Religious Revivals

views updated May 14 2018

Religious Revivals

Since the pioneering work of William J. McLoughlin, historians have tended to isolate four periods when revivalsor mass religious meetings for prayer, preaching, song, and conversionwere especially prominent features of American cultural history. The first, the so-called Great Awakening of 1735 to 1745, featured what Jonathan Edwards called "surprising conversions" across New England and the Middle Colonies. Among the most surprising of these conversions were many among children and youth. Child converts were accorded special status because supporters of the revivals saw in them evidence of the miraculous character of the events, while detractors used the prominence of children in the revivals to dismiss them as irrational "enthusiasm." Later observers, noting how both the ritual performances of children and the reports on the revivals by elders followed some definable patterns, have emphasized a wide range of potential social and political causes for them. Most explanations imply that the presence of children as public converts signified the appearance of a more malleable conception of the self and life-course in America, at least in contrast to typical Calvinist understandings. That this malleable self was still under severe social strictures, as Philip Greven has pointed out, goes without saying. As converts, however, children asserted themselves as agents in history. They did so under the cover of a transcendent God, and within the boundaries of an ecclesiastical ritual, but their assertion of agency gained attention not least because it was consistent with the need for both producers and consumers in emerging market economies.

The link between markets, revivals, and children and youth is solidified when historians turn to the second period of revivals, which dominated the first half of the nineteenth-century and culminated in a series of "businessmen's revivals" across the Northeast in 1857 to 1858. Some historians have identified a "Great Revival" in the South from 1800 to 1805, through which Baptists and Methodists gained their enduring foothold in the region, and their predominance in the African-American community. Southern revivals featured charismatic lay leadership over educated clergy, thus providing spiritual (and economic) leadership opportunities to enterprising young men (and, on occasion, young women). At such meetings, which quickly spread North and West, flashing especially at Cane Ridge in Kentucky, inter-generational events held in the open air were free from the constraints of local social hierarchies, and provided for what anthropologists have called experiences of ecstatic communitas, and what has since been called entertainment. The young were quick to capitalize on the spiritual, as well as the social, opportunities, further "democratizing" Christianity in the process, and opening up a social space for the agency of young women, who sometimes joined young boys as child preachers. By the time a series of revivals swept across upstate New York in the 1830s, the most famous evangelist of the day, Charles Grandison Finney, had developed the technique of calling both young men and women to come before him to the "anxious bench" to consider their salvation. Finney also, in company with his wife, Elizabeth, furthered the revivalist emphasis on the malleable self, arguing that revivals were not only the result of a miracle, but also "the right use of the constituted means," or what has come to be called marketing. Such an emphasis on technique led theologians such as Horace Bushnell, who advocated for less dramatic Christian nurture for children, such as the Sunday school, to dub revivalism a form of child abuse. Nevertheless, entrepreneurial revivalism led directly to new evangelical bible schools and colleges, such as Oberlin, which quickly filled the market niche abandoned by "rationalist" schools like Harvard and Yale. Evangelical schools then provided seedbeds for youthful activism in causes of social reform, notably abolitionism, although white Baptists and Methodists for obvious reasons preferred to promote temperance in the South. By the time of the businessmen's revivals of 1857 and 1858, young men were especially prominent, although female leaders like Phoebe Palmer also began to assert themselves. Such a public presence of young male converts as a cohort in an urban venue fostered a distinct "boy culture," according to John Corrigan, which both coincided with and promoted the growth of the earliest youth ministries in the United States.

