What can revival teach us about the renewal of the church?

Dr Ian Randall has had a long interest in questions around spirituality, evangelical identity, and revival. He has just published a fascinating Grove booklet on Revival: learning from history in the Spirituality series. I was able to ask him about the booklet, and his reflections arising from his study of revival.

IP: There often seems to be a rather stark contrast between ‘revival’ and the continuing (often ‘mundane’) ministry and work of the local church. Why did you write this booklet, and why do you think ‘revival’ is an important thing to think about within Christian spirituality?

IR: I think the contrast is over-drawn. I suggest in the Grove booklet that we can think of a period of revival as a time when there is a heightened experience of what goes on all the time in local churches. This thinking is not original to me! I am following Brian Edwards who sees all the elements of revival as normally present in the life of the church. The members of local churches are (for example) engaged in praying, seeking Christian growth, worshipping—which includes preaching, singing and other elements—witnessing, and caring.

When this is happening I would not want to use the word ‘mundane’! This is God’s work. And in revival these elements are heightened and intensified. There is new life and power. The ongoing impact I see as renewal. There are ‘old things with new life’. I haven’t lived through revivals on the scale of the one I describe in the booklet, but I consider that in the 1980s, when I was taking up ministerial leadership, many churches were experiencing this life and growth. 

IP: Of all the revivals there have been, you have chosen to reflect on the lesser known Revival of the mid-nineteenth century. Why choose this one?

IR: I like to look out for people and events in the history of the church that are less well known—perhaps completely forgotten. In this case I’ve looked at a revival that has largely dropped out of view but which had an enormous and ongoing impact and I think we can learn from it. 

IP: Not surprisingly, you first reflect on the role of prayer. But you appear to argue that prayer in the Revival was in continuity rather than in contrast with ‘ordinary’ prayer in the churches. Why is that important?

IR: I think it’s important because to me there is a virtuous circle in prayer. We can meet for prayer and there can be a sense of God’s power which can then lead us into new initiatives in ministry and mission. This takes us back to prayer and perhaps to more significant extension of God’s kingdom.

There is discussion of whether we start with prayer and revival comes, or whether prayer itself can be a sign of revival. Both seem to me to be valid and both call us to prayer. So, maybe we go for ‘ordinary’ prayer, knowing that there is power in the ordinary, but always open to the extraordinary.  

IP: Revivals are often thought of as movements of ordinary people, which overturn existing hierarchies—yet you point out the important role of leaders and preachers. Does that have implications for how we think about leadership now?

IR: It is true that there are examples in the study I’ve offered of ordinary people being significant, for example in Ireland. That’s good to bear in mind. However, since I wrote the booklet, I’ve been doing some further research on what happened in Ireland and it’s clear to me that the background to a large extent was the preaching that had been taking place by the ministers of the churches, especially within Presbyterianism, which was the denomination most affected by the revival. Here’s a bit of my new research—not yet published! 

In 1859, an investigator from England, William Jeffery, was invited by Robert Carson, minister of the Baptist Church in Tobermore, in the north of Ireland, to interview converts from the revival. The interviews were mainly with those attached to Presbyterian churches. Each was asked by Jeffery about their beliefs, for example regarding the work of Christ and the person of the Holy Spirit, as well as what had happened in their experience. Most were young people, married and single, and they were able to speak with some confidence about doctrinal issues. Jeffery in his book about his interviews referred to ‘the knowledge the converts have suddenly and assuredly inherited’, but what is more likely is that the ‘knowledge’ had been acquired over time, mostly by listening to preaching. 

In some cases, knowledge was more limited, such as one man reckoned to be one of the ‘roughest’ in the locality, who was converted through a dream. Another man, who was blind, was a ‘fiddler at every dancing and drinking scene in the district’. His conversion had taken place eight weeks before the interview. In every instance a time of conversion was stated. Just to add a piece of interest for those in England who would be reading what he wrote, Jeffery asked interviewees if they had a message for England and the common response was along these lines: ‘I’d like them to put their trust in the Saviour’. The conversations were included in a small book by Jeffery, with the message for England being taken back by him. He had sought, as he put it, ‘to bring readers within the heart breathings of the newly awakened’.

