Proof: 1857-1858, the first in a series called “The Great Awakenings” by Bill Bright and Jack Cavanaugh, takes as its subject the great prayer revival of 1857-1858. Centered in New York City, where the revival began, Proof tells the story of 26-year-old Harrison Shaw, recent law school graduate. Harrison, orphaned since a young child, has grown up in a boys lodge and likes to help the residents of the seedy Five Points neighborhood. At his mentor George Bowen’s request, he applies for – and wins – a coveted internship in law from J. K. Jarves.
Shaw soon finds himself at odds with the rich world of Jarves and his daughter, Victoria. Even more so, he cannot handle the ferocious, predatory survival philosophy of Jarves – and soon finds himself, and everyone in his life, ruined by the revengeful Jarves. Later in their confrontation, Jarves creates a trial to examine the truth of the great revival, to put the Holy Spirit on trial.
Proof includes references to Jeremiah Lanphier and how he started the prayer meetings at the North Dutch Reformed Church in the fall of 1857. Later on, the story also chronicles many of the amazing answers to prayer and the revival’s impact to peoples’ lives as it spreads beyond New York City to include many other areas of the U.S. (and even on to Europe afterwards). The story includes some detailed and unpleasant descriptions of the New York City slums, including the Five Points neighborhood. Surprisingly, though, Proof rarely mentions the actual economic setting of this revival and a major factor that, from a human perspective, brought about the revival. Soon after Lanphier started his prayer meetings, the banks and stock market collapsed and the country was economically hard pressed—the time when people do tend to turn towards spiritual matters, getting a reality check against the good, prosperous times. A few of the characters’ personal “witness” stories make brief reference to this in the telling of their conversion story; yet the larger story, Proof, itself lacks that level of background—one might easily miss this detail if not paying close attention. The main focus of Proof is on Shaw and a few characters he interacts with, along with a rather episodic look, from a journalist’s perspective, at specific prayer revival marvels.
The character portrayals are average, and we learn and understand Harrison Shaw well enough. The other character portrayals, though, seem more two-dimensional. J. K. Jarves seems rather exaggerated and one-sided, an extreme example of a Darwinist, Madlyn Murray O’Hair-style atheist, and a real Scrooge of a man in a time when even the wealthy gave at least lip service to the idea of charity and Christian morality. His daughter Victoria turns out to be quite a surprise, but her overall character and the many things attributed to her seem hard to believe and a bit too much of modern-day feminism. In spite of such problems, though, she at least becomes more likable as the story progresses.
This book’s weakness is in its theology, a rather man-focused view in which the Christian characters, and especially Harrison Shaw, somehow feel that it is up to them to prove God’s existence and power—and that all of Christianity is at stake and will fail based on a bad outcome of a human court trial. It seems that the characters, many of them supposed great Christian leaders and scholars (and the authors, for coming up with such a fictional scenario in the first place), should consider the meaning of the scripture “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine” (Matt. 7:6)—the wisdom and understanding that the things of God are sacred, and that at a certain point, with certain people, to forcefully press Christian ideas to that audience just belittles and denigrates the greatness and character of God. To be sure, a few characters briefly mention that God can defend Himself (one brief paragraph after many pages of contrary ideas), but the greater issue (Matt. 7:6) is never addressed, and the story takes the easy way out rather than a more realistic display of how God actually deals with His people in our post-1st century world.
Proof does a great job of bringing attention to this now-forgotten time, a prayer revival in the late 1850s when people sought God and He answered their prayers in an amazing way. This book includes many actual incidents of the people saved and prayers answered, a testament to the wonders God can do at all times, including these times of revival. As such, Proof is a good start to a series about past revivals, to educate readers about the various revivals in American history. The story and main characters provide decent entertainment and general information about these revivals, though the particulars, including the theology presented, could be improved.