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‘Praise the Lord’

When thinking about American revivalism, many images come to mind. Tent-meeting revival services on the edge of small Southern towns, with sawdust, pounding Gospel music, and hell-fire preaching; a Billy Graham crusade in a big-city auditorium, with the music of George Beverly Shea, and the final altar call invitation to the music of “Just as I am”; or, perhaps, Dwight Lyman Moody or Billy Sunday. But, in all likelihood, most people don’t associate revivalism with American Lutherans.

Guess what? Some American Lutherans did practice revivalism, and many congregations still use elements of the evangelistic approaches honed in the fire of American revivalism. American religion was fundamentally shaped by revivalism.

Revivalism as we now know it developed after the American Revolution, during the period from 1790 to 1810 called the “Second Great Awakening.” Organized religion was very weak in colonial America, and when, after the Revolutionary War, Americans started pouring into the frontier areas west of the Allegheny Mountains, Christian churches faced the almost impossible task of “churching” this new territory.

Mark Granquist

Revivalism as we now know it developed after the American Revolution.

Too few in numbers to reach the settlers in any traditional ways, pioneering preachers had to develop new techniques to match the new situation. Methodist circuit-riders and Baptist lay-preachers went wherever they needed to reach the settlers. Other preachers decided to gather settlers from far and wide in “camp meetings,” where preaching and socializing went hand-in-hand. Unable to reach most settlers consistently for long periods of time, preachers pioneered new ways of influencing their audiences with an emotional, immediate offer of salvation, one that hit home to thousands of people at a time.

News of these great and wonderful revivals of religion from the American frontier filtered back to settled congregations and preachers along the eastern seaboard, and incited spontaneous revivals there, too. A New York lawyer-turned-preacher, Charles Grandison Finney, reasoned that these spontaneous revivals could, in fact, be turned into planned revivals that could be orchestrated to reach masses of unchurched people in the new American Republic. Using Finney’s techniques, 19th-century American preachers brought millions of new converts into formal affiliations with Protestant congregations. And Moody, Sunday, and Graham simply took the basic elements of American revivalism and adjusted them for urban audiences and modern listeners.

Was revivalism Lutheran or not?

With all the religious excitement going on around them, American Lutherans could not help but be swept up in revivalism. In the period before the Civil War (1800-1860), many American Lutheran pastors cooperated with other Protestant leaders to organize area-wide revivals, and also held Lutheran revival services in their congregations. These pastors saw the hand of God at work in the revival, bringing about a new wave of reform in American Lutheranism. One account of a four-day revival among Lutherans in South Carolina in 1831 approvingly reported that “hundreds were bathed in tears, a solemnity pervaded the whole assembly, more than one hundred individuals accepted the invitation given to those who desired to be personally conversed with on the subject of their soul’s salvation.” Hundreds of such accounts were regularly published in some of the Lutheran newspapers of the time.

This is not to say that revivalism was universally or uncritically accepted among American Lutherans. There were some wilder elements of American revivalism, including emotional outbursts and intense pressure, that most Lutherans rejected. In 1841 one Ohio Lutheran synod passed a resolution on revivals that stated that they “recommend opposition to all disorder and ultraism [while] we earnestly encourage our Churches to promote genuine revivals by faithful preaching of the word, by prayer, and by other means in accord with the holy religion of our Redeemer.” But more moderated forms of revivalism gained widespread acceptance within Lutheran congregations, though most agreed that conversions gained in such situations needed to be followed up with further Christian education.

Newly arrived Lutheran immigrant pastors, along with other conservative Lutheran preachers, spoke out regularly against revivalism and in favor of traditional Lutheran worship.

Other Lutherans, however, totally rejected American revivalism as being un-Lutheran and un-Christian. One angry writer in 1838 chastised a Lutheran newspaper editor for his eager support of revivals, saying, “You and the other Revival Boys are advocating this Rail-Road Christianity according to which they become sinlessly perfect in an hour [so that] our people might not desert to the Methodists.”

Newly arrived Lutheran immigrant pastors, along with other conservative Lutheran preachers, spoke out regularly against revivalism and in favor of traditional Lutheran worship. (There is nothing new about the contemporary American Lutheran “worship wars.”)

Revivalism remained important in American religion, and one can trace elements of it in many areas still today. For example, the revival tradition of “camp meetings” eventually evolved into the Bible camps that we know today. Gospel songs and direct preaching of the gospel for repentance and the amendment of life remain important in many congregations. If the historic revivals have become a bit of a caricature, many of their effects and techniques are still an important part of American Protestantism, even American Lutheranism.

Mark Granquist is Associate Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary, St. Paul. He lives in Northfield.

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