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The Problem with Revivalism

Everyone has a mental image of the revivalist. For most, it is probably an annoying man with a polyester suit, slick hair, an auctioneer’s cadence, and an incessant sales pitch. Christians should long for and pray for genuine Biblical revival, but they should also be highly suspicious of modern revivalism.

  • Roger Schultz,
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Everyone has a mental image of the revivalist. For most, it is probably an annoying man with a polyester suit, slick hair, an auctioneer’s cadence, and an incessant sales pitch. Christians should long for and pray for genuine Biblical revival, but they should also be highly suspicious of modern revivalism.

In his excellent study, Revival and Revivalism, Ian Murray distinguishes between these two phenomena. Revivals were seasons of God-sent renewals of true religion. (Elsewhere, in The Puritan Hope, Murray shows the close connection between true revivals, theological orthodoxy, foreign missions, and an optimistic Biblical eschatology. This excellent book is especially useful for those interested in eschatology.)

Revivalism, on the other hand, was a man-engineered, technique-driven and numbers-focused approach to religion, emphasizing manipulation and emotionalism. Revivalism emerged during the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s and had a major impact on the theology and practice of American evangelicalism.1

The Second Awakening

The Second Awakening was a powerful religious movement during the first half of the 19th century. Evangelical denominations — especially Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian — grew rapidly. The Awakening impacted colleges, such as Yale, and the western frontier. It spawned new denominations (e.g., the Cumberland Presbyterians, who liked “camp meetings” but not the doctrine of election) and encouraged new revival techniques. Para-church evangelical movements sprang up, supporting missions, Bible publications, and Sunday Schools. The Awakening also inspired evangelical reform movements that stressed health, temperance, and education. The dynamic era even witnessed the rise of new cults (e.g., Mormons and Shakers) and wild millennial speculations (the Millerites).

Most important was a shift in America’s theology. The preaching of the First Great Awakening (of the 1740s) was Calvinistic. The theology of the Second Awakening was increasingly antagonistic to Calvinism, and stressed Arminianism and the autonomy of the human will. Some theologians even careened into Pelagianism, denying Original Sin and human depravity. “Sin is in the sinning,” Yale’s Nathaniel Taylor taught, assaulting a Scriptural and Augustinian anthropology.2

Anthopology (the doctrine of man) is invariably linked to soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). Pelagian and Semi-pelagian teaching lead inevitably to a man-centered view of salvation. Salvation wasn’t a miracle, for instance, according to Charles G. Finney; it was simply the right use of constituted means. The trick for the revivalist was to apply the best techniques for prompting changes (or what appeared to be changes) of the will. As one historian observes, “[R]evivals came to be understood less as the mighty acts of God than as the achievement of preachers who won the consent of sinners.”3

Finney’s Altar Call

Charles Finney (1792-1875) best represents the theological and pragmatic shift of the Second Awakening. A renegade Presbyterian of dubious orthodoxy, Finney pioneered “new measures” — evangelistic devices such as the “anxious bench” and “altar call” to encourage decisions. Finney deliberately sought to stimulate emotions, to excite the will, and to prompt action: “He believed that all that was needed for conversion was a resolution signified by standing, kneeling, or coming forward, and because the Holy Spirit always acts when a sinner acts, the public resolution could be treated as ‘identical with the miraculous inward change of sudden conversion.’”4

Finney-style decisionalism often employed manipulative and behaviouristic techniques. Jack Hyles, a modern fundamentalist Baptist, once discouraged using organs for altar calls, saying they would lull the will into inactivity. Always use a piano, he urged, since its sharper notes were more likely to produce decisions. Hyles even had tips for the timing of invitations. Because unsaved people knew that the altar call was coming at the end of the worship service, and could harden themselves against the gospel, he recommended that the invitation be slipped into the middle of the sermon. This way the unregenerate wouldn’t have time to resist. Even consistent Arminians should object to using stealth and trickery to dupe people into doing what they really don’t want to do.

