Revivals and Revivalism

views updated


The period in American history stretching from the mid-eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century was marked by many dramatic bursts of revivalism. Revivalism is a movement within modern Christianity, particularly but not exclusively Protestantism, that calls on individuals to repent of their sin, believe the Gospel, and enter a proper relationship with God. Revivals are generally experienced communally, but they stress, by rhetoric and ritual, the individual's spiritual standing. Revivals shaped the lives of countless Americans and deeply affected the character of colonial and early national religion and society. Revivalists challenged the conventional hierarchies of religious culture, and they advanced an egalitarian, voluntaristic, and inclusive social order that was often international in scope.

Yet revivals polarized as much as they consolidated, leaving a long tradition of controversy in their wake. These events were highly contested in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and have stimulated a wide spectrum of interpretation ever since, both among their supporters and detractors. Most scholars today see the revivals as an important storyline in the unfolding narrative of American history, and certainly they receive prominent treatment in American history textbooks. But some have challenged the notion of revivalism's centrality to American history. In 1982, for example, the historian Jon Butler argued that the so-called Great Awakening of the mid-eighteenth century was an "interpretive fiction," a creation of mid-nineteenth-century evangelicals overly eager to give their nation a sanctified past. As such, Butler urged that the notion of a Great Awakening reveals more about subsequent evangelical aspirations than about eighteenth-century realities. By employing a homogenizing concept like the Great Awakening, scholars assume a religious and political unity that does not exist, and the formation of the American nation can become something of a stepchild of evangelicalism. Historians of American religion have generally appreciated Butler's careful attention to the historical construction of the category of revivalism and to religious diversity, but subsequent studies have shown that the Great Awakening was not merely a product of the nineteenth century; the concept was "invented" while the revivals were happening, the historian Frank Lambert has argued, by evangelicals like Thomas Prince, the editor of Christian History (1743–1745), eager to see God's hand in the surprising and gracious revivalist events of the day.

definitions and origins

As a distinct form of modern religious experience, revivals, as explained by the historian Russell Richey, can be identified by the following ten traits: a firm grounding in the Pietist tradition, a proselytizing tendency, a soteriology of crisis (that is, the conversion experience), the assumption of religious declension, the presence of crowds, an emphasis on voluntarism, a dramatic ritual form, charismatic leadership, confidence among participants in the fact of God's presence, and a strong communication network. As Richey points out, one or two of these factors may be absent and people may still wish to call something a revival. But where all exist there is usually little doubt about whether a revival has occurred.

Yet the ambiguities surrounding revivalism's importance to American history point to a deeper confusion about revivalism's definition. Implicit in the term itself is a notion of spiritual decline from which one might be revived. It is this quality that set the revivals apart from the cultural institution of the

biannual Presbyterian communion seasons, which were popular in America, Ireland, and Scotland. The revival tradition grew out of the rituals of these communion seasons, in which congregants would gather together for a week or more, hear preaching, and, most important, receive the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. These holy fairs shaped a distinct revival experience centered in personal introspection and communal renewal. However, because most contemporary scholarship debunks the long-entrenched notion that religion was in fast decline in the early eighteenth century, historians have had to look elsewhere to account for revivalism's considerable appeal. The Pietist and Puritan movements in western Europe and North America, which preceded the era of revivals, help scholars to understand that the revivals emerged as a challenge to the new emphasis on rationality in the Western Enlightenment. Revivals, then, are a distinctly modern form of religious practice that gave new attention to individual subjectivity, centering religion in the heart rather than the head.

the great awakening

Revivals occurred as early as the late seventeenth century, most notably under the ministry of Solomon Stoddard in Northampton, Massachusetts. During the period between the 1730s and the 1770s, however, these efforts intensified into a broader movement known as the First Great Awakening. In the process, the revivals initiated a slow but steady transformation of religion and society in America. The period prior to the 1730s was characterized by clerical religion and sundry attempts on the part of the clergy to bring the laity into conformity with orthodox religious practice. The period beginning with the Great Awakening represents a triumph of lay religion—a shift, as Mark Noll put it in his 1993 article, "The American Revolution and Protestant Evangelicalism," "from the minister as an inherited authority figure to an effective mobilizer, from the definition of Christianity by doctrine to its definition by piety, and from a state church encompassing all of society to a gathered church made up only of the converted" (p. 626).

