Why Torrey & Alexander attracted thousands

In writing Music Mania I came across Reuben Torrey & Charles Alexander, noting on p.165:

In 1905 Torrey and Alexander (a preacher-singer combination in the style of Moody and Sankey) took over Albert Hall Mission for 85 consecutive days, performing to 10,000 people every day!

Today they are certainly less well known than Moody and Sankey and their revival missions (held around the world and in major the cities of the United Kingdom) have been overlooked. I have just concluded reading a 1905 biography on the pair.

 The 1905 mission in Sheffield, where my own family lived.

The 1905 mission in Sheffield, where my own family lived.

In Music Mania I describe the cultural transition in England from people of faith to people of feeling. Abandoning the Bible as the Word of God, the Victorians relied instead on things that could be touched, heard and felt. Within the Church this meant more elaborate music and decor. Outside the Church this meant the cultivation of Classical Music and other High Art forms. (This movement is Romanticism and dealt with in some detail here.)

Alexander

It was within this cultural environment that first Moody & Sankey and then Torrey & Alexander visited England. They came with incredible stories of drunkards reformed, a man miraculously healed by the power of prayer, a heretic who became a missionary. Between the stories on the theme of what Christ could do for you there was always music - with choir and orchestra led by Alexander. The biographer tells how Alexander could had 6,000 young ungodly men singing a rousing military song, only to make them cry minutes later with "Tell Mother I'll be There". Most then answered the altar call.

There is a level of control and deliberate manipulation in the approach. Not only the choice of story / song was important but also the structure and order of the event. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this was a show, well-contrived to make people step forward and profess faith in Christ. With such an end in view, what mattered were results and to a large extent the ends justified the means. And if this was regarded as operating outside the norms of Christian worship - well, they were outside the norms, since the venues were theatrical and musical halls more often than Church buildings. If more people were converted by particular songs like Glory, then those songs received more performances.

The biography by J. Kennedy Maclean (Torrey and Alexander: The Story of their Lives) is itself example of Romanticism because it contrives to stimulate the reader into unmixed admiration for Torrey & Alexander. We are supposed to take spiritual warmth from the book and become better people. The success of the biography is that it makes us feel as though there is not a problem in the world that great men (like Torrey) cannot overcome.

The paradox of that last sentence is all too apparent. These men travelled around the world to share the Gospel with strangers, but the book leaves us with the impression that it is their faith that makes converts, their goodness that makes their prayers “work”, their army of devotees that changed the world. To put it another way, there is no room within this book for failure. It is obvious, reading between the lines, that some of Torrey's early ministerial positions were not in the least successful, but it does not stop Kennedy Maclean from asserting that there was a revival wherever he went, even when he was doctrinally the polar opposite of where he stood later in life! In dealing with the mission events, we do not meet any hardened sinner who does not repent. The love and kindness is total. The sinners are always visually dirty as well as wicked. The greatest trial of Mrs. Alexander's time in the movement was kissing the lips of an ugly drunken woman to prove Christ loved her. We are supposed to bow to this “fortitude”, as though no Christian on the earth ever suffered more. 

The songs of this movement reflect this idealised view of the Christian walk. The Psalms, by contrast, were written about godly people failing in thought, word and deed. The only “Perfect Man” in the Psalms is Christ himself. The rest of us sit alongside David, Asaph and Heman - waiting, hoping, and fearing. This is normal. Try as we might, we limp like Jacob. The giddy portrayal of “strong faith” in Torrey & Alexander is not normal. I lost count of how many people reached the front row in answer to the call and upon confession of faith no longer wanted to drink, no longer wanted to gamble, no longer wanted to fornicate. It is not to doubt the power of God in any way to say that such miraculous and total sanctification is not usually an immediate full-bloom flower of new faith. It could be, but it is not promised in Scripture. Whereas, in the sphere of Torrey & Alexander, people leave the gutter one night and become preachers the next morning.

 Torrey

Torrey

The legacy of such “revival” movements has been to deny that the Bible has any authority over what is acceptable in the public worship of God. There never is a question anymore of whether orchestras and choirs should be used. There is no doubt in the minds of congregations today that the Psalms should be replaced by more modern lyrics. What matters is results, with the attitude: if these things produce conversions then who are you to criticise? The "means" can be anything that taps into the Romantic heart of the individual, whether they are susceptible to songs, stories, paintings or poetry. And as the means have expanded, so have the ends. Once it was enough for someone to profess faith to prove the mission's validity. But only a few years after Torrey & Alexander's world-tours, Aimee Semple MacPherson appeared as a female preacher, speaking in tongues and performing "faith healing". It was too late to appeal to "Scripture says ..." because that boat had sailed. And as long as she did people "good", who could complain that she was espousing and propagating heresy?

The Church today is still intoxicated by Romanticism. We want a warm and fuzzy Gospel. We want services that make us feel better about ourselves. We are not fussy about how that is achieved. Doctrinal sermons leave us cold, so we prefer a cosy anecdote. We want the kind of music that “turns us on” spiritually. 

Which all begs the question - if we live according to how we feel, why should we choose to believe in Jesus Christ? Can't we get a warm feeling elsewhere? In the eyes of the world, Torrey & Alexander's faith was "proved" true by the fact that people were converted by The Glory Song. But today people get the same warm feeling by watching Hobbits in Middle Earth. If we only judge what is true by how we feel then what happens if we don't feel good? Have we lost our faith? If we can only demonstrate the truth of the Gospel to others by making them feel the same, then even if someone is thus converted, who is to say that they will not change trains at the next station, if the mood so takes them? 

Torrey & Alexander climbed the wave of Romanticism in post-Victorian England. If all they achieved was true, we may honour the memory of their efforts. But not without criticism. For those who came after could not change the curve in the road, the new direction, that had been etched by such a sensationalist public ministry. The genie had long been out of the bottle, but this was done on such a scale that few were willing to entertain the former view of Christians seeking God's approval. Man had become his own mediator. When men - even Christian men - become icons, there is always the danger that they will be followed rather than Jesus Christ.