By Tony Cauchi, May 2006
The purpose of this work is to introduce the reader to each of the successive movements of the Spirit which have occurred since the Reformation. It will be clearly seen that revival has always been high on God’s agenda and is a major key to understanding Christian history. It is only an historical survey of revival. It does not dwell on issues of practice or theology. Nor does it discuss the sociological impact of spiritual awakenings. Many of these issues are addressed in other works in the Revival Library. Rather we will restrict ourselves to the bare facts of revivals that have taken place during the past 300 years.
THE SIX WAVES OF REVIVALS
Those who have read of revivals may not know that there have been several very distinct periods of revival history since the 16th century Reformation. Their occurrence has often appeared as spasmodic, haphazard, unpredictable and irregular, but this is far from the truth.
We are indebted to the prolific writer and scholar, Dr J Edwin Orr, for his extensive and painstaking research into the history of revivals. His work has clearly revealed several distinct and successive ‘great awakenings’ or ‘resurgences.’ These progressive periods of revival are unquestionably the means God has used to counteracts spiritual decline in the church and to promote spiritual advance in the world. There have been six of these major periods or waves from the Reformation to the turn of the 20th century, from 1727, 1792, 1830, 1857,1882 and 1904.
We have chosen to use the “wave” analogy to illustrate these six periods of time, when God poured out His Holy Spirit, reviving the church and awakening the lost. The life of a wave begins imperceptibly but there is a point when it becomes visible and the water begins to lift. Very quickly it rises to a peak, breaks and then slowly recedes. This process continues with each new wave, drawing up some water from the old one and pushing it onto the next. This is precisely what happened in revival history.
On or around each of the above dates the church enjoyed a fresh wave of God’s blessing. We call each of them “great” awakenings because, although they incorporated local revivals, their effects crossed national boundaries and were ultimately world-wide in scope.
The First Great Awakening of 1727 onwards
Commonly called “The Great Awakening” this was certainly not the greatest revival in numerical growth or geographical scope. Nevertheless, it well deserves the title because it was the first discernible occasion that God’s Spirit was outpoured simultaneously across different nations.
Historically, the beginning of this awakening can be traced to the Moravian community called “Herrnhut” (the Lord’s watch), where a visitation from God was experienced after a period of prayer, repentance and reconciliation in 1727. Nikolas Count Ludwig Von Zinzendorf, a German, was the leader of the movement that began a 24 hour-a-day prayer meeting, which lasted the next 100 years. In the next 65 years that small community sent out 300 radical missionaries. Their revived German Pietism was destined to influence two other harvest fields, which were on God’s agenda for that time – England and America.
Griffith Jones, a young Anglican clergyman, often called the ‘morning star of the revival,’ was making a mark in Britain through his revival preaching for at least 10 years before Theodore Frelinghuysen, a Dutch reformed Pietist, began to see remarkable conversions in America. He preached in 1727 with revival signs following his ministry in New Jersey. The revival spread to the Scottish-Irish Presbyterians under the ministry of Gilbert Tennant, whose father, William, founded the famous “Log College”, which later became the Princeton University. Revival then spread to the Baptists of Pennsylvania and Virginia before the extraordinary awakening that occurred on Northampton, Massachusetts, under the ministry of Jonathan Edwards in 1734. Edward’s personal experience of revivals and his sharp mind, enabled him to produce a number of revival theologies and pastoral observations which have yet to be surpassed in their wisdom and insight. Thereafter, the revival spread to England and was further advanced in America by a visit of George Whitefield in 1739.
The effects of the revival were phenomenal. Statistics are hard to find, but we know that 150 new Congregational churches began in a 20-year period and 30,000 were added to the church between 1740 and 1742, probably doubling its size. Moral results were equably noticeable. Nine university colleges were established in the colonies. The wild frontier society was thoroughly Christianised. Early missionary desire began to emerge, most notably in the ministry of David Brainerd among the Indians. His journals are essential reading for all those seeking revival.
