What is Revival?

By Thomas Williamson
3131 S. Archer Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60608

If you talk to 10 different Christians, you will get 10 different definitions of revival.
In the minds of some, revival is associated with such ecstatic manifestations as speaking in tongues, holy laughter, animal brayings, and people keeling over and being "slain in the spirit" during a church service.
Others associate revival with such commotions as ecumenical stadium rallies, faith healing meetings and Christian rock concerts. Others, of a different way of thinking, associate revival with "getting people down the aisle," obtaining quickie professions of faith, or running buses and bringing a lot of children to Sunday School.
Some see revival as being focused mainly on outreach to unbelievers, while others emphasize the need to get Christians right with God first before we can have an effective impact on the heathen.
Some seek a great end-times revival as a sign of the Second Coming. Others say that revival is "not for today" and that it is wrong to try to have revival until after the Rapture, after the Holy Spirit and all true churches and believers have been removed from the planet.
Everyone has a different agenda, and will tend to see the concept of revival in terms of whatever advances his agenda. Is it possible to develop a Bible-based theology of revival?
The word "Revival" does not appear in the King James Version of the Bible. The words "revive," "revived" and "reviving" appear on a few occasions.
Psalm 85:6 says, "Wilt thou not revive us again: that thy people may rejoice in thee?" Here we have a clue - true revival results in God's people rejoicing in Him. We have a similar concept in Nehemiah 8 where revival resulted in God's people rejoicing: "And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them." (Nehemiah 8:12).
True revival results in people experiencing God's mercy and salvation, Psalm 85:7 - "Shew us thy mercy, O LORD, and grant us thy salvation."
True revival, as recorded in the Book of Acts, results in numerical growth for the Lord's churches. When a lot of people get emotionally worked up, make professions of faith but never show up in the church, let alone become faithful members of the church, this does not qualify as scriptural revival.
Numbers are great if the Lord gives the increase, but there will be times when the faithful proclamation of the Word results, at least for a time, in a loss of numbers: "From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him [Christ]." John 6:66.
On occasion, revival may temporarily result in a decline in membership, as those who are false believers are winnowed out of the membership. The revival in Acts 5 resulted in at least 2 members lost due to premature death (Ananias and Sapphira), and as a result, "Great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things. . . . And of the rest durst no man join himself to them." (Acts 5:11, 13).
When people are affected by true revival, their lives will be changed, like Zacchaeus, who said, "Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold." (Luke 18:9). Revived folks will seek out those that they have wronged, and get things right.
True revival results in deeper Bible study and devotion to sound doctrine: "They received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so." (Acts 17:11). Revival should be based on the preserved Word of God, not on a subjective emotional feeling or the hysteria of mass movements and crowd psychology.
True revival creates an impact that will be felt in the community, beyond the walls of the church: "These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also." (Acts 17:6).
True revival is a great thing, but we are not to compromise or cut corners in order to bring about revival: "And if a man also strive for masteries, yet is he not crowned, except he strive lawfully." (2 Timothy 2:5).
True revival is for today. "Now is the accepted time: behold, now is the day of salvation." (2 Corinthians 6:2). Nowhere does the Bible say we have to wait to get into the next dispensation before we can have revival.
We must wait upon the Holy Spirit and on the sovereignty of God as we seek true revival: "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit." (John 3:8)
It is hoped that these brief, inadequate, preliminary notes on the subject of revival will give us some idea of the meaning of true revival, and will encourage us to seek revival in our congregations and personal lives.

Welsh Revival of 1859
We can get some helpful insight into the nature of revival, by reading about the great revivals of past ages. Caution must be exercised in such a historical study of revivals. Oftentimes, godly Christian ministers who were living in the midst of these past revivals were themselves not sure whether these works were of God or worthy of support, so it is difficult for us to discern, after the passage of many years, to what extent these revivals were of the Spirit as opposed to being of the flesh.
Not all doctrines or practices that came out of times of revival are to be endorsed or accepted. The Kentucky revivals of 1801 were notorious for the bizarre physical manifestations that they produced, such as jerks, faintings and animal noises. Many of the evangelists of that time were opposed to such strange practices and did what they could to suppress them.
