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Joel A. Carpenter


Revivalism Without Social Reform

In the fall of 1949, a revival campaign was going on in downtown Los Angeles, and there was excitement in the air—perhaps too much excitement. The young evangelist leading the crusade, Billy Graham, was worried. Some famous people had just been converted—a wiretapper for the mob, an Olympic medalist and war hero, and a cowboy musician—and now every night the big tent was swarming with reporters and photographers. Graham feared the carnival atmosphere would drive off the Holy Spirit. So he went to a car in the back corner of the lot for a private conversation with a trusted adviser. There he met J. Edwin Orr, an Irish-born roving revivalist. Orr had a large book with him, ready to point the younger preacher to some wisdom. It was not a Bible, however, but Orr's doctoral dissertation. Billy Graham was getting a lesson in revival history. Orr quoted a chronicler of the "Prayer Meeting Revival" of 1857-58, who said that the press was "taken possession by the Spirit, willing or unwilling, to proclaim His wonders." So Orr advised Graham not to fear the news media, for "the Lord may make the American Press act as His publicity agent for nothing." Graham went forward with renewed confidence.

The wonders of grace, proclaimed by the secular press: that was part of the enduring charm of the Revival of 1857-58. According to its main chroniclers, the Revival started in the fall of 1857, at a prayer meeting in a Dutch Reformed Church in the heart of New York City's financial district, just as a financial panic began to paralyze the city. Businessmen packed that prayer meeting and others, as they appeared in New York and other cities. Revivals broke out at the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia that winter, while lay teams of evangelists, led by the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) and the Methodists, swept through cities. The church periodicals reported revivals in the hinterlands. Then, beginning in late February 1858, two major daily ...

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