Will God Send Revival To America Once Again?
By Erwin W. Lutzer
The following is from a message given at the Heart-Cry for Revival Conference in April 2004 at The Cove, Asheville, North Carolina U.S.A.
Most Americans know there were three Great Awakenings in America, but they do not know the history of them and what God did. I am going to start with a very brief overview of these three Great Awakenings. They are not the only revivals in America, but they are the major ones often referred to.
The First Great Awakening – 1735 to 1743
In 1679 the Puritans met together for what they called a Reforming Synod, and they listed the sins of which the Church was guilty. Their list included spiritual pride, neglected church attendance, backbiting and division, worldliness, lack of concern for others along with other misdeeds. They urged repentance, and in doing so they laid the groundwork for a spiritual awakening.
An important figure during the First Great Awakening was Solomon Stoddard, Northampton, Massachusetts. He taught his people what we pastors should teach our people, and that is, to believe God for times of spiritual harvest when God works more mightily than at other times. In his ministry in Northampton, Stoddard had five spiritual harvests. His grandson, Jonathan Edwards, studied at Yale University, and when Stoddard died, Jonathan Edwards became the pastor.
In 1734 the Holy Spirit worked mightily, and 300 souls in Northampton were saved. In those days conversion meant a changed life. It was not, "Have you raised your hand?" or "Have you signed a card?" Pastoral counseling in those days was largely helping people come to assurance of faith, because the Puritans were somewhat reluctant to grant assurance until they saw some evidence of it. The Holy Spirit worked mightily, and Jonathan Edwards wrote a book about it entitled, "A Faithful Narrative of a Surprising Work of God."
Edwards wrote, "God poured contempt on all human strength, wisdom, prudence, and He rebuked and chastised the pride of His people." Edwards is primarily known for his sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," in which he tries to rationally persuade people with the help of the Holy Spirit of the foolishness of resisting God. He says in effect that there is a tarp over hell and the unconverted are walking on it. The flames can already be seen underneath. If God were not holding sinners up, they would sink and would be in hell tormented by the flames! It is the kind of preaching you wouldn’t hear in a "seeker friendly" atmosphere.
The next preacher I mention is George Whitefield. He was born in a tavern in England in 1714, which tells you a little bit about his background. He attended Oxford and became a member of the Holy Club where he met John and Charles Wesley. The young men of the Holy Club, in their discipline, did things methodically and were called "Methodists." One historian says that Edwards lit the fuse of a great awakening and Whitefield fanned it into a flame.
Concerts of prayer were organized because Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards believed that if you have more people praying, then God is more pleased to answer. Prayer resulted in much conviction on sin. Some people said that hell opened before them, and they repented. Miners would come out of the mines, and they would hear Whitefield by the hundreds. Their tears made small rivers down their sooty cheeks as these miners came into the presence of God in repentance and faith.
One writer says that there was so much righteousness in those days that one could have left a bag of gold on the street overnight and it would have been there in the morning! There are some estimates that about fifty thousand people came to know Christ as Savior during this period of time. It was a genuine refreshing that God graciously granted the Church, reminding us that even the best of what man can do can not equal what God does when He comes to a community.
When the revival was criticized Jonathan Edwards wrote his book Religious Affections to distinguish between genuine and spurious religious experiences. Revival always breeds controversy because people want to know how to interpret what is happening. Satan works his counterfeits. But if we are going to pray for rain, we shouldn’t complain about the mud. When we pray for revival, let’s understand that revival isn’t always the neat event we would like it to be. Revival needs good leadership to guide it. It needs good teaching.
The Second Great Awakening – 1790 to 1860
The Second Great Awakening covered a broad period of time. By the year 1800, a million people had moved west. James McGready and Barton Stone held meetings in Kentucky at Cain Ridge, and reports say that 20,000 people attended, many of them traveling in covered wagons. Along with the preaching some strange manifestations occurred. Some people would get a twitch; other people would fall on the ground under deep conviction of sin. This is not to be confused with ‘slaying in the Spirit’ that occurs in some contemporary meetings. In those days leaders discouraged these manifestations, and the people who had fallen were never brought to the platform to encourage other people to have the same kind of experience.
One historian says that during these days, "God confounded infidelity and brought untold numbers to the faith." Oftentimes God worked through preachers and circuit riders. God the Holy Spirit was working mightily and did some wonderful and unusual things in Kentucky and elsewhere in this region.
