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1973 Year of Total Evangelism

Introduction by Bonnie Dwyer / Article by Jonathan Butler

“Revivals happen every generation or so in the United States,” wrote Jonathan Butler, “whether the Jesus people know it or not. Revivalism is as American as baseball.”

It is good to be reminded of the origins of some Adventist evangelism practices during a year which the Adventist Church declares to be a Year of Total Evangelism, be it 1973—or 2009, when congregations in some conferences are now being encouraged to host not just one evangelism campaign, but two during the church year. With two evangelism efforts in every church, can a revival be far behind?

Butler takes readers clear back to the 1700s and the days of Jonathan Edwards when miracles happened and Edwards was surprised by them, and then on through the 18 and 1900’s and the likes of Dwight L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham.

He evaluates Adventism’s indebtedness to modern revivalism in terms of liturgy and polity, as well as the effect of revivalism on theology.

And how did 1973, the Year of Total Evangelism turn out? Baptisms worldwide for the Adventist Church did go up from 191,883 in 1971 to 215,354 in 1973, and 223,890 in 1974. In the North American Division, however, there was a slight drop between ’72 and ’73 from 29,953 to 29,835. In ’74 the number was up to 31,471.

Be sure to stay with Butler to the end. He includes some surprising material from Ellen White and her criticisms of revivalism. He is very even handed in noting how “true revival and its counterfeit may reside under the same big tent.”

In addition to this excellent history article from Butler, there are other interesting topics to explore in the Volume Five issues in the Archives. Another parallel between 1973 and 2009, is the significance of the discussion about money in the church. Wilfred M. Hillock looks at “Support of the Gospel Ministry” in Vol. 5, No. 4. Former General Conference Treasurer Robert E. Osborn weighs in on “Investment Practices of the General Conference” in Vol. 5, No. 2; as do Thomas Dybdahl and Jere Chapman in their piece in the same issue on “Stewardship and Securities.”

Seventh-day Adventism’s Legacy of Modern Revivalism

From Spectrum Spring 1973 Vol. 5, No. 1


[This discussion of revivalism is based on two presentations of the topic: one given at Walla Walla College, October 27-28, 1972, for the Missionary Volunteer weekend, and the other at Andrews University, February 7, 1973, for the Society of Andrews Scholars. EDITOR.]


One August night, and the leaves hangin' down
and the grass on the ground smellin' sweet,
[And] up a road [to] the outside of town
and the sound of that good gospel beat,
Sits a ragged tent where there ain't no trees,
and that gospel group tellin' you and me:

It's Love, Brother Love's . . . traveling salvation show.
Pack up the babies and grab the old ladies,
Everyone goes, everyone knows Brother Love's show.

Room gets suddenly still. And when you'd almost bet
you could hear yourself sweat, he walks in,
Eyes black as coal; and when he lifts his face,
every ear in the place is on end,
Startin' soft and slow like a small earthquake,
and when he lets go ... half the valley shakes. . . .

Brother Love's traveling salvation show.

When I heard Neil Diamond sing those lyrics in Chicago a couple of years ago, an incredible thing happened: a so-called secular, date-night crowd broke into rhythmic handclapping, hallelujahs, and amens. For one electric moment, a hit song became a hymn, a troubador folk singer an evangelist, and a Saturday night crowd a revival meeting.

Revivals turn up in strange places. Peter preached in the city streets of Jerusalem and Wesley on the green hillsides of England; and Americans hear the Word in tents, in coliseums, and on streetcorners. In the late 1960s, Americans glued their religion to car bumpers (“Honk your horn if you love Jesus”), baptized their converts in swimming pools, put religion on Broadway or in the top-forty hits. Jesus Christ became, quite literally, “Superstar” for many. And “Amazing Grace,” “Put Your Hand in the Hand [of Jesus],” and “My Sweet Lord” were at once hymns and pop songs.

This is no surprise. Revivals happen every generation or so in the United States, whether the Jesus people know it or not. Revivalism is as American as baseball.[1] Of course, the revival experience has not been confined to any one nation or period of history. However, revivalism took shape in a particular way in America and emerged here as an American institution. Camp meetings and high-powered traveling evangelists came out of an American frontier. Prayer meetings and big auditorium preaching first cropped up in American cities. The evangelistic “call” and converts coming down the long aisle first happened in America – where the call became almost a sacrament, like baptism or the Lord’s Supper.