A third series of revivals marked the years from 1890 to 1925, now largely in urban areas, and drawing extensively on the existence of cadres of young men devoted to the YMCA's "muscular Christianity." The leading evangelistsDwight L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Aimee Semple McPhersondeveloped Finney's rationalized techniques by holding separate meetings in large tents or "tabernacles" for young men and women, featuring swing-tinged "gospel" music. Such meetings sanctioned both an emerging popular culture for youth and a separate-spheres ideology defined along agelines. This segregation of youth coincided well with G. Stanley Hall's popular identification of adolescence as a particular stage of life marked by such attributes as piety and turbulence. Both attributes were amply in evidence in the tabernacle meetings, where sexual energy was sublimated into passionate prayer and turbulence given vent in dramatic conversions and upbeat music. Now, though, the converts were expected to follow conventions of behavior that accorded with carefully cultivated civic values, rather than the spontaneous communitas of frontier revivals. The public presence of youthful converts, once the sign of a malleable self, was now becoming a defined market niche. At the same time, some of the social reforms sought by revivalists for the good of youth, namely Prohibition, came to fruition. This "success" ironically led to scorn among cultural elites such as H. L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis and scrutiny of the links between adolescence and conversion in the emerging social scientific disciplines. In reaction to such reductionism, the anti-intellectual elements in revivalism, always significant in particular communities, came further to the fore as revivalists became allied with the fundamentalist movement, and began to feel like a besieged minority.

A fourth period of revivals can be traced to the founding of Youth for Christ during World War II, led by Billy Graham, with fruition in the so-called new Christian right, represented by leaders such as James Dobson, and in movements like the "Promise Keepers." Such movements owe much to the links between Christian conversion, commerce, and cultural change, now also associated with nationalist politics. At the same time, however, contemporary revivalism no longer promotes a malleable life course. Now, revivalists seek to contain children and youth, rendering them subject to various state, church, and family projects (such as homeschooling), all marketed through the most current technologies.

See also: Protestant Reformation.


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

Carpenter, Joel A. 1997. Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Corrigan, John. 2002. Business of the Heart: Religion and Emotion in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Greven, Philip. 1977. The Protestant Temperament: Patterns of Child-Rearing, Religious Experience, and the Self in Early America. New York: Knopf.

Hardesty, Nancy. 1999. Women Called to Witness: Evangelical Feminism in the Nineteenth-Century. 2nd ed. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Long, Kathryn Teresa. 1998. The Revival of 1857-58: Interpreting an American Religious Awakening. New York: Oxford University Press.

McLoughlin, William G. 1978. Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Putney, Clifford. 2001. Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Thomas, George M. 1989. Revivalism and Cultural Change: Christianity, Nation Building, and the Market in the Nineteenth-Century United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jon Pahl


views updated May 23 2018



Origins. Revivalism has been an important aspect of American religious life since the middle of the eighteenth century, when dozens of townsfirst in New England, then in the Middle Atlantic and Southexperienced a sudden surge in religious fervor and a rash of conversions collectively known as the Great Awakening. Since then the nation has been touched intermittently by times of religious revival, but perhaps none of such enduring significance as the period between about 1800 and 1835, referred to as the Second Great Awakening. Beginning with an enormous camp meeting at which hundreds were converted at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1801, revivalistic fervor spread both north an south, taking hold in the colleges of New England in the first decade of the century and reaching many of the urban centers of the Northeast by the 1820s. The efforts of skillful preachers brought new converts pouring into the ranks of the evangelical denominations, primarily the Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians, and spurred many on to participation in missionary work and social reform movements. The revivals were led by a diverse group of ministers (and some lay exhorters) with a range of opinions about theology and religious experience. But there were some opinions most held in common, including an optimistic belief in the ability of man to turn his will to God and faith in the moral and civil progress of human society.

A New Vision. During the Great Awakening of the 1740s most people agreed with esteemed theologian and revivalist Jonathan Edwards that the revivals were the surprising work of God. They were unpredictable events that occurred according to a divine plan unaffected by human efforts. A minister might pray for a revival and might preach with all his heart, but souls would be converted only if it was Gods will. During the early nineteenth century, however, there were two significant shifts in popular beliefs about the nature of religious conversion. The first emerged with the idea that every individual has the ability to hear the gospel and then accept or reject it of his or her own free will rather than according to the predetermined plan of God. Following from this belief was the assumption that if evangelists used the proper techniques under the right conditions, if they presented the gospel in a truly compelling manner, they could ensure that a revival would occur and that souls would be saved.

