New Resource Page On Revivals And Revivalism

The nature, origins, and status of revivals and revivalism is a contested issue among scholars and popular writers on these topics. It is a question even whether revivals and revivalism are properly distinguished and if so how? There are narratives about revivals and revivalism that distinguish the two sharply (most of the time but not consistently), which are essentially tribal in nature. They serve to assure one tribe (e.g., predestinarians) that the First Great Awakening was a good revival but the revival movements that composed the Second Great Awakening were (more or less) bad (except when they were not). This narrative has been internalized by a lot of folk in the modern Presbyterian and Reformed world. It is the lens through which they see the questions.

When I first began to study these questions, I came to them using that lens, even though my methodological commitments as a historian, or at least someone who attempts to write history academically, told me that such an approach is broken from the start. As soon as I dove into both the primary sources and the academic secondary literature, I was driven to very different conclusions. I summarized this research in Recovering the Reformed Confession (2007), 71–116.

I came to this field from the perspective of a scholar of post-Reformation Reformed orthodoxy. What I saw, in the accounts of Edwards, Whitefield, et al. alerted me right away that they were operating with a very different paradigm for piety and practice and how those relate to theology than that which I had seen among the sixteenth-century Reformers and their orthodox and scholastic successors in the 17th century.

Whether I got it right is for others to judge but this is the secondary literature that (for the most part) informed my study of revival and revivalism.

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  1. Scott,
    This is very helpful. I didn’t notice William B. Sprague, Lectures on Revivals (Banner of Truth), which includes some first-person accounts by orthodox pastors of the time, several of which mentioned that they continued their regular preaching (ordinarily lectio continua), and that they focused on the “doctrine of inability,” the utter inability of sinners to turn to God apart from his grace. I found that to be interesting back in the 1990s when I was studying the matter a little. You are surely right that the matter is more complex than most think. Even though it is now out of print (I think), Julius Melton’s Presbyterian Worship in America: Changing Patterns Since 1787 is also pertinent, in focusing on “scriptural decorum” and “evangelistic effectiveness” as competing liturgical concepts. Thanks!
    T. David

  2. Scott,
    What was/is most interesting about Sprague is his (probably intentional) copying of Finney’s title, “Lectures on Revival,” because Sprague was a committed “means of grace” clergyman, who resisted all of the new “measures” or “methods” found in Finney. This is why publicly I rarely use the term “Evangelical” now; and prefer the term “methodist,” (small “m”) which is what the “new measures/methods” revivalists were called by their brotherly opponents. The UMC are by no means (bad pun) the only “methodists” today. My communion (PCA) has plenty of Metho-terians. Thanks again.
    T. David

    • David,

      Those Dutch-speaking in the CRC, in the early 20th century, who worried about American influence on the CRC (they were correct!) spoke of the “methodists” (revivalists/evangelicals).

      Metho-terians indeed.

      Where I come from, however, the “Meth” in metho-terians would have a different connotation but I like it.

  3. I commend to you today’s (Monday, February 20th) “Today in Perspective” podcast with Harry Reeder, Pastor of Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, AL. This is an good an introduction on how to evaluate an event claiming to be a “revival” that I have seen. Dr. Reeder is kind, gracious, optimistic, and God-centered, yet firm in laying out the Biblical characteristics of a true work of God.

    It’s all well and good to study “revivals” and “revivalism” from a confessional, theological, and even sociological perspective. It’s a necessary discipline that may yield much good fruit. Yet we need to be careful not to come across as a tribe of cold, aloof, analytical, and immediately suspicious observers – what I call “Knee Jerk Naysayers.”

    Dr. Reeder’s comments bring much-needed spiritual and pastoral counsel, leading us to rejoice in genuine spiritual renewal from God, wherever it may be found. There’s great wisdom packed into a mere ten minutes.

    • But this is the schtick in these young evangelical churches. Reformed churches will not follow the lead of circles that are promoting “love” like Asbury, with the CCM music, etc. Its all emotional and feel-good, support group stuff with Jesus tacked on.. The smart phones are out to capture the movement. It was my wife’s experience at a recent Casting Crowns concert.

      I wouldn’t mind seeing some open air preaching in the vein of a Jonathan Edwards’ sermon but I would expect that kind of sermon would lead to a riot before anything else.

      I heard the podcast and was not impressed as none of the service content proceeding the testimonies were covered and when it was mentioned the concern was offered as an afterthought not the priority.

    • I recall a bunch of evangelical youth groups randomly breaking out in the Harlem Shake a few years back. It’s a fine line when some of these young fellowship groups gather. The spiritual maturity just ain’t there.

    • Thanks for the comments, AJ. Have you considered that you may be showing a little Reformed “schtick” yourself? I return to Pastor Reeder’s main points: Is there genuine repentance, humility, growth in the Word, increasing devotion to Christ and service to others? Of course, only time will tell. It’s hard to be patient while we long for the inner core of a work of grace to be made clear. By their fruits you shall know them, and fruit is not immediate. It’s much easier to dismiss the accompanying baggage. (By the way, that baggage distresses me as well.)

      In the midst of thinking “How can God work through this, it’s such a mess?” remember I Corinthians 4:7 and the astonishing variety of God’s ways in bringing light out of darkness. You may have been one of those crooked sticks that God is using to draw straight lines now.

      To sum up, I’m simply asking for a little more humility and encouragement as we cut with our precise surgical scalpels. To use a better Biblical image, we need both the sword and the trowel, and wisdom from the Lord how best to use them for tearing down and for building up. Our reaction to reports of “revival” may be as challenging for us as the lived experience of those caught up in it.

    • Frank,
      First, it’s good to know you have been released to the general population…Harry is one of the finest churchmen of our generation, a rare individual whose graces and gifts are both exceptional.
      Once, when hiking the loop of Mt. Lafayette in New Hampshire, I was surprised to find a coin at the summit, a thousand feet above treeline. If I were a coin collector, however, I would get coins from a bank. Sometimes we find God’s grace in non-usual circumstances; but if we wish to find Him, we look where He has pledged His presence, in gatherings of His saints who are committed to the means of grace.
      T. David

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