In the eastern part of the Second Great Awakening, a key figure was Timothy Dwight. He was a grandson of Jonathan Edwards, and became president of Yale University. In those days at Yale there was so much unbelief that Christians had to communicate with one another in code. Dwight decided that he would confront infidelity head-on by giving a series of lectures on why the Bible is the Word of God. About 75 out of 225 students were soundly converted. They conversed with other students and they went back to their home churches and began to spread the good word about what God was doing.
Also about this period of time the famous "Haystack Prayer Meeting" occurred. Some students from Williams College in Massachusetts, including Samuel Mills, met frequently for prayer and discussion. One day they were caught in a downpour and hid under a haystack. There they prayed and asked God to give them the wisdom to begin what has become known as the worldwide missionary movement. Revivals also took place in Princeton, Dartmouth and in other universities and colleges.
A third name connected with the Second Great Awakening is Charles Finney. When Finney preached in Rochester, New York, the whole city closed its doors to attend. The book he wrote, Lectures on Revival, is likely his greatest legacy.
As a result of the Second Great Awakening in the east and west, some people estimate that perhaps one million people came to saving faith in Jesus Christ!
The Third Great Awakening – 1857 to 1859
In 1857 a man by the name of Jeremiah Calvin Lanphier, was walking the streets of New York City and said to himself, "What can I do within the business district of New York? What can I do to encourage people to seek an awakening in the midst of all this indifference?" He chose to begin a prayer meeting.
So he walked along Wall Street giving out handbills that said, "How often shall I pray? As often as the language of prayer is in my heart; as often as I see my need of help; as often as I feel the power of temptation; as often as I am made sensible of any spiritual declension or feel the aggression of a worldly spirit. In prayer, we leave the business of time for that of eternity and fellowship with men for fellowship with God."
At noon on the day of September 23, 1857, the door was opened for prayer but nobody appeared. At 12:30, however, a step on the stairs was heard and another and another. In all, six men gathered to pray. Week by week the crowds grew. The very next month, October 1857, the stock market crashed and people felt a greater need to seek God. Within six months a total of 10,000 men were gathering daily for prayer in many places throughout New York City. When the churches were packed, the prayer meetings were moved to the theaters.
News of this revival spread. For example, in Albany, New York, an early morning prayer meeting was initiated by state legislators who began with six participants in the room of the Court of Appeals, but soon afterwards all the rooms of the building were overflowing for prayer. Californians heard of the revival by newspapers and letters and by friends who had the good fortune to travel across America bearing the good news. Prayer meetings came to Sacramento and San Jose.
As the pastor of Moody Church, I was particularly interested in the impact of this revival in the life of D.L. Moody who came to Chicago in 1856. So I visited the Historical Society and looked at all of the newspapers during that era to see what the news media said about the revival in Chicago.
On March 6, 1858, the Chicago Tribune reported: "The noon prayer meeting at Metropolitan Hall yesterday was the largest and the most interesting that has yet been held. The body of the house and the gallery were filled considerably before 12 o’clock, and at the time for commencing the exercises, the platform, the stairways, the aisles and the entries were all occupied by persons standing up. During the whole hour the stairs leading down to the street were filled with persons arriving or retiring, unable to gain admittance. John Wentworth [the mayor of Chicago at that time] stood near the rear of the hall and listened with great attention to all that was said, and later he commented, ‘The effects of the present religious movement are to be felt in every phase of Society.’"
The Chicago Journal of March 20, 1858 reported that the revival was universal and not limited to a single city or even state, but it spread like fire in every direction, and then it said, "Such an outpouring of religion has not been seen since the days of Edwards."
No wonder the revival from 1857 to 1859 is known as the prayer revival. In Chicago D. L. Moody attended these meetings, and one of his biographers says that it was this revival that "thrust Moody out" into his evangelistic ministry. Moody wrote home to his mother, "Oh, Mother, there is a great revival of religion in this city! I go to meeting every night. Oh, how I enjoy it! It seems as if God were here Himself. Oh, Mother, pray for us! Pray that this will go on until every knee is bowed."
This revival did not have an outstanding leader. To my knowledge there was no Jonathan Edwards, no Timothy Dwight. It was a prayer movement. The pastors took turns leading the meetings that took place.
J. Edwin Orr said about this revival: "The influence of the awakening was felt everywhere in the nation. It first captured the great cities. But it also spread through every town and village and country and hamlet. It won schools and colleges. It affected all classes without respect to conditions. There was no fanaticism. There was a remarkable unanimity of approval among religious and secular observers alike with scarcely a critical voice heard anywhere. It seemed to many that the fruits of Pentecost had been repeated." Hundreds of thousands of people were converted during the period of a few years.
God doesn’t always work in predictable ways. If revival came to America, would great stadiums be full of people? Would it begin in the cities or the country lands? I don’t know. In this case God worked mightily through persistent prayer.
