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History of the Word "Revival"

Where does the word “revival”(1) come from and how is it to be properly understood? Many assume the term, as popularly used in religious circles, comes from the Bible.

Arthur Wallis wrote, “We cannot go to the Bible to see how the word ‘revival’ is used, for it is not found there…The nearest equivalents are ‘revive’ (or quicken) and ‘reviving,’ but these may be applied to individual awakening, and are not always synonymous with what has been called, by common consent down the centuries, ‘religious revival.’”(2)


It is important to understand the origins of the word. Reflecting on this, Arthur Wallis writes, “For a definition of revival we must therefore appeal to the people of God of bygone years, those who have used the word with consistency of meaning down the centuries, until it began to be used in a lesser and more limited sense in modern times.”(3)

Modern English usage of the word largely descends from the following:
1. The French word “revivre”
2. The Latin word “revivere”

Henry Blackaby and Claude King wrote, “The word ‘revive’ is made up of two parts: ‘re’ meaning ‘again’ and ‘vive’ meaning ‘to live.’ Thus ‘revive’ means ‘to live again, to come or be brought back to life, health, or vitality.’”(4)

Coming into general usage in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, “returning to life,” became associated with God awaking and empowering a lethargic church.

This particular English usage emerges strongly in early Puritan works. The word “revival” was first used in English by Cotton Mather in 1702 in his massive work “Magnalia Christi Americana.”

While the term revival was first used by Mather, the idea of “revival” is evident in numerous Puritan works preceding Mather’s. Richard Owen Roberts writes, “It is important to note that although we are not aware of any writers using the word ‘revival’ before Cotton Mather, the blessing itself was much in the minds of American writers prior to him. They were greatly concerned about the condition of the church in their day and frequently used such expressions as ‘That the Lord’s gracious presence may be continued with posterity,’ Eleazer Mather, 1672; ‘The prolonging of our prosperous days in the land,’ Thomas Shepard, 1673; ‘The former spirit of New England revived in this generation,’ Peter Folger, 1676; ‘The effusions of the Spirit,’ Samuel Hooker, 1677; ‘Prayer for a Spirit of converting grace to be poured out,’ Increase Mather, 1678; ‘The necessity of reformation,’ Synod of Boston, 1679; ‘The necessity of the pouring out of the Spirit on high upon a sinning apostate people set under judgment,’ William Adams, 1679; ‘returning unto God,’ Increase Mather, 1680; and ‘The wonderful works of God,’ Cotton Mather, 1690.”(5) Puritan sensibilities shaped the meaning of the word. So it is little surprise that Ian Murray affirms that there is a “theology upon which the term [revival] was

On into to the mid-nineteenth century, we find “revival” as an “empowering of the saints” the consensus of much of the English speaking world.

Reflecting on this truth, Ian Murray writes, “The churches of the English speaking world have many records of times when there has been sudden and remarkable success for the gospel in the world. In connection with those times ‘revival’ has been part of the Christian vocabulary since the 1740’s. The phenomenon and word long went together and, if for no other reason, we need to know how the word was originally used in order to understand the published records correctly.” (7)


While the etymology of “revival” suggests the return of “backslidden believers,”(8) its modern usage is largely different. While the “etymology” of a word unquestionably has strong influence upon its contemporary meaning, usage probably has a greater immediate influence. Wallis reluctantly writes, “The meaning of any word is determined by its usage.”(9)

Moreover, in the last one hundred and fifty years the word “revival” has been used to describe:
1. Evangelistic meetings
2. Theological movements
3. Unusual phenomena
4. Social reform.

While all of these concepts are coined “revival,” they are largely discontinuous with the origins of the word.

Defining a word by usage can be difficult, because the meaning of words can become changed by misapplication.

What does revival mean? Since both “etymology” and “use” define the broader meaning of a particular word, “revival” continues to be complicated to effectively articulate.

(1) Kathryn Teresa Long wrote, “In the nineteenth century, "revival" commonly was used in two different ways, to refer to a local phenomenon and to a broad popular movement. In both cases, as I have already indicated, it meant an unusual increase in religious concern and of professed conversions that occurred in a communal setting. Revivals sometimes were described as "extraordinary seasons of religious interest." Local revivals were periods of intense religious concern in a congregation, community, or other group such as a camp meeting. But "revival" also could refer to outbreaks of religious fervor throughout a particular denomination, region,
nation, or group of countries over a prolonged period of time.” The Revival of 1857-58: Interpreting an American Religious Awakening; Kathryn Teresa Long; Oxford University Press. Place of Publication: New York.
Publication Year: 1998. p. 9
(2) Arthur Wallis; In the Day of Thy Power; pp. 19-20; Christian Literature Crusade; London, England; Copyright© 1956.
(3) Arthur Wallis; In the Day of Thy Power; Christian Literature Crusade; London, England; Copyright © 1956.
(4) Henry Blackaby and Claude King; Fresh Encounter; p.21; Broadman and Holman Publishers; Nashville, Tennessee; Copyright © 1996. Blackaby and King have been very influential in reaffirming the heritage of revivalism in Southern Baptist circles.
(5) Richard Owen Roberts, Editor and Compiler; Scotland Saw His Glory A History of Revivals in Scotland; International Awakening Press; Wheaton, Illinois; Copyright © 1995.
(6) Ian Murray; Pentecost Today; p.4; Banner of Truth Trust; Carlisle, Pennsylvania; Copyright © 1999.
(7) Ian Murray; Pentecost Today; p. 4; Banner of Truth Trust; Carlisle, Pennsylvania; Copyright © 1999.
(8) In a personal conversation, Steve Hill of the Brownsville Revival noted that, “Revival is often just as much for backslidden believers as is for anyone else.” World Revival Church; March 11, 2002.
(9) Arthur Wallis; In the Day of Thy Power; Christian Literature Crusade; London, England; Copyright © 1956.

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