 To add to this point, one of the others more recent discoveries I’ve made: in 1858, before the revival began, William Magill, the minister of a growing Presbyterian congregation in Cork, which led to a new and larger building, Trinity Church. argued that Presbyterianism needed revival. A revival was needed, he said, to deal with the social problems of the time. Magill made this a major point, asserting: ‘The moral evils of society are so great and so patent as to demand the instant attention of the friends of the Gospel.’ He named drunkenness, covetousness, extravagance, religious scepticism and vice as signalling ‘a general dearth of vital religion’ and ‘the necessity of a revival’. So for me this points to the role of ministers being of great significance.

IP: You also make a very surprising connection with a growth of interest in theology, study and training. Despite training there and being on the staff, I had not realised that St John’s College, Nottingham, grew out of the Revival! Why do we need to take this important connection seriously?

IR: I think it’s really important. I was in theological teaching and training for a couple of decades and I’ve had experience of how the time of preparation for later ministry can have profound shaping effects. I need to go to Ireland again for my example!

The revival had a significant impact on theological students in Ireland. The numbers in training for Presbyterian ministry increased from 64 in 1858 to 125 in 1861, and continued to increase. While some students were wary of aspects of the revival—one, J.B. Armour, spoke of the use of the penitent’s form in a Presbyterian church as ‘very far from right’!—nonetheless William Gibson, whom I quote as a major commentator, wrote:

Among those engaged, in the course of the summer of 1859, in the advancement of the work of God, were many young men in course of preparation for the ministry. A goodly number of these were themselves quickened into newness of life.

Dedication to the work of the revival had an effect on their attitude to their studies. Gibson noted that when the period arrived for awards being given for performance in degrees and other literary and scientific honours annually awarded by Queen’s University, Belfast, ‘several of the undergraduates were found to have withdrawn for the time from the competition’. This lessening of the competitive spirit was noted publicly by the Vice-Chancellor of the University.

Gibson’s perspective was not in doubt: for him the experience the students acquired within the few months in which they were involved in the awakening ‘gave them a profounder insight into the mode of dealing with individual souls than they could have attained by whole years of academic training’. I think the contrast he makes is over-drawn! We can have the spiritual and the academic working together.

IP: In the booklet, you include a striking reflection on the role of women as preachers and evangelists—and the Revival shaped the Booths’ approach to ministry and established the equal leadership of women in the Salvation Army. Why do you think this is a feature of revival?

IR: I think revival opens up a new space. I’m also working just now on aspects of the work of a Society in the nineteenth century with the memorable name the Society for the Promotion of Female Education in the East. It was an interdenominational evangelical mission to China, India and other places. I’m looking at Baptist mission in a part of India in which the Baptist women who were involved in teaching did so in cooperation with this Society.

How this links with the revival of the 1859 period is that more women were motivated for mission and it made leaders in the churches at home thinking about what was being done at home when so much was being done by women overseas. One influential Baptist leader in England, John Clifford, wrote in 1880 that it was in times when Baptists lost ‘much of their glowing fervour, daring enthusiasm, and impulsive ardour’ that ‘male monopoly of the pulpit’ held sway! But he was sure that ‘when the church of Christ understands its opportunity, it will increase by a thousandfold the spiritual activities of Christian women’.

 IP: In summary, what do you think reflection on the Revival (and other revivals) can tell us about the situation of ministry and mission that we are now in? How might it foster a sense of ongoing renewal?

IR: One thing I think can be powerful is to give more space to testimony. That is clearly only one aspect of a time of revival, but it was a prominent feature of the 1859 revival. I’m struck by the way—Ireland again!—Robert Knox, the Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore, invited all the clergy in his Diocese to a breakfast to discuss how to give appropriate pastoral guidance within the context of the emotion and phenomena that were sometimes features that accompanied the revival. It was at the same time an opportunity for the clergy to say what was going on.

It was a time of testimony! The incumbent of Trinity Episcopal Church, Belfast, who I quote, Theophilus Campbell, said that in the case of most of those who professed conversion the emotions shown were natural—tears and some shaking. Campbell saw many changed lives in his parish. In Lurgan, the huge growth in the Church of Ireland congregation during the revival led to the building of a new church, opened in 1863—Christ the Redeemer. I only discovered this on a visit to Ireland last month.

When Bishop Knox asked his clergy in 1860 for their assessment of the effect of the revival in their parishes, out of about 70 parishes 51 reported on a marked improvement in spiritual life and attendance at services. In the remainder, clergy generally reported some improvement, while a few saw no change or were negative about results. And along with encouraging up to date testimonies I would, of course, encourage reading about revival of the past! This is not to say that what happened in the past will be the same today, but we can, I believe, learn important lessons from the stories of the acts of the Holy Spirit through history. 