JONATHAN EDWARDS, in the early 1700s, rang the bell of revivalism in the Connecticut Valley. He preached hell below and “heaven on earth,” and those dour, crusty Yankees swooned in their church pews. Miracles happened, according to Edwards, and he was “surprised” by them. As a good Calvinist, Edwards relied solely on God to harvest any crop of souls in his valley. He believed that God predestined souls to be saved or lost, and there was nothing that a young preacher could do to change that predestination, no matter how much thunder rolled from his pulpit each Sabbath. What a preacher like Edwards could do was light a fire under his people – even “hellfire” if necessary – so those already “elected” would live up to their high calling. The “surprise” came when so many cold and lapsed church members warmed to the good preaching and counted themselves among the elect.

GEORGE WHITEFIELD, crossing over from England, transformed Edwards’ local revivals into what has been called a “national conversion.” Whitefield who preached so eloquently he evoked rapture with the word Macedonia, who pleaded so engagingly that even thrifty Ben Franklin parted with his purse at a meeting – tramped up and down the American Colonies as the great itinerant, until evangelical revivals became the rule rather than the exception, commonplace rather than surprising. Whitefield depended less on an aloof Calvinist God to harvest souls at will and leaned more on his own efforts to reap man’s salvation. The Calvinist God had been unilateral – doing everything on his own – while an Arminian God emerged in these American revivals as more cooperative, teaming up as a coworker with man in the matter of redemption. Not God’s election of man, but man’s will to be saved, became crucial for salvation in the American revivals. In some corners this was labeled the Arminian “heresy,” but the idea multiplied like the sorcerer’s brooms. John Wesley, back home in England, scolded his protégé Whitefield for the “false doctrine.” Although Wesley’s own “awakening” in England had carried him some distance from Calvinism, Wesley felt that Whitefield had gone too far in America.

By the early 1800s CHARLES FINNEY stared down with huge, hypnotic eyes on a new generation of Yankees, mostly under thirty, and promised them the millennium on earth. Arminianism was now “orthodoxy” rather than “heresy,” and evangelical Americans believed they could build a kingdom of God on earth with their own hands.

Like Finney, American Protestants developed an evangelical “empire” in order to establish a kingdom of God in America and then spread it throughout the world with a kind of evangelical imperialism. This empire was made up of numerous “departments of state” (usually termed voluntary associations) such as temperance, education, Sunday school, home missions, and foreign missions – to pursue the varied tasks of drying out drinkers, educating preschool children and schoolchildren, baptizing “barbarians” at home as well as overseas. These associations were defined by primarily functional rather than theological concerns. That is, evangelicals suspended matters of theological distinction and organized these functions to accomplish particular tasks, as the interdenominational character of the associations illustrates. Adventists grew up in the heartland of this Yankee empire and appropriated a form of these associations to pursue their own mission of “finishing the work” (perhaps best characterized on the departmental level) in functional terms.

Riding high on this wave of Christian activism, Charles Finney used mass revivalism to convert people and build up the evangelical empire. He dressed in lawyer’s gray (instead of clerical black) and argued a shrewd case for Christianity, just as he had once presented cases as a lawyer. Unlike Jonathan Edwards, Finney believed that revivals are not miracles. Incredibly, he said that revivals are manmade. The Holy Spirit does not make a revival, but human technique, planning, eloquent speaking, individual counseling, and, finally, the human will to be saved – these make a revival. Finney took Whitefield’s position and wrote it in big, bold letters – legible to the commonest man.

He introduced what was called “new measures” in his evangelism, though they seem anything but new to us today. They included praying “familiar prayers” in public (you instead of thou), bearing “testimonies,” hearing women pray (and even preach) publicly, and, most notably, sitting on the “anxious bench.” Finney made the unprecedented “call” for people who were unsure of their spiritual condition to come down the aisle and sit on the front bench, the “anxious bench” – and there Finney would appeal to them and argue his case before them as though they were a jury deciding their own fate. The results were so inspiring that Finney once looked for the millennium in three years!

