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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.
The spread of revival was aided by the preaching ministry of British evangelist George Whitefield, who left England in 1739. Wherever he traveled, great crowds of people came to hear him, so that he began to preach in the open air. His preaching ministry took him from New York to Savannah, Ga., and back to Boston, where he preached to fifteen thousand on the Common. Of a total population of three hundred thousand in New England, thirty thousand converts were added to the church between 1740 and 1742.
The Revolutionary War, the influences of the French Revolution, and the spread of the Enlightenment, with its rejection of revelation and supernatural religion, all contributed to the undermining of the historic Christian faith in the new republic, and the effects of the revival were lost. But as Christian leaders prayed for another revival, God answered with a new “awakening” that spread throughout the nation, beginning in 1798. The effects of this, the Second Great Awakening, were seen in the universities, where there was a renewed intellectual commitment to the historic Christian faith, and among the pioneers and the illiterate segments of society, where lawless communities were transformed into God-fearing ones and churches grew through conversions.
Revival broke out again in 1857 in New York, and up to ten thousand conversions were reported throughout the city in a week. The revival quickly spread throughout New York state and to churches and communities from Texas to Maine, from Iowa to the Carolinas. Unique in that it was led by laity, this revival added more than a million converts to the churches of America at a time when the population of the nation was less than 30 million. It was from this revival that the ministry of Dwight L. Moody was born.
In the providence of God, however, there has been no national awakening in our land since 1905, when a revival that began in Wales moved across the Atlantic Ocean and touched the United States. While there have been local movements of the Spirit of God, the nation has lacked this unique blessing throughout the greater part of a century.
When we ask why this is so, we recognize that we can never be sure as to why God has withheld His hand in this way. Nonetheless, we can see that our present expectation of this blessing is conditioned by our understanding of the past. Then, as now, there were those who denied the reality of revival. Every revival has had opponents. Sadly, some pastors, leaders, and laypeople within the church have seen revival as little more than a primitive emotional response to manipulation, and their modern-day counterparts do the same. They deny God the freedom to move within His church because this threatens their comfort and control. Sadly, their denial of the reality of revival as an authentic movement of God means they never will desire it and certainly never will embrace it.
Others have distorted the meaning of “revival.” The same revivals that gave rise to Charles Finney and the leadership of the laity also led to many misunderstandings that have continued to hurt the church today. These leaders supposed that “revival” could be produced through human means, so they concentrated upon techniques. Great “evangelistic” meetings, led by itinerant, often self-appointed speakers, were held in an effort to duplicate the results of true revival. Whereas in the true “awakenings” the church was renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit and experienced a harvest of new converts, in the thinking of these leaders “mass evangelism” was equated with revival. This led to the replacement of dependence on divine grace with techniques that would lead to mass decisions. There came to be an orientation toward the unbeliever, whereas true revival had its attention focused upon God. So prevalent was this sort of thinking that the very word revival began to be used to describe the work of evangelism, or even the conducting of special meetings.
Another distortion involved elevating some of the results of revival to a central place. True revivals sometimes produced unusual supernatural works of the Spirit of God and always resulted in the human soul exulting in the glorious presence and majesty of God, which sometimes led to human ecstasy. Observing these manifestations, some came to imagine that revival was essentially the addition of extraordinary manifestations of the Holy Spirit to the work of the church. Thus, they began to look for miracles, physical healings, and tongues as signs of, and proof of, revival.
The substitution of revivalism for revival has been costly for the church. True revival reminds us that orthodox belief without the presence of God is dead, and calls us to soundness of doctrine as well as depth of spiritual experience. It reminds us that renewal comes first to the church before it gathers in unbelievers, and so it emphasizes the need for a converted church membership and a converted ministry. It reminds us that true Christian experience is always an experience of the moral God, which leads to transformation in deed as well as in word. And it calls our attention to the intimacy between revival and evangelism, reminding us that when God renews His church there is an enthusiasm for the lost and an ingathering of lost sinners.
May God send a genuine awakening to the evangelical churches of our land.