Charles Grandison Finney. The leading proponent of this new, action-oriented vision of revival and conversion was Charles Grandison Finney. Born in 1792 and raised in western New York, Finney began his career as a lawyer. Concerned with the state of his soul, he engaged in systematic study of the Bible and in 1821 came to the conclusion that God would save him if he had faith and the desire to be saved. This realization evoked in him a spiritual experience similar to that described by many who were later converted under his guidance: The Holy Spirit descended upon me in a manner that seemed to go through me body and soul. I could feel the impression, like a wave of electricity going through and through me. Indeed it seemed to come in waves and waves of liquid love; for I could not express it in any other way. It seemed like the very breath of God. The following day Finney abandoned the legal profession to become an evangelist. He was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in 1824, and over the following decade he traveled throughout the Northeastern United States, sparking revivals as he went. His language was simple, direct, and popular, his manner of speaking energetic and filled with a sense of personal concern for the souls of his listeners. Over six feet tall with piercing eyes, Finney had a commanding presence in the pulpit, and in part his success can be attributed to personal charisma. But equally important was his belief that a revival is not a miracle, or dependent on a miracle in any sense. It is a purely philosophical result of the right use of the constituted means.


The Burned-Over District was a popular nineteenth-century term for western New York State, a region unusually prone to religious enthusiasm and innovation. The name, first used by evangelical preacher Charles Grandison Finney, derived from the fact that the area had been repeatedly swept by the flames of religious revival Revivals occurred in 17991800, 18071808, and 18181819 and reached a peak between 1825 and 1837 as people flocked to the area for jobs created by the newly opened Erie Canal, Many of these people were converted in the great Rochester revivals of 18301831, others by the Methodist itinerants who circled the rural areas holding frequent camp meetings. Novel religious movements also found an open door in western New York. Several utopian communities that had been persecuted elsewhere settled there, including John Humphrey Noyess Oneida Community and Anne Jemima Wilkinsons New Jerusalem. Adventist preacher William Miller, who declared that Christ would return in 1843, lived in the Burned-Over District, as did many of his followers. Mormon prophet Joseph Smith founded his church in the area, and the national passion for Spiritualism (communication with the dead) also began in Rochester.

Source: Whitney Cross, The Burned Over District (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1950).

The New Measures. For Finney and others who followed him, right use of the constituted means meant the application of a set of revival techniques known as the new measures that were highly effective in bringing audiences to a heightened sense of concern for their souls and a desire to accept the truth of the Christian message. These methods were not in fact new but rather an adoption of some informal techniques of frontier revivalists (primarily Methodists) for systematic

use in an urban setting. The most common element of this style of revival was the use of protracted religious gatherings held over the course of several days or evenings. The steady flow of preaching and exhorting at such meetings served to reduce listeners gradually to a state of despair over their sinful lives until they eventually broke down and committed themselves to Christ. Another effective tool was the anxious bench, a seat at the front of the room (or tent) where those wrestling with the decision to convert would sit under the direct scrutiny of the preacher and the crowd, often encouraged in their struggles by personal appeals for their souls. Finney also urged women to pray and testify in public, and employed both men and women as assistants who would circulate in the crowd as he preached, urging sinners to respond to his calls.

Opposition. Revivalists who employed these new measures often evoked dramatic physical results that were common enough on the frontier but startled and offended many Easterners. People who believed themselves under the influence of the Holy Spirit might experience uncontrollable jerking or twitching, or might weep, laugh, moan, or even faint. While Finney and many Western ministers argued that such manifestations bespoke the vitality and effectiveness of the revivals, many Eastern clergymen found such displays excessively emotional, indecorous, and of dubious religious significance. Some critics argued that these strange behaviors demonstrated that the revivals were, as Finney himself said, the work of man and not God, and that Finneys converts had simply been swept up in the excitement of the moment. They had not truly become Christians and would soon revert to their former sinful lives. While some converts did revert as predicted, most did not, and a large number went on to show their dedication to the Christian life through participation in benevolent societies and moral reform movements. The enduring success of Finneys techniques made them the norm rather than the exception, providing a model for generations of evangelists and making revivals an enduring facet of the American religious experience.


