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Exploring our historical foundations is a series of articles and stories that have shaped who we are as Churches of Christ. In part 5, CEO Dean Phelan discusses ‘revival’.
At an Annual General meeting I observed that ‘revival’ was being spoken about in a number of our churches, and that a number of our ministers and elders were strongly sensing God’s spirit moving in their communities and leading them to ‘prepare the fields’.
This emerging sense of expectation is on the back of the renewal of our Churches of Christ movement over the past six years, and the growth and obvious blessings that God has already shown us in so many of our communities. Our collective faith and belief in what God can, and might do amongst us—if we are open enough to receive it—has been strengthening year-by-year.
Revival is not a new phenomenon to Churches of Christ; in fact the movement’s explosive growth in the 1800s across America and to Australia and the United Kingdom, can in part be tracked to the great Cane Ridge Revival in Kentucky which ran from Friday 6 to Thursday 12 August 1801. It was said that it would have gone longer had provisions in the surrounding areas not been exhausted.
Barton W. Stone (of the later Stone-Campbell movement) had promoted the meeting as a ‘united sacrament’ to be held in a log meetinghouse with a capacity of 400. It was planned to run from Friday to Monday with different speakers and communion. People crowded in to the meetinghouse on Friday to hear Stone preach. By Saturday the numbers had swelled into the grounds and spread to an adjoining grove. People came in wagons, on horseback and by foot. It was reported up to 20,000 people were there with preachers from different denominations speaking at different parts of the encampment without confusion. The preaching was continuous and before dark the crowds echoed with penitent cries and shouts, and people began falling.
In his autobiography Stone described the phenomenon as he first observed it: "many, very many fell down as men slain in battle, and continued for hours together in an apparent breathless and motionless state—sometimes for a few moments reviving, and exhibiting symptoms of life by a deep groan, or piercing shriek, or by a prayer for mercy most fervently uttered". Gradually they would find release; "the gloomy cloud which had covered their faces" giving way to great joy. Stone wrote "with astonishment did I hear men, women and children declaring the wonderful works of God and the glorious mysteries of the gospel". Noting his amazement, he reported that their appeals to others were "solemn, heart-penetrating, bold and free". "Their knowledge of gospel truth displayed" caused others listening to fall down "into the same state from which the speakers had just been delivered".
With the benefit of being able to look back, there is no doubt that powerful social and cultural forces influenced the meeting at Cane Ridge. At times, emotional excess reigned, and the revival subsequently split denominations and gave birth to a number of sects.
Yet, there is also no doubt that something extraordinary happened akin to the day of Pentecost in first-century Jerusalem. Many thousands of people were transformed for the rest of their lives by their experience. What appeared at Cane Ridge looks startlingly similar to the events of the Great Awakening of the 1740s, and of the revivals in medieval Europe. ‘The Revival of ‘33’ in Puerto Rica emerged from a prayer group within our own movement in 1933. At that time the combined membership of Puerto Rican congregations was 1,780. Following 18 months of prayer, fasting, enthusiasm, and embracing a spontaneous style of worship, including manifestations of the Spirit, membership grew to more than 5,000 people, despite strong attempts by our American leaders to suppress it as being inconsistent with Churches of Christ teaching and practice.
These, and other instances of revival, were moments when people fell and whirled and praised and groaned, when faith and culture and passion were tossed together in a wild, messy, and unimaginable way—when people, at least momentarily, no longer saw God through a glass darkly, but face to face.
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