General Information

Revivalism is a predominantly North American Protestant phenomenon in which itinerant preachers exhort their hearers to accept forgiveness of personal sin through faith in Jesus Christ and to commit themselves to spiritual self discipline and religious exercises such as prayer, Bible reading, and church support.

Revivalism in America has been in reaction to a perceived overemphasis by the major denominations on ritual, cultural accommodation, and doctrinal or ideological correctness at the expense of personal religious experience. Four specific periods of intense religious revival were:

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W G McLoughlin, Modern Revivalism (1959); T Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform (1957); W W Sweet, Revivalism in America (1944); B A Weisberger, They Gathered at the River (1958).


Advanced Information

A movement within the Christian tradition which emphasizes the appeal of religion to the emotional and affectional nature of individuals as well as to their intellectual and rational nature. It believes that vital Christianity begins with a response of the whole being to the gospel's call for repentance and spiritual rebirth by faith in Jesus Christ. This experience results in a personal relationship with God.

Some have sought to make revivalism a purely American and even a predominantly frontier phenomenon. Revivalism, however, can be seen as a much broader Christian tradition. Recent studies have discovered a revivalist tradition in the Roman Catholic Church.

The Reformation Roots

Modern revival movements have their historical roots in Puritan pietistic reactions to the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the formalized creedal expression of Reformation faith that characterized much of seventeenth century Protestantism. Lutherans such as Johann Arndt, Philipp Spener, and August Francke resisted this depersonalization of religion. They discovered a more experiential element in Reformation faith which emphasized personal commitment and obedience to Christ and a life regenerated by the indwelling Holy Spirit. They also emphasized witness and missions as a primary responsibility of the individual Christian and the church. Subjective religious experience and the importance of the individual became a new force in renewing and expanding the church. These concerns gradually permeated much of Protestantism, especially the developing churches in America.

The Eighteenth Century Birth

The appeal for a personal, public response to the gospel that came to characterize revivalism sprang up almost simultaneously in both England and America in the eighteenth century. The initial signs of the First Great Awakening in the American colonies occurred in the congregation of the Dutch Reformed pastor Theodore J Frelinghuysen in northern New Jersey in 1725, a decade before John Wesley and George Whitefield began their field preaching in England. Frelinghuysen had come under the influence of pietism before coming to America. In 1726 William Tennent, the Presbyterian leader of the Great Awakening, started his "log college" to prepare ministers who would preach a personalized Calvinism which called men and women to repentance.

By the time George Whitefield began recurrent revivalistic tours of the American colonies in 1738, Jonathan Edwards, the theologian of the colonial awakening, had already experienced revival in his Northampton, massachusetts, Congregational church. Edwards accepted the validity of much of the religious emotion that accompanied the conversions among his parishioners and wrote in defense of the proper role of emotion in true religion. The revival continued to move south until it touched all the colonies. In England the recognized leader of the "Evangelical Revival" was John Wesley, founder of Methodism and close friend of Whitefield. Whitefield had encouraged Wesley to take up the field preaching that brought the gospel directly to the masses of working people.

The success of this appeal to the heart as well as the head could not be doubted. Religious interest was renewed, and people flocked to the churches in significant numbers in both America and England. American historians recognize that the sweep of religious fervor from north to south (prior to the Revolution) was one of the few unifying factors among the otherwise disparate American colonies. In England the revival left an indelible religious and social impact for stability in the midst of the revolutionary unrest which pervaded most of Europe at the time.

The Definitive Stage

The pre Revolutionary revivals demonstrated the general patterns which characterized all subsequent awakenings; however, it was the Second Great Awakening at the beginning of the nineteenth century that defined the theology and method of the tradition. The revival began at Hampden Sidney and Washington colleges in Virginia in 1787. It continued at Yale under Timothy Dwight and at Andover and Princeton at the end of the eighteenth century. It was popularized in the great camp meetings on the frontier. The Cane Ridge, Kentucky, camp meeting in August, 1801, became the most famous of all. The strange emotional phenomena which had shown themselves in the earlier colonial revival reappeared in intensified form. "Falling," "jerking," "rolling," and "dancing" exercises engaged many of the twenty thousand worshipers present. These demonstrations moderated as the revival continued, but physical phenomena have always existed in some measure in popular revival movements.

