The following story was adapted from this article by Mark Galli on the Christian History Institute website.

Friday August 6 1801 – wagons and carriages bounced along narrow Kentucky roads, kicking up dust and excitement as hundreds of men, women, and children pressed toward Cane Ridge, a church about 20 miles east of Lexington. They hungered to partake in what everyone felt was sure to be an extraordinary “Communion.”

By Saturday, things were extraordinary, and the news electrified this most populous region of the state; people poured in by the thousands. One traveler wrote a Baltimore friend that he was on his way to the “greatest meeting of its kind ever known” and that “religion has got to such a height here that people attend from a great distance; on this occasion I doubt not but there will be 10,000 people.”

He underestimated, but his miscalculation is understandable. Communions (annual three-to-five-day meetings climaxed with the Lord’s Supper) gathered people in the dozens, maybe the hundreds. At this Cane Ridge Communion, though, sometimes 20,000 people swirled about the grounds—watching, praying, preaching, weeping, groaning, falling. Though some stood at the edges and mocked, most left marveling at the wondrous hand of God.

The original Cane Ridge Meeting House (Wikipedia)

The Cane Ridge Communion quickly became one of the best-reported events in American history, and according to Vanderbilt historian Paul Conkin, “arguably … the most important religious gathering in all of American history.” It ignited the explosion of evangelical religion, which soon reached into nearly every corner of American life. For decades the prayer of camp meetings and revivals across the land was “Lord, make it like Cane Ridge.”

It was not, of course, the first time that a religious awakening took place, nor would it be the last. Since the earliest days of recorded history in the Bible, God has worked among His people–sometimes in strange and mysterious ways–to bring revival. In this area of Kentucky in the late 18th century, there was a spiritual darkness that was at times likened to the darkness of ancient Egypt. People had come to this land for adventure, to obtain land or wealth, but few were Christians. Immorality, alcoholism and nearly every form of vice were rampant. 

But many, too, were praying for revival among the people of this western frontier. In 1798, the Presbyterian General Assembly proclaimed a day of fasting and prayer.

As people came together in the churches to pray, churches realized that among their ranks of fellowship were many who were living a life of sin, and some churches purged many names from their church books. 

There was a preacher by the name of James McGready who arrived in Logan County in 1798. He was known for his fiery preaching. James McGready and others worked tirelessly in ministry along this western frontier.

Revival began at a communion in 1800 in Logan County, where McGready was ministering. (A “communion” in those days was a several-day meeting similar to a camp meeting, concluding with a communion service.) Towards the end of the meetings, a woman had a striking conversion experience and received an incredible manifestation of the Holy Spirit. In subsequent months, camp meeting revivals were held throughout Kentucky and Tennessee. These were often accompanied by incredible spiritual manifestations. Participants often experienced a spiritual ecstasy and fell prostrate to the ground, moaning and convulsing.  

This series of smaller revivals all led up to the famous revival on Cane Ridge in 1801. 

But what of these revivals? Were they of God? Or were they false revivals? Much of the manifestation of spiritual power was, arguably, what we might call “fanaticism.” People were often carried away by emotion. Many human elements were apparent in these events, and the subsequent effects led to splitting of denominations and the formation of new religious sects. Yet it’s hard to overlook, in these events, hallmarks of true revival such as those present in earlier revivals, the Protestant Reformation, or even the day of Pentecost in apostolic times. God’s hand was at work. Lives were changed. Families and churches were changed. Even the shape of the society itself was changed by these events.

The revival on Cane Ridge marked the beginning of a period of American History known as the Second Great Awakening. Out of this awakening was born an interest in the study of Scripture and an increased emphasis on the importance of free will in the acceptance of Salvation. A farmer named William Miller began studying the prophecies of Scripture and became convicted that Jesus would soon return to this earth a second time. He studied the prophecies of Daniel and came to the belief that Jesus would return again in 1843 or 1844. As Miller and others began to preach this message of Christ’s soon return, a movement of Advent believers was raised up, which would eventually become the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Now it’s also worth noting that out of this same Second Great Awakening came many other religious movements, including Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Science. 

I have relatives in the Mormon Church. I love my family, of course, but I don’t agree with the teachings of the Mormon church. This movement, though, came from the same Second Great Awakening that my church came from. They took a different trajectory. They have different tenants of faith. Yet I can’t help but believe that even though other religious sects came out of this awakening, yet God still had His hand in this movement, beginning with the Cane Ridge Revival.

