U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Miller, Finney, Ockenga, Graham; or, The Chain of Revivalism

The following is a guest post from Dan Hummel, a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who studies American diplomatic and religious history.

The influence of USIH blogger and fellow Wisconsin Badger Rivka Maizlish seems to have rubbed off. I found myself recently reading the first part of Perry Miller’s The Life of the Mind of America from the Revolution to the Civil War. His last and uncompleted work, which still managed to win the 1966 Pulitzer Prize in History, was the cheapest Miller entry on Amazon.com – a much too large factor in my book purchases. More importantly, I gleaned from its title that it covers in detail the period “From Edwards to Emerson,” a period (and title of one of Miller’s most famous articles) some grad students and professors discussed at length at a recent UW Intellectual History Group meeting.1 The book is classic Miller. It displays the quirks historians love and hate about Miller. He includes no citations in The Life of the Mind of America. There are grand claims that go unsupported. There are leaps of logic. There are few references to that most crucial of intellectual sources for religious thought in the 19th century – the Bible – and the many names from which Miller hops to and from receive little contextualization. Yet the text is grand. It is a joy to read and it is, I think, largely persuasive in its treatment of religious revivalism.

Book One is titled “The Evangelical Basis” and asserts “the dominant theme in America from 1800 to 1860 is the invincible persistence of revival technique.”2 Miller writes of “the Revival,” shorthand for the cumulative revivalism beginning at Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1801 and surging in both frontier and city through the Civil War. Miller traces the inner urges of American Protestantism, its anxieties, and its imprint on that nebulous concept of the “American Mind.” Yet the star in “The Evangelical Basis” is not the Mind, but, fittingly, a revivalist. Charles Grandison Finney was “the figure who supremely…incarnated the aspiration and philosophy of the revival…No religious leader in America since Edwards had commanded such attention; no one was to do it again until Dwight Moody.”3 In The Evangelical Basis,” Finney hovers above every page. His influence is heavy; his quote is decisive in whatever paragraph it appears. Even as I read Miller’s treatment of Finney and “the intellect of the revival,” I could not help but think about evangelicals closer to my own research in the mid-twentieth century. They spoke of the Revival as well. Comparing Finney’s ideas about revival with one of his spiritual descendants, the neo-evangelical leader Harold Ockenga, makes for an interesting chain of revivalist thought that is traceable. In particular, the capacity for social transformation that nineteenth century revivalists placed in the Revival seems to me to be an understudied aspect of enduring evangelical thought in the twentieth century.

Finney preached to thousands at revival meetings, but his most lasting impact for intellectual historians may be his 1835 work Lectures on Revivals of Religion, a sort of handbook for revivals and an exposition of Finney’s religious thought. Finney explicates some of the enduring themes of revivalism that crop up again and again in the history of American evangelicalism. Transcribed from Finney’s extemporaneous style of speaking, the lectures nevertheless exude a clear vision of the purpose of revival. The populist ethos, the call to leave sins, the centrality of invoking the Holy Spirit, and the potential social disruption of revivalism are a few themes that Finney harps on again and again.

Harold Ockenga, on the other hand, was the longtime pastor at Park Street Church in Boston (at one time pastored by Edward Beecher, son of Lyman Beecher), which he served from 1936-1969. He was instrumental in the formation of the National Association of Evangelicals and the first president of Fuller Theological Seminary. He was part of a generation of young fundamentalists who came of age during the interwar years. Like many future neo-evangelicals, he made the physical and intellectual journey to a “liberal” religious education. After attending Taylor College (an Arminian school in Indiana), Princeton (a Calvinist stronghold), and Westminster (a conservative Calvinist offshoot), Ockenga attended the University of Pittsburgh, where he wrote a dissertation titled “Poverty as a Theoretical and Practical Problem of Government” that took aim at Marxism, among other materialistic conceptions of poverty.

