The theme for for this year in New Covenant Presbytery is revivalism. For many persons, Presbyterian revivalism appears to be an oxymoron. The two words don’t seem to go together. And yet, historically, at least in this country Presbyterians have been at the center of most revival movements.
From the Dutch Reformed revivals in New York in the 1720s to Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening in the 1730s in Massachusetts to the revivals in the 1740s in the Middle Colonies with the Presbyterian family of the Tennents (Gilbert, John, and William) to the Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s, beginning around 1800 with Timothy Dwight (grandson of Jonathan Edwards) at Yale University and in 1801 in Kentucky with (Presbyterian) Barton Stone and the (outdoor) Cane Ridge camp meetings to (Presbyterian) Charles Finney’s revivals in New York and Ohio in the 1820s and 1830s to what some call the Third Great Awakening that combined the revivalism of Dwight L. Moody with the Social Gospel (Walter Rauschenbusch), Presbyterians have been involved with one and all.
Such involvement continued in the 20th century with such characters as Billy Sunday, a Presbyterian and a former professional baseball player. While Sunday’s conversion took place in the 1880s, his popularity as an evangelist in the Midwest was in the 1920s and 1930s.
Churches flourished in the 1950s, including the Presbyterian Church. Billy Graham, a Baptist, married into a Presbyterian family and became a popular revivalist preacher, though remaining a Baptist.
In spite of Presbyterian prominence in renewal and revival movements in this country, they can obviously take different forms, depending in which part of the country they occur and depending on local tradition. Daniel Baker (1791-1857), Presbyterian minister and founder of Austin College, also served as pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. While he became known as a firebrand, revivalist preacher, especially as his ministry moved westward, according to one source, he also always insisted that his sermons be closely-reasoned and filled with theological and biblical integrity. Revivalism could be achieved with the mind as much as through the heart.
As we make history today, may we be reminded that God’s Spirit moves where it will, as much through those with whom we may differ as through those with whom we agree. May we be open to the refreshing power of the Spirit and be guided by its wisdom, as we seek to be faithful to the God who has inspired and led those who have gone before us.