I recently read a bleak assessment on Christianity in America: "Look at how the glory is departing. You that are aged can remember 50 years ago when the churches were in their glory. What a change there has been! Time was when the churches were beautiful. Many people were converted and willingly declared what God had done for their souls, and there were added to the churches daily such as should be saved. But conversions have become rare in this day. Look into the pulpits and see if there is such a glory as there once was. The glory is gone. The special design of providence in this country seems to be now over. We weep to think about it."
Those words (I've condensed and paraphrased them) came from a sermon by Rev. Increase Mather in 1702. It reminds us that every generation is jeopardized by spiritual lethargy, yet God has a way of sending periodic revivals. Five of these awakenings have shaped the moral foundation of our nation, and we're in need of a sixth.
First came the Great Awakening, which dates to around 1740. The writings of the French skeptics and the Enlightenment thinkers so pervaded the Colonies that churches struggled to remain open. Colleges became hotbeds of humanism, and Christian students, what few there were, practiced their faith secretly. But New Jersey Dutchman Theodore Frelinghuysen began preaching the simple Gospel, electrifying young adults in his area. The revival reached New England under Jonathan Edwards. George Whitefield continued the drumbeat, and this Great Awakening turned America from a collection of godless colonies into a God-fearing nation, setting the stage for independence and establishing the moral foundation for a new country conceived in liberty.
After the Revolutionary War, Christianity lapsed into another decline as large numbers of Americans pressed into unchurched territories west of the Appalachians. In the East, too, the work of the Lord declined as people busied themselves with building a new nation. By the 1790s, only one in 10 Americans attended worship. Chief Justice John Marshall told Bishop Madison, "The church is too far gone ever to be redeemed." Voltaire said, "In 30 years time Christianity will be forgotten." Voltaire's disciple in America, Thomas Paine, wrote, "Of all the systems of religion that were ever invented, there is nothing more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself, than this thing called Christianity."
But another revival came, the Second Great Awakening. It started near Cain Ridge, Ky., where immense crowds gathered in repentance and prayer. In the East, colleges like Hampton-Sydney in Virginia experienced dramatic spiritual renewal. Charles Finney and other evangelists continued the cause, and a generation of young people was swept into the church and into missions.
Just as America was yet again sinking into spiritual sluggishness, a Third Great Awakening seized the nation. It was called the Prayer Revival because of prayer meetings started by business people like Jeremiah Lanphier on Fulton Street in New York City in 1857. Thousands of people gathered daily for prayer in New York. The revival spread from city to city, and between 1 million and 2 million confessed Christ as Savior. Sailors aboard ships docking in New York Harbor experienced onboard revival even before disembarking.
The effects of the Prayer Revival lasted a generation, but around the turn of the 20th century Christianity again evidenced decline. That's when an awakening started in the nation of Wales after a sermon preached by a young coal miner named Evan Roberts. It's as though the literal presence of God came down and settled on Wales. One man later described it as the "universal, inescapable sense of the presence of the Lord." The Welsh revival spread around the world. My grandfather, W. L. Morgan, was an itinerant preacher in the Tennessee mountains who saw hundreds of conversions during this era. On the West Coast, the Azusa Street Revival catalyzed the Pentecostal Movement. In many ways, the Welsh Revival prepared the 20th century for the greatest period of global expansion in the history of Christianity.
The fifth revival occurred in the 1960s and '70s. I'll never forget those days when an entire generation of young people "turned on, tuned in, and dropped out," as Timothy Leary put it in 1967. In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. Richard Nixon became president, and the war in Southeast Asia divided the nation. Riots erupted in the streets, students took over campuses, bombs went off, and institutions of all kind were attacked.
In the middle of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, a Christian couple opened an evangelistic coffeehouse where disillusioned young people began finding Christ. Soon Christians everywhere opened coffeehouses and engaged in university outreach. Ministries started, souls were saved, and the winds of revival blew thousands of hippies into the Pacific Ocean to be baptized, and into swimming pools and church baptisteries from coast to coast. Schools like Asbury College in Kentucky felt dramatic moments of revival. The Jesus Movement propelled a generation of young people, including me, into missions and ministries, stoking in us a fire that has never died down in our hearts.
The Great Awakening, the Second Great Awakening, the Third Great Awakening, the Welsh Revival and the Jesus Movement shaped our nation more than most historians admit. They've deepened the soul of America, laid moral foundation for happiness and inflamed successive generations of young people into lifelong ministries.
Now it's time now for another revival. America can't be saved by politics, and the answer isn't in being a Republican, Democrat or Independent. Our economists and educators can't save us. Our entertainers offer diversions without meaning and our technology gives us progress without morality. We've seldom been in greater need for inner revitalization, and conditions are urgent. Join me in making Psalm 85:6 a daily prayer for our nation and world: "Will you not revive us again that your people may rejoice in you?"
This is the only hope for our nation and the greatest need of our world. The Sixth Great Awakening is overdue.