Amidst the battlefield of theological and philosophical persuasions (which he shared with Finney who navigated his own Arminian-Calvinist minefields), Ockenga remained fixated on “the Revival” to come. In a set of lectures at Dallas Theological Seminary in 1947, Ockenga spoke in hopeful expectation of “Reformation and Revival” and “The Great Revival.” 4 Originally tasked to speak about “A Modern Re-Evaluation of Catholicism,” Ockenga displayed a Finney-esque obsession with the “ebb-tide of revival waves” and the conviction that “All progress in Christian things is made by revivals,” or, in Finney’s assessment, “religion cannot be promoted to any considerable extent without them [revivals].”5

The similarities between Finney and Ockenga multiply when one compares texts. Finney, in answering the prompt “What a Revival of Religion Is,” affirms the scope and purposes of a revival. A revival “always includes conviction of sin on the part of the church.” In a revival “backslidden Christians will be brought to repentance” and “Christians will have their faith renewed.” Furthermore, revival “breaks the power of the world and of sin over Christians.” Finally, “when the churches are thus awakened and reformed, the reformation and salvation of sinners will follow, going through the same stages of conviction, repentance, and reformation.”6 The formula of moral decline, cleansing of sin, the Church expanded, and then “awakened and reformed” is unmistakable in Finney’s broader discussion of revivals. Whether invented by him or simply updated from earlier revivalists like Jonathan Edwards, the formula placed emphasis first on Christian transformation.

In Ockenga’s 1947 sermons, he answered the question “What is God’s work which is to be revived?” with three emphases: “First, it is God’s work to forgive sin.” The message that “Christ Jesus came to save sinners” was to be focused upon in order to foster “the reconciliation of rebellious men with their sovereign God.” Second, the revival was to “rebuild and strengthen the church as His witness in the world” through acting as “the custodian of the truth, the guardian of moral standards, the minister of mercy” and through receiving “thousands of new members, born-again ones.” Finally, revival was used by God “to bring in everlasting righteousness… witnessed by the church’s influence for good in the world.”7 These emphases mirrored Finney’s remarkably. In the area of social affect and politics the similarities continued, and yet the different contexts of the 1840s and 1950s shone through. What was, in the end, the worldly impact of revival?

Finney and the early-19th century revivalists understood their work in terms that eschewed politics but were, in a larger sense, deeply embedded in arguments about national and moral issues. They conceptualized, argues Miller, the work of the revival as conserving the disestablishmentarian ethos of America over and against Europe and preserving “the union of states…without relying upon the legal formulations of the intellect or of the law.”8 So committed were revivalists to this power of the Revival, Miller notes in one of the most haunting sentences of the book, that “[w]e may therefore understand, and pity, the tempo of the revivalists’ effort to proclaim, all through the 1850’s, that religion and religion alone…would hold the nation together.”9 The Civil War, it would seem, should have shattered the revivalist method of dismissing intellect and law. Yet revivals persisted all the same, and they did not lose their capacity to inspire visions of social change among their proponents.

Ockenga and his neo-evangelical peers understood the power of revivalism similar to Finney and the nineteenth century revivalists. Miller’s analysis, in fact, helps us understand the neo-evangelical project in the 1950s and their investment in the ministry of someone like Billy Graham. When Graham burst onto the national scene in 1949, he was regarded by evangelicals and outside observers alike to stand in the shadow of Finney and other great American revivalists. The legacy of Finney, not to mention his thought, shaped Ockenga’s expectations for the coming revival brought about through Graham. “When a revival is about to come a person is discovered who incarnates in his message and life the inmost need of the times. He is more sensitive to the longings of men, the ideas of his day, the whisperings of the Spirit of God, until in what he does and says he becomes the symbol of the revival movement and the interpreter of the revival message.”10 Ockenga listed Finney, along with Francis of Assisi, Savonarola, Luther, Wesley, and Moody as revivalists who embodied this station of empathy and prophetic verve. Two years later Graham drew the national attention of evangelicals at his Los Angeles Crusade.