Paul Johnson, A Shopkeepers Millennium. Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 18151837 (New York: Hill ScWang, 1978);

William G. McLoughlin, Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America 16071977 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978);

Timothy Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980).


views updated Jun 27 2018


Revivalism, the term derived from the Great Revival of 18601861, is a religious movement in Jamaica that is a syncretism of the Christian faith and African rituals and beliefs. It can be traced to the Myal movement, which first came to European notice during the Tacky Rebellion of 1760. Myal enabled enslaved Africans to unite and protect themselves against what was perceived as European sorcery. With the arrival of the enslaved Baptist preachers George Leile, Moses Baker, and George Lewis in 1776 and their creation of the class-leader system in which their most talented converts were appointed leaders over new converts, Myal reinterpreted and refashioned the symbols and teachings of Christianity.

On the coming of the great religious revival to Jamaica in 1860, Myal split into two variants, Zion and Pukumina (also known as Pocomania). Zion, the first to become public, retained a closer resemblance to Christianity, making greater use of the Bible and Christian symbols. Pukumina, emerging in the early months of 1861, was closer to traditional African religions. Unlike Revivalists, who refused to respect hostile spirits, followers of Pukumina believed that all spirits, including the malevolent ones, can possess and consequently deserve respect.

The Revival religion today attaches great importance to a pantheon of spirits that has at the apex God, the Creator. There are good and bad spirits, and Revivalists worship only the good ones, although they acknowledge the bad ones called fallen angels, chief of which is Satan. The use of the red flag, a pair of scissors, or a Bible is designed to expel evil spirits. Spirits are believed to possess individuals and can injure, protect, assist, and induce revelations in the faithful. Revivalists bring about possession by vigorous dancing and singing.

Important among ritual paraphernalia are water, stones, and herbs. The most important religious services of Jamaican Revivalists are: divine worship, baptismal rites, tables, death rites, dedication of a new church building, and installation of new officers. Divine worship services, held weekly, feature drumming, singing, handclapping, praying, Bible reading, preaching, spirit possession, testimonials, and healing. A table is a combined religious service and feast.

One of the main features of the Revival religion is ritual healing. Healing applies not only to physical and mental illness but also to social ills, including failed love affairs and litigation in law courts. Divination, which can be part of the healing process, is important in Revivalism and is often a characteristic of a good Revival leader.

The moral code of Revivalism is based on that found in the Christian Bible. Taboos among the Revivalists include the eating of pork, using profanity, and going to cemeteries at prohibited times.

Revivalism has had a revolutionary role in major rebellions, including the Tacky and Sam Sharpe Rebellions. Charismatic leadership is an important aspect of the Revival complex. The Great Rebellion of 18311832, also known as the Baptist War, arguably one of the main factors that led to the abolition of slavery on August 1, 1834, was led by Sam Sharpe, a Baptist deacon and Native Baptist leader (Native Baptist referred to the more Christianized form of Myal).

Revivalism as a form of cultural resistance has helped to shape and reinforce the values of the Jamaican peasantry. In the early twentieth century Revival leader Alexander Bedward combined religion with black nationalist sentiments by urging his followers to rise above their oppression and cast down their oppressors, considered at this time to be the white Jamaican ruling class.

Revivalism has played a role in the emergence and development of Rastafarianism. Barry Chevannes, a leading authority on the Revival and Rastafarian faiths, argues that Rastafari can be regarded as the fulfillment of Revivalism as it retains many of the attributes of Revivalism, although it isolates blackness as divine rather than sinful. Chevannes has observed that the Rastafari faith retained many Revival rituals, including similar hymns, dancing, and drumming. Certain Revival taboos are also preserved, including refraining from the use of salt in foods.

See also Myal; Rastafarianism; Religion


Chevannes, Barry. Rastafari: Roots and Ideology. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1994.

Schuler, Monica. "Myalism and the African Religious Tradition in Jamaica." In Africa and the Caribbean: The Legacies of a Link, edited by M. E. Crahan and F. W. Knight. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.

Simpson, George Eaton. "Jamaican Revivalist Cults." Social and Economic Studies 5, no. 4 (December 1956): 321442.

nicole plummer (2005)


views updated May 29 2018


An approach to religion designed to stimulate interest by appealing principally to the emotions. It was a characteristic feature of 17th-century German pietism and 18th-century English Methodism (see wesley, charles; wesley, john; whitefield, george). This method of religious instruction was brought to colonial America, where Jonathan edwards made religious emotion theologically and intellectually respectable during the great awakening. During the Second Awakening in the early years of the 19th century, revivalism grew to maturity.

