The church in America today has been shaped by the past. Nowhere is that influence more evident than in the area of revival.
True revival is a work of God, in which He comes in power to renew His church. It is sovereign work, God-initiated and God-controlled, whereby the Holy Spirit intensifies His work in the lives of believers, both individually and corporately. The ordinary work of the Spirit is to bring men and women under conviction of sin, draw them to repentance, and assure them of the grace of forgiveness in Jesus Christ. In times of revival, this ordinary work becomes extraordinary, not in the sense of new and different manifestations but in terms of degree. Thus, we can look at the history of the church and see the ways God has moved in different times, always producing the same works.
Unfortunately, many confuse true revival and awakening with the search for the spectacular or the simple efforts of evangelism. By this error, they deny themselves the precious hope of the wonderful reviving movement of God in their lives and communities.
American church history is not without examples of true revival and its effects. Local revivals were seen in the American colonies under the ministry of Jonathan Edwards’ grandfather, Solomon Stoddard. In 1727, there was a revival under the leadership of Theodore Frelinghuysen, the pastor of a Dutch Reformed congregation in New Jersey, that spread through the work and ministry of Gilbert Tennent. This revival was characterized by fervency in prayer, power in preaching, and a conscious and transforming experience of God. Great crowds of people were attracted to the Lord and the revival began to spread to Pennsylvania and Virginia, where the movement touched some of the poorest and most illiterate classes. As it did so, it heightened the urge for education in the things of God.
Then, in 1734, an extraordinary movement of God occurred in Northampton, Mass., where Edwards was the preacher and one of the foremost intellects of his or any century. He records that “the Spirit of God began extraordinarily to set in and wonderfully to work amongst us.” As he preached, seeking to bring respectable but unconverted church members to a saving knowledge of Christ, he witnessed not only the conversion of many of these people but also the renewing of the congregation. He writes, “The congregation was alive in God’s service, everyone earnestly intent on the public worship, every hearer eager to drink in the words of the minister as they came from his mouth.” Not only the church but the community was affected until no home in the town of Northampton was untouched by the revival. The movement became known as “the First Great Awakening” because it spread rapidly along the eastern seaboard of the colonies and into the South.