Historians often point to the Los Angeles Crusade in 1949 as the beginning of Graham’s remarkable run of big spectacle events throughout the postwar period. What is less noted is that on the heels of Los Angeles, Graham traveled to Boston on the invitation of Ockenga. Hoping to repeat the success of Los Angeles, Ockenga scheduled Graham for a New Year’s Eve service in Worcester, MA. With expectations “surprisingly moderate and publicity…sparse,” Graham managed to draw 6,000 people to the first night.11 He then did so virtually every night for the next eight weeks. Speaking on that first evening, Ockenga belted, “The hour for revival has struck. New England is ripe for evangelism. The same yearning which is seen over the land is experienced here.”12

The hope of revival overflowed naturally, if not explicitly, into the political sphere. Observing a litany of national and international problems and gesturing to the framework of the Cold War rivalry, Ockenga assured that “millions and millions of Americans believe an old-fashioned spiritual revival could preserve our God-given freedoms and way of life.”13 In his 1947 sermon, Ockenga waxed more theological (and eschatological), declaring, “Everlasting righteousness is initiated by the redemptive work of Jesus Christ on the Cross. Daniel stated it in his purposive goal of history as revealed in the vision of the seventy weeks. Nothing brings in everlasting righteousness like revival.” This, Ockenga asserted, was “the social influence of evangelical revival.”14 If through Graham God revived and awakened the church, and if through Christ the national life could be awakened, then the spiritual and social renewal of revival – “like a mighty billow which rolls irresistibly over the land” – had a vital place in the very fabric of the American century.15

Does the centrality of revival to Ockenga’s political vision ultimately change the story of neo-evangelicalism? Does its rooting in the ever-changing conception of revival dating back to Finney really matter? I argue that it really does in so far as it provides a central mental context – one often invoked by historical actors themselves – for their motivations and actions. Ockenga, Graham, and many other midcentury evangelicals believed they could understand “revivals, their laws and leaders.”16 The idea for revival was an idea-driven context that influenced and shaped religious and political activity. Revivalism as such is a basic historical force for which the historian must account.

A second relevance lies in the questions revivalism provokes about the diverse intellectual worlds of evangelicals themselves. What about those evangelicals who channeled their energies into “formulations of the intellect or of the law” rather than eschewing them? How did the scions of the Religious Right – Francis Schaeffer, a public intellectual, and Jerry Falwell, who sought numerous legal changes to abortion laws, prayer laws, and the like – speak of revivals? Did they share or diverge from the great chain of revivalistic thought from Finney to Ockenga that sought first spiritual, then social, transformation? I suspect this question, like so many others about evangelical thought, reveals a litany of historical and historiographical conflicts that further cast light upon, to quote Miller, “the mental adventure of the country.”17


1 Where we also discussed Arthur Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being (1936), to which this post playfully gestures.

2 Perry Miller, The Life of the Mind in America from the Revolution to the Civil War: Books One through Three (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965), 7

 3 Ibid., 9.

 4 Harold Ockenga, “Reformation and Revival,” Bibliotheca Sacra 104, no. 415 (July 1947): 338–349; “The Great Revival,” Bibliotheca Sacra 104, no. 414 (April 1947): 224–235. Ockenga’s Wesleyean upbringing and its larger significance are the point of some contention. See Donald Dayton, “The Search for Historical Evangelicalism: George Marsden’s History of Fuller Seminary as a Case Study,” Christian Scholars Review 23, no. 1 (September 1993): 12–31.

 5 Charles Grandison Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1960), 22.

6 Ibid., 15-16.

7 Ockenga, “The Great Revival,” 225.

8Miller, The Life of the Mind in America, 70.

9Ibid., 72.

10 Ockenga, “The Great Revival,” 227.

11 Garth M. Rosell, The Surprising Work of God: Harold John Ockenga, Billy Graham, and the Rebirth of Evangelicalism (Baker Academic, 2008), 132. Rosell’s book is friendly to Ockenga and Graham, but invaluable in its access to primary sources.

12 Quoted in ibid., 133.

13 Quoted in ibid., 134.

14 Ockenga, “The Great Revival,” 226.

15 Ibid., 227.

16 Ibid., 225.

17 Miller, The Life of the Mind in America, 9.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Dan: Great post. I really enjoyed reading through it.

