The Revival of 1857-58: Interpreting an American Religious Awakening

By Kathryn Teresa Long | Go to book overview

Introduction

THE REVIVAL OF 1857-58 was hailed by contemporaries as one of the most significant events of the nineteenth century, perhaps of American religious history, or even the entire span of the history of the Christian church. They described it as "The Great Revival," the "event of the century," and "our American awakening." 1 From 1858 to the present, this revival, characterized in part by mass prayer meetings that spread from New York City to major urban centers throughout much of the United States, has captured the imaginations of American evangelicals. On September 22, 1991, when evangelist Billy Graham preached to approximately 250,000 people on the "great lawn" of New York City's Central Park, local coordinators of the event noted with satisfaction that the date of Graham's visit fell within a day of the anniversary of the beginnings of revival in 1857. 2 They hoped for a similar outbreak of religious concern in a twentieth- century context. Popular books and magazines catering to evangelical interest in revival also have celebrated the fervor of 1857-58 as America's third "great awakening." 3

In contrast, even though revivalism has long been accepted as both a topic of interest and a useful interpretive tool for the study of religion in America, the 1857-58 Revival has been eclipsed in academic circles by scholarly fascination with earlier awakenings. The various eighteenth-century expressions of the "Great Awakening" have been subjected to intense scrutiny for their influence (or lack thereof) on the religion, politics, and social life of the pre-Revolutionary era. In a similar fashion, investigations focused on the early-nineteenth-century revivalism of the "Second Great Awakening" have produced, in the words of one observer, "some of the most important recent work in American religious history." 4 Religious fervor prior to 1835 has proved much more interesting to historians than have later revivals.

In the case of the Revival of 1857-58, there are a number of reasons for this

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