Revival – Historical Comment

“Revival” is sometimes used quite specifically, and at other times it is used rather broadly. It can mean anything from one’s own personal spiritual awakening to the impact of a culture-shaping movement of God across churches, regions, and even nations (e.g., the First Great Awakening). It can also refer to a spontaneous local congregational event (e.g., Jonathan Edwards in 1734-35), a planned series of meetings across several congregations (e.g., Cane Ridge was one in a series of communion festivals in 1801 Kentucky), or a spontaneous movement of congregations in a region (e.g., Welsh Revival in 1904-5).

The word can refer to many different things depending on who is using it, and it means something a bit different in different traditions and contexts. This is one reason we see some back-and-forth in social media about the significance of the Asbury “revival.”

In the present moment, I think we can discern three sorts of revivalistic practices or experiences that are linked to historic traditions within Christianity. I do not intend for the list below to restrict overlapping or expansive practices, and neither is it exhaustive. The distinctions are often fluid, but there are discernible traditions. These generalizations may be somewhat unfair as a typology, though it does offer a way of seeing a bigger picture.

1. One stream focuses on conversions, and this is strong in Presbyterian and Baptist traditions (especially in the 1700-1800s). Generally, these revivals focused on preaching, teaching, and convicting sinners and/or nominal Christians for the sake of their authentic conversion. This was often the function of protracted meetings or Gospel Meetings among Stone-Campbell congregations, and often they were intended to plant a congregation. Conversion (often including rededication) was the focus, and the preaching of the Word was the primary means.

2. Another stream focuses on igniting the fire of holy living, and this is primarily the concern of the Holiness Movement (1850s and beyond). Generally, these revivals focused on deep contrition, repentance, mourning, fasting until awakened by the Spirit through intimacy and encounter. The primary manifestation of this intimacy was expressed in worship and holding on to that presence. This is similar to what we are seeing at Asbury, whose roots are in the Wesleyan Holiness tradition. Sanctification was the focus, and worship was the primary means.

3. Another stream is represented by Classic Pentecostalism (1900s-1920s). Because Pentecostalism, at least in its origins, is closely linked to the Holiness Movement, much of what is present in Holiness revivals is also there in Pentecostalism. However, it is more expectant that the outcome will be speaking in tongues, miracles, and extraordinary expressions of the Spirit. These will result not only in personal and communal awakening but also serve the mission of God as a witness to their neighbors. Sanctification was the focus, and the tangible presence of God through extraordinary gifts was the evidence.

I am grateful for the Asbury revival. It is a rather classic example of Holiness Revivalism. That does not mean everything is simply psychological as if manufactured by the human spirit. God is no mere spectator when God’s people assemble. Quite the contrary, it appears (I can only speak from a distance) God has come to Asbury in the mode in which Asbury’s tradition is both seeking and expecting, and God is gracious.

Revivals are traditioned. They exist within traditions (as the three types outlined above indicate). There are historical precedents and models. They do not easily transcend the traditions in which they are nurtured and practiced. That does not make them bad or inauthentic, just different. One is no more “revivalistic” than the other as all of them experience spiritual awakening through their traditions, habits, and practices. God uses all these traditions, and the Spirit is the active agent in all the good fruit they produce.

These different traditions, however, are helpful to the body of Christ due to the different circumstances, personalities, cultures, etc. present in the world. We need all kinds for all kinds of people. Ultimately, what we need, however, is the work of the Spirit in our hearts and communities.

In addition, the historic church–the liturgical tradition, in particular–has not generally been regarded as revivalistic in the modern sense of that term (especially in light of the evangelical revivals of the 17th-20th centuries). Nevertheless, it seems to me, that the goal of revivals is present in liturgical contexts as well.

If the assembly is a moment where we encounter God, and the Spirit is active there to form people into the image of Christ, liturgy is also a means that the Spirit uses. This is most particularly true of the sacraments, which are not typically the focus of evangelical revivalism (with some notable exceptions, like Wesley himself). Yet, God is able to revive the soul and community through its assemblies for worship, sacraments, and service to God.

“Revival” comes in many ways but always by the Spirit of God. Authentic revival transforms. This can happen in a recovery group, a small group Bible study, a coordinated Gospel Meeting (e.g., Hardeman Tabernacle Sermons in the 1920s Nashville), chapel services, or churches.

Though initiated and led by the Spirit (since only the Spirit can sanctify us), revivals have traditions and traditioned practices. There is nothing wrong with that.

However, we must be careful that we don’t make a particular tradition of “revival” a one size fits all, or assume a particular tradition of “revival” is more authentic than another. Instead, let us celebrate every way in which the Spirit encounters us and give thanks for the fruit the Spirit bears in our lives and in the lives of others, even if it comes through different practices, traditions, and settings.

Sola Dei Gloria

3 Responses to “Revival – Historical Comment”

  1.   Barry Fowler Says:

    JMH, in the 7th paragraph, I think you meant to write, “That does NOT mean everything is simply psychological as if manufactured by the human spirit.”

  2.   Barry Fowler Says:

    This is a very good overview. It is also a good reminder that the Spirit works and revives in different ways and manifestations. “The wind blows wherever it pleases.”

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