Pastor Eric Jonas Swensson
The words “revival” and “renewal” are tossed around a lot today even in Lutheran circles: often it is the expression of the sentiment that there is growing apathy in the church or a loss of morality in the country or less concern for the common good, or an expression that there are so many natural disasters it seems that perhaps the end is near, but other times people are saying that they pray for a revival to come, and some even know a little of actual revivals in which Lutherans participated. My own great-great-grandfather was affected by the revival under Carl O. Rosenius. You may know of that one, or of the one under the leadership of Hans Nielsen Hauge, or one of the many revivals in Finland, etc.
It is underappreciated how many pastors who came to North America had come to faith in a Lutheran revival. One wonders how many Lutherans today know that one of the earliest and most remarkable revivals took place among our forebears. It happened about fifty years after the terrible Thirty Years war in an area south of Saxony where the Hapsburgs were forcibly recatholicizing Protestants. This was the scene of an evangelical awakening called the “Silesian Praying Children’s Revival,” beginning in 1707. It began in the mountains and caused quite a sensation as it spread, giving birth to numerous eyewitness reports bearing remarkable similarity. A dozen of these were translated and collated for the following:
“Sometime after Christmas, around December 28, Holy Innocents Day, it began spreading through Silesia reaching five provinces in five days. The children, male and female, 4 to14 years in age, with an unusual devotion for their age, assemble themselves in a certain place daily to pray together with childlike devotion. They come together in the morning about 7, around Noon and around 4. These poor, hard-pressed children, out of their own desire and without their being given some prescribed method, began to assemble to pray. Begun truly without any direction from a single adult, not only were they not given help but were even having to act against the commands of the civil and religious authorities as well as their parents, who made threats and laid hindrances in their way. The children began this within their villages and cities, however when their gathering was not tolerated, they chose to keep to themselves in open fields and under open sky. They hold orderly prayer meetings, singing, reading the Bible, they fall on their knees, and at some places it is reported they fall on their faces praying and repenting. It had begun sparse but in many places it grew to 3,000-4000 people. Ordinarily they sing seven songs, and a prayer comes between each one; they have a psalm of repentance, and they read a chapter from the Bible; in the end the children lift hands together upwards and sing another hymn. The bystanders cannot regard it without being moved to tears hearing the prayers. They have among their other prayers also one which is to ask that the dear God for peace in the land and to give their churches back to them. No one knows how the children would have gotten such a longing without the parents’ knowledge.
The Kinderbeten touched off a larger revival which endured for decades which in turn led to the evangelization of neighboring states and the founding of the Moravian Church, who in turn influenced the founders of new movements, most famously, John Wesley. Children’s revivals re-erupted in Protestant areas of the Continent for decades (Ward, 182), including a children’s revival in one of Zinzendorf’s settlements for Moravian refugees which is seen as one of their two formational events. There are records of children’s revivals occurring in that region through the 19th century. The major reason few have heard of this first one in Silesia is that the initial revival happened among Lutherans and revivalism is anathema to the majority of Lutheran academics and clergy.
Perhaps it would be helpful if the terms “renewal” and “revival” are not used interchangeably; August Hermann Francke’s work at Halle is an example of renewal, and the Silesian Praying Children’s Revival would be an example the latter. An individual’s conversion was called an “awakening” and being awakened was understood in Silesia as in all Pietist circles as one who has experienced the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit and is therefore a “New Creation.” What is not meant by revival when speaking of the events in Silesia is an orchestrated event. A representative definition of revivalism is “rituals focused upon conversion and characterized by a highly charged emotional and physical, supposedly spontaneous, response to deliberate, organized efforts to stimulate that response.” However, in Silesia it is the lack of “deliberate, organized efforts” and the calm aspect of the children and their observable devotedness which was of primary interest at the time.