IP: Thank you for these fascinating reflections!

Dr Ian Randall is a Senior Research Associate of the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide and is the author of a number of books, most recently Georgina Gollock (1861-1940): Pioneering Female Missiologist  (CCCW, 2023), and the Grove booklet Revival: learning from history.

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25 thoughts on “What can revival teach us about the renewal of the church?”

  1. ‘New Life For All’ was an evangelistic programme running across Plateau and Benue provinces, Northern Nigeria, uniting different denominations, based on 1,000’s of prayer meetings. I saw it in 1964, having the privilege of being allowed as a student teacher at Gindiri. Then for six years as a Durham student (St Johns and Cranmer Hall), praying with other students and college staff, that Billy Graham would come to the North-East to unite its many dwindling churches in evangelism. Then as a Newcastle curate, praying the same with church leaders there. Then as vicar of Newbottle, a Durham mining village, became one of the North-East directors of Mission:England, our parish office co-ordinating with 600+ local churches, offering evangelism training as part of the 1982-1985 programme. Ronny Bowlby as bishop of Newcastle, and John Hapgood bishop of Durham supported curates Tony Adamson and Kerry Thorpe to go half-time as trainers, Charles Marnham later joining them from York after John Hapgood became Archbishop.

    Dr Graham said on several occasions, he was only the coagulant. Sadly the arrival of David Jenkins as the new bishop of Durham (a good pastor, good at challenging sloppy theology, but hopeless at front-line evangelism) a few months before the 1984 Roker Park meetings meant that Durham Anglicans congregations were less enthusiastic than they could have been. Many Free churches and a few R.C. churches owe subsequent ‘New Life’ to Mission:England.

    Revival? Maybe not, but certainly renewal.

  2. The Welsh Revival of 1859 began with child miners coming up out of the lead mines at Y Fan outside Llanidloes to eat their lunch and then pray together. The results were startling and nationwide, not least in reviving the Church of England in Wales. Wales needs another revival right now!

  3. Revival can happen in any congregation that is led well by holy men, and spill out from there. But I am expecting no large-scale revival of the sort seen at times in the 18th and 19th centuries. Rather there will be, in our land, a revival in quality than quantity, triggered by persecution in the coming decades.

  4. “The revival will come out of the brokenness, and not before. The true word of the Lord is to prepare the people for the days of darkness that are coming, that at least the remnant may be able to withstand the testing days and to take a firm stand against deception or compromise with the truth”. Dr Clifford Hill.
    See //prophecytoday.uk/comment/church-issues/item/2507-an-issachar-people.html

  5. I once heard a tape recording of Duncan Campbell on the Hebridean Revival
    He asked God “How did all this start”? Eventually he called at a cottage on entering he saw an old man rising to his feet,
    He noticed before the fire a full length indentation in the shape of a man.
    He also came across two elderly ladies in a village where it was reported that often in several houses lights burned all night.
    These are the overcomers, the Israel of God, princes, like Jacob who wrestled all night and would not let go until God blessed them.
    ISAIAH 62:6 I have set watchmen upon thy walls, O Jerusalem, which shall never hold their peace day nor night: ye that make mention of the LORD, keep not silence.
    62:7 And give him no rest, till he establish, and till he make Jerusalem a praise in the earth.

    • I’m genuinely not sure if it was a revival or not. The revivals in the past have caused a great many people to come to faith, Ashbury certainly was a great outpouring of the spirit, but did it lead to (m)any new Christians?

      It also only lasted about two weeks, rather than over a sustained period.

      A few years back there were reports of thousands of people becoming Christians in Reading. I wonder about this as well – was it genuine? Have churches tripled their numbers in Reading? Or was it just marketing?

  6. Revival is usually a movement among young people. The 18th and 19th centuries were a time (in Europe and north America) of rapid population growth with many young people in society.
    After World War 2, in England, a ‘baby boom’ lasted many years. Billy Graham’s visits in the 1950s and 1960s attracted many young people and young marrieds. In Sheffield, where I was growing up, Sheffield Youth Squash with fortnightly evangelistic meetings, Bible-teaching and missionary conventions, saw many young people candidate for world mission. Revival? We didn’t think so at the time but, looking back, maybe. Is that another feature of revival? Sometimes we only recognise it afterwards!

