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Church History - The Church and Revivals in America Print E-mail
Church History

I.  Introduction:

 One of my favorite books on the history of the Church is Revival and Revivalism by Ian Murray.  In the book, the author makes a contrast between what he considers to be true revival, that which is sent by the Spirit, and revivalism, that which is manipulated by means other than simply preaching and prayer.  He traces these two lines of thought through the period of the Great Awakenings in America (primarily focusing on the 2nd Great Awakening).  This time period in America impacted the view of revival in the Church possibly more than any other in all of Church History.  Even today, in our denominations all the way down to our local churches, we still feel the impact of the 2nd Great Awakening.  Tonight we want to specifically look at the two Great Awakenings and really a brief history of revival in America tracing all the way to Billy Graham.  Before we begin, I should note in light of our discussion last week, that in many of those we are considering tonight, we see a faithful response to the Enlightenment and Theological liberalism.  It is their faithfulness that God saw fit to bless with a period of great revival.  Thus, let’s begin by looking at the 1st Great Awakening.

II.  The 1st Great Awakening

 A.  Much had obviously happened in the history of the Church between the Reformation and the beginnings of the 1st Great Awakening.  Many different forms of protestant belief had come onto the seen.  There was a great struggle in understanding how protestant churches would function at the local level and what that would look like.  Also, because the Church and the State were not separate, many protestant Churches struggled under Catholic Monarchs.  Couple this with the discovery of America and the founding of the new colonies and you see why religion was a key issue in America’s early history.  Yet, by the time we get to the 1720s, the optimism surrounding religion in America had begun to wane.  The new generation did not have the vision and focus of the previous generation.  In the colonies, there was no real place for training of new ministers.  These and other issues left the church in a difficult position and poised for revival.

 B.  The revival that was needed would come.  It would begin in the Dutch Church in the colony of New Jersey.  A minister by the name of Theodore Frelinghuysen (1691-1748) was a faithful minister and began to stress the importance of moral reform.  He stressed the need for a true commitment to Christ.  This resulted in many flocking to the churches for salvation and many within the churches laboring to know Christ more.  Frelinghuysen was friends with the Tennent family, who were Presbyterians.  William Tennent, Sr., a Presbyterian minister also began to labor for reform in the church and even started the Log College to help train new ministers. 

 C.  One of the most recognized figures in the 1st Great Awakening is Jonathan Edwards.  Obviously we could spend a whole class time and more discussing his contributions to the Church in America, however, I just want to briefly mention a few of his contributions.  Edwards became the pastor at a Northampton church in 1727, staying there until 1750.  Amazingly, he is not remembered for his flamboyant preaching style.  Rather, he is remembered for actually reading his sermons monotone.  Yet, God in His sovereign purposes used those sermons to draw many to belief in Christ.  Many are familiar with Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of Angry God,” and thus picture this angry hell, fire, and brimstone preacher.  Yet, this is seemingly not the case.  Although he did labor in teaching the truth from the pulpit, this particular sermon is perhaps not the best example of a typical sermon from Edwards.  His preaching did lead to a revival that ran throughout the New England area.

 D.  Another minister to mention at this point would be George Whitfield (1714-1770).  Whitfield was from England, yet, he made seven trips to America and preached throughout the colonies.  His style of preaching was very plain and appealed greatly to the commoner.  Both he and Edwards had a great impact on the 1st Great Awakening.

 E.  Two denominations which grew tremendously as a result from the 1st Great Awakening were the Baptist and Methodist denominations.  The Baptist’s (who we will look at more in a couple of weeks) formed their first associations in 1755 and began to experience tremendous growth in the South.  The Methodist Church, founded by John and Charles Wesley, also experienced great growth during this time.  Ministers from both of these denominations were able to appeal to the poor and needy and thus had a great impact in the rural South.

III.  The 2nd Great Awakening (1790-1810)

 A.  This Awakening comes on the heels of the Revolutionary War, which ended in 1783.  One of the first figures to note is James McGready (1758-1817).  McGready was the pastor of 3 churches in Logan County, Kentucky.  He taught his people to pray and long for revival.  He would bring all the churches together once every year to observe communion.  At one of these meetings many people from other churches attended.  This began the movement known as the Camp meetings.  These meetings would be scheduled for up to a week and people would come from all over to attend.  Even though the purpose of the meetings was for preaching the gospel, the meetings themselves have a bleak history.  At many of these meetings new measures were used to encourage people to convert.  Also, there was a great emphasis on emotion at these meetings.  There is even reports of people ‘treeing the devil’ at the Camp meetings.  Granted, not all went this way, but they did open the door for some excesses in revival history. 

