On Assessing Historical Revivals

By Nathan A. Finn

One of the courses I teach at Southeastern Seminary is a PhD seminar on The History and Theology of Spiritual Awakening. The seminar is cross-listed in the fields of historical theology and evangelism, so the participants include a mix of students studying church history, systematic theology, and evangelism. I have also co-taught a masters-level elective on this same topic with my colleague Alvin Reid, who is an evangelism professor and co-author of a textbook on revival history.

Last summer, I had a conversation with the historian David Bebbington about the difficulties of being a Christian historian who studies revival. We agreed it can be tricky for a variety of reasons. First, there is nothing approaching a universal definition of such terms as revival and awakening among either everyday Christians or scholars. Is revival a surprising work of God or a pre-planned event? Is revival a return to what ought to be normal Christianity or a season of heightened spiritual experience? Is revival primarily about spiritual renewal among believers, gospel advance among unbelievers, or both?  (Bebbington argues for at least five different ways to define revival.)

Second, many folks read their theological biases into various revivals, assessing them as true or false revival based upon their degree of conformity to the presupposed theological criteria. This leads some cessationists to completely dismiss Charismatic revivals, some Calvinists to treat much of the Second Great Awakening with suspicion, and some theological liberals to treat most any revival as little more than social forces influencing the church. Hank Hanegraaff, Iain Murray, and William McGloughlin are representatives of these respective tendencies.

Third, there is the balancing act of being both a historian who wants to treat historical revivals with some degree of critical distance and an evangelical Christian who longs for revival in my own life and church. Finding a balance between cold detachment and filiopietistic preachiness is easier said than done. Harry Stout probably titled to far in the former direction in his controversial biography of George Whitefield, while the works of popular revival historians such as J. Edwin Orr are more about edifying the saints than they are interpreting historical revivals.

Nigel Scotland of Trinity College at Bristol University (UK) is a church historian who has written extensively on the history of evangelicalism in the British Isles. He is also a believing Christian who both writes about and longs for spiritual awakening. In an article in the most recent issue of the journal Evangelical Quarterly, Scotland offers his own definition of revival and suggests nine characteristics that can be used to assess the authenticity of historical revivals. He defines revival as “a sovereign work of God the Father, consisting of a powerful intensification of God’s saving work in and through his people.” His nine characteristics are as follows:

  1. A sovereign work of God
  2. A work which repeats New Testament Christianity
  3. A work which renews the church
  4. An enduring work of God
  5. A work which magnifies Jesus Christ
  6. A work of God brought about by biblically appointed means
  7. A work which releases the gifts and fruit of the Holy Spirit
  8. A work which often included the conversion of large numbers of people
  9. A work which transforms the community in which it is located

My point in passing on Scotland’s list is not to suggest that he has solved the dilemma. Frankly, I have questions about some of his characteristics. (What does it mean to “repeat” NT Christianity?) I simply want to point out how one evangelical historian is thinking through this particular dilemma. The next time I teach my doctoral seminar, I suspect we’ll spend some time talking through Scotland’s article as we try to balance being revival-minded Christians and careful historians and theologians of revival.

If you want to read the article for yourself, see Nigel Scotland, “Towards a Biblical Understanding and Assessment of Revival,” Evangelical Quarterly 85.2 (Spring 2013): 121–34.


Nathan A. Finn is associate professor of historical theology and Baptist Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also an elder at First Baptist Church of Durham, NC and a senior fellow of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies.