that there is no value in exciting ‘passive sensibilities’. On the contrary, ‘If the pastor aims to move the sensibilities merely for the purpose of gaining the attention of the soul to saving truth, and presents the truth faithfully the moment his impression is made, he does well. If he makes these sensibilities an end, instead of a means, he is mischievously abusing his people’s souls.’ To help avoid these abuses, he enumerates four categories of emotions, stimulated by religious topics, which can be as natural to the carnal man as to the regenerate. ‘People are ever prone to think that they are feeling religiously because they have feelings round about religion.’

The first of these emotions is that of ‘taste’ or ‘aesthetic feeling’. These may be as naturally stimulated by the beauty and wonder ‘of God’s natural attributes, and of the gospel story’ as by ‘a starlit sky, or a Shakespearean hero’. These emotions ‘have no more power to reform the will than strains of music, or odours of flowers.’

The second class is ‘the involuntary moral emotion of self-blame, or remorse’. This occurs ‘when the ethical reason pronounces its judgment of wrongfulness upon any action or principle’, and ‘it is one’s own action which must be condemned’. That the presence of this emotion is no sure evidence of regeneration is simply proven by noting that ‘It is the most prevalent emotion of hell . . .’.

The third class consists of ‘the natural self—interested emotions of fear and hope, and desire of future security and enjoyment’. Yet, ‘In all these feelings there is nothing one whit more characteristic of a new heart, or more controlling of the evil will, than the wicked sensualist’s dread of the colic which may follow his excess, or the determined outlaw’s fear of the sheriff. Yet how many deluded souls fancy that, because they feel these selfish fears or joys in connection with death and judgement, they are becoming strongly religious. And unfortunately they are encouraged by multitudes of preachers of the gospel to make this fatal mistake.’ In the light of this, Dabney calls for a ‘great reform in our preaching’. ‘This grovelling, utilitarian conception of redemption must be banished. Men must be taught that the blessing is only for them “who hunger and thirst after righteousness”, not for those who selfishly desire to grasp enjoyment only and to shun pain. They must be made to see clearly that such a concern does not in the least differentiate them from reprobate souls in hell, or hardened felons on earth: not even from the thievish fox caught in a trap.’5

‘The fourth and the most deceptive natural feeling of the carnal man is instinctive sympathy. It will be necessary to state the nature and conditions of this feeling. First: it belongs to the passive sensibilities, not to the spontaneous appentencies’ [i.e. voluntary desires]. Second: ‘it is even in man an unintelligent feeling in this sense: that if the emotion of another be merely seen and heard, sympathy is propagated, although the sympathizer understands nothing of the cause of the feeling he witnesses. We come upon a child, who is an utter stranger, weeping: we share the sympathetic saddening before he has had time to tell us what causes his tears . . . Third: this law of feeling extends to all the emotions natural to man . . . We sympathize with merriment, joy, fear, anger, hope, benevolence, moral approbation, courage, panic, just as truly as with grief. Fourth: the nature of the emotion witnessed determines, without any volition of our own, the nature of the feeling injected into us.’

Then Dabney draws two conclusions: (1) ‘Sympathy may infect men with a phase of religious emotion’; and (2) ‘the sympathetic emotions, though thus related as to their source, have no spiritual character whatever in themselves . . .’. This is not to say that such sympathies — placed in us by a Wise Creator — have no value, for they may produce useful results. For example, sympathy with a friend’s grief may lead to efforts to comfort him.

As applied to preaching, the proper use ‘of the sympathetic excitement is to catch the attention and warm it. But it is the truth thus lodged in the attention that must do the whole work of sanctification . . . Attention, sympathetic warmth, are merely a preparation for casting in the seed of the Word’. This distinction ought not to be taken lightly. After over 150 years of ‘altar calls’ and other ‘new measures’ designed to create these religious excitements with their accompanying spurious conversions, we have more than sufficient illustration of what Dabney refers to. ‘The preacher who satisfies himself with exciting the sympathies, and neglects to throw in at once the vital truth, is like the husbandman who digs and rakes the soil, and then idly expects the crop, though he has put in no living seed. The only result is a more rampant growth of weeds.’

