J. Edwin Orr (1912-1987) was a Christian minister and revival historian. In this short overview originally published in a missions textbook in 1983, Orr tells the story of some of the greatest college revivals in history and their impact on missions.
Can you Imagine …
• One-third of a University’s student body coming to Christ in a single year?
• 50% of those new believers going into full-time Christian work following
• More than 20,000 students eventually serving Christ overseas due to the
influence of a few of these students?
Imagine it, because it all happened!
It began in the early 1800s at schools like Amherst, Dartmouth, Princeton, Williams and Yale where up to half the students turned to Christ. By 1835, 1,500 students had committed their lives to Christ in 36 colleges. Impressive statistics — especially when you realize that in those days student bodies numbered only 100-250. Similar results continued to be seen from one generation of students to the next. In 1853, 11 New England colleges with a total enrollment of 2,163 reported that there were 745 active Christians on campus. Of this number, 343 planned to go into the ministry. Then in the 1880’s, an unprecedented missionary enterprise, known as the Student Volunteer Movement, came into being. “The Evangelization of the World in This Generation” became its rallying cry. This spirit was evidenced in the movement’s results–more than 20,000 serving in overseas mission fields in half a century. College students set the pace in this era of spiritual advance. The full dynamic of their story cannot be fully appreciated, however, apart from a look at the context of its beginning
In 1790 America had won its independence, but it had lost something as well. In the wake of the Revolutionary War, French infidelity, deism, and the generally unsettled condition of society had driven the moral and spiritual climate of the colonies to an all-time low. Drunkenness was epidemic; profanity was of the most shocking kind; bank robberies were a daily occurrence; and far the first time in the history of the American settlement women were afraid to go out at night for fear of being assaulted.
Conditions on campus were no better. A poll taken at Harvard revealed not one believer in the whole student body. At Princeton, where a similar survey showed there to be only two Christians on campus, when the dean opened the Chapel Bible to read, a pack of playing cards fell out, someone having cut a rectangle from each page to fit the deck. Conditions on campus had degenerated to the point that all but five at Princeton were part of the “filthy speech” movement of that day. While students there developed the art of obscene conversation, at Williams College they held a mock communion, and at Dartmouth students put on an “anti-church” play. In New Jersey the radical leader of the deist students led a mob to the Raritan Valley Presbyterian Church where they burned the Bible in a public bonfire. Christians were so few on the average campus and were so intimidated by the non-Christians that they met in secret. They even kept their minutes in code so no one could find out about their clandestine fellowship.
Then, suddenly, at the turn of the century, the nation made a spiritual about-face that affected every level of society–from the frontiers to the college campuses. Something so radically changed the campuses of America that the same schools which a generation before had mocked the gospel began sending out workers into the harvest!
The beginning of this dramatic change can be traced to Hampden Sydney College in Virginia. In 1787, with the moral climate there deteriorating rapidly, five non-Christian students decided to hold a prayer meeting to ask for God’s help. They locked themselves in a room, for fear of the other students, and kept their voices down so they would not be caught. However, the other students discovered them and tried to break down the door. The president of the college heard the disturbance and came to find out who had started the latest riot.
One of the students outside said, “Oh, sir, it’s nothing important; there are just some fanatics holding a prayer meeting! Can you imagine? So we thought we’d teach them a lesson. We won’t hurt them. We’ll rough, them up a little bit, but we won’t hurt them.”
The president rebuked them saying, “You don’t mind cheating, you, don’t mind stealing from rooms, you don’t mind the lying and the profanity you get on this campus, but you object to a prayer meeting. Well, I do not!”
He then knocked on the door and said authoritatively, “This is the president of the college speaking. Will you please come out?”
The students unlocked the door and came out not knowing what to expect. President Smith said, “Gentlemen, come to my study, we’ll pray there together.”
This prayer meeting marked the beginning of American campus revivals during the Second Great Awakening of the 1790s and early 1800s. Not only did half the students at Hampden Sydney College turn to Christ as a result, but the revival also spread to local churches and to other schools, having similar effects.
Reprinted from Journey to the Nations copyright 1983, The Caleb Project.