Some Thoughts on Revival

I wrote this paper a couple of years ago while Chaplain of the Graduate School under the title, Some Brief Thoughts on the Character of REVIVAL in North America, the British Isles, and Wheaton College. I hope it will be helpful to you.


Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you? (Psalm 85:6)

     What do you think of when you hear the word revival? Do you think of loud preaching, people coming forward to get saved, and/or wild expressions of spiritual ecstasy? As Robert Coleman has said, the word revival comes from the word meaning “to live.” In Ezekiel 37:5 the Lord told the prophet to speak to the dry bones saying, “I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live.” (Beougher and Dorsett 13) 

     Thus revival refers to a special and sovereign work of God where He visits His people to reanimate, to restore, and to release in them the fullness of the Holy Spirit for the furtherance of the gospel in the world.  

     Richard Lovelace defines revival “not as a special season of extra-ordinary religious excitement…. 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.” (Lovelace 40)

     There have been those who would dispute this definition. For example, Charles Finney, influenced by the Edwardesian New Divinity which claimed that everyone had a natural ability to repent, applied such a principle in his methodology of revival. He claimed that revival was not a miraculous work of God, but “the right use of the appropriate means.”  (Finney 12) His views certainly embroiled him in controversy even with the more moderate Calvinists of the day, such as Henry Ward Beecher. However, even though they disagreed about methodology there was a basic agreement as to the desire for and purpose of revival. 

     If one studies intermittent spiritual awakenings throughout history, s/he will notice several characteristics that attend and are the consequence of revival:

     First, there is usually a time of preparation that occurs before revival comes. Often the preparation has been accomplished through the faithful preaching of the Word of God over time, especially on the themes of substitutionary atonement, justification by faith, repentance and the pursuit of holiness. Many years before the Reformation took place, there were forerunners like John Wycliffe and the Lollards; before them, there was Jon Huss in Moravia, the Waldensians in Northern Italy, and John Tauler (1300-1361). 

     Pre-dating the First Great Awakening of 1740-2 were five or six periods of spiritual renewal called “Harvests” under Solomon Stoddard, Jonathan Edwards’ grandfather, in his 58 year pastorate in Northampton, MA. (McDowell 50) There was also the revival in Northampton under Edwards himself in 1735. Also, before the prayer revival of 1857-58 that began in New York City, there were independent prayer revivals in Hamilton, Ontario as well as in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. J. Edwin Orr documents that there were also prayer revivals among the slaves south of the Mason Dixon line. Then these prayer revival in the US and Canada swept across the Atlantic into Ireland, Wales, and Scotland in 1858-60. (Orr 39-40) 

     This should teach us that if we are in a place where God has already done a great work in the past, we should celebrate that work and ask him to do it again in the future. At Wheaton College we have a rich heritage of revival. Between 1878 and 1895 there were accounts of at least ten different times of revival on campus. More recently, there were the revivals of 1936, 1943, 1959, 1970, and 1995. These should be looked upon not only as times when God worked in an unusual way, but also as preparations for the new work that God might do once again in the future. (Psalm 85:6)

     Second, before many revivals, there were evident times of crisis or spiritual apathy. Certainly the cyclic periods of declension, despair, and deliverance are formative to understanding the entire history of Israel in the period of the Judges. Jonathan Edwards believed that the sudden death of a young woman precipitated the revival of 1734-5 in Northampton. Prior to the 1857-8 prayer revival in New York City there was a general decline of religion in America and a growing lukewarmness in the Church after a period of revival from 1830-42. There was also the Bank Panic of 1857, which was one of the most needless financial crises in American history. Based upon hysteria and rumor, banks closed for two months and people could get neither credit nor cash to live on or to run their business.     

     There are also records of revivals taking place during the crisis of the Civil War especially among Confederate troops. Eifion Evans writes of the Revival of 1858-60 which swept Wales and calls attention to how one region of the country was affected by the sudden death of a young man, while another area was chafing under the moral debauchery that attended a rising prosperity due to a flourishing slate-quarrying industry. (Evans 67, 68) 

     Third, revivals have often been characterized by an acute awareness of the resplendent majesty and holiness of God and a respondent awareness of the depth of human sin. The vision of Isaiah 6 is the pattern for such revival. In the face of a national crisis (the death of good King Uzziah), Isaiah saw the Lord, high and lifted up in all his majesty. This struck a deep cord reminding Isaiah of his own sinfulness and creatureliness in comparison. “Woe is me; I am coming apart!” This was certainly Martin Luther’s turning point—a perception of the depth of his own sin coram deo (before God) and not by human standards.

