Last month, I suggested that perhaps the best thing that could happen to our beleaguered, divided country would be for it to be swept by a great religious revival.
I was surprised by the responses from readers, although I shouldn’t have been.
Some folks, including those identifying themselves as already Christians, seemed not just to disagree with my suggestion, but horrified by it.
I’d thought all sorts of people, churchgoers or not, might embrace my idea. After thinking about the responses, I realized those who disagreed had in mind a very different concept of “revival” than I did.
As often is the case, a word can mean different things to different people.
For some readers, a revival called up images of a dangerous outbreak of fervor, legalism and militancy that might culminate in the persecution of those not caught up in it and in attempts to establish a theocracy. It could become piety run amok.
Which, after I considered it, wasn’t an unreasonable fear.
However, that’s not the kind of revival I envisioned.
What I had in mind was a revival characterized by heartfelt, life-changing conversions that — metaphorically speaking — could open blind eyes and set captives free.
Whether they happen individually or en masse, true conversions don’t generally lead to hatred, legalism and armed conflict. They release people from such chains into a fervor born instead of joy, mercy and love for their neighbors.
No revival is perfect, I know, because the humans involved aren’t perfect, but you see frequent manifestations of such salutary effects in the certain historic revivals, including the First and Second Great Awakenings and the Pentecostal-charismatic revival during which my own faith was resurrected 40-odd years ago.
One of my favorite conversion stories didn’t happen as part of a mass revival, but it illustrates the type of life-change I was thinking of when I wrote my column.
John Newton, the 18th century English minister who wrote the lyrics of “Amazing Grace,” was born in 1725 to a devout mother and a harsh shipmaster father.
Newton was taken to sea as a boy by his dad, who brutalized him to make him tough and competent.
Young Newton possessed a keen mind and read widely. He became an atheist.
While in his late teens, he was kidnapped from a dock and pressed into service on a nearby warship.
After he tried to escape, he was paraded in chains, then spread-eagled before his shipmates and flogged so severely that one of the marines watching the beating fainted.
He survived but considered himself “degraded.” He alternated between thoughts of suicide and fantasies of murdering his captain.
Later, he transferred to a slave ship to begin a new career — transporting enslaved humans across the oceans. Next, he became a mate on another slave ship, the Greyhound. Ultimately, he would serve as captain of a slave ship.
But while he was still on the Greyhound, two things happened.
First, he picked up a copy of Thomas a Kempis’ classic, “The Imitation of Christ.” It led him to question his atheism.
Second, in March 1748, the Greyhound was caught in devastating storm. Everyone aboard was sure the ship would sink.
In terror Newton prayed, “O God, the God of my mother, have mercy on me!”
Somehow, the battered Greyhound endured. Newton would never be quite the same.
His soul had shifted.
His transformation was gradual. He continued in the slave trade even as he started to study the Bible, pray and grow spiritually.
Slowly, he awakened to the cruelty of human bondage. He left the business.
At 39, he was ordained a priest in the Church of England.
Newton originally wrote “Amazing Grace” as a poem for his rural congregation.
Its verses weren’t idle rhymes, but autobiography: “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found, t’was blind but now I see.”
That’s by no means the end, or even the highlight, of Newton’s story.
Eventually he became a rector in London. A wealthy playboy, gambler and member of Parliament named William Wilberforce fell under his influence.
After two years of counseling from Newton, Wilberforce converted to Christianity. He took up what would be a long fight in the House of Commons against slavery.
To help, Newton wrote “Thoughts on the Slave Trade” and testified before the Privy Council.
Due to Wilberforce’s efforts, Parliament abolished the slave trade in March 1807, just months before Newton died. Slavery was abolished throughout the empire by 1833.
Having been converted, Newton — formerly a slave-ship officer — became instrumental in liberating the whole British Empire from slavery’s scourge.
That’s the sort of personal and cultural change one genuine conversion can create.
A mass revival can multiply those effects by 1,000 or 1 million. It can turn hate into love, injustice into justice. It can change societies.
The Second Great Awakening, for example, inspired countless Americans to oppose slavery, build orphanages, reform prisons and help the poor.
Revivals revive. They soften souls grown callous and cynical. They often prompt the revived to reach out in compassion to others less fortunate.
That’s what I had in mind when I suggested America could use a good revival.