Early Adventists populated New York and New England at this time, and they would have known Finney as we know Billy Graham. Adventists were like Finney in some ways and unlike him in other ways. They believed in revivals; and from Millerite days they pitched their tents or preached under the open New England sky.[2] They sang the popular hymns and warmed to good preaching, like other Yankees, and they used some of Finney’s “new measures.” Even today, Adventists bear “testimonies,” pray “familiar prayers,” and “answer the call.” Adventist women pray and sometimes preach in public for, after all, a woman has been prophet. Like Finney, also, Adventists believe there is a human side to evangelism. Adventists do much human preparation for a campaign – budgets, brochures, personnel, auditorium rental, light and sound systems and call it an evangelistic “effort.”

Adventists were as unlike Finney in the 1840s, however, as they are unlike Billy Graham in the 1970s. At the Millerite revival meetings, early Adventists unrolled a prophetic chart on Daniel and Revelation – a new feature for a revival meeting! These early Adventist preachers became what were called “prophetic lecturers” – students of biblical eschatology – rather than the usual heart-thumping evangelists. They published their sermons as prophetic treatises, whereas most evangelists at this time preached homey, unpublishable sermons. Most importantly, early Adventists registered a protest against the self-assured optimism of evangelical Americans who looked for a millennium on earth. Adventists raised placards and shouted an apocalyptic “No” in the face of such religious and political self-importance, such manmade kingdoms. The end of things was in God’s hands, and not Andrew Jackson’s or Charles Finney’s or even William Miller’s hands. Adventists, too, could look on the Finney type of revival as a sometimes dubious means to God’s end (as we shall learn later in the discussion).

Now, about the time Finney and early Adventists occupied the East, PETER CARTWR1GHT, another evangelist, went West with his “muscular Christianity” to tame the Kentucky frontier. And if Finney used the arm of man to make a revival, Cartwright used both fists. In fact, when a roughneck disrupted his meeting, he met him afterward for a fistfight. Cartwright preached like he fought, with fire and emotion. He preached “Southern,” like Brother Love, and this kind of preaching can still be heard in the backwoods of Kentucky, as Neil Diamond sang about.

Cartwright pitched the first tents for the first camp meetings around 1800. People left their plows and their struggles to survive, and they traveled long miles over bad roads in covered wagons to attend these meetings. They came for the big meetings, the big-time evangelists, the music, the sociability, in order to “make things new” in their lives. In many ways, it was like the rock festivals – the Woodstocks – of the late 1960s. Thousands covered the hillsides – swaying and clapping and shouting to the music – to hear their spiritual heroes.

We could say George Harrison, for example, is a kind of revivalist – though in his case Hindu – and that people go to rock festivals for a kind of soul rejuvenation. Both rock festivals and revival meetings are marked by strong emotion, by the heart “strangely warmed” in some kind of personal experience. Both have attracted mostly young people, the under-thirty crowd. Both have received public criticism, not always unwarranted. In the first camp meeting revivals, some took advantage of the social upheaval that threw many men and women together. Rumor had it (no doubt exaggerated) that at these meetings “more souls were begot than saved.” Very soon, however, camp meetings were tamed, and by the time Adventists took them over from the Methodists, they had become an innocuously well-ordered institution.

Despite the frontier trappings of revivalism – most obviously symbolized by the big canvas tent – revivals cannot be dismissed as a relic of the American frontier. If revivals were only a backwoods phenomenon, how do we explain Dwight L. Moody in Chicago, or Billy Graham in Washington, D. C.? As a matter of fact, the most dramatic expression of the revival spirit in the 1850s occurred in Eastern seaboard cities, culminating in the “Year of Wonders” – 1858.[3]

We do not associate any prominent clergymen with the period of revivalism between 1840 and 1865. This omission is due in part to the neglect of historians, but largely to the fact that this was a period of layman’s revival without clerical leadership. Businessmen and laborers met spontaneously on their lunch hours for prayer and testimonies. Here they found themselves in the “lostness” of the cities. Here, by mid-century, the democratization of Calvinism had led to a leveling of the clergy. Laymen took over the leadership of revivals and increased their influence in the churches. Somewhat naturally, ethics came to outweigh dogma, and the revivals spawned numerous social projects. The pre-Civil War period produced an admixture of revival measures and perfectionist impulses ignited by the millennial anticipation of a kingdom of God on earth. The millennium would come, it was felt, if laymen – that is, everyone – purified their hearts and pitched in with the work of their hands.