William Miller (Wikipedia)

In the ministry of William Miller–even though he made a failed prediction of the second coming of Christ–God had His hand in awakening the consciences of His people, so He could lead them to study their Bible and understand the truth for this time.

In Joel 2:28 we read these words: “And it shall come to pass afterward That I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, Your old men shall dream dreams, Your young men shall see visions.”

Just a few verses earlier we find this promise: Joel 2:23 “Be glad then, you children of Zion, And rejoice in the LORD your God; For He has given you the former rain faithfully, And He will cause the rain to come down for you– The former rain, And the latter rain in the first month.”

In the land of Israel, it was typical to have rain early in the growing season, which would cause the grain to sprout and grow. Later in the year, more rain would fall, bringing the grain to maturity for the harvest. Every year, the people depended on the falling of the former and the latter rain in order to ripen the grain. If the rain did not fall, there would be famine.

In the same way, the work of the Holy Spirit is likened to the pouring down of rain. God’s Spirit poured down upon the hearts of men and women just like rain waters the earth, and brought a revival movement described in Acts chapter 2. Yet there’s a promise of another outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit in the latter days which will ripen the harvest of grain. 

What are the elements of Biblical revival? How can we recognize the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit when it comes? Also, how can we know whether it is truly God’s Spirit, or only a human counterfeit?

First, we must recognize that revival begins in the action and moving of the Spirit of God. Revival does not come because man decides to revive himself. In Acts 2 and in Joel 2, we find that true revival is God’s initiative, poured out on those ready to receive it. There is nothing that I can do to make the rain come–but I can gather barrels to collect the rainwater when God chooses to send it. In the same way, while we can and must open our hearts to receive this outpouring, true revival does not come at the initiative of church leaders or programs, but like the physical rain it comes because of God’s initiative of grace. 

One of the greatest revivals in Old Testament times took place during the reign of young king Josiah. Josiah was only eight years old when he became king, but “he did what was right in the sight of the LORD, and walked in all the ways of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.” (2 Kings 22:2) As Josiah arranged for the house of God to be cleaned out so that the worship of God could resume, Hilkiah the high priest made a remarkable discovery! “I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the LORD.” Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan the scribe, who read it to king Josiah. When Josiah heard the reading of the Scripture, particularly the promises and warnings of Deuteronomy, he tore his clothes in a sign of mourning and repentance. At the king’s command the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem were gathered together to hear the reading of the Scripture. Upon hearing the word of God, the leaders together made a covenant to follow God in accordance with His Word. (2 Kings 23:3)

This is a second hallmark of true revival: true revival is founded upon the Scripture, the written Word of God. Hebrews 4:12 tells us: “the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” Nothing else is so powerful to anchor our hearts in the principles of heaven than to read and follow God’s word. Nothing else can point out sin in our lives, and nothing else can so clearly mark out the difference between right and wrong, than the careful study of the Bible. 

Isaiah 8:20 “To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.”

After the leaders heard the reading of the Bible and covenanted together to follow God, the evidence of true revival quickly followed in Jerusalem. 

“The king commanded Hilkiah the high priest, the priests of the second order, and the doorkeepers, to bring out of the temple of the LORD all the articles that were made for Baal, for Asherah, and for all the host of heaven; and he burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of Kidron, and carried their ashes to Bethel.” (2 Kings 23:4) 

All of the elements of idol worship were removed and destroyed. Then, the people would go on to keep the first Passover that had been observed in many years 

“Then the king commanded all the people, saying, ‘Keep the Passover to the LORD your God, as it is written in this Book of the Covenant.’ Such a Passover surely had never been held since the days of the judges who judged Israel, nor in all the days of the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah. But in the eighteenth year of King Josiah this Passover was held before the LORD in Jerusalem.” (2 Kings 23:21-23)

This is the third element of true Biblical revival: true revival leads to fervent prayer, repentance, to the putting away of idols, and to honoring God’s law by living a Holy Live.

God spoke these words to King Solomon in 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” True revival goes hand-in-hand with humble confession of sin–repentance, which means turning away from wickedness and turning towards God. And God promises to forgive and heal all who thus turn to Him! 

