The History of Revivals

Why Study History?

Strange as it may seem, it is not possible to understand a subject properly, or to gain the best perspective on it that is presently available, unless you have expended some effort studying the history of that subject. So, the search for wisdom is the first reason for studying the history of a subject.

A second reason for any thinking person should simply be curiousity. Lack of curiousity is a sign that a person has stopped being serious about learning. We may, however, not have the time to be curious about all that we would like to be curious about.

An important reason for studying history is to learn lessons from the past. There is the old saying that, if we do not learn from the past we will be condemned to make the same mistakes over again. Often, the second time around in making the mistakes seen in the past can be far more destructive and harmful than was the case when the mistake was made previously.

Although events in the past never repeat themselves exactly, there are, indeed, many lessons from the past that can help us today, and we are foolish in an absolute sense if we do not take heed.

Again, one of the very important subjects to learn about from the past is human nature. According to Saint Augustine, the two great subjects to learn about through life are - to know God, and to know ourselves. History is eminently a subject from which we can learn about ourselves.

The last reason for studying the history of revivals, in particular, is to obey a Scriptural admonition. Psalm 78 instructs us to study the great works of God, so that we can tell these things to our children, and they in turn to their children, so that they all may place their trust in God, and not be disobedient, as many have been before us. There is the added dimension, also, that such a study will provide us with unending reasons to praise God, and honour His name.

Where Do I Start?

The fairly obvious place to start studying the great works of God is in the Bible. This is also where the first accounts of spiritual revivals are to be found. We must not make the mistake, however, of thinking that these revivals were necessarily all like the ones seen in our days. Some of the Biblical revivals were more like those of today than others were. Old Testament revivals were also affected by the close integration which then existed between religion and society.

Apart from simply reading the Bible itself, there are only a small number of publications which explore the revivals described in the Bible. Some of these will not be available to you, for one reason or another. So, it is important to start with the smaller range of materials which happen to be available to you, either in bookshops, or which you can borrow from friends, or from a library.

Ernest Baker. "The Revivals of the Bible" has recently been reprinted.

Walter Kaiser. "Quest for Renewal." covers the O.T. only.

The present author has prepared a group study booklet in this area.

New copies of Baker should be available for a while. Kaiser was in print a few years ago, but only library copies may now be available.

Start With The Materials That Are Available.

In any extensive studies in this subject, it will be necessary to start building a little library of your own, of whatever books or photocopies you can get. But it is also advisable to link up with a local public library, so that you can borrow some of the books which can no longer be bought. Most theological libraries owned by the different denominations are now public libraries, so you can usually go to these libraries, read and study in them, and photocopy materials. Perhaps one is near where you live? You may, however, have to pay a substantial fee in order to borrow anything.

But, unless you have an excellent memory, or are good at making notes from what you read, it is always a good move to have your own copy of as many of the books about this subject that you can, so that you can refer to them again.

It can be a useful ministry to have some books to loan out. If you do, however, you must keep a very careful tally of where the books go, or they will get lost very easily. Even Christians, who are otherwise strictly honest, can fail to return promptly books they borrow from others, or else take the liberty of loaning them even further afield without getting permission, or without telling the real owner of the books where they have gone.

If you venture beyond books which can be bought new, there are many second-hand book shops around the country, in which it is sometimes possible to find books about revivals. Some of these can be old and rare. The internet has also vastly increased the possibilities in all types of book purchasing.

The Modern History of Revivals.

Revivals no doubt occurred in the early church (up to 500 AD), but records of them hardly exist today, apart from the general accounts of the spread of the church throughout the world at that time. Several major revivals also occurred during the middle ages. Some details about them are available.

Regarding the period since the Reformation, and especially since the Moravian Revival in 1727, a vast literature has been produced, including material on every conceivable aspect of the subject. This is where the best resources exist for us to learn from history.

(a.) General Summary Outlines.

A number of books exist, and some of these are commonly available, which provide a sketch outline of the major revivals and great awakenings in the modern period. These will provide a simple context upon which you can build. It is natural that the authors of these books will show their own prejudices in the selections that they make, and the emphasis that they place upon certain revivals, more than others. So, it is a good idea to consult more than one of these outline histories.

For example, some of the more recent writers with Pentecostal or Charismatic leanings, have tended to give a larger place to the movements which reflect their own inclinations. Normal evangelicals will tend to make a different balance. This comment is not meant to imply that either of these classes of writers is wrong or unwise. It is simply a point to watch out for.

Good examples of this class are:-

Edith Blumhofer and Randall Balmer have edited a series of academic papers in "Modern Christian Revivals.", reflecting about movements all around the world, and expressing some of the latest research on these subjects.

