Chapter 16 - The Wind Blows Where It Wishes
Series: Our Fathers Saw His Mighty Works
That God did indeed send revival to the U.S. during the ten or so years post World War II is quite clear. Dr. J. Edwin Orr, being one of the chief revival historians of all time and having lived during that era himself, referred to it in retrospect as “The Awakening of 1948 Onward,” citing not only the national evidences of revival mentioned earlier in this book but also subsequent movements around the world in such places as Scotland, Cuba, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, South Africa, East and West Africa, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Southern India, Northeastern India, Madagascar, Indonesia, New Zealand, and Australia.1 Though the deepest part of the mid-century revival in the U.S. ceased prematurely and was largely forgotten in the wake of its more superficial successor (as discussed in Chapter 15), yet it is obvious that God’s Spirit stirred widely and that a large portion of the revival was truly His work. Writing in 1960, Rev. Andrew W. Blackwood, Sr., offered a balanced perspective on both aspects of the mid-century movement.2
“During the past decade or so we in the States have witnessed a widespread (if not deepseated) ‘return to religion.’ We have welcomed the increase of attendance at church, the sale of Bibles by the million, and the growth of giving . . . But often we wonder about the character of the ‘religion’ to which throngs of men have ‘returned,’ and about the degree to which they have responded to New Testament ideals about holy living and fervent prayer.”
Yet “we thank [God] for every token of city-wide revival under the leadership of Billy Graham, and elsewhere in more than a few local churches, each of them under the leadership of a pastor sent from God.”
In more recent years, historian Garth Rosell has written about the national aspects of the mid-century revival in a book entitled The Surprising Work of God.3 The Lutheran Evangelistic Movement, whose story has now been captured in detail for the first time, was just one relatively small and hitherto fairly unknown element of that work of God. Undoubtedly there are countless similar stories of His mid-century work which remain to be researched and told.
That God sent a revival to the U.S. at mid-century is beyond doubt though there have sometimes been criticisms of it in the years since. General criticisms of the revival as a whole, if based largely upon an analysis of the movement’s later and shallower aspects, do not apply to its earlier and deeper aspects which were clearly the work of God, as was the LEM. Though it is true that, for some, the sudden increase of interest in Christianity at mid-century was due mainly to the pull of the popular culture, nothing but the hand of God could have drawn great numbers of people to gather at LEM Bible Conferences for eight consecutive, five-to-seven-hour days of heavy Bible teaching and preaching. Though it may further be true that the great gains in attendance at mid-century Christian assemblies were partially due to the returning soldiers’ longing to get back into a sense of community, it must be noted that the LEM began in 1937, nearly five years before U.S. involvement in the war, and was welcoming overflow crowds to its conferences before the war was over. And though it cannot be denied that the fear of godless Communism bore a certain influence upon the revival of Christianity in post-war America, Communism seems not to have been the slightest factor within the LEM whose magazine Evangelize rarely mentioned it until 1951, a full two years after the heart of the revival had begun.4
That the mid-century movement was a substantial revival cannot be denied in spite of the fact that it never reached the fevered pitch or effectiveness of its Great Awakening predecessors in the United States. Yet, if it is to be compared to those previous movements, the fact must be pointed out that even the most sweeping revivals have never made true Christianity the overwhelmingly dominant force across this country. During the tremendous First Great Awakening, a New England population of 300,000 saw 30,000 new converts (ten percent) between 1740 and 1742.5 During the widespread Evangelical Awakening which began in the late 1850‘s, a national population of under 30 million yielded one million new converts and another million revived church members (about seven percent total).6 How many were converted during the mid-20th Century revival? It is impossible to accurately estimate, but some idea may be obtained by the statement documented in Chapter 13 that 100,000 were converted in 1949 even before “1950: The Year of Revival” had taken place. Indications are that conversions in 1950 alone may have been at least double or triple that amount. But even if numbers of conversions at crusades or smaller church-sponsored evangelistic meetings could be compiled, who could possibly estimate how many were converted more autonomously while, for example, listening to a radio preacher or simply reading a Bible, as was the case with my father in 1955 (see Appendix 1)? Undoubtedly there were many thousands of unreported cases such as my wife’s paternal grandmother who came to a deep personal faith in God around 1946 while considering His natural creation around her on the farm, His miraculous formation of her first baby inside her womb, and the evangelistic preaching she was hearing at her new home church. Who could possibly say how many hundreds of thousands were converted between 1945 and 1955? Such figures would not even take into account those who were revived while already Christians.
That the mid-century movement was truly a revival cannot be negated for its supposed lack of effect on the country’s morals. As was shown in Chapter 15, crime was actually held in check and divorce cut in half during the ten or twelve years post World War II. Why was national morality not more noticeably affected than that? There are at least two key reasons which ought not to be overlooked. First of all, as the LEM experienced in its ministry, many of those who received Jesus as Savior during the 1940’s and 1950’s were already outwardly moral people, some of them even regular church attendees. It was by and large not the thieves, alcoholics, and delinquents who were converted but the upstanding respectable citizens. For example, a retired pastor has told me how, during special evangelistic meetings at the Midwest church of his youth in 1954, his morally impeccable parents went forward to receive Jesus as Savior because they realized that hitherto they had been relying on their good works for salvation instead of on a relationship with Christ. Their teenage son was so struck by their going forward that he too received Jesus. His younger sister who was also saved during that revival, as were about 40 total in a church of well under 100, has related to me that in most respects their parents’ outward lifestyles hardly changed because their conduct had already been quite exemplary. A second reason why morality was not more noticeably affected by the mid-century revival was that nearly all converts belonged to a wartime generation which was rapidly enlarged by a profusion of new offspring too young to be directly affected by the revival. A war’s-end national population of around 140 million7 was joined by a boom of about 84 million babies over the next twenty years.8 Sad to say, the Christianity of the mid-century converts was very often not taken up by their children. As the next generation came of age, its irreligion began manifesting itself in a counterculture defined by such things as rebellion, drugs, riots, and free love. Years after the mid-century revival, a conversation was overheard between the LEM’s Paul Lindell and Rev. Maynard Force in which one commented to the other that it seems God limits most spiritual movements to one generation and reaches out to the next generation with a new movement.9 Considering the mid-century revival and the subsequent youth movement twenty years later (see Appendix 3), that was certainly true for both the nation and the LEM.
How then in summary shall we describe the mid-century revival? At our July 2007 interview, Orloue Gisselquist answered that question for me with a slight rewording of John 3:8 in the old King James Version: “The Spirit bloweth where it listeth.” In the NKJV, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” As one who had lived through and been actively involved in the revival of the 1940‘s and 1950‘s, Orloue stated that his overall perspective was simply that God’s Spirit had chosen to move during that time period. Mysterious as that might sound, it is perhaps the best explanation for a movement which in all of its aspects points to no other source than to God who worked mightily. And those of us from a younger generation who hear the recounting of those mighty works are stirred, not to try to reenact the methods of the past, but to put our hope in the same God who moved in the past, believing that He is able to do and desires to do as mighty of a work today in our own hearts, our churches, and our country.
Who can say what great things God still has in store for us in America? Many times as I’ve driven past the old Mission Farms property where so many thousands of Christians gathered years ago under the banner of the Lutheran Evangelistic Movement, I’ve been reminded of the words of a previous revival historian: “Who knows but that prayers then offered in faith remain yet to be answered?”10 Yes, who knows what God may do? So with that hope in mind, let us join in the revival prayer that so many of our spiritual ancestors have prayed and which, though it will certainly be answered completely when this world ends, may continue to be fulfilled to lesser degrees as long as this world endures: “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20b NKJV)
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