Josiah is not the only example of revival in the Old Testament. Other kings of Judah led similar revivals, including Asa and Hezekiah. Hezekiah’s story is relevant, too–because it reminds us that even the greatest earthly leaders of revival are still human, and still often make mistakes that can mar the future results of God’s work. After demonstrating great faith and working great reforms in Israel, Hezekiah failed to honor God when the dignitaries from Babylon came to visit. Despite all the positive reforms he had brought about in Judah, his foolish actions would eventually lead to all of Judah going into Babylonian captivity. Yet we cannot discount Hezekiah’s former faithfulness or attribute his life work to “false revival.”

While God sometimes uses people in positions of earthly authority to bring about revival, at other times He chooses to work through people who have no authority other than God’s heavenly calling. The prophet Elijah in Israel is one such example. King Ahab and queen Jezebel were arguably the worst leaders that Israel had ever seen–leading the kingdom into the grossest forms of idolatry. Yet God brought revival in Israel by empowering Elijah the prophet to bring a message of warning–accompanied by a supernatural famine–until the people were willing to come to the dramatic showdown on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18). Again in this story it is evident that God Himself, not Elijah, was the primary instrumentality in bringing revival to Israel. As fire fell from heaven in answer to Elijah’s humble prayer and consumed the sacrifice and altar, the people with one accord turned their hearts back to God and proclaimed “The Lord, He is God!” 

Perhaps the most remarkable and unexpected revival to take place in Old Testament times is recorded in the story of the reluctant prophet Jonah. God calls Jonah to preach a message of warning–not to his chosen people, but to the enemies of Israel. Though the message was a warning of judgment, Jonah could read in his calling that God was sending a last warning message of mercy to the enemies of God’s chosen people. Despite his reluctance and initial disobedience, Jonah finally comes to Nineveh and delivers his message. Surprisingly, this heavenly message of warning becomes the impetus for revival and the entire city of 120,000 people repent in sackcloth and ashes! The story of Jonah reveals that God often chooses to bring revival in the least expected places. God does not work exclusively through His church or His chosen people, but He often demonstrates His most powerful work among those of other faiths.

As I stated already, one of the most important marks of true revival is in confession, true repentance, and the evidence of changed lives. After the days of Nehemiah and the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple, some four hundred years passed without a prophet in Israel. Then God sent the man John the Baptist with the message “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 3:2) As Matthew relates this story of the forerunner of Christ, He quotes the prophecy of Isaiah 40:3:

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the LORD;
Make His paths straight.’ ”

Matthew continues (verse 3-5): “Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins. …”

He may have appeared to be a maverick, but something about John’s preaching stirred the hearts of the people, and multitudes flocked to the desert to hear him. The Holy Spirit brought conviction to hearts, there was confession of sin, repentance, and conversion. Just as in previous times, the fruit of this revival was evident in the changed lives of those who came to hear.

No doubt the greatest preacher of revival was none other than Jesus Himself. The message of Jesus echoed the call to repentance already preached by John the Baptist. And supernatural signs accompanied Jesus’ preaching: “The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.” (Matthew 11:5)

Yet the revivals led by Jesus and John, just as revivals led by prophets of old, did not come at the instigation or under the leadership of the political or religious leaders of the day. In fact, the religious leaders challenged and opposed this work of revival!

“Now when He came into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people confronted Him as He was teaching, and said, ‘By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority?’” (Matthew 21:23)

God often chooses to bring revival through channels that we as humans would not predict or expect. The scribes and Pharisees rejected Jesus because he didn’t fit their mold. In fact, it was because of their spiritual pride that God could not use them as agents to bring about the revival that He had designed they should be a part of.

Even Jesus disciples, at first, struggled to accept Jesus because of their preconceived ideas. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” they asked! (John 1:46)

If the people struggled to accept Jesus because of their prejudice, they were even more unprepared to accept the people among whom Jesus chose to work for revival. Jesus was not afraid to mingle with those who were considered “sinful” people. The gospel was not an exclusive message, preached only to respectable people. In fact, Jesus actively sought out the outcasts of society to bring into His kingdom!

Yet at the same time, this revival was not simply a flight a feeling — a revelation that God accepts people just as they are (no matter how important that is). The ministry of Jesus brought God’s love to the darkest depths of human degradation, but from that place of darkness His power lifted his true followers to a higher and better way of living. As people listened to Jesus, they became convicted of sin and were led to change their life. Matthew the tax collector left his customs booth and became a writer of Scripture. To the woman caught in adultery, Jesus offered no condemnation, yet in answer to His call she left her life of shame and sin. Zacchaeus pledged to give half of his goods to the poor, and to restore fourfold anything he had taken wrongly.

