Home Pastors Articles for Pastors Why Isn’t the Civil Rights Movement Considered a Revival Movement?

Why Isn’t the Civil Rights Movement Considered a Revival Movement?

civil rights movement
A young woman at the Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963. Rowland Scherman, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A revival broke out at Asbury. Lord knows the Church in America needs to be awakened from our slumber to see our need for Jesus and his transformative gospel of grace. When we respond in faith to the Holy Spirit, he opens our eyes to the beauty of God’s holiness, the radiance of his glory in Jesus, and his mission to reconcile the world unto himself.

Evangelical scholar Richard F. Lovelace summarizes Jonathan Edwards’ (1703-1758) definition of revival. Revival is “not a special season of extraordinary religious excitement, as in many forms of latter American revivalism. Rather it is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit which restores the people of God to normal spiritual life after a period of corporate declension. Periods of spiritual decline occur in history because the gravity of indwelling sin keeps pulling believers first into formal religion and then into open apostasy. Periods of awakening alternate with these as God graciously breathes new life into his people.”1

America has had her share of revivals over years, from Jesus People Movement of the late 1960s and the 1906 Azuza Street Revival to the two Great Awakenings (1730-1770 and 1795-1835). It is hard to reconcile how the demonic institution of enslaving Black people survived, and even flourished, during the first two Great Awakenings.

In 1845, this blatant hypocrisy moved the great Frederick Douglass to write, “We have men sold to build churches, women sold to support the gospel, and babies sold to purchase Bibles for the poor heathen! All for the glory of God and the good of souls! The slaves auctioneer bell and the church bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave trade go hand in hand.”2

Douglass’ vision of Christianity was closer to Jesus’ vision than those who led revivals while supporting slavery when he wrote, “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, woman whipping, cradle plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”3

On April 9, 1906, William Seymour, a Black man, was used by God to birth the modern-day Pentecostal movement through what is called commonly called the Azusa Street Revival. The Azusa Street Revival was a multiethnic movement. Sadly, the sin of racism divided this unified movement quickly. In 1912, a group of white pastors asked Black pastors to create their own national conference because the large number of Black Christians in attendance discouraged white Christians from attending.4 The Black pastors created the National Association of the Church of God, and the white pastors created the Assemblies of God.

In 1918, Francis Grimké, a former enslaved Black man, one of the founders of the NAACP, Presbyterian pastor, and biblical scholar, spoke out against Billy Sunday’s two-month crusade in Washington D.C. He wrote, “For all Sunday’s denouncing of sins, he never mentioned rotten, stinking, hell-born race prejudice…When we think of the thousands of white men in this country, claiming to be ministers of the gospel, claiming to be ambassadors of God, representatives of Jesus Christ; and yet sitting down quietly in the midst of this spreading leprosy of race prejudice, and doing nothing to stay its ravages, content to have it spread, and to curse, as it is doing, both races, embittering the Negro and debasing the white man.”5

I’ve often wondered why the Civil Rights Movement is not considered a revival. In 1957, the Civil Rights Movement was started by Black Christians in the South “with the goal of redeeming ‘the soul of America’ through nonviolent resistance”6 in response to the evils of racism and injustice. I cannot imagine how deep a person’s discipleship must be to stage sit-ins in restaurants and other nonviolent protests in the face of lynching, brutal beatings from police, dogs ripping into your flesh, church bombings, and racial injustice, all for simply wanting to exercise my rights as an American.