Since the Three Great Awakenings
Someone may ask, "Has God worked like that in America since?" I have here a photocopy of the Denver Post. On the front page the headline reads, "Entire City Pauses for Prayer Even at the High Tide of Business as the Soul Rises above Sordid Thoughts." Subtitle: "Remarkable Outburst of Gospel Sentiment Provoked by Revival."
The story says: "For two hours at midday, all Denver was held in a spell under the influence of the power not of ourselves but that which makes for righteousness….The marts of trade were deserted between noon and 2 o’clock this afternoon, and all worldly affairs were forgotten. The entire city was given over to meditation on higher things. The Spirit of the Almighty pervaded every nook. Going to and coming from the great meetings, thousands of men and women radiated this spirit which filled them, and the clear Colorado sunshine was made brighter by the reflected glow of the Light of God shining from happy faces.
"Seldom has such a remarkable sight been witnessed. An entire great city in the middle of a busy week, bowing before the Throne of Heaven, and asking and receiving the blessing of the King of the universe. All business was practically suspended in response to the request of the men whose powerful, majestic personalities have so wonderfully grasped the hearts of the Denver people. At 10 o’clock this morning, the doors of every church in the city were opened, and for one hour the minister knelt with his congregation praying that everything good and right might be manifest today. Then fifteen minutes after the convent bell had chimed at noon began the meetings that will perhaps make Denver a different city from what she was seventeen days ago. Who knows?"
A key preacher among others was J. Wilbur Chapman (1859-1918), who had earlier preached along with D. L. Moody. The date on the Denver Post is January 20, 1905.
Outstanding Characteristics of Revival
Let me give you five or six outstanding characteristics of revival.
First, there is the manifest presence of God. The Bible says in 1 Corinthians 14:24-25 that when an unbeliever comes into our churches, he should say to himself that "surely God is in this place." During revival when the fullness of God is present, it is as Acts 5:11 says: "…the fear of the Lord was upon all the people."
For the most part, we don’t believe in the fear of the Lord today. In 1 Peter 1:17 it says, "Spend the time of your sojourning here in fear." We have given the impression that it is safe to sin because God loves us unconditionally, and no matter how much we sin, we can always come back to God. During times of revival, people begin to realize that God does love us, but it is never safe to sin. In revival, great fear of the Lord comes upon people.
Secondly, there is opposition. We see this in Acts 4:1-3. Perhaps one of the indictments of the Church in America today is that we don’t have much opposition. Perhaps it is because we lack churches where the power of the Gospel is transparently present. We have been more influenced by the world than we have influenced the world. The Church is to be in the world as a ship is to be in the ocean. But when the ocean begins to get into the ship, the ship is in trouble. I would like to suggest that the evangelical Church is taking on water. We have become too popular.
Third, I think that genuine revival unites true believers. I love that passage in Acts 4 where Peter and John had been put in prison, and it says that the company of believers gathered together and "with one accord" (v. 24) gave praise and honor to God. They lifted up their voices and basically said, "God, You are the Creator of the ends of the earth!" They affirmed that as Creator, God has all things under His control – every situation is ultimately God’s situation. Blessed are those who have the faith to believe that the Creator ultimately has everything in His hands.
In thinking of the revival in Canada in the early 1970’s, many people who had hard feelings against one another were reconciled. Mothers and fathers were brought together, families were brought together, individual churches were brought together, and ultimately, a number of other churches came together. Church leaders said they were "walking knee deep in love." Revival always brings us back to our first love. Revival unites believers and gives us a common heart and a common desire.
Fourth, there is generosity. In Acts chapter 4, it says that they brought all that they owned and they laid it at the apostles’ feet. I don’t think we can do that today and Paul does not exhort any churches to do this. But that spirit of generosity, that is something that God births in our hearts.
The older I get, the darker the human heart looks. People seem to be stingier than I remember them to be. They are more petty than I believed them to be. They are more apt to justify themselves – more self-protective than I remember them to be. I am speaking of all of our hearts, of mine, too. In revival God strips away our defenses and brings us to a point of yieldedness and joy and generosity.
Fifth, there is purity. The sin of Ananias and Sapphira may not seem that bad – telling a lie – but God strikes the two of them dead. God does this because He says that they were lying not to men but to God. During a period of revival God suddenly makes sin to be the size that it really is.
Bill McLeod, whom God used so mightily in the Canadian revival, tells how he was called to the office of a man who was doubled over on his desk sobbing uncontrollably. The man told Bill, "I just took a look into my heart, and it was as if I were looking into hell!"
