Awakenings in America: Seasons of the Spirit

The scriptures show us that God’s people go through periods of spiritual renewal, and periods of spiritual decline. We might think of these times like waves and troughs, or like mountains and valleys. During a renewal, or awakening, there will be not only a great reviving of Christians, but also a large impact on the problems of society. The period of God’s blessing may last for many years, as did the Second Great Awakening in America, or be rather brief, as was the Third Awakening of the late 1850s.

When the winds of a renewal have passed, the Church may enter a period of lethargy, possibly for many years. Such cycles have already been repeated many times during the 2,000 years of Church history. It is not that the Spirit of God cannot sustain the higher life for Christians; rather, the Spirit allows times of decline to cause His people to pray for growth and for power.

Biblical Awakenings

In Old Testament times, renewal came to the Israelites under King Jehoash (2 Kings 11-12), King Hezekiah (2 Kings 18), King Asa (2 Chronicles 15), and especially under King Josiah (2 Kings 22- 23). Awakening also came at the time of Zerubbabel (Ezra 5-6), and under Nehemiah (Nehemiah 8-9, 13). In New Testament times, awakening came upon God’s people at Pentecost (Acts 2). This pouring out of the Spirit set a pattern that we see in later awakenings. Again, in Acts 4:23-37 we read of a renewal that prepared the infant Church for the fierce persecutions to come.

Forgetting Our Blessings

Despite the lasting benefits that awakenings have always brought to the Church and its surrounding culture, many Christians today know too little about this subject. Not only have many believers forgotten their great heritage of awakenings, but some historians have distorted the truth about these movements of God’s Spirit. Some have portrayed awakenings as times of religious fanaticism, having no positive social effects. Unfortunately, too often Christians have done little to set the facts straight, and have let others explain away God’s great works in our past. The historian William Warren Sweet said:

No phase of the religious development of America has been more misunderstood and as a consequence more maligned than has revivalism. It has been the victim of much cheap debunking.... Strange as it may seem to those who think only of revivalism in terms of ignorance ... there is a very close relationship between the history of higher education in America and revivalism.

Not only have awakenings been very instrumental in the promotion of higher education, as we will see, but many of the finest impulses of social reform and action in American history have flowed from them. For example, the Second Great Awakening brought a tide of opposition to slavery, and to various other social injustices.

Praise and Blame

Because awakenings have brought conversions and the spreading of biblical teaching, it is not surprising that they have been an object of scorn for unbelievers. Since the long-term results of awakenings have been so beneficial, critics have had to look elsewhere to find something they could exaggerate and ridicule. They have found an easy target in the extremes of enthusiasm, for there are always those who go too far.

The First Great Awakening did run into problems, and the Second Awakening in the West, on America’s turbulent frontier, has been a favorite of skeptics for illustrations of fanaticism. On the other hand, the “harvests” of Solomon Stoddard in Massachusetts were completely orderly, as was the 1734 revival under his grandson, Jonathan Edwards.

The Second Awakening in the East was known for its dignity and orderliness, as well as for the fact that it lasted for decades, which would not have been true if it had brought disgrace.

From early in his ministry Charles Finney insisted on order and dignity, and the thousands of converts who flowed from his meetings attested to the power that attended them, and the absence of fanaticism. Describing Finney’s Rochester revival of 1830-1831, historian Whitney R. Cross declared, “No more impressive revival has occurred in American history.... But the exceptional feature was the phenomenal dignity of this awakening."

The Third Great Awakening of 1857-1859 was noted by the secular newspapers for its quiet orderliness everywhere, while through it more than a million converts were added to the churches!

In spite of the fanaticism that may arise and be used by some in attempts to discredit awakenings, it is surprising how many have not been accompanied by emotional excesses. The majority of awakenings in America—and elsewhere—have been accompanied by great orderliness and a profound, majestic sincerity. Our heritage is a testimony to the working of God’s Spirit through spiritual awakenings; we can be thankful of how God has worked in our midst.

And we should continue to pray that God will send awakening.

By the Editors

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #23 in 1989]

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