    One aspect that stands out to me from my own research is that many of the students/followers of Schaeffer and Graham (etc) have, from my reading, sort come to hold the mantle of American exceptionalism. Do you see that as the logical outcome of the language of revivalism?

    Then from a theological or doctrinal standpoint, I wonder if this language also changes (or reanimates) key New Testament texts that deal with eschatology and revelation?



    • Hi SB,
      Great questions. I suppose my first move would be to highlight that Schaeffer and Graham (and Falwell, etc.) come from distinct theological backgrounds that influence their views and uses of American exceptionalism, especially as it pertains to revival. That said, they do share an assumed American exceptionalism, rooted in large part in the disestablishmentarian ethos I mentioned above. For someone like Graham, I have no doubt your hunch is correct and that his Crusade revivalism is in large part a performance of that exceptionalism.

      My point at the end of the post is that I’m not quite sure if that continues into the Schaeffer/Falwell neo-fundamentalist wing of evangelicalism. I am not sure how much Schaeffer, for example, explicitly couched his agenda in the language of revival. The same for Falwell. I think we assume they did, but then the Religious Right seems to have inverted the Finney-Graham model by attacking politics before individual sin (politics ahead of spiritual revival). In fact, that has been a major critique of the Religious Right from within evangelicalism starting with Ed Dobson in the late 80s.

      On the theological angle, I think it divides again along various lines but that evangelicals in general tend to read themselves into biblical texts as much as their hermeneutic allows. My own work is on evangelical-Jewish relations and the state of Israel. One of Falwell’s more infamous quotes is “God has raised up America in these last days for the cause of world evangelism and for the protection of His people, the Jews. I don’t think America has any other right or reason for existence than those two purposes.” If that is your approach to the text, you can bet there will be theological consequences!

  2. Great post, Dan, and excellent questions, SB. Two related observations:

    1. It seems WWII reconciled fundamentalists (which I’m defining pretty narrowly as premillennialists) to American nationalism/exceptionalism in a way that was new. I’m thinking especially of Matthew Sutton’s Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America (Harvard, 2007). It stands to reason that thoughts about revival would have changed as well. Compare Ockenga’s and Graham’s politicized revivalism to the great 1930s radio revivalist, Charles Fuller, for instance.

    2. Revivalism cut across the liberal-conservative evangelical divide during the 1930s-1950s. The Federal Council of Churches sponsored revival-type meetings during these years through its National and University Preaching Missions. One liberal theologian, Walter Horton, praised the National missions for “trying to make America a Christian nation again.” Several liberals would also rush to Graham’s defense during the 1950s when he was attacked by Reinhold Niebuhr.

    • These are both great points. On number 1 I’ll just add that I think World War II had a profound effect on fundamentalism (or at least individual fundamentalists) that is not yet completely understood. In my own work I found it notable that many fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals in the 50s and 60s (though of course not all) had received ministerial exemptions during the war. I wonder if the psychology of not serving even further ratcheted up the exceptionalist rhetoric as a type of compensation.

      On number 2, the point is well taken. I should have had a sentence in there that this “chain” of revivalism was self-constructed to a large extent (though not totally). Neo-evangelicals invoking Finney, Moody, etc. when discussing Graham, for example, was a deeply creative act. And as Graham gained allies on the left, he of course lost many on the right who saw him as a sellout and no longer a legitimate successor to Moody (in particular).

      • While only indirectly about revivalism, everyone should check out Paul Putz’s excellent review over at RIAH of Matthew Bowman’s new book, The Urban Pulpit, about the rise of “liberal evangelicalism” in New York as a “middle way” between the old revivalism-become-urban-fundamentalism, on the one hand, and the secular city on the other.


        Bowman’s book is indispensable for establishing 1. that there WAS a liberal evangelicalism; and 2. why it is no more. Masterful thick description.

        Happy Happiness Day, Everyone!!

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