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Christian revival

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Christian revival is a term that generally refers to a specific period of increased spiritual interest or renewal in the life of a church congregation or many churches, either regionally or globally. This should be distinguished from the use of the term "revival" to refer to a evangelistic meeting or series of meetings (see Revival meeting).

While elements such as mass conversions of non-believers and perceived beneficial effects on the moral climate of a given culture may be involved, revivals are seen by many Christians as being the restoration of the church itself to a vital and fervent relationship with God after a period of decline. The word "church" here referring to the body of believers in Christ as a whole and not to any particular group or denomination among them.

Some[who?] identify six "Awakenings" in the church worldwide — from 1727, 1792, 1830, 1857, 1882 and 1904. Recent revivals of 1906 Azusa Street Revival, 1930s Balokole, and 1970s Jesus people spread in the Americas, Africa, and Asia among Protestants and Catholics.

17th century

Many Christian revivals drew inspiration from the missionary work of early monks, from the Protestant Reformation (and Catholic Reformation) and from the uncompromising stance of the Covenanters in 17th century Scotland and Ulster, that came to Virginia and Pennsylvania with Presbyterians and other non-conformists. Its character formed part of the mental framework that led to the American War of Independence and the Civil War.

18th century

The 18th century Age of Enlightenment had a chilling effect on spiritual movements, but this was countered by the Methodist revival of John Wesley and Charles Wesley and George Whitefield in Britain and the Great Awakening in America prior to the Revolution. A similar (but smaller scale) revival in Scotland took place at Cambuslang, then a village and is known as the Cambuslang Work.[1]

A new fervor spread within the Anglican Church at the end of the century, when the Evangelical party of John Newton, William Wilberforce and his Clapham sect were inspired to combat social ills at home and slavery abroad, and founded Bible and missionary societies.

United States

In the USA the First Great Awakening was a wave of religious enthusiasm among Protestants that swept the American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s, leaving a permanent impact on American religion. It resulted from powerful preaching that deeply affected listeners (already church members) with a deep sense of personal guilt and salvation by Christ. Pulling away from ritual and ceremony, the Great Awakening made religion intensely personal to the average person by creating a deep sense of spiritual guilt and redemption. Historian Sydney E. Ahlstrom sees it as part of a "great international Protestant upheaval" that also created Pietism in Germany, the Evangelical Revival and Methodism in England.[2] It brought Christianity to the slaves and was an apocalyptic event in New England that challenged established authority. It incited rancor and division between the old traditionalists who insisted on ritual and doctrine and the new revivalists. It had a major impact in reshaping the Congregational, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, and German Reformed denominations, and strengthened the small Baptist and Methodist denominations. It had little impact on Anglicans and Quakers. Unlike the Second Great Awakening that began about 1800 and which reached out to the unchurched, the First Great Awakening focused on people who were already church members. It changed their rituals, their piety, and their self awareness.

The new style of sermons and the way people practiced their faith breathed new life into religion in America. People became passionately and emotionally involved in their religion, rather than passively listening to intellectual discourse in a detached manner. Ministers who used this new style of preaching were generally called "new lights", while the preachers of old were called "old lights". People began to study the Bible at home, which effectively decentralized the means of informing the public on religious manners and was akin to the individualistic trends present in Europe during the Protestant Reformation.

19th century

Early in the 19th century the Scottish minister Thomas Chalmers had an important influence on the evangelical revival movement. Chalmers began life as a moderate in the Church of Scotland and an opponent of evangelicalism. During the winter of 1803–04, he presented a series of lectures that outlined a reconciliation of the apparent incompatibility between the Genesis account of creation and the findings of the developing science of geology. However, by 1810 he had become an evangelical and would eventually lead the Disruption of 1843 that resulted in the formation of the Free Church of Scotland.

Rev. Charles Finney (1792–1875) was a key leader of the evangelical revival movement in America. From 1821 onwards he conducted revival meetings across many north-eastern states and won many converts. For him, a revival was not a miracle but a change of mindset that was ultimately a matter for the individual's free will. His revival meetings created anxiety in a penitent's mind that they could only save their souls by unrestricted submission to the will of God, as illustrated by his quotations from the Bible. Finney also conducted revival meetings in England, first in 1849 and later to England and Scotland in 1858–59.

The established churches too, were influenced by the evangelical revival. In 1833 a group of Anglican clergymen led by John Henry Newman and John Keble began the Oxford Movement. However its objective was to renew the Church of England by reviving certain Roman Catholic doctrines and rituals, thus distancing themselves as far as possible from evangelical enthusiasm. In Germany on the other hand, a new wave of evangelicalism, the Erweckung, spread across the land, which cross fertilized with British movements, while a parallel development occurred in France and the Netherlands, the Reveil.


In the USA the Second Great Awakening (1800–30s) was the second great religious revival in United States history and consisted of renewed personal salvation experienced in revival meetings. Major leaders included Charles Grandison Finney, Lyman Beecher, Barton Stone, Alexander Campbell, Peter Cartwright and James B. Finley.

In New England, the renewed interest in religion inspired a wave of social activism. In western New York, the spirit of revival encouraged the emergence of new Restorationist and other Christian denominations and movements such as the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement and the Holiness Movement. Renewed interest in religion even led to new sects and beliefs such as the Mormons. In the west especially—at Cane Ridge, Kentucky and in Tennessee—the revival strengthened the Methodists and the Baptists and saw the birth of the Church of Christ. It also introduced into America a new form of religious expression—the Scottish camp meeting.