What was this man’s sin? It was dishonesty, cheating regarding business accounts. Some businessmen do this routinely – until they see God! Suddenly sin is seen in much different light. When our sins which we so carefully hide are exposed by the blessed Holy Spirit of God, they drive us to conviction and repentance. In the presence of God we know we need the intervention of His grace.
A sixth characteristic is evangelism. Some who have been Christians for thirty years have been sitting next to others at work, but have never shared a creditable, loving witness to their friends. How can we get to know others and yet not share our love for Christ with them?
The least we can do is to give our unsaved friends a short book on the Gospel, and ask them to read it and tell us what they think. If we do not have a heart for the lost, it is because we have left our first love. The normal response of someone who has been born of the Spirit is a desire to share with others the good news of the Gospel. The early church was doing this all the time.
Think of China. It is generally agreed that when communism took over in 1949, there were a half million believers in China. Today the experts tell us that there are thirty million Christians in that land (maybe more). How did the Chinese Church do it without radio or television, without any support from the government, even with oppression from the political sphere? When the Communists came they tried to weaken the Church by scattering the Christians all over the land. So these believers began to do individual witnessing while working in factories and farms. One person after another was converted. New believers told others what God had done for them. Without great evangelists, radio or television, the Church of Jesus Christ was built in China. That’s what God does in times of revival – He looses the tongues of the people in our churches so they begin to witness and to tell of God’s matchless grace.
Words about America Today
Certainly today the culture in America has changed. In earlier days, going to church was something that people did routinely. Sunday evenings they had evangelistic services. Cars and television have combined to change all this. Today people do not go to church Sunday evening, nor do they attend prayer meetings. And with the emphasis on the separation of Church and state, God is being removed from what is called the public sphere.
Our churches have also changed. Today you would not hear a message like Jonathan Edwards’ "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." I have observed that even in those churches that are evangelical, believing in the trustworthiness of Scripture, it is possible to emphasize the positive aspects of the Christian life and to neglect all of the harder things that come with the Christian life. We as pastors need to keep on our knees and ask God to keep us balanced, so that we preach grace along with the fear of the Lord. In our culture today, I see the pendulum drifting off balance. As a whole, we are self-centered. Many people want to serve God but in the role of an advisor. So we make God after our own image. Calvin said, "The human mind is an idol factory, constantly manufacturing new idols."
Our concept of revival has changed. We want a revival that is painless; a revival that will grow our churches and make life easier. We are tempted to pray, "God, we’re in trouble; our churches are being silenced; we’re being paralyzed by the ACLU and the radical gay agenda. Our mouths are shut and what else can we do? Help us, God, because life is hard under these conditions."
We forget that the Church has always been an island of righteousness in a sea of paganism. We need to pray not that God make it easier for us but that we desire His glory above all else. So we pray, "God, for Your glory, do something in this country!"
The fact that our great nation with its freedoms, opportunities, privileges, and blessings has fallen so far so quickly, is reason for great sorrow. We are paralyzed in the face of great apostasy and have simply accepted our condition without sorrow.
In Canada in the early 1970’s, there were people who had prayed for revival who rejected it when it came, because they said, "We thought that when revival came, God was going to shut down the pornography houses and the prostitutes. We didn’t know that God was going to deal first with us." When God wants to send revival, He begins with His people and takes them apart piece by piece, and then He puts us back together to be the kind of people we should be.
Can God do it again? Obviously God can do it again. Will He? He’s not obligated to, and I don’t know if He will, but our responsibility is to set our sails to catch the breeze, so that if God graciously, and undeservedly was to visit us, we would be ready for whatever He desires to do.
Can We Pray Together?
Father, we are deeply grateful for every work that You have done. Every soul that is saved is a miracle! Father, that You picked us up out of the pit and saved us, and overcame the blindness of our heart, and granted us the ability to believe – that is a marvelous miracle! We stand in absolute awe of the miracle of salvation.
Yet, Father, we think of this great country of America with its freedom, with its missionary works around the world, of the books that have been published and have gone all around the world. We think of the impact of Christian media that has been used to share the Gospel, and yet, in the face of all of this, we see this nation plunging to ruin and the Church standing by wondering what to do.
Oh, God, please help us! We cry to You because we have nowhere else to go. There is no other solution. There is no other message that can be preached. There is no one thing that is going to be our answer unless You come, Father. So we come today bringing nothing except our great need, and we invite Your Spirit to work mightily among us, as You are pleased to do. In Jesus’ Holy Name. Amen.
– Dr. Erwin Lutzer is pastor of Moody Church, Chicago, Illinois.