Some revivals have emphasized and produced a spirit of ecumenical cooperation between the various denominations. While I am all in favor of brotherly love, and even a certain measure of cooperation, between truly born-again Christians of all denominations, I am not in favor of any evangelistic program that sends converts to "churches" or religious societies with significant differences in doctrine or practice, such as requirements for Christians to speak in tongues, have their infants baptized, etc.
I certainly do not endorse "crusades" or "festivals" where liberal and Roman Catholic clergymen are part of the revival committees and where converts are sent to their churches. I see no need for Baptists to devote their time and treasure to building up false churches where converts will not be taught the Word of God nor be offered scriptural baptism.
So, as we study the historic revivals of past ages, we must do so with a discerning spirit, recognizing that God works through imperfect people and imperfect congregations, and that we are not necessarily expected to adopt and imitate all the false practices and compromises that God has graciously overruled for His glory in times past.
The primary source for information on the Welsh Revival of 1859 is the book "The Welsh Revival - Its Origin and Development," written in 1860 by Thomas Phillips.
One of the points made in this book is that the Welsh Revival was not based on the popularity or forceful personality of any particular celebrity preacher. Two preachers, Humphrey Jones and David Morgan, are named as being used of God, but curiously, as of 1860, Jones had dropped out of revival work and church attendance for reasons that are not clear. No big-name preachers were involved in the revival - the work appears to be credited mainly to the prayers and labors of ordinary Christian laymen and faithful ministers, and above all, to the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit.
"It can hardly be said that this movement has any acknowledged leaders - much less can we attach to it the name of men distinguished for learning, eloquence, or eminent pulpit talents. There are such men in the principality, but the revival did not originate with them. The individuals who have been chiefly instrumental in the commencement and spread of the work amongst the various sections of the Christian Church, and throughout the various counties, have been men more distinguished for their piety, and love for God, and compassion for souls, than for high attainments and intellectual powers. This revival has had no Luther or Calvin, Whitefield or Wesley, Rowlands or Harries; and the absence of great names, while at the same time a great and mighty spiritual work has been done, will the more effectually secure the glory to Him who alone giveth the increase."
Remarks by preachers involved in the revival reveal a reliance on the Providence of God to bring about revival, as well as a concern that not all effects and practices of the revival be uncritically accepted. A Wesleyan minister wrote: "I prefer a revival coming, as it were, spontaneously from the Divine blessing attending the regular means of grace, to that produced by irregular and questionable proceedings. I dread experiments to get up a revival, and anything that tends to supersede the ordinances of God. We should certainly acknowledge the hand of God in the recent revival, as clearly displayed in the effects produced; but we should also mark for our future guidance, and for warning to others, the evils and abuses which have appeared, through the cunning of Satan and the infirmity of human nature."
The revival work was based on prayer and the preaching of God's word, not on entertainment evangelism or the development of a personality cult centered around a big-name preacher. Humphrey Jones stated, "I try to aim at two things in studying and preaching: one is, not to say anything to show off myself; another is, not to say anything to amuse the people." This is a policy that is quite a contrast to that of some modern preachers and evangelistswho warm up the crowd with a Jay Leno-style comedy routine and a lengthy string of heroics and soul-winning anecdotes designed to exalt and brag upon the preacher.
The Revival arose out of a generally positive and optimistic view of the prospects for Christian work and advance, which regarded the Kingdom of God as a present reality, not something that must await Christ's Second Coming: "While the principles of evil and selfishness in a variety of forms are more active now than at any former period in the world's history, it is very gratifying to see that God has at the same time put it into the heart of His own people to be more zealous and active in their efforts to extend His Kingdom. Every new discovery in science is pressed into this service. The DIVINE WORD, translated into nearly all languages, is now multiplied to an unprecedented extent, and with incredible rapidity circulated throughout the habitable globe."
This book emphasizes numbers, giving detailed reports on statistics of the revival. But these statistics are on the number of additions to the churches, not the number of people making professions, or "walking the aisle." In 1859 revival was seen and reported in terms of the number of people actually joining the churches.