No precedent is found for the Silesian Praying Children’s Revival though one Radical Pietist of the time, Johann Wilhelm Petersen, refers to the “Child Prophets” who arose in France in the last years of the repression of their Protestants. In one report passed on by a pastor of the Lutheran Orthodoxy, the children’s prayer meetings were likened to “Quakers” and “Pietists,” but it seems only because they were taking place outdoors and without the benefit of being led by ordained clergy. The extremely organized Halle interests did have a hand in providing hymnbooks and Bibles in the years before the revival and helped furnishing some of teachers and clergy for a church built afterwards, but one still does not find organized activity aimed at mass conversions in the revival which continued for several more decades. Instead, a simple methodology was followed of prayer and proclamation for the awakening of the parish one individual at a time and the inclusion of the awakened into conventicles and the worship and prayer life within Pietist congregations. To learn what revival looked like in Silesia in the decades that followed, see the description of the schedules of Pastor Schwedler in Nieder-Wiesa and Pastor Sommer in Dirsdorf. For Schwedler’s parish, prayer hours were held daily 5 AM, noon and 8 PM. There were services and classes all day Sunday, and throughout the week a variety of classes were held in addition to prayer meetings and worship services. Sommer’s schedule is perhaps the most revealing of how Lutheran revivals were a matter of “soul care” and parish-based. When someone thought they had been “awakened” they came forward and pastoral care began. They could receive communion eight days later after special classes were taken. In addition to a full schedule of prayer meetings, Bible classes, etc., his wife led a meeting that taught the singing of hymns and the pastors in the area met nightly in addition to their once a month extended conference.
One wonders just what it would be like if more of us would go to God in prayer and ask, “Do it again, Lord. Revive us again.” Surely our generation, Church and nation are in need of the same. What would a Lutheran revival in North America look like today?
It would resemble our historic revivals more so that what most people know of revival if they think about evangelicalism in the last 50 years. It might resemble the charismatic revival of the 1960s and 70s, but I think it would be remarkably different in some respects. For one thing, I think tears would be a bigger feature than speaking in tongues.
We would have much to cry about. Many of us, especially those who were or are in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, have cried real tears and have had to deal with grief and mourning over the detrimental changes seen in the last decade. Of great concern for many is the loss of a Confessional Lutheran understanding. Just as a great of a sea change in the churches has been the change in our culture. There seems to be openness to every kind of spirituality and religion besides that of Christianity, especially one that still talks about sin.
I expect that the next Lutheran revival will not be around the platforms of mega-churches as much as at the cross. Thousands of our congregations in North America have seen great loss, and the hard truth is that we all are accountable. We participated in it in various ways. Many of us viewed evangelism as a way to improve conditions in our own congregations, not out of a real concern for people. We participated in church life just as the handouts we made or were given: check here for Altar Guild, check there for Men’s Group. We approached religion with a consumerist mentality.
If we cry out to God about the desolation of our churches and for forgiveness for what we did and failed to do, we will surely see better results than ordering another program or buying a ticket to another conference.
I expect that the individuals who join together to concentrate on this will see personal renewal and out of that a real revival will come to larger Lutheran community. Of course, we will be joined by people who do not share our Lutheran heritage and Confessions, but they share everything else, including what really counts, the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Yes, I wrote a book about a children’s prayer revival, and so I often hear something to the effect that maybe we can get them to pray again. Well, the first one happened because the Holy Spirit moved them to pray, but they also had been taught well how to pray by their parents. Have we done the same, or did we drop them off at church and hoped someone else was doing that? No, I think this prayer revival is going to led by the seniors, grieving for the losses in the churches, losses in the nation, and especially for close loved ones who reject the idea that God has any real claims on their life.
If you read this far, can I count on you joining me at the cross and praying for a revival in the people who were once part of a godly heritage? That is what is important. Not what happened in the past, not what things look like today, but what our future will be. I hear more and more that people are not religious and that Jesus did not come to found a religion. I cannot as an observer wonder how much more fragmentation our culture can take and from the historical perspective, how a revival can take place outside of the church. Anything is possible, but all the historical revivals I know of happened within organized religion, including the one in which the Lord said, “If My people turn from their wicked ways, I will come and heal their land.”
One of the reasons the Silesian revival spread is the adults who came merely out of curiousity were moved to tears and repentance. Pastors like Schwedler and Sommer opened their buildings for extra prayer times and then taught the core of the faith to the new arrivals. It is clear from their journals that they worked hard. True revival comes from God, but that does not mean it is like waving a magic wand.
The soil for a great revival has been prepared. By that I do not mean by faithful preaching and praying, rather it is by the destruction that God has allowed to come upon us. Historians know that revival comes when people have lost faith in their rulers and institutions. Do we not live in such a time?
Think on these things. Ponder them in your heart. If not now, when?