Revival and Revivalism (Part 1)

(Originally published at Think on These Things, January 2001)

Revival is hot right now. If you read any Christian literature, especially magazines, listen to Christian radio or watch Christian TV, you know this is a subject that is on the front burner of evangelicalism.

In doing research on this topic I turned to the web site of Christian Book Distributors to run down a couple of books on the subject that I had been wanting to purchase. I was a bit surprised to discover that CBD listed 156 books on revival. These are books that are currently in print, and are being sold by this one outlet. This does not include many books that they do not carry nor the many hundreds that are out of print.

Revival is hot and it is easy. Who could say a word against fit? It is like putting down motherhood. Go into any Christian circle and declare that we need revival and you will get a hardy “Amen.” Tell people that you are praying for revival and expect a lot of admiration.

But what exactly is revival? Do people know what they are praying for? Would we know revival if it came, and would we like it? Should we even desire revival?

These are just some of the questions that I want to address in this paper. In doing so I am just touching the tip of the iceberg. Rather than adding yet another to the monstrous pile of books about revival, I will narrow the scope to two subjects (hoping to discuss other revival related issues in the future): The history of revival; and an examination of its biblical base.

A Short History of Revival

Revival vs. Revivalism

We want to distinguish very early in our discussion the difference between revival and revivalism. Revival is considered by many a sovereign work of God, independent of the efforts or methods of man, in which God awakens His people spiritually.

Revivalism is defined as periods of spiritual and emotional excitement that have been orchestrated by the methods, and often, the manipulations of man. God does not necessarily have to be involved in revivalism at all.

Many of us grew up with, or are now involved in, some form of revivalism. A church has an annual revival that lasts two weeks or a month. The service usually focuses heavily on emotion and downplays exposition of the Scriptures. People walk forward every night, either to receive Christ or rededicate their lives to the Lord. When the revival is over things return to normal and it is done all over again next year.

Charles Finney, who set the standard for revivalism, said that God was not necessary to have a revival, all that was necessary was for a church to apply the right methods and then a revival would happen automatically. “The connection between the right use of means for a revival and a revival is as philosophically [i.e., scientifically] sure as between the right use of means to raise grain and a crop of wheat. I believe, in fact, it is more certain, and there are fewer instances of failure.” (Charles G. Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion, p. 33) However, in this paper we are not focusing on revivalism, which takes many forms today, but rather on revival.

Definition of Revival

Jonathan Edwards, considered by many to be the greatest theologian this country ever produced, said that revival was, “The work of God carried on with greater speed and swiftness” (Revival and Revivalism, p. 20). He did not believe that a revival was anything different from the regular experience of the church. The difference lies in degree, not in kind. In an ‘outpouring of the Spirit’ spiritual influence is more widespread, convictions are deeper, and feelings more intense, but all this is only a heightening of normal Christianity (ibid. p. 23).

Martin Lloyd-Jones says that the “essence of a revival is that the Holy Spirit comes down upon a number of people together, upon a whole church, upon a number of churches, districts, or perhaps a whole country.” By this definition modern-day revivals, especially in the West, have been few. Non-charismatic Christian historians only list three such revivals in the history of the United States:

  • The Great Awakening of the 1730s and 40s localized in New England under the leadership of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield.
  • The Second Great Awakening at the turn of the nineteenth century localized in Kentucky and somewhat in Tennessee. Out of this revival came the camp meetings.
  • The Third Great Awakening took place in New York State and to some degree throughout the country in 1857,8 and is often referred to as the prayer revival.

No significant revival has taken place in America since that time and the last one to take place in the Western world was the Welsh revival of 1904,5, which upon closer examination was really Europe‘s birth of Pentecostalism.

No one alive today has seen what biblical historians call a revival on Western soil.

Of course on the Pentecostal side they would claim several revivals, all in this century: The Pentecostal revival beginning in 1900. The Charismatic revival beginning in 1960. The Vineyard revival beginning in 1980 and the Laughing revival that started in 1994.

If we ignore the charismatic events and focus on the mainstream revivals that brings us to another issue. What is the evidence of a revival? That is, how do we know when a revival is taking place? What are the characteristics of revivals?

The Evidence of Revival

Martin Lloyd-Jones gives these descriptions of revival in his book Revival (pages 99-117):

The Holy Spirit has descended into (His people) midst, God has come down and is amongst them. A baptism, an outpouring, a visitation. And the effect of that is that they immediately become aware of His presence and of His power in a manner that they have never known before.

The Holy Spirit literally seems to be presiding over the meeting and taking charge of it, and manifesting His power and guiding them, and leading them, and directing them.

People may be held in a state of desperation over their sins for days and weeks and months. “Then they are given a clear view of the love of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ and especially of His death upon the cross.”

People are not only converted at meetings, some are converted as they are walking to the meetings, before they have even got there”

Always in a revival there is what somebody once called a divine disorder. Some are groaning and agonizing under conviction, others praising God for the great salvation. And all this leads to crowded and prolonged meetings. Time seems to be forgotten. People seem to have entered into eternity.

A revival, then, really means days of heaven upon earth.

