Especially the older generations of Southerners can picture this come summer/springtime. Outside of town, a large tent that has been erected in an empty field and you see the words “Holy Ghost Revival this Week” hand-painted onto a sheet of plywood leaning against an old fence post. This image is accompanied by the sound of a clanging piano playing “Jesus is Coming Soon” with the melodic voices of those gathered under the tent echoing off the trees that surrounded the open field which housed the tent. The cars of those who traveled to find forgiveness, seek healing, or just hear the Word of God spoken by the traveling evangelist.
Much like the Tabernacle (the portable sanctuary constructed by Moses as a place of worship for the Hebrew tribes during the period of wandering through the desert on their journey to the Promised Land) described in the Old Testament, the tent revival went wherever they needed it to be. Throughout the 1800s, these tent revivals (sometimes referred to as ‘camp meetings’) brought God’s word to areas throughout the Eastern United States that lacked established churches. By the beginning of the 20th century, the fiery preachers would bring their redemptive message to create new converts and attract new members to the local church. Many evangelists like Oral Roberts and Billy Graham would gain popularity for their revival ‘crusades’ as they would come to be called. Evangelist Billy Graham’s New York City crusade in 1957 extended from its planned one-week run in mid-May until the first of September. Billy Graham, one of the most influential Christian leaders of all time, would house revivals, rallies, and crusades would draw thousands, and he pioneered racial integration at his revivals and crusades and even famously invited Martin Luther King Jr. to preach at the aforementioned 1957 crusade.
Where we would find the rise of Reverend Billy Graham’s fame (which would find him even becoming spiritual advisor and provided spiritual counsel to every president from Harry Truman to Obama and whose sermons have said to have led over 3.2 million people ‘accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior,’ tent revivals or evangelical ministers in general viewed in a negative light? People outside of rural areas of the South can picture this thanks to the sometimes negative representation on TV and in countless movies over the years. Movies like Steve Martin’s Leap of Faith or even Robert Duvall’s The Apostle or books like Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis or Revival by Stephen King paint evangelical Christians, the Pentecostal church, and tent revivals vastly different from the actual reality. Just like in any avenue, you will have charlatans. While there were these charlatans taking advantage of less fortunate souls and lining their pockets with the tithe money that was given in hopes to receive divine healing (as shown in Leap of Faith and the Stephen King novel Revival), 99% of these revivals were and are held with earnest intentions.
By the 1960s, tent revivals and church revivals in general were not drawing the huge numbers that they were in the past. The larger audiences were receiving their message by these evangelists who had either transitioned to television or radio broadcast and the large audiences needing revival would rather sit upon the cushioned seats of an air-conditioned church than fan themselves in a hot, dusty tent. The spectacle that was the tent revival of the past may not be around today, a pastor and their message of redemption is just as impactful and important to our society as it ever has been. Just as impactful as the tent revival has been in the world of pop culture; no matter how misleading that their representation might have been.
Featured Image – Holy Ghost Revival image attributed to Source, Fair use.
Preaching illustration showing Billy Sunday preaching on March 15, 1915 in a temporary tabernacle erected on what was to become the site of the Central Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia attributed to George Bellows, Metropolitan Magazine, May 1915 as Preaching, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7105634
Mennonite Conference in 1947 by the Mennonite Church USA Archives – https://www.flickr.com/photos/mennonitechurchusa-archives/5808666974/, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53090352
The Apostle poster art attributed to Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8624005
Billy Graham speaking at a Crusade in Dusseldorf, Germany attributed to Bundesarchiv, Bild 194-0798-29 / Lachmann, Hans / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5438394
American Pastor Johannes Maas preaching in Andhra Pradesh, India in 1974 attributed to Rak-Tai – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19221010