By Cindy Bledsoe
In this paper I will look at particular characteristics of Revivalism and the Second Great Awakening. I will look specifically at social conditions and connections with sports to see what, if any, impact these elements had on Revivalism during the Second Great Awakening. Implications can then be related to evangelism in current terms.
A wave of revivalism swept over the United States during the First Great Awakening that took place between 1734 and 1750. Many people came to accept the Christian faith during this time. This acceptance of the faith however was not a permanent fixture and “by the end of the 18th century, many educated Americans no longer professed traditional Christian beliefs. In reaction to the secularism of the age, a religious revival spread westward in the first half of the 19th century. This ‘Second Great Awakening’ consisted of several kinds of activity, distinguished by locale and expression of religious commitment.” (Outline of American History).
Revivalism – The Second Great Awakening.
The Second Great Awakening was marked by a sudden earnestness in Christian devotion and Christlike imitation of life. It was not anti-intellectual in nature nor was it overtly emotional. The movement was characterized by the involvement of highly intellectual people; the establishment of societies to make the gospel known, many opportunities for women leadership, and a broad appeal that was not limited only to intellectuals but extended to people of less education and financial means. The success of the movement was great indeed with literally thousands of people coming to faith in singular evangelical events.
“The immense success of the Second Great Awakening was also furthered by evangelical churches’ innovative organizational techniques. These were well suited to the frontier conditions of newly settled territories. Most evangelical churches relied on itinerant preachers to reach large areas without an established minister and also included important places for lay people who took on major religious and administrative roles within evangelical congregations.” (USHistory.org) Camp meetings and revivals emerged as key avenues for sharing the gospel message. Many people were drawn to these camp meetings where the gospel was presented in a very simple and easily understood manner. As time progressed professional revivalists came to the fore and shared the gospel message not only in camp meeting settings but also in urban settings. “Professional revivalists served principally as supplements to the regular ministry, appearing on call to provide a shot in the arm, for a church, a denomination, or city where religious life was at low ebb.” (McLoughlin: 127)
The message of the revivalists was not only limited to sharing the core message of the gospel, but also extended to the realm of social reform. “Billy Sunday was one of the first evangelists to tie the gospel’s spiritual message to helping to eliminate social problems.” (Djupe, Olson: 429) “Railing against sin, alcohol, and vice, his theatrical style and verbal broadsides garnered immense publicity and newspaper coverage wherever he preached. Often Sunday’s campaigns lasted for several weeks at a time in such cities as New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. Committees of local citizens and businessmen seeking to fight crime, promote clean, sober living and the development of responsible, hard-working employees frequently issued the invitation-and footed the bill–to get Sunday to come to town.” (Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals) Revivalists stressed the concept of a Christian belief system that was evident by the actions of Christians in their everyday lives. Thus the gospel needed to be lived out in the real world.
“Revivals also carried a sense of social equality that was the result of the evangelical notion that all people are sinners and in need of salvation.” (Hankins: 14) That equality concept did much to bring people from different backgrounds to the same place before God in seeking salvation during revivals.
Response to Societal Conditions
It is important to take a look at the societal conditions of the era during which revivals flourished and how the revival movement responded to these conditions. During the 19th century, America experienced a period of rapid urbanization. Cities grew rapidly, mainly from the swelling population of immigrants who wanted work. The growth, however, was much faster than the city infrastructure could adequately handle. Population density was very high with large numbers of people living in over-crowded and unhealthy conditions. This was the setting in which many revivalists including Moody and Sunday shared the Christian message.
America was not the only country to battle difficult conditions; Britain had faced many of the same unhealthy social conditions which led to the founding of the YMCA. “In 1844, industrialized London was a place of great turmoil and despair. For the young men who migrated to the city from rural areas to find jobs, London offered a bleak landscape of tenement housing and dangerous influences. Twenty-two-year-old George Williams, a farmer-turned-department store worker, was troubled by what he saw. He joined 11 friends to organize the first Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), a refuge of Bible study and prayer for young men seeking escape from the hazards of life on the streets.” (YMCA) Thus the formation of the YMCA in Britain was a Christian evangelical response to the societal conditions of the day.
The success of the YMCA in Britain was soon heralded by Christians in America and this led to the founding of the YMCA in Boston in 1851. A number of American Protestant ministers from various denominations came together to form the YMCA on American soil. The formation of the YMCA in America was based on the British model and led to the development of the YMCA in numerous major American cities. Soon after its establishment in the United States, sport became a key strategy for the organization. Participation in different sports activities were offered at YMCA venues as a means of appealing and catering to men. New sports were also birthed through the YMCA and this included basketball and volleyball. The organization became very popular and drew the interest of many influential people who believed in its mission. “The lay evangelists Dwight L. Moody and John Mott (1865-1955) were heavily involved with the American YMCA during the latter half of the nineteenth century.” (Watson, Weir, Friend: 8). Moody saw great value in the work being done by the organization and he was elected president of the Chicago branch of the YMCA in 1865. “The national association tried to elect him president in 1879, but Moody declined. In his speech, he lauded the organization's "gymnasium, classes, medical lectures, and social receptions" as effective arms in "the work of reaching young men." (Armstrong: 2)
Thus the establishment of the YMCA in America, much like Britain, was in response to the social conditions of the time. It sought to minister to and bring the Christian message to men through various avenues, one of which was sports. During this time sports was in the process of becoming increasingly important to Americans and it established a firm place in American culture. As such the move of the YMCA to embrace a sporting strategy in fulfilling its mission turned out to be a vital decision. The organization and its use of sports as a means of reaching and ministering young men with the gospel would be a frontrunner for the concept of sports ministry.
