American Revivals

Here is a taste of what I learned in my Church history class at Western Seminary last semester. I wrote this paper in response to a final exam prompt which asked me to compare the four major revivals in America and discuss the impact of the revivals on the church today.

The church in North America has been heavily impacted by a series of Christian revivals over the past three centuries. Four of the most notable revivals are: The First Great Awakening, the Second Great Awakening, the Pentecostal Revival, and the Jesus People Movement. Some of these revivals were started by charismatic individuals that influenced large numbers of people. Others were the result of men preaching to small groups of people. Some revivals were distinguished by their intellectual nature while others led the church into a deeper awareness of her emotions. Although the nature, methodology, scope, and theological emphases differed between revivals, they each have left an indelible mark on the church in America.

The First Great Awakening experienced great success in bringing men and women into local churches, promoting personal holiness, and inspiring an increased interest in educational concerns. As a result of the combined efforts of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, droves of people made personal professions of faith in the 1740’s.  Edwards was a preacher, philosopher, and theologian in Massachusetts who underscored the biblical doctrine of justification by faith.  Whitefield, an Englishman, toured South Carolina and New England preaching the gospel in the open air to all who would listen. Although neither man gave an “altar call,” people were convicted of their need for a Savior and put their faith in Jesus Christ.

The First Great Awakening set the stage for revivalism in America, helped Baptist churches grow, and paved the way for the establishment of religious colleges and universities. Since the First Great Awakening, people in America have come to expect revival. The revivals that followed helped solidify this expectation, but the first revival set the stage for those that would follow. There is still hope that another large-scale revival will occur in the USA. This Great Awakening got people thinking about joining a church and the Baptists were ready to welcome these new converts in. The influence if Baptist theology and practice is readily evident today in the number of churches across the nation as well as the presence of their well-respected schools and seminaries. In fact, the establishment of the first seminaries and Christian schools in America were the direct result of the First Great Awakening. Although Brown, Princeton, and Dartmouth no longer hold to the beliefs of their founders, they are a testament to the impact of the First Great Awakening.

The Second Great Awakening began in the early 1790’s and continued through the 1830’s. This revival began in New England and spread to the American frontier. It is known for the emphasis its preachers placed on “right Christian living” and for the emotional response of the people in the frontier. Unlike the First Great Awakening, there were no “super star preachers” that led the revival. Instead, men like Isaac Backus, James McGready, Barton W. Stone, Richard Allen, and Charles G. Finney each used their pulpits and influence to shape the revival in their area. Backus, a New England pastor, was an advocate of the practice of Concerts of Prayer. In 1800, McGready, a pastor in Kentucky, invited people from a variety of denominational backgrounds to a meeting. An emotionally-charged revival broke out and “camp meetings” drew thousands of people. Towards the end of the Second Great Revival, Charles Finney experienced great success preaching in New York. He promoted his meetings through the media, held lengthy, high-pressure meetings at night, allowed women to share “exhortations,” and gave “altar calls.” He is also credited with beginning the cottage prayer meeting.

Four aspects of the Second Great Awakening are readily evident in Christendom today. These include: the acceptance of emotionalism, the use of altar calls, the establishment of Sunday schools, and the prevalence of the weekly prayer meetings. Prior to the camp meetings of the frontier, Christianity in America was quite intellectual and unemotional. The introduction of emotionalism into Christian life had a profound impact on the Pentecostal Revival and still influences churches today. After Finney created his “New Measures” for evangelism, others have taken up the mantel. Billy Graham and Greg Laurie both used (and Laurie still uses) similar approaches in their ministries. In preparation for revival, Concerts of Prayer became increasingly common. This led to the establishment of regular prayer meetings, which still exist to this day. Finally, the education of poor children on Sunday became known as “Sunday School.” Although the emphasis of many Sunday schools has shifted away from teaching underprivileged children to read, it is still a staple in many churches around America.

The Pentecostal Revival began in the early 1900’s in the Mid-West, spread to the South, West, and then around the world. Charles Parhum taught at a school in Kansas where he and his students became convinced that speaking in tongues should be a normative Christian experience. They noted that the disciples at Pentecost received the ability to speak in tongues when the Spirit fell upon them and concluded that this was the mark of a believer who had been “baptized by the Spirit.” Parhum then moved to Houston, established a school there, and influenced William Seymore. Seymore was invited to minister at a church in Southern California. In 1906, Seymore and the church initiated the Asuza Street Revival. The Pentecostal movement approached the Scriptures from a fundamentalist, anti-intellectual frame of mind and encouraged its followers to desire a personal experience with the Holy Spirit. After gaining a level of success in America, their teaching was shared abroad and was readily received by people in many Third World countries.

The Pentecostal Revival has “contributed significantly to worship renewal, lay ministry, and a fresh appreciation for the ministry of the Holy Spirit.” These contributions continue to today. Many churches now offer an experience-rich worship service and encourage lay participation in a variety of ministries. Additionally, discussions about the role of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life are still common.

In the 1960’s, men like Chuck Smith began reaching out to Hippies in California, sparking the Jesus People Movement. Smith was able to bring many young people into the movement through preaching and Bible studies. This Revival is known for its high-intensity evangelism, prolific tract distribution, development of modern hymnody, and emphasis on small group bible studies. Eventually, the movement spread across the USA and made its way to Europe.

The Jesus People Movement has had a lasting impact on Christianity in America. Their emphasis on Bible studies is still felt by many churches. The music written during the movement is still sung in churches and at summer camps around the nation. Additionally, they viewed youth culture in a positive light, so “so much of the trappings of youth culture are seen as neutral.” Finally, Calvary Chapels, Vineyard churches, and seeker sensitive churches were established that still operate today.

From the intellectual stimulation brought on by the First Great Awakening to the emotionalism of the Second, and from the Renewed interest in the Holy Spirit from the Pentecostal Movement to the hymnody of the Jesus People Movement, the impact of the four major revivals on the church in America has been broad and enduring.

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