Never underestimate the power of a religious revival to transform individual lives, troubled subcultures or whole societies.
Maybe that’s what our battered, divided, hate-steeped nation needs now — a large-scale spiritual reawakening. Don’t laugh. It’s happened here before. Past revivals reconfigured our nation and the world.
The results have been mixed, I’ll admit, but generally far more good than bad.
On July 31, the Washington Post published online a striking photo essay about on ongoing Christian revival that’s occurring in El Salvador’s prisons.
In El Salvador, thousands have been killed in gang-related violence.
But in the country’s jails, a dramatic Christian revival is taking place.
For instance, in just two years, 1,500 affiliates of the violent 18th Street gang housed in a jail in La Gotera have converted to evangelical Christianity. They’ve found what the Post called “solace” in the gospel. The conversions appear to be heartfelt.
Prisoners are praying, singing, studying the Bible and having their gang tattoos erased. They’ve renounced crime. Some have become preachers themselves.
“For me, the contrast between the past lives they had and this current devotion is something incredible that I am still trying to understand,” said photographer Nadege Mazars, who took the photographs and has made multiple trips to El Salvador to study these ongoing conversions.
Over 20 years ago, I researched the history of Christian revivals. I wrote two or three lengthy stories for the Herald-Leader on famous revivals and, if memory serves me, several columns as well. I thought about turning my findings into a book, but never did.
Revivals are fascinating, even if you’re an eye-roller rather than a holy roller, which is to say more of a skeptic than a believer.
A revival — the kind I’m speaking of — is a widespread reawakening of faith, of service to God and of concern for fellow humans. Some revivals have led to dramatic social reforms. (Sadly, they’ve occasionally also led to wars or discrimination.)
Each outbreak of renewed fervor is different, but often the great revivals have broken out more-or-less spontaneously, rather than as the result of specific planning or organization. They tend to occur during periods of cultural transition and upheaval.
This isn’t just a Christian phenomenon. Other faiths experience revivals, too. But in Europe and the United States, all the big revivals have been Christian ones, probably because Christianity already was the dominant religion.
America has been the site of several seminal revivals.
The First and Second Great Awakenings, which began in the 1730s and 1790s, respectively, swept the land in two tsunami waves, upending our history and converting a rollicking, profane wilderness culture into one of the more religious nations on Earth.
The First Great Awakening started in England, but quickly spread to the colonies.
With its emphasis on dramatic conversions, personal piety and individual freedoms of conscience and church affiliation, it led directly to the American Revolution, some historians argue.
Colonists who’d been set free by the thousands to worship — or not worship — the God of their choice found it intolerable to bow down anymore to an English king and the authoritarian Anglican church, or to hidebound traditions in general.
The First Awakening also brought Christianity to large numbers of enslaved people.
The Second Great Awakening included the landmark 1801 Cane Ridge camp meeting in Bourbon County. Evangelical churches in the United States exploded in membership, particularly in the South, where fiery Baptists and Methodists, and to a lesser extent Presbyterians, shaped the religious culture for the next 200 years.
Various branches of the Christian Church were created out of this awakening, too, as were missionary societies, social agencies, abolitionist organizations — and what’s now called the Bible Belt.
In 1906, the Azusa Street Revival erupted in a decrepit Los Angeles house-church, then moved to a stable. It marked the reintroduction to Pentecostal worship to the modern church — healing, prophecy, speaking in tongues.
Led by a one-eyed black preacher, William J. Seymour, the Pentecostal revival soon drew thousands of worshipers of all ages, races, genders and regional backgrounds, including white Southerners who sat happily at Seymour’s feet. Women preached. Children preached. At least at the outset, the revival was extraordinarily egalitarian.
Pentecostalism soon spread across the country and around the globe.
In the mid-20th century, this initial Pentecostalism gave rise to the charismatic movement, a second-wave Pentecostal revival among evangelical, mainline Protestant and Catholic congregations.
By 1995, when Harvard Divinity School’s renowned scholar Harvey Cox published his study of Pentecostalism, “Fire from Heaven,” he estimated there were 500 million Pentecostals around the globe, making Pentecostalism the second-largest branch of Christianity next to the Roman Catholic Church, and the fast-growing faith in the world.
It’s true that major revivals are frightening and occasionally dangerous. They upend the accepted order, particularly within churches. Whenever large numbers of human beings become freshly zealous for their faith, mayhem could ensue.
That said, the salutary effects of Christian revivals nearly always have outweighed the problems.
Far more often than not, history shows, revived Christians have become loving Christians, law-abiding Christians, socially concerned Christians, tolerant Christians, united Christians. Just consider what’s happening today to those gang members in the jails of El Salvador.
Given the divisiveness, and often the pure old meanness, of what passes for Christianity in our land right now, I can’t imagine a greater gift from God than that a fresh wind of revival spirit would blow through our churches.