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An Almost Unknown Evangelical Awakening

For the past three centuries, evangelical Christians have grown accustomed to the idea that spiritual influence and momentum are generated in English-speaking regions. These regions, though separated by oceans, have exerted a common and dominant influence for good.

It was true in the 1730s and ’40s when not only evangelists but newsletters crisscrossed the Atlantic. In the 19th century, Charles Finney took his new methods, first tested in western New York and Ohio, to British cities. Later, D. L. Moody took pages from the playbooks of his predecessors when he crossed the Atlantic.

The Welsh Revival of 1904 set in motion similar movements as far afield as India, Korea, Scandinavia, and California. The East Africa Revival of the 1930s—a movement that followed the earlier implantation of the gospel by British missionaries—quickened the spirituality of evangelicals across Africa and beyond.

All these examples have one factor in common: the English language was the means by which reports of these movements (whether originating in Massachusetts, Wales, or Uganda) were relayed to Christians farther afield. But are these long-standing assumptions correct? Have English-language networks like these been as indispensable in movements of spiritual awakening as we’ve long supposed? There’s good reason to question this.

Different Narrative

A counternarrative began to be provided in the 1930s through the global travels and chronicling of J. Edwin Orr (1912–87), who wrote a myriad of books documenting movements of awakening on five continents. Much more recently, Collin Hansen and John Woodbridge described this international trajectory with their book A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir (2010) in the same year as Mark Shaw provided Global Awakening: How 20th-Century Revivals Triggered a Christian Revolution.

Some notable modern research has focused on European cultures in which we supposed little awakening and revival had occurred. Reginald Ward’s The Protestant Evangelical Awakening (1992) argued that the roots of the better-known movements in 18th-century Britain and America lay in central Europe, among Protestants harassed by the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Ward, a British Methodist, followed this up with Early Evangelicalism: A Global Intellectual History (2006).

In 2019, American historian Andrew Kloes opened up new vistas with The German Awakening: Protestant Renewal After Enlightenment 1815–1848. Here was an era of itinerant preaching, Scripture distribution by Bible societies, and the forming of home and foreign mission societies, about which the English-speaking world has had little awareness.

In a similar vein is the just-released The Genevan ‘Revéil’ in International Perspective (2023, also available in French). Few English-speaking evangelicals are aware that shortly after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, there began at Geneva an evangelical awakening that leavened French-speaking Protestantism in Switzerland and France before spilling across borders into the Rhine region of today’s Germany, the then-combined Belgium and the Netherlands, and the Piedmont region of what would become Italy.

Overlooked Revival

In this volume (which was a decade in the making), 20 contributors, drawn from seven countries, detail a story the English-speaking world needs to know more about.

Not many English-speaking evangelicals are aware that shortly after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, there began at Geneva an evangelical awakening.

This movement was rooted in the witness of traveling Moravian evangelists in Switzerland and France; there were also cells of Christians meeting for prayer and devotional fellowship. Into this network of seekers entered foreign visitors: among them were Robert Haldane (Scottish), Henry Drummond (English), and John Mason Mitchell (American). During this time, the lives of many Genevan theological students were redirected. There were new independent congregations begun. And a good portion of the existing Reformed churches were quickened.

Francophone evangelicalism came to birth in this half-century of itinerant evangelism, church planting, and tract and Bible distribution. The first Francophone Protestant foreign mission societies were formed at this time in Lausanne, Geneva, and Paris. Before long, regions culturally linked to Francophone Europe such as Quebec, Algeria, Madagascar, central Africa, and the then-Indochina received missionaries. New theological colleges were established to provide this evangelical movement with pastors and evangelists. Preachers and theologians of stature, such as Adolphe Monod, J. H. Merle d’Aubigné, and Louis Gaussen emerged to guide the movement.

Evangelical Christians in Britain and America, learning of these developments (often firsthand from French-speaking visitors), threw their support behind these gospel enterprises. Extensive assistance from Britain and the U.S. was channeled through French and Swiss agencies that employed local agents to evangelize; engage in Scripture distribution; and print books, Bibles, and tracts.

Awakening’s Aftermath

Within France and Switzerland, there were communal and social repercussions that followed this awakening. Schools were opened to provide literacy and numeracy. The humanitarian Red Cross movement was birthed in its aftermath. Within 50 years of the dawn of this movement, French and Swiss evangelical leaders were taking prominent places in international forums such as the World Evangelical Alliance (founded in 1846).

Francophone Europe had by 1850 come to assume an expanded role in the worldwide advance of the gospel.

Out of the chaos and disorder of the era of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Empire, Francophone Europe had by 1850 come to assume an expanded role in the worldwide advance of the gospel. A similar story was unfolding in those decades in German lands.

Today, we see the same principle at work as evangelical movements in Southeast Asia and Latin America have become significant sources of Christian leadership and vitality for the global church. The English-speaking world hasn’t always been the center of global Christianity, and it won’t necessarily be the source of its awakening.

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