In calling for a spiritual revival in America at his Lincoln Memorial rally Aug. 28, talk show host Glenn Beck reached back into history and touched on a familiar theme.
What would a genuine revival look like and how did those that have transformed America several times in the past get started? Earlier revivals were not created from the mobilization of large crowds. They occurred when people did something infrequently observed in modern times: humbled themselves.
Depending on how you count them there have been at least three "great awakenings" in American history. All of them---along with revivals in other countries---had one thing in common. They all began with what the late revival historian J. Edwin Orr called "a concert of prayer."
The 1857 revival is instructive. It began when two men working on Wall Street decided to meet once a week on their lunch hour to pray for revival. They soon decided to meet daily. They did not issue a press release. Other men soon joined them. The group grew so large they started meeting at night in churches and invited their wives to participate.
Revival came like a brush fire, exploding not only in New York City, but also up the Mohawk River and down the Hudson, into Appalachia. According to Revival-Library.org, from February to June 1858, "around 50,000 people a week were added to the church---in a nation whose population was only 30,000,000. Across the Atlantic another million were won to Christ by 1865. . . . Ulster saw 100,000 converted, Scotland 30,000, Wales 100,000 and England 500,000."
Besides prayer, another characteristic of the 1857 revival and all other revivals was genuine repentance and a confession of personal guilt before a holy God. Anyone familiar with the Old and New Testaments knows that humbling one's self before God gets His attention faster than any earthly pursuit or agenda.
Modern evangelicals, so preoccupied with who is in the White House or which party controls Congress, might benefit from studying the results of the revivals. As Orr tells it, not only did the 1857 revival have a profound social impact on America, it also dramatically affected every society it reached. Following the revival of 1905, crime virtually disappeared in London. The police had little to do, so they formed quartets and sang at the revival meetings.
A Chicago shoe salesman named Dwight L. Moody wanted to teach Sunday school at a local church, but was told by its superintendent that the church already had 16 teachers too many. The superintendent instructed Moody to "get some boys off the street" and "take them to the country. . . . They will be your class." That was the beginning of a ministry and missionary work that lasted 40 years.
Revivals don't ratify the earthly aspirations of humanity, including selfish political agendas. They are about glorifying God. Too many modern Christians have it backward. In a real revival the Lincoln Memorial event would have been a result, not an attempt to cause a revival. People would have assembled who had already repented in private. They would not have bemoaned a decline in American "morality," but instead have fallen on their knees (or faces) and cried out in genuine repentance and humility.
On his blog, Dr. Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., writes: "Too often, and for too long, American 'Christianity' has been a political agenda in search of a gospel useful enough to accommodate it. There is a liberation theology of the Left, and there is also a liberation theology of the Right, and both are at the heart mammon worship. . . ."
What passes for American Christianity today is increasingly counterfeit. It appears more focused on a transient earthly kingdom, rather than a heavenly eternal kingdom. That is idolatry and violates the First Commandment: "Thou shall have no other gods before me."
When Christians obey that Commandment, and humble themselves, only then might revival follow.
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