New converts were eager not only to attend the church services and prayer meetings, but to apply for membership in the church. These days we have a lot of floaters and free spirits who, over a period of many years, choose not to settle down and join any one church. While we must be patient with such folk, we cannot regard their proliferation, in whatever numbers, as an evidence of true God-given revival.
Nowadays the ecumenical revivalists will report on fantastic numbers of people "walking the aisles" but if you inquire further, it turns out that very, very few of these folks ever become members of any kind of church. In many cases, no one, including the "converts" themselves, knows why they came forward. Sometimes they are asked to come forward in order to renew the baptismal vows made on their behalf at the time of their infant baptism. Most of the time there is no change in their manner of life, they do not join or even visit any church, and there is no evidence of salvation.
The Welsh Revival was not like that - not only were the lives of the converts visibly changed, but entire communities were changed for the better as drunkards and infidels were converted and left the taverns to spend their time in church instead.
A Welsh newspaper reported that "I have gathered from inquiry that not one person in every 50 of those who have assumed a profession of religion within the last 4 to 6 months, has relapsed into the world." These days it is often the opposite - we run evangelistic campaigns in which fewer than one in 50 who make professions of faith can be found in church one year later, and we call that "revival."
Nowadays there is little concern for the possibility of manipulating sinners into making false professions of faith. During the Welsh Revival, that was a great concern: "We have our fears lest the work should prove superficial, and that we are bringing men into the visible Church of Christ who have not been convinced of sin, and converted by the Spirit of God. Most of us, however, have lost these fears, and we cannot avoid coming to the conclusion that God is at work, saving the souls of men. We see that something awfully strong takes hold of the minds of the people. . . . they feel compelled to return again, and offer themselves as candidates for admission into the Church." That is different from today's evangelism, where sinners are induced to recite a rote prayer, and then told "see you in heaven" and not followed up on again.
The Welsh preachers were not satisfied with a mere temporary emotional stirring of interest with no measurable lasting results. "This religious movement is somewhat different from the former revivals with which Wales has been favoured. We have had no loud exhibition of feeling, but rather a strong current of inward emotions, finding vent in floods of tears. I hope it is not a transient thing, but, on the contrary, that this ‘Gad' will be followed by a ‘troop.' There is already a considerable change in the aspect of the neighborhoods where the revival has prevailed. The temperance movement gathers strength, and some of the public-houses [taverns] are gasping for breath, as though they were in the last struggle."
The Welsh Revival appears to have taken place without the need for anyone being "slain in the spirit" or similar emotionalistic hysterics. "We have no cases of physical prostration; persons are not struck to the ground here, as in Ireland and Scotland; but we have many cases of very sudden and powerful changes in those who have discovered their lost state."
There are many accounts of sinners delivered from drunkenness and other gross sins: "The village of Maentwrog . . . was notorious for drunkenness and revelry, Sabbath-breaking and swearing, etc. You could hear the school children in passing, when playing together, using the foul language learnt of their parents at home, and that often with oaths and curses; but now these children hold prayer-meetings together. Where there is a group of houses, they assemble at one of them, and hold meetings, at which they read, sing and pray together, sometimes for hours. Young men, from 15 to 20 years old, are full of fire; they often meet to pray together in private houses after the public prayer-meeting is over . . . " The ages from 15 to 20 are when most of our young people leave the fundamentalist churches today, never to be seen again. True revival would change that.
The Welsh Revival was expected to have a social impact, but the definition of "social gospel" back then was different from what it is now. Nowadays the churches are obsessed with such phony issues as global warming, sanctuary for illegal aliens, and increased welfare spending for the lazy. But the Welsh saw social impact in totally different terms: "If the revival now in the country is of God, it will be followed by such effects as will prove it such; the public-houses will become less numerous than our chapels; the debts remaining on our places of worship will be wiped away; and day-schools will be established to instruct the ignorant. In a word, if it is a religious revival, it will also be a social revival."
Finally, the Welsh Revival produced a spirit of harmony among Christians, and an end to "Worship Wars." "The old hymns are more appreciated than ever, and some of the anthems and tunes recently introduced are put aside for the present, in order to give place to such as can be used by the whole congregation."