The colonial revivals of the mid-eighteenth century (especially from the 1730s to the 1750s) were one part of a transatlantic phenomenon that stretched from Scotland to Boston, and from Saxony to South Carolina. The English-speaking phase of this movement centered on the ministry of the Anglican itinerant George Whitefield (1714–1770), who made seven trips to North America and traveled widely in the United Kingdom. Whitefield was a committed Calvinist who believed and preached that the "new birth," or conversion, could occur only through God's initiation. But his Calvinism did not keep him from doing all he could to ensure that his revivals would be a worldly success. Whitefield's agents would send news of the surprising works of God ahead to the next town he would soon visit, stimulating intense interest in the event and laying the groundwork for hearts to be changed. According to Harry Stout, Whitefield pioneered technologies of communication (appropriating theater techniques) that would not only alter the future course of American religion but also spread into other arenas of culture including politics and entertainment. Far more than others, Whitefield was a master at making the complexities of faith simple—even simplistic—and his popularity grew as a result. A person of celebrity status, Whitefield was first to be seen by a majority of the colonists. In 1739 the skeptic and printer Benjamin Franklin heard him in Philadelphia and was duly impressed, willing to support Whitefield as much for the publishing business he generated as the morality he inculcated in the population through his evangelical Calvinism. Franklin was astounded by the size of the crowd that gathered in Philadelphia to hear him, a testimony to his unusual skill in voice projection as well as to his phenomenal success in bringing religion into the marketplace of ideas in the Atlantic world.

Whitefield was only the brightest star in a constellation of other lesser but noteworthy lights, and these revivalists' diverse backgrounds indicate the complex ways in which revivals mixed with American culture. Revivalists and those affected by the revival fell along a range of theological positions and denominational standpoints. Some pro-revivalists, like Whitefield, the Presbyterian Gilbert Tennent, and the Dutch Reformed Theodore Jacob Frelinghuysen, moved safely within a Calvinist orbit, even though they nevertheless challenged long-established ecclesiastical traditions and put a new emphasis on religious experience. Others, particularly those under Wesleyan and later Methodist auspices, articulated their gospel as a challenge to Calvinism: God's grace had made it possible for humans everywhere to repent and live holy lives. The revivals also generated a cohort of religious radicals that famously challenged established hierarchies and conventions with a call from God. In the mid-eighteenth century Andrew Croswell and James Davenport both bordered on antinomianism in their defenses of the saving graces of God, calling into question the spiritual validity of the established Christian ministries and earning for themselves much public opprobrium throughout New England and beyond. As the wing of the Awakening occupied by Croswell and Davenport became increasingly strident and radicalized, the colonial ministry split on the question of revivals. Pro-revivalists, or "New Lights," were opposed by the conservative "Old Lights," with the Old Lights taking offense at the way that revivals were undermining traditional social values. The Congregational clergyman Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758), a New Light moderate and the grandson of Solomon Stoddard, carried on a long debate with the Old Light conservative Charles Chauncy, resulting in Edwards's Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections (1746). In this defense of the revivals, Edwards spent most of his pages chronicling all the ways religious experience may be false and thus destructive to religion and society. Similarly, the colonial Presbyterian tradition underwent a temporary schism between its "New Side" and "Old Side." But for all the love lost between fellow denominationalists, pro-revivalists found a refreshing new camaraderie with others from outside their own traditions and regions who also supported the awakenings. Thus the intercolonial religious discourse took place across a range of Protestant viewpoints.

the rise of the methodists and baptists

While evangelical Calvinists of Congregationalist, Presbyterian, Anglican, or Dutch Reformed background dominated the early phase of the Great Awakening, the Separates, Baptists, Methodists, and Disciples of Christ laid the revivalist groundwork of the Revolutionary era. These Protestant traditions were sympathetic to experimental revivalism and thrived in the democratic atmosphere of the early decades of the new American Republic. They gave voice to religious enthusiasm, appealed to the individual conscience, nurtured egalitarianism, and, not least, tapped into a burgeoning entrepreneurialism.

Francis Asbury (1745–1816), a tireless itinerant and America's first Methodist bishop, was one of these religious entrepreneurs, traveling thousands of miles on horseback each year bringing Methodist institutions like the class meeting and its distinctive connectionalism to the American countryside. Methodism relied on a dedicated and involved laity for its growth and provided just enough clerical leadership for the laity to flourish. Under Asbury's leadership, American Methodism came to feature a highly centralized episcopal polity with a remarkably flexible institutional culture; hence its early expansion occurred with relatively few growing pains. By 1830 it would be the largest denomination in the country.

Religious historians have been increasingly attuned to the presence and cultural role of evangelical revivalism in the American South, looking in particular at the way that religion and race intersected. The revivals of the 1730s and 1740s had a limited impact in the southern colonies despite the best efforts of Whitefield and others. In the years surrounding the Revolution, however, the appeal of the Methodists and Baptists began to strengthen among the South's largely unchurched populations. Baptist ministers in North Carolina and Virginia, who took up preaching as an avocation with little remuneration, gained a following among the poorer frontier farmers and even some free and enslaved blacks. The worshipping culture of the evangelical churches was an affront to the refined manners of the southern gentleman. Not only were evangelical services emotional and full of improprieties, but evangelical ministers denounced the worldly amusements and values of the planter class, their social and religious hierarchies, and even their standards of manliness.

