Church Revivals

Church Revivals

Date Observed: Varies
Location: Churches nationwide

Church revivals are religious gatherings that became popular during the early 19th century. Traditionally, revivals are Methodist, Protestant, or Evangelical Christian events intended to help church members renew their faith and also to welcome new members into the church.

Historical Background

In the late 1700s and throughout the 1800s, traveling preachers often visited rural areas for several days at a time. During these visits, people would gather to listen to the preachers speak. These gatherings served to create a sense of community for isolated people who lived demanding lives on farms, plantations, or the western frontier. These early revivals were called camp meetings or tent revivals because people sometimes traveled a great distance to attend, and then camped in wagons or tents for the duration of the revival. Camp meetings were especially popular in the South, and usually occurred once a year in late summer or fall, after crops were harvested but before winter set in.

Many early traveling preachers did not discriminate and would preach to everyone in the area. As a result, camp meetings often included men and women, whites and African Americans, free people and slaves, and people of all Christian denominations. Although African Americans were not usually allowed in white churches, and women were expected to be silent and reserved during worship, at these early revivals anyone could participate in any way. At camp meetings, it was not uncommon for African Americans and whites to join together for singing or praying, although this did not generally occur outside of the revival tent. Women were also allowed to sing or speak in response to the preacher. In these ways, revivals changed the way people prayed by allowing attendees to express themselves in ways that were normally frowned upon during a church service.

Creation of the Observance

It is difficult to say exactly when and where camp meetings first took place, although historians believe that these gatherings were occurring as early as the 1700s. One of the first documented camp meetings was in 1803, on Shoulderbone Creek in Hancock County, Georgia. Revivals grew in popularity through the 1800s and were considered to be one of the most effective methods of preaching.

Revivals have taken many forms over their long history, depending on factors such as the time of year, the number of preachers in attendance, and geographical location. The earliest revivals held in the East were planned as structured and organized events. By contrast, the camp meetings of the South and West tended to be more spontaneous events that depended upon the availability of traveling preachers. No matter where they were held, revivals could go on for days, sometimes with continuous preaching throughout the day and night. Camp meetings could be unruly, with people jumping up and shouting or singing during the preaching, often at the invitation of the preacher. One early camp meeting tradition involved the use of the "anxious bench," where those who wanted to repent for their sins would sit, under the attention of the entire revival, until they were converted. Revivals often concluded when everyone in attendance was physically exhausted by the energetic, continuous preaching.


Revivals are now held all over the country by both rural and urban churches. Individual churches determine their own schedule for revivals, and most still follow the basic model of the earliest camp meetings. There is always at least one preacher in attendance, and people gather to reaffirm their faith, sing hymns, and listen to sermons. These gatherings are held throughout the year, indoors or outside, for varying lengths of time. Hundreds of camp meeting sites exist throughout the country, and old-fashioned camp meetings are still held for extended revivals. Tent revivals are popular in southern churches, particularly among Southern Baptists, Methodists, and Pentecostals.

Many churches find ways to organize a revival while still allowing for spontaneous creative expression. The revival event is usually well planned, with arrangements for preachers and other speakers made far in advance. Some revivals focus on a specific theme, such as faith renewal, community building, involvement of young people, or attracting new members to the church. Other revivals cover many different themes in one event, by choosing topics for preachers to focus on during specific days or sessions. Revivals are seen as time set apart from daily life and normal worship activities, and are intended to give people the opportunity to focus on spiritual matters and recommit to their faith.

Further Reading

Isom, Wendy. "Tent Revival Brings Old-Time Religion to Jackson Fairgrounds." The Jackson (TN) Sun , July 2, 2006. =/20060702/NEWS01/607020314/1002. Jeffrey, Julie Roy. "Religious Revivals." Lincoln/Net: Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project, undated. . "'The Meeting Continued All Night, Both by the White and Black People': Georgia Camp Meeting, 1807." History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web, undated. . Ostwalt, Conrad. "Camp Meetings." The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture, 1998. . Prescott, Jean. "Tent Revival: Katrina Survivors, Take Heart." The Sun Herald (Biloxi, MS), July 7, 2006. Shakelton, Paula G. "Revivals and Camp Meetings." The New Georgia Encyclopedia, updated November 23, 2003. =h-759.
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007
References in periodicals archive ?
Born Eunice Waymon, Simone played the piano at church revivals from the age of six.
Church revivals are not as prevalent today compared with previous generations, and yet nothing has taken their place, perhaps a factor in today's lower baptism counts.
* Getting in every piece of local news we can get our hands on, from notices of church revivals to photos of club officers, to police reports and coverage of government meetings.