  7. I should have added to my comment above – Mission:England in the North-East (1982-5) was marked by its praying women. I am (thankfully) not often asked to preach in larger churches, but I do remember giving one sermon on Teesside when I went out of my way to challenge men to pray, while thanking the women for their crucial part in preparing the way, not only for Dr Graham’s preaching in Sunderland, but for the “Is my church worth joining?” and “Caring for New Christians” that our seconded young curates led over the 3-year period of Mission:England, in 600 or so churches, of which (from memory) only a quarter to a third would have been Anglican.

  8. When I see the picture up top, with the bright orange and white lights, the music group with the guitars in the background and people ‘feeling the vibes’, I’m reminded of the great revival that Aaron oversaw, described in Exodus 32, while Moses was up in the mountain. It has all the hallmarks of it.

      • steve – I can only imagine that you’ve never attended such an event. I did once, when I was in my late teens – and never again. I was fooled by the label ‘evangelical’ and I was encouraged to go along, because it was an event that was supposed to be for people of my age. I could give intellectual reasons about what was wrong with it – but they would all be ‘after the fact’ attempts to explain the horrible creepy feeling down the back of the neck – and the conviction that I was in the presence of satanic forces. It seemed to have nothing to do with ‘renewing of the mind’ and much more to do with trying to achieve the sort of trip that one associates with Californians of the 1960’s – except
        ‘Christians’ could do exactly the same thing without the drugs and alcohol that Californian hippies seemed to need. Several years later, when I watched the movie ‘Moses und Aron’, based on the opera by Schoenberg – and saw the extended scene (in the movie) depicting the revelry around the golden calf, it all clicked – and I wondered if Straub and Huillet (who did the movie) had got their ideas from a ‘Christian’ rock concert when they made the golden calf scene.

        I’ll bet that when Jehu descended on the unsuspecting Prophets of Baal, they probably answered ‘ah Jehu, you’d turn your nose up at David dancing.’

        • I was prevailed upon by a friend to watch a ‘worship service’ online a while back. When it ended, 40 minutes later, I noted that All references to Jesus has been removed and replaced by generic references to God/ Lord etc..
          That’s what made it creapy. Then when Jesus was mentioned it was , it seemed, as an endorsement/sponsor.
          But young people do feel at home in all that rock concert atmosphere. I suppose I’d have to be there to see who preaches what to make a judgement.
          The delivery can be completely off but ultimately Jesus sees the heart.
          David made a lot of sacrifices as he manically danced his way to Jerusalem. Better to be a slave girl in the procession than an ox of riteousness waiting in turn.

          • Also jock, I think there is a contrast to be made between David’s bringing the Ark home and Aaron’s Golden Calf. Aaron’s ministration pprobably started off dignified, like a high CxE service, but degraded into a ‘Rave in the Nave’ – and worse. Because it was in direct contradiction to God’s expressed wish. David’s ascent, though undignified at first was what God wanted.
            Perhaps we should all echo Davids reply “I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor.”
            Personally I would have attended Aarons bash for half an hour before finding an excuse to leave. I would have kept well away from David’s procession but glad to enjoy the fruits of his labour afterward.

          • Steve – yes – I can’t disagree with any of that.

            I’m not very surprised that Michal was disgusted with David – for reasons that had nothing to do with his dancing. Michal (as I understand it) was his first wife. She genuinely loved him helped him escape from Saul – and then, during his escapades after escaping from Saul, he took lots of other wives. He did this before Michal was taken from him and given to Palti son of Laish. I’m not at all sure that Michal would have enjoyed being a pawn in the political game, when David demanded her back (so that she could become part of his generalised harem). She was probably sick of him – and relieved at not having to see him again.

            So there is probably much more to this story than a dislike of David’s attempts at the ‘disco heave’ (the dance that Graham Garden taught Tim Brooke Taylor in the Goodies ‘Saturday Night Grease’).

          • Jock, good one! I’ve never thought of Michal being relieved not to have been on the rota! I expect David thought she would be upset. Perhaps she shed crocodile tears until he was out of his sight. Perhaps the modern equivalent would be the Anglican Christian who is defrocked by the bishops. Lots of public tears. Oh the shame! barred from endless meaningless mumbo jumbo. Then a quiet, peaceful life amongst like minded believers.
            Doh. I was going to rest for Lent.

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