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Mass revival meetings are convened by evangelical movements around the globe, seldom by the Reformed and Presbyterian and Lutheran and Episcopalian churches that have sustained and nourished my faith in my adult years. But I remember some from my youth, and I enjoy hearing and reading about their many varieties.
In Richmond, Yorkshire in May, on a rest day from a hike across England with the Sierra Club, my wife and I attended an Evensong service – a hymnsing, really – in which Billy Graham’s 1954 London crusade was remembered, in story and song. We sang two hymns sung a week earlier in the coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey – “Christ is made the sure foundation,” and “Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven” – and a selection of favorite hymns selected by members of the parish.
One of these was the great Fanny J. Crosby hymn, “To God be the glory, great things he has done.” A parish member explained his selection: in primary school his mother was one of many school music teachers invited to prepare their children’s choirs to help lead the singing at Billy Graham’s revival meetings, and this was one of the hymns they learned. He has loved this stirring and very American hymn of praise ever since, he said.
The English were somewhat skeptical of Mr. Graham’s evangelistic style, said the parishioner, perhaps in part because of the special guests who joined him for the first night of the crusade: Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger. Yet the twelve-day campaign drew two million attendees, and it has had a lasting impact on British church and society. Many thousands of lives were changed by Graham’s bold testimony to the transformative power of the Gospel.
In Abraham Verghese’s capacious new novel of modern India, The Covenant of Water, we read of another great revival. The characters in the narrative are fictional, but their cultural and religious context in southern India is real. Most of them are “St. Thomas Christians,” members of a church planted, so goes the legend, by the apostle Thomas in 52 CE.
A major event of the year for these believers is the Maramon convention, held since 1895 on the vast sandy plain of a dry riverbed, today drawing tens of thousands of participants. A selection of hymns from the 128th gathering in 2023 has been posted on Youtube. The singing is lively and expressive, the accompaniment an inventive synthesis of Indian and Western styles. There may well be a Fanny J. Crosby hymn or two sung in translation, but the hymn titles in Malayalam script elude me.
At the 1964 gathering, as Verghese imagines it in The Covenant of Water, a Texan evangelist is the featured guest. His favored mode of evangelism, wildly popular back home, recounts a life of dissolution and hedonism before surrendering to the Lord. The assigned translator knows this will not play well with St. Thomas believers, so he adapts his translation to appeal to the crowd and, while he has the opportunity, to build support for a favored cause.
“I stand before you as a fornicator,” says the visitor, “a man who slept with every loose woman and some who weren’t till I pried them loose,” leading many astray. He sweeps his hands across the crowd to emphasize the scale of his wrongdoing.
Thinking fast, the translator addresses the crowd: “When I look from that side of the river to this side of the river, I think of all the people in this beautiful land who suffer from rare illness, or cancer, or need heart surgery, and have nowhere to go.”
“I broke my mother’s heart when I lay in carnal knowledge with my own nanny!” says the visitor, clutching his chest. The translation is rather different: “If some child is born with a hole in his heart like our Papi’s little child and needs an operation, where can they go?” The nearest hospital is several hours’ journey away, but “what if help were available here? . . . I mean a real hospital, many stories tall, with specialists for the head as well as for the tail and for all parts in between.”
The bishops and priests in the front row, who understand English, are puzzled, but the crowd roars its approval. Papi and his suffering child are imaginary. But thanks to a creative approach to translation, a much-needed hospital eventually becomes a reality. This revival brings healing for the body as well as the spirit.
Mainline Protestants are wary of revivals, for several reasons. Sometimes they replace sound teaching with melodrama and emotional appeal. They tend, too, to proffer an individualistic mode of Christian faith. At the pulpit stands a superstar evangelist, sometimes almost a cult figure. The invitation he extends – while every eye is closed and every head is bowed – is to accept Jesus as personal Savior. But the one we worship is the Savior of the World, not the Savior of Me. God does not offer us individual memberships in the salvation club. Rather, God calls us to unite with our fellow believers in covenantal and communal faithfulness. The spirit of the revival sometimes aims a narrow spotlight beam on the individual kneeling at the altar, when the light of the Gospel shines as brightly and as widely as the sun on all humanity.
And yet the spirit of revival brings home a truth that we too often forget: our true happiness, our restored wholeness as persons, is not achieved by our efforts but given to us by God’s grace. In our hearts, if not with our lips, we tend to alter the revival hymn: “To us be the glory, great things we have done!” For all his boasting about his sins, the fictional Texan reminds us rightly that we cannot make ourselves good enough for God, but if we repent and believe we will be embraced in God’s saving grace.
In his Confessions, St. Augustine recounts his fascination with Platonist philosophy, and then he observes that the pride it instilled drove out the humility that was required to open his heart to God. The same insight is vividly expressed in a favorite hymn of mine from the 1835 shapenote collection, The Southern Harmony. The tune, “Restoration,” is by an unknown author, the text from a 1759 collection of “Hymns Composed on Various Subjects” by Joseph Hart. No doubt it has been sung at many a revival in the past two centuries.
Come, ye sinners, poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore;
Jesus ready stands to save you, full of pity, love, and power.
Let not conscience make you linger, nor of fitness fondly dream;
all the fitness He requireth is to know your need of Him.
I will arise and go to Jesus, He will embrace me in His arms:
In the arms of my dear Savior, oh, there are ten thousand charms!
Sing it with me, please. I will teach you the tune.
Note: With the editors’ permission, this essay includes excerpts from a review of Abraham Verghese, The Covenant of Water (Grove Press, 2023) published in The Christian Century, October 2023. The review can be accessed at https://www.christiancentury.org/review/books/story-water-and-faith