I have many questions about ‘revival,’ don’t you? What is it, and what is it not? (many insist they have ‘revival,’ others that it lies ‘just around the corner’) What has it looked like in the past? Are there different kinds of revivals? What is it that eventually ‘be-devils’ even genuine revivals? What are the things common to most true revivals, amid their diversity? What would revival look like today, in our post-Christian era? (I’ve seen little written on this issue, hopefully we can agree on some pointers going forward). Surely all serious believers long for a greater sense of God’s presence in his Church and in society? (at the same time doesn’t the Church need a ‘revelation’ of what we already have and are in Christ? Cf. Eph. 1).
So what is ‘revival’? Can we agree on what it’s not? On the one hand, neither ‘soul-winning’ campaigns, nor cheap ‘prosperity gospel’ platforms, nor purely social campaigns around valid societal issues. What is ‘revival?’ A simple definition, based on biblical and historical evidence, would be an ‘awakening’ of slumbering believers to God, his holiness and his cross-shaped love. E.g. I have listened to Duncan Campbell’s sermons during the Hebrides revival of 1949 and heard Mary Peckham’s testimony (way back as a young adult in the early 1960’s in my home-city) – they both mentioned an overwhelming sense of God’s manifest presence, poured out on praying people and the subsequent transformation of society.
How has revival been manifested historically? May I suggest we limit ourselves to the 19th and 20th century ‘awakenings’ – most of us are aware of the great 18th century revivals in England and North America under Charles Wesley, George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards:
- As a South African I’m fairly familiar with a revival outbreak in the Western Cape town of Worcester, 1860-1864, under the leadership of the renowned Dr. Andrew Murray. For some years a small group of intercessors had gathered in the town to intercede for its citizens, one of them beating a regular path to a nearby prayer ‘koppie’ (hill) overlooking Worcester. One evening, while Dr. Murray was preaching in the main sanctuary, a group of about sixty young people were singing and praying in a nearby hall. They heard the sound of a strong wind, and all of sudden everyone was on their knees praying and crying, totally unawares of an elder and Dr. Murray himself calling them to order. The result? Fifty young people immediately volunteered to serve the Lord wherever he should call them; farming communities were transformed through prayer around the kitchen table; Dr. Murray began to mobilise missionaries to different parts of the world, including Malawi in Central Africa (my wife’s forebears were part of that missionary thrust). [BTW, as a result of Dr. Murray’s teachings, there was a missions awakening in my home city in the 1980’s, resulting in local churches sending career-missionaries into Africa and many parts of the world]
- Then there was the famous Welsh revival of 1904-1905, under the leadership of a young Bible College student, Evan Roberts, who had given himself to prayer for his native Wales. The first impact was on the youth who crowded out church buildings. There was minimal oratory from Roberts but his face visibly shone with the glory of God. People cried out for mercy, sang, prayed and repented. Collieries were transformed, even the underground ponies were left confused by the miners’ loving attitudes and lack of cursing. Pubs and jails were emptied. I recall as a young boy hearing the aged and white-haired Rev. David Matthews, converted during that revival, preach in a little Baptist church down the road from where I stayed. He could recite the NT by heart and wrote ‘I Saw the Welsh Revival,’ of which I have a treasured copy. God gave Evan Roberts a vision of the figure 100,000 – it is estimated that at least that many were converted during those few years.
- Something different happened at the Los Angeles Azusa Street revival of 1906. God’s instruments included William Seymour and Frank Bartleman [I remember my son driving me down the famous Azusa Street to do some post-grad research at Fuller Seminary]. This revival didn’t impact LA as much as sparking a global outbreak of Pentecostalism centering on ‘the baptism of the Spirit’ and ‘tongues.’
- A ‘rushing wind’ also accompanied an outpouring of God’s Spirit in Pyongyang, North Korea, in 1907. Presbyterian missionaries like William Blair and others had unwittingly fallen into racial prejudice, and confessed this to the people. In turn the local believers confessed their dislike of these foreign missionaries, especially their sense of superiority. Many were awakened and converted, even amid terrible persecution by the Japanese occupiers and idol worshipers. Sadly, today the North Korean underground church is one of the most persecuted in the world.
- I’ve already mentioned the Hebrides revival of 1949. Two old ladies persistently prayed for the their fellow-believers, one blind and the other crippled by arthritis. Young men met in a barn to pray and repent around Ps. 24. Many homes were affected, young people flocked to the gatherings in the cottages and public spaces. The sense of God’s holiness and presence was overwhelming. Villages were transformed and even hardened fishermen around the coastline were affected.
- A particular aspect of the East African revival in Rwanda and parts of Uganda during the years 1929-1970’s, has always fascinated me. As a young believer, searching for something deeper in my relationship with the Lord and confused by some who taught a kind of holiness perfectionism, I was greatly helped by Norman Grubb’s little booklet, ‘Continuous Revival,’ based on his exposure to this move of God’s Spirit in E. Africa. Under the Rwandan Medical Mission, local revivals took place from time to time, touching many, including the renowned Festo Kivengere, author of ‘I Love Idi Amin.’ People practised regular confession, restitution and neighbourly love. The Cross was central, bringing personal conviction of sin, brokenness, confession, cleansing, and then ‘cups running over.’ BTW, these things seem common to most revivals of the past.
Andrew Murray once observed that while most believers may not witness a general or national revival, we can pursue daily, personal revival. The apostle John helps us here in 1 Jn. 1: it’s about a constant ‘walking in the light,’ with God and one another. True revival is both vertical and horizontal. In his Gospel, ch. 15, John taught the importance of the indwelling Christ, our daily abiding in him, with resultant on-going fruit for all to see.
What are some of the dangers besetting spiritual revival movements? I suggest a few:
- Lapsing into to self-effort, ‘control’ if you like. I tried to find out what happened to Evan Roberts after he went into self-imposed exile with the Penn-Lewis’s. Obviously there must have been some level of physical and emotional burn-out. One writer has suggested that things went wrong when Evan started taking responsibility for the revival’s results rather than leaving them in God’s hands. After starting off so charitably, he apparently became harsh and condemning in his preaching. Did he also fall into introversion? There is always the danger of an unhealthy, rigid introspection among believers. My old Scottish college principal used to say, ‘A healthy person doesn’t walk around all day with a thermometer in his mouth!’
- Lapsing into legalism of different sorts. E.g. obsession with externals like dress, certain phenomena and leaders rather than the message. This goes right back to Jonathan Edwards’ time. It’s very much with us today.
- Lapsing into imbalance. A pastor-friend of mine told me years ago of Dr. Maxwell’s dictum (head of Prairie Bible Institute, Canada, whose student-body experienced a powerful prayer-awakening), ‘The hardest thing in the world is to keep balanced!’ I’m thinking of balance between teaching and emotions, head and heart, the objective and the subjective. Let’s face it, God’s heightened presence during revival times cannot be contained by mere mortals for ever – sooner or later life itself has to go on. I think we see this progression in the Acts of the Apostles.
May I ask you to please re-visit this topic, continued in Part 2, where we’ll be asking the all-important question, ‘What might revival look like today?’ Will Jesus and the Bible surprise us?