Jesus work of revival led to a change of heart, which was evidenced by a reformation of the life. “If the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has stolen, and walks in the statutes of life without committing iniquity, he shall surely live; he shall not die.” (Ezekiel 33:15) True revival leads to reformation.

The apostle John gives us this warning: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God.” (1 John 4:1-2)

From this we understand that, in the future, spiritual revival will come–some led by the true Spirit of God, and others led by false prophets. How can we tell the difference? The heart of every true revival is centered in the person and character of Jesus Christ.

Jesus lived and taught for three and a half years, and was finally crucified by the very people who should have been first to receive him. But that was not the end. Christ rose from the grave, and after he ascended to heaven the Holy Spirit came down on those early believers in Pentecostal power, bringing a revival such as this world had never before seen!

We find the story of that first Pentecost in Acts 2:1-4: “When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all 1 with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them 2 divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.

For centuries, Christians have longed to see the outpouring of Holy Spirit power working revival as He did on the day of Pentecost. We have seen, through history, many manifestations of spiritual power. And yet we wonder–rightly so–are these manifestations of the working of the Holy Spirit, or are these the work of false prophets or spirits of darkness? How can we know? We must test the spirits based on the principles we’ve already discussed – most importantly asking the question “What does the messenger teach about Jesus Christ?” 

Jesus warned His disciples in Matthew 24:24 that “false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.”

This one one reason I have to reject the message of Joseph Smith. No doubt there was some kind of supernatural revelation. Smith claimed to see those golden tablets, and he claimed this book of Mormon was an accurate translation of the message of those tablets. But he fails to acknowledge Jesus Christ for who He is–the Divine, Eternal, Incarnate Son of God. His message is not founded on the Scripture but contradicts the Scripture. It does not lead men and women to repentance and to living a life of holiness in the way that the Scripture does. Yet I do not reject everything that came from the Second Great Awakening as something unholy–because through this movement we can see the hand of God at work!

Sometimes, time itself becomes the judge of the true nature of revival. When it matures, the fruit becomes apparent. 

Matthew 7:16: “You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles?”

In summary, what are the elements of a true revival?

  • True revival is the result of the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s not something that’s brought about by human initiative.
  • True revival often springs up in unexpected places.
  • True revival is founded on the study, understanding and teaching of God’s Word.
  • True revival is centered in Jesus Christ.
  • True revival brings conviction of sin to the hearts of those who hear, leading to repentance.
  • True revival is evidenced by the fruits of true repentance: Humility, Searching of Heart, and Contrition
  •  True revival is accompanied by Reformation: re-aligning one’s life and practice in accordance with the principles of righteousness. 

Ellen G White puts it this way: 

With every truly converted soul the relation to God and to eternal things will be the great topic of life.

Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 463

Mrs. White,in her well-known volume, The Great Controversy, outlines the elements of true and false revivals in her chapter “Modern Revivals.” In contrast to the elements of true revival, White points out common elements in many false revivals:

  • False revivals often emphasize appeals to the imagination and exciting emotion in place of emphasis on God’s Word.
  • False revivals are often designed to gratify the human love for something new and startling
  • False revivals often resort to shows, entertainment, activities, and gimmicks to draw people in.
  • In essence, false revival leads to more love of self and less love for Bible truth.

This past month, the world watched as a fascinating phenomenon unfolded in the small town of Wilmore, Kentucky. It began during a student worship service at Asbury University on February 8, when students stayed after the service to sing and pray. It seemed that the Holy Spirit was poured out in tremendous power. The service continued all night, and for the next 16 days people came and worshiped in the university chapel around the clock. Many people witnessed wonderful manifestations of spiritual power. Thousands testified of how God was touching and changing their lives. Reports circulated that the sick were receiving healing. Hearts were turned towards God. As news spread of the growing revival, this tiny town of six thousand residents was flooded with as many as sixty to seventy thousand people seeking to be part of this incredible event. The comparatively tiny chapel was flooded with worshipers so no more could enter, and thousands more crowded the streets outside, listening in on loudspeakers to the simple praise and worship inside.

Many have asked me recently: “Is this a true revival?” A friend and I even considered, briefly, going to Wilmore to see this phenomenon in person (that was before we realized how many people had already overcrowded the town). But I saw the reports coming in. I saw the video clips of people singing, and praying, and receiving manifestations of the Spirit’s power. 

