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

By Kathryn Teresa Long | Go to book overview

ONE
"Prayer-Meetings . . . in all parts of the land"

The Revival Takes Shape as History

AMONG ITS FRONT-PAGE letters to the editor on September 30, 1858, the New York Christian Advocate and Journal ran a note calling for a book about the Revival of 1857-58: "Is it not the duty of the M.E. [Methodist Episcopal] Church, through some of her sons, to furnish the public and posterity a standard work on this subject? We have had a prominent share of the labors and fruits of this revival; and we owe it to God, his general Church, and the world to render our tribute of history in this matter. Who will undertake it--who?" 1

It was a clarion call, and an answer quickly arrived, but not, perhaps, as the writer had hoped. By the end of the year five books had been written about the revival, three of them destined to become the standard primary-source accounts. But all were written or edited by men who stood in the tradition of John Calvin rather than John Wesley. The three narrative works were The Power of Prayer, by Samuel Irenaeus Prime; The Noon Prayer Meeting of the North Dutch Church, by Talbot W. Chambers; and Narratives of Remarkable Conversions and Revival Incidents, by William C. Conant. 2 The other two books were The Revival and Its Lessons, a collection of tracts written during the revival by James W. Alexander, and an anthology of sermons, The New York Pulpit in the Revival of 1858, edited by Prime. 3

Although a broad spectrum of Protestants, from both North and South, were caught up in the religious enthusiasm of the late 1850s, the people who wrote the histories of the revival were almost exclusively northern Calvinist clergy. They were a group divided by a variety of internal disagreements; even so, they represented a theological tradition whose members were the self-appointed nineteenth- century custodians of revivalism as an interpretive tool for understanding American history. 4 The nineteenth century may have been the "Methodist century" in terms of religious activity and numerical success, but when it came to revivals, Calvinists told the story. 5 Along with the secular press, clergy historians played a

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