In describing what happened in Jonathan Edward’s Northampton, Mass., church in 1734, observers said, “It pleased God ..to display his free and sovereign mercy in the conversion of a great multitude of souls in a short space of time, turning them from a formal, cold and careless profession of Christianity, to the lively exercise of every Christian grace, and the powerful practice of our holy religion.”1
That’s about as clear a definition as we’ll ever get! During a spiritual revival, God supernaturally transforms believers and nonbelievers in a church, locale, region, nation or the world through sudden, intense enthusiasm for Christianity.2 People sense the presence of God powerfully; conviction, despair, contrition, repentance and prayer come easily; people thirst for God’s word; many authentic conversions occur and backsliders are renewed.
Revival and awakening are, generally, synonyms. The larger the geography a revival covers, the greater the tendency to call it an awakening.
America has a deep, rich history of revivals and awakenings.
Spiritual Revival in America: A Well-Travelled Road
The Great Awakening, 1734-43. In December 1734, the first revival of historic significance broke out in Northampton, Mass., where a young Jonathan Edwards was pastor. After months of fruitless labor, he reported five or six people converted—one a young woman. He wrote, “[She] had been one of the greatest company-keepers in the whole town.”3 He feared her conversion would douse the flame, but quite the opposite took place. Three hundred souls converted in six months—in a town of only 1,100 people!4 The news spread like wildfire, and similar revivals broke out in over 100 towns.5 Starting in Philadelphia in 1739, George Whitfield’s dramatic preaching was like striking a match to the already-underway awakening. An estimated 80 percent of America’s 900,000 Colonists personally heard Whitfield preach.6,7 He became America’s first celebrity.8
The Second Great Awakening, 1800-1840. In 1800, only one in 15 of America’s population of 5,300,000 belonged to an evangelical church.9 Presbyterian minister James McGready presided over strange spiritual manifestations in Logan County, Ky. The resulting camp meeting revivals drew thousands from as far away as Ohio.10,11 Rev. Gardiner Spring reported that for the next 25 years not a single month passed without news of a revival somewhere.12 In 1824, Charles Finney began a career that would eventually convert 500,000 to Christ. An unparalleled 100,000 were converted in Rochester, N.Y., in 1831 alone—causing the revival to spread to 1,500 towns.13 By 1850 the nation’s population exploded fourfold to 23,000,000 people, but those connected to evangelical churches grew nearly tenfold from 7 percent to 13 percent of the population—from 350,000 to 3,000,000 church members!14
The Businessmen’s Revival of 1857-1858. In 1857, the North Dutch Church in New York City hired a businessman, Jeremiah Lanphier, to be a lay missionary. He prayed, “Lord, what would you have me do?” Concerned by the anxious faces of businessmen on the streets of New York City, Lanphier decided to open the church at noon so businessmen could pray. The first meeting was set for September 23—three weeks before the Bank Panic of 1857. Six attended the first week, 20 the next, then 40, then they switched to daily meetings. Before long all the space was taken, and other churches also began to open up for businessmen’s prayer meetings.15 Revivals broke out everywhere in 1857, spreading throughout the United States and world. Sometimes called The Great Prayer Meeting Revival, an estimated 1,000,000 people were added to America’s church rolls, and as many as 1,000,000 of the 4,000,000 existing church members also converted.16
The Civil War Revival, 1861-1865. The bitter dispute over slavery thrust our nation into the deadliest war we’ve ever experienced. By the end, 620,000 Americans lay dead—one out of every 50 of the 31,000,000 people counted in the 1860 census. At the start of the Civil War in 1861, it seemed as though the soldiers for both sides had left their Christianity at home and gone morally berserk. By 1862, the tide turned, first among the Confederate forces. An estimated 300,000 soldiers were converted, evenly divided between the Southern and Northern Armies. 17,18
The Urban Revivals, 1875-1885. Young businessman Dwight L. Moody participated in the Great Revival of 1857 as it swept Chicago.19 Moody later conducted revivals throughout the British Isles where he spoke to more than 2,500,000 people. In 1875, Moody returned home and began revivals in America’s biggest cities. Hundreds of thousands were converted and millions were inspired by the greatest soul winner of his generation.20 At this time, the general worldview of Americans was shifting away from a Christian consensus. Darwinism and higher criticism were gaining traction, and Moody became the first evangelist to come under attack—accused of making religion the opiate of the masses.21
By the turn of the 20th century, the mood of the country was changing. Outside the church, it was the era of radio, movies and the “Jazz Age.” World War I led to a moral letdown and the Roaring Twenties. When that era came to an abrupt end on October 29, 1929, followed by the Great Depression, there was surprisingly little interest in spiritual revival.22 Inside the church, a half-century long battle raged between evangelicalism and theological liberalism, which had penetrated major denominations.23 The effect was that 20th-century revivals were more limited in scope, and lacked the broad impact on society of earlier awakenings.24
The Revivals of 1905-1906. Word of the Welsh Revival of 1904-1905 spread to Welsh-speaking settlers in Pennsylvania in late 1904 and revival broke out. By 1905, local revivals blazed in places like Brooklyn, Michigan, Denver, Schenectady, Nebraska, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Taylor University, Yale University, and Asbury College in Wilmore, Kentucky.25 Billy Sunday, who became a key figure about this time, preached to more than 100,000,000 people with an estimated 1,000,000 or more conversions.26
The Azusa Street Revival, 1906. In 1906, William J. Seymour, an African-American Holiness pastor blind in one eye, went to Los Angeles to candidate for a pastoral job. But after he preached, he was locked out of the second service! He began prayer meetings in a nearby home and the Spirit of God, which they called “the second blessing,” fell after many months of concerted prayer. Eventually, the interracial crowds became so large they acquired a dilapidated Methodist church at 312 Azusa Street where daily meetings continued for three years. The resulting Pentecostal Movement and the later Charismatic Movement, which both exploded worldwide in the 20th century, both trace their roots to this revival.27,28,29
The Post-World War II Awakening. After World War II, in 1947 and 1948, Pentecostals experienced two strands of an awakening, one the Latter Rain Revival and the other the Healing Revival. Large numbers of evangelicals also experienced revival resulting in many conversions. It was at this time that a great generation of Christian leaders emerged. Bill Bright began Campus Crusade for Christ. In 1949, Billy Graham’s distinguished career, which popularized evangelical Christianity for a new generation, exploded on the scene during his Los Angeles crusade sponsored by the Christian Businessmen’s Committee.30,31 An estimated 180,000,000 people attended his nearly 400 crusades, and millions more viewed on television.32 College Revivals started as early as 1946, but when the prayer-based Wheaton College Revival of 1950 achieved national publicity, it sparked other college revivals throughout America.33