Apocalypticism has had a powerful impact on American life. It has fostered among adherents a strong sense of purpose and personal identity, it has helped them interpret the challenges they face all around them, and it has provided them with a triumphant vision of the future. Although there are many kinds of apocalypticism, in the United States, Christian forms have dominated. The Bible’s focus on a coming millennium has offered Americans the promise of transformation and redemption in a world that sometimes seems void of both. When Christians have emphasized the Bible’s apocalyptic and millennial visions, they have acted in new and important ways. Apocalyptic visions, rather than fostering a sense of indifference to the coming of the end of days, have served as a call to battle. God, millennialists insist, has given them much to do and very little time in which to do it. Positive that Jesus is coming soon, they have preached revival and engaged directly and aggressively with their culture. Sometimes their actions have served to reinforce the status quo, and at other times they have sparked revolutions. The uses of apocalypticism and millennialism are almost as diverse as their adherents.
Matthew Avery Sutton
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.