The Second Awakening began as a Presbyterian movement, but eventually it was the methodists and baptists who found its techniques appropriate to their goals and doctrines. Most characteristic of this movement were the camp meetings and the circuit riders. On the frontier, particularly in the West, people gathered from miles around to spend a few days coping with their religious problems and, incidentally, enjoying the rare opportunity of social life so lacking because of their isolation. The first planned camp meeting was held in Logan County, Ky., in July 1800 as the result of the activity of Rev. James McGready. Born of Scotch-Irish parents in Pennsylvania, McGready was licensed to preach in 1788, when he was about 30 years old. He moved to North Carolina, and then to Kentucky in 1798. Described by contemporaries as ugly and uncouth, he nevertheless attracted wide attention by his earnestness, zeal, and impassioned preaching. In 1824 revivalist Charles Grandison finney began a notable 20-year preaching career in the area north of the Ohio and Potomac Rivers. Although ordained by the Presbyterians, he pursued his own way both theologically and otherwise.

The camp meeting generally took place in August or early fall at a cleared location in the forest. The participants came prepared to camp out for several days. The natural confusion of so many adults and children, along with the necessary animals, added to the effect of the impassioned preaching of the ministers and resulted in a scene of emotional chaos. The "falling exercise," in which the subject lost consciousness, was generally considered a clear manifestation of the power of God in the hearts of man. Other physical phenomena, of more questionable efficacy, were "the jerks," "the laughing exercise," "the barking exercise" in which the sinner treed the devil, and "the singing exercise." Despite the many abuses connected with these meetings and the ridicule they inspired, they nevertheless served as a social and religious outlet for the frontiersman. Camp meetings continued through the 19th century, but after the Civil War the locations generally became summer resorts or were used for sedate religious conferences. Supplementing the camp meetings was the effort of the circuit rider, who went anytime and anywhere sinners were in need of being saved. With their saddle bags stuffed with Bibles and tracts, these missionaries visited nearly every hovel on the frontier and were a key factor in the spread of the Methodist Church.

The great U.S. revival, which followed the financial panic of 1857, launched Dwight Lyman moody, the greatest of the professional revivalists, who worked under the Young Men's Christian Association during the Civil War. His major evangelistic career began immediately after the war, and included very successful tours of Great Britain as well as of the U.S. With the aid of his hymn leader, Ira David Sankey, Moody brought to the rapidly growing cities the revivalist methods of frontier religion. Leadership next passed to William Ashley (Billy) sunday, a reformed baseball player with a great talent for dramatization. World War I was followed by a new type of revivalism, which featured physical as well as spiritual healing; no meeting was complete without its "miracles." At mid-20th century the leading revivalist was William Franklin (Billy) Graham (1918), whose gigantic, organized cooperative meetings were designed to increase the membership of the local churches.

Bibliography: b. a. weisberger, They Gathered at the River (Boston 1958). c. a. johnson, The Frontier Camp Meeting (Dallas 1955). w. w. sweet, Revivalism in America (New York 1944).

[e. r. vollmar]


views updated May 21 2018

re·viv·al·ism / riˈvīvəˌlizəm/ • n. belief in or the promotion of a revival of religious fervor. ∎  a tendency or desire to revive a former custom or practice: French rococo revivalism.DERIVATIVES: re·viv·al·ist n. &·viv·al·is·tic / -ˌvīvəˈlistik/ adj.

religious revival

views updated May 23 2018

religious revival A term applied to mass movements which are based upon intense religious excitement. Periodic religious revivals, which seek to restore commitment and attachment to the group, are a regular sociological feature of religious traditions. The evangelical revival of the eighteenth century included the Moravians and the Methodists. Revivalism has been a common phenomenon in the United States. See also EVANGELICAL; SECT.


views updated May 29 2018


REVIVALISM. SeeEvangelicalism and Revivalism .

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