While many yearn for religious revival of some sort, revivals and revivalism have their critics. Nonetheless, the fact is that revival and revivalism have been important in many persons’ lives. They have also factored significantly in the history of Christianity. Let’s take a constructive look at these phenomena and whether they can remain useful even today.
First, let’s define what we mean by revival. The most basic meaning of revival is “coming back to life or consciousness.” An example is the revival through CPR of someone whose heart has stopped beating. In the religious sense, the meaning of revival is coming back to a spiritual life or awareness of the reality and presence of God in one’s life. Thus, the concept of revival has often been used in association with evangelistic preaching aimed at converting people to life-changing faith in Jesus Christ.
Second, what is revivalism? It is simply belief in, or promotion of revivals, especially on a large scale, to bring about renewal and new life not only to individuals, but also to whole churches or even to society itself. Widespread renewal as a consequence of revivalism assumes the restoration of authentic relationship between people and God.
The root word for both revival and revivalism is revive. In the Bible, revive is associated with words that mean “to live, to keep or make alive.” For example, it is used for the restoration of life to the widow’s son in answer to Elijah’s prayer (1 Kgs 17:22). The apostle Paul uses it to describe both the reassertion of sin in his own life and the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (Rom 14:9). Building on this biblical understanding, revivals and revivalism are closely associated with God’s work of bringing new life in Christ through the Holy Spirit to those who seek it.
Historically and theologically, the focus of revivals has primarily been on justification through faith in Christ. In the eighteenth-century Great Revival, also known as the First Great Awakening, George Whitefield introduced in the British Isles and North America what became the widespread revival practice of outdoor preaching. His goal was to offer salvation to the masses of people who were normally not inclined to attend or be welcomed in wealthy or established churches. In large venues frequently made up of hundreds if not thousands of listeners, Whitefield, the Wesleys, and Jonathan Edwards preached to introduce, awaken, or restore new life in Christ through justification by faith.
The revival focus on justification resulted in two major criticisms. The first was articulated by John Wesley. While he quickly became one of the most ardent supporters and practitioners of revivals, even Wesley had concerns about the truncated theology they often represented. He believed that unless justification through Christ that occurred during a revival was followed up through a spiritually nurturing community of faith to cultivate sanctification in Christ, revivals could do more harm than good to a new believer’s soul. Wesley’s solution to this problem was the proliferation of small group meetings for accountability and spiritual growth of believers known as classes and bands. He was critical of those who led revivals without attending to this kind of follow-up with new believers. Without it, he feared revivals might only beget children of the devil who would think and proclaim they were saved but never grow in faith and spiritual maturity.
Second, although Presbyterians were among the early advocates of revivals and their expression through camp meetings in North America, many Presbyterians soon became critics because of the simplistic preaching and chaotic conduct that often held sway at these frontier events. A Christian tradition that valued careful theology and attention to discipline, the Presbyterian solution was largely to abandon the practice of camp meetings and revivals.
Although not all Christians approved and not all denominations participated, revivalism became a widespread practice and a primary vehicle through which the Christian faith was proliferated throughout North America in the past three centuries. Each season of revival was characterized by different styles of preaching and practices that fit its respective era, as explained by Doug Strong in “Sheer Peacefulness”: Reflections on the Revival of 2023 from a Historical Perspective.
While some have viewed the recent revivals on university campuses with skepticism, our long heritage of revivalism can help us think about these events constructively. I want to suggest several points for our consideration.
- There is a strong, biblical foundation for the concept and practice of revival, from Ezekiel’s new life experience with “dry bones” to the resurrection of Jesus Christ to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Acts.
- Insofar as Jonathan Edwards, the Wesleys, and other proponents of revivalism charted a pattern of attributing revivals to a “work of God,” we are invited to explore the salvific characteristics of revivals as forms of divine intervention in human life.
- We are encouraged to take seriously John Wesley’s caution about how the practice of revivalism potentially might yield to a truncated theology that neglects the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification in a growing Christian.
- While not all Christians are as concerned with orderly worship as the stereotypical Presbyterian, those who embrace revivalism would do well to remember with humility that beyond revivals there are many forms of evangelism, preaching, and Christian nurture that the Holy Spirit uses to save and bless sinners and saints.
In summary, then, our heritage of revivalism has already demonstrated its capacity as a conduit of new life and relationship with God. But the story does not end with revival. The real question is: What will those of us touched and changed by revival make of this in life and in the life to come, God helping us?