“A revival!” My wife pointed out the window. There was a bulky white tent in a field surrounded by large signs inviting people to come see the magnificent “Dr. Reverend” so and so. My wife and I, both from the West, were passing through the Smoky Mountains of east Tennessee, and she had just finished explaining a documentary she watched about Appalachian peoples who attack unwanted visitors and feed their babies Mountain Dew. I locked the doors.

Revivals have been a large part of American religious culture since the 1700s. A preacher would come to a town and attract thousands—ranging from the illiterate to the literati (like Benjamin Franklin)—to hear about getting religion. These events often lasted days, and many who produced them became masters at holding a crowd’s attention. By the early 1900s, many revivals began to look more like Vaudeville and the circus than a church service. American culture adores a performance, and many churches have succumbed to give the audience what it wants.

The novelist Stephen King, in an interview on his most recent thriller, Joyland, eulogizes the church’s simulation of “carny” culture:

“It isn’t overt in the book, but, sure, I think that we have a lot of carny aspects to life in America — everything from television and the movies to our religion. And we can see from the megachurches that — my goodness, Terry — people love a show. You can have a nice Methodist church somewhere in Oak Park, Ill., if you want it. People are going to come and they’re going to sit there and the organ’s going to play and that’s all terrific, but what I want is down in the ‘amen’ corner, Jesus jumping. I want that big choir with the people swaying from side to side, ‘Ooooh, God,’ and I want the electric guitar. Then I want the preacher where the guy’s going to walk back and forth and not just stand like a stick behind the pulpit. He’s going to, you know, shake his fist a little bit in the air and then he’s going to smile and throw his hands up and say, ‘God’s good! God’s great! Can you give me hallelujah?’ I just adore that. And it’s really only about two steps from the carny pitchman, because I like that, too.”

Creepy. King’s remarks say a lot about the ringmasters and clowns who use religion for entertainment, but I’m more concerned about the circus attendees. How do the masses know if they’re having a legitimate religious experience? Caught up in the light shows, rock bands, theatrics, comedy, and motivational speeches, it can sometimes be hard to tell if the awakened emotions are from God or the energizing atmosphere. Of course not all uses of music and artistic talent in church services are manipulative, but how is one to tell?

Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758)—pastor, missionary, author, president of Princeton, the premier theologian of American history—was also a revival preacher. Even though he witnessed tremendous spiritual vitality as a result of revival preaching, he also saw abuses of it, “What they are principally taken and elevated with, is not the glory of God, or beauty of Christ, but the beauty of their experiences.” Even in his day, phonies made religion into a production, exploiting the emotional reactions of the audience. In response, Edwards determined twelve “distinguishing signs” of genuine religious affections. For those who want more than religious charades, evaluate your experience by a few of his signs:

First Sign: It’s basic, but you must begin to actually like spiritual things. The Holy Spirit produces a committed and lively attachment to spiritual activity, like prayer, worship and serving others. True religious experiences should involve a growing interest in holiness and distaste for sin.

Second Sign: A love for God that is based in who God is rather than what you can get from Him. Prior to “all considerations of his own interest or happiness,” one must actually love God Himself. The point is not to just be impressed with God’s greatness but to love Him for His goodness. A King’s majesty earns him admiration, but his just and charitable ways win hearts.

Fourth Sign: The religious experience is authentic if it arises from actual knowledge. Religious feelings that are separate from an accurate understanding of God’s Word are being motivated by something other than God. A firm conviction of the truths of God and vital spiritual experience must go hand in hand.

Eighth Sign: True religious affections “differ from those affections that are false and delusive” when they reflect the “dovelike spirit and temper of Jesus Christ.” If you’re more into short-term spiritual highs and self-help than you are about developing a Christ-like “spirit of love, meekness, quietness, forgiveness and mercy,” then you better check yourself before you wreck yourself. Humility and self-denial do not cater to recreational religiosity, but it will please God.

Twelfth Sign: True religious affections must lead to Christian practice and a life of obedience to God. One is certainly not experiencing God if it doesn’t transform your actions.

Edwards compares those whose religious experiences “now and then seem to be raised up to the clouds” to heavy but brief rain showers, while followers of true religion are steady and living streams. The former are comets that burn out, and the latter are fixed stars. True religion should look different than the carnival. Try it out. God has far grander goals for your life than your entertainment.


Jonathan Edwards. Religious Affections in The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Vol. 2. Edited by John E. Smith. New Haven:Yale University Press, 1959.

1 Comment

  1. It is kind of hard to know what King is driving at here, with the carny reference. And Mr/Ms. Headline Writer, his name is spelled “Stephen,” as Ryan correctly types.

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