Revivalism is more a part of our evangelical culture than maybe we realise.[1] It has left its mark on many of our institutions and practices; it is a characteristic of many of the stories we tell about the past. Like most things, this orientation towards revivalism brings with it strengths and weaknesses—not least in the way it can place an emphasis on a higher level of Christian life and experience. If we are alert to that, we can steer our spirituality and ministry in a healthy, biblical direction.

Historian David Bebbington’s definition of evangelicalism is rightly famous and widely used. He argues that evangelicalism is defined by four features: biblicisim, crucicentrism, activism and conversionism.[2] It is important to clarify that these peculiar evangelical characteristics distinguish evangelicals as a subset of historic confessional Protestantism (a merely sociological or political definition of evangelicalism is using the term in a different sense). There are other features that could be added, not least the commitment of evangelicals to working across denominational lines.


Conversionism and Revivalism

The revivalism instinct of evangelicalism is a mark of ‘conversionism’. As Jesus said: “you must be born again” (Jn 3:7). True Christianity is personal and transformational: not merely social, political, biological, external, liturgical or moral. Belief in the need of personal conversion shapes evangelical church life and, together with the evangelical ‘activism’ characteristic, drives our zeal for evangelism.

It is helpful to realise it also means our view of the godly spiritual life more broadly is conversionist—we expect devout Christian experience to be deep and full. We have a ‘convertive piety’.

In this article, I am going to use the 1902 Melbourne Simultaneous Mission as a case study of evangelical revivalism, observing the ways in which, for good and ill, it was motivated by convertive piety and interest in a ‘higher Christian life’.


The Keswick Movement and Australian Evangelicals

The Keswick ‘higher life’ movement was a huge force in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century evangelicalism on both sides of the Atlantic and, by extension, in Australia too. The movement promoted a second phase of Christian life and experience which would lead to greater personal holiness, brought on by an experience of the Spirit, sometimes called ‘baptism in the Spirit’. It would also stir up zeal and effectiveness for world evangelisation. While its emphasis was on depending on God to do this work, in practice it brought with it particular methods to foster the state of dependence which brought one into the higher life.

Although we may not realise it, many of the conferences and ministries TGCA readers are involved with today have some kind of historical connection to the higher life movement. We shouldn’t be surprised if we occasionally find subtle remnants of higher life thinking or intuitions or organisational patterns.

Higher life spirituality was championed in Victoria by the Geelong Convention, founded in 1891, and the group of leaders who were instigators of the 1902 Mission. The keynote evangelist in the 1902 Melbourne Simultaneous Mission, Reuben A. Torrey had published a book on the subject, and spoke on it during his time Melbourne.[3] The fact that he was welcomed as a trusted speaker for a vast citywide campaign is evidence how uncontroversial such emphases were at the time.


Vibrant Faith, Personal Holiness and Missionary Zeal

The pursuit of deep faith, seriousness about the holy life and enthusiasm for bringing the gospel to the ends of the earth is central to true Christianity. Sermons and conferences and prayers that aim towards such things are excellent. Commitment to these causes often create a bond of fellowship tighter than the formal institutional affiliations of denominations and organisations. Any Christian who is striving after God’s kingdom and his righteousness will have countless moments of conviction of sin, stirring to fresh consecration, appreciation of the love and glory of Christ, resolve to take a bold new step in his service. As Paul professes:

I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him … I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. (Philippians 3:8–12)

The aims and aspirations of the higher life movement are right. But the formalisation of a specific experience which gave way to a distinct higher life, and the insistence on special events and practices which would bring about this second experience, is where they went wrong.


Undermining Ordinary Christian Life and Ministry

Maybe it’s counter-intuitive, but if we see the Christian life as marked by many special moments of fresh conversion and transformation, we run into less trouble than when we enumerate a fixed number of phases. For the whole of the Christian life is one of a pilgrimage; the whole Christian life is about sending down roots, building upon foundations, being ever more filled up and overflowing (Col 2:6–7).  This happens as we continue on in the deep treasures and wisdom of knowing Christ and what he has done for us (Col 2:1–5, 9–12).

