We live in troubled times. To be sure, all times have been troubled. But today’s challenges confronting the church, the ones that we may be able to deal with and perhaps even to heal, should prompt us to look to America’s Christian history for wisdom for the present and guidance for the future. One place to look is the stories of the great revivalists.
The list of possible players is long. Revivalism as we know it began in the early decades of the 18th century. The Great Awakening emerged with thunder from the lips of Jonathan Edwards in New England and his friend George Whitefield throughout the colonies. The first third of the 19th century—the era of the Second Great Awakening—heard the Arminian preaching of Charles Finney and the Restorationist preaching of Alexander Campbell. The middle decades were enriched with the Wesleyan expositions of Phoebe Palmer, and the last third with Holiness sermons from the black globetrotting evangelist Amanda Berry Smith. Without question Dwight L. Moody—rotund, urban-oriented, and theologically expansive—dominated the Gilded Age.
The 20th century, perhaps surprisingly, proved to be revivalism’s golden era. The first three decades included the ministries of the Pentecostals Aimee Semple McPherson and William J. Seymour, the Indian Anglican immigrant Pandita Ramabai, and the barnstorming, sort-of-Presbyterian, former baseball player Billy Sunday. After World War II, Billy Graham effectively defined the genre by speaking face-to-face to 215 million people, more than any other person in history. The postwar years also witnessed the divine healing ministry of Oral Roberts, the social gospel focus of Canadian transplant Leighton Ford, and, more recently, the prosperity-oriented preaching of the television celebrity Joel Osteen. The roster could be extended at length to include Kathryn Kuhlman, T. D. Jakes, and Rick Warren—all voices of our own times.
The great revivalists displayed many differences. Ranging over three centuries, they included men and women, many ethnicities, and all socioeconomic backgrounds. By any reasonable measure of things, Edwards was an aristocrat, Seymour was an African-American man of humble origins, and Ford a serious-minded intellectual. Their styles too were dramatically varied, running from sedate to flamboyant.
Yet important continuities showed up, and those continuities remain instructive. With the unlikely but possible exception of McPherson, all maintained lives of impeccable integrity in private as well as in public. Though some prospered handsomely, more often than not they lived comparatively modestly, and there is no evidence of personal dishonesty for any of them. All were known for the consistency of their devotional lives of prayer and Scripture reading. All used the media venues of their day effectively. They knew that revivals were worked up as well as prayed down. And all focused on the big picture: the work of God to transform people and communities. They sensed that God’s Spirit was less concerned about ethnic, regional, and denominational divisions than most Christians were.
Church history requires the characteristic of any good conversation: not only listening to the words spoken but also hearing them by taking them deep into the heart. That means allowing ourselves to change in the process—asking new questions and thinking new possibilities, just as we would in any real conversation with any real person we respect.
My colleague David Steinmetz used to say that church history might provide answers we never thought to give and, perhaps more important, pose questions we never thought to ask. It requires resurrecting the dead and letting them speak with all the pathos and power of their original voices.
Granted, it is dangerous to press the materials of the past to say things they were never meant to say. But it is even more dangerous to overlook the potential riches of their theological and renewing power.