     The Puritans, the Pietists, and the leaders of the First Great Awakening preserved this strong preaching of God’s holiness and the demand for humility and repentance. However, as Richard Lovelace points out, “subsequent generations… gradually moved away from [this]. Rationalist religion reacting against exaggerated and over-explicit portrayals of human wickedness and divine wrath… began to stress the goodness of man and the benevolence of the Deity. By the time of the Second Awakening (mid-1790s to 1840), many leaders of the revival were… presenting an increasingly kindly, fatherly and thoroughly comprehensible God.” (Lovelace 83)

     No one is advocating going back to the “hell-fire” and damnation sermons of the Puritans, but neither should we so domesticate God that we fail to properly present his majestic character. We should faithfully preach the message of the cross, for it is in the gospel of Christ that God’s love and justice meet. The cross is the attestation both of God’s perfect hatred of sin and the perfect manifestation of the depths of God’s love and mercy in the sacrifice of Christ.

     Consequently, the fourth characteristic of revival has always been the confession of sin with the accompanying knowledge and certainty of forgiveness. The confession of sin is before God, but it is also before the church. In revival, there is an embodiment to the truth of James 5; “confess your sin one to another that you might be healed.” This is why we see recorded in the documents of most revivals the deep conviction of sin and the need to repent, but also the experience of joy and freedom which accompanies such confession. Edwards describes the awakening in Northampton as such: “… the town seemed to be full of the presence of God. It never was so full of love nor so full of joy and yet so full of distress as it was then.” (Edwards 348) 

     The following is a testimony from the 1995 Revival at Wheaton College: “I went back to my room and asked my roommate if we could talk and if he would hold me accountable. I felt a change in my life. In the following days, I continued to realize a complete and overwhelming sense of freedom and victory… I knew what it meant to say that Jesus had set me free and broken the power of sin.” (Beougher and Dorsett 113) 

     The fifth characteristic of most revivals has been that they cannot be controlled. There is usually a sudden beginning and then a sudden ending. Martin Lloyd Jones writes: “While it is perfectly true to say that we can quench the Spirit and be a hindrance, it is never true to say that if we observe all the rules and the conditions that we can produce revival. No, God keeps it in his own hands, the beginning, during the course, and the end. In everything we are dependent upon the Holy Spirit and his power.” (Lloyd-Jones 115)  

     This hallmarks for us an understanding that revival is a sovereign act of God. We may plan an evangelistic outreach or a service of worship, but we cannot plan a revival. It is an independent act of God accomplishing his sovereign purposes on behalf of his eternal plan for human history. This being said, we do not mean to minimize the importance of prayer in relationship to revival. If God’s sovereign will is the primary cause of revival, then prayer can be seen as a “second cause.” In other words, God chooses to accomplish his sovereign will for this world through the prayers of his people; just as God’s sovereign work of regeneration and conversion is accomplished through the “second cause” of evangelism. (For an excellent discussion of this, see J.I. Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God.) 

     J. Edwin Orr points out that the spiritual preparation for the revival in Great Britain in 1792 began seven years before as evangelicals from various denominations, including the Church of England and the Church of Scotland, devoted the first Monday evening of each month to pray for the revival of religion and the extension of the gospel throughout the world. (Orr Flaming Tongue xi)  

     There is no better example of this relationship between prayer and revival than what we have already referred to as the Prayer Revival of 1857-8. Jeremiah Lanphier, a former businessman, started a noon-time prayer meeting at the Old Dutch Church in Lower NYC on September 23, 1857. For three months he had been knocking on the doors of boarding houses, shops, and offices inviting people to come and pray. On that day, he prayed alone at first and then others trickled in. The next week six people came; the next week twenty and the next week forty came. Then on October 14, the worst financial panic in history struck and banks around the city closed. People lost their jobs and children went hungry. No one could have anticipated this, but suddenly the Fulton Street prayer meeting exploded with crowds exceeding 3,000 and demanding more meeting sites around the city. Within six months, 10,000 people gathered weekly all around NYC. 

     People came in order to pray, repent, and many were converted. “A prize fighter nicknamed ‘Awful Gardiner’ was a prayer meeting convert. He visited his old friends at Sing Sing Penitentiary and gave his testimony. Among those converted was a noted river thief, Jerry McAuley, who later founded the Water Street Mission. It was one of the first missions for down-and-outs.” (America’s Great Revivals 58.) 

