By Ed Rybarczyk
American Christians thrill at the prospect of revival. Revival changes hearts, redirects people’s lives, and even alters the culture. It is over now, but the recent two-week-long, day and night, Asbury University revival sparked both media and church interest across the globe. Newspapers, television shows, and social media outlets covered the student-led revival like it was a royal coronation. Amid that hubbub, believers from around the planet flew to Kentucky to experience the new revival.
We might not realize it today, but the very fabric of the United States is woven through with revival. Our nation was emigrated to and then later founded by folks who wanted to live out their Christian lives free from governmental intrusion. Coming to the new frontier, they sincerely wanted to develop a Christian society. Hence, for 400 years there has been a deep yearn for both pristine Christian expression and religious revitalization. Knowing that about our origins we’re not surprised that there’s been a history of revivals.
The first Great Awakening took place on the Eastern Seaboard from the 1720s to the 1740s. Led by pastors like the cross-eyed George Whitefield and the theologian-pastor Jonathan Edwards, this revival was Calvinist in orientation; the doctrinal emphases were God’s sovereignty and glory. This awakening’s sociological effect saw lay believers begin performing religious duties themselves, rather than relying on professional clergy. And that means it was a populist movement: it promoted local people’s involvement and the directing of their own religious duties.
Revival spread like fire among Congregational, Presbyterian, and Reformed churches. Between 1740 and 1742 alone, some 40,000 people joined New England churches. The growth was swift and amazing! To put that in perspective, at that same rate in contemporary United States demographics it would look like this: there are 330 million people living inside our borders; imagine if 33 million folks attended revivals, confessed Jesus as Lord, and began attending churches. The cumulative effect would be staggering.
The Second Great Awakening also started in the East but spread westward into frontier lands. This revival lasted some 40 years, from 1795-1835. More Arminian than America’s first revival, this movement emphasized the power of human free will. Interestingly, and promoting the first Awakening’s populist character, this revival was developed through a broad series of camp meetings. People would load their wagons, belongings, and livestock and set up a temporary camp somewhere near the edge of a town. Various large tents would be set up for different speakers and services, having assorted musicians, at different times, or even at overlapping times.
Camp meetings were social events that could last for weeks on end. Circuit riders – preachers on horseback – like Francis Asbury (for whom Asbury University was named) preached camp-meeting sermons about salvation, Christ’s return, and Christian social responsibility. That latter element saw these inspired believers start organizations that served and shaped American culture for a hundred years: the YMCA, YWCA, and the Salvation Army. Moreover, the roots of both the prohibitionist movement and the abolitionist movements were planted and then grew from the second Great Awakening. (It was Christians who worked diligently to end the institution of slavery in America.)
If those two huge national revivals aren’t enough to establish that America is ensconced with a revivalistic-populist imagination, let’s note three more.
First there was the Los Angeles revival, held downtown near the railroad tracks at Azusa Street. (L.A.’s population then was only 150,000, with 8,300 horses.) Led by the one-eyed black holiness pastor, William Seymour, this revival lasted from 1906-1913. With the help of the telegraph, newspapers, church pamphlets, and the U.S. mail, word spread far and wide of the new revival. And with the convenience of railroads, people from all across America, Canada, and Mexico went to Los Angeles and were prayed for, rejuvenated, saved, and physically healed; many spoke in tongues.
Particularly remarkable, then in the post-Civil War Jim Crow era, there was racial mixing at the Azusa Street Mission. Black men hugged white women. White men hugged black women. Those earnest believers knew together that there was no racial divide in the body of Christ. Whereas Rome is the mother-church for all Catholics, that now-non-existent, run-down little wooden horse tack store-turned-church in Southern California is the mother-church for every Pentecostal church and denomination in the world. The second largest grouping of Christians in the world, Pentecostals, all trace their roots to the Azusa Street revival.
Briefly, I’ll touch on two more nationwide revivals. Having begun in 1960 at St. Mark’s Episcopalian church in Van Nuys, Calif., and spreading to Catholic college students at Duquesne University in 1966 and Notre Dame University in 1967, the Charismatic Revival of the 1960s and 1970s swept through Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Catholics, and some Baptists. Amid all that, an entire generation of high-church Christians saw their lives transformed by the power and gifts of the Holy Spirit, and this revival helped to soften traditional denominational barriers.
Lastly, there was the Jesus Movement. Led by pastor Chuck Smith and Lonnie Frisbee (both portrayed in the new movie, Jesus Revolution), this revival began in Orange County, Calif. Ten thousands of hippies abandoned their LSD, their bongs, their “free love,” and their pursuit of Far Eastern Religion to follow Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Both the Calvary Chapel and Vineyard denominations were birthed from the Jesus Movement. On a related front, music is perhaps the most powerful element within any revival. And the Jesus Movement saw the birth of both Christian pop music and Christian worship band music. The legacy of both continues to be widespread today. Famed pop/worship musicians from this era included Love Song, Maranatha Music, Phil Keaggy, Barry McGuire, Chuck Gerard, Larry Norman, Second Chapter of Acts, Keith Green, Daniel Amos, Petra, the Resurrection Band, and more.
In summation, today when we hear folks talk excitedly about a new revival breaking out at a college somewhere, we can better understand how revivalism, and with it religious populism, are woven through the American cultural imagination.
Ed Rybarczyk, Ph.D., is both an ordained minister and a retired History of Theology professor. He now produces and hosts the Uncensored Unprofessor podcast @ uncensoredunprofessor.com. He can be reached at [email protected].