Infant Adventism, struggling toward adolescence in this period, needs to be seen against this midcentury backdrop. Adventists were children of their age – though, to mainstream evangelicals – delinquent children.

Under DWIGHT L. MOODY in the post-Civil War period, revivals moved even further from Cartwright’s frontier, settling into a respectable and rather businesslike mode.[4] Brother Love had been replaced by the Wall Street businessman. Men like the John D. Rockefellers and the Marshall Fields supported evangelism financially. Moody never took up offerings at his meetings (which might be inconceivable to us!). This liaison between big business and evangelism (something like Johnny Cash in an oil company commercial) is not so hard to understand in a “gilded age” that placed evangelicals at the management level and nonevangelicals (mostly Catholic immigrants) in the laboring force. So, despite his best attempts, Moody’s revivals made inroads only in the evangelical community, with little success among the urban, hardcore nonevangelical population.

As a child of his time, Moody organized revivalism after the big business model: with advertising, a kind of door-to-door saleswork, a big “showroom” where people could come nightly to see the “product,” and finally the decision cards that made “stockholders” out of the new converts. Even today, evangelicals often understand successful soul-winning in terms of “good management.” Now, this analogy is unfair to Moody, so vibrantly personal about his evangelism. However, the machine Moody created could become a Frankenstein in other hands. And Brother Love’s small-town “salvation show” of the early nineteenth century could become a big-city salvation “showroom” in late nineteenth-century evangelism.

BILLY SUNDAY, around the time of World War I, carried the excesses of evangelism even further.[5] He patterned his meetings after a vaudevillian model, standing on top of the pulpit, shouting hysterically at his audience, running across the stage, and sliding into “homeplate.” He would even swear in the pulpit (more significantly, swear at people), telling Jews, Germans, and intellectuals to “go to hell.” He preached more hell than heaven in his sermons, but thousands answered his “conversion” call, or, as he said, “hit the sawdust trail.”

BILLY GRAHAM, another Billy in revivalism, is the “spiritual uncle” of many Americans today (most notably of President Richard M. Nixon). He combines the organizational genius of Madison Avenue and the spiritual vision of Georgia fundamentalism. No doubt numerous Seventh-day Adventists feel that Graham has preached many of their best sermons!

American revivals – the long string of them – have shaped religion in America, even the religion of Seventh-day Adventists. From the very beginning, Adventists have been children of revivalism – singing revival hymns, preaching evangelistic sermons, experiencing revivals on the college campuses. In an official Fall Council of the General Conference, Adventists designated 1973 and 1974 as years of “total evangelism.” It should not be out of place, then, to identify the legacy of modern revivalism in Seventh-day Adventism, and to evaluate it.


Adventists have always viewed revivals as a mixed blessing and have hoped to separate the true from the false revivals. Ellen White took this position in The Great Controversy when she cast revivalism in an eschatological mold, anticipating a “revival of primitive godliness” and its “counterfeit” at the end of time. She refers also to “false” and “sensational” revivals in her own day, though they are not easily identified historically. The revivals generating in the late 1850s and overflowing into the holiness movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries best fit her negative description. However, a composite that includes some elements of the Moody revivals and of others is probably necessary to round out her idea of the false revival.[6]

This does not mean, however, that any one manifestation of revivalism can be judged by the historian looking back, or even by the believer looking forward to the “last days,” as either “false” or “true,” “good” or “bad.” A social phenomenon as complex as a mass revival cannot be dealt with in glib, categorical terms. The same revival that can mean salvation for some may mean only a “salvation show” for others. It can mean genuine new birth for some, and for others a “stillborn” religious experience that never reaches Christian maturity. Because the same revival mingles both good and bad elements, I believe this is why Ellen White registered specific criticisms against contemporary revivals rather than dismissing them outright.