     This Prayer Revival spread to Philadelphia, Boston, New Haven, Albany, Washington, DC, and even Chicago. There was no hype or hysteria—just prayer. Finney said, “There is such a general confidence in the prevalence of prayer that the people very extensively seemed to prefer meeting for prayer to meeting for preaching. The general impression seemed to be, ‘We have had instruction until we are hardened; it is time for us to pray.’” (America’s Great Revivals 65)

     When the Prayer Revival was at its height, it was estimated that 50,000 people a week were converted with overall estimates ranging from 300,000 to one million. It is also estimated that the people who joined churches in 1858 amounted to almost 10% of the country’s total church membership. (America’s Great Revivals 69) 

     All of this is utterly amazing in and of itself, but this revival also had an impact in igniting awakenings that swept the British Isles in 1858-60. “The Drysorfa (a Welch newspaper) for April 1858 reports that American newspapers were publishing accounts of the awakening in New York, and this may well have inspired some churches to pray more fervently than ever before for a similar work in Wales…. It appears then, that during this period in Wales, in the early months of 1858, there were churches which were being challenged with a view of their own spiritual poverty and with a call to earnest prayer.” (Evans 31-32) 

     The final major characteristic of revival has been the growth of the Church and its mission in the world. The Great Awakening of the 1740s produced 50,000 new church members. The Prayer Revival of 1857-8 produced half-a-million new church members and an additional 50,000 in Wales.  In 1806 Samuel Mills, a freshman at Williams College, helped to lead a group of five students to pray for revival of the campus. One of those meetings took place beneath a haystack because of a thunderstorm. The subsequent revival was the impetus for what would become an unprecedented thrust in foreign missions. Out of it came the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the American Bible Society, and the American Colonization Society. There is a plaque at the site of the Haystack Prayer Meeting that says; “The Birthplace of American Foreign Missions.” Richard Lovelace claims that “every major advance of the kingdom of God on earth is signaled and brought about by the general outpouring of the Holy Spirit in revival.” (Lovelace 40) 

     We see this same characteristic of the Wheaton Revival of 1995. On the final night of the revival, Dr. Jean Blumhagen, then a Trustee of the college and a missionary along with her husband, gave a challenge for students to give their lives to missions. She cited the fact that revival should always produce an outward focus. Statistics were read of how many missionaries went out in the 1950 revival at Wheaton—over 100 compared to nine in the class of 1993. And so the call was given “and the entire front of the auditorium (College Church) was filled with students, and the aisles going all the way back as far as I could see were filled with students. I have no way of knowing how many students there were. I wish I did.” (Student leader of WCF: Transcript 58). [Records actually indicate that 45 members of the class of 1993 became involved in missions compared with 52 members of the class of 1995, 30 members of 1996, 55 members of 1997, and 42 members of the class of 1998.] 

     It should also be mentioned that along with the missionary outreach of the Church, revival has also had clear social implications. This can be seen especially in the 1830’s and the revivalism of Charles Finney which shaped the course of evangelicalism prior to the Civil War. We have already mentioned Charles Finney and his innovative New Measures which encouraged more public participation of women in preaching, invented the “anxious bench” where sinners were encouraged to come and confess their sins and pray for salvation, and emphasized the ability and responsibility of the individual to turn to God without leaning upon divine assistance. However, Finney not only encouraged converts to personal holiness but also to social reform against such things as drunkenness, slavery, and the mistreatment of the mentally ill. Even the revivalist preacher Phoebe Palmer, Finney’s contemporary, with her emphasis on personal holiness did not abandon the importance of social reform especially in issues relating to an urban setting. (Noll 97-100) 

     Timothy Smith claims that genuine revival fuses the personal and the social aspects of the gospel. This can be seen especially in the revivals of the mid-nineteenth century which gave birth to the organization of trade unions, the abolition of child labor, women’s suffrage, the YMCA, the founding of colleges and other benevolent and missionary organizations, and the abolitionist movement. In fact, Smith quotes Count Agenor de Gasparin who concluded that the Prayer Revival of 1857-8 had actually paved the way for the election of Lincoln: “The great moral force which is struggling with American slavery is the Gospel.” (Smith 215)[1]

     The social implications of revival are best summed up by Gilbert Haven, a Boston abolitionist who became a Methodist Bishop after the Civil War. “The Gospel…is not confined to a repentance and faith that has no connection with social or civil duties. The evangel of Christ is an all-embracing theme. It is the vital force in earth and heaven…. The cross is the centre of the spiritual, and therefore the material universe.” (Haven 342-44) 

     Timothy Smith points out that the first stanza of the old Methodist revival hymn, “A charge to keep I have, a God to glorify; a never-dying soul to save, and fit it for the sky”; was followed by the second stanza, “To serve the present age, my calling to fulfill; O may it all my powers engage to do my Master’s will.” (Smith 177)

