The Great Awakening is a name given to a distinctly American religious movement. Actually, three different spiritual outbreaks are given this title. The First Great Awakening (1730-55) was a time of religious revival in the Colonies before the Revolutionary War, associated with names like Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley and George Whitefield. The Second Great Awakening (1790-1840) came during the westward expansion of the United States, with spontaneous spiritual movements in the Appalachian region, as well as repeated revivals under Charles Finney and numerous other preachers in Western New York’s “Burnt Over”* district. The Third Great Awakening (1855-1934) is identified with the public revivals under Dwight L. Moody, new social movements such as Prohibition and the campaign to end of child labor, more aggressive youth organizations (e.g. the YMCA) and the emergence of fast-growing experience-oriented religious groups, such as the Holiness and Pentecostal movements.
This repeated Great Awakening phenomenon is what has given the American expression of Christianity its uniqueness: the importance of personal faith, the opportunity to be “born again” spiritually, the place of religion in everyday life, continual revival activity and curiosity about all the teachings of the Bible and their application to practical situations. And this is where our study of the Book of Revelation comes into the picture.
Over the past two centuries, the intense study of the Bible by average believers in America, has led to some wonderful insights — and to some terribly twisted misapplications. One illustration of this is in the way the Book of Revelation has been used. Every new phase of religious enthusiasm has seemed to include an increasing emphasis on end times prophecies, and the Biblical books of Daniel and Revelation have been the richest source of fuel for these. Here’s a list of some of the most famous names associated with these prophetic movements, all of whose impact is still felt today.
Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805-1844) grew up in the “Burnt Over” region of Western New York State mentioned above. The religion known as Mormonism (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) is based on the visions he received in 1820 and 1822, which he recorded. As we read these in the Book of Mormon, we can’t help but hear echoes of the symbolism found in the Book of Revelation. Mormon history since then is seen by LDS members as a fulfillment of Revelation.
William Miller (1782-1849). Based on his study of significant dates and numbers in Daniel and Revelation, Miller prophesied publicly that the world would end on April 28, 1843, later revised to October 22, 1844. When Judgment Day didn’t happen as predicted, many of his followers left the “Adventist” movement, but others taught that the Lord’s coming has been “spiritual,” rather than physical. The largest current denomination with roots in the Millerite movement are the Seventh Day Adventists.
Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916). He and other prophetic teachers in the “Bible Student Movement” developed interpretations of Bible prophecies that led to the conclusion that the “Last Days” began in 1914, that all the various prophecies of the Book of Revelation are being fulfilled today and that the ultimate Battle of Armageddon (Revelation 16:6) will happen soon. The modern religious group that has grown out of Russel’s teachings is known by the name of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and their Watchtower magazine promotes their prophetic messages in hundreds of world languages.
C. I. Scofield (1843-1921). He was an associate of Evangelist Dwight L. Moody who adapted the teaching of “Dispensationalism,” developed in England decades earlier by J.N. Darby, into a very handy and usable format, by superimposing this elaborate prophetic system on the entire Old and New Testament text, in what is still published today as the Scofield Reference Bible. This has become so influential in popular Christianity that many Christians in 2020 believe the Scofield notes are actually part of the Bible.
Herbert W. Armstrong (1892-1986). Through his radio program The World Tomorrow and Plain Truth magazine, over six decades, Armstrong established The Worldwide Church of God, which had very distinct perspectives on Biblical prophecies. Strongly influenced by the teachings of “British Israelitism,”** he taught that many of the prophetic promises made in the Book of Revelation to Israel apply to the church today. (Ambassador College and Auditorium, here in Pasadena, are part of Armstrong’s legacy. After his death, the church rethought its teachings and entered into fellowship with mainstream churches.)
Harold Camping (1921-2013). From 1958 to 2011, Camping was the president of Family Radio, out of Oakland CA, which aired many popular Christian programs. In his own weekly Open Forum program, he focused on his analysis of Biblical prophecies, based on elaborate numerical calculations. He got into date setting in 1994, first predicting that the End Times Judgment would begin on September 6; then (when it didn’t occur) on September 29; then October 2. After that, he made no more predictions for a few years. But in 2005, he decided he finally got the calculations right: he announced that the Day of Judgment would begin on May 27, 2011, with worldwide massive rolling earthquakes and great loss of life. Well, it didn’t happen. You can review the impact of the build-up among his followers and the deflation afterwards in a fascinating recent film, “Wheat and Tares” (Trailer – here)***
After reviewing this two-hundred-year history of over-excitement in the American church about End Times prophecies, I felt my final message about the Book of Revelation should be a word of caution. Open your heart and mind to the Book’s powerful themes about God’s majesty and ultimate victory, but avoid the snare of thinking that you (or any Christian teacher) can apply its fantastic prophetic symbols to modern events in any concrete way.
The Adventists, the followers of William Miller, speak of the fact that the Lord had not returned by the end of 1844 as The Great Disappointment. Maybe we ought to acknowledge that every Great Awakening includes the possibility of a Great Disappointment, if we don’t balance our enthusiasm with clear thinking.
– Pastor George Van Alstine
* Western New York State was still a frontier region, and the unsophisticated pioneer settlers seemed to be ready to follow every new belief that came along. The spiritual terrain was described as “burnt over” by repeated revivals.
** A belief that the British and other western European White people groups (including Scandinavians and Americans) were the “Lost Ten Tribes of Israel” and heirs to Jewish promises of special blessing.
*** If you subscribe to Amazon Prime, you can watch the whole movie free. Otherwise, there’s a modest rental fee.