A resurgence from 1830 was largely influential in America and many countries worldwide including India and Ceylon. The Plymouth Brethren started with John Nelson Darby at this time, a result of disillusionment with denominationalism and clerical hierarchy.

Europe: Het Réveil

A period in Dutch, eastern French, Swiss, British and south German Protestant history known as Het Réveil occurred from 1815 to 1865. In the Netherlands this was begun by Willem Bilderdijk, with Isaäc da Costa, Abraham Capadose, Samuel Iperusz Wiselius, Willem de Clercq and Groen van Prinsterer as his pupils, and in Britain William Wilberforce and Thomas Chalmers. The movement was politically influential and actively involved in improving society, and — at the end of the 19th century — brought about anti-revolutionary and Christian historical parties.


In North America the Third Great Awakening began from 1857 onwards in Canada and spread throughout the world including America and Australia. Significant names include Dwight L. Moody, Ira D. Sankey, William Booth and Catherine Booth (founders of the Salvation Army), Charles Spurgeon and James Caughey. Hudson Taylor began the China Inland Mission and Thomas John Barnardo founded his famous orphanages.

In England the Keswick Convention movement began out of the British Holiness movement, encouraging a lifestyle of holiness, unity and prayer.

Subsequently the period 1880–1903 has been described as "a period of unusual evangelistic effort and success", and again sometimes more of a "resurgence" of the previous wave. Moody, Sankey and Spurgeon are again notable names. Others included Sam Jones, J. Wilber Chapman and Billy Sunday in North America, Andrew Murray in South Africa,William Irvine in Ireland, and John McNeil in Australia. The Faith Mission began in 1886.

Background to the 1857–1860 Revival in America, Ireland and Great Britain

In 1823 William Buckland, Dean of Westminster Abbey, published Reliquae Diluvianae in 1823, describing accumulations of bones found in caves, which were interpreted as relics of Noah's Flood. This started a debate between the emerging scientific discipline of geology and the literal interpretation of the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis. Subsequent books by Hugh Miller, Foot-Prints of the Creator (1849) and Testimony of the Rocks (1857), and by Edward Hitchcock, The Religion of Geology and its Connected Sciences, attempted to reconcile these diverging views.

On 21 September 1857 Jeremiah Lanphier, a businessman, began a series of prayer meetings in New York. By the beginning of 1858 the congregation was crowded, often with a majority of businessmen. Newspapers reported that over 6,000 were attending various prayer meetings in New York, and 6,000 in Pittsburgh. Daily prayer meetings were held in Washington, D.C. at 5 different times to accommodate the crowds. Other cities followed the pattern. Soon, a common mid-day sign on business premises read, "We will re-open at the close of the prayer meeting". By May, 50,000 of New York's 800,000 people were new converts.

Finney wrote of this revival, "This winter of 1857–58 will be remembered as the time when a great revival prevailed. It swept across the land with such power that at the time it was estimated that not less than 50,000 conversions occurred weekly.

Coincidentally, the very month that Jeremiah Lanphier began his prayer meeting in New York, four young Irishmen began a weekly prayer meeting in the village of Connor near Ballymena. This meeting is generally regarded as the origin of the 1859 revival that swept through most of the towns and villages in the north of Ireland and in due course brought 100,000 converts into the churches. It was also ignited by a young preacher, Henry Grattan Guinness, who drew thousands at a time to hear his preaching. So great was the interest in the American movement that in 1858 the Presbyterian General Assembly meeting in Derry appointed two of their ministers, Dr. William Gibson and Rev. William McClure to visit North America. Upon their return the two deputies had many public opportunities to bear testimony to what they had witnessed of the remarkable outpouring of the Spirit across the Atlantic, and to fan the flames in their homeland yet further. Such was the strength of emotion generated by the preachers' oratory that many made spontaneous confessions seeking to be relieved of their burdens of sin. Others suffered complete nervous breakdown.

The movement spread to Wales, Scotland and England, with estimates that a million people were converted in the United Kingdom. Missionaries subsequently carried the movement abroad.

20th century

The final Great Awakening (1904 onwards) had its roots in the Holiness movement which had developed in the late 19th century. The Pentecostal revival movement began, out of a passion for more power and a greater outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In 1902 the American evangelists Reuben Archer Torrey and Charles M. Alexander conducted meetings in Melbourne, Australia, resulting in more than 8,000 converts. News of this revival travelled fast, igniting a passion for prayer and an expectation that God would work in similar ways elsewhere.

Torrey and Alexander were involved in the beginnings of the great Welsh revival (1904).

In 1906 the modern Pentecostal Movement was born in Azusa Street, in Los Angeles.

Revival hymns

Following the Protestant Reformation, from about 1700 to 1850, many non-conformist churches produced lively popular hymns that expressed one's personal relationship with God.

Later hymns were written in a movement called "revivalist" (1850–1920). Songs such as "Washed in the blood of the Lamb" came from Moody and Sankey's Hymn Book. The churches which promoted these songs were generally followers of literal interpretations of the bible, temperance-inclined and often Baptist.


  1. A. Fawcett, The Cambuslang Revival: the Scottish Evangelical Revival of the eighteenth century (Banner of Truth Trust, London, 1971)
  2. Sydney E. Armstrong, A Religious History of the American People. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1972) p. 263

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