The desire for a nationwide revival appears to cross denominational lines, ethnicities, and cultures. Preachers regularly reference the heroes of the First and Second Great Awakenings (e.g., Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John Wesley, and Charles Finney), hoping to rediscover from their ministries the keys to unlocking revival today. But with new research regularly exposing serious doctrinal errors and character flaws in these men, is there a better approach for pursuing a revival?
Interestingly enough, the desire for revival has coincided with fresh reminders in recent years that White American Christians generally oppose reparations for descendants of the enslaved in America. Indeed, the harshness of their rhetoric against the idea of economic restitution reveals that America’s original sin wasn’t slavery or racism but greed. Despite undergoing two “Great” Awakenings, it’s become clearer than ever that America has yet to repent of its original sin—a love for money that produces all kinds of evil, a worship of Mammon that dismisses the humanity of people of color, and a greed that vehemently rejects the idea of reparations.
This is precisely what the unbelieving world finds so unbelievable about Christianity—how could the American church, despite its complicity in racism throughout its history, oppose reparations when the opportunity to repent, repair, and reconcile is presented to them? If Christianity is indeed a religion that at its core is a ministry of reconciliation, how could its institutions and the people claiming to be the representatives of the faith be so diametrically opposed to such a clear opportunity to bring about reconciliation and healing?
Perhaps the reason why the American church is unable to identify reparations as one of the keys to unlocking the next Great Awakening is because we have not seen historical examples of how reparations fueled revivals in the past. To illustrate the evangelistic importance of reparations and its vital role for revival, we need to revisit another revival the American church played a vital part in over a hundred years ago in Pyongyang, Korea.
The Spiritual “Redlining” of the First and Second Great Awakenings
For whatever reason, many modern-day Evangelical thought leaders have either minimized or flat out ignored the pro-slavery and White supremacist attitudes present in the Great Awakenings. It is a well-documented fact that, despite his uneasiness with the slave trade, Jonathan Edwards owned at least two slaves, Venus and Titus. Similarly, while George Whitefield also recoiled at the horrors of slavery, he went as far as to acknowledge its potential redeeming qualities. Indeed, after retiring from ministry, Whitefield even lobbied for the legalization of slavery in Georgia in order to acquire “help” for running his orphanage, despite opposition from Georgian Evangelicals.
The Second Great Awakening was no better, if not worse. As leaders such as Charles Finney put an emphasis on a highly individualistic and internalized understanding of conversion in their ministries, fervent, millenarian frontiersmen migrated west, believing they were ushering in a “golden age” of Christian democracy. According to acclaimed historian Ibram X. Kendi, these White Christians envisioned a democracy centered on a “White Jesus” that began appearing on Bibles and tracts and in pictures, normalizing Christianity with whiteness. Any abolitionist or emancipationist sentiments during the Second Great Awakening were undercut entirely by this propagation of an individualized, internalized, White-normalized Christianity.
The result of both Awakenings was a spiritual “redlining,” the salvation of mostly White souls, the near annihilation of Native Americans, and the expansion of the practice of slavery. Frederick Douglass’ sobering observation captures the connection of revival and slavery in America aptly: “The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together.”
Reparation and Revival: A Third Great Awakening?
Scholars agree that the Pyongyang Revival of 1907 was the catalyst for roughly 80 years of non-stop growth in the number of Christians and churches in Korea. Whereas American Great Awakenings have historically affected churched and de-churched people, the Pyongyang Revival notably spread to unchurched people immediately after the flame of revival swept through the fledgling church.
After revival broke out during an uninterrupted, two-weeklong Bible study, believers who had come from all around the country began to spontaneously repent of their sins and experienced a spiritual renewal and vitality like never before. They then went back to their home churches, where the fire of revival continued to spread throughout the country.
Most importantly, their repentance was not just empty words but led to direct actions of reconciliation and reparation, even across ethnicities to Chinese merchants and their Japanese colonizers. In The Korean Pentecost and the Sufferings Which Followed, William N. Blair, an American Presbyterian missionary to Korea, writes an eyewitness account of these reparations:
“Repentance was by no means confined to confession and tears. Peace waited upon reparation, wherever reparation was possible. We had our hearts torn again and again during those days by the return of little articles and money that had been stolen from us during the years. It hurt so to see them grieve. All through the city men were going house to house, confessing to individuals they had injured, returning stolen property and money, not only to Christians but to heathen as well, till the whole city was stirred. A Chinese merchant was astonished to have a Christian walk in and pay him a large sum of money that he had obtained unjustly years before.”
As Blair writes, the revival resulted in Korean Christians paying reparations to both Christians and non-Christians. Even when money wasn’t directly stolen but “obtained unjustly,” Korean Christians still paid back the calculated amount (Luke 18:8). The multiplying effects of these actions had “stirred the city,” if not the whole nation, the vast majority of whom were unchurched (Acts 2:44-47). By 1919, when the Korean Independence movement organized nationally to resist Japanese colonization for the first time, the masses and the political elite looked to Korean Christians to lead them.
While the history of Korean Christianity illustrates the necessary link between reparation and revival, American Christianity is plagued with a history of revival without reparation. Not only were the greatest beneficiaries of slavery and racist policies White Americans, but it is a shameful fact of the American church that many White professing Christians, White churches, and leaders of Christian denominations continue to benefit from the injustice done to people of African descent in the United States. In fact, entire Christian institutions, seminaries, and churches were built on the backs of slaves and financed by unjustly obtained funds.
Today, there are many who make the claim, “America should not be held liable for something that happened 150 years ago, since none of us currently alive are responsible.” Ta-Nehisi Coates reminded the nation once more how uninformed and hypocritical that argument is. But even if Congress votes against reparations, is it not at least appropriate for the American church to lead the way? The call for reparation in some quarters of our nation today may, in fact, be the perfect opportunity for the American church to live out its ministry of reconciliation where it has historically failed. Christian leaders and sociologists alike are already cognizant of the waning attendance and practice of Christians in the United States, and there is a growing urgency for revival.
Once the American church looks beyond its Western Christian tradition, she will find a treasure trove of stories about revivals, conversions, and reformations from around the world. Case in point, the Pyongyang Revival demonstrates the evangelistic power of reparations. From Korea’s example, we’ve seen that if repentance of sin among believers is the spark that lights a flame, then reparation is like gasoline. Let us learn from the Korean church and consider how this conversation about reparation today may be the opportune time to bring healing and revival both in the church and the nation.