Some distressing consequences follow from these spurious excitements. Consider the following:

1. Sinners are taught to believe [and never doubt] that they are Christians on no greater evidence than the experience of ‘feeling something round about religion’. Thus they are encouraged to engage in ‘a fatal deception and self-flattery’. Unrenewed men are tacitly invited to regard themselves as either born again, or at least in a most encouraging progress towards that blessing; while in fact they have not felt a single feeling or principle which may not be the mere natural product of a dead heart’. With an alarming ‘unscriptural rashness’ these ‘professed guides of souls’ . . . pass judgement on the exercises of their supposed converts with a haste and confidence which angels would shudder to indulge’. It is characteristic of this class of preachers to ignore or underrate the fact that “Christ has forewarned us that converts can only be known correctly by their fruits. Paul has sternly enjoined every workman upon the visible church, whose foundation is Christ, to “take heed how he buildeth thereupon”. He has told us that the materials placed by us upon this structure may be genuine converts, as permanent as gold, silver, and costly stones; or worthless and pretended converts, comparable to “wood, hay and stubble”; . . .’.6 Elsewhere Dabney has written: ‘So strong is the tendency to self-deception and formalism in man’s sinful soul, much of it will exist in spite of the most scriptural preaching and cautious management.’7 If this be so, how careful we should be to subject all our proposed methods to the test of Scripture. ‘How perilous is it to entrust the care of souls to an ignorant zeal!’

2. The indispensable biblical practice of self-examination [cf. 2 Cor 13.5; 2 Pet 1.101 is discouraged.8 ‘So long as the subjects are susceptible of the sympathetic passion, they are taught to consider themselves in a high and certain state of grace. All just and scriptural marks of a gracious state are overlooked and even despised. Is their conduct immoral, their temper bitter and unchristian, their minds utterly dark as to distinctive gospel truths? This makes no difference; they are still excited and “happified” in meetings; they sing and shout, and sway to and fro with religious feelings. Thus these worthless, sympathetic passions are trusted in as the sure signatures of the Spirit’s work.’

3. ‘Of the man who passes through this process of false conversion, our Saviour’s declaration is eminently true: “The last state of that man is worse than the first”. The cases are not few which backslide early, and are again “converted”, until the process has been repeated several times. These men are usually found most utterly hardened and profane, and hopelessly impervious to divine truth. Their souls are utterly seared by spurious fires of feeling’. Some remain in the communion of the Church, but ‘Their misconception as to their own state is armour of proof against warning.’

4. Furthermore, these evangelistic methods — with their exaggerated results attributed to the Holy Spirit — serve to discredit Christianity in the eyes of the world. The thinking person hears year after year of the great numbers of converts and also observes their falling away. Yet he notices that the preachers continue to claim great success. He is compelled by the facts to ask: ‘What sort of people are these special guardians and expounders of Christianity? Are they romantic fools, who cannot be taught by clear experience? Or are they conscious and intentional liars?’. Whichever conclusion they draw, the inescapable corollary is ‘That Christianity itself is an unhealthy fanaticism, since it makes its chosen teachers such fanatics unteachable by solid facts. Thus, the Christian ministry, who ought to be a class venerable in the eyes of men, are made contemptible’. This puts such thinking men in an altogether worse condition because, as Dabney later observes, ‘to despise the representatives of Christianity is practically very near to despising Christianity.’

5. But it is not only the onlookers of the world who thus conclude Christianity to be utterly false. Consider how things appear to ‘The most earnest and clear-minded of these temporary converts . . .‘. He ‘has now what appears to him, with a terrible plausibility, the experimental argument to prove that evangelical religion is a deception. He says he knows he was honest and sincere in the novel exercises to which he was subjected [and in a sense he says truly]. The religious teachers themselves assured him, in the name of God, that they were genuine works of grace. Did they not formally publish in the religious journals that it was the Holy Spirit’s work? If these appointed teachers do not know, who can? Yet now this backslider says himself, “I have the stubborn proof of a long and sad experience, a prayerless and godless life, that there never was any real spiritual change in me.” Who can be more earnest than he was? It is then, the logical conclusion, that all supposed cases of regeneration are deceptive.’