     One final consideration is of the signs and wonders which sometimes attend revivals. At Pentecost there were signs that accompanied the coming of the Holy Spirit—the sound of a rushing wind, tongues of fire, a perception that the disciples might even be drunk. Yet, these exact signs did not attend all of the manifestations of the Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts. Similarly, revivals throughout history differ as to the manifestations. A revival in Indonesia in 1965 was attended by the sound of a tornado and of a fire so loud that the fire company was called to the church, but there was a revival going on and not a fire. A 1973 revival in Cambodia was accompanied by miracles and healings. The 1994 “Toronto Blessing” saw an emphasis on the phenomena of laughing, rolling, crying, and some being carried out of the auditorium. (Waugh 65, 79, 112)  

     On the other hand, the campus revivals which started in 1995 with Howard Payne University and spread to Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth; then to Beeson School of Divinity in Birmingham, and on to several other colleges such as Olivet Nazarene and Wheaton College, were relatively free of manifestations. The records show deep repentance, continual confession, weeping over sin, deliverance from sexual sin and other life dominating issues, racial and familial reconciliation, but not attending phenomena. 

     Jonathan Edwards had to deal with the varying opinions on the phenomena that often accompany revival in his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, written against the backdrop of the First Great Awakening. He tried to walk the middle road between those who discounted revival because of the “hysteria” which often occurred, and those who believed that “anything goes” whenever revival comes. I would refer the reader to a very readable and brief summation of Edwards’ Treatise entitled The Experience that Counts, prepared by Dr. N.R. Needham and published by Grace Publications Trust, London. This little book is a wonderful primer on the nature of conversion.  

     I would like to end this article with what I believe is very a significant observation made by Gary Stratton. He says that most every major missionary movement in the modern church has been the fruit of one or more college awakenings. (Stratton 1) If that is the case, we need to ask why it is that God so often works through the younger generation to bring about change in the world? Timothy Beougher suggests several reasons (Beougher 46-7): 

  • College-age people are idealistic and have not been jaded by the “been there; done that” mentality.
  • They are open to change, they are not set in their ways, and they are not worried about their reputations.
  • They are sensitive to cultural issues and conflict.
  • They are optimistic about the future; they are the ones who see visions (Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17).
  • They are ready to risk their lives for a cause. 

     And so, as the Lord draws so many of us together to pray about fears wrought by the pandemic, the racial divide and the political turmoil of our nation, and the never-ending troubles of a gospel-less world, let us continue to pray that the Lord might send revival again; that He would start with us, and that “the glory of the knowledge of the Lord might fill the earth as the waters cover the seas.” 

It is not for you to know the times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses…to the end of the earth. Acts 1:8

[1] The hope of most revivalists was that transforming the human heart would translate into transforming society. However, Mark Noll makes the point that the issue of slavery not only divided the nation but also the church. It strengthened southern evangelicals to use the Scriptures to defend slavery and to condemn the northern evangelical abolitionists as being unbiblical in their position. Thus, after the revivalism of the mid to late 1830’s the church ceased being a culture-influencing force preparing for the return of Christ and became a culture-influenced organization mirroring the brokenness of society. (Noll 104-108) 

David P McDowell, Chaplain Wheaton College Graduate School Wheaton, IL.


America’s Great Revivals: The Thrilling Story of Spiritual Revival in the  United States. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House (Originally published in Christian Life Magazine). 

Beougher, Timothy and Lyle Dorsett (eds.). Accounts of a Campus Revival: Wheaton College 1995, Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1995.

BGC Archive Collection, 514. Transcript 58.

Edwards, Jonathan. “A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Works of God.”  The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 1, edited by Edward Hickman.  Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1979.

Evans, Eifion.  When He is Come: The 1858-60 Revival in Wales, London: Evangelical Press, 1967.

Finney, Charles. Lectures on Revival of Religion. New York: Leavitt, Lord, and Co., 1835.

Gilbert, Haven. National Sermons: Sermons, Speeches, and Letters on Slavery and Its War. Boston, 1869.

Lloyd-Jones, Martin. Revival, Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1987. 

Lovelace, Richard. Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of  Renewal. Downers Grove, ILInterVarsity Press, 1979.

McDowell, David P. Beyond the Half-Way Covenant: Solomon Stoddard’s Understanding of the Lord’s Supper as a Converting Ordinance. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012.

Noll, Mark. The Old Religion in a New World: The History of North American Christianity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002.

Orr, J. Edwin. The Event of the Century: The 1857-1858 Awakening. Wheaton, IL: Int’l Awakening Press, 1989

________. The Flaming Tongue: The Impact of Early 20th Century Revivals. Chicago: Moody Press, 1975.

Smith, Timothy L. Revivalism and Social Reform in Mid-19th– Century America. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972.

Stratton, Gary. “The Renewal Movement at Gordon College.” April, 1999   (typewritten manuscript ).