A Brief History of Revival

It Always Began with Prayer

Revival is a seemingly old-fashioned word that conjures up numerous definitions, some of which have little to do with authentic revival, or “times of refreshing” sent from the Lord as described in Scripture. To aid in defining what I mean when I say “true, biblical revival” I want to draw from one of the most important, but largely ignored, modern works written on the topic entitled, “An Urgent Appeal – To Christian Leaders in America for Consensus and Collaboration on the Biblical Nature and Hope of Corporate Revival.”

The “Appeal,” which is still available on Amazon, was drafted in 2003 with input from nearly 100 national Christian leaders at the time who joined together for one purpose: “To urge all churches and all Christians of America to unite in seeking the face of God through prayer and fasting, persistently asking our Father to send revival to the church and spiritual awakening to our nation, so that Christ’s Great Commission might be fulfilled worldwide in our generation.”

Included in the “Appeal” is the following definition by J. Edwin Orr that, I think, captures the biblical meaning of revival quite well:

An Evangelical Awakening is a movement of the Holy Spirit bringing about a revival of New Testament Christianity in the Church of Christ and in its related community. Such an awakening may change in a significant way an individual; or it may affect a larger group of believers; or it may move a congregation or the churches in the city or district, or the body of believers throughout a country or continent; or indeed the larger body of believers throughout the world. The outpouring of the Spirit affects the reviving of the church, the awakening of the masses, and the movement of uninstructed peoples toward the Christian faith; the revived Church, by many or by few, is moved to engage in evangelism, in teaching, and in social action.

As stated in the book, “…all true revival is about God bringing glory back to his Son by the power of the Holy Spirit through his Church. …In fact, corporate revival necessitates Trinitarian activity: Father-initiated, Spirit-driven, Son-centered. …biblical revival is supremely Son-centered – it is utterly Christ-dominated. …Any spiritual experience, whether called revival or something else, that diminishes Christ, bypasses Him, or actually leads away from Him, is not of God and holds no hope for any generation.”

The “Appeal” continues, “Fundamentally, revival is an awakening to all that Christ already is for us. …in revival God does not make new things. Rather, He makes things new. He does this by reintroducing us to Christ who stands at the epicenter of his renewing purpose among the nations. …in revival God accelerates, intensifies, deepens, and extends the newness that Christ secured for us.”

There have been three Great Awakenings in this nation’s history that profoundly affected the Church and surrounding culture, so much so that history could not ignore these spontaneous movements of God and their dramatic effects. The first occurred in New England during the 1730s and 1740s when God used men like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. The nation, which was in a grave state morally and spiritually, was utterly transformed in the wake of the Great Awakening. As Dr. John Armstrong, a respected scholar on the subject of revival, points out in his book, “True Revival”:

Before this season of awakening, the American colonies stood at a very low ebb morally and spiritually. Family life was breaking down at alarming rates. Drunkenness and drug abuse were at an all-time high and sex outside of marriage was considered acceptable by alarming numbers of people. …After the season of revival things changed dramatically.

By 1770 the effects of the first Great Awakening had dissipated. Contrary to popular belief, Americans were by then becoming an irreligious people. In fact, it is estimated that less than 5 percent of the population attended church during the period just prior to the American Revolution. “Colleges, once Christian in their orientation, were now staffed with prominent faculty members who were ‘freethinkers.’ …professors regularly attacked biblical faith. …By 1795 Yale, a previously Christian institution, had only 12 students who openly professed their faith in Christ. This sad situation was the same all across the colonies.”

However, God’s mercy was once again near at hand as the second Great Awakening, beginning around 1800, would transform American universities and American culture. Armstrong points out, “By 1802…one-third of the student body [at Yale] professed faith in Christ. This, in effect, was the beginning of a new wave of spiritual awakenings that touched Andover, Princeton, Amhurst and other colleges.” Armstrong adds that “During the first half of the 19th century the nation’s population increased four-fold. During these same years the church increased tenfold!

By 1830 Americans were, once again profoundly religious people. This was the America that Alexis de Tocqueville encountered, prompting him to write, “In America, one of the freest and most enlightened nations in the world, the people fulfill with fervor all of the outward duties of religion.”

Unfortunately, by the 1850’s the people had once again begun to abandon their “first love.” The culture wars over issues such as slavery, prison reform, and temperance had divided the nation worse than anything before or since; that is until recently. Once again, God in his mercy poured out his Spirit upon the land. “It has been estimated, conservatively, that over one million people were converted during this two-year period from late 1857 to late 1859.” Dr. Armstrong offers needed perspective when he writes, “To get an idea of how this would compare to our day, imagine about 8-10 million people experiencing true conversions in a matter of a few weeks – without the programs and plans and the massive human engineering of our age.”

These “awakenings” have been supernatural in both origin and effect. They were not brought about by the hands of men, for such a thing is not possible. These providential outpourings of God’s Spirit upon his people were initiated and sustained by God for his glory and purposes.

However, a common factor preceding each of these historic movements of God was a unified call to prayer within the Church. I mean authentic, Christ-centered prayer. The people praying during these periods of “sleep” were not praying for the Lord to “bless the nation” or bless them and their families. They were praying that the Lord, in his mercy, would pour out his Spirit upon his people and utterly transform them so that through them individually and his Church corporately, He would be glorified! They longed to be like Christ and were willing to let Him have his way in their lives knowing that nothing was off-limits to his Lordship.

This is not a “safe” prayer; this kind of prayer has the supernatural potential to change everything about us including those things that, in our flesh, we really don’t want to change.

The times in which we live bear striking resemblance to those periods preceding previous outpourings of God’s Spirit or revivals. God still desires and providentially determines to bring glory to the Son through his Church. Our part is to earnestly seek the manifestation of the Lord’s glory in our own lives and corporately through prayer, regardless of what this may cost us. So, the question is this: Do we even believe that such a revival of Christ’s church is possible? And, if we do then why doesn’t the church pray for it? Have we in the modern world become so seduced by the anti-supernatural spirit of our age that we really no longer believe in the power of prayer?

One of the great beauties of the Christian’s worldview is that we get to participate in restoring the world to the way it ought to be through our prayers to God. I pray you will diligently think on this and pass it along to as many within the Church as possible. I hope that each of us would unite in this kind of prayer; seeking the Lord’s glory, manifested in and through his people; that He would have his way in our lives—individually and corporately—and that we would be utterly transformed, becoming more like Christ so that the world would see Christ Jesus and his kingdom! This should be the lifelong, ongoing prayer of the Church.


S. Michael Craven is the Associate Director for the Colson Fellows Program with the Colson Center for Christian Worldview

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