A specific focus on a second (or third or fourth) state, by contrast, has concerning potential to undermine the basics of the gospel: as if the initial reception of Christ were inadequate; as if the simple ministry of word, prayer and sacrament were lacking. Advocacy of a second blessing experience implies that special forms of meeting or conference or prayer or meditation are needed for all the fullness of Christ to be given to us. Assurance of salvation and contentment in God can be lost, in an endless, agitated striving after something extra.[4]

Higher life spirituality can also create a new, inward mission field; a new focus for revivalism: the church, rather than the world.


Turning the Church into the Mission Field

At best, this is about calling the church out of unconverted nominalism, or ungodly lethargy. At worst, it is investing energy into converting Christians to a supplementary gospel, or at least a supplementary spirituality.

It is a question worth asking of every form of revivalism: how much are these revivals and mission events really seeking to renew and reinvigorate the Christian community, rather than save the lost? A significant number of reports on the suburban missions in 1902 note a predominance of churchgoers at the mission events. Likewise, the convenor of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria’s State of Religion Committee reported that

the effect … has been marked chiefly in the case of church-goers. The non-church-going population has only been slightly touched by it, in many districts not appreciable at all.[5]

It must be said that many other reports in The Southern Cross newspaper celebrated the number of non-churchgoers in the audience of both the suburban mission events and the central events.[6] Yet even here, it seems that only a fraction of those non-churchgoers would go on to become regular churchgoers.[7]

Yes, this reality is true of many evangelistic efforts, especially large events. But we should regularly ask questions about actual effectiveness. We need to be honest with ourselves if we are claiming to be seeking converts, when in reality a more significant priority is invigorating Christians. In our day, the same can be true with short term missions and walk-up evangelism: how much are these really evangelistic activities, and how much are they primarily sanctification activities? Are we honest about their dominant purpose and benefit? And if these activities are mainly for the benefit of the Christian participants, what, then, are we doing to invest in effective evangelism?


What Is Your Ministry’s Higher Christian Life?

Which distinctives in our church’s or parachurch’s theology or programming have come to take on the shine and promise of a second blessing? Is the gospel of Christ and everyday worship and obedience our most treasured goal? Or is it conversion to our theological distinctives or an experiential moment (however seemingly low-key) through participation in our ministry style or major conferences?

As we carry out our ministry and vision-setting, we must always ensure that we glory in the ordinary Christian life, the ordinary local church, the ordinary Christian ministry. A healthy revival renews our delight in and commitment to such things.

Some of this article is adapted from my article “Strategies for Church Relations During the 1902 Melbourne Simultaneous Mission”, Lucas 2.20 (December 2022) 87-116.


[1] For my use of the words revival and revivalism see this previous article.

[2] Described in many of his works including Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, Repr (London: Routledge, 1995).

[3] Treloar highlights recent research by Timothy Gloege which shows that Torrey had had a “serious falling out” with the Dwight L. Moody “over the issue of faith healing”, that in 1899 “was dismissed from teaching weekly classes by the Chicago YMCA over the same issue” and that the Board of the Moody Bible Institute also had concerns about his theology at the time of his invitation to Australia. Geoffrey R. Treloar, ‘The First Global Revivalist? Reuben Archer Torrey and the 1902 Evangelistic Campaign in Australia’, Church History, 2021, 9.

[4] Paul’s warning and the end of Colossians 2:19–23 is quite relevant here:

“Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ. Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you. Such a person also goes into great detail about what they have seen; they are puffed up with idle notions by their unspiritual mind. They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.”

[5] ‘Proceedings of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria’ (Rae Bros General Printers, November 1902), xv, Presbyterian Church of Victoria Archives.

[6] An apologetic for the success of the Mission is offered in an editorial in The Southern Cross at the end of the mission: ‘Editorial: Does It Pay?’, The Southern Cross, 9 May 1902, XXI .319 edition, National Archives of Australia, State Library of Victoria.

[7] Consider H. R. Jackson’s assessment of Australian revivalism of the early twentieth century, for an even more pessimistic evaluation: “Predictably, some denominational leaders hailed this enthusiasm as a sign that the long awaited revival was in progress. It was not.” H. R Jackson, Churches and People in Australia and New Zealand 1860-1930 (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1987), 58.