What was scheduled as an hour-long chapel service last Wednesday has turned into a multi-day revival at Asbury University. The revival occurring at the Christian university in Wilmore, Kentucky has attracted people from across the country. Asbury Vice President Mark Whitworth says that much like a chapel service, the revival has included Bible reading, messages, and singing, as well as one-to-one and small-group prayer.
Here are nine things you should know about revival and the history of revivals in America.
1. The Bible has no word for revival but does reveal a pattern.
The Old Testament documents several times when God revives the spiritual life of his people (e.g., 2 Sam. 6, 2 Chron. 29, Ezra 9–10). While there is no single Hebrew word that conveys the sense of revival, the Old Testament does reveal what could be called a “revival pattern.” As Collin Hansen and John D. Woodbridge point out in their book A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories that Stretch and Stir, the revealed pattern is, “Following a period of spiritual decline, someone steps forward to acknowledge failure to live according to God’s good and gracious law. Others begin to see the problem, and they turn from their wayward path. God may hear their petition and answer their cry with revival.”
2. There’s no consensus on how to define revival.
Because the Bible doesn’t clearly define what constitutes a revival, numerous definitions have been proposed. For example, J. I. Packer defined revival as “God’s quickening visitation of his people, touching their hearts and deepening his work of grace in their lives.” In the Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, Earle Cairns defines it as “the work of the Holy Spirit in restoring the people of God to a more vital spiritual life, witness, and work by prayer and the Word after repentance in crisis for their spiritual decline.” As Hansen and Woodbridge say, “It may be that what we classify as revival, the apostles understood as the church’s expected posture toward God, one another, and the world around them. If so, then we might understand revivals as times when Christians remember and embrace their calling by God’s grace and the power of the Holy Spirit.”
3. Revivals lead to renewals, movements, and awakenings.
The confusion about the use of the term revival extends to other terms related to revivalism, such as “awakening” (e.g., the Great Awakening), “renewal” (e.g., the Charismatic Renewal), and “movement” (i.e., the Jesus Movement). A helpful distinction between them is that renewal occurs when God touches the heart of a single individual, revival occurs when God touches a community of faith, and awakening occurs when the wider society outside the church is impacted (a movement can be thought of as an awakening that has a more narrow influence).
4. The First Great Awakening birthed American evangelical Christianity.
The Great Awakening refers to the religious and cultural changes that occurred in colonial America between the 1730s and 1760s. A series of revivals spread throughout the land and brought about the most significant social upheaval to occur prior to the American Revolution. The Great Awakening, as historian Thomas Kidd notes, gave birth to American evangelical Christianity. The revivals helped emphasize that all people are born sinners, that sin without salvation will send a person to hell, that all people can be saved if they confess their sins to God, and that personal conversion is a necessary event that comes from seeking forgiveness and accepting God’s grace.
5. The Second Great Awakening led to social reforms and new religious movements.
The period known as the Second Great Awakening began about 50 years after the Great Awakening ended. Methodists and Baptists took the lead in using revivals to expand the spread of Christianity into the frontiers of America. Indeed, this awakening led to a significant growth in the Methodist movement, from about 20 churches in 1776 to more than 19,000 by the time of the Civil War, making them the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. The Second Great Awakening also sparked a number of social reforms (prison reform, temperance, Sabbath observance, women’s rights) and led to the creation of other religious movements such as the Adventist movement, the Holiness movement, the Restoration movement, and Mormonism.
6. Prayer among businessmen led to national renewal.
In 1857 lay missionary Jeremiah Calvin Lanphier began to host a lunch-hour prayer meeting in New York City. Only six men showed up on the first day. But by the next year, 10,000 men were praying daily at what became known as the Businessmen’s Revival of 1857-1858. The revival spread across the country and led to an estimated million believers being added to church rolls.
7. A revival in Los Angeles birthed the Pentecostal movement.
The Azusa Street Revival was a series of revivals in Los Angeles that began on April 9, 1906, and continued until roughly 1915. These revivals were scorned by many established denominations, and led many who were attracted to this new Pentecostalism to start their own churches and fellowships. It even led to the formation of the Assemblies of God, the world’s largest Pentecostal group.
8. The Jesus Movement merged counterculture with evangelicalism.
The combination of late 1960s counterculture and a renewal among American youth formed the Jesus Movement. The movement, which peaked in the mid-1970s, attracted those on the margins of society, such as hippies and other “Jesus freaks.” The Jesus People, says Larry Eskridge in God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America, began to incorporate youth culture into the evangelical churches. This resulted in the formation of such phenomenon as Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) and praise and worship music, and such trends as informal dress at church and an increasing prioritization of youth ministry.
9. Colleges have been a primary location for revivals.
Throughout American history, revivals have often occurred among the young and have been especially frequent on college campuses. For instance, a revival at Yale in 1802 led to one-third of the student body, then numbering 230, to profess new faith in Christ. Almost 150 years later, a revival in 1950 at the chapel of Wheaton College caught the attention Time magazine, which observed how “a surge of confessional fervor swept through the auditorium.” And the recent revival at Asbury is the latest in a series of revivals at the college’s chapel. As the college says, “There have been several occasions when significant moves of the Holy Spirit have swept the campus and reached across the nation.” Revivals have occurred on the Asbury campus in 1905, 1908, 1921, 1950, 1958, 1970, 1992, and 2006.