Camp Meetings and Revivalism

The Presbyterians who organized these first camp meetings soon abandoned their use. The Methodists and Baptists, however, continued to use them. The ambience of the natural setting in which the camps were held, the release from the ordinary routines of home and church, the freedom to worship together in a less sectarian context, the family reunion, community center flavor, all contributed to a mystique that made the camp meeting a continuing factor in future revivalism. The frontier camp meetings declined by the time of the Civil War, but the Holiness revival which began to flourish after the Civil War utilized them extensively in both rural and urban settings.

Camp meetings became the religious centers that shaped the theology and ethos of the numerous Holiness churches organized at the end of the century. Although many camp meetings evolved from their original revivalistic commitments into Chautauquas or Christian family resort centers, in Holiness and Pentecostal churches the camp meeting remains an essential expression of their revivalistic worship. Even there, however, the camp meeting has become more of a church family rally or reunion than a time for evangelistic outreach to the unchurched.

Charles Grandison Finney

The outstanding figure in early nineteenth century revivalism was Charles Grandison Finney. Finney took the revival ethos of the frontier camp meeting to the urban centers of the northeast. His success there and his widespread influence as a professor and later president of Oberlin College gave him a platform for propagating a theology and defense of the revival methods he espoused. In his Revival Lectures Finney contended that God had clearly revealed the laws of revival in Scripture. Whenever the church obeyed those laws, spiritual renewal resulted. In the minds of many Calvinists this emphasis on human ability greatly modified the traditional concept of the sovereign movement of God in reviving the church. However, the importance which Finney attached to the necessity for prayer and the agency of the Holy Spirit in his revival theory and practice helped to mute such concerns.

Finney's "new methods" raised as much controversy as his attachment to New School Calvinism. Preaching was direct, addressed to the individual, and usually delivered without manuscript or even notes. The public nature of the conversion experience was focused by the introduction of the "anxious bench," by which the serious seeker placed his intentions on record before the congregation. The critics were especially wary of the public platform given to the laity and especially women as they prayed and testified in the revival services. After the dramatic Fulton Street or Layman's Revival of 1858, however, most of the critics were silenced, and revivalized Calvinism joined with the revivalized Arminianism of burgeoning American Methodism to set the predominant pattern of American Protestantism for the remainder of the century.

Perfectionist Revivalism

A significant new development in revivalism between 1835 and 1875 was the rise of perfectionist revivalism. Finney introduced a perfectionist note into his evangelism after his move to Oberlin College in 1835. He and his colleague Asa Mahan, president of Oberlin, joined perfectionist leaders in Methodism, such as lay leaders Walter and Phoebe Palmer, in a new Holiness revivalism in the churches. The movement used revivalistic methods to call Christians to a second crisis of faith and total commitment subsequent to conversion, commonly called among American Calvinists a "second conversion," a "rest of faith," or the "deeper" or "higher life"; to Methodists it was "entire sanctification," "perfection in love," or "the second blessing."

Both Calvinist and Methodist wings of the revival ultimately gave prominence to a personal "fullness" or "baptism" of the Holy Spirit in speaking of the experience. The creation of the National Camp meeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness by John Inskip and other Methodist ministers in 1867 spread the movement beyond Methodism around the world. In England the Holiness revival gave rise to the Salvation Army and the Keswick Movement.

Institutionalization and Decline

Dwight L Moody dominated the revival movement from 1875 until his death in 1899. Although most of the revivalism of the time was carried on in the local churches and camp meetings of the rapidly growing Baptist and methodist denominations, Moody's leadership was the stimulus which encouraged the continued use of revivalistic methods in churches not as strongly committed to them. His mass evangelistic campaigns drew vast audiences in Britain and the United States and set the patterns for a more professional revivalism which demanded extensive organization and substantial budgets. Ira Sankey, his musical director, became the best known of the many gospel musicians who formed an essential part of the revivalistic teams which sprang up everywhere in this period.

Moody also sponsored educational institutions which furthered his evangelistic aims: the Northfield Institutions in Massachusetts and Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. These institutions were representative of the large number of organizations and movements which sprang out of the many revival movements that looked to Moody for inspiration and leadership at the end of the nineteenth century. Many of these became important components of the growing fundamentalist movement.

