Revival in the Land – Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

I made my first trip to the Greenbelt Festival in the UK last summer. After years of hearing about how there’s nothing like it in the US, I arrived at the Cheltenham Racecourse where some 20,000 people had set up camp, shop, seminar, pub and church for a four-day weekend. After getting  fish and chips from a food vendor (I was in England, after all), I ran into my American friend, Stanley Hauerwas – also there for his first time. “Did you know anything like this existed?” I asked him. “No,” he said. “I feel like I’m living in the 19th century.”

I am a product of revivalism in the American South. The camp meetings had come and gone by the time I was born, but they were the catalyst that gave rise to the Baptist and Methodist churches that surrounded me with Jesus. I grew up going to revival meetings at church every fall, expecting somebody to catch the Spirit and get born again. We knew something wasn’t right with the world, and we knew that only Jesus had the power to change us.

Lots of folks are critical of revivalist spirituality these days. It over-emphasized emotion, some say. It was susceptible to political manipulation and market appropriation in a capitalist society, others say. To some it is the epitome of hypocrisy; to others, it implies ignorance. I’ve listened closely to all of these criticisms, and I’m sympathetic to many of them. But I’m also still glad to be a product of 19th century revivalism. What it more, I’m glad that its spirit is stirring again—and not only in the UK.

An interesting mix of folks from across the theological and political spectrum have been plotting a festival in the tradition of Greenbelt here on American soil. It is to be an arts festival, they say, that is attentive to beauty, but equally concerned with the proclamation of good news and the practice of justice in our world today. It’s not a space to be owned by any of America’s fragmented church traditions, but rather a place of hospitality where all are welcome and where, God willing, some who’ve been strangers (or estranged, even) might become friends. They’re calling it the Wild Goose Festival. I’m excited to see what comes of it.

When I was at Greenbelt, which is soon approaching its 40th year, I wandered into a coffee tent with a friend and met a dear woman who told me she’s been baking cakes and making coffee at Greenbelt since its very first year. I asked how she came to be part of the festival, and she said it started on her farm. It was a gathering of friends who went home to tell other friends and kept coming back to celebrate the life that God had made possible in a beautiful interruption. You can’t make that sort of thing happen, but I trust that the Spirit is always eager to break into our lives and start something that brings a little more of heaven here on earth. I think that’s what happened when the revivals rolled through North Carolina in the 1800’s, and I pray that’s what will happen again when the first Wild Goose Festival gathers next summer.

(Originally posted on Duke’s Call & Response blog)

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, an author and speaker, is co-complier of the new Common Prayer: Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (Zondervan).

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  • Tiggy

    What makes you connect Greenbelt to ‘revival’? I really can’t see a connection between 19th century revivalism and Greenbelt and I’ve been going there for very many years. 19th century revivalism seems like it was all about converting people and altar calls and very individualistic, whereas at Greenbelt you’re not allowed to proselytise and it’s not Evangelical with a big ‘E’.

    That must have been Pru you talked to. I’ve stayed at her lovely farmhouse in Suffolk.

  • wildgoosefestivities

    Hi Tiggy,

    Great question. And while we’re not beholden one way or the other to present the Wild Goose (or Greenbelt) as a “revival” or not, we think that sometimes the history of revivals in Europe and North America are seen through the somewhat anachronistic lens of 20th century televangelism. Far from being solely about souls in the sweet by and by, voices as diverse as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitfield, and Charles Finney taught and gave altar calls concerning orphanages, abolition, severe alcoholism, poverty, and mental health reform. In some ways, these 19th century revivals created the social infrastructure for much of our current aid systems – for better and worse.

    With this in mind, we feel that Jonathan’s metaphor is apt, though hardly the only one possible.

  • Robert M

    Of course Edwards and Whitefield were 18th Century revival preachers ;)

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