Back in Britain a massive movement of revival had began and was bound up with the ministries of two young men, George Whitefield and John Wesley. Both had been members of the Holy Club in Oxford while they were students. Wesley went off, still unconverted, to America to preach to the Indians in 1736, returning in 1738. The only benefit of this venture was his contact with the Moravians, who he could not understand, but for whom he had a great respect. On Wesley’s return, Whitefield had been converted and was already preaching with great effect. For 34 years he exercised a most amazing preaching ministry, with revival signs often following him. His eloquence was commanding and convincing, full of vivid pictures and graphic expressions. “His hearers were taken by surprise and carried by storm” (J C Ryle).
The height of Whitefield’s ministry was at the famed Cambuslang Awakening in 1742, when 20,000 and 30,000 people gathered to hear him preach, followed by mass weeping and repentance one and a half hours.
During Whitefield’s ministry he preached in almost every town of England, Scotland and Wales, crossing the Atlantic seven times; winning countless souls in Boston, New York and Philadelphia. He publicly preached an estimated 18,000 power-packed messages, although none of his 75 recorded sermons do justice to his style and delivery.
Whitefield’s friend, John Wesley, must go down in history as the architect of the 18th century evangelical revival. Converted in 1738, at the well-known Aldersgate Street prayer meeting, he proceeded to preach whenever the opportunity afforded itself, usually in church. Then, in 1739, at Whitefield’s request, he preached in the open air at Bristol and followed Whitefield in his preaching places. There began those unusual manifestations which periodically attended his and Whitefield’s ministry; falling, crying out, fainting, shrieking, convulsions etc.
Wesley wisely began small societies designed for mutual encouragement and support. These became forerunners of the class-meetings and then of the Methodist Church. They were surely used to conserve the fruits of his revivalistic work. Wesley was an itinerant preacher for 65 years. He traveled an estimated 250,000 miles on horseback to preach 40,000 sermons! He wrote 233 books, including his voluminous journals and a complete commentary on the whole bible. He left behind him 750 preachers in England, 350 in America; 76,968 Methodists in England and 57,621 in America. With Charles, his brother, he penned 9,000 hymns. Wesley’s influence has far outrun his long life. His practices and theology has affected Holiness, Revivalist, Pentecostal and Charismatic groups right down to the present day.
Clearly, then this Awakening was truly ‘Great’ and had notable affect on the majority of countries where Evangelical Christians could be found. It affected the existing church, saw thousands converted and impacted social conditions. Historians usually refer to 1766, the year of the American revolution, as the year by which the revival had spent itself and had began to decline.
The Second Great Awakening of 1792 Onwards
This little-known ‘Great Awakening’ lasted about 30 years and its immediate effects were extraordinarily widespread. It also gave a remarkable impetus to world missions.
This awakening began as a prayer-movement in 1784, when John Erskine of Edinburgh re-published Jonathan Edward’s earnest plea for revival prayer. It was entitled, ‘An Humble Attempt to Promote Explicit Agreement and Visible Union of God’s People in Extraordinary Prayer for the Revival of Religion and the Advancement of Christ’s Kingdom”. Denomination after denomination devoted a monthly Monday evening to prayer, first in Britain, then in the US.
The barriers were great. There was moral decline following the war of independence in America. The French Revolution, infidelity and rationalism in Europe and dwindling congregations everywhere. The beginning of the revival can be traced to the industrial towns of Yorkshire in late 1791, spreading through all areas and denominations. The Methodists alone grew from around 72,000 at Wesleys death in 1791 to almost a quarter of a million within a generation.
At the same time, the churches in Wales became packed again and thousands gathered in the open air. The Haldanes (Robert and James) and Thomas Chalmers, with a few others, saw phenomenal awakenings in Scotland. Ireland too, saw local awakenings, especially among the Methodists.
A remarkable result of these UK revivals was the founding the British and Foreign Bible Society, The Religious Tract Society, The Baptist Missionary Society, The London Missionary Society, The Church Missionary Society and a host of other evangelistic agencies. It also achieved considerable social reform; evangelical Anglicans successfully fought for the abolition of the slave trade, prisons were reformed, Sunday Schools began and a number of benevolent institutions were commenced.