I recently heard an evangelistic message that raised the bar for gimmickry. The evangelist had a thrilling testimony, one that left me brushing away tears. (But he never used the Bible, which is always a bad sign.) For the invitation, the evangelist insisted that he did not want people to come forward. Rather, he wanted them to make a decision in the “quietness of their hearts.” Later, he asked all who had made decisions to “simply stand up.” A little while later, he directed all those who had stood up “just to come forward.” Had he been consulted about his deceitful methodology, the evangelist would probably argue that he was simply breaking down personal barriers and eliminating silly internal resistance to the gospel. To me, it seemed like a sneaky way of building up to an altar call. The Holy Spirit doesn’t need gimmicks.5

In The Feminization of American Culture, Ann Douglas explains the momentous change in America’s theological climate in the 19 th century, as doctrine and theology gave way to sentimentality, emotionalism, and numbers. A rigorous and doctrinal Calvinism had been the basic American theological paradigm until roughly 1820. In 1800, she writes, the average Protestant “subscribed to a rather complicated and rigidly defined body of dogma; attendance at a certain church had a marked theological function.” By 1875, Protestants had become a-theological, defining their faith “in terms of family morals, civic responsibility, and above all… the social function of church going.”

Most significantly, churches “shifted their emphasis from a primary concern with the doctrinal beliefs of their members to a preoccupation with numbers.”6 Numbers replaced genuine spiritual concern — and so it usually goes in Finneyistic churches.

Genuine Revival

What we need, now more than ever, is genuine Biblical revival, based on solid Biblical teaching. John Carrick notes that some 50,000 people were converted in the First Great Awakening, or roughly one fifth of the population. Were a comparable revival to come today, he notes, it would mean that “50 million people would press into the kingdom of God.”7 Now there is something to pray for! But such a God-sent revival should be pursued only through the forms of evangelism taught in Scripture.

I don’t deny that sinners are brought to saving faith in revivalistic meetings. My wife’s family came to Christ through such an outreach, and no doubt through layers of technique the gospel is often preached and heard.

My point is this: modern revivalism rests upon a shaky theological foundation. The church would be better served with theologically sound and Biblical methods of evangelism and earnest prayers that the sovereign God would bring true revival in His perfect timing.


1. Ian Murray, Revival and Revivalism: The Making and Marring of American Evangelism, 1750-1858 (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth, 1994) and The Puritan Hope: Revival and the Interpretation of Prophecy (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1971). For a good, recent overview of the history of revivals in America, see Kenneth Hardman, Seasons of Refreshing: Evangelism and Revivals in America (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994). And for a Reformed perspective dealing with theology and touching on revivals, see Joel Beeke, Puritan Reformed Spirituality ( Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2004); this excellent book has been available free of charge from

2. Joel Beeke notes that “[M]odern evangelism, dating in North America from Charles Finney, does not strive to bring sinners to repentance, partly because of its defective, Pelagian view of man and sin.” See his Puritan Reformed Spirituality, 152.

3. Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (N.Y.: Image, 1975),
I: 509-510.

4. Murray, Revival and Revivalism, 250.

5. Some revivalists would stop at nothing to get the external response. Early in his career, shortly after his conversion, Harry Rimmer (1890-1952) served in a rescue mission in San Francisco. (Rimmer was later an influential Presbyterian minister and a pioneering creationist.) Noting that some people would just not go forward, he decided to try a novel approach. He stationed himself next to a struggling alcoholic. When the invitation was given, Rimmer put his hand on the drunk’s shoulder and said, “Brother, wouldn’t you like to go forward?” Straightening his arm, he pushed the man into the aisle, and stepped out beside him. The surprised man felt silly about being in the aisle; he decided to go forward with the young revivalist. It was an unorthodox method, Rimmer recalled, “but it worked!”

6. Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (N.Y.: Avon, 1977), 5-6.

7. John Carrick, Jonathan Edwards and the Theology of Revival (1997), 22.

  • Roger Schultz

Dr. Roger Schultz is Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Liberty University.  He previously served as Chair of the History Department at Liberty and has taught at Virginia Intermont College, the University of Arkansas, and Oak Hills Christian College. He is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.  He holds degrees from Bemidji State University (B.A.), Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (M.A.), and the University of Arkansas (Ph.D.)

His specialty is American religious history.  His essays and reviews have appeared in numerous publications and have been translated into Hungarian and Spanish.  Dr. Schultz frequently preaches in local churches and speaks at academic and Christian conferences.  The Schultzes have nine children.

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