Society and leisure
A great shift was taking place in America at the time which would not only impact society at large but also revivalism in particular. “Mechanization and labor-saving assembly-line production cut the average manufacturing workweek form sixty-six hours in 1860 to sixty in 1890 and forty-seven in 1920. This meant shorter workdays and freer weekends. As the economy shifted from production to consumption, more Americans engaged in recreation, and a substantial segment of the economy provided for – and profited from leisure.” (Norton et al: 513) The average American had much more leisure time at their disposal and recreation and sports became important ways for Americans to spend their new found leisure time. The impact and growth of leisure and its accompanying activities is clear to see in the following statement. “Americans in the 1920s embraced commercial entertainment, spending $2.5 billion on leisure in 1919, by 1929 spending topped $4.3billion. Spectator amusements – movies, music and sports- accounted for 21 percent of the 1929 total; the rest involved participatory recreation, such as games, hobbies and travel. (Norton, Sherriff, Blight, et al: 644) Leisure activities however, were not limited to only wholesome sports and recreation activities; there were many other activities available that did not always reflect a Christian faith.
This great societal shift (availability of leisure time) was taking place in the midst of revivalism and the second great awakening. Thus many revivalists spoke about leisure activities, recreation and sport in relation to the Christian faith and life. “The call to colonists to awaken from their religious slumber came together with the clergys’ powerful mid-eighteenth-century message that people should engage in moral pastimes and sports instead of vulgar and frivolous activity. Popular revivalism thus carried social and political implications that were reflected, amongst other things, in viewpoints on sports and the use of leisure time.” (Gems et al) DL Moody, Billy Sunday and Billy Graham extensively used sports in their revivalism. According to Martin, Billy Sunday became one of the first revivalists to incorporate the national pastime of baseball extensively into his revivalism. (Martin: 75) “Yet his reliance on baseball as a metaphor for life and medium for conveying the gospel was by no means unique. When he transformed the problems of life into the struggles of the diamond and reduced the complexity of human existence to the simple symmetry of a game, he was drawing analogies increasingly common in Christian circles.” (Martin: 75) The pervasive place that sports and recreation held in society together with the experiential nature of sports and recreation made these concepts of great value to revivalists in conveying certain truths of the Christian faith.
“Billy Graham, was instrumental in a new engagement with sports by asking major professional athletes to testify about their faith during his crusades. He also held his meetings in the biggest stadiums throughout the world. People came to hear him and felt at home in familiar surroundings. This helped him gain important credibility among nominal Christians and sports minded people in general.”(Solc)
The use of sports and recreation in conveying the Christian message to people has showed continued growth through the years following the second great awakening. Many evangelical organizations established sports outreach ministries to continue this concept. “The Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), Athletes in Action (AIA), and Pro Athletes Outreach (PAO) are three of the largest, and are active in nearly all intercollegiate athletic programs (Crepeau)- an approach wholeheartedly sponsored by the famed evangelist Billy Graham. (Ladd and Mathisen: 10)
Revivalism in terms of the Second Great Awakening had various unique characteristics not least of which was dealing with an ever changing American culture. It would seem that some of the effectiveness of revivalists in reaching so many people with the Christian faith had something to do with their adaptability and response to societal conditions. Whether it was responding to social evils of the day, or recognizing the impact and influence of sports within society, revivalists spoke directly to the issues of the day. As such they seemed to always be relevant to the audience which opened the door to a clear and concise presentation of the Gospel message. The question to ask modern day churches and evangelists is can they say the same about their work? Are they relevant to society and are they responding to societal conditions in such a way that the Gospel message is heard by the audience? Another very important question to ask is whether the church and sports ministries in particular are conveying the core Gospel message or whether it is being watered down in efforts to be relevant? Some sports ministries might even have to ask the question, are they sharing the gospel message at all or if they have fallen into a trap of being relevant to society but lacking in sharing the Gospel? The Second Great Awakening was very successful, in part, because evangelical churches used innovative organizational techniques. I would argue that never before has it been as important for the church to look at utilizing innovative techniques to reach out to people with the gospel of Jesus Christ. For society at this day in age is extremely complex in nature and religion is seen by many as completely irrelevant. These are great obstacles that the church must overcome for the Gospel message to be heard. In my opinion, sports ministry is one of the most valuable tools available to the church, the final question to be answered is to what extend the church will embrace and utilize the field of sports
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(The following article is taken from the U.S. Department of State publication, Outline of American History.)
Effective outreach through sports evangelism.
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