 B.  In the East, a man named Timothy Dwight had a great impact in the Church through his work as president of Yale University.  Many of the students were radically converted and then carried the revival spirit with them to the places that they served.  Just for a note, Dwight edited a version of Watts’ hymns and became one of the first to encourage singing of those hymns in the churches.  For this, I am particularly grateful for his labor.

 C.  Again the Methodists and Baptists had prominent roles in the Awakening.  Also, the Disciples of Christ (later the Church of Christ) played a prominent role as well.  One other notable outcome of the 2nd Great Awakening is the theological shift.  Ian Murray does a great job of making this point in the book we mentioned earlier.  People’s views concerning conversion, means of salvation, revival in general, all began to change.  This opened the door for people like Charles Finney to have such a great impact on the Church.  His ‘new measures’ were widely accepted among those who were trying to get away from a more Calvinistic view of salvation.  Eckman states it this way, “In many ways, the 2nd Great Awakening marked the death knell of Calvinism as a major force in American religious life.” 1  This shift is still felt in our churches today. 

IV.  3 Other Notable Evangelists:

 A.  D. L. Moody (1837-1899), who followed the pattern set forth by Finney, ministered in the inner city of Chicago.  In 1873, he and his song leader Ira Sankey, led an evangelistic tour through Great Britain.  Upon their return, they began to have evangelistic meetings in all the major cities of the US.  It is said that Moody possibly preached to 100 million people in his lifetime.  He also founded the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, first called the Chicago Evangelization society in 1886 and the Northfield summer Bible Conference in 1880, which will lead to another movement in the history of the Church in America. 

 B.  Billy Sunday (1862-1935) can be seen as the successor to Moody of the mass evangelism movement.  Sunday was pursuing a career in baseball when he was converted.  He left his career to become a full-time minister and evangelist.  He is most well remembered for his antics in the pulpit.  He began having Billy Sunday Crusades all over America as he gained popularity.  It is also held that he preached to over 100 million people.  He also took strong social stands against things like alcohol abuse and for patriotism. 

 C.  The last evangelist to mention is Billy Graham (b. 1918).  For the most part, I would assume that we are all familiar with the efforts of Billy Graham.  In 1944, Graham began ministering with a group called Youth For Christ, a ministry mainly focusing on young people across the states.  In 1949, Graham held the famous revival in Los Angeles.  From this he gained national attention.  Thus, in 1950 he formed the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and began traveling and preaching all over the world.  Eckman credits him as having preached to more people than any other individual in history. 2  Needless to say, we still feel the impact of his ministry in our churches today as well.

V.  What can we learn from this period of Church History?

 A.  First, we must note the difference between true revival and mere revivalism, and we must long for true revival in our day.  We need to be a people who are aware of the dangers of preaching a man-centered gospel.  Yet, these dangers do not mean that we do not need to long in prayer and proclamation for God to pour out a revival in our Church.  God is still the sovereign author of revival, yet, the means he has given us to employ, namely preaching the Word and praying for the lost, need to be means that we are passionate about in our Christian lives.

 B.  More generally, it will do us good to note how errors can easily creep into the Church and reek havoc on generations to come.  It is amazing to me just the difference between the preaching styles of Jonathan Edwards and Billy Sunday.  Both men were laboring for the souls of the people to which they were preaching, yet, it is obvious that they had different beliefs about what exactly salvation entailed.  We must be clear what we believe about conversion for it will indeed have a great impact on the entirety of our Christian life.  To deny this is to simply ignore Church History, an error we cannot afford to make.  Rather, as we have stressed during this entire series, may we understand that ideas have consequences and that beliefs do as well.  May we fight for doctrinal purity in our own churches and lives.  Indeed, may we labor with the next generation in mind, learning from those who have gone before us. 

1 James P. Eckman, Exploring Church History (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2002), 87.
2 Ibid., 91.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Thursday, 06 September 2007 )

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