Evangelical Awakenings–Works of God, or of man?

In each of his volumes in the Evangelical Awakenings series, J. Edwin Orr opened with his oft-quoted definition of an Evangelical Awakening:

An Evangelical Awakening is a movement of the Holy Spirit bringing about a revival of New Testament Christianity in the Church of Christ and in its related community. Such an awakening may change in a significant way an individual only; or it may affect a larger group of believers; or it may move a congregation, or the churches of a city or district, or the whole body of believers throughout a country or a continent; or indeed the larger body of believers throughout the world. The outpouring of the Spirit effects the reviving of the Church, the awakening of the masses, and the movement of uninstructed peoples towards the Christian faith; the revived Church, by many or by few, is moved to engage in evangelism, in teaching, and in social action.[1]

For Orr, the key to understanding revival, then, laid in the relationship of the given movement to Pentecostal genesis of the church in Acts. There, Spirit-infilling was followed by dedication to “apostolic teaching, fellowship, communion and prayers,”[2] then by unhindered advance even in light of intense persecution. When Orr found a revival, he thought of Pentecost; and every subsequent revival has had a connection to that initial experience of the Spirit and to one another.

Douglas Munton wrote his dissertation on Orr’s contribution to understanding spiritual awakenings.[3] His research showed ways in which Orr distinguished his definition of revival from others[4] and he brought to light what Orr thought would result from revival. First, Orr distinguished between revivals and evangelism (i.e. revival meetings and evangelistic campaigns).  The key to understanding this distinction laid in Orr’s insistence that revival was the work of God, and not of man.[5] Revival was spiritual, revivalism depended on man’s methods. Thus, Munton identified that “Orr often referred to the filling of the Holy Spirit as the key for true revival”[6] yet he also expected that for revival to come, men would have to, by faith, repent of sin and turn to God in prayer.[7]

Regarding the results of revival, Munton identified the following in Orr’s teachings: First, “one way Christianity is influenced is in a greater desire to accomplish missionary service.”[8] Revival, then, has always led to an increase in missionary fervor and volunteerism. Second, Orr believed that revival led to “great evangelistic harvests and tremendous growth in the church.”[9] Orr argued that when a revival did not lead to growth, this was an exception caused by adverse circumstances, rather than the norm (contra McGavran). Third, Munton showed that Orr thought revival led to “social change for the better.”[10]

Of equal interest is what Orr thought hindered revival, but this is for another post. What stands out from Orr’s definition, though, what he thought would bring revival and what revival would bring, is that he took a very spiritual definition of revival. Revival was tied inextricably with the New Testament faith. In other words, sociology was not anywhere near as important as Pneumatology.


Munton, Douglas Wayne. “The Contributions of J. Edwin Orr to an Understanding of Spiritual Awakenings.” Ph.D. Dissertation, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1991.

Orr, J. Edwin. Evangelical Awakenings in Eastern Asia. Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975.

[1] J. Edwin Orr, Evangelical Awakenings in Eastern Asia (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), vii.

[2] Ibid, viii.

[3] Douglas Wayne Munton, “The Contributions of J. Edwin Orr to an Understanding of Spiritual Awakenings,” Ph.D. dissert., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1991.

[4] Munton begins his chapter on this theme showing how, for the most part, Orr used the terms “revival” and “spiritual awakening” interchangeably. Ibid., “Contributions of…”, 71, fn1.

[5] Ibid., 77.

[6] Ibid., 92.

[7] Ibid., 92–102.

[8] Ibid., 105.

[9] Ibid., 106.

[10] Ibid., 109.



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  1. Excellent summary of Orr’s view- my dissertation would have been a lot shorter had I summarized as well! Orr’s passion for a work of God is sorely needed today and I pray for Revival in our day. Blessings! Doug Munton

    • Doug,

      I am honored that you read my post. Your dissertation is quite thorough and very helpful for understanding the contribution of J. Edwin Orr to evangelicalism at large! I hope to begin my dissertation this summer on the contribution of Keswick theology on the Shantung Revival. I pray also that we would know the Lord intimately through a revival of genuine Christianity as well! Thank you for your prayers and service to the church.


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