Large audiences continued to attend the revival campaigns of William "Billy" Sunday, R A Torrey, Gypsy Smith, and others after the turn of the century. However, the change of national mood resulting from the economic upheavals that followed World War I, the persistent attacks of such social critics as H L Mencken, and the turn toward a gospel of social concern among the larger denominations led to a decline in the influence of revivalism in the churches and in American life. Nevertheless, the Pentecostal revival which spread swiftly from its center in Los Angeles after 1906 and the effective use of radio by Charles Fuller and other radio evangelists indicated the continuing strength of the revivalist tradition in the churches.

The Modern Period

The rise of Billy Graham in the 1950s and his subsequent recognition as one of the most influential religious leaders of the post World War II period signaled the latent residual strength of revivalism in the Christian churches. Graham's success in working with a broad spectrum of Protestant churches as well as significant segments of Catholicism reiterated the fact that revivalism is not a sporadic phenomenon in the Christian tradition but rather a steady force which breaks into public prominence whenever churches and society tend to ignore its concerns for experiential religion. Billy Graham emphasized again both the method and theology of the tradition. He played down some of the more strident emotional and psychological aspects of the method; he retained, however, the direct, forceful sermon appeal, the biblically oriented message, the call for personal, public response, the use of gospel music and of large mass meetings.

Graham's ministry represented a general revival of religion, as indicated by the rapid growth of evangelical churches and spread of the charismatic revival in the decades following World War II. The charismatic emphases on the baptism and the gifts of the Spirit, especially glossolalia, have had significant influence upon both Protestant and Catholic churches. The exposure of revivalism with its message and method to the public through television and the dominant role revivalists currently hold in religious broadcasting are additional signs of the contemporary revitalization of the tradition.

The Theology of Revivalism

The intimate historical relationship between the growth of evangelicalism and revivalism indicates many common theological presuppositions. Evangelicalism's commitment to the reliability and authority of Scripture is the basis for revivalism's direct preaching and appeal; the former's belief in the universal need for spiritual rebirth is the basis for the latter's direct call for repentance and faith in Christ. The evangelical's acceptance of Christ's final commission to his disciples as a mandate for personal witness and world mission reinforces the urgency that characterizes revival movements.

Revivals of religion and the theological presuppositions and practices which have accompanied them through their history have consistently raised a common pattern of criticism. The strongly emotional nature of the revivalist's appeal, the critics charge, leads to spiritual instability or even to irrational behavior. They also claim that the revivalist's emphasis upon crisis experience tends to deprecate the place of growth and process in Christian living. Opponents also charge that the importance revivalism attaches to a warm hearted, spiritual ministry results in a general anti intellectualism throughout the tradition; they claim as well that the strong appeal to individualized religion leads to a subjectivism that obscures or even denies the social and cultural implications of Christianity. The direct praying and preaching, the tendency to popularize and excite interest by use of promotional psychology, and inclination to judgmentalism and separatism are also common accusations brought against revivalists.

The major response of revival proponents has been to point to the positive results they claim for religious revival and revivalism in church and society since the beginning of the movements in the eighteenth century. The dramatic growth of the churches resulting from special periods of religious revival and the day - to - day revival emphasis in revivalistic churches is part of the historical record. Significant moral, social, and cultural changes have accompanied the major awakenings. The ecumenical spirit of revival efforts has often produced a level of cooperation among churches not achieved in any other way. Expanded Christian benevolence and church extension have always accompanied these periods of spiritual renewal. Religious institutions and organizations to promote Christian causes and social concerns, including most of America's Christian colleges, seminaries, Bible institutes, and many mission bodies, are products of revivalism.

M E Dieter
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

R Carwardine, Transatlantic Revivalism; D W Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage; M E Dieter, The Holiness Revival of the Nineteenth Century; J P Dolan, Catholic Revivalism; J Edwards, A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God; J F Findlay, Dwight L Moody: American Evangelist 1837 - 1899; C G Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion; E S Gaustad, The Great Awakening in New England; C A Johnson, The Frontier Camp Meeting; W G McLaughlin, Modern Revivalism: Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham; T L Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform in Mid Nineenth Century America; W W Sweet, Revivalism in America; B A Weisberger, They Gathered at the River.

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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