In the rest of the world similar movements arose. Around 1800 Scandinavia was impacted and in Switzerland a visit of Robert Haldane sparked off revivals among the Reformed churches. Germany experienced revival and achieved lasting social reforms and missionary fervour.
In the US the concept of prayer was very widespread from 1794 and by 1798 the awakening had broken out everywhere. Every state and every evangelical denomination was affected. Timothy Dwight, grandson of Jonathan Edwards, took over Yale College in 1795 and saw over half the students converted in just one year. Other colleges enjoyed similar movements of the Spirit.
Orr reports that there were no emotional extravagances in the east coast revivals. This was far from the case in other areas. Francis Asbury was sent from England, with and other Methodist circuit-riding preachers, to preach in the Frontiers. James McGready and Barton Stone witnessed an astounding revival at Kentucky in 1800, with much trembling, shaking, tears, shouting and fainting. In 1801 Barton Stone was invited to minister at the Cambridge meeting house in Bourbon County. A second visit attracted 20,000 people to a 6-day camp-meeting, which witnessed astounding revival scenes, with hundreds falling at once, with shrieks and shouts and many conversions.
The Frontier camp meetings were often sabotaged by drunks and mockers, many of whom repented and turned to God. All denominations were blessed by this revival. An utterly lawless community was transformed into a God-fearing one. The American Bible Society, American Tract Society, American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission and innumerable other societies were founded at this time.
The revival of 1792 onwards lasted around 30 years until around the early 1820’s, but was soon followed by the 1830’s revival, which lasted about 12 years before a decade of decline.
The Third Great Awakening of 1830 onwards
Fast on the heels of the Second Great Awakening, the third wave of heavenly power crashed on the shores of the evangelical world, this time without the usual decline. Asahel Nettleton and Charles Finney are names which dominate the American scene, while another American, James Caughey was the most notable revival evangelist active in England.
Finney’s well documented ministry began in 1830 and netted 100,000 souls within one year! The Methodist Episcopal church steadily increased in the 1830’s, especially through camp-meetings. But their numbers doubled in 1840-1842. Other denominations flourished too.
The greatest effect of this revival was felt far beyond the boarders of North America and for centuries to come. Finney’s philosophy of revival, expressed in his autobiography and explained in his “Revivals of Religion”, has subsequently affected thousands of Christians and precipitated revivals around the world.
In the UK revivals were widespread throughout the 1830’s. Evangelists like Robert Aitkin and William Haslam held highly successful missions. Brethrenism began during this period, restoring the doctrine of the church and the doctrine of the return of Christ. Its noticeable personalities were J. N. Darby and George Müller who pioneered orphanage work, evangelism and missionary enterprise. Another restoration movement was led by Edward Irving, who strongly believed in the restoration of spiritual gifts and apostolic ministries to the church.
John Elias, Christmas Evans and William Williams stormed Wales with their powerful preaching. Scotland also boasted some great revivalists like John and Horatius Bonar, the revival veteran, Thomas Chalmers, Robert Murray McCheyne, W. H. Burns and his son, William Chalmers Burns.
On the wider international front, there were local revivals in various parts of the world, particularly in Scandinavia, central Europe, South Africa, the Pacific Islands, India, Malabar, and Ceylon.
This awakening, which began in 1830 only lasted about 12 years ending around 1842. It should be noted that this revival period is often seen as one with the former period. There were a constant stream of spasmodic revivals from 1800-1820 which petered out through the next few years and then exploded from about 1830 onwards.
Some of the evangelists, like Asahel Nettleton, played a major role in both periods and some scholars, particularly Orr, refer to this revival time as a ‘resurgence.’ Nevertheless, because of the ‘new measures’ and anti-Calvinistic Arminianism of Charles Finney and the astounding influence of this man’s ministry it should be seen as quite a separate event.