In an old book called Lectures on Revivals (1832) William Sprague, a Presbyterian pastor in Albany, New York, pointed out the fact that one of the characteristics of the deep old revivals was their utter seriousness and solemnity. He doesn't deny that there is a place for humor in our lives. But he does think that there is something deeply wrong when we feel compelled to use so much of it in teaching and preaching and even worshipping.
Our toothy entertainment image of religion in America today needs to hear William Sprague! Here is his assessment of the situation written years ago, when things were never so permeated with levity as they are today.
All the means [for awakening the church] which Gods' word authorizes, are characterized by seriousness.
I may appeal to any of you who have been in the midst of a revival, whether a deep solemnity did not pervade the scene; whether, even if it is your common business to trifle, you were not compelled to be solemn then? And if you have wished at such a moment to be gay, have you not felt that this was not the place for it. . .
Now then, if there be a high degree of solemnity belonging essentially to a revival of religion . . . surely every measure that is adopted in connection with it, ought to partake of the same character. It were worse than preposterous to think of carrying forward such a work by any means which are not marked by the deepest seriousness, or to introduce any thing which is adapted to awaken and cherish the lighter emotions, when all such emotions should be awed out of the mind.
All ludicrous anecdotes, and modes of expression, and gestures, and attitudes, are never more out of place than when the Holy Spirit is moving upon the hearts of a congregation. Every thing of this kind is fitted to grieve him away; because it directly contradicts the errand on which he has come;—that of convincing sinners of their guilt, and renewing them to repentance.
Nor is the case at all relieved by the occasional introduction of what may be really solemn and weighty; for its legitimate effect is almost of course neutralized by the connection in which it is presented; and that which might otherwise fall with awful power upon the conscience, is thus rendered utterly powerless and unimpressive. And not only so, but there is often in this way an association formed in the mind, which is exceedingly hostile to subsequent religious impressions; an association between solemn truths which ought to make the sinner tremble and ludicrous expressions which will supply him with matter for jests.
Let us consider: will there ever be powerful, life-changing, sinner-converting revival of the Church where manner and message are aimed at cultivating a light and pleasant spirit in the meeting?
Pondering with you,