Let us evaluate Adventist indebtedness to modern revivalism, then, first in terms of liturgy and polity.

Take hymnody. Adventists sing revival hymns. The Church Hymnal is filled with the popular folk songs of nineteenth-century revivalism. People have walked down the aisles to “Softly and Tenderly Jesus Is Calling.” A hundred years ago they marched down the aisles to “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” But before modern revivalism, hymn lyrics came from the Psalms, mostly, or other parts of Scripture. Almost no one thought of singing his own words for a religious hymn. With the revivals, instead of singing Psalms or Mary’s Magnificat or Revelation poetry, people sang their own words. It’s like saying that, instead of the Old Testament, they sang Joan Baez – a warmly personal religious form.

Adventists pray in their own words, too. In the long history of Christian public prayer, it is relatively new – even revolutionary – to pray in this way. Public prayers used to be largely liturgical, or read from a book of prayer. But the revivals changed prayer for many. People came to trust their own experience enough to pray in their own words. In the early 1800s, revival meetings were criticized for these extemporaneous prayers and the familiar you instead of thou. Later, when Moody was accused of being “too familiar” with God in his prayers, he said, “I’m not one-tenth as familiar with him as I would like to be.”[7] With revivalism, instead of using the prayer book in Latin or Elizabethan English, plumbers and housewives and children prayed conversationally.

Naturally, folk hymns and personal prayers tended to lower the aesthetic quotient to the level of common experience. Low liturgy sacrifices artistry for relevance and spontaneity that can surprise us, on occasion, with its own kind of brilliance. But spontaneity can also mean many dull prayers for every good one. High liturgy, while perhaps suffering from irrelevance, retains a more constant quality, at least for large numbers of worshipers. The frontiersmen, farmers, laborers, and businessmen who shaped revivalism were obviously more able to live with the drawbacks of low liturgy than worshipers of some other times.

As to polity, Adventists greet other church members and Christians as “brother” and “sister” so as to reflect something of a democratic spirit and so as to avoid calling them “Doctor” or “Professor” or “Lieutenant” (similar to the use of brother and sister in the black movement today). This democratic spirit unfolded in a democratic West by the influence of Methodist and Baptist revivalists who claimed to be “reviving” the early Christian sense of equality and communalism. Even women shared in this equality (early signs of women’s liberation), from the Grimke sisters to Ellen White.

Nothing changed more radically in modern revivalism than the ministry. The seventeenth-century Protestant divine was what was called a “scholar of the word,” an intellectual, who spent ten to twelve hours a day in his study poring over the Hebrew and Greek, the classics, and the commentaries. After framing a heavy treatise for the Sunday sermon, he entered the pulpit in his doctoral robe and read what amounted to a small paperback for his sermon – and it took hours! John Calvin preached like that. Moreover, these clerics stayed in one place. In Jonathan Edwards’ time, a minister came straight to his parish from the seminary green and in his twenties and he spent the rest of his life there: baptizing the children, marrying the lovers, and finally burying them – several generations of them – one by one. There was no such thing as preaching a repeat sermon from the yellowed sermon notes; the seventy-year-old man in the front row had heard them all already.

Modern revivalism made dramatic changes in the minister. It shattered his ivory tower of scholasticism. It tore off his clerical robes and replaced them with the buckskins and business suits of the people. The new kind of minister could not be an egghead spinning off irrelevant tomes of theology. He had to live with the people and speak their language. He couldn’t read them a difficult paperback on Sabbath morning; he had to talk to them informally, conversationally. The new minister was not so much a scholar of the Word as a pastor, a curer of souls, and, with the revivals, a soul-winner. He didn’t live in his study; he knocked on doors.

This new minister moved around instead of staying in one place. Revivalism made ministers itinerant troubadours of the Word. In the early West, the space-scattered people and the ministers had to saddle up and ride. The Methodists rode the hardest and the farthest. In bad weather, when blizzards howled and buried the world in snow, people had a saying: “There’s nobody out but crows and Methodist ministers.” Partly because of this legacy of the itinerant ministry, Adventist preachers move every five years or so. Adventists may wish that some of their ministers were more itinerant than others – but the blessing of itinerancy, as others of the revival heritage, is mixed!