Charles Finney gave the following “Seven Indicators” of revival:

  • When the sovereignty of God indicates that revival is near.
  • When wickedness grieves and humbles Christians.
  • When there is a spirit of prayer for revival.
  • When the attention of ministers is directed toward revival and spiritual awakening.
  • When Christians confess their sins one to another.
  • When Christians are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to carry out the new movement of God’s Spirit.
  • When the ministers and laity are willing for God to promote spiritual awakening by whatever instrument He pleases (Revival Signs, pp. 95,96).

Tom Phillips, previously with Billy Graham and noted President of International Students, writes in his book Revival Signs of nine evidences that revival is on its way to America (banking off Finney’s indicators):

  • Public confession of sin (pp. 38,61,97,154).
  • Ecumenism (pp. 39,44,68,82,83).
  • Pastor’s prayer summits (pp. 35,97,119-122,149-159).
  • Huge youth gatherings (pp. 35,43).
  • Concerts of prayer (pp. 35,96-97,146-149).
  • Mysticism and experience oriented Christianity (pp.40-41,82-83,92-93,101,108-109,130-132,144-146,187,232).
  • Spiritual Warfare (p. 42).
  • Promise Keepers (pp. 43,114,155).
  • Minimizing of doctrine (pp. 44,137,220).

There is one common denominator found in the above authors and so many others: the lack of scriptural support. None of these men back up their signs and evidences with Scripture. They look at experiences in the past, and then develop a theology of revival.

Why? Because Scripture does not teach these things. Scripture does not give the kind of experiences that Martin Lloyd-Jones describes. Revival, of the type these men describe, is never mentioned in Scripture. We are simply not called to revival.

In the New Testament, in all the information given on how we are to be sanctified, how a church is to function, how to impact our world for Christ; not once is revival mentioned. Not once are the signs of revival noted. Not once do we find a prayer meeting calling for revival.

What do we find? This will be the focus of Part 2.

Gary Gilley Bio

Gary Gilley has served as Senior Pastor of Southern View Chapel in Springfield, Illinois since 1975. He has authored several books and is the book review editor for the Journal of Dispensational Theology. He received his BA from Moody Bible Institute. He and his wife Marsha have two adult sons and six grandchildren.

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There are 7 Comments

Wayne Wilson's picture

Interesting read and for me, timely. Just so happens I am preaching on 1 Sam 7 this Sunday (working through that book), and examining the great event there using Edwards' evaluation of whether or not a revival is a true work of God.  Seems like the real thing!  

JD Miller's picture

Though history may not show many national revivals, that does not mean that revival has not taken place on some level.  I am curious as to how to best define revival.  I like how this article has distinguished true revival from revivalism, but would it be proper to look at some of the changes among the Southern Baptists as revival?   Another example is on an even more local level.  There is a North American Baptist church plant not too far from here.  It was started several years ago as a seeker sensitive church and grew quickly.  The pastor began to study God's word and realized he had been looking at things all wrong.  He began to preach expositionally and to focus on discipleship.  Once they took a more Biblical position, they lost most of their original group, but now less than 10 years later they hold both an early and later Sunday morning service and each usually has over 100 people.  They have grown since they have committed to obeying God.  The pastor continues to study the Word of God and is disgusted with the compromise he saw in his liberal seminary.  If you were to listen to the messages on church membership, baptism, and the Lord's supper from the last month, you would understand that this church is historically fundamental in their belief even if the North American Baptists as a whole are not.  Would this be considered a local revival?  I think it is, even though it is not front page news.  I fear that sometimes we only call something a revival if it gets the recognition of the secular media or is written of in history books.


Aaron Blumer's picture


I've always found it puzzling ... why is it important whether a sequence of events is "a revival" or not?

Maybe part of the answer is some circular thinking on the topic. The circle seems to go something like this:     Revival is great because it's when God does something great --> Event A is great because it's "revival" --> "Revival" is great because it's, for example, when God did Event A... and many others. And so on.

So it becomes a glittering generality, desirable for its own sake.

But if we start digging into why "revival" matters, we eventually--if we're diligent--get down to the idea of God accomplishing His purposes for His glory, through the obedience of His servants. This is what we should hunger for, whether it takes the form of dramatic turnings of lots of people at once (e.g. Acts 2, Nehemiah 8-10) or the far less dramatic, gradual growth of faithful believers over many generations. The latter doesn't get headlines, and nobody calls it "revival"... but it's more in keeping w/the emphasis of the Scriptures. (As we see to an extent in Part 2)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Rob Fall's picture

that Revival is best recognized in the rear view mirror.  Rather, than an event that is ginned up inn advance. 

Hoping to shed more light than heat..

Ron Bean's picture

Rob Fall wrote:

that Revival is best recognized in the rear view mirror.  Rather, than an event that is ginned up inn advance. 

This seems to be a true statement. I had the opportunity to talk to a couple of people who observed the revival on the Isle of Lewis is the 1950's and that was their conclusion as well.

BTW, is there anyone else who thinks that Finney may have been close to being a heretic?

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Aaron Blumer's picture


Along with the whole idea of engineering "revivals," Finney was deeply in error in his view of sin and the Fall and, as a result, his view of conversion.

Some good thoughts on Finney here:

Charles Grandison Finney Part 1: Finney's System

Charles Grandison Finney Part 2: Finney's Influence



Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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