As a church historian, one of my favorite areas to study is the history and theology of spiritual awakenings. I’m blessed to teach courses on this topic at Southeastern Seminary. An important recent book addressing these questions is A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories that Stretch and Stir (Zondervan, 2010), co-authored by Collin Hansen and John Woodbridge.
John Woodbridge is one of the imminent historians among evangelicals, as well as a staunch defender of orthodox doctrine, particularly biblical inerrancy. Collin Hansen serves as editorial director for The Gospel Coalition. He was previously an associate editor for Christianity Today. Collin is perhaps best known for Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists (Crossway, 2008). This influential book (and the CT article that preceded it) provided the name for an important movement that has been gaining momentum for almost two decades.
Collin kindly consented to be interviewed for this blog on the topic of revival. I appreciate his helpful thoughts on the nature and history of spiritual awakenings.
Nathan Finn: Since you co-authored a book on revival, that makes you an expert. How would you define revival? Do you make a distinction between revival and spiritual awakening?
Collin Hansen: To paraphrase an American hero, Dick Winters, let me confess, “I’m not an expert, but I’ve studied in the company of experts.” Chief among them is John Woodbridge, my co-author, who originally proposed that we write about the history of revival. We do not distinguish between revival and spiritual awakening. We sought to follow the example of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Jonathan Edwards, and many others in rooting revival first in Scripture, where we see God’s people experience a fresh outpouring of the Spirit for faith and repentance from the days of Hezekiah and Josiah to the fledgling church following Pentecost. Then we trace revival historically, noting examples among the forerunners to the Reformation, the Puritans, and Scottish Presbyterians, but giving special attention to more recent events starting with the Great Awakening of the 1740s in North America. In the process we define revival as a time when the church goes about its ordinary work of worship, prayer, preaching, and evangelism with an extraordinary sense of God and greater capacity to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection for sinners.
NAF: Historians like David Bebbington and Mark Noll argue that modern evangelicalism was birthed out of the First and Second Great Awakenings. Do you agree with them?
CH: To a point, yes. No doubt we find the particular evangelical emphasis on the new birth taking shape with the preaching of George Whitefield, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards and other preachers during the Great Awakening. We see believers crossing ecclesiastical boundaries to support one another with or without sanction from church authorities. During the Second Great Awakening we see lamentable developments such as the “anxious bench,” which morphed into the practice of altar calls still prevalent in many evangelical churches today.
But I cannot say the awakenings invented evangelicalism. Rather, scholars such as W. R. Ward and Thomas Kidd have helped to see the significant continuities between modern evangelicalism and its forebears, chiefly Scots-Irish Presbyterianism, English Puritanism, and Continental Pietism. Each of these movements, of course, traces its legacy to the Protestant Reformation, as evangelicals do today. Timothy George describes the origins of evangelicalism better than anyone else, I think: “At its heart is a theological core shaped by the Trinitarian and Christological consensus of the early church, the formal and material principles of the Reformation, the missionary movement that grew out of the Great Awakening, and the new movements of the Spirit that indicate ‘surprising works of God’ are still happening today.”
NAF: Historically, the modern missions movement in the English-speaking world was a direct fruit of the Transatlantic Awakenings. Do you see revival having a similar effect in the non-Anglo world today?
CH: Absolutely. Let’s take just one example, South Korea, which now sends more missionaries to spread the gospel than any nation except the United States. The church’s formative event there was the Pyongyang revival of 1907, which we describe in the book with the help of observers such as Presbyterian missionary William Blair. Anyone familiar with Korean Christians zealous for prayer today will recognize his description of the revival more than 100 years ago: “The prayer sounded to me like the falling of many waters, an ocean of prayer beating against God’s throne. It was not many, but one, born of one Spirit, lifted to one Father above.”
Korea suffered greatly during the 20th century, enduring Japanese occupation and war between the United States and Communist forces that resulted in the present division. But the revival was a means used by God to strengthen the church for these grave days ahead and prepare his church to take the gospel to the nations.
NAF: Billy Graham, Harold John Ockenga, and even Carl Henry preached and wrote a lot about revival. Do you think the postwar New Evangelical movement in America was a revival?
CH: I do, and we include this movement in the book as an example of revival. We’ve been criticized for this, because Billy Graham’s crusades do not fit the definition of revival, as even contemporaries and friends of Graham such as J. Edwin Orr admitted. These evangelistic campaigns follow the example set by preachers such as D. L. Moody and Billy Sunday, but do not meet the criteria for a spontaneous working of the Holy Spirit as we’ve seen at other times.
That said, I do see revival in the remarkable, unexpected confluence of leaders and events that produced the new evangelical movement following the Second World War. Think of the renewal God brought to his church, which had suffered schism and the decay of liberalism during the early part of the 20th century. The leaders you mention, along with others such as Bill Bright, built so many of the schools, publications, and parachurch ministries that continue to support the evangelical cause more than half a century later.
Ockenga recognized the remarkable evangelical upsurge in the late 1940s and early 1950s as a revival. He wrote in 1950, “God is sending the revival for which his remnant all through America—the true Bible-believing Christians who never bowed the knees to the Baal and Ashtoreth of Modernism or Secularism—have been praying. God is moving as he has not moved in America at least for four decades and as he has not moved in New England for two centuries.”
NAF: Besides A God-Sized Vision, what other books would you recommend for those interested in studying the history of revival?
CH: I’ll recommend three books that have given me direction and encouragement when studying revival. Banner of Truth has compiled Jonathan Edwards’s Lectures on Revival, and there’s no one better to help you discern a genuine work of the Holy Spirit. More than two centuries later, Martyn Lloyd-Jones delivered a series of lectures on revival in honor of the 100th anniversary of the great Welsh revival of 1859. For a contemporary account I recommend Revival: A People Saturated with God by Brian H. Edwards. He treats the subject topically, examining the role of prayer, holiness, worship, evangelism, and giving in revival.
Providentially, The Gospel Coalition has been talking a lot about revival in recent days. Be sure to check out “Lord, Do it Again,” which is a video conversation between Collin, Tim Keller, and Nancy Leigh DeMoss. Also, take a look at “TGC Asks: Why Do You Ask God to Send Revival?” In the latter post, Collin asks several pastors to weigh in on this important question.