Modern revivalism came into its own in nineteenth-century America as the Enlightenment yielded to Romanticism, Puritanism toppled into Pietism, and Rationalism dissolved into Experience. In America, the revival meeting provided a crucible for this change. The revival minister, then, was substantially changed. The John Calvins were “reborn” as the Dwight Moodys, and the oak-paneled study opened up to the street. Indeed, from the early nineteenth century, the role of the pietist minister has been primarily to carry out the enterprises of the numerous voluntary associations already mentioned – at the expense of shoe leather and tires – while matters of the mind rate only secondary consideration in an overtaxing schedule. Perhaps an identity for the pietist minister should be carved out somewhere between a Calvin and a Moody, though this would not be easy.

It is not right to look down on the revival legacy in snobbish condescension. At one point in the Colonial period, about 90 percent of Americans did not attend church and some of the other 10 percent only barely attended. The revivals were a vigorous and creative response to this kind of darkness. Saddling up horses, preaching from tree stumps, pitching tents, singing folk hymns, bearing testimonies, praying and praying – as Finney said, in quintessential Arminian, praying “till your nose bleeds” – this was revivalism. It spread like a prairie fire, and many thousands were warmed by a deeply personal piety. To be converted at a revival meeting meant to encounter Jesus Christ as Lord in a vivid personal experience. And many did – if statistics are even half reliable. Since the first revivals in America, church attendance rose and never stopped rising for two hundred years.

The Seventh-day Adventist church has grown through evangelism. Without evangelism, Adventists could number only 30,000 members, like the Adventist Christian church huddled today on the rim of Chicago. Only in the context of these successes, then, can we properly understand the failures of revivalism. In fact, it is the pragmatism of revivals – the successes, the increases in membership – that has led to theological distortions.


The major problem with modern revivalism – from Charles Finney to Billy Graham, from Kentucky camp meetings to the Jesus movement – is the flabby theology. The “soft heart” of revivalism lacks theological muscle. Theology as such does not seem to matter to people caught up in revivals. Experience matters, they say, not doctrine. Moody said, “It makes no difference how you get a man to God, provided you get him there.” Sam P. Jones, the Southern evangelist, said, “[Theology] is a good thing to stuff with sawdust . . . and put in a museum as a relic of antiquity.” It is for this reason that Henry Steele Commager wrote that “during the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, religion prospered while theology went slowly bankrupt.”[8]

Ellen White discussed the theological bankruptcy of modern revivalism. Perceptively she noted that revivalists tend to eclipse law with grace, to destroy Old Testament with New Testament, to undermine Creation with Redemption, and, finally, to distort sanctification with justification.[9] Evangelicals, it would seem, did not lack a theology (notwithstanding Moody’s offhand remark that he did not know he had one), but their theology was vulnerable to very basic criticisms.

Theological criticism crystallized in the debate over “Christian nurture” versus revivalistic “conversion.” Here the Old Testament doctrine of Creation and its theocratic sense of communalism were engaged to counterbalance the “New Testament only” emphasis on redemption and individualism. Horace Bushnell, in his landmark study, Christian Nurture, argued that a good Christian upbringing, more than later evangelistic efforts, influences the spiritual development of a person. He wrote, “Let every Christian father and mother understand, when their child is three years old, that they have done more than half of all they will ever do for his character.”[10] Bushnell even spoke of prenatal influences – physical, emotional, and spiritual.[11] And he believed that a child could grow up a Christian without ever being a non-Christian.[12]

Ellen White sided with a leading progressive theologian over against other evangelicals on this issue of “Christian nurture,” as can be seen clearly in both Child Guidance and The Adventist Home. Some twenty-five years after Bushnell’s initial remarks on the subject, Ellen White wrote, “The lessons that the child learns during the first seven years of life have more to do with forming his character than all it learns in future years.”[13] And of course she, too, makes the point about prenatal influence. The Seventh-day Adventist understanding of education – its Sabbath schools and church schools and children’s periodicals – was conceived and nourished, therefore, on the “Christian nurture” side of this nineteenth-century debate.