As evangelicalism became more of a force in the South in the early years of the nineteenth century, even winning adherents among the planting class, it did so by making several conspicuous concessions. Whereas ministers prior to 1740 rarely challenged the slave system, the notion of absolute equality before God implicit in evangelical religion gradually made slavery a problem. Quakers and other radical Protestants were the first to articulate slavery as a problem, but evangelicals were not far behind, and early Methodists and Baptists in the South ruffled feathers by implicitly and explicitly challenging dominant race ways. In fact, scholarship suggests that the Christianization of the South occurred less as a product of intense conversions among Americans of European and African descent than as a result of the construction of lasting communal structures that evangelicals introduced: churches, the class meetings of Methodists, and a reconstruction of marriage, slavery, and commercial relations. But as Christianization proceeded apace, evangelicalism especially in the South eventually shed its critiques of slavery and of entrenched traditions of honor in exchange for cultural dominance.

the second great awakening

There is no way of knowing exactly how many lives were influenced by the revivals of the early nineteenth century. It is known, however, that the denominations that carved out a space for revivalist culture fast outpaced the denominations that opposed it. Methodists, Baptists, and the Disciples of Christ (the "antiformalists") eclipsed the Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Unitarians (the "formalists"). In the process, many of the former denominations spawned smaller sects and movements that imparted to the Second Great Awakening its trademark diffuse and fragmented character. Particularly in the 1820s and beyond, sectarian groups tapped into the revivalist ethos to create what the historian Paul Conkin calls "American originals," religions and sects that trace their origins to the cultural ferment of the early national period. Nevertheless, most of the revival activity associated with the Second Great Awakening had a strong evangelical core, creating a dominant evangelical Protestant culture in the United States by the second half of the nineteenth century.

The revivalist cultures that proliferated in the early nineteenth century resembled colonial revivalism, but a few subtle shifts were increasingly apparent. Early national revivalists were more willing to posit the right and duty of every Christian to search the Scriptures for themselves and individually to discern the truth. Some of the most effective ministers had little if any formal theological training and wielded tremendous spiritual authority in people's lives by virtue of their charismatic appeal. The traveling Methodist itinerant Lorenzo Dow was famous for his dramatic preaching, in which he would amaze audiences by his jerking bodily movements as well as his denunciations of established churches and their pastors. Preachers such as Dow liberally applied what they took as the lessons of the American Revolution to religious life. The validity of republican and democratic principles, they claimed, was self-evident, and all that was necessary for a vital religious life was for Christians to think and to act for themselves and to band together voluntarily in communities and churches of their own making. Such themes were the ideological fuel of the Second Great Awakening.

On the other end of the evangelical spectrum were revivalists like Lyman Beecher (1775–1863), a man committed to the established order as well as to revivalism. Beecher sought in more modest ways to adapt his native Calvinist Congregationalism to the new democratic republican ethos of the nation. His concern was that Calvinism, if not moderated by good common sense, could lead people to spiritual lethargy and despair. With his friend Nathaniel William Taylor of Yale College, Beecher sought to refashion Calvinism so as to make sense of the revival experience of personally accepting or rejecting grace. In fact, one general pattern that emerges in the history of revivals from the Revolutionary period through the early Republic is a shift from a Calvinistic to a pragmatic framework for understanding the revival's origins and function. Ministers in the mid-eighteenth century spilled much ink defending the notion that revivals were works of God, even "surprising" works in Jonathan Edwards's formulation. By the early Republic, many evangelicals became convinced that Calvinism produced apathy and so, with Charles G. Finney, urged that revivals and the "new heart" that they were calculated to change were the proper domain of human agency. In both the radical and conservative wings of the Second Great Awakening, the importance of individual experience emerged.

See alsoAnglicans and Episcopalians; Baptists; Bible; Congregationalists; Disciples of Christ; European Influences: Enlightenment Thought; Methodists; Millennialism; Missionary and Bible Tract Societies; Pietists; Professions: Clergy; Quakers; Religion: Overview; Unitarianism and Universalism .


Blumhofer, Edith L., and Randall Balmer, eds. Modern Christian Revivals. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Bratt, James D. "Religious Anti-Revivalism in Antebellum America." Journal of the Early Republic 24 (spring 2004): 65–106.

Butler, Jon. "Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretive Fiction." Journal of American History 69 (1982): 305–325.

Conkin, Paul K. American Originals: Homemade Varieties of Christianity. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Hatch, Nathan O. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.

Lambert, Frank. Inventing the "Great Awakening." Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

McClymond, Michael J., ed. Embodying the Spirit: New Perspectives on North American Revivalism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.

Noll, Mark A. "The American Revolution and Protestant Evangelicalism." Journal of Interdisciplinary History 23 (winter 1993): 615–638.

Richey, Russell E. "Revivalism: In Search of a Definition." Wesleyan Theological Journal 28 (1993): 165–175.

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Holy Fairs: Scottish Communions and American Revivals in the Early Modern Period. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990.

R. Bryan Bademan