Religious Revivals

Since the pioneering work of William J. McLoughlin, historians have tended to isolate four periods when revivals–or mass religious meetings for prayer, preaching, song, and conversion–were especially prominent features of American cultural history. The first, the so-called Great Awakening of 1735 to 1745, featured what Jonathan Edwards called "surprising conversions" across New England and the Middle Colonies. Among the most surprising of these conversions were many among children and youth. Child converts were accorded special status because supporters of the revivals saw in them evidence of the miraculous character of the events, while detractors used the prominence of children in the revivals to dismiss them as irrational "enthusiasm." Later observers, noting how both the ritual performances of children and the reports on the revivals by elders followed some definable patterns, have emphasized a wide range of potential social and political causes for them. Most explanations imply that the presence of children as public converts signified the appearance of a more malleable conception of the self and life-course in America, at least in contrast to typical Calvinist understandings. That this malleable self was still under severe social strictures, as Philip Greven has pointed out, goes without saying. As converts, however, children asserted themselves as agents in history. They did so under the cover of a transcendent God, and within the boundaries of an ecclesiastical ritual, but their assertion of agency gained attention not least because it was consistent with the need for both producers and consumers in emerging market economies.

The link between markets, revivals, and children and youth is solidified when historians turn to the second period of revivals, which dominated the first half of the nineteenth-century and culminated in a series of "businessmen's revivals" across the Northeast in 1857 to 1858. Some historians have identified a "Great Revival" in the South from 1800 to 1805, through which Baptists and Methodists gained their enduring foothold in the region, and their predominance in the African-American community. Southern revivals featured charismatic lay leadership over educated clergy, thus providing spiritual (and economic) leadership opportunities to enterprising young men (and, on occasion, young women). At such meetings, which quickly spread North and West, flashing especially at Cane Ridge in Kentucky, inter-generational events held in the open air were free from the constraints of local social hierarchies, and provided for what anthropologists have called experiences of ecstatic communitas, and what has since been called entertainment. The young were quick to capitalize on the spiritual, as well as the social, opportunities, further "democratizing" Christianity in the process, and opening up a social space for the agency of young women, who sometimes joined young boys as child preachers. By the time a series of revivals swept across upstate New York in the 1830s, the most famous evangelist of the day, Charles Grandison Finney, had developed the technique of calling both young men and women to come before him to the "anxious bench" to consider their salvation. Finney also, in company with his wife, Elizabeth, furthered the revivalist emphasis on the malleable self, arguing that revivals were not only the result of a miracle, but also "the right use of the constituted means," or what has come to be called marketing. Such an emphasis on technique led theologians such as Horace Bushnell, who advocated for less dramatic Christian nurture for children, such as the SUNDAY SCHOOL, to dub revivalism a form of CHILD ABUSE. Nevertheless, entrepreneurial revivalism led directly to new evangelical bible schools and colleges, such as Oberlin, which quickly filled the market niche abandoned by "rationalist" schools like Harvard and Yale. Evangelical schools then provided seedbeds for youthful activism in causes of social reform, notably abolitionism, although white Baptists and Methodists for obvious reasons preferred to promote temperance in the South. By the time of the businessmen's revivals of 1857 and 1858, young men were especially prominent, although female leaders like Phoebe Palmer also began to assert themselves. Such a public presence of young male converts as a cohort in an urban venue fostered a distinct "boy culture," according to John Corrigan, which both coincided with and promoted the growth of the earliest YOUTH MINISTRIES in the United States.

A third series of revivals marked the years from 1890 to 1925, now largely in urban areas, and drawing extensively on the existence of cadres of young men devoted to the YMCA's "muscular Christianity." The leading evangelists–Dwight L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Aimee Semple McPherson–developed Finney's rationalized techniques by holding separate meetings in large tents or "tabernacles" for young men and women, featuring swing-tinged "gospel" music. Such meetings sanctioned both an emerging popular culture for youth and a separate-spheres ideology defined along agelines. This segregation of youth coincided well with G. STANLEY HALL's popular identification of ADOLESCENCE as a particular stage of life marked by such attributes as piety and turbulence. Both attributes were amply in evidence in the tabernacle meetings, where sexual energy was sublimated into passionate prayer and turbulence given vent in dramatic conversions and upbeat music. Now, though, the converts were expected to follow conventions of behavior that accorded with carefully cultivated civic values, rather than the spontaneous communitas of frontier revivals. The public presence of youthful converts, once the sign of a malleable self, was now becoming a defined market niche. At the same time, some of the social reforms sought by revivalists for the good of youth, namely Prohibition, came to fruition. This "success" ironically led to scorn among cultural elites such as H. L. Mencken and Sinclair Lewis and scrutiny of the links between adolescence and conversion in the emerging social scientific disciplines. In reaction to such reductionism, the anti-intellectual elements in revivalism, always significant in particular communities, came further to the fore as revivalists became allied with the fundamentalist movement, and began to feel like a besieged minority.

A fourth period of revivals can be traced to the founding of Youth for Christ during World War II, led by Billy Graham, with fruition in the so-called new Christian right, represented by leaders such as James Dobson, and in movements like the "Promise Keepers." Such movements owe much to the links between Christian conversion, commerce, and cultural change, now also associated with nationalist politics. At the same time, however, contemporary revivalism no longer promotes a malleable life course. Now, revivalists seek to contain children and youth, rendering them subject to various state, church, and family projects (such as HOMESCHOOLING), all marketed through the most current technologies.

See also: Protestant Reformation.


Blumhofer, Edith L. and Randall Balmer, ed. 1993. Modern Christian Revivals. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Carpenter, Joel A. 1997. Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Corrigan, John. 2002. Business of the Heart: Religion and Emotion in the Nineteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Greven, Philip. 1977. The Protestant Temperament: Patterns of Child-Rearing, Religious Experience, and the Self in Early America. New York: Knopf.

Hardesty, Nancy. 1999. Women Called to Witness: Evangelical Feminism in the Nineteenth-Century. 2nd ed. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

Long, Kathryn Teresa. 1998. The Revival of 1857-58: Interpreting an American Religious Awakening. New York: Oxford University Press.

McLoughlin, William G. 1978. Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Putney, Clifford. 2001. Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Thomas, George M. 1989. Revivalism and Cultural Change: Christianity, Nation Building, and the Market in the Nineteenth-Century United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.