Another revivalism problem growing out of the evangelical doctrine of redemption is the heavy emphasis on statistics (that is, number of “conversions”). Theology is replaced by a kind of numerology. As one pastor commented to a magazine reporter about Billy Sunday, “The man has trampled all over me and my theology. He has kicked my teachings up and down that platform like a football. He has outraged every ideal I have had regarding my sacred profession. But what does that count against the results he has accomplished? My congregation will be increased by hundreds.”

Reliance on statistics can get extremely mechanistic. One evangelist following Moody said that he had estimated the cost of a Moody campaign and had concluded that each convert cost $7.43. He promised the local churches to produce “reborn souls” at $4.92 each. Billy Sunday said he could produce converts at $2.00 a soul.

Earlier evangelical use of statistics may have been more valid. In the Colonial period (with 90 percent of the population outside the churches) revival statistics were gratifying. But later, most “converts” were already church members or were small children of church members, and the rare conversions among nonchurch members seldom stuck a week after the revival ended. The big revival campaigns, like Moody’s, were followed by a spiritual slump in the churches – the exhausting aftereffects of the campaign. Ellen White commented: “The light which flames up for a time soon dies out, leaving the darkness more dense than before.”[14] Thus, statistics were often less impressive seen with a second look.

All these problems aside – Can a revivalist trample everything sacred, as Billy Sunday sometimes did, and obliterate much of truth, yet call his statistics a success? Can the revivalist turn a revival meeting into a spiritual burlesque of sound and lights – a salvation show – and then count his results successful?

It becomes clear that the history of revivalism mingles the good and the bad. Seventh-day Adventists can affirm much that is good in revivalistic hymns, prayers, prayer meetings, pastoring, and evangelism. Adventist worship and mission feed off these forms. At the same time, Adventists need to be wary of the inherent weaknesses in revivalistic forms of worship – and, above all, the weakening of theology. The true revival and its counterfeit may reside under the same big tent.


1 William Warren Sweet, Revivalism in America: Its Origin, Growth and Decline (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons 1944).

Bernard A. Weisberger, They Gathered at the River: The Story of the Great Revivalists and Their Impact upon Religion in America, first edition (Boston: Little, Brown and Company 1958).

William G. McLoughlin, Jr., Modern Revivalism: Charles Grandison Finney to Billy Graham (New York: Ronald Press Company 1959).

2 The poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who attended a Millerite revival meeting, provides a lively description in The Writings of John Greenleaf Whittier, seven volumes (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company 1888-89), volume five, pp. 425ff.
3 Timothy L. Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform: American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers 1965).
4 James F. Findlay, Jr., Dwight L. Moody, American Evangelist: 1837-1899 (University of Chicago Press 1969) .
5 McLoughlin, Billy Sunday Was His Real Name (University of Chicago Press 1955).
6 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy between Christ and Satan (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publishing Association 1911), pp. 461-478.

Ronald Graybill, A.D. 1892: revival comes to Michigan, Insight (March 30, 1971).

Gottfried Oosterwal, The Jesus people, Insight (April 11, 1972) .

On the issue of footnoting Ellen G. White historically, see Keith Edward Mattingly, Dwight Lyman Moody in the light of The Great Controversy (a paper presented for CH 570, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary on May 26, 1971).

7 For anecdotes and quotations on the revivalists, see McLoughlin and Weisberger.
8 Henry Steele Commager, The American Mind: An Interpretation of American Thought and Character since the 1880’s (New Haven: Yale University Press 1950), p. 165.
9 White, pp. 461-478.
10 Horace Bushnell, Christian Nurture (New Haven: Yale University Press 1966), p. 212. The first edition of Bushnell’s book was published in 1861 from a series of essays that date back to 1838.
11 Bushnell, p. 194.
12 Bushnell, pp. 4ff.
13 White, Child Guidance (Nashville, Tennessee: Southern Publishing Association 1954), p. 193.
14 White, The Great Controversy, p. 463.
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