(b.) More Detailed Study of Specific Areas.

These introductory books should prepare the way for you to work into greater detail, both in the purely historical side. They will also prepare you to notice variations in theology between the different periods and movements, and other positive factors to note for future possible usefulness. You should also watch for lessons about any mistakes, problems or deceptions that appeared.

So, the next step is to embark upon some deeper explorations.

This will largely involve an extensive reading programme, although it is good to be able to discuss these things with someone who has similar interests, and perhaps even to write something about the results of your research. What you write may be published, or circulated privately, or may be purely for your own benefit and interest.

One possible specialisation is to study more deeply the revivals in one period, or one country. For example, the 1859 revival worldwide could be researched, or the Irish or Scottish phase of it. Indian revivals would also yield rich insights. Or, one of the periods of revivals in the U.S.A. could be reviewed. A study of English Puritanism would also be very rewarding.

Another possibility is to study the lives of certain leading figures in one or other of the revivals. For example, there is much gain from studying the life of George Whitefield, or John Wesley, or one of the early Methodist preachers. In America there are many revival leaders who could be studied very profitably. Most notable of these are Jonathan Edwards, Samuel Davies, Charles G. Finney or D. L. Moody, but there are many others.

If emphasis is placed on one person in this way, it is important to widen the scope further, to gain perspective, and not to become bewitched by some feature of the person being researched. This has particularly been a problem for those reading Finney's autobiography, or his writings on revival, or theology. But, every person fits into a particular age and culture, and has a certain mental outlook, talents and personal peculiarities, and all these should be remembered and kept in perspective, when we look at the person's life and work.

Another fruitful approach to the study of the great works of God in the great awakenings and revival movements is to look for changing trends. For example, changes have occurred in how people experience conversion, Holy Spirit baptism, or deeper spiritual experiences. Changes occur over time in beliefs and theological views, in the way methods are used, in the value that is placed on certain factors, in the experience of spiritual gifts, in theological education, in attitudes to emotional outbursts and to deep conviction of sin, and in attitudes regarding the public confession of sin. Over a period, changes occur in missionary philosophy. There will be a rise and fall in the practice of certain deceptions and the ways they are rationalised. We can also look for signs of "the flesh", and of the devil at work during the revivals.

A minor example involves the difference between the phenomenon of being "slain in the Spirit" today, and the way people collapsed under deep conviction of sin in many past revivals. This difference is often not recognised.

Another approach, again, is to look through revival happenings for signs of the sovereign nature of the workings of the Holy Spirit, as opposed to the Spirit's work being largely mixed with human activity, and for this sovereign work to be recognised and used as a springboard for praise to God.

Book Lists

The following lists of book titles are broken up into various sections, and these are related, more or less, to several suggestions which have been made above. Some of them are still in print, others can be borrowed or consulted in various libraries. Others are harder still to locate.

Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening.

This list merely scratches the surface, although it includes many of the best titles. About half of the above books were in print in 1999. Start with the ones you can find, and persist in looking for some of the others.

Aspects of the Worldwide 1857 - 1859 Revival.

Many other relevant titles exist which are less easily available.

Changes in Attitudes. (A few of many possibilities)

(1st Group.)

(2nd Group.)

Aspects of Pentecostalism.

(Most of these books were in print in 1999. In many instances, other titles of a similar kind are available. The list represents "the tip of the iceberg" only.)

The Sovereignty of the Holy Spirit.

This factor is one of the main features of real revival. Many written acoounts of revival events, however, largely ignore this aspect, and it is often totally neglected in academic studies of revivals.

An older work which emphasised this factor is W. T. Townsend's "The Supernatural Factor in Revivals." (Boston. Lee & Shepard. 1877.). It was written to defend the work of D. L. Moody from criticism, and so has an extra or ulterior motive. A copy of it will probably be very hard to locate.

More clear-cut and obvious examples which display the sovereign workings of the Spirit can be found scattered through more direct accounts of revival happenings. Possible starting places are:-

The unpredictable nature of the Spirit's workings is very important. If we could predict how the Spirit would work, what He does would be categorised as a form of psychology or sociology. Jesus said, "The wind blows where it wills... so is everyone who is born of the Spirit."

Aspects of the Central African Revival.

This revival commenced around 1935. It continued, more or less, for fifty years, and made a great impact through this part of the world. Some of the main sources of information are:-

These lists are meant to indicate only a few of the many possibilities that exist, and only a small amount of the resources which are available, by one means or another, to study the great works of God, and to learn wisdom about our work for God in the world.

Prepared by Rev. Robert Evans OAM