Two contrasting ideas seemed apparent to me: One–there were elements of worship, particularly certain manifestations of Spiritual power, that are foreign to our mode of worship within our community of faith. We don’t typically see our people “speaking in tongues” (glossolalia) or being “slain in the spirit” (falling down unconscious) during worship. But secondly, there were many irrefutable elements of true revival that seemed to be apparent at Asbury. People came forward repenting of their sins and testifying to the power and grace of God. A strong spiritual interest was awakened on the campus which has now spread to a spiritual awakening around the world. People are being led to speak more of Christ and to study His word. 

All of this happened in a spontaneous manner. There were no plans laid by school administrators to lead a revival this February. No mega-church pastors had orchestrated this (although some tried to capitalize on the spiritual interest at Asbury). It grew organically through the prayers of young students who are apparently seeking a deeper relationship with God. 

So is this true revival? I have friends who tell me that this must be the working of the Spirit of God. I have other friends who take a more cautious approach. After all, they tell me–these are not people of our particular faith community. Not everything that is taught or embraced in this revival is in accordance with our particular understanding of Scripture. Their leaders do not embrace all of our doctrines. But I wonder–didn’t this same spirit of criticism cause leaders in Christ’s day to reject the savior–simply because He didn’t fit their mold? Yes, we must be aware of false teachers, but we must keep our minds open to recognize the work of God’s Spirit even in places where we might least expect it.

Ellen White, one of the founders of the Seventh-day Adventist Church which grew out of the Second Great Awakening, wrote these words in the chapter on Modern Revivals I referenced earlier:

Notwithstanding the widespread declension of faith and piety, there are true followers of Christ in these churches. Before the final visitation of God’s judgments upon the earth there will be among the people of the Lord such a revival of primitive godliness as has not been witnessed since apostolic times. The Spirit and power of God will be poured out upon His children. At that time many will separate themselves from those churches in which the love of this world has supplanted love for God and His word. Many, both of ministers and people, will gladly accept those great truths which God has caused to be proclaimed at this time to prepare a people for the Lord’s second coming. The enemy of souls desires to hinder this work; and before the time for such a movement shall come, he will endeavor to prevent it by introducing a counterfeit. … [Mrs. White goes on to describe this counterfeit as we discussed before]

Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 464

What do we make of this? Should we embrace everything that’s happened at Asbury? Not necessarily. But neither should we reject it. If nothing else, perhaps the biggest surprise is the overwhelming level of spiritual interest that seems to be awakening overnight. In an age when church attendance is declining and secularism is rampant, people are hungry for a true encounter with God–people are longing for something they aren’t receiving in their church communities at home. Shouldn’t this inspire us to greater vigilance in sharing the truth of God’s word? Shouldn’t this awaken in our own hearts a desire for a deeper and purer love?

In closing, I want to bring this down to a simple appeal. What we make of the events in Wilmore may be of little relevance to us right now. But I want to ask you, and myself today: what do we do when we hear the prompting of God’s Holy Spirit in our hearts and lives? How long have we been coming to this church–yes participating or even leading in the liturgy–without truly experiencing revival in our hearts and lives? We have a motto in this church that everyone is welcome. Everyone–we say–but what about the Most Important One–God Himself in the person of His Spirit? Is He welcome here? Are we willing to pause our liturgy and open our service to be led by Him? Are we as leaders willing to humble ourselves and to allow Him to take the lead instead of us and our programs? What if God was already pouring out His Spirit in great drops of blessing, but our hearts were too closed to receive it?

I want to ask, brothers and sisters–leaders in this church–can we confess and repent of the sin of spiritual pride that has caused us to look down our noses at our fellow Christians who see the world differently than us? Can we come together as brothers and sisters and put our arms around each other and realize that God’s work is far bigger than any one of us or even all of us here put together?

Can we kneel together and pray that, if it’s not too late, God can yet bless us with the outpouring of the Spirit of Grace that He is preparing to pour out in this world–and may He begin that outpouring in our hearts in ways that will break down our pride and prejudice and make us willing to serve our fellow man from a heart of humble gratitude and true servanthood?

Come, and let us return to the LORD; For He has torn, but He will heal us; He has stricken, but He will bind us up. After two days He will revive us; On the third day He will raise us up, That we may live in His sight.

Hosea 6:1-2

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