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date: 17 January 2021

Revivals, Awakenings, and Conversion in American Protestantismlocked

  • Kip RichardsonKip RichardsonHarvard University

Summary

From at least the 18th century to the present, religious revivals have been a defining feature of American Protestantism. Though the size, scale, and formatting of revivals have varied over time, their basic function has not: to refresh the faithful, to reclaim the backslidden, and to secure the conversion of the uninitiated. A revival, in any age, was a mass phenomenon, a collective experiential encounter with the divine, whether held within a single congregation or conducted as a regional or even national campaign. As a result, significant numbers of Americans have traced their own conversion experiences to participation in a revival service, and the rhythms of revivalism have given crucial shape to American Protestant church life and history. From colonial Presbyterians to contemporary Pentecostals, the religious lives of a large and diverse swath of the American people have been formed by the vocabulary and ritual technologies of the revival tradition.

Beyond its evident importance to the religious lives of practitioners, however, much about the revival tradition has been disputed. Historians and theologians have variously interpreted revivalism as either democratizing or socially conservative, as enabling radical politics or reinforcing the status quo, as genuine outpourings of the Holy Spirit or enthusiastic delusion. The meaning of “conversion,” particularly in regard to Native American and African populations in the colonial and early American periods, has been subject to widespread criticism as an oversimplified term implying a linear movement from one identity to another. Even the broad historical narrative of American revivalism has been subject to debate, including the reality, cohesiveness, and long-term effects of the First and Second Great Awakenings as well as the Pentecostal and healing revivals of the mid-20th century. To survey the history and literature of American revivalism is therefore to confront a wide array of characterizations and conclusions, defying easy assessment.

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