6. Some who continue in their self-deception are gripped by spiritual pride which ‘is as natural to man as breathing, or as sin. Its only corrective is sanctifying grace. Let the suggestion be once lodged in a heart not really humbled and cleansed by grace, that the man is reconciled to God, has “become good”, is a favourite of God and heir of glory — that soul cannot fail to be swept away by the gales of spiritual pride . . . The only preventive of spiritual pride is the contrition which accompanies saving repentance.’ Thus the spurious converts remain ‘unchastened by sovereign grace’.9

The reader is now prepared to read with insight and understanding Dabney’s masterful description of what generally happens at the type of meeting under discussion here:

‘These plain facts and principles condemn nearly every feature of the modern new measure “revival”. The preaching and other religious instructors are shaped with a main view to excite the carnal emotions, and the instinctive sympathies, while no due care is taken to present saving, didactic truth to the understanding thus temporarily stimulated. As soon as some persons, professed Christians, or awakened “mourners”, are infected with any lively passion, let it be however carnal and fleeting, a spectacular display is made of it, with confident laudations of it as unquestionably precious and saving, with the design of exciting the remainder of the crowd with the sympathetic contagion. Every adjunct of fiery declamation, animated singing, groans, tears, exclamations, noisy prayers, is added so as to shake the nerves and add the tumult of a hysterical animal excitement to the sympathetic wave. Every youth or impressible girl who is seen to tremble, or grow pale, or shed tears, is assured that he or she is under the workings of the Holy Spirit, and is driven by threats of vexing that awful and essential Agent of salvation to join the spectacular show, and add himself to the exciting pantomime. Meanwhile, most probably their minds are blank of every intelligent or conscientious view of the truth; they had been tittering or whispering a little while before, during the pretended didactic part of the exercises; they could give no intelligent account now of their own sudden excitement, and, in fact, it is no more akin to any spiritual, rational, or sanctifying cause, than the quiver of the nostrils of a horse at the sound of the bugle and the fox-hounds. But they join the mourners, and the manipulation proceeds. Of course, the sympathetic wave, called religious, reaches them more and more. As I have shown, it is the very nature of sympathy to assume the character of the emotion with which we sympathize. Thus this purely natural and instinctive sensibility takes on the form of religious feelings, because it is sympathy with religious feeling in others. The subject calls it by religious names — awakening, conviction, repentance — while in reality it is only related to them as a man’s shadow is to the living man. Meantime, the preachers talk to them as though the feelings were certainly genuine and spiritual. With this sympathetic current there may mingle sundry deep original feelings about the soul, to which, we have seen, the dead, carnal heart is fully competent by itself. These are fear, remorse, shame, desire of applause, craving for future [selfish] welfare, spiritual pride. Here we have the elements of every spurious grace. The “sorrow of the world that worketh death” is mistaken for saving repentance. By a natural law of the feelings, relaxation must follow high tension — the calm must succeed the storm. This quiet is confounded with “peace in believing”. The selfish prospect of security produces great elation. This is supposed to be spiritual joy. When the soul is removed from the stimuli of the revival appliances, it of course sinks into the most painful vacuity, on which supervene restlessness and doubt. So, most naturally, it craves to renew the illusions, and has, for a time, a certain longing for, and pleasure in the scenes, the measures, and the agents of its pleasing intoxication. These are mistaken for love for God’s house, worship and people. Then the befooled soul goes on until it is betrayed into an erroneous profession of religion, and a dead church membership. He is now in the position in which the great enemy of souls would most desire to have him, and where his salvation is more difficult and improbable than anywhere else.’

 In the face of all this, it is natural to inquire as to what keeps men so diligent in the use of methods which carry with them so much mischief. Dabney suggested five reasons: (1) ‘An honest, but ignorant zeal’; (2) ‘an erroneous, synergistic theology’. Those who hold to the Arminian error that the sinner’s will is able to work with God in the initial regeneration, or as some think, make it possible for God to work, will naturally seek methods to produce these ‘carnal acts of will’. Since a man’s theology always has consequences in his practice, this is only natural. (3) ‘Many ministers are unconsciously swayed by the natural love of excitement . . . This natural instinct prompts many an evangelist, without his being distinctly aware of it, to prefer the stirring scenes of the spurious revival to the sober, quiet, laborious work of religious teaching . . . this motive is as unworthy as it is natural’. (4) ‘Another motive . . . is the desire to count large and immediate results’. This is an ‘intrinsic weakness’ of the system since results are exactly what those who engage the evangelist, or support him, insist on seeing. ‘Hence, this evangelist has put himself under an almost fatal temptation to resort to some illicit expedients which will produce, in appearance, immediate results’. One only needs to glance at Scripture to see the fallacy of this type of thinking. ‘The best minister on earth may be appointed by God’s secret purpose to the sad mission given to Isaiah, to Jeremiah, and even to their Lord during his earthly course, “to stretch forth their hands all the day long to a disobedient and gainsaying people”.’ (5) Finally, the practitioner of these methods simply pleads that his methods work. However, it is sufficient to recall what has already been said about how and why they appear to work, and add to that the distressing cataloque of corollary effects.

Thus we can doubtless identify with Dabney’s contention that, ‘spurious revivals’ are ‘the chief bane of our Protestantism. We believe that they are the chief cause, under the prime source, original sin, which has deteriorated the average standard of holy living, principle, and morality, and the Church discipline of our religion, until it has nearly lost its practical power over the public conscience.’

Dabney then concludes on a constructive note with six qualities of a man ‘fit for the care of souls’: (1) He must be ‘deeply imbued with scriptural piety and grace’. (2) ‘He must have a faith as firm as a rock, and humble as strong’. (3) To this must be added a ‘profound submission to the divine will, which will calm him amidst all delays and all discouragements . . .’. (4) ‘He must have that self-abnegation, which will make him willing to bear the evil repute of an unfruitful ministry, if the Lord so ordains, and unblanchingly refuse to resort to any unauthorized means to escape this cross.’ (5) ‘He must have the moral courage to withstand that demand of ill-considered zeal in his brethren . . .’ (6) ‘He must have the unflagging diligence and love for souls which will make him persevere in preaching the gospel publicly, and from house to house, under the delay of fruit. Nothing can give these except a large measure of grace and prayer.’


  1. Reprinted in Dabney’s Discussions, Vol.3, from which my quotations are taken.
  2. The Life and Letters of Robert Lewis Dabney [First published 1903, reprinted by The Banner of Truth Trust, 1977], p 448.
  3. This article in Volume III of Dabney’s Discussions.
  4. ‘The Emotions’, Southern Presbyterian Review, July, 1884.
  5. Cf. Dabney’s treatment of definitions of faith in Discussions, Vol. I, pp. 179-88, Note especially his statement that ‘it is not true that Christ has promised to bless a faith merely carnal and selfish’, with the context [p. 186]. See also his Lectures in Systematic Theology [Zondervan, 1972], pp. 600-02.
  6. See 1 Corinthians 3.10-15. For Dabney’s extended exposition of this passage, see Discussions, Vol. I, pp. 551-74. This article concludes with nine ‘Rules for Pastor in Revival’ which correlate nicely with the article under present consideration.
  7. Discussions, Vol. I, p. 574.
  8. A good treatment of the place of self-examination and the use of marks of grace is found in Dabney’s Discussions, Vol. I. pp. 171-87. Cf. his Lectures in Systematic Theology [Zondervan, 1972], pp. 674-77.
  9. The interested reader can consult the following materials for a further display of arguments against the use of ‘altar calls’ and related methods: James E. Adams, Decisional Regeneration [Allention, Pa.: Sword & Trowel Publishers, 1973. 35 pp. pamphlet]; Kenneth H. Good, Are Baptists Calvinists? [Oberlin, Ohio: Regular Baptist Heritage Fellowship, 1975, pp. 16-41]; D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1971, pp. 265-82]; lam Murray, The Invitation System [The Banner of Truth Trust, 1973, 40 pp. pamphlet].

This article was taken from the Banner of Truth Magazine [December 1978, Issue 183, pp. 5-13.]

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